Aron Ra Resigns as President of Atheist Alliance of America, Focuses on State Senate Run

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Atheist Activist and Science Communicator Aron Ra. Image: YouTube screen capture.

Aron Ra, the atheist activist and science communicator, has resigned as President of the Atheist Alliance of America, according to an article from his blog. He has decided to move on from the organization to focus on an increasingly busy schedule related to his Texas State Senate run. “So in an effort to minimize distractions, I have resigned as President of Atheist Alliance of America to concentrate on my increasingly busy State Senate Campaign. Yes, I’m really doing this despite how much of a long shot this is,” Ra noted.

He is running as a Democrat in Texas State Senate District 2, whose incumbent, Bob Hall, is a Republican. If Ra wins the Democratic primary in the spring of 2018, he will face a district where a Democrat has not run since 2002. Nevertheless, as an insurgency grows against President Donald Trump and the GOP, he may have an opportunity to stage a spectacular upset.

During his time as Atheist Alliance of America president, he helped to relaunch the Secular Nation podcast (disclosure: co-hosted by yours truly), assisted with the coming relaunch of Secular Nation magazine, and helped rebuild its presence within the growing Atheist movement.

If you are interested in learning more about Aron Ra’s candidacy and ways to support, visit his campaign website, aronra.org.

Where are the Scientists in Congress?

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A few years ago on Real Time with Bill Maher, astrophysicist and science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson brought up a very interesting point about the United States Congress. “I wonder what profession all these Senators and Congressmen are? Law, law, law, law, business man, law, law. . . . There are no scientists? Where are the engineers? Where is the rest of life?,” quipped Tyson. The rest of life, indeed. According to a report released last year by the Congressional Research Service, there were only 11 members of Congress (out of 535) that were scientists or engineers; all of them were in the House of Representatives, with the exception of one engineer in the Senate. This is the very definition of disproportionate, seeing as by 2010, one in every 18 jobs in the United States was in Science, Technology, Engineering, or Math (STEM). By 2018, it is projected to be nearly one in five. If our congressional representation kept a parity with the private sector, there should be 30 scientists, rather than merely 11. By 2018, it should be closer to 91.

This is a sad state of affairs, something that should have changed years ago. However, with the election of one of the most unqualified, anti-science administrations in history, scientists are beginning to get political. As a recent piece in the New York Times noted, scientists are now beginning to organize and even run for office, namely UC Berkeley biologist Michael Eisen. Within the growing secular movement, activist and science communicator Aron Ra is running for the Texas State Senate. This is all culminating in a national March for Science on Earth Day, April 22, 2017. Thousands of scientists, engineers, and all-around rationalists from across the country are getting organized to take on the anti-science, anti-reason impulses of our body politic. But it doesn’t end there.

The March for Science should be the starting point of an even larger movement to reshape Congress. Our Congress needs to be more aligned with the growing body of knowledge about the harmful effects of climate change, the wrong-headed hysteria over GMO foods and vaccines, as well as a larger commitment to critical thinking. We need to have organizations and activist resources that help us find, groom, canvass for, and finally elect science-oriented reformers to Congress. So much of the rancor and divisiveness plaguing our politics is rooted in a partisan view of the truth. As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” An objective, non-partisan view of facts and science should come back to our politics. Liberals, conservatives, and independents should more than happily disagree about specific actions we take on the issues, but if we can’t even agree on what the issues are, we can never really change them. Electing science-minded members to Congress will go a long way to fix many such ills we face in our country and the world.

Without the Net: Depression and Anxiety as an Atheist

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Content Note: This article is about my experiences with depression and anxiety. I’m not a medical professional or psychologist, so if you’re worried about your own condition, I strongly advise you to visit your doctor. This article is not intended to be medical advice.

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I often wonder what it feels like to die, to give up on everything; to finally feel the release of this tortured frame of my body and be free. It’s a thought I’ve had many times in my life. Despite my successes, my family and friends, and the passions that animate my curiosity, the creeping darkness of my own mind still haunts me.

To know these feelings is to know depression, at least how it manifests in me. I’ve lived with clinical depression for over ten years, and clinical anxiety for three. Alongside the darkness and thoughts of death, I also experience episodes of intense worry, regret, and self-destruction. These moments paralyze me, make me feel the urgency of my body. The constant wrenching in the stomach, the deep and stentorian beats of my heart. This combination makes it very hard for me to relate to people, especially ones whose easy-going nature and calm demeanor often aggravate my own intensity.

I try not to take it out on them, of course. It is not their fault I am who I am. I am the product of biology as well my environment. My family has a history of depression, often undiagnosed. My father’s depression, of which his undiagnosed case catalyzed the end of his marriage to my mother, still creates in him an inner turmoil. Today, he does seek treatment for it, but as I do, lives with the lingering emotional scars. However, I’m unlike my father in that I’m an extrovert and desire the approval and attention of others. These interactions are a great source of strength.

I have what is called dysthymia, or low-grade depression. It doesn’t appear like other forms of depression do, where you have long-bouts of completely debilitating experiences. Instead, this type of depression smolders under the surface, constantly picking away at you for weeks or months before you have a bad day, month, or even year. You still function, but you battle fatigue, irritability, and loss of attentiveness. In my experience, I often have a poor temper with regards to my episodes. Things will wear on me all day until the smallest thing sets me off. Whether it’s my wife asking me to do something, dropping an item on the floor, or forgetting a task that was important, these send me into a sort of mania that makes me really unpleasant. I have to be talked down from these moments, and thankfully for me, I have a partner who is patient and understands my symptoms.

My depression started when I was 15 years old, about a year into some major life changes. My parents divorced, my father and I moved away from my mom and sister, and I started life at a new school. The first year was pretty great; I gained new friends, found new hobbies, and improved academically, but then a series of misfortunes triggered my first bout with serious depression. I suffered a break-up, being kicked out of my band (due to my increasing moodiness), and was struck with a serious sinus infection that lingered for months. These experiences awakened a melancholy that was brewing all my life. I had an intense childhood that left me with mild trauma. Emotional, verbal, and rare, but very real physical abuse from my past played over and over again in my mind. I blamed myself for the pain that I took, for the breakup of my parents’ marriage, for the poor relationship with my sister. I had a complete breakdown of my self-esteem and personal growth.

It was around this time that began to study religion. I tried to grab on to something, anything that might help me understand what was going on in my mind. I studied the Bible (the book of Ecclesiastes and its poetry still fills me with comfort) as well as Buddhism. I began to meditate and tried to seek answers to my all-encompassing problems. Despite some semblance of recovery, it didn’t really help. It wasn’t until I understood the science of depression that I began to understand my condition. This discovery, alongside other reasons, also led me to my abandonment of religious belief in 2009.

At the suggestion of my doctor, I began taking anti-depressant medication, Lexapro. It was a low dose, but I had to take it every day. Lexapro is a SSRI, or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. People with depression and anxiety often have problems with the neural framework of their brains; serotonin, a neurotransmitter, is blocked from performing its task as a mood regulator. A SSRI signals in on these serotonin irregularities and helps to normalize the neurotransmission process. In doing so, it helps to regulate mood. I took it as a teenager, spent a few years off of it, and then resumed it in 2014.

The catalyst for resuming the medication was the second major depressive episode in my life, now more pronounced due to my anxiety. My anger, sadness, worry, and impulsiveness began to get the best of me. While my grades were good in college and I was excelling in my professional life, I often came home a shattered wreck of a person. It made me have serious relationship problems with my girlfriend and I found it absolutely exhausting performing even the most basic of activities. I finally had a period of intense panic attacks and breakdowns, especially once I began graduate school, which convinced me to resume my medication and begin another period of talk therapy.

I began seeing a talk therapist during my first depressive period in high school. While he was helpful, I think he thought I was just a moody teenager in need of friends rather than a seriously depressed person. It wasn’t until I began my relationship with my girlfriend (now wife), rebuilt my self-esteem, and climbed out of the hole that I realized that I really didn’t need to see him anymore. Also, the sessions were rather expensive, and our finances also motivated my decision.

I resumed talk therapy, this time with another therapist, in 2014, after the second round of depression with added anxiety. He was a very helpful and kind listener, who respected my lack of religious belief, encouraged me to follow my passions, and gave advice as to how to alleviate some of my symptoms. While I no longer see him, I’m in the process of finding another therapist. I’ve also continued meditating, this time focusing on the practices of Mindfulness.

So, if you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering what this has to do with atheism? For me, everything. When I lost my religious inclinations in 2009, I began to explore the world as it is, not how I wanted it to be. I no longer expected the world or the universe to care about me, because they don’t. The person who is calling the shots in your life is you; atheism is the realization that your life belongs to you. It doesn’t belong to the state, it doesn’t belong to the church. It’s yours to make worthwhile. This was a revelation to me (pardon the religious phrasing). Once I realized that my life was mine to mold as I wish, I had a renewed sense of purpose that reinvigorated my self-esteem and helped me with my depression and anxiety.

This is what a secular, atheist, and broadly humanist outlook on the world has given me. When people say that life is purposeless without God, they are working with a poverty of ambition. When you understand that life is precious, that each moment can be used to laugh, to love, to live, to speak, to think, and to be down once in a while, it gives you the resolve to be better. Realizing that chemistry, biology, and society, not sin or karma, were responsible for my depression and anxiety gave me the necessary tools to live a fulfilling life. As the author Andrew Solomon once wrote, “The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality.” Vitality is what we should strive for, not mere contentment. I’m not happy every waking moment of my day. Hell, no one is. But what I am trying to be is vital, thriving, and dedicated to my own values.

For those who suffer from depression and anxiety, it can get better. There are people who love you and will support you if you ask for their help. There are medical and psychiatric professionals who are there to help you get better. The world can be a beautiful and rewarding place if you face it head-on and not cave to superstition or wishful thinking. Clear and honest reasoning about your own troubles is difficult, but in doing so, you can combat almost any inner struggles you have. My atheism has helped me understand and then care for my depression and anxiety, because I’m not waiting for someone to help me from the sky. I know it’s upon me to take the path that I know will make my life better. It isn’t easy, nor is it the be-all, end-all solution, but being a reasonable person in an often unreasonable world will push back the inner demons. It did, at least, for me.

Aron Ra announces intention to run for Texas State Senate

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Aron Ra, the charismatic science educator and atheist activist, has announced his intention to run for Texas State Senate in 2018. On a recent episode of Dogma Debate, Aron Ra explained why he felt the time was right to announce his intention to run. Inspired by Bernie Sanders and California State Senate candidate Steve Hill, Ra remarked that “in 2018, when I run for Texas State Senate, I’m going to do an advertising campaign along those lines, and I think people are going to be completely outraged at what they’ve had to put up with for the two years leading up to that point before I do.”

What he was referring to was the phenomenal success that both Hill and Sanders had as unconventional candidates. Hill ran for the California Senate as an open Satanist during the 2016 Democratic primary, garnering nearly 12% of the vote. Sanders ran as a “democratic socialist” and won 23 states, 1865 delegates, and over 13.2 million votes against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. This makes Sanders the most successful non-Christian (he’s a secular Jew) Presidential candidate in US history.

Ra faces an uphill battle in his race for the Texas State Senate. He lives in Garland, which likely puts him in either district 2, 8, or 16. These districts are Republican strongholds, where Democrats and even Libertarians haven’t had much luck against the incumbents. Nevertheless, Ra is an extremely successful activist and science educator, using his YouTube channel, podcast, and other outlets to educate the public about the dangers of creationism in public schools. He was also a passionate Bernie Sanders supporter, which means that he likely cares about combating climate change, income inequality, and money in politics.

Aron Ra would be a welcome addition to the local politics in Texas and would show to the country that atheists and secularists are becoming a more influential voice in the United States.

The Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism

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A Facebook acquaintance of mine recently posted about his distinction between atheism and agnosticism. His main point was that atheism required faith to agree with the proposition that there is no god. Conversely, he defined agnosticism as being either without knowledge or without the possibility to attain knowledge about the existence of god. His definition of agnosticism is right, but his definition of atheism was completely off the mark. This post will correct this misunderstanding and reassert the traditional distinction between the two concepts. I hope to show that one can be an atheist, an agnostic, or both (like I am).

At their most basic, agnosticism is a position of knowledge (epistemology) while atheism is a position of belief (metaphysics). Agnosticism literally means “without knowledge,” and as such, almost all of us are agnostic about the claim of a god’s existence. I can say upfront that I am; I do not know with absolute certainty that god either exists or doesn’t exist. However, absolute certainly is (almost) impossible in relation to most claims about the world. I don’t know with absolute certainty that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, or gnomes inhabit my apartment, or if I’m sitting here right now typing this to you. As such, agnosticism is the default position when one doesn’t have knowledge of a claim and most skeptics (myself included) agree with this view.

Contrarily, atheism is a position of belief, whether or not you agree with a proposition. When addressing belief in a god, there are only two possible conclusions: the acceptance or rejection of a claim. Because of this logical distinction, a person can come to a conclusion without any knowledge that substantiates it. For example, one can believe that a pink unicorn exists with the feeling of absolute certainty, but that doesn’t change whether or not one has knowledge of its existence. In regards to god claims, atheists and theists can accept or reject this belief, but that doesn’t change the ability to attain knowledge regarding its existence. Therefore, one can be an agnostic atheist (reject the god claim based on a lack of evidence or knowledge) or a gnostic atheist (reject the god claim based on an affirmative belief of evidence or knowledge). Theists can do just the same.

Inimical to popular usage, agnosticism is not a “half-way house” between belief and unbelief. Rather, it answers a completely different question. Agnosticism addresses what a person can know; atheism addresses what a person believes. Neither worldview requires faith, since faith is pretending to know something that you don’t. Most atheists arrive at non-belief because the evidence is either lacking or evidence disproves a specific version of the god claim outlined by religions such as Christianity and Islam. Atheism is a lack of belief, so when a believer makes a claim about something supernatural or theistic, it is on the theist to substantiate that belief. The atheist doesn’t have to prove that the theist is wrong; the theist has to prove that they’re right. Furthermore, when one concludes that they have no knowledge regarding a god (agnosticism), the reasonable default position of belief is atheism. The position that my friend presented as atheism is actually anti-theism or strong atheism, which positively asserts that there is no god. Most atheists who are intellectually honest do not take this position, since the burden of proof shifts to them and it doesn’t easily hold up to critical scrutiny.

My own personal position is agnostic atheism. I don’t know with absolute certainty if a god exists but I reject belief in god because the evidence for his/her/its existence is spurious at best, nonexistent at worst. When evidence for god is lacking, one should suspend judgment on knowledge (agnostic) and take the default position of belief (atheist). Regardless of how you feel about the label, if your answer to the question of belief in god is anything but “yes,” in my book you’re an atheist. If you prefer agnostic, that’s fine too, but it’s rather insulting to say that atheists are just as faith filled as theists. Just because you’re uncomfortable with the label doesn’t make it inapplicable.

Intellectual sparring aside, we atheists and agnostics should unite under our shared principles of freedom of conscience, critical examination of superstition, and a commitment to a secular, humanistic world. This squabbling is great for discussion and debate, but when it comes to taking on the charlatans, there’s more important issues at hand.

Fellow agnostic, comrade in arms, let’s fight against the harbingers of fear and ignorance. Let’s build a better world.

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For more on this topic, I highly recommend the Iron Chariots Wikipedia page. It can be found here.

 

An Army Of Principles: Introduction

“An army of principles will penetrate where an army of soldiers cannot; it will succeed where diplomatic management would fail: it is neither the Rhine, the Channel, nor the Ocean that can arrest its progress: it will march on the horizon of the world, and it will conquer.”

Thomas Paine, “Agrarian Justice

I’m Justin Clark, and this is the first post on my new blog. I’ve thought about starting a blog for a long time, mainly to scratch my itch for column writing. I loved writing columns for my college newspaper, the Correspondent at Indiana University Kokomo, and I wanted an outlet to share my  interests and views. This will serve that need and I look forward to writing regularly for this page.

First and foremost, I’m an historian. I study Public History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. My area of research is the history of freethought and secularism during the late 1800s. You’re probably wondering what that means. I’ll explain.

Freethought is the intellectual tradition that openly criticizes supernaturalism, mysticism, and religion. Additionally, secularism calls for the separation of church and state, a guiding principle in the United States that is unfortunately under attack by theocratic politicians.

I’m an atheist and a freethinker, and my blog is from that perspective. I have no gods or masters and I like it that way. However, the onslaught of bigotry against believers and nonbelievers alike animates me to speak out on behalf of everyone. Above all else, I care about the progress of tolerance, diversity, pluralism, and freedom.

This blog will look at the intersections of freethought, politics, and culture. Alongside longer essays on historical topics, I’ll also post political columns, music and movie reviews, and the occasional rant. Whatever motivates my thinking will probably end up here.

The above quote, for which my blog is named, is one of my personal favorites. It speaks to a larger truth about the human condition; that progress happens when we put aside our petty chauvinisms and conceits to embrace a common humanity. Having an “army of principles” means living your life with a code, a set of common laws that motivates your very being. It is vitally important, in this age of creeping barbarism and relativism, that we stand for common principles. I hope this blog does just that.