Monthly Archives: April 2012

A call for concerns

For this week’s post, I want to do something a little different. I have had many of you ask me thought-provoking questions in the comments section of each of my posts (which I encourage everyone to go back and read if you haven’t), so I thought it could be a good idea to make this post a call for more questions.

As I’ve said before, my main objective with this blog is to discourage the shame people feel – or are made to feel – for not believing in God. I aim to reach out to those that are experiencing doubt about their faith and to let them know that there is absolutely nothing wrong with religious doubt, even if it leads to a complete loss of faith. But I know there are many questions that may seem difficult and insurmountable in that journey. I’ve heard it many times before: “I doubted my religious beliefs for a while, but I just couldn’t believe that we sprung out of nothing randomly” or “I had doubts, but the fact that the earth is in a perfect ‘habitable zone’ for human life convinced me that there must have been a supernatural designer”. These are all valid concerns. Concerns that every atheist has had, and has been able to reconcile to some extent. These two are the most popular, so I will definitely address them, but I would like to hear more.

This is not to say that I will be able to give a satisfactory answer for every question that could arise in trying to understand a world without God; but I am curious to hear these concerns and, given the long journey that has led me to not believe, I imagine I have probably considered most concerns and have come to some level of satisfactory understanding, if only for myself.

So, I would really like to hear: what are some of the most difficult challenges or concerns to overcome when trying to think about a world without God?

One set of footprints

Why loss of religious faith should be something to celebrate, Pt. 1

One night I dreamed I was walking along the beach with the Lord. Many scenes from my life flashed across the sky. In each scene I noticed footprints in the sand. Sometimes there were two sets of footprints, other times there was one only.

This bothered me because I noticed that during the low periods of my life, when I was suffering from anguish, sorrow or defeat, I could see only one set of footprints, so I said to the Lord,

“You promised me Lord, that if I followed you, you would walk with me always. But I have noticed that during the most trying periods of my life there has only been one set of footprints in the sand. Why, when I needed you most, have you not been there for me?”

The Lord replied, “The years when you have seen only one set of footprints, my child, is when I carried you.”

Footprints In The Sand

By Mary Stevenson

When I heard this poem as a kid, I remember empathizing with the concern of the main character when they believed Jesus was not around for their most difficult and trying times.  It reminded me of the feeling when I was learning to ride a bike; of me peddling nervously, thinking my dad was behind me holding the bike and steadying my balance, until I looked back and realized he had let go long before.  In that moment, I felt immediate fear and a feeling of abandonment, much like I imagine the poem’s character experienced. I thought to myself, “How could he have abandoned me and let me go alone??  I am still just learning to ride! I can’t ride by myself!  I could have fallen and hurt myself!”

…But then there was another feeling: a growing sense of confidence and achievement in the realization that I had, in fact, ridden my bike on my own.  I may not have realized it at the time, but I did have the capacity within me.  Now looking back, I read this poem and think it would have been truly inspiring had Jesus replied, “Because I wanted you to know that you had the strength within you to overcome these trying times all along.”

A big reason that I decided to start this blog is to discourage the shame people feel – or are made to feel – for not believing in God, and conversely, to encourage confidence in a life without supernatural oversight; to celebrate it.  You may ask: why would someone celebrate a life without God?  Well, for one, because of what that says about the strength, accomplishment, and capacity of human beings.

My first post dealt with the danger of divorcing yourself from ultimate responsibility for your actions by acting primarily as a follower of God.  But there is another aspect of not claiming ultimate responsibility for your actions: you also inevitably rob yourself and others of due credit for truly impressive human accomplishments.  We hear a variant of this all the time: “God carried me through to the end to win the game”, “I have to thank God for without him, I wouldn’t have gotten these good grades“, or “God blessed me and now my cancer is in remission!” to name a few examples; and as well intentioned as these statements are, they have the ulterior effect of putting down the player, student, or the oncologists (respectively) that truly deserve the acclaim and praise.

Some rightly feel insulted by the subtext of crediting God for human achievements.  For instance, NBA guard Ray Allen:

“I’ve argued this with a lot of people in my life. When people say God blessed me with a beautiful jump shot, it really pisses me off. I tell those people, ‘Don’t undermine the work I’ve put in every day.’ Not some days. Every day.”

Along the same lines, if a patient emerges from a difficult but successful surgery and thanks God for his health, you can understand doctors, surgeons, and/or scientists feeling like their efforts went under-appreciated.

But this is NOT to insinuate that followers of God are ungrateful, insulting people.  I point this out to simply highlight that humans are independently and collectively capable of tremendous and wonderful achievements, and unfortunately a lot of it goes untapped or uncredited.

Hence the celebration.  To understand that humans are not subject to a supernatural being that merely blesses you with intellect, strength, or ability comes with it the confidence and sense of accomplishment with realizing that every struggle you have overcome, every challenge you have risen to, every strength you have displayed… has come from within.

Where’s your moral GPS?

How you can be good without God

As you start raising questions and feeling doubts about your religious upbringing, you will inevitably begin to consider the issue of morals.  Many Christian apologists will ask questions ranging from, “How can an atheist be good without a moral compass?” to the more disturbing “If you don’t believe in God or the Bible, what’s to stop you from going on a murderous rampage?”  Essentially: how can one be good at all without God?

You see, Christians consult or reference the Bible as a sort of moral compass.  Well, who are we kidding?  No one uses a compass these days… so let’s use a more modern metaphor: for Christians, the Bible is like a moral GPS, which gives turn-by-turn instructions that one must follow to arrive at your destination of a good moral life.

As with a directional GPS, it does simplify things quite a bit.  It tells you what to do; you follow.  Don’t know how to get from point A to point B?  Don’t worry.  No need to know.  The GPS will spell it out for you.  Indeed, it is very helpful, but it comes at a price.  Ever seen someone try to find their way around a city when they’ve relied exclusively on their GPS to get them around?  They struggle.  They haven’t developed a sense of direction in that city because they’ve completely depended on the thing to lead their way, so without it, they are lost. You can understand how they might not comprehend how one could get along fine without one.

And it’s true; a sense of morality is a lot like a sense of direction.  It’s a skill.  One you develop through years of experience and social interaction.  Christians tend to say we are born wretched and are sinners from birth and in reality, it’s true that we are born with an undeveloped sense of morality.  But, aided by a good upbringing, it is our job to develop that sense or skill, as we would with our sense of direction in a new city.  People who follow their religious doctrine …well… religiously have little experience navigating around the nuanced map of morality independently, developing this skill, so they understandably have difficulty believing that there are those of us that are able.

As an example of an overdeveloped reliance on the moral GPS, I want to pose a question:  Without referencing a holy book or God, what is morally wrong about being gay?

It’s no secret that many religious groups have a big problem with homosexuality, with many expressly judging homosexuals or pushing strongly to deny them equal status of marriage, but why?  What is “wrong” about being gay?  Once again, without referencing your moral GPS…

The result should immediately resemble a situation like this:

The moral GPS leads the devoutly religious right off the path of being a good moral person and straight into a lake.  For people with a well-developed sense of morality that was cultivated independently from any scripture and for those young people that have yet to be made dependent on a moral GPS, it is understood that there is no sound reasoned argument to be made equating homosexuality with any moral “wrong”.

I don’t claim to speak for all atheists, but throughout my life experience navigating around the nuanced map of morality without following a moral GPS, I have come upon certain organizing principles that seem universal in establishing a moral “right” and are lacking when establishing a moral “wrong”.  For me, something that is “right” morally or “good” promotes peace and justice among the population and usually has the characteristic of being unselfish.  Conversely, a moral “wrong” denies a population peace and justice and is usually marked by selfishness.  Notice that none of these criteria make being gay “wrong”.

But I know there are many people that will still believe that following a moral GPS is the way to go…to follow without question.  But this mentality is dangerous for two reasons:  One is shown above.  To follow without question says very little about your own sense of morality, it merely establishes that you’re good at following orders.  When the orders lead you the wrong way (such as into the lake of judging and discriminating against gays or the ditch of subjugating women), that’s where you’ll end up: way off the beaten path of good moral behavior.  See studies such as the famous Milgram experiment for more on the dangers of this mentality.  Examples like this also highlight the problem of divorcing yourself from any kind of personal responsibility for this behavior, as discussed in my first post.

The second danger emerges from how most people follow rules when they don’t have an established sense of internal morality.  That is, they often do as much as they possibly can to bend the rule while still staying within the black-and-white written letter of the law, and consider themselves morally right while doing it.  A lack of independent understanding of what makes an act truly morally “right” or “wrong”, coupled with an overdeveloped insistence on following rules can absolutely lead to people committing immoral or “wrong” acts simply because it was never explicitly stated in the rules as being forbidden… therefore it’s fair game, right?

There is so much to say on the topic of morality that I’m sure I’ll revisit it in the future, but hopefully I’ve established some doubt on the assertion that it is impossible to be morally good without believing in God or following a holy text as a kind of moral GPS.  In fact, it is absolutely possible to be morally good without God.  We should always keep in mind that being good at following orders is not the same as being a good person.

What it means to be a Christian

 and why I am no longer one

Like many Americans, I was raised as a Christian (specifically, Catholic), but over the past 10 or so years, my doubts grew until I no longer felt that I could honestly call myself a Christian.  If you, like me, have doubts about the religious story you’ve been raised to believe, you may be asking, “When did you decide that you weren’t a Christian anymore?” or “Why would you want to not be one?”

The answer to the first question came to me in church, of all places. At the time, I had many of the usual doubts about the Christian story:

  • “Why do bad things happen to good people?”
  • “Why do good things happen to bad people?”
  • “If God is omnipotent, why does he rely on heaven and hell to get people to behave?  Can’t he just make it happen without the reward/punishment system?”
  • “If God is thought to have made the universe (because something cannot spring out of nothing), how did God spring out of nothing?”
  • “Why should I believe that God created man in his image when we know evolution is true?”
  • “Why should I pray to God if he’s going to do whatever his will is anyway?”
  • “If God has feelings that he cannot control (jealousy, anger, etc.), then is he really omnipotent?”
  • “If God knows all, then doesn’t he already know that I doubt he exists…?”

I was honest with myself about all these doubts, and if there were a God, he would know that I believed there were too many holes in the Christian story for full credible acceptance.  Then it came time during mass to recite the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty,

maker of heaven and earth, and all that is seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God,

Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made,

one in Being with the Father.

Through Him all things were made.

For us men and for our salvation

He came down from heaven:

by the power of the Holy Spirit

He was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.

For our sake

He was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

He suffered, died, and was buried.

On the third day

He rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures;

He ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,

and His kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

the Lord, the giver of life,

who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

With the Father and the Son

He is worshiped and glorified.

He has spoken through the Prophets.

We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.

We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

 Instead of reciting it verbatim like I usually did, I looked at each line carefully, examining and honestly asking myself if this is what I truly believed.  Did I really believe in heaven?  Is there any real evidence for places such as heaven or hell?  Did I literally believe Jesus came down from heaven and was born of a virgin?  Did I really believe that God created man, knowing what I knew about the simple truth of evolution by natural selection?  The honest answer to myself was that I didn’t really believe much of the creed.  I was not being truthful to myself when I spoke the words “We believe.”

 So why did I stop calling myself a Christian?  Well, this creed, in my mind and in the opinion of the church, is exactly what it means to be a Christian.  If you follow this link, it leads to the Vatican’s website with the creed under the heading: “THE PROFESSION OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH”.  Also, another church website describes the Nicene Creed as “the profession of the Christian Faith common to the Catholic Church, to all the Eastern Churches separated from Rome, and to many of the Protestant denominations today”.  To literally believe this Creed and that the words of the Bible are absolute truth is to profess to be of the Christian faith, and I couldn’t continue saying “We believe” when I honestly knew that I had such doubt.

Many people that were raised Christian, and even some atheists I’ve talked to, will disagree with me on this point.  For example, some will say that one need not agree that the Bible is literally the word of God (“He has spoken through the Prophets”) to be a Christian, you just have to promote peace, like Jesus taught.  You just have to feel love in the world.  You just have to appreciate both the simplicity and complexity in life.  You just have to feel like there is something greater than yourself in this world.  You just have to feel like there is meaning to our lives.

The church disagrees.  Those thoughts do not make one a Christian.  They just make you a hopeful, inspired, good person.  As an atheist, I have all of those thoughts, but obviously I’m not a Christian.

To address the next usual question: “well, why would you want to not be a Christian?”  I don’t get to choose whether the Christian story (or any other religion’s story for that matter) is true, therefore what I want is immaterial.  For more in depth thoughts, I defer to my previous two posts.  On my post on bias, I point out that it is inappropriate to ignore facts such as evolution or to ignore untrue, contradictory, or particularly savage passages in the Bible because you want to believe the Bible is true and you want to be a Christian.

Again, if you’re thinking “Who cares? So I want to be a Christian even though its claims are far-fetched.  I know it’s probably not true, but it just makes me happy, so what’s the harm in that?” I elaborate on that in my first post.

Why are so many scientists atheist?

Is there a bias to believe?

I recently heard about a study done by a researcher that was trying to show that men were smarter than women.  He basically collected the test scores from 100 random math classes and arranged them by percentage of questions answered correctly.  He eliminated most of the top test scores from women because after all, women don’t really like math, and those that scored highly on a math test were obvious anomalies that should be excluded from the study as outliers.  Anyway, after this correction, he found that those that scored in the top tier were predominantly men, so his conclusion was that, indeed, men were smarter than women.

Okay, so obviously, I completely made this story up, but I imagine that you were probably thinking… “What?  That study is completely biased! He shouldn’t get away with that!”  Luckily, no scientist would ever get away with this trick because true credible science is always performed by going to great lengths to eliminate bias.

A majority of scientists identify as atheist or agnostic, a much higher percentage than the general public, buy why do you suppose that is?  Is it because most scientists are bleak immoral heathens?  I believe this comes about because scientists are constantly trained to recognize and avoid confirmation bias, and unfortunately, most religions depend on this bias for full acceptance.

I recently attended a talk by Ian Hutchinson, a scientist at MIT of Christian faith that ended his talk by showing why Christianity was “true”.  Specifically, that the Bible was true and that it was the word of God.  When pressed about specific passages in the Bible about the world being created in 6 days, the creation of man (when we know that humans evolved by natural selection), the female coming from the Adam’s rib, etc, his response was essentially “well, we know that some parts of the Bible are written metaphorically and not meant to be taken as literal truth”.  This should strike you as vaguely familiar to the scenario I presented earlier.  If we’re being completely unbiased and seek to find whether the Bible is true, we cannot simply discount certain passages (or entire sections as most Christians tend to do with the Old Testament), simply because we don’t believe those parts were intended to be true.  Like the earlier scenario, no one should be allowed to get away with that kind of bias.

Truthfully, there is tremendous bias for people to believe in God.  Some find it devastating to deal with religious doubt because there is such enormous pressure to believe.  Pressure to be considered a “good” person, fear of the stigma of not believing, family pressure, community pressure, political pressure, peer pressure, employer pressure… the list goes on and on.  But sound, rational decisions are rarely made with such pressure biasing you to one conclusion.  And the pressure to believe isn’t coming simply from external forces.  Many say that they themselves want to believe in God, (this is no doubt a consequence of how they were raised, as few people want to believe in a different God than they were brought up to believe),  and though many people would feel that something is wrong with a statement as biased as “I just want to believe that men are smarter than women, so I will only accept claims that support that conclusion,” the same doesn’t seem to hold true for belief in God.

But it’s important to at least acknowledge that there is pressure and bias for you to believe in God or to be considered a member of the particular religion in which you were raised.  Scientists are trained to recognize instances of bias in order to avoid them in the future, and just recognizing it is a difficult step.  So, assuming you’re a Christian (after all, I am in the Bible belt!), being completely truthful to yourself: do you sincerely believe that the Bible is true and is the word of God?  Or is it that you want to believe in God and be considered a Christian?

PS. If you’re thinking, “of course religious claims are far-fetched and most people are heavily biased toward believing them, but if it makes people happy to believe it, what’s the harm?  Why would you want to rain on their parade?” then please check out my first post.