Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Is There Justice in the Book of Job?

Or is the divinely-sponsored suffering of His good and faithful servant yet another nail in God's coffin, driven by the problem of evil?
The problem was stated most succinctly by David Hume: “Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?” 
One logical answer is that there is no God. But before the eighteenth century, and during most of it, atheism was not an option, even for the most strong-minded. To choose between two positions, a person must have two to choose from. Before the Enlightenment, the vast majority of Europeans did not... Joan Acocella: Is There Justice in the Book of Job? : The New Yorker
The earlier impossibility of non-belief is overstated. If you doubt the pre-Enlightenment existence and availability of the atheism option, read Jennifer Michael Hecht's Doubt: A History.

But Joan Acocella's essay is good. Of  Mark Larrimore's “The Book of Job: A Biography” (Princeton University Press) she writes:
Larrimore maintains a supremely tolerant position. He approves of the wealth of “interpretative openings and opportunities.” Everything is O.K. with him, and he thinks that whatever disagreements there are may lead to community. (This is interesting, since an absolutely crucial aspect of Job’s trial is that he suffers alone.) Such a latitudinarian approach is perhaps appropriate to a reception study, telling who thought what, and who, after them, thought something else, but eventually it comes to seem anti-intellectual. At times, Larrimore sounds like a kindly Unitarian minister, or like Mister Rogers.
With a God like Job's, Mister Rogers would surely be a comfort.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sunday Assembly

Just heard this on NPR, about a pair of comic Brits who so value church without the "god-bit" that they've gone and organized it. There's even a secular Sunday Assembly chapter here in Nashville.
“There’s a ton in the U.S. We went on a road show to go on and sort of launch the first one and sort of give a bit of an example about how it’s done. So we went to New York, Boston, Washington D.C., and Nashville – that was a hoot! The band was so good, unsurprisingly. Then there’s quite a few in California – they have taken it up quite nicely with San Diego. And even in the Deep South there are some in Georgia and Texas. So it’s really exciting to see that people just come forward. There’s a basic human need to get together as a community. And this seems to be a way in which lots of people like doing it.”
Here's where to find them in middle Tennessee this weekend. They're on Twitter too, @SundayAssembly.

UPDATE, Jan. 8, 2014: NPR story on Sunday Assembly
It sometimes feels like church in the auditorium of the Professional Musicians union in Hollywood. It's a Sunday morning, and hundreds of people are gathered to meditate, sing and listen to inspirational poetry and stories.
But then the live band starts up — performing songs by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Jerry Lee Lewis. And instead of a sermon, there's a lecture by experimental psychologist and neuroscientist Jessica Cail about the biology of gender identification and sexual orientation.
This is a Los Angeles meeting of Sunday Assembly, a church for people who don't believe in God. The brainchild of two British comedians, the movement has since spread across the globe, and there are now about 30 chapters from Dublin to Sydney to New York... (continues)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

St. Hitchens' Day.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Brothers, Sisters, Comrades...Friends.

That's the line I use to start every radio show I do.  It's the line I use when introducing myself to a group of people.  I have used it in every speech I have given in the past couple years.

It's how Christopher Eric Hitchens used to address his audience.

I still remember where I was when I found out that Christopher Hitchens had died.

I was in a hotel in Birmingham, Alabama--headed home for the holidays.  I had only just, a matter of weeks before, come across some of Hitch's work--as with all great things, I discovered Hitch while mindlessly running around YouTube.  I saw his debates, and fell in love with the "Hitchslap."  I ran out to Barnes and Noble and bought god Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything or, as I like to call it (because of its distinctive color), "the big yellow f**k-you to religion."

I remember falling in love with that tone of his--the vocabulary that was 10 miles long, and yet I understood every word from his mouth.  There are times I felt he was talking directly to me.
"Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity. Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake; the grave will supply plenty of time for silence." 
--Letters to a Young Contrarian
Hitch spoke to me, as I suspect he spoke to so many of us.  He's a divisive figure, to be sure, but when he spoke he was nothing less than bulletproof.  I am reminded of this particular setting of Hitch's debate with Tony Blair, known as the Antitheist's Anthem.

It's got a couple of Hitch's Greatest Hits, if you will: created sick and commanded to be well, Divine North Korea, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and so on.  But it's the line at the end that brings a tear to my eyes every time: 

"No seconds left, I've done my best, Ladies and Gentlemen.  Believe me, I have more."

That's the line that has broken my heart since his death 2 years ago.  Hitch was silenced by nothing more than a clock.  Reading his Mortality proves that beyond any doubt.

Hitch was a voice for all things good in the world.  He refused to tolerate dictatorship and he abhorred religion, but he absolutely loved people.  Hitch was everything I've ever wanted to be--intelligent, witty, funny--and more.  He lives on in his writings and the youtube videos that bear his trademark wit, and in the hearts of all those who admired him.

And so, on this, as I call it, "St. Hitchens' Day," a reference to a quote from the man himself ("atheists don't have saints and we don't have martyrs") I cope the only way I can, by watching his videos, reading some of his essays, and starting my day, as he invariably would, with a "decent slug of Mr. Walker's amber restorative."  "Johnnie Walker Black.  Breakfast of Champions.  Accept no substitutes."

In loving memory
of Christopher Eric Hitchens
April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Bertrand Russell was inconsistent, spiteful,

and one of our greatest guides to the terrifying consolations of human life, says his biographer Alan Ryan in a new introduction to Russell's What I Believe.
There are two sorts of atheist – Russell called himself an agnostic to indicate that it was not impossible that there should be some sort of God, but he was perfectly certain that God did not exist, and atheist seems more apt. The position of the first sort of atheist is sometimes paraphrased as “there is no God, and I hate him...”
-New Humanist/The Rationalist Association 


Also of note: "Wrong in the Right Way," on Ronald Dworkin's Religion Without God

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Reality is rough

but it could have been worse. We could have been faced with reality in all its roughness plus a God who made it that way." Alex Rosenberg


Atheism & Philosophy texts, updated

Coming to MTSU in January

Spring Semester-
Atheism & Philosophy
PHIL 3310 – Atheism and PhilosophyThis course examines various perspectives on atheism, understood as the belief that no transcendent creator deity exists, and that there are no supernatural causes of natural events. The course compares this belief with familiar alternatives (including theism, agnosticism, and humanism), considers the spiritual significance of atheism, and explores implications for ethics and religion.
Our central theme this semesterthe meaning of Atheism

What's the meaning of a godless existence? What gets atheists, humanists, naturalists and other godless folk out of bed in the morning? What reconciles them to belief in life non-eternal? How do they deal with their mortality? What  are their sacred texts, if not the Christian Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, the collected works of L.Ron, ...? Whatare the possible "meanings of life" regarded strictly in its finitude?

Classes will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2:40-4:05 pm in James Union Building (JUB) 202 beginning January 16, 2014.

Also recommended:

Monday, September 2, 2013

The meaning of atheism

I've spent Labor Day, so far, just playing: first with a post on The Butler, then a dog-walk, then a swim, then a bike-ride followed by another swim. I think I've earned the right to spend a portion of this day "working" now, albeit playfully, on something fun: the reading list for next semester's Atheism & Philosophy course coming in January.

The meaning theme we're humming in HAP 101 this semester should carry over nicely: what's the meaning of a godless existence? What gets atheists out of bed in the mornings? What reconciles them to life non-eternal? How do they deal with their mortality? What's their sacred text, if not The Good Book, the Koran, the Torah, the Book of Mormon, the collected works of L.Ron, ...? What is the meaning of life in its finitude?

So many possibilities leap to mind, but these are the ones that spring forward immediately.
Additional suggestions?

The atheist shelf at Vandy B&N, alongside the religion section. If your bookseller lacks one, ask 'em why.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Power of Suggestion...

Good day to all!  I felt I really should share this here, as it's really quite fascinating.

British mentalist and skeptic/atheist Derren Brown creates a synthetic and quite powerful religious experience for an atheist/scientist/skeptic using purely psychological and suggestive means.  This is truly quite an interesting bit of insight to how religion works...and how we can be manipulated into thinking artificial experiences to be truly supernatural.

Trust me when I tell you, it's worth the ~45 minutes of your time.  If you're like me and you're godless but fascinated by religion and its effects on people, you really must see this.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Hidden in plain sight

Jennifer Hecht's poetic atheism finds traces of constructive doubt everywhere-in Hobbes, history, museums, literature, the Bible...
"When I wrote Doubt I was surprised to realize how many of the canonical texts of the history of atheism are already in the homes of all sorts of people, because Job and Ecclesiates are in the Hebrew Bible, the story of the Greek-loving secular Jews who fought the Maccabees is in the Apocrypha found in Catholic Bibles, to name a few. Another is the hunk of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, which is a stunning critique of all religion, especially Christianity. I would like people to know how much of the art they see in museums, and how much of poetry and great literature, are in part efforts of religious doubters and atheists to negotiate the existential challenges we all face. I would be very pleased to have Poetic Atheism, and indeed my books and talks, associated with the shift into more awareness of this presently hidden-in-plain-sight history."
Jennifer Michael Hecht Interview

Friday, August 2, 2013

Varieties of atheist experience

My RS colleague promises to introduce me to the UT researcher behind this taxonomy. We'll give him a pulpit in Murfreesboro next Spring if he wants one. That is, we'll invite him to speak to our Atheism & Philosophy class. I think he'll find that we come in more than six varieties.
An atheist is simply someone without a belief in any deities. But disbelief in gods doesn’t describe individual atheists any more than disbelief in the divinity of Muhammad, Krishna, and Zeus describes individual Christians. Everybody disbelieves in some gods; atheists just disbelieve in more gods than theists do...
Varieties of atheist experience

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Six Atheist pigeonholes

My own hybrid brand of friendly (not angry) naturalist, humanist, pluralist, saganist, futurist etc. etc. does not seem to fit into any of them, but it'll be interesting in the Spring to canvas my Atheism & Philosophy class to see how many of the pigeonholes do fit.
"Researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have completed an extensive study of more than 1,000 non-believers nationwide, and the researchers have identified six basic types of atheists.  Dr. Christopher Silver and Thomas J. Coleman led the project, and their study showed that 14% of atheists are angry, confrontational “anti-theists.”  However, 12% of atheists are “ritual atheists” who attend religious services even though they don’t believe in the theology.  In this feature segment, we find out why some atheists choose church..."
Some Atheists Choose Church Over Confrontation? | WUTC:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Working for the cure

Atheists should stop arguing with theists, says "Mad-dog" Alex Rosenberg. He's
fed up with atheists who avoid facing up to the big persistent questions such as: ‘what is the nature of reality, the purpose of the universe, and the meaning of life? Is there any rhyme or reason to the course of human history? Why am I here? Do I have a soul, and if so, how long will it last? What happens when we die? Do we have free will? Why should I be moral? What is love, and why is it usually inconvenient?’ Rosenberg demands that atheists just stop arguing with theists, for one because ‘contemporary religious belief is immune to rational objection’ but also because it eats into the time atheists should be taking to work through the implications of their own worldview. Atheists need to spend more time getting to grips with what they should know about the reality we inhabit because science reveals it is ‘stranger than even many atheists recognise... Nice Nihilism » 3:AM Magazine
Richard Dawkins has done more than his share of getting to grips and he agrees, reality is stranger than we probably can imagine. But he's still sporting this message:

Like the faith-challenged Mormons featured in the Times yesterday, he just wants the truth. It can hurt, and it can liberate. Part of the important reality of our historical situation is that some of us still do not want the truth. They must be argued with, for all the good that may not do; but more than that, they must be superceded. We don't have to bad-mouth religion, we just need to clarify its superior naturalistic alternative.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Rethinking the Lord's Prayer

Buckminster Fuller was one of those humanist freethinkers (like John Dewey) who rejected God but still talked about divinity and a common faith in something he called "God." I still prefer to be God-free, but if I were going to talk that way I might sound something like this too:
To be satisfactory to science
all definitions
must be stated
in terms of experience
I define Universe as
all of humanity’s
consciously apprehended
and communicated (to self or others)
In using the word, God,
I am consciously employing
four clearly differentiated
from one another
experience-engendered thoughts...

No need to go into all that here. Suffice to say Fuller, like Dewey, like James, was concerned to enhance the quality of human experience and extract from it whatever meaning it might be made to contain. "Acknowledging the mathematically elegant intellectual integrity of eternally regenerative Universe is one way of identifying God." Whatever floats your dome, Bucky. Say it as you will, we can agree:

Up with the natural and human spirit, up with experience, up with life.

Happy Birthday, Buckminster Fuller: A Scientific Prayer | Brain Pickings

Monday, July 8, 2013

Hitch, closet dualist

Meghan O'Rourke's sobering essay on how some writers have written their own endings includes Hitch's acknowledgement that rejecting dualism is much easier said than done, when it comes down to it. Even the staunchest atheist is liable to look for an escape clause.
In notes appended to “Mortality,” Hitchens observes: “Always prided myself on my reasoning faculty and my stoic materialism. I don’t have a body, I am a body. Yet consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if an exception would be made in my case.”
The wise and brilliant John Updike was also taken aback by his final confrontation with the human condition, made to realize that we're really only young once.
As [he] asks in earnest, heartbreaking surprise, having glimpsed himself looking remarkably old in a bathroom mirror, “Where was the freckled boy who used to peek / into the front-hall mirror, off to school?”
Anatole Broyard also had to discover at first hand, as we all probably do, that the trite truth still and always applies:we don't have forever. O'Rourke:
The dissonance here is that dying is not really like entering “another country.” As Sontag observed accurately, it is our country from birth: “Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” But in a world that lacks an ethics of death, as ours does, we live estranged from this deeper knowledge. Perhaps because we must.
Deadlines - NYTimes.com

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Church of what's happenin' now

That's an ancient Flip Wilson routine, if my dated reference has expired.

A de-converted former Pentecostal preacher, Brother Jerry DeWitt, wants to gather a flock of atheists.
"Mr. DeWitt counts himself among the hard-line atheists, but he believes that something may be lost when someone leaves the church — not just the parts about God, but also a sense of community and a connection to emotion. 
“There are many people that even though they come to this realization, they miss the way the church works in a way that very few other communities can duplicate,” he said in a phone interview. “The secular can learn that just because we value critical thinking and the scientific method, that doesn’t mean we suddenly become disembodied and we can no longer benefit from our emotional lives...”
School of Life, Cajun-style. What would Alain ("Religion for Atheists") de Botton say?

Personally I do all kinds of embodied and emotional things on my secular Sundays. I don't feel a need to congregate piously in public anymore, not even with Unitarians. That impulse was sporadic and tepid even at its most fevered pitch, though it was still bad enough to unfit me for Belmont University in the '90s.

But maybe there are those among us who need something like this? Follow your bliss. Laissez les bons temps rouler.

In the Bible Belt, Offering Atheists a Spiritual Home - NYTimes.com

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Atheists see stars

Stephen King thinks atheists are incapable of appreciating the wonder and mystery and majesty and meaning of existence. He told Terry Gross,
If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design.
I'm disappointed, I thought Stephen was smarter than that. Brian Switek has a terrific response in National Geographic. He's not missed any stars or sunsets.

Evolution is Wonderful – Phenomena: Laelaps

Friday, May 24, 2013

Silent prayer, please

mentions of God, miracles, and prayer have become the argot of post-disaster reportage. They shouldn’t be. If you want to pray for Oklahoma or thank God it didn’t kill more people, go ahead. But please, especially if you’re a journalist, keep it to yourself.
Thanking the Lord for deliverance just doesn’t make any sense. Any God powerful and attentive enough to save survivors’ lives should also be powerful and attentive enough to stop the catastrophe in the first place. It’s insulting, futile, and distracting from the reality of natural disasters to inject your god into a calamity like Oklahoma's.
Not that most public figures are hesitating to do so...
Prayers for Oklahoma: Wolf Blitzer and other journalists should leave God and miracles out of natural disasters. - Slate Magazine

I heard a pastor on the radio, asked what possible words of consolation he could offer survivors of the woman and small child who lost their lives in the storm, trying futilely to rescue another small family member whose elementary school was destroyed. "Just remember that God loves you as much as you love your own children, as much as she loved hers."

Shameless. Shameful.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Godlike Great Programmers

The final strategy of those seeking compatibility between religion and science is to retreat into something that is reminiscent of solipsism... In a recent book, ”Where the Conflict Really Lies,” the eminent analytical philosopher Alvin Plantinga acknowledges the possibility of evolution, but suggests that random mutations and the like are “clearly compatible with their being caused by God. 
Plantinga argues that Christian believers have a sixth sense, a “sensus divinitatis” that allows them to sense God, with that sense defective or absent in nonbelievers. One could, of course, equally generate an infinite range of similar hypotheses, none scientifically testable, such as “only Zeus believers have a working Zeus sense,” “only ghost believers have a ghost sense,” and so forth, but...
But that's enough. My acute sixth sense for theo-nonsense is quavering.

Godlike Great Programmers: The Scientists Arguing for Religious Belief : The New Yorker (Thanks for the link, DB)

Friday, May 10, 2013


Hey everybody!  My name's Jon, I'm a Philosophy major at MTSU, born and raised in New Orleans, LA.  This is just a quick excerpt from my upcoming book Stark Raving Lunatic: Life and Times of a 20-year-old Part-Time Cynic which contains, amongst many others, thoughts on sociopolitical issues, life, and yes, faith.  Here's 

I swear, I heard Penn Jillette use this argument somewhere.  But when I searched for it, I couldn’t find it as I remembered it.  Hell, maybe I just made it up.  So, taking a move from the man himself, I’m just going to present this as my own and if anyone finds it, you can tell Penn I said I’m sorry.  So let’s get to it.

People who identify as “agnostic” as opposed to “atheist” kinda frustrate me.  There’s a fairly good reason for my argument, and that is this: Agnosticism and Atheism are not mutually exclusive by any means.  They don’t even answer the same question.

Agnosticism answers an epistemological question: “is there a god?”  The answer to this, at least in the case of any reasonable human, is “I don’t know.”  You can’t know.  That’s the nature of a deity.  It supposedly exists outside our plane of reality so its existence cannot be known beyond doubt.

Atheism answers the theological question: “do you believe that there is a god?”  This is a different question entirely.  This is a yes-or-no question.  Do you believe?  If yes, you’re a theist.  If no, you’re an atheist.

Let me offer an example.

Right now, as you’re reading this, I’d like to ask you if there’s an invisible elephant in your bathtub.  Well, is there?  It’s invisible…so you can’t really observe it.  So your only reasonable answer to the question can only be “I don’t know.”  You’re currently an Agnostic towards a theoretical invisible elephant in your bathtub.  Now, if I ask you whether you believe, given the evidence, that there is an elephant in your bathtub, then (hopefully) you’ll say “no, I don’t believe there’s an elephant in my bathtub.  What a ridiculous question.  Fuck you.”  You’re now an Atheist towards see-through bathtub Dumbo. 

The point is, most Atheists are Agnostic, and honestly, in their heart of hearts, I’d go as far as to say that most self-identifying Agnostics are Atheists.

Go ahead and put whatever label you want on yourself.  That’s your prerogative.  All I’m saying is, don’t try to present an epistemological answer to a theological question.