Why many professors are atheists: Academe as a secular religious community

Atheists. Agnostics. Freethinkers. Nonbelievers. Nontheists. Humanists.Whatever you want to call them and whatever they

Famous atheists, including several career academics.

Famous atheists, including many career academics.

want to call themselves. People who do not believe in God. I describe myself as an agnostic atheist and a secular humanist. For the sake of this article, I will use the term “atheist” (i.e., one who lacks a belief in God(s) or definitely rejects the existence of God(s)) to refer to the collective non-believing community.

It is no secret that atheists enjoy greater numbers in university communities than in the population at large. Their/our numbers aren’t quite as high as I thought, but the proportion of nonbelievers among professional academics is nevertheless several multiples of their proportion in the general population. They are particularly well represented in the sciences and among more elite research universities.

Why? Continue reading

Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought

philosophyinthefleshI am currently reading Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. Authored by Cognitive Scientists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, this book asks 1) What do major lines of Western philosophical thought assume about the mind? 2) What has cognitive science learned about the mind through rigorous research? 3) Are there discrepancies between Western philosophical assumptions about the mind and leading cognitive scientific theories of the mind? and 4) What implications do these discrepancies have for various streams of Western philosophy that build upon what now appear to be shaky premises regarding the mind? Continue reading

Is belief in God a choice?

The following satirical video, “Gay Scientists Isolate Christian Gene”, pokes fun at the concept of a “gay gene” and religious opposition to homosexuality.

The proportion of people who believe that homosexuality is chosen is decreasing. That’s not to imply that homosexuality is the phenotype expressed by a “gay gene”. Just that whatever makes one gay – e.g., some range of interactions between genetic, hormonal, neurological and/or social/environmental factors – it’s not the sort of conscious deliberations a teenager makes when choosing which college to attend.

Part of what makes the video above funny is that it suggests that being Christian is not a choice. To me, this invites the question (ignoring the particular religion)

Is belief in God a choice?

Can you simply choose to believe or not believe? Continue reading

What issue do you wish you cared more about?

There are a lot of important moral/political/pragmatic issues. Far too many for one person to even be aware of, let alone be informed on and/or personally active in addressing.

I believe that you cannot choose your interests or your passions. You can decide to try to get into something -e.g., by talking to people who are interested in the issue, watching a documentary, etc. But ultimately, whether you come to care or not will not be the result of a conscious choice to care.

Of all the issues that I recognize as being very important but have never been significantly impassioned about – a vast collection that includes such heavyweights as climate change, Syria, Darfur, etc. – the domain that I most wish that I could choose to be passionate about is the politics of where I live.

I am Canadian but, despite a few attempts, I’ve never managed to get engrossed or active in Canadian politics. Nor have I ever taken even a fleeting interest in the politics of my city or province.  Meanwhile, I’m tremendously interested in US politics…

Is there a cause or issue that you wish that you were actively passionate about?


Tell me in the comment section!

The Etymology of “Death By Trolley”: Explaining The Name

Death By Trolley gets its name from The Trolley Problem, a philosophical thought experiment within the domain of morality and ethics. There are multiple formulations of The Trolley Problem. One of the most well-known versions invites the hearer to imagine that a trolley is on its way to running over five people. There is a fork in the trolley track. On the other side of the fork is one person who, if the trolley were to change paths, would be killed, thereby sparing the other 5 people. The quandary that the hearer faces is that they can pull a lever which will cause the trolley to switch course and run over the 1 person, sparing the five. They choose who lives and who dies.

trolley_11.jpg Continue reading

Buddhism for Skeptics of Religion

I’m not a Buddhist. I subscribe to no traditional religion (though as I argue here, like everyone else I am religious). I am an agnostic atheist who values secularism, science, reason, mindfulness, and the pursuit of individual and collective wisdom and wellness. As an expression of these values, I would like to highlight key aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practice that I believe can be palatable, useful and positively enriching for even the most ardent skeptic.

Concepts to be addressed:

  • Monism
  • Atheism
  • Impermanence, Emptiness and Dependent Origination
  • No Self (or No Soul)
  • Attachment as source of Suffering; Letting Go as source of Freedom
  • Pursuing Wisdom, not Happiness
  • Mindfulness as a path to Wisdom and Wellness
  • Reincarnation and Rebirth
  • Karma

Continue reading

Atheists are Differently Religious – and No, Atheism is not the/a Religion

A main focus of this blog is to consider and compare different political and ethical philosophies so as to promote better understanding of one’s own worldview and those of others. I frequently focus on progressivism/liberalism and libertarian conservativism, arguing that these incompletely overlapping moral/political philosophies each have their own internal logic and validity, but that when viewed from the perspective of the other, each is libel to look stupid and/or even evil.

Close to a year ago, I posted Atheists are Religious. Here I re-post it with modifications. In this article, I argue that while lack of a belief in this or that God is not itself a religion, any value system that an atheist may hold is ultimately ungrounded in any sort of empiricism. Rather, these and all value systems rely on circular self-validation and assumptions and assertions that are themselves unscientific. As I will argue below, this doesn’t make them wrong or deserving of dismissal; it just means that subscribers cannot claim that their values are rooted in nothing but reason and logic. Reason and logic, in these value systems, are applied based on unempirical values, which can be conceived of as faith claims about an implied moral/existential reality. Continue reading

Mental Health Risks For Political Activists

We’ve heard of mental health risks for trauma victims, models, high-performance athletes, people in the public eye, soldiers, executives, people living in poverty, and many other social demographics. As a political activist who studies and works in healthcare, is currently on a placement in a mental health unit, and has had personal struggles with mental health issues linked to depression, anxiety and emotion regulation, I have come to believe that political activists may represent another identifiable group at elevated risk for a series of  mental health issues. Continue reading

Where do Observant Jews and Conservative Christians get their Morals, Theologically Speaking?

Bill Maher pointed out the irony of American Right Wing Christianity when he said that if Jesus were a Presidential candidate, the Christian Right would NEVER elect him because he’s a long-haired, sandal-wearing liberal hippie Jew. Uncomfortable with the conflicting tasks of reconciling their Christianity with charges to cut social safety net funding to the barest of bones, the honesty-impaired crew over at Conservapedia have taken it upon themselves to literally begin re-writing the Bible, claiming that previous translations have packed it full of liberal spin. Of course, the Conservapedia answer to this alleged problem is not to create a balanced Bible, but to create a Conservative Bible – hence the name of the project, the Conservative Bible Project.

Daniel Florien, ex-Christian turned atheist, recently posted some of the more liberal, socialist New Testament passages on his blog, Unreasonable Faith. Here are a few of them:

44 And all that believed were together, and had all things in common;
45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.

Acts 2: 44, 45

13 But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.
14 You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.

Luke 14:13, 14

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.

Matthew 19:21

24 You cannot serve both God and Money.

Matthew 6:24.

In addition to these quotes are Jesus’ famous endorsements of forgiveness, compassion and acceptance, rather than grudge-holding, retribution-seeking and judging (e.g., Let he who is without sin cast the first stone; judge not lest ye be judged; turn the other cheek).

When you look at these sorts of quotes, it is perplexing to fathom how Conservative Christians could see themselves in Christ and how they could appreciate let alone revere him. How do they square their widespread antipathy for government assistance programs and homosexuality with these iconic passages? Now, it’s true that the Bible may well be the most cherry-picked, quote-mined text of all time. Given this,

Are there New Testament passages that Conservative Christians can interpret as endorsing their political values?

We’ve all seen Conservative Christians site verses from the Old Testament, perhaps none more so than Leviticus 20:13 (“If a man lies with another man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood is on their own hands.”). Indeed, the more grim, authoritarian theme of the Old Testament appears – to me, at least – to jive far better with modern day American Conservative values of respect for authority, tradition, corporal punishment, capital punishment, and thoroughly retributive justice. The New Testament, judging by mainstream cultural folklore, sounds to be far more liberal, socialist, egalitarian, compassionate, and forgiving. Am I wrong? I’ll admit that I’ve only read parts of the Old Testament and none of the New, so my question is not rhetorical. What exactly is the Right taking from the New Testament?

What About Jewish Moral Theology?

The Old Testament is often viewed as hellishly harsh and unforgiving. If a country today were to use it as a strict policy guide, said country would rightly be considered to be a stunningly cruel, vicious, totalitarian state. Many Christians today, in my limited experience, seem to downplay the moral significance of the Old Testament, pointing to the New Testament as the relevant Christian moral framework. Accepting this, I can’t help but ask:

Where is the warmer, more humane side of Jewish Theology?

For Christianity, it’s the New Testament. The New Testament gives license to Christians to move past authoritarian barbarism toward less judgmental forgiveness and acceptance. Where does that come in within Judaism? Where is the feel good part of Jewish Moral Theology? It’s got to be in there somewhere. Is it burried within the OT, or in a sister scripture? I don’t for a minute buy that people get their morals from scripture. But there are plenty of people who do. So from this perspective,

Where do observant Jews get their morals?

Share your views and knowledge in the Comment section!

How much do you notice the politics of your fellow city dwellers?

In a few months I will be moving to California for my first job as an Occupational Therapist (Edit: This never happened. – Ron – December, 2012). During my job search a key factor I considered was the political leanings of cities. As a politically oriented progressive atheist I applied to positions in Vancouver, Victoria, Seattle, Portland, Eugene, San Francisco, LA, Anaheim, San Diego (yes, I know that SD is relatively conservative, but still California), Hawaii, Halifax, Toronto, and various other locations in Ontario, Canada. By contrast, I did not apply to any postings in Texas, Alabama, Florida, or Utah, and only applied to a couple in Alberta. Liberal bias much? Much too much. And I’d do it again.

Here’s what’s interesting. I currently live in London, Ontario, a city which I’ve heard referred to as “ultra conservative” (at least by Ontario standards) on several occasions. I’ve never really felt like I live in a conservative city. There was one time when I went to an Ann Coulter speaking event in London and was pretty stunned by how many far-right conservatives came out. But by the same token, I’m sure that if Michael Moore had come to town, I’d have been surrounded by Lefties. The Coulter event was the only time that I’ve ever felt like I was in a conservative space.

On the other hand, I have been living in London as a graduate student. Liberalism tends to run high in universities. Furthermore, the occupational therapy field can be argued to be left-of-centre at its core. These have no doubt been key factors in affecting the degree to which I perceive myself to be living in a conservative city.

Another factor that has significantly affected my experience is that being a strong atheist progressive, the people I hang out with have tended to be secular and left-of-centre. I have progressive religious friends, but I don’t know that I have any conservative friends. Unless a person lives in an incredibly polarized place, they will probably have a disproportionate number of friends of similar moral/political opinions (including relative indifference) to themselves. What is more, when I have interacted with people of significantly differing social/political/religious opinions, these differences often do not come up in conversation. A few days ago I spoke with a Christian Conservative. The subjects of our conversation: Charlie Sheen, winning, hot sauce and restaurants. It was delightful. All of this has got me thinking:

How much do the political views of a populace leak into day-to-day life?
If you live in a liberal city or town, to what degree does it feel liberal? The same for conservative cities and towns.