Thursday, October 25, 2012

Special event! November 19!

                                 The Triangle Freethought Society

proudly presents

"Piety and the Placebo Effect:

How Religion Hijacks Our Capacity for Self Healing."


Dr. Andy Thomson

Monday November 19, 2012 at 6:30 pm
3313 Wade Ave.
Raleigh, NC 27607

J. Anderson Thomson, Jr., M.D.(Andy) is a psychiatrist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia.(Andy) is a psychiatrist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia.
He is also a staff psychiatrist for the Counseling and Psychological Services of the University of Virginia's Student Health Services, as well as the Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy.

He is the forensic psychiatrist for Region Ten Community Services.
Since 1992 Marilyn Minrath, Ph.D., M.S.N. and Dr. Thomson have conducted a private forensic practice. Their cases have encompassed the full range of legal issues including child custody, capital murder, competence, and mental state at the time of the offense.
Andy received his B.A. from Duke University (1970), his M.D. from the University of Virginia (1974) and did his adult psychiatry training at the University of Virginia (1974-77). His private practice is oriented toward individual psychoanalytic psychotherapy, forensic psychiatry, and medication consultation.

He served as the Assistant Director of the Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia, which involved interdisciplinary intervention and research in large group ethnic and political conflict.

Dr. Thomson has publications on narcissistic personality disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the psychology of racism, religion, psychobiographical essays on Robert E. Lee and Lee Harvey Oswald, depression, bipolar disorder, and forensic psychiatry. His current research interest is in the area of evolutionary psychology and using its principles to understand depression, suicide terrorism, and religious belief.

With Russ Federman he recently published Facing Bipolar: The Young Adult's Guide to Dealing with Bipolar Disorder.

In June 2011, with Clare Aukofer, he published Why We Believe in God(s): A Concise Guide to the Science of Faith.

Since 2008, he has had the privilege of serving as a trustee for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.

The Triangle Freethought Society (TFS) is a membership-based, nonprofit education and advocacy organization dedicated to issues surrounding nontheism. Our membership is made up of nontheists, post-theists, atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, skeptics and humanists living and working in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill and surrounding areas. We are the local chapter of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national member-organization based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Our main purpose is to stand up for the separation of church and state as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. Additionally, we work to:
  • Ensure that non-religious people enjoy the same rights as religious citizens.
  • Raise awareness and educate the general population about the concerns and issues facing the nontheist community.
  • Protect reason-based and scientific education within our school systems.
  • Engage in organized charitable and community improvement projects.
  • Create a sense of community for the nontheist population in our geographical area and beyond.

TFS is also an affiliate organization of the American Humanist Association (AHA).

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The military said I was spiritually unfit...

Sean Faircloth speaks to Soldiers about the military's Spiritual Fitness Test...

As a veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, I came home from the latter with the signature injuries of these conflicts: traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Now, TBI is a purely physical problem.  I had brain scans, optometry therapy, physical therapy, and other medical interventions to help me overcome the physical damage from the IED which exploded underneath my vehicle in October of 2009.  PTSD is a different kind of beast, though, and calls for a multi-disciplinary approach. 

When the Army placed me into a Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) to address my health care needs and figure out what to do with me administratively, they began a long, rather one-sided conversation during which I was told, time and again, that my spiritual goals were insufficient, my "spiritual domain" poorly defined, and that if I needed help there was a chaplain at the ready for any counseling needs I had.  During my time in the WTB I was placed under the supervision of a platoon sergeant who told me I needed to pray, read the Bible, and accept Jesus as my savior, and I was constantly being reminded that "spiritual fitness" was an important part of recovery.  The Army has really bought into that idea that spirituality is an important element in PTSD treatment.  With thousands of new cases presenting every new deployment rotation, that's going to be a lot of time spent toward checking up on injured Soldiers' religious pursuits. 

My actual medical care was less than stellar during my time at the WTB.  I had no less than six doctors in just over a year, and while I'd rather keep the details to myself, let's just say the care was less than consistent.  When I think about the millions the military spent on programs to assess Soldiers' spiritual fitness, I can't help but think that money couldn't have been better spent.  On September 25, I was medically retired from the Army.  I am happy to report that the VA Medical Center doesn't give a rip whether or not I'm spiritually fit.

What the Army never got was that if they fostered a climate where Soldiers of any faith or no faith could use Army facilities to hold meetings and gather, they could give Soldiers everything any study ever showed was valuable in PTSD recovery (social aspects, mostly) without forcing them to choose a religion.  Instead, the Army has a list of approved religions, a chaplaincy trained to minister to adherents to those approved religions, and absolutely no resources for nonfaith populations.  A typical military solution, the one-size-fits-all approach is counterproductive to a minority of Soldiers.  I was in the minority.  And, boy, did I know it. 

I'm trying to end on a positive note, and it's tough.  On balance, I'm better off than I was a few years ago.  I'm definitely getting better medical care now that I'm out of the Army's system, thanks largely I think to reforms within the VA.  What's the atheist perspective here?  Just, I think, that we should be mindful of the increased focus the federal government is placing on religion as it treats our nation's wounded.  PTSD is a mental illness, and most patients can live a full life with the recommended treatments.  Adding religion under the guise of spirituality to the mix just complicates the issue, and ought to be illegal under the First Amendment.  The military said I wasn't spiritually fit.  I say I don't need to be, and it was never any of their damned business, anyway.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Italy's bad - very bad, but we have our problems...

Earthquake Scientists Sentenced to Six Years

Welcome to Italy, the very last place on earth where the world's first working earthquake prediction machine will be installed, purely for liability reasons.  The 6 seismologists, who were convicted of multiple manslaughter for failing to predict the 6.3-magnitude earthquake that killed over 300 people in 2009.  Predicting earthquakes is impossible, by current scientific standards, but that didn't stop the Italian criminal justice system.

Atheists and other nonbelievers tend to have a healthy respect for science, and I hope that every one of us were offended at yesterdays ruling.  I was even a little incensed at the way it was reported.  "Seismologists were outraged," wrote several news outlets.  Seismologists?  All scientists everywhere are outraged, by my meager estimation, and I should hope even that is an understatement.  The activist in me wants to do something about this; then again, the activist in me is still pretty pissed about what the Catholic Church did to Galileo. 

Maybe one good takeaway from this, while we stand in solidarity with these scientists in however many ways possible, is to recognize that a staggering number of people believe an overwhelming amount of unscientific things.  The collective dearth of a scientific reference in Italy with respect to the science of seismology made this verdict possible.  In America, we have gaps in knowledge about all kinds of scientific areas: most people don't know what stem cells are; climate change is considered by many to be merely a political issue; there are wide gaps in knowledge about modern biology, modern physics, and yes, geology - I wonder what the man-on-the-street interviews in downtown Raleigh would yield with the question, "what causes an earthquake?" 

By doing what we can to promote a general awareness of science in the lives of those around us, maybe we can help close the gap. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Attack of the Theocrats now in Paperback!

On October 15, this great, great book, Attack of the Theocrats by Sean Faircloth was released in paperback, and you should buy it if you have any interest at all in the removal of religious bias from law.  Sean Faircloth makes the case that there are a number of laws already on the books across the country that favor religions which preach hate against gays, teach the subjugation of women, and endanger children. 

Also in Attack of the Theocrats is a ten-point vision for a secular America, a model for getting our country back to the principles of Jefferson and Madison.  Faircloth also gives us the "Fundamentalist Fifty," a quick look at some of the worst theocrats in Washington today (I was both pleased and  disgusted to see that NC's own Renee Ellmers made the list - Steve Wilkins for Congress!!).

Attack of the Theocrats can be found nowhere in the dinky town where I live, but fortunately is available at Barnes and Noble and at Amazon.  Buy 2 copies, because if you are anything like me, you will read it quickly and immediately lend it to a friend (grumble). 

We do not walk alone

Coming Out: The Other Closet by Dave Silverman

I link to this great article by Dave Silverman on the American Atheists page not because I'm going to summarize it but because I really hope you'll stop here, go read it, and then come back.  See, I think that some of the audience reading this blog (thank you!) are nonbelievers who aren't out, but maybe have this fear that someone is going to try to push you out.  Let me be the first (or just one of many) to say that no one is trying to do that.  At the same time, there is a freedom to being out with your nonbelief, even if it's only to a few safe people.  And, that's what a community of nonbelief offers.

There's this great organization called Foundation Beyond Belief.  Founded in 2010, it has become a point around which local groups of nonbelievers can rally to bring humanitarian relief to disaster areas around the globe.  It's a national organization made up of local people coming together to do good, motivated by a personal sense of compassion and morality.  You can be a part of that next month (more on that to come).

What does that have to do with coming out?  Just this.  You can be out to the people you have this incredibly rewarding experience with on a quasi-regular basis - and no one else, if that's what you want.  Odds are, you'll meet people who aren't out to everyone in their lives.  But, meeting people is better than not meeting people, yes?  And, there are many other ways than Foundation Beyond Belief to meet other nonbelievers.  Part of the goal of this blog will be to get those opportunities out in the open for people.

I ran into an old friend of mine a few weeks ago.  He is the pastor of a medium-sized Methodist church, the conservative kind, and he knew I had left the ministry and had joined the Army.  He did not know I was an atheist.  I gave him the Cliff's notes on how that came to be, and he said a few things that didn't surprise me at all, but one thing that did - he said, "Jay, you've traded a community of faith for a solitary path."  Now, I'm really glad I didn't meet him a year ago, because a year ago those words may have given me pause.  As it was, I was able to draw strength from the memories of the many other nonbelievers I've met, and say to him, "We would rather walk alone by reason than together by myth - but we do not walk alone." 

We do not walk alone, my friends. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Atheism and evolution

I suppose one need not be an atheist to believe the scientific facts which support Darwinian evolution.  After all, no less a religious entity as the Roman Catholic Church "allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms", and many Protestant denominations either allow for or outright teach that mankind evolved from "previous biological forms," a position those churches are forced into by science.

Science has come a long way since Darwin's discovery and his publishing of On the Origin of Species in 1859.  This is a blog, not a book, so let me just summarize the definition of the modern theory of evolution by quoting Dr. Jerry Coyne directly from his wonderful book, Why Evolution is True: "Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species - perhaps a self-replicating molecule - that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many new and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection." (p. 3)  That one sentence is supported by multiple lines of evidence: fossils; embryology; molecular genetics; geographic distribution of species; atavisms and vestigial organs.  There is no modern understanding of biology without evolution.

My point isn't so much that the naysayers against evolution are wrong (as a matter of fact, however, they are).  My point is that Darwin's theory (elevated by modern science to the scientific definition of a theory - a fact) obviates the need for a designer.  Since the mechanism for most of evolutionary change is natural selection, then the mechanism is not special creation.  The mechanism need not be divine wrangling from some cosmic distance to jiggle life into the right dimensions.  Darwin' s point was that, given enough time, natural selection was a powerful enough force to result in all of the diversity on display in the natural world without artificial intrusion.  No designer was necessary.  For life.

There are atheists who are so for no particular reason; perhaps they just don't like church, or they prefer to live life according to their own way; and this is fine.  The odds that a personal god exists are so infinitely small that the prospect is virtually impossible; whether or not you can explain why isn't necessary for that to be true.  But, the more conversant you are with the theory of evolution, the more prepared you are for the "God of the gaps" arguments that are employed against us.  They (and by "they" I don't just mean those trying to convert you to a religion - these days "they" include those looking for your vote!) say that since science doesn't have the answer to a whole host of questions, then God must have - indeed, must be - the answer.  Understanding evolution gives you the power to know that science has answered some really hard questions(!) and the wisdom to know that on the answers science doesn't have yet, to paraphrase Dr. Richard Dawkins, we're working on it.  And, just because science doesn't have the answer, what on earth makes you think religion has it - religion's track record is pretty horrible, after all.

Evolution is not religious dogma.  The fact of Darwinian evolution is scientific knowledge that can give all of us, particularly atheists, important perspective.

Atheism in NC

It can be difficult to be an atheist in North Carolina, and for some coming out is much harder than others.  This blog exists to discuss issues of interest to atheists in NC.  It will be open to guest bloggers.  If you wish to join the discussion, please feel free to post comments, and if you wish to guest blog, send me an email at  As I know sometimes it is hard to put your name to things, depending on whether or not you're "out,"  anonymous commenting is on and welcome.  What is unwelcome is religious badgering of any kind, proselytizing or evangelizing.  Please, no family members, mine or otherwise, telling me how deeply we're being prayed for.  Such comments are unwelcome here and will be deleted because, come on - they are not unique and don't add to the discussion, at best.

To sort of get things going, I want to recommend an organization that opened my eyes to what seemed like a whole new world. 

I made the transition from church pastor to atheist over several years, and most of that transition happened in my head.  There weren't a lot of people for me to talk to about it, and while I credit much of the actual fleshing out of my current beliefs to science learned through books and the Internet, I really missed out on the social ties that could have been gained by meeting other nonbelievers. 

It didn't have to be that way.  This March, I attended a fundraiser in Raleigh for the Triangle Freethought Society, a group for nonbelievers headquartered in Raleigh.  The event featured Dr. Richard Dawkins, a pivotal leader in the current atheist movement whose work The God Delusion was seminal in my own atheistic education.  I attended, fully expecting a signature and a handshake.  I was simply not prepared to meet the hundreds of people who were just like me in one very important way. 

I have not been able to travel to Raleigh as often as I'd have liked since then, because of my military obligations, but now that I'm retired I plan to attend meetings there more often.  Not just to attend meetings, but because I had such a wonderful experience meeting people who shared my love for science and my belief that religion had failed, in its thousands of years-existence, to make a case for the existence of the supernatural.  People for whom the theory of evolution was not a subject written in a foreign language. 

That's why it's hard to be an atheist in whatever corner of North Carolina you happen to live.  Because, there's maybe several hundred in Raleigh.  But, in Sanford, where I live, there's maybe just several.  And, I don't know them.  We're not connected.  But, I'll bet we'd have a few things to talk about, if we were.  Richard Dawkins said (I'd quote from The God Delusion, but I've lent my last copy again!  blast!) that maybe the first step towards "herding the cats," that is, getting an atheist movement together, is encouraging them to come out.  Maybe through organizations like TFS and through online forums and, yes, even through contacts found through blogs, we can begin the process of finding one another.  It's difficult to be an atheist in NC, sometimes, but I've found that when you're friends with other atheists it's not nearly so difficult as you might think.