Being More Like Bonobos

We humans still have two very close relatives alive today — the more commonly known chimpanzees, and the oft overlooked bonobos — both comprising the genus Pan. In studying both species, we have discovered that they can be quite different from each other; whereas chimps are often violent (murdering and practicing infanticide), bonobos never practice infanticide and it is hard to find a case of murder among them. The social structure of chimpanzees is male-dominated and features strong bonds between males, but the converse is true for bonobos (females have strong bonds and tend to dominate the relationships). On the whole, bonobos are less-violent, and less patriarchal than chimpanzees.

Some interesting research has been done lately about the female social bonds in bonobo communities. Female bonobos leave their home group before reaching puberty and must strike out on their own and assimilate into another group if they are to survive. This results in the female living most of their life in a group where they are not related to any of the other females. But this has not prevented them from forming female posses that band together against unwanted male advances. And while each female has a “girlfriend” that she is closest with in the group, scientists have found that female bonobos “rarely formed coalitions with their preferred girlfriends…. instead coalitions arose when a senior female would step in and take the side of a younger peer caught up in an escalating conflict with a resident male.”   This means that not only are female bonobos forced to join a new social group early in life, but when they arrive and form close friendships with others, they do not discriminate based on closeness; instead, they seem to view all other females as equal, and fight alongside one another against male aggression. That’s some real life girl power for ya!

I think we (as a human society) can learn some things from our closest cousins. Though “we’re equally related to chimps and bonobos, and we have their entire range of behavioral variation available to us,” says Dr. White from the study above, we can choose to behave more like bonobos. In a world as fractured as ours right now, with civil wars, a refugee crisis in Europe, and racial tensions at an all-time high in the U.S., somehow we must find a way to work together and create a more just and equitable global community. Now, more than at any time in history, we can’t simply button down the hatches and only love those who love us. We, like female bonobos, must branch out and find common ground with others who, if we take the time to stop and listen, are more like us than we might originally think. Yes, there are assholes out there who want to take all the new fruit we find in the forest, who want to rape and pillage to their heart’s (or genital’s) content; but we are many, and they are few. Let’s learn from our cousins, and in being more like bonobos, we can be better humans.

We Must Take Climate Change Seriously

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Photo Credit: Patrick Dennis/The Advocate, via Associated Press

Last month’s extreme precipitation event in Louisiana took the lives of 13 people. An obvious question in the aftermath of such an event is, “How do thirteen people die as a result of rainstorms in the wealthiest nation on earth?” We could question whether the emergency response on a local and national level was adequate, but I think that overlooks the more obvious answer to our questions of how and why this happened — climate change causes weather events that are unprecedented, and our ability to respond to them does not match the sheer force of mother nature.

Scientists have gone to work in the aftermath of this event, and determined “that an event like this is now expected to occur at least 40 percent more often than it was in our pre-industrial past.” Take the time to slow down and read that again — it is estimated that extreme precipitation events like the one in Louisiana are forty percent more likely than just over one-hundred years ago. That means more rain, stronger hurricanes, more flooding, more damage to property, and most importantly, more death.

If you aren’t already troubled enough by these findings, add to that a realization that the one of the two most likely candidates for President of the United States thinks that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese. Not only does his uninformed opinion stand in direct contrast with what an overwhelming majority of scientists say the evidence points to, but if elected, Trump would become the world’s only national leader to reject climate science. Just think about that — our Republican candidate for President would be the only leader in the entire world to deny the ever-present, and dangerous reality of climate change. Talk about just another reason for the world to laugh at us.

But there is reason to hope — well sort of. While recent polls do show that 70 percent of Americans do believe in climate change, they also show that only “27 percent agree with the scientific consensus that human activity is the main cause.” It’s as if we are almost there, a good majority of us agreeing that there is a dramatic shift going on in our climate, but then we must take a step back because most of us don’t believe we have anything to do with the problem. Whether this is flat-out denial,  politics, ignorance, or a combination of many factors, it seems as if the rest of the educated world (including our enemies) is at least reading from the same book; but the good old U.S. of A can’t be counted on to show up to class and read at all.

We can and must do better, as citizens of this country, and members of the global community. At minimum, we must elect someone who takes reality seriously, but ideally we will work together to change our homes, communities, and nation, into places that stop damaging the world planet we call home. It is time that we wake up and decide to be part of the team. We must take climate change seriously.

I’m An Atheist, But…

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Hopefully, by now, most of you know that I no longer identify as a Christian. In fact, I no longer identify as religious in any way. I would be counted in the fastest growing “religious” demographic in the United States — the “nones.” We are a group comprised of those who identify as atheists, agnostics, or “spiritual but not religious” (whatever that means).

Personally, I fall under that first identifier — I am an atheist. And being an atheist simply means that I would answer the question, “Do you believe in x, y, or z deity?” with a “No.” If you think about it, we are all atheists in a certain sense. Do any of you reading this believe in the gods of ancient Greece (Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes)? How about the Babylonian pantheon (Anshu, Tiamat)? Or the Hindu monkey god Hanuman? Probably not. There have been thousands of gods that people have worshiped at some time or another, and most likely, you believe in none of them. If you are a Christian, Muslim, or Jew, you believe in the one God of the Abrahamic tradition. You believe in Yahweh and disbelieve in all other gods that have ever been posited. Personally, I no longer believe in the Christian God; so while we are all atheists in regards to almost every god, I simply go one further in my disbelief than the Christian, Muslim, or Jew. I do not believe in any gods because there is the same amount of evidence for all of them — none.

So yes, I am an atheist, but that is not the only or primary thing that defines who I am as a person. My lack of believing in the Christian God says nothing more about me than your lack of belief in Zeus, Tiamat, and Hanuman. With that being said, I would like to say a couple of things about who I am and what is important to me, despite my atheism.

I am an atheist, but… I don’t hate Christians. Look, I was raised by Christians, I married a Christian, and most of the people I know and associate with are Christians. If I hated Christians, I wouldn’t be able to get along with almost anyone in my life. On the contrary, I actually appreciate certain kinds of Christian faith, and have no problem supporting the work many Christians do in the world. I have friends who have been involved in social justice work, climate activism, and public policy. Their care for other people, the environment, and building a humane and just society is informed by their Christian commitments. While I don’t think a belief in Jesus is necessary to do the work that they do in the world, I don’t begrudge them that motivation so long as it motivates for good.

I am an atheist, but… I’m not angry with God. Wouldn’t it be pretty funny if I were to tell you that I’m angry with Zeus because my car broke down? And wouldn’t it be funny because of the fact that I don’t believe Zeus is real? How could I justifiably be angry at someone or something that I don’t think exists? I can’t be! So, if you switch “Zeus” with “Jesus” in the above sentence, can you see why it wouldn’t make sense to say that I’m an atheist and I’m angry with Jesus, Yahweh, or God?

I am an atheist, but… I still believe in love. The concept of love is not a uniquely Christian concept. As Bertrand Russell said, “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.” He defines love as being a combination of taking delight in another, and wishing them well. Sam Harris says something similar when he defines love as “being deeply committed to the happiness of another person.” So my idea of love has something roughly to do with caring about and for other people’s happiness and well-being. I love my kids, I love my wife, and I love every other person on this planet. I may not use the word often, but when I talk about things like helping others live happier and healthier lives, I’m talking about my love for them.

I am an atheist, but… I can still be a good person, family member, friend, and citizen. Probably the most prevalent (and false) stereotype about atheists is that we can’t be good, decent, or moral people because we don’t believe in a god. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It is entirely possible to be good without God. All one has to do is look at the Scandinavian countries, which have some of the highest levels of atheism in the world, yet consistently rank at the top for happy, healthy, and safe societies. Does this mean their atheism is what makes these counties better? Probably not. But what it does show is that belief in a god is not necessary to make a good person, family, community, or country. Yes, there have been many atheists who have done terrible things, but there have also been many religious people who have done and continue to do terrible things. Personally, I’m committed to being a good person, to caring about the welfare of my neighbor, in the United States and abroad. No, I won’t ever be perfect, but neither will anyone else. All I can do is strive to be a better person today than I was yesterday, and hopefully that will be good enough.

And lastly, I am an atheist, but … I am still open to believing in God. Put another way: I like to keep an open mind, but not so much that my brains fall out. I used to believe in God because, well, that’s what I was taught to believe from before I can remember. That’s why most people believe in whatever god they believe in — they were told by their parents, grandparents, peers, and community, that x, y, or z, god exists and should be worshiped, prayed to, etc. No one comes to believe in the god they do because they examined all the religions of the world, and weighed the likelihood of each being true, and then picked the one that has the most evidence for it. Granted, most people do have reasons, arguments, or the like for why they think their god is the correct one, but those are built up to justify belief after the fact.

Almost no one believes because of evidence or reasons; they believe because they have faith. I used to have that faith, but I don’t anymore. I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. And I think one of the best ways to do that is to proportion one’s beliefs to the evidence. This is, by the way, what most people strive to do in all areas of knowledge. When a car breaks down we take it to someone who knows how to fix it. The good mechanic doesn’t rely on faith or prayers to fix the car. Rather, she draws upon her vast knowledge of how automobiles are built, function, and break down, to determine what is wrong. When we want to know what is the best thing to do for our bodies and our health, we rely on the expertise of trained physicians  and psychologists to tell us what to do. Again, we don’t want them to tell us what to do based on “faith.” No. We want them to base their prescriptions on years of careful study rooted in the scientific method.

So when someone makes a claim about the world, if we want to know whether it is true or not, we need to gather evidence. If I told you there was a teapot floating just on the other side of Saturn, you would rightly ask what evidence I had to support such a claim. How could I possibly know this, and why should you believe it too? That is, in the end, what I require if I am to ever believe in God again. I need evidence, data, sound reasons showing why the God-claim is true. And it has to be real evidence. Faith is not evidence; a warm  and tingly feeling is not evidence; and your mother telling you it is true is not evidence. Maybe consider what evidence you would require in order to believe that Zeus really is up there wielding lightning bolts. Find me that type of evidence for whatever god you believe in, then we can talk. In the meantime, if you want me to believe in your god, and if you believe that God answers prayers and knows everything there is to know about the universe, then pray that God provides me with more evidence. Because if God knows everything, then surely he knows what would convince me, and he could bring said evidence to my attention.

That’s it. I’m an atheist, but … a lot of things. Just because I don’t believe in god, doesn’t mean I’ve changed a whole lot from who I was a couple years ago. I still care about people, and I still want to build a more loving, kind, and just world for my kids to grow up in. And, most importantly, I still want to be your friend, even if we disagree about which gods are real.

Thanks for reading.

Cheers,

M

 

It Goes Both Ways — When Police Attack Black Citizens It Is An Attack On All Of Us

After the recent shootings of police officers, first in Dallas and then in Baton Rouge, President Obama offered condolences on behalf of our divided nation. We should all heartily agree with him when he says that “nothing justifies violence against police officers.” And again, we should all be willing to say that “Attacks on police are an attack on all of us, and on the rule of law that makes society possible.” Unless we intend to live in the state of nature, famously described by Hobbes as being a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” life, then we must recognize and respect the integral role that law enforcement officers play in maintaining our relatively peaceful society. So when citizens attack those who maintain law and order, they are, whether they realize it or not, attacking all of us.

But this idea of “attacking all of us” cuts both ways. These recent attacks on police were not random, isolated events, disconnected from other issues. They come in the wake of increasing attention being placed on how police officers have been treating citizens — specifically members of the black community. To be clear, not all, and probably not most police officers would commit the types of shootings that have come to attention as of late. But far too many have done so in the past, and continue to do so in the present.

As comedian Bill Maher recently said on The Late Show with Steven Colbert, “The ‘Protect and Serve’ on the side of the police car refers to us…you cannot shoot unarmed people continually without someone firing back.” To be clear, Maher is not saying that shooting police officers is justified or that it is the right course of action aggrieved citizens should take. As Colbert said earlier in their conversation, to quote John F. Kennedy, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” They are, in different words, essentially saying the same thing — of course shooting police officers is wrong, but when an oppressed minority is being met with violence, they may begin to feel as if violence is the only way to achieve their goals.

Obama is absolutely right when he says that an attack on law enforcement is an attack on us all; but the kind of police violence that is rampant and disproportionately inflicted on our black citizens is also an attack on all of us. If “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then the injustice coming from the guns of too many police officers towards too many of our citizens is a direct threat to universal justice within our nation as a whole.This is a part of the conversation that we must not be afraid to speak about. Yes, we must stand together and condemn violence against law enforcement. But we must also be utterly clear on this point: police violence against fellow citizens is just as much of an assault on the rule of law, and we the people have had enough.

 

Stop Calling God A ‘Loving Heavenly Father’ — He’s Not

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Christians have been trying to sell this picture of God to themselves and others for the last two-thousand years. God — the perfect, loving, heavenly-father, who loves all of his children equally, and has their best interest at heart. It should come as no surprise when Christians speak of God this way — his favorite son, Jesus, told us to. Jesus tells us that we should “Be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48); and he instructs that when praying we should address our prayers to our “father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). The other authors of the New Testament continue this way of speaking and thinking about God — things like: “Grace and peace to you from God our father” (Paul, 1 Corinthians 1:3), “This is the religion that God our father accepts” (James, James 1:27),  and “since you call on a father…” (Peter, 1 Peter 1:17). So of course Christians today speak of God as their father who loves them, and often begin prayers similarly to the passages above.

But what kind of father allows this to happen to his children?

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The Holocaust

Or this….

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Starving Africans

And this…

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Childhood cancer

 

Certainly no good father that I know would allow this to happen. The problem of evil and suffering is something every believer must face up to. And it is certainly something any person who claims their God to be loving and fatherly must provide a decent accounting for. If God is a loving and powerful God, then God would surely intervene to prevent these types of horrors, wouldn’t he? Well, he doesn’t; so why not? This is the question that believers must answer if they are to continue referring to their God as a loving, heavenly father.

One of the most popular theodicies (an attempt to answer the question) is called the Free Will Defense of God. Put simply, God wanted to create out of love, with the purpose of having a loving relationship with his children. And if love (or moral goodness) is to be true love, then it must be freely chosen. Therefore, the only way for us to be agents capable of moral goodness is for God to allow us to freely choose either good or bad. If he interferes, the argument goes, then our choices could not truly be free, and thus, the possibility for loving relationship goes out the window. The bad things happen because God allows us to choose bad things because he is leaving room for us to sometimes choose the good thing.

I think this is complete and utter nonsense. If you want to use the analogy of a loving father, then God’s actions must match at least the minimum standards we would place on a half-way decent, human father. Would I be considered a good/loving father if I were to let one of my sons set up a torture chamber in our basement so that he could torture his brother? Of course not! And would the court of my peers accept as an excuse for my negligence, “I wanted him to freely choose love, but in order to do that I had to let him choose evil if that’s what he wanted. And I couldn’t stop him, else he wouldn’t truly be free.” Of course not! I would rightfully be convicted of gross-negligence and abuse of my children. The excuse of “giving your children free will” does not work because sometimes, as good parents, we must override our children’s free will so that they will be better off in the end. Of course I want to give my children freedom most of the time, but that doesn’t mean I cannot or should not intervene at other times. If I let terrible things happen to my children, no one would consider me a good and loving father. So why do people call God good and loving when he allows worse to happen to his supposed children?

God is clearly not (as Christians would have us believe) a loving, heavenly father. In fact, if he exists at all, we must consider him to be the worst father that has ever sired children. The short-list of things he has negligently allowed his children to do would include: the Holocaust, genocide, slavery, countless wars in his name, and witch hunts. Either God is a loving father, or he is not. If he is, then by what standard? Because a father who allows his children to do those types of things certainly does not have their best interest at heart. At least, that’s what we would say of any human father. And that is why Christians should stop calling their God a loving, heavenly father. He may be in heaven, but he’s certainly not loving.

Why My Sons Are Being Raised Without Religion

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Amber Bauerle (Frosted Productions)

Raising children comes with immeasurable responsibility. As parents, we are tasked with the welfare of miniature human beings who are entirely dependent on us. And hopefully, by the time they reach that magical age of eighteen, we will have adequately prepared them to survive and thrive on the “pale blue dot” they call home.There will be many choices parents must make as they raise their kids — what kind of diapers to use, which doctor to visit, what school they will attend, how much TV time is appropriate, when/how old must they be to date, and on and on and on it goes. But one of the most important choices parents must face is whether or not to raise their children with religion.

We live in a world saturated with religion; over the course of human history there have been thousands of them, each with their own gods, deities, and/or supernatural myths and legends. Many parents will simply pass along their own religion to their children. They will most likely present their doctrines and dogma as “facts” that should simply be accepted on faith. They won’t provide anything by way of evidence to show why their particular beliefs about the supernatural are correct because, after all, religion doesn’t require evidence — it is all about faith. If we had good, solid evidence for any religion and its claims, it wouldn’t be religion anymore; it would be a scientific fact.

But we will not be raising our sons with religion. Oh, of course we will educate them about the anthropological phenomenon of religion; we simply will not be passing on a particular religion as if is true. We have two reasons why our boys will grow up without religion; the first is philosophical in nature, and the second is more practical.

#1 We want to teach our boys how to think, not what to think. 

There is a big difference between how one comes to think about what is true, and what one comes to think is true. Most people simply adopt the religion of their parents, and their parent’s parents before them, without much questioning. Most parents tell their children as early as possible that their religion is simply a fact, and there is no need to question it. In fact, questioning is often considered a grievous offense. One must simply believe on faith in the truth of the religion. This is teaching kids what to think without teaching how to think.

We intend to leave the what out of it entirely, and teach our sons how to reason, ask questions, gather evidence, look for alternative explanations for phenomena, and to only accept claims as true if they are warranted by the evidence. This is called being a freethinker, and it’s what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. We want them to figure out what is true for themselves, and if that process of observation, informed by careful and critical thinking leads them to believe in a particular religion, then so be it. But it will be their choice from the beginning, not something forced upon them.

#2 We want our boys to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. 

According to a recent study, children who were exposed to religion from an early age have difficulty parsing fact from fiction. After studying 5 and 6 year old children, researchers found that when presented with stories (some fact and some fictitious), those who had been raised in a religious home had a “more generic receptivity toward the impossible, that is, a more wide-ranging acceptance that the impossible can happen in defiance of ordinary causal relations.” This should be quite disturbing information to parents of religious children. Isn’t part of our responsibility as parents to prepare children for the big world where they will have to determine when they are being fed a line of baloney, and when they aren’t? This leads back to reason #1 — kids need to be taught how to think about claims being presented to them. They need to learn how to compare the stories they are being told with the facts about the world. And if being raised with religion hinders their ability to separate fact from fiction, then it’s not something we will be imposing on our boys.

Religion is a powerful force in the world. Sometimes it is a catalyst for good, but a lot of the time it has far-reaching, negative effects. So if my sons, after having learned about the thousands of religions that have existed throughout the history of our species, and after having been taught how to think about the world around them, and having learned how to separate fact from fiction, decide for themselves to freely join a religion, I may not jump with joy because of it, but at least I’ll know that I did my best to prepare them for whatever life throws their way.

And that is why my sons are being raised without religion.

 

The Damage That Occurs When Religion Insists on Perfection

“Perfection is the enemy of the good.” – Voltaire 

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Religions are  obsessed with the idea of perfection. Since God is said to be perfect, we are required to strive for perfection in ourselves. And when we, inevitably, fail to achieve perfection, the gods (and their faithful followers) are there to remind us of our failure. We must either be perfect like the god, or face the consequences.

A brief survey of the Bible will show this clearly:

Adam and Eve — the first two humans sinned by eating the forbidden fruit, and the entire cosmos was sent into disorder.

Lot’s Wife — looked back towards Sodom and Gomorrah (after being told not to), and was turned into a pillar of salt.

Sacrifices — must be without spot or blemish in order to serve as proper sacrifice.

Cleanliness — a ridiculous concept akin to the in which one became tainted and unable to enter the presence of God. Many things could make one unclean — from a woman menstruating, to someone being blind in one eye.

Jesus’ teaching — he is recorded as saying things like, “Go and sin no more,” and “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

The Bible is obsessed with perfection, and simply “being good” is not good enough. This was a commonplace notion among the version of Christianity I grew up with. Church leaders drone on about how simply “living a good life” is not acceptable to God — one has to either be perfect on their own (an impossible task), or seek divine help and/or forgiveness. This kind of thinking can lead to all sorts of problems, but since Father’s Day is fresh on my mind, I will apply this rationale to how I’ve seen it affect religious fathers.

Under the burden of perfection, religious fathers often have a high standard for their children — a standard that is often impossible to live up to. Normal childhood behaviors like crying, having a meltdown, or making mistakes during household chores, are seen as unacceptable. If the child does not live up to their father’s expectations of perfection, they are often subjected to harsh punishment in order to “mold them” into the perfect child.

The requirement for perfection does not stop with the father-child relationship, but often extends to the marriage. The wife, like the children, is held to a ridiculous standard in the way she is supposed to treat and relate to her husband, discipline the children, and complete household tasks. And when she is anything but the “perfect” wife, she may be subjected to punishment from her husband in the form of removed privileges, restricted access to money, or public shaming in front of her kids and their religious community.

If all of this perfection talk were limited to the religious and their own communities, maybe we could let it pass. But it doesn’t stop there — they never cease to remind the rest of society that we are not living up to the “perfect” standard of their particular religion. I remember countless preachers talk about how people in “the world” (non-religious folks) simply wanted to be good people. But the “Christian” message to the world is that simply being a good person does not satisfy God. Making one mistake (rendering oneself short of perfection) would be more than enough to condemn a person to God’s wrath. So even if a person lived a decent life, raised a decent family, and contributed to building a better world, that one time they told a lie to their third-grade teacher could send them to hell forever.

On all of this I want to call complete and utter nonsense. We do not, and have never lived in a perfect world. Therefore, we could never be perfect human beings. The best we could ever hope for is “the good,” as Voltaire put it. And to fixate on, and strive for “perfection,” is to fight for something that will just never be. It’s not only a waste of time, it’s also a dehumanizing gesture that denies the good of its worth. This is not to say we should not hope and work towards a better self, family, community, and world; but we should’t delude ourselves with visions of perfection when good is all we are ever going to get. More goodness — absolutely! But don’t let religions fool you with notions of perfection; we are, after all,  simply human.