Sunday, June 21, 2015

What Happens When a Bunch of Freethinkers Have a Convention?

Report from the 2015 Oklahoma Freethought Convention, June 20.

Let me guess what some very extreme religious people might think that humanists do when they get together. They might think that freethinkers—such as atheists and agnostics—start jumping on each other for a wild sex orgy. Such a person would be very, very wrong. Just looking around at the small crowd, one might think that (except for the occasional tattoos and green hair) that it was a church convention. This is because, of course, humanists have morals just like anyone else. They just have different reasons for their morals. Let me give you some reasons that freethinkers do not have. First, they will not say, “I have morals because God will send me to hell otherwise.” Second, they will not say, “I have morals because the Apostle Paul writes in the books of Contusions, Abrasions, and Concussions that God gets mad if you don’t have morals.” Third, they will not say, “I have morals because God wants me to love people.” When a Christian claims that “We love because He first loved us,” this may imply (though not necessarily) that love is a miracle and therefore cannot occur unless God makes it happen. Humanists know that love is part of instinctual human nature. And morals emerge from love: morals are how you treat other people right. God may indeed love us, but this is not a necessary precondition to human love and morality.

I can assure you, from this meeting, that humanists are quite capable of selfless love. One of the presentations was by Rebecca Vitsmun, who was herself a victim of the 2013 Moore (Oklahoma) tornado and who is now the development director for Foundation Beyond Belief, a humanist disaster relief organization. Her passion is helping people who suffer emergencies, and doing so without proselytizing them (for or against religion). I would put Rebecca up against any of the religious humanitarians, and compare her favorably with many.

What, you may ask, is a freethinker? I will venture my own discussion, although famous historical freethinkers like Ben Franklin and other founding fathers probably said it better. A freethinker examines Big Questions about God, nature, and the meaning of life. That is, freethinkers are first and foremost thinkers. If you don’t give a crap about the meaning of life and just want to have fun, or if you think “God is the meaning of life and I don’t care to think about it further,” then you are not a freethinker. You have to be a thinker first. Furthermore, freethinkers do not decide the conclusion in advance. Freethinkers do not use thinking as a tool either for or against religion. If I had suspected that the Freethinker’s Conference would just be a lineup of angry atheists, I would not have attended (I have other things to do). But there was no assumption that the attendees would be atheists or even agnostics. There was no altar call.

There was no question, however, that Freethinkers overwhelmingly consider organized and conventional religion to be negative and even dangerous. Here are examples from the lineup of speakers:

  • According to Jason Heap, who hopes to be the first humanist chaplain in the history of the U.S. armed forces, conservative religion perpetuates the belief that America was settled by Europeans who wanted religious liberty. Rather, history is very clear (and Jason announced some new documentary evidence from the Bodleian Library at Oxford) that the European settlers wanted a chance to establish their own theocracies. The Pilgrims already had religious liberty in the Netherlands; they came to America to establish a society without religious liberty for anyone who disagreed with them.
  • According to Vyckie Garrison, who has emerged from the Quiverfull movement of Christians, conservative religion can trap a woman into being nothing but a baby-making machine. In this movement, there is no limit whatsoever to how many children a father can sire or a mother can bear. They think that “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth” means to have so many kids that the Earth is overfilled; if they stopped to think, they would realize that we have already filled the Earth and it’s time to do something else now already. They also seem to think that the psalm that said a man is happy if his quiver is full of sons must have meant an infinitely large quiver that the man has to drag along the ground or mount on a semi-truck. Vyckie expressed no bitterness, but rather gratitude that her freethinker uncle encouraged her simply to think about what she was saying and doing.
  • Dr. Darrel Ray, a psychologist, explained that some conservative religious “counselors” (many with certification from Brigham Young University or Pat Robertson’s Regent University) have invented a false disorder called sex addiction, from which they are happy to (for a fee) release the purported addicts. Some even use what I would consider fraud. The Mormon-associated Oxbow Academy in Utah, according to Ray, encourages parents to send their boys as young as twelve to them for treatment for “sex addiction.” But the DSM-V (the psychologists’ Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) does not recognize sex addiction, therefore insurance companies will not pay for its treatment. But, says Ray, the Academy tells the insurance companies that the treatments are for disorders such as depression. Sure, says Ray, sexual behaviors can cause big problems, and need to be dealt with, but the industry of “treating sex addiction” is a fraud. I had a little problem with this concept. My understanding is that addiction is not qualitatively different from habit; both can be enhanced by the dopamine pathway in the brain. According to this article in Science, dopamine deficiency can lead to a craving for high-fat and high-sugar diets. Interference with dopamine processing is the basis of nicotine and cocaine addiction. If hamburgers can be literally addictive, why can’t sex? But religion offers the perfect opportunity for fraud, in this particular case.
  • The most astonishing presentation was by independent “autodidact” Aron Ra, who presented abundant Biblical references to show how barbaric the Old Testament is. I most remember Numbers 5, which prescribes an ordeal to which a wife, if her husband merely suspects her of having sex with another man but has not gotten pregnant or has not yet shown signs of pregnancy, must undergo. Note: many parts of the Old Testament are very grim, but not prescriptive. The book of Judges is overwhelmingly gruesome, something you do not want to use in Sunday school, but the last sentence in the book indicates that these acts were evil. But Numbers 5 is prescriptive. The accused wife is supposed to have a curse laid upon her by a priest, then ingest a concoction of dust and bitter water. If the woman is guilty, her belly will swell and her thighs will wither. Otherwise, she will be declared innocent. This is clearly a barbaric practice on a par with dunking witches. Oh, incidentally, Numbers indicates that the man will be free of guilt. If modern conservative Christians knew as much about the Bible as Aron Ra does, and his knowledge is formidable, they would not be so quick to call for Old Testament standards for modern jurisprudence.

The main part of the meeting ended with a magic show by Matt Dillahunty, who seemed able to know which word or number someone was thinking, or which card they had chosen, but who was actually using perfectly materialistic means of figuring these things out. Of course, he did not tell us what these were. He did a great job, especially considering that he got sick right before his performance.

I left the meeting feeling very enlightened and excited. I’m not sure if freethinkers are completely free in their thinking—they would not have looked kindly on a speaker who said the Bible was at least true in a figurative sense—but their thoughts were freer than any religious convention you have probably ever encountered.

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