Further from religion, closer to humanist redemption

April 15, 2009


FROM JASON’S EPIPHANY — It took a huge philosophical earthquake to shake off my early religious indoctrination. But every once in a while an aftershock will catch up with me.

There was one in the car today.

I wasn’t thinking about epistemology, or god, or the meaning of life, or whether there is an afterlife. Some subconscious mechanism just clicked as I rolled down the highway. I felt a deep peace. It was like the four corners of the sky scrolled back and I could see the entire sweep of the universe, and my small situation against its infinite span.

“It is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan

I felt small and frail.

For those of us who were conditioned like dogs at an early age to believe there is an almighty and judgmental force in heaven, it is very difficult to surrender all that Christian guilt of original sin. Even after you grow up and realize there is no creator god and no eternal reward, there is still a child inside hoping to avoid punishment the whole snake-and-apple fiasco.

“All natural institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit.” – Thomas Paine

The dam holding back those worries broke a bit more in my car today. They washed out and dissipated. The release was sudden. Convictions are processes, not states.

I suddenly embraced — not just intellectually but intrinsically — the idea that I am a passing nothingness, in no way special. I will not make a mark on the life of the universe. I was disparate matter and energy for trillions of years before I was born, and in another 50 or so years I’ll revert to that dust and heat again.

And that’s just fine. Who the heck am I, anyway?

“There is no other life; life itself is only a vision and a dream for nothing exists but space and you. If there was an all-powerful God, he would have made all good, and no bad.” – Mark Twain

I grew up in the church, surrounded by people who would tell you that without god there can be no peace of mind. I heard them repeat time and again that non-Christians were constantly searching for something greater than themselves, searching for a god to relieve their tensions, their worries, their anxieties and loneliness.

That’s not true.

Real freedom is knowing that no fickle god is keeping a tally. It’s knowing that you have a few decades to be kind to your fellow humans without the threat of a zealous god standing over you with whip in hand. It’s knowing that your choices can be based on enlightened self-interest, not an ingrained fear.

“A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”- Albert Einstein

Real freedom is counting the gods that have fallen by the wayside: Jove, Odin, Freya, Gaia, Zeus, Hera, Horus, Ra, Snoopy, Apollo Mithras.

Even now, the number of Americans who self-identify as believers in the Christian god is sloping off. The number of people who think the United States is a Christian nation has dropped to 62 percent (John Adams wrote in 1796 that “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”) Only 48 percent self-identified as being both “religious and spiritual.”

Atheism is slowly growing as the old religions become impotent. The pious pray into empty air and receive no answers, but science yields computers, cheap food, sanitary homes, electricity, cars, men on the moon, and defibrillators.

Nearly 12 percent of the world’s population now calls itself non-theist, though only 2.3 percent call themselves atheist. American Atheists claim that 50 million U.S. citizens do not claim believe in a higher being.

“Religions are all alike – founded upon fables and mythologies.” – Thomas Jefferson.

The old ways are fading away, to be replaced by a beautiful humanism. The reasons are obvious.

People are finding that religion does not offer tangible solutions, but in fact cause strife, war, infighting, division, poverty, and ignorance. Christians are generally just as unhappy as anyone else, enjoying the same divorce and suicide rates. American moderates continue to identify religion as their culture, not their actual belief systems. And nebulous theological feel-goodery is no substitute for real happiness.

Child-molesting priests haven’t helped the believers’ image. Nor have cotton-candy-haired shyster televangelists. Conservative homophobia in the 21 century is coming to be viewed as equivalent to the open racism and sexism of previous centuries. And the more people actually read the bible, the less they are impressed with its open promulgation of violence, oppression of women, and outright prejudice.

As time passes, the testaments become barbarous relics.

“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” – Abraham Lincoln

I’ve been called a pessimist once or twice, and when I was ensnared in the web of Christianity as a child I certainly felt more jaded toward those with whom my views did not align. I was even contemptuous of other Christians whose doctrines did not match mine. There was a certain proprietary jealousy there, and an eagerness to be right all the time at the expense of others.

That was back in my dark ages, and it’s an embarrassing past I’ve been trying to escape.

These days, I am more optimistic, more willing to forgive. Isn’t that ironic? By shedding the trappings of religion I’ve seemed to achieve everything to which the devout aspire. I look more kindly on my fellow man. I am a much better listener, let me tell you. I have found logic — the tool of Satan, many god-fearing folk would say.

Just think what would happen if we traded the words of Jesus for the words of John Lennon. Maybe our collective human mantra should be: “It doesn’t matter how long my hair is or what color my skin is or whether I’m a woman or a man”

Or maybe those of Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane.”

Sam Harris and faith as schizophrenia

January 16, 2009

Vodpod videos no longer available.

FROM JASON’S SKEPTICISM —What would a psychologist call someone who talks to an invisible person, and believes that person talks back to them? Or who thinks there is a single being who controls the entire world, manipulating every event? Or who believes there are invisible demons all around trying to corrupt people?

Paranoid delusional schizophrenia. Crazy. Insane. Wacko. Bonkers. Batty. Cracked. Loony. Unhinged.

But instead, in polite conversation, we call it religion.

This has been increasingly rankling me of late: The religious people who surround me (I live on the fringes of the Bible Belt) feel their freedom of religion also balkanizes their beliefs against criticism. Personal beliefs are untouchable, they think.

A while ago, I found the above video of author Sam Harris speaking at ideaCity ’05, an invite-only sort of think-tank-con for 500 people each June in Toronto.

Harris argues in his short talk that respecting others’ beliefs is intellectually bankrupt. When was the last time, he asks, that you were asked to respect someone’s beliefs about math or biology?

We live in an empirical world. We respect data, not belief. We respect logic, not belief. We respect proof, not belief. If someone believes 2+2=5, we do not respect them. But when it comes to an ark that allegedly holds two of each animal, or fiery chariots sweeping prophets into heaven, we don’t adhere to the same standard.

We don’t call Christians and Muslims and Jews lunatics. Maybe we should.

This has been an issue I struggle with, because my father was a preacher for many years and is now a prison chaplain. I do not believe my dad is a bad guy. He’s very intelligent. I love him very much. But he believes in invisible people and monsters. He believes in a god of love, hell-bent on sending as many people as possible to eternal fiery torture.

I do not believe that. We don’t talk about it. Should I confront him, call him a crackpot, a delusional crank? In an intellectually honest world, yes. But I don’t. I’m too afraid of alienating and losing him.

I feel guilty either way.

Pointed atheism quotes

January 12, 2009

FROM JASON’S QUOTATIONARY — I was trolling 4scrape, as I am wont to do these days, and found a slew of white-on-black walls emblazoned with simple quotes — all progressively skeptical and ration-based. I thought I’d share them:

“It does not pay a prophet to be too specific.”
– L. Sprague de Camp

“Hands that help are far better than lips that pray.”
– Robert G. Ingersol

“God has a lot to account for in the way of earthquakes, hurricanes, tornados, and plagues. Nor has he ever shown much discrimination in his choice of victims.”
– Barbara Ehrenreich

“Man desires a world where good and evil can be clearly distinguished, for he has an inate and irrepressible desire to judge before he understands.”
– Milan Kundera

“God was invented to explain mystery… When you finally discover how something works… you don’t need him anymore.”
– Richard Feynman

“If you don’t find God in the next person you meet, it is a waste of time looking for him further.”
– Mohandas Gandhi

“Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.”
– Penn Jillette

“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out God hates all the same people you do.”
– Anne Lamott

“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.”
– Richard Dawkins

Why I am an atheist

December 11, 2008

FROM JASON’S NON-EXISTENT SOUL — I am an atheist. I do not eat small children, worship the devil, or lack any sort of a moral compass. I simply do not believe in a spiritual being or force. This is my story.

I grew up the son of a preacher in the Wesleyan Church, an offshoot of the Methodist Church. My grandfather, a man of unimpeachable character, was a preacher. Two uncles were also pastors. My other grandfather practically spoke King Jamesian. So in the family tradition, and from the earliest age, I was taught to believe the same as they. I learned about Noah’s Ark via felt board illustrations in Sunday School. I was indoctrinated to think people were inherently bad, and that there was only one way to avoid spiritual torture for eternity.

That’s the American way, right?

I believed for the first 18 years of my life, but doubt first wedged itself into the back of my mind at age 10 when I started to think about mutually exclusive theological concepts — specifically, the duality of free will and omniscience.

The battle in my brain: If God is all-knowing, then he can take no action without understanding the outcome. The core essence of free will is unpredictability; so an omniscient Christian Creator would be morally responsible for making an environment that would lead sinners to sin.

The bottom line: You can’t make flawed people and then blame them for being flawed.

Christianity had problems

For the next several years, I tried to suppress the nagging logic that kept intruding on my faith. I tried to read the Bible more, but annoying verificationist questions kept bothering me: How is prophecy any different than cold reading? Where did Cain’s wife come from? Were early generations of Adam and Eve’s offspring hideously malformed because of inbreeding? If God is all-powerful, why did it take six days to create the Earth, and why was he tired afterward? If God is the prime mover, did he create sin? If angels don’t have free will, then how did Lucifer rebel?

The Bible wasn’t making much sense. I desperately wanted it to. I wanted to see Needham’s flying horse.

At the same time, I was struck by the horrible hypocrisy of Christianity. Because of my father’s profession, I spent a great deal of time around believers, and while they universally behaved in the tradition of belief, none of them actually acted in accordance with the tenets of their religion. They fought amongst each other. They gossiped. They called each other names. They lied. They cursed. They harbored petty jealousies and bitterness. They stole. They were not happy.

But they would always show up in their pews on Sunday mornings.

There were only a few who genuinely acted like they believed — my father and grandfather among them — but even they seemed to have a blind eye when it came to specific parts of the Bible. They didn’t silence their wives in church like the Bible commanded, for instance. They didn’t take concubines. They didn’t sell everything they had and give it to the poor.

From religious to logical to skeptical

So my questions kept forming. I learned in high school about Boolean logic, about logical fallacies, about rhetoric. I started to see gaping holes in the arguments of preachers. I began to see how they would beg the question, how they would use fear tactics to convert. I saw how they would confuse correlation and causation. These were fairly basic mistakes.

Finally, I read C.H. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, and its apologetics were so riddled with non-sensical logic-rape that my questions only grew worse. I stopped actively believing, even though I was attending a Christian college.

Every student there was obligated to take one Bible course; I chose history. The professor, a very intelligent man, laid bare all the problems with Biblical history: Scholars think a lot of it is fake. He didn’t say it out loud, of course. But the professor couldn’t answer simple questions: How did Moses find out about the creation account? What years were the Jews in Egypt (there’s no archaeological evidence there were ever millions of Hebrew slaves there)? Who wrote most of the books of the Bible (inconclusive)? Why do Paul’s books keep changing narrative voice?

All of that made me a firm agnostic, at the strongest a deist, or at the weakest apathetic. My entire worldview shifted from esotericism to solipsism. So down the ol’ rabbit hole we go with the really fun questions on the path from “I don’t know” to outright atheism:

What is Pascal’s Wager?

For a while I thought I should keep practicing Christianity despite my lack of belief, just to be on the safe side. Too bad there’s this not-so-tricky concept called Pascal’s Wager.

French Philosopher Blaise Pascal said it’s a safe bet to worship God even if you can’t prove one exists — because what do you have to lose? Unfortunately, Pascal never stopped to think he might be practicing the wrong religion. What if God were really Allah, or Brahma, or Shiva, or Ganesha, or Zeus, Thor, Jupiter, the Great Spirit, Ram, Ra, Vishnu, Anubis, Horus, Geb, Tawaret, Freya, Frig, Anshar, Kishar, Marduk, Morrigan, Nerthus, Lenus, Quetzalcoatl, Mixcoatl-Camaxtl, Huitzilopochtli, Enki, Etu, or Xenu?

Do you try to worship them all? They are jealous gods, so in a vacuum of physical evidence as to the veracity of their origins, whom do you pick? What if you pick wrong? And why would an all-powerful deity not be more explicit in showing why the other Gods are hacks?

Even if you do pick one, what’s the point if you’re simply paying lip service? If there is a God, I’m sure he can tell whether you’re being genuine.

So why am I not a Muslim, or a Jew, or a Hindu? The answer is simple. Religion is purely cultural. Whenever I talk now with a Christian, I always ask him or her: Why aren’t you a Muslim? They don’t really know why their particular brand of God is the one Pascal would follow.

But all religions claim God speaks directly to their acolytes, and not to the heathens.

Even within Christianity, each sect and denomination claims interpretive high-ground when it comes to scripture. The Catholics claim God speaks through the Pope when he sits on the papal throne, and have evolved a whole series of doctrinal beliefs involving saints and angels and demons that is spun from these God-to-Pope conversations. Methodists believe in a grace-based theology, coupled with a pre-millenial eschatological viewpoint. Baptists believe in strict Biblical interpretation and free will. Calvinists believe everything — including their own actions — are predestined by the will of God. Mormons believe in a new world revelation of scripture in addition to the one adopted as the Bible by the Synod of Hippo in 393 A.D.

Which brand, which flavor, which style, which color? What if I chose Zeus? Nobody worships that guy anymore — which according to Richard Dawkins makes everybody equally atheist about the Greek godhead. “I’m just atheist about one more deity than you,” he tells Christians.

God who?

Christians teach their children that God is a magical man who lives in the sky and watches over you. Is that really what they believe? I don’t know many serious Christians who actually think God is corporeal, or that he’s bearded and wears white robes. So when they say “God,” what is it exactly that they mean?

According to a philosophical branch called theological noncognitivism, there is no real meaning that has been — or can be — applied to God.

Basically, the philosophy says that any language applied to spiritualism is meaningless, because we can’t really define it. Saying “God is a spiritual being” has no real meaning because we don’t know what a spirit is. Saying “God is omnipresent” is meaningless because if God is everything, then he can’t hold any part of himself in contempt. Saying “God is omnipotent” is meaningless because he’s obviously not exercising that power, or everything in the universe would act perfectly. Saying “God is in Heaven” is meaningless, because we don’t know where or what that is, and it directly contradicts claims of omnipresence.

I’d really love to have Christians — or any person belonging to a theistic religion — define God. Does it have hands and feet? What color is God? Is God male? Can God be wrong? What does he do all day? And how do you know any of this? Is God one person or three personages?

Observation is the big problem with this question. No matter what claim a theist makes about the nature of God, it’s unverifiable and unfalsifiable. Consider my favorite mental experiment, the Invisible Pink Unicorn. It’s standing right next to you, is completely undetectable, and is most certainly a vibrant hue of pink. I could tell you I know this because of faith, and you would most certainly think I were crazy.

But there is just as much observable and testable evidence for the existence of the IPU as there is for God.

God’s not all he’s cracked up to be

Elisha, Peter, and Paul all allegedly raised people from the dead. A new Dead Sea finding this summer indicates there was a suffering “messiah” who claimed to have died and rose from the dead long before Jesus. And Apollonius of Tyana was a first-century Greek who mimicked many of Jesus’ supposed miracles, including resurrection.

Even supposing that Jesus was a real person, which lacks much historical evidence, then he was one of many people who struck a claim to incarnated godhood.

Mithraism is stultifying similar to Christianity, complete with a virgin birth, 12 disciples, death and resurrection, miracles, and even references to the messianic “light of the world.” The Biblical Creation account steals from the Mesopotamian myth of Enuma Elish. Egyptian, Persian, and Pagan religions were all incorporated into the traditional Christian belief structures.

This, combined with the many contradictory passages of the Bible, lead me to believe it’s not too trustworthy. Here are a few other questions the texts turn up: Why doesn’t the fossil record line up with a 6,000-year-old Earth? Why are there no verifiable faith healings these days? Why does the Bible endorse slavery? Why does God hate sexuality so much, and how can he hate the biological homosexual tendencies he allegedly gave to some people? Why doesn’t God talk out loud to anybody anymore? Why are divorce and suicide rates among Christians consistent with those among others? Why would God allow the Nazi Holocaust, the Holocaust of Russian Prisoners, the Cambodian Holocaust, the African AIDS epidemic, the Black Plague, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami or Hurricane Katrina?

Does God really want you to stone disobedient children to death (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)? If God is omniscient and unchanging, how did Moses convince him to change his mind (Exodus 32)? Should you really burn your clothes to get rid of mildew (Leviticus 13:47-59)? Is it okay to sell your daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7)? Should you be put to death for working on Sundays (Exodus 35:2)? Men can’t have long hair (Corinthians 11:14)? Men can’t go near women having their periods (Leviticus 15)? Did Jesus want war (Matthew 10:34-35)? Did God sanction prostitution (Judges 19:22-29)? Does God confuse people on purpose just so he can punish them (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12)? God condones wartime rape (Judges 21:10-24)? Rape victims get the death sentence (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)?

And wasn’t a certain someone supposed to return a long time ago to put all these arguments to rest?


There’s no physical evidence for God. If he exists, God is remaining quiet. His self-identified “children” aren’t representing him well. Science works and gives me tangible benefits. There is plenty of tragedy in the world that a benevolent God could easily stop. If he’s not a benevolent God, do we really want him around? And if he’s an apathetic God, is he in any way relevant?

We don’t need God anymore. In fact, it seems sometimes that the most heinously immoral humans are those who claim they are exercising God’s judgement on his behalf. And if God is love, then why don’t we see all theistic adherents stepping up to eliminate all social ills?

And that’s why I can’t believe.

EDIT: Thank you, Valarya. I am enjoying reading your message board discussion about this article — especially the link regarding Freud and religion. I was previously unaware of his confliction and relic-collecting.

Christopher Hitchens Illustrated Speech

March 11, 2008

INTELLIGENTLY DESIGNED IN SIX MINUTES BY ANDREW — Christopher Hitchens gets a lot of bad press because of his abrasive personality and thoughts towards organized religion. I, however, still thing they guy is incredibly intelligent and that he makes some great points about the subject.

While he may be angry at times, remember that he only uses words. He has never physically attacked anyone nor he has never promoted outright violence against religion. I believe this is an important point; many theists would like to paint him as an almost religious terrorist, which makes me laugh at the irony of the statement.

The idea that somehow religion has the right to be safe from any criticism or disagreement is absurd. We should be able to discuss religion in an open dialog, free from any fear of retaliation. This idea is the one idea that the Middle Eastern regimes fear most, and it is the one idea that we must fight to protect the hardest.

Anyways, here are some videos by Hitches discussing religion that I thought were very interesting. He discusses the basis of Christianity and how it makes almost no moral sense.