Saturday, May 26, 2012

Faith, Religion, and Organized Religion

Faith, Religion, and Organized Religion are all inter-related terms. That, however, does not mean they are completely interchangeable. Last weekend the Bangor Daily news ran a very misleading article that not only implied that these three are all identical but also repeated a number of myths and misconceptions.

"Got faith? Maine the least-religious state in the nation" starts from a false premise. It is assumed that lack of a specific religious affiliation means a lack of religion. This is not true. Plenty of people continue to believe in God and a variety of other religious concepts without the need to identify with a specific denomination/sect or regularly attend religious services. A more accurate title and tone would follow that Maine is the least religiously affiliated. Personally, I wish it were true that my state were the least "religious." Unfortunately, there is no real evidence to support such a claim.

The article quickly moves on to quote a reverend who, surprise, misrepresents our nations history.

“'What’s alarming about those numbers is that more than 300 years after the country was founded by people seeking religious freedom, the large numbers of nonaffiliated folks out here is just the norm,' the Rev. Steve Lewis, academic dean of Bangor Theological Seminary, said earlier this month."

There are two problems with this statement. What makes it alarming that people do not choose a specific affiliation? Wouldn't that prove that religious freedom is alive and well. Seems to me that being able to choose whether you want to associate with specific groups or find ways to satisfy any religious inclinations as you see fit is the epitome of freedom. Second, the early settlers did not come expressly for religious freedom. That is a myth. The "pilgrims" fled England for the Netherlands seeking religious freedom. They found the freedom they sought but quickly came to realize they had other non-spiritual interests and needs they felt could be better advanced elsewhere. Settlers came to America in search of better economic circumstances. There's no spirituality in economics. Then again, the "Prosperity Gospel," seems to preach otherwise.

I also found it interesting that the article noted the large numbers of people leaving the largest Christian denominations but never seemed to ask if they had good reasons for doing so. The tone seems to imply that not only is losing your specific religious affiliation negative but that it is equivalent to losing faith which is also negative. This just seems wrong on every count. Mainers are still overwhelmingly believers. Considering how authoritarian religion tends to be and how frequently religion interferes in politics (virtually always for the worse) I'd say that lower rates of organized religion is a good thing.

The last section's subtitle is nearly as foolish as the headline the article starts with. "America’s religious landscape ‘radically changed.’" No, it isn't. The majority of Americans still believe in God and any number of other religious concepts and doctrines. The shift away from organized religion is occurring but it has not happened over night. All the trends mentioned in the article have been gradually developing for at least a handful of decades. There is nothing "radical" about gradual changes. It is certainly not radical in light of the fact that we are one of the last industrialized countries to undergo this shift.

Basically, the article consists of little more than sensationalized headlines and subheadings, misinterpreted statistics, and rehashed myths and misconceptions. It is the typical blather I have come to expect from the mainstream media.

"Christian" Historians

I agree with Mr. Clark that historians should denounce publicly scumbags like David Barton for fabricating all sorts of nonsense and then trying to pass it off as history. However, I'm also a little disturbed by what he does not say, or rather clarify, in his Patheos piece. In "Barton, Larson, Fischer: Checking in with the Liars for Jesus" he uses the term "Christian Historian" a handful of times without making clear what exactly he means by it.

If he means to reference historians who specialize in religious history, specifically Christianity, that's fine. If he means individuals who are Christians first and "historians" second then that is a problem. It may seem a subtle difference but it is not. If you are a historian you apply the standards and principles of historical research regardless of the specific topic. If you can not do so for personal or ideological reasons you are not an historian, period.  Even with the best of intentions and/or credentials such individuals should be more accurately labeled propagandists or apologists, not historians.

A Label Does Not Make You "Better"

"Are Atheists Better People Than Christians?" NO! As an atheist my response to Christian Piatt's May 18th HuffPo piece may seem surprising. I do not hide the fact that I believe religion, Christianity included, to be harmful crap. However, that does not mean I think less of religious people as a whole. I do not. Simply fitting a particular label/category does not make a person good or bad. A person who falls within a particular label may be "better" at certain things but worse at others.

There are certain things that I think atheist have a firmer grasp on. I would agree that atheists in general are better critical thinkers. I also think you have to take into account variations within such broad categories as "atheist" and "Christian." I think liberal atheists are "better" in terms of ethics and morals than fundamentalist Christians. And yes, that opinion is rather biased. I do think it can be supported. A liberal atheist is far more likely to consider the wants, needs, and interests of an individual and society at large before a fundamentalist who is beholden to a prescribed outdated set of rules (AKA scripture).

Does that really make all atheists better than all Christians? If you think it does than I have to assume you're as much a self-righteous deluded asshole as any fire and brimstone Bible-thumper. People's behavior and what they do with their beliefs is far more important than the beliefs themselves. That is not to say beliefs don't matter since they do tend to push us toward particular types of behavior. If you believe nonsense but still act like a decent caring human being than you are a decent human being. That is what I care about the most.

So, to Mr. Piatt, I am not better because I am an atheist. Assuming I am better, I am so because I care about my fellow human beings and act based on that concern. NO ONE is better just because they carry a specific label.

*The Piatt article is worth reading. He does make some valid points. It is the overall tone I found very disturbing rather than some of the specific points and examples. I kind of liked the church sign he included. I would as point out that the flip side is also true. I would take a kind Christian over a hateful atheist.

Marriage: Religious and Civil

One aspect surrounding the debate on same-sex marriage that is far too often overlooked is that it is in fact not a single topic. The closest I have seen to an acknowledgement that Marriage is not a monolithic institution came from one of the posts on Friendly Atheist. "Is Obama’s Support of Gay Marriage an ‘Imposition’ of His Religion?," does address the issue from two points of view but does so in a slightly round-about way.

I prefer to be more direct. Marriage is two separate but sometimes inter-related institutions. Most, if not all, opponents of gay marriage are arguing from a religious perspective. That would be perfectly fine with me if they kept it strictly within the realm of religion. Unfortunately, they do not. Not only do they not stick to their own sphere they frequently seek to lie and distort the goals of those of us who support same-sex marriage. None of the laws that have been passed or have been attempted have anything to do with religion despite their claims to the contrary. The government can not force a church (or mosque, synagogue, temple...) to perform a gay marriage. All these laws do is provide government recognition of a couples commitment and thereby grant access to a number of rights and privileges.  None of them impact religion.

For most of these narrow minded religious bigots that isn't enough. They want to be able to dictate to the rest of us what they claim to be moral. It is both unnecessary and wrong. If more people would open their eyes and see that religious marriage and civil marriage are not the same thing. Religious people, whether on the left or right, ought to be grateful for the perks civil marriage provides and not seek to impose their faith on anyone outside their own relationship.

Religion in America has always had the right to impose its own rules and standards on how it views marriage and how it conducts wedding ceremonies. That will not change. However, religion should stay out of how government views and conducts civil marriages. I would use my own biases as an example. There are certain types of marriages that I do not believe government should restrict but that I personally find disturbing. Currently, we do not allow polygamy under the law. I have no interest in lobbying for it but I also would not bother to oppose it. In terms of civil law, I do not see any good reason to oppose it. That is assuming that all parties are legal adults, fully understand the circumstance, and are consenting without any coercion or pressure. If the consenting adults involved are fine with it I see no reason to impose my own views on them. Put bluntly, I do not understand and do not want to understand such a warped arrangement. I firmly believe in monogamy. That is my preference and though I think it leads to the best possible relationship I cannot in good conscience enforce my views on others who are in no way harming me or anyone else.

Essentially, I would encourage everyone to view marriage from two separate spheres: religious and civil. I would further suggest that people step away from their own preference long enough to ask some basic questions about marriage. If we can publicly acknowledge the intimate relationship we cherish why should we prevent others from doing so? Would relationships of others impact our own? The answers seem pretty clear to me. There is no reason to deny others the rights and privileges I enjoy. It is also true that what other people do in their relationships can in any way diminish my own.

I would also point out that I do not agree with playing with the label "Marriage."  That does not work. Just changing the name of something does not solve problems.

Friday, May 25, 2012

"The end cannot justify the means for the simple and obvious reason that the means employed determine the nature of the ends produced."
Aldous Huxley
Ends and Means

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Clergy Project: Tragic and Telling

The Clergy Project, which seeks to aid those who feel trapped in a profession they are no longer suited for, seems to say a great deal more about society as a whole rather than the individuals in the program. The recent piece on NPR (linked below in "From Minister To Atheist") is an excellent example. The fact that Teresa McBain was so fearful of the consequences of being honest about her atheism is truly sad. No one should ever have to hide who they are as a person. It is truly pathetic that theists find atheists so threatening merely for not believing the same thing. This type of fear and persecution implies that religion/religious ideas cannot withstand any amount of scrutiny or even doubt. It implies that religion is weak and prone to endorse/encourage shallow cowardly behavior

Clergy Project home page

A few highlights
April 30, 2012 NPR piece, "From Minister To Atheist"
Audio clip
Written story

"Preachers Who Are Not Believers" Evolutionary Psychology

A more recent related piece
"More Stories from Atheists in Christian Workplaces" Friendly Atheist blog
"The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike."
Delos B. McKown

Man or Myth, Does it Matter?

I have previously commented on the "historical" dust-up that centered around Bart Ehrman's latest book but find it necessary to say a few more things. I was rather disappointed by Ehrman's attacks on "mythicists" but there was something else that kept gnawing at the back of my mind that I could not quite consciously identify at the time. After reading the May 1st  Unreasonable Faith post "Jesus the Unremarkable Man" it finally formed into a completely recognizable thought.

The zeal with which Ehrman defended the historicity of Jesus seemed very disproportionate to what he was actually defending. Ehrman has always assumed Jesus was a real person but that he was not divine in any way. He has never believed in the Jesus that Christians insist was real. I seriously doubt the theists who rushed to support him have any idea what he has previously written about their beloved messiah. So does this argument really amount to anything? I'm not completely sure. Even if all of us who don't accept the historicity of Jesus concede the possibility of an ordinary human or small group of individuals existed and served as the basis for later myths, most of us already do concede that possibility, it would not change the larger argument. Jesus was not divine. Ehrman's view is only a small step away from the mythicists (ignoring the non-scholarly conspiracy nuts).

Basically, Ehrman actually agrees that the "Jesus" of Christianity is a myth. Whether an human existed that served as inspiration for the later myths is highly debatable but in the end not that important to Christian theology since that individual was not divine and in no way resembles the Jesus of scripture. Why Ehrman felt the need to pick a fight over an ordinary guy is beyond me.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Naive, Idealistic, and Ignorant, but not Controversial

I'm not sure why some have sought to portray Jeff Bethke's views on religion as controversial. That is not to say I don't understand why many object to his interpretation. However, it should be noted that his views are no more valid or dismissible than those of any other Christian. His "Why I hate Religion, But Love Jesus" makes some interesting points and works well as a discussion started but in the end is loaded with various assumptions and based more on ignorance than any real understanding of scripture.

Both Bethke and the various critics and reviewers, like Huff Po's Hanrahan, fail to understand one key point that essentially nullifies his whole outlook. Without religion, specifically scripture, there is no Jesus. Even if you insist on making the huge assumption that Jesus Christ actually existed it would not change this point. Without scripture no one would "know" anything about Christ regardless of whether he is mythical or real. Basically, when it comes to Christianity you cannot "love Jesus" and still hate religion. You may hate a particular interpretation/version of Christianity but that is not the same. There is also no objective way to show that one sect/denomination of Christianity or interpretation of who Jesus was is any better than any other. Scripture is too subjective, ambiguous, contradictory, and incoherent to reach any conclusions of substance.

Terrorism is not the Reason

"Interest in the scientific study of religion has surged over the past decade. While this development is positive in many ways, it comes largely for an unfortunate reason – global terrorism, exemplified most clearly by the September 11th attacks of ten years ago." There are a handful of things wrong with this statement made by Connor Wood on the Science on Religion blog but I will start with what seems to be the main point. Terrorism is not the main reason for studying religion in a scientific manner. This approach predates his primary example, September 11  attacks, by quite a bit. The development of modern science immediately led to greater scrutiny of religion. To be fair, it is true that the mainstream media has largely ignored this trend until fairly recently. Dennett's book Breaking the Spell was one of the first to get any attention but it was preceded by decades of scholarly research by not only himself but a wide number of others

Whether Wood intended his statement to be delusional and arrogant it certainly comes across that way. Global terrorism is not new, not even here in the US. Unfortunately,terrorism has always been used. Just because the average American had no sense of these horrors does not mean they did not exist on a large scale before 2001. Wood's erroneous piece carries this foolishness over to its basic position, which is not even hinted at in the opening sentences. He never establishes anything resembling scientific evidence that terrorism is explainable through evolutionary theory. He conflates the work of others regarding the evolutionary explanation of religion as a whole with this specific offshoot. For instance, "So religion, while originally merely a random offshoot of other, unrelated cognitive adaptations, is now an adaptive function." There is reason to believe that religion over time became an adaptive function but that says nothing about terrorism. It also says nothing about contemporary terrorism. it could be argued that religion is no longer an "adaptive function." There are, after all, plenty of evolutionary remnants that no longer serve their original purpose. They simply have not become detrimental enough for the evolutionary process to weed them out.

This is not to say I disagree with looking into the root causes of terrorism. If we are to have any hope of decreasing its use we need to study it honestly and thoroughly. And, yes, religion does seem to be a key component but is not the only one. We should never overlook any aspect of this heinous and deadly practice. Socio-economic and political issues are also key factors that should be reviewed.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Positive Example of Religious Freedom

Finally, after the constant references to Religious Freedom/Religious Liberty surrounding the Conference of Catholic Bishops birth control temper tantrum there is an actual example of it at work. Positive examples of this essential American right are rare, at least when it involves a theistic group. The International Bible Reading Association recently concluded their annual Bible reading marathon at the capitol.

For fairly obvious reasons, there is very little I agree on with this particular group. That, however, is the point. As far as I can tell from the Belief blog post this group has never harassed or bothered anyone. They have simply exercised their rights as US citizens to express their beliefs. The Capitol has long been a venue for a wide variety of demonstrations, protests, and socio-political expressions. That is exactly how it should be. Every citizen should feel welcome to express themselves in a peaceful manner. Whether the message/ideas expressed are agreeable or not is beside the point. One of our country's greatest strengths comes from its protections of free thought and expression. Standing up for the rights of groups we may not agree with or even like makes us better.

So, even though I think the Bible is horrible crap, I applaud The International Bible Reading Association for taking the approach they have to promoting what they believe in. I have watched a few of their videos and get the impression that they are very focused on being positive and helping people. I still see them as essentially relying on cherry-picking and massively editing/interpreting the Bible in order to turn it into something it really isn't but at least they do not use it to attack or directly harm others.

Banning Affection?

Apparently the Tennessee legislature has chosen to ban all displays of affection among minors rather than admit to the failures of "Abstinence-only Education." Now I have to admit teenagers can sometimes get carried away with public displays of affection (PDAs) but that is no reason to go to such extremes. It does not seem to have occurred to them that not only will this not solve the problem they claim to be concerned with, teen sex/pregnancy/STDs, but could have the reverse effect. Shouldn't we encourage genuine affection? If teens have more of an emotional bond it seems to me they would take sexual relations more seriously. They might even rethink fooling around for a little while longer. Probably not, but it seems slightly more plausible in comparison to this foolish idea of banning all displays of affection.

According to the state Bill (SB 3310, HB 3621) even hugging and holding hands should be seen as "gateway sexual activity." Really?! This is just stupid. How about giving actual sex education a chance? I guess that would be too intelligent for these self-righteous windbags.

African-American Clergy vs. Gay Marriage

The May 11th NPR piece on Gay Marriage, "Same Bible, Different Verdict On Gay Marriage", is loaded with all manner of idiocy. Then again, "Same Bible", is in the title. Aside from some of the standard lies, hypocrisy, and sheer ignorance related to the Bible there were a few bits and pieces that stood out. What caught my attention was the section on why African-American clergy tend to oppose same sex marriage. The level of nonsensical reasons given among the barrage of bullshit was impressive.

"But nowhere is this question more fraught than in African-American churches, says Tony Evans. He pastors the 9,000-member Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas. One reason, he says, is cultural.
'The breakdown of the family is the single greatest challenge that we face today,' he says.
Evans and others say the black family is in crisis — a majority of babies, for example, are born to single mothers — and that's why black ministers are often the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage."

The notion that gay marriage would somehow denigrate the institution of marriage as a whole is completely baseless. There are no legitimate studies that have found that gay marriage would have even a slightly negative impact on heterosexual marriage. Even setting aside the fact that there is no objective reason to hold such a position Evans assumption defies even common sense. Single motherhood has no connection to homosexuality or homosexual rights. How could it? It seems to me that many of these single mom's probably did not plan to be single moms. By default, homosexual couples seeking to have children would have to plan. They cannot have children on their own. They would have to adopt or use some type of fertility service (surrogate, egg/sperm donation...). So where's the connection to single parenthood? It is also idiotic to think that a heterosexual couple's relationship is in any way altered by a homosexual couple getting married. Just because two guys get married does not mean my marriage means less. Frankly, I don't give a shit what anyone else (aside from my wife) thinks of my marriage.

Evans goes further in proving what an ignorant asshole he is by trying to insulate his position against a common criticism,

"'The issue of race is not an issue of choice. It's an issue of birth,' he says.
Does that mean that homosexuality is a choice?
'The Bible is clear on that one too. And that is, sexual relationships are to be between men and women within the context of marriage,' Evans says. 'That's not only related to the issue of homosexuality, but adultery, or fornication or bestiality. All of that is proscribed in the Bible.'"

Every year the body of evidence confirming that homosexuality is not a choice increases. It is not a choice and even if by some remote chance it were it would still be a civil rights issue. Since African-Americans had to fight so hard for their own rights you would think they would be more sympathetic to the homosexual community's struggle. Then, there is the biblical bullshit he's throwing around. I have on numerous occasions pointed what a pile of crap that is. Yes, the Bible condemns homosexuality. So what? It condemns all sorts of things that no one pays any attention to any more (assuming they ever did). It also condones some of the things Evans rails against. I challenge any Bible-thumper to name a single major male figure in scripture who did not commit one or more of the following; incest, adultery, rape, or murder. Not one of them is worth modeling public policy after.

Biblical Marriage

Once again the ignorant narrow minded bigoted assholes have gotten their way. Despite North Carolina already having a ban on same sex marriage they found it necessary to push through an amendment that goes far beyond what is already an unethical discriminatory ban. North Carolina will now by law be able to refuse recognition of same-sex and non-married couples in any way. Worst of all, these pinheads are using a specific interpretation of religion to deny citizens what should be basic rights.

In the CNN video clip Baptist Pastor Baity uses a specific Bible passage to justify this hateful amendment. He, of course, is cherry-picking and interpreting. If he had any intellectual honesty or integrity of any sort he would never have done such a foolish thing. There is no single definition, or for that matter an explicit definition, of marriage in the Bible.

I can think of two Biblical couples off the top of my head that contradict Baity's preferred definition. Adam and Eve are not married in the sense we currently think of marriage. Eve is referred to as his wife but their is no reference to any ceremony and certainly no clergy. Read Genesis 2-4 and you could infer that simply having sexual relations made them husband and wife. No direct mention of marriage is made but it is clear that they have sex.

Then there is one of the Bible's greatest heroes, King David. King. David was a polygamist. In quick succession he marries two women even though he was already married(I Samuel 26:39-44). Even three wives was apparently not enough for this horny champion of God. David has an adulterous affair with Bath-Sheba, arranges for her husband to be killed, and then makes her wife number four (II Samuel 11:2-27). Don't forget David is not one of the villains, he's one of the good guys of the "Good Book."

So lets recap. According to the Bible no religious ceremony or even the involvement of any type of clergy is necessary for there to be a marriage. All you have to do is have sex. If you happen to have a penis you do not have to limit yourself to one partner. You can marry as many women as you like and you don't even have to be faithful. Sorry ladies, there are numerous passages that make it clear if you attempt the same type of behavior all you can look forward to is a painful death.

So much for the Bible endorsing one man and one woman.

Then, of course, there is the issue of religion dictating to government what should or should not be public policy. Religion should have no say in civil marriage law just like government has no say in religious doctrine.

Friday, May 11, 2012

"Love is the expansion of two natures in such fashion that each includes the other, each is enriched by the other."
Felix Adler

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"The fundamental defect of Christian ethics consists in the fact that it labels certain classes of acts 'sins' and others 'virtue' on grounds that have nothing to do with their social consequences." 
Bertrand Russell

Friday, May 4, 2012

Simulation Argument

The Rationally Speaking podcast is always interesting but the most recent edition was even more thought provoking than usual. This special edition was recorded with David Kyle Johnson at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism. As a thought experiment the Simulation Argument is fascinating and leads to a variety of equally interesting variations and tangents.

There were a few minor points that I either was uncertain of or felt were misconstrued. I'm not sure where the 20% figure came from. I've read a few of Nick Bostrom's articles and papers and do not recall his attaching an actual number. I remember his use of equations to demonstrate specific points and to convey the logic and probability but no definitive numbers. Bostrom does actually state in a few places that he finds it highly unlikely that we are in a simulation.

I also do not think Johnson thought through his comment about not needing a body for the simulation to work. I assume he meant a human body is not necessary for the idea of our existence being contained within a computer simulation. In practical terms, the computer running the simulation would be a "body." It is an important detail since without it it would imply that immaterial existence is possible. This would, of course, defy all that is known or can be known. Physics does not allow for such an immaterial sentient existence.

The basic ideas surrounding the simulation scenario are more than interesting enough to listen to the podcast a handful of times. Johnson's application of the experiment to theology was also notable. It definitely poses some fascinating potential solutions to various theological problems as well as a few dilemmas.

For more on Bostrom's works on the Simulation Argument

Original proposition


Philosophy Bites (podcast) interview

"However, I do not apologize..."

Yet another disingenuous apology/retraction from yet another Christian right asshole. After claiming to apologize for the language he used Baptist pastor Sean Harris then made it clear he did not feel sorry in anyway for the sentiment by adding, "However, I do not apologize for the manner in which the Word of God articulates sexual immorality, including homosexuality."

His lame excuse that what he said was meant to be a joke simply doesn't wash. After watching the video clip only a brain dead humorless prick could see anything resembling joviality in his delivery. His tone is serious throughout. There is nothing in his demeanor, gestures, or expression that even hints at a joke. It isn't just his comment about snapping back a "limp wrist" or punching the boy for seeming to be gay. He goes on to reveal himself to be not only an intolerant homophobic child abusing bigot but a sexist pig as well. He basically says that girls should be more concerned with being pretty than anything else.

This is a man of God? There was some slight laughter in the background but it is too faint to tell if it was of the nervous/uncomfortable variety. If it was perhaps there are a few decent human beings in his congregation. But why did they stay in their pews? Believe in God, don't believe in God, either way if this is the type of shit this man spews on a regular basis why put up with it?

A Praying Skeptic?

I don't think Allan Brawley really understands what it means to be a skeptic. In "A Prayer to Jesus From an Admiring Skeptic" he makes a couple rather large assumptions, tacitly accepts beliefs without any scrutiny, and blatantly disregards important details.

For the sake of clarity, skepticism is the view that there is no reason to accept something is true until there is a body of evidence that supports that belief.

Why pray? There is no evidence that prayer works. A skeptic would not simply assume that it does. He also takes for granted that there is the slightest reason to believe that Jesus Christ actually existed. He implies a question about Jesus' nature, whether divine or purely human, but it still assumes existence. He makes clear that he really does not "know the Gospels inside out" despite claiming otherwise. If he knew them so well why so much admiration? Did he somehow just skip over or not comprehend the various passages where Jesus behaves badly. There are a variety of Gospel passages where he disrespects his own mother as well as his followers. There are also passages in which he acts arrogant, selfish, hateful, and violent. If this is the best Christians can come up with for a savior I'm not impressed and I certainly don't see much to admire

Brawley further reveals himself as a bit of a fool in the second half of his piece. He states that, "The crux of the matter is I am seriously distressed by what is being done in your name." Really? If people falsely attributed behaviors to a group that would be disturbing. That is, in fact, not happening. Everything he talks about after this point does involve Christians. Whether someone approves of a particular interpretation/denomination of Christianity is beside the point. Why isn't opposing bad behavior regardless of the source the "crux of the matter"? There is more than enough reason to believe that no one denomination of Christianity is representative of the "true" faith. Christians can claim virtually anything they want about the nature of Christianity and find scriptural passages that support such claims.

His final paragraph is really over the top. Among other things he writes, "...desperate times call for desperate measures...Some sign or action on your part might help...Regardless, I leave it in your hands, with faith that you will do the right thing, based on everything I know about you." First off if he is really a skeptic and also desperate why doesn't he get off his ass and do something! Prayer does not work. However, organizing and mobilizing people to work towards solutions frequently does. Then I'd go back to this notion that he "knows" the Gospels so well. What did the Jesus figure in the Gospels do so well? Whether divine or not, the problems that existed during his supposed life time were not alleviated. The movement inspired by the Jesus figure that became Christianity has barely put a dent in the world's problems after nearly two millenia. Again, I'm not impressed.

At this point in time, a "skeptic" would not pray. A skeptic would seek to educate and act.

If this piece is meant to be humorous, it isn't. Contributing to confusion and misunderstanding or to the continuation of myths and stereotypes is not particularly funny. Neither is providing an excuse, even a lame one, to sit on your ass rather than work towards a better world is also despicable.

Beyond Yes or No

I definitely agree with Mark Cheney that the question of whether someone believes in God merits a response that goes beyond a simple yes or no. However, I would add a few caveats to his "Are You a Believer? Take The Dawkins Test"

First I would point out that the test in question only has any substance if you start by verifying which version of the God concept is being asked about. It is possible to have different answers depending on the version. When it comes to the God of scripture I would not hesitate to place myself as a "7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God." If asked about the abstract version I would have to drop down a bit. Without that clarification, the 1-7 point scale isn't that much more informative than a yes/no response. Even though I am by no means a fan of Hitchens I think Cheney's take on his position is a good example of how misleading this test can be without that clarifying point. He puts Hitchens as a 7 but if you pay attention to the details of the quotation he uses it is clearly a reference to the Judeo-Christian scriptural God. Would he be so certain if asked about the abstract form of the God? Maybe. This leads to another important point.

Don't ascribe a specific number to an individual who cannot verify or clarify it for themselves. Hitchens being dead cannot agree or disagree. It is possible to get a good sense of where he would stand on the question from the body of his work but that is still not good enough. A number range with more of an explanation would be more appropriate. Hitchens would probably be between a 6 and a 7 due to the strong language he frequently used. You could cite a variety of articles, columns, books, interviews, etc... to support both numbers.

Third, if you are going to attempt to ascribe a number(s) to an individual, whether dead or alive, spend more than five minutes researching. Cheney's take on Woody Allen is pathetic. Allen is a humorist well known for a variety of literary gags and the occasional one-liners. That does not mean he has not seriously thought about metaphysical matters. Anyone who has read his writings and watched his films would know that he definitely leans toward strong atheism. I still would not want to choose numbers for him since I get the sense that he does not take kindly to people speaking for him. I certainly wouldn't fault him for that. I don't take kindly to people telling me what I really think.

The idea of a "test" is interesting and could be a useful tool for the purposes of discussion but it has its limits.

Mortality's Impact on belief

"Belief in God is highest among older people and increases with age, perhaps due to the growing realization that death is coming closer." This opening to the brief  April 18th Reuters piece is not exactly shocking. Atheists like myself have pointed out on various occasions that both fear and wishful thinking have always played a significant role in religious beliefs. Most of what follows in "Belief in God grows as mortality nears, survey says" is also pretty well established. It is, however, nice to see that such things do from time to time get some media attention.