NonProphet Status relaunch is live!

September 2nd, 2014 | Posted by:

We are still working on transferring our archives over (and our email subscription isn’t set up yet, so if you aren’t getting emails don’t worry!)

In case you missed it, our new home at Patheos is live! Here’s all of our new content so far!

  1. Chris Stedman looks back at the founding of NonProphet Status and discusses how it will be moving on without him.
  2. Returning NPS writers give Chris a send-off by reflecting on how he’s inspired them.
  3. Vlad Chituc writes about why he doesn’t care about deconverting religious believers.
  4. Jesus & Dawkin’s Mike Lehmann talks with NPS’s new editor, Vlad Chituc, about the sites relaunch.
  5. Sarah Jones reflects on atheism’s absence in Ferguson, and what that means for atheists interested in social justice.
  6. Alex Chituc reflects on Alain de Botton’s writing and how to find guidence in the absence of God.

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Tomorrow, NonProphet Status is relaunching at our new home on Patheos. We’ll keep our announcement and introduction short, since we have a lot of exciting content lined up for our launch. We’re under new stewardship, with an exciting bunch of writers, new and old.

Please update your RSS feeds with our new URL, and if you’re interested in contributing please email your pitches or finished pieces to NPSblog@gmail.com for consideration.

We’re all really excited to breathe new life into NPS, and we hope you’ll join us!

-The NPS team

 

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I hope this should be immediately obvious, but it is not okay to exploit the death of a 12 year old child to score a cheap point against religion. It’s troubling that this is something I even need to say, but Terry Firma and the commentariat at The Friendly Atheist seem far too eager to pin the suicide of a 12 year old child on her belief in heaven.

Here are the facts on the ground, as relayed by Firma and reported in unsourced UK tabloids:[ref]and I use the words “facts” and “reported” liberally. Funny how standards of evidence seem so low when it comes to things we want to hear…[/ref] a 12 year old girl killed herself, ostensibly distraught by the 2009 death of her father. She left a note that said “Dear Mum. Please don’t be sad. I just miss daddy so much, I want to see him again.”

Firma writes:

But the account also confirmed for me that the idea of heaven can be both comforting and toxic — make that deadly — at the same time. If Maria’s head hadn’t been filled with nonsensical ideas about heaven, where it’s all about the posthumous family reunions, she’d probably be alive today.

Her death is the somewhat prettier equivalent of the Islamic suicide bombers who think they’ll go on to great rewards in the hereafter.

Religion kills.

Let me start by pointing out that we have no reason to believe that any of the reported information is true. Reporting from an unsourced tabloid isn’t something we should accept as reasonable evidence for anything, and neither a google news search of the 12-year-old’s name nor a reverse image search of the photos in the article turns up any sources apart from the UK tabloids and blog commentary. I’ll resist the urge to rant at length that religion is not specially bad and atheists are not specially rational, evidence-sensitive, or less susceptible to the problems they point to in religious believers.

But let’s grant for a second the tabloid-reporting that The Friendly Atheist now apparently takes part in. None of that, if true, would change how factually inaccurate, sensationalist, and exploitative every sentence of Firma’s commentary is.

Even if someone leaves a suicide note detailing their wish to spend eternity with their father, there is no good reason to suppose they killed themselves for religious reasons. It’s telling that Firma looked at a 12 year-old so hurt by her father’s death 4 years prior that she killed herself not as indicative of, say, clinical depression, but rather the asinine and melodramatic conclusion that the belief in heaven—cue dramatic music as I vom everywhere—can kill.

It’s hard to determine causation from a sample size of 1, since there are a host of different causes that might produce the exact same data we have available (i.e the suicide note). Firma says that this girl would still be alive today without the belief in heaven, but there is no way at all to know that—people readily and often construct post-hoc narratives to explain their feelings and behavior, and it’s entirely possible[ref]read: much more likely than the idea that she just killed herself because she believed in heaven and wanted to see her dad again.[/ref] that the child was suffering from an intense mental illness and simply used the death of her father to rationalize the grief, despair, or hopelessness she was feeling. It would make no sense to pin the blame on religion when what caused those feelings to begin with was mental illness.

And again, this is all granted the story is even true and let me repeat we have no reason at all to believe that. Literally none. It’s an unsourced tabloid story that exists on the internet only as a tabloid story why do I even need to write this blog post?

Even more, there’s no way to generalize from that one anecdote to broad psychological facts like “the belief in heaven is dangerous because you might hang yourself to see your dad,” since this anecdote starkly contradicts more or less all available evidence on the relationship between religion and suicide. Religious believers are less likely to kill themselves, and study after study will tell you that.[ref]e.g. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15569904[/ref] I take it that those (sourced, not tabloid-based) facts don’t quite so conveniently fit Firma’s “religion bad, atheism good” narrative, so I doubt they’ll be mentioned any time soon.

Science, unlike Firma’s piece, isn’t based on confirmation bias and anecdotes. If we want to learn whether belief in heaven is dangerous or might otherwise cause suicides, we need to look further than British tabloids to actual patterns in behavior. Those legitimate looks turn up empty for the “look how harmful the belief in heaven can be!” hypothesis, so the melodramatic clincher that “religion kills”— in line with the rest of Firma’s writing, it seems—looks like little more than irresponsible and alarmist pulp.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

Sam Harris has a new article on his site that somehow transitions from “why are perpetrators of mass violence almost always male?” to “and here’s why Islam is bad.” It’s summed up with some commentary on The Friendly Atheist by Terry Firma.[ref]Terry Firma says in his bio that he has had “feature articles” published in The New York Times. I was kind of skeptical and, after a Google search and some digging around on the Times site, all I could find was this comment he left on a blog post. It’d be nice if someone could clear that up. UPDATE: Hemant clears that up.[/ref]

There’s a general tendency I’ve noticed among critics of Islam to paint themselves as the straight-talkers concerned with facts, while everyone else is just appeasing Islam while caving into Political Correctness or intellectual cowardice. But it seems like both the original post and Firma’s commentary actually seem to show how poorly supported by facts such strong anti-Islamic rhetoric actually is.[ref]Your first hint might be that Harris isn’t referencing “cancer” or “aging” or “parochial apathy toward the 30,000 children who die preventable deaths every day because of global poverty” or like, literally anything else when describing what he sees as “the most terrifying and depressing phenomenon on earth.”[/ref] First, Harris writes in his post:

Whenever I point out the role that religious ideology plays in atrocities of this kind—specifically the Islamic doctrines related to jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, and so forth—I am met with some version of the following: “Bad people will always do these things. Religion is nothing more than a pretext.” This is an increasingly dangerous misconception to have about the human mind.

The fact that otherwise normal people can be infected by destructive religious beliefs is crucial to understand—because beliefs spread. Until moderate Muslims and secular liberals stop misplacing the blame for this evil, they will remain part of the problem.

This perfectly highlights the attitude I mentioned above, while showing how almost absurd Harris’s claims are on their face. Let’s take seriously for a second the idea that specific beliefs are to blame for religious violence, and that this is a problem because beliefs spread. How would we expect the map of all suicide bombings to look, then? Would we expect them all to be bunched by geography or political conflicts[ref]As they very obviously are. lol facts.[/ref] or by where Islam has (very widely, I might add) spread?

If it’s “the Islamic doctrines related to jihad, martyrdom, apostasy, and so forth” driving such kinds of Islamic violence, would we expect to see the modern suicide attack pioneered by the (secular, nationalist) Tamil Tigers? If suicide bombers are just motivated by getting heaven-virgins and killing infidels, would we see suicide attacks limited almost exclusively to the specific, secular context of occupation? If Islam is dangerous because it’s an idea and ideas spread, then isn’t it weird that violent Islam seems so geographically isolated? Why don’t we see violent Islam in Minnesota? Or even Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims in the world but, as far as I know, no suicide attacks or regular infidel-murdering?[ref]I can’t even handle all these facts I am ignoring because of political convenience wow I wish I were as intellectually brave as Sam Harris someone teach me integrity plz.[/ref] What a dangerous misconception about the human mind, right?

Even more misleading is Ferma’s commentary on Harris’s article. Ferma writes:

How do we know that hundreds of millions of Muslim support these atrocities? That’s a key fact from the major international Pew Research study that came out half a year ago. The PDF of the full report is here, but here’s one eye-popping finding:

The survey found the global median for Muslims opposed to violence in the name of Islam was 72 percent.

So a solid majority of Muslims do not openly engage in (nor openly support) killing for Allah. 72 percent! Terrific! Except… well, what about the other 28 percent? There are roughly 1.3 billion Muslims on this planet.

Wow, with eye-popping statistics like that, it almost does seem like Islam might be a uniquely violent religion instilling cruelty in its adherents. Except that, of course, Ferma does no work at all to put these statistics into any kind of relevant or appropriate context. So let me fill in the gaps.

28 percent of Muslims in the world say that violence against civilians might sometimes be justified, sure. But how does that compare to other religious groups? What about people in the U.S.? Let’s look at some Gallup data:

So 21 percent of American Muslims say that violence against civilians is sometimes justified. But then again, 58 percent of Protestants and Catholics say the same. Even 43 percent of American seculars do, too. Compared to that, it doesn’t really seem that the 28 percent looks so bad.

Let me reiterate this: atheists in America are more tolerant of targeting and killing civilians than the global Muslim population is.

A lot of people complain about the word “Islamophobe.” If there’s something better to describe people who irrationally and prejudicially hold some religions and religious groups to different standards, I’ve yet to hear it. Until then, I think it’ll do.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

A Great Dream’s Anniversary

August 28th, 2013 | Posted by:

Friend of the blog, Eddie O’Byrn, shares his reflection on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

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Today I write these words to help contextualize the great dreams of the many who have struggled to make America a nation of happiness and prosperity for all. We hope these efforts have not been in vain. I write these words to honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., a revolutionary Christian who believed that overcoming the barriers that separate us of race, nationality, and religion, was possible. As a Christian, King believed in the power of his tradition to bring peace to our planet, but as a marginalized black man, he knew this task could not be done though the solitary actions of a single tradition. Rather than force his tradition on those who didn’t practice Christianity, King engaged with practitioners of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and folks in the Secular community. He didn’t believe in his message to spread Christianity to all the corners of the globe. His intention was driven by his interfaith convictions believing that we all have work to do in combating the existence of systemic oppression, whether oppression is racial, religious, sexual, or economic.

Fifty years ago, a great American, stood in Washington D.C. and addressed the Civil Rights March with his magnificent dream. Standing in the symbolic shadow of Lincoln he reminded many Blacks, Negroes, and African Americans that they were still not free a hundred years after slavery’s legal destruction. Still stuck in the chains of poverty constantly commodified by the whips of our material society; fifty years ago King’s words rung true in the hearts and minds of many folks here in America. He had a dream, and we must ask ourselves today if we still find it worth achieving.

King’s dreams were for more that just the end of segregation; a system that has simply morphed into gentrification and financial separation. He dreamed of a world where the sons and daughters of former slaves and slave owners could come together and discuss the complexity of the world. Instead today we have rekindled these master and slave relationships in our city streets, jails, and prisons justified by wars against terror and drugs. The grandchildren of former masters and slaves oppressing the grandchildren of former masters and slaves. He dreamed that we could use our new found strengths to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. And as he promised what we see today is people of all colors going jail together, standing for freedom together, struggling and praying together, but we still find difficulty getting our symphony of freedom and prosperity for all to ring across the nation.

King dreamed that his children would live in a world where they could be judged by the content of their character. But nowadays the color of our skin continues to be used as the justification for terrorizing civilians, predominately those who are Muslim. He dreamed of a world where the heat of injustice and oppression could be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice. But the injustices of yesteryear have solidified themselves within the booming prison industry systematically incarcerating more Blacks and Latinos than ever before. All while oppression of our local youth continues. Everywhere we look there are images of the new generations being oppressed due to police violence, gunned down because of street violence, sold into a system of debt for education, or intoxicated by the allure of the music, film, and television industries.

King believed in his dream that even the vicious racists that imprisoned him in Birmingham, Alabama would be transformed. But alas today, profiling to discern a person’s immigration status has been legalized in many southern states, justifying racist practices against predominately colored folks.  He even dreamed that the glory of his God would be shown, revealing the promised land here on Earth for all of us to share. A dream to be shattered by fifty years of increased warfare, wealth disparity, and the banality of racism. Dr. King had a dream, and I often wonder if we will ever achieve it. But in our time of despair we must remember King’s words “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.”

We cannot deny that the world has come very far since 1963, but the very institutions that activists of the past hoped to extinguish have not disappeared. Segregation still exists today in the rural communities of our nation, as well as the neighborhoods of our metropolises dissected by wealth. In these fifty years we have invested in revealing apparent problems while intensifying those we often ignore. If King, Malcolm X, Huey Newton, or Stokely Carmichael were still alive today, they would agree with figures like Angela Davis, Michael Dyson, bell hooks, and Cornel West that we are still in a great struggle for the basic rights to freedom. A gift not to be handed to us by the powers of government goons or corporate thugs. If we hope to achieve a free world we must resist the corruptions of our institutions today. Just as King’s words asked us to do so long ago we must stay vigilant and not rely on hatred and force to solve our qualms, “In the process of gaining rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deed. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

Dr. King’s message was one of transcending the boundaries that divide us, not to forfeit our traditions to an unclear majority, but to incorporate and experience the beliefs of others. He came to this realization as a Christian, but we don’t need to be Christians to understand his message. Today we have been charged by the monolithic figures of our past with the responsibility of making their dreams a reality. As we continue pushing forward Christians, Jews, and Muslims must reconcile. Seculars, Agnostics, and Atheists must engage with the massive religious communities of our globe. Today we must take King’s message seriously and not judge each other based on our affiliations alone. Each of our traditions creates prejudice and it is up to all of us, believers and non-believers alike, to dismantle the institutions that disregard the content of any person’s character.

So today we must ask ourselves if the American dream of plurality and equality can be achieved, instead of continuing to preserve the false image of a post-race America. Equality has not been achieved by the election of a president of color, just as equality wasn’t achieved in baseball when Jackie Robinson started to play in the major league. The dreams of Dr. King will continue to remain a distant hope as long as we ignore the plight of folks in America delegitimized by bad policies meant to control and categorize our population. Maybe in the spirit of all those Americans who have fought valiantly to transform America we should March in the footsteps of King. We can head to Washington and fight for the civilians of this country and this world against corruption, against greed, for prosperity, and for the dignity of our fellow human being. No one faith will do it alone without relying on domination, but if we weave our traditions together, build interfaith connections, and confront stagnant stereotypes, growth away from systemic discrimination is possible. Until then, all we will have is a dream.

PhotoEddie O’Byrn is an agnostic, mixed race, philosophy graduate student at Penn State. Born in California, and raised in Minnesota, his interests focus on contextualizing the significance of political dissent movements, social agency movements, and systemic inequality. He graduated from Concordia College in Moorhead, MN with a degree in philosophy, minoring classical studies.