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Review of The Young Atheist’s Handbook—But Not Here

by Daniel Loxton, Feb 11 2014

YAH-CoverFor much of the past year I hoped to find the time to read and review UK science teacher Alom Shaha’s The Young Atheist’s Handbook, which had great buzz among softer atheist voices. Finally I found a moment last year to dig into the book. And loved it. It’s a brisk, wonderful read—and every bit as moving, and as laudably pluralistic, as its reputation suggested. It was an experience I really enjoyed. I wanted to tell people about it.

The question was, where?

As many readers know, I am an atheist in my personal life. At the same time, in my professional life I am an advocate for old school “scientific” skepticism (PDF). I regularly argue that the distinct and valuable tradition of scientific skepticism should be clearly distinguished from other parallel rationalist movements, and from the religious and political beliefs of individual skeptics—including my own. Skepticism is not an atheists only club. Continue reading…

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Let a hundred flowers blossom

by Donald Prothero, May 08 2013
The surreal sight of Margaret Downey and Jessica Ahlquist dueling with bananas in the foreground, while evangelist Ray Comfort interviews P.Z. Myers in the background

The surreal sight of Margaret Downey and Jessica Ahlquist dueling with bananas in the foreground, while evangelist Ray Comfort interviews P.Z. Myers in the background

Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting progress in the arts and the sciences”
—Mao Zedong

Last weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the Orange County Freethought Alliance fourth annual conference. Although I’ve spoken at The Amazing Meeting (this coming July will be my third such time), and frequently at the Skeptic Society meetings over the years (my “home base”), and made the big AAI meeting when it was in Burbank in 2009, this was the first of the smaller regional meetings in California that I had ever attended. I’m familiar with big events like TAM, with its lineup of all-star speakers and gigantic ballroom crammed with over 1600 people, so this smaller local meeting with about 300 participants was a nice change of pace. The venue was a smaller convention/ ballroom facility in the Fullerton Howard Johnson’s hotel. We were in the heart of Orange County, long the most conservative place in all of California. Since we were just blocks away from Disneyland, as you walked in that morning there was a continuous flood of tourists (mostly Asian) headed out for The Magic Kingdom. Yet the weather was nice (after a record-breaking heat wave on Thursday and Friday), the sun was out, and the swimming pool beckoned to our speakers who had flown from cold and snowy Minnesota or Philadelphia.

I got there much earlier than necessary (I never take chances on LA traffic, and since I was a morning speaker, I wanted to make sure my talk was working properly). The organizer, Bruce Gleason, had done a remarkable job with his small cadre of volunteers running the registration table and badges, handling the AV, manning the exhibitors’ booths in the back, and assigning one volunteer to be the speakers’ “go-fer” and another to give us warning on how much time we had left. The meeting price included catered lunch and dinner buffet style, which was excellent, and very efficient in feeding a large group and getting them back quickly. Continue reading…

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Try Not to Lump Us Atheists in with the Skeptics

by Daniel Loxton, Apr 09 2013

As some readers know, I try pretty hard to keep my personal atheism and humanism out of my work in skepticism. Generally I don’t discuss those topics from skeptical platforms like Skepticblog, unless it is to discuss the historical and conceptual boundaries between parallel rationalist movements. Scientific skepticism just isn’t the appropriate platform for me to promote or evangelize for my personal non-scientific theological beliefs. When I do talk about atheism, it is usually in the context of arguing, as I do at length in my recent two-chapter piece “Why Is There a Skeptical Movement?” (PDF) that conflation between atheism and skepticism misrepresents the ongoing religious diversity of the skeptical community and misdirects or erodes the important work that the skeptical movement was organized to pursue.

But today I want to take off my skeptic’s hat again for a moment, and write here instead in my personal capacity as an atheist. I hope you’ll forgive the digression.

Continue reading…

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Why Appear in an Atheist Book?

by Brian Dunning, Nov 15 2012

This past weekend I did a photo shoot for Chris Johnson, author and photographer of the upcoming book A Better Life: 100 Atheists Speak Out on Joy & Meaning in a World Without God. Although I certainly make no secret of the fact that I am without religious convictions of any kind, I prefer to avoid the word “atheist” like the plague. It means too many things to too many different people, most of them negative; and I’ve always hoped to have as little negativity as possible in the work that I do. So why appear in an atheist book, if I don’t want to make a negative statement? Here’s a clip from the companion video that Chris shoots with each interview:

Continue reading…

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Skepticblog Thanks the Bloggers at Skeptic Ink

by Daniel Loxton, Oct 03 2012

Back in August I noticed with some surprise that a new network of skeptic and atheist bloggers had started up at (Surprised, because I had thought we owned that domain. When Skepticblog, our own skeptical group blog formed back in 2008, we made sure to snap up all the variations on our name that we could get our hands on. However, it seems that was not then available, and therefore got missed.)

Hypatia of Alexandria, the inspiration for Skeptic Ink. Artwork by Ryan Grant Long

Looking at the new site, it seemed to us that two group blogs with such similar names (just an “s” apart) and overlapping (though not identical) rationalist missions could create confusion and headaches for both sites. Happily, we were swiftly able to sort things out with the organizers of the new blog, thanks to their very neighborly approach: they relocated to a new domain, and we did what we could to help.

So I’d like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the whole crew over there for their community-minded kindness and assistance, and introduce you to the relocated, rebranded, and redesigned Skeptic Ink blog (aka, the Skeptic Ink Network, or more playfully, SIN). I see that it is home to an energetic mix of different voices, each touching on different facets of a wide rationalism — not only the scientific skepticism that is Skepticblog’s area of concentration, but also atheism, philosophy and related topics they deem “vital to human flourishing.”

I hope you will check out Skeptic Ink, and join me in thanking them for their collaborative spirit.

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Generation Gaps

by Donald Prothero, Jun 20 2012

It hasn’t received much publicity yet, but a new report from the Pew Research Center shows something remarkable: a tremendous drop in religiosity among the “millennial generation.” The most revealing figure on their website (above) shows a remarkable decline in various measures of religiosity, such as doubts about God, regular church attendance, and belief that religion determines morality (based on the questions that were used in the survey). As one article reported:

The trend was also reflected in declining numbers of millennials who agreed with the statements “Prayer is an important part of my daily life” and “We all will be called before God at the Judgment Day to answer for our sins.” Answers to those questions also didn’t change much among older generations.

Although this is only one survey, it jibes with a whole range of other polls that show an increase in non-believers and a decline among deeply religious people in the U.S., especially among young people. Some polls estimate that the non-religious sector is about 15-25% of the American population. It’s consistent with the many polls that show young people are growing up tolerant of all races, genders and sexual orientations, and unsympathetic to the prejudices of their parents and grandparents. It certainly matches what I have seen in 33 years of teaching college students, where there is very little or no religiosity among most of them (and certainly very little narrow-minded fundamentalism in a small liberal arts like Occidental or Vassar or Knox, where I’ve taught). But few polls or surveys show this striking a generation gap among the youngest generation of adults. And if you click on the link in that website to all the other factors, no other variable (sex, political party, etc.) shows this trend: only age and generational affiliation deviates to this degree.

I’m not aware of much rigorous research yet on the possible causes of such a generational change, but that hasn’t stopped those reporting on the story from speculating on their own pet theories. Reading the responses to this report, I see several possible factors: Continue reading…

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A society without religion?

by Donald Prothero, Jun 06 2012

This past year of electoral politics has been eye-opening in the United States, with GOP presidential candidates (especially Santorum, Perry, and Bachmann) openly advocating a Christian theocracy in this country, and many Republicans showing their scorn for the separation of Church and State (or rewriting history to diminish its importance). Only one (Jon Huntsman) of the original nine GOP candidates accepted evolution, and several were devout creationists (Bachmann got her start fighting for creationism in her local Minnesota school board). We’ve seen the Texas School Board not only pushing creationism, but dropping Thomas Jefferson from the list of “great Americans” because of his secularist views and low regard for established religion. Although the right wing in this country has always had a strong connection to evangelicals and fundamentalism, now they form one of the largest and most dedicated blocs in the GOP, so they dictate a national political stance that openly yearns for a Christian theocracy. Years ago, Barry Goldwater warned about them:

Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them. The religious factions that are growing throughout our land are not using their religious clout with wisdom…. I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in ‘A,’ ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D.’ Just who do they think they are?… I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”

For the devil’s bargain that the GOP made back in the 1980s with Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts and the rest of the evangelical megachurches and their preachers, now their pigeons have come home to roost. Barry would scarcely recognize today’s GOP. Continue reading…

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Atheist Nation

by Michael Shermer, May 08 2012

Where in the world are the atheists? That is, in what part of the globe will one find the most people who do not believe in God? Answer: East Germany at 52.1%. The least? The Philippines at less than 1%. Predictably, strong belief shows a reverse pattern: 84% in the Philippines to 4% in Japan, with East Germany at the second lowest in strong belief at 8%. Not surprising, those who believe in a personal God “who concerns himself with every human being personally” is lowest in East Germany at 8% and highest in the Philippines at 92%.

These numbers, and others, were collected and crunched by Tom W. Smith of the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago, in a paper entitled “Beliefs About God Across Time and Countries,” produced for the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) and released on April 18, 2012. Smith writes: “Countries with high atheism (and low strong belief) tend to be ex-Socialist states and countries in northwest Europe. Countries with low atheism and high strong belief tend to be Catholic societies, especially in the developing world, plus the United States, Israel, and Orthodox Cyprus.”

Many religious scholars invoke the “secularization thesis” to explain lower religiosity in Northern European countries (compared to the United States) in which mass education, especially in the sciences, coupled to the fact that governments do what religions traditionally did in the past in taking care of the poor and needy. With a tight social safety net religions simply fall into disuse; with a porous social safety net people fall through the cracks and are picked up by religions. Other scholars have suggested a “supply side” explanation for the difference between the U.S. and Europe, in which churches and religions in America must compete for limited resources and customers and thus have ratcheted up the quality of religious products and services: mega churches with rock music, baby sitting, BBQs, and even free parking! Smith seems to find evidence of both forces at work, noting that “In the case of Poland, it appears that its strong Catholicism trumps the secularizing influence of Socialism,” whereas elsewhere in the world “there is also evidence that religious competition and/or religious conflict may stimulate higher belief.” Continue reading…

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Are you an Atheist or Agnostic?

by Michael Shermer, Apr 10 2012

Recently my friend and colleague in science and skepticism Neil deGrasse Tyson, issued a public statement via in which he stated that he dislikes labels because they carry with them all the baggage that the person thinks they already know about that particular label, and thus he prefers no label at all when it comes to the god question and simply calls himself an agnostic.

cover image

The Believing Brain
by Michael Shermer

In this book, I present my theory on how beliefs are born, formed, nourished, reinforced, challenged, changed, and extinguished. Sam Harris calls The Believing Brain “a wonderfully lucid, accessible, and wide-ranging account of the boundary between justified and unjustified belief.” Leonard Mlodinow calls it “a tour de force integrating neuroscience and the social sciences.”

I have already written about this many times over the decades, and my 1999 book How We Believe outlines in detail why I too hate labels. In fact, in my later book, The Mind of the Market, I explained why I also do not like the label “libertarian” because people automatically think this means believing something that I very likely do not believe (e.g., that humans are by nature purely selfish, that we have no moral obligation to help others in need, that greed is the only motive that counts in business, and that Ayn Rand was actually the Messiah), and instead I prefer to go issue by issue. Nevertheless, the label “libertarian” and “atheist” stick, and as I explained in my latest book, The Believing Brain, I’ve largely given up the anti-label struggle and just call myself by these labels. In effect, what I once thought of as intellectual laziness on the part of my interlocuters who did not seem to want to bother to actually read my clarifications and what, exactly, I do believe about this or that issue, I now see as the normal process of cognitive shortcutting. Time is short and information is vast. Most of the time our brains just pigeonhole information into categories we already know in order to move on to the next problem to solve, such as why not one Mexican restaurant band I have ever asked seems to know one of the greatest Spanish pieces ever produced: Malagueña. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a tortilla. Continue reading…

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Reason Rally Rocks

by Michael Shermer, Mar 27 2012
Shermer leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

Yours truly, leading the Reason Rally Cheer (photo by John Welte)

March 24, 2012 marked the largest gathering of skeptics, atheists, humanists, nonbelievers, and “nones” (those who tick the “no religion” box on surveys) of all stripes on the Mall in Washington, D.C., across from the original Smithsonian museum. Crowd estimates vary from 15,000 to 25,000. However many it was, it was one rockin’ huge crowd that voiced its support for reason, science, and skepticism louder than any I have ever heard. Anywhere. Any time. Any place. It started raining just as the festivities gathered steam late morning, but the weather seemed to have no effect whatsoever on the enthusiasm and energy of the crowd…or the speakers and performers. The organizer and host David Silverman and his posse of tireless staff and volunteers pulled it off without a hitch. Organizing big events can be an organizational nightmare, but they did it, marking what I hope is the first of many consciousness raising events in the civil rights movement for equal treatment for us nonbelievers and skeptics. Continue reading…

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