Apocalypse of the Week 1: Taste the Doom of Fire!

As part of the lead-up to Centre for Inquiry Ottawa’s Eschaton 2012 conference, Celebrating Reason at the End of the World, I wrote a feature called Apocalypse When, a brief lampooning of some of the many eschatological visions and scenarios that have gained or maintained popularity over the centuries. is defunct now, so I’m reprising my creation here.


This week’s apocalypse is the one envisioned in the Qur’an and various hadiths and thus central to most interpretations of Islam.  Unfortunately, the details of this scenario are dispersed across numerous suras and hadiths, but a few themes and tidbits stand out.


Full Faith and Credit

Of all the phrases theists use to lull themselves to sleep each night, “atheists have faith just like we do” might be the most obnoxious.
“Faith” is one of several word games believers play with nonbelievers when they’re feeling dishonest, alongside “spirituality” and, beautifully, “belief.”  These games bank on how deviously slippery those words are, as they can mean more-or-less whatever the person using them wants them to mean.  While all of these games are infuriating, “faith” gets under my skin more than the others, because it is somehow more dishonest.


Inquisitions and Herd Immunity

One thing that will never stop surprising me is the degree to which anti-vaccination campaigns have spread their message.  Dozens of different versions, each ignoring a different combination of inconvenient facts about how vaccines work and what illnesses they don’t cause, all circulate around the Internet, ensnaring people of every political persuasion.  I can understand the mistrust of the medical establishment, whose record is far from clean.  I can understand the societal memory loss that has made vaccines seem unnecessary now that smallpox, polio, diphtheria, measles, and mumps epidemics are no longer the stuff of every Westerner’s childhood.  I can understand the Hobbesian choices imposed by the lack of universal healthcare access in the United States.

I have a lot more trouble understanding the confusion about the societal role of vaccines in protecting the unvaccinated, because religions use that principle all the time to police their own.



One aspect of my deconversion story that stands out to many readers is that it didn’t feature certain accusations that atheists, especially freshly minted atheists, often receive.  Partly, that’s because I was secretive about it for so many years, so the people who would have accused me of things simply didn’t know it was an option.  More importantly, my culture, like some others, is entwined enough with its standard religion that it tends to forget that members of other religions, let alone of no religion, can be found in its ranks at all.  The space filled by atheists in others’ imaginations is filled by communists here, or by sullen nihilistic teenagers whose non-religion is only ever implied, not stated.

So I’ve only rarely had to deal with that stereotyped idea that an atheist is an atheist because xe is “angry at God,” and that if I only quelled, grew out of, or found a “more productive” outlet for my anger, I’d return to the Christian fold.  But I have nonetheless had that insulting supposition thrown at me more than once, and I want to silence it once and for all.


Command and Convenience

It’s easy to deride philosophy classes.  Few people have jobs as philosophers, so the entire field is easy to dismiss as esoteric navel-gazing, dooming most of its practitioners to lives of unskilled menial labor.  But there are few classes outside my specialization that I found more beneficial than my philosophy courses, because I acquired very valuable skills there.  Philosophy courses present difficult problems, problems that require very careful terms and proofs, and set their students on them to flex and build brain pathways.  Those problems touch on virtually the whole of human experience, between the various classical branches: What is real (metaphysics)?  What is knowledge (epistemology)? What is truth (both)?  What is beauty (aesthetics)?  What is good (ethics)?

And every time my philosophy courses got around to that last question, one particular lump of lunacy would be treated with vastly outsized seriousness: the divine command theory.


The Mover Out of Time

It does not take much to demonstrate the impossibility of many gods.  The bigger a god is, the more of the universe its devotees claim is within its sway, the more improbable its powers have to be to make what we do know about the universe compatible with its existence.  A river spirit or trickster that hides your socks when no one is looking has a small effect on reality, and can hide in the statistical noise that keeps our world de facto unpredictable.  A huge god, though, needs to be simultaneously of massive import, so that its influence permeates many facets and phenomena in the world, and utterly minuscule, so that it has an excuse for when it inevitably doesn’t show.  Thus, we get gods defined as controlling the weather, the course of wars, and whether anyone lives or dies, but whose influence is indistinguishable from the sum of the hundred and one worldly factors in and causes of all of these events; gods who can be expelled from their controlling niche by humans having the temerity to document and measure, as if God were mere quantum uncertainty; gods who use mortal movers as their proxies, merely shifting the problem one layer of agents upward with theological sleight of hand.

Christianity, between its native Abrahamic grandiosity and its wholesale lifting of neo-Platonic idealism, offers some of the largest gods.  Many versions of Christianity have gods so massive that they not only inflict weather events on people totally unrelated to whatever ostensibly displeased them, but they also, the soothsayers tell us, transcend time and space.  This god, even Jewish dreamers like to claim, exists outside of and independent of time, such that past, present, and future are all the same to it.  Events at any point in the universe’s progress are like the pages in a book this creature is reading, and flipping backward or forward is as easy for it as the analogy implies.  It created the universe and now sits outside it, a cosmic voyeur that may or may not ever interfere with unfolding events, depending on the version.

It will not surprise my readers, I am sure, to learn that this god is incoherent with both logic and the facts of our universe.


Big Tent, No Flap

Every young association, whether as trivial as collecting fans of a particular author’s writing or as grandiose as an emergent political ideology, sooner or later has to decide how it feels about issues outside its original mandate.  Labor unions have to decide how they feel about the food in workplace cafeterias.  Book clubs have to decide how they feel about treating gay people badly.  Political movements have to decide how they feel about anthropogenic climate change, whether their country should react to the ongoing clusterfuck in Ukraine (and if so, how), and whether they think it’s okay that American political orthodoxy still imagines that preventing pregnancy in the unwilling isn’t part of the healthcare system’s responsibilities.

And the atheist movement, if there is a single thing that can be called such, has had to sort out its sentiments on a variety of issues.


Answering 10 Questions for Every Atheist seems to think they have a set of questions that “Atheist Cannot Truly and Honestly REALLY Answer! Which leads to some interesting conclusions…”  They’d better be very interesting to warrant that mess of capital letters and using the word “atheist” like someone who doesn’t know English very well.  Let’s see what these stumpers apparently are.
1.       How Did You Become an Atheist?
2.       What happens when we die?
3.       What if you’re wrong? And there is a Heaven? And there is a HELL!
4.       Without God, where do you get your morality from?
5.       If there is no God, can we do what we want? Are we free to murder and rape? While good deeds are unrewarded?
6.       If there is no god, how does your life have any meaning?
7.       Where did the universe come from?
8.       What about miracles? What all the people who claim to have a connection with Jesus? What about those who claim to have seen saints or angels?
9.       What’s your view of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris?
10.   If there is no God, then why does every society have a religion?
Sigh.  Here we go.


Handle Effect

There’s a platitude that believers like to use to comfort each other in the face of adversity: “God only gives us what we can bear.”

I shudder every time I hear that.  Like Søren Kierkegaard’s mouthpiece Johannes de Silentio, I skip whatever solace believers find in that idea, and go straight to the horror.  It’s poetic shorthand for a longer thought: “This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.”

Think about that.

This is happening to you because God thinks you’ll eventually come out okay.

Out there somewhere, a cosmic calculator has determined that I have some threshold of suffering I can endure without breaking, and has responded to that information by burning my crops and giving my mother cancer.


Talking about Yesterday’s SCOTUS rulings

Last night, I had the privilege of being part of an on-air hangout with Ed Brayton of Dispatches from the Culture Wars to discuss recent US Supreme Court rulings, in particular Burwell v. Hobby Lobby.  This ruling came with a lot to unpack, a surprising amount of which was not overwhelmingly bad news for secularists and those interested in social equality for women.

It was a tremendously educational experience, as an interested party whose grounding in constitutional law and the inner workings of high-level American politics is weak, and I even got to add some perspective about how this mess would play out in Canada and the role of the Justices’ religions in their putative decision-making process.  There’s a truism about the benefits of not being the smartest person in the room, and that was massively brought home for me last night.
And now I get to share that with you all.