Monthly Archives: May 2012

Wretch Like Me

Why many people find it so hard to say “I don’t believe”

I saw this commercial recently and had to shake my head when it was over.  Advertising like this bothers me because the psychology employed is so cynical and transparent.  Personally, I couldn’t really tell the difference in her teeth color before the teeth whitening and after, but it seems like that’s the point.  Some people will see her perfectly normal and nice “before” smile and her look of embarrassment and shame and think to themselves, “My teeth are worse than hers… I must REALLY feel embarrassed!”  And right there, they’ve got you hooked and can sell you their product.  After all, it’s advertising 101: make someone feel like they are broken or damaged in some way (even if they aren’t…well… ESPECIALLY if they aren’t), and then sell them the antidote.

This psychology works particularly well in advertising, but it is used in many other situations as well.  One predominant warning sign of an unhealthy relationship is that the victim is made to feel so worthless that they begin to feel like no one else could ever love them, so they lose control and become dependent.  This kind of presumed dependency is one of the main reasons it is so hard for victims to just pack up and leave such unhealthy relationships.  I also believe it is this mindset that is at the root of the extreme difficulty many feel in admitting to themselves and others that they don’t believe in God.

Think about the quintessential barriers-to-leaving or warning signs of an unhealthy/controlling relationship and consider how many apply:

  • Fear of your partner’s wrath – In a relationship with God, this applies all too well; Fear of hell.  Fear of destructive “acts of God”.  Very predominant especially here in the US south, home to so many “God-fearing” people.
  • Belief that punishment is deserved – In unhealthy personal relationships, often many excuses are made for the controlling partner’s punishing behavior.  Such as: “He only hurts me because he loves me so much”.  Consider how this relates to the idea that even though God casts us to hell, he doesn’t want to do it.  We send ourselves to hell, and we are punished in that way because he loves us…
  • Fear of isolation – This is the main reason I decided to start writing on this topic. For many people, there is much hesitation to end this relationship with God due to the fear that everyone they know will abandon or scorn them.  My hope is that as more and more people feel compelled to express their concerns out loud, the collective “fear of isolation” will be lessened.
  • Hope that things will change – To me, this one applies whenever people say things like “God works in mysterious ways” following a tragic or unfortunate event.  Such as: “Yeah, God seems to be punishing or testing me now for unknown reasons, but God works in mysterious ways.  Surely he’ll change this around and things will be better in the future.”

And, of course, the one I started with:

  • Low self-esteem– Listen closely during sermons or homilies and notice how many times we as humans are deprecated as sinners or wretches.  Once again, the psychological tactic comes into play:  I’m a sinner.  I’m a wretch.  I’m broken.  I’m damaged.  But only through God can I be made righteous.

That being said, I’m not implying that God is an abusive partner.  Obviously that’s not the case.  The point here is that for many, religion has a very strong and controlling hold on their lives that cannot easily be shaken.  It may be a slow process, but for me it started with a mental exercise.

What if there were no God?  What would that mean for me?  How would I behave?  How would I treat others?  How would I understand that world?  What if the religious story on which I was raised, was in fact…. not true?

I concluded that things would be no different.  I had the same positive outlook and treated people in the same manner regardless.  The “no God” world was just as beautiful and inspiring after my realization (if not more!).  Then, after I got over those “barriers-to-leaving” – fear of being banished to hell (hell wasn’t very plausible anyways), fear of isolation (cultivated friendships with open-minded people), etc – I began to get a bit more courage and was finally able to say out loud…

“I don’t believe in God”

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Open letter on the Emory commencement speaker controversy

This year, Emory University has invited Dr. Ben Carson to speak at the commencement ceremony. He’s an accomplished humanitarian and neurosurgeon who is highly respected as an authority on medical science, but he is also an evolution-denier who has made some false and controversial statements on the topic.

In this interview, he implies that evolution occurs by random chance (which, as I addressed in my last post, is not true).  He states that we haven’t found intermediate fossils in the transition from ape to human (Not true.  As usual, Wikipedia is a good start to your search for more information on that).  He also said “Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes.” Adding that if you accept evolution, “you have no reason for things such as selfless love”.

Naturally, this didn’t sit right with many science professors and students at Emory.  A group of faculty members penned a letter to the editor of the campus newspaper, the Emory Wheel, and the letter was signed by ~500 students, faculty members, and alumni over the course of only a of couple days. The letter and its subsequent comments can be found here.  In the letter, it was made clear that this was not a letter of protest or one seeking to have Dr. Carson barred from speaking.  It was merely to call attention to these false and divisive statements and to present the facts regarding evolution.

But when the faculty and students spoke out to call attention to Carson’s comments, a wave of opinion and media interest emerged redefining the issue as one of religious persecution and scientific bullying.  I wish to address these two topics, as there appears to be some widespread misconceptions about the scientific community, particularly at Emory.

1.  The concerns about Dr. Carson’s statements regarding evolution were raised entirely irrespective of his religion.  This is absolutely not a religious issue.  The authors of the original letter even explicitly state that accepting evolution is not at odds with being religious, as evidenced by many religious scientists that accept the overwhelming evidence for evolution.   It is clear from his comments that Carson’s dismissal of this overwhelming evidence comes from his religious beliefs, but it is entirely irrelevant why he chooses to be misinformed on the topic of evolution.  As scientists and educators, we simply ask that he be open to the mountains of evidence in support of evolution and that he not continue spreading false information on the topic.

2.  A prevalent theme has emerged among media articles and its subsequent comments that this letter represents a warning for all young scientists to fall in line with the mantra of Darwinism or face repercussion.  In reality, a scientist producing solid documentation of irrefutable evidence which disproves evolution would not only be welcomed by the scientific community, it would elevate that scientist to elite academic status.  This is because in science, much praise is placed on those who view things differently.  In fact, this is precisely the reason Darwin is so well respected in the scientific community.  His ideas broke the mold, but simply breaking the mold and viewing things differently is not enough, and this is key: one must produce valid incontrovertible evidence to back one’s ideas.  Darwin did so over 200 years ago and has yet to be disproved; in fact his idea of evolution by natural selection is constantly confirmed in areas such as paleontology, biology, and genetics to this day.

The fact that Dr. Carson’s stance on evolution is against the norm among scientists is not worthy of concern.  What is concerning is when Carson, acting as a respected authority on medical science, makes inaccurate and false statements that misinform the general public on the facts regarding evolution and discourage inquiry by conflating the acceptance of this scientific knowledge with having repercussions on one’s morality or ethics.

Misinformation and dogmatic rejection of valid credible science are what scientists rally to publicly condemn, not diversity of ideas.

An atheist’s perspective

My responses to questions or concerns about understanding a world without a supernatural God.

Larry asks: If there is a supreme being who is omniscient and omnipotent, could he not have created the universe without revealing himself?

The double negative made this a little difficult for me to grasp, but I believe he’s asking if it is possible for God to have created the universe without leaving any evidence of his existence, thus not revealing himself to us.

My take is that yes it could be possible, but that is a very unsatisfying conclusion.  If God did indeed create the universe, but at present does not interact with his creation in any way so as to reveal himself, then it would be possible for him remain elusive.  But if it were true that God does not interact with the natural world so that he may remain elusive, then prayer would be fruitless, would it not?  God will not actively listen and change his divine plan based on your plea, otherwise he would risk revealing himself.

Ultimately, most atheists concede that it is possible that a creator initially organized the universe and then left it to take care of itself, but we just tend to agree that this is not a very likely scenario and, because it wouldn’t affect things either way, we don’t worry about the possibility.

E asks: How do you cope with the role of chance in your life?  Specifically, if there’s no deity, then it’s just luck that put you in this place, at this time, with the family and upbringing and opportunities that you’ve had, rather than sometime or somewhere else, where your life would have been nasty, brutish, and/or short.

Yes.  It is luck.  For many people, they may take this negatively and believe it to be a bleak thought, but I actually find it quite inspiring and draw a lot of perspective and compassion from this knowledge.  Like I pointed out on my “One set of footsteps” post, I am not merely blessed with my positive traits or damned with my shortcomings.  It was chance that I ended up being born to my wonderful parents.  I could have been in a much worse situation, so it keeps me grounded and allows me to identify and sympathize more readily with those less fortunate.  Because that is exactly what they are: less fortunate.  Not lazier.  Not evil.  Not undergoing punishment for the sins of their ancestors.  Just less fortunate.  It’s a powerfully unifying mentality to have.  So to answer your question:  I do believe many things in life are a product of random chance, and I find that fact can be very comforting at times.

People often fixate on the “why” of events.  “Why did my grandfather get cancer?” or “Why did my child have a genetic disorder?”  Although some feel they get comfort from the idea that it is a test from God or that it’s all part of God’s plan, I actually never found that reasoning to be very comforting or satisfactory.  The truth of the matter is more comforting to me: that some things just happen by chance.  At times, we’re the beneficiaries.  Other times, we end up less fortunate. I have found it easier to cope with the fact that many times… there is no “why”.

Lauren asks: So, if I don’t believe in God, can I still refer to these (religious) sources for guidance? Does rejecting the supernatural whole have to mean rejecting the earthbound parts?

I by no means am advocating for people to close themselves off from seeking knowledge.  That is actually the exact opposite of what I intend to convey.  I only hope that everyone be vigilant and constantly ask themselves if what they claim to believe can withstand questioning or scrutiny and is backed by reputable, falsifiable facts.

Knowledge about morality can come from every situation, any social interaction, and can absolutely come from a religious context.  There are stories I remember from mass that I felt had a good message, but as my friend Alex pointed out in an earlier comment, good moral messages can come from any book, including Harry Potter.  Obviously, having a good moral message does not make the book a work of non-fiction.

C asks: “What is the motivation of an atheist? Why do anything if nothing matters in the end…the definite end of the universe? Why help others? Why fight for the social issues that I see so many atheists fighting for? Everything will end and nothing will matter at all. All people, the earth, our solar system, our universe will all end in the same desolate end and what was it all for? When I think of an atheist world view, I think of no hope in a future beyond the split second we live on the earth, and when that split second is over it has no meaning or real significance anyway.”

I may have a unique take on this, but the explanation that I’ve come to accept is this: In short, the way I see it, the purpose of each human life is the continuation of our species and to maximize our collective happiness in the meantime.  Just like a skin cell may die on your body but you continue to live, I see each one of us contributing to the greater organism that is the human species, even if our individual lives are finite.  When we die, our lives will have had meaning because we contributed to the greater goal of keeping humanity alive and prosperous.  This is truly how we gain “eternal life”.  Sure it might not literally be MY life that extends eternally, but my genes can be passed on.  My ideas can be passed on to friends and loved ones.  Memories of me can be passed on.  As long as humanity continues, so do my genes and the impact of my life, if only for a few people.

So that is why I fight for the social issues I fight for: for the elimination of scorn and contempt of gays, atheists, people of other faiths, or anyone different or less fortunate than you.  If we get along and help others, we will be able to help humanity as a whole advance, which in my view, is our “purpose” here on earth.

To address your concern about the definite end of the universe and how that would lead to malaise and/or a bleak attitude, think about it like this: imagine, for the sake of argument, that you are diagnosed with an intractable illness and you had a month to live.  Would you sit in a room and do nothing because it will all end in a few weeks anyway, or would you try to live your life to its fullest in the short amount of time left?  I, like most, would choose the latter.

Common concern #1: “I just can’t believe that we sprung out of nothing randomly” OR “I can’t accept that we are a product of a completely random process like evolution” OR “We are too complex to have come about through random chance”

Unfortunately, each of these statements reveals a subtle misunderstanding about the evolutionary process that I would like to take this opportunity to clear up: evolution by natural selection is NOT a completely random process.

Most people come away understanding the part about “evolution by natural selection starting with random mutations to an organism’s genome” just fine.  Put it seems the second part of the process, the natural selection part, is often forgotten or overlooked.  Whether an organism survives or dies in a particular environment is not a product of random chance.

Take a quintessential example of the evolutionary process, the long-necked giraffe.  Everyone understands that it was likely a random genetic mutation that produced an animal with a longer neck, but whether that mutation will benefit the animal is decidedly non-random.  A longer neck will absolutely benefit the animal’s survivability in a predictable way because its diet comes from the leaves of trees.  Even though the initial mutation was random, the outcome, which led to a more complex well-adapted species, is absolutely not random chance.  That is why we, and all the other organisms on earth (which are all products of evolution) are so well-adapted to our environment: because we had to be to survive.  So, I hope we can all agree: every organism’s well-suitedness to its environment is absolutely not a product of random chance.

Common concern #2: “What about the fact that the earth is in a narrow and perfect ‘habitable zone’ for human life?  The probability that earth just happened to be in this narrow range by random chance is so low, it means there must have been a supernatural designer.”

Probabilities are hard to intuit.  I’ll give you an example to demonstrate how tricky it can get: say you have a deck of cards.  What is the probability that you will blindly shuffle the deck and turn the cards over to find them perfectly arranged by suit and number?  Well, because there are 52 cards in the deck the answer is 1/(52 factorial) = 1.23979993×10-68 or 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000123979993  Virtually impossible!  BUT what is interesting is that the probability that you will turn the cards over to reveal ANY one arrangement of cards is the same probability because any arrangement is just as likely as any other in a truly random shuffle.  Therefore, whenever you turn over the cards to look at the arrangement, you’ll be witnessing a “virtually impossible” event.  We are not shocked by its occurrence because some arrangement had to happen; that fact is actually not improbable at all (100% probability), even though the probability of a particular arrangement showing up is very low.

Another way to think about it is this: imagine there is a worldwide raffle.  Every living person is in the running (~7 billion).  The chances of your name being drawn from the massively large proverbial hat is near zilch.  You could bet the farm that your name is not going to get picked, but someone’s name will get picked.  Therefore, even though the probability is low that you will be the winner, the chances that someone will win are great (100% probability as well).  And after the fact, for someone to approach the raffle winner and say “the probability of you getting picked was so near-zero that I don’t think it ever happened at all” would not be right because hey… someone had to win, and it just so happened to be that person.

So it goes with our earth’s particular location in the “habitable zone”.  Earth is close enough to the sun so that our oceans do not ice over, but far enough away so that they do not boil.  We orbit the sun in this narrow zone, which also keeps much of the earth in a narrow temperature range that humans can tolerate.  Some say this points to a creator, but the alternate perspective is that in the universe, with its zillions of possible plants, Earth just happened to have won the “universal raffle” (so to speak), where the winning planet is decided not by pulling a name out of a hat, but by its proximity to its sun.  Out of all of the zillions of planets in our universe, the probability of there being one planet with this narrow proximity might actually not be that improbable, and we just happen to be on that one planet (there may be others, by the way…) .

The initial seeding of life on earth probably took eons, but once life took hold, it has slowly but surely evolved and adapted to its environment here on earth.  These days, we wonder how the narrowly defined “habitable zone” earth finds itself in could be so perfectly suited for us humans.

It turns out we’ve been thinking about it backwards: in fact, it is us (and every other organism on earth) that has evolved to perfectly suit the narrow constraints of the environment we find ourselves in.