Write an Atheist (Prisoner)

I recently found out about a website called writeaprisoner.com, a website which lets you do exactly what it says. And it’s actually a lot like a dating website, with photos of each person, self-written bios which read just like dating website bios, and a detailed search function, just like a dating website. And one of the parameters they allow you to search by is… religion.

So I decided to run some searches, curious to see how the percentages break down in terms of atheists/agnostics vs Christians vs. other religions. Before we get into the results (which were quite interesting), there were a few caveats regarding the data which became immediately apparent:

  • Many of the “religion” options are obviously not mutually exclusive, with some of them actually going “three levels” deep (e.g. Baptists are also Protestants, and Protestants are also Christians). For purposes of what I’m interested in though, that’s pretty much a non-issue since all of the Christian denominations clearly fall under the umbrella of “Christianity”.
  • Another category is called “Non-Denominational”, which–here in America at least–is often used (somewhat disingenuously) as a synonym for fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Which of course is only “not a denomination” in a technical sense; their core doctrines of Biblical literalism, strict inerrancy, salvation by faith, political conservatism, overemphasis on Paul, and underemphasis on Jesus are really just as much of a “denomination” as any other (granted you’ll find some N.D. churches which don’t fit this mold, but those seem to be in the minority). Either way, N.D. Christians are still encompassed within “Christianity”, so ultimately it doesn’t really affect the Christian vs. non-Christian breakdown (though I admit it’s possible that not all of the N.D.’s understood the term to mean “non-denominational Christianity”).
  • Slightly more problematic is the category of “N/A”, which could conceivably mean anything from an atheist to a non-religiously affiliated theist, much like the “None/Unaffiliated” category that you’ll typically see on religious surveys. So certainly some of the “N/A’s” could be atheists/agnostics who reject the label for some reason or another, though it would be sheer speculation to guess how many that could be. However, as is the case with the N.D. category, the site allows for the specific options of atheist or agnostic to be selected for those who identify as such, and the numbers I’ll be comparing against also include the “Unaffiliated” category, so regardless of how many of the “N/A’s” may actually fall under one of the other categories, it will still be an apples-to-apples comparison.Obviously the people who have signed up to participate as prisoners are not a random sampling of the prison population, so this is far from a truly “scientific” analysis. Such is life.

So, on to the data. The first thing that jumps out: The percentage of atheists and agnostics is virtually nonexistent. Among the 8,353 male prisoners, only 33 identify as atheist and 81 as agnostic, making for a combined 1.3%. Among the 728 female prisoners, only three are agnostics and one is an atheist, for a combined percentage of about 0.5%. Overall, only .37% (about a third of 1%) of all of the prisoners explicitly identify as “atheists” (and interestingly, the number of atheists/agnostics in this sample, as miniscule as they are, are actually significantly higher than those from prior surveys of the prison population).

Here are the combined numbers in one chart:

writeaprisoner

So how does that compare to the general population? According to the 2012 Pew Research poll, 2.4% of all poll participants in the general population identified as atheists while 3.3% identified as agnostics. Those percentages have grown noticeably since 2007, when the numbers were 1.6% and 2.4% respectively. While it would be tempting to use the latest figures (and doing so would certainly be more favorable towards atheists/agnostics), obviously the participants in writeaprisoner.com weren’t all incarcerated since 2012, so a more fair comparison would be to use the older figures (such as 2007).

And when we look at the 2007 numbers, what we find is that “atheists” are under-represented by a factor of about 77% (in other words, only 23% as many atheist prisoners as you would expect) and atheists/agnostics are under-represented by about 69%. Christians, meanwhile, are also moderately under-represented, by about 24%. Perhaps no group is as under-represented as Hindus, however, who make up only .0044% of those on in the sample, despite making up about .04% of the U.S. population (i.e. under-represented by about 90%).

The difference then, comes almost entirely from those in the N/A and “Spiritual” groups, (and to a lesser extent Muslims) which are vastly over-represented compared to the general population (a combined 29% in prison vs. 12% outside). This is also consistent with other crime/prison studies which have also found that those towards the “middle” of the theistic spectrum tend to commit the most crime, while the highly devout (i.e. regular churchgoers) and the highly secular (i.e. “committed” atheists, and to a lesser extent those who identify as “agnostics”) commit the least.

It’s worth noting, however, that there is another possible explanation for the huge number of N/A’s among the prisoner sample. While the percentage of “unaffiliated” in the general population was about 12% in 2007, the demographics of the unaffiliated skews drastically towards younger age groups (which also tend to commit the most crime) so that is certainly a factor to consider as well.

Bottom line: Despite the fact that 45% of all Americans claim that a belief in God is necessary to be moral, and despite the widespread belief that atheists lack any objective moral standards (or, according to some, any moral standards at all), these numbers further affirm what we’ve known for quite some time now: that statistically speaking, atheists actually commit the least crime of just about any demographic group (which happens to be the case not just in America, but globally as well).

Can History “Prove” a Miracle?

The overwhelming consensus in secular circles seems to be no, that whether or not a supernatural and miraculous event occurred in the past is simply outside the purview of history, and history is literally incapable of establishing an event as being “miraculous” in nature. But is that really the case?

Imagine if we were to simultaneously discover hundreds of ancient documents, unearthed from all around the world, each one dated conclusively to approximately 2,500 years ago, and each document corresponding with one of the civilizations which possessed writing during that time (including ones which had no possible means of communication with each other). Each document is written in the native language of that civilization, and on each one the message is essentially identical: “On this day, every single person in our region received a psychic message, which said to write down these numbers, and said that one day thousands of years from now we would understand the meaning of the numbers”. And when you take all of those hundreds of number strings from the different civilizations and assemble them into one long string, it matches the digits of pi starting at the billionth digit…

Yeah, it doesn’t really look 2,500 years old. But we’re talking miraculous documents here.

Of course, there’s a big difference between the above scenario and the supernatural claims in, for example, the Bible. No number of historical attestations could possibly prove the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred, right? Well let’s consider the following scenario. Instead of four grossly contradictory and plagiarized accounts written decades after the fact by anonymous sources (i.e. the Gospels), imagine if we had consistent, clear, signed accounts by known historical figures who claimed to be witnesses to the crucifixion and the resurrection, and each claimed to have spoken with Jesus afterwards firsthand. And imagine if, in these accounts, Jesus told them that while he was dead he visited God, who told him to provide each of his disciples with a different string of numbers, and each of these numbers were recorded in the documents, and when you assemble those numbers into one long string…

Such a scenario wouldn’t necessarily prove that Jesus was the Son of God or any such nonsense, but as much of a staunch atheist and proponent of naturalism as I am, if documents such as those above were discovered I would be more than willing to admit that something supernatural/miraculous occurred, based simply upon those documents alone.

Now to those who have read this blog in the past it should be rather obvious, but just to be absolutely clear: I’m not saying any of this to suggest that we should give greater credence to the Gospel accounts, or somehow be more “open-minded” to the possibility that Jesus was resurrected. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that it is possible–at least in principle–for “history to prove a miracle”, in the sense that it is possible to prove anything, through historical means or otherwise (in other words, not proof with absolute 100% certainty, but sufficient proof to establish a claim as true). And instead of just dismissing the “historical” claims of supernatural events in the Bible with a simple hand-wave, these hypothetical scenarios show just how high that bar should be in order to meet the evidentiary standard of historical proof for a supernatural event. And they show just how far the Bible’s gospel accounts fall short of reaching that bar.

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7

“You can’t reason someone out of a belief they weren’t reasoned into.” I really could have included this in Part 1 as the very first entry, since this may well be the single most insidious, self-defeating, and quite simply wrong (and yet despite all this, maddeningly common) cliché in the entire atheist lexicon. Matt Dillahunty once served up as thorough an eviscerating of this cliché as one could possibly imagine, to which I have very little to add. But on a personal note, I will just say that I’ve spoken with hundreds of atheists about their “deconversion” stories, and I can count on one hand the number who were not “reasoned out” of religion, regardless of what their initial reasons for believing may have been.

“It is easier for a rich man to go through the eye of a needle than for him to enter the kingdom of heaven”. While not as egregious an example as the “slay them before me” passage, this is also an example of a Bible verse that’s often unfairly taken out of context when attempting to point out the absurdity of the Bible, or simply to make the claim that the Bible says the rich cannot enter heaven. After all, the passage immediately following it makes clear that it’s intentionally describing a physically impossible scenario in order to make the point that even seemingly impossible things are possible “with God”. There are plenty of actual errors, absurdities, and contradictions in the Bible. This isn’t one of them.

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“If there’s a god, why does he allow so much evil and suffering in the world?” For many atheists (and theists), this is the big one. Even Bart Ehrman–who has perhaps done more than anyone else to educate the public about the Bible’s countless flaws and contradictions–cites the Problem of Evil as the main issue which led him away from theism. But the Problem of Evil is only a disproof of the traditional Judeo-Christian notion of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God, not all “gods” in general. And such a god concept is no more probable than a “god” which is apathetic (or even evil), or a god which has limited power. If anything, the traditional god concept is inherently LESS probable (if not impossible) simply due to the logically contradictory nature of having mutually exclusive attributes, which renders the Problem of Evil something of a moot point. In other words, while we have plenty of reasons to disbelieve in the existence of gods, just because God may be an asshole (which the God of the Bible certainly is) doesn’t mean he doesn’t exist.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. The problem with invoking this phrase to dismiss religious claims is that it implies that the claim in question has “ordinary” evidence going for it, but simply lacks “extraordinary” evidence. But that’s FAR too generous when it comes to most religious claims, which typically fail to meet even “ordinary” standards of evidence (and in many cases lack any evidence whatsoever beyond an unsupportable claim of divine revelation).

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

“Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John”. What are the four Gospels of the New Testament? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of course. Which matches their order in the Bible, and matches the order they were written in according to the Catholic church and Christian tradition. The only problem: It’s wrong. And not only is it wrong, but the fact that it’s wrong is surprisingly devastating to the credibility of the gospel accounts and the Bible overall. And yet, despite this, you will often (if not always) hear even atheists referring to the gospels in the “stock” order, thereby perpetuating the myth of when they were actually written, and obscuring–however slightly–precisely what the church has tried to obscure.

In actuality Mark was written well before Matthew (which copied extensively from Mark), yet Mark has no birth narrative; it mentions nothing of Jesus being born of a virgin; it has the fewest miracles, the least-grandiose miracles, and presents the most “human” characterization of Jesus. Even the way Jesus speaks in Mark is dramatically different than in the later gospels. And perhaps most damning, Mark does not even contain a “resurrection” of Jesus per-se (Mark ends at the discovery of an empty tomb, and mentions nothing about Jesus appearing to anyone afterwards; of course that didn’t prevent early Christians from tacking-on a resurrection story to Mark, many years after it was written).

All of these issues are far less problematic if Matthew was written first, and if Mark were simply a condensed account of the “original” gospel… which is precisely the excuse that Christian apologists claim. But for Mark to be the first gospel account, and for it to leave out such critical details? That’s much harder (and probably impossible) to explain without acknowledging that those elements were later fabrications.

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Paul never got to do this.

“I have better sources of morality than a 2,000 year-old book”. I’ll often hear people emphasize how ridiculously outdated the Bible is by referring to it as “2,000 years old”. But not only is that not accurate, it actually does the Bible a favor by obscuring the fact that the Bible’s origins do not even come close to coinciding with the events that it purportedly describes. In actuality the books of the New Testament were written beginning approximately 50 CE (decades after Jesus’ death) and were finished at some point in the 2nd (perhaps even 3rd) century. The books were then collected into what we now know as “the Bible” at some point well into the 4th century.

Obviously calling the Bible a “2,000 year old book” is much easier to write and say than “a collection of books written somewhere between 2,800 and 1,960 years ago which were collected for the first time in their current form about 1,650 years ago”. But the use of the “2,000 year old” shorthand suggests that the Bible goes all the way back to the lifetime of Jesus–as if it provides a contemporaneous account of his words and deeds–as opposed to being separated from them by at least a full generation. And by doing so, the Bible’s critics are unintentionally implying a greater degree of legitimacy to the Bible than it actually deserves.

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

References to immoral/evil acts committed by characters in the Bible. Even the most ardent Christians will admit that the Bible contains a lot of fucked-ed up people doing really fucked-ed up things. But just because the Bible describes individuals doing fucked-ed up things doesn’t mean it necessarily endorses those acts (polygamy, adultery, murder, incest, etc). On the other hand there are plenty of stories where the Bible clearly DOES endorse some of the most depraved acts imaginable: mock execution, offering one’s own daughters to be raped by a mob, slavery, and mass genocide. Those are the stories we should focus on instead.

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This is what theologians mean when they refer to “Objective Morality”.

“Why couldn’t God just…” As a general rule, when atheists raise objections to the Bible in the form of a question, it’s not that they lack knowledge on the subject; it’s they have too much knowledge to not see through the bullshit. And in most cases it’s not that they “don’t know the answer”, there simply is no answer. But the problem with rhetorical questions is when people don’t take them as rhetorical. And the problem with non-rhetorical questions is that they imply a lack of knowledge and/or a lack of understanding on the part of the person posing them, even when the complete opposite is the case. That makes it easy for Christians to dismiss “questions” out of hand, and plays right into the stock Christian responses of “God works in mysterious ways” or “the mind of God is beyond our mortal comprehension” or similar such bullshit. Phrasing objections as statements—instead of as questions—prevents this issue.

“Atheists can be moral too”, or You don’t need God to be good”. Both of these statements are absolutely true, but saying we “can” be moral implies that as a general rule we’re not, and saying that you don’t “need” religion still suggests that religion might make us better people than we already are. Yet the truth is that when compared to the religious, atheists are statistically more “moral” than virtually any other demographic group, often by the very same metrics that the religious emphasize most. For example in the United States, on a per-capita basis, atheists commit less crime, have lower rates of divorce, have lower incidence of teen pregnancy, lower rates of STD’shigher levels of education… And the same holds true when you break it down worldwide; the nations with the highest rates of voluntary atheism have the least crime, the lowest corruption, and (with the sole exception of the United States) the highest standards of living in the world. By virtually any objective metric you can think of (sadly, with the exception of charitable donations), atheists are more moral than the religious, not less.

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7

How a “Perfect God” Undermines Human Morality

I recently heard an interesting take on the “problem of evil”, also known as theodicy, which is the question of how the notion of an all-powerful and loving God can be reconciled with the evil and suffering we see in the world. It’s a problem that philosophers and theologians have struggled with since the very beginnings of organized religion, and which after thousands of years and countless hours of contemplation, nobody has yet to find a satisfactory answer for.

As the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus pointed out over 2,300 years ago:

EpicurusIs God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

Well a philosophy professor named Stephen Maitzen recently pointed out how this problem, taken to its logical conclusion, not only undermines the notion of an omnipotent and loving god, but actually subverts human morality as well, and eliminates the most obvious and clear reasons we have for showing kindness and benevolence towards others. The argument goes something like this:

If God is truly good and all powerful, he would not, and could not, subject a person–particularly an innocent person such as a small child–to needless or morally unjustifiable suffering. So what exactly would fit under that definition?

Well one of the stock responses you’ll often hear is that an innocent person’s suffering might be for the greater good of others, or for the benefit of society overall. So when a child is experiencing a terrible disease, someone might say that it will result in the the parents being drawn closer to God, or that it will somehow make the parents better people. In other words, somehow that child’s suffering is ultimately justified as part of some greater plan. But that justification fails, because it means that the innocent child is effectively being exploited, by God, for the benefit of others. Which would be inherently immoral and thus not an act that is reconcilable with the notion of a perfect and loving God.

It also doesn’t work to say that the suffering child will be compensated in some way later, in order to make up for the suffering being experienced now. Because to compensate someone for an injustice being done to them doesn’t mean the original act wasn’t wrong. If anything it’s an admission that it was wrong.

So what we’re left with is the conclusion that the suffering of an innocent child is only morally justifiable if it is for the direct benefit of that child–for example, if the child’s suffering draws that child closer to God, or if by undergoing that suffering, it results in some long-term benefit to that child later in life which comes about as a direct result.

But that leads to an even more problematic conclusion. Because if the suffering must be for that child’s direct benefit, then it means the worse a child is suffering, the more it must be for the child’s own good, and the less reason we have for trying to end or alleviate it. In essence it turns morality completely upside down, and means that even the most obvious examples of compassionate morality cannot be reconciled with the traditional theistic concept of “God”. And if such acts cannot be reconciled, it’s hard to imagine how any acts of moral behavior can be reconciled, unless one is to discard traditional theism entirely and adopt a secular worldview based on rational, humanistic moral principles.

Towards the end of her life, Mother Theresa actually received a great deal of criticism for her openly-stated stance on the issue of suffering (for example when she made comments such as “the suffering of the poor is something very beautiful”, or when she referred to suffering as “the kiss of Jesus”) as well as for not doing more to utilize the vast resources at her disposal to help alleviate it. But perhaps she wasn’t being indifferent to the plight of those who suffer, as her critics alleged, but was simply taking her traditional theistic worldview to its logical conclusion. After all, if suffering truly brings people closer to God, what right does anyone have to prevent it from happening?

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 4

Saying that religious claims “don’t make sense”. It’s true there are countless religious claims which don’t make sense, and can never make sense. But I’ve always felt that saying something “doesn’t make sense” sounds a little too close to “I don’t understand it”. It’s the kind of thing one might say when trying to understand advanced calculus, not just things which are inherently nonsensical. But most of us are atheists precisely because we do understand religion, and speak from a position of having too much information on the subject, not too little. So that’s why I find myself catching myself, and instead of saying the concept of the trinity, for example, “doesn’t make sense” (which it doesn’t), I say it’s incoherent. Instead of saying that the concept of an infinitely loving God punishing people with infinite torment for finite sins “doesn’t make sense”, I say that it’s paradoxical, not to mention unethical. To me that sends a much stronger message: that the issue isn’t with us, it’s with metaphysical claims that directly contradict what we know to be true about the world we live in. Other options: logically invalid, fatally flawed, internally contradictory, unintelligible.

“When it comes to the Bible, you can’t just pick and choose what you want to believe…” Not only can Christians do this, they absolutely have to. And as I point out here, every time someone repeats this cliche they are actually giving the Bible far more credit than it deserves. Also, do we really want to imply that absolute fundamentalism is the more admirable position, simply because it happens to be more logically consistent?

“Christians believe serial killers can still go to heaven just by becoming Christians on their deathbeds”. For the most part this is absolutely true–particularly when it comes to evangelical Christians, who largely believe that salvation is achieved by faith and faith alone. But a secular argument could at least be made that it is conceivable for someone to commit the most horrific crimes imaginable, and eventually come to deserve forgiveness for those crimes before dying. But consider the same scenario in reverse: a law-abiding, devout Christian who later becomes a sadistic mass murderer, and remains one until the day he dies… How many people realize that according to the Christian doctrine of irrevocable salvation (“once saved always saved”), this hypothetical person is still guaranteed a spot in heaven while Einstein and Gandhi burn in Hell? Such a scenario is FAR more perverse than the hypothetical “deathbed conversion”, yet is every bit as consistent with the professed beliefs of fundamentalist evangelicals.

For the rest of the series:

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 1

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 2

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 3

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 5

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 6

Atheist Clichés to Avoid – Part 7