Liberation of the Human Mind from the Dominion of Religion

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Political theory tries to figure out how society should be best set up and it is based on the study of human nature.  Each political theorist relies on a given set of assumptions about human nature in order to argue how best to organize humans in a society.  Anarchism is a political theory about the way society should be set up; chiefly anarchists believe that societies function best when people are free from authority, hierarchy, or dominance. Anarchism does not mean that society should have no rules.  Rather, it means that if society should have rules, those rules should not be coerced upon anyone.   People in society should only have to follow the rules with which they consent. Any rule imposed on an individual without their consent is an unacceptable violation of their rights.

The modern freethought movement began in the seventeenth century as part of the Enlightenment Era.  Philosophers sought to examine religious dogma more critically and to base their opinions off of science, logic, reason, rationality, or empiricism instead of deferring to tradition or authority.  The so-called Golden Age of Freethought occurred in the mid-eighteenth century; the suffrage movement, Darwin’s theory of evolution and the Communist Manifesto along with other social and political trends caused many people to challenge their assumptions about the orthodoxy of Christianity.

Anarchism has lent itself to other religious ideologies like Paganism, Buddhism, and Taoism.  Buddhism itself is a very anti-authoritarian religion and offers a worldview that jives well with anarchism.  Indeed, Siddhartha writes in the Kalama Sutta:

It is proper for you, Kalamas, to doubt, to be uncertain; uncertainty has arisen in you about what is doubtful. Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’

Neopaganist thinkers like Starhawk have written extensively about eco-feminism.  Eco-feminism is a political philosophy that focuses on the intersections of environmentalism and feminism; Starhawk argues that patriarchy is closely tied to the domination of nature and that women are more tuned to nature.  She argues that a matriarchal society wouldn’t dominate the natural world.  Rather, a matriarchal society would form a more mutualistic relationship with the natural world.  Starhawk’s eco-feminism philosophy relies heavily on neo-paganist beliefs that equality and nature are sacred, beliefs that she has been championing politically for the last three decades.

The Abrahamic religions have also been incorporated into theories of anarchism. Islamic anarchism is based on an interpretation of Islam as “submission to God” which is highly critical of any authority outside of Allah. Aside from the Sunnis and Shiites, a third sect within Islam called the Kharijites held more anti-authoritarian views than their mainstream counterparts; while Shiites believed that the fourth Rashidun caliph Ali Ibn Abu Talib and his descendents were the rightful successors of the prophet Muhammad, the Sunnis believed that anyone from Ali’s tribe could become leader, even if they weren’t directly related to Ali.  The Khawarij claimed that leadership wasn’t confined to the Quraysh tribe and that any qualified Muslim could be an Imam.  Another tradition of Islam called Sufism focuses on a non-violent and non-authoritarian  Sufism also tends to incorporate elements of mysticism, accentuating the fact that a spiritual connection with Allah is a personal experience, one that can’t be moderated through an organized religion.

Christian Anarchists believe that Jesus’ teachings are anti-authoritarian and by coming to Earth to fulfill the Mosaic law, people are no longer beholden to the Old Testament.  Ultimately, they believe, that Christians answer to God rather than the rules of the state, as long as they adhere to the Golden Rule and strive to turn the other cheek.  Quakerism, long known for their tolerance towards the freethought movement, was also based on the ideals of anarchism; decisions were made on a community level rather than handed down from a central authority.  Quakers were involved in social activism in the anti-nuclear and anti-globalization movements in the later half of the twentieth century, and although Quakers hold a wide range of political opinions, by and large, their faith seems to be sensitive to the use of power and how it is distributed in society.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, the ties between anarchism and the freethought movement began to foment as an anti-clerical movement swept through Europe and the United States.  The nineteenth century was a bloody century for both Europe and the United States.  Many saw the modern state as coercive and dominating like Catalan Catalan anarchist and freethinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia who wanted to limit the Catholic Church’s influence by setting up secular schools in Spain. Especially in Europe where the separation of church and state did not exist, many saw their state-sponsored church as just another bureaucracy to rebel against. The pioneers of anarchist thought like Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued alike that “property is theft” and “God is evil”.  Other anarchists like Russian thinker Peter Kropotkin argued that just as the State would be replaced by communism, so too would religion with a belief in a supernatural deity be replaced by science and an understanding of the natural world.

The freethought movement can trace its roots back to the times of the Ancient Greeks, but the key theorists that we tend to attribute to the modern freethought movement were inspired in part during the Romantic transcendentalist era in the 1840s.  Poets, artists, writers, and painters began to create works of art that aspired to depict the beauty of the natural world and the landscapes around them.  And as Americans began to move west, they were awarded with unspoiled natural scenery, rich in color, depth, and complexity to serve as their muse.

The awe-inspiring complexity of nature led many to doubt the worship of God that they experienced about in church.  The wild frontier of the American West became their church.  Preservationists like John Muir believed that wilderness was a divine and any attempt to domesticate the outdoors was tantamount to sacrilege.  Other prominent anarchists in the U.S. were violently opposed to religion and many anarchists also identified as freethinkers.  Anarchists frequently contributed to the freethought publication Liberty; authors like Emma Goldman claimed that while government dominated human conduct and property dominated human need, religion dominated the human mind.

If you see this Quack, Duck!

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I am seldom so enraged by the things around me that I choose to blog about it.  For the most part, I am content to write my blog posts about the beauty of starlight or the unusual ideology of religious anarchists.  But it takes a special kind of ignorance and callousness that makes me want to write angry things.  And I am afraid that I must devote this humble blog once more to a tirade against the depraved lunacy that I bore witness to on Eventbrite.com.

Eventbrite is an online box office for local performances, conferences, and other social events.  I happened to get directed to this site while registering for an event hosted at the University of Minnesota.  Curious to search for other events in my area, I happened about an event hosted in Northfield, MN.  The Just Food Co-op was announcing a training held by Sujata Owens called Homeopathic Treatment for Children with ADHD/ADD/Autism.  At first I was merely smug.  Owens guaranteed that homeopathic medicine was free of any side effects (and I slid back down into my chair, grinning to myself as I thought out loud, “It’s free of any other effects, too…) “Homeopathy offers an alternative in addressing the root causes of ADD and Autism” (So does a nail gun, but that doesn’t make power tools a valid form of treatment, either, I thought.)  Parents who believe in homeopathic medicine sometimes treat their kids’ with Ritalin or Adderol and decide to add Belladonna or Ipeca to stay on the safe side. As long as their kids kept taking Ritalin, there was no harm done, albeit the parents were getting swindled with water pills and big fat honking placebos.  It’s a shame that they weren’t more scientifically literate, but as long as they keep refilling the prescription for their kids’ actual medication, they’ll stay out of jail.

And then I read the description of for the event.  “If you are ready to know how homeopathy can offer assistance to your child to be happy, productive and successful, then this class is for you. Summer is a good time to work with homeopathy as many kids are taken off of their medications.  At first I thought to myself: why would you take a child off of medication for any reason other than they no longer needed it?  There could be many valid reasons for taking a child off of their medication, but the axial tilt of the planet swinging the Northern hemisphere into warmer temperatures didn’t seem like a compelling reason to me.  straightening up in my chair a bit, the smug look on my face receding).  I decided to find out more about this Homeopathic Master Clinician.  If she was attempting to take children off of medications, then this quack stepped outside of her role as an opportunistic charlatan with a wide-open crap spigot where her facts come out of, and stepped into a realm where someone could sue her for fraud.

Homeopathy is based on the asinine notion that dilutions of poisonous substances will cure disease because water has a memory for substances that were once dissolved in it.  Homeopaths prepare their medication by diluting their active ingredient in water or alcohol and striking the dilution in a process succussion.  After repeating the process of dilution and succussion several times, while there might not be any measurable amount of the active ingredient left, the medication is reportedly stronger the more it is diluted.  Homeopathic medications are measured in orders of magnitudes of X, like 2X or 30X; meaning that in the X30 concentration for every molecule of active ingredient, there would 10 to the 30th molecules of water.

A Doctor of Homeopathy is not the same as a Medical Doctor.  The latter uses science.

A Doctor of Homeopathy is not the same as a Medical Doctor. The latter uses science.

The University of Toronto’s chemistry department found that the active ingredient in some homeopathic medicine is so small that “it is equivalent to 5 billion times less than the amount of aspirin… in a single pellet”. At concentrations this minute, homeopathic cures like Belladonna and ipeca “would be indistinguishable from each other in a blind test.” Scientific tests run by both the BBC’s Horizon and ABC’s 20/20 programs were unable to differentiate homeopathic dilutions from water, even when using tests suggested by homeopaths themselves.  Homeopathic medicine prescribed by homeopathic doctors (which is actually a misnomer because neither are the medicine, nor the doctors actually effective) is nothing more than a water pill or a placebo.  In fact, many people have deliberately overdosed on the most powerful homeopathic medicines available; and, of course, survived.  Public “mass suicides” have been staged where groups of people consume whole boxes of 60X medication and rush themselves to the hospital, only to show the non-efficacy of this supposedly effective home remedy.

Often homeopaths recommend that their patients stop receiving medical treatment such as surgery or drugs, which can cause unpleasant side-effects, but the improvements that are attributed to homeopathy are most likely caused by ending the treatment causing side-effects in the first place, while the underlying disease remains untreated and is still harmful to the patient.  By advocating to parents to take these children off of their meds Owens becomes morally culpable for any harm that comes to the children who go off of their treatment.  Denying children the help they need because some quack preys upon desperate parents is deplorable and this woman should be ashamed of herself.

Medications have side-effects.  That is just the reality of medication.  This is not reason enough to go off of medication.  Doctors (real medical doctors, not these so-called doctors of homeopathy) who prescribe medication, unfortunately, don’t always land on the right dosage for their patients.  This does not invalidate the pharmaceutical industry or the efficacy of conventional medication, it just means that doctors and patients need to communicate with each other to make sure the proper dosage is being achieved.  An inappropriate dosage can harm children, but doctors can adjust the prescription or switch to a different regimen to ease the discomfort of their patients.  Taking children off of their medication altogether is seldom the proper course of action.

The Evolution of Bigotry

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We’re living in a wonderful age.  An age of unparalleled tolerance and understanding for different cultures, worldviews, and sexual orientation.  Even a decade ago, things were noticeably worse politically for the GLBT community.  The year was 2003; Ron Howard regales audiences with the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.  50 Cent’s “In da Club” would cement itself as party anthem of the year.  And a Republican President was living in the White House, elected by the mandate of evangelical Christians, who made it clear that the government should be run off of Biblical principles. Gay marriage didn’t become a major party issue in the United States for George W. Bush until his 2004 re-election campaign against Democratic hopeful John Kerry.

If you heard someone talking about gay marriage in 2003, it hadn’t become a politicized issue yet, and people were generally free to speak their mind without fear of being seen as politically incorrect.  If asked about their opinion on gay marriage, the average person on the street could say things like “gay marriage is wrong” and suffer no consequences socially.  They could even say “homosexuals are wrong” and by taking their opinion one step further, still be able to walk around without fear of being judged.  It was a high point for bigots everywhere, to be sure.  One did not have to justify their opposition to gay marriage.  It  simply did not have to be defended ten years ago.

But when the 2004 election came rolling around, gay marriage was suddenly a contested political pawn.  Unheard of to some people, battle lines were quickly draw with Democrats to the left generally in favor of gay marriage and Republicans to the right typically against it.  Suddenly, it was no longer acceptable to oppose gay marriage without giving a reason. It had to be justified in public in order to make a case about one’s political stance. And the argument that homosexuality was simply “wrong” wouldn’t cut it anymore.  The proponents of gay marriage demanded more.  So those opposed to gay marriage found support in the Bible for their bigotry. The rhetoric used by its opponents was pretty flimsy at the time, but thankfully for those debating against gay marriage, it didn’t have to be articulate; the Book of Deuteronomy.  Of course, not everyone had the bravado of the Westboro Baptist Church, who, at the time were seen merely as a public nuisance and not a hate group. But for the most part, the opposition needed only to explain that homosexuality was an “abomination” and that was enough to get their point across.

But just as the dialogue had shifted with the 2004 election, the evolution of bigotry continued on.  As states started to legalize gay marriage, the debate once again forced opponents to use a better argument than God hates Fags.  So opponents would have to adapt, “The argument against gay marriage has nothing to do with Deuteronomy”, said opponents of gay marriage, “and no one ever said it did.”  It turns out that the real argument in opposition to gay marriage come directly from the New Testament, in the Book of John.  Jesus may have come to fulfill the Old Testament, as it is written in the book of Matthew, but he never said anything about the book of John.  This argument didn’t keep states like Iowa or Massachusetts from legalizing gay marriage.  Even then-Vice President Dick Cheney came out in favor of gay marriage when his daughter came out of the closet as a lesbian in 2007, bucking a major party trend for conservatives.  But bigotry marches on.

The 2012 election comes up and in an attempt to boost the number of Republican voters who show up at the polls, state GOP caucuses endeavor to make gay marriage the hot-button issue.  Faith communities all around the United States (including my home state of Minnesota) rally around this cause, both for and against gay marriage.  Those against gay marriage no longer cite the Bible, but rather espouse Biblical principles, a covenant with God, or appeal to family values held up in Christian communities.  And across the United States, all four gay marriage initiatives failed.  A sobering moment for people who fervently believed God was on their side, only to rationalize that some, nameless, faceless Not-True-Christian betrayed their pact with their God.

And this is the evolution of bigotry.  The ground that theists stand on when they try to deny reality always gives way to rational argument.  Inch by inch, bigoted people have had to concede that their interpretation of the Book of Deuteronomy could have been wrong.  That their interpretation of the book of John could have been wrong. That their understanding of the Bible and their Christian faith could have been wrong.  The evolution of bigotry seems to indicate that while theists start out with very specific bigoted arguments against gay marriage (or stem cells, or evolution, or the big bang, or test tube babies, or lightning, or rainbows, or the Garden of Eden, or whatever it is that they insist their interpretation of the Bible tells them…) they are forced into more safe positions as they argue from ever more vague concepts.

The final evolution of bigotry comes when they divest themselves of any and all responsibility for their bigotry, past, present or future.  Opposition to gay marriage no longer becomes a personal trait; it becomes a communal trait.  People argue, “It’s about the community.  We made an agreement with God that we wouldn’t allow gays and we need to keep that out of our community. It’s not up to anyone.”  Gay marriage becomes a NIMBY issue.  It’s no longer possible for the bigot to keep gay marriage at bay everywhere; a dyke has burst, flooding bigoted little towns all over with a tidal wave of progressiveness and every bigot rushes to hide their waterproof hatred of homosexuals or get swept away by the current.

Perhaps the most frustrating part of this evolution is how fiercely some will disavow ever having been wrong earlier.  “No, you didn’t understand me! I never argued against gay marriage from the Book of Deuteronomy!  The argument against gay marriage was never about what it says in the Bible!  It was always about unit cohesion!  Family values!  Christian Communities!  It never has been anything to do with my personal beliefs!”

Wonder is the Seed of Science

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As Richard Dawkins once remarked, “…science works, bitches.”  The whole reason why we engage our world using the scientific method is indeed because we can demonstrate that reality follows a set of rational laws.  Scientists endeavor to learn more about reality because it is useful to do so; our current abstract theories can become the basis for future concrete technologies.

For instance, Albert Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect as entirely theoretical in 1905; he postulated that light radiates through space in discrete packets of energy called photons.  His theory was vindicated in 1914 when Robert Millikan experimentally confirmed Einstein’s theory that the maximum kinetic energy of an electron escaping the surface of a metal is equal to the Planck constant times the the frequency of the incident photon minus the minimum energy required to remove an electron from the surface of a given metal.  Albert Einstein’s theory has been confirmed experimentally several times since then and has stood up to major scrutiny within the scientific community; Millikan himself was not convinced of it until several years later when further researched lined up with his results.  Since scientists can reliably replicate the results of Millikan’s experiment, it is widely accepted to be true.  Einstein’s theory of the photoelectric effect is no longer relegated to the realm of research physicists; laypeople can verify the photoelectric effect based on observations in the real world. For instance, it utilized in many different technologies.  Automatic doors rely on the photoelectric effect; a constant beam of light is aimed a photo-detector at the top of the door and when the receptor no longer senses photons striking it (this happens when someone steps in front of the door), this signals the door to open.

Science has limitations, though.  These were discussed in Francis Bacon’s 1620 treatise Novum Organum, outlining the scientific method.  Bacon is considered the father of science, and his magnum opus led to the prominence of the scientific method in Europe and the rest of the Western world.  Bacon argued that that natural world could be reduced to smaller parts and that these parts could be removed, studied separately and understood in their simplest forms before being reassembled.  In fact, Bacon was convinced that the whole scientific enterprise should be set up around understanding the natural world so that we could manipulate it and ultimately control it.  But Bacon also realized that science has limitations; scientists would need to be wary about inadvertently falling into what Bacon referred to as the Four Idols.  Idols are limitations of the way that we humans tend to think which mislead the mind’s otherwise objective reasoning.

Bacon believed that human nature, while making us inquisitive, can also be a hindrance to the scientific method.  Bacon called this the idols of the tribe, and he is referring to the general predisposition that all people tend to have.  People are prone to confirmation bias; they tend to focus their attention only on information that already confirms their preconceived notions.  Also, our senses tend to fool us, too.  As I have pointed out in a previous post, optical illusions tend to fool our senses.  Our senses evolved to observe phenomena as efficiently as possible are prone to mistake.  If we can’t rely on our senses, we need to come up with more ingenious ways to make observations. That is where science comes in to grant us a more reliable way of learning about our surroundings.

While human beings in general have shortcomings, each individual human being has shortcomings, too.  Some people, for instance, tend to be more conservative and are slower to adopt new ways of thinking when the old ways of thinking may have served them well, even when evidence comes out to refute their old ways of thinking.  Others, might be too quick to jump onto a bandwagon, holding favor with a position that might not have enough evidence to warrant belief.  Overall, scientists tend to be a skeptical bunch, but anyone with an open mind willing to consider new evidence has a point where the evidence in favor of a new way of thinking is simply too much to ignore.  The amount of evidence needed to persuade any one person will differ and so more gullible individuals will accept premises with little criticism where skeptics tend to reserve judgment until enough evidence is presented.

Our culture plays a role, too.  Bacon called this the Idol of the theater. The way that we were socialized growing up or the way that we were taught is subject to cultural biases that people might not recognize.  One clear example of this would be the study of the female orgasm.  In the nineteenth century there was little desire among scientists (mostly made up of older, white men) to study whether or not the female orgasm existed.  This was a cultural bias that arose from the Victorian era and in the sexism that was pervasive in Western society at the time.  Even today, there are cultural biases against supporting lung cancer research.  The cultural bias would have us believe that only smokers get lung cancer and that researching a cure for lung cancer would not be as worthwhile to our society as finding a cure to breast cancer or lymphoma.

And finally, scientists are limited by language itself; this was called the Idols of the Marketplace.  The words that we use might have more than one meaning and this ambiguity can lead to trouble if two people who are communicating with each other are using the same words, but give those words different meanings.  People might also create new definitions for words that already exist and if others do not share that idiosyncratic definition there can be confusion as well.  This is why scientists strive to use use technical language when they present their findings; they try to minimize the amount of confusion.  However, this tends to have the opposite effect when a scientist is speaking with the average layperson.  Perhaps no more obvious is this than when scientists discus climate change.  Terms like theory or variable only have one meaning with the scientific field, but they can have different meanings outside of the scientific field.  Theory to a layperson tends to hold the same meaning that a hypothesis would to a scientist.

These idols that Bacon pointed out in Novum Organum were already well-understand and accepted by philosophers centuries before Bacon published his treatise.  These natural shortcomings will likely persist indefinitely into the future.  But that doesn’t mean that we cannot fight natural predispositions.  There are ways to combat these idols.  The greatest contribution to science of the twentieth century is perhaps the adoption of double blind research methodology and other tools that limit human bias from spoiling the results of research.  Making science more inclusive could also limit the potential for groupthink in research, although the real benefit of making science more inclusive would come from expanding the opportunities that women and minorities have making discoveries in the scientific endeavor.  Learning science is an empowering act in and of itself and raising a generation of students to think rationally and argue critically would be its own reward.

Indeterminism versus Determinism

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Nothing presents atheists and theists alike with as much confusion and controversy as the theory issue of free will.  Does it exist? And if it does, what does this mean for us humans? And are humans the only beings to have free will?  I find the debate over the existence of free will to be irrelevant because I reject the notion of a deterministic universe.  In truth, I do not believe in free will.  I would label myself a Hard Indeterminist in that I reject the existence of both free will and a deterministic universe.

Compatibilists accept that free will and determinism do not need to be mutually exclusive.  Actually, they need not believe in free will or determinism, only that they believe that the two could be compatible.  Some Compatibilists argue that determinism is actually necessary for the existence of free will.  They would argue that actions are determined by our predispositions.  If one’s actions were not determined by beliefs and desires one could not be held morally responsible for their actions.  Some atheists might believe that the universe is deterministic, but it isn’t determined by the will of God, but rather by the laws of the universe.  These atheists believe that the universe behaves predictably according to a set of fundamental rules and while we humans might not understand everything about the universe, they believe that everything in the universe can be reduced to single grand unified theory (or a  collection of theories) that can explain and predict the behavior of all of the phenomena in the universe.

There are atheists who do not believe in a deterministic universe.  Quantum mechanics seems to indicate the at a subatomic level, random chance determines how atoms behave and interact.  Albert Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe”, believing that the chaotic implications of quantum mechanics would not hold up under the weight of more evidence; he held the view that hidden variables unbeknownst to us could explain the nonsensical results of quantum mechanics.  John Bell retorted decades later with his eponymous theorem that no number of hidden variables could make sense of quantum mechanics.  It appears that the particles that make up all atoms play by a completely different sent of rules than the laws of nature that we recognize on a macroscopic level.  The processes that go on at a sub-atomic level are truly random; the decay of a proton into a neutron (in a process that we observe called radioactivity) is totally unpredictable.  Geiger counters are a truly alien device, able to detect the activity going on at a

Many theists believe that God grants them free will.  Here we run into a complication, namely, that if God knows everything, then He knows what our actions will be before we even do.  This implies that our actions are already predetermined if God can know them in advance.  If this were true, we cannot change our actions otherwise God would not be all-knowing, and therefore not… God.  This presents a challenge to theologians, who come up with an elaborate series of contrived answers to answer how this must be false.  According denominations of Christianity like Methodism, God is still a supposedly omnipotent being, yet he apparently allows himself to shield himself from his own all-seeing abilities to give us humans the ability to make decisions freely.  God has the power to see everything, but chooses not to wield it because he wants us to have free will.  Other Christian denominations have come up with other cop outs.  Some believe that God is all-knowing because he can see the outcome of every possible potential event. We humans still have free will and God still is all-powerful because he can see all of the paths we humans can potentially take, but he allows us to choose which of these paths are to become “real”.  This scenario relies on the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics that posits reality is like a many-branching tree.

There are theists who believe free will is an illusion.  Protestant denominations like Calvinists believe in a strict predestination.  God has already determined our fate before we were even born, and humans have no free will.  Those that achieve greatness do so because God willed it to be; their good fortune is a sign that God has chosen someone to be great.  The Protestant Work Ethic, a treatise by sociologist Max Weber, summarizes this worldview.  Atheists are just as skeptical on the issue of free will.  Many believe that free will exists because without God we are truly free.  To these people, the burden of choice is ours and ours alone.  These metaphysical libertarians believe that free will inevitably leads to suffering.  Humans are solely responsible for our actions and because humans are conscious beings, we must suffer the consequences of our actions.

The atheists who do not believe in free might point to neurological evidence that suggests the unconscious part of our brain directs our actions fractions of a second before the conscious part of our brain makes a decision.  If our decision-making process is based on an unconscious part of our brain that we cannot control, we do not have free will.  This, however, does not necessarily But whether or not determinism exists The dilemma of determinism entails the following paradox; if determinism is true, then our actions are controlled by preceding events and thus we do not have freewill; and that if indeterminism is true, our actions are random and we likewise do not have free will; no matter which option you take, free will is thus logically impossible.

Our Social Problems Create our Poverty

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Class is an uncomfortable subject in the United States. Americans tend to believe that we alive in an egalitarian society “where all men are created equal” (but not women apparently…) and everyone has the opportunity to climb the social ladder if they only have enough hard work, determination, and skill.  But this isn’t the whole picture.  Poverty exists.  And generational poverty exists because of complex systems that act in concert to keep people down.

Poverty is hard to define, as is class.  The categories that sociologists and social workers use to make distinctions between lower class and middle class or middle class and the upper class are arbitrary.  The fact is that class is a continuum and many people live their lives with one foot in poverty and the other in the middle class.  This is called situational poverty and it tends to happen solely within one’s lifetime.  Someone gets sick, someone loses their job, maybe the death of a loved one or an economic slump means people who used to live a middle class lifestyle temporarily fall into another socioeconomic bracket.  When families get caught in poverty for more than one generation, this is generational poverty and it suggests that a number of problems are going unresolved.

People caught in the cycle of poverty don’t get to unwind when they come home.  It’s can be just as stressful for them to come home as the situation at work that they left behind.  Especially with substandard housing, coming home can be unpleasant.  Social workers can attest that many people who rely on welfare spend the same amount of money on entertainment as their middle class counterparts, if not more so; they own a big screen T.V., or a gaming console and a blu-ray DVD player, among other amenities like a smartphone or an ipad. Unlike their counterparts, though, people caught in the cycle of poverty cannot afford luxuries like vacation time, a reliable car, or even plane tickets.

The primary release is largely through their vices (video games smoking, drinking, junk food) so programs that target the individual causes of poverty don’t address the the fact their destructive habits can be the only stress release.  That is why so many low income families who don’t get vacations and instead tend to spend money on flat screen T.V.s and manicures and other luxuries.  It’s not a character flaw on their part; it’s a rational economic decision that is hyper-focused on day-to-day survival.  When families have to work paycheck-to-paycheck, they miss the opportunity to invest in retirement.  For these families, vacations are out of the question, too.  People trapped in the cycle of poverty don’t get that break from reality.  A curious study found that people are most relaxed just before they go on vacation, not during or after as one might think.  This anticipation of a future reward seems to be more calming than the actual event.  The act of looking forward to something brings them relief.

I believe that there is a parallel to be drawn here between the cycle of poverty and religiosity. While institutions like banks may keep low income people in a cycle of financial poverty, institutions like religions keep the middle and upper class in a cycle of poverty that is just as insidious.  I tend to draw parallels between this cycle of poverty and the promises of an afterlife in religion. Research has shown that with the exception of individuals from a racial or ethnic minority, religiosity is actually linked to socioeconomic status where the wealthy are more devout than their low-income counterparts.  There are exceptions, of course, since religiosity tends to be strongly correlative with racial identity in African American and Latino communities.  But among white and Asian minorities, race or ethnicity is not linked to religion.  This might seem counter intuitive because, after all, religion is meant to be a source of personal strength and religious charities across many faiths work to alleviate poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, and other problems that differentially afflict low-income neighborhoods.  Surely, interaction with religious charities would make the working poor more inclined to religiosity, or so one would think.  Yet, the opposite seems to be true.  Historically, Christianity has been used to justify economic and social inequality as well as justify economic and social justice.

If poverty is defined as the extent to which an individual does without resources, then there are many resources that individuals need access to in order to navigate their environment and succeed at life besides money.  One resource that might be as obvious to some is the ability to communicate effectively; not just to be able to talk to someone but to be able to listen and achieve a meaningful exchange of information.  Everyone speaks in a certain register, which is the collection of their vocabulary, diction, syntax, grammar and the other aspects of language that make up the words that they prefer to use and how they communicate.  The word prefer is important here because while most people have a set register that they prefer, they can usually reach up to a different register or dip down into a another.  Most people speak in one of three registers; formal, consultative, and casual.  The casual register employs the simplest syntax and vocabulary and relies the most on non-verbal body language and facial expressions.  The consultative register tends to entail more correct usages of syntax and sentence structure than the casual register.  And the formal register tends to require the largest vocabulary and the most complex sentence structure.

This is important because each register tends to be associated predominantly with the lower, middle, or upper class.  Remember, that people are really only comfortable with one register above or below their own.  When someone from the upper class is speaking with someone from the lower class, there can be a great deal of confusion because of the gap between their two registers.  There is even the potential for hostility or conflict when this confusion makes people feel defensive, invalidated, or threatened.  We cannot eliminate generational poverty without engaging people from all three socioeconomic classes to work on solutions.  But these situations can be difficult to maneuver.  People don’t like to reminded of their class or of the institutions that keep them down.  Those in the upper class need to take care to bring their register down into a more casual way of speaking and those in the lower class may need to raise their register up into a more formal way of speaking.

The Jewels of the Night

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We are living in an exciting time for the human race; since 1995, astronomers have been hunting planets using spectrometers and other devices to sniff out alien worlds.  So far, we’ve mostly found planets that look like Jupiter and orbit the Sun like Mercury.  But as the instruments available to us become more sophisticated, we can zero in on much smaller planets orbiting much farther distances from its parent star, with the ultimate goal being to find a planet like Earth that could support life.  Alarmists point out that the Earth is running out of resources and that we need to search for another planet to sustain us, but there are other reasons to search for life beyond our world.  The philosophical, spiritual and scientific ramifications of finding alien life would be as profound for humanity as the first voyage across an ocean might have been for humans centuries ago.  Our galaxy is like an enormous ocean, each solar system a island, and every world habitable with life an oasis.  We have only explored a fraction of our galaxy from the telescopes on Earth or in orbit just above us.  Our search for life outside of Earth is just beginning, and even if we don’t find anything out there, by taking that first step into the abyss, we open our species to the possibility of so much more to discover along the way.

If we’re looking for a planet that support life, we should first take note of our planet.  What are some telltale signs that there is life on Earth?  For one thing, Earth contains a tremendous amount of liquid water that girdles 70% of the planet’s surface.  Liquid water is essential for life and helps to moderate daytime and nighttime temperatures on the planet.  Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that when water freezes into ice, it’s less dense than in its liquid form.  This means that instead of freezing solid and sinking to the bottom of the ocean, ice floats to the top.  If the Earth’s climate ever became much more chilly, (which it has in the past), it would take much longer to thaw out the oceans if they ever froze over.  Moons like Enceladus and Europa might be caked over with ice, but underneath that frigid layer is an ocean of liquid water, kept warm by the friction from Jupiter’s gravity.  Water is unique among the elements in that its solid form is less dense than its liquid, only elements like bismuth can achieve this under standard temperature and pressure.  But unlike bismuth, water has other unique properties.  It has a high surface tension that allows bugs to walk across the surface of bodies of water or rocks to be skipped across it.  Water is also polar, meaning that it can dissolve a wide arrange of molecules; this is important for cells because without it, organisms wouldn’t be able to the proper salt balance.

What would our planet look like to a hypothetical alien observer? Certainly we humans leave an indelible imprint on the surface of our planet.  At night, one can see the light from our cities radiating out into space.  Not just the visible light from streetlights and headlights, but radio signals, too.  Our cities radiate infrared light, too. Tar, asphalt, cement and concrete tend to absorb heat very well during the day; and reflect that heat back during the night.  This occurs so much so that we can measure the heat island effect from our cities.  Airports also tend to have a large carbon footprint; higher than average temperatures are found in neighborhoods surrounding airports, reportedly because of the amount of fuel being burned to get planes airborne, And, of course, our modern society is dependent upon the burning of fossil fuels in every sector of the world economy.  The combined power of every country’s carbon dioxide emissions to absorb infrared heat is slowly broiling the planet.  Human development has radically altered the flow of energy on our planet.  According to a recent study, the amount of photosynthesis going on at any given time attributable to human agriculture may only represent 3% of all the plant productivity on Earth, but that doesn’t adequately sum up our influence over the environment.  Because not only does our agriculture account for 3% plant productivity, but our economy that harvests, processes, and delivers that food also requires a tremendous amount of energy to maintain.  So much so that it is estimate that human industry accounts for 30% of the plant productivity on the planet.  When the authors of that study accounted for the cost in productivity that comes with degraded ecosystems, we humans actually take up about 37-40% of all plant productivity on the planet. And this can clearly be seen from outer space.  Plants absorb red and yellow light and tend to reflect green light at highly specific wavelengths so satellites can pick up on the presence of vegetation based on observations.

But there are other ways that our presence on Earth could be inferred.  Our atmosphere shows many signs of chemical disequilibrium.  The ozone layer in our atmosphere is a clear signal that there is life on Earth; only photosynthesis could be responsible for that level of oxygen in the atmosphere.  The presence of methane in our atmosphere is another sign of life; methane is incredibly unstable and tends to get converted into carbon dioxide in the presence of oxygen.  So in order to be detectable in our atmosphere at any appreciable levels, there needs to some process to replenish it. There is a geological process called serpentinization that can create methane when boiling water comes in contact with organic minerals in rocks, but bacteria called methanogens are more likely to be the cause.  Nitrogen can be another indicator of life.  Nitrogen naturally tends to bond with itself to form nitrogen gas; it makes up about 70% percent of our atmosphere.  These bonds are so strong that it takes a lot of energy to tear them apart.  Usually, nothing short of a bolt of lightning in the atmosphere would suffice in tearing apart the atoms in a molecule of nitrogen.  When scientists detect nitrogen in any other form, it’s a good sign that life has been here.  Microbes recycle nitrogen into several different forms before returning it to the air as nitrogen gas.  Human industry also tends to emit nitrous oxides; these chemicals can be found as accidental by-products in car exhaust and coal-fired power plants.  But most nitrogen is deliberately created to sustain our agriculture; and most of that supply ends up in our lakes and rivers as a pollutant.

The search for alien life seems to straddle the line between fiction and reality, but advancements in our technology pushes us further and further into a realm that was once fantasy.  There is much to explore in the next few years and as our technology catches up to our imagination, the discoveries are unimaginable.  Happy hunting.

The Argument from Locality: Why God Hates New Zealand

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Perhaps one of the biggest flaws I have yet encountered in the existence of God is the argument from locality.  As many might have noticed, religions seem to be worshiped regionally; Islam is largely practiced in North Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia.  Christianity is largely practiced in Europe, North America and parts of sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania.  Hinduism is largely practiced in India along with Sikhism and Jainism, and Buddhism is largely practiced in Southeast Asia.  Each religion clearly has a de facto geographic center, and some religions have a de jure geographic center like Vatican City and Mecca for Christianity and Islam, respectively.  What makes this observation salient is that prior to the internet and the rapid industrialization in the twentieth century, there were very few Muslims living in Europe.  Or very few Christians living in Korea.  Or very few Hindus living in Africa.  Your faith, if you had any at all (and you would have professed one, lest you be ostracized), was largely determined by ethnic or racial background.  Poles, Hungarians, and Italians were overwhelmingly Catholic, Germans were overwhelmingly Lutheran, the Scotch-Irish were overwhelmingly Presbyterian, and Persians were Zoroastrian.

No matter the religion, revelation is a lost cause.  With an emphasis on "lost".  Literally, like 40 years wandering through the desert, for instance.

No matter the religion, revelation is a lost cause. With an emphasis on “lost”. Literally, like 40 years wandering through the desert, for instance.

Some archeologists report that the earliest evidence of permanent settlements and agriculture date back perhaps 8,000 years in Northern Asia.   By 500 BCE when the Old Testament was written, all around the world, civilizations were thriving in Meso-America, China, and Africa.  And yet millions of people, spanning hundreds of generations lived and died without ever having the opportunity to accept Jesus Christ. They had never heard of Him and could not have heard of Him unless a missionary trekked across the planet to find their remote corner of the world.  Up until the modern era, millions of people had never seen a bible or been to a church.  Did those people who could never have learned about Jesus Christ go to hell? There is a big difference between someone who had been given the opportunity to accept Jesus and turned it down and someone who was born destined for hell without any way to save themselves.  A truly benevolent God wouldn’t have condemned so many people to hell merely for the sin of being born too early or too far from Bethlehem to be worth offering salvation.  Especially when we consider God is meant to be immortal and outside of time.  Wouldn’t a God who wanted to give people the opportunity of salvation extend it to all of his creation? Why wait millennia after humanity began before offering us a chance to save ourselves? Why present the opportunity for salvation to desert-dwelling bronze age nomads and no one else?  It certainly seems to belie the notion that all is the best in the best of all possible worlds or even that God loves everyone.  Maybe He just loves some people more than others.

But, wait!  Anecdotal evidence to the rescue.  Say there are rare examples of people living in far flung locales who have visions of Christ years before Christian missionaries even arrive.  Surely this must mean that it is possible people can accept Jesus Christ without having ever heard of Him or needing to meet one of His missionaries.  This means that all of those who died in other parts of the world before they encountered Christianity could have avoided damnation, too.  No one needed the missionaries to come in the first place.  The problem with this line of reasoning is that it makes missionaries and proselytizers all but obsolete.  If people are meant to rely on divine revelation alone to save them (as millions of people would have had to prior to the modern era) then missionaries aren’t essential to the salvation of others.  Missionaries who proselytize have to accept the burden of proof as to why they even need to exist and do the work that they do.  Why would God call upon them to spread the word of Christ when people are meant to rely on divine intervention?

Otherwise, the only other conceivable option is that Christians aren’t the only believers who go to heaven.  In fact, Robert Putnam and David Campbell highlighted in their work American Grace, that overwhelmingly, Christians in America believe this to be the case, despite the lack of any scriptural basis for that belief.  Putnam and Campbell refer to this unusual finding as the Aunt Sally effect.  In America, religious pluralism is the norm, and combined with a high degree of religious interactions across the country means that most people know someone of a different faith.  The idea that someone dear to us like an Aunt Sally who might not share our theological leanings would be denied eternity in heaven is too distressing for most Americans to bear.  For many, the thought of enjoying eternal bliss is unthinkable if their loved ones aren’t there to share it with them.  Rather than abandon the idea of heaven and hell, Americans seem to amend their beliefs to reconcile reality with views they are more comfortable with.  Even though there is no scriptural basis for these beliefs, Americans overwhelmingly believe that people of other faiths can get into heaven or hell (chapter 15).

Despite the clear statistical evidence that political conservatism is linked to religiosity (chapter 12), few pastors talk openly about political issues in their sermons.  This may be surprising to some, who view people with certain stances as primarily motivated by their faith.  Yet, it’s too simplistic to say that pastors tell their congregation what to think and that congregants simply follow.  And in fact, this is a common misconception.  Statistically, when Americans grow uncomfortable with the teachings of a particular denomination of Christianity (like the fact that their Hindu neighbor is going to hell…) they simply change to another faith.  It seems unusual certainly that when faced with unpleasant truths about their faith, most people do simply abandon their church.  More often than not, they simply adopt a new church with a pastor, reverend, or priest who expresses views that fit better with their own. In that way, churches become echo chambers for congregants; like-minded congregants form cliques within a church and interact with other like-minded churchgoers.  The issue comes with the implicit or explicit rule of obedience to scripture.  Because those in charge of relaying the truth in the Bible to their congregations are expected to be uncritically obeyed, there is little to no resistance from the congregation.

Stellar Evolution of Astronomy

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Happy Vernal equinox heathens!  If you are fortunate enough to live in a part of the Northern Hemisphere with minimal light pollution, you can see a night sky filled with constellations.  Some of the lights twinkling in the night sky are stars and planets, but some of the dots are entire galaxies billions of light years away.  If one views the night sky under the right conditions, the cosmos looks like a grand work of abstract art, full of mystery and wonder.  Our understanding of the universe has grown quite a bit in the last five hundred years and as our understanding of the universe has grown more sophisticated, we humans have become a smaller and smaller part of the universe. It’s a necessary and inevitable consequence of our mental, emotional, and spiritual development.

At the start of the nineteenth Century, a German scientist named Joseph Fraunhofer had stumbled upon a discovery Sir Issac Newton had made years ago.  Newton had been studying sunlight, refracting it through a prism to reveal light from our Sun was made up of a spectrum of colors.  The prism was able to split light up into the its constituent colors because the material allowed each different wavelength of light to move through the material at a different speed, revealing a rainbow.  Fraunhofer was studying this spectrum when he noticed darker lines broke within the Sun’s spectrum and appeared to pop up in specific wavelengths of light.  He meticulously recorded these dark lines within the spectrum where light wasn’t emitted but rather absorbed and the spectrum went black. Stars emit light at all frequencies in their core where fusion occurs; molecules, atoms, and ions that may be present near the surface of the star will absorb that light strongly at unique frequencies. Thus, the observed spectrum of stars will contain relatively dark bands at those characteristic frequencies of the constituents of the outer layers of that star.

This curiosity didn’t go unnoticed.  Years later the scientists George Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen were subjecting the periodic elements to high temperature until each element when put under a flame hot enough would give off a bright flame.  Most interestingly, each element they tested gave off light at a different wavelength when heated.  They soon realized that the wavelengths of light that some of elements they were studying matched the wavelengths in Fraunhofer’s absorption lines.  Where Fraunhofer found that light was being absorbed that those wavelengths, Bunsen and Kirchhoff found that light was given off at these wavelengths.  Still, it was easy to note that these two mutually exclusive phenomena in both their experiments were appeared at the same spots on the light spectrum. Bunsen and Kirchhoff soon surmised that the Fraunhofer lines represented elements present in the Sun’s atmosphere.  These absorption lines are detected in the spectrum when specific elements absorb photons at specific wavelengths.

This assumes that the object being studied through a spectrometer is stationary relative to the observer.  When the object is moving, though, the light coming from that object like a planet or a star ends up getting shifted depending on whether the object is moving closer to or farther away from the observer.  When the object moves closer to the observer, the light coming towards the observer is scrunched and the wavelength of the light decreases, so that we observe the light with a bluish tint, blue light having the shortest wavelength in the visible spectrum.  When the object is moving away from the observer, the light gets stretched out and the  wavelength of that light tends to appear to us as redder.  This shift in color is a direct consequence of the Doppler Effect. An indirect method for finding extrasolar planets involves using the Doppler shifts in the spectrum of the planet’s parent star.  When a massive planet like Jupiter is close enough to its parent star, it can actually cause the parent stars orbit to wobble.  Scientists using high-resolution spectrometer can detect the wobble of the star as it lurches towards or away from Earth.  Knowing this, scientists can calculate the mass of the planet based on how much its star is wobbling.

As of March 2013, most extrasolar planets have been discovered using the radial velocity method.  However these planets tend to be more massive than Jupiter, and orbit their parent star at a distance closer than Mercury is to the Sun

As of March 2013, most extrasolar planets have been discovered using the radial velocity method. However these planets tend to be more massive than Jupiter, and orbit their parent star at a distance closer than Mercury is to the Sun. Few of the planets we have found using the radial velocity method resemble Earth.

When scientists point a spectrometer at a star, they are able to gain valuable information about that star’s composition, temperature, luminosity, distance, density, mass and relative motion, too.  We know that the hydrogen and helium in stars fuse into heavier elements.  Paradoxically, older main sequence stars tend to be hotter and brighter than younger stars and older main sequence stars tend to be made of more than just hydrogen and helium.  This is because stars do not burn like a campfire or blowtorch; fusion is a nuclear And because of this, stars get brighter because gravity pushes down on the star, concentrating the nuclear reactions going on inside of it.  This causes the rate of nuclear reactions inside the star to increase.  This tug of war between gravity and fusion will allow the star to remain stable, but once the star starts running out of nuclear fuel, gravity starts to win, pushing the star into a smaller and smaller area until the star can’t take it anymore and it explodes in a nova.  During these violent events, some bright enough to light up the night sky, heavy elements are flung out into the interstellar void.  Astronomers can see all of this using spectrometers and can actually sniff out the different elements that are being forged in these cataclysmic events.

Astronomers don’t limit their use pf spectroscopy to stars and planets; they can focus this tool on galaxies. When astronomers point a spectrometer at a faraway galaxy, they are collecting data on a collection of the brightest stars in that galaxy.  When astronomers first began using spectrometers to look at galaxies, they found some weird looking absorption spectra coming off of these distant objects.  At first, astronomers called them LGM’s, a tongue-in-cheek for Little Green Men, thinking this unusual phenomenon was a sign of extraterrestrial intelligence.  Later on, these objects were renamed quasi-stellar radio sources, or quasars.  We now hold  that quasars are galaxies so distant from us that their light must be incredible in order to be seen from so far away.  This light has been redshifted to the point that they were giving off powerful radio signals.  Doppler effect doesn’t just effect the light coming off of galaxies, though.  Fritz Zwicky found in a study of the Doppler shift that most galaxies were moving away from our galaxy much faster than seemed to be possible. Zwicky hypothesized that in order to account for the increased speed of galactic acceleration that there must be a tremendous amount of matter that can’t be observed or measured in these galaxies.  We now believe that this dark matter actually makes up a quarter of our universe and its origin and properties are perhaps some of the greatest mysteries physicists face today.

I would like to end this post with a discussion of the emotional and spiritual implications of spectroscopy; we are insignificant.  In Fraunhofer’s time, humans thought that the Earth was in the center of the galaxy and that the galaxy was the entire known universe.  As our knowledge peeled back the nature of the cosmos we realized that not only was our planet not in the center of the galaxy, nor our galaxy the only galaxy in the universe, but that the ordinary matter that we’re made off accounts for a tiny fraction of the mass of the known universe.  We are a stain on the otherwise pristine universe; a universe made almost entirely of a dark matter and a dark energy that we cannot detect.  The notion that a benevolent Creator made an entire universe for us, almost all of it completely inaccessible and undetectable while granting us a tiny island of life on a rock rolling around in the thin veneer of the ordinary matter we’re familiar with is laughable.  We are so incomprehensibly insignificant to the universe and yet I am filled with awe that the complexity and scale we see around us arose on its own.  Just imagine what we can do knowing that we and we alone possess the ability to etch out our own meaning for existence on the largest canvass imaginable.

Cultural Competence

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The healthcare sector is especially sensitive to cultural competency for a clear reason; people get hurt when doctors or nurses cannot communicate effective with the patients they treat or fail to understand the cultural baggage that the people they’re treating carry with them.  Cultural competency applies to the capacity for those within the mainstream culture to be able to engage those who identify with a minority culture.  Cultural competency became a matter of importance for the healthcare industry starting in the 1970s when a new wave of immigrants arrived from Southeast Asia and Latin America; soon doctors had to treat patients with a poor understanding of English and an underdeveloped knowledge of American culture.  Such a situation can be frustrating for all parties involved, at best.  At worst patients die unnecessarily when people mis-communicate.

While it may not be a life or death situation for most atheists, the irreligious are too often the recipients of hostility from the dominant religiously devout sector of the country.  Cultural competency is not a black-or-white dichotomy; there is a gradation of competency ranging from a willfully destructive mentality against other cultures to an acceptance of another culture’s differences.  And as in all things, each different tradition and denomination of Christianity is sprawled out across that continuum.  On the one end of the spectrum, conservative branches of Christianity make it quite clear; atheism is an abomination and elements within right-leaning sects of Christianity actively and wantonly harass atheists, homosexuals, and other minority groups into converting to their brand of Constitutionally-protected bigotry.  And on the other end of the spectrum, some liberal schools of thought in Christianity have embraced diversity, even welcoming atheists and believers in other faiths into fellowship.  In between these two extremes there’s a mentality of unintentional destructiveness that arises out of ignorance.  This mentality can eventually give way to proficiency when members of the more dominant culture become more aware of their negligence and adopt and subsequently support a commitment to civil rights.

Cultural Competnence Continuum

In general, Christianity practices a deliberate cultural incapacity to work with the Other; while most Christians do not actively assault or criticize other faiths or views, there is an implicit argument being made.  Conversations about gay marriage or the separation of church and state are deftly avoided or simply ignored.  While no one explicitly denigrates these topics in public, (in private is surely another matter) these topics are treated as taboo.  There’s an unspoken agreement that these topics are unacceptable to talk about.  That negligence is just as destructive as any polemic.  It marginalizes an issue that determines the legal status and social acceptance of millions of GLBT community members.  By refusing to recognize the importance of this issue, Christianity is culpable.  The dominant Christian culture in the United States cannot be avoided.  And it cannot be ignored.  For all of the griping prominent members of the religious community may do about the lamentable decline of faith in America, Christianity is not going anywhere; nor will its influence on our pop culture, politics, or science relent. It permeates all aspects of our society, and in order to thrive in the United States, those in the minority have to adapt or dig in.

Within the atheist community, there are two reactions to the overbearing nature of Christianity; one can accommodate. or they can antagonize.  Accommodation is a natural reaction to the overwhelming influence of Christianity in our society.  Whether in terms of power, money, or access to those resources, Christians hold the lion’s share of the wealth and high-ranking political offices in the United States.  In order to make change, atheists need to utilize those resources. When faced with pressure from the outside to conform, some groups seek to end discord by integrating into the Christian culture.  Compromise is an essential part of the democratic political process and in order to combat the problems facing the country, atheists join diverse coalitions to become part of a broad based of support.  It also necessarily requires them to hold their silence at times in order to maintain the harmony and focus within the group. By joining the interfaith coalitions, by working within the existing networks of churches and searching for common ground, these atheists display a high level of cultural competence.  In doing so they are taking responsibility for and enabling a two-thousand year history of violence and degradation that is not their fault.  By accommodating Christians, it lets the theists off the hook for the damage they continue to do in this country.

Other atheists antagonize Christianity; as full-on anti-theists they seek to end the lithified and hegemonic dominance of Christianity.  Their goal is not so much to directly change the minds of Christians, but to activate those in the community who lack faith to be more vocal about what they believe and what they don’t.  By inspiring the irreligious to be more open about their worldview, it breaks through that shield of negligence that Christians have put up to ignore or avoid views that contradict their own.  When atheists are no longer merely tolerated but respected, it paves the way for recognition and respect.  This path also comes with consequences.  Many atheists within the community also behave unnecessarily antagonistically towards others; r/atheism comes to mind.  By alienating a large segment of the country, it can intensify the hostility atheists face.  People aren’t usually persuaded through logical arguments, they tend to be persuaded by emotional appeal.  Crusading for a scientific world solely using rational arguments is inefficient, at best.  And a more rational or scientific world does not necessarily mean a more peaceful world or even a more compassionate world.

Ultimately, the two mentalities are needed to empower the atheist community.  Although there is still certainly debate among atheists as to when it’s appropriate to engage theists in a way that’s combative or to cooperate.  One thing is for sure; there is room for both perspectives, and as long as atheists are treated in a myriad ways from a weary mix of hostility to uneasy acceptance or even tolerance, both perspectives will continue to be necessary.  As long as Christianity is an influential force in the United States, if history is any guide, the institution will largely continue to disparage atheism and atheists will need to flex their political, social, and economic might in order to earn the respect afforded to them.

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