Thursday, October 9, 2014

New Video!

My Blog Title is Outdated

I've been thinking lately that I really should change the title of this blog. Trivial, I know, but it's been on my mind. I created this blog several years ago when I first got involved in the Secular Movement. As is often the case with many fresh-faced Dawkins-reading new atheist activists, I didn't know beans about philosophy. In fact, there was a point in my life when I actively argued that philosophy was generally useless in the age of science. It was, in my view, a good tool for learning how to think critically, but it wasn't exactly a viable way of seeking truth. 

Today, I can say definitively that I was wrong. 

When I first created this blog, I chose the name "The Humble Empiricist" because I clung to the belief that we can only accept things as true that we can experience and demonstrate in the physical world, particularly using the scientific method. Following several philosophy classes and numerous conversations with Michael and Garret, I have been convinced of the usefulness of reason in discovering the truth and the existence of non-material things, like virtues. I'm still a staunch advocate of the scientific method and empirical inquiry, but I feel as though the label "empiricist" is one that I've left in the past. 

The problem is that now, I've lost my catchy blog title. I'm bad at thinking of titles. Any ideas?

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Self Centered, Semi-Depressing Updates and Things

I googled myself tonight because I'm just as self-centered as the mainstream media thinks I am. Thanks to google, I now remember that, before I started blogging here, I had a LiveJournal. My last post was from back in 2011 and it was about how I felt that I was becoming too "unintentionally angry" at "people". By "people" I meant my boyfriend at the time, an orthodox Christian, and "unintentionally angry" was my timid, atheist way of saying "unequally yoked". This was the guy who once told me angrily that if everyone in the world were an atheist like me, society would collapse. That pretty much sums up why it did work out for me. 

It seems appropriate that that's the blog post I stumbled across tonight because I've been feeling similarly for the past few months. I have been prone to anger and frustration about the smallest issues. Sometimes, I take it out on my friends, only to feel miserable afterwords. This time around, I'm not unequally yoked with a person, I'm unequally yoked with my life. I have been out of school since May and so far, my job search has come up empty despite copious amounts of work I have been doing. Sitting and waiting doesn't suit me, lack of structure and direction doesn't suit me. These things make me restless and frustrated. Michael says that I need to develop the mentality of a marathon runner even though, up until this point in my life, I've always had the mentality of a sprinter. He's right. In the past, when faced with a challenge or a difficult project, I would throw myself into the project entirely and work extremely hard, thinking of nothing else. I forced myself to exceed the expectations of the challenger. Now that I'm out of school and looking for a job, that kind of mentality isn't as effective as it used to be. I need to learn to pace myself so that I don't burn out. I feel beyond burned out already.

The point I'm trying to make through all of this rambling is that I haven't blogged or vlogged in a while because my heart hasn't been in it. Just as in every other area of my life right now, I feel as though I have nothing useful to contribute. It is pleasantly surprising to see several good YouTubers start making videos again. There's a part of me that wishes things could go back to the way they were during the "golden age" of YouTube secularism a few years ago. Hell, I wish the whole Movement could go back to the way it was, but that's not going to happen. The Movement I knew and loved is just another home that I have had to move out of in the course of growing up. That home has probably been one of the more difficult to leave behind. As always, the uncertainty is what drives me nuts.

One thing that reading my old LiveJournal did for me though, was remind me of a time in my life when I became ok with saying "I don't know" to the God question. Maybe it's time I learned to do the same about the future. 

Anyway, all of this is why I haven't been around lately. In all likelihood, I'll be back. I crave attention too badly to leave blogging forever. Until then, goodnight heathens. 

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Thoughts on Choice

The #Stand4Life hashtag was trending this morning on Twitter. Being in a good mood today, I decided to stir the pot a little by adding this to the feed:

It was just last week that Texas state Senator Wendy Davis literally stood for reproductive rights when she filibustered for 11 hours against a piece of legislation that would restrict abortion past 20 weeks of pregnancy and whose restrictions would effectively shut down many clinics in Texas. The filibuster sparked a flurry of media chatter and put the Texas abortion battle in the spotlight. Rick Perry, the Texas governor who prayed for rain, responded by citing Davis's experiences as a teen mother who eventually graduated from Harvard as a reason why she should realize that "every life must be given a chance to realize its full potential and that every life matters". While Perry's response is not at all surprising, I think we all need to recognize that he has no business telling Senator Davis how she should interpret her own experiences.

The more I consider the abortion issue, the more baffled I am by the fact that religiously motivated opponents of reproductive rights are in the same camp as champions of the so-called "Free Will Defense" as a response to the theological problem of evil. God wanted us to have free will, the argument goes. That's why He allowed evil to exist. Humans chose sin in the Garden of Eden, but, despite the fact that it brought death and darkness to the entire world, this was a choice that God wanted us to have. It is said that when Jesus died on the cross to save men from their wickedness, it was a sacrifice freely made. The story of the "good news" retold in churches across the world on Easter Sunday would be very different if God had been forced at gunpoint to have His son killed. Even post-crucifixion, it is said that all people must choose whether or not to accept Jesus's sacrifice. Choice is a near-sacred concept in evangelical protestant Christianity. Choice is tightly woven through its mythology and theology. Without it, much of evangelical Christian belief would be rendered meaningless.

In a similar way, choice is woven through the lives of American women of childbearing age. Whenever I hear about legislation that proposes to restrict access to abortion and contraceptives, I become filled with fear on a very deep level. The thought of myself  staring back at a tiny "+" sign, realizing that I am trapped in a pregnancy that I cannot or do not want to go through with is terrifying. The fact that this situation could happen even if I abstained from consensual sex for the rest of my life is an even more startling realization. For women like myself, reproductive rights are not just philosophical quibble over what the rights of a fertilized egg are, they are an essential determining factor in our lives.  The ability to control one's reproduction may be the difference between a healthy woman and a sick one, an educated woman and an uneducated one, a child who thrives and a child who suffers. Wendy Davis freely chose to go through with her pregnancy at the age of 19. Certainly, her sacrifices were noble. Carrying a pregnancy to term when there is no other choice is not a noble sacrifice; it's a virtual prison sentence.

This piece in Slate responds to Rick Perry's remarks on Senator Davis by exploring the question "What if your mother had aborted you?". When confronted with this question, I think about the choices my mother made in her life. While she would never have an abortion, she made many choices about her reproduction that greatly affected who I am today. She graduated from college, started a career, got married to loving and committed partner, moved to my hometown and was in her 30s before I came along. Both my brother and I were planned pregnancies. Some might rightly say that we were lucky to have the opportunities and support that we did as children. Luck certainly contributed to the quality of our lives, but so did our mother's choices.

I am of course very thankful that my mother chose to have me. However, I am even more thankful that my mother chose.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Support Your Local Ex-Muslims!

Sam Harris's Twitter feed is an interesting place. Here is a recent tweet of his that stuck out in my mind:

I don't know what the context of this reply was; he very well could have been making a valid point. It was the phrase "doctrine of Islam" that  caught my eye. Islam, a religion with billions of adherents around the world, the manifests in multiple regions on the globe, each of which of which have their own unique cultures and Islam somehow manages to retain a single "doctrine". The idea is ludicrous.

I believe I have written before about how important it is to criticize Islam, but how awful secularists in the United States and Europe are at doing so. I think it's safe to say that a fair amount of white, formerly Christian American secularists don't have a very good grasp of the nuances of Islam, its philosophies and its practices. Our lack of understanding creates problems, not only for Muslims in the west, but for the ex-Muslims that we would ideally like to welcome into our community and movement.

I am ex-Muslim. Most people are surprised to hear this from me. To quote Sean Faircloth at a dinner we  both attended last fall:
"You used to be Muslim?? But you don't look... well... wait..."
When I became friends with Hassan Khalifeh, also an ex-Muslim, I felt comfortable talking to him about the experiences I had had in my not-too-distant religious past. Before these conversations, I had kept most of feelings about that time a secret. Even though I as an Atheist activist, I have been treated differently by people in the movement who find out that I'm ex-Muslim. I have had friends who seemed sincerely frightened of my former religion and who insist on me not talking about it.

I doubt that I'm the only ex-Muslim who has felt this way. My case is special because I was born and raised in the West. I can't begin to imagine how ex-Muslims from parts of the world with a Muslim majority might feel being a part of such a white-washed, Christianity-centric secular movement in the United States. When I see displays of ignorance like Sam Harris's above tweet, I am not given hope that ex-Muslims in secularism will be met with the type of understanding that they may need to come to terms with themselves as nonbelievers. I am not given hope that our movement will be able to adequately reach out to questioning Muslims and welcome them into our community.

Thankfully, there are others who also feel that ex-Muslims deserve a community of their own. Hassan recently posted on the Course of Reason blog about The Importance of Support Ex-Muslims. In his post, he writes in support of the new secular group called Muslimish. This CFI-affiliated group is geared towards questioning and former Muslims. It holds regular meetings in cities with high Muslim populations such as Detroit and New York City. While I haven't had much time to be personally involved with Muslimish, I hope to do so in the future and I wholeheartedly support their efforts. 

If you are a questioning or ex-Muslim, make sure to check out their Facebook page or the contact information provided by Hassan on his blog post. If you are a nonbeliever who is not ex-Muslim, by all means criticize Islam and the actions of Islamic theocrats. However, make sure that you are doing so with the same fairness and rationality that you use to criticize Christianity or Judaism. Support your ex-Muslim allies in secularism. They aren't from another planet... and they never were.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Let's Be Rational, Even When it Comes to Fundamentalism

The calamity in Boston busted open multiple conversational floodgates. A large portion of news coverage during yesterday's manhunt for bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev focused on the suspect's nationality, political beliefs and possible religious motives. Similar topics are still being discussed across the internet and in the Atheist Movement. As we continue the ever-popular discourse on religious Fundamentalism, we should try remain just as devoted to truth and reason in our analyses of this topic as we are in our assessments of other topics. There are two very important points that need to be made about religious Fundamentalism that the Atheist movement often forget:

1. Religious fundamentalism is not necessarily the most pure, most intellectually honest or the most accurate interpretation of any given religion.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard an atheist say something akin to "if Christians really followed their religion, they'd all hate gays" or "if Muslims really followed the Qur'an, they'd all support terrorism", I would likely be able to retire early. Unfortunately, assertions like these are very inaccurate and demonstrate a want of historical knowledge.

Fundamentalist religious movements* are reactionary almost by definition. They are relatively recent and very different in belief and practice from the "original" sects of the religions that they stem from. Evangelical Christianity originated in the 18th century with the First Great Awakening. Fundamentalist Christianity arose later, in the 19th century in response to the popularity of religious doctrines and practices that its adherents saw to be inaccurate. If we were to look at some of the oldest surviving Christian religious traditions, many of the Orthodox Churches, we would find that they are just as annoyed by Fundamentalist Christians as we secularists are. They do not take the Bible literally and most of them are not Creationists.

The same is true in the case of Islamic Fundamentalism. The militant religious groups we see shouting and burning American flags in the Middle East have not actually existed since the founding of the religion. Wahabbism, the sect of Islam that we see put into practice in Saudi Arabia, was also a product of the 18th century and thus, relatively recent as religious traditions go. It should also be noted the Saudi extremism is the exception, not the rule, in the predominantly Muslim Arab world. Following the colonial period, most of the governments in what we call the "Muslim world" were secular nationalist governments. Some nations, Tunisia in particular, actually repressed the open practice of Islam despite the fact that most of the citizens were Muslim. These secular governments were often repressive or ineffective in other respects as well and many of the Islamist groups that we hear about on the news arose in response to the perceived ineffectiveness or repressiveness of the powers in place at the time.

In the cases of both Islam and Christianity, no one sat down, read the Bible or Qur'an from cover to cover and then proclaimed, "hey, we're doing this wrong! Let's go stone some people!". That's why it's incredibly ridiculous for us as atheists to sit down, read the holy books and then suddenly proclaim to understand the religions in question. Religious fundamentalists often claim to have the most correct interpretations of their respective religions, but their views of history and philosophy are usually quite skewed. I fail to understand why claiming to take the Bible or Qur'an literally should be considered more intellectually honest than not doing so. Some denominations of Christianity and Islam truly believe that God's word requires careful interpretation and that it contains parable and mystery. This position is actually more honest than the literalist position because, in practice, Fundamentalists pick and choose from their holy books just as much as moderates do. They have to. As atheists love to point out, the Bible and Qur'an are full of contradictions. In order to "follow" them, one must choose one command or another, contradictory command. It makes no sense to ignore this fact in order to make Fundamentalism seem like a default interpretation of a religion.

2. Religious Fundamentalism cannot be divorced from the political and social climates in which it manifests.

Because Fundamentalist religion as reactionary, we cannot pretend that it arose from the ether or even that it arose only from religious fervor. When the potential tie between the Boston bombing and Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya was suggested, people on Twitter immediately started hooting about how this 19-year-old was clearly brainwashed by the idea of Islamic jihad. While there may be a grain of truth to this assertion, the "radical Islam is what inspires this kind of violence" train of thought results in a gross oversimplification of the issues at hand. It ignores the political turmoil in the Caucuses that has created a fertile ground for radical religion. If you are under the impression that radical Islam in Saudi Arabia is the same as radical Islam in the former USSR, then you are very much in error.

One might ask why this second point matters. After all, religious extremism is undeniably bad, no matter how it originated. The problem with this objection is that it does not take into account the fact that we cannot properly address an issue without a full and accurate understanding of the issue. Sure, attacking extremism itself might help the situation a little, but if we fail to correct the underlying social and political issues that lead to the development of extremism, there's a good chance that it will crop up again. Also, if we, as outsiders, present solutions to the problems the religious extremism causes without understanding the situation at hand, our solutions will not be well received, no matter how clever they are. Take, for instance, the woman who was persecuted recently in Tunisia for her topless protest against Islamic repression. I doubt that suggesting a more secular Tunisia would go over well, considering how repressive the previous secular regime was.

None of this means that we need to cease our criticism of and fight against religious Fundamentalism. By all means, criticize Islam, criticize Christianity, hate the adherents of these faiths that use their beliefs as an excuse to kill and persecute. Just remember to do so in a reasoned manner keeping the facts in mind. These facts are often more complicated than we anticipate, but as freethinkers, nuance is not something that we should fear.

*I am talking mainly about the Abrahamic faiths here. My knowledge of the histories of other religions is too lacking for me to speak on their histories with regard to fundamentalism.