bookmark_borderAnother faith-based US administration

Before the US elections in 2008, I complained about the Democrats, and grumbled that throwing the Republicans out was looking like it would not improve the prospects for church-state separation too much.

So far, events seem to bear me out. In some respects, we have yet another faith-based administration. Yes, informal entanglements with religion have always existed in American politics and government. But this administration is pushing beyond this. The Democrats, as always, are at best Republican-lite, and often just as bad as them.

It’s a relief to have an administration with fewer fascist tendencies, and a more positive attitude toward science. But weighed narrowly, on secularist concerns alone, it looks like this administration is not going to be a large improvement over the last.

bookmark_borderInfidel weirdness

I often think of religion in the context of weirdness. Especially when I get frustrated with religion, I tend to see God as the biggest paranormal claim out there, and the Abrahamic religions being as crazy as Scientology but made respectable by time and custom.

That, actually, might be a good reason to also go looking for atheist versions of weirdness. We’re all human, after all, and therefore we’re all incurably insane.

Individual examples are easy to find. One of my favorites is the Time Cube. The person in charge there seems seriously mentally ill, but it’s an entertaining enough example of off-the-deep-end paranoid weirdness. He also seems to be an atheist loony, given to exclamations such as “There is No God, only Godism.”

I can also think of some small-scale organized atheist weirdness, though these invariably have a political emphasis. Some groups on the sectarian fringes of the political left, for example. Or some of the more impressionable fans of Ayn Rand, though that tends to be more commonly an adolescent phase, mercifully enough.

But further than that, I begin to run out of steam. Since nonbelief is on the social fringes, I guess I’m wondering about what must be the fringe of a fringe, so my opportunities to accidentally wonder into this species of weirdness must be limited.

There’s a Ph.D. thesis here for an enterprising social scientist or cultural studies person.

bookmark_border5-minute description of atheism

Standing alone, atheism is a disagreement. Atheists do not agree that God exists. We are not absolutely certain that there is no God, but then again, we cannot know with 100% certainty that Santa Claus is not real. We think that God, like Santa Claus, is very likely a fiction.

A rejection of God is only part of the story. Many atheists, certainly most of the atheists you encounter in academic and intellectual environments, reject all supernatural claims. We think there are no gods or demons, no angels or jinn, no souls, no life after death, no ancestral spirits, no karma, no psychic powers or occult influences, no magic or witchcraft, no prophets, no revelations, no cosmic justice, and no purpose structuring the universe. We usually think this is true the same way we think that no macroscopic information in the universe today can be transmitted faster than the speed of light. The evidence, as best as we can tell, rules out communication faster than light. And our evidence, as best as we can read it, makes the most sense without supernatural agents. Naturalistic atheists think that this is a bottom-up world, where everything we know is realized by natural, fundamentally purposeless processes.

Now, when people want to know more about atheism, they usually are not looking for a science lecture. Since our culture closely associates morality with religion, their first question is more likely to involve morality. Among naturalistic atheists, many are, broadly speaking, secular humanists. We have thisworldly reasons to help one another, to not cheat on our taxes, to not kick the dog. You will find us to be decent neighbors, even though we do not believe that decency is guaranteed to ultimately prevail. We can be dependable political allies, even if we understand good and evil in terms of human interests rather than divine commandments. Still, we are different. We tend to be less conservative than the religious, more at home in the modern world. We live with less certainty, with more moral gray areas.

Naturalistic atheists are a minority almost everywhere. But our view of the world has deep roots, particularly in intellectual life. We are unlikely to take over the world. But unless our civilization collapses, we are also unlikely to disappear. You can even find us within religious traditions. There are people who call themselves Jewish atheists or Christian atheists—people who value their religious heritage but reject their theologies.

Since neither skeptics nor believers are going away, we might as well figure out how to live together. This should not be too difficult. Atheists usually dislike more fundamentalist faiths, but do not object to belief as a personal matter. We strongly support a secular political life, defending principles such as separation of church and state. If the religious do not insist on making doubt a public liability, there is no reason that our disagreement about God should not be a friendly disagreement.


(Later in the month, I’ll be giving a 5-minute presentation on atheism as part of a panel discussion on campus. I thought I’d jot down what I’d like to say…)