Unitarian “Sermon”: One Humanist Perspective

The “sermon” I gave today at the Bay Area Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston:

Update: Video of my talk is now online here and the church has uploaded audio here.

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When Jeff asked me about a month ago for the title of my talk today, I gave him the title “One Humanist Perspective”. I intentionally kept the title generic, for one because I hadn’t started writing it yet, but also because I wanted to touch on a few different things that I’ve picked up over the years, and things I’ve personally found to be useful, while also tying those in to how they relate to humanism and the work we do at Humanists of Houston.

But as for why I specifically titled it “One Humanist Perspective”, I wanted to make it clear that when it comes to Humanism, there are many perspectives and no one definitive humanist position on a given issue. There are no holy scriptures to consult, no divine edicts to reference, not even really any “rules” per-se, and certainly no commandments. We do have the three humanist manifestos, but the authors of that had the same thought, as they specifically chose to title it “A Humanist Manifesto”.

So I tend to think of Humanism as being more about principles to live by and goals to strive for, in the best way that one possibly can with the means they have available. And while I can’t speak for Humanism as a whole, I can give my personal take on a few things that hopefully, some of you might find useful as well.

As a lifelong agnostic atheist who was never raised to be for or against religion, or even really exposed to it all while growing up outside of what you can’t help but pick up on from popular culture, I’ve come to realize just how abnormal an upbringing that is for someone who was born and raised in Texas.

And perhaps I should clarify what I mean when I say I’m both an atheist and agnostic. By agnostic I simply mean that I don’t know if a god exists or not, and it may even be ultimately unknowable one way or the other. As any good skeptic should be, I’m certainly open to the possibility, should compelling evidence ever be discovered. But I’m also an atheist in the sense that I simply don’t have a belief in the existence of any gods—quite literally an absence of theism—and on the whole I find the notion that no gods exist to be far more likely.

Anyway it really wasn’t until I was an adult, and began to learn about religions and really expose myself to them firsthand for the first time, that I came to find out about some of the popular misconceptions of a non-theistic worldview, particularly some of the perceived shortcomings that I never even knew existed, much less how widely held they are.

I remember one time I was visiting a conservative Christian church a few years ago, and the pastor said to the congregation, “You know how you’ve always felt that something wasn’t quite right with this world, and that this world isn’t where you’re supposed to be? Well that’s because it’s God’s way of telling every one of us that we don’t really belong in this world, and heaven is where we all truly belong.” I was pretty baffled by this, since I couldn’t say I had ever felt that way before, but I later came to find out that this was a prevalent theme in modern day evangelical Christianity, and one which I continued to hear repeated at other churches that I visited.

Taylor Muse, lead singer of the band Quiet Company, picked up on this when he chose the name of their 2011 album “We Are All Where Belong”. And on the song “The Black Sheep and the Shepherd”, he wrote: “luckily I held out long enough to see that everybody really makes their own destiny. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s just you and me, exactly where we belong”. From my standpoint, of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that I should feel any other way.

So what about the Humanist view on death, and the afterlife? I’m shocked sometimes to hear people say that if there’s no afterlife, our existence on Earth must somehow be pointless. But I’ve found the opposite to be true. The more I’ve come to the personal conclusion that I don’t believe in an afterlife, the greater the appreciation I’ve found for the life I have now, and the more precious I find every moment to be. And the more I try my best to make a positive contribution to the world while I still can. After all if there’s no afterlife in the supernatural sense, the only afterlife we have comes from the impact that we had on other people’s lives in the limited time we had.

Of course, when it comes to misconceptions about those with no beliefs in Gods, there’s nothing bigger than the idea that you simply can’t have morality unless it comes from a higher power. In one recent poll of Americans, when asked if it’s necessary to believe in God in order to be a moral person, a jaw dropping 45% responded “Yes”.

But I never even realized that this was “a thing”, so to speak, until high school when I heard someone make that claim for the first time. But even well before I understood the evolutionary roots of morality, before I learned that even babies, and even some animals, demonstrate an innate sense of right and wrong, and certainly before I had studied anything about philosophy or humanistic ethics, it had simply never occurred to me that believing in God might be a prerequisite to being a moral person.

And yet despite how widely held this misconception is, the reality is that atheists are dramatically underrepresented in the U.S. prison population, according to some measures by a factor of ten-to-one. That the least religious states in the U.S. are also those with the least crime. And that the countries in the world with the lowest levels of traditional religion are also those with the lowest crime, highest levels of happiness, and highest standards of living in the world, as sociologist Phil Zuckerman discusses thoroughly in his book “Society Without God”.

In a way, traditional religious morality says “God exists, so you must behave morally”, whereas humanistic morality says “If God doesn’t exist, we must behave morally”. Because without a divine overseer to enact cosmic judgement, and without the possibility of miracles to help save those in need, that leaves the onus on humans to help each other and try our best to make the world a better place, because if we don’t then nobody else will.

Certainly at the core of Humanism is not simply living a naturalistic worldview based on science and reason, but also one which is built on empathy, compassion, and a sense of reciprocity that influences everything you do. The Golden Rule is prevalent throughout the history of religious and philosophical belief systems, and humanism is certainly no exception, and for good reason, as empathy and reciprocity form the foundation of virtually all moral systems, religious or otherwise.

So what might a humanist perspective on the Golden Rule look like? Well in Western culture the version we’re all most familiar with is from the Bible, where Jesus says “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Which differs slightly from the form which preceded the New Testament, particularly in Eastern religions and Greek philosophy which tended to focus on the avoidance of harm, essentially “do not do unto others as you would not want them to do unto you”, also sometimes known as “the silver rule”.

But both versions are not without their limitations. To do the most good in the world calls for far more than simply minimizing the amount of harm you do, whereas the Golden Rule of the New Testament can also be used to justify the imposition of your personal beliefs and desires onto others, even when it may not be what they want for themselves. And it’s certainly unfortunate that countless atrocities have been committed under the aegis of the Golden Rule when taken to its logical conclusion.

That’s what prompted the coining of the term “the Platinum Rule”, which resolves both limitations by saying, “you should do unto others as they would want done to themselves”. But it’s not hard to see where that can be problematic as well, for example if a child doesn’t want to receive a potentially life-saving vaccine, or if someone wants you to treat them in a way that you would consider unethical. And, of course, all three of these versions are essentially at odds with the very notion of a legal justice system, since taken to its logical conclusion we would essentially have no choice but to pardon anyone who is ever accused of any crime. As we can see, it’s simply not possible to follow any one of version of the Golden Rule without breaking it–not out of any moral weakness, but sometimes out of moral necessity.

Which is why Humanism isn’t so much about adhering to any particular set of rules as it is about following a set of principles, and trying to always make the best moral judgments you can in any given situation. And there’s nothing about humanism that says you can’t draw from the moral traditions of any of history’s religions or philosophies, and incorporate the best ideas they have to offer into the principles you choose to live by. That was the thought process behind humanist philosopher AC Grayling’s book, “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible” (again, note the “A”) which is modeled after the Christian Bible but also draws from “the wealth of secular literature and philosophy in both Western and Eastern traditions”.

Another traditional theological concept I was never taught growing up was the notion of everything happening according to a divine plan, whether through the literal hand of god, or through some kind of cosmic fate. Humanism doesn’t have that. But the lack of such a component also resolves another problem with traditional theistic morality that you don’t hear much about, but is ultimately pretty problematic when you think about it. And that is the notion that since everything is happening according to some divine plan, then even the most horrific suffering must somehow be intended to serve that higher purpose (whether as a test of one’s resolve, to impart some kind of greater life lessons, or some other mysterious purpose). Which, if true, would not only mean it is potentially justified to stand by indifferently while someone is undergoing that suffering, but it could even be considered immoral to intervene since doing so may actually be going against that divine plan.

Now fortunately, nobody in the real world ever takes this dilemma to its logical conclusion in such a way, and virtually everyone, regardless of religious belief, holds at least some sense of desire to help those in need. But that isn’t to say that this issue has no effect on how people think and behave in the real world. For example, studies have shown empirically that when people believe in what has been termed a “just world”–meaning that they believe some kind of supernatural justice exists, whether in the form of a deity pulling the strings, or supernatural concepts such as fate or karma—they are actually, on average, LESS likely to be sympathetic towards those who have experienced hardship or suffering, even when that suffering is the result of factors they had no control over such as natural disasters.

Whether on a conscious level or not, it appears that there’s a natural inclination to rationalize other people’s suffering as potentially all being part of the divine plan, or perhaps part of the punishment that they’re receiving for prior transgressions. But Humanism offers no such “out” which might be used to excuse indifference to the suffering of others.

Some of you have probably seen this image before:

Now I would have probably used the word “nationalism” instead of patriotism, but the message is clear: Why should someone hold a sense of undue preference for something they had no role in choosing? But as many times as I’ve seen this meme, I’ve never seen an equivalent one for other aspects of a person’s self that were equally if not more unchosen. For example, aspects such as race, ethnicity, gender, and even in many parts of the world, religion. And it’s understandable why; while it’s not hard to immediately “get” what this is saying when it pertains to a simple accident of geography, it feels strange to even think about those other things in such a way, considering just how intertwined aspects such as race and gender are with one’s personal sense of “being”, even if they were ultimately no less random or arbitrary.

Now to be clear, this is not to suggest that the unique individual perspectives of those from specific backgrounds are any less valid, simply because they had no choice in the matter. Particularly when it comes to those who have experienced persecution or discrimination firsthand, only they can speak from such a position of lived experience that nobody else truly can.

But take myself, for instance. I happened to be born male, and logically speaking those who were born male should be no more likely to be against feminism and no less likely to fight for feminist ideals simply because of that accident of fate. But unfortunately the reality is quite different. While thankfully the feminist label has become increasingly embraced by both men and women, with many prominent men now joining the ranks of the powerful female voices in the feminist movement, the world of so-called Men’s Rights Activism (and yes, that actually is a real thing) which vehemently opposes feminist ideals, perhaps unsurprisingly consists almost exclusively of young men, particularly young men from highly privileged backgrounds.

And unsurprisingly, the same pattern holds true with pretty much every single other social justice movement, where those from a diverse set of backgrounds are in support of equality for the oppressed groups, and those in opposition consist of an incredibly narrow band of the demographic spectrum, specifically the one in the position of privilege which feels threatened by the specter of equality that the social justice movement represents. Would that be so true if those particular individuals truly accepted the fact that they had absolutely no choice in their own personal demographic makeup, and that they just as easily could have been born as members of those oppressed groups themselves? I don’t know.

But this notion doesn’t just apply to physical characteristics. Ultimately, even the person that you happened to be was decided by chance. The parents you happened to be born from, the body you happen to occupy, and even the brain that you happen to possess, all of these were essentially random accidents just as much as the country you happened to be born in. And while I realize this sounds a lot like an argument on freewill, this holds true even if you believe in the notion of “true” free will or in the transcendental soul, since after all you just as easily could have been born with a different soul.

Now one might ask how this pertains specifically to Humanism, as opposed to any other particular religious tradition, many of which also share similar themes of empathy and selflessness. And my answer to that is, I think it’s a bit more difficult if not impossible to truly recognize the utterly arbitrary and random nature of the life circumstances that you were born into under traditional theological notions of everything being part of a pre-ordained divine plan, or in some other way an inevitability of fate itself.

But recognizing that ultimately even the very concept of “you” being you was largely a roll of the dice, not just in terms of physical characteristics, not even just specific personality traits, but even the totality of what actually makes you “you”, makes one realize that you quite literally could have been anyone else, and that there is really no rational justification to preferentially place your own well-being and desires over anyone else’s, which is really not entirely unlike the flower pointing at another and saying “my pot is better than yours”, except in this case the pot doesn’t represent the country you were born in, but the person you happened to be. That to me represents true empathy, not just putting yourself into another person’s shoes, but actually putting yourself into another person’s self, and the recognition that the feelings and needs of others are no less valuable than your own.

Earlier we heard astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s take on another of the most common misconceptions regarding the humanistic worldview; the notion that without a belief in the divine, one simply can’t have true meaning or purpose in life. And while it wasn’t so much the focus of my talk today, the importance of scientific knowledge and of striving for a deeper understanding of the natural world is also certainly a core component of Humanism, and much like Dr. Tyson, I’ve also found that the more I learn about how the world works, the more enriching the experience of it becomes.

But if I had to pick the one thing that I‘ve found gives me the greatest sense of meaning and purpose in life, I would have to say it’s through advancing the cause of Humanism through communities such as Humanists of Houston. And I’ll share with you here a few of the ways we’ve tried to go about doing that.

One way is by focusing on more “traditional” humanist causes, by hosting guest speakers such as:

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Zack Kopplin, a Rice University student and secular activist dedicated to promoting the teaching of real science in public schools, and challenging legislation that is trying to undermine that.

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Taylor Muse, the aforementioned lead singer of Quiet Company, who shared with us—for the first time ever before an audience—his journey from Christian songwriter to religious skeptic, and eventually the headliner of the American Atheists’ National Convention in 2013.

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Daniel Moran, who ran for Texas State Representative as an open atheist, open bisexual, and open genderqueer, which was unprecedented in the history of Texas politics, if not national politics.

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And Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, an open atheist who was born and raised in Iraq, then obtained asylum in the U.S. after receiving death threats and founded the Global Secular Humanist Movement, which is now the largest online humanist community in the world.

But in addition to the guest speakers we host, we’ve also recently turned an eye towards greater community involvement through volunteering and activism.

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For example through our monthly collaborations with Atheists Helping the Homeless, where we’ve raised and distributed toiletries and other essential supplies for hundreds of homeless individuals.

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We recently held a fundraiser for Camp Quest Texas, a summer camp for children of humanist families, where we raised over $3,000 dollars which turned out to be the most ever raised by a local organization in a single year.

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We’ve held a series of demonstrations outside of the Saudi Arabian Consulate, to protest the sentencing of blogger Raif Badawi to 10 years in prison and 1,000 public lashes, simply for the crime of advocating secular and progressive views online.

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We participated in a demonstration outside the Mexican Consulate, in support of families of the 43 missing students from the 2014 mass kidnapping in Iguala.

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We also participated in a series of demonstrations as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, in response to the string of incidents of police misconduct and injustices that have disproportionately affected the black community throughout the country.

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And most recently, just as BAUUC did we expressed our support for the ongoing fight for LGBT rights as we had a booth and a float in the Houston Pride Parade for the first time.

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Through events and activities such as these, we’ve made a conscious effort to make clear that we’re not just an atheist organization, or even an atheist organization per-se—nor are we an anti-religious organization, but rather one which is focused more on the promoting the humanistic values that we do believe in, rather than the supernatural ones that we don’t.

Thank you.

One of the Most Disgusting Prayers You’ll Ever Hear (Yet Nobody Thinks Twice About)

Since the recent horrific tragedy in Nepal, we’ve already seen countless examples of Christians seizing on the opportunity to promote their ideology, largely through public proclamations of prayers—specifically prayers asking for the (largely-Hindu) survivors to repent and accept Jesus.

These predatory “soul vultures” have been harshly condemned in the atheist media (and to a lesser extent in the mainstream media), and rightfully so. But this brings to mind another type of prayer that’s a little closer to home, and is similarly (in some ways even more) deplorable, yet so common, almost universal, that I doubt most people even give it a second thought:

Think about when there’s a missing persons case and an unidentified body is found. What’s the most common prayer you’ll hear?

“I’m praying it’s not him” (or her).

But think about the implications of that for a second. What they’re essentially saying is, “I knew there was already one person who’s missing, and very likely dead. But now I’m praying that there’s at least one person who IS dead, AND someone else who’s missing, and very likely dead.”

They’re essentially praying for ~1.9 deaths as opposed to 1.0 deaths, just for the possibility that the person who IS dead isn’t the one they’re hoping for.

“But surely what they really mean is they’re praying it’s not him/her AND praying that he/she is still alive”, one might say. Ok, well in that case they’re still praying for one person to be dead over another. Is that really that much better?

“Please God, kill this person I don’t know.”

And I really don’t mean for this to sound insensitive, since the people quoted saying this are usually the severely traumatized loved ones of those who are missing. And I can understand how in such a moment of extreme grief it’s natural that they would pray for any possible outcome other than the discovery that their loved one is dead. So I’m willing to give them a pass.

But what about the people who have no such connection, or any connection to the victims at all? Check out the comments section of any article about a missing persons case where a body is found, and you’ll see random people chiming in with the same prayer. It’s basically the default prayer in such a situation, much like “I’m praying for the family” might be for a typical story involving a family tragedy.

And almost certainly, these people simply mean it as such: as a gesture of support that they probably consider to be a sincere expression of kindness. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are quite literally praying for more death, or at the very least praying for someone to be dead who wouldn’t have been otherwise.

My Take on “Humanism 101”

A few high school students from a local Christian Academy reached out to me recently, asking if I could answer some questions for them about Humanism for an apologetics class where their assignment was to interview people from different faith (or non-faith) backgrounds.

Here was my response, and basically my personal take on a “Humanism 101”.

As it’s geared more towards someone who may have had no prior exposure to Humanism it’s probably a bit basic for most readers of this blog, but hopefully a good primer/refresher on some of the basic principles of Humanism and secular morality.

1. What is the origin of the universe and man?

While there are still many unanswered questions about the origin of our universe, our current state of scientific understanding is that the universe began as a single point of nearly infinite energy about 13.8 billion years ago, which expanded rapidly in an incredibly short period of time and formed the early universe, which over time has become the universe as we know it today. While this process is now known as “the Big Bang“, that name is somewhat misleading since it was not actually an explosion, but rather an incredibly rapid expansion of space itself (and the energy within that space), kind of like blowing up a balloon. We also now know that the universe is continuing to expand, and will continue to expand indefinitely until–many billions of years from now–all of the energy within the universe has been expended.

Here is a good video of a talk by Physicist/Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss about what we know about the origins of the universe, and how it is possible that our universe could have come “from nothing”:

As for the origin of man, all of the evidence in the biological sciences (biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, biochemistry, genetics, paleontology, etc) indicate that all humans today are descendants of a common ancestor which existed approximately six million years ago. This ancestor was a primate species which is now extinct, but from which we inherited many of the attributes that modern humans share today.

2. What is the purpose of mankind?

Humanists believe that a person’s purpose in life is what he or she chooses to make of it. Without a divine being to make that decision for us, we believe that we are free to pursue the things we find meaningful, and free to determine what gives each of us the greatest sense of purpose.

Here is a good (and short) video by humanist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on how he finds meaning in life.

3. What is satisfaction and how do I obtain it?

Much like #2, satisfaction is up to the individual to determine what provides the most satisfaction in their own life, based on their own personal desires and circumstances. However, I would also add that studies have consistently shown that almost all humans share in common certain things which provide us with the most satisfaction. These include:

-Being a part of a social and active community.
-Having meaningful relationships with others.
-Showing compassion for others and helping others in need.

All of the above are key parts of Humanism, much as they are for other religious communities such as churches. In those aspects, Humanist organizations are similar to religious churches, with key differences being that we do not have any rituals, holy texts, dogmas, or belief in the supernatural. Instead, we believe in an entirely reality-based worldview in which our actions are not driven by supernatural reward/punishment, but the desire to do good for the sake of making the world a better place.

4. What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there evil in the world and why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a common belief that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and that things are worse now than they were in the past. Yet the opposite is true in pretty much every way imaginable. Crime levels have plummeted dramatically, both in the U.S. and worldwide, over the past 50 years. The number of people dying in wars (as a percentage of the population) has dropped to their lowest levels in recorded history (and probably all of history). Economic equality, poverty reduction, education, and civil rights have seen (and are continuing to see) enormous strides. And despite the popular notion that our society is getting “dumber”, average IQ levels have increased dramatically throughout the 20th century all over the world, and are continuing to increase. And, of course, the number of deaths due to natural causes (particularly infectious diseases and famine) have dropped enormously even while the total world population has skyrocketed.

Of course, most people seem to be under the impression that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and wish we could return to how things “used to be”. One reason for this misconception is that we are now so much more connected to the outside world than ever before, with constant exposure to news media. And for a variety of reasons, news media tend to focus on negative news such as crimes, disasters, and tragedies, even when those things are actually relatively rare.

And, of course, the popularity of apocalyptic end-times theology, particularly in Christianity, plays a big role in this misconception as well.

To be clear, there are many things in this world which are extremely tragic, and many horrible things that we should be doing everything in our power to prevent. We certainly still have a lot of room to improve as a civilization. But the reality is that with rare exceptions (most significantly, environmental issues) the world is now better than it has been in just about every way, and continuing to get better all the time.

As for the question of why bad things happen to good people, the simplest answer is that we live in a world where people have the capability to commit evil acts, and according to Humanism there is no supernatural overseer (such as God) or supernatural entities (such as angels) to prevent them from doing so. Which is why it is especially crucial that we do whatever we can to help each other and try to make the world better, because if we (i.e. humanity) don’t, then nobody else will.

5. What is right and wrong? Is moral truth absolute or relative?

Simply put, the Humanist view of “right and wrong” is that it is wrong for someone to cause undue harm towards others (whether through action or inaction, or though the prevention of progress), and that we should strive to reduce the overall level of suffering in the world while increasing the overall level of happiness and prosperity. While this may seem rather obvious, Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews in that we do not believe in moral restrictions against behaviors and practices which do not actually cause any harm in the real world (for example, homosexuality and same-sex marriage), or practices which may actually prevent harm (for example, birth control technologies).

Also, the Humanist view of morality is that our understanding of the world is constantly improving as we continue to learn new things about science, about society, about ourselves, and about ethics overall. As a result, the Humanist understanding of “right and wrong” is also something which improves over time, as our knowledge and understanding improve. In that sense we do not necessarily view moral truth as “absolute”, because we do not see morality as “fixed in place” and never-changing; instead, we look at morality as something which is ever-improving.

At the same time, that is not to say that humanists believe in cultural or moral relativism. So for example, we would not say that all perspectives and moral systems are equally valid, or that certain behaviors are unethical in certain cultures while ethical in others. Rather, Humanism sees morality is a human principle, and because all of us are human it applies to all of humanity equally.

And finally, another way Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews is in the motivating factors which drive Humanist morality. We do not believe in being good because we’ve been commanded to, or in order to please a divine creator, or in order to obtain supernatural reward (or avoid supernatural punishment). Humanism is the belief in being good for the sake of being good (and for whatever intrinsic rewards may come about as a result), and the desire to live in the best society that we possibly can.

6. Is there a universal moral law? Does everyone know the difference between right and wrong?

With very rare exceptions (basically people who have neurological disorders of the brain), all of us naturally have a sense of right and wrong, and an innate sense of empathy that enables us to feel for others and desire to be good towards others. Studies of human babies, for example, have shown that these tendencies start being displayed at an extremely young age, before being taught right from wrong. And even several animal species show these behaviors as well. And all of this makes perfect sense in light of evolutionary theory: Humans managed to survive throughout the centuries and become the most dominant species on Earth not only because of our intelligence, but because of our innate desire to work together with others and establish cooperative societies, and that increases the odds of everyone surviving and passing on those qualities to the next generation.

7. What happens at death? (Where are we going when we die- How do we know and what does it look like, and if it is heaven- then how do we get there)

The Humanist view of death was probably best summarized by Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

While most humanists would love for there to be some way for us to continue existing after we die, we realize that there is no credible evidence that the afterlife exists. Most likely, being dead is simply going back to the same state as before you were born.

And because humanists believe that one life is all we get, we believe that every moment of life is precious and we should do everything we can to make a positive impact during the limited time that we have. And if there is any kind of “immortality”, it exists in the continuing influence of the things we did while we were alive and by our ideas (hopefully) continuing to positively affect those in future generations.

Further Reading:

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein

Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Write an Atheist (Prisoner)

I recently found out about a website called writeaprisoner.com, a website which lets you do exactly what it says; 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 numbers 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:

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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 dramatically 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 arrested/convicted after 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 likely 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 nationwide skews drastically towards younger age groups, which also tend to commit the most crime. So it’s not surprising (in fact, it would be expected) that you would also see a larger percentage of them in the prison population too.

Of course, this factor also makes it even MORE remarkable just how few atheists and agnostics there are in that same prison population, given how much those skew towards the younger demographics 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