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Send an Atheist to Church: Ashley survives Brookland Baptist Church

As part of a fundraising effort for a cancer charity, the local Pastafarians at USC group took donations, in exchange for which the atheist members agreed to be sent to church.  I was sent, along with three other students, to Brookland Baptist church, in West Columbia, SC.

Brookland Baptist Church

I have not been to church in a long time. The closest I’ve been in the last five years is probably the local Unitarian Universalist fellowship, but as their minister is an atheist, I’m not sure how much that counts.  I have actually been to Brookland Baptist before, at the very end of 2006, when John Edwards was speaking there.  I was highly skeptical of him, but after seeing him demand healthcare for all and declare we needed a way to be patriotic besides war, I absolutely fell in love.  Which turned out real well.

Back to the church:

Brookland Baptist Church is a largely African American megachurch, founded in 1902. On Sunday, not only are the parking lots full, but the lots across the street are not enough. The church claims 5,300 members, seats 1,600 on the floor and 500 in the balcony.

Dove with laser beams

I arrived before my fellow heathens and had to wait outside for them.  Initially, I was quite self-conscious because everyone was staring at me, but when I realized it was just because I was the only white person there, not because I was an atheist, it became less worrisome.  For better or for worse, church services seem to be very heavily segregated.  Just as you’d only find one or two African-Americans at your average Episcopalian service, you’ll only find one or two white people at your average Baptist service.  They were, despite the staring, very nice and friendly.

The rest of the cohort arrived and we were sent up to the balcony because one of our members wanted to film some of the service.  I was a little disappointed not to be in the middle of the throng of people, but also relieved that no one would be judging me for being on Facebook during the boring parts.

And boy were there boring parts!

I am a temporally minded person and therefore was already highly irked that the service started 15 minutes late.  I was even more irked when it turned out that the service lasted nearly two and a half hours.  I would have much rather re-watched The Hunger Games with that time!  How someone sits through that every Sunday is beyond me.

Aside from the absurd length, I didn’t really note too many significant differences in the structure and audience participation than the last time I went to an Episcopalian service.  Admittedly, that service was at one of the churches that left the American Episcopalian church to join the Rwandan one because they hate gays so much, but you know, Episcopalianish.  Brookland did, however, have one of the best announcement voices I’ve ever heard — it was like the “In a world” voice, but he was just reading the locations and dates of events.  It was awesome.

This is the song that never ends

There was a lot of singing.  Interminable singing while the collection plate went around.  As much as comedians joke around that the Anglican church is joyless, but the Baptist church goes crazy with the music, there was no evidence of that.  The musak style choir songs were not joyful, just very long.  Fortunately, I had a book, since we were subjected to what probably added up to over an hour of this.

We were, however, very fortunate to have attended the day that we did because the focus was on education and they were recognizing the scholastic achievements of their students.  I don’t know what there normal services and sermons look like, but this was a perfect illustration of how important churches are to the minority community here.  It’s heartwarming to see an institution take so much time and effort to help children succeed and overcome the shortcomings of their schools and local environments.  It is a real shame that, in most cases, the only place they can find this support is in churches.  I know I’ve said it before, but I will say it again, secularists need to pick up minority causes — they are basic human rights issues and we should be on the front lines supporting them.

The church gave out scholarships to graduating high school seniors, and then had a college graduate come and deliver the speech for the day.  Anrae Jamon Motes graduated from MIT in 2010 and currently works as a consultant; he came to give advice to students in the congregation.  He was fantastic.

Motes plays with legos; I love the internet

The entire thrust of the speech was about using education to empower yourself, especially economically.  This is an important message to this community, a community that does not generally have economic power.  He did not really talk about religion until the very end of the speech, where he focused on the support system that the church had given him.  Truly it is not faith that changes these people’s lives, but the actions and support of this community, and that’s something that is quite moving.

That said, he did give some of the credit to Jesus, but I was very impressed by how pragmatic and practical the overall message of the entire day was.  This was not a day about God’s achievements, it was a day about people’s achievements, and much more enticing to an outsider for being so.

At the very end, the deacon made a call for people to join at a protest/celebration for the arrest that has finally come in the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case.  There was a general call for people to be more proactive, to do more than just talk and complain and protest, to actually get out there and vote to change things.  Their goal is to empower people through evangelism, education, and economic change and they emphasized that their community “is about more than winning souls for Christ, it’s about changing lives.”  And to that I can certainly say, “Amen.”

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Why “In God We Trust” is a Problem

¡Delicioso!

During the Spanish Inquisition, Catholics would find Jews by looking to see who ate pork.  They’d offer pork to people they suspected of being Jewish, and if they refused to eat it, they were arrested.  Because in the 1400s the only real Spaniard was a Catholic Spaniard.  There was a holy war aimed at getting rid of the unwanted.

There was a holy war in the United States, too, in the 1950s.  There was a man named Joe McCarthy and he waged a holy war against the atheists.  “Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity,” Joe McCarthy, 1950.

At the start, let me make clear that in my opinion no special credit is due those of us who are making an all-out fight against this Godless force-a force which seeks to destroy all the honesty and decency that every Protestant, Jew and Catholic has been taught at his mother’s knee. It is a task for which we can claim no special credit for doing. It is one which we are obligated to perform. It is one of the tasks for which we were brought into this world-for which we were born. If we fail to use all the powers of mind and body which God gave us, then I am sure our mothers, wherever they are tonight, may well sorrow for the day of our birth…

Jesus wants me to further my political career by being a jerk

Government officials were put on trial, torn apart for anything that seemed vaguely related to atheism, communism, homosexuality, or not quite being patriotic enough.  Many lost their careers and were unable to find work, some were wrongfully imprisoned on laws that were later overturned as unconstitutional — often on the basis of incredibly flimsy evidence and accusations from people with personal motives.

Perhaps you remember HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which created lists of people who weren’t considered American enough — American in this case meaning Christian Non-Commies.  Over 300 artists were boycotted by Hollywood after being put on HUAC’s blacklist and only 10% of them were able to rebuild careers.  HUAC did local witch-hunts to ferret out people they didn’t like, making sure communities could shun them as Un-American.  Arthur Miller’s play “The Crucible”, about the Salem Witch Trials, was inspired by the way HUAC treated people.  It was truly a witch-hunt and the offenders were Godless.

It is thanks to McCarthyism and HUAC that the phrase “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and the phrase “In God We Trust” was adopted as the national motto in 1956, over the previous, all-inclusive motto “E Pluribus Unum” — Out of Many, One.  Before the 1950s, the national motto said that the nation was stronger thanks to the many different kinds of people who made up the country; after the 1950s, the national motto said that the nation was stronger because of a Christian God.

To be clear, God was added to the Pledge and as a motto in the 1950s not because of a strong devotion to religion but out of a desire to find and punish atheists.

The House has just overwhelmingly reaffirmed the phrase “In God We Trust” as the national motto.  A completely unnecessary move as George W. Bush signed a law in 2002 reaffirming it as the national motto, along with reaffirming “under God” in the pledge.  Congress reaffirmed it as the national motto 5 years ago.  2 years ago, the phrase was added to the Capitol visitor center.  And this ridiculous vote in the middle of economic crisis that Congress has repeatedly failed to address effectively?  OK, so Congress likes God, now can they please get around to liking their constituents?

Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job

What drives me crazy is the refusal of the American people and the political establishment to recognize that the so-called tradition of God as part of these things only dates back to the 50s.  Everyone seems to think that they were established at the beginning of the country, not as part of a witch-hunt.  And they additionally refuse to recognize that not only is it conflating church and state, it is also endorsing the behavior of McCarthy and HUAC.  SCOTUS on this issue:

It is quite obvious that the national motto and the slogan on coinage and currency ‘In God We Trust’ has nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion. Its use is of patriotic or ceremonial character and bears no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious exercise. – Aronow v. United States, 1970

It has everything to do with establishing atheists as a second-class group of citizens and tacitly endorsing McCarthy’s persecution of those he called “Godless”.  If the government is not embarrassed by the blatant disregard of the Establishment Clause, it could at least show the good sense to be embarrassed by Joseph McCarthy.

Questions I Need Answers to from Christians

How do you resolve the question of suffering? Why do so many people suffer for no apparent reason? Does anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus go to hell? If it’s “free will”, why are we made so poorly in the first place?

Do you think homosexuals are evil? Is the bible literal? Do you think that committing genocide is OK (the flood)? Do you think evolution is false? How do you reconcile contradictions in the Bible? How do you see revelation, do you think the world is going to end and Jesus is going to come back? Should women be silent and obey men? Is polygamy OK or not?

Why do you believe in a god? Why do you believe specifically in the Christian god? Why is Christianity different than the thousands of other faiths that are incredibly similar?

Do you believe that government should be secular or faith based? How do you feel about capital punishment? Was Peter right or was Paul when it comes to the question of following the old laws? Can you wear cloth of mixed fiber? Is slavery OK, because the bible says that it is?

How can a god who is so constantly described as being jealous and having other human foibles and flaws also be described as perfect? How can he commit genocide and destroy cities and people in wrath and also be all-loving and good?

Where did Cain’s wife come from? Was it incest all the way down the ages? Do you think the earth is 6000 years old, like Bishop Usher said?

Why did Jesus kill the fig tree? Why is Judas condemned for doing the one thing absolutely necessary to lead to Jesus’ resurrection?

Do you agree with the church’s policy of torturing and killing Jews? Do you agree with the church’s support of Hitler? Do you agree with the church’s murder of innocent women accused of witchcraft? Do you believe in witchcraft? How do you think the guy who owned the pigs felt when Jesus infected them with demons and drove them off the cliff?

Why do you think the texts included in the New Testament are true and the ones excluded are not? Have you read the lost gospels, have you read the early gospels, have you done any historical research on the origin of the books in the bible? Why would God send his son to a place with a bunch of illiterate desert people instead of to the Chinese?

Do you think it’s reasonable to kill dozens of children for making fun of a bald guy? Is killing all innocent firstborn in Egypt reasonable? Is rape acceptable? Why does Jesus say he will return in the lifetime of his followers?

How can anyone with one of these horrible, painful, easily broken and incredibly gross human bodies possibly believe in “intelligent” design? Everyone’s body sucks. They get sick, they fail, they get old, they get flabby, with hair in places you don’t want, and often no hair in places you do want, it’s easily poisoned, depressed, scarred, destroyed, and doesn’t last very long. Add to that the millions of common diseases that make people miserable — allergies, asthma, diabetes, cancer, heart disease — and the minor irritations we face almost daily — bad vision, imperfect hearing, imperfect memory, itches, aches, indigestion, heartburn, constipation, sore feet, smelliness, and moodiness — how can anyone believe in a good god?

I don’t understand religion part 923

How can a person hold these two thoughts in their head?

1. The universe is too complex to simply exist, it must have been created

2. God, something so complex it can create and control universes, doesn’t require a creator

It seems to me that you can have two viewpoints that are internally consistent.  You can believe either:

1. Complicated things can exist without a creator, allowing the possibility of a universe without a creator and the possibility of God or

2. Everything complicated requires a creator, demanding a creator of the universe but denying the possibility of God at the same time

I just had this question with someone who is not a stupid person.  I know that atheist readers sometimes have difficulty grasping that not stupid people can believe in God, I myself have that difficulty at times, but I just cannot understand the complete lack of logic there.  Not only that, but the inability of the person in question to grasp the logic fail of saying that “everything must have a cause, except God” which means that not everything must have a cause, which means there’s no need for God.

Here is a place where it is laid out in much fuller detail, but if anyone can explain to me how those two thoughts exist inside the head of a not stupid person, please do, because he sure couldn’t.

Bishop Gene Robinson to Retire Early

Bishop Gene Robinson, the first openly non-celibate gay bishop of the Episcopal Church is going to retire early because of the non-stop death threats he continues to get from Christians.

You know, there are always calls for Muslims to speak up against terrorism, but I’d like some Christians to publicly come out supporting the Bishop and denouncing the people sending him death threats. You want to complain that there aren’t enough moderate muslim voices? Then show me some moderate Christian ones.

Gene Robinson is an incredibly decent human being who is being terrorized because people who believe almost exactly the same thing he does, don’t like who he loves. Things like this make me find the appeal of Christianity completely incomprehensible.

And for those of you who say that that is not the behavior of a True Christian, I’d like to point you to the No True Scotsman fallacy as well as Leviticus. For those of you who think the appropriate way to deal with someone you don’t like is to threaten to murder them, you need help.

For the Christians who don’t particularly like the death threats but are glad that they’ve gotten this homosexual to step down, your tacit support is the moral equivalent of approving of Al Qaeda and Imams calling for death threats. You don’t have to agree with his lifestyle, but you should be at the front of the crowd denouncing the people using terrorism to get their(your) way.

Hitchens briefly on the immorality of Christianity

Let’s say that the consensus is that our species, being the higher primates, Homo Sapiens, has been on the planet for at least 100,000 years, maybe more. Francis Collins says maybe 100,000. Richard Dawkins thinks maybe a quarter-of-a-million. I’ll take 100,000. In order to be a Christian, you have to believe that for 98,000 years, our species suffered and died, most of its children dying in childbirth, most other people having a life expectancy of about 25 years, dying of their teeth.

Famine, struggle, bitterness, war, suffering, misery, all of that for 98,000 years. Heaven watches this with complete indifference. And then 2,000 years ago, thinks “That’s enough of that. It’s time to intervene,” and the best way to do this would be by condemning someone to a human sacrifice somewhere in the less literate parts of the Middle East.

Don’t let’s appeal to the Chinese, for example, where people can read and study evidence and have a civilization. Let’s go to the desert and have another revelation there. This is nonsense. It can’t be believed by a thinking person.

Why am I glad this is the case? To get to the point of the wrongness of Christianity, because I think the teachings of Christianity are immoral. The central one is the most immoral of all, and that is the one of vicarious redemption. You can throw your sins onto somebody else, vulgarly known as scapegoating. In fact, originating as scapegoating in the same area, the same desert.

I can pay your debt if I love you. I can serve your term in prison if I love you very much. I can volunteer to do that. I can’t take your sins away, because I can’t abolish your responsibility, and I shouldn’t offer to do so. Your responsibility has to stay with you. There’s no vicarious redemption.

There very probably, in fact, is no redemption at all. It’s just a part of wish-thinking, and I don’t think wish-thinking is good for people either. It even manages to pollute the central question, the word I just employed, the most important word of all: the word love, by making love compulsory, by saying you must love. You must love your neighbor as yourself, something you can’t actually do. You’ll always fall short, so you can always be found guilty.

By saying you must love someone who you also must fear. That’s to say a supreme being, an eternal father, someone of whom you must be afraid, but you must love him, too. If you fail in this duty, you’re again a wretched sinner. This is not mentally or morally or intellectually healthy.

And that brings me to the final objection – I’ll condense it, Dr. Olafsky – which is, this is a totalitarian system. If there was a God who could do these things and demand these things of us, and he was eternal and unchanging, we’d be living under a dictatorship from which there is no appeal, and one that can never change and one that knows our thoughts and can convict us of thought crime, and condemn us to eternal punishment for actions that we are condemned in advance to be taking.

All this in the round, and I could say more, it’s an excellent thing that we have absolutely no reason to believe any of it to be true.

50 Book Challenge: 41-45

5 Books left!

It is the end of week 37, and I have just finished book 45.  I feel like I should continue reviewing books I finish after the fifty, keep counting to see how many I finish, because 50 is now basically inevitable.  Maybe my challenge for next year will be to try to finish more than this year, rather than 50.

41. The Atheist’s Introduction to the New Testament – Mike Davis

Asimov’s New Testament book sits heavily on my shelf, waiting impatiently for me to rally the nerve to throw myself into reading it.  I find the Old Testament a lot more interesting than the New Testament, mostly because it’s way more mythological and hardcore, and it’s more a history of an entire people than just like this one guy.

As a kid, I always thought Jesus was both kinda creepy and really boring — like Ned Flanders.  There was just something about the image of this weird hippie guy with long hair always hanging out with kids and lambs that I found unsettling in a “don’t get in the van” sort of way.  And the New Testament, when I read it, never made that feeling go away.  So I’m just sort of predisposed not to be terribly interested in the NT, but I feel like I should be, since I dislike Christianity so much.  It just gives me the heebie jeebies.

All of this being my way of saying that I read this because it was way shorter than Asimov’s book and I hoped it would make me more interested.  It did and it didn’t.  I find the story of how the NT came to be (eg Bart Ehrman’s work) a lot more interesting than anything in the NT, and this book certainly feeds into some of that.  It’s a very very interesting read, and I’d obviously recommend it to any curious believer.  I think this book is a slightly easier read that Bart Ehrman, but not nearly as exhaustively well-informed.

42. Lyra’s Oxford – Philip Pullman

This was a short book that was not nearly as good as the books it is a sequel to, His Dark Materials.  Basically, it was just way too short and tacked on, very little there.

43. LSAT Logic Games Bible – David Killoran

I really like logic and logic games so I did actually enjoy reading this book and solving the problems in it.  But I’m a huge nerd, so I’m not sure that you should just accept that.  Unless you’re taking the LSAT, obviously, in which case you should like this too.

44. The Truth – Terry Pratchett, read by Stephen Briggs

Not to be confused with The Truth (with Jokes) by Al Franken, of course.  I enjoyed this book, it’s basically about the invention of/introduction of newspapers to Ankh Morpork, but it was hardly anything to write home about.  A solid B.  It’s basically a stand alone novel, with only bit parts for characters in the city that have featured in other Discworld novels.  I didn’t particularly care for any of the main characters, which sort of made the whole thing less interesting.

45. Thief of Time – Terry Pratchett, read by Stephen Briggs

I enjoyed this quite a bit.  It has one of my favorite Discworld characters, Susan, and touches on some of the same apocalyptic themes as Good Omens.  I think this will end up being one of my favorites, one that I may try to read some time again in the future.  It involved chocolate saving the day by blowing people up because it was so delicious.

Even with nougat you can have a perfect moment.

Extra: I tried to read Freethinkers by Susan Jacoby and I got about 200 pages into it before being too bored to continue.  When faced with the dilemma of finishing it before I had to return it to the library or not… I chose not.  My intense disinterest in the history of America after 1865 probably didn’t help.

Richard Dawkins Welcomes Ratzinger

Joseph Ratzinger is an enemy of humanity.

He’s an enemy of children, whose bodies he’s allowed to be raped and whose minds he’s encouraged to be infected with guilt. It’s embarrassingly clear that the church is less concerned with saving child bodies from rapists than with saving priestly souls from hell. And most concerned with saving the longterm reputation of the church itself.

He’s an enemy of gay people. Bestowing on them the sort of bigotry that his church used to reserve for Jews before 1962.

He’s an enemy of women, barring them from the priesthood as though a penis were an essential tool for pastoral duties.

He’s an enemy of truth, promoting barefaced lies about condoms not protecting against AIDS, especially in Africa.

He’s an enemy of the poorest people on the planet, condemning them to inflated families they cannot feed and so keeping them in the bondage of perpetual poverty. A poverty which sits ill beside the obscene wealth of the Vatican.

He’s an enemy of science. Obstructing vital stem cell research on grounds, not of true morality, but on pre-scientific superstition.

Ratzinger is even an enemy of the Queen’s own church, arrogantly dissing Anglican orders as “absolutely null and utterly void,” while at the same time shamelessly trying to poach Anglican vicars to shore up his own pitifully declining priesthood.

Finally, perhaps of most personal concern to me, Ratzinger is an enemy of education. Quite apart from the lifelong psychological damage caused by the guilt and fear that have made Catholic education infamous throughout the world, he and his church foster the educationally pernicious doctrine that evidence is a less reliable basis for belief than faith, tradition, revelation, and authority. His authority.

The South and God

I had forgotten how religious this place is.  I can’t tell if people here are genuinely more into religion or if they just like to talk about it more.  I have had religiousish conversations with far too many people today.  I will say this though, none of them have been at all horrible to me when I am outed as an atheist, so I feel like that’s good.

I went to an atheist meetup group here and I have learned that there are several atheists who go to the Unitarian Universalist church in town.  Now, I appreciate the need for community, and being someone just moving to a new place where I don’t really know anyone, I can see the appeal.  I am however completely wary of any place that’s churchy and it seems like the UUs are really open-minded to the point that their brains will fall out.  I’m not good about not being critical of beliefs I find… we’ll go with wacky at best.

I did listen to the most recent sermon of the guy who is the head priest thing at the local UU and it was about Religious Humanism, which is sort of like a slightly less interesting Secular Humanism.  Why can’t someone be both religious and a Secular Humanist?  (Aside from the fact that most religions have tenets that are cruel).  I am intrigued, I plan on going some time with my mom, since she’s also curious, though she’s coming at it from the opposite (ie already religious) perspective.

I realized today that one of my biggest problems with Christianity is the fact that it takes away the morality of your choices.  Your beliefs all come from somewhere else, you never have to think about what is or isn’t moral.  Gay people are awful because the bible says so, and you never ever have to question that belief because if you questioned it, your entire belief structure would come crashing down on you and it’s just so much easier to not confront the idea. Women can’t be pastors because the Bible is pretty clear on the fact that women just aren’t as good as men.  Slavery is OK, but let’s not talk about that.

People talk about how difficult it is to be an atheist, to be an outcast and different and not have the consolation of knowing that you go to heaven when you die, but the part that’s the hardest work is probably having to think through your own morality.  It’s also the best part.  My morality comes from trying to do right by other people, not from fear of hellfire.  I find letting god shoulder all the responsibility of your morality to be lazy and more than a little immoral.  “Because the bible says so” seems to me to be the most morally bankrupt and intellectually lazy thing someone could possibly believe.

Why do atheists always have to mock religion?

I was asked this question, sincerely, by a relatively new convert to fundie christianity who had been, throughout the evening, talking an awful lot about church and god and such.  I had gotten bored of that and, over the course of about 10 seconds, referred to the xtian god as an invisible friend, sky daddy, and had finally gone too far by calling Mohammed “Mo”.

He lashed out, very frustrated that I didn’t take the religion thing very seriously, after all I took atheism seriously, right?

I mock religion for the same reason I mock Twilight, though at least Twilight fans generally have the good sense to realize that the book they obsess over is fiction.  It’s very difficult not to make fun of someone with bad taste or who believes something that is obviously very silly, especially when the undertone of your every day life is that there’s something wrong with you for not believing.  And sometimes it’s just fun to make fun of something that is a sacred cow, because why on earth should I have to respect your sacred cows?  I just don’t see why I have to respect your belief that you’re better than everyone else because an invisible man in the sky wrote it down in a self-contradicting book.

I said it was the same as making fun of an adult who still believed in Santa Claus, but he claimed he wouldn’t do that.  I don’t really think the average believer wouldn’t mock someone who believed in Santa at the age of 30, and as believers don’t refrain from mocking other belief systems, I’m going to feel pretty safe in that assumption.

Religion makes factual claims about the physical world, and to be a fundamentalist of any stripe requires ceding your thought process over to something that is demonstrably false.  If you’re going to be a touchy-feely deistic type of believer who doesn’t fund the evil things religion does, then fine, but don’t ask me to respect you for brainwashing children, destroying civil rights, and being responsible for the creation of Christian Rock.

I’m not sure to what degree the average religious believer is willing to “take responsibility” for the religious doctrines they believe, the religious institutions they are members of and support financially, or the religious leaders they follow and thereby give power and authority to. I can’t begin to count how often I’ve seen religious believers disparage civil rights protections for gays on the argument that homosexuality is “chosen” without recognizing that religion is far more like a “chosen” set of behaviors than it is like an inherent characteristic like race or sex.

People say they adopt certain moral positions because it’s what their god wants and thus disclaim any responsibility for either the moral position or any of its consequences. People vote in certain ways because of what religious leaders tell them about the meaning of scripture and/or the will of their god and thus try to avoid personal responsibility for what the government does in their name.