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Kindly Atheist Authors

Kerrie comments on my Robert M. Price post that she’s taking a look at her beliefs and has added Price to her reading list.  It made me think about atheist writers and that there is quite a bit out there that isn’t nearly as confrontational as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens.

First up, Daniel Dennett.  He’s lumped in with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens to make the “Four Horsemen of New Atheism,” but I think his style is radically different.  Breaking the Spell is  musing, philosophical look at religious belief that is very sympathetic toward the human impulses and needs that give rise to religion.  True, its premise is that religion does come from purely human sources, and it could be an uncomfortable read for a believer in some ways, but I’d hardly classify it as “in your face.”

Carl Sagan is known in atheist circles for soft-pedaling his disbelief so much that some got the impression he was a believer.  He eloquently uses both scientific and spiritual language to express wonder at the universe.  Still, The Demon Haunted World is clearly about skepticism of religious belief as much as scientific thinking.  What is a god but the invisible dragon in Carl’s garage?

Bart Ehrman is actually an agnostic.  His books take apart the Bible and analyze it in its historical context.  Misquoting Jesus discusses how the Bibles we know today came to us through the ages, and how error, philosophical editing, and outright interpolation may have altered it from its ancient origins.  Jesus, Interrupted describes how the different gospel writers viewed Jesus’s identity and purpose differently, and thus tailored their narratives to support their perspectives.

Now, honestly, I haven’t made it through Misquoting Jesus.  Ehrman’s thoroughness makes my eyes glaze over a bit.  However, I found his interviews on NPR to be fascinating.

I also need to put in a plug for the podcast Reasonable Doubts.  While the guys aren’t what I would call gentle, they approach religious philosophy and history with both humor and great research, and have a great conversational style that I find really listen-able.

I’ve also got some freethinking authors in my reading list, who I haven’t gotten to yet.  John Loftus and Dan Barker both used to be preachers, like Price.   I know Barker doesn’t pull many punches, but he always comes across very personable when I hear him speak.  I’ve also got Like Rolling Uphill: Realizing the Honesty of Atheism, by Dianna Narciso in my Amazon list, and Victor Stenger seems like an interesting and intelligent guy.  Oh, and don’t forget Hemant Mehta – he is The Friendly Atheist after all!  Bottom line: there’s a LOT of reading out there that doesn’t necessarily include the Big Names you usually hear.

Oh, and if you want some classic literary disbelief, it’s hard to go wrong with Twain and Vonnegut.

Happy Reading!

A Skeptorama of a Day!

Yesterday I really earned my keep as a skeptical parent.

Cold reading

Two ladies at the gym were talking about a TV show called Long Island Medium. One woman described the classic cold reading scenario, saying how impressive it was.

Now, I’ll let you, dear readers, do a little test to see if you are psychic:

Did I keep my mouth shut?

Wow, I’m psychically detecting that you’re psychically detecting that I didn’t! Good job!

In a very friendly way, I said, “Hey, have you ever heard of cold reading?” They both said no, so I gave a little summary – how you say something vague like “I’m getting an ‘M’” and once someone responds, you let them feed you information. The one lady mentioned that the psychic asked one person who had lost his brother, “is your brother bothering* you,” and the subject said yes, he was having bad dreams about his brother. The lady thought this was really impressive, but I pointed out that the psychic didn’t say, “I sense your brother is keeping you awake at night,” but rather asked a very open-ended question, which would allow the answer to be spun as a “hit.”

It was all very friendly and I tried to be like, “Hey, here’s this cool thing, isn’t this neat?” instead of being superior or stuffy about it. I also took pains to say that it sounds like an entertaining show, and the psychic sounds like a real pip. I could tell the one lady felt a little embarrassed, and I felt bad about that. But really, if no one has ever told you about this stuff, it’s perfectly natural to be taken in – that’s why psychics are so successful!

Columbus and the shape of the Earth

Chloe started telling me about Columbus and how he wasn’t the first person to find America (so far so good). After a bit, the part I was waiting for came: everyone then thought the world was flat. I told her no, that’s a popular myth, but back to the ancient Greeks, people knew the Earth was a sphere. Then I corrected myself and told her it was a spheroid, and bulges around the equator.

Later, my husband and I had a debate over whether the Greeks “knew” the Earth was a sphere, or if it was merely a hypothesis until Magellan circumnavigated the planet. So not only did my kid get new facts on the subject, she saw us taking apart an idea and examining it. What better way to build a thinker?

“They’re insane!”

At another point yesterday, Chloe said, “Mommy, Anne, Beth, and Cathy [names changed] are insane!” I asked why she thought so, and she said, “I told them how there was no first person, and your 185 million X great grandmother was a fish, and they didn’t believe me! They said the first people were Adam and Eve!”

And I said, “Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap!” (in my head).

But out loud, I told her that they weren’t insane – they believe something different, something their parents probably taught them. And I told her it’s OK for people to believe all kinds of different things (a million thank yous to Dale McGowan and his daughter Delaney for that). We talked about how we ought to respect people and be kind, even if we believe different things. She said she wanted to bring The Magic of Reality on the bus and show them what it said, and I told her she could, but she needed to do it in a gentle way, sharing what she believes, not saying, “SEE, it says right here you’re WRONG!”

I tried to introduce the idea that people can be very sensitive about religion, and we should tread lightly. But most of all, I repeated what I wanted the take-away message to be: be kind, and remember that we can all believe different things, and that’s OK.

Community Involvement

Finally, right before bed, I got my rear in gear and actually joined my local branch of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. What prompted me was a friend’s story of how her Baptist church seemed pretty apathetic about her organizing a program to get food to school kids whose only sure meal each day is free school lunch. I reckon if the church doesn’t want to help, I might be able to organize some heathens to step in. Or even better, maybe the FFRF folks and the few interested people at the church could work together!

* Perfect example of how memory quirks help psychics: when I started typing this up, I started to write “is your brother keeping you awake at night.” And I’m a skeptic – if my memory can be slanted toward her getting “hits,” imagine how well it works on the uninitiated!