Mar 30

So this past Sunday my wife and I decided to join a church group that was going out to do community service.  I thought it would be fun for two reasons.  One, I like doing service, especially if it is already planned and occurs before I normally wake up so I don’t lose any of my weekend.  Two, being an atheist in a group of active religious people could be informative if not entertaining.  Below are my results.

The Good

Resources

Like I said before, everything was set up for us.  One huge benefit about doing service through any large organization (most of which just happen to be religious in nature) is the resources.  This is a large church (2500 members, approx 5000 attendees) and so they have people either paid or volunteering to schedule all of this.  They brought the buses for transportation, the cleaning supplies (we cleaned a West Dallas elementary school), did all of the coordination (had site leaders, bus leaders, notecards with tasks, organization out the wazzoo), and collective man power.  If you are really trying to make a difference in other people’s lives, getting organized is the way to do it.  1500-2000 volunteers with pooled money/time can usually make a much larger difference than 1500 individuals.

People

As I said before, the numbers were helpful, but here I am meaning the individuals.  The group of people we worked with were all pretty hilarious and I had a great time.  Based on my interactions with people, I would say overall organized religion gets a worse rap than it deserves, at least from me.  While there are plenty of outliers in the fundamentalist part of the curve, and even some of the more main stream have ideas about science/reason/morality that I strongly disagree with, for the most part this experience showed me that it is less about that.  It was mostly people who just wanted to help out and liked doing good things.  There were a few exceptions (you’ll see later), but I never got asked about god, never got asked to participate in prayer, never really even discussed religion.

Service

It is very easy to ignore people less fortunate.  I realize I work hard to be where I am and some people are looking for a hand out, but my elementary school didn’t rely on outside volunteers to clean it.  My high school didn’t have a 70% non-graduation rate.  I didn’t have to scrounge for 30 dollars a year to enter a little league baseball league.  I didn’t live in the 11th poorest area in America.  I didn’t have to wait on a list for a mentor so that I would have a positive role model/parent figure in my life.  These were all things I was told about the area when visiting West Dallas and learning about some of the struggles the people there have.  So it felt very good to do something to try and help out (even if it wasn’t enough).

The Bad

Unnecessary Restrictions

Why is it necessary to only do service for someone with the purpose of sharing jesus’ love?  Why can’t I help out of my own love for humanity?  The info sheet about this service event was capped off with the sentence: “Sharing the love of Christ with others through Service”.  This basically sets the priority that some of the individuals had.  First, share the love of Christ.  Second, do service.  As with all parts of religion, I feel this is unnecessary.  I wish ‘church’ as widespread as it is today was able to change its meaning from “a group of people coming together to worship XYZ and help make the world a better place” to “a group of people coming together to help make the world a better place”.  I just don’t see the need to add in an imaginary being as the reason behind it.  The other main unnecessary restriction is a true restriction.  A couple of the people I talked with help run a mentoring program that “pairs caring christian adults with underprivileged kids looking for a mentor”.  I got that tagline verbatim from each one separately, so you know it is important.  They have 500 mentors today, but the waiting list for children wanting a mentor is huge, i.e. they are in dire need of mentors.  Unfortunately I am excluded because I wouldn’t fulfill the ‘christian’ part of caring christian adult.  Why does this matter?  Well to me it doesn’t.  To them it does because one of their main priorities is to convert the child to christianity.  Again, this should be mutually exclusive to helping a child have a better life, and really becomes altogether unnecessary.

The Ugly

The Crazy Curve Ball

So after we got done cleaning our first room (the cafeteria, where I found a pepperoni that easily predates the bible and all the boogers I could handle) instead of getting a second assignment, we ‘lucked’ out and got chosen to pass out fliers.  BAM, curve ball.  At this point in my day everything was going well and I really didn’t want to cause any contention because of my different/lacking beliefs.  However I was not going to stand on a street and pass out fliers telling people how much I loved jesus.  But again, no problems.  The fliers we were passing out were door to door telling people about a little league baseball season that was about to start and about a community picnic event they were hosting.  There wasn’t one mention of religion on either flier (other than the names of the churches sponsoring it).  This league (and aforementioned mentoring program) is run by Mercy Street, which overall seems like a really great organization, except the hang up on christianity as the only way to be good.  And it looks like they are truly making a difference in the area.  My only concern would be if any of the mentoring, sports league, etc. centered around essentially teaching children make believe and to trust faith over reason, which unfortunately I am sure is the case.  Anyway, so I walked around a government subsidized housing area and stuck fliers in doors.  I met one angry lady (my fault, my flier accidentally slipped inside her house, a little too intrusive), one crazy guy (sang TI’s latest song to me for about a block and then kept asking me why the Mexican’s were giving him lube and making him take it), and several friendly people.

The Take Away

I think it was a great experience, and it has spurred me to do more.  I really wish there were more secular/humanist type organizations with the same resources (or maybe I just need to look harder).  I think it would be awesome to participate weekly in making people’s lives better, without thinking the underlying goal was to introduce irrational faith.  I think as atheists or non-believers or just humans, we need to spend more time acting and less time talking.  It is great fun to talk circles around irrational arguments, but unless we are making a difference in the world, what have we accomplished?

Mar 22

If you peruse the internet, or tv, or any other information medium, you have heard recently what the pope said regarding condoms, AIDS, and Africa.  Depending on which source you read, or actually what day you read it, you heard anything from the pope saying “condoms were not the answer in the continent’s fight against HIV” to “You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms, on the contrary, it increases the problem” to “The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids.” (if that source was quoting him from back in 2005).

Now all of these are problematic given the ridiculous influence the pope has over a significant portion of the world’s population.  Any person filling a post that has the power to say “Don’t eat meat on Friday or you will go to hell, wait for it, wait for it, ok now you can.” and people actually listen, needs to choose his words carefully.  But I want to focus mainly on the last one, what he said in 2005, because it is a view that many organizations share about abstinence.

Abstinence has been touted as the only fail-safe, the only 100%, the only proven way to prevent lots of things.

  • Pregnancy
  • HIV
  • STD’s in general
  • Promiscuity
  • Emotional problems
  • Future marital problems.

We could logically look at each one of these, but all stem from a similar problem with the conclusion that we can examine as a whole.

False Conclusions

Conclusion: Abstinence is the only proven way to prevent X 100% of the time.  How did we get here?  What premises did we use?  I’ll take HIV as my example, since that is what started all of this.

Premise 1: HIV is only caused by consensual sexual intercourse
Premise 2: Abstinence means never having consensual sexual intercourse
Conclusion: Abstinence is the only way to prevent the spread of HIV 100% of the time

This looks ok until we inspect it a little closer.  Of our premises, one is false, and one is a hidden premise that we are completely leaving out.  And of our Conclusion, we have to use faulty logic to extend it beyond its actual scope.

False Premises

Premise 1 is false.  HIV can spread different ways other than consensual sexual intercourse, such as blood transfusions or using an infected needle.  And especially in the area where the pope was discussing, non-consensual sex is a large contributor.  Looking at the other items on my list they also suffer from false premises.

Promiscuity — To make this work we would have to start with the premise that having sex always leads to promiscuity.  We cannot assume that all people who have sex are promiscuous.  The premise that sex always leads to promiscuity is false.

Emotional Problems, Future marital problems — Similarly to promiscuity, any correlation between emotional or marital problems and sex are just that, correlation not causation.

Pregnancy — The premise that pregnancy is only caused by sexual intercourse is false because it can be caused by several other things including IVF, and god planting a jesus in your belly.  I know that is nit-picking, I just wanted to make a jesus joke.  Let’s move on to hidden premises.

Hidden Premises

The hidden premise is the bigger issue.  We are leaving out the premise/assumption that everyone is able to maintain the practice of abstinence.  Now, in coming to a useful conclusion, we should analyze the world as it really exists.  Abstinence is not a practice that is easy for everyone, especially those in the statistically ‘at risk’ category for contracting HIV through sex, to maintain.  So let us rewrite our syllogism:

Premise 1: HIV is sometimes caused by consensual sexual intercourse
Premise 2: Abstinence means never having consensual sexual intercourse
Premise 3: People trying to practice abstinence still have sexual intercourse with a rate of 26-86% (i.e. greater than 0)
Conclusion: In the real world, abstinence does not prevent HIV 100% of the time

Even if we limit our discussion so we only conclude ‘someone able to absolutely practice abstinence reduces their chance of contracting HIV 100%’ then all we have really concluded is that one ideal example of a person won’t get HIV.  If we look at a real population, and assume a failure rate of say 40% for people practicing abstinence, we get this conclusion:

Abstinence: 60% of the time it works every time (for preventing HIV transmitted through sex).

False Logic

And even with either of those conclusions, we never address the point about abstinence being the ‘only’ way to prevent X 100% of the time.  Just because we reach a conclusion about one method, we cannot immediately rule out all others.  Taking pregnancy as my example, I could just as easily, and wrongly, say ‘Anal sex is the only way to prevent pregnancy 100%’.  Following the same ad-hoc reasoning as before, I could safely say ‘someone absolutely practicing anal sex reduces their chance of becoming pregnant 100%’,  which proves that under the same premises, neither anal sex or abstinence are the only way to prevent pregnancy 100% of the time.

Actual Conclusion

So what is my point with all of this?  Obviously I’m not trying to say abstinence is worthless.  I’m just trying to say that when making conclusions, especially people with attached authority (media, pope, president, scientist), you should validate them logically as things exist in the real world.  Where is the real help to humanity in spouting false conclusions that only further your agenda?  If you are in a position of authority, you have an obligation by those who put you there to not espouse something as truth unless it is a truth in our world as it exists.  As a person of authority, people will actually take your conclusions as premises to build their own conclusions on. There is no help in basing things on conclusions for a Utopian world.  And hey, sometimes you can just say “I don’t know”.