The (Non-) Educated Atheist

There’s been quite a lot of talk about diversity and such in the atheism movement.  We’re looking for ways to ensure atheists as a whole aren’t represented exclusively by old white men, that women and minorities and young folk get their place at the table. JT Eberhard, he of Secular Student Alliance fame, is worried we left a category out:

I feel as though the ideal atheist, as it is portrayed at present, has four PhDs including one in Everythingology.  This can be a problem in that it isolates the people not awash in higher education and makes them feel as though they do not belong in the folds of activist non-theism.  We must to find a way to really drive home the point that intelligence can be found at any level of education, and that hard work and clever organizing are just as effective contributions to the atheist cause as scientific discovery or writing 50 books.  This message must resonate if our campaign is to be welcoming to every non-believer.

Maybe I haven’t been palling around with atheists enough, but I haven’t felt particularly left out as one of those “not awash in higher education” folk.  When I go to events (which is, admittedly, not often – I’m not a big event person), my brains get due respect.  No one seems to care that I haven’t got degrees oozing from every orifice.  I’m curious and clever and an atheist, and that’s been enough.  I get folded right in to discussions about everything, make my contribution or two, and am easily part of the group.  So, no problem on that front.

Is there really a bar to becoming an activist atheist if one hasn’t got a higher education?  I haven’t sensed it.  But then, I’m not inclined to appear on panels, do debates, or organize stuff.  Maybe there’s a hurdle I haven’t seen because I’ve never tried that particular course.  But I haven’t felt intimidated out of trying, either. 

Let me just speak to the folks who might feel that way, who think because they’re working a dead-end job and have at best a course or two at a community college under their belt that they’re somehow inferior to those famous atheists with their fancy-schmancy degrees and their book deals and their wildly popular blogs, who think they could never run in such exalted company.  If those folks exist, I have one word to say to them: bullshit.

Look at me.  I’m a call center phone jockey.  I walk people through resetting their cell phones and fill in little forms reporting network outages for a living.  Before that, I let people bitch at me about their credit card late fees; before that, I took orders for business forms, and before that, I sold books.  That’s all I’ve ever been, professionally, a customer service servant.  I have a GED, not a diploma, and my adventures in higher education began at a community college and ended when I realized that I was working alongside people with the same degree I was aiming for, and the only difference between us was that I didn’t have a shit-ton of student loans to pay off.  I took two (count ’em, 2) hard science courses in college and never ever completed a math course. 

Do you think that’s stopped me from running with the big dogs?  Don’t make me laugh.  Nearly everything I know about geology is self-taught, and yet the geoblogosphere adopted me as one of their own.  I couldn’t even dissect a damned earthworm in high school biology, but after hanging around at Pharyngula for so long and reading so many books on the subject, I can at least nod in the right places when the professionals get to talking.  Lack of formal education has never stopped me from educating myself, writing about science, or holding my own in rooms full of wildly intelligent people.

If I wanted to become a full-on activist, nothing would stop me.  You don’t need a degree to debate: you need information and a quick mind, and you can acquire and hone those on your own.  You don’t need a degree in community organizing to organize a community: you need people skills and some talent at, y’know, organizing things.  You want to be a speaker, then speak.  You don’t need a Dr. before your name to have something worth saying.

Myself, I want to be a writer when I grow up.  I learned a long time ago I don’t need an MFA or PhD for that.  Louis L’Amour dropped out of school as a young teen and went on to publish about a gazillion books, many of which, despite what PZ thinks, are quite good.  Ditto Dick Francis.  There are many other famous writers who made it without a degree, much less a diploma.  You know what you need to be a great writer?  Curiosity, passion, and the willingness to educate your own damn self.  A way with words helps, but can be developed with the liberal application of blood, tears, toil and sweat. 

Let me repeat these essential traits: curiosity, passion, and the willingness to educate your own damn self.  Have you got those things?  Good.  Are you willing to work yourself to death, or nearly so, to achieve a goal?  Excellent.  Do you have some sort of native talent, whether it be wit, a strange ability to herd cats, or mad time management skillz?  Superb.  You, my friend, can become an activist, if that’s what you want.  You, yes, you, can run with the big dogs.  The only thing that can stop you is you.  Yes, you.  You and your little, “But I’m not good enough/smart enough/hauling around enough degrees” defeatist voice.  You and your humility-to-the-point-of-humiliation.  You and your reluctance to stride up and take your place at the table.

You haven’t got a degree to wave around, so you might have to find another way to prove yourself.  Fine.  Do it.  Demonstrate a skill.  I haven’t yet run into an atheist who’s demanded to see my credentials before hearing me out.  I’ve never yet been shunned at a gathering because I haven’t got a shiny university education.  No one turns up their noses and turns away when I mention I’m the least-educated person present. Those highly-educated folk aren’t going to slam the door in your face when you show up, and if one or two misguided outliers tries that trick on you, you’ve got a foot.  Wedge the damned door open.

You have a particular skill set you can bring.  Bring it.  Like JT says, “So long as you are passionate about the cause, so long as you work, you can be a leader in this movement.  Our roles may be different from that of Sam Harris, but they are no less necessary.”

You don’t believe in God, which is why you’re an atheist, but there’s one thing you should absolutely believe in: yourself.  You don’t need a formal education to prove your worth.  Find things you’re good at and do them.  That’s all.  That’s all you need.  Movements are built on all sorts of people doing necessary things.  You can do necessary things.  That makes you an essential part of this movement.  You, even you, Mr. or Ms. Dead-End Job, can help make humanity better.

Are you really going to let a dearth of degrees stop you?

Maryam Namazie on the Islamic Inquisition

I’m sending you all away.  For one thing, I’m busy and woefully short of advance posts.  But most importantly, there’s something I think you need to read.

It’s Maryam Namazie’s speech at the World Atheist Conference.  You really should read it in its entirety.  But I’ll put an excerpt here, because I believe this bit needs to be understood clearly by all of us:

Nowhere is opposition greater against Islamism than in countries under Islamic rule.

Condemning Islamism and Islam is not a question of judging all Muslims and equating them with terrorists.

There is a distinction between Islam as a belief system and Islamism as a political movement on the one hand and real live human beings on the other. Neither the far-Right nor the pro-Islamist Left seem to see this distinction.

Both are intrinsically racist. The pro-Islamist Left (and many liberals) imply that people are one and the same with the Islamic states and movement that are repressing them. The far-Right blames all immigrants and Muslims for the crimes of Islamism.

[It is important to note here that Islamism was actually brought to centre stage during the Cold War as part of US foreign policy in order to create a ‘green’ Islamic belt surrounding the Soviet Union and not concocted in some immigrant’s kitchen in London; moreover many of the Islamists in Britain are actually British-born thanks to the government’s policies of multiculturalism and appeasement.]

Both the far-Right and pro-Islamist Left purport that Islamism is people’s culture and that they actually deserve no better, imputing on innumerable people the most reactionary elements of culture and religion, which is that of the ruling class, parasitical imams and self-appointed ‘community leaders’.

Their politics ignores the distinction between the oppressed and oppressor and actually sees them as one and the same. It denies universalism, sees rights as ‘western,’ and justifies the suppression of rights, freedoms and equality for the ‘other.’

Civil rights, freedom and equality, secularism, modernism, are universal concepts that have been fought for by progressive social movements and the working class in various countries.

As a result of such politics, concepts such as rights, equality, respect and tolerance, which were initially raised vis-à-vis the individual, are now more and more applicable to culture and religion and often take precedence over real live human beings.

Moreover, the social inclusion of people into society has come to solely mean the inclusion of their beliefs, sensibilities, concerns and agendas (read Islamism’s beliefs, sensibilities, concerns and agendas) and nothing more.

The distinction between humans and their beliefs and regressive political movements is of crucial significance here.

It is the human being who is meant to be equal not his or her beliefs. It is the human being who is worthy of the highest respect and rights not his or her beliefs or those imputed on them.

It is the human being who is sacred not beliefs or religion.

The problem is that religion sees things the other way around.

And she quotes from Mansoor Hekmat at the end:

“Moreover, in my opinion, defending the existence of Islam under the guise of respect for people’s beliefs is hypocritical and lacks credence. There are various beliefs amongst people. The question is not about respecting people’s beliefs but about which are worthy of respect. In any case, no matter what anyone says, everyone is choosing beliefs that are to their liking. Those who reject a criticism of Islam under the guise of respecting people’s beliefs are only expressing their own political and moral preferences, full stop. They choose Islam as a belief worthy of respect and package their own beliefs as the ‘people’s beliefs’ only in order to provide ‘populist’ legitimisation for their own choices. I will not respect any superstition or the suppression of rights, even if all the people of the world do so. Of course I know it is the right of all to believe in whatever they want. But there is a fundamental difference between respecting the freedom of opinion of individuals and respecting the opinions they hold. We are not sitting in judgement of the world; we are players and participants in it. Each of us are party to this historical, worldwide struggle, which in my opinion, from the beginning of time until now has been over the freedom and equality of human beings…”  (Mansoor Hekmat, Islam and De-Islamisation,January 1999)

Remember these things, because they’re important.  You need to remember them when charges of racism and cultural imperialism get thrown your way by people who would prefer you not criticize their faith.  Do not let people stop the conversation.

Got that?  Good.  Now go finish the speech.

The Morality of Religion: If This Is Morality, I’d Rather Be Immoral

I’ve been planning a set of posts on atheism and morality for some time now, but kept kicking the can down the road because I’ve had easier things to write about.  I’m still busier than a one-legged woman in an arse-kicking competition, but it’s time to open me gob on the whole subject.  Consider this the prelude.

There’s this perception among too many people that being religious automatically equals being moral.  Do yourself an experiment: hit random people up with a scenario.  They’re on a jury, and have to decide who is the most convincing character witness for the accused.  Would they place more weight on the testimony of an atheist or a pastor?  Based on how atheists are viewed in other surveys, I’d be willing to be the vast majority of the public would plump for the pastor.

They shouldn’t.

Being religious doesn’t automatically make you moral.  We’ll explore that in some depth in upcoming posts.  But for now, I just want to present a case study.  This is what one of the big theological thinkers had to say about genocide, infanticide, et al:

By setting such strong, harsh dichotomies God taught Israel that any assimilation to pagan idolatry is intolerable.  It was His way of preserving Israel’s spiritual health and posterity.  God knew that if these Canaanite children were allowed to live, they would spell the undoing of Israel.  The killing of the Canaanite children not only served to prevent assimilation to Canaanite identity but also served as a shattering, tangible illustration of Israel’s being set exclusively apart for God. 
Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation.  We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy.  Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.
So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites?  Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement.  Not the children, for they inherit eternal life.  So who is wronged?  Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli[sic] soldiers themselves.  Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli [sic] soldiers is disturbing.

This comes only after William Lane Craig claims God “has no moral duties to fulfill.”  And an enormously long passage of nonsense that snipes at Richard Dawkins apropos of nothing, presents one of the lamest “logical” arguments for God’s existence ever put forth by someone who purportedly possesses a functioning brain, and then childishly claims atheists have proven God exists if they say the God of the Old Testament did something morally reprehensible in commanding the Israelites to slaughter every man, woman and child in Canaan.  William Lane Craig has proven my (and my Christian best friend’s) point that too much prayer completely rots a person’s brain.

Now, better thinkers than me have given William Lane Craig’s reprehensible “reasoning” the disrespect it deserves.  Greta Christina sums up his argument succinctly and without all of the flowers and frills that might make it look attractive to someone trying to reconcile the violent, jealous fuck of a rat bastard deity evident in the Old Testament with the loving, compassionate God they think exists:

And he said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to kill pretty much anybody. It’s okay to kill bad people, because they’re bad and they deserve it… and it’s okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said — not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words — “the death of these children was actually their salvation.”

That’s what he’s saying.  And the reason why he’s saying it is because the Bible is supposed to be inerrant, and God is supposed to be good, ergo there must be some reason why God can order genocide without being placed in the same category as Hitler, Pol Pot, and Milošević, among other homicidal maniacs of history, and still be considered anything approaching good, much less perfectly good.

If you are an honest person, this is impossible.  If you’re a lying fucktard or a believer desperate to believe, then you come up with this ridiculous shit.  And then you go on to feel sorry for the poor, pathetic killers:

Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children?  The brutalizing effect on these Israeli [sic] soldiers is disturbing.

PZ responds:

No. No, I can’t imagine that. I can imagine parts of it: I can imagine a long, heavy piece of sharp metal in my hands. I can imagine a frightened, unarmed woman in front of me, trying to shelter her children. The part I can’t imagine, the stuff I’m having real trouble with, is imagining voluntarily raising my hand and hacking them to death. I have a choice in that situation, and I know myself well enough that if have to choose between killing people and letting them live, I’d let them live, not that it would be a difficult decision at all. I also have no illusion that, in this imaginary situation where I have all the power and my ‘enemies’ are weak and helpless, I am the one who is being wronged.

That’s the morality of an atheist, as opposed to the morality of a Christian theologian.  Which do you believe is the more moral?

Really, what it comes down to for believers is this question: is the kind of God who would tell you to pick up a weapon and hack a baby to death because that infant would supposedly cause you to turn away from God if allowed to grow up really a God worth worshiping?  Do you have a moral obligation to obey such an order?  Will you be able to salve your conscience by saying, “I was just following orders?”

Can you trust the “morality” that emerges from such a deity?  How?

Eric MacDonald is right: “Cruelty does not become something else, just because it is imagined to be the command of a god.”  And if you have to perform such contortions, if you have to twist morality until it breaks and bleeds to get it to fit your concept of a loving, good god, then you’re following the wrong damned god.  And you are destroying your own moral foundation in the process.

I’d like to finish out this post with another bit from Greta Christina’s post (although I suggest you read it in its entirety):

See, here’s the thing. When faced with horrors in our past — our personal history, or our human history — non-believers don’t have any need to defend them. When non-believers look at a human history full of genocide, infanticide, slavery, forced marriage, etc. etc. etc., we’re entirely free to say, “Damn. That was terrible. That was some seriously screwed-up shit we did. We were wrong to do that. Let’s not ever do that again.”
But for people who believe in a holy book, it’s not that simple. When faced with horrors in their religion’s history — horrors that their holy book defends, and even praises — believers have to do one of two things. They have to either a) cherry-pick the bits they like and ignore the bits they don’t; or b) come up with contorted rationalizations for why the most blatant, grotesque, black-and-white evil really isn’t all that bad.

William Lane Craig plumped for option b.  Too many believers do.  And the results are horrifying.  Far too much evil gets done because people believe God is on their side.

 As Blaise Pascal said, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

I’ve seen religious morality.  If that’s what morality actually is, I’d rather be immoral.

It’s the Apocalypse, Isn’t It?

Sorry, but under the circumstances, Los Links shall have to wait until tomorrow.  Allow me to ‘splain.  Or sum up.  After all, it’s the apocalypse, and we haven’t got much time.

The Gnus among you are probably already aware of Chris Mooney and his history of, how to put it nicely, being an utter fucktard when it comes to all matters framing and his habit of so rabidly hating the Gnus that he happily falls head-over-heels for lying, sockpuppeting sociopaths who tell him what he wants to hear.  And then spends most of his time deleting comments on his blog that a) would’ve shattered his dream or b) were the least bit critical of him.  And when forced to admit he’s a dupe, snivels he couldn’t possibly have known, even though all he had to do was listen to a few folks who were telling him that he’s a dupe.  And that coming after a long history of blacklisting people (yes, plural) and being an utter fucktard.  I’d already written him off after the Great Frame Wars of 2009; the Unscientific America debacle just put paid to the whole thing, because here we had a man who obviously couldn’t get a clue even when hit simultaneously by dozens of clue-by-fours, so by the time he’d got dicked by Tom Johnson, I’d been conditioned by his own actions to merely point and laugh when Chris Mooney appeared on the scene.

In fact, it took me years to unfreeze toward Sheril Kirshenbaum because she’d been so tainted by that whole affair.  Chris Mooney, though, never displayed any reason why I should give half a tug on a dead dog’s dick about a single thing he said.  He’d killed his credibility a dozen times over and done bugger-all to get it back.  If I clicked on an unknown link and ended up on one of his posts, I’d experience physical revulsion, compounded after reading a few paragraphs. It got to the point that I couldn’t stand to see his smarmy, smiling face, so I blocked him on Twitter just so his Colgate grin wouldn’t show up in retweets and put me off my grub.

(And for those who think I’m being too harsh, just click a small selection of the links above and tell me where the rat bastard’s ever proven himself trustworthy.  Criticism is fine, but deceit, blacklisting and endless whining, plus taking forever to make even a minor course-correction after being taken in by a con, all the while proclaiming Gnus the Enemy of All because they told him he can stick his framing where the sun don’t shine – no.)

This has been a rather long introduction to the apocalypse.  You see, not five minutes after I’d become so fed up with seeing Chris Mooney’s mug plastered all over my Twitter feed by the people who still, for reasons unknown to me, sometimes take him seriously, blocked his butt, here was this tweet from Bora:

I was waiting for this schism for years – Mooney leaving Nisbett behind: http://bit.ly/gvrmgW Good for Chris.

I couldn’t help myself.  A schism between Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum?  I had to see!  And, to my horror, I found myself cheering Chris Mooney on.  Because while I have no respect for Chris Mooney, I actively despise Matt Nisbett.  And Chris dispatches a particularly idiotic bit of Nisbettian dumbfuckery with aplomb.


Credit where it’s due and all.  I decided I’d grab it for Los Links.  Look, just because I think a man is a shit-for-brains doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a small spark of intelligence when it manifests.


But that is not why I believe it’s the apocalypse.  This is:

Psych Evidence that Supports New Atheism http://bit.ly/esNCVw Mooney is really on a roll today, isn’t he?

Oh, how that must have hurt him!  To have to admit, after so long kicking and screaming and howling that those evil, evil New Atheists would ruin absolutely everything ever, that he was actually not correct in this assumption.  Of course I had to click through to his bloody blog twice in one day.


You can tell it pains him.  He clings to his final remaining shred of plausible deniability, trying very hard to believe (without adequate evidence) that we are still icky and wrong, even though he was wrong:

In general, I believe what we know about human psychology runs contrary to the New Atheist approach and strategy. However, I do my best to follow the data, and here’s a study that suggest at least one aspect of their approach may work. The tactic finding support here is not necessarily being confrontational–that would tend to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility towards New Atheist arguments–but rather, making it more widely known that you’re actually there–as “out” atheists try to do…

Oh, Chris.  Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris.  Gather your crow recipes while ye may, because you shall be forced to eat a banquet’s worth of it one day, and you have proven today might be man enough to swallow it.  After, of course, kicking and screaming and refusing to do so for too many years, but still.  At least there’s the possibility you’ll hold your nose and do it.  Bravo, sir.  Bravo.

But, despite this minute concession, he still misses the point by a country mile.  We must be forgiving, he’s always had terrible aim.  But there’s the fact that, for a subset of people, being confrontational does go a long way toward snapping them out of religion.  I’m sure some clever dick (or vagina) will do a study someday – perhaps already have done, for all I know, considering I’m not as well-read in the psychological literature as I should be – and prove even to Chris’s satisfaction that he’s full of shit.  But even saying he’s not.  Let us be generous and grant him the conceit that shouting the truth at religious people without sparing their feelings never, ever works and only makes them dig their Sunday-shoed heels in.  He still misses the fucking point, even so.

Because, you see, New Atheism isn’t about bringing the true believers into the bright light of reason.  It’s about telling the damned truth without sugar-coating.  It’s about breaking the spell.  And you do not, cannot, do that by treating religion with respect and deference.  If you treat religion as a thing to be respected, you end up with religion still thinking it’s a thing that is entitled to respect.  And what does religion do when it and everyone around it believes it is entitled to respect?  It demands respect, it attempts to force itself on the masses, it insists all to bow and scrape to it, it bullies people and sullies science, science education, and secular government, and it basically runs around believing it owns the place.  Non-believers are treated as something nasty to be scraped off society’s shoe.  And people who don’t believe or don’t believe all that much end up silent and cowed, because no one has told them in no uncertain terms that religion deserves no such respect, is due no such deference, and moreover needs to be ushered firmly out of the public square. 

We have no problem with doing so politely, but if it kicks up a fuss, we reserve the right to boot it in the arse.  And religion has a distressing tendency to kick up fusses.  Ergo, we apply the judicious toe to the nether regions.

There’s also the bystander effect.  This atheist, for instance, would not be an out-and-proud atheist without the New Atheists.  I wouldn’t be here in love with science and defending it against fundie fuckwits if it weren’t for those evil, evil gnus.  I wouldn’t even have understood there was a problem.  So no, standing up and shouting in believers’ faces may not work directly on them all the time, but it sure as shit can be effective with people like me.

There’s room for gnus and for the softer, fluffier, make nicey-nice with the believers sorts in the battle to keep creationist hands off our science.  Nothing in the rules says we can’t use all of the tactics at our disposal.  And if the accommodationists would just stop sniping at gnus long enough, they might come to see the value in a good-cop-bad-cop strategy.

I will know that the apocalypse has truly come the day Chris Mooney realizes all that and apologizes for being such a massive shite to his fellow atheists.  Not holding my breath on that one.  I want to live.

But it’s nice to see him take the first step on the long road.  We’ll see how far he gets before he decides it’s too far to walk.

Two Posts on Religion Everyone Should Read

Back before I got so completely immersed in Doctor Who and the subsequent explosions of ideas that I haven’t had time for much else, I was spending quite a lot of time catching up on every post ever written by Eric MacDonald.  His blog, Choice in Dying, is one I can’t recommend highly enough for those who need a philosopher’s perspective on these thorny issues of religion, atheism, morality, and choices.  He reminds me a bit of Dan Dennett, one of our Four Horsemen.  All I can say is, someone had better saddle that man a horse, because we’ve got a fifth Horseman.

Two posts from January particularly caught my eye.  In one, Eric talks about the cost of religion:

I do not think the sums have been done. Religion is not a peaceful thing, despite all claims to the contrary. It has been protected, for centuries, just as Islam still protects its holiness, by threats of violence. The English Bible that, for all its glories, is sometimes pedestrian and dull, is regarded with special reverence, in large measure because it had to be fought for, and people died so that they could read the Bible in their own language.

And in this, about the social pathology of religion:

We are becoming so accustomed to religious oppression and pathology that we scarcely dare to talk openly about it, and to call it openly by its name. Governments and large press organisations do a clever soft-shoe shuffle around it every time it becomes too obvious to be simply ignored, but no one is saying that this religious idiocy should end, and that it is intolerable that religions should play this role in the world. It seems to be taken for granted that there is nothing that we can do to moderate these pathologies except to try to insulate them in ghettoes of religious belief, the result of which can only be a mosaic of intolerant communities intolerantly related. If Roman Catholic hospitals want to kill women by refusing them appropriate medical care, well, that is just a peculiar belief system which has nothing to do with the rest of society. And when Roman Catholics or Muslims band together to oppose the practice of contraception in a world bursting at the seams with people, well, that too is just a religious peculiarity, and we must learn to live with these things.

Eric, once an Anglican pastor, has a very clear view of the harm religion can do and does.  He doesn’t believe we have to live with it.  He doesn’t believe we should stay silent in the face of it, just to spare the feelings of believers or in the interests of a false social harmony.

I wish all of my friends who were still believers would read his blog, start to finish, and really think about what it is they’re doing, and what religion truly is.

Darwin Day Shenanigans

I dragged my intrepid companion out to the big Northwest Freethought Coalition’s Darwin Day bash on Sunday.  Neither one of us is much for large groups, but I never get to see the Seattle Skeptics – they’re always having meetings when I’m working.  Besides, festivities included a birthday cake and Phylum Pheud, so it seemed essential to go.

Loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it:

Charles Darwin his own self was scheduled to attend, but excused himself on account of being dead.  I felt he was there in spirit, however, his august countenance gazing benevolently down upon us from a corner of the room.

There was a massive spread of food.  People who believe only church groups know how to put on a good Sunday feed, take note: atheists and humanists have officially kicked your arses.  ZOMFSM.  It’s a good thing they had a break between the nosh and the cake, or I wouldn’t have had room. 

The organizers put on a panel discussion discussing the War on Evolution.  I’ll do a proper write-up of it when I’ve got more time.  I took notes and everything, just for you, my darlings.  For now, let me just say this: meeting Jen McCreight in the flesh was something akin to meeting PZ Myers for the first time, and all the more overwhelming because I hadn’t had a clue she’d be there.  She was on the panel.  Look!  I haz proof!

The other two are Bob and Geoff.  I didn’t get their last names because I’d been too busy finishing nosh to fish out me notebook in time, but I’m sure somebody somewhere will have that info, and when I do the proper post on the panel, I shall be able to tell you more than just, “These two are Bob and Geoff, and they are nearly as awesome as Jen.”

After the panel came cake.  We all sang Happy Birthday as it was brought out, of course.  Just because a man’s been dead for nearly 130 years doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sing Happy Birthday to him.  Or waste the excuse to have a really good cake.

Whist acquiring cake, I was able to actually speak with Jen McCreight for a moment!!!11!1!! – in a group with others, o’ course, but still.  We had two actual biologists and two bloggers who are science fanpeople.  It’s always good not to be the only layblogger in the group.  Although, thanks to you, my darlings, I am no longer so embarrassed by my layblogger status.  I’m not a scientist, but the fact I was adopted by the geobloggers means I do a decent job with the science blogging, and therefore, I can hold my head high even when standing right next to Jen McCreight.  (However, I am not a graduate student in genome sciences who started Boobquake, so I reserve the right to be a bit starstruck, mkay?)

Anyway.  Jen was pure teh awesome.  Now that she lives here, I hope to somehow lure her away from graduate studies long enough for a good chat, but I’m not sure how to lure a genome biologist.  If she were a geologist, I’d know just what to use: beer.  Does anyone here know the proper offering for a biologist?

The only thing that distracted me from Jen’s awesomeness was the microbiologist next to me, a very nice and engaging gentleman who tossed a bomb: he likes PZ Myers’s blogging, but doesn’t think PZ’s in-your-face call-stupid-what-it-is style is helpful.  Who’s convinced by someone getting up in their face and yelling at them?

And so, my darlings, I’m afraid I had to raise my hand and say, “Well, me, for one.”  I’ve only seen one other person look so astonished this week, and that was my coworker, who tried to toss me a test phone and ended up plonking me in the forehead with it. 

But yes, ’tis true.  Granted, I’d already given up on God by the time I ran across Pharyngula, but I still halfheartedly attempted to believe in Odin or perhaps Buddha or something spiritual, because I’d been told all my life that life didn’t mean nothing without faith.  The furthest I’d go is to call myself an agnostic, because only extremely unpleasant people were atheists, and you could NEVER EVER disrespect religion because religion was good, QED.  Sure, you could poke fun at fundamentalists (doesn’t everybody?).  But that’s where you should leave it.  And as for “other ways of knowing,” weren’t there a billion valid ones?  And as for science, it was a useful tool and very interesting but no replacement for spirituality, probably on account of NOMA.  And alternative medicine was just hunky dory.  My darlings, I still believed in Woo.  With a capital W.  Then along came PeeZee thundering onto my computer, spitting fire in defense of science, attacking weak and wobbly and credulous thinking without mercy, giving absolutely no quarter to religion, proclaiming himself a Proud Atheist, and wielding a rapier wit that cut deep indeed.

Most of the ideas I’d ever held dear, he called stupid.  Ridiculous.  Ignorant.  Dangerous, even.  But I didn’t feel he was attacking me, or my intelligence, only these ideas.  He was funny and fascinating and a good person.  He had moral values.  He cared for people.  Cared enough to spare no feelings.  Combine him with the fact that I’d just learned how concerted the creationist attack on evolution was, and my thinking changed very nearly overnight.  I’d been an idiot.  I’d thought I’d understood science, but I hadn’t; my thinking on religion had been hopelessly muddled; I’d been lying to myself; I’d fallen like a fool for foolish things.

So yes, the short, sharp shock sometimes works.  Mealy-mouthed accomodationism would have allowed me to go right on being fuzzy and fluffy and very crunchy indeed.  It wouldn’t have hooked me on science.  You see, PZ showed me how entirely awesome science, even biology with it’s squidgy bits, was.  He made me fall in love with it with a fierceness and passion I’d never before felt.  And science was under attack.  That shook me out of complacency.  It made me focus on science, really see it clearly for the first time in my life, and vow to defend it.  More than that, understand it.  It wasn’t comfortable any longer to be fuzzy and fluffy and crunchy.  PZ forced me to rethink assumptions and wrestle with some very difficult truths.  He showed me it was okay to examine where, exactly, my belief trajectory had been going, and on that night I calculated my God Delusion Index and had to face up to the fact that, yep, I surely was an atheist, because of PZ, I didn’t feel that was a bad thing to be at all.

PZ’s the reason I found out about Seattle Skeptics, because of a talk he gave in Seattle.  He’s the reason I became a science blogger rather than staying with the potty-mouthed politics I’d begun with.  He, more than anyone else, made me the skeptic and atheist I am today.  And it’s because of that style of his, which so many otherwise wise atheists and skeptics seem to think will drive absolutely everyone away.

So, as I told the microbiologist (forgive me, I forgot your name): there’s a place for a PZ Myers.  Different people respond to different things.  I happen to be in the subset who can watch people call very nearly everything I’d thought of the world wrong and heap scorn on the remnants of cherished beliefs, and instead of getting all defensive, go, “Hmm.  You know what, he’s right.”

It doesn’t work for everyone, though.  There’s a place for the friendly types.  Just don’t try to tell me that friendly and unconfrontational is the only way to win hearts and minds.  My heart and mind would still be stuck firmly in woo if I’d only been surrounded with people singing Kumbaya.  I’d have thought there was no problem with all my mushy-gushy beliefs and my appalling misunderstanding of science, because no one was up in my face telling me I’m a fool.  The most that would’ve happened is that I’d have thought atheists weren’t so evil, after all.  And then I’d have gone right on wasting my life in search of the supernatural, hence missing out on the mind-boggling awesomeness of the natural.

(I feel it necessary to insert Orac into the discussion here.  PZ did a lot to firebomb ignorance out of me, but Orac’s the one who delivered the death blow to my appreciation of alternative medicine.  And he did it by being a complete dick, not by being all nice and politely disagreeing.  But I wouldn’t have found Orac without PZ.  Funny how that works.)

My goodness.  That turned into a longer rant than I intended, but I’m just fed to here with people thinking PZ is driving people away in droves and that shouting never accomplishes anything.  I’m going to have to purchase a Gnu Atheist t-shirt and start wearing it to these functions, along with something squid-related.  Perhaps I should have a button designed with some pithy slogan. 

Right.  Well.  That was fun, and then it was time to return to the table to munch cake and watch Phylum Pheud for a bit, which was hysterically funny.  My intrepid companion amused himself with the party favors.  I present to you his masterpiece: dinosaurs fleeing the surging cake glacier:

So that was a little bit of all right, then.  We did, however, scarper off early, so I don’t know if Mollusca kept its early and overwhelming lead, or if Chordata stiffened their backbones and beat them out later.

We had a wonderful ramble round Juanita Bay, which I shall share pictures from a bit later.  All in all, a wonderful way to spend Darwin’s 202nd.

I Don’t Get It. I Don’t Understand.

Confession: I was, for a few brief months in my teens, a Bible-thumper.  So it may seem odd now that I can’t get myself into the minds of believers.

I’d never been a religious kid, not particularly.  I had this nebulous idea that God existed and that he was good.  I prayed when things were beyond my control.  But we didn’t go to church, and outside of the illustrated children’s Bible I had, there wasn’t a huge amount of God stuff around.  My parents believed, and my mother put me in a summer Bible camp once – maybe for religious instruction, maybe just because it was the best and only way to pawn me off on other people for a couple of hours so she could have some time for herself.  Considering she played Mom to the entire neighborhood, one can’t blame her for needing a break.  And I learned how to glue Jesus to a wooden spoon, and stick him in a walnut shell, so it wasn’t a complete waste.  One thing I do know, the people there didn’t impress upon me the necessity of believing or going to Hell.  They gave me warm fuzzy feelings about Jesus and an indelible association between ancient Jewish carpenters and spoons.

Then we moved to Page.  I’ve seldom lived in a city so religious.  There was a road completely lined with churches, and more churches scattered around the city, and I believe there were 2.5 churches for every household.  Kids were released for seminary in the afternoons if they belonged to the Mormon church, and nearly everyone belonged to the Mormon church.  Didn’t impress me.  People would pester me about which church I belonged to, and when I told them “none,” they’d then interrogate me about my beliefs.  I finally told them I was Tarlonian just to shut them the hell up.  It seemed easier to believe in a faith I’d made up, anyway.  It wasn’t that the Bible stories I’d read as a kid had put me off.  It was the believers, and that creepy way they had of insisting that everyone who didn’t believe just like them was going straight to hell.  I didn’t know much about God, but I figured all-knowing and all-loving meant he didn’t have much interest in condemning good people to an eternity of suffering.  When people started going on about religion, they got damned annoying.  Church, I decided, rotted brains.  Easier to be a good Christian if one avoided Christian churches.

But you couldn’t avoid such things in Page.  It came down to a choice between getting dragged there by an acquaintance I didn’t like and a rather closer friend, so I plumped for the friend.  I went on a Wednesday night, and wore my usual uniform: ripped jeans, steel-tipped boots, metal t-shirt and Slaughter headband (yes, this was the 90s).  My friend was appalled.  “Are you really going to wear that?”

Well yes, yes, I was.  If I couldn’t be accepted as a child of God despite my attire, then I’d know I didn’t belong there, wouldn’t I?

So we went, and we sat, and I got narrow looks from a lot of people.  This was a Holy Roller church.  This was Wednesday night.  Only the rabidly faithful were there.  They didn’t know what to do about this headbanger in their midst.

But Pastor Lynn Peters did.  He walked over, shook my hand, smiled, and said, “It’s wonderful to see you here.”  I’ll tell you something.  Lynn Peters was one of the kindest, most generous, least-judgmental people I’ve ever met in my life, and one of the first things that ever shook my faith in God was the fact he had to leave the congregation to get treatment for cancer.  Where was the justice in that?  Where was God when Pastor Peters needed him?

But for a little while, I fell under the spell.  I believed.  I was saved, and God was great, and I wanted everyone to share that good news.  My friend was overjoyed.

For a few months, I read my Bible and read Christian fiction and tried to live the way God wanted.  I went to church every Sunday.  And that was the first step on the road to becoming an atheist, because if you are a decent human being with half a critical-thinking brain cell left, you cannot sit in church during testimony and hear, “God healed my radio!” without thinking, “Holy fuck.  Millions of children starving and dying in Africa, Pastor Peters dying of cancer, and more tragedies than you can keep up with on the evening news, and God takes the time out of his busy schedule to heal a fucking radio?”  But it had to be true.  She’d tried and tried to fix it, but it didn’t start working until she laid her hands upon it and prayed God to heal it.  And lo, the radio was healed!

But that was just one silly woman, so my shaken-faithed self kept coming back to church, and my persistence was rewarded one day by the youth group hammering on M.C. Hammer for having some dude in a red devil costume in a video.  Yes, that M.C. Hammer.  The Christian preacher one.  But according to our youth group, he was spawn of Satan because he had some dude in a red devil costume in a music video.

I walked out and didn’t come back.

Some people may get the idea that it’s science that made me an atheist, or perhaps the evil influence of PZ.  Truth is, I was an atheist long before that.  It was a long, slow slide.  I held on to my faith, even despite some pretty intense shakes and a breakup with God or two.  Like an abusive relationship, though, I kept going back to him.  And I can’t for the life of me remember why.

I’ll tell you what made me an atheist.  Seeing how different Christian sects treated each other, every one of the hundreds and thousands of them having the exclusive line on Truth, each sect the only who knew God’s True Will.  Seeing how conservative Christianity had very nearly destroyed my best friend’s self-confidence, sense of self-worth, and really fucked up his ideas of sexuality.  Seeing how so many different religions all came up with different answers to the ultimate questions of why are we here, who are the gods, and what do the gods want us to do.  If other religions were myths, then why wasn’t Christianity?

But still I held on to God.  Clung to a Karen Armstrong type nebulous deity Somewhere Out There.  I was sure it was the Christian god.  Then I couldn’t be sure anymore.  After years of being pulled in a thousand different directions, I finally chose a different path.  I decided to explore other notions of the Divine in earnest.  I’d give up Christianity for good.  But before I did that, I prayed.  I said, “God, if this is the wrong path to take, show me, and I’ll turn right back.”  I never got a sign.  So I never turned back.

I worshiped Odin for a while, but mostly in good fun.  Beside, he was so much more awesome than the God of the Bible.  Did the Lord give his eye for wisdom?  No.  He already knew shit, and yet didn’t seem to know shit.  How boring.

Explored Hinduism and Taoism and Buddhism, all of which made far more sense than Christianity ever had.  But somewhere along the way, without my realizing it, I stopped believing in the reality of the supernatural.  I’d stopped believing in UFOs and ghosts and faeries, too.  Quite enough that myths and stories were beautiful and fun and made me think about what it meant to be human.  I didn’t need to believe there was anyone out there watching over me anymore.  And I really don’t even know how that happened.  The transition was too natural to take especial note of.

I started calling myself agnostic, and then one night I took the God Delusion Index test, and had to admit that I wasn’t even that anymore.  No, folks, I was pure-D Atheist.  And since then, since I admitted that, I’ve been free to explore the real wonders of the world.  Without guilt.  Without worrying about where God fits in.  Without dealing with all this NOMA shit.

And I’ll tell you something, and this is the point of all of this: the world is a far more wondrous place without deities.

I am overwhelmed every day by the scope of the universe.  It beggars the imagination.  There are things in it that we didn’t even suspect until we started looking at it with telescopes and mathematics and probes.  There are things more beautiful, more majestic, more awe-inspiring and powerful and terrible, than anything I’ve ever read in a holy book.  And when I look at pictures from Hubble, when I read about new discoveries in physics or watch a lunar eclipse, when I learn what we know about those things, I cannot imagine why on earth anyone would need to inject gods into the equation.  They feel distinctly surplus to requirements.  They feel tacky.  It’s like putting tinsel on the Queen’s tiara.  Some people look at this stuff and say, “Wow, what an awesome God we have, he created all this!”  And I say God didn’t have the imagination for it.  Not any God I’ve ever heard of.  Not one that stands apart from its creation.  It’s tinsel on tiaras, people.  It’s something humans, not the universe, needs, these gods.

It’s biology, not God, that made me appreciate all creatures great and small.  Evolutionary fucking biology, people.  Back when I was a believer, I’d see a spider, and promptly squish one of God’s own creations.  I sacrificed cockroaches to Odin.  When I fell under the sway of Buddhism, I started feeling vaguely guilty about it.  Fellow creature, after all.  But after studying up on evolution, I see a spider, and I’m enthralled.  They’re magnificent little things.  They’re captivating.  And there’s a story in them, of mutation and selection and a long, slow trip from single-celled critter to these beings who do utterly remarkable things like spinning webs and eating other magnificent critters.

It’s geology, not God, that made me appreciate landscapes.  God didn’t take away my fear of volcanoes, vulcanology did.  There are rocks in my house that could be beautiful to no one other than someone who knows a little something about geology.  There’s stories in the most boring bit of mudstone.  There are other worlds, vanished worlds, contained within the humblest of rocks.  Pick one up, and I used to be holding something created by God.  It hardly seemed worth bothering with, and I’d toss it aside.  Now, I cradle these nondescript brown rocks in my hands, and I see ancient mudflats.  I see the young Earth.  I see star stuff.  I am holding thirteen-plus billion years of history every time I pick up a bit of stone, because every bit has a pedigree that stretches all the way back to the Big Bang.  You religious folks want to tell me the rantings of goat herders have anything to add to that?  I don’t see it.  I don’t get it.  I don’t understand.

I vaguely remember the chasm in my life.  I vaguely remember needing so much to believe in something supernatural, frantically searching for it in myth and religion and pseudoscience, because the world seemed so mundane without magic.  But magic abounds.  There’s magic in an equation.  There’s something divine in chemistry.  Any of the sciences provide more wonder than all of the religions of the world combined.  I didn’t know that, back when religion was presented as the only way to become fully human and science was a useful something we should respect, but a mere human endeavor and not worthy of worship.  What I didn’t realize was that worship is surplus to requirements.  One does not, despite reports, need worship to become fully human.  One does not need the supernatural.  There is quite enough super in the natural, thank you ever so much.

And so now I struggle.  I struggle to comprehend why people cling so tightly to their belief that myth is really real.  I don’t remember why that felt so necessary, and I fail to see how anyone can drink even a few sips of science and need anything more. Why this overriding urge to tinsel tiaras?  Why Biologos and all of the other ridiculous attempts to reconcile science with religion?  Why this death-grip on the rantings of goat herders?  Why this insistence that the fiction be true?  I don’t get it.  I don’t understand.

I wish I did.  Not because I have a hole to fill, or because I envy the believers, but because that stubborn clinging to faith leads to so much misery and denial and danger.  Because it hurts so many of us so.  And because I’m curious as to why, when surrounded by the riches of the universe, one would choose to remain so impoverished.