Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mechanistic Research: The Only True Answer to A Question

Image courtesy of Google Images.

Science is simply wonderful. Sometimes it is also wonderfully simple. Some of the most important scientific discoveries ever made have been elegantly simple and, after the fact it is hard to understand how the discovery was missed up to that point. However, science can also be wonderfully complex. Anyone who has studied advanced organic chemistry has probably wondered at its complexity. The same could be said for much of the physiological processes that occur in biological systems, particularly advanced eukaryotic ones such as humans. I think we do not celebrate science enough nor give scientists enough recognition for the goodness with which they have illuminated the world. Sadly, there is also much poor science (or more accurately pseudo-science, for any science that is poor is not technically science) out there as well.

In my opinion, very good science seeks not only to make observations in our world, but to explain the mechanism behind the observations. It is astounding how much money and time is spent on non-mechanistic research. Just think for a moment of modern obesity-related research. Literally billions of tax dollars are spent each year on research that describes the increasing rate of the obesity epidemic in Western societies. Yet much of this type of research is not mechanistic. It makes no attempt to learn why western populations are more obese than their parents’ generations. In the extreme, one could opine that non-mechanistic research is worthless in terms of true scientific value. Think of an example of research into the health effects of smoking. Nowadays we all know that smoking is bad for you and we take that knowledge for granted. But think back 50 or 60 years and imagine designing research to determine the effects of smoking on health. The easiest type of research to conduct would be to examine the health of smokers and non-smokers and make a comparison: a cross-sectional study. Longitudinal research, involving the examination of the health of smokers over a long period of time, might be more valid because it may remove other confounding factors more effectively. Indeed, both of these types of research have been conducted on smokers in the past, and they both had some value in helping us arrive at the conclusion that smoking is bad for your health. Yet these types of research are not mechanistic: they tell us nothing about why smoking is bad for your health. Not until researchers examined the mechanisms behind airway and endothelial functions following exposure to the contents of cigarettes were we able to really understand why smoking may cause cancer, why it may cause heart disease, and why it may cause a host of other long-term health problems.

The main reason that non-mechanistic, or descriptive, research is less valid than mechanistic research is that conclusions drawn from observations alone can very often be faulty. A classic extreme example of this is the relationship between airliner crashes and fatalities by seat selection. Picture a descriptive researcher observing that more people die each year in plane crashes while sitting in window seats than sitting in aisle seats. With this information, the researcher may be tempted to draw a conclusion based on the observation such as: you are safer sitting in an aisle seat than a window seat when you travel by air. The researcher may even be tempted to go further and try to explain a reason for the observation such as: those who sit in the window seats are closer to the edge of the aircraft and may be exposed to greater impact forces during a crash. It is not hard to imagine people changing their behaviour based on this explanation of a true observation, but they would be completely misled if they did so. In this example, there is another factor that actually explains the observation which has been completely overlooked because the research was not mechanistic. The relationship between rates of death in airline crashes and seat selection is actually explained by the fact that more people choose window seats than aisle seats when traveling by air. When an airliner crashes, almost invariably everyone is killed. Put these two facts together and you find two things: 1) more people will die each year in window seats; 2) there is no relationship between your choice of seat and your chances of survival in a crash. So in fact the research, though accurate in describing the observations, has done a disservice to society in trying to explain the relationship without actually examining an appropriate mechanism for the explanation. These types of observational research reports are rampant in the popular news. Almost every day one can watch or read the news and find an example of health-related research that is urging you to take Vitamin C, get more (or less) sunlight exposure, avoid or use caffeine or alcohol, or any other number of behaviours that may help your health. There may be some truth to some of these recommendations. The problem is, without a mechanistic explanation, you don’t actually know whether they are true or merely based on a chance observational relationship.

This brings me to the topic of mechanistic science in relation to religious beliefs. Science is often purported to be in conflict with religion. Some say the two are incompatible. Others insist that the two can co-exist quite comfortably and do not necessarily contradict each other when it comes to explanations of the world around us. I fall firmly in the former group. Science is in direct conflict with religion for a very good reason: religion does not attempt to make mechanistic explanations; rather it is based purely on observations. I do not wish to get into a discussion of the evolution – creation “debate” (as if there were an actual debate on the topic!) at this point, but it is a relevant example. Occasionally, and recently, some creationists have attempted to strengthen their position by introducing the notion that there is some science in their theory. Some even go so far as to call it “creation science”. (That creationists are smart enough to figure out that being scientific lends validity to their point of view, yet continue to criticize and demean true science is at once incredibly humorous and deeply sad). Yet creationists almost never make any attempt to include mechanism in their “observations”. Almost invariably, a creationist, when asked how god created the world in six days comes up with some variation of “by magic” (i.e. no reasonable mechanism). This pattern, of course, extends far beyond creationism and into every realm of religious belief. Ask any believer what their explanation for how their god healed a relative and you are likely to initially get a simplistic answer: “by prayer”. Follow that up by asking for their explanation of the exact mechanism: “Yes, but how did your god actually remove the tumour from your aunt’s brain?”, and you will likely get a very blank stare. No thought is ever given to the mechanism. As I’ve pointed out, when there is no understanding or explanation of the mechanism, then the observation becomes significantly less valid, and the chances of misinterpreting the observations are increased. Mechanistic research, assuming it is done properly, rules out misinterpretation of observations. There is, of course, a very good reason that mechanistic research is not conducted by those attempting to show that god created the world, how he works in people’s lives, or even that god(s) exist: there is no mechanism to be uncovered. There are only observations with faulty conclusions. The mechanistic work done by physicists on our universe’s beginnings are infinitely more acceptable explanations for how we came to exist.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Don't Place All Your Eggs in The Easter Bunny's Basket

Image courtesy of Google Images.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.
– Marcus Aurelius

I imagine I could never summarize so eloquently and succinctly as Aurelius did long before Pascal’s time and his famous wager, which itself is written much more professionally and eloquently than I can paraphrase here:

If you believe in God and turn out to be wrong, you’ve lost nothing. But if you don’t believe in God and you turn out to be wrong, you’ve got everything to lose. So you may as well choose to believe in God, just in case.

It is incredible how many people accept this wager as logical and wise, and how many encourage unbelievers such as me to accept it also. It is contrary to my philosophy and beliefs in so many ways.

Firstly, the very notion that one can choose what to believe is foolhardy and childish. Even if I wanted to take the wager, how could I possibly choose to believe in god? I may spend the rest of my days pretending to believe, but deep inside know that it is not real, which would still be a form of unbelief. I can no more choose to believe in god than I can choose to believe in any fantasy including the tooth fairy, the Easter bunny, and Santa Claus. That Christians very often become offended and even upset when I make that comparison only illustrates the immaturity of missing the point. To compare Christianity to other fantasies is only to explain how an unbeliever views the religion. If you are a Christian, could you choose, as an educated adult, to believe in the Easter Bunny? Could you really, even if you thought your eternal fate depended on it, set aside all the rational thought and evidence that the chocolate eggs are actually placed there by loving and playful parents and instead believe that they are truly placed there magically by a fantastic leporine? Could you really believe that? That is akin to what Christians ask when they think a non-believer can choose to believe in their god. If you were asked to learn to believe in the Easter Bunny, what you would really be asked to do is to set aside all the rational thought processes and logic you have acquired thus far in life, and accept fantasy that is outside the realm of the world you live in and witness on a daily basis.

Secondly, the wager is pure folly because it assumes that the only possibility is that either the Christian god Yahweh exists or not. And if he does, then he is exactly the god that you can define, presumably for Christians, through the Bible. In short, what happens if you accept Pascal’s wager, die, and then find out that Thor was actually the one true god after all? You’re equally doomed (perhaps more so?) as if you’d never taken the foolish wager in the first place. There are thousands of potential gods that have been defined in human history. Why should the one that your culture defines happen to be the right one on which to wager? That Christians, in our Western culture, make this assumption only illustrates their inability to see outside their narrow window of having already accepted the wager by being Christian in the first place.

There are several other problems with Pascal’s Wager with which I could continue, but why bother? To continue discussing it after the first two (really even only the first one) points completely destroy it would only validate a foolish proposition.

Monday, September 6, 2010

A Well-Written Mistake

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Below is a small review of Stephen Hawking’s latest book The Grand Design. It was written by Jonathan Sacks. Sacks (I refuse to call him Lord Sacks – such titles are pure bunk in a world where we should recognize merit and achievement rather than title) is the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth – he is the spiritual head of the largest synagogue body in the United Kingdom. He studied at both Cambridge (MA) and Oxford (PhD) and is clearly a very well educated, intelligent man who can string together words with some skill and eloquence. What he appears unable to do, however, is avoid making the standard fundamental error that so often trips up the religious as they attempt to debate their point or critique someone else’s (the someone in this case being probably the most intelligent man alive). Read through his article pasted below. It is very well written, and at first you might find yourself walking away thinking, yes he has a point. Perhaps Hawking should have thought things through a bit more before he published his book. But, read it again carefully. The fundamental error Sacks makes is to put the cart before the horse as so often happens in the mind of the religious. His assumption all along is that there is a god, and then he bases all his arguments on that assumption. His argument that science and religion are separate entities, that science cannot explain religion and that religion answers questions that science cannot is based on this primary assumption. Anyone who assumes to begin with that there is a god (before looking at the scientific evidence) of course assumes that their god has answers to questions that science cannot answer. Sacks writes: “The Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science. It is interested in other questions entirely. Who are we? Why are we here? How then shall we live? It is to answer those questions, not scientific ones, that we seek to know the mind of God.” Other questions entirely? How are the questions Who are we and why are we here not scientific ones? That is a neat trick Mr. Sacks, to produce a question such as “Why are we here?” and then proclaim that it is outside the realm of science. Why are humans here? Perhaps there is no answer to that question. Perhaps we are just here. Or, perhaps there is an answer to that question and it goes something along the lines explosive beginnings to a universe followed by condensation of a planet and then millions of years of evolution. Mr. Sacks would, of course, protest that the explanation of the mechanics of how we are here does not answer the question of why we are here. But that is the whole point. That is why we are here as well as how we are here. In other words, people who put the cart before the horse and start with the assumption that there is a god assume that the answer to the question of why we are here actually have a different answer than the question of how we are here. Science has likely shown us that (so far as our knowledge allows) there is no difference to these questions. Therefore science can answer all the questions and religion does not hold some sacred trump on certain questions.

I always find it easiest to go back to a belief that is fictional to everyone to explore and understand these sorts of arguments. Suppose someone named Mr. Skcas had argued that some things cannot be explained by science. For example, science cannot explain why Santa Claus is motivated to deliver all those presents children every Christmas. No matter how advanced science becomes, it will never be able to answer that question. Therefore, there are some questions that are outside of the realm of science. Of course science shows us that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, and that his annual delivery of toys is physically impossible. So it is preposterous to say: “Yes, yes, but still it doesn’t answer the question of why Santa Claus does it.” Equally preposterous is Mr. Sacks position of pretending that science and religion do not overlap and that religion answers some questions that science cannot. Completely preposterous.

Another classic mistake, which I don’t intend to get into detail here, but which is worth mentioning is the fallacy of arguing that the chances of the universe occurring in such a manner that life could exist are too small to be realistic. It is not feasible that everything would align just right for us to exist (the classic 6 constants argument). What a ludicrous concept that completely ignores the fact that we do exist in the first place. I call this attitude the lottery complex. Imagine a person wins a multi-million dollar lottery in which they only had a 1 in 20 million chance of winning. They cash in their ticket but then they start doubting whether they could have won because the chances were so small. They ignore the fact that they have already won, so to be in the position of examining the very small odds of winning, they have to have already won. No matter how small the chances of a universe existing with the proper nature to allow us to exist, we do exist. Therefore, the universe must have those properties. That is not, however, evidence that it couldn’t have happened without interference anymore than the lucky lottery winner having the winning ticket couldn’t have done so unless the system was rigged.

For all his education and intellect, Mr. Sacks article reads with the underlying logic of an elementary school student. At every turn his whiny insistence on trying to prove that god exists and that religion matters shines through any façade of well-written grammar and prose. Mr. Sacks isn’t even in the same ballpark as Professor Hawking. While Hawking likely left behind his attempts to prove that his underlying assumptions are right back in kindergarten and moved on to examining the evidence around him, Mr. Sacks continues to cling to his religion in the hopes that he can manipulate it through whatever evidence science uncovers next.

Sacks article:

The Times, Thursday 2nd September 2010

Even great science tells us nothing about God Jonathan Sacks
“Stephen Hawking is wrong about the existence of God. He has simply refuted his own earlier mistaken theology What would we do for entertainment without scientists telling us, with breathless excitement, that “God did not create the Universe,” as if they were the first to discover this astonishing proposition? Stephen Hawking is the latest, but certainly not the first. When Napoleon asked Laplace, two hundred years ago, where was God in his scientific system, the mathematician replied, Je n’ais besoin de cette hypothèse. “I do not need God to explain the Universe.” We never did. That is what scientists do not understand. There is a difference between science and religion. Science is about explanation. Religion is about interpretation. Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean. They are different intellectual enterprises. They even occupy different hemispheres of the brain. Science — linear, atomistic, analytical — is a typical left-brain activity. Religion — integrative, holistic, relational — is supremely a work of the right brain. It is important for us to understand the misinterpretation Professor Hawking has made, because the mutual hostility between religion and science is one of the curses of our age, and is damaging to religion and science in equal measure. The best way of approaching it is through the autobiography of Charles Darwin. Darwin tells us that as a young man he had been impressed with the case for God as set out by William Paley in his Natural Theology of 1802. Paley updated the classic “argument from design” to the state of scientific knowledge as it existed in his day. Find a stone on a heath, says Paley, and you won’t ask who designed it. It doesn’t look as if it was designed. But find a watch and you will think differently. A watch looks as if it was designed. Therefore it had a designer. The Universe looks more like a watch than a stone. It is intricate, interlocking, complex. Therefore, it too had a designer, whose name is God. Darwin, in a simple yet world-transforming idea, showed how the appearance of design does not require a designer at all. It can emerge over a long period of time by, as we would put it today, an iterated process of genetic mutation and natural selection. So the Universe is not like a watch, or if it is, the watchmaker was blind. QED. But whoever thought the Universe was like a watch in the first place? The scientists and philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries: Newton, Leibniz, Laplace, Auguste Comte. What was wrong about Paley’s argument was not the theology but the science on which it was based. Good science refutes bad science. It tells us nothing at all about God. Professor Hawking has done something very similar, except that this time he plays both parts. He is both Paley and Darwin and, with great legerdemain and panache, Hawking II, the good scientist, has brilliantly refuted Hawking I, the poor theologian. Hawking I was the person who wrote, at the end of A Brief History of Time, that if we found science’s holy grail, a theory-of-everything, we would know “why it is that we and the Universe exist”. We would “know the mind of God”. This is so elementary a fallacy that it is hard to believe that Professor Hawking meant it. We would know how we and the Universe came into being — not why. Nor, in any but the most trivial sense, would we “know the mind of God”. The Bible is relatively uninterested in how the Universe came into being. It devotes a mere 34 verses to the subject. It takes 15 times as much space to describe how the Israelites constructed a sanctuary in the desert. The Bible is not proto-science, pseudo-science or myth masquerading as science. It is interested in other questions entirely. Who are we? Why are we here? How then shall we live? It is to answer those questions, not scientific ones, that we seek to know the mind of God. Hawking II has now refuted Hawking I. The Universe, according to the new theory, created itself. (This reminds me of a joke I heard as an undergraduate about a smug business tycoon: “He is a self-made man, thereby relieving God of a grave responsibility.”) Should you reply that the Universe must be astonishingly intelligent to have fine-tuned itself so precisely for the emergence of stars, planets, life and us, all of which are massively improbable, then the answer is that there is an infinity of universes in which all the possibilities and permutations are played out. We struck lucky. We found the universe that contained us. I first heard this theory from that brilliant and wise scientist, Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society. He too, as he explains in his book Just Six Numbers, was puzzled by the precision of the six mathematical constants that define the shape of the Universe. So unlikely is it that the Universe just happened by chance to fit those parameters that he, too, was forced to suggest the parallel universes hypothesis. If you hold an infinity of lottery tickets, one of them is going to win. That is true, but not elegant. The principle of Occam’s razor says don’t multiply unnecessary entities. Given a choice between a single intelligent creator and an infinity of self-creating universes, the former wins hands down. But let us hail a scientific genius. Professor Hawking is one of the truly great minds of our time. Two thousand years ago the rabbis coined a blessing — you can find it in any Jewish prayer book — on seeing a great scientist, regardless of his or her religious beliefs. That seems to me the right attitude of religion to science: admiration and thankfulness. But there is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live. Science masquerading as religion is as unseemly as religion masquerading as science. I will continue to believe that God who created one or an infinity of universes in love and forgiveness continues to ask us to create, to love and to forgive.”

On another topic, the Wikipedia entry for Mr. Sacks is quoted as saying: "Sacks is deeply concerned with what he perceives as the corrosive effects of materialism and secularism in European society, arguing that they undermine the basic values of family life and lead to selfishness. In 2009 Sacks gave an address claiming that Europeans have chosen consumerism over the self-sacrifice of parenting children, and that "the major assault on religion today comes from the neo-Darwinians." He argued that Europe is in population decline "because non-believers lack shared values of family and community that religion has."

I much prefer Professor Dawkins' quote: "The enlightenment is under threat. So is reason. So is truth. So is science, especially in the schools of America. I am one of those scientists who feels that it is no longer enough just to get on and do science. We have to devote a significant proportion of our time and resources to defending it from deliberate attack from organized ignorance. We even have to go out on the attack ourselves, for the sake of reason and sanity. But it must be a positive attack, for science and reason have so much to give. They are not just useful, they enrich our lives in the same kind of way as the arts do. Promoting science as poetry was one of the things that Carl Sagan did so well, and I aspire to continue his tradition."

Evidence First, Then Conclusions

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There is a fundamental difference between the religious and scientists, atheists, and rationalists in how they approach examination of the natural world, of the question of the existence of god(s), of virtually every philosophical question. The religious (and the superstitious) tend to have a conclusion (or at least a strong pet theory) about some phenomenon for which they then attempt to find evidence to support that conclusion. Scientists, on the other hand, observe the evidence as objectively as possible with the removal of bias as much as possible, and then slowly draw their conclusions from the observed evidence.

Once when I was traveling some back roads in a remote forested area and trying to find a particular location on the map, I realized I was sort of lost. I couldn’t quite figure out how to match the various markings on the map to my observations around me, but I was sure I was generally in the right location. I kept approaching the map from a slightly different point of view, trying to make it match what I saw around me. Eventually, most of it did fit and started to make sense. I realized that what I saw around me could potentially fit the map. A bend in the road on the map seemed a bit out of place, but maybe the map wasn’t drawn perfectly. Another bend did fit well, and the general shape of the area I was standing in did fit the map, if I ignored small parts of it. I must be in the right spot, I concluded. After driving back down the road, I started to question myself as I looked more carefully at the surroundings. Eventually, I realized that the area I had been looking for was actually 2 or 3 km away from the place I had thought it was. When I found the right location, it fit the map perfectly, there was no need to try to make it fit. I had made a classic mistake: drawing my conclusion (I was in the right spot) and then making the evidence fit (if I overlook a few inaccuracies on the map then it seems to fit).

This mistake is made over and over by the religious and the superstitious. The underlying assumption is that god exists. That overarching conclusion can never be thrown away if you are religious, no matter how much the observed evidence contradicts or fails to support it, or even seems to support it except for a few major issues that you overlook. Just like my experience in the woods with the map, when you draw your conclusion first, you can often find some evidence that seems to support your conclusion. Imagine for a moment that all religion was removed from the world and we were all starting from scratch with the question of whether a god exists or not. Imagine there is no Bible, there are no stories about Jesus, Moses, or Mohammed. Imagine no one has ever heard of Christianity or Islam. Then we all set out to examine the world and gather evidence about the natural world. Do you really think it would lead us to a the god described in the Bible, to Jesus dying to save everyone from their sins, and to a personal relationship with this god? Surely not. When you actually stop and observe the natural world for evidence, as scientists have done and continue to do on a regular basis, what we get is all the explanations we do have: that the earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the sun, the theory of relativity, gravitational and germ theory, evolution, and so on. All of these things were developed and discovered as the result of observation followed by conclusion. But the concept of god is exactly the opposite. The religious begin with the conclusion that god exists, and go from there to try to support that position.

This is a fundamental difference between most atheists and most religious people. My wish is not to convert others to atheism, but that they start to examine the world rationally and logically and then draw their own conclusions about the truth. Do most religious people share that point of view? How many Christians or Muslims do you know that don’t teach their children to follow their religion, but rather teach their children to think rationally and logically about everything, confident in the knowledge that one day they will find the truth? Think about it. A Christian parent doesn’t say a single word to their child about Christianity, but instead teaches their child to examine the evidence in the world around them because the parent is so confident that their religion is the truth that the child will come to it on their own if they look for the evidence. Have you ever known this to happen? I haven’t. What makes me confident that I am not indoctrinating my own children is that I will never tell them what they should and shouldn’t believe when it comes to religion. Rather, I will simply teach them to examine all things in our world rationally, confident in the knowledge that if they do so they will discover truth.

I submit that all religious beliefs fall into this category of trying to make the observed evidence fit a preconceived conclusion, or a prior belief. This issue is, in my opinion, at the very heart of the reason that religious people so often are negative or even hostile to science and scientists. I have met many Christians who actually claim to believe that scientists are motivated to try to prove that god doesn’t exist and that scientists’ bias of not wanting god to exist causes them to interpret their findings to support that bias. I’ve even met a handful of people who have claimed that all scientists are part of a conspiracy to cover up the evidence and truth of creation. This attitude perfectly reflects this bias I am writing about. The assumption is that scientists must, since they all (or very nearly all) seem to reject the notion of a god, have interpreted the evidence to fit their preconceived notion that there is no god. This is exactly the kind of modus operandi that many religions people take and therefore don’t even notice when they apply it to others. They fail to notice the enormous error in their position. The reality is that the vast majority of scientists do not believe in god because when one examines the world through a scientific point of view, there is simply no evidence to support that belief. (There is a small percentage of scientists who believe in god, but these are typically people who grew up with religion and have simply had a hard time walking away from deep-founded beliefs. The number of bona fide scientists who truly believe in a personal and interfering god is staggeringly small – probably much less than 1%).

Some more open-minded religious people try to meld together their belief in god with their observations of the world around them. Some accept that the Bible cannot be literally true, that much of it must be allegory or should be interpreted figuratively. Perhaps, some claim, we need to simply focus on the message of love and forgiveness that is the dominant theme in the Bible, and that when we do so we find god. I’ve have conversations with well-meaning Christians who are genuinely nice and caring people who are trying their best to make the world a better place, and to treat their fellow humans with respect and love. A common theme amongst these more tolerable brand of Christians is the notion that we must all respect each others’ points of view and not assume that we have all the answers. Setting aside for a moment the fact that most of the Bible has nothing to do with love and forgiveness, this attitude still ignores the issue of evidence. Why should we take this attitude seriously for even a moment? Would you take seriously someone whose position was that we simply don’t know (we can’t know in fact) whether fairies exist, and we shouldn’t claim to know everything. Certainly we should not claim to know everything (most scientists that I know make no such claim), but let’s also be realistic about what we do know. We know, without almost any doubt, that fairies do not exist. We can carry on with our lives secure in that knowledge. We also know, without almost any doubt, that gods do not exist. We should therefore carry on with our lives secure in that knowledge. I try to treat every human with respect and allow them their beliefs. But understand that I respect someone who claims we simply don’t know whether god exists or not in exactly the same way as I respect someone who claims we simply don’t know whether fairies exist or not. That is to say, I respect them as fellow humans, I respect their right to believe whatever they want, but I don’t take them seriously for a moment.

Evidence. For every truth there will be evidence. It may sometimes be hard to find, but the evidence will be there. If god were a truth, then there would be some evidence for him considering men and women have been looking for it for thousands of years. There is none. Claims of personal experience and Bible stories are not evidence any more than the Brothers Grimm writings are evidence that Cinderella is true.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whence Comes Morality?

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It’s a question that every atheist who has engaged in even a rudimentary conversation about religion has faced. Where do your morals come from? How do you know what is right and wrong if you don’t believe in god?

To begin to look at the question of whether morality originates from gods or from elsewhere, one should probably begin by looking at what morality is. I’m no philosopher, and I truly regret not being properly trained in philosophy, ethics, logic, and history of human thought. Someone who is well-educated in these things can undoubtedly critique my understanding of what morality is, and try to defeat my argument on those grounds. But, for my purposes here, I think it is probably adequate to define morality with a pretty standard dictionary type definition. Morality is the ability to make some sort of distinction between actions, thoughts, and behaviours that are right and wrong. It is a code of human conduct which allows human societies to function effectively by providing us all with some stability and safety in our relationships with other people. We know that we are unlikely to be randomly killed by our next door neighbor on a Saturday morning simply because he wants to use our wheel-barrow for the day.

Does this morality come from god or is it human-made? Christians and religious people tend to assume that morality comes from their god, and that is why they have a hard time understanding or believing that atheists actually have morals. I am certain that many Christians truly believe that us atheists only behave properly in society because we are afraid of the laws of the land, which are all based on Judeo-Christian values. We only refrain from killing our own neighbours when we want to use their wheel-barrow because we don’t want to end up being prosecuted for murder and facing the consequences. And, we are quite happy to throw every moral out the window if there is no chance we’ll get caught. It should come as no surprise that my point of view is quite the opposite. I believe that morality is specifically a human quality. One could possibly argue whether animals have a moral code themselves – most animal species tend to be more comfortable with killing other species than their own, for example – or whether they simply behave according to their instincts which in turn evolved in such a way as to allow success of the species. But, even an animal that acts out of the ordinary and kills one of its own, unlikely feels wrong about it or accepts that it has behaved immorally. So, to me, morality is a human quality that not only is limited to humans, but is also relatively universal within humans. There are very large differences across our species in terms of what social or cultural behaviours are acceptable, but basic morality seems to be relatively uniform amongst us humans. Most human societies accept that certain behaviours are immoral. And, in my opinion, these behaviours that are defined as immoral are those which would eventually destroy that particular human society if it were left unchecked. For example, murder (defined as random and individual killing for self-profit) is pretty universally defined as immoral in human societies. Without that definition, a society would not exist in the first place. How could a human society develop and progress if random killings of your fellow neighbours was perfectly acceptable?

So, basic morality can be defined as a distinction between those behaviours that allow normal functioning of a human society and those that do not. In evolutionary terms, this makes sense. Morality would have developed as humans evolved into clans and eventually larger societies in order to allow this to happen. This is quite a different point of view than the Christian one which states that morality was injected into human society by God after the society was already in place. Think of the ten commandments. In the Biblical story of The Exodus, this moral code was given to a fully functional human society living together in a community. So, as Christopher Hitchens has pointed out, this means that up until the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, they must have assumed that murder, theft, and perjury were quite acceptable. This is clearly a ludicrous idea. No human group could be organized enough to even travel through the desert and arrive at Mount Sinai in the first place if they were killing each other randomly, lying, and stealing from each other, and if they didn’t even know that there was anything wrong with those behaviours.

Our modern Western societies are based on Judeo-Christian values, say Christians. Many American Christians truly believe that the erosion of their society is largely due to a drifting away from Biblical values and that if they could only get their society to return to those values by removing abortion, re-introducing prayer in schools etc., then their society would be much better off. Based on Biblical values? Really? Look at that objectively for a moment. You don’t need me to recite horrific Biblical laws to realize that our society is not based on Judeo-Christian values at all. Christians who delude themselves into thinking that our society is based on Biblical values clearly ignore much (most even) of those Biblical values. Go read through the parts of the Bible that deal with the law and think about how much our society is based on those archaic and barbaric agriculturally-based laws. What our laws appear at first (if you have the Christian bias) to be based on is a few cherry-picked parts of the Bible such as “Thou shalt not kill”. The reason it might appear that our societies are based on Biblical law is that our societies’ laws are grounded in human morality, and a bit of human morality does appear from time to time in the Bible. So, there is some minor coincidental cross-over between morality and Biblical law, but to conclude from that that our modern societies are grounded in Biblical morality is ludicrous and ignorant.

So, as an atheist, where do your morals come from? How do you know what is right and wrong if you don’t believe in god? My morals come from being human. My morals come from the evolution of humans in societies that would never have come to exist in the first place had human morality not developed. Are morals relative or absolute? Christians often hold the view that they are absolute: murder, abortion, euthanasia, lying are all morally wrong no matter what. Christians also often hold the view that atheists are moral relativists. That morality depends on your point of view. What do I, as an atheist, believe about moral absolutism vs. moral relativism? I believe that morality is absolute within human societies. Within the society I live in, murder is absolutely wrong. It is not relative. It is hard to imagine a scenario where murder (true murder, not just killing) is morally acceptable. However, morality is relative in the sense of the greater universe. Morality is a human quality, so without humans there is no morality. Once we’ve gone the way of the dinosaurs, murder (a concept defined by our humanity after all) is no longer immoral. How could it be? We define murder as a human killing another human, so if there were no humans how could murder even exist, let alone how could it be defined as moral or not?

I don’t think this is the time to discuss societies’ loopholes for introducing killing in a morally acceptable manner, but there are certainly examples of such. War is the most obvious example in which a human killing another human is considered quite morally acceptable. There are other examples, and they generally involve killing a person who is considered a social outcast from the societal group doing the killing, a viewpoint that fits perfectly with the development of morality from an evolutionary point of view. Why would killing someone from another clan or a competing societal group be considered immoral if it might actually help your group? This leads me to another topic that I may deal with at a later date: that atheists actually often have higher morals than religious people. Those who define their morality according to their religion are limited to that religion’s point of view of morality. Many religious people seem to be the most fervent supporters of going off to war to fight evil by killing other people. I don’t know many atheists who are so keen to set aside their belief that killing is wrong just because they are facing a different culture. Maybe there are no atheists in a fox-hole for a very good reason.

As always, one of my heroes, Christopher Hitchens, states it here more eloquently than I can.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Is Science My Religion?

Image courtesy of Google Images.

This is an issue that arises often in discussions between religious and non-religious people or in the traditional debate between science and religion. Sometimes during a discussion those with religious beliefs will tell me that everyone has faith in something: they have faith in god, I have faith in science. Science has just become my religion, perhaps without me realizing it. Or, to look at it from a religious point of view, science has replaced religion in my life. That is to assume that one had religion or a need for religion in one’s life before. In my case, of course, that is true, but science only replaces religion is it fills the same needs as a religion. But does it? I suppose the answer to that question lies in how one views both science and religion and their influence on one’s life.

I believe in and have trust in the scientific method. Science is mostly responsible for bringing humanity to where it is today. Without science we would all be clustered in little groups on the African savannah gathering food (we wouldn’t even be hunting and we certainly wouldn’t be growing crops since the process of trial and error and the observations and conclusions required to develop these two skills is a form of science). As my high-school chemistry teacher told our class, if you want to live without the effects of science you will need to go and lie naked in the forest and be very careful not to think about most things. I also believe that everything that exists is theoretically knowable and understandable by science. That does not mean that the process of scientific discovery will eventually give us knowledge on everything. That is not practical given the various limitations (technological, financial, time and other resources) involved in putting scientific discovery into practice. But, I do believe that everything is knowable by science. Given enough time, resources, and technology, everything that exists is discoverable by the scientific method. That is also not to say that science can answer any question. Some questions are inherently unanswerable since they deal with abstract ideas (see below). For example, science will never answer the question of how tall tooth fairies are. The question of whether god exists, on the other hand, can be answered fairly well by science, just as the question of whether tooth fairies exist can be answered. However, my view that science has the ability to discover everything is in contrast to the views of many religious people (and agnostics) who accept that some things that do (or might) exist cannot be discovered by science. But, this is not be confused with my view that some questions are inherently unanswerable (see below). By contrast, what I am saying is that everything that actually exists can potentially be explored and explained by science.

All of this is to say that I clearly have a great deal of respect for and trust in science. Some would say that I put my faith in science. But is it faith that I have in science? Faith can be defined as believing something for which there is no evidence. I don’t think my trust of science is defined that way. Further, is science my religion? I guess I need to first examine what religion is.

To me, religion is an entirely human-made entity that satisfies a few needs in many humans’ lives. Firstly, it provides an explanation for the unexplained. Actually it does not technically do this, but it provides a substitute for an explanation for the unexplained. It provides an explanation to those who are satisfied without an actual answer. Religion in primitive societies provides a reassurance or explanation for things that cannot be explained. Ancient civilizations blamed the gods for things like lightening, thunder, eclipses and other natural phenomena that they had no scientific explanation for (some in today’s societies continue to do this with suggestions that earthquakes and hurricanes result from god’s wrath against the sinful rather than from plate tectonics or naturally occurring weather patterns). Even today, religion continues to provide an answer of sorts for questions that we as a species cannot answer. We do not have the complete answer to how the universe began (though we do know a lot about it), how abiogenesis occurred, and so on. The answer that god did it is a neat way of taking care of those difficult questions. As I explained above, I have no doubt that, given enough time and resources, science will provide all the answers to those questions (though I do not have faith that science will do so). Some though, clearly believe that since science has not yet answered those questions it is incapable of doing so, and that therefore god is the only plausible explanation. I hope you see the fault in this logic. Further along this line of thought, religion also provides answers for inherently unsolvable questions. There are some questions which humanity will never answer, no matter how scientifically advanced we become simply because they are not answerable through traditional research methods. For example, the questions “Why do I exist?”, or “What greater meaning does my life have?” are inherently unanswerable questions. While I believe we can answer scientifically the question about how humans came into existence, the question of why we came into existence does not have an answer. Yet, for those who accept religion, this inherently unanswerable question becomes answerable: we are here because God created us, loves us, and has a plan for us. In addition, I believe that a very large role of religion is to assuage the fear of death. Though I know many religious people who adamantly deny that they would still be religious if they knew there was no afterlife (and indeed I think they are so zealous about their religious convictions that they do believe that statement on a superficial level), I believe that religion would not have a firm grasp at all were it not for the promise of a pleasant and eternal afterlife (or the threat of an eternally painful one). Indeed I believe that the fact that we as humans are aware of death is one of the very factors that lead to the development of religion in the first place. This topic is of interest to me, and I hope to write more about it in the future, but in the meantime, suffice it to say that Pascal’s wager is alive and well in many church goers. Other, perhaps lesser, roles that religion plays is as a social club, or simply as something passed on from parents with no questioning of its validity or value. In short, many of the roles and reasons for religion is that it is a comfort.

None of these reasons for religion fit with my understanding of science. Science does not fill any of these needs for me. Science does not offer me a quick and easy answer for the things we cannot as a species yet explain. It holds promise that we shall understand them in the future, but that promise is not faith. Science does not take away any fear of death, nor does it provoke a fear of death. Death, from a scientific point of view, is simply the end of one’s existence and therefore there is no reason to believe it will be any different of an experience than what one experienced before birth. The process of dying may be awful, painful, or frightening, but neither religion nor science necessarily takes that away. And if we are talking about the more gruesome and painful factors in the process of dying then I will take science and medicine over religion any day for its ability’s to provide comfort through that process. Science does not act as a particularly good social club. Scientists are like anyone else – some of them are nice and interesting people and some are not. On balance, if I were to spend a social occasion with a group of people, I would prefer it to not be with only scientists, given my propensity to dislike egomaniacs and scientists propensity for a healthy ego.

Some people, usually religious ones, seem to assume that all humans need to believe in something “greater than themselves”. That we could not have come to exist by chance. That there is some greater reason or purpose to our lives, or that there is something eternal about us. But some of us, mainly atheists I would assume, have come to accept that our lives are nothing more nor less than biological. We are not eternal. There is no greater purpose to our lives than that which we find meaning during our lives (or perhaps the meaning we pass on after our deaths). Some of us atheists, myself included, believe that, while evolution is not a random process (more on this later), our species does exist more or less by chance. We feel no void that needs filling in our lives. The assumption that science is my religion stems from the assumption that all humans feel this “deeper” need for meaning and purpose in humanity’s existence is what leads some to believe that all humans need a religion of some sort and that science is mine. But, I feel no such void. I feel no such need for meaning to humanity’s existence (this is quite different, understand, than wanting or searching for meaning to one’s own life – a process that many if not most atheists take quite seriously).

So, science is not my religion. I do not have faith in science. I do not worship it. I do not look to science for answers to inherently unanswerable questions. For me, no question that is inherently unanswerable is worth asking. Most importantly, though, I do not look to science for comfort.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Shack - A Review

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The Shack, by William P. Young, is a book that made waves a couple of years ago. It seemed particularly popular amongst Christians, and was perhaps viewed as a way to present the Christian god in a more palatable way. I got the feeling that many Christians thought that finally, here was a book that described the loving personality of their god, and that if only you would read it with an open mind you too might understand how wonderful their god is. (Which of course dodges one of my main concerns with religion: a lack of evidence. Describing a wonderful deity and religion is a nice story, but it doesn’t mean anything until there is some evidence to support one’s claim that it is true). I read the book carefully after having been given a copy by a Christian. I found it disturbing on a number of levels, and when I sat down to write a review of it, the following is the most honest and factual review I could come up with that actually fit with the facts of the story:

The Shack is a gruesome and twisted story of familial murder, written with deep psychological undertones. The protagonist, Mackenzie Philips (“Mac” as he is known), murders his young daughter, Missy, though throughout the book he fails to recognize his guilt or acknowledge his crime due to his severe psychoses. Initially the reader is also misled to believe Mac’s innocence and the story unfolds as an abduction-murder mystery. But it soon becomes apparent that Mac himself is the perpetrator, as his psychoses become apparent. Young brilliantly leads the reader through Mac’s tormented schizophrenic mind as he deals with his genuine grief and subconscious guilt. Written with a sympathetic tone towards the protagonist, and with a detailed journey through his warped mind, Young almost manages to convince the reader of Mac’s innocence, such is his own deranged conviction. During the story Mac proceeds through several stages of grief, becoming stalled in bargaining during which he endures a lengthy delusion of a personal relationship with a deity who him/herself suffers from multiple personality disorder. He revisits the scene of his daughter’s murder, and eventually leads authorities to her body as he slowly comes to terms with her loss. Eerily, Young leaves the reader with no resolution of Mac’s tormented mind. Indeed Mac even finds acceptance and resolution about the loss of his daughter, while still deluding himself that he was not the killer. The authorities lack enough evidence for a conviction and the story ends in suspense of anticipating Mac’s future violence as his psychosis remains unresolved and unrecognized.

A Former Christian?

One of the issues that I, as a former Christian, often face in conversation with Christians is the notion that I could not have ever really been a Christian if I have now left the faith. A common attitude amongst Christians is that no one, once they had truly been a Christian, could leave it behind and become an atheist. I find this attitude arrogant and cowardly.

Arrogant because it assumes that Christianity is the truth, and the only truth. This is nothing new amongst Christians. Anyone who has had even an elementary discussion about religion with a Christian will almost invariably have found them to assume that they are right and you are wrong. The prevailing attitude is often one of reluctant willingness to engage in a discussion, but only with the pre-arranged understanding that they can't change their mind because they are already right. I suppose on some superficial level I can understand this attitude. If I think about something that I am almost certain about -- gravity for example -- I suppose I would have a hard time keeping an open mind in conversation with someone who didn't believe in gravity. Perhaps even with my belief of atheism I could relate. Do I think it is possible for someone who has truly understood atheism to then become religious? I think it's unlikely, but I certainly have an open mind to the possibility. I don't think that an atheist who becomes a Christian automatically and retroactively becomes someone who never truly understood atheism in the first place.

Cowardly because it is a convenient way of avoiding an inconvenient confrontation. If a Christian meets someone like myself who was a true Christian for many years and then left it behind, they have to start facing some very difficult questions. Such as: Why did you stop believing? Aren't you afraid of hell? What questions did you ask about your faith that lead you to realize it was false? Instead of facing these questions, it is easier (and less scary) to simply state that I could never have been a Christian to begin with. That solves the problem in one easy statement. Someone who never was a true Christian didn't really understand Christianity and so could not have asked some uncomfortable questions about the religion. Instead, they must have just drifted away through laziness or selfishness (the Christian assumption that all atheists are inherently selfish is a whole other topic, worth discussing).

Ultimately perhaps the issue is best resolved by examining how you define a Christian. Christians often define themselves as people who believe that Jesus is the son of God (the specific Biblical Yahweh, though of course many Christians don’t know their god by that name), that Jesus died to save them personally from sin and death, and who rose from the dead following his death. Of course, there are many other things one associates with the definition of a Christian, including changes to their life and an attempt to live their life a certain way. But ultimately I think most Christians would define their faith as a relationship. A relationship with Jesus.

So, by this definition, I think I qualify as a former Christian. I was a Christian by the very definition that Christians themselves use to define themselves: I believed that Jesus Christ was the son of God and that he died to save me from my sins. I didn't just say I believed it, I really did believe it. I also had a relationship with Jesus. Or so I thought. Now, of course I recognize that it was all in my head, and there was no relationship since a relationship with someone who no longer exists is not possible. Perhaps this is the loophole Christians will grab onto to insist that I never was a Christian: you never actually had the relationship with Jesus, otherwise you could never come to the point that you think it was all in your head. But the reality is that all relationships with Jesus are imaginary, so I fit the definition of having that relationship in the same way as anyone who has ever claimed to be a Christian. Now I no longer believe in Jesus, nor do I claim to have a relationship with him, which puts me in that most awkward category of persons that Christians must face: a former Christian.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My (de)conversion to atheism - part 1

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Why am I an atheist?

This question requires a fairly lengthy explanation and some background. I was born into a Christian family. While we were less fundamental or fanatical than some, we were very active in our church, our family life focused on Christianity, and we were brought up to believe that the Biblical God is the truth, and that following Jesus was the only way to happiness in life and to an afterlife in heaven.

[I should pause here and explain my etiquette when using the term "god". To me, the word god is not generally capitalized because it refers to an improper noun like any other item in our lives: table, cat, car, banana, etc. But, occasionally I need to capitalize the word when it refers to a specific proper noun, the Biblical god who Christians often think is named God. In fact this god's name is Yahweh, though one could make the case that the god has evolved over time to actually be quite distinct in personality from Yahweh, so perhaps he does deserve an individual identity and the name God after all. However, if it seems like I am inconsistent in my use of the terms god and God, please remember that they each have very specific and different meanings.]

As a child, there was no doubt in my mind that God existed and that I had a personal relationship with him and his son Jesus. I believed that this man, who was also God, had lived on earth as described in the Bible, had been executed by the Romans, and then had risen from the dead as part of a divine plan for human salvation from eternal death. It is likely safe to assume that most who read this will be familiar with the sorts of things I believed. My actual belief in the existence of God went on for a very long time, well into adulthood. But even as early as my teens I started to have big problems with the way Christianity was presented to me. For one, I was embarrassed about Christianity. (In retrospect, of course, this likely reflects my sub-conscious disbelief. After all, why would someone be embarrassed to believe something that they know is true). In any case, questions started to arise. Difficult questions for which I had no answers. In addition to that, once I was an adult and responsible for my own life, I stopped attending church on a regular basis, which likely provided me with the distance from Christianity that I believe is necessary for anyone to make the move away from their religious upbringing. Christians often view this sort of thing as a weakness of faith, or a drifting away due to apathy, and in my experience they tend to guard against it fervently and shun those who explore outside the faith. This is the very reason it is so difficult to leave a religion behind, because most people don't ever give their mind time and space enough to consider their religion objectively.

But, for many years as an adult, even though I no longer attended church, even though my friends were all non-religious, I still actually believed in all the pillars of Christianity that I grew up with. And I often worried about my future death and the chance that I would spend an eternity in hell if I didn't get my spiritual act together. Occasionally, usually when I was with family, I felt guilty about my lack of religious zeal and made some sort of half-hearted self promise to change. This went on for some years in my early adulthood.

Not much changed for quite some time in my religious beliefs, and it is possible that I could have drifted along like that for the rest of my life. But some factors in my life precipitated further change.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I think I have an inquisitive mind. I want to know the truth. I am not satisfied just telling myself that no one really knows the answers to certain questions such as the existence of god. I think that, ultimately, anyone who is very inquisitive (and honest with themselves) must in the end have a problem with their religion. I found that Christianity demanded that I ignore a number of difficult questions. Or, if not outright ignore them, eventually come to an acceptance that the answer to them might entail some sort of magic, handily taken care of by our God. In any case, this natural curiosity spurred on a number of questions about my religion that I had difficulty answering logically. A major question I had was why were Christians (and people of many other religions as well) not encouraged to really examine their beliefs objectively? Why not "step outside" of Christianity and look at it rationally? Surely any truth will stand up to rigorous examination, so what are Christian authorities afraid of? Why were we as Christian children taught that to even question our faith could be considered sinful and therefore deserving of death? Surely if god did exist, he would want followers who had examined their belief in him carefully. Yet Christian (and other religious) doctrine is full of suggestions that weak faith (really another term for questioning things) came from the devil. One should guard against it and stand firm when those doubts (questions) arose. Another difficult question was the one of the afterlife. If we were to "go" to heaven or hell, then there would have to be some part of us that actually survived death in order to be there. So, which part of us would that be? Much of our personality is mapped out through neuroscience. Indeed people's personalities do sometimes change as a result of brain trauma, indicating that our very persona is only an expression of the physical structure of the brain. Our ability to feel pleasure or pain depends on the physical existence of a nervous system. So then, isn't the description of who we are dependant on our physical existence? Wouldn't god have to magically re-create us physically in order for us to exist, with some recognizable facets of our current persona, to be able to exist in an afterlife? Sure, a magical god could do that, but that model was neither logical nor rational. As soon as I permitted my god to be a non-rational being, then ANYTHING was possible. Why, the world could have been created yesterday by a god who uploaded all our memories. Wasn't that just as rational and likely as a god who would re-create us after death (rather than leaving us non-existent for eternity of course) just so we could either enjoy heaven or suffer in hell?

Secondly, I studied science in university. During many years of university scientific education, I was forced to look at the world more and more rationally. I was trained to try to put aside my biases, to examine the evidence around me and then to draw a conclusion based on the observed evidence, rather than to start with a conclusion (or even a pet theory) and try to examine the evidence in light of that conclusion (or try to make the evidence fit the pre-conceived conclusion). More and more I realized that this was the process that allowed humans to gradually leave behind superstition, and examine the world objectively and actually understand the reason for natural phenomena. This seemed to be in complete contrast to the religious indoctrination I had received as a child. In that case I was encouraged to hold strong to my faith no matter what evidence came to light. If it appeared from time to time that god had abandoned me, then that was only a test of my faith. I should stubbornly hold firm in my beliefs, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and I would eventually be rewarded. Imagine where we would be scientifically if scientists practiced that way.

Thirdly, I started to encounter more and more Christians who believed all of the Bible literally. Though I grew up in a religious environment that was fully supportive of the authority of the Bible, much of it was taken figuratively. But now I started to engage with people who actually believed that the earth was created in six days less than 10,000 years ago, and who believed that a global flood to the height of Mount Everest happened within the past few thousand years. I knew this things to be untrue, given the scientific evidence to the contrary, and I've never been tempted to take those parts of the Bible literally. But, for the first time I started to ask myself why some of the Bible should be taken seriously if other parts of it were clearly complete fabrications? Why should I believe the parts of the New Testament that were critical to the Christian faith if much of the rest of the Bible could be discarded as allegory? Could it be that the whole thing was just fictional writing very loosely based on some events that bore little resemblance to the Biblical descriptions of them?

Fourthly, I began to read a number of books that looked at religion in a different way than I was used to. I read all the usual atheist-written best sellers such as Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great, Sam Harris' The End of Faith, and Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell. In addition I read In Defense of Atheism by Michel Onfray and Why God Won't Go Away by Newberg, D'Aquili, and Rause. All of these books helped me examine the religion of my upbringing much more objectively. But a couple of other books had the most profound effect on my religious thinking. Jared Diamond has written a couple of books called Guns, Germs, and Steel, and The Third Chimpanzee which are relatively scientific examinations of the history of the human species. In these books Diamond describes some of the processes of human evolution and development that lead to differences in agricultural and technological advancement that occured in different places around the globe. By examining human history so carefully, one is forced to either reject the science outright and cling to the creation story in Genesis, or to accept that no god played any sort of role in human development over the past few tens of thousands of years. This, of course, doesn't rule out gods altogether, but it does very much weaken the meddling, prayer-answering god of the Bible. I also read a book called Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. The book basically follows two stories: a general history of Mormonism and a specific case of murder in the 1980s by two Mormons who believed they were instructed by God to perform the murders. I knew virtually nothing of Mormonism prior to reading the book, but it served as a striking example of how religion can cause people to believe the unbelievable. The religion is clearly a fabrication from 19th century America, with roots that are distinctly American in culture. Yet, there are millions of followers around the world, in what I can only understand as blind faith. The book illustrated the strength of religious influence, and how humans clearly yearn for some meaning to their life, which often seems to be filled by instructions and commands by a person in power – or a religion. I had met a few Mormons, and they seemed as convinced that their religions was true as any other religious person, including the Christians I had grown up with. Yet there was no doubt in my mind that the entire religion was a fabrication. If a religion could essentially be constructed by one man in the relatively modern times of the 19th Century to a point that millions of people worldwide were followers, how much more possible was it that a religion could have developed 2,000 years ago in a time when the availability of information was incomparably lower than in the modern era? (Literacy was lower, formal education was rare, books (at least as we know them now) and newspapers were non-existent).

Eventually I began to consider the possibility that there was no god. Though I had of course considered the question before, I had never really opened myself up to the possibility and considered the consequences. Like a child taking the butterfly wings off for the first time in the deep end of the swimming pool and realizing that it can indeed float without them, I considered that the world might work just fine without a god. Julia Sweeney has described a similar experience in her book Letting Go of God:

…as I was walking from my office in my backyard into my house, I realized there was this little teeny-weenie voice whispering in my head. I’m not sure how long it had been there, but it suddenly got just one decibel louder. It whispered, ‘There is no god.’

And I tried to ignore it. But it got a teeny bit louder. ‘There is no god. There is no god. Oh my god, there is no god.’…

And I shuddered. I felt I was slipping off the raft.

And then I thought, ‘But I can’t. I don’t know if I can not believe in God. I need God. I mean, we have a history’…

‘But I don’t know how to not believe in God. I don’t know how you do it. How do you get up, how do you get through the day?’ I felt unbalanced…

I thought, ‘Okay, calm down. Let’s just try on not-believing-in-God glasses for a moment, just for a second. Just put on the no-God glasses and take a quick look around and then immediately throw them off.’ And I put them on and looked around.
I’m embarrassed to report that I initially felt dizzy. I actually had the thought, ‘Well, how does the Earth stay up in the sky? You mean, we’re just hurtling through space? That’s so vulnerable!’ I wanted to run out and catch the Earth as it fell out of space into my hands.

And then I remembered, ‘Oh yeah, gravity and angular momentum is gonna keep us revolving around the sun for probably a long, long time.

I can relate to some of this description quite well. In addition to what she describes, my situation was complicated by the fear that I might die while I had the not-believing-in-God glasses on and go to hell for eternity just because I happened to die while I was trying out atheism for 30 minutes. It was a bit like coming up to a train track and thinking, ‘I need to cross the tracks, but what if the train comes along out of nowhere and mows me down just at the moment that I step across?’ When I finally overcame my fear of being annihilated in a moment of fury like an Efrafan rabbit, and stepped gingerly onto the tracks, my whole perspective changed. Instead of looking up the track in fear of an oncoming train, I looked down at the tracks in detail for the first time and realized they were decrepit and could not possibly bear a train. No train would ever be coming along those tracks and I could linger as long as I like quite safely. Once that was established, the opportunity to really open up my mind to some serious questions availed itself and it was not long before the whole house of cards came tumbling down. Indeed, once I had my Julia Sweeney moment, the whole ordeal was over in a matter of minutes. I was through with God instantly as I realized that the whole game was a farce. There was no desire at all to cling to a false god for comfort. I simply set god aside and moved on.

It is probably hard for someone who has never believed in god to understand this defining moment for a new atheist. Ironically it is very much like the term that Christians use to describe their own conversion experiences: like being born again. Born into life again, only this time recognizing the world that you are born into for what it is. When I look back now on the years that I actually believed a god was there listening to prayers, intervening in human lives, meddling with nature and so on, I almost feel embarrassed that it took me so long to overcome. Yet, the relief that I haven't gone through my whole life that way is overwhelming. How close I came to wasting the only life I will ever have. The reasons why religion is so very difficult to overcome for someone who has been properly indoctrinated are very interesting and belong elsewhere in another post.

Ultimately I have come to a point where my position towards religion is that the onus is firmly on religion to show evidence of its truth. Now that I have recognized that personal experience is not evidence, and that there really is no objective, verifiable evidence for god, there is simply no reason to try to believe in any religion anymore. Reason is the the key word in that statement. Religion for me has become wholly unreasonable. And this has been confirmed in conversation after conversation with Christians who try to convince that their religion is true, yet often stretch the boundaries of reason to do so. Most (not all) Christians that I now encounter seem less interested in really finding out the truth, but rather in defending their faith no matter the cost. Even if the cost is reasonable, rational, logical thought.

That is the first part of why I am an atheist. It is an abbreviated description of the process I went through. I will likely add more details in the future.