Friday, July 5, 2013

Looking at Whitney Houston's Death through Atheist Eyes - a Rebuttal

This is a refutation of an article at CARM (Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry). If you would like to spend 15 minutes of your valuable time reading my article instead, I've included a brief explanation.

Background: The author describes a conversation on message boards between a Christian and an atheist. The atheist says that Whitney Houston’s death is a “tragedy.” The author takes offense to this, providing religious-based arguments to support the assumption that atheists can't find human life valuable, so Whitney Houston's death cannot be a "tragedy" seen through the lens of atheism. Basically, this is one Christian trying to make sense of all atheists from the replies of one atheist on a message board, commenting on the death of a celebrity. 

I would also like to note that the title to this article is more than a little misleading. It should read something like: “Whitney Houston’s death in an Atheist’s eyes – from a Christian perspective.”  This article is written from a Christian’s view of what an Atheist must feel/believe. The tone of the article is quite hostile throughout, as if just the thought of atheism angers the author, or puts him/her on the defensive. I don’t even really want to get into the author telling people what they SHOULD believe based on his/her interpretation of “atheist belief;” I'll just leave that little tidbit right there for you to ponder all on your lonesome. Unlike the author of that piece, I’ll acknowledge that atheists (like Christians) come from different countries, are different races, and have different socioeconomic backgrounds. We are a varied lot; pigeonholing atheists is (to use a tired old cliché) like trying to herd cats.

To make this post a bit more organized, I’ll use various quotes from the article throughout this post (bolded), and refute them, one by one.

Ready? Let’s go!

“If someone wants to define Whitney Houston’s death as “tragic,” then he is going to need a couple of things. First, he’ll need to show that she possessed some innate worth that was marred by the lifestyle that eventually took her life. Second, he must show that the way her life ended was in stark contrast to a far different standard, which instead describes how things ought to be.”

First of all, let’s find both ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’ in the dictionary (relevant passages have been italicized):

trag·e·dy noun \ˈtra-jə-dē\
a : a medieval narrative poem or tale typically describing the downfall of a great man
b : a serious drama typically describing a conflict between the protagonist and a superior force (as destiny) and having a sorrowful or disastrous conclusion that elicits pity or terror
c : the literary genre of tragic dramas
a : a disastrous event : calamity
b : misfortune
3: tragic quality or element

trag·ic adjective \ˈtra-jik\
1: of, marked by, or expressive of tragedy
a : dealing with or treated in tragedy
b : appropriate to or typical of tragedy
a : regrettably serious or unpleasant : deplorable, lamentable
b : marked by a sense of tragedy

Now, neither definition states the need for ‘innate worth’ to qualify an event as tragic. But, let me play Devil’s Advocate, and assume that there is need for worth or value. Who says that atheists do not place value on human (and other) life? As an atheist, I believe that life is much more precious, simply because there is no afterlife. There won’t be a second round or an instant replay. This time on earth is all we have – and I spent 15 minutes of it (time that I will never get back) reading a nonsensical article from a smug Christian, confident that his/her way is the only valid, righteous way to live one's life. Because I invested something that I value (my time) reading that article, does that give it innate worth? I’ll leave you to be the judge.

In both of these definitions, there is a simple meaning of “tragedy” – a disastrous event, calamity, or misfortune which is “deplorable, lamentable.” Most people that I know – regardless of their spirituality (or lack thereof) – would agree that this definition would fit the circumstances of Whitney Houston’s death. It was definitely lamentable and disastrous for her loved ones, friends, and fans. Regardless of her faults, Whitney Houston was a human being – someone who was suffering through addiction and emotional pain. Anyone who believes that atheists assign little or no value to the life of a living, breathing, sentient being understands us little. We aren't monsters. We just don’t believe in the ephemeral, ethereal definition of “worth” or “value” that most spiritual people ascribe to.

“Here’s the thing: an atheist who takes his/her faith and philosophy seriously, and drives it to its end conclusion, will be at a loss to provide an answer for either.”

Here’s the thing: no matter how much you say that atheism is a “faith,” it doesn't make it true. There are a few things in my life that Christians might say that I take on faith; two examples that I've heard used were that “you have faith that you will wake up every morning,” and “you have faith that your car will start when you turn the key.” In general usage, “faith” means believing something with no evidence. What I believe bears no resemblance to “faith” : I believe that I will get up in the morning because I've woken up hundreds of days before with no ill effects; I believe that my car will start, because in all the time that I've owned it, I've never had a problem with it starting. So, I take the evidence (years of me waking up in the morning, and a reliable car) – and come to a logical conclusion. There is nowhere in these scenarios where you can insert faith.

Now, atheism isn't a “philosophy” either. It simply means a lack of belief in the existence of a creator deity (I could go back to Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary, but I don't feel like being pedantic today). There are a few philosophies in which atheism is a definite part (take Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, for example, or like the author mentions, Nihilism). But not all atheists describe themselves using these philosophies. Just like there are different denominations of Christianity, there are different types of atheists, too. Sure, some atheists might also call themselves nihilists or objectivists, but certainly not all atheists ascribe to the same philosophy, or any organized philosophy at all. For instance, I am a Secular Buddhist. Buddhism being more of a philosophy than a religion, it is quite easy to be godless and Buddhist at the same time. I have determined, through my own good judgment, that many of Buddha’s teachings reflect a deep understanding of the realities of this world. Do I believe everything that Buddha taught? Probably not. But that’s okay, because he said:

“Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense." ~Buddha

Buddha acknowledged that he was a man – an enlightened man – but still, a man. He recognized that there are many roads to enlightenment, and his was unique. In contrast, the Bible says:

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” ~Jesus

So, Jesus is essentially saying that the only way to make it to Heaven is to believe that he is the son of God, and what he says goes. Not Christian? You’re wrong. Born before his time? Too bad. Born into a tribal culture and never heard of Jesus or Yahweh? Sucks to be you! Hope you enjoy roasting in eternal hell-fire!
Now, do you see what I did there? I interpreted Jesus’ words from my own perspective – that of an atheist. I don’t claim to be something I’m not, nor do I claim to know the mind of the average (or not-so-average) Christian.  My words to the author:

Do not tell atheists what they should or shouldn't believe. You aren't one, and you have no authority to tell anyone what to do, or how or what to think. Your "interpretation" carries ZERO weight.

“The atheist philosophers who know their craft will tell you that there is no meaning in life, period.”

Let's ignore the patently obvious cherry-picking evaluation by a Christian of which atheist philosophers "know their craft," and just move on. Nobody likes a nitpicker! 
Now because the author is approaching this from the viewpoint of a Christian, s/he takes these "there is no meaning to life" types of statements at face value. For clarification: atheists do not believe that we are GIVEN a purpose or a meaning to life. That does NOT mean that we can’t make one for ourselves. We don’t have to wait for an edict from on high about what we, personally, are to dedicate our lives to. We have to do the hardest thing – we explore, try new things, read books, meet people, implement ideas, and seek out new experiences – to discover what really matters to us. We find out, through trial and error, what fills us with joy while helping (or at least avoiding harm to) others.

For me, this joy is found through helping others. I have embarked on a new career path in Library Science, because I enjoy facilitating access to information. I enjoy helping people and feeling useful. I enjoy being involved in my community – I volunteer my time and give money to causes that benefit others, such as: Pantene Beautiful Lengths, the Special Olympics, my local library, my local animal shelter – I've even crocheted hats and donated them to homeless people. If you made a blanket statement saying that all atheists are selfish and self-absorbed, and proceeded to describe me in this fashion, my friends, family, and acquaintances would wonder what person you’re talking about – because that isn't me.
Just because the author cannot fathom someone whose life purpose comes from within themselves and not from a god, in their eyes, all atheists believe that there is no meaning to life. This isn't truth. Put simply, this conclusion is the product of a lackluster imagination.
I have a saying that often makes people giggle: “The universe is honey badger.” In essence, it doesn't care. It doesn't give a shit. Some people accept this and move on with their lives. Some people refuse to accept this, and live in fear of the unknown. Still more people reject this philosophy, and choose to deal with the harsh realities of life using denial - by ascribing chance events to “God’s will.” The nature of the universe does not change – only our perspective does. If you choose to live in denial and take it on faith that there is some divine plan that encompasses all of life – this is fine. If this is how you deal with the unknown, terrific – I’m glad you have found something that works for you. Kudos. But don't try to tell me that it's the only right path - because it's not.

“…if you listen to the top spokesman for atheists, biologist Richard Dawkins: “Humans have always wondered about the meaning of has no higher purpose than to perpetuate the survival of has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.” Dawkins isn't alone in believing there is no purpose to life.”


“We could also listen to atheist biologist Eric Pianka tell us “We’re no better than bacteria!”

I want to make a note here. Richard Dawkins is a biologist. He is an expert in the field, and has extensive training in this area. He’s going to think like a biologist, which means – DNA, genes, and species survival. Ask a philosopher the meaning of life – heck, ask 10 of them – and you’ll get a different answer each time. Ask an atheist medical doctor the meaning of life. Ask 10 different atheists about the meaning of life. You’ll probably get completely different answers from that of Dawkins. Dawkins is a well-spoken, famous atheist – but he doesn't speak for us all, just like the Pope doesn't speak for all Christians.
As for Eric Pianka, I wonder what his answer would be if you asked him if bacteria were beautiful. As a biologist, he has dedicated his life to the study of living organisms – I wonder how he feels about them. If we knew how he felt about bacteria in the first place, we may be able to gauge how he feels about the human race – which, for the most part, does have much in common with bacteria. We have DNA. We are able to locomote (some bacteria move passively, by being carried by fluids, however). We reproduce (multiply). We are much more sophisticated than bacteria – I’m quite sure that Eric Pianka would agree with that – but our most base motives (finding energy/fuel, and multiplying) are similar, when stripped down to bare bones. Nature has a beauty and a symmetry that is independent of a spiritual interpretation. Just because I, Eric, or Richard don’t believe that God created a rainbow, it doesn't mean that we can’t appreciate its beauty and enjoy it.

“Unfortunately, for the true-to-the-faith atheist, Whitney Houston’s demise was not tragic. To classify it as such demands that she possessed intrinsic moral worth, and that there exists in life a way things ought to be. But making such claims implies design, and a creatorless universe has nothing in that department to offer.”

Again, atheism is not a faith. It is based on evidence, not the fervent hope that what my parents, friends, pastor, etc. told me was true - because of course, they would never, ever lie to me.

Yes,Whitney Houston's death was tragic. She, as a human being, had natural gifts that entertained and impressed us all. She suffered, needlessly. Through the eyes of a true, blue atheist – HER LIFE HAD VALUE. It had worth. If it must, as the author insists, be a moral worth, then let me tell you something: Morality does not belong solely to the religious. I described above some causes that I donate to on a regular basis. There are plenty of charities out there that are nonreligious in nature: Responsible Charity, Amnesty International, Goodwill, the ACLU, and Foundation Beyond Belief, just to name a few. Atheists - and those who firmly believe that morality does not require religious belief - support and champion these charities, which help people not only in our own backyard, but across the world. 
I believe that children all around the world should have access to nutritious food, clean water, adequate shelter, and education. I believe that women all around the world should have access to accurate information about their reproductive system, and access to a variety of methods to prevent unwanted pregnancy. I believe that all little girls should be able to go to school. I believe that all men should treat women with respect and dignity. I believe that everyone should have access to affordable medical care. I believe that everyone deserves a fair shake in this unfair world, despite their race, religion, nationality, size, gender, sexual orientation, or degree of ability or disability.
These beliefs, how I believe life ought to be, in no way imply design – they imply that I have empathy for others, and a desire to relieve their suffering.
I'm sure that for a devout Christian, the thought of a creatorless universe is scary. People cope with it in different ways. The conclusion that I have come to is this: The only thing that we can do is to do our best with what we have in the little time that we are lucky enough to have here. We all have to live together on this planet – and the least that we can do is be nice to one another.

Friday, March 22, 2013

My Journey to Atheism

It was March of last year that I became an atheist. Listening to the Thinking Atheist podcast, reading the Friendly Atheist blog, watching Star Trek, stumbling upon “Science Saved My Soul,” and intellectually devouring Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” led me to conclude that my search for spirituality was futile. I came to the conclusion that the “spiritual hole” that I felt WAS NOT there – I only felt this way because society asserts that I SHOULD feel that way. I found that I can have a wonderful and fulfilling life, although American culture asserts that I can’t have a meaningful life if that spiritual “hole” in my heart is not filled by at least one deity or dogma.

My spiritual journey has been a long one. It began as a Protestant in north Florida – my mother was a tepid Methodist, and my father was an apathetic Calvary Baptist. We were what I would call “Holiday Christians.” We went to church on Easter and Christmas – most of the time. I had picture bibles and was taught Bible stories, but we didn't read the Bible every day, go to Sunday school, or Bible study. My father was in the Navy, so we wouldn't have had a consistent church community to return to, anyway – we moved every two to four years, so community building was beyond us. 

After my parents divorced when I was 11, I became interested in faiths other than Christianity. I was strongly attracted to Wicca and started to practice it in solitary until I went into the Marine Corps at age 17. I thought that it was different, but in reality, my “practice” was just as tepid and apathetic as my parents toward their Christian faith. I felt dumb performing rituals, chanting, and dancing all alone. I did reach out, briefly, to the local Wiccan community, but I found that they were as bad as the Christians – it was like there was a contest to prove who was more Wiccan than everyone else. It was like High School superimposed over a religion.

 In my early 20’s, I found Asatru, a reconstructionist religion. Asatru is Northern European spirituality; it is based on what the Vikings may have believed, derived from written historical accounts. It’s polytheistic and encompasses gods such as Thor, Odin, and Freya. I thought I had found it – I thought I had belonged.  But then, my ritual group started to change. It got bigger, louder, and started to charge people money. Soon, there were rifts – one right after the other – tearing the kindred apart. I decided to leave, during one of them – the truth was that I didn't feel anything anymore – the rituals felt silly, the gods were nonexistent, and the people were as self-absorbed as Wicca and Christianity were. I didn't believe any more, and I think that I didn't really WANT to believe any more. I transitioned into a solitary practice, and my rituals became less frequent. I tried to revive my enthusiasm, but it never came back. I still have terrific friends from this community and occasionally attend events with a smaller kindred. They welcome me whole-heartedly as one of their own; I still enjoy the culture and feeling of community there.

After I lost my Asatru faith, I labeled myself as agnostic, and started to research Buddhist philosophy. I loved the concepts, but most traditions have some form of dogma, which I was unwilling to accept. This continued until last year, when, in January, I started listening to the Thinking Atheist podcast - I stumbled onto it looking for information on Atheism because I was curious. It was only a couple months after that when I just gave up trying to believe. I realized then that there was no way that I could defend something that I could not prove exists. I couldn't even defend it to MYSELF.

And you know what? That “hole” is gone, like my belief in God. When I finally admitted my unbelief to myself, it disappeared – and was replaced by a profound respect for the vast, terrifying, exhilarating universe.

"Stars must die so that I can live.
I stepped out of a supernova… And so did you."
                                                                                                                ~Phil Hellenes


I still “practice” a stripped-down uniquely American form of Buddhism – meditation and mindfulness with an occasional reading of a Sutra or other Buddhist-based article or book are the only practices that I need. I am not an expert on Buddhism, nor do I want to be. I’m not perfect – I still make mistakes, get angry, and occasionally fall prey to pride and impulsivity. In short, I’m human. 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Farewell to Facebook


School has just started, and I have to be on my game – it’s only 6 months until I graduate, and I need to focus on my classwork. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey provided a delightful diversion...and with purchase of the soundtrack and the book, it became an extended one.

In an audit of my time, I found Facebook to be the worst time-waster…so I decided to cut it out of my day completely – at least for seven days. Adding to this was the recent social network battle over gun rights – either side gets annoying after a while, no matter where on the spectrum you fall. I wound up being sucked into several of these conversations/debates/screaming matches – which, to tell you the truth, is not how I desire to spend my time on the internet.

This is how this thing will work: I will abstain from Facebook for seven days. I will write my reflections below, for your amusement. Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to read and/or comment on this post.

So, the big question…will I succumb to temptation and post – or will I succeed in weaning myself slowly off of the internet social network demon?


Day 1 – A Little Bit Nervous:
Confession (it’s not good, when the first day starts with a confession, is it?) – I did “like” a couple of things, which most likely resulted in postings on my wall…but I did not go to the site itself. All in all, the day was a success. I was having serious cravings for a Facebook Fix, however – when I needed a break from daily activities, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t doing Facebook – so I have to find something constructive to do. My American History reading assignments actually got done today!

Day 2 – The Sweats
I keep having to fight the desire to post. I remind myself – almost hourly – that I’m not that important. I mean…really. Who in their right mind gives a shit about the mundane daily activities of my life? My “problems” are nothing more than minor annoyances.

Day 3 – The Cravings Begin to Subside
Today, I honestly forgot, for long stretches of time, that there was such a thing as Facebook. It’s amazing what you can get done when you’re not surfing your News Feed, or commenting on the lives and opinions of others. Today, I volunteered at the Multnomah County Library, as I do every week - I process and shelve holds…it’s good practice for a future job as a Library Paraprofessional. I wrote an email to the Circulation Coordinator at my library, as a preemptive measure to setting up an internship in the spring. I did a Pilates video, which used an exercise ball exclusively. I came to the conclusion that a sadist must have invented Pilates (my core muscles are horribly weak – that is all my fault), and had the desire to post that on Facebook. Of course, I didn’t bend to the temptation. I also completed my American History test today, and read my assigned coursework in my Cataloging class. I also did all the dishes, and a load of laundry. I was just going to start work on my short English Lit essay, when I remembered this blog post. This experiment is proving to be a productive one.

Day 4: Getting along fine without it!
Today, I went to the store to get some exercise equipment, worked out, finished my English Lit Essay, and went out to eat with hubby at Red Robin. I threw a load of laundry into the dryer. Hubby and I went to the grocery store and spent a little more than we should have. We were supposed to meet a friend for dinner tonight, but that didn’t happen – she is very ill. So, I am putting together a “Get Well Soon” basket, and will deliver that tomorrow. I am very, very, tired. I thought little about Facebook – I thought about it even less than yesterday!

Day 5 – Too busy to care!
I got up early this morning – well, earlier than usual. I got together all the items for our friend’s gift basket, and drove it up there. She and I talked for hours. I fetched lunch at Subway, her treat. I made it home around 7:30PM to feed the dog and let him out – he was VERY glad to see me! When I got home, I watched a little bit of TV (those Roseanne reruns always suck me in!), did some quick studying, and then completed a test for my Cataloging course. I turned in my report for English Lit, and checked to see if I had anything to do for history – nope, I’m all caught up. I’m now preparing to do my reading assignments for next week for both History and English – I seem to have a little more productive time on my hands now that I quit Facebook.

Day 6 – What is this thing you call “Face book?”
Today, I only thought of going onto Facebook once or twice – schoolwork and quality time with the hubby and dog kept me busy. I rearranged the baking cupboard, wiped down the counters, and did the dishes. I read Chapter 5 of my history textbook, cooked jambalaya, and I’ve started to replace the sugar in my coffee, cereal, tea (and other foods and beverages) with Splenda. The hubby and I went out on a nice long walk for exercise today – and like every other day this week, we’ve walked the dog twice a day instead of once. The pup is actually tired at night, and it cuts down on the *ahem* “canine flatulence.” I rearranged the kitchen implement pegboard, and we went out to Fred Meyer’s to get a few odds and ends. I barely thought about the internet at all, except to check my online school – which, I’m glad I did, because there was a pop quiz in my English class, due tomorrow by 11:00am. I finished that and I’m now on my way to bed!

Day 7 – The Last Day
On the last day, I did what I did on most days – I cooked, I did chores, and I did schoolwork. I read the final chapter of my history homework and finished an Essay on Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” for my English Lit class. I was energetic all day – I even helped my husband to paint one wall in our house.  I baked a batch of chocolate chip cookies, and then we went on a long walk. I notice that I’ve been getting a lot more exercise this week - and I have been more mindful, more "present" than I have been for a long time.



I have been shocked at the amount of things I could be doing while perusing Facebook. I know that Facebook has good qualities – like connecting friends from across the world, or allowing people to vent their innermost feelings, or to be a part of a group, when you feel all alone. But it also enables procrastination. The oversharing phenomenon – where everyone thinks that their opinions and experiences are interesting, regardless of the truth – has imprinted on my mind. For the first few days after swearing off Facebook, I fell prey to these thoughts, but then I realized that I’m not really all that important; my thoughts aren’t really that interesting. I was strangely comforted in this fact – I mean; after all, I survived before Facebook. I also noticed that my stress level had gone down, since I don’t have to see those politically charged posts about gun control or abortion, or whatever the hell the media wants to politicize this week.

I don’t know if I’ll quit Facebook entirely – I do have friends that I can contact only through Facebook, and groups that I really like to participate in. But I’ll definitely cut down a lot – when I stopped, I saw a marked increase in productivity and focus.

Have you anything to add? Have you done a similar experiment? If you have, feel free to post a link to it in the comments – I may just update my post to reflect your observations.