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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”

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.

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.

Why rain on their parade?

Personal responsibility and why the right should consider losing their faith

Common wisdom tells us that republicans and libertarians put a lot of stock into the virtue of personal responsibility.  For instance, most would agree that the recent housing market crash was a glaring example of the ills of irresponsibility.  I would venture to guess that, if given the chance, most would gladly go back in time and warn of the terrible toll our country’s financial irresponsibility would take (In fact, one need not go back in time to see this kind of warning taking place; it does currently by many on the right).  This is because personal irresponsibility when compounded by many becomes collective irresponsibility, which is corrosive and dangerous.  If you happen to agree with the previous statements, congratulations: You may already have an atheist mindset.  How are these seemingly disparate concepts intertwined?

I’ll start by saying that we atheists tend to get a bad rap.  The most common ending to a theological debate is where the theist concedes that most religious beliefs are a bit far-fetched, but “that’s why it’s called faith and hey, if it makes people happy to believe it, what’s the harm?  Why would you want to rain on their parade?”

Well let’s think about some other far-fetched ideas that make people happy to believe.  How about the idea that they can afford a house that is, in fact, outside their price range?  I imagine it is a nice feeling for them to believe that they have the money and can afford a nice place, and who are you to rain on their parade?

See, when taken individually, little suspensions of reason don’t seem that troublesome.  What’s the harm in one person believing they can afford a house they actually cannot or one person following religious dogma based on claims that are a bit far-fetched?  Very little, I suppose, but when compounded by many, these little suspensions of reason become collective irresponsibility, and as we agreed earlier, that is corrosive, dangerous and precisely “the harm”.

And if you’re religious and reading this, I know what you’re thinking: Irresponsibility?  Is that how you’re choosing to characterize those of religious faith?  As irresponsible?” I would argue it is the exact correct word to use.  Religion trades in absolving their followers from personal responsibility.

Most Christians believe that sins can be wiped clean through prayer and belief in Jesus.  This is the quintessential example of absolution of responsibility for one’s actions.  Also, gay marriage is not allowed in most states because many believe God doesn’t approve of it.  It’s not up to us!  We’re not responsible. The big guy upstairs is, and he doesn’t like it!  Those who target and kill doctors who provide abortions do so because they believe they are on a mission from God, that they are simply the messengers (as were the 9/11 hijackers). They are also not responsible; they were just following God’s orders.  People have and will continually absolve themselves of responsibility if they believe they have divine permission.

But what’s really the harm?

With financial irresponsibility, we know how bad it can get.  When collective financial irresponsibility became corrosive to the point that the bottom fell out in 2008, people lost a lot of money and many lost their homes.

When it comes to religion, we have yet to truly find out.  Though when considering the idea that most religions believe that the afterlife is more splendid than our earthly life, it paints a very dangerous picture in a world with nuclear weapons.

So consider forgetting God, religion, and every other little suspension of reason and live exercising complete personal responsibility.  After all, if you warn of the dangers of irresponsibility when potential loss of money is at hand, how about when the stakes are higher?