Friday, 31 August 2012

Losing my religion.

I was born, at a young age, into a large Catholic family - Dad the second eldest of 10 kids. As previously noted in this blog I was christened, like most babies in Catholic families, without my consent and without any knowledge of what was happening. With never having a choice, I was a suddenly a Roman Catholic. 

I was enrolled in a Catholic school, taught by nuns, went to church each Sunday. At least this wasn't a trek as the Church and School were both literally next door to my house. We were Catholics and for quite some time I didn't know anybody wasn't. My family, including uncles, aunties, and cousins, were catholic, my friends were catholic, my school was catholic. I was living in a catholic world, I didn't yet know anything outside it. As my family grew, there were weddings and Christenings all of which took place in Catholic churches. Not only did I 100% believe in the story of Jesus and the god of the bible, I didn't know I couldn't. I had no idea not believing was an option. Adam and Eve were the first people. Noah built a boat because the world was going to be flooded. Jesus was crucified for my sins (huh?) and I was to apologize for that for the rest of my life. Oh, and everything in a person's life that made you feel even slightly good was something to feel guilty about. I believed all this as though it was completely true. No doubts, no questions. 

A big change came when the Church, which owned the house in which my family lived, decided they wanted to use the land on which the house stood. We had to move and did so to an area where getting to the Catholic school wasn't an option. It was the end of a 26 year run of a member of my family being enrolled at the school. So off to the government school it was, with a weekly dose of religious instruction at school and Sunday School (which took place on Saturday morning), to keep up the religious studies. I'm not sure if the move to the government school fast-tracked my move to atheism or not but I am sure it helped in not getting me even further into religion. Perhaps if I'd stayed at the Catholic school I'd be a priest now. Who knows? 

I've mentioned before that my earliest memory of testing my doubt was cooking red meat on Good Friday. I had grown up being told that eating red meat on Good Friday was an absolute no-no. I assumed that if I did it, I would be instantly struck down and sent to hell. But somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12 the idea lost it's grip on me and there was something inside me that drove me to test it out. 

So on a Good Friday I was home (I assume alone, or perhaps inside alone, I can't remember) with a steak ready to go. I don't have great memory of cooking it but I do remember clearly cutting a piece of the steak and bringing it to my mouth. I was scared. At this stage I still believed in hell, it was just that I needed to test the idea that eating meat on Good Friday would actually send me there - there was simply something about it that didn't seem true. I was shaking slightly. I remember my heart beating hard. I put the meat in my mouth and started chewing. Of course nothing happened. I was still in the kitchen. Nothing felt weird. There was no lightning, no brimstone. It tasted no different to any steak I'd previously eaten. I was a kid eating at steak on Good Friday, and I was on the path to being an atheist. 

I started wondering more about the bible. I didn't understand why there were some parts of it we lived by - we believed in Jesus, we celebrated Easter (not Eostre) and Christmas (not Saturnalia) for religious reasons, the 10 commandments were important - that sort of thing. But there were other parts we ignored - we worked on the Sabbath, eating shellfish wasn't a problem, we no longer went to church regularly. Although I still believed, I was starting to have serious doubts about the whole story. I had questions that weren't answered properly. I was never satisfied with 'god moves in mysterious ways'. It always felt like a cop-out to me. I also started to realise that what we were learning from science contradicted what was said in the bible. I remember my dad telling me that science explained religion. God created Adam and Eve...via evolution. I almost believed it.

After primary school I attended a government high school, stopped going to church, and was really a non-practising catholic. I still believed, but it didn't matter. Religion and being religious played no significant role in my life whatsoever. 

As we know though, religion is an impossible subject to escape. As I lived through the first five years after high school, when the subject came up, I found myself being less and less of a believer and more and more of a doubter. I struggled with justifying the problem of evil. I became more and more interested in all things astronomy, which lead me to detailed answers to the hows and whys of what was going on and away from the god-moves-in-mysterious-ways type 'answers'. I started wondering why not everyone was catholic. I wondered why people in certain areas were one religion while people in other areas were different. And I wondered why religions came and went and I found more and more things that science could tell me but religion could not. It slowly but steadily got to the point where my belief was all but gone. 

One day I was riding Puffing Billy with my then partner. We were talking about various things as couples do, when the subject of god came up. It was during that conversation I realised that my belief was no longer just diminishing, it was gone. 

The process had taken years. The idea of hell one of the hardest things to shake. I had thought about it and had come to a significant realisation. 

I was now an atheist. 

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

"Prove God doesn't exist" - Really?

Honestly surprised that I feel the need to write a post on this subject. I would have thought this kind of argument would have been taught out of people during the early stages of primary school. 

However, it is something that comes up quite often. A theist will make a claim that I question and their retort is '[you can't] prove god doesn't exist'. Through the twitterverse you can almost hear them sticking their tongue out and saying something like "ner nerny ner ner". 

The 'argument' is, of course, ridiculous and I'm sure the vast majority of people that follow my MrOzAtheist account on twitter will see the flaws with it immediately. So if you feel no need to continue reading, please be my guest and move on to something else. Perhaps one of my earlier blog entries may do? :) The purpose of this post is more to point theists to in the event that this argument comes at me again. 

"Prove God doesn't exist" (Always with the unnecessary capitalisation of god). My usual response, once I've stopped sighing and shaking my head, is to wonder if this person applies this 'argument' to anything other than their god. Are they saying that they will believe in anything that can't be disproved? It should seem obvious what kind of trouble this could lead to but perhaps that doesn't occur to people. I could claim to be the personification of the god they happen to believe in and tell them that they need to give me all their money. Would they comply? Of course not. Because despite them not being able prove my claim is false, I have given them absolutely no reason to think I am, in fact, their god. So if 'you can't prove I'm not your god' doesn't work on them, why would they think 'you can't prove god doesn't exist' would work on me? 

The argument also fails to consider that it can be applied to any of the numerous gods and goddesses that the person does NOT believe in. If someone believes that the inability to disprove one god justifies belief, they must admit that they should believe in ALL gods - based on that premise. Sure, I can't prove that Yahweh doesn't exist but I also can't prove Apollo doesn't exist. Wouldn't this mean the person using the argument must now believe in all Greco-Roman mythology? It does, but they wouldn't. Why? Do they actually understand that an inability to disprove the existence of a being, is NOT sufficient reason to believe that it does exist? I think they do understand this. I think the 'Well you can't prove God doesn't exist' line is a last minute, desperate attempt by someone that realises all their other arguments have failed and they've got nothing left. It is infantile. 

The phrase also ignores the burden of proof issue. When someone tells me I should believe that the god they happen to believe in is real and I'm grilling them about why, I have no burden of proof. We all know that they have made the claim and I'm simply trying to get them to justify it. To resort to telling me that I can't prove that god doesn't exist is completely nonsensical. Sure, if I was to make the claim that their god does not exist, I would expect to be asked to defend that position, however, when I'm simply de-constructing the argument they're putting forward, and not making a claim of my own: that I can't prove their god doesn't exist, is irrelevant. 

To finalize, if we ever have a discussion about the existence of the god you believe in and you resort to 'prove god doesn't exist', you have failed. 

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

The prayer challenge.

Even when I was a believer I couldn't really understand the purpose of prayer. We used to pray at church and when I stayed over at my grandparent's house or cousin's house. I couldn't understand what we were doing. Though christening me before I was old enough to 1) Object and 2) Know what was happening, mum and dad weren't really strict on religious rituals at home. They sent me to a Catholic school (according to one of the nuns/teachers, when I left that school it was the end of a 26 year run of one of my family members being enrolled there). Apart from that, church on Sunday was pretty much the limit. 

I've since come to understand that prayer is really for the person doing the praying, rather than for the people being prayed for. When praying for the victims of a tragedy, the pray-ers feel like they're doing something. They feel like they're helping fix the situation. There's plenty of quotes about what's going on here. One that I really like is "One pair of hands working does more than 1000 clasped in prayer" This feels very accurate for me. 

But going back to the purpose of prayer - what exactly are we trying to achieve. The kind of prayer I'm talking about is the one directed to an omniscient god. The god that knows not only that we are going to pray, but when we're going to pray and what we're going to pray for. 

I recently saw on twitter that someone tweeted they were praying to find a missing girl. It's lovely that this person was concerned for the welfare of the missing girl and of course I don't have a problem with that. Who could? What I didn't understand was what he thought he prayer would achieve. I asked a couple of questions, but never got answers. I guess the questions may have been seen as an 'attack' but I was genuinely curious. I asked whether the god that was being prayed to was waiting for this person to pray before ensuring the girl would be found safely. Or perhaps there was a target number that the god required. Maybe if 9,999 people pray the girl is never found, but once the 10,000th person gets on board, the right police officer knocks on the right door at the right time and she's found safe and returned to her family. Of course the god in question knows these people are going to pray so why wait for the right number? It's not like those people know how many others are praying. Why not let the missing girl be found immediately since he knows that the right amount of people are going to pray? (Of course it's a different topic to question why he would allow the girl to go missing in the first place). When the person is praying, are they asking god to do something that he wouldn't have otherwise thought of (despite knowing everything about everything forever)? Do they think that god is sitting(?) there, knowing that someone is missing and wishing he could do something about it? He then receives a prayer from Tommy in Jacksboro, Texas, asking god that the missing girl is found safe and well and god thinks Ah Ha! That's what I can do...I can save her! Thanks Tommy. I doubt this is what the fictitious Tommy is expecting, so why is he bothering to pray? 

Natural disaster is also a big time for prayer. Whether it be earthquake, tsunami, bushfire, or cyclone, when something catastrophic happens the pray-ers of the world get fired up and try to encourage as many people as they can to join them. Twitter will always see a new hashtag get created. #PrayForJapan for example. Again I need to question what people think they're going to achieve. Whatever the natural disaster is, people that believe in prayer must necessarily believe that the god they're praying to allowed the disaster to occur. Are they assuming that their god of choice is unaware of the destruction he has caused? Do they think he's sitting there with all the angels saying 'hey, check this out' then creates an earthquake before boasting about all the buildings he made collapse? Is it only when the prayers start arriving asking that people survive the disaster that god realises that maybe people aren't 100% happy with what's going on? Does Michael or Gabriel (or their equivalent) need to tap this god on the shoulder and say 'Um god...the humans aren't happy with that earthquake. They're asking if you can save some of the people'. We must not forget that this is an omniscient god. He knew before he allowed the earthquake to happen that people wouldn't be happy. He knew before the earthquake that people were going to ask that people be saved. So given that god knows all this, and he knows this beforehand...why are people praying to him? What is the goal of the prayer? 

When a tsunami hit Japan I received some criticism on twitter for saying 'rather than praying for Japan, why not do something useful and donate'. The criticism wasn't from a religion person. They asked who I was to say what was useful and what wasn't. They questioned why it was a bad thing to pray, suggesting that a person sitting on the other side of the world might feel completely useless and that praying might be the way the can feel like they're contributing. This goes back to what I said at the start - praying is for the person doing the praying, not the person being prayed for - and praying is certainly not for the god being prayed to. One religious friend said that rather than needing donations over prayers, we need both. Although I concede that maybe there could be an argument made for saying that people being prayed for could take comfort from knowing that although people are unable to help, at least the victims are in their thoughts, the same arugument could be made for simply letting the victims know. 'We haven't forgotten you, you are in our thoughts'. How would this be any less affective than 'we're praying for you'?

The discussion about prayer versus donations lead me to write something that to this day is still one of my favourite tweets of mine. I said 'Tell you what, put all the prayers in one warehouse and all the donations in another warehouse and let the Japanese take their pick'. 

Being an atheist with a twitter account means I get to hear a phrase pretty much daily. I'm sure you can guess what it is... 'I'll pray for you'. Yep, this is the way many theists choose to end a discussion - 'I'll pray for you'. It has been described to me as being passive/aggressive. There is certainly something about it that feels threatening, though I'd be surprised to learn that it's ever meant that way. I'm sure it's genuine. I'm sure the person saying it feels that letting me know they're praying for me should be seen as a good thing (it's not). There is the old response 'I'll think for you'. But I prefer to ask why they would pray for me when the could be praying for a child starving to death. I've said 'rather than do that, why not spend the time reading a science book'. I've also told them that I'm being prayed for by many, many people and I'm still an atheist, and that their praying is simply a waste of time. 

This leads me to issuing the prayer challenge which I first saw on The Atheist Experience. It was given by Matt Dillahunty in response to a caller asking what would convince Matt that god was real and is borrowed by me here. 

I don't believe in god, therefore I necessarily don't believe in prayer. It might, however, be possible to convince me simultaneously that these things are real. 

The Prayer challenge:
If you believe there is a god, and if you believe that this god answers prayers do this - Pray to your god and have them tell you what you can do to convince me he/she is real. Once you have this information, come back to me. Present that information. I will then be a believer. 

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Respect all beliefs? I don't think so.

"We should all respect each other's beliefs". 

This is the view of some of the more moderate believers that I encounter. On the surface it seems admirable and something I would support. Why wouldn't we respect what people believe? It seems very basic and straight forward. You respect what I believe, I respect what you believe, and we all get along and maybe have a beer and a BBQ. 

Of course, if it was that simple, I wouldn't be writing this post.

The problem is, beliefs guide actions and actions can and do impact on others - sometimes that impact is negative and it happens regardless of whether the person being impacted shares the belief or not. This kind of unjustified negative impact is, of course, unacceptable. 

"Homosexuality is a 'sin' and same-sex couples don't deserve the right to marry."  This is probably the classic case of a person being negatively impacted by the beliefs of others. In Australia (and many other places of course), if you and your partner happen to be of the same gender, you're not allowed to get married to each other. You see someone somewhere (read: many people, many places) 'believes' that marriage should be restricted to being between a man and a woman. For reasons that are almost universally religiously motivated (and if it's not religiously motivated, it's political motivation based on the religiosity of others) people have declared that same sex couples don't deserve to have the same status as a mixed gender couple. It is obvious discrimination, sanctioned by government, and based on nothing but the unsubstantiated beliefs of the religious. 

I have no reason to respect the belief that says there's something 'wrong' with someone being attracted to the same sex. It's a hurtful belief. It's a discriminatory belief. It says 'I don't think you deserve the rights that I enjoy myself'. There is nothing there worthy of my respect. 

I once tweeted  When people say 'everyone's beliefs should be respected' remember - The Westboro Baptist Church do what they do because of their 'beliefs'. I don't know anyone that supports the Westboro Baptist Church. I don't know anyone that would defend them and their actions. Not one sane person thinks that what the Westboro people do is good for society. In case you're not familiar, this is them:

Yep, these people not only involve themselves, they also involve their children. They picket the funerals of soldiers killed in action. They picket the funerals of well known people that supported the gay/lesbian community. They are despicable, vile, and awful people. But make no mistake, this do this because of what they 'believe'. They really do believe their god hates 'fags'. They really do believe their god is punishing America because America allows homosexuality.  This is hateful. It's disgusting behaviour and I do not and will not respect the belief that drives it. 

The above two examples are obvious illustrations of how a belief can drive a person to think they have the right to infringe on other people but this certainly isn't the limit. It would be a massive post if I listed all the examples.There's examples of genital mutilation of both boys and girls, people dying of curable diseases because people prayed rather than seeking professional medical care, children indoctrinated into religions without their consent, Muslim children being cut during Ashura, and many more, not the least of which are racism and sexism. All of these are examples of where someone's *baseless* belief has impacted on the lives of others. I guess it's up to the individual to decide whether or not that impact is a negative. (Someone trying to make a case to me that it's a positive to have a person die because medical attention wasn't sought would have a very hard time convincing me they are right). 

These kinds beliefs are hurtful, they are discriminatory, they are negatives. From where I sit, none of these beliefs are worthy of my respect. Respect should be earned, not be given away by default. People should be able to say 'this is what I believe, this is why I believe it, and this is the impact on others'. Upon receiving this information I'll decide whether or not to respect the belief. I don't need to respect a belief simply because someone has it.

Before I'm done, let me clarify something. I respect everyone's right *to believe* whatever they like. You want to believe a god exists...go for it. You want to believe said god has a problem with homosexuals, that's up to you. You want to believe some really old bloke built an ark, put something around 5 million species of animal on it and then floated around on a body of water large enough to cover the peak of Mt Everest and that this happened only 6000 years my guest. In fact, I support your right to believe any asinine, boneheaded, ridiculous, made up, preposterous, piece of crap, bullshit, unscientific, mythical story you like. Two things: One - Don't expect me to be ok with you using those beliefs for infringing on the lives of others. Two - Don't expect me to respect it.

Friday, 3 August 2012

What I do and why I do it.

I started my twitter account ‘MrOzAtheist’ a little over a year ago because I found myself getting into a few arguments with theists on my everyday twitter account and my mentions (yes, apparently a ‘mentions’ is something you have now) filled with arguing.

I didn't want to overwhelm my regular account with atheist tweeting/debating but I didn't want to give it up either, so MrOzAtheist got created. I followed other atheists (the first few being MattDilahunty, MsPraxis, RosaRubicondior, Monicks, GodlessAtheist, UTBrainstorm, Secular_Oz, kaimatai, and ReneeHendricks all of whom I still follow) and quickly found I enjoyed reading their tweets;  learning a lot from the things they were saying and the links they were providing. It was helping me grow and become more comfortable as an atheist.

Looking through twitter for the words ‘atheist’ and ‘atheists’ not only lead me to fellow atheists and the things they were saying but also exposed me to things theists were saying or asking about atheists. I had no idea they were so concerned about us. Sometimes the questions or statements were genuine, but often they were ridiculous (No atheists in foxholes, do atheists have to swear on the bible, can atheists get insurance for acts of god, being three of the most common examples of the latter).

I did and still enjoy answering the genuine questions. I’ve encountered many theists that have had limited or no exposure to atheists and their understanding of what being an atheist reflects this. They think all sorts of things about us that just aren’t true so sometimes I try to help. It can be quite rewarding to have a theist reply with something like ‘oh, I didn’t know that, thanks for letting me know’. Yes, it does happen.

For the more nonsensical or asinine tweets I use a style of answering these by quoting the original tweet and adding “//” before writing my reply.

“@twitterTheist When atheists go to court do they have to swear on the bible” // Yes, but we have to wear a fire proof glove.  

Their part being before the // and mine being after. These are what I call my smart arse tweets. I do this when the question is probably not genuine and certainly not original. I do this to have a bit of light-hearted fun. It amuses me, if but for a moment. That it seems to amuse others occasionally is a bonus and something I enjoy experiencing.

Then, of course, there are the genuine replies to theists. The ones where a theist will make a claim about atheists, it’s clearly wrong, and I question them or correct them. These responses lead to a kind of debating doesn’t really lead anywhere. Neither party is going to walk away with their mind changed. So why do it? Because I think it’s important to let theists know that atheists DO speak back. That we don’t just sit here and take rubbish being thrown at us. Sure I’m not going to convince these people that they’re wrong, that’s not the point. I want them to learn that atheists stand up for themselves. I want them to walk away knowing that atheists aren’t a group that you can slander without questioning. I want them to learn that if you say dumb things about atheists on the internet, you will receive replies, and many of them. I tweet to them to get this message out.

Lastly and maybe most importantly I tweet the way I do because not all atheists can. Not all atheists live in countries where being an atheist is acceptable. Not all atheists live in communities where being an atheist is acceptable. Not all atheists live in a family where being an atheist is acceptable. As I said in one of my more popular tweets – “I wish theists would understand that atheists are not vocal just to argue with them, we're vocal so other atheists know they're not alone.” It is a wonderful by-product of what I do that other atheists appreciate it. There is what I think of as an atheist community on twitter and I very much enjoy being part of it, I like feeling included and I like feeling that I'm making a contribution, even if is a small one. I feel that the more atheism is accepted somewhere, the more likely it will be accepted everywhere.

It’s a wonderful thing to be told that my words are enjoyed or that I’m inspiring, or that I say the things they wish they could say. To know that what I do means something to people and helps people gives me the confidence to keep going and gives me the hope that maybe the atheist point of view is getting somewhere. I feel proud that I help people, even if it is something small at 140 characters and time, and I hope to keep doing it. Realising you’re an atheist, especially if you’re in a religious family, is not always an easy thing to deal with. Knowing that my words have helped with this is great. Probably the most significant moment I had was when someone told me I am the reason they are now an atheist. Of course not the sole reason, the doubts and questions obviously had existed for quite some time, but talking to me gave her the ‘final nudge to the non-believer side’. 

That is why I do what I do.