Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Oxford Humanist Society Needs Organizer

The Oxford Humanist Society is looking for a new organizer. If you are interested, visit their Meetup page within the next two weeks to learn more.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A Non-Believer in Church: Second Baptist in Oxford

I am proud to say that this is my tenth post about visits to churches in the state of Mississippi. To mark the occasion, I went to Second Baptist Church in Oxford, which is an all African American church. Being white, I can easily duck in and out of white churches without saying a word to anyone. I have none of those advantages at this service. I was truly nervous about how I was going to be received because there was no way for me to blend into the group. Services began at 11:00, so I walked up to three gentlemen who were all standing outside the church for a smoke break and asked them if it was alright if I attended the service. They all said yes and directed me to the front door.

I sat on the back pew, which is typical for all of my church visits. I think everyone that spotted me told me "Good morning," which provided some comfort. One of the door greeters gave me a visitor name tag that I had to wear, which, given the circumstances, was a little redundant. Another door greeter told me that I should sit closer to the front and I moved toward the middle of the auditorium. In this church, Jesus is presented as a black man. There is a stained glass window of a black Jesus and a mural of a black Jesus baptizing a group of black followers. If all of the popular media depictions of Jesus present him as a white European, then it is no more wrong to depict Jesus as a black African.

I counted 28 members in the choir and estimate a total of 200 people in attendance. I really was the only white person in attendance. The first song was lead by a man who stood in front of everyone and just started singing. Those who knew the words to the song sang along, which was most of everyone. It was a beautiful song in the style of a traditional black gospel hymn and I enjoyed it. No matter what your philosophical position, you cannot deny the beauty in some of this music. There was a second traditional hymn and after that, the choir sang several loud, passionate songs. These songs seemed to go on forever and most only had one verse. I bet one song was 20 minutes by itself. The audience gets into the music too with people standing up and hand clapping and swaying their arms up in the air and shouting whatever praise came to mind. Being among all of these passionate people was very exciting. There is something to be said about how powerful and persuasive music can be. I had to remind myself that passion does not equate to any sort of evidence for a claim.

The preacher's lesson was on James 1:1-3. He only needed three verses to teach this lesson. His lesson could be summed up in three lines: Life is full of trouble; Don't run from your troubles; Rejoice in Christ always. He just kept repeating this theme, and when he got tired of speaking his them he began shouting his points into a microphone and the people encouraged him with shouts of "amens." At this point, his lesson went from being bland to annoying. The third phase of his lesson was to start singing his points into the microphone, which was preferable to the shouting, but not by much. I thought the preacher was channeling James Brown during the lesson. The band (a drummer and keyboard player) started jamming during the lesson and kept trying to match the tempo of the morphed sermon/song.

With no distinct ending point to his lesson, he sang to the audience that new members and members needing prayers could come forward. Several did. This phase of the sermon/song dragged on for several minutes. Three pews in front of me, a woman stood up and screamed "HALLELUJAH LORD!" and kept repeating that phrase. People around the room reacted quickly to this woman, so this must be common. A woman came over with a box of tissues and two more women started fanning her and a man came over to hold her up. She just kept shouting that phrase until she was so exhausted that she couldn't shout anymore. She probably would have hurt herself without the support. What drives a person to act like this?

Finally, the singing ended. To end the service, everyone came forward and crowded the entire front of the church. They had a prayer and everyone was dismissed. I got back in my car and the time was almost 1 PM. I was exhausted after that two hour concert.

Olive Branch Atheists Meeting on August 8

The Olive Branch Atheists are planning to meet on Friday, August 8, 2008 7:00 PM to celebrate Aaron's 1st birthday. For more information or to RSVP, visit their Meetup page.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Southern Atheists Finding Each Other Via Atheist Nexus

No, this isn't a post about online dating. I am referring to the sort of "finding each other" that happens when an atheist living in an oppressively religious environment discovers that there are others who understand what he or she is going through. This is happening now all over Atheist Nexus, a relatively new social networking site similar to Facebook in many ways. If you are an atheist, especially if you happen to reside in the American bible belt, you owe it to yourself to check out Atheist Nexus. You just might discover that there are more like-minded people around than you previously realized.

When I first registered on Atheist Nexus, there were fewer than 100 members. Now there are over 2,000, and new members are joining daily. Thanks to posts by many high-profile bloggers, atheists from all over the world are discovering Atheist Nexus and joining to participate in the forums, groups, chat, and all sorts of social interaction.

Some initial concerns over the possibility that the site could be a tool for Christians to collect information on atheists have been addressed to my satisfaction. The original administrator was replaced, and I have no hesitation in recommending the site.

The neatest thing about my experience so far on Atheist Nexus has been meeting atheists from all over the Southern U.S., including some right here in Mississippi. There are more atheists around than I had realized. They know what it is like to live around here. They have dealt - and continue to deal - with many of the same challenges I experience. Consider yourself invited.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Church-State Separation is No Attack on God

After Mississippi atheist, Steve Schlicht, wrote a letter to the editor of the Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS) pointing out that the U.S. Constitution includes a First Amendment and not a first commandment, a Christian responded with a letter accusing him of attacking some sort of god. Ridiculous, I know. Anyway, one of our authors, Mims Carter of Pass Christian responded with another letter.

Below I have reproduced Mims' letter in its entirety since I do not know how long it will be available on the paper's website.
Who knows what another person believes?

In a recent letter, Howard A. McKissack accused Steve Schlicht of attacking God. Mr. Schlicht had written a letter stating that our Constitution contains a First Amendment, not a First Commandment. His main points were that religions are as morally relative as any other world view, changing with time, changing internally as well as spinning off new sects as they go, and that the First Amendment establishes a wall of separation between church and state so that no one sect would be favored over any other.

This hardly constitutes an attack on God.

Mr. McKissack goes on to claim that most of if not all of the signers of the Bill of Rights were God-fearing men. He also accuses Mr. Schlicht of not researching the First Amendment thoroughly. If he had researched it a little more himself, he would have discovered that the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, had no signers. The amendments were ratified by the states during the first Congress in 1791, not signed at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. James Madison called it a "line in the sand" between church and state. Thomas Jefferson more famously called it a "wall of separation."

While conceding this point, Mr. McKissack concludes his letter stating that the rights outlined in the First Amendment were granted to us "by men who believed in one sovereign God." I would ask Mr. McKissack how he knows this? Knowing what other people really believe is very hard. Everyone's beliefs can change as new experiences, new evidence, new insights, all sorts of inputs, occur. I could make all sorts of good arguments against Mr. McKissack's blanket statement, but in this limited space all I will say is that he has no right to make such a claim. All we know of the leaders of our new country is that at the beginning of our democracy, the majority of them thought it wise to protect religious belief from government interference, and protect government from religious interference, by establishing a firm wall between them.

Pass Christian

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Great News From Tupelo Based Theocrats

If gay marriage is upheld in California, “the culture war is over and we've lost.” Says Don Wildmon, founder and Head Bigot of the Tupelo, MS based American Family Association. The entire quote:
"If we lose California, if they defeat the marriage amendment, I'm afraid that the culture war is over and Christians have lost," says Wildmon, a 30-year veteran of the culture war. "I've never said that publicly until now -- but that's just the reality of the fact.

"If the homosexuals are able to defeat the marriage amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman, then the culture war is over and we've lost -- and gradually, secularism will replace Christianity as the foundation of our society," he adds.

The vote in California, Wildmon explains, will affect the entire nation. "California is a big dam, holding back the flood -- and if you take down the dam in California, it's going to flood 49 other states," he illustrates. "It will destroy marriage as it has been known for thousands of years, and with that the cultural decline that normally would follow."
It’s not often that I’ll agree with Christofascists like Wildmon but I actually think he’s right on this one. Not that this will shut them up or anything, but it will mean they’ve lost the fight to drag us all kicking and screaming back to the theocratic dark ages in relation to the issue of homosexuality. It is over and they did lose. In our lifetime people will look back and wonder at how we as a society could be so cruel and close-minded the same way we look back at the civil rights fights a generation ago.

Hat tip to Ed Brayton


Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Everthing Must Come From Something?

Everything must come from something. That is the most common ideology of theists. Lets find out how to debunk this.

Carl Sagan
A: Atheist
T: Theist

T: Where did the universe come from?
A: Why did it have to come from anything?

T: Everything has to come from something.
A: Then, you tell me.Where did the universe came from?

T: The universe came from God.
A: Where did God come from?

T: God did not have to come from anything. He always was.
A: Then everything does not have to come from something after all. Perhaps the universe always was.

T: Philosopher William Lane Craig has argued that the universe had a beginning, therefore it must have had a cause. That cause is God.
A: Quantum events can happen without cause. Perhaps our universe was a quantum event in a larger universe that always was.

T: You have no evidence for this.
A: You have no evidence against it. Current physics and cosmology allow for such a scenario.

T: How could this happen? Where did the matter and energy of the universe come from?
A: Matter was created from energy in the early universe. Observations indicate that the positive energy of matter is exactly balanced by negative gravitational potential energy. Thus, the total energy of the universe is zero and no energy (or very little--just the amount allowed by quantum mechanics) was required to produce the universe.

T: Where did the order of the universe come from?
A: It could have been produced spontaneously by natural processes of a type that are now beginning to be understood in physics. One such process is called "spontaneous symmetry breaking." It's like the formation of a snowflake.

T: Still, the second law of thermodynamics says that disorder, or entropy, must increase with time. It must have started out more orderly than it is now, as created by God.
A: An expanding universe allows increasing room for order to form. The universe could have started as a tiny black hole with maximum entropy, produced by a quantum fluctuation, and then exploded in the big bang.

T: You can't prove that. No one was there to see it.
A: You can't disprove it. Such a scenario is allowed by current scientific knowledge.

T: Many prominent scientists don't think the big bang happened.What does that do to your scenario?
A: The data from cosmological observations, which has improved enormously in just the last few years, has left no doubt among current working cosmologists that the big bang happened. The remaining holdouts are a few older astronomers who are gradually dying out. They are like some nineteenth century chemists and physicists who refused to accept the atomic theory to their dying days. Furthermore, the big bang is used by theists such as Craig and Hugh Ross to support their theologies. It does not, but I caution atheists not to argue against theism by saying the big bang did not occur. It very definitely did.

T: But isn't the universe fine tuned for life? Isn't it true that the slightest change of any one of a number of physics constants would make life impossible? Is this not evidence for a universe intelligently designed for life?
A: The universe is not fine tuned for life. Life is fine tuned for the universe. If we had a universe with different constants, we might have a different kind of life.

T : Doesn't life require carbon, which would not exist without a delicate balance of nuclear parameters?
A: Our kind of life, yes. We do not know about other kinds of life.

T: You can't prove that life is possible without carbon.
A: I do not have the burden of proof here. You are making the claim that only one kind of life is possible, carbon-based life. You have to prove that. I am simply saying that we do not know and so cannot say the universe is designed for life as we know it. It could have been an accident.Nothing in current science says that is impossible,

T: So, even if everything that happens is natural, as you claim, where did the laws of nature come from?
A: The laws of nature are misnamed. They are not necessarily rules that govern the universe, that sit out there in some kind of Platonic reality. They could just as well simply be human inventions, descriptions we have made of observations.

T: Then they are subjective. We can all make our own laws.
A: Not quite. We can make up different laws if we want, but they are not scientific unless they agree with observations. The laws of physics can be written in many different ways, but they agree so well with the data that we are confident they describe aspects of reality.

T: Well, then where did those aspects of reality come from, if not from God?
A: Why did they have to come from anything? But, that's how we started this discussion.

T: Still, you have to explain why there is something rather than nothing.
A: Define nothing.

T: Nothing. No thing. No matter, no energy, no space, no time, no laws of physics.
A: No God?

T: God is a separate entity who created matter, energy, space, time and the laws of physics from nothing.
A: I won't ask you again who created God.Rather, why was it necessary for the universe to have come from nothing?

T: It had to come from something.
A: But you just said it came from nothing!

Amount of Nonbelievers Growing in the United States

According to CUNY's definitive American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of "Nonreligious" American adults more than doubled between 1990 and 2001 while the number of "Religious" and "Christians" declined. The "Nonreligious" are now the fastest growing segment of the population.

1990* 2001**
NONRELIGIOUS 8% (14.3 million) 14.3% (29.4 million)
Religious 90% 81%
Christian 86% 77%
Mormon/LDS 1.4% (2.5 million) 1.3% (2.8 million)
Jewish 1.8% (3.1 million) 1.3% (2.8 million)
Muslim/Islamic 0.3% (0.5 million) 0.5% (1.1 million)
Refused to reply 2.3% 5.4%

Regarding religious affiliation, the authors note:
Often lost amidst the mesmerizing tapestry of faith groups that comprise the American population is also a vast and growing population of those without faith. They adhere to no creed nor choose to affiliate with any religious community. These are the seculars, the unchurched, the people who profess no faith in any religion.

. . . the present survey has detected a wide and possibly growing swath of secularism among Americans. The magnitude and role of this large secular segment of the American population is frequently ignored by scholars and politicians alike.
Regarding religious views, the authors of CUNY's survey note:
In all, sixteen percent (16%) described their outlook as secular or somewhat secular while seventy-five percent (75%) described their outlook as religious or somewhat religious. . . . [A]t least ten percent of the population clearly and unambiguously considers itself 'secular' rather than 'religious.' Another six percent regard themselves as 'somewhat secular.'
Overall, the authors note:
The greatest increase in absolute as well as in percentage terms has been among those adults who do not subscribe to any religious identification.
* 1990 National Survey of Religious Identification (NSRI). 113,000+ samples
** 2001 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS). 50,000+ samples
Graduate Center, City University of New York
www. gc. cuny. edu/faculty/research_studies. htmaris_1

This information provided by:
Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.
PO Box 750
Madison WI 53701
(608) 256-8900
www. ffrf. org

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Olive Branch Atheists Meeting

The Olive Branch Atheists are planning their July meeting for Sunday, July 20, 2008, at 3:00 PM. They will meet at the Chili's in Olive Branch, MS. For information or to RSVP, please visit their page.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Central MS Atheist Meetup for July

The Central MS Atheist Meetup Group is planning their monthly meeting for Thursday, July 24 at 7:00 PM at Kellum's House in Jackson. For more information or to RSVP, visit their Meetup page.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mississippi Atheists on Atheist Nexus

Mississippi Atheists now has a group on Atheist Nexus. If you are not familiar with Atheist Nexus, you should check it out. It is sort of like Facebook for atheists, humanists, and freethinkers. It is very new but already has over 1,000 members. Of course, we could use more Mississippi atheists there. Once you sign up, be sure to join our group, fittingly called Mississippi Atheists.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Mississippi Atheists: Past, Present, and Future

In the life of a blog, it is important to periodically pause and reflect on what has been accomplished, whether the goals one started out with are being met, and to map a course for the future. Since I am only one of a team of authors on Mississippi Atheists, I present my thoughts on this subject and make no attempt to speak for the others.

In the Beginning...

When I started Mississippi Atheists, I had one simple goal in mind. I wanted to make sure that when someone entered search terms in Google that included "Mississippi" and "atheists" or "atheism" that they would find a site informing them of all the various atheistic groups in our state. That is, I wanted to make it easier for people to find information about atheist groups in Mississippi. As an atheist in Mississippi, I know all too well how lonely it can be. I thought that helping others connect with like-minded individuals was a worthy goal.

In the beginning, I did not even think that this would be a blog. I was actually looking into formats like Squidoo and HubPages. However, I soon realized that these formats were less than ideal for providing updates about events around the state. I also started wondering whether it might be interesting to have many voices from around the state represented. Surely atheists in the Jackson area had a somewhat different experience than those in tiny rural areas. Clearly, a blog was needed and a team blog would best fulfill this vision. Mississippi Atheists was born.

Current Status

I am happy to say that the initial goal of turning up in search engine results involving "Mississippi" and "atheists" or "atheism" has been accomplished reasonably well. We may not always be at the top of such search results, but we are there. We continue to get a respectable amount of search engine traffic (as well as traffic from other sources), and I believe that we are making it easier for persons wanting to find information on atheist-related happenings in Mississippi.

On the other hand, my vision of this blog giving voice to atheists across our state has not been particularly successful. I had hoped to have a cadre of bloggers by now, each of whom would be willing to contribute a post every week or two. We have not come close to this. Recruiting team members has been more difficult than I imagined, we do not have particularly good representation across Mississippi, and few of our authors are posting regularly. I am guilty of this last criticism and make no claim otherwise.

A Look Ahead

Do we keep trying to fulfill the portion of the initial goal we have not accomplished yet (i.e., expanding our roster of team bloggers until we have a combination of more regular posting and improved representation of our state), or do we modify this goal and consider moving in a new direction? It has never been my intention to have this blog generate much traffic outside Mississippi. To the degree that it does, great, but if we are not being read by other Mississippi atheists, we are doing something wrong.

Personally, I would like to keep trying to recruit other contributors in Mississippi. I'd also like to put some more effort into spreading the word about this blog as a connection point for atheists in Mississippi. Other ideas?

Monday, July 7, 2008

Mississippi Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinking Association July Meeting

The Mississippi Gulf Coast Atheist and Freethinking Association is having their July meeting on July 13 at 3:00 PM to be followed by a potluck at 5:00 PM. Check here for information or to RSVP. The events will be held at Harmony Hall at 2514 19th Avenue in Gulfport.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Atheists at the University of Southern Mississippi

I have had a couple requests recently for information about atheist student groups at the University of Southern Mississippi's Hattiesburg campus. I know at one time there was a student group on campus called the Southern Skeptics Society. I am not sure if it is still active, but I have not had much luck finding reliable information about it. If anyone can confirm that this group is active, I'd be happy to promote it here. I have not had much luck finding any other sort of atheist student group. This is unfortunate because there are plenty of religiously-oriented groups for students.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with atheist students banding together to form an unofficial group. Still, there are many advantages to having an official "chartered" group recognized by the University and listed through Student Services. The official groups tend to benefit from increased visibility, and it becomes much easier for other interested students to find them. This is a good thing since there appear to be over 250 of them at the University of Southern Mississippi.

The Secular Student Alliance has some great information on what such groups can look like and even how to set them up. I know at the University of Southern Mississippi that one obstacle to the formation of any official group is the need for a faculty advisor, as I believe all official student groups are required to have one. However, I would certainly be willing to serve this function to help any students wanting to form such a group.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Religion in Mississippi

With the recent release of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey by the Pew Forum making news, I've been examining how Mississippi compares with the U.S. averages on many fascinating indices of religious belief. Here is a quick summary of what I have learned about religion in our state.

Regarding religious affiliation, 47% of Mississippians identify as evangelical Protestants compared with a U.S. average of 26%. So if it seems like we are surrounded by bible-thumping lunatics, it just might be because we are!

Only 6% of Mississippians are unaffiliated with a religious tradition, compared with 16% nationwide. However, the data suggest that many of these unaffiliated people are still believers. Only 1% of Mississippians indicate that they do not believe in a god, compared with a U.S. average of 5%. No wonder Mississippi is perceived as a hostile environment for atheists.

For the following comparisons, the first number if from our state, and the second number is the U.S. average.
  • Importance of religion in one's life (82% "very important" vs. 56%)
  • Belief in god (91% "absolutely certain" vs. 71%)
  • Frequency of church attendance (60% at least weekly vs. 39%)
  • Interpretation of scripture (64% literal vs. 33%)
Evidence that Mississippi is more religious than many other parts of the United States is hardly newsworthy. Still, I couldn't help being both surprised and disappointed that the differences were this large. I guess we've got our work cut out for us.