Thursday, December 11, 2008

Silly Questions -- Serious Answers

When I announced my atheism, many of my friends, family, and others took it upon themselves to try to bring me back to Jesus. I will acknowledge that for most of these people, it was well intentioned. They genuinely cared about me and my immortal soul. I cannot fault them and in a certain way, I appreciated their concern over my religious views as it conveyed general concern for me. I tried to assure them that things were fine and that I really was not a different person. Others, however, were far less charitable. Some of the hate-mail I got (and still get) is pretty vitriolic. I was certainly less benevolent with this crowd and shot back a few responses of my own. In any case, there are several questions which keep coming up and I think are worth a look at here.

Why do you hate God?
This one is an odd one I guess. It’s that black or white thing again. If you don’t love God then you must hate him instead. The simple fact of the matter is that I do not hate God. That would be about as logical as hating Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. I just don’t have enough time or energy to hate very many things and have even less time and energy to hate that which does not exist. Hating the Easter Bunny is crazy and so is hating God. What is most odd is that there are billions of people in the world who are in love with what is the intellectual equivalent to the Easter Bunny. That is really crazy.

Do you know you are going to hell?
Uh, is that like going to Cleveland? These people are just trying to scare me back into Christianity. Sorry folks, this one won’t work on me. What, are you going to threaten me with Frankenstein next? I am just not afraid of a non-existent place or thing. However, I am offended. Hell is the worst of all ideas that has come from religion – most notably the Christian version. Most versions of hell are for finite times and then once cleansed, you can come into heaven. In the Christian version, you get to go for all eternity -- just because you didn’t believe. How many millions or billions of people have been consigned to this place of torment just because of the inconvenient fact of where they were born and never even had a chance to believe? This is insidious at the very best and it really lays the Christian heart bare. They are not a religion of love and tolerance – they are a religion of hate and vengeance. Their god is not a god of love, but a god of petty jealousy and hatred. In my de-conversion, I really, really struggled with this. This was the hardest part of the whole thing to shed. I would lay awake at night and wonder what if I was wrong? Was it worth the risk? I contend that most people who are Christian are more afraid of hell than are “in love” with their faith. That is really pathetic if you ask me but I fully understand that fear. I think that those who invented hell should be the ones sent there – or at least be sent to Cleveland for all eternity.

What about your children?
Funny, but this one smells a lot like the last question. There is an implicit threat of hell in this one. They don’t want to come out remind me that I am going to hell. They know I have made my choice. However, why would I want my poor innocent children to suffer from the sins of the father? (And as well all know God visits the sins of the fathers onto their progeny. See Exodus 20:5) Well, the truth is, I want to give my children a gift that I did not receive: an open, curious, truth seeking mind. Growing up, I was fully brain-washed into Christianity and the process of getting out was very painful. I was unable to think for myself, unable to ask the obvious questions, and unable to really find what truth was until I broke the shackles of faith. I would never put my children through that. My children are being raised to ask questions, to be curious, to use those brains of theirs for something other than worrying if they have pissed off some angry cosmic sky god. They will be better and happier for it. If in their future they choose religion, good for them. At least I know that I did not force it upon them. They had a chance to weigh the facts and make an informed choice. I doubt that they will fall into that simply because they will be able to see the facts and the myths side by side – a chance many never had.

For the record, anyone caught trying to convince my children of their faith (at least until they are old enough to decide for themselves) will face a very angry and very nasty father. Some Christians have actually had the audacity to try and tell one of my children about Christianity and why she needed to believe in Jesus. Bad call – because I will personally show up and shred you and your phony god to pieces. Fair warning!

Why do you resist God’s plan for your life?
Much like the first question, this is just silly. I resist God’s plans for me because I think that Roger Rabbit’s plan for my life is just way more interesting. Mmmmm . . . Jessica Rabbit . . . I don’t resist God’s plan for my life. It does not exist because he does not exist. This is simply absurd. Let’s play pretend for a minute. Let’s say that God does exist as described and that he does actually have a plan for my life. Could I actually resist? Me, a tiny finite being can actually resist an omnipotent being? Free will you say? That simply contradicts omnipotence. Oh well.

However, this also really shows another facet of religion and especially Christianity. People take comfort in the idea that God has a plan for them. They know that everything happens for a reason and that ultimately it is all part of God’s plan. When Ted Haggard was caught soliciting some gay sex, that was somehow part of God’s plan for him. Embracing God’s plan also embraces the fact that we cannot be held accountable. After all it was God’s plan. We don’t always know what God’s plan is in our lives because his brain is just so big. Maybe this de-conversion is also part of God’s plan for me. This is a lousy way to live. I would rather live with my choices and their consequences good or bad than to think that some being has a special plan for me. It is also this highest form of solipsism. Am I really that important that the master of the universe (not He-Man mind you, but God) would really have a special plan for me? Or is it just a big, lonely ego boost that allows us to believe such drivel. It’s the latter.

Why have you joined Satan?
Uh . . . he offered me a better contract and the perks are way better. Again this is just silly, silly, silly. I have not joined with an imaginary fire god. Again here is the black and white problem. If I am not with God then I must be with Satan. It is like my wife saying that when I am not with her I must be with another woman. This is known to us in the land of logic as a false dichotomy. For that matter, it also falls into the problem of religious dualism and cuts against the grain of monotheism. (More on that in another post.)

If there is no God, where does morality come from?
There are two parts to this issue. First, it implies that if you are not religious, you cannot be moral or that you are morally inferior to one of the flock. Second, it implicitly suggests that morality must come from God and cannot arise from anywhere else. Let’s take on the first supposition. I am not going to go into too much detail here (perhaps in a future post.) However, history is replete with examples of religious people acting immoral. In fact, most of the worst atrocities that humans have committed against each other have been committed in the name of their god. Being a believer does not give you a shiny moral compass any more than being an unbeliever. Christopher Hitchens in God is not Great, Sam Harris in End of Faith, and Dan Barker in Godless really do a great job of taking on this little chestnut. I encourage you to take a look at these books for a more detailed answer.

The second part is a personal favorite of mine. We’ve always wondered where our morals have come from. Philosophers have debated this for years. However, science can once again give a much better, simpler, and functional explanation of this. Morals are evolved customs which we have created in order to live in social harmony. Any social grouping needs rules and guidelines to ensure that the social order is maintained. This is not a uniquely human trait. Social animals also have “morals.” Consider wolf packs for a moment. These animals have relatively complicated social rules for living in the pack. Only the alphas can mate. The betas and omegas have to care for the young. The alphas eat first. There are plenty more. Failure to follow these rules will get a wolf banished from the pack or even killed. These social rules exist to ensure that the pack is healthy, harmonious, and can survive. Similarly, humans are also social animals. Like wolves, early humans created various customs and rules which would ensure that their small bands would survive and grow. This is clearly an evolved trait. You see this process occurring in any social structure both human and non-human. When we invented God, however, we assigned morals to God and then turned around and suggested that God actually assigned them to us. By doing so, the inventors of religion were able to use morals as social control and were able to use the fear of God to control the pack. It was no longer the physical strong man who ruled the pack; it was the religious strong man who could rule the herd.

Here is the progression: 1. We created social rules. 2. We created God. 3. We conferred upon God the ability to create the morals that we had already made. 4. We claim that God is the source of morals. 5. Brian slaps himself on the forehead and thinks we are all quite mad.

Can you prove that God does not exist?
This question only shows that most Christians have never taking a class in rhetoric or argument theory. You learn in your first week that the burden of proof is on the affirmative position. Russell’s Teapot and the Flying Spaghetti Monster are examples of what happens logically if the burden of proof is placed upon the negative position. I don’t have to prove anything. Christians have to prove to me that God exists – and so far they have failed time and again to provide sufficient evidence to do so.

Can you prove that there is nothing more in the universe than what we can measure?
Answer: no. However, this is a bassackwards question. What they are trying to trap me into is taking an affirmative position that I know there is nothing more in the universe than we can measure. When I fail to do this, then they say that I have to admit that God exists. First of all, it is possible that there are additional dimensions that I cannot perceive. There could be much more than we could ever perceive or even measure. In fact, I think that there is a pretty good chance that this is true. Many hypothetical physicists have done work that suggests this to be true. Admitting this, however, is a far, far cry from acknowledging that Jesus is the Lord of the Universe. Even if I went as far as to say that God could exist, there is no evidence to suggest that it is Jehovah. It could be Zeus; it could be Shiva; it could be any number of other gods. This question is one of the favorites of Christian apologists. However, when you really look at it, it is just as flimsy as any of their other arguments.

Why are you militant? Can’t you live and let live?
This is an interesting question and does deserve a good response. When I first came out, I was all about live and let live. You do your thing and I will do my thing. I really believed that. However, I am willing to take that position anymore. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, where I live, you cannot swing a dead cat and not hit a church. They are all over the place. In less than 10 minutes, I can walk to over 8 churches. It’s sort of scary. More importantly, many of these churches are having membership drives. They are getting out into the neighborhood and trying to bring new people to the flock. When they discover that I am not interested – or that I am atheist – they really put on the efforts to re-convert me. They are not about to live and let live. They are constantly pestering me, my family, and people I know. It is annoying. This makes me very overt about my lack of faith.

Additionally, most Christians are not willing to live and let others live their lives. The religious right in this country has worked long and hard to deprive others of rights, to force their religious view on us through political power, and to marginalize anyone who crosses them. I feel that it is necessary to speak out against this and to fight as hard as I can to prevent the religious right from gaining any more power. Too few people are fighting on the side of the oppressed – I figure that I need to be one of them.

Finally, and most importantly, we are at a crossroads. Religious militants from any number of faiths including Christianity are gaining power through violence, terror, and fear. Many faithful moderates suggest that these are only minorities and that these terrorists are not part of their faith. However, these moderates also fail to take a firm stand against it. Instead, they get all wishy washy about the issue. By not firmly taking a stand against religious terror and violence, these so-called moderates are tacitly condoning it. Enough is enough. We cannot afford to live in a world where superstitious people control the bomb. As Bill Maher says, “I don’t want someone who believes in talking snakes to be my commander-in-chief.” I could not agree more. Sam Harris, in End of Faith, notes that unless we can break away from religion – we will all eventually be slaves to it. The simple fact of the matter is that many Christians in the United States eagerly wait for the day that a mushroom cloud forms over Israel. They believe that this will be the signal for the end times. They are willing to support policies and actions which hasten this holocaust. That, my friends, is scary. That is why I’ve become a militant for my non-faith. I am not trying to covert anyone, but I believe that if people of reason and people who are freethinkers talk more and shout loud enough, there is a chance that we can prevent religious fundamentalists from destroying our world. Yes, I am a militant – but I have to be to protect myself, my family, my community, and my world from being engulfed in the fires and darkness that religion wants to plunge the world into. The moderates have utterly failed to curtail the acts of the extremists making it necessary for others to do so. I will be counted as one of those others.

That’s it for now. Be well, be good, and be who you are and be good at it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Why Did I Choose Atheism

That is a very common question for me. Why did I choose atheism? I didn't. Being religious or not being religious rarely is a choice for us. Most people are born into their religion and never know anything different. We are indoctrinated into the beliefs and values of a particular faith. That is why you are substantially more likely to be Muslim if you are born in Saudi Arabia or substantially more likely to be Christian if born in Latin America. (Quick note here, when I speak of Christianity I speak of all branches of Christianity unless I specify otherwise.) We are the products of the teaching we get from our families. Go into nearly any new church and you will see that huge amounts of the square footage are dedicated to the children's education (indoctrination) into the faith. It is a tacit understanding among believers that far fewer people, when given the choice as an adult, would be as accepting of religion -- especially those littered with childlike legends of taking snakes, arks with all of the animals on board, and stories of virgin births. Religion, unless pounded into our heads from a young age rarely survives the rational adult brain. Few of us actually break away from our parent faith. This is with good reason. We have to untangle ourselves from our faith, from the pressures of our peer groups, and the like. Most notably, many of us have to get over the fear of hell that is drilled into our heads. This is an incredibly insidious feature of many religions. The idea that failure to believe will result in eternal torment is as evil as any idea ever concocted by man.

So, when I am asked why I chose atheism, I can only say that I did not. I did not wake up one day and say, "Wow, today I think I will be an atheist." It does not work that way. It is a long and terrible journey. It is filled with pain, ostracism, and fear. When you finally do make it on the other side, you face discrimination, hate-mail, and other negative reactions from those who once professed to love you. However, I can say that breathing the fresh air of reason is good enough for me. I can say that being liberated from the shackles of faith allows me to be the person I truly am and be good at it. I did not choose atheism. I only chose to release my mind and search for truth. That search led me to atheism and that search set me free.

Before we get into my story about becoming atheist, we first have to define our terms a little bit. It is important to understand the terms before we can begin this discussion. For many people the term atheist is a very "dirty" word. The suggest that it is the athithesis of good, of moral, of happy. This is not the case at all. It is simply a means to describe my belief (or lack of beliefs) system.

Atheism means that I am without belief in a theistically oriented system. Simply stated, if you do not believe -- you are an atheist. It has no bearing or morals, values, or questions of happiness. It does not define political views nor does it define if a person is good or a person is bad. It only describes their belief system and nothing more.

Agnosticism is a word which is also very poorly defined. Often it is used to describe a "wishy-washy" approach to religion. Sort of a maybe - maybe not stance. Loosely speaking, this is true. However, it is more specific that at. Agnostic means specifically "without knowledge." (A = without, gnosis = knowledge.) Thus, it agnosticism can be understood as someone who says that there is no evidence for god and thus they cannot confirm god's existence.

Finally, there is a newer term that has started to develop its own definition. This term is anti-theist. There are a handful of definitions which have been tossed about for anti-theism. For the purposes of this blog, anti-theism will refer to being opposed to religion.

Using these definitions, one can be agnostic and atheistic at the same time. In fact, most atheists are agnostic and most agnostics are atheistic. However, not all atheists/agnostics are anti-theist.

I define myself as an agnostic/atheist who has some anti-theist tendencies. How did I get here? How did I go from being a Christian young man to one who does not believe? It is a long and complicated story that would bore most of my readers to tears. However, it is important for people to understand how the transformation came about. So, I will attempt an abridged version of it.

I grew up in the church, more specifically, the Christian Reformed Church. As I grew up, I never questioned the things that I had been taught and I lived and professed myself as a Christian. I also saw the world through the lenses I had been given. I understood my faith as it was described to me in my church. I knew the God that I had been taught. Equally as important, I had grown to be a relatively important young member of our church. I was respected enough to be asked to be an usher in the church. I was counted on for my leadership in youth activities. I was well liked by the elders and the church leadership. In this very, very small pond, I was important.

When I was 18 my parents changed churches. This change cracked the foundations of my religious identity. I will go on record here that this is not their fault and I would never, ever blame them for their decision. They had their reasons and I understand them and fully support them. My parents had a tough decision to make and they made it. We all left as a family -- but nothing would be the same for me.

First of all, I was no longer the big fish. I was just one of many fishes. In fact, I was largely an outsider in this new church. This was very difficult. For all of my religious life, I belonged to the inner circle of our old church. To be on the outside looking in at this new church, I found it to be very difficult. However, that was only one of many changes which really impacted my faith. This new church was also far more liberal in its approach to Christianity that was my old church. For example, this new church allowed women to be part of the leadership. My old church did not at the time. This new church was less focused on the catechisms and more focused on a day to day approach to Christianity. The new church sang all sorts of new song -- I liked the old Psalter Hymnal.

Why was this such a big deal? Suddenly I was exposed to a different version of Christianity than I was exposed to. They read the Bible differently and held different interpretations of it. How could they be reading the same book and get totally different answers? Why were my beliefs being challenged when I could clearly find their "proofs" in my own Bible? This really caused me great consternation. I was already feeling like an outsider -- but now I had to change some of the most fundamental ways I understood God? Really?

After graduating high school, I spent a semester at Dordt College -- a conservative, Christian Reformed college in Sioux Center, IA. Here again, my beliefs were challenged. I had just gotten used to the more liberal interpretations of Christianity at my new church and I was thrust into a far more conservative setting. Both sides could easily defend their views using the Bible -- but these views were often at odds. How could that be? I decided that I needed to dig into my Bible and find out what it said to me. Over the next couple of years, I read my Bible, commentaries, and other literature voraciously. Additionally, I left Dordt College and went to complete my degree at the University of Northern Colorado. I decided that I had to open my mind to what God wanted from me and I had to chart my own path.

By giving myself permission to learn, I also opened myself up to many, many different world views and religious convictions. Through this process, I learned some very important things. First, I learned that the Bible is fraught with errors and contradictions. It is easy to make the Bible say whatever you want it to say as long as you carefully select your verses. If this book was supposed to be God's infallible Word to the world, you would think he would have gotten a better editorial staff to make sure it was not so full of obvious mistakes. (I will discuss this more in later posts.) Secondly, I learned about many of the other religions in the world. I began to wonder why, if God was so powerful and his message to full of joy and hope, that so few people around the world really accepted the Christian version of God. In fact, Christians are a minority in the world -- a full 2000 years after its birth and this despite missionaries having been dispatched to all corners of the world. Christianity was only one of many, many ways that people expressed belief in the divine.

This process was not easy and it really tore me up. Everything I knew from my upbringing has been challenged by outside ideas. Ultimately, I could not continue to believe. For a while, however, I could not bear to bring myself fully to this conclusion. I spent years wandering the spiritual "wilderness" suggesting that I believed in the message but not the Church. This was only a ruse. I did not believe. My faith was gone long before I left college. In fact, after leaving Dordt College, where church attendance was mandatory, I never went back to church voluntarily. Sure, I went from time to time with my family for various events. I even went to the synagogue with my wife and her family from time to time. Ultimately, however, I had functionally left my faith behind very shortly after I was willing to open my mind up to other ideas.

One of the greatest difficulties of this process was to leave most of my friends and some family behind. I knew that such changes within me would cause great harm to our relationships and I felt that I just had to sever ties. Up until recently, I had not spoken to any of my old schoolmates or to most of the community I had left. This was difficult, but I was allowed to create and carve out new relationships with a broad range of people and beliefs. I am very happy to have the family and friends that I have now. Surely, I lost many things when I left the church. Those that I gained, however, were far greater.

In recent years, I have become more and more open and militant about my views. For a long time, I believed in the idea of live and let live. It is not that simple anymore. I will not discuss this in this particular post, but I will discuss this more later. However, this has caused some backlash toward me from people I know and even from people I do not know. It is simply time to come out of the closet and be who I am. I have to take a stand for my lack of beliefs and be a voice for reason and for free thinking. It is time that I reach out and express myself. The issues of our times are too great for me stay quiet.

That is the short version of my de-conversion. I would like to thank Dan Barker and his book, Godless for helping be to develop the courage to make this next step. His journey was similar to mine and his courage to step out, stand up, and go to work with the Freedom From Religion Foundation is a model for those who want to take this step. I strongly encourage you to read this book.

That is it for now . . . be well, be happy, and be who you are and be good at it.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Here I Come to Save The Day

Hello everybody . . .

If you have chased me down this far, it is a pretty safe bet that you really want to know what goes on in my head. Woe unto you . . . I have found a soapbox and I am going ot use it. In recent years, I have become more and more of a militant atheist. No, I don't plan on any car bombings or other malicious attacks. We don't work like that. Rather, I feel I must add my voice to the debate and to the discussions. For too many years, the discussion has centered on what God may or may not want. I want to reframe the debate. We need not discuss what God wants -- but whether God exists at all. I will suggest that God does not exist at all and that those who follow religion actually cause harm to the progress in our world. Over the course of these posts I will discuss how I came to this conclusion and I answer any questions about my beliefs that come up.

We are at a crossroad in our civilization. We can choose to live in the past and cling to ancient superstitions and fears. Conversely, we have a choice to start believing in ourselves, in our ability to reason, and take control of our fate. This blog is dedicated to this idea.

I encourage you to read further as I post more. I encourage you to challenge anything in this blog. I encourage great debate and discussion. Let's see where this takes us . . .