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Holy Apostles College and Seminary Atheism and New Atheism Speech

Holy Apostles College and Seminary Atheism and New Atheism Speech

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Published by Justin Vacula
I received a unique opportunity from Dr. Sebastian Mahfood [a professor who holds a Master's in philosophy and a doctorate in post-colonial literature and theory] of Holy Apostles College and Seminary -- a fully-accredited Catholic school in Connecticut offering graduate and undergraduate programs -- to be a guest speaker for a class in the latter part of July titled "Atheism and New Atheism" representing, of course, an atheistic perspective.

Here is the text of my twenty-minute talk.

More information about the event, including the audio recording, can be found here:
I received a unique opportunity from Dr. Sebastian Mahfood [a professor who holds a Master's in philosophy and a doctorate in post-colonial literature and theory] of Holy Apostles College and Seminary -- a fully-accredited Catholic school in Connecticut offering graduate and undergraduate programs -- to be a guest speaker for a class in the latter part of July titled "Atheism and New Atheism" representing, of course, an atheistic perspective.

Here is the text of my twenty-minute talk.

More information about the event, including the audio recording, can be found here:

More info:

Categories:Types, Speeches
Published by: Justin Vacula on Jul 18, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Thanks for having me today. This discussion, I hope, will be a start of an ongoing conversation – and arespectful one at that – between theists and atheists. I'm very excited to be afforded this opportunity tospeak with you all today and look forward to the question and answer session which follows. After thequestion and answer session, please feel free to view more of my content at justinvacula.com, listen toepisodes of the NEPA Freethought Society podcast (also found on my website), and also feel free to e-mail me and/or interact on social networks.I've been invited to be a guest speaker today by your professor Dr. Sebastian Mahfood to provide a perspective of an atheist. Many people throughout the freethought/atheist/secular community wereexcited to hear about this including, perhaps most prominently, the Freedom From Religion Foundation(FFRF) – the largest national organization for freethinkers, of which I am an active member. The FFRFseeks to educate the public on matters relating to non-theism and promote and defend the constitutional principle of separation of church and state – two objectives I support and personally spend much time on.The FFRF promoted my blog post relating to this event. The feedback was tremendously supportive.My speech today will touch on many broad topics. I won't focus on one or two issues, but rather will talk about several in the allotted time period and may elaborate in the question and answer period. Some of the topics I will talk about – all related in some way to me being an atheist – include my thoughts on theneed for reflection and respectful conversation with those whom we disagree, why I consider myself anatheist, what it means to be an atheist, my religious upbringing, my path to atheism, the difficulty of  being an out atheist in the United States, and arguments against belief in the Christian god.There seems to be a lack of substantive discussion about matters of religious belief and what seems to beeven worse, a lack of concern for holding justified true beliefs – and this isn't only in the arena of religious beliefs. People avoid conversation because they want to preserve harmony or what some call'respect beliefs.' Some view disagreement as disrespect. Some even think that disagreeing with people'sreligious belief in whatever manner or even providing counter-arguments to religious belief violatesdiversity requirements and is intolerant. Some even think there is no such thing as truth, that we createour own realities, or that holding truth is impossible. Some believe that it is permissible to believesomething without good reason, because a belief makes one feel good, or even solely because of faith (I'llget to that one later.) I believe that we, even though we may be quite limited as human beings with our current state of limited knowledge, can talk about truth and collectively work toward reaching it.In a course like this, one concerned with philosophy, students should be concerned with holding belief that is both true and justified. The Bible even, in some points, specifically in 1 Peter 3:15, instructs people to, if asked give “the reason for the belief in your heart” to “prepare a defense and do so withgentleness and respect.” As an atheist, I am very much in favor of this attitude and hope to foster it indiscussions I have podcasts I record, speeches I give, and in other aspects of my life. Discussions anddisagreement can and should be had in a respectful manner without a person pulling punches – attackingideas, not people. In challenging our beliefs, especially our cherished beliefs, we can only learn and progress. If it is the case that arguments can serve to lead us away from particular beliefs, we are better for that – for having beliefs which are justified and true should be a primary concern in our intellectuallives and much more important than possible temporary discomfort.As an atheist, or more broadly as a skeptic, I am willing to change any and all of my beliefs providedgood enough reason and argument is presented. If it so happens that a convincing argument for any godsor the Christian god comes forth, I will be better for encountering that for I will have more justified true beliefs and less false unjustified beliefs. Even if we happen to not change our minds on issues, we're also,I would think, generally better off for encountering people whom we happen to disagree provided
something is learned. Justified true beliefs, after all, should be able to withstand objections. Inencountering people and ideas we disagree with, we can formulate responses and be better prepared todeal with them and even to better understand ourselves.I am an atheist – the term, I think, properly understood, is simply used to describe a person who lacks belief in any gods. This does not mean to have a belief that no gods exist or serve as a claim of absolutecertainty. I am an atheist because I find no good reasons to believe that any gods exist. To go even further,I find no good reasons to believe that any sort of supernatural or paranormal phenomena exist.When I think of belief or lack thereof in any matters, I think of what is the most reasonable interpretationof reality – to think in terms of absolutes is most unhelpful because I can be mistaken as my senses might be faulty and my interpretations of reality – whether they be results of deliberation, intuition, or empiricalobservation -- may also be faulty. Philosopher Johnathan Kvanvig, on this matter, expresses a sentimentwhich I find most helpful, “There is no reason whatsoever to think that believing the truth is alwaysimpossible; the best that can be claimed is that there is no guarantee in any given case that we haveachieved the state of believing the truth. Perhaps it follows that we should not hope for the chimera of infallibility.”As one atheist, I can't claim to speak for everyone, but only can speak for my perspective – althoughsome atheists may agree with everything I will say and some atheists will agree with portions of myspeech. I'm not Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. While their works and writingshave been influential to me, I don't agree with everything they say and take a much different approach – a philosophical one (especially when considering Dawkins who takes largely, if you will, a scientificapproach to atheism) – and I have a different tone.Atheism and religion alike aren't monolithic entities in that atheism and religion is one 'thing' and that allatheists or all religious persons (of specific religions) believe the same thing. Knowing that a person is anatheist tells you only one thing about that person – that he or she lacks a belief in any gods – and is noguarantee of critical thinking skills or anything else. Similar to this is that knowing a person is a theistonly tells a person that one believes in a god...and perhaps not even a personal god, oddly enough, on theaccounting of some people I have encountered. Some who consider themselves to be Christians, perhapsmostly in academic settings, think of God as a metaphor, see the Bible as a book which is nothing morethan a beautiful and interesting narrative in which individuals attempt to understand the world. It is bothunhelpful and inaccurate to make wide assumptions painting all religious people or atheists with a broad brush. Perhaps it is best to try and understand the person who holds a belief – to ask questions, to seewhere they are coming from, and even have understanding of their background.I will then provide a short backstory of my background. As a student in kindergarten in a public school, Ifirst started to attend CCD religious education courses learning, among other things, at the age of five or six, that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. These classes, for those who may not know the acronym, areRoman Catholic education classes that, at least from my education, were once a week classes with areligious teacher and a priest. I would go to church for about an hour to hear words of encouragement and preaching from a priest and then go to class for another hour. In addition to this, throughout my childhoodand teenage years – I would regularly attend church services. I was also an alter boy, a reader for masses,and participated in the yearly Stations of the Cross plays as an actor and, in later years, a narrator. My parents were also religious – but mainly nominally – they went to church with me, of course, althoughthis was mainly my father. My mother and my father, as it seems today, think that one should 'just believe' and found that I should be 'raised in the church' – so I was. I received various sacraments in theCatholic Church from baptism to confirmation. I was very much a believer – and so to the point in which
I had considered, although never acted on it, entering the priesthood – and people recommended that I doso...at quite a young age, even. I suppose they saw much religious promise, if you will, in me.In my second year of undergraduate education at King's College -- a liberal arts Catholic university inPennsylvania – I started to seriously question my religious beliefs mainly as a result of a philosophycourse, “Ethics and the Good Life” that I had and a discussion about atheism on campus. Also importantwas a friend of mine, an English teacher I had in high school, who had – as far as I can remember – beenthe first person to seriously cause me to think about the truth-value of religious beliefs although I, at thetime, had seriously considered that he was acting as a minion of Satan or otherwise was possessed by thedevil.After writing a paper for my “Ethics and the Good Life” course in which the prompt concerned whether one needed to believe in God to find meaning in life – I defended a position that one did not need to believe in God to find meaning. From there, I found it important to go on a quest of sorts to determinewhether there were good reasons to believe in the Christian god. Long story short, as should be obvious,my answer was 'no' after all sorts of discussions with religious professors, ministers, priests, friends, andfellow students. I found these discussions, as an atheist, to be extremely productive and valuable as Icould better understand their positions and challenge my own beliefs.Entering my third year of college as an 'out atheist' wanting to start a student group – a chapter of theSecular Student Alliance – I received a tremendous unexpected amount of hate mail and general hatefrom students...simply because I wanted to start a student group for secular students. Following this, anda notification from college administration that my group was not allowed to exist, I received much morehate including threats and a great deal of nastiness – and this time from the community of NortheasternPennsylvania and two aunts of mine – following my challenging the constitutionality of a nativity sceneon a courthouse lawn. I was declared, by a radio show host, the third most hated person in LuzerneCounty – the county in which I live. #1 and #2, as you may wonder, were two judges indicted in the 'Kidsfor Cash' scandal – these were judges who received kickbacks from a private facility when they sentchildren in their juvenile courts to a private detention center.More recently, although this time not generating hate mail, at least yet, I submitted an advertisement to acounty bus company that had the word “Atheists” in large text – this was denied as it was declared an'attack on religion' and a controversial sign that would spark public debate of controversial issues – thusnot permissible on county buses. I haven't though, given up, but it will take some time to properly addressthis issue and have the sign placed on buses – it may even take a lawsuit and a court date. It's reallydifficult for people to be openly atheistic because they fear financial distress, job loss, being kicked out of a home, losing family members, and other repercussions.I'm an out atheist and believe that my activism – and the activism of many others – whether that consistsof writing, protesting when called for, opposing legislation and other governmental activity contrary tothe Establishment Clause, etc. is important. I even feel a sort of moral obligation to make my viewsknown, address governmental wrongs, educate others, and continue my efforts. Like many of the “newatheists,” I feel that religious beliefs are not only unjustified, false, and irrational, but also potentiallydangerous. We cannot doubt that our beliefs inform our actions and some of our actions have the abilityto harm others. Of course, though, not all religious beliefs or beliefs derived from religion are harmful or  potentially so, but some are. Additionally, not all people act on their beliefs – there is a wide gap, for example, from the person who believes that atheists are morally deficient (as Psalm 14 declares) to thosewho will openly discriminate against or show contempt toward atheists.

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Graham Ash-Porter added this note
Nice on Justin. Are the Q&A coming out and or audio?

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