Sunday, January 28, 2007

What does it mean to believe in something?

This morning's message at church was about the pagan holiday Imbolc, which is the holiday celebrated to make note that the days are growing in length and that Spring is on the way. For the benefit of people in the congregation who are not Pagan, the minister gave a brief explaination of earth-based religion and it's place within Unitarian Universalism. She had an interesting thing to say about belief. I don't remember the exact words, but the gist of it was that it doesn't matter whether the things you profess to believe in are (literally) true or not, what matter is whether or not they help you to connect with...well...people, nature, or whatever it is you want to connect with.

This brought up in the mind the difference, often unspoken/forgotten/confused, between "believing in" something and believing something. Believing is having an idea of how you think the world really works when you don't or can't know for sure. To believe something is to believe that it is true objectively. If this belief is true, then it is true for everyone. It's not knowledge I'm talking about, though some seem to confuse belief and knowledge. (The phrase "I believe and KNOW" comes to mind--as if a belief that is believed strongly enough counted as knowledge. But I digress...) Belief of this sort is a placeholder for knowledge--it's a hypothesis that maybe just can't be tested yet, but should be as soon as that is possible. And then that hypothesis should be accepted or rejected according the evidence.

"Believing in" something, on the other hand, is the belief that that something is good, or useful, or thinking that there is some sort of virtue in believing it. It looks to me as if there are many religious people who "believe in" things without really "believing" them. It's like people saying that they believe in God when what they really mean is that they believe that one should believe in God. Or magic. Or the immortal soul. Or karma. Or [fill in the blank].

I don't really don't think there is anything wrong with "believing in" things, just so long as you don't get so carried away with really believing them that you insist that all other people must also believe them or they are just WRONG WRONG WRONG. "Believing in" is by nature subjective and I suppose this is what people mean if they talk about subjective truth (a concept which has long bothered me and still does to some extent).

I went to the Imbolc ceremony that the CUUPS group put on at my church tonight. Even being the scientific rationalist that I am, I can't resist a bit of ritual from time to time, and no group does ritual quite like Pagans. I've looked into Paganism before but was turned off by what looked like a lot of mumbo-jumbo and superstition. I still am turned off by a lot of this, esp. if someone tries to talk me into some astrology or tarot or something of the sort. But what I like about Paganism is the way that it follows real cycles in nature and in human life. There is nothing superstitious at all in celebrating the fact that the days are now getting longer and Spring promises to come, even though we are right in the middle of Winter. It is a season of hope--that from the dead of winter, life and warmth will return again. I have found that I can fully participate in this even while staying firmly grounded in reason.

I don't believe that the Lord and Lady of Paganism (mentioned many times in the ceremony) are real but I do believe in hope. I do believe in persevering though the Winter in the hope that Spring will come again.

Monday, January 22, 2007

getting settled in

I've been in my new apartment for one week and two weekends now. It's been really nice having my own place, especially now that I've finally got cable and internet and a landline phone now. Even though I am now at Mike's house using the wireless network I just set up :).

One of the benefits of having my own place is that I can read when I want to without being interrupted. I finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, and I highly recommend it. I had gotten tired of reading about arguments against the existence of god(s) quite a while ago after I'd become quite secure in my atheism--I felt it was time to quit beating that point into the ground and go on. But that sort of stuff makes up only a very small portion of this book. Most books on atheism seem to be written by philosophers, and as much as I like philosophy, it was a breath of fresh air to see a distinguished scientist tackle the issue head on. He is not interested only displaying that the supernatural claims of religion are imaginary, but he took some time tackling the question of how we ended up with religion in the world in the first place. I found his discussion about the evolution of religion from a Darwinian perspective pretty interesting. I ought to go back and spend some time reviewing the book, and then write a real review. If I ever get around to it.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Getting a place of my own

I've decided to get into an apartment for a year and try to save up for a house while I'm there. I'm going to sign the lease Friday evening and start moving in ASAP.
Finally, a place of my own!

Monday, January 08, 2007

Amusing Video

The rant gets a bit old, but hold out until the middle of the video and it gets funny. This is for every one who has been awoken on a Saturday morning by Mormon missionaries.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Atheists say they've been threatened over their views

I was at the atheist meetup group in Louisville where this guy interviewed our group. I just happened to stumble on the story on the internet today. It's not bad :)
Atheists say they've been threatened over their views

Atheists say they've been threatened over their views

Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The note on Blair Scott's windshield wasn't a nice one.

The anonymous writer had to have seen Scott's atheist-themed bumper sticker, an uncommon sight in the small south Alabama town where he lived at the time.

"It just amazed me that people would take time out of their day to return to their car, grab a pen and paper and write a 'You're going to hell and you're going to burn in a lake of fire,' and stick it under my windshield," said Scott, a 36-year-old veteran who installs computer systems in prisons.

Outspoken atheists like Scott remain a minority, but there are dozens of atheist chapters sprouting up around the country, and even many in Southern states dominated by conservative Christians.

Many who consider themselves atheists said they're afraid to mention their views on religion or that they don't believe in deities. It's an especially unpopular opinion in the South, they said.

"Do I think that any of these people are really afraid if someone knows they're an atheist that they're going to get shot down on the street tomorrow? No. But the thought is always there in the back of your mind," said Joe Mays, Louisville computer technician who helped organize an atheist group that meets monthly.

Atheism is generally considered a disbelief in god or other deities, but some self-described atheists said they feel it is better described as a conclusion one arrives at sometime in their life.

"I don't really care for the word belief," said Edwin Kagan, a northern Kentucky lawyer who has defended atheist clients. "People say do I believe in evolution? It's not something to be believed in, it's something to be learned. Like the multiplication table. Do you believe in the multiplication table, or do you use it, do you learn it?"

Some estimates say as much as 15 percent of the population is atheist, though few call themselves by that title, said Jim Heldberg, national affiliation director for American Atheists in San Francisco. Heldberg said his group has 60 independent groups in many cities around the country. And there are many high-profile people who have expressed atheist views or a disbelief in God, including cyclist Lance Armstrong, golfer Annika Sorenstam and actresses Angelina Jolie and Jodie Foster.

At a meeting of the Louisville atheist group earlier this year, several members spoke of a fear of retribution if they mentioned their views around family or at work. Most didn't want to be identified. The members - including a factory worker, a nurse, a real estate agent, an accountant and some who work in computers - considered putting up flyers in local bookstores to attract new members, but they scrapped the idea when one said they would likely be torn down.

"Nobody's your friend when you're an atheist," one member said. Another member, Christopher Helbert, wryly suggested that he would rather his parents know he was gay than an atheist, because they would say "gay is curable."

A study at the University of Minnesota this year lends credence to the group's discussion. It found that Americans favor gays and lesbians, recent immigrants and Muslims over atheists in "sharing their vision of American society." Respondents also said they were least accepting of intermarriage with atheists than with any other group.

"I think the key to this animosity is probably this idea that somehow morality and religion are deeply linked and if you lose any kind of religious doctrine, you inevitably lose some purchase upon morality," said Sam Harris, best-selling author of "Letter to a Christian Nation."

Harris' book is a response to Christians who have criticized his writings on atheism.

"People think unless you've found Jesus, you can't love your neighbor in any significant sense," he said.

Some atheists have gone to court to challenge American institutions, most popularly the "Under God" portion of the Pledge of Allegiance, which was added in 1954.

In 2002, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the pledge is unconstitutional when recited in public schools, agreeing with a suit filed by atheist Michael Newdow of Sacramento, Calif. The Supreme Court in 2004 reversed that decision. Newdow has since revived the case and last year a federal judge ruled in his favor.

Newdow said atheists cannot get elected to office and that elected officials consistently side with people of faith on many issues.

"Government sends the message that it's a bad thing to be an atheist," Newdow said in a phone interview.

Scott said when he was living in Mobile, Ala., people were tipped off to his atheist views after he wrote an editorial to the local newspaper protesting a proposed bible class at a public school. He said he never mentioned that he was an atheist in the letter.

Scott said after that, his car was bashed up by a baseball bat and a cross was planted in his yard.

He has since moved to Huntsville and now heads a local atheist chapter in that town, which he said is much more tolerant because of the number of NASA scientists who live there.

"I think there's almost an unwillingness to come out of the closet for most atheists, especially in the Bible belt, because of the type of repercussions from people of faith," he said. "Some nasty stuff has happened to people, some really nasty stuff. And people are afraid of that."


On the net:

"Letter to a Christian Nation"