Thursday, May 21, 2009

Irish Abuse Report depicts sick groups

(by Dave Cortesi)

Tales of decades of child abuse in Irish orphanages and schools have some people on an atheist mailing list all atwitter, supposing this an example of the evils created by religion. To me, the story is one of group dynamics gone bad.

The Report was issued by a Child Abuse Commission formed by an act of the Irish Parliament in response to years of lobbying by a few victims. The Commision's web site has an account of the formation including links to the various parliamentary acts. The Report in full is available online but at 2,000 pages or so, most of us will be content to read the Executive Summary (and I recommend that; it is several thousand words long but readable and in parts, gripping).

I want to talk about how such things can come about, not because of religion per se, but because of rotten group dynamics.

Some atheists have commented on the "coverup" of abuse by Catholic clergy. The Irish report is very much the opposite of a coverup. It's a full-blown, "truth and reconciliation" style exposure. I think the Irish parliament deserves props for creating this commission; such openness has to be seen as pretty gutsy, in a country still sufficiently dominated by religion that it recently passed an infamous "blasphemy law."

The Report is hugely damaging to specific Catholic orders. That's clear just skimming the Executive Summary, which sketches a picture of schools that were sheer Dickensian horrors. Here are some representative samples:

... Mr John Brander, who taught children in the primary and secondary school sector in Ireland for 40 years. He was eventually convicted of sexual abuse in the 1980s... He began his career as a Christian Brother and after three separate incidents of sexual abuse of boys, he was granted dispensation from his vows. This chapter goes on to describe this man's progress through six different schools where he physically terrorised and sexually abused children in his classroom. At various times during his career, parents attempted to challenge his behaviour but he was persistently protected by diocesan and school authorities and moved from school to school.... [this] illustrates the ease with which sexual predators could operate within the educational system of the State without fear of disclosure or sanction.
...The physical abuse of boys in Daingean was extreme. Floggings which were ritualised beatings ... were inflicted even for minor transgressions.... Daingean was an anarchic Institution. It was run by gangs of boys who imposed their rules on the others and the supervision by the religious Brothers and Priests was minimal and ineffectual... The gangland culture fostered the development of protective relationships between the boys and these relationships sometimes developed a sexual aspect. The boy seeking the protection had little option but to comply with the demands of the older boy and the authorities were dismissive of any complaints....
The significant element in the account of Lota was the deeply disturbing accounts of sexual abuse of vulnerable children by religious staff. In addition, the indifference of the Congregational Authorities in addressing the issue facilitated the abuse... a Brother who was known by the Congregation to have abused in England... was brought back to Ireland and assigned a teaching position in Lota, where he worked for over 30 years. This Brother admitted to multiple sexual assaults of boys in the school. ... The Brothers have admitted that abuse took place but, as in the case of other Orders, they have not accepted Congregational responsibility for it.

And so on and on. The report casts a harsh light on specific Orders, notably the Christian Brothers, the Brothers of Charity, and the Sisters of Mercy (oh, the irony of those names!). They are indicted as much for the way they continue to minimize and deny responsibility for these problems, as for the problems themselves.

Groups Gone Bad

One person posted the angry question to an atheist list, "One has to ask why? What is it in christianity and its beliefs allows christians to engage in such horrors?"

In my opinion the source lies not in christian doctrine but in group psychology, specifically the group dynamics of these Orders. A closed group like the Christian Brothers, or the smaller group of one school's administration, always tends to protect its existence and to defend its members against "outside" threats. When an accusation is made, the group closes ranks. This happens in all kinds of groups, including government departments, the military, and the police. If some member of the group is accused of wrong-doing, the group takes it as a threat.

In all these cases, when you join the group you give up something in exchange for a share in the group identity. If you join the military, you give up personal autonomy and sometimes personal safety in exchange for the uniform and the pride of service. Join the police, and you give up regular working hours and some personal safety, in exchange for a uniform and the pride of being a special person designated to "serve and protect."

If you join a Catholic order you give up much more of normal life than a military person does. The exchange, again, is for a special uniform and a special status. The Christian Brother or the Sister of Mercy has given up a great deal, and has been set even further apart from normal life.

Such bargains are very serious, almost life-and-death matters for those who make them. If you have made such a choice, and your group's special identity is called into question, it calls into question the value of your entire life! The self-image of the group is your own self-image, and we all will do almost anything to protect our self-image. And that is why, when one member of a group is accused of misbehaving, the whole group is likely to close ranks in defense. Every group member wants to protect the group because the group's identity is their own.

A healthy group has ways of dealing with members gone wrong -- ways that prioritize the group's end-purpose above the group's image. A good police department, for example, holds the public's good at a higher priority than an officer's wrong action.

An unhealthy group, whether it is a local police department, a military command (think: Abu Ghraib), or a bunch of nuns running an orphanage, lets group defense take precedence over the group's real purpose for existence. It holds the group's self-image as more important than the people the group ostensibly serves. Then the police condone and cover up beatings or concealment of evidence; the military condone or cover up war crimes; and the brothers find ways to quietly dispose of sexual abusers.

That's what happened in these Irish abuses, and in the sex abuses that were revealed in the United States a few years ago. Each small division of the Catholic Church, each bishopric or Order, acted like a sick group. It refused to believe evil of itself, and when it couldn't do that, it covered it up, always placing the defense of the group's identity at a far higher priority than the good of the people the group ostensibly served.

This isn't a specifically "christian" nor "catholic" crime; it's an entirely typical and predictable crime of a group gone rotten, a group whose group dynamic has turned sour.

That said, it remains true that the special mantle of spiritual authority given religious people makes it easier for a dysfunctional group to get away with a coverup. And probably makes it easier to rationalize the acts within the minds of the group leaders.

Read more!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Recovery retreats coming up, end of May and July

Leaving a Harmful Religion?
It's not the end of the world!
Come to a supportive weekend with others 
who can understand.

"RELEASE AND RECLAIM" Recovery Retreat
May 29-31, 2009; Loveland, CO with an optional third day to relax!

Friday at 7pm until Sunday at 3pm
at a beautiful vacation home by a lake in the mountains

(Also July 31 - Aug. 2, 2009 in Berkeley, CA)

This program is for you if you want to let go of toxic, authoritarian beliefs and reclaim your ability to trust your own feelings and think for yourself.

Leaving your faith can be a very difficult process, but you don’t have to go it alone. A group process is nurturing and powerful for healing and personal growth.

At a Release and Reclaim Recovery Retreat participants can:

Share personal stories
Examine key issues
Learn coping strategies
Meet others and build a support system
Enjoy meals, relaxation, and fun

These retreats are led by Marlene Winell, Ph.D., psychologist and author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. Dr. Winell has a private practice in Berkeley, CA and also consults by telephone.

COST: Sliding scale: $200 - $320 for workshop, $125 for room and board (all meals included). Other financial help available - PLEASE ASK.

TO REGISTER: Write to (subject line “retreat registration”) or call Dr. Winell directly at 510.292.0509 to discuss. Retreat space is limited so contact us as soon as possible. 

WANT TO TALK? If you are unsure, you are welcome to chat about your situation and consider all the options available for meeting your needs. Just call Marlene at 510-292-0509

COMMENTS from previous retreat participants:

Speaking as a person who has attended three or so retreats organized by Marlene (intended to support the deconversion process), I would just like to say that attending a retreat, if at all possible, will be one of the smartest things you ever do. I was *very* scared to attend one. And it was really intense being at one of Marlene's retreats and confronting what I had been taught in Sunday school and coming to see it as the poisonous indoctrination it was. However, I am so, so, so glad I went and got help and had Marlene to talk with me and work with me. I know our economy is in a recession but if you have any inclination to attend one of Marlene's retreats, I can't recommend it highly enough. Super helpful! She's knowledgeable, organized, and healthfully irreverent. All the retreats I've been a part of have helped me tremendously.
 - M.K. 

I can speak about these retreats first hand. I attended Marlene's retreat last summer. At the time, I had been doing a lot of reading. Intellectually, I was already an atheist. Emotionally, I was a real mess. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't suicidal or anything, I was just feeling a bit like Neo in the Matrix: everything I had been taught to believe was wrong.
What the retreat did and what Marlene and the other did, was give me the courage to trust myself and follow through.
 It has been six months. I am in a much better place.
 - C.R.

For video clips from retreats and more comments from participants, go to:

The next one is Berkeley, CA: July 31 – Aug. 2, 2009

Also, if you would like to organize a retreat in your area, we can work with you to do so.

Read more!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Too-Small God

(by Dave Cortesi)

Had I been born in another time and place, there are gods I could have believed in. In ancient Greece, I'm sure I would have been a devotee of Great Athena, and gone often to the beautiful temple on the Acropolis to worship.

Had I been born in India before 1800, I probably would have prayed often to Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wit and wisdom. Born to a Native American tribe before the coming of the whites, I'd have felt close affiliation with Coyote, the trickster and storyteller.

In fact I had the great good fortune to be born in a Western culture after the Enlightenment, and that placed a lower limit on the size of my God.


The Enlightenment was a great sea-change in the way people thought about themselves and the world. I hold it really began with the geologists. People have been looking at rocks, and digging mines for gold and coal, forever, but the first people who really studied, and drew, and measured the shape of the land and thought about how it could come to be—the first real geologists—worked around 1800, plus or minus 50 years.

What the geologists did was to show, based on careful measurement of things like the rate at which a stream could erode a slope, that the Earth simply had to be very old, millions of years at least.

Understand that before this time, nobody anywhere had a clue how old the earth was. The only numeric estimate anyone even attempted was when Bishop Ussher around 1650 added up the ages of every person mentioned in the Bible. From that he worked out that the date of creation must have been the 27th of October, 4004 BC. That's when God made the Garden of Eden, and so forth. Based on his careful examination of the Bible, the earth was a little under 6000 years old.

People paid attention to this because they pretty much accepted the Bible as factual history. Some people today still think it is; in fact my parents thought so when I was growing up. I don't remember ever discussing it with them, but they would probably have thought Bishop Ussher's estimate had something going for it, despite their both holding BA degrees.

The geologists of the 1800s destroyed that idea, not by arguing, but by taking measurements of the real world. And their evidence-based picture of millions of years of history for the earth just blew the minds of educated people of the day. Suddenly the earth had a huge past, vastly deeper than anything in recorded human history.


The geologists worked back and forth with the Paleontologists, who also got started in the 1800s. Of course, people had collected fossils for centuries. It was common for rich people to have collections of fossils along with other "curiosities." But it was in the 1800s that people began to study fossils in a professional way: measuring, drawing, and comparing them, and putting them together in sequences; publishing and sharing information from one university and museum to another.

This is tedious, painstaking work, comparing bone shapes and measuring. But the paleontologists soon worked out that fossils had to be the remains of living things that were now extinct, yet related to species alive today. They began to put together a rough tree of life, in which most of the species that ever lived, are long gone.

The paleontologists traded data with the geologists to get the relative ages of different animals. Based on the rock strata that the geologists had dated, they could date fossils found in the strata. Then they could date new strata by the fossils found in them, and back and forth.

The Book of Earth's History

Together, the two sciences produced a picture of a vast ancient history of the earth. Today we know the Earth is 4.5 billion years old -- that's 4, 5 and 8 zeros. Imagine that the history of the Earth is a fat book with 450 pages, with 10 million years on each page. In that book, the entire recorded history of human kind—from the first clay tablets from ancient Sumer, about 4000 BC, to right now—all human history occupies the last word, of the last sentence, on the last page of that book. 449 pages of history with no people. On the last page Homo Sapiens, our species, gets one short paragraph—we've been around a million years, a tenth of a page of this book—and the last word of that last paragraph is "Civilization."


There was one more key piece to the Enlightenment: Astronomy. In the late 1700s people learned how to make decent telescopes and started really looking into the sky, again taking careful measurements and sharing what they saw. It was William Herschel around 1800 who first proved by measurement the distance to a few other stars, and that the solar system of the sun and earth were moving through space among the stars.

Before this, as with the age of the earth, nobody had a clue about the nature of the starry sky. The best guess, based on common sense and some Bible passages, was that the sky was a fixed, hollow shell called the "firmament." The stars were little lights on the inner surface of this solid shell. Or maybe they were pinholes and the light of heaven was shining in through them. Until the 1600s, everybody just assumed that the Earth was the exact center of the universe, and everything rotated around it under the shell of the firmament.

Copernicus in 1540 pointed out that a lot of observations would make more sense if the Sun was at the center and the Earth moved around it, but nobody paid much attention until Galileo pushed the idea in 1650. He got in hot water for that, and the Church made him publicly recant, because to move the earth away from the center of the universe would create a conflict with some bible passages.

Now, a century later, Herschel could prove by measurement that some stars were at distances we could calculate, and those distances were huge, billions of kilometers. And the new telescopes also revealed millions more stars than people had ever been able to see with the naked eye. The universe suddenly went from cozy and comprehensible to inconceivably huge, and not only were we not at the center of it, but our sun was just another star floating through emptiness like one snowflake in a blizzard.

The Book of Universal History

Today we know that the observable universe, the part we can see, is about 14 billion years old. Remember the book of the history of the earth, 450 pages, 10 million years to a page? The book of the history of the universe is 1370 pages long. In the first two-thirds of it, although it tells of millions of galaxies containing billions of stars each, our solar system just doesn't exist: no sun, no planets. Around page 900, a cloud of gas at one corner of one average galaxy condenses under its own gravity to make a star. Around page 925, that star starts to shine and planets have condensed around it—including one that is at the right distance for water to be liquid most of the time.

Now riffle the pages to the end, page 1370: there we are, Homo Sap. is the last paragraph, and all of recorded history, Greeks and Romans and the middle ages and kings and queens and wars and all: the last word on the last page of this fat tome.

Being Enlightened

When thinking people began to grasp this vision of deep time and huge space, full of stars and animals and beauty and complexity but no people—a wonderful universe just perking along fine without us—it kicked off changes of mind and heart that created the civilization we live in.

Even today with all our education it is sometimes easy to forget the almost-inconceivable grandeur of a universe that we know to be 73 billion light years across. If you want a visual aid, take a few minutes to watch this video on the Hubble Space telescope's Deep Field images:

"Over 10,000 galaxies are in this picture... and each one... has millions of stars... each one with the possibility of a civilization..."

The Enlightenment still happens again and again in the minds of individuals, each time one person starts to get it, as I started to get it when I was around eleven or twelve. When it sinks in, two things have to change in your head.

The first is a change in the way you think about people. You realize that people, including yourself, are just not that important in the big picture. You come to feel, first, some humility, and second some perspective, and finally more patience with your fellow man. We're all just beginners. The bees and the ants have had millions of years to work out the right way to live as a community, and we've done better than they in just a few millenia. And, we humans are just babies, we are only starting out. We have done amazing, wonderful things, we've learned so much in just a few centuries, but that's no time at all. We talk as if we are at the end of history, that our society is the climax of wonderfulness. But in fact history has only just started. What we do today is going to seem tiny compared to what our descendants do.

The Too-Small God

One other thing that must change is: your conception of what a God must be. If the universe has a creator, a prime mover as Aristotle said, that thing, whatever it might be, has to be larger and older than the universe. Older than 14 billion years, and in some sense larger than its 78 billion light-year diameter.

I frankly have no idea of what the nature of such a thing, such a being, would be. What could it be like, a thing older than the universe and bigger? I'll tell you this: even as a boy of eleven or twelve, I knew for certain that the God I was being told about in Sunday School, the Bible God, was nowhere near big enough.

Compared to the vastness of space and time, the Bible God is a trivial thing. It is a being that feels jealousy and rage; a being that could without a qualm drown millions of living things that it had made, because they disappointed it; a being who would knock down the tower of Babel and confuse people's minds because it didn't want them to learn anything; a being who took sides between one tribe and another; a being who couldn't figure out how to be merciful until his son committed suicide in front of him to change his mind. (That's what the new testament message comes down to, if you think it through.)

I was not able to put these thoughts in fine words then, but I knew that the God I was being told about could not possibly be the creator of the universe that science showed me. So what do you call a book that tells you a dramatic story that cannot possibly be true? You call it a fantasy. I was familiar with fantasies, I read lots of them. It was obvious that the Bible was just another fantasy novel, and the God of Christianity was a made-up fiction character. Out of respect for my parents I went to church every sunday until I left home, but there was no time that I believed in what I heard.

And since then, I have never heard or read any description of a God that matches up to the size and scale of this magnificent universe. And I've never seen an explanation how a God who did match up to that scale and size, could have the slightest interest in being worshiped, or indeed could have the slightest concern about what I thought about it or anything else.

Read more!
by writerdd

Hi All! I've been away doing knitterly things lately. When I started posting on this blog, my goal was to periodically write about "spirituality without religion" and I still want to continue with that topic. I just have a crazy life and sometimes my paying jobs get in the way of my blogging gigs! For now, I would just like to point your attention to an interesting post on this topic by one of my favorite bloggers, Hemant Mehta, on The Friendly Atheist.

The post is about people changing their religious affiliation, but what caught my attention is that a very large number of people leave their church and religion because it is not filling their spiritual needs. This topic, apparently, caught the attention of other readers as well, and is being discussed in the comments. As atheists, I think we need to think and talk about this more than we do, and in a way that does not belittle those among us who are drawn to spirituality.

I notice that on many atheist blogs, readers who mention that they are spiritual or that they are interested in spirituality are criticized or ridiculed by the majority of people in the comments. (That happens less on this blog than on others, from my observations.) We need to stop doing this. It’s true that some, maybe most, atheists do not feel any need for the “spiritual” or hate the use of that word because of its religious baggage. But there are many, probably most, people in general who feel that spirituality is very important.

To use popular authors as examples, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Eric Maisel have written about this and fit into the latter category. Dawkins fits into the first category, and does not seem to understand the need for spirituality at all.

This is a topic I think about, and have written about, a lot. I hope that more people begin to discuss this topic in a way that does not ridicule those who have the desire for spirituality without religion and without gods. I especially look forward to more from Harris on this topic. I found the last chapter of The End of Faith, "Experiments in Consciousness," to be one of the most interesting, but just a teaser.
Read more!

Friday, April 24, 2009

15 Responses to Believer Complaints

I was working this morning on adding my responses to “15 typical believer charges against atheists” to my powerpoint presentation in support of my book The Atheist’s Way. I just finished my responses and thought I would share them with you. I’m delivering the presentation to the monthly meeting of San Francisco Atheists tomorrow and East Bay Atheists next month. Cheers!

Here they are:

1. Atheists rob our children of Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the Tooth Fairy

I think that the most straightforward and powerful retort to this complaint is, “Exactly.” It is much better that a child get excited about her parent slipping a quarter under her pillow than that she believe, or have to act like she believes, in the existence of a fiction. You do not have to steal away excitement by telling the truth: be excited that you have kind parents who will buy you the bicycle that you want and leave Santa Claus out of it.

2. Atheists claim to have the truth and no one has the truth (except us).

Actually, atheists claim three things in this regard: we claim that you are patently lying when you invent some god or other; we claim that no one has the truth, if by “truth” you mean an understanding of why the universe exists; and we claim that the application of reason gets us to everyday truths better than does wishful thinking. The shorter answer is, “We have a much better grip on the truth than you do.”

3. Atheists are arrogant to assert that there are no gods.

There are two different sorts of responses to this charge. The first is, “Fine, I accept the charge, if you accept that it is incredibly arrogant of you to assert the existence of a god.” The second is, “No, reason is on my side and all you have is wishful thinking.” But it is really the form of this charge that interests us: all sorts of words can be substituted for “arrogant” in an “ad hominem” sentence with this linguistic form: words like “silly,” “short-sighted,” “deluded,” “mean-spirited,” and so on. So a blanket reply might be, “You sure do know how to use language!” and leave it at that. Or maybe just, “Same back at you!”

4. Atheists are merely negative—they provide nothing positive.

We affirm that human life is as meaningful as we make it. We affirm that a ripe peach is sweet, that love exists, and that a good movie is hard to beat. We affirm tons of things, individually and collectively. And, yes, we do take believers to task for making up gods and using god-talk to perpetrate tyrannies, but we have lots of positive things to say. We only wonder if you care to listen.

5. Since billions of people disagree with atheists, atheists can’t be right.

The idea of responding with a “flat earth” argument springs to mind: at one time virtually everybody believed that the earth was flat, except for a few enlightened folks who knew better. So what a majority believes can’t be the measure of truth. But of course comparing believers to flat-earthers drives the wedge between us deeper. Probably the more useful response is, “If billions of people were atheists, would you still believe?” I think this response is nicely provocative and also paints a picture of a world where atheists are the majority, which is not a bad picture to promote!

6. What’s the harm in believing in karma, past lives, or some gentle, loving spirit at play in the universe?

The harm is that maintaining any supernatural enthusiasm weakens your ability to speak out against god-talk. You become a fellow traveler and an implicit supporter of other people’s supernatural enthusiasms. Your “innocent” fantasy ends up supporting much more dangerous fantasies.

7. Religions provide a moral framework—without religion every evil would be permitted.

Probably the simplest response is to point to contemporary research that convincingly demonstrates that the most religious nations are also the most violent, rabid, and dangerous. Another simple response is to note how content and crime-free the least religious nations are, nations described, for instance, in Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God: What the Least Religious Nations Can Teach Us About Contentment.

8. Religions provide comfort—without that comfort life would prove just too hard.

This is a compelling complaint and not unlike the argument one might make for morphine. Doesn’t religious comfort have its place, as morphine has its place? Karl Marx famously said that “religious is the opium of the masses” and don’t people with hard lives deserve opium? The only answer is that a dangerous lie can’t also be supported as a legitimate comfort. If the truth provides less comfort, so be it. The choice is between fighting dangerous god-talk and embracing a comforting lie and we know which choice we hope that people are brave enough to make.

9. The wisdom traditions share so many values that they must arise from a common source.

They do arise from a common source—from the minds of men and women. Each tradition is different from the next because John concocted this one and Harry concocted that one, and each tradition is similar to the next because everyone knows what to value. Naturally the wisdom traditions appear to come from a common source: they do, from one single species.

10. Atheists rely too heavily on the methods and findings of science.

“Too” is the essence of the charge, since the whole world relies heavily on science—do believers not watch television, fly in airplanes, or check their email? So the simple reply is, “Dear believer, please define ‘too.’” Or an atheist can just smile and say, “Yes, I rely heavily on science. Don’t you?” Or we can play their game and respond in all seriousness and in all innocence, “Maybe we do over-rely on science, but surely you believers do not rely on science enough!”

11. On balance, religions do more good than harm.

At root this is an argument that people would not support orphanages, avoid adultery, or cross only on the green light unless they believed in a punishing god. Believers indict themselves and show how weak they fear themselves to be when they say that they would not be good without religion to “guide them.” Their fear is not a reason to countenance religion. Let them be brave and good of their own accord, just as we ask of ourselves and everyone else.

12. Aren’t prophets like Jesus, Mohammed, and the Buddha worth emulating?

All people are just people. They are brave here and fearful there, compassionate here and selfish there. When we say that someone is worth emulating what we actually mean is that we respect certain aspects of the person: her courage, her creative spark, her work ethic, something in particular. The less we engage in the cults of personality and celebrity and the more we announce which personal qualities we revere, the better. There are no prophets—there are just very human human beings.

13. The existence of gods can never be disproved.

Fine. We’d be happy not to bother. You stop creating gods and we’ll stop wasting our precious time helping you see that they are just your inventions.

14. In the absence of certainty, it makes more sense to err on the side of belief than unbelief.

Pascal’s wager boils down to the following: in case there is a god, better stay on his good side! An atheist simply says that he believes the opposite, that in the absence of certainty he will follow reason. The believer can cower, just in case there is a god, and while the believer is cowering the atheist will continue doing his everyday duty, without worrying in the slightest that he has made some miscalculation that will cost him dearly after he is dead.

15. Atheism is just another religion.

Yes, but the right one. And if you can’t that joke, then at least admit that a religion without gods is a pretty mild affair and leaves atheists pretty much to their own devices, having to decide everything for themselves. If you accept that as a reasonable definition of religion—everyone figuring out things for themselves—then we can accept that atheism is a religion. But as linguistic philosophers like to remind us, you can call a horse’s tail a leg but that doesn’t mean that a horse has five legs. You can call atheism a religion, if you like, but you would be doing quite a bit of definitional stretching. Read more!

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Life and Death on Easter

It’s Easter; I have memories of getting up early year after year as a child to go to Easter Sunrise Service. We gathered somewhere outdoors, simulating the women and disciples who went to Jesus’ tomb in the early morning on the day of his resurrection. We sang certain hymns that were only for Easter – “Christ the Lord is ris’n today, Ha-a-a-a-He -lelujah,” “He lives! He lives! Christ Jesus lives today. He walks with me and talks with me, along life’s narrow way!” I liked it – the brisk early morning, the feeling of life and hope, the joy of the music. Unlike a lot of other church experiences, it was a day of celebration. And what a profound message – death has been conquered! Just put your faith in Christ.

And now? It’s been many years and I’m no longer a Christian. I do not believe I will continue after I die. In my work as a psychologist, I work with people coming out of religion. There are many issues to deal with, and top of the list for many is this question of death and hellfire. The indoctrination is deep and insidious, a form of child abuse in my opinion. Even without hell, the idea of nonexistence (if that is the direction of change in belief), is sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. Fundamentalist Christianity downgrades a human lifetime compared to eternity and denigrates the whole world as fallen. How many times were we told to focus on where we will be in the hereafter? The result is fear, because no one is certain, and also neglect of the life that we have now.

For those of you who are anxious today and struggle with the idea of death, I can tell you that it is possible to stop fearing damnation. I certainly have and many other former believers have too. It is a phobia indoctrination that serves the religion. If you think you should believe “just in case,” think about what you would be missing. Essentially, your life. The greatest challenge for a human is to know about death, and live fully in the face of it. Other animals can more easily “be here now,” and we can learn from them. However, we have more awareness and it is our existential dilemma to make peace with death.

In a way, we do continue on. Our molecules get rearranged and become other things; nothing is lost, not one atom. All matter and energy in the universe is conserved, according to what we know from physics. I find it beautiful to walk in a forest and see a fallen tree where it is decomposing, nourishing the earth, and causing new life to spring up. And if you worry about your soul, ask yourself, “Where were ‘you’ before you were born?” Is that so frightening?

No, we are better off paying attention to the present. This life is limited but so are a lot of things. The Christian attitude of denigrating life because it is short makes no sense. Is a wonderful meal any less wonderful because it ends? When you are listening to incredible music, are you upset because you know the piece will finish? Hopefully not, and we can extend that lesson to life itself. People who have a brush with death often learn to appreciate life in a special way. Our time on this earth is precious. Perhaps when we cherish our days, honor what is possible, love our fellow humans as best we can, and look at the world with awe and wonder, we can achieve a spirituality of a different kind. Of our own free will, we can commit acts of random kindness and dance for no reason at all. Death be damned.

For the recovering fundamentalist, reclaiming intuition and learning to trust one’s inner wisdom is an exciting process. We are not empty, weak, incapable, or bad. We are all interconnected and a part of our amazing universe. Even Einstein said thinking we are individuals is an illusion.
One day, when I was a little discouraged, I wrote to myself from the wise part of me (yes, we are all multiples), and then wondered about that voice. This is what emerged, and it applies to all of us, so I hope you find a bit of inspiration too. I asked where the encouragement was coming from:

“This is from the force that makes the new shoot grow between concrete slabs. This is from the symmetry of fractals. This is from the incomprehensible distance of space, this is from the sound waves that blend and beat and tell you to dance, this is from the little child that looks at you clearly with no fear and says hi, this is from the unadulterated force of the sea under you and all around you when you swim in the ocean, the sea that takes no prisoners when the tide comes in, the sea that spawned life, and the same sea that sends a wave spreading up the sand to your bare feet, with rhythmic purring caress, bringing you the gems that make you smile - the perfect tiny shell, the fragment of blue glass that you tuck in your pocket.

“This is from the cosmic red afterglow of the big bang. This is from all eleven dimensions, from all the things you don't understand and like that you don't understand. This is from the parallel universes that come with the eleven dimensions, penetrating the membrane. This is from the aquifer beneath all of you, the source feeding flashes of human greatness. This is from the massive network of fungus, hidden from view under seemingly separate plants. This is from the power behind the form, the elusive explanation, the delectable mystery. I only have one thing to say to you right now - and that is REMEMBER ME. You are not alone. You always have a reason to go on. and there is no choice; you will go on anyway. Ineffable and inexorable, both. The tide is coming in again today; the ocean has not been deciding.”

Happy Spring.

Marlene Winell
Recovery retreats May 1-3, June 5-7, 13-15
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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Television Interview on The Atheist's Way

Hello, everybody:

Welcome to the first edition of my Saturday Atheism Newsletter. Over the coming weeks and months I want to chat about atheist topics that interest me and pick your brains about what interests you.

Today I want to start quietly by inviting you to view a short television interview I did last week with an NBC interviewer about my new book The Atheist’s Way. I hope you enjoy it. If you have any thoughts or comments drop me an email at Here is the interview:

Please feel free to share this video with folks you think it might interest and also alert them to this newsletter. Next week I’ll begin in earnest!

Have an excellent Saturday.


Eric Read more!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009


Hello, everyone:
A few updates and then on to the main affair.
Don’t miss the Your Creative Career Telesummit on March 21st. Attend from the comfort of your home and jumpstart your career in the arts:
Become one of the world’s first meaning coaches (or come aboard to learn how to answer your own meaning questions) by taking the June Meaning Coach Training:
Now, on to the main affair:
There is a world of difference between actively investing meaning in something and believing that something “should” be meaningful, maybe by virtue of the fact that a word like serious or worthy or useful or spiritual attaches to that something. Maybe you believe that service “should” feel meaningful—but in fact you would like to do a lot less volunteering and a lot more creating. Maybe, conversely, you believe that “nothing is more meaningful than individual effort”—and yet where you really want to invest meaning is in community, collaboration, and fellow feeling. The following email that I received recently does a beautiful job of exploring this idea, about investing meaning without “shoulds” attached (which, by the way, is a very different idea from making unprincipled meaning investments).
Barbara ( wrote:
“Hi Eric,
The idea that we are responsible for making meaning in our lives speaks deeply to me. I appreciate your amplification of these ideas. I think that the concept that we search for or find meaning has stood in the way of my creative work. The ideas of making meaning, investing meaning, divesting meaning, meaning crisis, meaning drain, etc. make total sense.
As I look back at the periods in my life when I have been assailed by depression, each moment entailed a meaning crisis. I had invested meaning in a given relationship or activity which ceased to have meaning. I had the mistaken notion that the investment of meaning was permanent, so when the meaning drained away, I was left in despair and blamed myself for it. I now realize that just as I choose to invest meaning, I can also choose to divest meaning instead of feeling that somehow I failed. How freeing that is!

I had thought that I was supposed to write a certain nonfiction book because it was “worthy.” I thought that it “should be” meaningful but it actually wasn’t, which drained energy from my ability to write anything. So I have divested meaning from that project (wish I had done that two years ago!) and am continuing with my mystery writing, where the juice actually is. Writing fiction is much more energizing and freeing for me than the nonfiction project. My mind circles around possibilities—settings, characters, plot—and I can feel my energy increasing.
It is only when I encounter serious difficulties with the fiction (mini-meaning crises) that thoughts of the nonfiction project pop into my head: that that is “worthy” and that mystery writing “isn’t important” and “isn’t serious.” At such times I have to get a grip on mind and remember who is in charge of the meaning in my life!
As for the nonfiction, I intend to read authors who have a developed voice in nonfiction, with the thought of writing nonfiction in the future, but in a different way from the past. There may be pieces of my former project that can be plucked out and explored differently, but I believe that the project as it currently stands speaks to a moment in my past and anchors me there, which ultimately proves meaningless. And the seed of an idea for a literary novel is still that—just a seed. It needs time to develop further before I begin that project. So for now, I am investing meaning in my mystery series—and that feels just right. That is where I can best make meaning at this time!
From what would you like to divest some meaning? Where would you like to make a new meaning investment? Let me know and I’ll share some of your stories. And don’t forget about the meaning training:
Have an excellent Sunday!
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Sunday, February 15, 2009


Hello, everybody:

The Atheist’s Way Virtual Book Review Tour begins this week. Please take a look and see what people are saying, pro or con, about their experience with the book. Here are the two tour stops this week:

Donna Druchanas on Wednesday at

Catherine on Thursday at

In The Atheist’s Way I dub certain religions like Buddhism and Taoism “the river religions” and argue that, like the god-based religions, they betray our common humanity by promoting metaphors, fairy tales, and dogma rooted in the same authoritarian energy that drives Islam, Judaism and Christianity. There is no eightfold path, there are no noble truths, and there is no nirvana: there are only personal paths and personal truths and the necessity of personal meaning-making. The river religions, as attractive as they can seem, are detours from the path of personal meaning-making.

I am calling these religions the “river religions” to capture something of their root metaphor, that flavor or “flow” or “way,” and to underscore that they are indeed religions. Many people move from the god religions to the river religions because they want a recognized and non-offensive container to hold their spiritual enthusiasms, not quite realizing that every such container is a human-made device meant to promote fantasy (whether about Heaven or reincarnation) and grab power (whether in the hands of a Pope or a Zen Master).

This week I got a lovely email from a reader of The Atheist’s Way who, perhaps in conjunction with reading the book, had suddenly “seen through” the river religions. Barbara explained:

“I started visiting local Zen centers a few months ago, and have found tremendous improvement in my calmness, rationality and creativity with daily meditation sittings. However, I've been feeling more disappointed as I spend more time with the Zen centers. Yesterday I acknowledged why - it's because I don't believe. Period. I just don't believe in ‘religious stuff,’ not Catholicism like my father's family, not Episcopalianism like my best friend's church, not the radio-show Evangelicism my mother regrettably seems to favor, and thus, not in Buddhism either.

“I don't believe in reincarnation, or karma except as an abstract notion of ‘be a jerk, have a miserable life,’ or the benefits of prostrations, or that lineages of teachers are super special and worthy of prostration, or that the Buddhist ‘miracles’ are any more credible than the Christian ‘miracles.’ I do like the emphasis on mindfulness and compassion, and appreciate the Bodhisattva's Vow where the vow-taker promises to postpone enlightenment until all sentient creatures are free from suffering, but shouldn't mindfulness, compassion and generosity be commonly prized traits that don't need a religion to ground them?

“I think that 1) I'm a little disappointed that I'm an official 100% nonbeliever, since there might be some beautiful practices or comforts out there that I'll miss and 2) I'm disappointed that the tremendous benefits of meditation and the intellectually engaging parts of Zen still come wrapped with miracles, reincarnation and prostrations. But I'm unapologetically a nonbeliever, and that is fine. I'll keep meditating and I think we'll also go back to our local Unitarian church for socializing and networking, where you can be an atheist or deeply agnostic and that is OK. I'm in private law practice, where we are strongly encouraged to get out in the community and know people, and churches and temples are great ways to meet people: if you believe or can pretend to believe. But I see that the bottom line is that I must make my own meaning, with no dogma or snake oil; and that will be fine.”

If you have moved halfway from the god religions to the river religions, come all the way home now. Yes, there will be fewer networking and socializing opportunities—but there will also be fewer scrapes and bows. Leave the river religions behind and, rising from your cushion, stand up for what you believe. Comments welcome!—you can email me your comments at or post them at the blog where this newsletter also appears:

Have an excellent Sunday!



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Sunday, February 1, 2009


Hello, everyone:

This Sunday we continue our examination of the meaning difficulties that many people are currently experiencing. Today I’ll share Carla’s story. But first a few updates.

The next round of creativity coaching trainings begins the week of February 9th. For information on the next Introduction to Creativity Coaching Training and the next Advanced Creativity Coaching Training, and for information on becoming a free client in the next Introduction to Creativity Coaching Training and receiving free email-based creativity coaching, please visit:

Here is a ringing endorsement from someone who took both the Intro and Advanced trainings last year (they can be taken sequentially or simultaneously):

“Hi Eric,

I'd like to thank you for all the wonderful coursework you provided me this past year. Your meaning and purpose message is important to our times and cultural growth as a universal community. The method you use to teach is an outstanding one and your personal style was a special gift to me. Even from Minneapolis I can feel your touch, sparking my creative life into action. Like so many, my creative life needed resuscitation. Your kindness is woven into all you do. Now I have a renewed purpose to create and potential income that is rewarding and something absolutely worth getting out of bed every day. So, for all you've done for me I say a very heartfelt- thank you!



A few spots remain in the March Deep Writing Workshop in London. For more information:

(If you would like to organize a Deep Writing Workshop in a European locale for 2010, let’s chat. I am particularly interested in presenting in Dublin and Edinburgh but I am open to any European locale. If you want to chat about this, drop me an email at


If you’re interested in the subject of making meaning, please take a look at The Atheist’s Way, which is now available from Amazon:


Last but not least, if you are thinking about taking the Meaning Coach Training that will begin in June (it will be the first of its kind), come on board soon. It is filling up. For more information:


Here, as the main event, is Carla’s “existential blues” piece. As the year progresses we will move toward discussing solutions but for now we are still focused on clearly understanding the problem. Carla explained:

I've had some blend of existential blues since my 20s, but the condition has recently worsened and gotten me closer to genuine introspection and honest investigation of meaning. I recall the blues in my 20s as vague and centered on questions of “what am I going to do with my life now," after leaving a field of study I loved and its career path, for reasons that ultimately turned out to be excellent ones (I don't want that life path back) and then after I started working in business, questions of “why are people in this office so boring? No one wants to study new things or write or draw in their free time; they talk about TV and their lawns a lot - where do these people come from?”

Passion and business are recurring threads for me in the areas of meaning and despair. I always wanted to write and create and do esoteric research (not generally lucrative work) but for better or worse ended up following my parents' desires for me and working in business (comfortable work). The best and worst moments of my college days involve arts and business. The best was sprawling on my dorm bed translating Virgil for Intensive Latin class and getting it! I got it! I got the nuances, meanings, artistry of translation word choices! I was part of creation and art and the heavens parted for a moment - I loved it! The worst was walking across the "Diag" and seeing the business students in their blue overcoats and suits. I saw them and felt like dirt. As much as I loved what I was doing, my family and wider society had already let me know that my interests were useless, frivolous, flaky. The BBA and MBAs in their blue coats, though, they'd go off to something tangible - marketing toilet paper or toothpaste, something that paid. I didn't want their jobs but I did want their probable security and known place to go.

My current existential blues most often arrive in the form of exhaustion, and occasionally as despair. The exhaustion strikes most often when I'm thinking about doing creative work or tired after a day at work (in my business career work) and I can't bear to write, pick up a book or listen to music. It makes me say, “Leave me alone. Why bother?”

I've had long stretches like this. Last year I could not write or even stand to try to read or listen to music for months. I'd visit the book store with my husband and trail after him, picking up and putting back down books, declaring each unreadable on the grounds of type size too small, book too heavy or book looking impossible to think about opening. I slept a lot and looked out of a lot of windows at birds or weather. This would seem like a deep depression, though throughout it, I never missed a day at work, project deadline or bill payment due date and every day was clean, scented and groomed in a suit. It was, perhaps, a deep depression of limited scope that left the rest of my life on course.

The fits of existential despair, a more active visitation of my blues, move beyond the territory of “who cares? what's the point?” to arrive as thunderstruck moments in which I am absolutely convinced that I'll die at my office desk, never accomplish anything I truly care for, and might as well be the walking dead in a business suit. These moments make me less sleepy than inclined to throw all of my professional books out of my office window, on fire, and run down the office park road towards the highway, never to return.

Both forms of existential despair come from the same fear – that I might never achieve anything deeply meaningful to me (while I am doing well in my business career, it is not work that stirs my passion or lets me experience "flow"), and that my deepest loves for arts, creative work and contemplative practices are meaningless and selfish matters of self-entertainment and solitary pleasure. The existential blues can arrive after I've been out of balance - too much creative work and I feel frivolous, too much day-job work and I feel like a worn-out machine cog. A mixture of daily wage-earning work and creative work seems to be mentally healthiest for me, but even then, the blues still come.

Today my blues are focused on how to best survive day-job work and daily inanities while trying to find a way to incorporate my creative passions in a life that is meaningful to me. Do I give up on creating and just consume and enjoy? Isn't that selfish? I want to create - but what if I can't create anything that is good enough to make the mark that Bach, Beethoven, Eliot, Yeats, Milosz, Herbert did? What am I worth if I can see truth and beauty but not create them, or apply them beyond my own consumption? It would be easier to stop thinking trying and passively live a comfortable life away from creation, but I don't want to give up.

As much as I doubt my own ability to create and leave meaning behind, I believe passionately that the "softer," non-law/finance/business things like arts and contemplative practices can have tremendous meaning, value and an impact on the world. When I listen to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's recording of the Bach cantata "Ich Habe Genug", I feel the presence of something sacred and healing. When I listen to the Borodin Quartet's 1960s-1970s recordings of Shostakovich's string quartets, especially Op. 68 Quartet in A Major with its haunting, lumbering waltz (a staggering Russian bear?) and the last chords that are the sound of light and hope breaking through gloom, I better understand the pain and absurdity Shostakovich wanted to expose.

Yesterday, before I finished the last set of edits to this essay, I was reading Czeslaw Milosz's "A Song on the End of the World" in my car at the oil change shop. I brought it in a stack of things I'd been wanting to read and too busy at work to get to, and was so impressed that I re-read it three times. What an amazing, gorgeous, true poem. What a powerful final image, the old man who could be a prophet but is not, binding his tomatoes and knowing "No other end of the world will there be." I got it, I felt it, and for a moment, I was enlightened. How can I ever rise to create at this level myself?

I believe "soft" creators like the ones I've just praised have made greater marks than most "hard" businesspeople in touching others and changing, even if slightly, the tilt of our world. Were I any one of them I hope I'd feel secure in my achievement. However, as the person I am for most of my waking hours, a suburban professional and "aspiring" everything else, I'm a bundle of doubts. Is my time spent on art worthy? What must it prove to be worthy? Money and fame aren't perfect correlations to value, but what does it say if work earns no money or exposure? And where does a frustrated creator go from there?

I wonder if I'd feel otherwise if it did not seem on many days as though I'm the only one in my world tilting against "normal" life, as defined by my profession's "work, work, work and make more money at work" mentality. I have several frustrated artists in my family, but none ever pushed forward or tried hard enough to finish anything, and all shared the same “sit down, have a drink, have a smoke, work too hard and you'll wear yourself out” mentality. My coworkers think the arts are frivolous, and I never hear the end of “classical music isn't worth anything, it has to keep fundraising to survive – you don't see 50 Cent asking for government handouts.”

I just don't know. I want to create, to touch if only briefly truth and beauty and communicate them, I want to leave something meaningful that lasts longer than a memorandum or settlement agreement at work. But how and when? And is this always worth it? I just don't know. I just don't want to give up yet.
If you would like to share your “existential difficulty” story, drop me an email (to and I’ll send you along some prompts and guidelines.


Have an excellent Sunday!



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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

A Comedian Walked into the Atheists United Meeting...

On February 22, 2009, the Atheists United hosts their monthly get-together at 11am, at the Center for Inquiry. Comedian and author, Cathe B. Jones is the featured entertainer, providing comedy relief, and discussing her books, Godless Grief, and My Doctor Is Killing Me. The event is free, and the day show also serves as a luncheon. Cathe's humor is described as vibrantly witty, thought provoking, and emphatically not politically correct, taking on the topics of atheism, racism, and political satire.

Led by indomitable Bobbie Kirkhart, the Atheists United (a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization) has a three-fold mission:

* To promote atheism through education and outreach;
* To promote the First Amendment and the separation of government and religion;
* To create and support a vibrant atheist community.
AU has a full schedule of events, often inviting vibrant speakers, and highly evolved discussions. The meeting on February 22nd is held at Center for Inquiry-West, 4773 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angles CA. This general meeting is Free and open to the public, and begins at 11am.

Kirkhart is currently the president AU, but also led organizations including Atheist Alliance International, Secular Coalition for America, and serves as board member to Humanist Studies and Darwin Day Celebrations. Her first article published nationally was "I Protest: A Santa Claus God", and was written by a woman who was devoutly protestant. Later, she learned through the efforts of her work as social worker, that her world wasn't created by any religion or gods, and since 1983, she has been a member of AU. As public speaker, author, and leader she continues to inspire atheists here and abroad with her wit, fiery sense of purpose, and ability to reach even the most ardent of the religious right.

Cathe B. Jones has performed stand-up comedy in three countries, since 1981. She has three shows in Las Vegas, performing several times a week. As an Atheist Author, Cathe works to inspire other atheists to proactively promote the idea that kindness and free thought should be practiced in all aspects of life. As a writer, her themes are action-based and humanitarian based, serving advocacy pieces. Godless Grief is the first book written about loss for and from the atheist perspective. My Doctor Is Killing Me is a patient advocacy hand book for those who have not been heard by the medical community. Her husband, Mike Jones, is the music director for Penn & Teller, and they reside in Las Vegas with their pets and pianos.
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Sunday, January 25, 2009


Hello, everyone:

As I mentioned at the beginning of year, among the issues I want to focus on in 2009 is meaning: on making 2009 our “year of meaning.” Toward that end I am commencing a “meaning coach” training in June, inviting readers to share their “existential difficulty” stories, preparing a book on meaning-making, and so on. In today’s newsletter, I’m sharing one reader’s story. Catherine’s story begins after a few announcements. If you would like to share your “existential difficulty” story, drop me an email (to and I’ll send you along some prompts and guidelines.

The next round of creativity coaching trainings begins the week of February 9th. For information on the next Introduction to Creativity Coaching Training and the next Advanced Creativity Coaching Training, and for information on becoming a free client in the next Introduction to Creativity Coaching Training and receiving free email-based creativity coaching, please visit:

A few spots remain in the March Deep Writing Workshop in London. For more information:

If you’re interested in the subject of making meaning, please take a look at The Atheist’s Way, which is now available from Amazon:

Last but not least, if you are thinking about taking the Meaning Coach Training that will begin in June (it will be the first of its kind), come on board soon. It is filling up. For more information:

Now, on to the main event. Here is Catherine’s “existential difficulty” story:

“Do you realize how disconcerting it is to feel like a teenager again - in your 60s?? And I’m not talking about the carefree, ‘Gee, it’s fun to be alive!’ kind of feeling that comes with discovering yourself and hanging out with best friends. No, I’m talking about the leaden, ‘Who am I, really?’, unfocused and unbalanced kind of feeling that so many teens experience as they’re discovering their identities, that feeling of just not belonging anywhere, of being unable to ‘land’ on recognizable soil.

“That’s the feeling I’ve been dealing with lately, and it has come to the forefront of my life within this last year. I’ve been retired now since 1999. I went into my retirement from nursing/office work with plans to have my own small practice of healing touch and doula work. I had high hopes for establishing my very own practice. However, in my neck of the woods, the Middle West, alternative and ‘new age’ practices are not much sought-after or trusted. So although I trained and met others in the fields I was interested in, I could not establish a community to work within - no one else wanted to meet with me for support or communication, and I found myself essentially alone.

“Well, that’s not how I operate best - I’m a ‘people person’ and I need the energy of others to keep me on my toes. I knew that from previous experience, so I really worked at contacting folks interested in alternative health. However, I had no success at building a community of alternative practitioners and after a short time, I had no clients of my own either. I lost interest in what was supposed to be my retirement job.

“Fast-forward through a move to a new home 15 minutes out of town, new grandchildren arriving on a regular basis, and some health issues, and here I am, entering 2009 and I still don’t know ‘what I want to be when I grow up.’ Life has become just a series of days to be gotten through, with no real focus and no real energy being directed at anything of importance. I wake up in the morning and often cannot think of why I should even get out of bed. If there’s nothing on my calendar, such as a lunch date or a babysitting stint, I have no reason to even get up.

“Or, if I do manage to get up and going, there’s nothing ‘calling to me’ that I really want to spend my time and limited energy on. One thing I have done is taken up writing … and that has probably saved my sanity. I have managed to join some writing groups that offer me some goals to work toward on a monthly basis. But writing, for me at least, is easy and doesn’t require a lot of effort. And it’s also lonely … I spend lots of time all by myself at the computer preparing for those infrequent times of sharing my writing with others in my groups.

“I have no illusions that what I write will make it into the ‘outside’ world and make me famous or even give me a sense of having contributed to the betterment of my world. It’s just a way for me to pass some time, and maybe something I write will from time to time evoke a positive response from someone in my group. But overall, I sense that there is something missing here … something being wasted, and that time is running out for me to discover and use that talent or gift before I die.

“That sense of limited time, of needing to hurry or else lose what I have been given, is what differentiates me from the teenager - I don’t have the luxury of a lifetime ahead of me to ‘work on myself.’ The feeling of emptiness, of waste, is exacerbated by the sense of fleeting time passing me by at a rate that astonishes me and leaves me frustrated. I have devoted most of my life to being a wife and mother and to the needs and schedules of others. Now that I am here, by myself, everyday, with no one to work ‘for,’ I am lost. And there seems to be little hope of finding myself before time runs out … but I continue to work on it.”

As the year proceeds, we will look not only at these stories of existential difficulty but also at how to effectively meet these challenges. If you would like to read along and to think along as we examine these matters, I recommend two of my books, The Van Gogh Blues and The Atheist’s Way. Let’s make 2009 our “year of meaning”!
Have an excellent Sunday.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Click on this to view a video of an Atheist program on public access television in Austin, Texas. The caller is darn near precious. She really has her work cut out for her, trying to convince two well-informed Atheists that her god exists because bananas are shaped to fit into the human hand and point toward the human mouth.

Apparently, this idea that bananas are proof of the existence of god or intelligent design is being commonly referred to as the Atheist’s Nightmare by folks who genuinely think that, even if the banana weren’t cultivated by humans to be more flavorful and convenient for human consumption, as proposed by the hosts of the Austin public access program, one piece of fruit actually proves the existence of their imagined god.

A nightmare? Okay, maybe the stunning ignorance of people who will twist their own mental faculties into pretzel knots to keep perpetuating their favorite myths can be qualified as an unpleasant dream. And who among us doesn’t wish we could wake up from that?

But the nightmare is that this kind of thing is being taken seriously by anybody at all. That anyone with the mental capacity to remember a phone number could actually believe this nonsense about tropical fruit. Or think that their mistaken assumptions about that fruit would constitute any kind of “nightmare” among freethinking people unencumbered by religious programming.

The nightmare might be that there are people I come into contact with on a regular basis who would be quick to accept that the notches on a banana peel, as well as the direction the fruit inside it points, are compelling arguments for the certainty of god’s existence.

People who cling steadfastly to their outdated belief structures are going to greater and greater lengths to defend their positions. I’d find it laughable--bananas prove god, really?--if it weren’t so utterly tragic how the human mind can be manipulated, even in the face of so much readily available a simple banana.
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Saturday, January 10, 2009

God's Favorite Plane Crashes


To believe that gods are monitoring human affairs means the following. You have to believe that a god gathers 165 individuals he wants to have die in a certain plane crash, presumably because they are sinners or something of the sort (including the infants and the children) and matches them with a pilot, copilot, and flight attendants he wants to have die for their sins, and sends them aloft together to burn in a fiery crash, making their death as painful as possible. At the same time he makes sure that the Detroit Lions lose all their games (for some obscure reason) and that dysentery, malaria, and drought bring tens of millions of Africans (who, presumably, deserve the pain) down to their knees. Do you really think that there are gods minding these matters, making decisions about who should live and who should die, and figuring out how to make those deaths as painful as possible?

Get your copy of The Atheist's Way today! Read more!

Friday, January 9, 2009

God's Favorite Football Teams


Doesn’t it make you slightly insane when a football player, interviewed after a win, praises god for the victory? It is impossible to fathom what must be going on in a mind that believes that some god has a rooting interest in one team over another. That believers constantly employ gods in this nonsensical, narcissistic way is further proof of their gods’ non-existence. The secret reason that so many sensible people want to see parochial schools lose at sports is that with each loss those defeated student bodies may be forced to doubt just a little. Yes, it is small of us, but it is hard for an atheist not to experience a tiny tingle of pleasure when Notre Dame, SMU, BYU or TCU loses. Nor do we have to apologize for our unseemly pleasure; after all, their god ratified the loss and presumably celebrated it right along with us.

Get your copy of The Atheist's Way today! Read more!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Pain of Glen Gould's Greatness


How hard is it to keep meaning afloat? D. N. sent me the following:

“The novel, The Loser, is written by Thomas Bernhard and is one of several novels that I've read of his. He's an existentialist who is always confronting his protagonist with indecision and decisive action by a secondary character. The loser has three characters, Glenn Gould, Wertheimer and the narrator who all studied with Horowitz in Salzburg. His novel is perfect for me to be reading once again as he writes of "comparisons" that we artists often make in lessening our selves and our works.

“In Bernhard's The Loser, the narrator's first encounter with Glenn Gould's piano expertise as a performer is devastating to his career as a concert pianist. Wertheimer is likewise devastated. Both Wertheimer and the narrator abandon their careers eventually because they are not as good as Glenn Gould. Of course, they wanted to be the very best in the world and nothing less. The narrator commits suicide and Wertheimer gives up and goes into science. Thus the title to the novel, The Loser.

“The subject matter interests me as to how an artist deals with comparisons when reaching for being ‘the greatest artist.’ It need not even be ‘the greatest artist’ but perhaps discovering that some other artist arrived at one's imagery before and is recognized as the first one or originator. And then there are all the awards that tell us as artists that we’re great; and for those who haven't received any awards - well they're 'less than'.”

Yes, this is yet another reason why it is so hard to keep meaning afloat!

Get your copy of The Atheist's Way today! Read more!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Comforts of God-Talk


It is not mysterious why we would want to hold the death of our child or our fatal illness as part of some god’s plan. Why rob us of that comfort? Because god-talk is a scourge and, if we want to extinguish it, we must rail against wherever it is used, including by grieving people facing dreadful circumstances. It will not help civilization survive to strive to eliminate god-talk everywhere but tacitly support it in foxholes, hospital wards, and cemeteries. It is warm comfort to believe in gods and cold comfort to take pride in eliminating god-talk even when you desperately want to believe that some dreadful thing has a silver lining. But the coldness of that comfort notwithstanding, for civilization’s sake we face brutal reality with our eyes wide open.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Atheism as a Non-Prophet Organization


A charmingly apt anonymous saying: “Atheism is a non-prophet organization.” Therefore each atheist must make his or her own way. The very essence of making personal meaning is nominating yourself as the hero of your own story and making your own way in life, listening for echoes in the observations of others but never following in another person’s footsteps. Your circumstances are unique; your causes are yours to choose; one day you can play, one day you can be serious, one day you can rest, one day you can exhaust yourself. Make your own way: even the slightest pull to follow opens the door to mischief.

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Monday, January 5, 2009

Freud and the Future of an Illusion


Freud described religion as an illusion and explained in The Future of an Illusion (1927) that “what is characteristic of illusions is that they are derived from human wishes.” Gods are created by human beings, and then accepted by other human beings, because human beings wish them to exist. What can you say to someone about his illusions when they represent something he desperately wishes to be true? You can say exactly what you might say to a writer who would like his novel to be done without him having to write and revise it or to a short, slow, uncoordinated man who would like to play center for his local basketball team: “Wishing won’t make it so.” If we keep saying, “Wishing won’t make it so,” we may at least reach those on the edges of belief who are able to distinguish fantasy from reality.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

God-Talk as Betrayal


Douglas Murray wrote, “Anyone can be a bigot. But divine bigots must count as the most intractable; the most infuriatingly impervious to reason.” Indeed, one of the joys of belief and one of the primary reasons for believing is that a bigot’s bigotry is made impervious through god-talk. I argue in The Atheist’s Way that god-talk is a betrayal of our common humanity and that we must not permit it, not by outlawing belief but by repeatedly asserting that god-talk is exactly that sort of betrayal. If enough people point out this betrayal often enough, maybe we can turn the corner on this particularly odious use of language, using made-up gods to justify any piece of bigotry.

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Saturday, January 3, 2009

James Baldwin and the Personal Self


James Baldwin wrote, “The development of the meaning attaching to the personal self, the conscious being, is the subject matter of the history of psychology.” This is how it ought to be; as it is in reality, psychologists have taken the easier path and dubbed their field “the science of behavior.” For this reason, questions of human meaning have failed to enter their investigations. In psychology as it is practiced and studied, there is no human being who wrestles with meaning; there are only symptom pictures and behavior patterns. The person who resembles you and me vanishes. Isn’t it time that the narrowness of the academic’s interest in some pet peeve, pet love or funding possibility be replaced by genuine curiosity about actual members of our species?

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Friday, January 2, 2009

Anais Nin and the Meaning of Your Life


Anais Nin wrote, “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all, there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” And who writes this book? You do. You are the author and you are the hero of your own story. No, you don’t get to set every plot detail. Many of those are circumstantial. But much of the plot is yours to write. Upon what path do you want to set yourself? What qualities do you want to manifest? You are the author of your own story and you decide.

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Viktor Frankl Thought As Our Year of Meaning Begins


I am dedicated to making 2009 our mutual “year of meaning.” But for many people—could it be for most people?—thinking about meaning takes them to a painful place. Why, then, go there? Viktor Frankl put it well: “If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load that is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together. So, if therapists wish to foster their patients' mental health, they should not be afraid to increase that load through a reorientation toward the meaning of one's life.” That is why. We go there to grow stronger, even if the journey increases our difficulties. Read more!