Skeptimus Prime » Atheism One atheist's thoughts on politics, religion, and philsophy Mon, 11 May 2015 01:55:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Michele Bachmann and the end times. Tue, 14 Apr 2015 23:02:10 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Bachmann recently claimed that the Iran nuclear deal was a sign of the end times.

“These are not fearful times, these are the most exciting days in history,” she insisted. “Talk about what you see in the newspaper. We can talk about God’s time clock and the fact that Jesus Christ’s return is imminent. Is there anything more important to talk about?”

“We need to be so on fire right now about the things of Christ and the things of God, that needs to occupy our time and our thoughts virtually from morning to night because we have very little time — in my opinion — left before the second return of Christ. That’s good news!” the former congresswoman added. “The world is embracing degeneracy, but what that also tells us as we look at what the world is doing that they’re going according to God’s time clock. Pastors, preach it from the pulpit!”

Notice how she seem to be chomping at the bit for the world to end and billions of people to die/be sent to hell? I guess all those people are degenerates so their lives don’t matter right? This is why people with beliefs like hers have no business running the country. They simply can’t be trusted to make decisions for the benefit of our society when they are secretly, or perhaps not so secretly, wanting to bring about the end times.

The thing that really baffles me about all this end times talk is how short their memories seem to be. I was a fundamentalist back in the mid to late 90’s and I remember listening to people like Bachmann saying the exact same things about the Clinton presidency. Even then I thought all the end times stuff was a bit goofy, after all even by Christian standards Jesus said no one would know the date of his return.

Yet, since then I’ve watched dozens of end of the world predictions by fundamentalist Christians, along with other groups like the 2012 crowd, and, obviously, none of them have come to pass…but yeah I’m sure HER end of the world prediction will come true. Though we know from experience that no matter how ridiculously false her predictions turn out to be it won’t cost her one iota of respectability among the majority of her peers. Most will simply swallow whatever prediction she makes next year while ignoring or forgetting the previous false predictions.

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Herman Cain claims homosexuals are possessed. Tue, 14 Apr 2015 16:02:31 +0000 Continue reading ]]> After Obama’s recent statements against Gay reparative therapy Herman Cain saw an opportunity to attack the former and defend the latter, and in doing so appeals to the notion that gay people have homosexual urges because they are possessed by demons.

If Obama has his way, a deliverance minister trying to free people from evil spirits would be forbidden by law from doing so. A person in a state of demonic oppression could not be helped because the official position of the United States government is that this state of demonic oppression is a good way to be, and no one should try to change it.

I don’t think Obama understands it this way. I don’t think he believes in any spiritual world whatsoever, nor do the people who will portray a commentary like this as odd, weird, crazy, etc. When you’re not intelligent or curious enough to understand something, you mock the whole idea of it. Any who supports a bill like this is saying that families who want help for a person oppressed by homosexuality should not be allowed to seek it.

Notice he suggests that people who don’t believe in demonic possession are stupid and incurious about how the world works, not exactly a charitable way to view your opponents, but what is really bizarre about this line of thinking is that human history is filled people who believed in demonic possession, and by and large is was intelligent and curious people, many of whom identified as Christian, who dispelled the notion that disease and mental illness were caused by demons, not that homosexuality would reasonably qualify as either of those.

Also, while I’m not a legal expert, I’m pretty sure claims of demonic possession fall under the legal definition of spectral evidence, and thus cannot be taken into consideration by our courts or elected officials. How was this guy ever a contender for president?

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Understanding RFRA bills Tue, 14 Apr 2015 00:27:07 +0000 Continue reading ]]> RFRA bills, though being long criticized by many atheists and advocates for social justice, have mostly been ignored by mainstream media, after all the federal RFRA was signed by Clinton back in the 90’s and, at the time, it was largely supported by liberals. However, with the recent passage of the RFRA bill in Indiana such bills have come under much wider scrutiny. However, a lot of this scrutiny, even that offered by a lot of atheists, isn’t always based on a terribly accurate view of how RFRA bills actually function. Don’t get me wrong, I think RFRA bills are not terribly good, but it’s not as overreaching as a lot of people seem to think.

The most common idea I have heard people express is that RFRA laws can provide a carte blanch for people get out of laws they don’t like, particularly anti-discrimination laws, by simply claiming they have religious beliefs which conflict with those laws. For instance the church of Satan tried to make such an argument after the Hobby Lobby case, and Wiccans made a similar argument recently, claiming they had the right to have nude rituals on the capital steps and marry horses and other such nonsense.

I’ve also seen a few people argue people should try to throw the RFRA back in fundamentalists faces by claiming they have religious beliefs which prevent them from serving them. This is odd because by and large the RFRA laws have not been a successful means of actually protecting business faced with discrimination charges. For instance New Mexico has had an RFRA law for quite a while, and yet the court still found against the photography company who refused to photograph a gay wedding. It’s almost guaranteed that trying to cite the RFRA as justification for refusing to service merely because they do not like homosexuality would go just as badly for you as it did for the photographer in this case.

So why is there such a huge disconnect between how people expect these laws to operate, and how they actually operate, other than the obviously bad reporting on these issues. Well first of people need to understand that the RFRA doesn’t make all those other laws go away, if you break any law you can still be arrested and/or taken to court for that violation, that includes violations of discrimination laws. So most people aren’t going to violate those laws, one because most people probably don’t even want to, and two because even if they thought they could win a right to discriminate under the RFRA most people, particularly business owners, wouldn’t want the hassle or publicity that such a case would cause. For instance, the cake baker in Colorado, before even losing their case, ending up shutting down their business because the bad publicity cost them too much business. Even if they had won the legal battle they still would have lost in the court of opinion.

Now, on to why RFRA laws are no guarantee one can get around the law. To really understand this we need to look at the actual law. The wording of law is pretty similar between the federal and state RFRA laws so I’ll quote from the Indiana law.

Provides that a state or local government action may not substantially burden a person’s right to the exercise of religion unless it is demonstrated that applying the burden to the person’s exercise of religion is: (1) essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and (2) the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling governmental interest.

Provides that a person whose exercise of religion has been substantially burdened, or is likely to be substantially burdened, by a state or local government action may assert the burden as a claim or defense in a judicial proceeding, regardless of whether the state or a political subdivision of the state is a party to the judicial proceeding.

Basically what this means is that if a person fails to follow the law in some way and they are brought before a court for this they can cite their religious beliefs as a reason they should not be required to follow that law, but this defense is not an automatic victory. There are several reasons which the court may find against you.

Most obviously if they can show that the law is the “least restrictive means” to achieve the laws goal. This was the point which won Hobby Lobby an exemption, in that the government’s interest in providing better access to contraception for low income households could be easily met in other ways, and in fact that is what the government did by extending the exemption they had already granted to churches to closely held corporations like Hobby Lobby.

On the other hand this argument is not likely to work very well when it comes to anti-discrimination legislation since it would be difficult to imagine a less restrictive way of protecting interstate commerce. This means that no matter what evangelical Christians may think about these laws they aren’t likely to provide them with a means of discriminating against homosexuals without legal repercussions, at least no more than they already have.

It’s also important to note that courts are also going to consider whether or not your religious practice claim is even legitimate. In other words you just just make up your own religion it’s unlikely they will take your claim seriously. The Court will consider whether or not there is some religious tradition upon which your claim is based, so claims about marrying horses, for instance, are likely to be dismissed before the previous concern is even brought up.

Of course this doesn’t mean I think RFRA laws are a good thing. I still think it’s objectionable, under the 1st and 14th amendment, to grant religious people access to a legal argument that non-religious people like myself don’t have access too, even if that argument will probably fail a lot of the time. Still RFRA laws aren’t the huge threat to civil liberty and anti-discrimination laws that they are sometimes painted as.

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Kentucky Governor wants us to know that Democrats can make terrible arguments against gay rights too. Fri, 03 Apr 2015 18:17:55 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration filed an amicus brief with the supreme court on March 27th arguing the state’s ban on same-sex marriage isn’t discriminatory because it applies to straight people, too.

The brief has this to say:

Kentucky’s marriage laws treat homosexuals and heterosexuals the same and are facially neutral. Men and women, whether heterosexual or homosexual, are free to marry persons of the opposite sex under Kentucky law, and men and women, whether heterosexual or homosexual, cannot marry persons of the same sex under Kentucky law.

He makes the argument using a curious interpretation of the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause, arguing that since the ban applies to everyone equally it’s not a violation of the said clause.

If Christians opposed to gay marriage, like Beshear, want to understand the problem with this argument I’d suggest that they imagine a scenario in which the federal government has made attending Christian churches illegal. They would protest that they have freedom of religion, but the government points out that the law is applied equally, after all it’s not just Christians who are prevented from attending Christian churches, the law applies to everyone equally, and you everyone is free to attend a Muslim mosque or church of scientology so there is no violation of the 14th amendment.

How well do you think this argument would go over with those opposed to gay marriage? Not very well I suspect. The reason should be obvious, while equal application of the law is necessary to guarantee equality, it is not sufficient on it’s own to guarantee it. The thing is they should already know this, if they really thought equal application of the law was sufficient for equality they wouldn’t have fought the ACA’s contraception mandate. Yet this terrible legal argument keeps showing up from people who ought to know better.

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More goofiness from Deepak Chopra Thu, 02 Apr 2015 20:47:47 +0000 Continue reading ]]> I’m not sure what the reason is, but well known, and supposedly reputable, news outlets like CNN keep giving Chopra a platform for his nonsense, and as usual atheists and skeptics are his favorite target of criticism.

Standing back a bit, faith is on a rheostat, not an on-off switch. Putting God into the position of yes/no, belief/unbelief doesn’t really reflect the modern state of faith. There are gradations of belief. In fact, 17% of people who identify as atheists still go to church — they have social and family reasons for their choice rather than religious ones.

I don’t think there are many atheists who would claim that social and familial pressures have no influence on people’s beliefs or never cause people to make a pretense of belief to please others. In fact once upon a time I was one of those 17% who went to church despite not believing in god, and my eventual putting my foot down about this was one of the many things which drove an emotional wedge between my parents and I, ending in estrangement years later. Quite frankly to pretend that atheists don’t understand these things is kind of insulting given that we live with these cultural realities all the time.

Further, it shouldn’t need to be stated that a person who goes to church while not believing still doesn’t believe, those pretenses of belief to make family members or friends happy is still just pretense, not some “gradation” of belief.

We all fall somewhere on the sliding scale of belief and unbelief. Secular society has sharpened our demand for truth. To me, this is a positive development. If belief in God can’t stand up to proof, it won’t sustain a person through difficult times.

Yes, if we are honest with ourselves, our beliefs are held with varying degrees of certainty, I’ll give him that, and he even seems to almost praise skepticism here, but then he takes it all back in the next sentence.

I consider skepticism a way station on the way to a higher, more fulfilling kind of spirituality.

Millions of people have walked away from organized religion to become more spiritual, not less. They call themselves seekers; their disbelief is a starting point for starting their own investigations.

So according to Chopra I’m in a halfway point between fundamentalism and spirituality. Thing is I could easily frame this discussion differently and say liberal/progressive religion or spirituality is a way station to becoming an atheist. In fact I actually spent several years exploring “spirituality” after I left fundamentalism and ultimately found it to be no more true or emotionally fulfilling than anything fundamentalism had to offer.

The mistake he makes is to assume that atheists and skeptics aren’t interested in investigating things. Why on earth would he assume that? Don’t get me wrong I’ve met some people who wear those labels who are, in my estimation at least, rather incurious about the world and often less educated on certain subject that then think they are. However, I don’t see their behavior as a result of those labels, but rather being caused by factors innate all human behavior, honestly, factors not unlike the ones that cause many people to listen to Deepak Chopra despite his lack of knowledge.

Where the census form asks what faith they belong to, they might not have a ready answer, but that’s not important. What’s important is walking your own spiritual path. As a lifelong goal, it’s one of the most rewarding.

    What’s not rewarding is to base your belief or unbelief on secondhand opinion. Being a knee-jerk skeptic is as limiting as being a knee-jerk fundamentalist. In both cases, the mind is being conditioned by others.

    This inconsistency is the main problem I have with the kind of wishy-washy ecumenical relativism spouted by Chopra. He says everyone should follow their “own” spiritual path, but has spent the entire article disparaging the choices atheists, and for that mater fundamentalists, have made. He is speaking out of both sides of his mouths, on the one hand claiming to believe the whole “different paths up the same mountain” shtick most new age gurus claim to believe in, but simultaneously disparaging the choices of those who don’t agree with him.

    He criticizes us because our “mind is being conditioned by others” but clearly wants us to listen to him, so how is that any different? For that matter what would a person whose thoughts and reason had developed entirely independent of others even look like? Everyone’s thoughts have been conditioned by others.

    In my own conception of God as the source of consciousness, creativity, intelligence, love and evolution, the reason to be spiritual is to increase all of those qualities.

    Unfortunately, the goal of many faiths is to obey dogma and accept a cultural mythology. Atheism can do good by casting a skeptical light on cultural mythologies, but believing in nothing but the material world is cold comfort.

    Complete word salad. I believe there is a source for the things he mentions, but have no reason to call that source god, and actually think it confuses issues given how most people use the term. In fact he essentially admits that the manner in which he defines God is unrecognizable by the majority of humans, but decides to unwisely ignore that and plunge ahead. Further, there is no guarantee that the truth will be comforting, I don’t think wishful thinking is a valid basis for a worldview.

    Strong-minded, vocal atheists claim that God isn’t science and science isn’t God. But the implication that faith is irrational and only science knows the truth has no basis in fact.

    Rationality is a specialized aspect of the higher brain, but it’s not the end-all and be-all of life as anyone can tell you who has experienced love, music, art, compassion, self-sacrifice, altruism, inspiration, intuition — indeed, most of the things that make life worth living. Some studies indicate that scientists actually go to church more than the general population. They have found a way to be scientific in their work without turning it into a moral dogma.

    I feel for people who get stuck in any belief system, including rigid skepticism. They are signing up for the suppression of curiosity. As painful as it may be to question the faith you were brought up in, it’s worse to be stuck. The human story is about growth and evolution. That will remain true no matter who shouts loudest about God or the absence of God.

    Based on the fact that scientists are more likely to be atheist than the general population I suspect that the study that claims scientists go to church more often than the general population either doesn’t exist or has been questionably interpreted by Chopra. However, since he, unlike me, wasn’t actually willing to post a link to the study referenced I can’t really examine his claim.

    More generally, I don’t accept this dichotomy. I don’t think requiring evidence or rational arguments for claims somehow makes it impossible for me to feel emotion. This is just absurd on the face of it. Further, I haven’t suppressed my curiosity by becoming an atheist. I’m incredibly curious about all sorts of things, I just demand clear thinking and rational thought to come to a conclusion.

    I will never understand why we, as a society, seem to give so much credence to self help “gurus” like Mr. Chopra. His public speaking and writing is full of feel good nonsense with very little content…on second thought maybe I understand exactly why people give his statements credence.

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    How atheists screw up religious freedom discussions. Sat, 28 Mar 2015 16:13:36 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Any atheist, or secular minded Christian for that matter, has probably heard one, or most likely all, of the following arguments from Christian fundamentalists/evangelicals while debating the meaning of freedom of religion. Fundamentalists assert that this is a Christian nation, that “church state separation” does not appear in the constitution, and that the founders wanted freedom OF religion not freedom FROM religion.

    You may have even rolled your eyes at these arguments on occasion, I know I have. They are startlingly common and both historically and politically either inaccurate or at least serious oversimplifications.

    However, the counters offered by atheists are often just as bad. It’s not uncommon for me to see atheists responding to these statements with equally extreme rhetoric.  I’ve seen atheists assert that most of the founders were deists, or even in a few extreme cases, outright atheists of which none of the U.S. founders were. I’ve also seen arguments which seem to imply that the founder’s vision of secularism was essentially the same as the one we have today. Think I’m exaggerating the problem?  Check out this meme which I’ve seen a lot of atheists pass around.


    So only two of the men in this picture were founders, but I immediately recognize everyone in this image except for the man in the top left. The issue with this meme is that not a single one of the people that I recognize ever self identified as atheists. The two U.S. founders, Franklin and Jefferson identified as Deists. Sagan called himself agnostic as far as I know, and so did Darwin. Some of the others like Lincoln and Einstein were somewhat inscrutable about the subject so their exact beliefs aren’t known, but while they weren’t strongly religious it’s unlikely they considered themselves atheists. The point is that that there is a tendency among atheists to start bringing long dead people into the fold, so to speak, and this tendency seems particularly strong with our founders among atheists living in the United States.

    So acknowledging that this is problem leaves us with two questions to answer. First, why do atheist so often fall into making these overzealous arguments, and second, how can we argue in favor of the progressive conception of the establishment clause in a way that is more historically accurate. As for why we end up making these extreme arguments, yes I’ve overstated things myself on occasion, I think there are several reasons. Some of this is due to political polarization, in a debate with an extremist we are more likely to take more extreme positions our self as a rhetorical defense because we think it makes our position unassailable when in fact it just causes us to say untrue things about the subject. Also many of us just don’t know that much about history or politics so we end up saying things that seem right or that we heard from someone else without fact checking it.

    In this case though I think the largest factor is that pretty much everyone in the U.S. has been taught to give the founders of this country a great deal of respect and deference. When a fundamentalist says the founders agreed with them on some political issue are first reaction is to try to reclaim the founders ourselves because we think what the founders have to say about our current political situations matters very deeply. We can’t shake the feeling that if the founders disagree with what we are doing, or they didn’t intend a certain line in the constitution to be used the way we are using then we have done something wrong. What we really need to be saying when this is brought up is that what the founders intended may be useful information isn’t necessarily relevant, and certainly isn’t an unquestionable dictate from on high, which brings us to the second question.

    I’m gong to say something here that might seem a bit controversial to some atheists. When the founders wrote the first amendment they did not intend it to be used to prevent government at any level from expressing religious ideals, and they certainly didn’t intend it to have any effect on intuitions managed by the state. They didn’t intend it as a means to keep prayers out of public schools (which didn’t even exist then) and would not have used it to prevent religious displays on government property. When religious fundamentalists argue these things they are actually right, and we just need to accept it. Now, that being said I think the current interpretation of the first amendment as prohibiting these things is reasonable and justified given a nuanced mixture of the more general intent of the amendment, and the accumulation of changes to the constitution, our politics, and our society.

    To understand this we really have to look at a few events in U.S. history, so hopefully you like history. First off, out of the original 13 colonies 6 were founded to escape religious persecution. Now you might think that said persecution taught these people a valuable lesson about the need to vest religious freedom totally in the individual. With the exception of Rhode Island, you would be very wrong. It was not uncommon for colonies to have pretty strict laws governing peoples religious beliefs, even to the point of legally requiring people attend a church of a particular denomination. This has changed a bit by the time of the revolution but leaders in lots of colonies still wanted to be able to enforce their own specific religious beliefs on people within their states. Further, many of the founders felt the primary threat to individual freedom was a powerful federal government. So, the first amendment (and the rest of the constitution) was not designed to keep all government out of religion, but to keep the federal government out of the states business, and to protect those religious colonies from federally imposed religion or religious laws, so that they could impose their own. The founders, and the entire country had a very different concept of what religious liberty means than we do today.

    In the legal sense very little about this situation changed until the post civil war era. However the country did grow a great deal and a lot of new states were formed. The populations from these states were made up of immigrants from both the original 13 colonies and abroad so they were much more diverse, but the most important changes happened in the late 1860’s after the end of the civil war. A lot of politicians, particularly the radical Republicans argued for a new view of states rights and on what was needed to preserve individual liberty. They argued that the focus on states rights that the founders had written into the constitution had allowed an immoral institution (slavery) to persist, and saw a powerful federal government as a means of protecting individual freedom instead of a threat to it.

    The drafting of the 13, 14, and 15 amendments provided the federal government with a broader scope of power, which of course limited state power. The 14th in particularly has become very important over the years, and has effectively extended the limitations of government power set in the bill of rights to the states, which is a situation the founders never envisioned or intended. We also live in a society that is more diverse, more mobile and better educated. The fact that the founders did not envision using the first amendment to eliminate prayer from school or religious displays on government grounds is irrelevant. There were no public schools and if the founders even envisioned such a thing existing they would have envisioned them as state intuitions to which the 1st amendment didn’t even apply at the time. Further, as our society is more diverse at every level than it was in the 1790’s the government is obligated to represent all citizens equally.

    The founders claimed to be trying to create a more equal society, but what they ended up with really only provided equality for white male Christians, and even that equality was rather inconsistent. Our modern concept of the establishment clause isn’t what the founders intended, but the founders actual intent was ethically flawed, as a result of the moral blind spots the founders suffered from. If we intend to create the more equal society that the founders never could then religious equality is a necessary component. This is what we need to be arguing when talk about religious freedom. Yes, it’s a much longer and more complicated argument than just claiming the founders are on our side, but I think being correct more than makes up for the lack of brevity.

    Update: Several people have pointed out that the person I could not identify was Hemingway. His beliefs were also uncertain since he converted to Catholicism but may have done so only to please his wife.

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    Review of God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, chapters 4-7. Fri, 06 Mar 2015 05:06:44 +0000 Second video in review series. I cover chapters 4 through 7.

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    I had no idea Victoria Jackson was this deluded. Sat, 21 Feb 2015 01:47:44 +0000 Continue reading ]]>

    I never watched SNL regularly so I mostly only remember her fondly from the movie UHF, though I wonder if she was always this ridiculous or she grew into more recently. At one point she actually cites President Obama’s support of abortion and same sex marriage as evidence that is a not a Christian, but a Muslim. Does she have any clue what Muslims believe? I mean, while I’m sure you could probably dig up some liberal Muslims who support same sex marriage, the religion as a whole is probably the only religion in the world less accepting of these two things than Christianity. 

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    What’s so bad about being an evangelical atheist? Tue, 17 Feb 2015 09:05:38 +0000 Continue reading ]]> 10959899_10155102399870018_6938727218397443867_n

    So, a day or two ago on Facebook I ran into the meme on the right. If a Christian had shared it I might have taken them to task right then and there, but instead it was a fellow atheist who was sharing the meme so they and others could laugh at it. Now I don’t have any particular problem with people laughing at a silly argument, but unfortunately I found the most common argument against this meme being employed by many of the atheists in this thread to be terrible. I don’t agree with the meme either and I’m going to discuss why shortly, but first I want to deal with the terrible argument in question.

    Basically the argument they were making was that it was impossible for atheists to evangelize because atheism is only a position on a single question, which seems to be a rather popular argument for atheists to make in a variety of situations. Now, there are a few narrow discussions in which I think it’s reasonable to point out that atheism is technically only a position on the question of god’s existence, but this is not one of those discussions. First off, even if we were just talking about that one question it would be entirely possible for an atheist to work very hard and convincing other people of their position on that question, secondly most atheists hold a host of other beliefs and ideas which, while not specifically atheism, often have followed from the persons atheism, humanistic moral values for instance. The fact is, if you only define being evangelical as trying to convince other people that your view on some subject is the correct one, then there is no reason an atheist could not be evangelical about their views about god, religion, politics or anything else they care deeply about…and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that in my opinion

    This is where I think the meme gets things really wrong. Of course, it’s possible that there might be atheists out there who think that it’s always wrong to try to convince other people of your views (though I tend to see this attitude more often among post-modern theists than among atheists) and yes, if such an atheist went out trying to convert people that would hypocritical. However, I suspect that atheists who think this way are not the ones who write blogs and speak at conventions, or on podcasts, about their ideas. Those atheists, the ones like me, don’t think trying to convince people to change their minds about controversial subjects is either futile or unethical, but it actually quite important.

    Further, the problem we have with evangelical Christians is not that they try to convince us their beliefs are true. That is one of the few traits of evangelicals that, at least, I respect. First, in so far as the actual debate goes, I think they are wrong about many of the conclusions they accept, but more importantly, in the context of this discussion, I often disagree with the WAY in which they try to argue for those beliefs. In short, rather than trying to use reason and evidence to convince people they often employ underhanded tactics and emotional manipulation. They force conversations on people who don’t want them, and treat them like projects instead of people. They often act more like a snake oil salesman than person who interested in a reasonable discussion with an equal, It’s in this that I have a big problem with their behavior. So as far as atheism goes, I have no problem with being “evangelical” so long as you do it in an ethical manner.

    You can read my previous post about why I’m reluctant to be friends with evangelicals to hear more of my thoughts on the behavior of evangelicals.

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    Why I, as an ex-Christian, am reluctant to be friends with evangelicals. Fri, 13 Feb 2015 01:07:20 +0000 Continue reading ]]> IntolerantAs an atheist who publicly criticizes religion in it’s various forms it’s not uncommon for me to end up in a debate or conversation with a Christian. Often these conversations include, at some point, a claim that they want to be friends. I generally do not trust such requests and either refuse or ignore them, which usually results in them claiming I’m not treating them fairly.

    I’m often told that the reason I won’t be their friend is because I’m bigoted against Christians, or that I’m trying to disengage because I know that their arguments are better than mine, but the truth is much more simple, I don’t trust that their request for friendship is genuine.

    To understand why I feel this way you have to go back to the long ago days of 1997. I had just started college and I joined a campus ministry called Student Mobilization. I was active in this group through the five years I attended college. I believed that those who died without trusting Jesus as their savior would spend eternity in hell, and I spent a significant amount of time either trying to convert people or thinking about how to better convert people. I really can’t stress how much focus was spent on missions and evangelism.

    The last two years of college the person in charge of the ministry championed an idea called “process evangelism.” Plenty of debate had existed in these groups over two different approaches to evangelizing, cold turkey, or instant evangelism and a sort of relationship evangelism based around forming long term friendships. Those who were in the instant came argued that this allowed us to go out and share with as many people as possible, and those who argued for a more relationship focus said that each individual attempt had a better chance of conversion because you could tailor your evangelism to the person. “Process” attempted to combine both tactics, rather than forming long term relationships the goal was to form short term friendship in order to find out of the person was “receptive to the gospel.” If they weren’t then you would drop them and move on. People argued this allowed you to evangelize many people like cold turkey, but still get to know people just enough to attempt to tailor your approach.

    It should be clear from all of this that people actively involved in trying to convert people spend a lot of time figuring out how to best work at converting other people. Now there isn’t anything inherently wrong with trying to convince other people that they are wrong about something nor is there anything necessarily wrong with discussing the best ways of doing that convincing, atheists like myself do both of these things. However, I do think that certain tactics, including the ones used by many evangelicals, while potentially effective are fundamentally immoral. This brings me to many of the problems I have with many evangelists.

    First, and most obviously, their tactics are dishonest. When you look at something like process evangelism it should be clear that the people using such tactics are essentially pretending to be friends in order to gain personal knowledge to use to manipulate their target. They may excuse this behavior in their own mind by claiming it’s for the greater good (saving the target from hell) but it doesn’t change the nature of the behavior, and I think it’s fundamentally unethical to try to change another persons mind with anything other than reasoned discourse. Of course not all of the evangelists out there would actually name what they are doing so openly, even among their own such a blatant admission is often controversial. However, while many would say, and even truly believe, that they want genuine friendship with unbelievers the fact is that many often use knowledge gained through that “friendship” to manipulate people into believing.

    The second thing that bugs me is that friendships ought to develop organically but I often feel as if evangelists are trying to force friendship. Take an example of a conversation I had on my blog a few years ago in which this was said by a commenter.

    I don’t know if you know much about me but I am good friends with a few prominent local atheists. We get along fine, all the while going back and forth.

    I see it is much more difficult with you, Dylan. Why? Name-calling, swearing, and anger flow readily from your keyboard. It doesn’t have to be this way! We can disagree in a cordial manner. This doesn’t mean we ignore our differences or that we automatically watch cartoons together, but isn’t there a better way?

    If you follow the conversation you will see that what he refers to as anger was frustration at having him demand I answer his questions and justify everything I believed while actively refusing to reply to my own questions or concerns, but the manipulation is pretty clear. Since he gets along fine with other atheists it must be my fault. Statements like this make me feel as if the speaker is trying to manipulate me into being their friend, by suggesting that if I do anything else I’m a bad person. I can’t think of a single friendship I’ve ever had that started with either one of us saying “hey let’s be friends” yet I find it a very common sentiment in these discussions. If you act like I’m obligated to be your friend, or that there is something wrong with me when I rebuff an offer of friendship then I’m less likely than ever to want to be your friend because I think of such tactics as bullying.

    Another thing that often bars me from being friends is that many evangelists think they know me better than I know myself. When I debate with Christians and other theists I may disagree with them, quite strongly in some cases, but I generally try to assume that their accounting of their beliefs and the reasons they hold those beliefs are genuine, this is often not the case with those on the other side. Now this isn’t entirely their fault, the bible has multiple passages in it which claim that those who do not believe in the biblical god are in some sort of denial.

    19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened.  Romans :19-21

    The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. Psalm 14:1

    These and many other passages are used to argue that if you don’t believe in the Christian god you are lying to yourself. If they take me, and other atheists, at their word when we account for our beliefs they would have to deny the inerrancy of the bible which they refuse to do, so they claim that the bible is accurate which means they must conclude we are either lying or extremely deluded. I’m not likely to form a friendship with someone who thinks this way about me, but, even worse, it often makes it difficult to debate in good faith on any subject relating to their religious beliefs, though I do try.

    Now I’ll clarify as bit here, none of this is to say that I cannot or that I am not ever friends with any Christians. Though, like most people, most of my closest friends tend to share my religious and/or political leanings, I’m more than willing to befriend people who disagree with me on any number of things, indeed refusing to be friends with people who disagree with me would be both impossible and at odds with my desire to approach all ideas with skepticism. However, there is a difference between a naturally developed friendship between people who then sometimes debate subjects on which they disagree, and a person who shows up with the express purpose of converting me (which is not really the same as a debate between two equals) who then proceeds to think that I owe them friendship. Even then if I were to find out that one of those friends actually held such thoughts about me I would likely pull away from them.

    The problems for me are clear, evangelists are largely not interested in genuine debate or friendship. They are pretending to care about those things in order to convert me, and are willing to engage in unethical tactics like the pretense of friendship and emotional manipulation to make that conversion happen. On top of that they tend to believe some pretty terrible things about, not only atheists like myself, but anyone who doesn’t share their religious beliefs, including many Christians who hold more liberal or moderate views about their religion. I know all of this so well because, for many years, I was one of these evangelicals. I’m happy to debate with them, I’ll even do it civilly so far as I’m able to do so, but I’m not interested in being friends, unless they clearly distance themselves from this kind of behavior, but as common as these views are among evangelicals I won’t hold my breath.

    More on my issues with Christian manipulation: Kirsten Powers conversion story makes me sad.

    Read more about my deconversion here here and here.

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