Monday, January 30, 2012

Imagine No Religion

by Timothy Ferris

Many religious believers share a conviction that religion is the sole or at least the most effective defender of morality. It is not. If it were, religious believers ought at the very least to commit fewer serious crimes than do atheists and agnostics, but such is not the case. As many surveys have shown, atheists and agnostics are, if anything, less apt to commit serious crimes—and they persist in their erstwhile ethicality even though they belong to the most distrusted minority in the modern world. What is  called secularism—meaning atheism, agnosticism, or simply having no interest in religious faith—is on the rise in the United States, having jumped from 8 percent of the population in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The trend is geographically widespread—secularism is growing in all fifty states—and likely to accelerate. While only 5 percent of Americans born before 1946 describe themselves as nonbelievers, that number more than doubles for those born in the years 1946-1964 and reaches nearly 20 percent for Americans born since 1977. Yet the American violent crime rate remained flat from 1990 to 1993, and has since been declining. Indeed, crime correlates inversely with levels of religious conviction, if it correlates at all. While 15 percent of all Americans identify themselves as having no religious beliefs, the Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that nonbelievers make up only two-tenths of 1 percent of inmates. (Christians constitute 80 percent of the American population and 75 percent of its prisoners.) A ten-year study of death-row inmates at Sing-Sing found that 91 percent of those executed for murder were Christians, less than a third of 1 percent atheists. Similar anticorrelations between religion and crime are found internationally. Only 20 percent of Europeans say God plays an important part in their lives, as opposed to 60 percent of Americans, but Europe’s crime rates are lower than America’s. Denmark and Sweden rank among the most atheistic nations in the world—up to three quarters of their citizens identify themselves as nonbelievers—yet these godless souls somehow enjoy admirably low levels of corruption and violent crimes while scoring near the top of the international happiness indices.

Religious fundamentalists are often surprised to hear this, just as their forebears were surprised to learn from explorers’ reports that upright Hindus and Buddhists living in faraway lands comported themselves as ethically as did Anglican bishops. But the basis of such confusion disappears when the genesis of morals is examined empirically. The basic tenets of morality, such as prohibitions against murder and incest, are common to most peoples and most religions. This makes sense if the moral precepts evolved over time, socially and perhaps biologically, because they promoted human survival—as they obviously do—and are reflected in religious texts rather than having been handed down from heaven. If morality evolved, rather than having been independently invented by thousands of gods, people should behave at least as ethically without religion as with it—as, evidently, they do...

…Scientists originally were as religious as the rest of the population, but the scientific process and the knowledge it obtains are so different from religious practices and doctrines that it is becoming increasingly difficult, as science progresses, to accommodate both within a single worldview. Religions value faith but scientists have found, often to their own embarrassment, that having faith in an idea has no bearing on whether the experimental evidence will verify it. (Nobody asked for, much less prayed for, irrational numbers or quantum nonlocality, but they became part of science anyway; nature is as it is, regardless of what we wish for.) Scientific theories stand or fall on their ability to make accurate predictions; religions have such a poor record in this regard that to champion divine prophecy is to risk being thought supercilious or deranged. Religions account for natural phenomena by positing the existence of an invisible and miraculously complex agency, science by sticking to discernable phenomena that are simpler than what they seek to explain. In that sense, God is literally the last thing a scientist should look for when studying nature.

excerpt from The Science of Liberty, p.279-280

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Curious Case of King, NC

King, NC is a small city tucked away in the shadow of Pilot Mountain, some fifty minutes from Greensboro. It's where I and a few other members of the UNCG Atheists grew up and went to school. And now it's an embarrassment to our national value of freedom of religion. The spectacle of theocratic flag-waving mass hysteria was sparked when an Afghan war veteran demanded that the city remove the Christian flag from a veterans memorial at a public park.

But words fail to capture the extent of the insanity.  Please watch the film, In God We Trust and ‘like’ the Remove the Christian Flag from King Facebook page created by the Afghan war veteran who bravely stood up for the preservation of our constitutional separation of church and state. This veteran served our country abroad in order to preserve and defend our freedoms at home. The people of King should be ashamed.

"When the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all."
—Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens

Saturday, January 21, 2012

We Are: United for Equality

An atheist's reflection on opposing Amendment One.
by Christi Sevits

The nonreligious and LGBT communities share a struggle for visibility and acceptance in society. This holds true here in North Carolina, where the state constitution is littered with religious invocations. The numerous references to a higher power begin in the preamble, which “acknowledg[es] our dependence upon Him.” Article VI, Section 8 declares that “any person who shall deny the being of Almighty God” is not qualified to serve in public office.

You might be wondering how this relates to LGBT rights. Legislation under the name of Amendment One is underway to constitutionally ban marriage between same-sex partners in North Carolina. The effects of this repugnant amendment endangers the rights of not only gay couples: it will revoke benefits of domestic partners, increase the difficulty of winning court cases involving child custody, and relax domestic violence laws to exclude an unmarried person from bringing an abusive partner to justice.

A lot of the passion I possess towards fighting bigotry in the state constitution comes from my identification as both atheist and bisexual. Amendment One passing means that North Carolina is telling non-heterosexuals they aren’t valued. This is where the We Are Campaign comes in: it strives to educate people on the amendment so that more unite against it. The campaign continues to gain momentum locally, as Coffeeology, The Green Bean, Greensboro Atheist Organization, the UNCG Democrats, and the UNCG Libertarians are a few groups who are pledging their help.

The state constitution already discriminates against atheists. I refuse to stand by and let a document meant to grant freedoms instead take away more rights from me. A resident of North Carolina for seventeen of my nearly twenty-one years, I am no less a citizen of this state than any heterosexual religious person. Why should the state give a damn if I want to marry a woman one day?

Defeating Amendment One will not legalize gay marriage. However, crushing this institutionalized homophobia shows that pro-equality North Carolinians refuse to back down. We cannot allow this amendment to leave a devastating stain on North Carolina’s fight for civil rights. A vote against the amendment on May 8th (early voting taking place from April 19th-May 5th) means a vote for equality.

Friday, January 20, 2012

[video] Fred Edwords: Beyond the Bare Bones

The UNCG Atheists, Agnostics & Skeptics were proud to host Fred Edwords as he presented his talk entitled, 'Beyond the Bare Bones: What Evolution is Teaching Us.' Our friends from the Triangle Freethought Society helped make this evening possible. Dan Whittaker (member of UNCG Atheists) filmed the presentation. The event was held on UNCG's campus, January 17, 2012.

Fred Edwords is National Director of the United Coalition of Reason, as well as a faculty member of the Humanist Institute, National Director of the International Darwin Day Foundation, and serves on the Broader Social Impacts Committee of the Human Origins Initiative at the Smithsonian Institution.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Science Sunday: A Universe Ex Nihilo

by Zach Webb

How did the universe begin? How and when will the universe end? Why is there something rather than nothing? Questions of this sort have distressed human kind for centuries and have been at the center of both religious and philosophical debate for as long as we know. 

In an enthralling lecture at the Atheist Alliance International conference in 2009 that touches on the domains of cosmology as well as particle physics, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss attempts to answer this age old question. The “Woody Allen of physics,” as Dawkins called him at the end of the lecture, delivers a beautiful, reasoned, coherent, and often humorous account of how the universe began and attempts to answer the question often posed by religious apologetics, “why is there something as opposed to nothing?” In a very non-esoteric way, Lawrence Krauss describes how recent progress in the field of physics has shed new light on these ‘un-answerable’ philosophical questions. From Einstein’s field equations of General Relativity to the computer simulated models of quantum fluctuations of empty space, we see that the universe is not how we thought it was; it is, in fact, more absurd than we could have ever possibly imagined. 

Krauss develops these ideas in a manner that is easy for the layman to understand. He further explains how we live in a flat universe, a universe with total energy equal to zero. He states in the lecture that he “knew this had to be the right model, because it’s the only one that is mathematically beautiful,” and what he meant is that the flat universe model is the only model that has total energy zero and thus could arise solely from quantum fluctuations of empty space. Quantum fluctuations are temporary changes in the energy in a certain point in space that arise due to the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle. For reasons that I do not have space to go into we can only know so much about the energy and time of existence of certain particles and this can lead to violations of the conservation of energy principle, but only on small time scales. Krauss takes us back to the beginning of space and time itself and presents the most recent evidence for how our universe evolved and the frightening implications for how our universe will one day end.
“Every atom in your body came from a star that exploded.  And, the atoms in your left hand probably came from a different star than your right hand.  It really is the most poetic thing I know about physics.  You are all stardust.  You couldn’t be here if stars hadn’t exploded, because the elements – the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, all the things that matter for evolution and for life – weren’t created at the beginning of time.  They were created in the nuclear furnaces of stars, and the only way for them to get into your body is if those stars were kind enough to explode.

So, forget Jesus.  The stars died so that you could be here today.”  -Lawrence Krauss

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Civic engagement pays off: new mayor of Greensboro fortifies the wall between church and state!

In the midst Republican presidential candidates spewing ignorance in the name of God, there are boundless more examples of the religious right hijacking our government with impunity from the electorate.  This story is not one of them.

Last year, former Greensboro mayor Bill Knight ended the moment of silence and dictated that council meetings would begin with prayer. “I think this adds a very distinctly American quality and a very necessary element,” he said. Knight did not understand that America was not founded upon Christian principles but his divisiveness is backed by an unhelpful Supreme Court decision that permits "nonsectarian" invocation.

Fortunately, you don't have to go all the way to the Supreme Court to reaffirm institutional respect for religious liberty.  In response to the city council prayer a handful of Greensboro residents, including several members of our group, issued statements to city council.  While Knight ignored our appeals for inclusiveness, our perseverance did not go unnoticed.  One council member, Robbie Perkins, supported reinstating the moment of silence from the onset and promised our group he would deliver if elected mayor.

While the UNCG AAS doesn't explicitly endorse candidates, many of our members gathered at the ballot (some for the first time) and cast their vote.  The election was a landslide and Mayor Perkins opened his first meeting with a moment of silence!

Take a moment to observe these diverse voices of Greensboro, using the framework of democracy, to reestablish the equal inclusion of both religious and nonreligious people:

While we can declare this a victory, the attack on nonreligious people persists with the tireless arrogance. The Supreme Court is expected to decide shortly on an appeal from our neighbors in Forsyth County regarding government sponsored invocations of "Jesus."  The ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are backing the brave couple who filed the initial complaint.

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814