realization: size doesn’t matter

[oh I can only imagine the spammy comments that title will generate]

Tonight I met with a reading group for the Saskatoon Secular Family Network that I help facilitate.  There were only 6 of us (2 of them being under 4), but we had a great time of connecting and sharing ideas/miseries associated with being parents.  Times like these really charge me up, and confirm for me the passions I have for building smaller communities in the larger atheist/freethinking/skeptic movement.

Right now I facilitate 3 groups/sub-communities in Saskatoon:

It’s funny how each of these groups reflect a passion of mine: family, (rejected) faith, and feminism!

When I first started up the SSFN, the first meeting we had had a turnout of over 20 people!  I remember being stunned at how seemingly-popular this group already was, after only its FIRST meeting.  But as cool its first turnout was, though, I really think that it derailed me in my “mission” (for lack of a better term) in establishing these smaller communities in the larger movement.

After such a high turnout, I spent the next several months feeling bad that each consecutive meeting would have lower numbers — I started questioning myself, as if the reason people were staying away was because of something I had said/did in leading these meetings.  Looking back on those first few formative months of the SSFN, I can still feel the frustration and uncertainty.

Thankfully I smartened up, and realized that my perspective was ALL WRONG.  It wasn’t about hosting “big events,” with monthly themed talks and the like.  The *point* of a secular parenting group is to find support among other parents and family members who are choosing similar parenting approaches.

Since that ah-ha moment, it’s like a huge weight has been lifted off my shoulders.  I’m just as happy with a turnout of 5 as I am with one of 50 (though it does help to know ahead of time the 50ish turnouts!).  I recognize that there are amazing connections to be made in the smaller meetings that could never happen in a larger crowd.

And while there are still big, fun events to throw (insert Darwin Day and Camp Hoodoo), I’m just as happy sitting around a table of 4, drinking coffee, and talking about a parenting book with others.

I’m where I need to be.

Ooops, I did it again…

…stirred up a little bit o’controversy, that is.  I started another Meetup group (yes, Jerry, this will be my last!).

My latest foray into the atheist activist’osphere is a group I call “Reasonable Women.”  Here’s how the Meetup description reads:

Why a group for atheist/agnostic/skeptic/freethinking women?

After reading this BlagHag post about the troubles some women faced at a recent American Atheist conference, we got the idea of forming this group.  Don’t get us wrong — the local atheist groups in Saskatoon are not sexist in their treatment of women members, but we thought it may be fun for the women of these groups to have a place of our own.  And, maybe, having this kind of group available could encourage other female-minded folks to join the movement!

Are you anti-men?  Why aren’t you allowing men to join this Meetup?

Well, this group’s purpose is meant to engage one particular subset of the larger atheist/freethinking movement: the women.  We welcome the men to start their own “Reasonable Men” Meetup!

So much of the current “new atheist” movement is dominated by its male voices — this little group is meant to counteract some of that testosterone by inserting estrogen into the mix!

So far we have 9 members, and it’s only been a day!  I’m quite excited about the potential of having such a group in Saskatoon — not only for what this kind of group can do for our immediate area, but what this type of group can do for empowering women in the larger atheist movement.

And yes, I knew when I started this group that there would be some people who wouldn’t be so keen on the idea of having a women-only group.  So far there have been some interesting discussions back and forth on the pros and cons of a single-gender group — my commitment to the conversation is to not get too defensive when it comes to explaining why I support a women-only group.  For one, I don’t think there’s reason for me to be defensive, and for two, it’s just not necessary at this point.

Anyway, stay tuned.

on personal experience

You know, there’s one question that I wish I could have asked Craig — but first, some background: One of Craig’s 5 or 6 arguments for God’s existence is the “personal experience” of God that a believer has.  In fancy theologian talk, he calls this the “self-authenticating power of the Holy Spirit” — ie., the Holy Spirit is true because the Holy Spirit tells me its true. (yes, very circular reasoning)

I wish I had asked Craig to explain how I had this Holy Spirit experience back when I was a believer, and yet later came to reject my faith.

I suppose it’s not a very nice question to ask, because I have a feeling his answer will make him look like a jerk.  My guess is that if I were to ask Dr. Craig my question, he would have to say that I was never a true believer in the first place — otherwise, I wouldn’t have rejected Christianity.  Either that or I must have committed some kind of huge sin that broke this connection I had with the Holy Spirit.

And he wouldn’t be the first person to say or imply that about my past.  I suppose it’s comforting to some people to just believe I was never a true Christian(TM), rather than face the reality that someone can go from being active in a loving relationship with a personal god to being in a place where she doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of a god.

At last week’s debate, there was a section on the audience response card where you could put your email address down to have someone from Campus Crusade for Christ contact you to have a conversation on how God is personal and able to be known and, if so, what that is like.  Being who I am (someone who loves dialoguing about belief), I filled out the box to be contacted.

Tonight I received a very eager email from a student who is offering to take me out to coffee to talk about these issues.  There’s a part of me that thinks it would be great fun to be on the receiving end of such a talk, and I wonder why.  Maybe it’s because, looking back, I wish I had a coffee discussion with an atheist who could kindly ask me questions about my faith that I never thought of before.

Don’t misread me, I’m not out on a deconverting mission here — but part of me wonders what good I can offer in not backing down from interacting with believers, even in my godless state.

grrrl meets apologist

me & William Lane Craig

Earlier this week I attended a Campus Crusade for Christ sponsored debate, “Does God Exist?” — featuring rock-star apologist William Lane Craig and fellow Saskatoon atheist George Williamson.  It was a rematch of an earlier debate they did in 2007 (YouTube).

In case you didn’t know this about me, I *love* listening to debates. It’s not at all uncommon to find me listening to a debate while I’m doing my housework (here’s the best site to find debates — I probably have 80% of them on my iPod).  I love listening to debaters set up their arguments, and love even more the spur-of-the-moment interactions between both sides during cross-examinations and Q & A periods.

The one Christian debater I’ve heard the most is Dr. Craig — I’ve heard him so many times that I can even cite all 6 of his arguments.  It was quite the treat to not only see him in person, but on Friday morning I had an opportunity to share a cup of coffee with him and fellow apologist Michael Horner! (along with a few other of my atheisty friends)

What I learned from my Craig encounter (in no particular order):

  • It was so fun to be able to talk about anything and everything with an articulate believer.  There haven’t been many opportunities where my questioning was welcomed.  There weren’t any heated discussions, just exchange of ideas.
  • Despite how smart he is, I think Dr. Craig is out of touch with many contemporary issues and their implications in the world today.  For example, he’s very quick to be dismissive of the “new atheism”, and labels it as only a “pop-culture” phenomenon.  I’m never impressed by a snobby scholar attitude (and don’t get me started on people who brandish their PhD diplomas).
  • The best part of our discussion was when we started talking about morality. I love talking about real, concrete issues — which means talking about moral/ethical dilemmas are more up my alley than discussing the ins and outs of cosmology.  Cosmology doesn’t affect me in my day to day life.
  • What I found the most interesting in our conversation about morality was noticing how uncomfortable Dr. Craig got when we starting applying morality to situations — he complained that his area was “meta-ethics” and not “practical ethics.”  This really shocked me, as I find practical ethics *so important*, and waaaaaay more meaningful to discuss than vaguely pontificating about loosely-defined “objective morality” and supposedly “cosmic” implications.  I asked Dr. Craig to give me an example of an objective moral value — I didn’t get one.
  • At one point, Dr. Craig was dismissively (he’s very good at being dismissive) talking about the ethical theory of consequentialism.  He gave an example that was meant to be horrifying to us to hear — he said, according to this theory, if raping/torturing a little girl would bring more good to society, then you would be morally bound to do such an atrocious action.  He wanted us to be repulsed by such an idea — and it is repulsive!  But I interjected that if Craig’s God were to issue a divine command for him to rape/torture a little girl because God deemed it morally “right,” Craig would have no choice but to follow it — according to the ethical guidelines that he’s under (read: Abraham’s command to sacrifice Issac).  And I find that equally repulsive, if not moreso that a supposedly personal God could make such commands.  Craig conceded (as much as he could — which is to say not much) — but he also made the point that it would be “logically impossible” for God to command such a thing. (?)
  • Ultimately it comes to Craig’s system of morality, I don’t trust God as much as he does.  I also don’t buy into Craig’s forced dichotomy of objective morality vs. nihilism.
  • Another interesting part of the conversation came up when we started talking about the character of God, especially as portrayed in the Old Testament.  Here’s where the theological contorting really starting taking shape.  First Craig tried to diminish the genocidal acts by saying that God really commanded the Israelites to “drive out” the Canaanite residents — and then only killed those left behind.  Later Craig mentioned that there’s no evidence that women and children were killed, and that it was mainly soldiers who were brutalized (not sure where he’s getting that claim from). And there were several other excuses given, but his main premise — God can take life, because he has given life — I found terrifying enough on its own ground.  (and again, here’s another example where Craig seems very willing to hand over his own volition/judgement over to God, something that I don’t think I’m able to do)
  • At one point in the conversation (I think it was in the midst of the ethical dilemmas), Michael Horner just sighed and said he didn’t know an answer to our questions.  AND I LOVED THAT.  I didn’t love it because I felt like I “scored” a point by stumping the apologist, but rather because it showed a moment of vulnerability and honesty.  As much as I enjoyed Dr. Craig, I didn’t see that side of him in our conversation.  The most he would concede would be to say “Well, I’ve struggled with that …” and then continue to give a definitive (to him) answer.
  • Toward the end of our chat, the apologists asked if there were any remaining “burning questions” left for us to ask — I, of course, took that segue way into asking about hell.  And that was when Dr. Craig told me that I should “come back into the faith.”
  • Dr Craig thinks that if you have a “open mind and open heart , you will come to a belief in god” — which is a really interesting statement to unpack.  This statement implies that someone who is skeptical of Christianity’s claims has a closed mind and heart.  My mind/heart isn’t closed,  I’m just not willing to assume God is there and then go looking for him, essentially turning off my critical faculties.  It reminds me when some  Mormons once asked Jerry and I to pray, just to “try it” and see if we felt god.  Ummmm, no thanks.
  • As much as I want to be impressed by Dr. Craig, I left our discussion thinking his faith rationale is pretty simple.  In many ways, I think it just boils down to an elaborately-structured ‘God of the Gaps’ argument, which is an explanation I’m not content to settle for.

Looking back on the whole experience, I’m really glad I had this opportunity to sit and chat with 2 prominent apologists.  I want to think that I’m always open to hearing good arguments that could persuade me to change my mind — but that said, even if I could be persuaded into conceding a deistic or theistic god exists, I’m not sure if I would be so apt to fall into line to worship him/her/it.

My hesitancy isn’t because I’m angry with god, or that I’m too selfish to let god into my life.  I just honestly don’t see how I need a relationship with such a being.  Maybe one day my mind will change — until that time, I’ll keep a lookout for him/her/it — but I won’t stop asking hard questions and I won’t settle for cliched answers.

p.s. In case you want a taste of what Dr. Craig sounds like in conversation, here’s a clip from his trip up here to Saskatoon.

p.p.s.  If you want to hear my favorite debates featuring Dr. Craig, check out these:

  • My very favorite: Craig v. Shelly Kagan, Yale prof.  The debate was “Is God Necessary for Morality?” — which means Craig was off-script!  And he loses the debate, I think.
  • If you want to hear Craig’s 6 proverbial arguments in action, you should listen to his debates with atheist Austin Dacey.  These two debates (2004 & 2005) are the best tackling of the subject, and Dacey offers the best opposition to Craig.
  • Later this spring, Craig is slated to debate both Lawrence Krauss (the physicist) and Sam Harris.

What he said:

I think the atheist dickhead phenomenon is about at this level of discussion right now. It’s no longer about God, it’s about “others.” It’s about the purity of your unbelief, measured not against any philosophical standard or line of argument but about finding religious believers septic and converting polite unbelievers to the more radical view that religion runs from noxious to poisonous, not from good to bad. It’s also about your solidarity with others who share your radical unbelief and how you measure the attitudes and intentions of other members of the tribe.

Of Atheist Tribes
R. Joseph Hoffman