Ask An Atheist Day 2011

Ask-An-Atheist Day Poster

Ask-An-Atheist Day Poster on campus

Today is National Ask An Atheist Day, sponsored by the Secular Student Alliance and many other skeptical organizations around the United States. Our goal is to increase understanding about atheism and atheists and allow those with concerns about non-belief and non-believers to ask questions or voice concerns. If you have any questions you would like to ask the staff at Atheist Soapbox and the Atheist Youth movement, just leave a comment below and we will be sure to answer your question!

Also students at Boston University and Gainesville State College in Georgia can find Ben Conover and Nick Carpenter on campus during the day. Ben will be at the George Sherman Union (GSU) with the BU Humanists from 11-1 and again from 4-5. Look for Nick and the SSA chapter at GSC around campus today.

The Imprisonment of Belief

What do you think of when I juxtapose Prison and God?

Imprisonment of Belief

Imprisonment of Belief

One thought that comes to mind is the conversion stories of prisoners to Christianity. As a pre-pubescent teenager who went to church and even occasionally youth group, I heard the stories of men — never women — who found God in prison. The chorus rang out, “Of course God must exists if those who in the confines of our rehabilitative facilities can find Him.” Melodic, eh? Bradley Wright, Ph.D, sociology professor at the University of Connecticut, points to the abstract of the book Why God Is Often Found Behind Bars: Prison Conversions and the Crisis of Self-Narrative (Cite) for reasons prison conversions are so popular:

As summarized in the abstract, prisoners converted because:
– creates a new social identity to replace the label of prisoner or criminal,

 

– imbues the experience of imprisonment with purpose and meaning,
– empowers the largely powerless prisoner by turning him into an agent of God,
– provides the prisoner with a language and framework for forgiveness, and
– allows a sense of control over an unknown future.” (Cite)
 
All of these reasons appeal to the incarcerated individual, and many of these reasons lead people to Christianity on the other side of the bars. I need only point to the title of Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life to highlight this. In essence, Christianity provides hope to prisoners that they are not awful people, they can be redeemed and God loves them. Unfit for society, but not unfit for the Almighty.  
 
However, I am concerned here with the other side of the proverbial coin. That is to say I am not in this piece concerned particularly with the happiness or pseudo-“purpose” of the prisoners life. In fact, I want to enter the mind of the prison manager.
 
I want to run the most efficient prison possible. I want to garner social control with the least amount of physical force. Ideally, I would want the prisoners to behave like model citizens without my keen eye observing them at all times. However, from experience, I know the prisoners only behave well when they are under my watchful eye.
 
Enter the 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham. He presented the idea of the Panopticon as a way to instill maximum social control without having to do much work at all. His architectural design placed a watchtower in the center of a prison with the rooms of the prisoners surrounding it. From the watchtower, the guards could theoretically see every prisoners’ cell and each prisoner would know they could potentially be under surveillance. For Bentham, the importance lied in “that the persons to be inspected should always feel themselves as if under inspection, at least as standing a great chance of being so.” The Panopticon assures that no one is going to try anything against the rules because they are always being watched. As modern philosopher Michel Foucault said, “The major effect of the panopticon: is to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” 
 
The Panopticon puts all the power within the control of the guards. Big Brother. Eye in the Sky. It knows all, sees all. Social control is effectively put in place. Many argue this has effectively been put in place in modern society. 
 
Now I want to extend this to social control of society. In particular, as the dictator or ruler of a society. It is a bit difficult to put a tower in the center of an entire country or empire and be able to see all. Outside of modern technology, the ability to act as big brother was severely limited. Still, as an emperor or dictator, you want social control. You do not want your people plotting revolution or committing crimes against each other without your consent. How do you enact the Panopticon without the ability to actually enact the Panopticon?

Enter God.
 

The all-seeing, omniscient and omnipotent God allows rulers to use him as the ultimate Panopticon. Not only that, but because religion provides social cohesion and collective consciousness — see Emile Durkheim — you have a united nation who understands those outside of your religion as other and will want to work towards the good of those with the same belief. When one becomes fervently religious, you may actively work to protect those in your faith from The Other. Conjure up the Crusades or 9/11, it does not matter. 

Philosoraptor makes a good point, and all those who grew up in the Church should know the answer to his question. God and Santa Claus are not all that different. Sing with me:

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re a wake
He knows when you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake.

Be good for God’s sake. But really, be good for your own sake. Religion grew up on this notion. If you do bad thing, God will know, and will punish you for it in the afterlife, if not on earth. So in fact, be good for your own sake or God will punish you. You may be forgiven if you just ask for it — depending on which branch of Christianity you follow, add some penance here — although you did not particularly ask God to watch everything you do in the first place. Remember, also, for quite a while there were the all-but-unforgivable mortal sins. Seriously, why God should care about masturbation, which really provides some serious health benefits? (Cite) Certainly the rulers who first used His omniscience were not particularly concerned with the solo orgasms of their people. Apparently now God is.

I have not proved the non-existence of God. If anything, I have proved the ingenuity of using Him as a social control mechanism. I simply gave an account of what could be called the Imprisonment of Belief. At Least with Santa, there is no fires of hell. Just coal in a stocking.

American Humanist Association Convention 2011: Richard Dawkins, the SSA and Why I Love the Secular Movement

Richard Dawkins and Ben Conover at AHA 2011

Richard Dawkins and Ben Conover at AHA 2011

I spent the last 4 days across the Charles River in Cambridge, MA at the American Humanist Association Convention. Never have I had such a fantastic time in Boston with other atheists/agnostics/skeptics/humanists discussing how to push the movement forward and partying like crazy!

Thursday started out very well. I went to a breakout session about how to push your own group forward and combining with national organizations to reach new heights. Afterwards I ran into some Facebook acquaintances and made some new friends before I was whisked away to the Undergraduate Philosophy Association meeting at BU.
Friday, I met up with my friend Annie and was allowed to spend a lot of time volunteering with the Secular Student Alliance at their table and with the angel named Suzy at the Richard Dawkins Foundation table. (http://www.secularstudents.org/ ;http://richarddawkins.net/) I met so many fantastic people and had such a good time hanging out with all of them. We traveled around Cambridge to get eats and just look around, and I got the pleasure of hearing Professor Richard Dawkins speak. If you do not know who that is, click on the link above. After hanging out with some great people, I got the opportunity to stay at the hotel with my friend Nick C. and enjoyed the company of new friends and delightful talks. (Shout out to Debbie Goddard of the Center for Inquiry for a great discussion of feminism and the LGBT Movement)
On Saturday all of the students had the privilege of having breakfast with Prof. Dawkins, and when we were just killing time, this occurred:
AHA Convention chess

AHA Convention chess

We set up a chess board out of sugar packets and other condiments. Delightful. After that I worked more with the SSA people (they are the best) and went to talks by J.T. Eberhard, Jason Frye, Bill Baird, and many others. I got to meet so many people from the Secular Coalition of America, the Center for Inquiry, the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, Ethical Societies and Cultures, and this list could go on forever. I shook hands with Steven Pinker and saw many other heroes including Bart Ehrman while spending a delightful times with new friends from the SSA and beyond. Once again we had quite a night of hanging out and partying and it was more than dandy.

Sunday we finished up table work and went out all throughout Cambridge once more, spending a lot of time around MIT and on Harvard’s campus. My friends Andy and Felice got tattoos showing their atheism and it was an all around fantastic day. The night ended with a great fiery speech from James Croft of the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy about how to move Humanism forward. Remarkable man (who we may be doing an interview soon!) and friend.

American Humanist Association Convention 2011 dinner

American Humanist Association Convention 2011 dinner

There is so much I could say about the conference, it was absolutely fantastic. You will be seeing all our new affiliates very shortly on the sidebar and maybe even posts to come. We might add some new contributors to the blog and you WILL be seeing pictures added to this post. Peace and Love.

A Warm Welcome Home

American Humanist Association

American Humanist Association

I was able to get out of the cauldron of ignorance kindly referred to as the South for a weekend to attend the 70th Anniversary American Humanist Association Conference in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I had an absolutely phenomenal time, made great friends, and met many of my heroes. Unfortunately, as they say, all good things must come to an end.

 

Today was my first day back at school since I left for the conference, and I had almost forgotten how ignorant people from the South are. As I walked to my car after class, I found the strangest thing on it: someone had taken two strips of masking tape and formed a cross on the back of my car. Now, I’m used to being told that I’m going to Hell. I’m used to empty, anonymous threats of untold physical harm coming to me. I’m used to funny looks. I’m used to “loving” proselytizing. Vandalism, however, is new to me.
Granted, it’s only masking tape, and the residue would likely come off with a bit of soap and water, but it isn’t the damage to my car that I’m worried about. What I’m worried about is the principle of the matter. People speak of Southern Hospitality as if it were a ‘no exceptions’ policy– it isn’t. The moment I became a vocal atheist, I became a target for every Evangelical in the area. In the Middle East, if you represent a different worldview, you stand a high risk of being a target of a terrorist attack. It is the same in the US, only it is a different kind of terrorism. The American fundamentalists will do everything they can to make your life miserable in hopes that you will simply shut up. If that fails, they will run smear campaigns and compare you to Stalin.
I say enough. Enough cowering behind ‘religious tolerance.’ Enough saying, “Oh, they are just a small fringe group.” The moderates do nothing to stop them, and, I think, secretly agree with everything they are doing. They are guilty by association. These fundamentalists must be stopped. Their weapons are fear and guilt. My weapons are logic and reason.
I’m sick of tip-toeing around in fear of offending people. I’m sick of being told to respect other people’s “beliefs.” I hold nothing but contempt for the book on which they base their belief, so how can I possibly respect the belief itself? Sure, it is absolutely their right to believe nonsense, but I won’t stand by idly while religious nutjobs bury this country for good. When will people see that, like Christopher Hitchens says, religion poisons everything?
It’s time that all atheists stand up. Join a free-thought group. Wear the scarlet ‘A’ of the Richard Dawkins Out Campaign. Just do something.

The Dilemma of God and Japan

Japan Earthquake 2011

Japan Earthquake 2011

In case you have not heard, an earthquake and tsunami ravaged the people of Japan a few weeks ago. The death toll is now well over 10,000. Included in the horrors brought on by these is the failure of the nuclear plant in Fukushima Daiichi. The plant suffered severe damage and continues to leak radioactive material into the atmosphere and into water.

In response to this devastating tragedy, this YouTube video, which went viral, was posted:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mnKOMj5zCns&feature=related
(note: the subtitles are supposed to be God, as added by host channel of this video.)

While she might be a troll — although this man’s response to me about the possibility of her being a troll seems about right (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ep7rN17yAU0&feature=iv&annotation_id=annotation_814746) — she is supported. By 38% of Americans. 29% of Americans believe natural disasters are divine retribution. An analyst on FOX News hailed this poll as a pragmatic approach by Americans to their theology. Apparently the governor of Tokyo initially agreed as well, until he later apologized. The kind-hearted girl who posted the YouTube video said this was God showing himself to atheists and that by the end of Lent, we would see such natural disasters in Europe and America.

(Source: http://www.atheistmedia.com/2011/03/38-of-americans-believe-japan-disaster.html)

If we follow this girl’s logic, Atheist Soapbox is partially responsible for the natural disasters in Japan. God apparently reads our blog and saw that we have 157 people who viewed our posts in Japan. To warn us, he must have taken out our second largest readership, and now is going to move on to us. Apparently 116,662,489 people might agree with this interpretation here in America. That, frankly, disgusts me.

Okay seriously, what do we do about this?

Up to 100,000,000 people believe God took out Japan for their wickedness. As one viral video claimed, this was the fault of ignorant atheists. Yes, 200,000,000 people know God did not strike down the people of Japan. Still, I will reiterate: 100,000,000 people is A LOT OF PEOPLE. Why are we not having discussions between believers who do not hold this view, non-believers, and believers who do hold this view in order to educate those who think of God in this way? Why are we not talking about how God fits in with this tragedy that left 10,000 people dead and innumerable families scarred?

Some classic responses:
God works in mysterious ways. There is no way to know whether or how God contributed to what happened in Japan. We cannot understand the mind of God, and we can only say that our loving God would not cause such destruction.

I seem to recall a rather vengeful God in the Old Testament. I seem to remember Sodomand Gomorrah getting annihilated for their sinful ways. How about Amalekites? I also recall a flood. Japan might not have very many strict atheists, but they sure have a lot of non-Christians.

Does this all sound familiar? The same sorts of arguments were given by most evangelical preachers about Hurricane Katrina when it ravaged New Orleans. You know, New Orleans? It is known as a party city. So what did God do to that party city? Hello natural disaster.

The devil was in New Orleans. The devil was in Japan.

Not anymore.

So how would you respond to this argument? I certainly do not believe God has anything to do with natural disasters. I am confident saying any atheist would agree with that statement. The discrepancy comes among believers. I know many, many, many Catholics, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, etc. do not think God smote either location. I want to know why. Not only do I want to know why, I want to know what you would say to another believer who thinks God just killed 10,000 people.

Enlighten them and enlighten me

Ben Conover is a freshman philosophy major at Boston University. He recently spoke at the Ethical Society of St. Louis on Atheism, the Atheist Youth Movement and Bishop Edward Rice’s comments on atheists.

NOTE: The situation in Japan is tragic and I hope that I did not make light of it in any way in this article. It was not my intention and I hope I made that blatantly clear. If you would like to donate to the relief efforts in Japan, please visit http://www.redcross.org/ or any of the of the many relief effort organizations