Friday, September 25, 2020
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These Atheists Are Fundraising for California Wildfire Relief | Hemant Mehta | Friendly Atheist

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California, as you know, is suffering from wildfires that are even worse due to the effects of climate change.

The group Atheists United is running a fundraiser right now that will help vulnerable communities in the short term as the group continues preparing for the long-term. The money they raise right now will go specifically to the Latino Community Foundation and the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Program.

In 2020: 6000+ structures have been destroyed, at least 25 people are dead, fire-related air pollution is being breathed by millions of people, causing serious health risks, more than 3.4M acres have burned across the state and 17,400 firefighters remain on the frontlines, representing the largest mobilization of fire crews in CA history.

The magnitude and duration of the impacts are much more severe for marginalized communities. Emergency response and recovery efforts are failing to direct resources to those most adversely affected by the impacts of wildfires, including residents already facing economic hardship, racial discrimination, exploitation, incarceration, language barriers, and fear of deportation.

Atheists United is committed to taking action to mitigate the impacts of the climate crisis. At a time when the hostility to science displayed by Christian nationalists is causing demonstrable suffering and death for millions of people, AU will be working to build a robust Atheist Climate Crisis Recovery program in the coming months, partnering with local communities on wildfire mitigation efforts, planning for climate refugees, and continuing to advocate for sound public policy.

There are obviously many non-profits you can support that are doing good work. But if being part of a larger atheist community inspires you to give more, please consider this fundraiser. Just to be clear, the beneficiaries are not necessarily atheists. This is simply non-religious people doing what they can to help those in need. We have to help each other. There’s no supernatural option awaiting us.





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American Atheists Warns Albuquerque Area School District about Religious Propaganda in Online Classes

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Moriarty, NMSeptember 24, 2020—Today, the church/state watchdog American Atheists sent the Moriarty-Edgewood School District (MESD) an advisory letter, warning that its online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic include unconstitutional religious content.

“The materials documented by our complainants explicitly promote elements of Christian theology and have no place in a public school curriculum. By advancing a particular religious viewpoint, MESD is violating the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, article II, section 11 of the Constitution of the State of New Mexico, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” warns American Atheists’ letter.

“The Moriarty-Edgewood School District must protect everyone’s religious freedom—not subject children to unwanted religious indoctrination,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, Litigation Counsel for American Atheists, who submitted the letter to MESD.

Materials provided by members of the MESD community show that, for at least some classes and grade levels, the virtual instruction offered by education provider, Edgenuity, contains explicitly religious content. An entire module of Third Grade Social Studies teaches Bible stories, including Joseph of the Many-Colored Coat and the Tower of Babel, as social studies. One lesson even instructs students to make plant, animal, and human “forms” out of clay and “think about how you feel when you create, and then destroy, each of your forms. How does it feel to bring form out of nothing? How does it feel to create something out of a lump?”

In an email to American Atheists, Edgenuity recognized that this material is not appropriate and indicated it is looking into how to correct the problem with a subcontractor. In the meantime, these class materials are still being provided to public school children.

“If MESD does not immediately take steps to end this ongoing constitutional violation and remedy the harms it’s inflicted on families, we will take all legal actions necessary. Nothing is off the table,” said Blackwell.

Since launching an investigation in early September, American Atheists has responded to similar complaints in Cincinnati and the Detroit suburbs. The church/state separation watchdog also successfully helped resolve a situation in Kansas, where the school district informed students that they did not need to complete the “ancient Hebrew culture” module of the social studies class.

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Mano Singham on The Unnecessary Science

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Manoi Singham, over at Freethought Blogs, has recently kindly reviewed a book I edited by Gunther Laird, The Unnecessary Science: A Critical Analysis od Natural Law Theory (UK)The book is particularly prevalent now as Natural Law Theory forms the foundation upon which conservative lawyers, lawmakers and justices stake their claims, and we have the whole debacle concerning nominating conservative justices for the Supreme Court:

A few weeks ago I received the manuscript of a book THE UNNECESSARY SCIENCE: A critical analysis of natural law theory by Gunther Laird who had seen my blog post about Feser and thought I might be interested in reviewing it. As the subtitle indicates, this book is a critique of what is known in theological circles as ‘natural law theory’. ‘Natural law’ is not about the laws of science but instead is about establishing the moral and ethical bases that should govern our lives. The basis of this was furnished by Aristotle and then formulated in the context of Catholicism by Thomas Aquinas. Laird’s book takes aim at the arguments of both those thinkers as well as the further refinements of natural law theory by Feser, one of its most ardent advocates. This book is essentially a critique of the natural law thesis as elaborated on by mostly Feser. Laird has studied the entire Feser oeuvre of books, articles, and blog posts and his book is a detailed point-by-point look at what Feser claims about natural law theory and the basis for his own specific claims.

It turns out that Feser has much more ambitious goals than Adler’s minimal one of just proving the existence of any god. Feser is not just claiming that there is irrefutable proof of his god’s existence. In his hands, ‘natural law theory’ that he claims follows in a direct line from the ideas of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas is a detailed, prescriptive theory that argues that traditional Catholic doctrines in their most rigid and doctrinaire forms, are a necessary consequence of it and Catholicism in its traditional form is unequivocally the one, true religion. This results in natural law theory’s justification of condemnations of divorce, homosexuality, abortion, religious pluralism, masturbation, and so on. Natural law theory is apparently quite influential in some circles and US Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas is supposedly a firm believer in it and uses it in his opinions, which explains a lot actually, given that Thomas is one of the most conservative justices on the court and almost always rules in favor of the worst options. This does not bode well for natural law theory being humane.

Religious apologists face the perennial problem of explaining how an omnipotent and benevolent god allows the existence of evil. Laird explains the tortured arguments that Feser, like other religious apologists, give to explain away this problem, based on the ethical arguments of Aristotle and Aquinas. But Laird goes on to show that those arguments can just as easily be used to justify the most horrendous evils. In fact, that is how much of the book is written. Laird gives the Feserian (and sometimes also Thomist/Aristotelian) argument in support for each position and then shows that those same arguments can be used in support of either its opposite or for some other awful thing.

While clearly secular in his sympathies, Laird is by no means a knee-jerk antagonist to the religious views of Feser. He says that Feser writes very clearly and that his explanations of what natural law theory entails are easy to follow. As far as I can tell (note that theology is not my field) he tries to give Feser’s arguments as sympathetic a hearing as he can and does not try to take his words out of context….

Laird’s goal is the opposite of Feser’s. The very fact that Laird spends about 360 pages closely critiquing Feser’s arguments and quotes him copiously suggests that this is no drive-by sniping. Feser should feel complimented that someone has gone to such a great extent to read all his writings and take the trouble to write an entire book containing an extremely detailed analysis of his views, even if his conclusions are not favorable. It appears that Feser has not as yet responded to this book.

Given that this is entirely a discussion of philosophy-based theology, you have to brace yourself for the writing style in that field which tends to be heavy on formal definitions and esoteric arguments. Laird has a breezy writing style with lots of down-to-Earth examples taken from everyday life and popular culture that makes the going easier than it otherwise might have been, but he cannot completely eliminate all the theological esotericism if he wants to give justice to the subject. So there is a lot of discussion of forms, actuality, potentiality, essences, and the like.

Laird’s book is an invaluable resource for anyone who seeks to really get to grips with natural law theory in general and Feser’s use of it to provide support for rigid Catholic orthodox doctrine on issues of doctrine, morality, and ethics, views that are shared by many conservative Catholics and evangelical Christians.

Read the whole review here.

I would like to thank Mano Singham for the time and effort he has put into the book and his review.


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Pearced Off! #8 – The Kalam and Free Will as Not Compatible

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I am running a series of the old podcast segments from my Pearced Off! section of the Skepticule Podcast (a British skepticism-based podcast now on hiatus) that I used to contribute to. Some of the earlier ones have some quieter audio. Apologies. They run at around ten minutes. Something to keep you company outside of Netflix and the news…

Please subscribe to my channel if you can be arsed. One day, I might get to 1000 subscribers when they allow monetisation. Until then, it’s a labour of love.

This episode looks at the idea that the Kalam Cosmological Argument, a favourite of theists, is not compatible with libertarian free will, a favourite of theists:

 


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Zero Sum Game | Bert Bigelow

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Zero sum game: a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it. 

A few days ago, I was having a discussion with a friend who leans rather heavily toward the political right. He is a union hater, and claimed that unions had used their collective bargaining power to push up wages in the US to the point that businesses had been forced to move their manufacturing facilities overseas to remain competitive in world markets. By doing so, the unions had harmed business, the workers they represent, and the US economy.

I pointed out that many developing nations have much lower standards of living than the US, and that trying to compete with their labor rates would be disastrous for our workers and the US economy. Furthermore, developing nations often do not enforce environmental or worker safety regulations like the ones we have. The higher cost of doing business in the US is due in part to those regulations. (NOTE: Trump is working hard to eliminate many of them.)

I recognize that unions, like any other human organizations, foster corruption and bureaucracy that have resulted in unnecessary costs for employers. But there is no doubt that the organized labor movement in the US has led to higher wages and benefits, and better working conditions than those that existed prior to unions and collective bargaining. I think our unions could benefit from the example of European unions, which work with management, and negotiate in good faith, resulting in a mutually beneficial relationship that has resulted in increased productivity and a high standard of living for European workers.

Any decision on international trade creates winners and losers. To some extent, it is a zero-sum game. If a country allows cheap products from low-wage nations to be imported, consumers benefit, but it harms domestic producers and their workers. The businesses have two alternatives:

  1. Reduce costs to remain competitive through some combination of layoffs, increased productivity, and reductions in wages and benefits.
  2. Move their facilities to low-wage countries.

Either way, the workers lose.

On the other hand, if government decides to protect domestic businesses with tariffs, those local businesses and their workers benefit, but consumers pay higher prices, and companies that make products for export may suffer, as some trading partners might decide to retaliate with tariffs of their own. The decisions of government determine who the winners and losers are. How should those decisions be made? If the government truly represents the people, the goal should be to maximize the benefits and minimize the costs. And since we are all in this together, it seems reasonable and fair that everyone should share in both. Thus, workers who lose their jobs, and businesses who are harmed should be compensated. That compensation must necessarily be paid for with taxes collected from everybody. If the government has done its job right, then everybody should be better off than they were before the action was taken.

My right wing friend will have none of this. In his view, the government has made the decision to maximize the benefit vs. cost ratio, and its responsibility ends there. This philosophical principle is referred to as laissez-faire economics. Let the market work. Government should stay out of it.

How are costs and benefits of trade decisions quantified?. Consider this simple example: A US company makes cell phones, and sells them for $300. A foreign company is allowed to import cell phones and sell them for $200. The local company either goes out of business or moves its operations to a foreign country. Either way, the workers lose their jobs. How many cell phones purchased at a savings of $100 are equal to one worker’s loss of income?

If the worker is not compensated for his loss, then the money he was making and spending in the US economy, is now being spent by other consumers who have an extra hundred bucks to spend on other things.

Now multiply these numbers by millions for the myriad of products that are being imported from low-wage countries, and the devastating effects on US workers, and you have a picture of what is happening not just here, but in other “developed” nations.

The unions and their workers cannot be blamed for this. Nobody can be blamed. The losers in this zero sum game must be compensated, and provided with tools to restore their economic self-sufficiency.





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Peaceful Transfer, Courts, Cheating and Lindsey Graham. Sweet Bejesus.

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Reporter: Will you commit to making sure that is a peaceful transferral of power after the election?

Trump: Well, we’re gonna have to see what happens. You know that I’ve been complaining very strongly about the ballots; and the ballots are a disaster…

Reporter: I understand that but people are rioting. Do you commit to making sure that there is a peaceful transferral of power?

Trump: Get rid of the ballots and you will have… a very peaceful… There won’t be a transfer, frankly, there will be a continuation…

I am done with being polite. I’m done with listening to absolutely terrible defences of an egregious man. I am tired of listening to Lindsey Graham say that he can be held to his words and then wriggling out of them. Whilst we are on that subject, his excuse that he doesn’t have to adhere to his previous comments were:

I just want to show you how absolutely disingenuous this excuse for not being held to account in the way he demanded to be held to account is that the excuse he gives – “…after the treatment of Justice Kavanaugh I now have a different view of the judicial-confirmation process” – is a lie. It is a lie because that process took place BEFORE his initial comments about SCOTUS nominations that he asked to be held to account for! THAT happened in 2018. In fact, in the interview, he even already refers to Brett Kavanaugh:

And here he discusses the nomination process:

Hoist by his own petard.

I don’t trust these people and I don’t trust anyone who defends them.

Here is an open liar, on the record making an argument:

There is no way that Republicans can harmonise this other than to say, “Meh, more fool you for believing us. Power at any cost.”

That would be honest as that is what is happening. You can’t argue with these words, and his excuse is a lie – it’s nonsense – because these comments came after – were in response to – the very event that supposedly changed his mind.

Back to Trump:

So, Republicans, you are endorsing a man who is seeking to take away, unevidenced, the very mechanics of democracy that would see him in every likelihood lose the election, so that he can win. He is wanting to cheat to win. And failing that, he is not ruling out using force in order to achieve “continuation” of power. It’s why he’s desperate to get the SCOTUS nominee put in place because he knows the election will be challenged in court.

I wonder how much of his campaign funds Trump is saving for legal defenses after he loses the election. The reason why he is so desperate to win reelection is that he will be hammered by countless lawsuits as soon as he loses. He is protected only on account of being POTUS. That’s why he also so desperate to extend his right to rule beyond two terms. It’s self-preservation. And that’s why he is willing to cheat to win.

Self-preservation.

He’s just putting off those impending prison sentences until he can stack the courts.

What a terrible human, a proper dictator-wannabe.

 


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“Jesus of Siberia” Arrested for Running Cult That Extorted and Abused Members | Hemant Mehta | Friendly Atheist

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Jesus was arrested. Or at least a guy who looks like Jesus. A guy who at least claims to be God’s voice in this world. Also, he lives in Siberia. Oh, and he used to be a traffic cop before he formed his cult which currently has several thousand followers.

Totally normal stuff.

“Vissarion” — born Sergei Torop — began the Church of the Last Testament in 1989. But he’s been on the public’s radar for at least two decades, ever since word got out that he was brainwashing a bunch of people and taking their money. His cult requires everyone to adopt veganism and rejects all exchanges of money within their commune. “Everything is banned here,” said one happy follower. The only exception was falling in love.

You bet there’s more:

Followers wear austere clothing and count years starting from 1961, the year of Vissarion’s birth, while Christmas has been replaced by a feast day on 14 January, his birthday.

But now he’s been arrested:

Helicopters and armed officers stormed communities run by Sergei Torop, known to his followers as Vissarion, and arrested him and two of his aides. Russia’s investigative committee said it would charge him with organising an illegal religious organisation, alleging that the cult extorted money from followers and subjected them to emotional abuse.

If those are the real reason they went after him, it’s worth asking: Why now? He’s been running the same charade for a long time, so if the problem is the brainwashing and embezzling, the better question is why they didn’t go after him sooner.

It’s also not clear what happens to his followers. As dangerous as it was for them to be in his cult, the prospect of thousands of people losing the leader their lives all revolve around may be even worse. Who knows if they’ll retaliate or get violent in any way?

The story itself is bizarre. But the story of why and how Torop was arrested is just vague and incomplete… for now. Here’s hoping a fuller picture emerges in due time.

(Thanks to Brian and Savanna for the link)





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Pandemics and Sequels | Jonathan MS Pearce

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As many of you will know, I wrote my first fiction book a few years ago – Survival of the Fittest: Metamorphosis (UK) – and I am finally getting round to finish the sequel (Survival of the Fittest: Adaptation). I have been waiting to see how this pandemic pans out to try to write some references into the book about it. Rebecca Bradley, author and blogger over at SIN, has read the manuscript and thinks it’s a great, smooth continuation to the series, which is fantastic to hear. It’s good and should be finished pretty darneed soon.

So, if you fancy a diversion from this oandemic to read about a far worse one, and with some philosophy woven into it, then grab yourselves a copy. It all helps as trying to get a job when you are disabled is, er, difficult. Very difficult.

Description:

No one seems to know where it started. Or exactly when. And certainly not how. But it is here, and everything that everyone holds dear falls prey to the ravages of the virus. Some are unaffected, and they must quickly come to terms with their new world – a dystopian Britain in the early convulsions of collapse.

Follow a disparate collection of people as they fight for their lives in this first installment of the “Survival of the Fittest” series.

Where the journey will take them is anyone’s guess.

“A frightening and credible zombie apocalypse. This is the way the world would end―not with a bang or a whimper, but with a snarl and the gnashing of teeth…” Rebecca Bradley, author of Cadon, Hunter and From Hades With Love

“Pearce’s rollicking suburban adventure begs to be consumed and it won’t let go until life is sucked from the final pages.” Glenn Andrew Barr, author of Skin of Them

“Johnny Pearce has written a shockingly good zombie story with a literary quality unfamiliar to the genre. Don’t let the slow build fool you―the growing tension plays a vital role in allowing everything to snap with a most satisfying sort of frayed devastation. Once all hell breaks loose it’s a no holds barred gore fest!” Tristan Vick, author of BITTEN: Resurrection and BITTEN 2: Land of the Rising Dead





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Ark Encounter Ticket Sales Continued to Plummet in August Due to COVID-19 | Hemant Mehta | Friendly Atheist

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Attendance at Ark Encounter remains at rock bottom during the pandemic. It’s not their fault, obviously, but the recovery has been slow for them just like everyone else.

Thanks to a public record request by local paleontologist Dan Phelps, we now have the numbers for August. You can read more background about how it’s calculated here.

The bottom line? Ark Encounter had 46,562 paying visitors in August. But that’s a mere fraction of the 104,350 they had last August. It’s also a decline from last month, a reminder that the busiest part of the tourism season is over.

Here are all the attendance numbers we know along with the Safety Fee that Answers in Genesis has paid to the city of Williamstown. (The public nature of that fee is how we know the attendance numbers at all.)

Month 2017 (Fee) 2018 (Fee) 2019 (Fee) 2020 (Fee) Notes
January 13,250 ($6,625.00) 14,885 ($7,442.50) 15,790 ($7,895.00) (Increase from previous year: 905)
February 17,961 ($8,980.50) 16,328 ($8,164.00) 17,290 ($8,645.00) (Increase from previous year: 962)
March 62,251 ($31,125.50) 70,466 ($35,233.00) 15,145 ($7,572.50) (Decrease from previous year: 55,321)
April 67,613 ($33,806.50) 79,908 ($39,954.00) 0 ($0) (Decrease from previous year: 79,908)
May 73,353 ($36,676.50) 90,803 ($45,401.50) 2,047 ($1,023.50) (Decrease from previous year: 88,756)
June 113,901 ($56,950.50) 124,230 ($62,115.00) 40,434 ($20,217.00) (Decrease from previous year: 83,796)
July 142,626 ($71,313.00) 135,922 ($67,961.00) 160,124 ($80,062.00) 57,632 ($28,816.00) (Decrease from previous year: 102,492)
August 106,161 ($53,080.50) 98,106 ($49,053.00) 104,350 ($52,175.00) 46,562 ($23,281.00) (Decrease from previous year: 57,788)
September 83,330 ($41,665.00) 69,207 ($34,603.50) 73,541 ($36,770.50) (Increase from previous year: 4,334)
October 93,659 ($46,829.50) 89,434 ($44,717.00) 86,988 ($43,494.00) (Drop from previous year: 2,446)
November 51,914 ($25,957.00) 40,193 ($20,096.50) 37,686 ($18,881.00) (Drop from previous year: 2,507)
December 36,472 ($18,236.00) 46,400 ($24,200.00) 37,880 ($18,940.00) (Drop from previous year: 8,520)

Remember that the Ark didn’t shut down until March 17, but it’s clear there was lower attendance in the weeks prior to that, too. Their on-site conferences also had to be postponed. Like other tourist attractions, they’ve missed out on Spring Break trips, summer vacations, and warmer weather in general. Most workers at the Ark were also temporarily laid off. They finally reopened on June 7.

That said, the Ark’s parent company, Crosswater Canyon, received between $1 million and $2 million from the Paycheck Protection Program. And Ham also raised at least $1,135,009 in a separate fundraiser to offset COVID-related losses.

Finally, keep in mind that actual attendance is higher than these numbers represent because kids get in for free, as do members with lifetime passes. But giving away freebies to children and life members doesn’t help the local economy as much as drawing in first-time customers who are ready to spend money or conference attendees who are there for another reason.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)





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Why Are Atheists So Diverse?

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multi-colored shoes on rocks

Why are atheists so different from one another? Why does it often seem like we can’t agree on much of anything? How can two people who are both atheists seem to have so little in common? If you’ve ever asked these questions or wished you had somewhere to direct people you see asking them, this post is for you.

Once you understand what atheism means, you should have a much easier time understanding why atheists are as diverse as we are. With that in mind, here are some points to consider:

  • Knowing that someone is an atheist tells you one thing about what they do not believe (i.e., they do not believe in gods); it tells you nothing about what they do believe. Not only do people get to atheism in different ways, but some atheists believe in ghosts, ancient aliens, holistic medicine, the “pizzagate” conspiracy, the adverse effects of GMOs, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. Atheism is not synonymous with skepticism, and it sometimes shows.
  • Atheism is distinct from morality, and so you will find great diversity in how atheists conduct themselves. Some atheists are secular humanists who are committed to social justice and strive to treat others civilly; others actively reject these things.
  • Although atheists living in the U.S. seem more likely to lean to the political left, atheism is distinct from one’s political views. This means that you will find political diversity among atheists. Some atheists support President Trump and the Republican Party. Others support the Democratic Party and their candidates. Still others prefer third parties or refuse to participate in politics at all.
  • Atheists vary greatly in their use of reason, skepticism, critical thinking, and freethought. Some place great value on one or more of these things, and some do not.
  • Many atheists pride themselves on their independence, and I suspect this has to do with the manner in which atheism places them at odds with most of their neighbors. They have become comfortable with being outliers or non-conformists in this respect. This can make them stubborn and difficult to unite, but it can also mean that they are more likely to see their diversity as a strength.
  • I suspect that some atheists find common ground in how we are treated by the religious majority; however, even that is variable. Depending on where one lives, one may find that the presence of atheists is well-tolerated or barely tolerated at all.

There are plenty of other reasons atheists are as diverse as we are, but I think this gives us a good starting point. At the very least, it highlights some things that some of us seem to have a hard time remembering. I’ll try to remember it the next time I find myself asking how any atheist could possibly do what I see them doing.

I think the bottom line is simple: the meaning of atheism is narrow enough that it allows great variability among those who share the “atheist” label. An atheist is someone who does not believe in gods. Besides that, atheists are going to be all over the map when it comes to the many ways humans can and do differ from one another. Atheists are human, after all!



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