Thursday, April 26, 2012

What is Atheism VI: Believe it or Not, We Don't Believe God Exists

Many, perhaps most, Christians seem to think that atheists are grumpy, selfish people who are angry with God and who have gone off in a huff to spend their lives as they wish in some sort of mimicking of parent-child relationship gone wrong. This perception stems from the fact that Christians have a very difficult time understanding the point of view that atheists have towards God: that he simply doesn't exist. The parent analogy is a good one because everyone has or had a mother and father at some point. Even if your parents have passed on, they did exist. If you chose not to relate to them, it doesn't change the fact that they existed. So the common habit of applying the father figure role to God leaves Christians unable to appreciate the perspective of someone who doesn't believe in God or gods. My relationship with my own father is not great. Cue the amatuer Christian psychologists who will undoubtedly think they've stumbled upon the reason for my rejection of God. But that is just the point. I have not rejected God. I have rejected the very idea that God exists. I don't go around with a grudge towards God, and hope that I can punish him for my indoctrinated childhood by pretending he isn't there. I actually don't believe he is there. That is the fundamental difference.

This crucial point about understanding atheism is very, very difficult for Christians to grasp. Their whole life they have been told that God is with them in every thought, action, word, every moment. To grasp this  notion that someone else does not believe God exists, is more than difficult.

Sometimes I think in sarcastic terms about what some Christians must think my position on religion is. I assume it goes something like this:

I know that God is there. I know that he is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, so I know that he sees everything I do and think. I used to be a Christian and I know the Bible well, so I know that there is a heaven above us and a hell below. I know that Satan exists and he is constantly trying to tempt me to sin. Ultimately, Satan would love for me to reject God completely and follow his ways. I know that Jesus existed, was born of a virgin, grew to adulthood and was crucified. I know that he rose from the dead, and that his sacrifice was made so that I might not have to pay the ultimate price for my sins if I decided to accept his gift of life. I know that this life is relatively short, and that an eternity of bliss awaits me if I accept Jesus as my saviour. I don't even have to live a perfect life, I just have to accept him in my heart and try to live the way that I think he would want me to live. 

I know all of this, and yet...I reject it all. I prefer to just do what I want for the next forty or fifty years of life that I have left. I'm OK with giving up an eternity in heaven just so that I can tell Jesus to get stuffed and so that I can do what I want in life without consulting him in prayer. Even though my day to day life wouldn't change that much if I accepted Jesus in my heart, I still don't think it is worth it. I could probably keep the same career, the same family, continue to live in the same neighbourhood, continue to do the recreation I enjoy. I might have to go to church, though that, of course, is not necessary for salvation. All I have to do is believe in my heart that Jesus is my saviour and accept him. I'm a smart man, I have a lengthy education. I plan my finances carefully. But I'm too short-sighted to think that this commitment is worth it. I'd rather trade in all eternity just to have my own way for a few decades.

Is that what Christians think? Is that really what they think my position is?

No. I don't believe that God exists. I think the whole thing is man-made. Religion in its entirety is a human fabrication that developed out of fear of death combined with the benefits of primitive groups of people working together more effectively by believing they were different than everyone else. That they had some common belief. That, and their complete inabilty to explain the natural world around them.

We can do better. We can explain much of the natural world around us. Though there is much knowledge left to be gained about nature, we at least know that superstition is false. We at least know that sitting down, closing your eyes and thinking and speaking a certain way to a deity in the sky has absolutely no effect on the outcome of anything.

I'll say it again in case anyone doesn't quite get it yet. In case someone reading this still thinks I am running away from God and choosing my own path:

I don't believe that God exists.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Re-Thinking Charitable Status in Canada

I heard an interesting interview with Greg Oliver, President of the Canadian Secular Alliance, on the radio yesterday about the charitable status of religious organizations in Canada, and the effect of that status on tax revenues. Given the most recent federal budget in Canada, with a whopping budget deficit not expected to be in the black for another 3 - 4 years (no one can really accurately predict these things given the wide swings in global economic activity), every billion dollars of federal revenue and expenditure seems fairly relevant.

In Canada, to qualify as a charitable, an organization must fall within one of four categories of work: 1) the relief of poverty, 2) the advancement of education, 3) the advancement of religion, or 4) other purposes that benefit the community in a way the courts have said are charitable, according to an 1891 ruling in the United Kingdom (Commissioners for Special Purposes of Income Tax v. Pemsel). Number three certainly seems to stand apart from the others, and given that this definition is based on a British court ruling from over 120 years ago, perhaps it is time to revisit this definition. The other three categories seem fair enough. When asked to define charity, most people would probably say something about giving to the poor. The advancement of education is one very specific and effective way of reducing poverty and advancing society and so logically belongs in the definition of charity. In a country such as Canada with a Common Law system, the rulings of the courts are what ultimately determine much of the law. Therefore the fourth definition of charitable status (as defined by the courts) is inescapable. But the advancement of religion? Should we use tax revenue to support that cause? Surely not. 

As pointed out by the host of the interview I was listening to, religious organizations do much poverty relief work and as such should qualify for charitable status. Certainly so. Any organization, religious or secular, which performs work aimed at reducing poverty should retain its status as charitable. There are many organizations which straddle more than one of the four definitions above, and their status as charitable should remain based on whichever of the other three apply. But what about organizations that have the sole purpose of promoting religion? We do realize what this means? An organization that supports young indoctrinated men and women coming to your door to disturb you at dinner time while they launch into their sales pitch for Mormonism is supported by your tax dollars. Does that seem right? 

The financial side of things is perhaps as important as the rationale. The total tax revenue lost to Canada as a result of organizations that are defined as charitable based solely on definition three above is about $1.8 billion per annum. So, any religious organization that mixes their proselytizing with some poverty relief or education is not included in that figure. In other words, if the federal government would recognize that the advancement of religion, alone and not in conjunction with any other benefit, is not an activity it wants to support financially, Canadians would now be $1.8 billion closer to eliminating the deficit. 

The current conservative government in Canada sold Canadians on its abilities to balance the budget and eliminate the deficit (which they created while a minority government one should point out) during their five years in office. Canadians bought what they were selling. Canadians bought into the fear that said that we needed a strong hand on the tiller in this global economic storm. Yet, the government won't shore up an easy $1.8 billion along the way because they believe that the advancement of religion is an activity that is worthy of financial support by every tax payer in Canada. Just so we're clear on the dollar amount here, every single Canadian citizen pays over $50 per year specifically to promote religion. Not to help religious organizations alleviate poverty or educate children, but solely to promote religion in society.


Tuesday, April 10, 2012

What If I'm Wrong?

The question inevitably exits any religious person's mouth in conversation with an atheist, usually when every other argument has failed. Typically it is presented as a variation of Pascal's famous wager. "What if you are wrong?" Then, the insinuation goes, you will burn in a hot hell for all eternity while your Christians relatives prance around on cool green grass in heaven and refuse to even dip their finger in water and moisten your lips to relieve a bit of the agony. Surely that thought is enough to get you to change your mind and accept Jesus as your personal saviour?

But, it is worth really examining that question. Richard Dawkins has been asked this question in public and more or less makes fun of the sincere but simple questioner in the audient. (See video here). That is certainly one approach, and probably after being asked the question a thousand times, and with limited time to respond, I might take the same such approach. Really, though, there are two main issues to consider: 1) what if the atheist is wrong about there being no God; and 2) what if the Christian is wrong about there being a God. It is only fair to ask the Christian to consider the same question.

Firstly, what if atheists are wrong and there is a God? Pascal's Wager is very illogical, of course, mostly because it assumes that if you decide to bet on the fact that there is a god, then you have to pick which one you believe exists. If you're wrong on that one, then you're no better off than if you didn't pick one at all. (This is the general approach that Dawkins takes in the video: he asks the Christian audience member to consider what happens if some other god turns out to be the one true one). But let's assume for a second that we're talking about the Biblical God. Let's ignore the thousands of other gods that humans have created and focus on the Christian God. If I, as an atheist, am wrong, then yes indeed I will go to hell. I will surely regret my decision and life on earth because a few decades lived as a Christian would be a small price to pay to avoid an eternity of hell, no question. But, what is really important is not that simple arithmetic, but the plausibilty of me being wrong. Consider what the Christian God would have to be like in order for that to be the case. The character presented by modern Christians as the loving father is not possible. What loving father could possibly sentence his own children, often through their own ignorance rather than simple disobedience I might add, to an eternity of suffering. I'd hate to see my own son suffer for five minutes, let alone all eternity. Of course, the standard Christian response to this is that God gives us free will, but not without consequence. Again, what loving father would give his child unlimited free will to decide whether to love him and to be obedient, and then when the child decides to follow his own path in life would shrug with an attitude that says: "Oh well, I tried to warn you, it's your problem if you suffer all your life as a result of being disobedient."? Only a monstrous father, selfish, vindictive and petty, would behave that way. Consider, in addition, that in the case of the fatherly Kingdom of Heaven, he knows all along what the outcome is. So, before you are ever born, indeed before he ever created the universe, he knew I was going to be an atheist and decide not to follow him, as are billions of others in human history. Yet, he decided to go ahead and set up this system that permanently punishes his disobedient children for all eternity. And all just so that he could create some children that have free will to decide if they want to relate to him or not, because he only likes the company of humans who have decided of their own free will to hang out with him. Petty hardly seems a strong enough word for this type of approach, does it? Insecure, immature, petulant, vindictive, mentally insane, evil, are all terms that we might use to describe a man who approached parenthood in such a manner. So, if I am wrong, then yes I will go to hell, but it will be because the god that Christians worship is nothing of loving father that they claim. What would an eternity of heaven in the presence of such a control freak paternal figure be like?

Secondly, what if Christians are wrong and there is no God? Well, this one might be a bit more simple. They are missing out on the one life they will ever have. At first they may not feel that they are missing out. Every Christian I've ever met always insists that they love their Christian life and that they would still be a Christian even if there was no afterlife. Yeah, right. Both of those statements ring very false. Christians love their Christian life yet walk around full of guilt. They walk around choosing ignorance over science and wonder. They prefer the simple non-explanation of how nature came into being and how it works over the amazing and wonderful truth. They prefer to share their guilt with others by poniting out that we are all born miserable and worthless sinners. (Again, what parent could possibly look at their new-born baby and actually believe this?). Christians may not think they are missing out on life by living as a Christian but they are. I know. I was a Christian through my young life, and it warped my sense of reality big-time. It caused me to live life in a specific way that I never would have done had I believed there was no god. I never would have felt the constant burden of sin and guilt, occasionally "washed away" by the blood of The Lamb. I never would have shunned science and had a superior attitude towards people who actually knew far more than I did about reality. I looked down on people who had spent their entire lives collecting knowledge on topics. I looked down on them because I figured they didn't really have the truth. They were at a disadvantage because they didn't know God. What a pathetic and wasteful way to go through life. I can't count how many relationships I missed out on because of my own arrogance and ignorance, how many friendships were superficial because I dismissed potential friends as too "wordly".

If you are a Christian, I challenge you to really think about this question: What if YOU are wrong? What are you missing out on in life? What attitudes are you going through life with that are entirely wrong and inappropriate? How much of this wonderful, complex, and beautiful world are you dismissing because you are so focused on serving a figment of your imagination?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Kony Effect

Everyone who had an internet connection in March was probably aware of the Kony2012 campaign going "viral". One day no one had heard of Invisible Children, Joseph Kony, or Jason Russell. Seemingly the next day everyone had watched and "liked" his short documentary somewhere on the internet, outraged that children were conscripted unwillingly as child soldiers.

Then, as we all know, the backlash happened. Within a day or two of the Kony2012 message going viral and thereby undoubtedly exceeding Russell's dreams of publicity, the critics wrote their critiques and basically destroyed Kony2012. They say there is no such thing as bad press, and at first you might be tempted to think that all the criticism simply furthered the cause of Invisible Children. But, the opposite is actually the case. In order to be successful in bringing Joseph Kony to justice, there needs to be sustained political pressure, not simply a 24-hour awareness by the Facebook generation and then a quick move on to watching the Oscars. By heavily criticizing Russell and the Kony2012 campaign, the majority of viewers seemed to switch off and move on. The political pressure never mounted, and Kony will almost certainly remain at large until he dies of some natural cause in a shack somewhere between Uganda and Tanzania.

Some of the criticisms were valid. It is possible or even probable that Invisible Children could be more financially responsible. It is likely that the West doesn't have all the answers to the problem of child soldiers, and if Kony were arrested then another man would likely pop up to replace him. But does that mean we should simply move on and forget about Kony? Absolutely not. Even if someone else does pop up and replace Kony, a message will be sent that eventually justice will be served. If we then go after then next war criminal, and the next, and the next, then I propose that we can change this world for the better.

Some of the criticisms were out to lunch. I read one critique in which the writer said he was tired of westerners thinking they have all the answers and tired of us coming in and splashing money around trying to solve complex problems. "Ugandans know what is best for Uganda", was a common criticism of the Kony2012 movement. Really? Then why are Ugandans allowing their children to be conscripted into being soldiers who then turn on their parents, sometimes being forced to murder them? I don't really see this as a debatable morality that is OK so long as Ugandans are OK with it.

Ultimately, the Kony2012 effect in early 2012 was an illustration of the instant hero / instant villian society we live in. Culture in the west is largely driven by media (increasingly by social media). Generations of westerners have been raised on television shows in which a handsome, likeable character turns out to be the despicable villian, all within 46 minutes (while they are also persuaded in the other 14 minutes of the hour that one gas-guzzler is actually more efficient than another). Life is not that simple. Not everyone is either a hero or a villian. We are all humans, complicated and full of both heroic and villainous traits. How many of us actually like to be judged by people in a few seconds? Would you like to be permanently written off as a villian just because you cut someone off in traffic once and it was caught on an iPhone and published to YouTube? Probably not. Would it be a fair analysis of your entire life and character? Definitely not.

Yet that is what happened to Russel and the Kony2012 campaign. Instant hero one day. Everyone on Facebook and Twitter and even in the mainstream media was all over him with praise for trying to make the world a better place. Then, seemingly hours later, the whole package was villified  and thrown out because it wasn't quite as shiny as originally percieved.

Welcome to the new world of instant judgement and hero/villian status. You better have your ducks in a row and make sure every one of them is squeaky clean before you ever go public with anything.