Friday, July 20, 2012

Why "Atheist for Peace"?

Image courtesy of Google images.

Why do I call my blog "Atheist for Peace"?

Well, in some senses, I came up with the name in the easiest way: I wanted to write a bit about my experiences and outlook in life as an atheist who was formerly religious, and I also highly value peace - not just an absence of war, but of true peace in the sense of reduced conflict between humans at all levels of society. Personally I believe atheism, a true rational approach to life without the dogma and instructions of religions, is the best way for humans to find peace with each other, and I think that is a common theme in the background of my writings on this blog. I am all for discussions and arguments. I don't ever want to see everyone in the world agree with one another like some sort of robot world, but what I do hope for and aspire to is a world in which those discussions, disagreements and differences of opinion are expressed in a respectful manner and one in which a true understanding of opposing points of view is sought, and more importantly where people admit when their opinion does not make sense, is not rationally defensible, and they have been proven wrong. I long for a world in which people form their opinions based on proven reality rather than on what someone else tells them. Religion is one of the main things that causes people to resist giving up their opinions even when they are irrational and proven wrong. (Patriotism is another such structure that causes irrational thought and inability to accept when one is wrong). In many ways, I think an ideal world would be one in which people did not have "beliefs", because to me a belief is a position you hold that is not necessarily evidence based. Sure, we all believe that the world is round not flat, but would you really call that a belief or simply an acceptance of reality? Sadly, it often seems the world is going in the opposite direction, with less and less understanding between people of different points of view.

It is easy to point at infamous atheists in history and reject the idea that atheism can help bring about a peaceful world. People like Stalin and Mao are obvious examples of those who publicly rejected religion and pursued a society free from religion. The results were terrifying, to be sure. But, that is because they tried to impose their will on people in society, a road to disaster and pain no matter what your will happens to be. Whether you are atheist, Baptist, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Republican, Democrat, pro-life or pro-choice, if you try to impose your views, beliefs, and will on other people by force then the results will almost always be negative. My suggestion as to why atheism can offer peace is that I believe people should take the time to logically and rationally examine the world around them very thoughtfully before they make their opinions or beliefs. And, I believe that when people do so, the ultimate and sole position that makes sense is atheism. Atheism is nothing more than a lack of belief in deities. It does not, as some may think, mean you are a liberal, an environmentalist, a hippie, a scientist, or any other label. I do not necessarily think that when someone examines the world rationally they will end up as any of those things. I do believe that it is possible to be a rational, independent, and critical thinker and be a conservative, for example. But, I do not accept that it is possible to be a rational, independent, and critical thinker and be religious. Being religious requires that you accept some things on faith that someone else has told you are true, and which are not independently verifiable - the exact opposite of independent, critical thinking.

When you look at most of the conflicts in the world, they stem from misunderstandings or unwillingness to understand different points of view. I'm not just talking about conflicts that result in wars, but also everyday conflicts in the workplace, in the home, in school, in society in general. When we avoid taking the time to really understand another's point of view, then we risk creating conflict. Sometimes, when we do take the time to understand someone else's point of view there is still conflict because one or the other of us are not thinking rationally. I think this basic feature of human interaction leads to all the major wars in society. The American invasion of Iraq, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, the Cold War, all are basically the result of non-rational thought combined with massive misunderstanding, and a desire to impose one's will on others. If people would avoid those three things, there would be much more peace in this world.

Take the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example. I have long maintained that the only way there will ever be peace in that region of the world is if children are taught from birth not to hate the other side, to truly understand the other side's position, fears, and desires. It would only take one generation to have peace if that were done. I have met and known many Israelis and some Palestinians in my life. Without exception, every single Israeli I have ever met believes that the entire conflict is the fault of the Palestinians. If the Palestinians would just stop using violence to get their way, then we could have peace. And, without exception, every Palestinian I have met believes that the entire conflict is the fault of the Israelis. If the Israelis would just understand that this was our land and it was taken away from us by force, then we could have peace. To be sure there are many complex issues in that conflict that would take some serious negotiating to resolve. But, until a generation of Israelis and Palestinians are raised not to hate and mistrust, there will never be peace. How many times have we seen Israeli and Palestinian leaders smile for the cameras as they shake hands and claim peace, perhaps with an American politician smiling on? Never has it actually resulted in long-term peace. If everyone in that conflict was educated to think rationally, the Jews would be forced to accept that they are not in fact a special race. The Palestinians would be forced to accept that the Jews do actually have as much of a right to live in the region as anyone else. Or, even better, if people thought truly rationally, they would accept that we are all just human and being Jewish or Palestinian doesn't really matter.

I'm not naive, I know that the world will never be a rational place. Humans, en masse, are incapable of rational thought. But it doesn't stop me from promoting more rational, logical, critical, and independent thought. And, as I say, I believe that the first step when we all start doing so would be to discard the ancient and primitive shackles of religion. Not by force, but by free choice and acceptance of the truth of the world we live in.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Who is it Worth Arguing With?

C.S. Lewis states in one of his books that the sound of people quarreling is negative. This is one of the few things I would agree with Lewis on, and I think it is because he uses the word "quarrel" rather than "argue". In modern society we often think of an argument as a negative thing, but it need not be. An argument is simply a position taken in which there is some logical consistency in constructing the position, and in which one is discussing this with someone of an opposing opinion. A quarrel, on the other hand, seems to me to be simply a yelling match in which both parties are too proud to ever admit they are wrong and, even worse, have made up their mind before beginning the discussion and therefore are completely unwilling to even comprehend the other person's point of view. I think it is very worthwhile seeking arguments and avoiding quarrels in life. But how to tell the difference?

I think the difference stems from different types of people, not from different circumstances. We are probably all capable of the momentary pride that leads to a quarrel, but I believe there are quarrelsome people who always seek out this form of negative and destructive conversation. I also believe it betrays an immature psyche full of insecurity. If one is a mature, secure, confident person, what has one to lose in listening to and understanding an opposing point of view? One can still choose to disagree. But not even allowing someone to explain their point of view, or worse deliberately misinterpreting their point of view for your own personal gain, has no value. Sadly, it is this latter approach that seems pervasive in modern society, particularly in places such as politics and in the debates surrounding religion.

The people that I think it is not even worth trying to debate or have a conversation with are those who are not interested in hearing another person's point of view. Examples of these types of people abound. The first person that jumps to mind is that crass Amercian TV personality Bill O'Reilly. Mr. O'Reilly is known for yelling "shut up" at the guests on his show. Even if he doesn't tell them to shut up when he disagrees with them, he certainly doesn't let them actually make their point. Never, ever does he hear someone out and then actually ask them to clarify their position so he might better understand. Perhaps O'Reilly's best example of an inability to even listen to an opposing point of view is his embarrassing interview of Jeremy Glick in which he eventually cuts the microphone and ends the interview, all because he can't stand hearing a position that "offends" him.

So, this video clip is an example of what I would call the first level of a quarrelsome person. Everyone knows Bill O'Reilly has a particularly quarrelsome approach to interviewing his guests. He never lets them finish and isn't interested in understanding their point of view. But, I would argue there is another, worse level of quarrelsome person, that person who not only isn't interested in hearing an opposing point of view, but who actively misinterprets their opponent. Two examples immediately jump to mind. As much as I find Bill O'Reilly quarrelsome and negative, two other TV personalities are much more so: Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter. Both of these people actively and deliberately twist what their opponents say to suit their needs. So in the end they aren't even disagreeing with what their opponent has said, they are in fact disagreeing with a perception fabricated within their own minds. As part of Al Gore's Inconenient Truth message, he famously told audiences that we have ten years left to change our destructive environmental practices before it will be too late to prevent catastrophic change to the atmosphere and the climate. Gore is not a scientist, and he may have grasped the ten years notion out of thin air. I don't think we really know the timelines of change that are needed in order to prevent catastrophic climate change. But, I would think that Mr. Gore's prediction of ten years is actually on the long side. I think most scientists would agree that it is already too late. Ten years is far too long to wait if we are going to prevent significant negative destruction of our atmosphere. We have already been emmitting unsustainable carbon dioxide levels for a couple of centuries. His "ten years" was, in my opinion, a way of demonstring the urgency of the situation to those who really have no idea of the science. If he had said: "It's already too late" then most people likely would have shrugged and figured there's nothing that can be done. So, while Gore's prediction is not particularly scientific, I do think it was made honestly and with the right intentions. Consider how Rush Limbaugh then dealt with that prediction. Since he denies climate change (and science in general), Limbaugh deliberately misinterpreted Gore's prediction and even made fun of it by constructing a countdown doomsday clock on his webpage. You can witness Rush Limbaugh's deliberate misinterpretation of his opponents every day by veiwing his webpage or listening to his radio show. Everything Barack Obama does is evil and ridiculous in Limbaugh's eyes. But, I can guarantee you that if the president called up Limbaugh and asked him to sit down and have an honest converstation so that they can understand one another better, Limbaugh would either reject him outright or turn that conversation into more negative fodder for his deliberate ignorance. There is no desire for argument, only for a quarrel. So, what is an example of a respectful argument that is not quarrelsome? I would offer the example of Richard Dawkins interviewing Bishop Harries. Here are two men of very opposing points of view. Dawkins is, of course, the world's most famous atheist, and Bishop Harries is, of course, a very religious man. Yet, they are able to have a civil conversation and discussion in which they each actively seek out to understand the others' point of view. There is no impatience and telling people to shut up. There is no deliberate misinterpretation, followed by a pronouncement of how silly the other person is based on a ficticious opinion.

Can't we have more of this sort of discourse in society? Can't politicians listen respectfully to their opponents and then decide whether they agree or not based on what is said, rather than disagreeing out of principle before the conversation even begins?

My philosophy is that it is a worthless exercise trying to have a conversation with the Bill O'Reillys and Rush Limbaughs of this world. They are not interested in actually hearing and comprehending other points of view. What they are intersted in is gathering fodder for their quarrel machine. Once I recognize that I'm in conversation with someone of this nature, the conversation ends. There is no point. It is a waste of time, and ultimately it all boils down to people, yet again, putting their conclusions before the evidence.

My last point is that it seems like the overwhelming majority of people who are not interested in hearing their opponents are modern conservatives. I have to admit that this quality is one of the things that drove me away from conservatism and more towards liberalism. Conservatives seem, to me, to be inherently unable to listen to opposing points of view. Is this because of some bias that I myself have, or is it because the messages of modern conservatism (that the free market is the only way to go, that any form of socialism is evil, that environmental sustainability is unecessary, that science is over-funded, that universal healthcare is a waste of money) are all wrong and conservatives who support these messages are insecure about getting into an actual evidence based debate about them? It is much easier to hold your position if you refuse to openly listen to your opponents. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Can't People of Religion Ever Just Admit That They Might Be Wrong?

I've had a lot of debates online with religious people, mostly Christians. Sometimes these debates are interesting, sometimes they are enlightening, more often though they are simply arguments intended to prove one is right rather than trying to learn the other person's opinion or to understand their point of view. One thing that I find really negative and annoying though is what seems to me to be a complete inability for Christian believers to ever accept that they might be wrong. Why is that?

Countless times I've commented on a blog post, engaged in conversation on a youtube video, et cetera and become involved in lengthy conversations about religion and atheism. I try to only engage in these conversations when they are respectful, I have no need for hateful, ignorant conversations. Some of these conversations have been truly enjoyable and enlightening. There is one acquaintance I have with whom I often converse online and I very much appreciate his perspective and his deep desire to make the world a better place. But, I find that almost without exception, someone who has a religious belief is unable, at the conclusion of a discussion, to ever accept that you've constructed a rational, logical argument that comes to a conclusion that cannot be denied. The conversation always ends with something along the lines of: "Well, I guess we'll have to agree to disagree." Why is this?

My opinion on why this happens is because of the foundation of the belief system that the religious have. Their beliefs are not formed following rational logical thought about the nature of the world. Rather, their primary belief is based on revelation and faith. For example, a Christian is, by the very definition of what it means to be a Christian, unable to ever accept that Jesus did not exist. Therefore, they may enter into an argument about the possibility of the existence of Jesus, but their end point will always be that he existed. Even if you present a rational, logical, and evidence-based case for how unlikely it is that Jesus ever existed (just as an example), the conversation will have to end with the Christian saying that they will have to disagree with you, even if they have no ability to respond to your points. It's either that, or they have to admit that you have made your case and decide not to be a Christian anymore. That's usually not an option in one conversation.

The topics that I encounter this phenomenon more often are those relating to science and evolution. No matter how much evidence you present to a creationist, they will always simply end the conversation with: "Well, we'll have to just agree to disagree" because they are fundamentally unable to change their point of view, even if they've been shown the error of their belief. This is fundamentally opposed to the process of discussion used in science. At a scientific meeting, no scientist will ever simply state that he/she has to disagree with someone after they've been shown conclusively to be wrong. They accept their error and move on, humbly.

To me, this is another example of Christians putting the cart before the horse, of drawing your conclusion before you look for evidence, and of the immense arrogance of their position that there are certain pillars of their belief system that they will never give up no matter how wrong they are shown to be.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Is it possible to be a former Christian or a former atheist?

One of the arguments that I find Christians trot out immediately in conversation with someone who left the faith and became an atheist, is to claim that they were never a Christian to begin with. Christianity is based upon a personal relationship with Jesus, so it is impossible for Christians to accept that someone who had that personal relationship can now abandon it and leave the faith. The only plausible explanation is that the person was never really a Christian, that they never really knew Jesus. I have heard Christians make this claim about the most dedicated former Christians, including people who were preachers for decades. The claim is always that the person must have been faking it, or that they must have just viewed their Christianity as a dry religion rather than as a living relationship with the creator. The ironic thing is that, no one ever seems able to point to those Christians who are not real Christians while they are still Christians. It is easy to simply state that someone was never a real Christian after they have given it all up, but if they were never really a Christian, shouldn't that lack of real faith been detectable at the time?

Ironically, I find myself making the exact same statement about some people who claim to have converted from atheism to Christianity. "You weren't a real atheist, or else you never would have become a Christian. If you really understood what it means to accept that there is no evidence for deities, then you couldn't possibly become a believing Christian." I have wondered if I am just being hypocritical in my criticism of Christians for taking the easy way out in disregarding a former Christian and then doing much the same when it comes to former atheists. However, I think that my claim that someone who became a Christian was not a real atheist is fundamentally different for the reason I alluded to above. The person who claims to be an atheist and then embraces Christianity can be "outed" while they are still an atheist. If you walked me into a room full of people who claimed to be atheists and asked me to have a conversation with them to find out the people who are most likely to convert to Christianity, I believe I could do so. I believe I would be able to point out some people who would never become Christians and others who simpy don't get atheism and rationalism and therefore may one day become religious. I don't think the opposite scenario is plausible - that a Christian could do the same in a room full of Christians. I don't think anyone who met me when I was a Christian would  have thought: "That guy isn't going to be a Christian in the future."

A couple of examples to illustrate my point. Take Kirk Cameron of Growing Pains fame. Everyone knows he is a Christian who had a pretty public conversion during the latter years of the show's production, and he has a fairly public profile as a Christian to this day. But he has claimed that, before he became a Christian in his late teens or early twenties he was an atheist. I don't believe that for a moment. I don't think he was ever a real atheist. I think he simply didn't think about religion or atheism, so he now categorizes himself as a former atheist just because he wasn't a Christian. I think if you had sat down with Kirk Cameron as a twenty year old and asked him why he doesn't believe there are any deities, I doubt you would have gotten a carefully thought through explanation about rationalism and lack of evidence. I doubt he would have outlined how scientific advances have, at every turn, discredited the notion of a personal God. Another example is Alister McGrath. He is a prominent Christian who also claims to be a former atheist. But, I don't think he was an atheist at all. When you listen to him in interviews, he simply mentions that he was an atheist but then became a Christian in university once he started to think for himself. (Ironic that he converted to the religion of the culture he was living in if he truly started to think for himself...notice that very few people in England or America convert to Buddhism once they become religious). An example video interview is found here:

As an aside, it is interesting to note that McGrath states that there are interesting questions that science cannot answer but which religion can, questions such as "Why are we here?" But, he never suggests why religion can answer those questions, or what the answers are. He simply comes up with something that he thinks is outside the realm of science. This is a classic example of someone not liking the answer that science provides and turning somewhere else for a more palatable, though fictitious answer.

In conclusion then, I believe it is very much possible to be a former Christian. While it might be technically possible to be a former atheist, it is very much less likely.