Most critics would have no problem with religion if there weren’t so many toxic side effects. Organizations based on mythology might even be fun if there weren’t a reoccurring tendency to harm people.

Christianity has been associated with significant harm. History is replete with sectarian wars and conflicts, Biblically-justified racism and anti-Semitism, biblical support for slavery, religious excuses allowing persecution of sexual minorities, terrorism, subjugation of women, wasteful temples and sacrifices, child abuse, hate groups…the list of grievances goes on. We can’t even estimate the body count.

Yet, our most thorough indictments of religion can always be met by someone saying “They were doing it wrong.”

Doing It Wrong

According to these apologists, there is a correct way to be a Christian, and the fundamentalists who harm others are doing it wrong.

They can cite various parts of the Bible to support their theory that Christianity is essentially about nonviolence, loving one’s neighbor, tolerance, and charity.

Responding with the biblical citations used by the perpetrators of all this violence and oppression, draws dismissal. The apologist claims that the full context of the Bible instructs us to ignore those parts.

No true Christian, they say, engages in violence, oppression, or hatred.

No True Scotsman, or Christian

This is the No True Scotsman fallacy, a form of circular reasoning that attempts to protect a universal generalization against counterexamples.

For example:

A: “No Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”
B: “But my uncle Angus likes sugar with his porridge.”
A: “Ah yes, but no true Scotsman puts sugar on his porridge.”

In the case of Christianity, liberal apologists sometimes attempt to exclude people who harm others from their definition of true Christians in order to maintain the generalization that all Christians are a certain way or that Christianity is a positive thing.

Who Decides?

A smell of arrogance surrounds this claim.

The apologists are judging whether other people, who consider themselves Christians, worship Jesus, and read the bible actually deserve to call themselves Christians. When pressed on how they became the judges of who’s in and who’s out of the Christianity club, the apologists may claim to know more about the true essence of Christianity than the confused or misinformed fundamentalists.

Of course, we could bring into our conversation a few of these allegedly pseudo-Christians – the homophobes, misogynists, racists, and war enthusiasts – and they would object to being ejected from the True Christian Club.

They can put together a convincing case that the bible supports all their values, and that the liberal apologists, not the fundamentalists, have actually abandoned the values of Christianity. No true Christian would reject these True Christian’s embrace of their favorite verses of, say, Leviticus, and no True Christian would criticize them for cherry-picking.

The only way to make this conversation more ridiculous would be for the nonbeliever to chime in with an opinion about the correct way to be a Christian.

We would certainly like for the Christian fundamentalists to stop harming people, but how exactly would we convince anyone? Is vouching for moderate Christian denominations a practical way to reduce the harm in our world? It is unlikely that religious people would agree to be bound by the decision of any mediator, much less a nonbeliever.

The Rhetoric Trap

Here’s the danger:

If liberal apologists can persuade nonbelievers to accept a distinction between true and false Christianity, then they have succeeded in getting Christianity off the hook for the harms committed by fundamentalist Christians.

By doing so, they have endorsed the idea that some authority figure in the realm of Christianity has information about the correct way to be a Christian. This is, of course, the underlying theory of religious fundamentalism. It’s why people cannot agree on religious concepts – the only evidence is the conflicting opinions of religious leaders.

If we fall into this trap, we give up the promotion of a science-based worldview or humanistic ethical stance. Instead, we find ourselves behaving like theists, picking our favorite sects and proclaiming certain religious leaders to have special insights.

A Better Christianity?

Worst of all, we imply that a better version of Christianity is possible than what exists today. Christian reformers have been working for centuries to make Christianity kinder, more intellectual, or less authoritarian, from Justin Martyr in the first century A.D. to Martin Luther in 1519 to John Shelby Spong today.

What change has come from these efforts? Evidence indicates the more liberal Christian denominations are in steep decline, and have always underperformed the growth of their more fundamentalist competitors. Why?

Perhaps a religion that celebrates human well-being, intellectualism, and individuality contradicts itself when faced with the problem of evil, the scriptural dogma, or the tricky mechanics of holding together a nonconformist group around opinions supported by no objective evidence.

In any case, one would have to be unaware of centuries of fizzled reform attempts to think that a breakthrough waits right around the corner.

Yes, liberal Christians commit much less harm than fundamentalists. That is a credit to them, but not an argument for the essential goodness of Christianity. By refusing to accept the no true Scotsman fallacy and perhaps even taking a systems perspective, we can see why “Christianity” must include fundamentalists as well as liberals, plus lots of other categories.

What To Do When Confronted By The Perfect Religion

The definition of Christianity must include the entire spectrum of practices existing today.

When critics of Christianity are confronted with counterexamples, they should clarify that Christianity means the entire Christian system of religion in aggregate.

The good parts come with the bad. Counterexamples do not disprove our point that Christianity has some toxic side effects, including fundamentalism. Proposed solutions where everyone becomes a liberal Christian have proven implausible.

Bottom line: It’s unreasonable for outsiders like us to sort true Christians from false ones. Don’t fall for this fallacy, and don’t assume Christianity will solve its fundamentalism problem in the next few centuries. Instead of arguing with a theoretical perfect religion, insist upon reality.

Your author found himself visiting the Houston area earlier this year. Rather than visiting the zoo, one of many museums, or even the Space Center, I wanted to see what the local freethinkers were up to.

A quick look at meetup.com revealed several options, including The Humanists of Houston, Houston Atheists, and Houston Oasis.

When I arrived at Houston Oasis’ weekly Sunday Gathering, a volunteer opened the door and greeted me. Additional volunteers offered a sign-in sheet and name tag. Red nametags were issued to those who did not want to be photographed, and blue to those who didn’t mind.

Several others had roles to play: snack bar, audio-visual equipment, MC, videographer, photographer, and donation collector. As a group that gets together frequently, they had built a well-organized event that contradicted many stereotypes about nonbelievers. These cats were working together as a herd. I saw it with my own eyes.

A banner proudly displayed the organization’s core values:

  • People are more important than beliefs.
  • Reality is known through reason.
  • Meaning comes from making a difference.
  • Human hands solve human problems.
  • Be accepting and be accepted.

A diverse crowd of 83 people attended. The program included music by a talented guitarist and a compelling talk by LGBT rights activist Debi Jackson, whose trans daughter faced severe discrimination in their home state of Kansas, and even within their family.

The event was strictly secular, yet inspirational.

I must have sounded like a space alien, because my conversation was something like the following: “I am from far, far away. Take me to your leaders.”

Eventually, I met up with Mike Aus, the Executive Director. He agreed to an email interview that I could share with the ASF audience:

 

Chris: Tell us the story of Houston Oasis. How did the organizers meet? Did it emerge from earlier organizing attempts?

Mike: In the summer of 2012, some of my friends who had left religion realized that we missed the community aspect of church life–getting together for social events, volunteer service projects, and the sense of mutual support that often comes from being part of a religious community. We started to wonder if could experience the things we liked about religious life–only without the dogmas, superstitions, etc. We started meeting over brunch on Sunday mornings to talk about what that might look like. We shared the idea with other friends and they started coming to the table too. During those brunch conversations we came up with the core values that would define our community and we landed on the name Oasis because we like what an oasis represents–a place of renewal, refreshment, and respite.

 

Chris: What sort of events do you have?

Mike: The main event we have each week is our Weekly Gathering, which happens to meet on Sunday mornings. It’s been described as a cross between a house concert and a “TED” style talk. Each week we feature some of the best live musicians in Houston and we have speakers on a variety of topics of interest from the arts, sciences, and humanities. Recently the former mayor of Houston spoke at one of our gatherings! In addition to the Weekly Gathering, we sponsor a variety of social events throughout the month all over the city: bar nights, potluck dinners, book studies, and an international dining event we call “Dining Beyond Borders.” We also have a huge commitment to volunteer events in the Houston area. Our service projects team has set a goal of 1,000 hours of volunteer service by Oasis folks this year.

 

Chris: I noted at least 10 different volunteer roles on my visit. Is it possible to start up this organizational model with a very small group of people?

Mike: Yes, it is absolutely possible to start an organization with a small group of people. That’s exactly how we started. Our initial planning team had ten people by the time we launched. At our first Weekly Gathering we had 25 people in attendance and we were ecstatic with that. We just kept getting together and people were having a good time so they told other people and we grew over time.

 

Chris: Does the Oasis model appeal to certain personality types more so than others? Are some people just more “communal”?

Mike: I suspect that the Oasis model would appeal more to people who want to hang out and do life with others. Humans are a tribal species. Getting together with others is in our DNA. But we are not out to convince people that they SHOULD be a part of a secular community, and we are not “evangelistic” about the concept of secular community. Many people are just fine without being part of a group like Oasis. We just want to provide the opportunity for those who want something like this. Recently a man came up to me after our Weekly Gathering and said, “I have made more friends in the two years I’ve been coming to Oasis than I have in my entire adult life previously.” It felt really good to hear that.

 

Chris: What would you advise a brand new secular organizer NOT to do?

Mike: Don’t try to do too much at once. Start small and scale up gradually. Building an organization is a marathon, not a sprint. And try not to stress about it too much. Obviously, there are challenges when launching any organization. But the most important thing is to have fun! Life is short and filled with enough stress as it is. And if you’re having fun doing this, other people will want to come and be a part of it.

The Oasis is Growing

Houston Oasis is growing, along with the secular movement in general. Now, the oasis is not just in Houston. It has become the Oasis Network, and communities following this model have sprouted in Austin TX, Kansas City, Toronto, Wichita KS, and multiple cities in Utah.

To learn more, visit http://www.peoplearemoreimportant.org .

To help the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers create such an environment, contact us at info@arfreethinkers.org.

A Houston Oasis Sunday Gathering

Snacks at Houston Oasis

Only 24 people in the entire history of humanity have travelled beyond low Earth orbit and beyond the protective blanket of our planet’s magnetic field. The 24 men accomplished this feat decades ago, as astronauts in NASA’s Apollo program. They left our planet in peak physical health, and at the time seemed to have returned none the worse for wear.

As these former astronauts reach old age, their health continues to be studied. Admittedly, the sample size is rather small to draw serious conclusions (7 of the 24 are deceased), but recent research suggests a troubling trend.

An article just published in Scientific Reports suggests that Apollo astronauts are dying from cardiovascular disease at a rate 4-5 times higher than other astronauts because the type of cosmic and solar radiation experienced outside the magnetosphere causes specific damage to the types of cells that form our blood vessels. The researchers then demonstrated how this damage occurs in mice.

Forty-three percent of now-deceased Apollo astronauts who flew to the moon died from cardiovascular disease. Compare that to just 11% of astronauts who flew in low earth orbit, and 27% in the similar U.S. population (As you can see, astronauts train to be much healthier than the rest of us, which makes this result all the more startling.).

Finally, consider that these astronauts only received a few days of this radiation dosage. Space excursions lasting weeks, months, or years might just be suicidal.

Then there are the psychological effects. The Apollo astronauts reported seeing flashes of light, an effect of cosmic rays interacting with the retina of the eye. This was just a preview of the possibly-permanent cognitive degeneration that would occur on a trip to Mars, which would include forgetfulness, confusion, and slowing response times.

Imagine your neurons being shredded by a machine-gun spray of high-speed particles. That’s basically the state of the universe a few thousand miles beyond earth’s atmosphere.

animation of earth's magnetosphere being hit by a solar flare

NASA animation of a solar flare hitting earth’s magnetosphere. http://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/mms-studying-magnetic-reconnection-near-earth

Can We Shield Astronauts?

According to the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, a “massive material shield,” or extra-thick spacecraft hulls, would not work because they are “too massive to be practical and will likely produce showers of secondary radiation that could be more harmful than the GCRs [galactic cosmic rays] themselves.”

Therefore, much of the current research explores the possibility of generating a magnetic shield like the Earth’s magnetosphere. However, the engineering challenge is to produce a field “strong enough to deflect GCR particles but weak enough to not harm astronauts.”

Maybe engineering breakthroughs will occur on magnetic shielding. It is also possible we’ve reached the practical limit. As one NASA website says, “Currently, these [electrical or magnetic] fields would take a prohibitive amount of power and structural material to create on a large scale, so more work is needed for them to be feasible.”

To summarize: Maybe our engineers can figure out a practical way to deflect protons, neutrons, ions, and other particles, some of which are accelerated to near the speed of light, but maybe they never will. If a solution is not found, humanity will never be physically able to visit another planet.

Implications of Being Stuck Here

It’s a depressing thought, but a few decades from now, humanity may be done with space exploration.

Without a solution to the radiation problem, space could be considered a place solely for unmanned probes, satellites, and other robots. The human spaceflights of the past would be considered impractical stunts. Our fantasies about spaceships and the exploration of other planets might be too hard for better-informed people to fathom, much like it is hard for us to imagine the physics-defying transportation devices imagined in the fiction of long ago.

As disappointing as this result would be, it might at least focus our attention in productive ways.

Earth’s environment seems much more important if there will never be lifeboats in the future. Similarly, we might begin to think of technology beyond the narrow paradigms of electronics and transportation. We might begin to think of new ways – technologies – to get humans to cooperate instead of fighting wars and committing crimes.

Planet Earth seen from space

Photo of Earth by Apollo 17 mission.

Being stuck on Earth might force us to face certain challenges we’ve swept under the rug. What if we lost our escapist attitudes and faith in the inevitability of humanity’s progress towards a Star Trek future, only to gain a new, more practically valuable, vision?

Maybe our grandchildren’s science fiction will be about a future world where racism, superstition, groupthink, cognitive biases, cynicism and other plagues of the human mind have been eradicated, or where breakthroughs in medicine or education produce humans with double their grandparents’ intelligence?

What if children someday dreamed of tackling the meta-problems, rather than flying a space ship with lasers that hurt other people while making “pew pew” sounds in the vacuum of space?

An Earth-bound future could still be quite interesting after all.

 

On the third Sunday of each month, we host a guest speaker for an afternoon lecture and discussion of an interesting topic. These speakers come from academia, other activist groups, and technological industries to share their insights and information with us. The guest speaks for about an hour and a question-and-answer session follows.

Recent speakers have included:

Dr. Laura Smoller, a UALR historian who taught us about the development of Christian apocalyptic thought; Lyndel Roe, a philosopher who engaged us in a lively discussion about the meaning of life; Glenn Hooks of the Sierra Club, who talked about the Sierra Club’s “Beyond Coal” campaign; a panel from the LBGTQ community that talked about the gay experience in Arkansas; Dr. Philip Frana of the Sociology Department at UCA’s Honors College, who told us about alcohol, religion, and Arkansas drinking culture; and Dr. Scott Austin, Director of the UCA Observatory, who debunked astronomical pseudoscience for us.

Some of our lectures are posted on the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers YouTube channel. Check them out!

Back before the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers united multiple similar organizations under a single name, the Central Arkansas Freethinkers adopted a mile of Highway 10 (Cantrell Road) in Little Rock to keep neat and tidy. Four times a year on a weekend morning we pick up litter to maintain this stretch of urban highway. Bring the kids and join us for an hour or so to show our civic pride and keep our city clean! Check the calendar on Meetup.com for dates and times.

There’s nothing like getting together with friends to watch a good movie or two. Sinner’s Cinema is not necessarily themed for freethinkers, but the movies are always good.

Documentaries, dramas, comedies, and Monty Python feature!

Sometimes we go to a theater, and sometimes we gather around someone’s television.

Check the calendar on Meetup.com for the next movie night.

The University of Central Arkansas in Conway opens their facilities to the public twice each month. ASF’s own Dr. Scott Austin, Associate Professor of Astronomy and Physics, and Director of Astronomical Facilities at UCA invites everyone to come learn more about the heavens (the REAL heavens)!

The 1st Wednesday of each month Dr. Austin invites us to the Planetarium where he simulates the night sky visible to the naked-eye onto a 30-foot diameter dome with a Spitz 512 projector. Arrive early for this event – after the doors close, there is no admittance.

On the 3rd Wednesday of the month, if the sky is mostly clear, the UCA Observatory will be open to the public for views of planets, stars, star clusters, and nebulae through the 14-inch aperture telescope.

Children are welcome! Check our calendar at Meetup.com for starting times.

16 Feb 2013

Connect!

Are you ready to join, explore, or get more information about the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers?

Great! The first thing you’ll want to do is connect with our various communication channels. Use these links to get in the loop:

The ASF Facebook Page

We post announcements here, along with updates of activities and current issues of special interest to secular Arkansans. “Like” our Facebook Page and you’ll see pertinent updates in your Facebook News Feed.

The ASF Facebook Group

When life in the Bible Belt wears you down, go here to take a sanity break. Converse, laugh, share stories, and relate to your fellow freethinkers. (If your freethinking is done in the closet, please note that the Facebook group is not private and your posts can be seen by anyone in your Facebook friends list, depending on your privacy settings.)

The ASF Meetup group

Find our calendar of events here, browse and share photos, find friends, and more. Meetup is our main event planning tool. We recommend adding a feed to your personal calendar so that when we post events on Meetup, your Outlook, Google, or iCal calendar is automatically updated. If you use Google’s calendar, for example, you can simply add a calendar with the following URL: webcal://www.meetup.com/ARfreethinkers/events/ical/Arkansas+Society+of+Freethinkers/ .

 The Reason in the Rock website

Reason in the Rock is a regional conference organized by the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. We bring the movers and shakers of secularism and skepticism to our notch in the Bible Belt, and great things happen! Plan to attend the last weekend in October. Updates and speaker announcements are posted on the Reason in the Rock site.

The ASF YouTube Channel

Watch videos from our monthly lecture series, see the presentations by nationally known speakers at Reason in the Rock, plus see selected videos from other sources. Subscribe for updates.

Want to meet lots of friendly, like-minded folks and catch up on all the latest Arkansas Freethinker happenings? Kick off your month of freethinking with ASF’s First Tuesday gathering. There is no end to the fascinating things that you might hear, especially from our “old timers” who never seem to RSVP on Meetup! Conversations range from books to science to politics to local news and current events, and can be deep and stimulating or light and hilarious. Everything from philosophy to gossip and all points in between – there are no taboos!

We meet around 7:00 for drinks and dinner. The hosts and a few others will be there early, and plenty of us stay until long after the table has been cleared.

This is an excellent gathering for your first encounter with the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers. Children are welcome. Check the calendar on Meetup.com for the location.

In a guest lecture hosted by The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers, UALR Professor of History Dr. Lauren Smoller presents A History Of The End: The Development of Christian Apocalyptic Thought.

Read More


Archives

Twitter Feed

Find out what's happening, right now, with the people and organizations you care about.