What it is like to be an atheist in today’s world; one perspective

Because atheism is not a set of beliefs or even one belief, I cannot speak for anyone but myself in terms of what it is like to be an atheist in today’s culture.  I can, however, give a glimpse from a possible point of view that may be shared by other people, perhaps atheists as well. If your experiences differ from mine or if you disagree, then you are an infidel who will regret your heresy come the judgment.  Just kidding, maybe….

Being an atheist is nothing like being a minority race.  Besides passing, being a different race is not something that can be hidden from society.  An atheist can walk down the street and nobody would know that he or she is an atheist, we have not previously been enslaved or killed en mass (the Inquisition notwithstanding), and we don’t have stereotypes about us that are unfair generalizations.  OK, that last one may not be true, but I’ve gone three months without eating a baby or worshiping the devil, so get off my back already!

Being an atheist is not like being gay.  People are born gay.  OK, so people are born atheists as well and then are introduced to religion as children.  But besides that, people don’t choose to be gay.  OK, in a strict sense a person does not choose to be an atheist either; belief, or lack thereof, is not subject to the will.  I cannot simply decide to believe in god, I have to be presented with certain evidence in order to come to the conclusion that a god exists.  I have not been presented with such evidence.  I’d like it if it were available, but despite my attempts it has not come.

Now, you may tell me that it is simply better to believe because by believing I lose nothing and by not believing I risk my eternal soul, but this would only be pretending to believe, and if such a god existed than that god would know the difference.  This wager–that it is better to believe than not because of the potential consequences–are really reasons to pretend to believe, not reasons to actually believe.

But you, my imaginary interlocutor, are distracting me from my point.  My point was…oh, right; my point was that being an atheist is not like being gay.  Although if I were gay then my being an atheist would be a lot like being gay, because I’d be gay.  But my digression continues.  Bottom line, I’m not gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and my being an atheist cannot be exactly compared to being a homosexual.

Of course, outing myself as an atheist has often been similar to experiences friends of mine–people who are gay or bisexual–have had.  But they are not the same.

OK, so being an atheist is not so bad.  Sure, people will sometimes look at you funny when you say you don’t believe in any gods, including theirs  People will possibly feel sorry for you for not having the relationship with some god as they do.  In some cases, you may get a death threat, damned to Hell, or people might pray for you.  It’s not so bad.

But my concern is not so much how people treat atheists as it is how I look at the society around me.  Now, I believe strongly in personal freedoms.  I am willing to fight for people’s right to believe whatever nonsense they like, so long as they are willing to respect that right for others.  But I believe that part of our freedom is to be able to criticize where we see fit, and that must include religion.  One thing that I see in our culture is the free pass that religion gets; to criticize it is rude, people say, and it doesn’t do any good, they sometimes continue saying.  I hear atheists (but don’t call them that to their face!) say things like that a lot.  They don’t see the harm religion does to people often.  That’s nice for them, I guess.  Others don’t have that luxury.

So as I walk around, enjoy a drink at a party, or obnoxiously walk in screaming “God is dead!” during church services and listen to people talk about what their god did for them that day, their sophomoric platitudes about how god is ubiquitous and obvious, and how my life will be so much better with a god in my life, I can’t help but feel like I’m talking to some kids at a kindergarten about Santa.  I wonder, as Bill Maher did in his film Religulous, if people were taught fairy tales as religion and the Bible as fairy tales, if people would defend Mother Goose with the same zeal they defend Adam and Eve or Jesus.  From an outside point of view, I don’t see much of a difference between fairy tales or Greek myths when compared with what is in the Bible.

So I get a little frustrated with people around me.  I feel like people are deluded, blind, and unwilling to genuinely investigate what they believe.  What’s most frustrating are the people that live their lives without thinking about religion much at all–sure, they’ll pray sometimes, attend church even, but they have almost never actually investigated the claims of their belief systems–but they will defend their beliefs with a vigour that should only come from genuine certainty about their beliefs.  They are sure, but they have little to no reason to be sure because they have not investigated their beliefs and often consider doing so unnecessary because god told them it was true.  Of course, people in other religions say the same thing.  God must be a prankster or something.  After all, he told me that he doesn’t exist, and you can’t tell me that my experience wasn’t real!

So, you’ll imagine how I feel about those street preachers, fundamentalists, and evangelicals, right? That’s right, I respect them.  They have read the book (whichever one is theirs), they have tried to understand it, and think they know what is at stake; if their book is right, then they are doing what is right.  They are not just waving hands at and going through the motions for their god, they are living what they believe.  Now, some few of them will become militant and this I cannot allow to happen, although the fact that someone is willing to risk their lives for what they believe I find refreshing.  I will fight these militants with the same fire they are willing to muster, but I at least respect their willingness to take what they believe seriously.

It’s just a shame that their minds are infected with a virus.  See, I respect willingness to fight, hopefully peacefully if possible, for what one believes in.  I have less respect for the so-called Sunday Christians, cafeteria Catholics, moderately religious, etc.  Unless, of course, your specific religion is one of moderation, this is hypocrisy.  The Bible, the Koran, and other religious works contain horrifically violent ideas.  Yes, there are some beautiful ideas as well, but if you take it as the word of god, you have to take it all.  And if you only take what you like because they give meaning to your life, then you cannot claim that any of it is beyond criticism.  You must take it all as truth or you must call it all myth, some of which you like.  Try as you like, but any standard for differentiating the myth from the truth will leave you at odds with another standard.  This is why there are thousands of sects of Christianity.  This is why the three major monotheistic religion’s are perpetually in conflict.

I see a world of people who are mostly unwilling to challenge themselves.  I see people defending ideas they are unwilling to have challenged.  I see emotionally infantile, fearful, and ignorant people in most places who would not know critical thinking if if slapped them.  I see people who don’t care, don’t care to care, and who will nonetheless think of me as obnoxious.  That is, they care only when they are challenged, and since I’m willing to challenge, then they care.  What a dick I am for trying to think critically and talk to my fellow citizens about their beliefs in the hope of sharing and trying to improve the world around me.  We should just allow people to isolate themselves in their little worlds and not allow people from the outside to ever challenge those worlds.  That would be a utopia.

My experience as an atheist–but more broadly a skeptic and a freethinker–is that I’m in a sick culture that keeps trying to cure itself with one of the symptoms of its sickness.  I see people who, when the “new atheists” (people like Daniel Dennett, Chris Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, etc) speak up, they react by defending the symptom automatically out of misplaced reverence.

I do not respect belief in silly things.  I respect individuals.  I do not respect, necessarily, what they believe.  I do not accept that I should respect people’s beliefs.  What kind of absurd bullshit is that? If someone believes that the moon landing was a hoax, do you respect that?  When someone believes that they saw Elvis do you respect that?  If someone says that they believe that their garden is tended to by fairies at night do you respect that? We challenge ridiculous things in our culture because they are ridiculous.  But the one thing that actually has sway over our lives, compels legislators to discriminate against citizens by proposing religiously motivated laws like DOMA, and perpetuates beliefs that do harm by often creating a bias against the best method of determining what works (science),  is not allowed to be challenged because it is important to people and you might hurt their feelings.  Well, I want to talk about these things with people and people not wanting me to is hurting my feelings.

You want to know what atheists like myself are angry? Imagine if you lived in a world where people literally believed,sort of believed but defended fiercely, or simply thought you rude to challenge that invisible sky pixies created the world and without belief in and worship of these pixies not only are you probably a bad person but you should shut up about your disbelief.

Sky pixies. God. Same difference.

And that’s what it is like for every single “real” atheist out there.  If you think you are an atheist and you disagree with what I have said here, then you are a heretic and you will be shunned by the real atheists.  Of course, we will not directly shun you, we’ll just treat you differently until you eventually go away to create your own little atheist group (but it will not be the true atheist group) and have your own little heretical meetings and call us the heathens (assuming you don’t get mysteriously wiped out by…well, someone will do it I guess).  And after a few centuries, there will be all sorts of atheist sects and we will laugh at the old pagan religions about Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad and we will call those a-atheists immoral people who we will pity for their lack of lack of relationship with our non-god.

Hmmm… Something is awry here.  Best not to think about it, I guess.

A proclaimation against bronze-age morality

I willfully agree that there are problems with our culture and nation right now. I submit that there even moral issues that need to be dealt with. I think we need to take steps in order to find solutions to these problems. However, the following is not representative of the right approach to looking at the problems or providing solutions.

WHEREAS, the people of Oklahoma have a strong tradition of reliance upon the Creator of the Universe; and

WHEREAS, we believe our economic woes are consequences of our greater national moral crisis; and

WHEREAS, this nation has become a world leader in promoting abortion, pornography, same sex marriage, sex trafficking, divorce, illegitimate births, child abuse, and many other forms of debauchery; and

WHEREAS, alarmed that the Government of the United States of America is forsaking the rich Christian heritage upon which this nation was built; and

WHEREAS, grieved that the Office of the president of these United States has refused to uphold the long held tradition of past presidents in giving recognition to our National Day of Prayer; and

WHEREAS, deeply disturbed that the Office of the president of these United States disregards the biblical admonitions to live clean and pure lives by proclaiming an entire month to an immoral behavior;

NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we the undersigned elected officials of the people of Oklahoma, religious leaders and citizens of the State of Oklahoma, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world, solemnly declare that the HOPE of the great State of Oklahoma and of these United States, rests upon the Principles of Religion and Morality as put forth in the HOLY BIBLE

This is a proclamation brought forth by Sally Kern, whom is a state legislator in Oklahoma.  Granted, this is not my back yard, but it is indicative of a significant segment of the United States population who agree with these statements.

Proclamations like this are a waste of taxpayer money (at least it is not mine, in this case), are discriminatory, and present no realistic help to anything at is an attempt to legislate morality, even if it has little to no teeth.  It takes very conservative values and proclaims them as a representation of all people in the state of Oklahoma.  It says to the homosexual citizens, those who enjoy pornography, and other ‘debouchers’ that they are the cause of the world’s problems.

It implies that these people have earned the wrath of some bronze-aged megaloaniacal bastard of a god, and so they should be condemned and lambasted.  It is disgusting, petty, absurd, and frankly immoral.

The problems in our nation are the result of poor education, projected fears and insecurities, as well as greedy and unethical practices by those who control wealth and politics.  This list is not exhaustive, of course.  Those who maintain a faith in a worldview that is unsubstantiated, fearful, and discriminartory, such as Sally Kern and her ilk,  are doing much more to perpetuate the problems than alleviate them.

Religion, while not all bad, will tend to bring out these aspects of human nature.  Maintaining religious ideologies such as the conservative Christian worldview that believes in sin and a judgmental and vengeful god are the source of our cultural problems is but one symptom of the sick culture, not a solution to it.

Proclamations such as these only act to appeal to an electorate that is ignorant, hateful, and who oppose civil rights, science, and reality.  It only can keep these people from becoming better informed.  It only does harm.


  • WHEREAS people of reason do not accept the parochial moralities of bronze-age mythology, and instead seek to understand reality on its own terms; and
  • WHEREAS the history of Christianity’s role in America has been a part of some of its culture and not its law; and
  • WHEREAS the problems of our culture, being many and complex, have many and complex causes that we have no reason to believe are related to any gods, Christian or otherwise; and
  • WHEREAS discriminatory beliefs concerning sexuality and gender are the result of conservative ideologies centered around Christian congregations which are not shared by all citizens; and
  • WHEREAS The president of the United states, as well as all other elected officials, both federal and state, are not obliged to capitulate to the moral opinions of the few;
  • NOW THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that we the undersigned defenders of reason, fairness, and citizens of the United States, appealing to the reason of people everywhere, solemnly declare that the HOPE of The United States of America rests upon the genuine and honest work of people who use the best methods of analysis, investigation, and honesty in the pursuit for truth.

Now there is a proclamation!

Why do we think spiritual experiences are spiritual?

Why do people associate their personal experiences as spiritual experience to be interpreted through their religious community? This may seem like an odd question, but I think it is worthy of consideration.  It seems that when people associate their personal experiences–especially when they consider them spiritual experiences–with religious traditions they are in fact doing the exact same thing that people did to create religious doctrines in the first place; establishing human opinions as the will of gods.

What are we talking about here? I’m talking about that little voice we here that tells us when something is wrong.  I’m also talking about that sudden and apparently out-of-nowhere idea that motivates us.  I’m talking about those moments in prayer, meditation, or possibly while reading something that inspires us (the concept is in the word ‘inspire’) toward understanding.  In other words, I’m talking about things that happen to many people every day and are called by many people “spiritual experiences.”

In some cases the experience will demonstrate an idea that may not sit well with the established doctrine of religious communities, even the religious community that said person is a part of.  This will often lead to some cognitive dissonance, undesired questions, and possibly conflict.  If the situation continues, it might lead to a person looking for a different community that fits better with their own understanding and experience.

But wait, there is something there to consider.  If a person can simply look for a congregation that fits their spiritual experiences, doesn’t that imply that somehow their previous congregation was inconsistent with their views?

So, if the experience they had was truly spiritual, as in a revelation from some god, or even if they just think that it seems true (we do tend to think that our ideas are true, which is why we tend to keep them), that must imply that their previous religious institution was in error?

We all have experiences, some similar and some dissimilar, that help make up our worldview.  And we find ways to associate these experiences with the greater view of the universe; we will try and plug them into the larger picture of our beliefs.  And as this process continues and people find others that agree with their view, communities form with similar worldviews, most who think that their views are somehow the result of communication with divine powers in the universe.

Most Christians will call this the Holy Spirit.  Most congregations will tend to think that the interpretation they have of how things like communion, baptism, divorce, the role of faith v. works, etc are superior to other sects.  And why? Because the congregation they choose will, in most cases, agree with their experiences.

I should not ignore the fact that being a member of a certain group will tend to color how one will interpret experiences as well.  A certain view, whether it be doctrinal or cultural, will tend to give a bias in how we interpret experiences.  Thus, there is an interplay going on here between bias informing interpretation and conflicts of interpretation dividing up communities, the details of which are too complex to deal with sufficiently here.

What about conflicts? When someone, whether they are homosexual or not, has some experience that compels them to see being homosexual as being as natural to a person as heterosexuality to another person, what do they do when their religious institution says otherwise?  If they join a new church that is gay/lesbian friendly, do they conclude that their previous church was wrong?  And if so, what about the previous experiences that they had in association with that institution? Were those other experiences invalid because they do not conflict with that doctrine or was that doctrine somehow accidentally right about that one thing while wrong about others?

How reliable are these subjective experiences that make up the various doctrines of various religions and their sects?  Why do we continue to associate our creative powers, experiences, and insights with religion? Why do we think that they are, in fact, spiritual experiences? What are our bases for making this claim?

It is clear that the larger cultural context a person is placed within will color their experiences.  It is clear that people create associations with certain kinds of experiences–emotions, inspiration, etc–within their religious community early in life.  These associations stick, and as adults most people will continue to associate certain sets of feelings with their church, temple, etc.  Thus, the reason why many people think our the every day experiences they have are spiritual seems to be because they were placed in situations that induce these feelings while young while hearing about religious ideas and stories.

But what about non-religious people? How do they deal with these experiences.  First of all, non-religious and non-spiritual people have these experiences too.  Some, especially those who grew up religious, will still have these emotional associations even though they do not believe in the religious ideas anymore.  Others, like myself, simply look at them as a natural part of life, and attach no divine or metaphysical significance to these experiences.  As far as I am concerned, I am lacking in nothing as a result of this. as my own personal experiences are deeply meaningful to me.

I challenge others out there to ask themselves, if they associate their personal experience with something spiritual or religious, if this is the only way to look at it?

Are we biological machines with or without free will?

I updated my facebook status yesterday saying that I was involved in a discussion about whether we are biological machines.  I say that we are.  In response, a debate ensued among the comments concerning this question that turned into a discussion about free will, moral responsibility, etc.  I thought I would share some thoughts here and see what people think.  Keep in mind that I am thinking publically here, and not trying to establish absolute certainty on this issue.  I invitediscussion.

Of course moral responsibility is based upon our choices.  The physical circumstances we find ourselves in will have to be analyzed, perceived, or attended by the brain in some way.  The question is whether how our brain reacts could have been any other way than what it does? Could that last sentence I just wrote have been expressed more or less eloquently? Could I have given the opposite opinion?

It is logically possible that a different sentence could have been written, but would it be physically possible? What sense would it make to say another thing could have happened? Would that not imply that the physical properties of my brain or its input would have to have been somehow different? What aspect of the situation would have allowed the different situation to have emerged?  What would have to be different to allow different actions? And if the same physical circumstances could have allowed a different action, does that mean that this is a hypothesis about the nature of matter to be unpredictable?

There is a sort of game being played here.  It is a game within which we have the ability to think about the alternative ways to describe the circumstances, but from the outside of the game it may be clear, perhaps to a greater perspective or some theoretical god (or some kind of third-person-omniscient point of view) that no other possibility could have been, including those specific concepts of alternatives within the minds present.   Another question would be whether such a god-like point of view exists.  I don’t think so, but I digress.

The issue of moral responsibility only makes sense within the game of this question, but outside of it the game perhaps the repercussions of our morality are also as determined as the actions being punished. Perhaps the punisment is as determined as the crime.

But we feel free!  There is a sense of being able to look at he options–turn right, left, stand still, turn around, etc–and that we analyze the possibilities and decide which to pursue.  But I am at a loss as to understand how a physical brain could have made any actions besides what it did.  Quantum uncertainty, if it plays a part in neural activity at all, seems a possible area of explanation, even if I am skeptical of it. Perhaps quantum uncertainty throws the monkey wrench into physical determinism at the level of the world around us–the nurture–meaning that given known circumstances our behavior could be predicted but the circumstances themselves are undetermined.  I don’t know.

But what does not seem legitimate, to me, is the explanation  of souls or spirits that exist within us that allow us to be more than mere biological machines. Why not? Well, if we have a soul, it is either part of our physical structure (not escaping the problem at hand) or it is non-physical, raising questions about how the non-physical and physical interact.  If they can interact, then is the non-physical really NON-physical?

It is a difficult issue.  I don’t like the thought of my choices being determined by the set of nature and nurture (even if nurture is potentially non-determined).  But I don’t know how to escape the problem.  I would like to hear comments on how others think about this (assuming you have a choice in how you will respond).

The homeopathy of god

The hand of God or gas?
The hand of God or gas?

The mind is creative. We can take a pile of clay and make bowls, find junk and make art, and we can organize complex instruments into symphonies. We can make patterns out of chaos, see images in clouds, and religious images on various foods and walls.

This ability is a wonderful part of our species. It has allowed us to be artists of various kinds and it gives richness and meaning to our lives. But sometimes this skill can be problematic. It can be problematic because it can sometimes create the illusion that we have found something important or true in places where there was little of significance. In other cases it can make us see more than there is in things because our preconceived notions will not allow us to see something plain.

Theology. The study of god(s) right? I’m not so sure. I think that this is more likely finding patterns in human experience and making ideologies out of them. It seems like people reading scriptures and finding ways to reconcile contradictions into mysteries, nonsense into ultimate meaning, and atrocities into justice.

Because there are many things within the written history of humankind that are interesting, obscure, and opaque.  There are periods of history unfamiliar to us when history, philosophy, and mythology were indistinguishable.  But much of it is now looked at as true.  And some of these true things come across to me as, well, disgusting.

Take, for example, this story from the book of Judges.

11:29 Then the Spirit of the LORD came upon Jephthah, and he passed over Gilead, and Manasseh, and passed over Mizpeh of Gilead, and from Mizpeh of Gilead he passed over unto the children of Ammon.

11:30 And Jephthah vowed a vow unto the LORD, and said, If thou shalt without fail deliver the children of Ammon into mine hands,

11:31 Then it shall be, that whatsoever cometh forth of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return in peace from the children of Ammon, shall surely be the LORD’s, and I will offer it up for a burnt offering.

11:32 So Jephthah passed over unto the children of Ammon to fight against them; and the LORD delivered them into his hands.

11:33 And he smote them from Aroer, even till thou come to Minnith, even twenty cities, and unto the plain of the vineyards, with a very great slaughter. Thus the children of Ammon were subdued before the children of Israel.

11:34 And Jephthah came to Mizpeh unto his house, and, behold, his daughter came out to meet him with timbrels and with dances: and she was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.

11:35 And it came to pass, when he saw her, that he rent his clothes, and said, Alas, my daughter! thou hast brought me very low, and thou art one of them that trouble me: for I have opened my mouth unto the LORD, and I cannot go back.

11:36 And she said unto him, My father, if thou hast opened thy mouth unto the LORD, do to me according to that which hath proceeded out of thy mouth; forasmuch as the LORD hath taken vengeance for thee of thine enemies, even of the children of Ammon.

11:37 And she said unto her father, Let this thing be done for me: let me alone two months, that I may go up and down upon the mountains, and bewail my virginity, I and my fellows.

11:38 And he said, Go. And he sent her away for two months: and she went with her companions, and bewailed her virginity upon the mountains.

11:39 And it came to pass at the end of two months, that she returned unto her father, who did with her according to his vow which he had vowed: and she knew no man. And it was a custom in Israel,

11:40 That the daughters of Israel went yearly to lament the daughter of Jephthah the Gileadite four days in a year.

What has happened here? It seems quite clear to me. But in a recent conversation with a Christian (a ‘real’ Christian, as he said), I found that what happened here is that Jephthah had offered an animal sacrifice because burnt offerings were always animals. He could not see what the story said because he had a preconceived notion that the God of the Bible and what he would do.  If Jephthah killed his daughter and this was the literal truth of God’s word, then that god is a monster.

What about the Trinity? How did that come about? There is no concept of the Trinity in the New Testament. It is a concept derived from a need during the early church and became orthodoxy in the third century for many churches (but not all). If Jesus was God, then the message is important. If Jesus is just another prophet, then so what?

Mystery. That is the key. Where there are things not understood, the mind reels in the mystery. It looks for understanding, a seeking of sorts, and finds something in the seeking whether something is there or not.  And the further the mystery travels from the sense we employ to the rest of our experience, the more important and meaningful it is. It is sort of like what happens with gambling; sometimes a few dollars come back in small snippets and it keeps the mind attended, even though most of the time it is draining you dry.  Mystery is an addiction.

It is sort of like homeopathy; the less actual presence of the ingredient, the more potent it is. That is, the more mysterious, distant, and unknowable God is, the more it sticks to the mind and suffuses everything.

It will skew interpretations, create the presence of divinity in clouds of woo-woo emotional feelings, and it will create a strong sense of divinity in the stillness of calmness and tranquility. It is the smallest, simplest of assumptions that has the power to make the world look mystical, magical, and miraculous.

Yes, our creativity, sparked by the mystery of the divine, brings the divine into everything. It becomes the explanation of everything. God did it. Godidit. It becomes the placebo that supplies meaning and structure to our lives, when it actually does nothing at all.

In the history of human culture our understanding of nature has pushed the concept of gods back to the corners of the universe. We understand enough to know that the concept of miracle is not necessary, so God gets shuffled to the corners of morality, purpose, and gets attributed to the woo-woo feelings we get when we feel spiritual.  And it works because we want it to work; because our powers of creativity allow us to see it working when it very clearly does not.  But with the faith blinders on, it is difficult to see what is plain and simple.

Jephthah killed his virgin daughter.  God is unnecessary to explain anything.  Santa does not exist.  Sorry, kids.

God lied and so we are all sinners

eveWhen Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, she had no way of knowing that it was wrong. She could not have known that the snake–or God for that matter!–was good or evil. Therefore, she cannot be blamed and the punishment was unjust. Therefore, there is no need for salvation from God because the Fall was God’s fault, being omniscient thus aware of what would happen.

Let’s recap the story just for fun, eh?

God creates Adam…

2:16 And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:

2:17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

After some naming ceremonies and all that, God takes a rib from Adam and makes a woman. Then a snake comes into the picture. Here is the text from Genesis:

3:1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman, Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?

3:2 And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:

3:3 But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.

3:4 And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:

3:5 For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.

3:6 And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.

What happens next? God comes down and throws a fit, kicks them out of the Garden, and then they go on to somehow populate the earth with only one surviving son after Cain kills Abel.

But let’s take a close look at the situation that Eve finds herself in upon talking with the serpent. Eve has no knowledge of good or evil when the serpent approaches her. She can’t because she has not eaten the fruit of the tree yet. She has heard, whether from God directly or through Adam, that if she eats of the fruit she shall die on that day. The serpent says otherwise.

Now eve, in not having any knowledge of good nor evil, can’t judge whether the serpent is good or evil. She also can’t know whether God is good or evil. She is left with competing pieces of information and little to make a good judgment with. If she has any logical skills, she will have to recognize that she is in a situation with conflicting proposals. God says one thing, but this snake, being wise itself, says something else. How is she supposed to pull the truth from this?

Experiment. That’s right folks, she has a situation where the only way to find out the truth is to eat the fruit and see what happens. She has to be the world’s first scientist, doing a primitive science-like experiment, in order to find out the truth. And what happens? Well, she doesn’t die, and neither does Adam. The serpent was the one telling the truth, not God.

And as a result we have something like science associated with the Fall of humankind. To test God is to sin. That is, if you find yourself in a situation where conflicting information about what God says, to test it in any way is akin to the Fall of humanity, to repeat the original sin for which salvation is necessary.

No wonder Biblical literalists and science are so often at odds.

I’ve heard apologetics that argue that this act was a Fall from God’s grace, but that’s not what the story says. Genesis says that “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” This is supposed to be some kind of spiritual death, but that’s also not what God said earlier. Why would God be so vague when the future of all humanity is at stake, especially when God must know what will happen.

But there is a further point here. Isn’t god supposed to be all-knowing, all-powerful, and everywhere? Wouldn’t god know that the serpent would say what it said, Eve would eat then give the fruit to Adam, and created the universe just this way anyway?

I know, I know….God gave us free will. except if God knows literally everything about the universe, God would know every “free” choice people would make and made it that way anyway. Thus, didn’t god create the universe, including us, just the way he wanted to?

Doesn’t that put the cause of this Fall, whether spiritual or otherwise, squarely in God’s lap?

I much prefer the gnostic interpretations of this story. In one version, God is not the true god but a demiurge–a lesser god, and in many cases an evil god. The serpent is a representative of the truth, of the true god, and is the hero of the story or the savior who becomes a kind of sacrifice. In some versions of ancient Gnostic Christianity, the serpent represents Christ.

And while I find this interpretation fascinating, it does not jibe with the Christian salvation story that I hear. In fact, it nullifies the necessity of salvation. It makes the Fall nothing more than pissing off a “god” that lied from the beginning anyway. Who needs salvation from that? (when typing, I mistyped ‘salvation’ as ‘slavation,’ and made myself laugh…some out there will find that funny).

Bottom line: God lied, the serpent didn’t, Adam and Eve get punished because the serpent called God out on the lie, and as a result we are all sinners. Yeah, makes perfect sense….

Was the crucifixion of Jesus a sacrifice?

crucifixion_BRBIf Jesus was god, then the crucifixion was not a sacrifice.

If Jesus was not god, then it was a sacrifice, but it has no ultimate significance beyond being one of thousands of possibly inspiring stories of others who have died for various reasons, both noble and otherwise.

If Jesus never existed, then it’s just a story. If you can be inspired by that, then I can be inspired by Superman (and you can stop making fun of me for dressing like him!)

Now, the position of many Christians is that Jesus was wholly God, wholly human. This is nonsensical, and you know it. I am aware that this is one of the central tenants of the vast majority of Christian theologies, but it is absurd. Trying to justify this in your mind, reveling in the mystery of it, is indicative of something awry. It is to rationalize something absurd, mysterious, and impossible and call it a miracle.

But even if it were to be somehow true, then there are still some questions I have. Did Jesus know he was God (as well as human)?

If he did know he was god, then did he have all of the knowledge of god? If he did, then he knew that he would die on the cross–incarnated knowing so, in fact–and did nothing to stop it. He knew he couldn’t actually die, and that the crucifixion would be only symbolic, so how was it a sacrifice? This seems no different than me playing some online game and sacrificing my character in order to allow the rest of the team win the mission (not that I know anything about such thing…).

And if he didn’t have all the knowledge of god (or his divine powers for that matter!), then how could he be wholly god? Sure, he might have been human in body but having the spirit of god mixed in there, but without all the knowledge then there is something of god missing, right? Perhaps God is holographic, and even a part contains the whole? I’m confused….

Now, if Jesus was just a guy, granted one that was possibly sanctioned and chosen by the real god as a messenger, then it was a sacrifice. But how is it a sacrifice for us? How does a person dying two thousand years ago effect me in any other way than symbolically? And even as a symbol, how does it provide salvation? Further, salvation from what? (i’ll deal with that tomorrow).

And if Jesus was just god, and not human at all (as some early Gnostic sects thought), then his death was not a death at all. Then it was not a sacrifice at all. There is no passion to the narrative, just symbolism. Symbolism that god chose. But why choose that symbol? It seems to be a result of people who were used to the concept of sacrifice as a means to atone, like in the Old Testament laws about animal sacrifice and the smell of burnt offerings that are so pleasing to the lord. Man, Yahweh must love barbecues. But this neolithic idea should sound absurd to you.

I honestly do not see the significance of this supposedly historical event. I do not understand how God sacrificing either an innocent person or himself (to himself, to make up for a rule he made due to a Fall that he orchestrated, mind you) is significant to me at all, even if it were true. If I can see past this BS, I’m sure any real god could too. This sounds like iron age mythology to me, no different than the other myths and fairy tales of human history.

I'll leave you with this…Christianity

Why do we believe in the supernatural?

Why do people yearn for immortality, heaven. or salvation? Why is there a draw, within us, to seek metaphysical explanations? Why do we feel we need supernatural worlds, explanations, and beings?

Neurotheology has offered some solutions. In recent years there have been articles written about the so-called god-gene, or whether there are certain parts of the brain that are responsible for believing in gods or at least spiritual experiences. There has been some success in these attempts, and it is clear that some religious experience is certainly the brain doing its thing.

There are other aspects to this need. Culture, social pressures, insecurity and so forth play their parts. I’ve met too many people who, despite not believing, continue to attend church, profess belief, and just cruise along because of the effects of being open about their skepticism and doubt would damage their family life, work life, or relationship with neighbors. I’ll bet that quite a few of those family members and neighbors would react to them coming out because they repress their own insecurities about those same beliefs.

But I digress.

Religion is natural. In a strange way, this is ironic, but it is true. Through our evolution we have developed powers of cognition that allow us to do amazing things, creative things, beautiful things. But the brain did not develop specifically to do these things. Our brain developed, through millions of years of natural and sexual selection, to be predictors of the future, solvers of patterns, and tool makers.

The skills necessary to complete such ardent tasks came with a price. Because while we will try to predict and solve, it surely is better, for example, to assume something non-animate is animate than the other way around. That is, it is better to assume something moving in the shadows, in the corner of the eye, or even looked at directly has a conscious agency than to assume the other way around because otherwise we may not run from predators. Ancestors who had different tools would have been lunch, thus they would not have had as many offspring. Natural selection at work.

As a result of this, early humans probably saw agency in nature everywhere, hence the early concept of gods for just about anything including lightning, wind, the sun, water, etc. As these concepts developed and matured, our ancestors imagined that conscious intelligent agents were behind the world until we had pantheons of gods with myths to explain them. Stories of origins were composed, told, and created a sense of meaning and purpose, and eventually rituals, rules, etc were concocted along with the development of society and culture. Politics were created, language made more complex, and all along was the agencies behind the natural world, tied into our very thinking about the world around us.

The very symbols, words, and concepts that were used to explain and understand the world was tied directly into the thought patterns which also created supernatural agency. That is, our minds are imperfect, our intellect inadequate, or perceptions imprecise. And these are the same tools we use today to understand the world. With better tools and methods for getting around these imperfections, our understanding is better than it ever was before. But we had to overcome our imperfections to some degree before we could see the blind-spots, biases, and unconscious assumptions guiding our worldviews.

Nietzsche, the 19th century German writer, philosopher, and lover of words, wrote the following.

The metaphysical need is not the origin of religions, as Shopenhauer supposed, but merely a late offshoot. Under the rule of religious ideas, one has become accustomed to the notion of “another world (behind, below, above)”–and when religious ideas are destroyed one is troubled by an uncomfortable emptiness and deprivation. From this feeling grows, once again “another world”, but now merely a metaphysical one that is no longer religious. But what first led to the positing of “another world” in primeval times was not some impulse or need but an error in the interpretation of certain natural events, a failure of the intellect.

The Gay Science, aphorism 151

Nietzsche understood, as many more do now, that the intellect is flawed. Unlike Plato, who thought the intellect the key to the Good (which would ultimately influence the concept of the Christian God, through both Paul and Augustine), he and we understand that our intellect is not purely rational, but it can be made more logical and rational through practice, training, and a desire to understand the truth even if the truth is not kind or pleasant.

Know thyself. Find your biases, blind-spots, and flaws in your mind. Seek out the truth on its terms. Religion will help us understand who we have been, who we may be now, but it can do little to tell us what we will be if we desire the truth. We will need different methods for that.

Mystical explanations are considered deep. The truth is that they are not even superficial.

Nietzsche, The Gay Science aphorism 126

Are science and religion equally valid?

I have a friend from high school that I have been conversing with for a short while ever since we friended each-other and he has been reading this blog as I post links to them on facebook. He said, in a recent blog post of his, a number of things that I disagree with. I would, therefore, like to reply to it here. I hope he does not mind my quoting his blog entirely. The original post can be found here. [edit: no it can’t, because he has removed it.  I guess I made some good points?]

He starts off this way:

I have an old friend from high school that identifies himself as an “atheist, polymorous, geek” (if you’re like I was and unfamiliar with the term “polymorous,” best I can figure out, it means polygamy distinguished semantically from the baggage of Joseph Smith and the fundamentalist Mormons). Shaun keeps a daily blog in which he posts his thoughts in support of atheism and polymorism. At least once a week I open my web browser to find an intelligent, well written article about why atheism is the only possible rational conclusion to be drawn by carefully examining the facts about God.

Now, first off, polyamory has very little to do with polygamy. My partners are free to find other boyfriends or girlfriends as I am. Right now, I have no interest in starting a relationship with anyone else, as I am busy enough. Polyamory really is simple non-monogamy. I just don’t think that monogamy should be assumed. I’m glad he thinks my thoughts are intelligent, at least.

Seriously. He writes, “There is no God” every week, “just look at the facts.” Sometimes he writes this twice a week in essay form. As I read these short essays, I can’t help imagining what people’s reactions would look like if I were to write about the existence of God as much as Shaun writes about supreme being’s nonexistence. Certainly, the white upper-middle class politically left leaning liberal intellectual community in which both Shaun and I were educated would label me as a fundamentalist, religious freak. After all, who else would expend so much time and energy thinking and writing about God?

Clearly, this is hyperbole. I don’t say that there is no god. Why? Because that is not the atheist position as I use it. I say that I am not convinced that a god exists. I think the question is important, so I write about it. I am not really concerned if people look at me as some sort of fanatic. I am interested in what is true. If anyone else were to write bout it as much as I do, I would want to talk with them. Those who are not interested can read something else.

I’m no expert on God or Rationalism. I’m not a theologian. I’m not a philosopher. My field is Depth Psychology. I observe and write about the ways humans make meaning and the stories they tell to make sense of the world around them. I’m not interested, therefore, in discussing whether or not God exists. Using so-called rational science, the existence of an omnipotent being that resembles a carbon based earth creature is just as hard to disprove, as it is to prove. Instead, I’m interested in the concept of God: an undisputable fact.

OK. I’m waiting now for the punch line.

The very attempt to disprove God’s existence is simultaneously an acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence and an attempt to replace the concept with another. In other words, God is an idea on which both believers and atheists expend mental energy. I agree, when the atheist labels the believer’s ideology a phantastic story that makes meaning out of chaos. However, I also label the atheist’s ideology a rationalistic story that makes meaning out of chaos.

Again, I’m not trying to disprove god. I’m talking about why I am not convinced that tthis being exists. I’m responding to the claim, the apologetics of it, and the proposed reasons to believe and showing why they do not add up.

I’m interested by the idea that we share the “acknowledgment of the concept’s structural existence”, as he says. This seems similar to a thought I have often. I do feel like I’m trying to wrap my mind around a concept of god (that concept depends on what type of theism I’m responding to), but find what concept I am able to glean unbelievable. And I’ll agree, provisionally, that I’m trying to make meaning out of chaos. How similar my method of meaning-making is from that of others I do not know.

Both the phantastic and the rationalistic are valid and real ways to approach the world. In both cases, however, imagining your own approach as “truth” is fundamentalist and dogmatic. There is space for approaching the world from both perspectives. Both perspectives (and the many other possible approaches) are fabrications or fictions that say more about the unique experience of the human species than they do about the universe’s material (or spiritual) reality.

This is where we clearly part ways. I do not accept the idea that all methods of approaching the world are equally valid. And while they are all fabrications, or at least artifacts, that does not mean that they are equally valid any more than the fact that a true and false story come from people make them both valid. Some methods are created such that they can be tested against shared experiences and be tested with the best methods we have. Others do not use these tools. Thus, some methods are clearly better at different things. In terms of discovering what is most-likely true, one stands above the others.

We live in a typhoon of positivist sound bites as dogmatic as the organized religions they criticize. Moralistic commandments with financial agendas are disguised as health tips; they are platitudes accepted as gospel. Our obsession with cleanliness and sanitizing, for example, can be seen as a remnant of a puritan believer’s attempt to wash away nature, to weed out the impure, to restore humankind to its Garden-of-Eden Godliness.

Positivism is no longer a perspective held by the majority of people, especially in science. It was a view derived from early works of Wittgenstein (and not sanctioned by him, as he later came back to academia and attacked positivism). The view is not that all metaphysical (or phantastic, as he calls them) claims are nonsense simply for being metaphysical in nature, but because they do not stand up to scrutiny. The ones that do stand up to scrutiny are then simply considered part of science’s conclusions. The skeptical community to which I belong does not have any dogmatic beliefs about such things, they have tried to test them and found that much of them do not stand up to testing.

We accept the scientific data on faith. Does the atheist examine the research on microbiology and “germs” before washing his hands? Doesn’t he see the inherent contradiction? He’s willing to take the leap of faith necessary to believe in evil creatures so small they are invisible to the naked eye but not a creator so large he cannot be comprehended by the human mind?

No. I accept the conclusions of science for two reasons. One, in some cases I’ve looked at the data myself. But the vast majority is because I understand the peer-review process. The scientific community is full of people who are clamoring for grants, respectability, and maybe even a Nobel prize. In order to get these things, you have to have your theory stand up to the rigor of hundreds or even thousands of others you are in competition with who are trying to use teh best methodology that they know of.

To accept what survives this onslaught is not faith. It is a rational acceptance based on the fact that if the theories proposed by the scientific method via the scientific community were not the best we have come up with, someone else would have proven otherwise. Theories such as the germ theory of disease, relativity, natural selection etc were all tested, retested, confirmed, re-confirmed, and so they are accepted. They are not believed in a technical sense, but accepted. And if a better idea were to replace any of these, what other method besides science could be used? No other method has proven itself to be as reliable, and so that’s why it is used by the experts in various fields…well, most of them, anyway. I’m sure young Earth creationists, for example, try different methods (yet then call it ‘science’, ironically)

We can see small organisms with tools like microscopes. The hypothesis of god has been used to explain many things in history, and as science processes in its understanding, the things some god was supposed to do are being pushed back by better understanding. In ancient times we thought gods made lightning, now we have a natural explanation. Now people think that a god is needed to design life, but science keeps showing that this is not the case necessarily. If a god exists, it is either working through nature (which does not seem parsimonious), or it is so vague a power and so insignificant that why would we continue to worship it or call it god?

So, god is so large it cannot be comprehended by the human mind? Perhaps. But then how do so many people seem to know so much about it? I don’t see a need for such a being to exist to explain anything in nature. It may exist, but I am not convinced. That’s what atheism is.

The microscope-wielding ministers of science at temples like Harvard and MIT may seem to have more clout than the doctors of deities at institutions like the Vatican and the Jewish Theological Seminary. But I think that assumption imagines the mainstream as the whole stream. Instead, I would argue that our rational-discursive oppositional world is dependent on the Science/Religion dichotomy. The conflicting perspectives exist symbiotically, the debate against one point of view feeding the other.

It is not a dichotomy. There is the methods of science and the various ideas of religions, conspiracy theories, new age weirdness, pseudoscience, etc. One method is better than the others. It will continue to give us better explanations while the others cannot compete in terms of methodology. Religion is not a single methodology. It is not a monumental and coherent competitor, but an alliance of people who share similar ideologies who stand opposed to, ignorant of, or philosophically naive in relation to the best methodology humans have yet come up with that tends to demonstrate the weakness of closely held ideologies, such as the dogmas of religions.

There may be something closer to a dichotomy in terms of the ways that we think. To think critically one must train the mind to be skeptical, rigorous, and be willing to tear down your own assumptions and beliefs. To try to rationalize beliefs held is to seek out data that supports the conclusion you want. Good scientists don’t do this, as this is not part of the scientific method. This method is neutral, skeptical, and perpetually bettering itself.

A religious ideology is rigid, and only changes when it needs to. It’s why religion had to give up the earth-centric view of cosmology, the flat Earth (there still is a Flat Earth Society), the 6000 year-old earth (some still don’t accept the much older earth). It seeks data that supports it, apologizes rather than is skeptical, and it feeds off of our desires to be more than mere biological machines. It was only when science came around, providing better methods and thus conclusions, that religions started to change.

These are not equally valid pursuits. This post-modernism is damaging philosophically, epistemologically, and methodologically. So, with respect I disagree with my fellow blogger. But I do look forward to more discussion with him and others.