My religious history that led to yours truly becoming a skeptical intellect doing research and commentary is complex. And rather interesting. Not my father’s side of our (rather dysfunctional) nuclear family. Indiana Hoosier from corn country, a Cold War United Methodist Republican to whom atheism was Godless Bolshevism. Yawn. To his credit when he found out I was an atheist in 2002 he was not happy, but did not make too much of a fuss, and did not reraise the subject prior to his death last year at 94.
Ye Olden Times
Over on my mother’s side is where it was very interesting. Some of her folk where associates of the Joseph Smith who made up Mormonism, one being a body guard, they made the trek to Utah, and had multiple wives (check out https://gatheringgardiners.blogspot.com/2010/03/noah-guyman-1819-1911.html, it’s pretty cool). Ah the good old days. My grandmother Zella who I knew very well, and was a quietly devout believer, was born in a central Utah desert town out of the old west and lived to 2002. She wrote an account of her life in which she as a teen she longed to be married in the Temple – very important in Latter Day Saint theology. She may have come close to doing so, gleaning from her autobio and what she told a relation she almost married a churchly distant (via polygamy) cousin, but he suddenly died in the Great Flu Pandemic. Then for reasons obscure she married a man who was never especially observant – I suspect my grandfather was not into paying that critical 10% per year tithe – and they never had that Temple ceremony. None of their five offspring remained in the church. My teen mother became something of a wild child in Salt Lake City during the world war, she was drinking and smoking heavily then and would only stop the former at fifty because her alternative was death. After both my parents ended up in the Virginia burbs of DC because of the war, in the late 40s they married and had two sons.
The Wonder Years
The result of all that was an incoherent religious upbringing. Until I was 9 we regularly attended the Alexandria ward grandmother went to. Why my father was into that I do not know – Mormonism is extremely heretical relative to Christianity, he probably did not know that. He was considering joining until his smoking prevented that, but he did not reconsider after he quit soon after. I hated church like Tom Sawyer (I was a much better behaved kid though). Boring. I was baptized at 7 in a water dunking ceremony that meant nothing to me. I believed in God there being no alternative that I knew of. I looked down on other churches from what an old friend much later told me. But problems arose. In a Sunday school class the young female teacher informed me I was wrong about the existence of the dinosaurs I already adored. What the…. Did not believe such a stupid thing for a second. She was an idiot, all the more so because LDS dogma has nothing to say about dinosaurs and deep time, they being matters of choice what one thinks about them, and a number of competent paleozoologists and geologists are active LDS.
In my preteens and into my teens I was learning about prehistoric beasts and humans from the likes of the cheap How and Why Wonder Books and lavishly illustrated Golden Books for children (for an account of my paleo upbringing see http://www.gspauldino.com/autobiography.html). They discussed an item called evolution discovered by Darwin as a matter of course. Made sense to me. After all, we were living in a new and exciting age of science, driving in autos when my grandmother had rode horses and buggies as a child, jetliners for long range travel, able to talk remotely via telephones, watching the new wonder of TV (The Flintstones!, Star Trek! The Avengers!), antibiotics. I sort of noticed they were not the wonders of some remote gods, they were the human result of science.
It is logically common for those who are deep into deep time astronomical and earthly, and bioevolution, to become atheists if not already raised that way. With a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe and us on hand supernatural alternatives become redundant and flippant. Evolutionary scientists and paleozoologists who have become prominent atheists (as I define below) include Thomas (Darwin’s Bulldog) Huxley (who also proposed a later verified link between dinosaurs and birds, one of my areas of research), Louis Leakey, Stephen Gould, and Richard Dawkins. So my course is not unusual.
Sunday June 21st 1964 was my day of sweet freedom. From church. Continuing the white privilege flight of the time made possible by the automobile we moved further out in the burbs, to just beyond the then new DC beltway. There were no nearby wards, none of the rest of the extended family except Zella were LDS churchgoers, my mom probably reeked of embarrassing smoke smell when attending, my dad was not churchly, and we stopped going in June. Freedom!
I spent some summers with relations in the Salt Lake Valley. Loved it. The big skies, the snow-capped Rockies, the dinosaurs. My Great Aunt Laurel. An artist-naturalist who when I think about it showed no signs of being religious, she encouraged my interests, including dinosaurs. When I was 13 a 11 year old distant cousin took a shine to me. Awww. She really liked my dinosaur drawings. I do not remember exactly why the subject came up, but at her place we were chatting and casually I mentioned how humans evolved from apes. Suddenly her eyes widened, she started backing away saying her parents had told her that was not true, and the rest of the day she would not stay in the same room. Apparently I was under the influence of that rebel against god Satan. I was amused. And theism was going downhill. Fast.
Back in the Church – Sort of
Things got more complicated. As I was turning 14 Brother Evans dropped by. A hyper evangelical Mormon (and as I later learned a beater of his sons), his trying to recruit me back into the church was going nowhere until he said the magic words. Boy Scouts. So I was a sort of LDS church attending slacker during my teens. I took none of it at all seriously. When I said a curse word in front of one of the Evans sons his silly warning that I could be struck by lightning did not help my theism. But I had fun Scouting et al.
Next summer was another in Utah, and by then I was an de facto atheist. When one of my nonLDS cousins discussed his interest in the occult I rolled my rationalist eyes.
Then something very important happened.
Although they were both intelligent – dad scored an IQ of 140 in 1944 – my parents were intellectually vacuous. All my dad really cared about was making it big in business. He subscribed to pulp magazines like Argosy and True Tales. They featured articles on alien visitations. I took those seriously – with their detailed descriptions of events that appeared inexplicable by earthly standards they seemed scientific, and of course adults would not publish items that were demonstrably untrue. Right? I loved the TV SciFi drama Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea which I would later realize was an example of the clunky boiler plate SciFi pablum offered up by cheap skate Irwin Allen. A first season episode featured the Sea View encountering a flying saucer!!!! I was thrilled. Of course they would not do that unless it had been okayed by the authorities. Right? At the same time the likes of Frank Drake and Carl Sagan were saying that extraterrestrial were statistically probable. Yet they were denying aliens visiting earth. Hmmm.
First time into the high school library I saw on the shelf a book titled UFO’s Explained. Like wow! Finally a big grown up book that would settle the question, maybe showing that extraterrestrials were the real deal after all. Checked it out and read it. Written by aviation expert Philip Klass, it is renowned as the first skeptics book. Case by case Klass debunked every classic UFO story up to that date. I got it. That is how scientific analysis is done. Cold, hard, objective, rational yet flexible and nondogmatic examination of the available data. Go where the data goes, not on what your opinion favors. Have been a skeptic ever since.
Including of the gods. Religion is not as is often claimed a search for the truth, or to be moral or altruistic. It is looking for boons supernatural – al theists are expecting stuff in return ofr adherence. It’s the prefect recipe for waving away awkward counter evidence.
There was nothing dramatic or agonizing about my going science-based, it was fun knowing that most folks were being absurd in believing in matters magical. I did not have much in the way of deep discussions with my parents who while they had their positives – including being largely supportive of my science interests and art — were too dysfunctional and nonintellectual for me to admire, seek their approval, or care what they thought. Moderate-liberal suburban northern Virginia was not especially churchly like the SE tidewater Virginia where and aunt and uncle lived, and this was before the rise of the religious right, creationism was not much of an issue. So theo talk was not all that common. Somehow the God subject came up with a young substitute teacher I think in art class. She and another student derided my nontheism, the teacher demanding I offer up a single great thinker who was an atheist. Could not come up with one – this was long before the atheist flourishing of more recent times – awkward. Did not change my mind though. Senior year in English the apparently nontheist teacher was for reasons I do not recall discussing issues godly. The student counter arguing happened to be the daughter of the ward bishop. Because of that I kept my mouth shut. As she was being shot down – at one point she was queried as to the physical condition old people would be in in heaven — she looked to fellow Vienna ward attendee me (but not a friend) with a facial appeal for support which I was not about to deliver. With the Boy Scouts thing winding down, the Evans having moved away, my interest in Mormonism still nil, LDS services as always excruciatingly dull – stay away from them for your own sake — and the ward bishop pressuring me to tithe while warning me to stay away from the atheist University of Utah I was toying with attending, I eased myself out.
When I moved at 20 I was careful to not let the church know my new address. I got a call from a church official at the work number I had earlier gave them silly me. They use the insidious techniques of salespeople. Start out nice and if that does not work ramp up the pressure until the mark caves just to stop the unpleasant situation. When the manipulative ass realized I was holding my ground he got nasty and threatened excommunication. Like I cared. This century one of my uncles deliberately got excommunicated to stop LDS operatives from pestering him. Another uncle had converted to the Greek Orthodoxy of his wife – those are the cool people I visit when in Utah;) Aside from a couple of missionaries who thought it cool I had ancestors who knew Smith while politely deriding their faith, I have not had contact with an active Mormon for decades. Yay!
The Book II
At 20 another book had a big and conclusive impact. A personal life item was going so well I imagined it must show the favor of a deity – classic theogullible superficial grade thinking mistake. When that situation did not work out I thought it discreditable to now abandon the belief – another classic theogullible superficial grade thinking mistake. I do not recall how I learned about it, but I purchased a copy of Mark Twain’s theonotorious Letters from the Earth to see what he had to say about the God thing. Like most Christians I had never read the damn Bible (I did much later as a research project, I survived). Twain was the first person to with his brilliant literary wit tell me the appalling truth about the book of horrors and its barbaric god, while attending to its cruelty to humanity. Here is a brief sample.
The human being is a machine. An automatic machine. It is composed of thousands of complex and delicate mechanisms, which perform their functions harmoniously…. For each one of these thousands of mechanisms the Creator has planned an enemy whose job it is to harass it, pester it, persecute it, damage it, afflict it with pains, and miseries, and ultimate destruction. Not one has been overlooked…. It is the Creator’s Grand Army, and he is the Commander-in-Chief. Along its battlefront its grisly banners wave their legends in the face of the sun: Disaster, Diseases and the rest…. It is wonderful the thorough and comprehensive study which the Creator devoted to the great work of making man miserable…. All of the Creator’s specially deadly disease-producers are invisible. It is an ingenious idea. For thousands of years it kept man from getting to the root of his maladies, and defeated his attempts to master them. It is only recently that science has succeeded in exposing some of these treacheries.
(I strongly recommend LFTE to all — be cautioned that a lot of the book is criticism of literature by the inventor of modern non/fictional literature Clemens, not that that is a problem.)
I realized that I had been lied to by the churches. I hate being lied to, propaganda is vile and I try to avoid deceiving others. By the time I finished the sections on theism I said “I get it Twain,” and I have never had reason to modify my atheism since.
What is Rattling Around Between My Ears
So what is my atheism? I am not a theist, a person who has a belief in one or more deities/gods. Broadly and correctly etymologically defined, a-theism is the lack of theism, ergo I am an atheist. I am not an absolute atheist who is completely certain there are not any gods because that cannot be entirely proven – such folk are rare, a hot Hopkins undergrad I knew back in the day who was quite ticked when I denied absolute disproof of deities is the only one I have met. In that sense I am an agnostic as defined by the person who coined the term Thomas Huxley. So by his own statements so is Dawkins, we are both agnostic atheists. My position is based entirely on data analysis. I always follow the data as best I can, and if it supported the probability or certainty of some form of deity or deities being around and about I would opt for that and would not be writing this – as I will discuss in a later blog, if god/s existed there are many circumstances in which it would be obvious and not a matter of debate. As it is the evidence for the presence of anything supernatural is pathetic, and the possibility of their existence is about as close to zero as one can get without quite getting there.
Although the basic existence of a god and many other items supernatural cannot be entirely disproven, the existence of a decent, loving, benign moral creator that has the best interests of his human creations can be scientifically tested. I am the person who literally has done the most to prove that a Good God simply cannot exist because of the deadly nature of our planet to children. And that worshipping a creator god in search of boons is inherently immoral. I am also the leading researcher when correlating the relationship between levels of popular a/theism and socioeconomic conditions, which leaves no statistical doubt that the more atheistic democracies are, the better off are their citizens, and for inherent reasons it is not possible for highly religious societies to be highly successful. I am therefore anti-theism, similar to say Dawkins. As such I am not like many atheists tolerant of religion and belief, it is bad idea in terms of truth and for societies. That does not mean atheism cannot have its own downsides as I shall discuss in these blogs. I try to be fair and objective, and am often vexed when other atheists are not that. Or well informed. I am often aghast at the limited knowledge base of attendees at atheist groups. Lots of them don’t know that our planet is 4.5 billion years old. Sheesh.
I am an equal opportunity skeptic. Our society is deeply, cynically hypocritical, that being true of most of the majority who are theists here and abroad. Belief in supernatural deities for which evidence of their existence is extremely weak and their goodness is readily disprovable is widely seen as normal if not noble, while a host of other paranormal beliefs that are no better founded are commonly derided and condemned as baseless and mere superstitions. These days I have people asking this dinosaurologist if it is really true that aliens killed off the dinosaurs to pave the way for humanity, an item they picked up from cable and online “documentaries.” That outlandish notion lacks any actual evidence, but it is no more or less plausible than the conceit that a transcendent entity created our universe and planet. I am not a hypocrite when it comes to matters paranormal godly and secular, they are all bogus as far as can be determined. Faith is not truth, it is sheer opinion.
Becoming an Atheosecular Researcher
Having meme evolved into a strongly convinced but not absolutist agnostic atheist by 20 and not having seen anything close to suggesting I should change my mind since, I spent the mid 70s to the mid 90s focusing on my paleozoological research and art. Including doing the primary design work for the Tyrannosaurus in Jurassic Park (do not blame me for the flawed appearance of the rest of the JP dinos, and the original King Kong is a way better dinosaurs and other monsters on an island movie, albeit typically racist per the times). Although not the very first I was among the very few illustrating smaller dinosaurs with feathers and fuzz which would be verified in the 90s, was the first to note that some dinosaurs might also be secondarily flightless birds, was the first to calculate that the bigger flying pterosaurs were massive monsters weighing as much as lions and tigers and bears, and named a number of dinosaur groups and genus-species (some of which remain in force) – you can check out my paleo work and art at www.gspauldino.com. Being an iconoclastic polymath is my thing. Did little about the nonreligion thing even as I was appalled by the anti-scientific religious right and its perverted consort creationism. In the mid 90s I started attending local atheosecular groups, partly for social reasons. On the positive side of matters in those days of post cold war optimism I was pleased to see the poll data indicating that the USA was in fact becoming increasingly irreligious, as I documented in my first atheism themed article in a 2002 Free Inquiry.
But I was a very frustrated fellow. About the scientific investigation of the societal impacts of religion and nontheism. In order to understand that and many other things you have to have the comparative stats on hand. Duh. Lots of people were claiming mass deity belief is critical for societies to be well run, others denied it. But where were the objective, large scale statistical comparisons needed to test who was right? When I realized the correlations had not been produced which was an enormous failure of the sociological community, I went ahead and did them my little self, establishing a new field of research without really trying in the process. I was being innovative in this arena as I had in paleo. It was a fairly extensive project, but there was plenty of data available and the results were fascinating. I published them in the peer reviewed J Religion & Society and Evolutionary Psychology (http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/147470490900700305), as well chapters in academic books. The research – which has never been refuted because it is objectively not possible to do so — got a fair amount of media attention. Including being labeled the church’s public enemy #1 by MSNBC (https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna10351693) which I am quite proud of, and an appearance on FoxNews which I parried the sleazy reporter fairly well. The work, bolstered by the efforts of others, has done a fair amount to shift the public discourse more towards the favor of atheism.
In a statistics tells us a lot about morality parallel line of analysis, I had known since reading the first sentences of Arthur C. Clarke’s book version of 2001 A Space Odyssey that around 100 billion people had been born. I also knew that juvenile mortality rates are around 50%, so that meant some 50 billion children had been tormented to death by the diseases as outlined by Twain, and even greater numbers have miscarried. This was another ground breaking look at the old problem of how a perfect God and our imperfect planet do not go along with one another. I published an analysis in Philosophy and Theology (http://www.gspauldino.com/Philosophy&Theology.pdf) – no other atheists have scored the coup of publishing anti-theistic works in mainstream religious journals – that was the first publication to ever present the number of deceased children, and showed how theologians have bent over backward to evade the problem for ages that because mass death of youngsters directly refutes the belief that God is Good and deserves admiring worship, and that such is not at all noble. Very frustrating is that my efforts to get media attention for the core refutation of religion, and a response from the theists who have no means of producing a plausible counterargument, went nowhere. In order to tale another shot and that while updating the analysis I am publishing a two-parter on the subject in Essays on the Philosophy of Humanism (https://americanhumanist.org/what-we-do/publications/eph/journals/volume28/paul-1). So far that has not been more successful at getting wide attention, with Religion News Service cynically rejecting my press release the theocads.
A major achievement was in 2011. I kept sending op-eds to major venues without success. Then it occurred to me to do one on the chronic discrimination against atheists, and do it in association with others. That worked, the Washington Post carried it. The piece garnered 1500 comments before those were timed out, and 80,000 likes. Nice. But that was the end of such major consideration of my work in the mainstream media and press. Dozens of efforts to place pieces in mainstream opinion venues have gone nowhere. And it is not just me. A big running problem is the stunning lack of attention paid to atheists by the mainstream news media, my next blog will be on that issue.
My atheo frustrations do not end there. Fact is that institutional atheosecularism has not been as effective as it needs to be. Basic means for promoting a world view include setting up think tanks to generate data driven information, and a news service to help distribute it. For reasons obscure to me this has not yet happened, despite my and others efforts to get such going. The lack of financial support had severely hindered the research and analysis by myself and others that would likely improve the situation for atheists around the globe. More about that later on this site.
Starting in 2017 I have had a regular column in Free Inquiry. That’s a major audience, but one can read my tomes only if one subscribes to the magazine which I suggest people do, and only nontheists subscribe. This blog expands the audience for my popular articles beyond FI. Also, those columns are limited to something over 1000 words, which is too short to fully address many issues. Things are complicated. One of the reasons why we are in the global discourse pickle we are in is because many pieces are more propaganda presentations than well thought out arguments backed up by solid data.
I will be covering a lot of cool topics. How the failure to develop fusion power has greatly slowed down the decline of theism and bettering the global economy – the former is dependent on the latter — while aiding theoradicalism. How the giant New Zealand moas and elephant birds of Madagascar disprove the contention of William Lane Craig that the good God has to allow predators to mug and chow down on other creatures – don’t get me started on how theists say animals do not really suffer because they are too dumb. Why the scandalous failure of nontheists to vote at the same per capita rate as theoconservatives is why the religious right minority is still a major political power in this country. How about how conservative Christianity is backing the right wing autocratic forces of Europe. Then there is how Dwight Eisenhower was the president who initiated modern government promotion of religion. Did you know that Yosemite Valley is one of the best disproofs of the Biblical creation story, and why – think granite. Here’s a goodie. Few realize that the establishment of the national parks was to a great extent an effort to promote god belief among White Americans at the expense of the Original Peoples, that’s a reason why park ranger uniforms are based on old US Army garb. Bet you did not know that. You may know that the antiabortion movement is really an effort to return the nation to its godly traditional ways of the 1950s, but if not I shall explain.
What virtually no one knows is that it was the Catholic Church that did more than anything else to put Hitler into power, largely to ensure the stream of tax revenue they still enjoy. Everyone knows about the pedophile scandals that have rocked and damaged the church, but not about the incredible links between the Vatican and mob elements that used to generate international headlines and inspired the Godfather III, but have been shunted aside. Do not forget how the Manifest Destiny that drove the ethnic cleansing of the America’s was a Godly project made possible by the diseases of Twain’s God liquidated most of the population.
Ever wonder why the American religious right is all for fossil fuels oil especially? I’ll explain that one. And don’t you believe that nonsense that while Jesus was probably not divine, he was a man of peace. He was not. If he existed.
And there’s a lot more.
Since I got into active atheism the good news has been how theism has been declining way faster in the USA than even I hoped, with nonreligion soaring by an astonishing 10% of the population each decade, and atheists as broadly defined now making up perhaps a fifth or a quarter of nation (for the stats see http://americanhumanist.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/art-1-Paul-The-Great-and-Amazingly-Rapid-Secularization-of-the-Increasingly-Proevolution-United-States.pdf). Gallup found church membership was at 70% in 2000, now is only 50%. On the disappointing side the atheist movement is not expanding in tune with the population dynamics, perhaps because of the general decline is social organizations. On the very bad side theoconservatism has, despite losing some demographic ground – even white Republicans are less religious than they used to be – retained a much more powerful grip on much of the government than I predicted. And in their fury to maintain their power are going increasingly bizarro world toxic and autocratic here and abroad. Meanwhile other versions of paranormal thinking are doing all too well, especially concerning alien visitors and even flat-earthism which is a religious movement if you don’t know. But don’t blame everything on the theists. The virulent Chinese government is atheist.
Hope you find my coming pontifications of interest, and even better of use.