The Midwestern Gent has a new home

The Midwestern Gent has decided to identify his subject matter more explicitly (and hopefully make it easier for new readers to find) by moving the blog.  Please join me at Everyday Atheist, everydayatheist.wordpress.com.

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has read here.  Hope you enjoy the new site.

Crackergate Redux

PZ Myers of Pharyngula fame followed through on his threat to desecrate a consecrated communion wafer, piercing the alleged body of Christ with a rusty nail, which also ran through pages from the Koran and Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, to demonstrate that nothing is sacred.  Myers then tossed the lot into his garbage can, along with some coffee grounds and a banana peel for good measure.  Pre-desecration, I questioned the wisdom of this move, arguing that intentionally attacking one of the key symbols of a religion might be great fun, but did little to advance the atheist cause.

Upon further reflection (spurred both by comments to my last post and Myers’ writings on the matter), I stand corrected.  Myers’ action was an important act of civil disobedience.  Catholics, in particular the Catholic student ministry at which the “kidnapping” of the Eucharist occurred, would have been within their rights to ask that Webster Cook (the Univ. of Central Florida student involved in the brouhaha) not return to their services because he violated their dogma on transubstantiation.  But they didn’t stop there.  Cook received death threats, an action was commenced to impeach him from the student senate, and a student ethics complaint was filed against him seeking disciplinary action by the university.

In other words, certain Catholics didn’t try to persuade Cook to respect their beliefs, they tried to force him to.  When he didn’t, they sought revenge.  In this context, Myers was entirely right to fight back.  The religious do not get to set the terms on which non-believers exercise our rights of conscience.  Unless an atheist commits a crime in exercising his or her views, no one has the right to demand that civil authorities punish displays of irreverence or even blasphemy.  When that kind of demand is made, striking back at sacred symbols (again, within legal bounds), stating unequivocally that “your sacred objects are not mine,” is an appropriate way to reassert the equality of our freedom.

Thoughts on Crackergate

There’s been a major blog brouhaha circling over a young man’s “theft” of a Eucharist wafer from a Catholic church and a blogger’s subsequent remarks, which drew the ire of none other than Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.  The story started with a Florida college student taking the wafer with him instead of eating it, as is required by Catholic doctrine.  The young man apparently received death threats, and the church asked his university to discipline him.  Finally, he relented and returned the wafer unharmed.

Enter science blogger and Univ. of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers.  In a post entitled “It’s a frackin’ cracker,” Myers lambasted the church and university for its treatment of the student over, as he put it, “a goddamned cracker.”  Then Myers issued this request:

So, what to do. I have an idea. Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? There’s no way I can personally get them — my local churches have stakes prepared for me, I’m sure — but if any of you would be willing to do what it takes to get me some, or even one, and mail it to me, I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage (no, not even if I have a choice between returning the Eucharist and watching Bill Donohue kick the pope in the balls, which would apparently be a more humane act than desecrating a goddamned cracker), but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart. If you can smuggle some out from under the armed guards and grim nuns hovering over your local communion ceremony, just write to me and I’ll send you my home address.

That was when the shite hit the fan.  The Catholic League fired out not one but two press releases on the Myers post, the first encouraging people to contact the university and state legislature to go after Myers’ job, the second stating that a Virginia delegate to the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis had requested additional security to protect god-fearing republicans from the frenzied atheist hordes at Myers’ beck and call.  The comment threads on Myers’ blog, Pharyngula, exploded with thousands of posts, and other blogs got in on the action with their own huge comment threads.

Myers’ fundamental assessment of the situation is dead on — death threats are NEVER an acceptable way of expressing disapproval, even of someone who trashes your most cherished beliefs.  And the university would be completely out-of-bounds to discipline the student for an action taken outside of the school context that did not result in harm to a person or property damage.  Committing blasphemy is not an expellable offense; the First Amendment guarantees that, especially where a state school is involved.

But I don’t get the point of Myers’ “score me a wafer” idea.  He finds the idea of protecting “a goddamned cracker” absurd.  So do I — transubstantiation is a silly belief (for the non-Catholic, transubstantiation is the belief that, at the moment of consecration [blessing], communion wafers and wine, although retaining their appearance as simple bread and wine, actually become the body and blood of Jesus), and was the one that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t accept when I was practicing as a Catholic. 

But what’s the point of going out of your way to desecrate a communion wafer?  How does poking a very sharp stick in the eye of Catholics advance the cause of rationality that we atheists hold so dear?  I suppose there’s a certain amount of glee in tweaking the most powerful religious body in the world.  And holding transubstantiation up to ridicule isn’t inherently overboard.  But aren’t there better ways to do it?  I’m not suggesting giving religious beliefs the kid-glove treatment.  Far from it.  But is this the most constructive way to support The Atheist Agenda (TM)?

A retraction

I recently attended my sister’s high school graduation back home in the Midwest.  It was the standard pomp-and-circumstance event (although I must say, very efficiently managed) that played out all across the country this spring.  Also a common event, the valedictorian, in addressing his fellow graduates, made sure to thank Jesus, and note the ancient carpenter’s supposed role in helping the young man achieve his impressive academic accomplishments.

Many, many moons ago, I too was valedictorian of my class.  Then a devout fundamentalist Christian, I too gave props to JC in effusive terms: He’s everything to me, I could never have done this without him, my life could have gone a bad direction, blah, blah, blah.  Memory fails me a bit, but I believe I had convinced myself that, without the influence of religion, I would have made bad decisions and engaged in self-destructive behavior (despite being, in reality, a congenital goodie-two-shoes).  There were risk factors present — an absent father, growing up poor, home alone a lot due to a mom working super-hard to make a decent life for her kids.  But to hear my speech, my two options were valedictorian or junkie drop-out, with the Messiah being the deciding factor.

Thinking back on that speech, I think it appropriate now to say, in the inimitable words of Kathy Griffith, “Suck it, Jesus.”

I accomplished what I did in high school for two simple reasons: I had a loving mother who supported and encouraged me, and I worked my arse off in school.  (OK, three: a certain level of academic talent was genetically bestowed upon me by the ‘rents.)  That young man at my sister’s graduation likely succeeded due to similar factors.  I’m quite sure that he never simply prayed for a good test result rather than studying, and to judge from the eloquence with which he spoke, I’m guessing he wasn’t one Hail Mary away from a life of debauchery, either.

Herein lies one of the fundamental ways in which religion stunts the full development of many people.  Where human nature is believed inherently wicked, and all good things are bestowed at the whim of a cosmic daddy figure, a person always owns their failures, but never their triumphs.  If you screw up and “sin” (which often involves no real moral failing anyway), it’s your fault for giving into temptation, not having enough faith, living as a “fallen” being, etc.  If you succeed, all praise goes to your god.  You’re a worm who can do nothing good except through the strenghtening power of the deity.  In that context, moral and psychological pathologies are not only likely, but necessary to a proper relationship with your faith.

I’m only just now beginning to explore humanism, but I’m keenly interested in developing the means of discussing moral systems based on human needs and respect.  This positive aspect of an atheistic viewpoint deserves greater discussion in the public sphere, and holds the potential to diffuse some of the bombs lobbed against nonbelievers by the faithful.

Atheist Billboard Rises Over Philadelphia

A coalition of freethought, humanist and atheist organizations calling itself the Greater Philadelphia Coalition of Reason has erected a billboard on I-95 North in the northeast portion of Philly.  Mrs. MG and I saw it for the first time Saturday while in the car with Mrs. MG’s mother, an erstwhile Catholic.

Feelin\' the brotherly love for unbelievers.

Readers may recognize the design as that erected outside New York City by FreeThought Action.  As stated in a post on that billboard, I love the whole concept of this design, and of public displays of positive freethought ideas generally.

Head on over to PhillyCOR’s website and check out the organizations participating.

Unto us a child is born

The Midwestern Household is abuzz with excitement this week (or would be if we weren’t so sleep deprived) as we welcome our first child, who for blog purposes shall be known as Little Bigfoot.  This fella joined our happy family last Saturday.

In thinking about all the things I want to do with him in the coming years (including sleeping more than two hours at a time), I’m faced with the conundrum every atheist parent must address: What in the world am I going to tell this kid about religion and god?  The question is complicated, as it is for many, by the high level of religiosity among some of our family members (esp. Mrs. MG’s clan of diehard Catholics).  Here’s the best I can come up with over breakfast:

  1. I absolutely will not baptize this child.
  2. I will educate him about religion.  To critically evaluate religion, one must know something about religious beliefs.  If one is to be an empathetic human being, one should also understand some of the motivations behind certain doctrines and belief in general.  Moreover, no one can fully appreciate our society or art and literature without some knowledge of religion.  Little Bigfoot will have the benefit of an introduction to major religious ideas and why people hold them, always with the caution that Mommy and Daddy don’t believe these stories are true.
  3. I will insist that our religious relatives not try to indoctrinate him.  If I find out anyone has tried to secretly baptize him or encourage him to believe, there will be hell to pay, so to speak.
  4. Same goes for daycare workers, teachers or other school officials.  Seriously, I will f you up, legally speaking. 
  5. I will answer his questions about religion (and everything, for that matter) as thoroughly, honestly and age-appropriately as I can.  If we are to encourage him to value truth, we should always speak the truth to him.
  6. I will encourage a love of and wonder at the natural world in his imagination.

I’m sure I’ll think of other things, but those are the points that jump to mind at this early hour.  This will all become far more relevant with time, of course, so right now I think I’ll grab another cup of coffee and snuggle with my boy for a while.

Universe thrilled to find its purpose in life

“Optimism and pessimism, as cosmic philosophies, show the same naive humanism; the great world, so far as we know it from the philosophy of nature, is neither good nor bad, and is not concerned to make us happy or unhappy. All such philosophies spring from self-importance and are best corrected by a little astronomy.” – Bertrand Russell

Astronomy magazine published one of the coolest graphics ever this month:

Galaxies poster

The large center oval shows the distribution of 150 million or so galaxies in the local universe.  Every dot represents a galaxy of millions to billions of stars.  The smaller ovals are slices of the universe at various distances, and thus various times, from the Milky Way.  I love it because it takes the unimaginably large, unimaginably numerous, and displays it on a single page in a comprehensible way.  Sort of puts our smallness into perspective, no?

Well, apparently not if you’re Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life and recent Colbert Report guest.  Here’s what he had to say about our place in the universe.

In case you’re having trouble with the video, here’s what Warren said near the beginning of the interview:

Well, God is the creator, and He created the entire universe just so He could create this galaxy, just so He could create this planet, just so He could tilt it at the right axis so it wouldn’t burn up or freeze up, to sustain human life because he wanted to create human beings, he wanted to create you to love you.

That’s right — the entire universe, all those millions of galaxies pictured in Astronomy, were put here just so God could create humans.  Wow.  Just wow.

Let’s put the existence of humans in a little historical context.  Current estimates place the age of the universe at 13.7 billion years, plus or minus a couple hundred million years.  The Milky Way formed not long after (in astronomical terms), probably more than 13 billion years ago.  The earth formed around 4.55 billion years ago.  The first life arose somewhere between 4.4 billion and 2.7 billion years ago.  Modern homo sapiens, the species to which all existing humans belong, didn’t arise until approximtely 120,000 years ago.  (Rick Warren, incidentally, was born in 1954.)

Riddle me this, Pastor Rick.  If God created the universe so he could create this galaxy, so he could create this planet and tilt it at just the right axis, just so he could create human beings and love them, why did he wait 13,699,880,000 years to get down to the lovin’?

The simple and correct answer is that humans are a product of the universe’s natural processes, not its intended beneficiaries.  We are tiny, impotent creatures, crawling across a tiny planet (even for our own solar system), circling around a middling yellow star, revolving on an outer spiral arm of what must be admitted is a pretty cool galaxy (yea us!).  And that’s an extraordinary place to be and appreciate on its own merits, if only one is humble enough to accept the truth.