Tag Archives: Atheism

Humanism and secularism, defined

So what’s humanism? I had a go at this question way back when I started this blog, but this video by the British Humanist Association offers a much clearer introduction:

And from the always-lucid British YouTube user QualiaSoup, here’s a very clear presentation on secularism and its views on church/state separation, gay marriage, and education — as relevant (or perhaps even more so) in the US as it is in the UK:

(via Tim Minchin)

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“We are a thinking species”: Carl Sagan on creationism, skepticism, and why science is the birthright of everyone

In 1981, Carl Sagan — astronomer and science educator par excellence — was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association, and delivered his acceptance speech at the association’s annual conference in San Diego. The AHA has now made the audio of the entire speech available online, and if you have 45 minutes, it’s absolutely worth your time. (If not, I’ve transcribed some excerpts below.)

The speech is wonderful for the same reasons that Sagan’s remarks and writings are always wonderful: his gift for eloquent, inspiring — and often humorous — prose; his powerful argument for the fundamental importance of science in our lives; his ability to communicate a clear-eyed and rational view of the cosmos that is yet open to poetry, astonishment, and wonder. But this particular speech is also notable for a couple of specific things. First, Sagan refers early and often to the accomplishments of the woman who introduced him to the audience: the astrophysicist Margaret Burbidge, who, like many female scientists, deserves much more public recognition for her scientific contributions. And second, Sagan takes particular aim at the threat of creationism — 1981 being the year of McLean v. Arkansas and the movement to have “creation science” taught in American public schools, a movement that sadly still has traction today.

I find it fascinating that Sagan’s decades-old speech still feels fresh and relevant today: not just his argument against the creationists, but also his stirringly democratic notion of science as every person’s birthright, and his description of “cosmic evolution” and the deeply intimate connection between humans and the universe — concepts that Neil deGrasse Tyson, considered by many to be Sagan’s heir, has been communicating to great effect.

Some lengthy excerpts below.

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“Do you believe in a secular America?”

Yes, I do.

This video, by Jared Scheib, is one of the finalists in the “Ten Point Vision of a Secular America” contest held by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Here’s another one, by Ben Stacey (click to enlarge to see the text more clearly):

See the rest here.

(via Pharyngula)

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God, atheism, and what it is to be human

Kenan Malik expands on his previous talk on religion and atheism:

There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief.

Historically, much of the discussion of God has been about the possibility of God. Christian apologetics grew out of the attempt rationally to defend the possibility of God’s existence, while atheists wanted to show that the idea of God made no rational sense. Much of the contemporary debate is about the consequences of religious belief. The so-called New Atheists, in particular, have been scathing in their attack on what they see as the wicked and malevolent social consequences of faith — from the harassment of gays to mass suicide bombings. I, too, am sceptical of the possibilities of God. And, while I do not think, as many do, that faith is, in and of itself, pernicious, I do believe that there are often social and moral problems that arise from religious belief. What I want to concentrate on today, however, is on the first type of argument. And that is because for me, as it is for many other atheists, this is the primary motivation for my atheism — I simply do not see the necessity for God.

There are three kinds of reasons often given for the necessity of God. First, there is the claim that God is necessary to explain Creation and the maintenance of the cosmos. Second, that God is a necessary source of moral values; that without God we would fall into the abyss of moral nihilism. And third, that without belief in God, there can be no purpose or meaning to life.  Let us look at each of these claims in turn.

The rest here, and well worth reading. His bravely humanist conclusion:

[T]here is a broader issue here. In part, the argument that without God there is no meaning derives from the idea that, as William Craig has put it, ‘on the atheist view humans are just animals’. In fact I would argue the very opposite. Only an atheist view allows us to be truly human.

Religion played a vital part in the development of civilised life because it made possible the belief that there was more to life than mere animal existence.  But the price of transcendence has been enslavement to the [sacred]. Religion attempts to give meaning and a dignity to our mundane existence through creating a relationship between the profane and the sacred. But in doing so, the sacred becomes a means of diminishing the sense of what it is to be human. ‘The sacred order’, as Leszek Kolokowski the Polish Marxist-turned-Christian philosopher, observes, ‘has never ceased, implicitly or explicitly, to proclaim “this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise”.’

For me to be human is precisely to reject the idea that ‘this is how things are, they cannot be otherwise’.  It is about wanting to seize responsibility for human fate away from God’s hands so that humans can help shape their own future. Meaning and dignity derives not from the acceptance of fate, as in religion, but from our capacity to defy it.

I wholeheartedly concur. And here’s something else I find interesting: both this kind of humanistic atheism and the notion of “the American spirit” are rooted in this notion of rejecting authority, of defying fate and shaping one’s destiny in one’s own hands. This nation was founded on the principle that we are not merely bound to meekly accept authority, that we have the power to throw off rulers whom we deem unjust, that we have the right and the responsibility to govern ourselves and determine the course of our future. We get to decide what to value, and what to be. What could be more humanist and more fundamentally American than that? In a way, atheism could be seen as a logical extension of that attitude; it’s a shame — and one of life’s many ironies — that it isn’t more accepted in a nation so temperamentally suited for it.

More of Malik’s thoughts on the subject here and here.

(Photo by Erik Johannson. “Traveller, there is no road; the road is made by walking.” — Antonio Machado)

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“Band together in order to be different. That’s a much harder thing to sell, but it’s all that matters.”

An amazing, amazing rant by Penn Jillette. Worth watching in full (note: language NSFW).

Politically, perhaps the most interesting bits are where he explains the recent history of the umbrella term “Christian,” his preference for straight-up truth-telling over building consensus and solidarity, and the disconnect between politicians’ demonstrable sanity (he thinks) and their paying lip-service to insane religious beliefs. (Though I would argue that politicians who actively oppose abortion, stem cell research, and gay marriage are doing more than paying lip-service to narrow religious views.)

A few related clips come to mind. First, an excellent video clearly showing Barack Obama not being bat-shit crazy:

And a couple of great West Wing excerpts on religion and politics. One from the second season:

And one towards the series’ end. Senator Arnold Vinick’s statement to the press (at around 3:50) about the separation of church and state is spot-on:

Something to think about in this long, Bible-thumping political season.

(via Boing Boing)

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Not what you think it means, cont’d

So this happened.

From an atheist perspective, I think Cee Lo Green has been sufficiently ridiculed here and here.

And a bit of advice for Mr. Green: if you want to completely overwrite John Lennon’s clearly atheist message, it’s not enough to remove the line “And no religion too.” You might also want to take a look at the great humanist verse that begins the song, which you apparently had no problem singing:

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

By claiming that “all religion is true” but leaving the original opening lines in place, all you’ve done is turn Lennon’s message into a muddled and inconsistent mess. (Which, come to think of it, makes the song entirely compatible with the muddled inconsistency of religion; so perhaps it’s Mission Accomplished, after all!)

Beyond the God bits, it’s interesting to see how “Imagine” has been turned into a feel-good let’s-all-get-along number by people who seem to blithely ignore its underlying — and unsettling — revolutionary ideas. Believers squirm at the “no religion” line, but what about “Imagine there’s no country”? “Imagine no possessions”? These are very clear challenges to our deeply cherished notions of patriotism and capitalism, and Lennon was calling for no less than a complete overhaul of human society. The ideas are, arguably, stark and oversimplified, but surely they deserve discussion and debate; it’s heartening that they’re getting a hearing in the current conversations about the Occupy movement, but sad that the song itself isn’t seen by more people as the revolutionary anthem that it truly is.

More misunderstood songs here.

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Miscellany: “Bah, humbug!” edition

For your perusal this holiday season: Continue reading

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