Friday, January 27, 2012

Atheist Churches: I've Been to One.

The proposal to build an 'Atheist Temple' in the center of London has roused more controversy among the atheist community than any other issue before. Richard Dawkins immediately respondet that the money could be better put to better use. PZ Myers has already sneered at the very thought of something like that some time ago.

Meanwhile in the town of Düsseldorf, Germany, a kind of church service for atheists already exists. And it thrives. The semi-regular series of events is entitled "Aufklärungsdienst"; a play on words: derived from the german word for religious mass, "Gottesdienst" (which literally translates to "god's service"), and "Aufklärung", the German name of the historic period of the Enlightenment. Since its conception in 2009 it's been a huge success. The Düsseldorfer Aufklärungsdienst (DA) aims to pick up where the Enlightenment of the 16th century left, eroding away the dominance of religion by offering a better alternative: Humanism.

We want to be a counterpart to religious service, but at the same time we don't want to be a dry gathering of intellectuals.
Nonreligious people account for over 45% of Düsseldorf's population, but the influence of the churches on public affairs is growing. With the Aufklärungsdienst, Ricarda Hinz and her co-thinkers want to offer a forum for those without religion, help them find an identity away from faith and superstition.

Most of the atheists who oppose the idea of churches of non-belief cringe at the idea of secular ritual. I'm not quite sure what the critics imagine such a ritual might look like - perhaps herds of people unthinkingly repeating statements like "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" in a slow chorus and with an air of solemnity (in which case I could actually understand their aversion) - but allow me to give you a more realistic impression of what it was like:

As the lights slowly dim, the band starts playing - an interpretation of John Lenon's Imagine. While the music plays, the event coordinators walk slowly down the aisle. Ricarda Hinz is leading, solemnly carrying the event's mascot on a velvet cussion. It's a golden plumber.

The plumber gets signed by the speaker and the musicians at the end of the evening, and then is sold for €100 or the highest bid. "The plumber is our saviour", explains Ricarda. "One hundred euro covers the room's rent for the evening, so the plumber has the power to release us from our financial burden."
This tongue-in-cheek-attitude is what sets the Aufklärungsdienst apart from all other secular events I've witnessed. It's not just intelectually stimulating, it's fun. There are no grave discussions of the seriousness of our societal situation, there is no frustration at the forlornness of the never-ending fight against ignorance and superstition, there is no dry lecture on the sociology of religion.

Instead there is information presented in an entertaining way, and perhaps more importantly a sense of community is offered to a group of people who often feel like outcasts in a society that is permeated with religion on every level.
The evenings are not fun and games devoid of intellectual content either; the main component is still of informational nature. Besides the main speaker, there may be secondary speakers or secular entertainers of various kinds (My personal highlight was a reading from the "rhyme bible", a revised and annotated lyrical version of the creation story). As I already mentioned, the entire thing is accompanied musically. The bands differ, but the first song they play is always 'Imagine'. Snacks are provided, and you get to stick around for a lively discussion afterwards.
Rather than just some scientist holding a boring lecture accompanied by nothing but his poor powerpoint-skills, the presentations are a collaboration of the speaker and various secular artists. Even a lecture on a topic as dry as church finances becomes exiting and even hilarious when it is illustrated by caricatures from a great cartoonist, such as local icon Jaques Tilly.
The Aufklärungsdienst has just more to offer than your average freethinker's pub meeting. The events are intelectually stimulating entertainment; they are information coupled with community-building; they serve as a hub for networking among freethinkers.

Finally, for rationality to compete with religion on the marketplace of ideas, to transform society towards a culture of compassion, tolerance and reason, it takes more than presenting ourselves as merely not them. To make an impact we need numbers, and temples and services to celebrate Humanism might be just the right thing to finally let the public know about all the riches our philosophy has to offer.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Gov takes down Megaupload, Hackers Retalliate

In an international crackdown, over 20 homes around the world were searched, and four people associated with were arrested in New Zealand. Only a few minutes later, several websites of government agencies as well as large the sites of some of the largest movie and music companies were taken down by hackers.

In response to today’s federal raid on the file sharing service Megaupload, hackers with the online collective Anonymous have broken the websites for the FBI, Department of Justice, Universal Music Group, RIAA, Motion Picture Association of America and Warner Music Group.

Read the full story here.


Did anyone else feel reminded of this?

Monday, January 16, 2012

On Prejudice & Tolerance (Smile)

Back in my gap-year, when I was travelling around Australia, I had an interesting encounter in the town of Broome. The Hostel I was staying at had a Bar downstairs, which was open to the public and frequently visited by the locals. I don't remember exactly how the conversation started, but one night I found myself talking to one of them. Even though the guy was friendly enough, he was kinda scary-looking: He weighed a good 120 kg and though he did have a proud belly, not much of those 120 kg was fat. He also had no hair and a bull neck, giving him a somewhat aggressive appearance. Most unsettling, though, was that he had apparently lost an eye. The odd thing was that while I was talking to him, I couldn't tell which of the two was the glass eye. So without me wanting to, my gaze kept flicking from one eye to the other, trying to figure out which one was looking back at me. Very distracting. It wasn't that his disability made me especially uncomfortable, it is just that I like to return people's gaze when they're talking to me, and looking a guy into an eye that is essentially not there is just like staring a non-disabled person at the ear when talking to them. It wasn't all that much of a big deal, I just felt it'd be more polite to return his gaze, rather than to stare at the side of his face incapable of returning mine.
At some point, we talked about Martial Arts. My visa was about to run out, and I mentioned that I considered going to Thailand next, to spend the rest of my time improving my kick-boxing skills - an idea that I had been toying with for some time. It turned out that he had done that in his twenties, and had brought back a wealth of stories from that experience that he didn't mind sharing. It was a very interesting conversation, but as I already said, his eye kept distracting me. At some point I interrupted him and simply asked him about it. I don't remember how exactly I phrased it, but I asked straight-forward, without much of a fuss, in a simple "sorry this keeps distracting me, would you mind just satisfying my curiosity so this is out of the way and we can move on?" -kind of way.
His reaction was somewhat unexpected: Not only did he not mind my question, he was positively delighted that I had asked. His face lit up, and before giving me an answer, he launched into a 10-minute-speech on how awesome it was that I had asked, how so many people were obviously confused but didn't "have the balls" to simply ask, and how great it would be if people were more open about their obvious insecurity instead of trying so desperately to pretend that the whole issue didn't exist.

Because physical disability is an issue. In this case, there was insecurity on my part, and I knew it showed. Asking a straight-forward question was the obvious way to deal with it, so I could focus on our conversation again. Which is exactly what we did. His eye wasn't mentioned again, I was more at ease, and although I usually am a rather nosy person, I didn't even ask how he'd lost it. Not because I didn't want to know or was afraid to ask, but simply because it didn't matter and our shared passion for Martial Arts was the more interesting topic at hand.

Pretending problems don't exist is something that never helps. And in cases where the Problem can be solved by asking one simple question in a polite manner, it is downright stupid not to do so. When you've never had any contact with disabled people before, your insecurity is perfectly normal and understandable, especially when you're faced with a particularly disfiguring disability. Trying to hide it does not work; nobody is that good an actor. What's more: Trying to hide it is dishonest. By trying to ignore the disability you imply that it is something that ought to be ignored, you're placing the whole issue under taboo, risking to trigger insecurity in the disabled person aswell. They will notice your insecurity anyhow, but what they won't know is whether your insecurity is rooted in disgust, pity, or simple lack of experience.
Simply acknowledging the issue and addressing it clears the table. Whatever they may think of your ignorance, they will at least know that your insecurity is not rooted in disgust or pity, plus you've demonstrated a genuine interest and willingness to be as understanding as possible.

In my (admittedly limited) personal experience this approach of a simple admission of ignorance plus demonstration of openness seldom (if ever) fails. The one thing you should make sure is to give the other a clear chance to say "I don't want to talk about it", in case you encounter somebody who, for whatever reason, really is touchy or just tired of the subject. Adding a simple preamble like "If you don't mind me asking..." should do the trick.

The same applies to other situations: It holds true for conversations with anybody who makes you feel insecure for whatever reason. Be it the disabled, gays, blacks, or the heavily tattooed. (Or Gingers. Gingers are scary.) It is not a shame to be discomforted by something you've never encountered before. Wariness of anything alien is evolutionary hard-wired into any living creature, for good reason. Being open-minded does not mean being perfectly free of prejudice - It means to recognize your own prejudice for what they are, and give anybody a genuine chance of proving them wrong. That is the very definition of our much-preached "tolerance" as it ought to be practiced.

Another thing I feel compelled to comment on: Staring. Most of us are told quite early in our lives that "it's rude to stare", which I don't think is true. I think what most people resent when being stared at is not the stare as such, but their own conception of what is going on in your head when you stare at them, the implications of that stare. Looking at a person isn't hurtful in itself - the implied pity or disgust such a look can convey however, is very much so.

So the next time you find yourself in a public place unable to turn your eyes away from a stranger's disfiguration, and that person suddenly moves to return your gaze, do not hurriedly look away.
Do not give them a look of pity, either.

Just smile.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Open Letter to Moderate Believers

It's a common argument in discussions about faith: The atheist will bring up the atrocities committed in the names of the various religions, be it the inquisition, various genocides, wars or the burning of heretics. The believer will then fire back with naming famous "atheist murderers": Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot. The obvious flaw here is of course that religious atrocities are indeed committed "in the name of the Lord" or "for the glory of God", while Stalin committed his murders in the name of what he was fond of calling "scientific socialism", not in the name of reason, compassion and critical thinking.
Some believers have realized this and now subtly go about the other way, by saying "I don't lump you with atheists like Stalin and Mao, so don't lump me with other murderers simply because they believe in the same stuff as I do."
This has happened to me today when commenting on a christian blog; somebody telling me that lumping christians together with muslims would be as unfair as lumping all atheists together with said genocidal maniacs. That inspired me to pen a few words addressed at all religious moderates out there, who feel treated unfairly when being lumped together with "those extremists":

The funny thing about the term “atheism” is that it's a non-label. It’s negatively defined as “not being theist”. Unlike its counter part, "theist", it has little descriptive use. If you take a comparative look at me and Stalin, you will not find a single positive thing we share. Of course, we might both have hair that is not black, we might both not believe in astrology, we might both dislike horses and so on. But you won’t find much similarities that go beyond what we both not share with another.
When I look at christians and muslims though, I can easily find a lot of important and positive similarities. Just to name a few:
Both believe that there is a diety that cares about what humans do, especially about what humans do while naked. Both believe that there is a book that carries divine authority to some degree and that conveys the will of a god which, by definition, is universally true for all humankind. Both believe in an afterlife; Both believe that god can hear prayers, and a majority even believe that he answers them. Both believe in the concept of sin and atonement, and both believe in the existence of prophets with a direct link to the beyond.

And I could go on. The point is, the similarities that you can find between me and Stalin are none which are of any consequence for our respective behaviour. Our common non-belief does not lead to similar actions. The similarities I find between christians and muslims, however, do lead to similar behaviours, such as the suppression of women and the opposition to gay rights and abortions. I am aware that there are some very important differences between Christianity and Islam, and I do not deny that. However, for the point I am making those differences are irrelevant.

What is relevant is the belief in some sort of divine authority that is attributed to ancient texts that are barbaric, homophobic and patriarchical. There is a varying degree among believers as to how seriously these texts are taken, but all believers take them to be something more than fiction, and that is the key point.
So yes, I am justified in lumping together huge groups that are largely different for the sake of that argument, because they do share the relevant beliefs, and do exhibit the behaviour that I take offense at as a direct result of those beliefs.

You might well be a liberal person with modern, rational views – and still be religious. But the fact remains that the bible, among many other horrific things, does say that homosexuality is “an abomination” (Lev. 18:22 is perhaps the most famous of the many, many examples). And it doesn’t matter wether or not you personally view that as metaphoric or not relevant to your belief, because as long as the bible is viewed as having divine authority to some degree, any fundamentalist coming along will always have the power to revive the potential for barbaric hatred simply by saying “Look, you haven’t been paying attention. Right here, it says black on white that women mustn’t speak in church. That adultery is to be punished with death. That homosexuality is a sin. That sacrificing your son because you're hearing voices in your head is a good thing. This is the perfect word of our divine creator, and it says so right here.”

As much as those “interpretations” of scripture have become very, very rare in christianity today, they are still possible as long as the bible and the Qur'an are viewed as something more than just old books. As long as there are people like you proclaiming that some god, however liberal and modern in his views and demands, is real, it is you who invest fundamentalists with the power to revive the ancient potential for hatred that sleeps in those texts.

That is something that can never be said of my particular brand of atheism, Humanism. My views do not hold the potential to be abused in that way, they do not hold the potential to do anything but improve the human condition. They can be abolished at best, but they cannot be used or misconstrued to do evil. Yours can. Think about that.

My Tattooed Ode to Reason

I love tattoos. I plan to be covered head to toe at some point in the future, though I'm in no particular hurry to get there. Over the past few weeks, I've become aware of an increasing number of atheist-themed tattoos out there. A quick google search for "atheist tattoo" reveals most of them as rather unimaginative: Various versions of the letter "A" prevail, some more clever ones include pictures of the flying spaghetti monster or the invisible pink unicorn. In between there is the occasional tattoo depicting the desecration of various religious symbols - rather tasteless if you ask me. Also I find it kinda weird to go through such lengths to ostentatiously demonstrate the non-identification with a single particular idea. If I were to get a tattoo about each and every topic I strongly disagree with, I'd run out of skin by the end of the week.
Personally, I derive far greater enjoyment of more positive tattoo motives: All those nerdy scientists, for example, who choose to express their love for their respective fields by displays on their skin.

Of the ideologically motivated tattoos, one in particular caught my attention:
The CEO of the British Humanist Association got a tattoo of the Happy Human - the internationally recognized symbol for Humanism - tattooed on her upper arm as part of a fundraising effort. They aimed for 20.000 pounds, any sum beyond that goal would increase the size of the tattoo she got.
I like that a lot better than depictions of a broken cross in a garbage bin. I also like it better than the rather boring "Scarlet A"-logo. What I did not like about the story was the realization that, had I read that story when it was still news, I could have copied the fundraising-idea when I got my own Happy Human tattoo in June 2009:
I love the Happy Human logo. Happiness and People are all what Humanism is about, and the symbol captures that nicely while being a simple, adaptable, and beautiful form.

The other tattoo I'd like to show you is both a little more complex and a lot larger; The motive is an 18th century etching done by a spanish artist called Goya. It goes by the lovely title 'The Sleep of Reason Brings Forth Monsters'. Here it is, in all its considerable beauty:

The Original 'Sleep of Reason'The Tattooed Version
Above all, I chose this because I simply admire the picture. It's a masterpiece. I don't care much for what else I've seen of Goya's works, but this one has always resonated with me. The combination of the lyrical title with the rather dark motive I have always found fascinating, in particular the little details like how the cross-eyed staring of the ghostly animals conveys an atmosphere of insanity that is outright scary.

Another reason, of course, is the message. As I have written before, the simple absence of religion is not sufficient to really improve anything. "Good" requires more than just the absence of "bad". Goya nailed it (see what I did there?) when he wrote that the sleep of reason is what produces monsters. There are thousands of people out there who believe in god and live perfectly benign lives, not obstructing stem cell research, not shooting abortion doctors, nor trying to corrupt the science curriculum by demanding that biblical creation be taught in our kids' schools. Religion is merely a multiplying factor, not the danger itself. What we need is not so much less religion - it is more reason.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

What American Atheists Can Learn From Europe

In Europe, fundamentalism is rare. Not as rare as I’d like it to be, but still rare. Biblical literalists are laughed at. The fight against fundamentalism, one might argue, is already won over here.
Except that it isn’t. People are still irrational – they’ve largely turned from religion, but only to find pseudo-science and “spirituality”: horoscopes, homeopathy, traditional chinese medicine, weird forms of supposed "buddhism" tailored to the needs of those who are middle-aged, well-off and bored, and a wide selection of other new-age-hippie-shit. The majority of people here might be non-religious, but they're still far from being critical thinkers. Many still actively fight what they perceive as the "cold" naturalistic worldview, which they perceive as lacking in beauty and mystery.

Even though religion has largely been recognized as out-dated, people still need some values, some ideals to live their lives by. While religion slowly degenerates, it does seem to leave a gap. Religion has been (successfully) brought to its knees, but no viable alternative was presented to the people. Humanism has failed to step up and fill the void, failed to catch the attention of those who are looking for an alternative, who still seek ritual, celebration, community.

Our culture is distinctly influenced by the Enlightenment, but there is no formal acknowledgement of the values that are the basis of nearly all western constitutions and legal systems. Now that is a mistake that need not be repeated in the US – here we still have the chance. Fighting against religion is not enough, because people who stop being religious do not by default become reasonable - They just substitute one superstition for another. To win the fight, we do not only need to make people turn away from fundamentalism, but towards a culture of ethics, art and science - of compassion, tolerance and reason.