Friday, March 4, 2011

Interview with Brian Keith Dalton, creator of Mr. Deity

by Adam C. LaMonica

Path of Reason: What inspired Mr.Deity (other than divinity)?

Brian Keith Dalton: The Indonesian tsunami of December 2004 inspired the first episode of Mr. Deity. I wrote a little skit which was essentially the first Mr. Deity episode (Mr. Deity and the Evil). I sent it around and everyone loved it. Almost two years later, Jimbo and I were driving home from a job and he convinced me to shoot the first episode with myself in the lead role (we had put it out to every actor we knew, and no one was interested). We shot the first episode three times because I had a really hard time directing and acting. In fact, it was the first time I'd acted in anything.

Philosophically, my love of science, philosophy, and critical thinking are the inspirations. I do believe that the great evils of this world are ideology and dogmatism. They make people unreasonable. And the most frightening words in any language (I'll do it here in English) are, "It cannot be reasoned with."

POR: It's clear from watching a few webisodes of Mr. Deity that you have a solid understanding of religion and it's dogma. Do you have any religious background or have you always taken the side of the skeptic?

BKD: I have a pretty extensive religious background. I was raised Mormon, and really got into it in my late teens and early twenties. I also became pretty obsessed with Christianity (some of my Mormon friends were worried) and Christian history. In my early twenties I studied informally with a Jewish theologian for nearly two years and have a really good grasp of Judaism (he used to say that I knew more about Judaism than 99% of Jews).

I became a Formon (my term for a former Mormon) in 1993 when, after a lot of investigating, I came to the conclusion that the empirical claims of Mormonism were untrue and could be proved false to a near certainty. After that, I wandered a bit. I tried to become Catholic but they wouldn't let me. At that point, I wasn't sure if I believed in God, and I was looking mostly for my young daughter (still under the illusion that religion was necessary to raise good children). I tried Judaism for a short time but couldn't get past the ethnic factor ---- I felt like I'd never be a true Jew. I also just hated anything that smacked of nationalism or group-think ---- the American ideal of the melting pot really speaks to me.

I finally realized that there were other people like me and that they called themselves skeptics. At the time, Dr. Laura was one of these people (crazy, huh?). She was on the board of The Skeptic Society and her article in Skeptic magazine on "False Memory Syndrome" lead me to Michael Shermer and The Skeptic Society. I love Michael and his organization. He and I have very similar stories (he was a born-again Christian), and we both "get" the whole religion "thing." Neither of us are bitter about our experiences, and we generally respect people of faith who can discuss religion rationally.

POR: The sardonic commentary of Mr.Deity undoubtedly offends some religious people out there despite it's honesty regarding particular doctrines. What kind of responses have you received from viewers?

BKD: I began doing Mr. Deity believing that Christians (and other religious folks) in America had not been given a fair shake in the media and that they were nowhere near as close-minded and unable to laugh at themselves as people thought. I am happy to report that I have been able to maintain that opinion. Perhaps that will change as the Mr. Deity audience grows. I hope not.

I have a lot of religious people write to me who love the show ---- and not because they're too dense to get it (as some have suggested). I hope that trend continues, and I hope I can continue to walk that very narrow line where (apparently) I'm not being horribly offensive to those who are religiously minded.

I think anyone with a deep and abiding faith knows that there are problems with theology, the Bible, religion in general, and with how religion is practiced by some. I think it shows a profound intellectual honesty to be able to laugh at yourself when someone is really poking at you ---- and we hit pretty hard sometimes. Kudos to them!

POR: Is there any particular reason why Mr. Deity tends to satirize Christianity? Why not other religions as well?

BKD: Well, I live in a "Christian Nation." Of course, I say that tongue-in-cheek, but Christianity is the dominant religion. It's also the religion that I and most people in this country know best. I just don't think the show would have a broad audience if we were poking fun at Jainism.

POR: What does it take to produce a webisode? Do you really do everything yourself? Writing, directing, filming, etc?

BKD: Right now, it's taking every waking moment of my life to do Mr. Deity every other week, Larry/Deity once a week, and Words ever other week. I do way too much. I write all the shows, produce them, direct them, act in them, shoot them (as cinematographer), edit them, sound mix them, and do the music. I even compress the shows and get them ready for YouTube. Thankfully, Jimbo does the podcast feed. And all the cast members are extremely supportive. Most supportive is my lovely wife who plays Lucy on the show. I can't begin to tell you what this woman endures ---- particularly having her home torn apart most of the time now. She is my best friend and I could not be a luckier guy.

POR: What are your plans for the future of Mr. Deity? TV? Movie? Action figure?

BKD: An action figure is our top priority right now. But we'd love to do this as a half-hour, one-camera, sitcom on some really, really gutsy network. We have a pilot and several episodes written, but companies are afraid of the content. We're looking into hitting up the BBC ---- Europe is a much better venue for this show, I think. We also have a feature film idea, and it looks like (at this point) Mr. Deity will be showing in a film sometime in the next year --- though not a Mr. Deity film. I'll have more details when that deal gets inked.

POR: The "behind the scenes" webisode, "Words" is a more recent creation that "follows the lives of the Deity crew."  It has great comedic "reality" in the vain of  shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm. Who are some influences on your style?

BKD: I have been one of the biggest Woody Allen fans in the world since I was 14. I'm also a huge fan of Bob Newhart. You can see a lot of these two guys in my delivery, timing, and writing. The other influence is Bob Hope (directly and vicariously ---- as he was a big influence on Woody). I can say it more succinctly ---- a Woody and two Bobs. Other than that, I just love good writing ---- particularly conversational writing. When we're rehearsing, the stuff that sounds "written" gets cut very quickly. I think the hardest thing for an actor is to play a scene that doesn't feel real. Acting is hard enough, so having good, conversational writing is a must. I hope that doesn't sound like I'm patting myself on the back, but I am.

POR: Is anyone in the "Deity crew" involved in other projects or have previous things they've done in tv, film, or on the web?

BKD: Amy was on a Star Trek episode, and is one of the few people on the planet to have appeared in a live-action segment of South Park. She's done a lot of stuff over the years. She's also my full-time wife which is really time-consuming.

Sean has been in all kinds of stuff --- you can look him up on He's the real actor among us ---- great training, great instincts ---- he's been in everything I've done, and he just knocks me out. We're going to be shooting a pilot for another show I've been writing called "Estranged." We did some preliminary shooting a while back and we've just been looking at it. Sean is so good, it's frightening.

Jimbo has a theater and film background (I think a degree?). He made a feature years ago (I think he's still paying down that loan), and has great comic timing/instincts. He's my best friend --- which is pretty much a full-time job. So, he can't be in anything else.

POR: What's your take on the advent of "webisodes" and do you plan on continuing making them for different projects?

BKD: I love the web, and I love YouTube. We couldn't have done this five or six years ago. I think it's a great venue to get seen. It's so great to be able to put something up, have people watch it and get their feedback. More than anything else, we love the YouTube comments. They really do motivate us to keep coming up with great stuff.

POR: On July 29th, you'll be visiting the Center For Inquiry in Amherst, NY. Do you think it's appropriate that Mr. Deity will be going to address a group of atheists, agnostics, and other skeptics? Do you plan on converting them?

BKD: Mr. Deity doesn't have a problem with Atheists --- they're his loyal opposition. He is sadly aware of what his people do (did) when they get (had) power. So, he has great respect for those on the other side. He too, hates the ideologues!


God's Sacrifice - Overlooking the Implications

by A. C. LaMonica

I was recently forwarded an email with "Powerful (get the Kleenex ready)" in the subject line. In the email was a link to a short film called "The Bridge." The film is described on the site as "a cinematic story of a father's love...faced with an unfathomable circumstance and choice." I ask that you watch the film (5 min) before proceeding to my *article below. 

I must admit that I found "The Bridge" (now called "Most") a moving film despite its obvious metaphoric representation of God sacrificing Jesus for the sins of the world. Religious or not, the film beautifully shows the importance of self-sacrifice, to consider the greater good before oneself. It is a timeless lesson promoting the selfless altruistic qualities that allow us to thrive as a species. In that sense, everyone can benefit from seeing this film. However, when the Christian doctrine is woven into the story, it loses a lot but also brings to light some glaring theological problems.

The phrase, "Jesus died for your sins.” is one that most human beings cannot go a lifetime without hearing at least once. In America, you can hardly get through the week without your friendly Christian neighbor reminding you that your sins killed Jesus. Even the often referenced and memorized Bible verse, John 3:16, has risen to pop culture status. 

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."

Most (The Bridge) - DVDThis belief is a necessity of the Christian faith and without it the religion itself begins to crumble. It is a tenet of faith known by all Christians and recited daily in their prayers but is it really understood?

Christians presuppose that God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and that Jesus is not only the son of God but God himself as part of the triune God (the remaining parts being God the father and the Holy Spirit.) Already this apparently simple belief of God's sacrifice begins to reveal the theological quagmire it is. 

The simple explanation frequently given is that God loves you so much that he sacrificed his son, Jesus, so that your sins can be forgiven. When viewed through the scope of the aforementioned Christian doctrines, “Jesus dying for your sins” translates into:

God made it necessary to sacrifice himself, to himself, in order to appease himself.

That brief statement should be enough to demonstrate the intrinsic irrationality of the belief but I will continue with other examples for the steadfast Christian. Let's begin by breaking down my translated statement above. 

God, being omnipotent, made it necessary to kill his son/himself because it was the only way for sins to be eternally forgiven. Sounds like an unusual line of reasoning for a being of infinite wisdom. I would even go so far as to say that it would have been better (albeit unnecessary and pointless) if God (Jesus) had given his life only to demonstrate how much he loved us. But that wasn't the only reason. The sins of humanity were so great (according to his celestial barometer) that God insisted the only way he could redeem us was through the torture and murder of his son. 

How exactly does God's logic here show that he loves us? Was it impossible for him to simply forgive us BECAUSE he loves us? Shouldn’t God love and forgive us for the people he created us as? Apparently that was too much for God. He instead sacrificed his son to show his "love" for the world and as a result cast a shadow of guilt over every Christian generation to come. 

The big question is why did God insist on expressing his love for us through the intentional killing of his son? Anyone with common sense could easily come up with other nicer, more effective ways for an omnipotent deity to express love to its creatures. For starters, why not perform some miracles? Re-grow the limbs of a quadruple amputee, cure a child of Autism, get rid of AIDS, save the US economy, etc. etc. 

With all of this in mind, we see less and less parallels between God sacrificing Jesus, and the father character in "The Bridge" sacrificing his son to save the people on the train. Here are some points to consider when comparing the story of "The Bridge" with God's sacrifice using Christian theology to interpret:

- The "bridge" father makes a mistake by not putting the bridge down for the train to cross. Did God have to sacrifice his son because of a mistake he made? 

- The "bridge" father is forced into a circumstance that results in him giving up the life of his little boy to save the people on the train. God is in control and has the advantage of foresight. God creates the circumstance of killing his son to show how "good" and "loving" he is. Now what if the "bridge" father set up a situation in which he purposely killed his son to show how he "saved" the people on the train? When applied to an all-powerful God, this quickly turns from an act of love to an act of twisted, murderous self-glorification.

- The "bridge" father loses his young son to a terrible crushing death in order to do the noble good of saving strangers from death. God knowingly sacrifices his adult son/self so that he feels better about forgiving our sins. Mind you, God knows that after his son is sacrificed, he will come back to life in 3 days right as rain. Which is the greater sacrifice here?

A more reasonable person might agree that the man in "The Bridge" is more honorable and worthy of worship than the God of Christianity.

I could go on and on about this faux sacrifice of God's (e.g. Why did God kill everyone, including innocent children of “evil sinners”, with a flood when he knew he would just have to save humankind with Jesus anyways?) but I fear further intellectual entanglement in attempting to follow nonsensical reasoning. At the very least, I hope I have opened the Christian reader up to the obvious faults in this cornerstone of their faith. We ask that Christians, in particular, give us your feedback on this article. Whether you feel that you can explain away the problems brought up here or if you agree with us, we are interested to hear what you have to say. 

*Please note that much of my language in this article referencing "God, the Father" "Jesus, the Son of God" and "sin" etc. is used to demonstrate a point. I am not acknowledging personal belief in any of these things but rather see them as tools for deconstructing the dogma itself.

The HUMANIST Interview with EBOO PATEL

by Adam C. LaMonica
Published in the May/June 2009 Humanist

Eboo Patel is the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, a Chicago-based international nonprofit working to build mutual respect and pluralism among religiously diverse young people. He received his doctorate in the sociology of religion from Oxford University, where he studied on a Rhodes scholarship. Patel is the author of Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation and regularly appears on Chicago Public Radio and the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” blog. Additionally, he has been featured on CNN Sunday Morning, NPR’s Morning Edition, and other mainstream media outlets. He serves on boards of the National YMCA and Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, and is also an active member of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Religious Advisory Committee and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ task force on Muslims and American Foreign Policy. He has spoken at the Clinton Global Initiative, the Nobel Peace Prize Forum, and at universities around the world. Patel was recently appointed by President Barack Obama to the advisory council of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

The Humanist: As an American Muslim, did you have any experiences that influenced your decision to become an advocate of interfaith? What led you to start an organization like the Interfaith Youth Core?

Eboo Patel: When I was a young Muslim growing up in the Western suburbs of Chicago, I had friends from all different backgrounds sitting at my lunch table. There was a Nigerian Evangelical, a Cuban Jew, a South Indian Hindu, a Lutheran, a Mormon, and a Catholic. This experience contrasted with the news I saw throughout the 1990s, which was full of religious violence. I didn’t understand why, though we all got along at the lunch table, I saw a different story in the media―the story of religious violence, in which young people are often at the front lines. I also recognized that so many of my heroes, like Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, and Thich Nah Han, were young people of faith who started movements for interfaith cooperation. I asked myself: What would it take to start a movement that would make the kind of positive relationships at my lunch table and these great chapters in world history a reality in the twenty-first century? The inspiration for the Interfaith Youth Core was born of this question.

The Humanist: What sort of activities do you pursue at the IFYC?

Patel: We have three main goals: To spread the message of religious pluralism in the public square; to train, nurture, and provide resources for young people to engage in interfaith service and dialogue; and to help these young leaders to build the movement. The IFYC is what we consider its hub, and we work to catalyze interfaith youth action, as well as introduce the idea into the policy and government worlds. All sectors of society can play a role in this movement, and it is one of our tasks to find a way for everyone to contribute.

The Humanist: Do IFYC members share and discuss their religious beliefs and is there any focus on religious education through the IFYC?

Patel: At the Interfaith Youth Core, we focus on storytelling. We think that everyone is the scholar of their own experience and that the best way to relate to one another is through our personal narratives. In this sense, we encourage individuals to share and discuss their faith story with one another to improve understanding across lines of faith.

The Humanist: What is your opinion of the current state of religious tolerance and pluralism in the United States today?

Patel: The United States is the most religiously diverse country in history and the most religiously devout nation in the West. It is ripe with potential for realizing a true state of religious pluralism. However, we haven’t yet achieved this reality. It’s clear from the backlash against Muslim-Americans during the 2008 presidential campaign that we have to keep working to create a religiously tolerant nation. I have a young son and I don’t want his big American dreams to feel confined because he prays in Arabic.

The Humanist: President Barack Obama has said, “The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize.” Being that those involved in interfaith groups are essentially brought together by the diversity of their religious (or nonreligious) beliefs, do you encounter any problems with proselytizing amongst members? If so, how do you address them?

Patel: We understand that the call to evangelize is a part of many people’s religious tradition. While respecting this, we make the distinction that an interfaith dialogue is neither the time nor the place to follow this call. Therefore, we set a safe space where participants acknowledge that we might have different ideas of heaven and how to get there, but that on earth we can work together, and to do so we must respect each other’s religious traditions.

The Humanist: Some commentators on your blog feel that secular humanists and other nontheists don’t have a place in interfaith groups or discussions. I know of some humanists being excluded outright from their local interfaith groups. What is your perspective on the involvement of secular humanists in the interfaith movement?

Patel: My friend Greg Epstein is the secular humanist chaplain at Harvard University, and a huge supporter of interfaith. We welcome humanists as advocates and allies in the interfaith movement, and believe that there is a place for all. Last fall on my Washington Post blog I wrote a call to include the nonreligious in our work.

The Humanist: Respect for a person’s religious beliefs is an integral part of the interfaith movement. However, do you think there is a point at which criticism of particular religious beliefs or practices is necessary when protecting the freedom and rights of individuals?

Patel: Our definition of pluralism has three parts: respect for religious identity, relationships between diverse groups, and common action for the common good. Respect for religious identity is the first component of religious pluralism, and is necessary to build meaningful relationships with people who have diverse beliefs. In part, this means finding the positive commonalities between traditions. These shared values serve as inspiration for those who do have differences in belief to come together and work towards bettering the world.

The HumanistOften in your interviews, you passionately encourage tolerance, pluralism, religious freedom, and even secularism much in the same way many humanists do. Advocating this moderate outlook as a Muslim, are you criticized by other Muslims and, if so, how do you deal with that?

Patel: Too often, the voices of extremism drown out the voices of moderation. I speak in order to empower the vast majority of Americans who are drawn to the moderate middle, but have no outlet in the public square. We have to encourage these moderate voices, which include individuals of all faiths and no faith at all, to break through. I speak as an American who wants to put forth a different vision of religion, one of cooperation instead of conflict.

The Humanist: Through your involvement in the interfaith movement, what are some successes you have seen as a result? What are some challenges?
Patel: IFYC has seen some major successes. We currently run a Fellows Alliance with twenty fellows on different college campuses around the country doing interfaith organizing. In 2008 we reached 23,000 people, conducted recruitment and training at seventy-five college and university campuses, reached thirty new faith communities, and conducted 270 presentations, trainings, and workshops. The interfaith youth movement is also expanding internationally through our partnership with the Tony Blair Faith Foundation and exchange and training initiatives throughout Western Europe.

The challenge for the interfaith youth movement is countering the messages constantly shown through the media. The television constantly shows religious people killing each other to the soundtrack of prayer, and movies like Religulous contribute to the depiction of very devout individuals as unreasonable. Our challenge is to counter this “clash of civilizations” narrative with our own story of religious cooperation.

The HumanistCongratulations on your appointment to the advisory council of President Obama’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. How did you come to be involved in this new council?

Patel: In my work I have the privilege of encountering visionary leaders of religious communities, civic organizations, and policy-making institutions, and I’m honored to have been selected alongside some of these leaders for this White House council. I especially look forward to making interfaith action a priority. The fifteen of the twenty-five members of the advisory council selected thus far convened at the beginning of February with the president, and he made the point that this isn’t the time to argue between faith-based and secular, or Muslim and Christian. This is the time to find the common ground of compassion in all faiths and traditions, and put it into action where it is needed most.
The HumanistConcerns have been raised regarding protecting church-state separation while federally funding religious groups. What are your thoughts on this issue and how should it be addressed?

Patel: Protecting the separation of church and state is a core commitment of the Obama administration. The Executive Director of the faith-based office, Joshua DuBois, has said: “This is not a religious office or a religious administration. We are going to try to find ways to work with faith-based and community organizations that are secular in nature, and don’t cross the boundaries between church and state. We understand it is a fine line. But it’s a line we’re comfortable walking.”

My question is, how can we have mosques and synagogues, secular humanist groups and atheists work together to make sure that in an economic crisis, people are getting what they need? Religious communities do seek to bring others into their fold, but the purpose of this council is not to advance those parochial religious interests. It is to advance the common good, and to advance religious institutions, as well as secular ones, that are often the first and best rooted responders. I know that careful attention will be paid to maintaining appropriate boundaries between church and state.

The HumanistIn what ways do you think the addition of the advisory council will help to serve faith-based initiatives?

Patel: The council includes prominent pastor Joel Hunter, faith-based social justice giant Rev. Jim Wallis, and the influential Rabbi David Saperstein. But it also includes people from secular service organizations, like Judith Vredenburgh of Big Brothers/Big Sisters. President Obama is sending a message with the membership: this council is about how faith and other inspirations make a difference in the world, not about how people worship in their church, or whether they worship at all. This group is bound to create fruitful partnerships that will bring communities together that have never before been united.

Adam C. LaMonica is a member of the American Humanist Association and the co-founder of Path of Reason (

Same-Sex Marriage: Equality vs Bigotry

by A. C. LaMonica

The ongoing debate over same-sex marriage has had a resurgence in the public square after Iowa and Vermont recently legalized gay marriage. The D.C. Council also voted to recognize gay marriages in other states further fueling the controversy. As these events unfolded, I watched the slew of opinions and commentary pour out while choking back my immediate urge to rant from the rooftops.

As a person who believes in equal rights on all fronts, my position here will be obvious. However, out of my frustrated curiosity I decided to take an honest look at the readily available input from the opponents of gay marriage. If so many are against denying certain rights to a group of people, there must be some remotely valid reason, right? Not so, unsurprisingly.


At the core of this argument is religion. There is no way around it and it's embarrassing when gay marriage opponents attempt to explain their point using less religiously-charged terms like "unnatural" or "anti-family." Other than the obvious reasons for religious motivation against gay rights, the Pew Research Center also shows the majority of people say they are opposed to same-sex marriage for the following reasons:

- It's morally wrong
- It's a sin
- The Bible says
- Against my religious beliefs

My question is, how can we actually allow discrimination under the threat of encroaching on the "religious liberty" of those whom are primarily Christian? Would we have the democracy we have now had we restricted the rights of people because of the religious reasons of others?

People like Brian Brown, executive director of the National Organization for Marriage, rage against the "redefinition" of marriage and claim that it would "affect the rights of those of us who believe there is something special and unique about a union of one man and one woman." And what is that "something" Mr. Brown, other than your personal opinion of marriage? We are all aching to know what reason you have that is not based on religion or tradition. Yes, religious liberty is an important right we share as Americans. But where would you draw the line and why? When one's religious beliefs deny the rights of others based on sexual-orientation, perhaps? If it were one's religious belief that only whites have the right to marry, should that also be enforced and protected by government? That is the ground of the argument you tread on.

When confronted as being discriminatory because of his religious beliefs, Mr. Brown claims that, "People of different faiths and no faith at all, across wide spectrums of time, culture, and place have accepted the fundamental reality of marriage. It is rooted in biology not bigotry. Only a man and a woman can come together and naturally create and raise the next generation."

What Mr.Brown has described is sex. I can certainly see how that is related to marriage but the ability to procreate is not a requirement of marriage. Obviously, those heterosexual couples that are not able to have kids are still able to marry as they wish. His "biology" argument is another frequently used tactic in the marriage debate. What opponents fail or refuse, to realize is that biology and nature show us many examples of homosexuality, even amongst animals. According to the National Geographic, explicit evidence of homosexual and bisexual behavior is seen throughout many species. For example, there are "pairs of male flamingos that mate, build nests, and even raise foster chicks." It would appear that those who are anti-gay marriage would do best to stop using "nature" as one of their arguments.

This point, however, is irrelevant because what we are dealing with are two consenting adults wanting to marry and share the same benefits granted to every heterosexual couple.

Brian Brown has also expressed concerns regarding the threat of religious organizations having their tax-exempt status revoked in relation to the topic of same-sex marriage. Perhaps this explains the particular passion with which those in the pulpit express their disapproval of homosexuality in general. For example, Boston Catholic Charities adoptions was shut down in MA after the passage of same-sex marriage and allowing gays and lesbians to adopt children. That is, Boston Catholic Charities chose to shut down or else lose their tax-exempt status. Mr. Brown brings up an excellent point that works against him. Should tax-exempt status be provided to organizations that openly discriminate? Of course not. Let them discriminate at their own cost.

Many proponents of gay marriage are using the comparison of the fight for gay rights to that of our country's slow acceptance of things such as inter-racial marriage, women's rights, and the abolishment of slavery. Some opposing Christians scoff at this point each time and I don't understand why. The Bible goes as far as to tell people how to treat their slaves and yet now, almost every Christian is in agreement that slavery is one of the highest violations of human rights. How are the verses on slavery excused as not being relevant today but the verses against homosexuality are? All bibles aside, this debate comes down to equality, whether it's for abolishing slavery, women's suffrage, or same-sex marriage.

The welfare and education of children is another matter brought into the discussion. Those against gay marriage claim that legalizing gay marriage will lead to the deterioration and collapse of the family and that the best upbringing for a child is with a mother and father. The simple response to this is to suggest a glimpse at the current divorce rates of heterosexual marriages. Certainly this can not be the family stability "best for a child." Furthermore, empirical evidence presented by organizations like the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that children do just as well with same-sex parents.

Another major point expressed by opponents of gay marriage is that it is not in line with the will of "the people." Here, America shows its true homophobic colors. Sadly, this is the one argument that holds true, for now. According to the Pew Research Center, polls show that while opposition to same-sex marriage is in the majority, it is also in decline. For example, there was a decrease from 63% in 2004 to 51% in 2006 for those against legalizing gay marriage.

This may be in part due to the influence of America's younger, more progressive generation. Polls also show that the majority of young people into their early thirties tend to favor legalizing gay marriage. This point was recently made when Senate Majority Leader Michael Gronstal, formerly against gay marriage, quoted his daughter's response to the conservative view on this issue. She said, "You guys don't understand. You've already lost. My generation doesn't care."

And I think that is true because this generation sees through the archaic racism, misogyny, homophobia and ignorance of "tradition". We are a generation more exposed to the diversity of humanity than ever before in history. The internet, for example, has allowed people from all walks of life to mingle and eventually realize that we really aren't that different; that we all deserve the same rights as human beings; and that includes the right to marry.

While the same-sex marriage opponents can currently claim majority as an argument, what I have yet to ever understand since the beginning of this debate, is how it is even up for debate. Shouldn't it be obvious that to base the rights of gays and lesbians on a vote, is a gross perversion and abuse of democracy? When in our country's history has putting to vote the rights granted to a particular group of people been looked upon favorably in hindsight? The simple fact that must be admitted is that there is no reason why two people should not be able to marry, in a democracy or otherwise. Fairness and equality are things meant to exist above "the will of the people". The nature of this debate should disturb Christians and religious alike because if rights can be denied gays and lesbians, what is to stop a majority from taking their rights in the future?

The recession of bigotry can be notoriously slow in hypocritical societies such as our own but we will not let down in our fight for marriage equality. And there will be equality. Whether it happens today or years from now, it is inevitable. Just as inevitable as the dying ideas of a generation dying with them.

Interview with Eric Maisel, author of The Atheist's Way: Living Well Without Gods

by A. C. LaMonica

Eric Maisel, PhD, is the author of more than thirty works of fiction and nonfiction, including Coaching the Artist Within, The Van Gogh Blues and A Writer’s San Francisco. Maisel is a creativity coach and creativity coach trainer who presents keynote addresses and workshops nationally and internationally. He holds undergraduate degrees in philosophy and psychology, master’s degrees in counseling and creative writing, and a doctorate in counseling psychology. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. His website is

Path of Reason: Throughout The Atheist's Way, you emphasize use of the term atheist. Why do you think it's best to define ourselves on religious terms when the ideas you express encompass so much more than that?

Eric Maisel: I am framing my ideas around atheism and not around some less charged word like secularism, humanism, rationalism, skepticism, naturalism, existentialism, or freethinking because I think that it would be a shame to miss what may be an opportunity, as we are perhaps finally ready to face an indifferent universe with new views and to live purposefully and well without gods. Second, rallying around atheism underscores the heightened threat that religious belief poses to the survival of the species. It was one thing for human beings of another age to use god-talk to justify inquisitions. Now they have or are getting nuclear weapons. We need atheism to grow as a movement because we need to remove the god card from the hands of the selfishly self-interested. This is not all that is needed to save our species but it would be an enormous help.

POR: As atheists, we believe religion to be a human invention. If an atheist ultimately invents his/her own meaning in life, what's the difference and why is the atheistic one better?

EM: Atheists are more forthright about accepting personal responsibility for their values and their actions. When you’re an atheist, you’re obliged to figure out how to live as an atheist. It isn’t just that you’re convinced that god-talk is a human contrivance and a human weakness. That’s only a small part of it. It’s a complete vision about the finiteness of your time on earth, your intimate relationship to nature, the sources of your values, and all things human. If you’re addicted and intend to recover, you recover as an atheist. That’s how an atheist recovers— without god-talk. If you’re an artist and intend to create, you sit down and create—you don’t wait for divine inspiration. That’s how an atheist creates—by doing it. Atheism supports and demands a completely atheistic lifestyle, a way of life free of supernatural enthusiasms, full of personal effort and responsibility, and beautiful in its clarity and honesty. 

POR: One difficult thing some former believers experience as new atheists (as referenced in Marcia's story in Chapter 2) is the loss of their church community. Many find the social interaction of church attendance a very fulfilling part of life. What comparable alternatives are there for atheists who crave that sense of fellowship?

EM: There is a great debate among atheists on this score. Some atheists argue that they go to concerts with people who go to concerts, play sports with people who play sports, sing with people who sing, and so on—that they do social things of all sorts without needing any designated atheist society. Other atheists feel exactly the opposite, that they want and need to join with like-minded people who are like-minded in this most important sphere—and they want these gatherings to be warm and personal events and not just places to make intellectual points against religion. Minnesota Atheists, for example, provide lots of opportunities of this sort by sponsoring happy hours, movie outings, and so on. I am inclined to fall into the latter camp, that atheists in fact would benefit from atheist-oriented gatherings. But I suspect that there is a steep learning curve involved in figuring out how to make such gathering feel genuinely warm. 

Many former believers indeed lament that the hardest loss they experience when they give up gods is the loss of their home church and the fellowship of believers. They have not only lost the potlucks, music, ceremonies, rituals, and human contact but some central warmth necessary for mental health and wellbeing. Life is colder without their home church and their brothers and sisters. The atheist lifestyle has, so far at least, no comparative warmth to provide. That costs us billions of potential converts who naturally prefer warmth to truth. We atheists must work on creating warmth as well as light if we want believers to leave their churches.

POR: The title, The Atheist’s Way, appears to suggest that there is a certain way atheists should be. Many people such as Professor Richard Dawkins for example, have likened unifying atheists to that of “herding cats.” Do you think it’s important to bring atheists together under a certain cause and/or philosophy and if so why?

EM: The title of this book does perhaps suggest that there is (or ought to be) one and only one atheist’s way. Of course that isn’t true. Each atheist’s path will differ and must differ, in part because of differences in our nature, in part because of differences in our nurture. What I would like to communicate is that there can exist a coherent, comprehensive, righteous and beautiful way to live without gods … one that you will have to construct. The atheist’s way is your way. You will take your journey and it will not be identical to my journey.

I do think that we want to rally around this banner because there is real harm in believing in god. The harm is that it makes a person more stupid than he or she would otherwise be, more authoritarian, and more antagonistic to solving our shared human problems. It amounts to a complete betrayal of our common humanity. The instant a person gives in to the urge to answer difficult questions about the facts of existence with false, slogan-sized supernatural answers, he makes himself a smaller, more frightened, less democratic person, lowers the critical thinking bar, and endangers our freedom. Just imagine that 
I started mouthing the made-up belief, “God says that blue is bad.” Wouldn’t you immediately begin to fear that your blue rug puts you in some undeserved danger? People should not do that to other people.  

POR: The main idea discussed throughout the book is that atheists should decide what is meaningful to them and live up to that. How is meaning “the problem and also the answer"?

EM: When our younger daughter came home from college one year she presented me with a coffee mug. The motto on the coffee mug read: “Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” “Isn’t that your philosophy in a nutshell?” she laughed. She was exactly right. E. W. Wilcox, to whom the quote is attributed, had captured the essence of thousands of years of existential thought: that life is as much a responsibility as a gift and that each of us is honor-bound to create ourselves in our own best image.

I make my meaning—or else I don’t. All that exists until I actively and mindfully make personal meaning is the possibility of meaning and, while I wait to get started, the experience of emptiness. There is the possibility that I will experience the next hour as meaningful, a possibility that turns into a reality only if I make a certain kind of decision and a certain kind of investment. If I don’t make that decision and that investment, I experience myself as going through the motions and wasting my precious time. We’ve all had that experience—for many of us, for far too much of the time.

Meaning is private, personal, individual, and subjective. Whether you find it more meaningful to sit for an hour by a pond watching ducks paddle or more meaningful to hop up after two minutes and rush home to work on your screenplay is entirely your decision—and one that you might change tomorrow. Who else but you could decide how you intend to order your values, manifest your ethics, and construe meaning? That is the awesome proposition facing every modern person. As limited as we may be in a biological and a psychological sense, we are exactly that free in an existential sense. If we do not live that way, honoring that existential freedom, we get sad and depressed and wish that we had decided to matter.
How do you make meaning? By letting go of wondering what the universe wants of you, by letting go of the fear that nothing matters, and by announcing that you will make life mean exactly what you intend it to mean. This is an amazing, glorious, and triumphant announcement. The instant that you realize that meaning is not provided, as traditional belief systems teach, and that it is not absent, as nihilists feel, a new world of potential opens up for you. You have aimed yourself in a brilliant direction: in the direction of your own creation. 

POR: You talk about society’s aversion to discussing or encouraging any sort of meaning in private or public life. Our culture is notorious for pushing our existential struggles to the side while focusing far more on things such as wealth, fame, power, etc. How are we to even begin addressing the daunting task of switching this culture-wide attitude amongst atheists and theists alike?

EM: A vital step is acquiring a useful vocabulary of meaning that allows you to communicate with yourself and others about the realities of your life. If something disturbing is happening in your life and you can’t identify it as a meaning crisis, how will you handle it? You may misidentify it as “depression” or a “work problem” or a “relationship issue” and head yourself in the wrong direction. If, on the other hand, you possess the language to call it a meaning crisis, then you know what you are obliged to do: make new meaning.

Phrases like meaning threat, meaning spark, meaning leak, and meaning adventure help you think more clearly about meaning. Without such a vocabulary in place, you are stuck with our cultural vernacular that is keen to dub ordinary activities as “spiritual.” With a vocabulary of meaning in place, you inoculate yourself against using supernatural language. Your cousin says, “I had a spiritual experience.” You reply, “Oh, you had a meaningful experience. How nice for you!” Your co-worker says, “I’ve never had a more spiritual time than visiting the gardens of England!” You reply, “Really? What was meaningful about that experience?” By persisting in using a vocabulary of meaning you keep yourself supernatural-free and help others move in the direction of rationality.

POR: As an atheist, reason is the standard by which I consider my opportunities, make decisions, and take action in life. Despite the common sense of reason, religious people continue to encourage living on faith. Why do you think faith is harmful and how are we to express this to the those who advocate it?

EM: People have the right to smoke cigarettes—but they shouldn’t. It’s harmful to them, their loved ones, and innocent strangers. We are so clear about this that we do not allow them to smoke where their smoking can harm others. For exactly the same reasons, we keep religions out of our public schools. People have the right to believe in gods, but they shouldn’t. Just as fewer and fewer Americans smoke cigarettes, because the truth about its harmfulness has penetrated our shared consciousness, my hope is that fewer and fewer Americans will betray their neighbors with dangerous god-talk. They have the right to their beliefs; but I hope that they will shed them.   
A belief in gods is not an innocent thing. It is a position vis-à-vis the world and vis-à-vis one’s neighbors. It is a refuge for scoundrels who want their views to count more than the next person’s, it is way to enslave the minds and hearts of children, it provides cover for bigotry and prejudice, it causes sharp divisions among people, and it makes the world a less rational and a more dangerous place. Therefore it should be the hope of every thoughtful person that beliefs in gods wither way and the practice of every thoughtful person to indict god-talk as a betrayal of our common humanity.    

POR: Atheists are commonly looked upon as “evil” or at the very least, an untrustworthy group of people. How do ethics arise from an atheistic worldview?

EM: You and you alone decide what you want to value. The universe does not care about fairness; nevertheless you may decide that, despite the universe’s complete indifference, you would like to advocate for fairness. You do exactly what any serious ethicist does, what someone like the framers of the Constitution did: you decide what you want to value—fairness, justice, equity, and freedom spring to my mind—and then you manifest those values by making ethics and by becoming a moral instrument. The planets do not care about your next right action—but you must.  Ethical believers and ethical atheists do exactly the same thing: they identify their cherished values and then they live them. There is no other way to be ethical except by being ethical. 

POR: Do you think atheists as a group struggle to find meaning in life more than others? Why?

EM: I think they do, because for them meaning is a problem and not a given. They do not swallow dogma about what to believe and so they are stuck having to figure out what to believe, which can be challenging. Believers, by virtue of their belief system, are almost certainly less inclined to suffer from existential depression, as existential matters are “wrapped up” for them and “made easy” for them by virtue of their belief system. Of course, the less they believe their own beliefs (or, to put it differently, the more they doubt), the more likely it is that they open themselves up to the threat of existential depression. But on balance, if they “really do” believe, then they are substantially inoculated against existential depression

By contrast, atheists are obliged to continually make sense both of “what matters” and “why anything matters,” thus making them ripe for existential crises (when nothing seems to matter) and existential depression. While there are robust ways to deal with these existential crises, and, in turn, with existential depression, it is nevertheless the case that, on balance, atheists are probably more prone to existential depression than are believers.  

Conversely, though, it is entirely likely that belief involves a believer in the kinds of intrapsychic conflicts and defensive gymnastics (like repression) that breed depression, so believers may well be more prone to psychological depression than are atheists. It requires some profound repressive tactics to hide the truth from oneself that one’s religion is primarily an accident of birth, that there are no gods choosing to down airplanes or subject cities to hurricanes, that virtually all of the thousands of posited gods are immature, vindictive, squabbling creatures not worth valuing, and so on. A tremendous amount of obvious data must be ignored and repressed to continue believing, especially if you are basically bright and humane, and all that repressing must translate into psychological depression. Therefore it is fair to guess that, all other psychological causes being equal, believers must suffer more often and more intensely from psychological depression than do atheists.

So the need to make meaning can get atheists down and the desire to avoid making meaning can get believers down. Who gets more down? We don’t know yet.

POR: What do you ultimately hope to accomplish with The Atheist's Way?

EM: Many things; but a central one is to warm up the word “atheism.” The word “atheist” is a larger, friendlier, and more glorious word than most people currently imagine. It stands for a conviction about the non-existence of gods but it also vibrates at other wavelengths. It is about a solidarity with nature and with the universe: we are not afraid of this universe in which we live, we do not create dragons and devils with which to scare ourselves, we are not frightened that a vacuum is empty or that we begin dying as soon as we are born. We are exactly, precisely, and wholly natural. We are human beings, with enough fascinating attributes to make even the most incurious among us stand up and take notice. To say “human being” is to say plenty: it is all of that plenty that the word “atheist” connotes. I would like the word to resonate with some of that beauty and majesty.