Monday, July 25, 2011

Kicking The Habit

Image courtesy of Google Images.

Was it Malcolm X that thought quitting cigarettes was more difficult that kicking a cocaine habit cold turkey? Surely tobacco, smoked in little chemical riddled white tubes, is one of the most addictive substances known to humanity. Why else would anyone deliberately inhale known carcinogens and other substances that slowly destroy virtually every organ system? Yet, as addictive as smoking is, I say it has nothing on religion. God is the most difficult habit of all to kick. [I must give credit where due for my title. When I was in high school, a teacher who had once been a member of an order of monks, gave a lecture entitled: “Kicking the Habit,” describing both the process of walking around a cloister with his feet brushing his habit with each step and the process of giving it all up. I’ve always thought was a great play on words and worth repeating here.]

Why is God so hard to give up? In my experience in relating to the religious, and Christians in particular, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people are very, very reluctant to give up God. Belief in God seems to linger much more stubbornly when faced with educated, rational thought on the topic than any other belief (well, with the exception, perhaps, of creationism). Anyone who has gone through university and taken some science courses has had to set aside preconceived notions about the nature of the world we live in and accept certain truths that are supported by evidence. Usually, this is an exciting and interesting process of discovery. But it seems that the process of “discovery” in terms of religion simply hardens hearts and minds towards reality and instead strengthens resolve to believe. Cherry-picking evidence to support the notion of the existence of God is rampant and indeed necessary to anyone who is going to continue to believe in God after a thorough scientific education. That anyone, for example, could still in this day and age believe that the earth appeared out of nowhere within the past 10,000 years with all the current species already in existence in their current form is preposterous. It is also extremely stubborn. But even leaving aside the fundamentalists who cling to the creation story, any believer in God has to set aside all sorts of rational thought about the effectiveness of prayer, the origins of our own species, the problem of evil, and so on.

Why? Why is it such a difficult habit to kick? I hypothesize that there are two main reasons. The first is essentially fear of death and the second is unwillingness or inability to accept that one’s whole life has been a fairly tale. Fear of death is a big one. Pascal’s Wager is alive and well in the 21st Century, and I often come across former Christians who know they are now atheists, who know with all reason that there is no God, and yet who still occasionally have momentary panic at the terrible thought of going to hell if they turn out to be wrong. Hell is one hell of a motivation. Without the concept of an afterlife, Christianity would likely either never have gotten off the ground, or would have remained a small Pauline sect of Judaism. On occasion I’ve asked the odd Christian whether they would honestly still be a Christian if they knew for certain there was no afterlife. Without fail they all immediately say yes, which is not surprising. When you’ve got Big Brother watching over your shoulder 24-7, you can’t afford to let him suspect that you’re only in it for the goodies. But deep inside, would they? Why would anyone live their life as a Christian if there was no afterlife whatsoever? It makes no sense at all.

The fear of accepting that one’s whole life has been a fairy tale is also a strong motivation for staying true to the church. Any atheist who was once a Christian has gone through the process of this realization, and it is a difficult process. Often it is quite sudden, but it is not easy to realize that the person you’ve been talking to every night in bed, the person you’ve been leaning on for comfort, the omnipotent being that has been helping you make decisions about career, marriage, and every other aspect of your life, simply doesn’t exist. Why, you’ve been talking to yourself all these years! There was no one there! That is a very difficult concept for anyone to embrace, no matter how much the evidence supports it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Never Really Cared for Collecting Stamps Anyway

I recently wrote a post about why atheists don't keep their views to themselves and another post about whether atheism is arrogance. As usual, any idea I can say or write can usually be said or written better by someone else. Today I saw this video and thought it was a succinct summary of these issues...

Got the Silly Thing in Reverse

 Image courtesy of Google Images.

In follow up to my recent post about responding to “evidence for God” raised by a Christian, and in particular the issue of life existing despite what seems like overwhelmingly small odds, I came across an analogy that I think fits quite well. It shows how the religious tend to go about things backwards when trying to examine evidence to make it fit their point of view.

Picture walking out into your yard in winter and finding a small natural hole in the ground. The hole in the ground has some natural features to it such as branches and bumps. That day it rains and then freezes and then you go back outside and now notice that there is a piece of ice fitted perfectly into the hole in the ground. You pull the little piece of ice out of the ground and notice that it perfectly matches the hole’s shape. There are little bumps wherever there were little holes, and there are little dimples in the ice wherever there were little bumps in the ground. No one would seriously be tempted to think that some higher intelligence must have place that piece of ice there by design because we all understand the relatively simple science of how water flows to fill a hole and then freezes to the shape of the mold. Yet, for some reason, when life is observed, the immediate reaction by some is to assume that it was placed there by the design of some higher intelligence (i.e. God), because they do not understand the science of evolution and life formation. The hole in the ground was there. Given that it rained and then froze, and given the nature of water, there is no other possibility but that ice will form in the shape of the hole in the ground. By analogy, the earth exists with the conditions of temperature and chemical composition that it has. Given the nature of biological life, there is no other possibility but that life will form in the way it has. (Of course, there are lots of possibilities of how life might have ended up, but that it formed at all is the given in this example). The whole point of view of the religious is in reverse. Yet again, they form the conclusion and then find evidence to support it.

[I owe whoever authored this analogy the credit for coming up with it. To date I have not found the source, but will update it when I do so].

Another more philosophical example is one I came across in written conversation with a Christian. After voicing what I considered a reasonable point of view about an issue, I was told by this person that it was ironic that I (as an atheist) was the one that had the “Christian” point of view on the issue while the Christians he had engaged with did not. Again, the whole point of view is in reverse. His assumption that a point of view of tolerance, love, and rational thought is a Christian one, and that therefore it was ironic that an atheist held that position, is in backwards. The position assumes that all goodness originates from Christianity and God and therefore it is impossible for an atheist to be “good” without having adopted some of the Christian message. Pure bunk. I’ll expand on this example with a few more details for interest sake.

The conversation in question involved an questioning by the Christian in question (whom I think is a very open-minded, liberal thinking, almost non-Christian) about the response to the assassination of Osama bin Laden by American troops. He was basically questioning the celebrating people were doing over someone else’s death, even if that someone else was an evil person. (This is a very simplified summary of his position, but adequate for my purposes here).

I responded by writing: “Finding a reason to justify killing other humans is easy, but never right, and either "side" can always claim outrage at the actions of the other in their justification. The only logical position I can take is that killing humans is wrong under any circumstances.”

A number of Christians then responded as well and some of their responses were downright crazy (or as another ex-Christian has called it, funny-mentalist). Although it is lengthy, one such response should be included in full here:

I think that as a Christian who accepts the Bible as the being the word of God..the actual inspired preachings/teachings/words of God, I cant help but come to some different conclusions than many of you.

I think that God's justice is a combination of his love and his wrath. We can not read parts of the Bible..the love parts, and ignore the anger of the Lord.(in case you think its only the old testament that talks about his Wrath its mentioned 10 times just in James, including James 1:18 "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness").

Paul says this wrath of God “is revealed.” The Greek word is apokaluptetai, a present passive indicative. It denotes a continuous revelation of the wrath of God. Just as the righteousness of God is continually revealed in the preaching of the gospel, the wrath of God is also being revealed continuously. These are two parallel yet antithetical revelations. [Reverend P. G. Mathew, M.A., M.Div., Th.M.]

The Bible tells us to Fear the Lord...not just snuggle in for some love. We should fear the justice of God because if we lose touch with the fact that we also deserve His justice then we are in a heap of trouble.

I think that when God had his people march around the walls of Jericho singing, dancing and shouting praises to Him as the "walls of a nation" were cast down, he was sending a clear message that it is ok to rejoice when God shows his power and his justice. It is ok to rejoice when God brings to an end the reign of the wicked.

When a man makes it his life's mission to attack a people group that God claimed as his own (Israel) and those who stand beside them (to this point the US..who knows for how much longer)...then it is ok to rejoice when God chooses to reveal His power over the wicked. I dont think we take this event and rejoice that a man had been cast into an eternal fire of damnation, but we can rejoice that the reign of tyranny, oppression and murder has come to an end.

Osama Bin Laden was a gifted and powerful speaker (much like Hitler) who was VERY influencial in a continual pattern of leading people into a life of Direct Contradiction to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Many young lives were lost because of his teachings and I for one rejoice that he is no longer able to influence young men with his poison to hate, kill and make choices that condemn themselves to the fires of hell.

(for the record im not saying that [name of original commenter] was saying that Osama should have been left alone, in love. I am saying that although i DO NOT think chanting in the streets and having weekend parties is the right way to take this news....i rejoice in the fact that God has shown his Justice [and i do believe that God can chose to use the US Navy Seals as the tip of his sword] It reminds me of how valuable his mercy is to me personally!”

[Bolding is my addition. I thought the bolded section needed highlighting for its intense…craziness. No other word will suffice.]

In response, then, I wrote:

“Against my better judgment, I feel the need to comment again. Wow. If I needed any illustration of my point about how easy it is to find a justification for killing people (or celebrating the death of people), I think I got it. It is just as easy (and illogical) to find a justification for hating George Bush for killing tens of thousands of people as it is to find a justification for hating bin Laden for killing thousands. It all depends on which doctrine of hate you happened to be raised on.”

Now for the irony…my Christian acquaintance wrote, in response to me:

“It is a little weird/ironic, don't you think, that YOU are the one arguing vehemently for what (I believe) is the actual response that Christ would argue for? Perhaps there are no Christians, except atheists :) (Or agnostics - not really sure where you'd place yourself and I certainly wouldn't want to place anyone else).”

An astounding statement. It is ironic that I, as an atheist, are making the argument that Christ would make. Got the silly thing in reverse! Whether “Christ” would make such an argument or not, I have no idea nor interest. What I do know from observation is that not many Christians would make such an argument while I think many atheists would. The presumption that anything that anyone says that is leaning towards peace and forgiveness (not that I have any forgiveness for Osama bin Laden, please understand), and rational thought about the conflicts in the world we live in, must stem from God. Are you joking??? The same god that was so blood-thirsty and condoning of genocides in the Bible? The same god that is willing to send people off to an eternity of hate, suffering, and pain because of the culture they happened to be brought up in? No, my statements are utterly rational and in line with my atheistic beliefs. There is nothing Christian about what I said. The Christian message in this case is much nearer that of Anne Coulter, a certifiable funny mentalist:

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”

Please, put the silly thing in forward gear and start thinking for yourself.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Anyone who knows me or has read much of my writing knows that I try to put value on evidence. I always have in my daily life, and have always tried to approach life in a rational way. My logical, evidence-based approach to life is probably just part of my personality, and one that does occasionally drive people around me a bit crazy. Humans are emotional beings. We often make snap illogical decisions in life that have profound consequences. I’m no exception, I’m still an emotional person too, but I do think I have a more evidence-based approach to life than most. This is probably the biggest factor in eventually leading me to leave the Christian faith. Sometimes I think people think this means I think I am always right. It doesn’t, of course, though I can understand why I sometimes come across that way. When you try to align your beliefs and opinions with evidence, and then back them up with evidence when challenged, it can appear that you are close minded because you’ve already examined your positions quite carefully. Often, though, I’ll realize that my position on something is not evidence-based and then I must alter my position.

One of the very difficult things to do in life, however, is to really objectively examine evidence without bias. We all have biases, and we are all tempted all the time to try to make our observations of evidence fit our conclusion or opinion about something. On a simple everyday level this happens all the time in the world of sports. Any fan of a sports team will typically make observations fit their held belief that their team is best. This might manifest itself as bias in observations of officiating during a match, or ignoring evidence that doesn’t support a held opinion that a particular favoured athlete is the best at what they do. In the world of sports this probably doesn’t matter so much and does lead to the exciting, passionate, and endless debates about who really is the better team or player. However, in the world of science or religion, this is not a good approach. Making evidence fit a preconceived opinion or belief is disastrous in science as it can easily lead to false interpretation of results or findings. This happens all the time in science, but fortunately the process of modern science is relatively good at catching mistakes. An example is the “finding” some years ago that child vaccinations lead to an increased risk of autism. In 1998 The Lancet, a highly regarded medical journal, published a study that found an increased risk of autism among children exposed to routine vaccinations. It is generally accepted now that this is not the case, and that the lead scientist had allowed his biases to cause a misinterpretation and some bad science. The Lancet has since retracted the publication, but unfortunately this mistake has had major implications in the health of many young children as their parents have foolishly avoided vaccinating their kids against some diseases that are easily preventable. This is an example of some major consequences of a relatively minor bit of evidence-chasing.

In religion too, this sort of thing happens. Sometimes the consequences are even more profound. Sometimes the result of evidence-chasing is that thousands of children are raised to believe something that is not true, and perhaps even worse, to turn into evidence-chasers themselves (think of the common rejection of evolutionary biology in high schools in the U.S., for example). To someone with an education in science, spotting evidence-chasing among things like creationist opinions is relatively easy, but it can crop up as a much more subtle way that might initially appear like authentic rationalism even when it is not. I recently encountered an example of this in an exchange I had with someone on the internet with respect to their writing. In fairness to this person, they will remain anonymous as I have not gained their permission to use their opinions in this example. My example requires a bit of background.

There are a number of websites that act as forums for people who have left Christianity and embraced agnosticism, atheism, or who have simply stopped believing in the god of their upbringing. On one such website recently, a Christian started to make comments. He then reported on his experience on this forum on his own blog in an article that talked about his experiences in an atheist community. I felt that his post on the blog was deliberately intended to be a bit inflammatory and deliberately designed to not give people (“the atheists”) on the webpage the benefit of the doubt. A photograph was attached to the blog, one which showed a large crowd of people (the majority of whom were incidentally non-white; Time magazine’s O.J. Simpson legacy of skin darkening sadly lives on) shouting and holding their hands in the air with thumbs pointed down. I can’t imagine for a moment that the photo is either a group of atheists or a group of former Christians. It is clearly just a group of people protesting something loudly. I think the photograph was attached with the intention of supporting the overall impression that “atheists” (it was not a group of atheists per se that the blog author had engaged with, but a mix of former Christians) are unreasonable, loud people who like can't be reasoned with, much like any large group of protesters. To be fair, there were a number of impolite and unreasonable comments made towards this person on the web page forum, but I felt they were done out of frustration at a persistently dogmatic point of view. Again, the web page is not an atheist website and a number of the people he engaged with were not atheists. This was pointed out to him a number of times by various people making comments on his blog but, as far as I know, he never acknowledged the error or misrepresentation.

The crux of his blog post was five points about atheists that he summarizes from his experience on the (non-atheist) web page. As you can see, some Christians have a real problem distinguishing an atheist from anyone who isn’t a Christian. Briefly then, his five summary points of the views of atheists, where:

1. Christians are idiots.
2. Atheists are morally superior to Christians.
3. God is evil.
4. The Bible is a bunch of bunk.
5. Anyone who would question non-belief is not wanted.

I don’t need to go into the details of his explanations of these five points because they are not really what I want to discuss, though he does attempt to justify them reasonably and back them up through his experiences in the exchanges he had. My point is not to refute or critique his blog posting in general, but rather to establish the background of some serious evidence-chasing at the end.

I wrote a comment expressing my point of view on these five points as follows:

I would agree with points 2 - 4. Points 1 and 5 I would disagree with.

1. Christians are not idiots. An idiot is typically considered to be someone who is mentally deficient. It is further normally intended as a derogatory term, though technically it need not be. To claim that a large group of people are idiots (presumably of lower I.Q.) based on their religious beliefs is inaccurate and likely easy to disprove. I have met many highly intelligent Christians and many atheists of lower than average intelligence. What I would say about Christians, though sweeping generalizations are often inherently unfair, is that they are typically irrational, ignorant (often deliberately so), illogical, and very dogmatic, specifically when it comes to thinking about and discussing their religious beliefs. Unlike idiocy, none of those descriptions are derogatory. They are simply descriptions. But, in my pretty extensive experiences in relating to Christians and in having been one myself, I would state that the most accurate description of Christians is that they are typically not actually interested in discovery and truth, but rather in making any piece of information gathered to fit a preconceived conclusion and world view that they have decided from the outset will never fundamentally change.

2. Yes, with a qualifier. I would say more accurately that atheism is morally superior to Christianity rather than comparing individuals. One need not delve into the darker parts of Yahweh's character and instructions to decipher how horrendously evil his morality is. One need only think of the notion of teaching children about hell without a shred of evidence to support it.

3. Yes, assuming that you are talking about the Biblical god Yahweh. God, of course, doesn't exist as an entity, but the concept of him is horrifically evil, and his entire raison d'etre (within the Bible, not in reality) is to allow people to control other people. That in itself is an evil notion. I can't imagine anyone reading the Bible with an open mind and coming to any other reasonable conclusion. If humans behaved in the way God condoned in the Bible, they would make Hitler look like a normal political leader.

4. Without doubt. The Biblical contradictions with established science are astounding, sometimes amusingly so. The book was clearly written by men who had the knowledge you would expect of the times that it was written. Many events in the book are so physically impossible that they have to be taken as allegory by any rational human. Once you start taking the book as figuratively then you realize that they whole thing can be discarded as fiction. Further, the contradictions within the book itself make it completely unbelievable.

5. Certainly not. Questioning anything and everything is always a good idea. Though, in practice I'm not sure how you question non-belief in a phenomenon. A more logical approach is to question belief. I don't believe in the tooth fairy, but I also don't feel any need to question why I don't believe in her. The question never has reason to enter my consciousness. If someone presented themselves to me as an honest believer in the tooth-fairy and presented some evidence in support, then I would examine the evidence and my position. Same with Christianity and God. But I have yet to see any evidence ever presented in support of the existence of the Biblical God.

Now we finally leave the background and get to the real point of evidence-chasing. In response, the individual in question stated:

Thanks for the comment; it seemed very well-thought-out.  One question for you... in my short amount of time studying these things (I'm trying to start with fundamental scientific questions about God and atheism and the existence of god before I delve into questions about Christianity more deeply), I've run into several strong points of evidence about the existence of a god (not necessarily about the Christian God).  How do you deal with these issues:

1. The laws of nature: that nature obeys laws (and has regularities) is evidence that there is a God.
2. The existence of the cosmos: that there exists any universe at all, and that it is fine-tuned for the existence of life, is evidence that there is a God.
3. The presence of life: that there is life at all is evidence that there is a God.  Scientists Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe calculated in the early 1980s the probability of life forming, and placed the odds at one in 1040,000.
4. Human consciousness: The existence of consciousness in humans is something that science cannot explain.

The first three of those questions were things that Antony Flew cited as reasons he stopped being an atheist, after years of being a prominent atheist, and started believing in a god (deistic).  The last question is just one that I have tacked on, because it's something that troubles me.

These are things that I cannot yet reconcile with an atheistic viewpoint, and I wonder how you've answered them?

As you can see, this is no run-of-the-mill Christian evidence denier that we’re dealing with. This is not someone whose first attempt at debunking atheism is to run to the tired old arguments in support of creationism. Learning to examine the evidence and then form your conclusions is relatively simple when dealing with things like Noah’s flood or talking donkeys, and at first glance you might be tempted to think this individual has genuinely examined the evidence and finds a few major pieces of evidence in support of a god. But, this is nothing more than basic evidence-chasing yet again. My response to these four points:

Perhaps I can assume from your response that you accept that lack of evidence is a valid reason to reject the notion of deities, and your position is that there is evidence and therefore you accept the notion of a god. In response to your four points:

1. I don’t see how the laws of nature are evidence that there is a god. Regularities occur in nature. There is gravity where there is mass. So what? Why does that mean there is a god?

2. We know a lot about the origins of the universe, but we still know precious little about it compared to what remains to be known. Lack of understanding of the origins does not logically provide evidence that the origins were magic (see my comparisons below to phenomena that used to seem like magic to less knowledgeable humans).

3. Hoyle’s numbers are widely rejected by mainstream science. Hoyle also believed that life did not originate on earth but came about by panspermia which is not scientifically supported. But even if you accept that the probability of life forming is slim, life did form. Therefore it must be both physically possible and statistically possible because we do know that it happened. Looking around us and saying that we’re so unlikely to exist that there must be a god who put us here is to go about it backwards. We are here, we know how life evolves given the right conditions, and therefore the probability is, by definition, within the realm of possibility.

4. As with your first point, I fail to see how human consciousness is evidence for a god. I would disagree that science cannot explain it. Neuroscience has a lot to say about the nature of human consciousness, as does evolution. That we have self awareness, prior knowledge of our own death, language, etc., are all within the process of human

Even if you don’t accept my explanations point by point, they can all also be dismissed outright since none of these issues is specific evidence for a god, they are simply problems some people have with the, as yet, partly unexplained. Two analogies to help explain what I mean. Firstly, if we were having this conversation several thousand years ago, similar points you might raise as evidence of a god could be: occasionally the earth moves uncontrollably and randomly; sometimes healthy people suddenly and randomly get sick and die; on some nights huge flashes of light shoot from the sky and destroy things on earth, therefore there must be a god. In other words, I perceive all four points as essentially the same argument: we can’t fully explain certain things yet, therefore there must be a god responsible for these things. Secondly, suppose I was having this conversation with someone who believed we are all living within a computer programme much like the movie The Matrix. They might logically try to use all the same four points in support of their belief. In other words, there is no specificity towards deities in your points. Not to mention narrowing it down to a specific god such as the Christian god.

As you can see from my response, I point out that these four points are nothing more than a modern day exasperation at gaps in our scientific understanding. They are nothing more than a modern day version of the Ancient Greeks' formation of a Poseidon hypothesis resulting from observations of ocean storms. The point about Hoyle in particular is classic evidence-chasing. This individual effectively goes about his search for evidence to support his conclusion (that life could not have happened without the intervention of a deity) by wondering: “There must be a scientist out there somewhere who supports this notion. Ah yes, Hoyle, he’ll do.” Rather than examining all the evidence about the beginnings of life, examining how Hoyle’s theories were received in the scientific community, and realizing that he is clinging to one piece of false evidence in support of a pet theory rather than vice versa. So far the conversation has ended at this point and I’ve had no further response.

So, evidence-chasing comes at all levels of sophistication. It can crop up in conversation between two NBA fans in support of their pet favourite team, it can crop up in the study of vaccinations and health published at the highest levels of science, and it can crop up in a personal discussion involving the same old tired process of trying to find a reason to support your conclusion that god exists.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What is Atheism III: Why Don’t You Atheists Just Keep to Yourselves?

 Courtesy of Google Images.

All of us atheists have heard this question. Why do you proselytize your point of view in the same way that Christians (or some other religions) do? If you want to deny the existence of god, if you want to live a selfish life and eventually go to hell then that’s fine, but just keep it to yourself.

My initial, and admittedly somewhat immature, answer to this is that if Christians kept their beliefs to themselves then I would do the same. But I don’t mean that in a petty, tit for tat way. What I mean is that our Western, democratic, secular, capitalist society is in a constant struggle for survival against dogmatic, superstitious irrational beliefs. Our society was born out of struggle to free ourselves from government based on tyranny, oppression, and fear, and religion has been a very significant tool in the past to maintain that status quo for centuries. We don’t want to go back to that again. When the 14 terrorist flew airplanes into buildings in New York and Washington in 2001, most Americans felt that their way of life, their very society, was under attack from religious fundamentalism. And so it was. Those evil men who committed suicide by violently and deliberately taking thousands of people with them died very much hoping that their actions would help bring about the fall of the United States. They underestimated, of course, not only the resolve but the incredible power and strength of the American economy, military, government, and people. This was not like dealing with the crumbling, bankrupt, and demoralized Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s. In any case, Americans themselves had no trouble rallying around the flag in defense of their incredible country against religious fanaticism. Yet, for some reason, when their great country is threatened by religious fanaticism from within, they have no problem with it. When the fanaticism stems from their own religion, they welcome it and often state that it represents a “return” to how the country should be.

For me, as a Canadian, there is little danger that my country will fall into religious extremism anytime in the immediate future, though there are some frightening recent signs of a regression towards organized and deliberate ignorance (I think of the case of the Prime Minister’s appointment of a man, Gary Goodyear, who does not accept evolution to the position of Minister of State for Science and Technology, for example). But for my friends south of the border in the United States, one could argue that this is already happening. Certainly the danger of it is very real. Just listen to some of the rhetoric that came out of George Bush’s mouth for 8 years. Just listen to some of the things that Sarah Palin says. Or even Barack Obama, with his references to God and prayer, even though I personally think it’s clear he is not truly religious and does so only to be politically savvy. These people operate on the assumption that they live in a Christian country that should be based on Christian values (shudder the thought). Their ideal scenario is probably a country in which Christianity is the basis for governance, and if some people want to live as atheists then that is their right so long as they keep quiet about it and don’t try to introduce their atheistic ideas into government and law. How wrong is that notion in a country based on freedom of religion? Freedom of religion does not mean the freedom to privately believe whatever you want within a Christian country, it means that everyone has the freedom to believe whatever religion they want and it also means that everyone hast he right to be free from other people’s religions. By definition for that to happen, the country itself must be secular. That is why the United States was founded as a secular country. (I have had numerous arguments with people about this, some of whom insist the U.S. was founded as a Christian country. My only response is that they must not have read the constitution).

But I digress. I am not intending to rant about the ongoing battle between Christians and secularists in the U.S. It provides a good example of what I’m talking about, but I’m interested in the issue in a more general sense.

Why do I not just keep my atheism to myself? Why do I feel the need to discuss it, to challenge Christian’s beliefs? Part of the reason I am engaged in discussions of religion and atheism is that I am a formerly religious person myself. I find religion interesting, and, if I’m completely honest, yes there is probably some unfinished cathartic business related to my past. But if I lived in a world that was truly secular and in which freedom of religion was truly respected, and in which rhetoric was limited to reality-based knowledge, then I suspect I would feel no such need. I don’t mean by this that I would only shut up once religion was eradicated. What I mean is that I would shut up about atheism if religious people would shut up about their religion. (This is the bit that appears immature at first). Atheists need to be vocal about atheism, rationalism, and secularism because the underlying assumption amongst religious people (and Christians in particular) is that they want everyone to become Christians, and they want society in general to “return” to Christian values (often disguised, of course, as “family” values). In addition, rational thought is often tossed aside instantly when discussions of religion are involved. It is only through centuries of struggle involving revolution, education, scientific discovery, and enlightenment that we have finally overthrown the antiquated system of living in a country based on religious values. The last thing we want is to go back to those dark ages again.

Christians operate on the assumption that everyone should become a Christian. They are told to spread their good news. Atheists should not stand by quietly and allow Christianity to spread through irrational, illogical, and ill thought-out proselytizing. Especially towards children. If an adult has a discussion with a Christian and decides they want to join up and commit their life to Jesus, by all means do so. But there should at least be a rational voice to point out what it is they are doing. How many of us would shut up and keep our atheistic views to ourselves if we saw a large portion of the adult population being persuaded that the Santa Claus actually exists and that they should act accordingly? And, when it comes to teaching irrational falsehoods to children, there is no need to beat around the bush. It is abusive and wrong.

But, perhaps my most important point on this topic is that atheists do not generally proselytize as the religious do. As an atheist I am not out to convert people to atheism. I am simply interested in making sure that issues are discussed rationally, logically, and with a good grounding in fact-based reality. My comment above about my country’s appointment of a creationist to the top political position on science is not, as many Christians would see it, a rant against religion, but rather a revolt against deliberate ignorance. I have often drawn the comparison that if my Prime Minister appointed a Minister of Health who thought that HIV was transmitted by eye contact, then I would have as much of a problem with that. Ultimately, atheists do not speak out because we are proselytizing, but because we are facing organized and deliberate ignorance. Our society, our scientific knowledge, our freedoms, are all threatened by people who would deliberately choose dogma and superstition over facts and knowledge. If you doubt this, consider the ongoing battle involving the attempted removal of established scientific knowledge from high school science classes simply because that established science threatens some people’s religious beliefs. If that is not the darker side of a democracy, then I don’t know what is: if enough people vote for it, you can decide not to teach science in science class.

In short, believe whatever religion you want. But expect to be able to justify your beliefs and listen to rational, logical explanations for why your beliefs make no sense whatsoever if you want to be taken seriously with those beliefs. Doubly so if you want to introduce those beliefs into governance and law. Triply so if you come anywhere near a child with your dogma.

I’ve had a number of interesting dialogues with Christians on this matter. I’ve had some respectful discussions and some that have degenerated and broken down. One of the more respectful conversations I’ve had was with an intelligent and well-meaning Christian who seems very open to reality in some ways and is also very openly critical of his own religion, particularly the fanaticism that it often invokes. I believe this person truly wants to live in a peaceful and loving world where people respect one another, and it is clear he puts his money where his mouth is and lives according to that wish. Yet, in recent dialogue he made this astonishing statement:

"The odd thing is that even though I could go on all day about these sorts of things, I don't actually really care that much about them. For me, it's sort of a mind-game, and it doesn't matter very much at all what someone says they believe - it matters whether they love, and act lovingly towards others."

[This person did ask me not to share this with anyone, and I sincerely hope that he wouldn’t mind me simply quoting it anonymously here.]

As much as I respect this person’s attitude (and I think the world would in fact be a much better place with more people like them), I also find the underlying reason for it very worrisome. How could someone say that they don’t actually care [about whether God is real or not]? I think it very much matters, given the horrific nature of God. No matter how loving and respectful someone is, if they still believe that we are all by nature sinful, that an omnipotent and omniscient deity is overseeing it all, and that we are all eternal beings who will either suffer in hell or go to heaven (I’m paraphrasing here, I’m not suggesting this particular person believes all this), then I think there’s a real problem.

Ultimately, to answer the question in the title of this post, I think the question itself makes an assumption. If there are those who think atheists should keep their opinions to themselves, then I suspect the either misunderstand atheism, or they assume that their religious viewpoint is the norm. If your modus operandi is that your religion is the one true one, and that ultimately everyone who doesn’t believe it is wrong, then it is probably a bit hard to be open-minded towards people of completely different viewpoints being vocal. Now, some might claim that atheists make the same assumption. Maybe some do. I can only speak for myself when I say that I am not interested in converting people to atheism. I am, however, interested in rational, evidence-based thought and discussion. If I can’t back up my positions with evidence and logic then I shouldn’t hold onto them. Neither should you. When I was a teenager my father, a life-long Christian, once made the astounding statement that he was not interested in Jesus per se but in the truth. If he one day discovered that Jesus was not the truth he would immediately be through with him. (To date my father is still very much a follower of Jesus). But, I do respect that point of view and I think it was genuine. I hold the same point of view towards my atheism. Even though atheism is not a faith or a belief, I would discard it if evidence came to light that there are deities after all (for, by definition, that is what it would take to abandon atheism). I’m not so sure many Christians feel the same way. Would they be able to abandon their fear of death and hell and walk away if they thought that Jesus wasn’t for real?

In summary, as usual, a brighter (in both senses of the word) person than me can sum up my thoughts more eloquently than I can. I have repeated this quote elsewhere already, but I think it is particularly apt for this post:

"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."

- Richard Dawkins

Sunday, July 17, 2011

No Vaginal Thievery Please, We’re Alaskans

As you may or may not know, depending on how much you follow the entertainment news, Bristol Palin in recent interviews (one of which can be seen here) in association with her new book claims that her virginity was stolen by Levi Johnson, the father of her child. Yet she states that she is not accusing Johnson of date rape (or presumably any other form of rape). There are only two possibilities when a young women (or man) has sex for the first time: either she does so willingly or not. If not, it is rape. Someone who decides to consent to sex cannot therefore claim that she did not willingly give up her virginity. Someone who is drugged against her will for the purposes of sex (against her will) is a victim of rape. The grey area may be a situation in which someone is drugged with their consent (in the case of alcohol use for example) and then it is unclear whether a subsequent sexual encounter was consensual. If it was not, then again it is rape.

However, what is not rape is a person having consensual sex, even under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and then subsequently regretting doing so. This is clearly the scenario that applies to Ms. Palin. She states that Mr. Johnson stole her virginity because “that’s what it felt like” (presumably after the fact). Yes, understandable that a young person might regret having sex for the first time. Happens all the time. But, regret for one’s consensual actions do not imply guilt to the other party. Lest anyone get the wrong idea, Ms. Palin confesses that she continued to have a sexual relationship with Mr. Johnson for some time following the first encounter. This does not sound the actions of someone who had either significant regret. I believe the regret came much later, either when she realized she was pregnant, or more likely when she realized that her pregnancy made it impossible for her to publicly claim virginity.

How stupid do the Palins really think Americans are? How stupid are some Americans for buying their story? How can claim to be a “family values” oriented political personality, to fall on the conservative side of all social issues, to hold the view that young men and women should remain virgins until they marry, and yet repeatedly fail to do so yourself. Lest anyone forget, Sarah Palin herself went through much the same as her daughter did. She was pregnant with her first child, Track, by the time she married her husband Todd. I wonder, did Todd steal Sarah’s virginity too?

Imagine for a moment if you will how the Palin family would be judged if they did not claim to be Christians. Imagine for a moment that their actions were exactly the same, but that Sarah Palin had been an openly atheistic vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Just imagine. You can easily picture the vitriol that would be hurled their way by all sorts of “family values” groups in the United States. You can imagine the calloused “you play you pay” attitude that would be aimed at Bristol Palin as she tried to deal with her teenage pregnancy in the spotlight of a national political campaign. Imagine what would be said about the family values of the older Ms. Palin and her husband.

One of the very strange things about society, and politics specifically, is how blindly loyal people are to the actions of others who hold the same religious or political viewpoint. The Palins get a free pass from every Republican Christian in America just for claiming Christianity themselves. Why can people not see the hypocrisy here? The simply fact is that both Sarah and Bristol Palin wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to have sex but still be able to pretend they were good young virgins when they married. Physically, of course, that is impossible, but socially it can be done with this neat trick of accusing your sexual partner of theft. Oh well, if Levi stole your virginity then it’s not your fault.

I am not an American so I ask this question of my American readers. How is it that anyone in the United States fails to recognize the insanity of this family? How is it that anyone believes they have anything positive to offer? Whether you share their political leanings or not, please come to your senses and recognize trash when you see it. The Palins offer none of the qualities that we should be seeking in our political and social leaders: honesty, character, humility, integrity, responsibility, maturity. The only way the Palins will ever go away is if people stop reading about them. Perhaps on that note I should end this entry.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

What is Atheism, Part II: What I Believe

Image courtesy of Google Images.

I am a rationalist. I believe that most things, ideas, and thoughts can be divided into absolutes and relatives. An electron is an absolute. The speed of light is an absolute (though, technically of course Einstein showed us that it too is relative, but for the purposes of this discussion I define it as absolute). Gay marriage being wrong is relative. Marriage itself is relative. History is an absolute. Events happened. Nothing anyone ever writes about them will change those events. However, the writing of history is relative. No one ever produces a record of an event that is absolute, but rather puts their own human biases into the record such that the level of relativism may vary, but it remains relative in all cases. And, difficult as it is for most humans to accept, morality is relative. Morality is a human quality, developed by humans and judged by humans. The moral relativism vs. moral absolutism debate is nothing new. Often religious people will argue that morals are absolute: murder is wrong no matter what; Hitler was evil whether he thought we was doing good or not. But I don’t generally think of my view of morality as conforming to either side of the traditional moral relativism vs. absolutism debate. Within human societies, yes, murder is wrong, and that is morally absolute. However, it is only wrong because we as humans have defined it so, which also makes it relative. When a polar bear kills another polar bear, though it is an example of within species killing (murder?), we don’t define it as immoral. We only apply that standard to our own species. Why? That is a very interesting question that perhaps no one knows the answer to. Likely it has to do with the evolution of our species, and the development of morality as a tool to aid in the evolution. How could human societies evolve effectively if killing one another on a whim, and without repercussions, was acceptable? Clearly there would be all sorts of practical problems in that scenario, so we evolved in such a way that things that were literally anti-social and thereby would have prevented the very development of human societies (and humans would never have developed as they did unless they worked together in small groups or societies) were not acceptable and therefore prevented.

I am a physiologist. Physiology does not obey human desire. Should it be unfair that a six-year old cancer survivor is now discovered to have epilepsy does not influence whether or not the child has epilepsy. There is no karma in human physiology (let’s face it, there is no karma period!). Cells and organs function in predictable and logical fashion. I take this view of human physiology to the greater universe. The sun is no less likely to explode into a supernova tomorrow just because certain preordained events in humanity have not yet taken place. The sun will only explode into a supernova according to the laws of astrophysics.

This is not be confused with fatalism. This is not to say that humans cannot influence events. My physiological organs may be less likely to fail and become diseased if I hope that they don’t. I may influence my own lifestyle in a manner that affects that outcome, but that is simply part of the predictable and unalterable set of rules that govern human physiology. Expose cells to a carcinogen for long enough and cancer will develop. Whether the owner of those cells happens to be the father of two young children, gives to the poor regularly, and an all-around nice guy is entirely irrelevant. As is the processes which govern the curing of said cancer. Medicine may help cure some cancers, sometimes even in ways that physiologists do not entirely comprehend, but whether the patient deserves to live or not has no say in the matter. And, importantly, whether the patient has friends and family who pray for him or not is entirely irrelevant (ignoring any psychological placebo effect).

Perhaps none of what I have opined is earth-shattering or original. Perhaps most would even agree. Yet so many do not believe, communicate, relate, and live as though they agree. Why can we, as the human race, not cast aside our superstitions? Why can we not cast aside our view of ourselves as being more important than a collection of cells that develop according to a well established DNA-directed path? Why is it that so many of us accept that an earthquake happens only because two tectonic plates have moved but then turn around and believe that cancer strikes someone or is cured because it is God’s will? (Atheists are often accused of being self-centered, but is there a more self-centered point of view than thinking a cosmic deity interferes with your small insignificant life in minute detail? To paraphrase Christopher Hitchens: you are a worthless being born into sin, but take heart, the universe is designed with you in mind).

So what do I believe? I believe those things for which there is evidence. Everything that is true has evidence to support it. We may not yet (or even ever) be able to observe the evidence, but it is there. Further, I believe that the scientific process has the potential to discover and explain everything. There is nothing that exists that science does not have the potential to explain. That is, of course, different than saying science can or has explained everything. There are many things which science has not explained and there may well be things that science never will explain, likely because we lack the time or resources to do so. Just think of the things that for most of human history have been complete mysteries, but which science has now explained to a good level of understanding: lightening, earthquakes, electric shocks, shooting stars, genetics, aging, muscular contraction, and so on. Certainly there are things that science has yet to explain or finish explaining: the Big Bang or the origins of the universe, life outside our own solar system, dark matter, and so on. But what if we sat back now and told ourselves that those things are inherently unknowable through the scientific method? What might future generations miss out on? That would be the same as sitting back in our caves thousands of years ago and not trying to find out how we could breed and harness cattle, how the sun and the moon and the earth moved, how electricity worked, and so on. What a travesty of loss that would have been.

I do not generally believe in things for which I must rely solely on someone else’s opinion. If all religion was completely erased from human memory today, would any of the same religions appear again tomorrow? No. Religions would appear, of that we can be fairly sure. Humanity has amply demonstrated its need for religions. But would the same stories appear? Would Christianity and Islam develop as The Truth (both of them!) if there were no connection or memory in any human being to them as previous religions? No. And that is why they are relatives, not absolutes. Absolutes do not require humans to define them. Long after humanity has become extinct, electrons will continue to be absolutes. Neither gay marriage nor the opinion of whether it is right or not will. Long after humans are gone, history will continue to be an absolute. If the earth ceases to exist, the events that took place on earth will still have taken place. The stories and interpretations of those events will likely not.

I believe that absolutes and relatives are distinct. This is not always an easy belief system to adhere to. Relatives include many comforting facets of humanity: morality, ethics, capitalism, socialism, law and order, love, hate, friendship. But absolutes include many comforts also: electrons, light, mangoes, cotton, oxygen. This does not, of course, mean that I have no use for relatives. I have much use for morality, ethics, love, capitalism, and socialism. But I do not believe they are universally absolute. This also does not mean that I think there is no such thing as right and wrong. Murder is wrong. Theft is wrong. But they are not absolutely wrong. They are relatively wrong: being relative because their wrongness is limited to our species. We do not gasp in horror when a lion kills another lion and proclaim that an immoral action has occurred. We limit our immoral judgment of within species killing to humanity (and even then most people willingly set aside their horror at killing under certain circumstances). That these things are relatively wrong in our human society is a good thing that allows us to lead predictable, safe, and peaceful lives. I assure you that murder and theft amongst dinosaurs were not absolutely wrong, yet the world continued every time a Tyrannosaurus Rex killed one of its kind or thieved a kill.

Right vs. Left or Ignorant vs. Educated?

The political spectrum is a complicated phenomenon. It has been over simplified in recent years, particularly in places like America. It is generally understood that people on the political right (at least in America are) anti-taxation (or at least claim to be so), pro-small government (again, in theory), anti-abortion, pro-capital punishment, hawkish in foreign policy, and against socialism of any kind (except socialized defense spending, on which they often prefer extensive socialism, though generally without realizing it). Those on the left are understood to be more dovish on foreign policy, pro-choice, anti-capital punishment, and slightly more in favour of some socialist policies such as government organized health care and social security. Of course, the two political parties in the United States are often perceived to generally represent these two wings and many people identify with the each party’s position to varying degrees. This over simplification of course neglects many of the historical foundations of the political spectrum. Most Americans, I would suspect, are ignorant of who Voltaire or Adam Smith were, or what the Magna Carta generally stated. They are also likely ignorant of the fact that both Democrat and Republican are really varying brands of conservatism. Nevertheless, in many Western countries there is a spectrum of parties that allow most voters to roughly align themselves with relative comfort. The vitriol in political debate seems to have strengthened in recent years. One remembers the strong right to left divide in the United States during the Bush years of the first decade of the century, and in Canada in the recent election there was much hatred of both the Conservative leader Stephen Harper and his Liberal counterpart Michael Ignatieff by voters from opposing parties, and much deliberate misinterpretation of what they each stand for. One can certainly understand disagreement with party positions that do not represent ones vision for one’s country if not condone the hatred with which much of the disagreement is directed.

But what I find unfortunate is an emerging discrepancy in education versus ignorance within the right to left spectrum. In most basic terms, it is becoming increasingly difficult to be an educated, enlightened, open-minded person and to find a conservative party with which you may feel comfortable. To be sure there are ignorant stalwarts on both sides of the political spectrum, but there appears to be much more organized ignorance on the right than the left. The political right, particularly in the United States, is ridiculed in much of the rest of the Western world, not for its specific political positions, but rather for the preposterous voices attributed it often puts forward. Anne Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sarah Palin, these are all names that most educated, intelligent and rational people smirk at regardless of their political bent, again not necessarily because of their political leanings but rather because of their pure ignorance. One classic example of this is the issue of creationism. In America, it is relatively rare to find Democrats who push the issue. In Canada, you would be hard pressed to find a supporter of the Liberal, New Democratic, or Green parties who believes in creationism. Yet, a large number of Conservative party supporters seem to. As I’ve written elsewhere, even the Conservative appointee as Minister of State for Science, Gary Goodyear, is a creationist. Yet, creationism is known to be false. Anyone who is actually open minded to the facts and evidence, is educated in science and biology, who wants to know and understand the truth has to accept that evolution happened and creationism did not. So, why do so many conservatives refuse to accept that fact? Other issues such as taxation policy are a completely different matter. If you are a conservative and you happen to believe that corporate taxes should be lowered and government spending on healthcare should be reduced, then that is an opinion that holds some validity. It may or may not better for the country to do so, but the opinion cannot be rejected outright as completely false (unlike creationism). So, I wonder, why have conservatives become synonymous with deliberate ignorance. I don’t think they necessarily realize that they have done so, but it has become increasingly difficult to hold and support conservative values in counties where this has happened.

It seems that it has become exceedingly difficult in some countries, the United States in particular, to be a conservative, to vote conservative, and yet to be an intelligent, educated, rational person who accepts evidence based reality. If you vote Republican in the U.S. (assuming you take them to be the conservative party even though fiscally they are anything but conservative), then you are casting your vote along with people who believe the ten commandments should be emblazoned on public buildings, who think gay marriage should be illegal, who often think the earth is 10,000 years old, and who think that the invasion of Iraq in 2003 had anything to do with terrorism. What is one to if you do want to vote conservative but reject all those issues as known fallacies? (To be fair, perhaps the gay marriage issue should not be lumped in with the rest as it is an opinion (though an exceedingly ignorant one) where as the others are indisputably wrong to anyone who examines the evidence and thinks rationally).

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Whence Morality? Part II

A few follow-up thoughts to my “Whence Comes Morality” blog of August 7th, 2010. Any atheist or agnostic has likely faced the claim or question of the religious that, without God, you have no basis for morality or even for moral behaviour. In a recent discussion involving the two Hitchens brothers, Christopher and Peter, the latter claims that “morality is what you do when you think no one is looking”. At first glance this seems to be a decent definition. We may note how children will behave one way when they know someone is watching and another when they believe they are not being observed. We may even go so far as to think that a child that behaves well when they think no one is watching is a “good child”, or is moral.

But I have some problems with this definition of morality, as is evident in my prior writings on morality. I believe morality is a human construct. But that is really beside the point. What I find surprising is that a person of religion would claim this as a definition of morality (as the religious so often do). Surprising because, of course, the religious believe that someone is always watching their behaviour. Therefore, for a religious person who believes that definition, their morality has never in their whole life been put to the test, or more accurately, they have never had to make a moral decision. All of us have, at some point in our lives, been faced with a decision that we believe involves a clear choice of right versus wrong when no other human is watching. Perhaps we’ve had the opportunity to steal money without anyone finding out, or to lie knowing that there is no way anyone will ever know. The religious, however, if they truly believe this claim about morality, are never in such a position. God is always watching. The temptation to steal the money is not quite the same because they will always be dealing with their belief that God knows what they did. It is not a choice of morality, it is a choice of whether they want to get in trouble with their religious father figure or not. This whole conundrum is ludicrous really. On the one hand, you have the religious claiming that morality is what you do when no one is watching you, but on the other hand by that very definition they themselves are never called upon to make moral choices. There is always someone watching.

I hope that any religious person could honestly ask themselves what they would do if they really believed God wasn’t watching for a few minutes. If you really had carte blanche for a few minutes, what would you do? I believe the religious are unable to answer this question because it is too hypothetical to their beliefs. But the point is, perhaps the religious’ claims that morality comes from God are true – for them. Perhaps without God they would not live moral lives or make moral decisions. I find that frightening. But, extending that to the non-religious is quite illogical and demonstrates an inability to connect observation to reality. Many are the occasions that I’ve been told by the religious that I cannot have morality without a god. It is a blind statement, typical of someone who hasn’t really thought it through but rather is reciting something they’ve been taught, and also typical of someone who hasn’t really made independent observations and then drawn conclusions (one of the mainstays of my fundamental beliefs about having a healthy relationship with the world we live in). How can someone seriously suggest that atheists have no morality without god? Do atheists actually live less moral lives than the religious? Take any objective measure of morality such as antisocial behaviour: murder, theft, fraud, dishonesty. Do atheists observably engage in these behaviours more than the religious? If you look at the prison population then the exact opposite appears to be true. Atheists represent a tiny minority in prisons, much smaller than their respective representation in the population at large. (Perhaps atheists are just good at not getting caught). So, how can one legitimately make such a claim? It demonstrates a significant inability to detach one’s preconceptions from reality and observations. As a former Christian myself, this is easy to understand. My mentality used to be exacting the same. I would recite Biblical claims about morality or human behaviour (isn’t one of my favourite such fallacies now “The fool says in his heart there is no God,” as though it were an observable fact that atheists are more foolish in life than the religious!), regardless of what the data actually said.

One of the fundamental arguments in the debate as to whether morality originates from gods or humans is whether morality is objective or subjective. Traditionally, in this debate, Christians tend to argue that morality originates from God and is objective. Their argument, at least as I have witnessed, is that without God there is no standard by which to objectively distinguish right from wrong. I have two significant problems with this argument. Firstly, it completely overlooks the history of Christianity. Morality in the Bible, the guiding moral book for Christians, is anything but objective. Morality (stemming “objectively” from God, remember) starts with the barbaric Mosaic law in which stoning one’s child for disobedience is required. It the progresses to the Christian morality (but under the same God of course), that simply claims to revolve around love. Stepping outside the Bible and into modern American Christianity, one finds even more bizarre twists and turns in the “objective morality” handed down from God. Abortion is wrong but capital punishment is right. Stem cell research is wrong, but gun possession is right. Taxation is wrong, but tithing is right. This first problem, of course, stems from another fundamental problem with religion that is simply overlooked by the religious themselves and that is the fact that the deity evolves with the culture of the times. No one, introduced to Christianity for the first time, and asked to read through the Bible objectively would ever conclude that the god Yawheh of the Old Testament and the god Jesus of the New Testament (or even the god “Father” of the New Testament) are the same personality or deity. This is overlooked by those that believe the religion, and is often justified as another characteristic of a mysterious and wonderful (albeit misogynistic, genocidal, jealous, and barbaric) god.

But the second, and more relevant problem I have with this point of view is that morality is, by definition, a human quality. We define morality as humans, which ironically makes it both objective and subjective. Morality, in the grand scheme of the greater universe, is subjective, but within human society it is objective. We all agree that killing another human is wrong. (Well, this gets complicated quickly. We don’t all agree that at all. A good many people believe killing is justified in some circumstances, often the most fanatically religious most fervently so). At least, we all agree that murder is wrong. That murder is wrong is an objective quality. There is no argument within human societies about murder being wrong. It is a black and white, objective issue. But, outside of humanity, murder is not wrong. That makes it subjective to humans, quite distinct from other issues which are not subjective to humans. Electrons hold a negative charge, whether we as humans say they do or not. Once humans no longer exist, electrons will still hold a negative charge. But once humans no longer exist, murder will no longer be immoral because without humans there is no way of even defining murder in the first place, let alone defining right from wrong.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

What is Atheism? Part I

Image courtesy of Google Images.

This blog is, in name at least, somewhat about atheism, or at least is written from the perspective of an atheist. If one is going to read someone else’s writing, it is often useful to understand their perspective and biases. I realized, therefore, that perhaps I should include a bit more about atheism, starting with some basics.

Atheism, in its simplest definition, is relatively straightforward. The rejection of belief in deities. Note that this is different than the lack of belief in deities. Though each of these might be a valid definition of some form of atheism, the two are not the same. One suggests a consideration of the options, some thought and conclusion, while the other could simply be a position out of ignorance.

But how Wikipedia or the Oxford English Dictionary define atheism might be quite different from how it is defined or, more importantly, perceived in every day life at the local coffee shop, in a classroom, or on an internet discussion forum. And there are plenty of misunderstandings of the word and the concept of atheism out there in the everyday use of the word. While strict definitions might belong in dictionaries and encyclopedias, the reality is that in everyday language each person defines words by their use in context. There are a lot of common misconceptions about atheism, which lead it to often be met with suspicion, distrust, even anger. It is not uncommon for religions people to claim that atheists must have no morals since they don’t believe in anything. Both of those claims, of course, are not applicable to atheists. Most atheists that I now are very moral people and also have a very strong set of beliefs. What most atheists will not do, however, is allow ancient writings to dictate their morals (at least not without some critical thinking) nor believe something without reason.

Having oneself wrongly classified is a pretty common experience in life. Republican. Democrat. White. Hispanic. Rich. Poor. All of these are neat little boxes into which we find it convenient to parcel people and then keep our minds closed about what it is they really believe, what it is they really have to offer in life, what their value to us is. Often, perhaps even usually, the assumptions that go along with those boxes are quite inaccurate. Atheism is no different. Many people have no understanding of what atheism really is. More discomforting, many people have no interest in keeping an open mind or learning about it. In the extreme, some religious people are so convinced that atheism is evil that they are considered synonymous with Satanists, are assumed to be incapable of having morals, should be kept out of the reach of children, and most definitely shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an educational institution. When someone else’s definition of atheism doesn’t match my own, then I feel no particular offense. I simply would not then classify myself according to their definition of atheism. Clearly I am not a Satanist, and I do have morals. In other words, I refuse to allow other people to define my beliefs and values as a result of a misunderstanding of definitions.

So, how do I define atheism? To return to my first point, I feel that atheism is a position resulting from rational and unbiased examination of the evidence that results in the conclusion that there are no deities (or perhaps that it is extremely unlikely that there are deities). In my opinion, a simple lack of belief in deities (possibly “soft atheism”) is not true atheism because it lacks the conscious thought involved in arriving at that position. Soft atheists might hold their position simply be default. They may have grown up in a household or culture without religion and simply never really considered the possibility of atheism vs. theism. I think most soft atheists don’t put a lot of thought into the matter and simply live their lives. I have no problem with this position per se, though I wouldn’t really define it as true atheism. A loose analogy might be the difference between a cultural Christian and a “born-again” Christian. The former is familiar with many of the notions of Christianity, they may attend church on occasion and even have a healthy respect for the religion, but they probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it nor allow its tenets to rule their life.

Hard atheists, on the other hand, are those who have spent a reasonably amount of time and intellectual resources considering the position. Significant rational thought has gone into the taking of a deliberate position of a rejection of belief in deities and often some degree of rejection of religion as a whole. Often, it seems, hard atheism gets a bit of a bad rap as being militaristic or pushy. To be sure, there are atheists out there who advocate quite loudly for their position in society (though for some reason they often seem to get more criticism in doing so than many religious groups who push their beliefs into society much more forcefully). But in its pure sense, hard atheism is just the position that there are no deities. Not the position that there are probably no deities. Not the position of not having bothered to consider the possibility. And certainly not the position that religion must be stamped out and all humans converted to atheism (that is quite a different matter). But a deliberate position based on conscious thought that it is irrational to believe in deities. A deliberate position that recognizes that although belief in deities is a fundamental and pervasive part of human nature, it is an irrational belief.

Atheism often gets a bad rap. I referred earlier to those who consider atheism analogous to Satanism. Many religious people seem to feel that if you reject the notion of deities, then the only alternative is that you have sided with “the enemy” and are following the Devil. I suppose if your entire basic assumptions about the universe are that there is one god and one devil and they are engaged in spiritual warfare over the souls of human beings, then that position, while not logical, is perhaps somewhat understandable. That position gets right into one of the fundamental conflicts between atheism and theism (or more specifically Christianity) in that the conversation about a battle between a deity and his cosmic opponent if you haven’t yet established the existence of the deity to begin with. But, that discussion really belongs elsewhere. The point is, atheism is not synonymous with Satanism or any other non-Christian or anti-Christian position. It is, the rejection of the position that deities exist. Many Christians, in certain parts of America at least, would likely be very uncomfortable with knowing an atheist was teaching their children in school (and, ironically science class in schools). They might feel that the atheist teacher was secretly teaching their children to be homosexual communists. Or that evil business about evolution. It’s funny, really, because atheism is simply an acceptance of what the evidence shows and doesn’t show. I don’t know of too many atheists who have an agenda they want to push on society (other than keeping religious agendas out of society and rational thought in society). Every science teaching atheist I know has an interest in teaching science, not atheism. It is another one of the ironies of many religious arguments – that they accuse others of exactly what they themselves do. In many parts of America, religion is introduced into science class in the form of creationism or intelligent design. Yet, when an atheist simply wants to keep science class on task by teaching science, they are accused of bringing their agenda into the classroom. Blindly outrageous.

Often, in books or on the internet, one will come across an individual who claims to have been an atheist and then converted to Christianity as they heard the Christian message and recognized it as the truth. John Maxwell and the laughable (not because he is funny) Kirk Cameron are a couple of examples. Take Cameron (of anti-evolution banana lore along with his buddy Ray Comfort). He claims to have been an atheist and then converted to Christianity when he heard the Good News late in his teen years or early adulthood. There is simply no way Cameron was a rational, logical, deliberate atheist. I doubt he could recite one piece of scientific evidence in support of anything, let alone atheism (even now in his 40s, let alone twenty years ago when he claimed to be an atheist). No, the truth is, people like the former Mike Seaver were simply drifting along in life without every allocating any intellectual resources towards the consideration of atheism. When the first friendly face popped up and told him the Good News, he just felt warm and fuzzy inside and jumped on the Jesus bandwagon because it sounded comforting. To claim that he was an atheist who then became a Christian is a bit like someone who engaged in the odd fraternal rough and tumble in the basement claiming they used to be a professional wrestler who rejected the violence of their profession and reformed their violent ways. These impostors have only one goal: to deliberately promote their beliefs regardless of what the evidence is. There is no point in engaging in debate with a Ray Comfort or Kirk Cameron, because they have already decided (and often freely admit) that nothing will ever change their minds. Their claims to be former atheists are simply weakly thought-out attempts to discredit a position that they know is threatening to their dogmatic beliefs.

What is atheism? Atheism is deliberate. It is rational. It is anti-dogmatic. It is evidence-based. It is the position that there is no evidence to support belief in deities. Any of them.