Category Archives: atheism

I Don’t Believe It Was a Dream

Atheists on Twitter are planning a Coup de Hell (#CoupDeHell). I wish I’d thought of calling it that, and I wish I could say it was a new idea. It dates back at least to Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s self-proclaimed bulldog, who, according to this, related the events of a supposed dream:

[Huxley] had recently had a dream, he claimed, in which he woke up after death to find himself sitting in a vast and luxurious subterranean hall attended by waiters whose braided coats did not hide their forked tails. He gave a smart tug to the nearest tail, whereupon the waiter turned round and asked politely, “Yes, sir, what can I do for you?” Huxley ordered a drink and, since the room seemed somewhat warm, suggested that perhaps the drink might be iced. “Certainly”, said the waiter, and shortly returned with the order. Sipping his drink luxuriously, Huxley made a query of the waiter: “I suppose I am not wrong about where I have come to?” “No, Professor, this is hell”, he was answered. “But surely there has been a good deal of change?” he asked. “This doesn’t at all agree with what we used to be told of the place.” “Why, no, sir,” the waiter replied, “Hell isn’t what it used to be. A great many of you scientific gents have been coming here recently, and they have turned the whole place upside down.”

If Huxley’s account of hell is as true as any other, then the Coup de Hell likely has been underway for centuries.

Being an atheist, I don’t believe hell is real (except for Hell, MI and Hell, Norway). I also don’t believe that Huxley actually had that dream. I think it was a rhetorical flourish to amuse his friends. It makes too much narrative sense to have been a real dream.

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Posted by on April 19, 2012 in atheism


If You Can’t Hate on Child Rapists…

Some indeterminate number of thousands of atheists held a rally for reason in Washington DC this weekend. I would have loved to attend, but I suffered a lack of sufficient funds.

Most of the speakers and comedians and musicians who took the stage at the rally hail from Western nations, and hence the religions with which they are most familiar are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, probably in that order. So it makes sense that, while discussing the insensibility of religion, the Abrahamic faiths took most of the hits, with Christianity getting the lion’s share (yes, that was deliberate). But that’s just what would make sense. I haven’t seen the rally talks and I’ve not seen an objective accounting of which religions were targeted and how often.

That certainly won’t satisfy the put-upon resident of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, who complains that atheists get especially “jacked up” about Catholics. Because the Catholic church deserves not just respect, but deference. Unquestioning deference.

This short, dishonest piece by Donohue provides a wealth of material deserving of scorn, but I’ll focus on one issue. Donohue complains about Tim Minchin’s Pope Song, which he quotemines the lyrics egregiously. The lyrics Donohue includes in his piece are these: “I don’t give a f*** if calling the pope a motherf***er means…You see I don’t give a f*** what any other motherf***er believes about Jesus and his motherf***ing mother.”

You see that ellipsis up there, right after the word “means”? The entire rest of the verse follows that word. The sentence is “I don’t give a fuck if calling the pope a motherfucker means you unthinkingly brand me an unthinking apostate.” Donohue had to cut out 69 words to get from “means” to “You see…” Those 69 words are important, but they undermine Donohue’s case that the song is about Catholic people in general and not about the pedophilia scandal that will not die due to the level of pervasiveness it apparently achieved through the hierarchy’s insistence that the church’s reputation is more important than the safety of children.

Then there’s the next verse, the one that starts with “You see,” that states explicitly that Minchin is not complaining about the rank and file Catholic, as Donohue wants his readers to believe. “You see I don’t give a fuck what any other motherfucker / Believes about Jesus and his motherfucking mother / I’ve no problem with the spiritual beliefs of all these fuckers / While those beliefs don’t impact on the happiness of others.” See? If you’re not raping children, he’s not talking about you. Unless you’re covering for the child rapists, because he rightly thinks that child rape is wrong.

But Donohue doesn’t want his readers to know what Minchin really sang about. He wants them to avoid the song, and he wants them to think the reason is that it’s vulgar and not that it has an important message buried in all those fucks and fuckers. He certainly isn’t going to mention that the song is about the RCC’s pedophilia coverup, because the sooner he can get his followers worked up over Tim Minchin calling the pope a motherfucker and Richard Dawkins exhorting atheists to ridicule religion, the less likely it is that he’ll have to deal honestly with what the reason rally was about.

Donohue concludes, “Catholics take note: The fact that the atheists always attack us more than any other religious group is a backhanded compliment. They know who the real enemy of hate is, and who they must defeat. They don’t have a prayer.”

I’ve already handled Donohue’s persecution complex, but I don’t think the Catholic church is an enemy of hate. It’s an enemy of anyone who doesn’t fall into line with its dogma. The RCC can call its dogma “love,” but for those of us in the real world, words mean things, and much of what the RCC would inflict on the rest of us does not look, sound, taste, or feel like love.

And as for atheists not having a prayer? Why would we want to waste our time with that? We’ve got better things to do.

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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in atheism, language


A Little Reciprocity for Once Might Be Nice

Pacifists pay taxes that fund wars they don’t support.

Lower middle class people pay taxes that offset the costs of tax cuts for people who make more in a week what the LMC people make in a year.

Atheists pay taxes that help subsidize religious entities’ tax-exempt status.

In the meantime, funding for all levels of public education is gutted to help balance state budgets, and teachers are scapegoated as being somehow “rich,” all while corporations find ways to pay as little in taxes as possible.

One tiny little concession to help women get access to birth control (thereby keeping the abortion rate from being as high as it could be) and the beneficiaries of the above get bent all out of shape.

You’d think they want pregnancy to be unwanted and dangerous.



Imagine No Religion

Last night, Cee Lo Green sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” but he changed the words to a single line and incurred the virtual wrath of people who respect the song as it was written. The line he changed was “and no religion too.” Accounts vary on exactly what he changed the lyrics to, but it was something along the lines of “and all religion is true” or “and all religions too.”

I’m biased. I think John Lennon was one of the best songwriters and lyricists in the English language in the 20th Century, and possibly of the history of the English language. You can see growth in his lyrics from the early Beatle days when he played with the multiple meanings of words (“Please Please Me”) in simple—or sometimes not so simple—love songs, to the later Beatle era, when drugs and war and the FBI keeping tabs on him made life not so sweet. You could see a bit of cynicism creep in (“Sexy Sadie”) as well as political activism (“Revolution”). After the Beatles broke up, his lyrics for the most part became more thoughtful and as a result, more powerful.

He wrote “Imagine” early in his solo career. In my opinion, this is about as close to perfect as a pop or rock song can get. Its message of simple peace (or peaceful simplicity?) is set to a simple, clean melody with a simple, sparse arrangement. The lyrics don’t challenge the listener’s vocabulary, but as with the melody and arrangement, that’s where its power lies. Using simple words, he challenges beliefs, and more importantly, acceptance of the status quo. If we can imagine a different world, we can build a different world.

Lennon’s lyrics display an elegant sensibility of positive and negative. There’s also a parallel construction to the lyrics that cannot be accidental. The only significant variation in the structure of the verses occurs in the third and final verse, when instead of imagining the absence of heaven in the sky or of religion, he imagines a “brotherhood of man.” It’s difficult to imagine that Lennon’s choice of words was anything but careful and deliberate.

Which brings us back to Cee Lo Green.

If Lennon’s lyrics had no connection from line to line, that would be one thing, but if one considers the words just prior to altered line, “nothing to kill or die for,” or even the entire second verse, Green’s change renders the song nonsensical. People kill and die for their countries, and they kill and die for religion. As far as I know, no one has killed or died for Scientology, but a) I could be wrong and b) there’s still time.

Green has attempted to explain the change as expressing support for everyone being able to think or believe what they want. There are two problems with this explanation. The first is that religion does not allow its adherents to think whatever they want; religion tries to convert people of other religions, so it isn’t conducive to the freedom of thought that Green says he wanted to convey. I don’t know if Lennon made a distinction between religion and faith, but it seems clear that Green does not. Also, if his altered line was “all religion’s true,” then he’s specifically discouraging non-belief.

The second problem with Green’s explanation is that it reads false. The only reasons to change a line by one of the world’s most (deservedly) respected lyricists is if you don’t believe what the line conveys or if the line offends you. Green obviously does not believe the line, and I think it’s more likely than not that he is also offended by it. That’s fine. That’s his prerogative. And it’s my prerogative to be offended by the unintentional irony he injected into one of my favorite songs.

John Lennon invited us on a journey of imagination, and Cee Lo Green was willing to go on this journey, but not all the way. He’s willing to imagine no heaven, no hell, no countries, no possessions (as he wears a fur coat and what appears to be a half ton of gold), no need for greed or hunger, nothing to kill or die for—but religion? No, Green won’t even imagine no religion. So, how can he imagine nothing to kill or die for? How can he imagine no heaven or hell? And if he imagines that all religion’s true, then how can he imagine no countries?

Green says he meant no disrespect by changing the lyrics. I think he probably thought the largely religious American public would appreciate his pro-religion lyric and the denouncing of his lyric change surprised him. Not that he cares about my opinion, but any respect I had for him, even as an influence on other musicians, has taken a nose-dive, not only for the thoughtlessness of his lyrical alteration, but for the poor reason he gave as an excuse for it.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, Leonard Bernstein changed the lyrics of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony from “An die Freude” (Ode to Joy) to “An die Freiheit” (Ode to Freedom). It was controversial at the time, but he had a good reason for it, and never suggested that there was any problem with the original lyrics. I mention this because Beethoven’s 9th is my favorite Symphony. I’m not completely adverse to changing the lyrics to my favorite music, but I do have to understand the reason and believe that there’s nothing else to it. Bernstein gave a reason I understood, and I believe there was never anything else to it.

I don’t understand Green’s stated reason, and I’m unconvinced that there isn’t more to it.

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Posted by on January 1, 2012 in atheism, media, music


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I spy… with my little eye…

Guess what I saw today while out and about?

I saw the first of these billboards. It made me happy for most of the day.

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Posted by on November 10, 2011 in atheism



That’s Not a Library

At HuffPo, Karl Giberson, in attempting to “answer” a question posed by, among others, Jerry Coyne at WEIT, suggests that the Bible ought not be considered a single book:

The Bible is not a book. It is a library — dozens of very different books bound together.

Dozens of books bound together in a single volume is not a library–it’s an anthology. A library with only 66 books in it is a weak example of a library. Any one of the seven bookcases in my house has more books on only half its shelves, and my collection is a weak example of a library.

Giberson continues:

The assumption that identifying one part as fiction undermines the factual character of another part is ludicrous.

But this assumption is not made by Coyne, and the attempt to attribute it to him is disingenuous at best. Giberson quotes Coyne as saying: “…if the Bible is not to be read as a literal account of the truth, then how do we know which parts really are true, and which parts are fiction or metaphor? Nobody has ever found a convincing way to winnow the true from the metaphorical, and so it becomes an exercise in cherry-picking.” Coyne’s problem is with the lack of a reliable means of determining which parts of the Bible are to be interpreted literally and which metaphorically.

Giberson’s answer to this is:

Acknowledging that the Bible is a library doesn’t do all the hard work for us, of course. But recognizing this at least lets us avoid the so-called slippery slope where a non-literal approach in one place somehow compromises a literal approach in another.

Treating the Bible as a “library” not only “doesn’t do all the hard work for us,” it does none of the work. Moreover, at no point did Coyne suggest that either the whole thing must be either literally true or it must all be metaphor (although he did say that he “almost prefer[s] the fundamentalist literalists,” but that preference does not imply agreement). So Giberson’s answer is an “answer” only in the sense that he wrote something after the quote from Coyne, but if words have meaning, then he’s answering a question that he only imagined someone asked and is hoping you won’t notice that he’s talking to himself.

The problem with his Harry Potter-Abraham Lincoln nonsense is that we have reliable, independent means of knowing that Potter is fiction and Lincoln is historical. There is nothing in any biography of Lincoln that I know of that even hints the 16th U.S. President studied at Hogwarts and served as Prefect of Ravenclaw. The cheap attempt to depict Coyne as evolutionary science’s version of Bill O’Reilly should be beneath anyone with a Ph.D. “You don’t have a reliable means of determining history from fiction in the Bible,” a statement with which Giberson essentiallyagrees, is a far cry from “The tide goes in, the tide goes out, you can’t explain that!” (Giberson: “Well, if all these books about Harry Potter are fictional, then how do I know these other books about Abraham Lincoln are factual? How can Lincoln be real if Potter is not?” And then “Aha! I have got you! So much for your library.”)

Giberson also uses the old trick of accusing people whose interpretation of the Bible finds it lacking (coherence, logic, reason, morality) of not properly understanding it. The Bible is not to be read the way other books are read, because it has to be interpreted through a large number of filters. Because obviously, no one who disagrees with the Bible could possibly understand it.

The story of Adam and Eve originated as a Hebrew oral tradition, which is a long ways from an English prose translation. And there are more complex filters related to culture, author intent, literary form, historical setting, anticipated audience and so on.

And not one of those filters makes the Bible true, literally or metaphorically.

I’m beginning to think that I may have been generous in describing the Bible as an anthology, as though it has the same level of quality and coherence as an anthology of fantasy stories edited by Neil Gaiman or an anthology of mystery stories edited by P.D. James. Perhaps it’s really just a collection of ancient fan fiction.


Coyne responds to Giberson at WEIT, pointing out that while Giberson will acknowledge that Adam and Eve are not historical, he declines to discuss the implications of such an acknowledgment has for Christianity.

Jason Rosenhouse at Evolutionblog also answers Giberson, discussing, among other things, the unity of scripture.

Eric MacDonald explains that theologians (or the faithful) choose which parts of the Bible are important while “science forces them to make the distinction between what can (at a stretch, perhaps) be literally, and what must be figuratively, understood” and that nothing in theology or in science helps Giberson make his case.

No doubt Giberson or someone else will respond to Coyne, Rosenhouse, or MacDonald, also missing the point, and also trotting out tired arguments as though they’re fresh and new. I have no idea how they find the patience and the stamina to do this on a regular basis.

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Posted by on August 16, 2011 in atheism


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Lesbian Atheist President

I don’t know if the television ads for the Mormon church have gone national, but I suspect that they have. If so, then you know what I mean: ads that could be selling educational institutions or automobiles or some kind of cleaning product that’s going to save untold hours of household drudgery, but instead are selling the normalcy of the Mormon church and its members. One ad shows an immigrant musician, another shows a former gang member (drug addict?) and his reformed life, another shows a redhead from Texas with her family (including an autistic child). And of course, there’s Norman the Mormon.

We get these ads in Arizona with astonishing frequency. The LDS are a powerful and present minority in Arizona and their numbers and influence are growing. We’re one of the few states in which people don’t really need to be told that Mormons are just like every other religious person (except for the magic underpants, but other religions have their own special idiosyncrasies). When they first started running these ads several years ago, I wondered if they ran in Utah. Surely the citizens of Utah don’t need reminding that they’re not weird. Or maybe they need to be reminded not to act weird around non-Mormons. (Mormonism is one of the religions I have not looked into seriously. I’m sure there are some vestigial stereotypes loitering in my memory banks, but beyond the now frowned-upon polygamy of prior generations, I couldn’t tell you what they are. This is not an invitation for an education in the matter, however.)

I watch these ads, and I wonder whether television ads in which Alethea the Atheist or Edward the Agnostic or Steven the Secular Humanist were featured with similarly high production values and similarly positive messages would ever get the same kind of treatment that the Mormon ads do, and I have to conclude that we wouldn’t. If a simple billboard with a positive message has to be relocated because of complaints, and if a banner flying campaign takes place in only 26 states, god-fearing people whose religious sensibilities tremble at the very idea that non-theists exist certainly won’t tolerate ads brought into their homes that show that atheists are decent, normal people.

At least, not yet.

Perhaps I shouldn’t assume that atheist television ads are an impossibility. Fifteen years ago, I would not have expected the USA to have elected a black President, or that two Mormons would have a legitimate shot at a Presidential nomination. (Do you think it might be too much to hope for a lesbian atheist President?)

Religious privilege still reigns, at least culturally (especially in the US), but it isn’t indestructible.

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Posted by on July 9, 2011 in atheism


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