Category Archives: Atheism

Jay Mohr’s Message to Atheists: A Response

The Dogma Debate recently asked comedian Jay Mohr, who had been on the show, if he could write up a piece about what he wanted to say to atheists.  Mohr, who would likely consider himself a “cafeteria Catholic”, has witnessed a number of debates between theists and atheists, and hasn’t been to impressed by what he saw/heard.  Mohr’s piece, “Comedian To Atheists: A Message From Jay Mohr”,  is a well crafted, humorous, assessment of the ongoing and often tumultuous arena of religious discourse.

I was expecting to like the piece less then I did, honestly.  I think Mohr makes some excellent points and does a good job of not taking any particular side, but considering both positions.  His call for more dialogue and less argument is an important one.  The need for more understanding and compassion is something both sides of the debate need to hear.  Mohr rightly points out that very often these debates become very binary – very black vs white, right vs wrong – and this can be problematic.

I do have a couple of issues with Mohr’s article that I want to address.

Mohr questions the validity of debates at all.  “Why always an argument?” he asks, “Rarely does the religious person walk away from the debate with a changed mind and throw their faith into the nearest trash can.”

I think the point that Mohr is missing is that with these sorts of debates, it’s less about the two people debating and more about the audience that is listening.  He’s right; rarely if every do either person in a debate walking away having changed their minds.  However, often times there will be someone in the audience who does change their minds.  At the very least, many people will walk away with a different or better understanding the issue.

A good example of this can be found in the Intelligence Squared debates.  The audience is asked to vote on where they stand on the issue being discussed, either “For”, “Against”, or “Undecided”.  The audience is then asked after the debate where they stand.  In almost every debate, a certain percentage of the audience will have changed their vote.

“So, what’s the point?” Mohr seems to imply.  “…what is the victory of reversing someone’s belief system that works for them?”  Well, Mohr answers his own question late in the article where he states, “If Christians weren’t always trying to explain to you how you were going to hell, or how you’re living your life incorrectly, or trying to write legislation controlling your behavior…”  THAT is precisely why it is so important to work towards reversing people’s belief systems!  Nobody lives in a bubble – beliefs have consequences.  And many of these beliefs, regardless of how well they may “work” for the person holding them, are detrimental to personal and societal well-being and often hinder humanity’s progress.

Lastly, while I appreciate Mohr’s take on evangelizing (or as he puts it; “the dreaded ‘SHARING’ of their religion”), I think he’s being a little too optimistic here.  Most Christians feel called to preach at anyone who will listen.  In some camps, you aren’t considered a “TRUE Christian” unless you’re actively trying to save people’s souls.  I fully agree that “sharing” is just another way of saying “recruiting”.  It’s offensive, it disregards personal boundaries, and is rarely as effective as Christians would like to claim.  This is all the more reason why we need to work on correcting false beliefs, and debates are often an effective tool for doing so. 

I like Mohr.  I consider him one of the “good ones”.  If he and I sat down for a beer, we would agree on far more then we disagreed on.  And likely the topic of God’s existence wouldn’t even come up, as is often the case when I hang out with my Christian friends.  I’m happy to see Mohr’s post making the rounds across social media, and I hope it continues to be a catalyst for conversation.  People on both sides  of the debate could benefit from it.

Next time we’ll be talking about another person that both sides can learn from; Jordan Peterson.  Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Three Years In – Some Thoughts

Last month marked the three year anniversary of this blog.  What started as a platform for “coming out” as a progressive Christian to my largely Evangelical friends and acquaintances, soon became the logbook of my journey out of religion.  It was never my intention to lose my religion, in fact I actively fought against it, but the desire to have my beliefs line up with reality eventually won out in the end.

It’s interesting to look back at my early posts and see the gradual transition from faith to reason.  I started off being an outspoken advocate for the teachings and life of Jesus, social justice, and progressive Christian values.  My frustrations with organized religion and self-reflection can be seen in my post where I lament, “It’s a long, messy road when you start picking through your faith, when you start dissecting everything you’ve been taught and believed.”  This frustration soon lead to my break from the Church.   Not long after, I came out publicly as a non-believer, denounced Christianity and its teachings.  I dabbled briefly in mysticism, but science and reason eventually prevailed.

Since that first year, my blog has focused mostly on science, critical thinking skills, counter-apologetics, and calling out bullshit when I see it.  As an atheist living in the Midwest, I feel a certain responsibility to speak out for other non-believers, letting them see that it’s OK to be an open and outspoken secularist.

One of the blogs that made an impact on me when I was de-converting was Neil Carter’s “Godless in Dixie“.  As a former pastor-turned-atheist living in the Bible Belt, he wrote from a place that I could relate to.  He was also kind enough to answer my emails and provide encouragement.  My hope is that Second Journeys can provide that for someone else.

Now in my third year of writing, I’ve been once again doing some self-reflection.  Perhaps it’s time to make some changes in the focus of my writing and my overall mindset in general?

The catalyst for this thinking came from reading James A. Lindsay’s Everybody is Wrong About God.  The book is a “call to action to address people’s psychological and social motives for a belief in God, rather than debate the existence of God.”  A good summary of the book would be, “The debate about God has long been settled, atheism has won out, so now what?”  Lindsay’s book challenged my thinking on a number of points and made me reconsider my approach to talking about religion.  I want to hash through some of these points here.

Lindsay argues that apologists have been unable to provide any evidence for the existence of God, therefore theism is dead.  As such, atheism should also go away, as it has no purpose of meaning anymore: “By dwelling on atheism, we dwell on the debate, and by dwelling on the debate, we perpetuate its counterpoint, theism, as something debate-worthy instead of something that already lost. […] It’s time to move on, and the path we should follow is to stop pretending that theism deserves serious consideration.”

When Bill Nye debated Ken Ham a couple of years ago, many atheists and scientists were upset at Nye for giving Ham a platform to promote his pseudoscience.  They felt that it only helped validate his position and did little in the way of changing opinions.  I think there’s a lot of truth to that, and to the idea of debating theists in general.  By engaging in debates over topics where there is no longer a debate to be had, are we really accomplishing anything other then giving credence to their views? 

Lindsay points out that debating can have the opposite effect of what is desired – people often becoming even more  entrenched in their views when faced with contradicting information.  Unfortunately, facts and evidence don’t carry the weight that they should with many people.  In religion, devout believers have mastered a myriad of tricks and techniques to avoid critical thinking and make their beliefs impossible to falsify.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of apologetics, the so-called  “defense of the Christian faith”.  I’ve talked about apologetics failures before, but Lindsay boils the typical apologetic arguments down to this simple observation, “All these people are saying is that they lack an explanation for these admittedly complex and mysterious phenomena and don’t like the resulting feeling of psychological discomfort enough to pretend they have one in a myth called ‘God'”.

Lindsay observes that at this point in history, apologetics has become a very redundant and foolish endeavor.  Using Sam Harris’s metaphor of religion providing comfort to people the same way that believing there is a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s back yard might provide comfort, “Taking this metaphor at face value, if religion is believing that there’s a diamond the size of a refrigerator buried in one’s yard, theology is arguing over the brand of the refrigerator.”

So what does this mean for atheists and those like myself?  For one, it means being very selective about who we choose to have debates  (discussions) with regarding theism (or creationism, climate change, etc.).  While some people may be in a place where they are open to hearing new information and are genuinely curious, most have no intentions of changing their pre-determined stance.  This can be tricky to do, especially if you’re someone like me, who enjoys a good debate.  Lindsay points out that, “Because nonbelievers are branded with this unfortunate word (atheist), they are suddenly expected to defend a lack of belief, a burden that isn’t there’s and yet they routinely accept for themselves. […] Part of the nature of this trap is that it enables religious people to misunderstand atheism as a thing like a religion, which they reliably do.”  

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t make efforts to correct false information and dispel myths when we encounter them.  It simply means not getting drawn into the futile debates, or “lose ourselves in the weeds” as Lindsay says.  Don’t give validity to empirically false ideas by engaging in debates with people unable to handle critique or process contradicting information; i.e. people who suffer from cognitive dissonance.  Be honest. Be direct. Be unapologetic.  State the facts, sight your sources, and move on.  If someone counters, demand evidence and be open and willing to listen if they provide any.  This is not an attempt to shut down discussions in any sort of forceful way, but rather to “facilitate productive conversations that move us forward.”

Equally important, however, is being able to also admit when you don’t have a solid answer.  There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” and it’s certainly preferable to false certainty.  As Lindsay states, “Honest doubt and frank ignorance are vastly superior to pretending to know or believing for the sake of believing, so far as intellectual virtues go”.

Finally, it is important to acknowledge and understand that peoples’ beliefs in God come from somewhere. “‘God’ means something when people say it, and that something is related to their attempts to meet psychological and social needs.  These needs manifest primarily in three ways: attributional, for a sense of control, and regarding sociality.  When people talk about their ‘God’, they are talking about how they make sense of ideas that allow them to meet or ignore these needs, and they are telling is that they do not really know how to meet them.”   People of faith are not stupid, delusional, or mentally ill – they simply have wrong information about the world we live in.  Wrong information can be corrected.  With this in mind, it is important to not simply tear down false ideas, but to also build up correct ones.

Above, Lindsay points out three main needs that religion provides for people, and we need to be prepared to help meet those needs post-theism.  If we are going to debunk supernatural claims about the world, we need to be providing natural explanations (attributional).  We need to help people understand that the world can be a scary place, but you are ultimately in charge of your life (control).  Alternatives when it comes to the social benefits that church once offered also need to be met (sociality).  There’s no denying that churches often do community really well.  Non-believers are lacking in this department and we need to be better at providing social interactions for people looking to get out of religion.

So what does all this mean for myself and for Second Journeys?  Honestly, I’m not quite sure!  Just as my personal journey out of faith (and this blog) evolved over time, I’m sure it will continue to evolve over time, just in a different direction.

It will likely mean spending less time on counter-apologetics, both on this blog, on social media, and in person.  Theists aren’t coming up with new arguments for the existence of God, just repackaging and rehashing the same old ones anyways.  I plan on continuing my “Mythbusters” series and calling out false information and stereotypes.  I will also continue to promote critical thinking skills and provide tools and resources.  A helpful addition may be giving people a glimpse of life on the other side of religion, providing resources, and maybe working on some sort of on-line community for people.  This will be as much for my benefit as anyone else.

I think Lindsay is right that it is time for us to move forward into a “post-theist” society, similar to what Scandinavian countries have done.  “The next rational step is to stop treating the idea of ‘theism’ seriously at all.  The war of ideas is over.  The goal is not to create an atheist society so much as to create one that has left the idea of ‘God’ behind in its superstitious past.”  It’s time to move past the atheism/theism debate and start constructing new, healthier, evidence-based world views and trying to solve real world problems.  This doesn’t mean shying away from using the term “atheist”, but simply acknowledging that you don’t believe in a god and moving on to more important matters.

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Privileged Immunity of Beliefs, and Why They Don’t Deserve It

Recently I came across a post on social media that a friend had shared.  This friend, by all counts, is a left-leaning liberal and makes no apologies about it.  Most days I agree whole-heartedly with what she posts.  This post, however, had me shaking my head a bit:

By now, everyone on social media has seen the rash of “spirit animal”  memes popping up on their news feeds.  Nowadays, EVERYTHING is considered a “spirit animal”, from real animals to fake animals, real people to fictional people, and even inanimate objects.  I have no dog in the fight and find the whole trend annoying.  But, I bring it up as a spring board for a discussion on the topic that I’ve been thinking about for a while now- the censoring of ideas.

As the post above seems to imply, Mari is wanting to shut down the use of “spirit animal” jokes and references, claiming that spirit animals are “sacred”, part of her “deeply help religious beliefs”, and claiming that non-Natives “do not get one” and should use other words.  Mari isn’t the only one denouncing the use of spirit animals.  Articles have been written claiming that non-Natives shouldn’t claim to have spirit animals, or that only Anishinaabe tribes can use them.  Some have gone so far as to argue that it is casual racism.

Should people stop making light of Native American religions, or is this a case of political correctness going too far?  Let’s delve into this issue.

I’ll start by stating this bluntly:

While people intrinsically deserve respect – beliefs/ideas do not.

No belief, ideology, or thought is above reproach; all ideas needs to be on same level playing field of inquiry.

In the marketplace of ideas*, beliefs of every description are attacked from every angle to test how well they stand up to rigorous scrutiny.  This is how ideas are weeded out to determine how well they match up to our current understanding of reality.  The marketplace is responsible for identifying and eradicating those ideas that are based on deception, ignorance, or error.  No idea is immune from this scrutiny, regardless of long it has been around or how strongly held it may be.

Nowhere will you see this call for “criticism immunity” more clearly then in adherents of religion.  There are many who would loudly argue that religious ideas, traditions, and beliefs are somehow “off limits” from criticism, inquiry, or satire.  Some countries have taken this to the extreme in the form of blasphemy laws – laws limiting the freedom of speech and expression relating to blasphemy, or irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, or beliefs.  These laws go so far as to give redress to those who feel insulted on account of their religion.  In some countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, violation of blasphemy laws can be punishable by death.

Here in America, we see this sort of “privileged immunity” come most often from Christians who are quick to cry ‘persecution’ anytime someone attacks, questions, or disrespect their religious beliefs.  Yet, I am also seeing this same sentiment more and more from liberals and atheists.  They are quick to attach labels such as “prejudice”, “racist”, or “phobic” on anyone who points out the harm that religion is causing in the word.  Public figures are often labeled “Islamophobes” for offering up harsh criticism of the religion, a trend that has made many people afraid of speaking out against the atrocities carried out in the name of Islam.  Free-speech fundamentalists will argue that all opinions are deserving of respect and should be given a platform, regardless of how hateful and dangerous they may be.

(RELATED: Why free speech fundamentalists are undermining the case for free speech)

Daniel Dennett famously wrote about this subject in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he argues that religion is in need of scientific analysis so that its nature and future may be better understood.  The “spell” that requires “breaking” is not religious belief itself but the belief that it is off-limits to or beyond scientific inquiry.  He likened religion to a virus in the way that it protects itself from questioning.  “What a fine protective screen this virus provides,” he observes, “permitting it to shed the antibodies of skepticism effortlessly!”  Dennett is confounded over the notion that it is sacrilegious to question your own beliefs and an insult for anyone else to try – “It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question… I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God… should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing. […] Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope.”

I want to emphasize a point I mentioned earlier – When it comes to criticism in this context we are talking about ideas and beliefs, not people.   This is a distinction that needs to be understood.  I am advocating the open discourse of the validity of ideas that people hold to, not the people that are holding to them. (This same concept also applies to the often misunderstood idea of tolerance**) I understand that this can be a tricky path to navigate, as many people hold to their beliefs (especially when it comes to religion) so strongly that to them, a jab against the beliefs can feel like a jab to them personally.  However, this should not stop anyone from calling out bad ideas when we see them.  Some people cannot differentiate between their beliefs and their person, which can lead to attempts at manipulating or intimidating detractors into silence.  I’ll give an example.

A few months ago, a friend of mine who recently de-converted from Christianity posted something on social media which pointed out the ineffectiveness of prayer.  Knowing my friend sense of humor, I posted this in the comments section:

My friend found this admittedly crass joke funny, as did some other people.  One person in particular (we’ll call him “Eric”), however, took offense to it.  He went on a lengthy tirade in the comments section, claiming that “devaluing prayer and my beliefs is an insult” and that we were “attacking him emotionally”.  When pushed by others, Eric responded with threats of Hell – “Those who speak against him [Jesus] and don’t accept him as Lord and Savior are condemned to Hell.”  In one of Eric’s final responses, he claimed that he should have, “the freedom to choose [his beliefs] without insult. It is a human right. A constitutional right. It doesn’t matter if you believe, that is your choice, but to mock those that do with jokes… mocks that freedom.”  As a great example of Christian Exceptionalism – Eric is under the opinion that not only should he have the freedom of religion, but also the freedom of not having his religion/beliefs mocked or critiqued in anyway that makes him feel uncomfortable.  I pointed out to Eric that my comments had not been directed at him, nor did I mention him in any way. It was a joke shared with a friend that Eric happened to come across, took offense to, and then demanded that people not insult his “strongly held beliefs”.  The amount of entitlement it takes for someone to demand that no one ever mock or criticize their religious beliefs on social media is not only astounding, but unfortunately all too common.  As a college professor of mine once said, “There’s a difference between an insult taken and an insult given”.  Eric chose to take offense over a joke that wasn’t aimed at him.  He chose to make the joke about him and not about his beliefs.

“If people can’t control their emotions, then they have to start trying to control other’s behaviors” – Robert Skinner

Personal attachment to religious dogmas should also not persuade skeptics from only going after the low-hanging fruits of religion.  I’ve heard many atheists claim that they don’t really have a problem with religion; it’s fundamentalism they take issue with.  Well, I’m not one of those people.  I do have a problem with religion, particularity Christianity.  Because it’s not just it’s more extreme factions that are causing harm.  As one blogger rightfully points out: “Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth.”  

(RELATED: The “Not All Like That” Fallacy and why Christian doctrines inevitably leads to bad behaviors) 

 I often hear people argue that it is OK to be critical of ideas, but not acceptable to make jokes about people’s beliefs (like I did above with the joke about prayer and masturbation).  I firmly disagree.  Trying to limit how one criticizes is just another way of trying to claim privileged immunity.  That being said; again, it is important that one is careful to belittle the belief and not the individual.  The line between satire and outright mockery isn’t always a clear one, but one should make efforts to distinguish the two.  James A. Lindsay explains in Everyone is Wrong About God why satire is important in the marketplace of ideas, specifically when it comes to religious “faith” – “The benefits of satire is helping people see the laughable for what it is.  The sacred, rather by definition, is never funny exactly because ‘sacred’ means little more than always being considered with the utmost seriousness.  It breaks down central taboos and weakens bad ideas.  Humor cuts through the vein pomposity of faith deftly and, if the joke is good enough, permanently.  The power of effective satire is to take the puff out of the sails of faith and expose is as a false virtue that people will want to avoid.  It does so by breaking the powerful taboo on profaning the allegedly sacred.  Once sacredness falls away, the belief in question can more easily be reconsidered and, in many cases, revised.”

Internet memes, jokes about “spirit animals”, standup comedy, etc. are good examples of satire used well.  Regardless of which religion is the butt of the joke, “breaking the taboo” of sacredness is a worthy goal.  Supernatural beliefs should not be encouraged nor respected.  By shining a lot on the nonsensical beliefs, it may make people reconsider and hopefully revise their position.


In summary; people have the right to believe in whatever they want, and should have the freedom to express those beliefs.  But this does not mean that those ideas are off limits from scrutiny.  When people claim that you are insulting their “deeply held religious beliefs” or label you as “intolerant” for denouncing racism, this is an attempt to silence opposition and gain some sort of privileged immunity. Why is the open-season on ideas so important?

Because, ideas are everything, and bad ideas can spread, and if left unchecked, can take us down very destructive paths.  I am not okay with people believing whatever comforts them — not those beliefs which have harmful consequences for other people, at any rate.  

People are more important then beliefs.  No exceptions.

The only way to combat bad ideas is with good ideas.  Bad ideas need to be attacked forcefully, ideally at their roots.  For that, we need people willing to stand up and call out bullshit when they see it.  In the “post-fact” society we are living in, this is more important then ever.  Freedom, equality, reason, and scientific inquiry should be fought for at every turn. “I want to believe as many true things as possible, and as few false things as possible”, to quote Matt Dillahunty, and I want others to do the same.  It is imperative to having a functional society that we do so.  Thanks for reading.

 

*The “Marketplace of Ideas” comes from this video by TheraminTrees on this same topic.  Well worth the watch:

** While we should make every effort to tolerate people who are different then us, we do not need to tolerate the opinions or beliefs shared by said people, nor about said people.  People of different backgrounds, ethnicity, and sexual orientation deserve respect.  However, we do not need to respect the opinions of others about these people.  It is intolerance to pass judgment on people based solely on their skin color or sexual preferences –  it is not intolerance to take a stand against racism and homophobia.

 

 

Ray Comfort’s “The Atheist Delusion”: A review

 

The other night a good friend of mine (who also happens to edit this blog, thanks Paul) came over and we sat down and forced ourselves to sit through all 62 minutes of Ray Comfort’s latest film, The Atheist Delusion.  Comfort is well known in the Christian community for his books, tracts, and films on apologetics.  Previous films include Audacity, Noah & The Last Days, and Evolution vs. God.  I’ve had the displeasure of seeing some of these other films, so I had an idea of what I was getting myself into.

Paul and I started drinking right from the start, as we figured we would need the liquid courage to make it though without throwing something at the TV.  We were right.  I’m not going to go minute by minute on this one, but I am going to hit on several of the main points where Comfort fails miserably.

  • The beginning of the movie starts with Comfort interviewing college students, asking them about nature and evolution.  He hands them a book, and asks them if the book could have put itself together by chance.  That’s right, kids; it’s the watchmaker argument! Comfort has simply repackaged an all too familiar and thoroughly denounced fallacy, and claimed it as his own.  He uses a false analogy to try and claim that since a book can’t create itself, neither can anything in nature.  This is the one scientific question that Comfort claims will “destroy atheism” and sets up the premise for the whole film.
  • He then moves right into talking about DNA, claiming that like the book, some Intelligent Designer (ID) must have created it – it didn’t just come from nothing.  It’s ironic that Comfort uses DNA to try and prove his point, as DNA is unequivocal proof that evolution is true, a point that he conveniently ignores.  He uses a common metaphor that DNA is the “instruction book for life” and then goes on to claim that since the Bible talks about writing the “Book of Life”, then DNA is proof of ID.  Again, using a false analogy, he attempts to claim that “book – book designer, DNA – intelligent designer, i.e. God”.  The problem with this is that the idea of DNA “encoding” information is purely an analogy, since the DNA precedes the information rather than vice versa.
  •  Comfort asks a lady if DNA happened by accident and she rightly replies that it developed over the course of many thousands of years of evolution and development.  Not getting the answer he was hoping for, Comfort moves the goalpost and response with, “The origins don’t matter”.  Yeah, they fucking do, Ray!  Isn’t that what we’re talking about here – evolution vs ID and the origins of all living things?  Like all living matter, DNA also evolved from simpler simpler molecules.
  • Comfort asks one guy if he thinks that the eyes of mammals could have come about by chance.  Again, eyes are a clear example of evolution at work.
  • Comfort spends an inordinate amount of time asking people if “something” can come from “nothing”.  This is what’s commonly know as the Cosmological Argument, a fallacious argument that has been debunked six ways from Sunday.
  • In one of my favorite scenes from the film, Comfort uses an old riddle to try and prove ID.  It goes something like this: “What came first, the chicken or the egg? If the egg came first, what fertilized the egg?  The rooster did.  Therefore – GOD!”  Yes, that is really his argument.  Once again, Comfort’s ignorance and denial of evolution are apparent.  Neither a chicken or an egg just popped into existence, they both evolved over time. 
  • The egg riddle leads into a confusing series of questions regarding eyes, brains, lungs, the heart, blood vessels etc. Comfort falsely assumes that these things couldn’t have simply evolved (hint, hint -they did) and must have been created together just as we see them.  He then asks a strange question, “Do you know of anyone who isn’t fully evolved? Anything on earth?”  His assertion is that everything is created perfectly just the way it is.  There are two problems with this claim.  First, there is no end-point with evolution.  Second, there are species that are continuing to evolve, in fact most species do, including humans.  This has been observed in numerous species, everything from e coli bacteria to elephants.  Oh, and to Comfort’s claim that we don’t see people who have half-evolved legs or other extremities because we are “perfectly evolved”; explain this.
  • Comfort makes the very bold assertion that Richard Dawkins “isn’t really an atheist, he’s an adulterer.”  (Almost threw something at the TV at this point.  Thanks you alcohol)  His reasoning is that Dawkins (like all non-believers) has the wrong idea about God because he cherry-picks the Old Testament and therefore doesn’t understand the true nature of God.  Comfort doesn’t actually address Dawkin’s point, however, regarding God’s character.
  • “The Argument from ID isn’t to convince people of the Christian message, it’s just to just to show them the insanity of atheism”.  Bullshit.  That is exactly why Comfort spends the first half of the film trying to prove ID, so that he can spend the second half of the movie proselytizing to people.
  • Comfort claims that the Bible contains “scientific facts that weren’t discovered tell thousands of years later”.  He first mentions the Earth hangs from nothing, but then goes on to list a number of things which the the writers of the Bible absolutely did not know about, things like germs and the Earth being round.  He then says that the writers of the Bible knew that “life was in the blood”.  This is hardly rocket science.  People long before the Bible had figured out that if the blood leaves your body, you’re going to die.  No mention of all the areas of the Bible which demonstrate how scientifically illiterate its writers were.
  • Two thirds of the way into the film, Comfort changes gears and starts talking about hell.  Because no good Christian witness would be complete without threatening people that their going to burn for all eternity.  Comfort’s “proof” of Hell is that there has to be some sort of retribution for things like the Holocaust.  “When you look at Nazi Germany, instead of saying ‘If God is good, how can He create Hell?  You’ve got to come out saying, ‘If God is good, how can there not be a Hell?'”  No, Ray; I still want an answer to first question, and actual evidence that Hell is real, beyond your assertion that it is.
  • Then comes the “Are you a good person?” part of the film, where Comfort makes people admit what shitty people they really are.  It’s honestly one of the hardest parts of the film to watch because you can see people getting uncomfortable by his questions.  Comfort doesn’t care, of course, because in the Evangelical world, there’s no such things as personal boundaries.  Even to the point where if they give an answer he doesn’t like he’ll keep pushing them tell they admit what he wants them to admit.  More on this later.
  • A couple of times in the film Comfort compares humans to other animals, by wrongfully assuming that they don’t have much of the same emotions and desires that we have.  He implies that animals have no sense of morality or compassion.  This is false.  He also tells one person that they are not like an animal because he has a desire to live.  The will to survive is literally the most foundational force in nature!  Every species of live on this planet carries it.
  • Pascal’s Wager makes an appearance in the film – “The Bible says that Jesus Christa has abolished death. Now, if that isn’t true, we shouldn’t look into it.  But if there’s once chance in a million that it is…  Your good sense should just open your heart and say, ‘I’ll check it out'”.
  • The last bit of the film is Comfort trying to get people to accept his bullshit “Allow Jesus into your hearts” by telling them that they’re going to go to hell for their sins if they don’t.  He makes it very clear that Christianity is all about correct beliefs; our actions are irrelevant.

A few more thoughts about some general themes throughout the film.

Comfort spends the entire film equating evolution with atheism.  He makes the case that if evolution isn’t true, then there has to be a God, and not just any god, but his God.  Comfort is fond of using straw man arguments to make his points, saying things like, “You’re an atheist, so you believe the scientific impossibility that nothing created everything?”  First of all, atheism and evolution are two completely separate topics.  Atheism is the assertion that a God can not be demonstrated.  That’s it.  Whether or not evolution is true has nothing to do with it.  Also, even if evolution was to be proven false, that does no automatically make ID true; it’s a false dichotomy.  Nor would it prove that God exists.  You still need to provide sufficient evidence for both claims.  Comfort also ignores the fact many Christians accept evolution.  Believing in ID is not a prerequisite for believing in God.

All but two of the people Comfort interviews in this film are under-graduate college students; just random kids he’s meeting on the street.  He doesn’t interview any experts in the fields that he is discussing.  If he really wants to know about evolution, why isn’t he interviewing biologists?  If he wants to talk about DNA, why didn’t he interview Francis Collins, a fellow Christians and expert in the field?  Instead, Comfort interviews a bunch of dumb college students, and holds them up as shining examples of what all atheists believe.  This is incredibly dishonest and manipulative.  Ever heard of “bearing false witness”, Ray?  Ray doesn’t include anyone knowledgeable in his fields of inquiry because he knows they would have solid answers for his questions, wouldn’t buy his bullshit, and would make him look like a idiot.  The only expert included in the whole film is a short, edited clip of his interview with Lawrence Krauss, in which Krauss sharply refutes his arguments.  (You can see the full interview here)  Of course he doesn’t pose the “something from nothing” question to Krauss, a man who literally wrote the book on the subject.  The same can be said for atheist in general – why didn’t he interview one of the more well know atheist like Matt Dillahunty or PZ Myers, who he’s spoken with before?  There are a number of atheists and scientists who I’m certain would have been in this film if Comfort had asked them.  Instead he chooses to interview young, ignorant college kids to make his point.  Comfort also has a habit of giving ignorant, but easy answers to complex questions.  Subjects like DNA and evolutionary biology are fields which experts spend decades studying and can’t generally be summed up in a sentence or two.  Comfort chooses to remain ignorant of these topics and instead insists that “God did it!” is a suitable answer to any topic he doesn’t understand.

Or, most likely he did interview some knowledgeable atheists and scientists and simply left those interview out of the video.  As with his interview with Krauss, the entire movie is heavily edited and pieced together.  It’s hard to know for sure what kind of answers the people being interviewed were actually giving.  I’m willing to bet there were interviews which were intentionally left out because they didn’t provide the answers Comfort was looking for, i.e.; they don’t make atheists look stupid enough.

Comfort’s cheery nature and New Zealand accent aren’t enough to masquerader what a self-righteous, judgmental prick he can be.  Around the half-way mark of the film, he accuses pretty much everyone he’s been interviewing that the real reason they’re atheists is because they want to sin, they love their porn, they love their pre-marital sex, etc.  He’s fond of using that the one line that makes every atheist want to punch someone in the face, “You know deep in your heart that God exists; you’re just denying it!”  This comes up several times throughout the film with Comfort insisting people believe in things they just got done telling him that that they didn’t.  This is what’s know as gaslighting – a form of psychological abuse in which a victim is manipulated into doubting their own memory, perception, and sanity.  When talking to people, Comfort attempts to draw out all the bad things they’ve done in their lives to show them how wicked they are and how much they deserve Hell, to the point of actually calling people names.  He does all this “out of love” of course.

When it comes to apologetics, the old saying, “There is nothing new under the sun”, really strikes true.  The Atheist Delusion is nothing put a repackaging of the same tired, fallacious arguments that Christians have been using for decades in an attempt to justifies their baseless claims.  Everything from the Cosmological Argument, the Argument for Design, Pascal’s Wager, to the overall theme that since Evolution is false, then God must be true.  Not once in the 62 minutes of this film did Comfort make a solid, plausible case for either God or ID.

But that really isn’t the point, is it?  Comfort isn’t trying to convert atheist – he’s pandering to his audience of Christians who already buy into his particular brand of religion.  Comfort makes a pretty good living reinforcing stereotypes, pandering to the Evangelical world-view, and remaining willfully ignorant of reality.  It’s not like Comfort’s arguments haven’t been challenged before; he just chooses to ignore any evidence which refutes his position.  Confirmation bias at its finest.

The only redeeming quality of this film is the stock footage that is used as filler between scenes, and to emphasize some points  But it’s not worth watching the movie for, just watch Planet Earth instead.  If you really want to see what the movie is about, just watch the first half to get the gist of Comfort’s fallacious arguments, and skip the sermon at the end.

One final note.  At the end of the film, we get a message from the president of the company that produced the film, Living  Waters, directs you too the movies website, were you can get a four session video course “that will equip you to do what Ray did in the movie, and reach atheists with the love of Christ”.  If there are any Christians who have gone through this course and would like to try it out, contact me and I would be totally game, as would Paul.  I’ll even buy lunch.

If you would like to check out a more in-depth and humorous review of this film, be sure to check out The Bible Reloaded’s great commentary below.  Thanks for reading.

 

Mythbusters: De-conversion (Pt 2)

This is going to be an extension of a previous post I wrote addressing some of the common misunderstandings and stereotypes people have about those who leave religion.  The first post was more personal in nature, but this one is going to be a bit more universal and is going to address some of the common reactions one gets from Christians when they de-convert.

This post came about because a good friend of mine “came out” as an atheist on Facebook.  Some people were supportive, but like most people here in the Midwest, a good percentage his friends and acquaintances are Christian.  Their reactions to his decision were as predictable and infuriating as one can expect, and that is what we will be discussing here

Before we get into it, I want to talk about a common theme one sees with Christians* when faced with an alternate view point.  It’s what is known as the false-consensus effect: a cognitive bias whereby people tend to overestimate the extent to which their opinions, beliefs, preferences, values, and habits are normal and typical of those of others (i.e., that others also think the same way that they do). This cognitive bias tends to lead to the perception of a consensus that does not exist; a “false consensus”.

Captain Cassidy gets even more specific with this bias and how it relates to Christianity and their beliefs regarding atheists.  She likes to call it “The Law of Conservation of Worship” – for every action and belief Christians hold, their enemies and sales targets must also have an equal and opposite reactionary action and belief.  Spiritual practices are neither created nor destroyed; as beliefs change, they simply transfer to another method of expression.

We’ll see this theme of false-consensus popping up throughout these common myths, so I thought we’d get it out of way before we got started.  So let’s get into some of the common things one hears when they come out as an atheist:

“This is just a phase /you’ll be back”

I’ve heard parents use this same phrase when their kids come out to them as gay.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction caused by cognitive dissonance sent into overload.  It’s simple denial – some people just can’t wrap their heads around the fact that other people can leave the religion they hold in such high regard.  Regardless of what denomination you belong to, when you go to church you are lead to believe that Christianity is the “One True Religion” and God/Jesus are supposed to be your #1 priority.  To see someone not only walk away from that, but denounce it as false comes as a big blow to some.  Rather then accept it, they would rather just hope that it isn’t really true.

Let’s clear things up a bit.  No one becomes an atheist overnight.  It is not a decision one takes lightly and is typically the cumulative result of months, if not years, of careful and deliberate research and thought.  It is not “just a phase” and I’ve never met anyone who has gone through the de-conversion process only to go back to religion.  Once you find out that religion is demonstrably false, there is little chance you are going to decide one day that it is “true” and go back to it.  Those of us who have broken rank from Christianity know too much about its history and where it came from, how fallible the Bible really is, and how useless and counter-productive Christianity’s culture and practices are.  Why would we go back to that?

“It’s religion you have a problem with, not God”

This one plays out in a number of ways.  People either assume that you have been personally hurt by the Church or have become fed up with the negative and harmful behavior of some Christians.

While Christianity’s homophobia, misogyny, nationalism, willful ignorance, and constant struggle for political power is certainly what drives many down the path towards reason, it is not what makes someone an atheist.  Similar to a point I’ve brought up before, it’s not that an atheist has a problem with God – it’s that they don’t believe in God.  Period.  

This is a good example of false consensus – Christians naturally assume that everyone believes in God in some way, so if someone claims to be an atheist, then organized religion must be what they really don’t believe in because they couldn’t possibly not believe in God.  Right?  Wrong.

It is possible to not believe in any god/deity/higher power and tens of millions all over the world do just that.  In the same way that children grow out of believing in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, millions of people have grown out of believing in god(s).  I know that comparing God to the Tooth Fairy may be offensive to some, but you need to understand that atheists don’t see any difference – to them, they are both mythological beings that exist only in peoples’ minds.

“Satan is trying to deceive you”

It’s still surprising to me how often I see this one come up.  People who use this line of reasoning fail to understand that atheists don’t believe in any supernatural deities.  This includes God, Satan, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Thor, etc.  Arguing that one mythological being is trying to sway us from believing in another mythological being is illogical and ineffective to say the least.

I can already hear people saying, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled…”  Stop.  Just stop.  We’ve all seen The Usual Suspects.  It doesn’t help your case.  Quoting a fictional movie to make a case for you fictional deities isn’t a good tactic.

“The Bible says…”

For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate authority and their first, if not only, source of “truth”.  When faced with conflict it seems all to natural for them to turn to it for help.  When faced with the cognitive dissonance of one leaving their ranks, it’s natural for them to start quoting Bible verses as if they have some magical powers.

I saw a meme once that said, “The road to atheism is littered with Bibles read cover to cover”.  An appropriate statement.  For most atheists, the road out of religion starts with a thorough reading of the Bible, and what we discover is that it is an entirely man-made book, filled with all the prejudices, biases, and ignorance one would expect from a text written by an ancient people.  If someone has come to the conclusion that there is no god, it’s a safe bet that belief in the accuracy and authority of the Bible went away a long time again.  Therefore, quoting scripture is of no significance to us.  You might as well be quoting the Koran or Lord of the Rings; it really makes no difference.

To quote Neil Carter from the article I linked above: “When talking with Christian friends online, I often find that they can’t help citing a Bible verse as their proof–text in order to reinforce a point they are making, as if that is supposed to mean something to me.  For non-believers with backgrounds like mine, not only does the citation not prove anything but virtually any passage you select will be so familiar to us that we are weary of hearing it cited for the ten-thousandth time, probably arguing the exact same point, perhaps even in exactly the same way as every time before.  It’s become like a bad joke among ex-Christians how slavishly it seems people are imitating one another without showing the slightest self-awareness of how badly they’re doing it.”

“You have faith too”

This one usually presents itself something like this, “You need faith to believe in science the same as you do God.”  This is a very common argument among theists, more specifically theists who have no idea how science works.  I addressed this argument once before, but it’s worth repeating here.  Having “faith” in science is not the same as having faith in the religious sense.  This is example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – they have evidence-based trust.  

This is another example of a false consensus.  Those who hold to their religious claims on faith naturally assume that everyone’s worldviews are shaped this way.  But that is not the case with atheists and skeptics – our world view is shaped by empirically evidence, logic and reason, not simply believing in something because we want it to be true.

Another way that I see this argument worded is the accusation that everyone worships something, therefore atheists must also worship something.  Again – false consensus.  No, not everyone worships something.  I know this is commonly taught in Christian culture, I heard it said more times then I could remember, but it’s simply not true.  The definition of worship (as a verb) is: “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites.”  You can’t show reverence and adoration for something you don’t believe in.

“Don’t you worry about the afterlife?”

No.  No we don’t.  Because there is no evidence that there is an afterlife.  As far as we know, this life is the only one we get.  Once we die, that’s it.  I realize that the belief in an afterlife is common to all religions, and even with some people who aren’t religious, but that doesn’t make it any more true.

This one comes up both subtly-and not so subtly- in the form of threats of hell.  It’s exactly why the myth of hell was invented – to keep people in line and keep them from straying from the pack.  It’s inevitable that when someone leaves religion there’s going to be that one (or many) friend or relative that is going to let them know in no uncertain terms that they are headed for hell.  Threatening someone with a mythological place for not believing in a mythological god is not only ineffective, but only affirms the fear-based and controlling nature of religion that were likely instrumental in our departure.

A more reasonable question that some propose is if it makes us sad to know that this life is all there is.  Sure it does.  We all want to spend as much time as we can enjoying this life and spending time with the ones we love.  Which is exactly why we spend our time worrying about this life instead of worrying about the next.  Ricky Gervais was presented with this same question in an interview and I thought his response was spot on:

“There’s this strange myth that atheists have nothing to live for, it’s the opposite – we don’t have anything to die for.  We have everything to live for.”

I would love to be wrong about this.  I would love to die someday and wake up again in some other dimension or existence.  That would be a pleasant surprise.  But I’m going to hedge my bets on what we thus far know to be true about death, rather than what we wish to be true.


There’s a common myth that atheism is just another option in the game of “Choose Your Own Religion”, but it’s not – we’ve opted out of the game all together.  We don’t play by the same rules as theists.  Yet, many can’t seem to grasp this fact, desperately insisting that we really do believe in God/the supernatural/faith on some level.  This is their way of trying to rationalize their own belief system to themselves.  By claiming that we also have faith or believe in the afterlife, it makes it appear that atheists have simply made a lateral move from one belief system to another, when in reality we’ve jettisoned the whole construct.  As Captain Cassidy puts it:

“What they’re really trying to do is make their own beliefs sound a little less wacky and foolish – and more believable and relatable. There are several reasons why they do it – sometimes they just want to make themselves feel less wacky and foolish despite believing some wacky and foolish things, or they want to signal and affirm their membership in their group…

When Christians misrepresent our lives, experiences, and worldview in order to make us sound more like themselves, that’s a desperate attempt to create a common ground where (they hope) Christianity’s claims might start sounding a little bit more plausible.  

They think that tearing down our worldview will make us forget that they aren’t actually offering any evidence that their claims are true. They’re not giving us any good reason to believe in their god’s existence. They’re just trying to make us think that we’re already just as irrational and silly as they are, only in different ways, in the wild hopes that we will think it wouldn’t be quite so weird to consider their claims.”

That last paragraph really addresses why theists try to paint atheism the way they do.  In lieu of actual evidence for their truth-claims they resort to Straw-Man arguments in an attempt to deem atheism no better then their own faith system.  Hopefully I’ve pointed out the major differences between the stereotypes some Christians have regarding atheists and how to counter them.  Thanks for reading.

*NOTE:  While writing this, the lead singer of the Christian rock band, Order of Elijah, came out as an atheist.  The response was much like what I’ve described here – while many were supportive, others had plenty to say about it.  Captain Cassidy wrote a rebuttal to the criticisms that are going around that is well worth the read.  

*I mention Christians here because of how it pertains to the discussed subject, but false consensus can be found among any large group of people that share a common identity, whether it’s religious, political, national, or otherwise. 

 

 

Is Atheism Foolish? – A Response

I recently came across a post on a conservative, Evangelical website called Inspired Walk, called “5 Reasons Why Atheism is Foolish.”  I saw the link via Twitter, and being the glutton for punishment that I am, I clicked on it.  The post reads like every other apologetic argument I’ve read – presuppositionalism mixed with a healthy dose of logical fallacies.  So, I decided I should write a response to the reasons listed.  Not because the author lays out a good, reasonable argument; just the opposite, in fact.  But because the points that are brought up are ones that atheists hear all… the… time!  

You can read the full post in the link above.  I’ll be using the main bullet points here and quoting the article when needed.

At the very start of the article, the presuppositional theology comes out – “Below are various reasons why the word of God is 100% true and correct according to Psalms 14:1 when it states that atheism is foolish.”   This is a great example of the Begging the Question fallacy –  The author concludes that atheism is foolish by assuming (presupposes) that the Bible is the literal word of God, and therefore “100% true” and universal.  Logical fallacy #1.  You’ll notice that he continues to use verses from the Bible as “evidence” of his claims throughout the article as a means of bolstering his arguments.  Let’s look dig into some of these arguments.

1. Atheist Don’t Appreciate That Every Design Has A Designer

The author spends the first half of this point talking about complex machines, such as jet liners and the Large Hadron Collider, how long they took to build, how many people were involved, etc.  It is then stated that, “if we were to use the same thought process or the same thought pattern that the atheist uses in relation to creation, it would be very easy to understand why atheism is extremely foolish and why atheists are regarded as being fools by God. Somehow, the atheist cannot appreciate the complexity but yet harmonious aspects of nature or the universe and come to the conclusion that there is a vastly superior Being behind creation.”

Let’s start by pointing out logical fallacy #2 – a False Analogy: when someone applies facts from one situation to another situation but the situations are substantially different and the same conclusions cannot logically be drawn.  In this case, the author is comparing man-made machines build over the course of several years, to nature which has evolved over millions of years.  It’s apples and oranges, but let’s address the point.

This is what’s commonly known as the Watchmaker Analogy or Teleological argument.  This argument relies on a complete misunderstanding of evolution and how it works.  First, it fails to understand that seemingly complex systems in nature did not suddenly appear in their natural form, but are the product of millions of years of natural selection from much simpler organisms.  Second, it assumes that nature has an end-goal in mind and that what we currently see is what we get.  In fact, nature is continuing to evolve and most species on earth will continue to change over time.  Lastly, it’s very easy for scientifically-illiterate people to look at certain aspects of nature and gasp in wonder over how “complex” it is, but are either unaware or don’t acknowledge the endless examples in nature of things that aren’t “properly designed”.  For example, sea turtles having to come to shore and dig a hole in the sand for their nest, a long and difficult process with flippers.  The turtle needs to lay 50-200 eggs at a time to assure that some of them, when hatched, actually make it through the gauntlet of predators trying to eat them.  Also, the fact that human babies have heads that are generally too big to fit through the birth canal, not only resulting in a long and painful delivery, but a dangerous one as well.  Prior to modern medicine, childbirth was dangerous business.

The argument from design takes place in another form known as the irreducible complexity argument.  From The Logic of Science blog:  The basic idea is that some systems are too complex to evolve because they aren’t functional until all of the parts are in place. For example, an eye that is missing a single piece no longer sees, and a bacterial flagellum that is missing a single protein can no longer act as a flagellum. So the argument claims that these systems could not have evolved because there would have been steps that served no useful function, and nature could not have selected for those steps. The problem is that this argument ignores the fact that evolution is blind. Traits don’t need to function for some ultimate final product in order to be selected for. Rather, if they provide any useful function at all, nature will select them. Indeed, no one has ever been able to find a truly irreducible system, and we have evolutionary pathways that explain how complex systems evolve. For example, an early precursor of the eye would have simply involved a few light sensitive cells (much like some flatworms have). They don’t function as an eye, but they still function, so nature will select for them. Similarly, the proteins that make up a flagellum all serve other functions in the cell, and we have even figured out a step-wise series of events that would form a flagellum with each step serving a useful function for the cell, even though only the final step actually serves as a flagellum. So there is just no truth to the notion that some systems are too complex to evolve.

It’s unfortunate that this argument is still used today, as Darwin addressed it 150 years ago in Origin of the Species.  Yet, theists with little or no understanding of how evolution works continue to regurgitate it.  This is a common theme in apologetics – keep rehashing the same arguments in hopes that they will eventually stick.

2. Atheists Think Accidents Can Create Complex & Harmonious Systems & Life-forms

Again, a simplistic and inaccurate understanding of how evolution works.  Evolution does not rely on chance, but on natural selection.  These are two very different ideas.  Evolution works through a process of non-random selection of random variation.  Dale Thomas writes:

One main criticism of evolution from creationists is that it is based on random chance. That’s kind of true, there is chance involved, but it is important to know where the chance is and how it is used.  When organisms reproduce, the genetic duplication is not perfect, leading to some variation in the genes (mutations). That is where the randomness is. But then that individual grows up and interacts with the world. Those random changes in the genotype may or may lead to a small change in the body or behavior.  If this change helps the individual in its goal of surviving to adulthood and finding a mate, then those genes will be reproduced in the next generation. The point here is that the environment (which encompasses everything, from the laws of physics, the terrain, weather, climate, predators, prey, vegetation, mates, etc) will do the ‘selecting’. If the organism dies or cannot find a mate, those genes have been deemed unworthy of reproduction, but if it can, they are worthy, and will persist in the species.  It is such a beautifully simplistic, and easily understandable process.”

I also want to address a point the author brings up regarding word usage.  The author states: “The atheist thinks he is clever but yet is foolish because he cannot understand that the fact that our solar system is called a system is because there is a methodology & a harmony to how our solar system works and exists.”  This is similar to an argument I often hear regarding the “Laws of Nature”; Creationists will claim that if there is a law then there must be a lawgiver.  This is another logical fallacy – false equivocation.  In this case, misunderstanding the difference between a word that is prescriptive versus one that is descriptive. 

Oh, and contrary to what the author asserts, the universe is not as harmonious as he thinks, but is in fact full of chaos and unpredictability.

3. The Atheist Foolishly Thinks Science Has The Answers To Everything

Here we have your classic Straw Man fallacy – when a person simply ignores a person’s actual position and substitutes a distorted, exaggerated or misrepresented version of that position.  In this case making the claim that atheists think science has the answer to everything, when in fact you would be hard pressed to find an atheists (or scientist) that makes such a claim.  Most atheists are scientifically-literate and understand the limitations of science, but also its accomplishments.

The author then claims that since science deals with the physical and natural world, and God resides the supernatural realm, that “science is NOT the best means by which a person can learn or observe the nature of God” nor can it disprove His existence.  This argument presupposes that there is a supernatural realm and that his god is a part of it.  The problem with this argument is that science can test supernatural claims and has been doing so for centuries.  Most all claims of the supernatural involve forces acting upon the natural world, thus we are able to test these claims using scientific means.  As Jerry Cohen puts it: “If you invoke a form of the supernatural that claims to have real-world consequences, then those consequences necessarily fall within the ambit of science.  This means that any type of theistic faith involves hypotheses that are ‘scientific’. Dawkins was right to call the existence of God a ‘scientific hypothesis.'” 

4. Atheists Don’t Know That Atheism is a Belief System

First, let’s address the authors claim that, “Neither evolution nor the big bang can be proved by experimentation or observation.
None of these 2 theories can scientifically explain nor give observable evidence of the origin of life.” Yes they can – and have.  The evidence to support both is immeasurable.  Creationists’ continuing insistence that there is no scientific evidence for evolution, the Big Bang, or the origins of life is willfully ignorant and empirically false.   I’m not even going to waste my time putting links here, because the amount of information out there is overwhelming.  The author’s ignorance of science is not a good argument against it.

The author claims that since there is no evidence to support evolution and the Big Bang theory, atheists have to accept them on faith.  This is another example of false equivocation.  There are two definitions of the word “faith”: (1) confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing; and (2) belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence.  Atheists’ “faith” in science fits under definition 1, theists rely on faith as defined by 2.  Atheists don’t have faith in a religious sense of the word – we have evidence-based trust. 

5. The Atheist Cannot Disprove The Existence of God

This is perhaps the best example of an Argument from Ignorance – because something cannot be completely disproved, it must therefore be true.  It’s a ridiculous argument, but it’s surprising how often it’s used.  This same argument could be used for aliens, UFOs, unicorns, fairies, vampires, or a tea pot floating around the sun.  It’s an attempt to shift the burden of proof.  The burden of proof always sits with the person making the claim, not the person refuting it.  It’s not an atheist’s job to disprove God, it’s the theist’s job to provide evidence that he exists.

We also can’t skip past the well-worn anecdote used by theists that, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Therefore just because a person has never seen a physical manifestation of God, it does not mean that God does not exist.”  This is only partly true.  Absence of evidence, when evidence should be presentis evidence of absence.  Going back to the discussion on natural vs supernatural, theism makes claims of God interacting and intervening in this, the natural world, which would leave evidence.  Therefore, such claims can be tested, and thus far no evidence for supernatural intervention in the natural world has been found.  Carl Sagan brilliantly counters the “absence of evidence” argument in his story “The Dragon in My Garage”.  After asking multiple questions regarding evidence for a dragon living in a garage and coming up empty handed, this is his response:

“Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?  If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists?  Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true.  Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.  What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.  The only thing you’ve really learned from my insistence that there’s a dragon in my garage is that something funny is going on inside my head.  You’d wonder, if no physical tests apply, what convinced me.  The possibility that it was a dream or a hallucination would certainly enter your mind.  But then, why am I taking it so seriously?  Maybe I need help.  At the least, maybe I’ve seriously underestimated human fallibility.  Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded.  So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage.  You merely put it on hold.  Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerge you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you.  Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative — merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of ‘not proved.'” 

I’ve underlined the parts of this paragraph that I find most fitting the current discussion.  Just replace “dragon” with “God” and you can see my point.  The author is right in positing that because we don’t have evidence of theism, it does not prove empirically that god(s) do not exist.  But it does mean that until such evidence is found, it is far from foolish to discount the idea.

 

 

Two things become apparent when reading through this article.  The first is that the author has no idea what atheists actually believe.  The entire article reads like one, big Straw Man argument.  The author projects his own idea of what atheists believe (as opposed to what they actually believe) and then attempts to tear down those beliefs.  His overall view of atheists can be found in the article itself where he states, “I would personally prefer the following definition of atheism that I once saw on one of the social media platforms: Atheism is the belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs, birds, trees, fish and the like.”  

Second, the author shows that he is completely ignorant of the most basic principles of evolution and how it works.  This isn’t surprising as Creationism depends on a willful dismissal of science and all the evidence that it provides, as well as how the scientific method works.  This makes the author unsuited for having any debate in which science is going to be one of the main topics.

It’s also worth noting the condescending nature that the author takes throughout the article.  His contempt for atheists comes through loud and clear throughout the article, and he takes special care to use “fool” and “foolish” as often as he can.  For all his use off scripture, he conveniently left out Matt 5:22 – “…whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”

As I mentioned at the beginning – these are not strong, well-thought-out arguments.  This is what Matt Dillahunty would refer to as “Kindergarten Theology”.   Lest you accuse me of going after low-hanging fruit, it should be noted that these are very common arguments used by apologists, both amateur and professional.  Hopefully this post will prove useful for anyone who comes across these types of arguments in future discussions.  Thanks for reading.

 

An Atheist’s “Holy Trinity”

I recently had a conversation with a friend that I hadn’t seen since my de-conversion.  We had gone to the same church for a while and had played together on the worship team several times.  He was genuinely curious about my experience and we had a great discussion.

One of the questions he asked me was this:

“For me, Jesus is the standard; the goal that I strive for – to try my best to live according to his teachings and his example.  As an atheist, what standards do you live by?”

I thought this was a good question, and I’ve decided to expand on the answer I gave him here.

It’s a common misconception that you have to believe in God and/or be religious to have any sort of standards of living.  This is empirically false.  Everyone, no matter what their lifestyle, faith, or background lives by some ethos the disposition, character, or fundamental values particular to a person.  Put another way, it is the spirit which motivates our ideas and customs.  James Fowler used the word “faith” in the same way.  He described faith as a person’s way of leaning into and making sense of life.  More verb than noun, faith is the dynamic system of images, values, and commitments that guide one’s life. 

For myself, and likely many other non-believers, I live according to the following principals:

Naturalism

Greg Graffin in his book Anarchy Evolutiondescribes naturalism in the following way:

“From a philosophical perspective, naturalists believe that the physical universe is the universe.  In other words, there is no supernatural entities or forces acting in nature, because there is no empirical evidence for anything beyond or outside of nature.  Naturalists posit that the universe is made up of only four things: space, time, matter, and energy – that’s it.  Naturalism can provide the foundation for building a coherent and consistent worldview on which we can base decisions.  In fact, I would contend, it is the only perspective that can secure both our happiness as individuals and survival as a species.”

Naturalism leaves supernatural entities and forces where they belong – in folklore, mythology, legends, and tails.  There is no scientific ground for the belief in spirits, angels, demons, vampires, witches, faeries, ghosts, or gods.  Nor is there any evidence for such thing as telepathy, ESP, astrology, miracles, intercessory prayer, faith healing, resurrections, or telekinesis.  Naturalism disregards any beliefs or entities that necessitate defying the laws of the natural universe. 

This isn’t to say that science has it all figured out or that there is no mystery, far from it.  There is plenty of mystery left in the universe and much that science has yet to discover, however we can be reasonably certain that any new discoveries will still fall in line with the natural laws and order of the universe.

Naturalism also hold the position that all life on this planet is connected.  We, as humans, depend on nature for our survival, so it is paramount that we do everything we can to take care of this planet.  This includes sustainable living, promotion of alternative energies, fighting climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the fair and ethical treatment of animals.

For myself, this means growing my own garden, supporting local farmers who raise livestock ethically, a zero-waste lifestyle, and volunteering for a local animal rescue.

Humanism

Humanism is an outlook, or system of thought, attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

Those things that make life better for humans, both collectively and individually, should be sought after.  While those things which cause harm to humanity, should be eliminated.  This means standing against such things as sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, bigotry, abuse, and discrimination.

Key to be a good humanists is understanding and having empathy – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  The video below aptly describes empathy and why it’s so important:

Empathy is a far better standard of morality than any religion –   empathy seeks the good and understanding off all people, not just those who belong to one’s particular tribe.  And unlike sacred texts, empathy is timeless and universal.  To quote Graffin again, “The capacity for empathy enables us to organize our societies in a beneficial way.  Because we can see at least some aspects of our selves in one another, we can derive ways of acting that are good for us and for society as a whole.  But in order for this to occur, we have to be open to accepting other people’s experiences as equally valid to our own.  This is simply impossible if prescriptive codes are too strictly enforced, particularly if these codes are underlain by the unverifiable “truths” of the supernatural realm.  Empathy is the best basis for human ethics that we have.  It provides a solid foundation for strong personal relationships and a productive society.”

Science

“Only those willing to submit to submit themselves to the rigorous constraints of scientific methodology and to the canons of scientific evidence should presume to have a say in the guidance of human affairs. Just as freedom of opinion makes no sense in astronomy or physics, it is similarly inappropriate in a the social sciences.” – Auguste Compte

In this age of information it can often be difficult to determine what is real and what is not; do distinguish fact from fiction.  No longer are people simply forming different opinions, but they are forming different realities as well.  Large amounts of resources are being dumped into perpetuating false ideas, pseudosciences, myths, and unrealistic ideologies.  With all this information floating around, how can anyone come to a solid understanding of the world?

All humans have the unfortunate quality of being able to be deceived.  We have all been wrong about something at sometime.  Just because something feels true to us doesn’t mean that it is.  With this in mind, it is important to think critically about matters and have some sort of “filter” through which we can run information through to verify it’s accuracy.  This filter is science.

Science is the most accurate and reliable source of information any method, system, or paradigm has offered thus far.  The use of the scientific method – the collecting of measurable, empirical evidence in an experiment related to a hypothesis, the results aiming to support or contradict a theory – is the most reliable means of deciphering fact from fiction.  In fact, science is currently the only way that we can understand and learn about the natural world.

It’s worth noting that “science” includes many different disciplines – history, archaeology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc.  Yet, all of these, to a greater of lesser degree, still use methods of science: verifiable, tested, and generally agreed-upon results of empirical study.

For skeptics like myself, the need for empirical evidence is paramount.  That which can’t be demonstrated through tested, demonstrable, and falsifiable means should be either disregarded, or put aside for later review when more information becomes available.  Notice that I said “put aside” – not outright dismissed.  This is an important difference that comes up a lot in conversations with believers.  As an example, I can’t say with absolute certainty that there isn’t a God – there simply isn’t any evidence to demonstrate that there is one.  Until such evidence is presented, I will put this idea “on the shelf”, but will remain open to the possibility.  The same principle would apply to extraterrestrial life, Bigfoot, conspiracy theories, etc.

Finally, any good skeptic, critical thinker, or scientists must always be open and willing to accept; the possibility that they could be wrong.  This can be difficult, as most of us avoid thinking that we are wrong.  Most people feel that if they are wrong about something then their is something wrong with them.  Kathryn Schulz does a great TED talk on this subject that is well worth the watch.  She points out that it is important for people to be open and OK with the idea that we can be wrong and probably are wrong about a great many things.  But, trusting too much on the feeling of being right can actually be a harmful and dangerous thing.  This is what leads to fundamentalism, nationalism, wars, genocides, toxic religions, and many other atrocities.  If you can be comfortable with the idea that you might be wrong, you are able to think more critically and are more open to new information and ideas.

I often hear creationists criticize science by saying that science has been wrong in the past.  They’re right, but the critical difference between science and religion is that science changes as new information is obtained.  To quote comedian Tim Minchin, “Science adjusts its views based on what’s observed.  Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.”  In fact, being wrong is one of the fundamental elements of the scientific method, and the methodology of science is equally important in every-day life.  In his excellent article in Scientific America titled, “The Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong”, Steven Ross Pomeroy writes,

A good scientist must be willing to be wrong. Such an inclination is liberating, for it allows him or her to investigate potential answers — however unlikely they may be — to the difficult questions inspired by this vast, wondrous universe. Not only that, a willingness to be wrong frees a scientist to pursue any avenue opened by evidence, even if that evidence doesn’t support his or her original hunch.

This principle is one that I live by in my own life, as do many other skeptics and freethinkers.  It’s amazing; once who’ve gone through a major transition of realizing that you’ve been wrong about a great many things, such as a de-conversion experience, it becomes very easy to accept the possibility that you can be wrong about other things.  Having faced the cognitive dissonance head on and struggled through it for years, admitting to yourself and others that you were wrong seems rather simple.


 

I hope this has been informative and helpful.  Thanks to my friend, Joel, for inspiring me to think about this more deeply.  I would like to hear from other “nones” what principles they live by.  What other ethos’ do you hold?  Please leave your comments below.  Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

Take Aways: Anarchy Evolution

(Because of my love for books and the insight they give me, I thought it would be nice to share some of this wisdom with the rest of you.  Not your typical book review, this series focuses more on the things I “take away” from a book, and the insights I gained from it.)

I just finished up reading Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science, and Bad Religion in a World Without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson.  Those familiar with the punk rock scene of the 80’s and 90’s will recognize Greg Graffin as the lead singer of Bad Religion, arguably one the most influential bands of that era.  What most probably don’t know is that Graffin also holds a PhD in zoology and teaches science at UCLA.  One of the better books I’ve read in a while, Anarchy Evolution weaves the story of Graffin’s life with his thoughts on science, religion, and music.  I always tell people – you know I’m reading a good book when the corners are turned-down on pages that I want to come back to and read again.  This book was full of turned-down corners.

Greg Graffin

Graffin describes himself as a naturalist, a term he prefers to “atheist” because it describes what he is for, rather than what he is against.  He opens the book by talking about this philosophy and why he chose it:

I think of naturalism as a philosophy rather than a lifestyle.  From a philosophical perspective, naturalists believe that the physical universe is the universe.  In other words, there is no supernatural entities or forces acting in nature, because there is no empirical evidence for anything beyond or outside of nature.  Naturalists posit that the universe is made up of only four things: space, time, matter, and energy – that’s it.  The matter and energy in the universe can come together in an essentially infinite number of configurations over time, and these configurations cannot be predicted with any certainty for complex systems over extended periods.  But matter and energy do not influence and are not influenced by supernatural forces. […] For me, evolution provided the context for our lives.  Yes, evolution has implications that can make us deeply uneasy.  But on important questions we must seek truth, even if the truth is difficult to accept.  Naturalism can provide the foundation for building a coherent and consistent worldview on which we can base decisions.  In fact, I would contend, it is the only perspective that can secure both our happiness as individuals and survival as a species.

In the chapter, “Creativity, Not Creation”, Graffin talks about creativity and how it effects all things, from music, to science, to faith.  He says that creativity is often misunderstood as being something that has been designed or intended, but in fact “truly novel and lasting innovations are often surprises.”  He talks about creativity and how it applies to life and institutions:

Some people have no desire to be creative.  They believe that if someone follows the rules and routines, they will be able to claim that they have lived a successful life.  Maybe they think that, by doing so, they will have achieved some utilitarian goal and useful end.  But I believe they have achieved only a fleeting taste of success.  Lasting success requires creativity, even if more creative feats are ultimately accidental and unpredictable.  Rules and routines may be tolerable or even comfortable in the short term.  But eventually they need to be scrutinized and in many cases rejected to make intellectual and emotional  progress.  Rebellion has to be part of the response to rigid social institutions, or stagnation is assured.  If evolution has taught us anything, it’s that life is in a state of constant change.  There is anarchy in the variation that serve as one driver of evolution, and there is anarchy in the inability of life to remain static.  Eventually, radical changes beset every living thing. […] Institutions that enforce rigid adherence to their own tenets must be scrutinized with particular skepticism.  Religion, political parties, corporations… can all fall into the trap of demanding loyal and unwavering devotion.  They can require that followers adopt not just a specific way of acting but a specific way of thinking.  Institutions, by and large, strive for permanence, and they almost always see life through a formulaic lens and strongly disfavor individuality and change.  

Like most non-religious people, Graffin has encountered the often sighted claim that there “can be no good without God”; that people who have no religious faith have no moral compass.  He addresses this by talking about what truly drives morality in humans – empathy.  He explains that all healthy humans have empathy, thought they may feel it in a verity of ways and the expression of it can change over time.  He states (rightly, IMO) that western religions largely ignore empathy:

[Western religions] are prescriptive.  They impose codes of behavior based on injunctions from supreme authority, not based on the give-and-take of human interactions.  Western religions define proper behavior by analogizing human nature with the behavior of mythological figures who have supernatural powers…  Codes of conduct, therefore, emerge from the supernatural realm and are not to be questioned by mere mortals.   

One of the main reasons I gave up on religions was precisely for that reason – Christians claiming to be morally superior while displaying some of the most immoral behavior imaginable – because their god/Bible told them to.  I agree wholeheartedly with Graffin that empathy, not religion, is a far better compass for moral behavior:

The capacity for empathy enable us to organize our societies in a beneficial way.  Because we can see at least some aspects of our selves in one another, we can derive ways of acting that are good for us and for society as a whole.  But in order for this to occur, we have to be open to accepting other people’s experiences as equally valid to our own.  This is simply impossible if prescriptive codes are too strictly enforced, particularly if these codes are underlain by the unverifiable “truths” of the supernatural realm.  Empathy is the best basis for human ethics that we have.  It provides a solid foundation for strong personal relationships and a productive society.

Another argument that Graffin address is the notion that non-religious people have no meaning or “faith” in their lives:

Everyone must believe in something – it’s part of human nature…  Naturalists must believe, first of all, that the world is understandable and that knowledge of the world can be obtained through observation, experimentation, and verification. […] Humans impart meaning and purpose to almost all aspects of life.  This sense of meaning and purpose gives us a road map to how to live a good life.  This guidance emerges spontaneously from human interactions of human beings in societies and thinking together about how best to get along.  It doesn’t require a god or sacred text.

While most atheists do not believe in heaven, hell, or any other sort of afterlife, Graffin emphasizes that this fact does not mean that naturalists like himself are not concerned about what happens after he dies.  He is concerned about his family, and making sure they are happy, successful, and taken care of after he passes.  He is also concerned about making the world a better place for future generations.  He goes on to say:

A strong case can be made that naturalists tend to care more about these thing than do religious people, since naturalists are committed to an ethic that emphasizes the casual effects of our actions in the here and now, as opposed to a mythological hope for a better life in a supernatural realm. 

Anarchy Evolution is great read, that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in science and music.  You don’t have to be a fan of Bad Religion or punk to enjoy this book.  This would be a good book for someone who is on the edge of religion and looking for an alternative.  Naturalism is an ethos that I intent to look into more, and I think others would find it equally attractive.  In closing, I’d like to offer one last great quote from the book:

The word “nature” doesn’t really mean anything.  In a manner of speaking, everything is natural…  I have a similar beef with the word “God”.  If God is everything and everywhere, then what purpose does the word serve?  if it explains everything, it explains nothing.  but if it describes something important, then it should be observable by everyone, explained, and shared with other people.

 

Deconversion De-constructed

 

I’ve had a few people ask me for a more thorough explanation for why I deconverted from organized religion and no longer believe in God.  I touched on it a bit in my “coming out” post that I wrote earlier this year.  I also talked about the reasons why I didn’t lose my faith in a previous post.

I’ve been hesitant to write about this for a couple of reasons.  For one, it felt like an overwhelming task.  It’s difficult to take two years worth of research and condense it into a tidy, concise, and relativity short post.  Second, by attempting to simplify my reasons and possibly not provide sufficient information, it leaves the door wide open for unwanted criticism.

However, I’ve decided it was time that I attempt explain things a little better, as some people seem genuinely curious.  For the sake of simplifying things, I’ve decided to leave out all the issues I have with Christianity itself and instead focus on why I don’t believe the truth-claims made by Christianity.  I devote a good amount of words to what I dislike about Christianity, particularly Evangelicalism, but those are not the reasons that I lost my faith.  I had most of these same complaints even when I was a Christian.  I could have just as easily found a different church or denomination and been writing from a progressive christian standpoint. (In fact, that was my original intention when I started this blog)

But, the more I learned, the more I studied history, science, psychology, and critical thinking, the more my faith fell apart.  Like peeling an onion, the layers kept getting stripped away, one by one.  I tried to fight against the tide- I really did.  I didn’t want to become an atheist, but I had to follow the evidence where it took me.  If I was to be honest with myself, if I was to be critically and scientifically minded, I had to let the facts speak for themselves.

So, strap in folks – this is going to be a long, bumpy ride.  Here is a “Cliff Notes” version of  the reasons that I deconverted from Christianity:

The Bible

The foundation of the Christian faith is the Bible.  Everything Christians believe and live by is somehow tied to this one book.  It is held up as the literal “Word of God” and many consider it to be without error.  As such, it is considered authoritative and binding to all functions of the Church, both institutionally and privately.

Ironically, it was reading and studying the Bible in earnest that led to my deconversion*.   The process went something like this:

I took a year to read the Bible from cover-to-cover.  I read it in chronological order, and as such, was sometimes reading the same story, from different sources.  What I found was shocking – far from being inerrant, the Bible is littered with contradictions, errors, and discrepancies.  It also become pretty apparent that the authors of the Bible were a product of their time – pre-science, Bronze Age, primitive times, steeped in supernaturalism and mythology .  Left scratching my head, I decided to look into the history of the Bible itself, as a book.

The Council of Nicea was intended to bring some sort of unity to Christianity, and with it, determine which of the hundreds of sacred texts in circulation at the time would be canonized.  History books revealed that the decisions as to what books would be canonized had more to do with politics than with religion.   There are countless stories of corruption, bribery, and violence that made up proceedings at the Council of Nicea.  And even after the Council, it would be another two centuries before a unified version of the Bible began to take shape.

Within Christian circles, you will often hear people arguing about which translation of the Bible are most accurate in regard to the “original Greek and Hebrew”.  The problem is that there is no original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  In fact, there are no original copies of any of the books of the Bible.  What we have is copies of copies of copies.  We have no idea that the original authors said.  Some would like to believe that those copying the texts would take great pains to make sure the copies were exact, however, that is far from true.  There are thousands of copies of ancient Bible texts in existence, but there are virtually no two that are the same; there are tens of thousands of discrepancies between them all.  While most of the errors are small grammatical ones, many are huge, with whole sections being added and/or taken away.  It was not uncommon for scholars to add their own insight into a text when copying it, and this went on for centuries. 

Looking into the individual books themselves, I found many glaring problems that I never heard talked about in Church.

Like the fact that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses, but was written centuries after Moses died, is comprised of at least four separate texts, and is largely folklore, mythology, and propaganda – not literal history (more on this later).

Also, the fact that the Gospels were not written by Jesus’s disciples, and are not eye-witness accounts.  Rather, they were written decades after Jesus had died by anonymous, Greek-speaking scholars, who never knew Jesus personally and wrote based on the oral traditions that had been passed down.  This speaks volumes as to the credibility (or lack thereof) of the stories, especially when you consider the many discrepancies between the accounts.

There was also the problem of Paul, who though credited as being the one most responsible for spreading the word about Jesus, never know Jesus personally, never had access to any of the Gospels (they were written after his ministry), and doesn’t seem to know anything about Jesus’s ministry on earth.  There is no mention of the virgin birth, nothing of Jesus’s miracles, none of Jesus’s teachings, nothing about the Easter story, and nothing about Jesus being God in any of Paul’s writings.  There is also a great deal of debate as to the authenticity of the books credited to Paul.  Some, including Ephesians, Colossians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and Titus, are believed by many scholars to be forgeries, and 2 Thessalonians is widely accepted as being a psuedepigrapha.

Going back to the Old Testament, archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians have discovered that most of the stories told regarding Israel’s history are nothing more then folklore and mythology.  There was no captivity in Egypt, no Ten Plagues, no Exodus, no wandering in the desert for 40 years, no Battle of Jericho, no Kingdom of Solomon, etc.  There is simply no corroborating scientific or historical evidence outside of the Bible to support any of these events as being historical.

The same holds true in the case of Jesus and his life.  There is no non-Biblical sources from the first-century that corroborate any of the extraordinary claims (virgin birth, miracles, divinity, resurrection, etc)  made of Jesus.  In fact, there is no mention of Jesus at all, in any of the manuscripts from that period.         

After this thorough investigation into the Bible, I came away with this conclusion – The Bible is a wonderful and inspiring work of literature that gives us a look into the culture and history of the Jewish people and the earliest Christians.  Yet, it is purely the work of human hands and is not the “Word of God”, nor is it divinely inspired, and it is certainly not inerrant.  As such, it can not be, nor should be, authoritative in any way. 

The Man-Made God

I want to offer up a quick story by Carl Sagan, called “The Dragon in My Garage”, as an introduction to this section:

“A fire-breathing dragon lives in my garage”

Suppose (I’m following a group therapy approach by the psychologist Richard Franklin) I seriously make such an assertion to you. Surely you’d want to check it out, and see for yourself. There have been innumerable stories of dragons over the centuries, but no real evidence. What an opportunity!

“Show me,” you say. I lead you to my garage. You look inside and see a ladder, empty paint cans, an old tricycle–but no dragon.

“Where’s the dragon?” you ask.

“Oh, she’s right here,” I reply, waving vaguely. “I neglected to mention that she’s an invisible dragon.”

You propose spreading flour on the floor of the garage to capture the dragon’s footprints.

“Good idea,” I say, “but this dragon floats in the air.”

Then you’ll use an infrared sensor to detect the invisible fire.

“Good idea, but the invisible fire is also heat-less.”

You’ll spray-paint the dragon and make her visible.

“Good idea, but she’s an incorporeal dragon and the paint won’t stick.”

And so on. I counter every physical test you propose with a special explanation of why it won’t work.

Now, what’s the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heat-less fire; and no dragon at all? If there’s no way to disprove my contention, no conceivable experiment that would count against it, what does it mean to say that my dragon exists? Your inability to invalidate my hypothesis is not at all the same thing as proving it true. Claims that cannot be tested, and assertions immune to disproof are worthless in determining veridicality, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder. What I’m asking you to do comes down to believing, in the absence of evidence, on my say-so.

Imagine that, despite none of the tests being successful, you wish to be scrupulously open-minded. So you don’t outright reject the notion that there’s a fire-breathing dragon in my garage. You merely put it on hold. Present evidence is strongly against it, but if a new body of data emerges, you’re prepared to examine it and see if it convinces you. Surely it’s unfair of me to be offended at not being believed; or to criticize you for being stodgy and unimaginative– merely because you rendered the Scottish verdict of “not proved.”

This story perfectly illustrates my thoughts on the subject of God – there is currently no empirical evidence to support the existence of a theistic God**, in fact the evidence is strongly against it, but if new information ever were to emerge, I would be prepared to examine it and go from there.  

Whenever a claim is made, the burden of proof is always on the one making the claim.  And as Carl Sagan would say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

When I’m talking about evidence, I’m talking about what can be tested, replicated, and independently verified using the scientific method.  (It is important to note that good arguments are not evidence, nor are personal experiences, or unanswered questions.)  Modern science has looked outward, and has measured the size of the universe, determined how fast it is expanding, has detected and measured previously unknown substances like dark matter and dark energy, and has determined with reasonable certainly how everything came into existence.  Science has also looked inward, breaking things down the subatomic level, and studying the quantum physics that make the whole system work.  In all that research, scientists have never found any evidence of a divine being, entity, or gods, either in the present nor the past.

So where did this idea of a divine being come from?

Cognitive science science shows that humans are biologically designed towards a pre-disposition of trying to make sense of what we don’t understand.  Ancient humans were surrounded by an aw-inspiring, yet scary and dangerous world.  They did not have the luxury of science to explain things like thunder storms, earthquakes, or diseases.  In an attempt to explain these natural occurrences, they turned to the supernatural, and gods were born.  The earliest gods came from various forms of animism, or giving a spiritual essence to plants, animals, and inanimate objects.

As societies grew and more people were living in communities, these early beliefs were co-opted by the governing powers as a way of unifying and controlling the masses, hence; the earliest forms of religion were born.  Religion is a natural phenomenon, and has evolved and been reshaped by cultures throughout the centuries. Polytheism, pantheism, monotheism, panentheism, deism, and many other philosophies sprang up as people tried to understand the world around them.

When one reads about early Judaism in the Old Testament and compares it to the prevailing religions of the time and those that came before, it’s easy to see that Judaism and  monotheism were simply another rung on the evolutionary ladder of religion.  The same can be found when one looks at the history of Christianity.

All of this lead me to conclude that all religions, including Judaism and Christianity, are man-made.  So too, are the god(s) that they believe in and worship.  

Head Games

The next question I needed to address was this – If god(s) are a human construct, why do people claim to have had experiences with God?  How do you explain conversion experiences and other similar religious experiences?

To find the answers I turned to psychology and neuroscience.  I learned that all humans have a “hard-wired” tendency to believe in the supernatural.  This phenomenon is also described in psychology as part of our childhood development of maturity, the one James Fowler labeled the Intuitive-Projective in his Stages of Faith.   This is why children will often have imaginary friends and why a large percentage of the population believes in UFOs and angels.  I also explains why so many people, especially those taught at a young age, believe in god(s).

I learned about such things as Theory of Mind,  Agent Detection, Apophenia, and Rituals, and how these provide a perfectly natural explanation to people’s religious or spiritual experiences.  The latest research has shown that religious ideas are simply the extraordinary use of everyday cognition.  And like music or reading & writing, are the product of cognitive mechanics designed for other purposes.  This leads me to believe that peoples’ religious experiences are the product of our minds natural tendencies, and not divine intervention.

I then focused on the concepts of willful blindnessconfirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and cognitive dissonance to understand why people would hold on to their beliefs despite contradictory evidence.  To avoid these pitfalls, the single most important skill I have found is that of critical thinking.  “No one always acts purely objectively and rationally.  We connive for selfish interests.  It is ‘only human’ to wish to validate our prior knowledge, to vindicate our prior decisions, or to sustain our earlier beliefs.”  Because of these pre-disposed prejudices, one must apply critical thinking skills to every subject, including the subject of god(s).  The scientific method is crucial to this, as is the understanding of logical fallacies.  I found that having learned the common logical fallacies and how they were used, it became easy to spot them in any debate in which tangible evidence could not be provided.  This includes nearly every argument that has been made by apologists concerning God/The Bible.

That’s about the long and short of it.  There’s a lot more that I could have gone into – the contradictions of God’s character throughout the Bible, the myth of Jesus’s divinity, heaven & hell, the Devil, etc.  This post is already a bit wordy for me, however, so I just focused on the main points.  I’m sure for some, I’ve invited as many questions as I’ve answered***.  Perhaps in future posts I’ll explore some of my points in greater detail.  I’m sure some will take issue with a lot of what I have to say – and that’s fine.  As I’ve said many times on this blog, this is my journey and my experience based on what I’ve come to know and understand.  I’m not looking to “evangelize” or convert anyone.  But, I know there might be some out there who are having doubts about their faith, and hopefully this discussion can be helpful.

* – I’m not alone in this; a good majority of former believers would also sight the Bible as the main thing that lead to their deconversion. 

** – I emphasize the term “theistic” here, as it refers to God as a conscious supernatural being (a God who listens to and answers prayers, cares about humanity, intervenes on its behalf, etc).  This is different than what some traditions and philosophies would regard as the “God of essence” (“The Ground of All Being”, non-anthropomorphic, abstract, spiritual, etc.)

***- I didn’t add a lot of links to the information I presented, as is usually habit for me, for a couple of reasons.  First, much of the information I have received has come from books, not online sources.  Second, it would have taken considerable time to try and find links for everything.  I can assure you that the facts presented are not merely my own conjuring or opinion, but were gathered from reliable, well-accepted, academic sources, There are a number of authors and works I can recommen to those of you looking for more information.

 

Mythbusters: De-Conversion

 

The reasons to leave the church are innumerable and reasons to leave can’t be narrowed down to a list. We can’t be narrowed down to an easily explained list with easily fixable problems.

This quote comes from the article that I featured in my last post.  For most who leave religion, it is by no means an overnight decision, but one that can take years and immeasurable amounts of questioning, research, and investigation.  I could write a book detailing all the reasons for my own de-conversion, but I though it might be easier to debunk some of the common myths I hear from believers who seem to have trouble understanding why someone would throw in the towel on the whole God/religion thing.  These pertain to my own experience, and should not be seen as universal for all de-converts, but I know that most would likely resonate with these.

“You must be angry at God”

No.  It’s not that I’m angry at God – it’s that I don’t believe in the kind of God that one can be angry at.  In order to have an emotion towards something, that something needs to exist in a real, tangible way.  I don’t believe in a personified god, therefore I have no emotions one way or another.

“You must have been hurt by the Church”

This one comes up almost every time I post something critical about the Church/Christianity.  To be clear – yes, I’ve been hurt by people in the church in the past, but that’s not why I left.  I think anyone who is actively involved in any sort of organization, whether it’s church, school, a job, sports team, friends, or family, is at some point going to be hurt by someone in some way.  That’s just part of being human and most are mature enough to understand that.  Actually, at the time I quit going to church, I was in good standing there and had not been directly hurt bean hurt either by an individual or the church as a whole.

“Don’t let the actions of a few bad Christians drive you away”

Anyone who reads my blog knows that I devote a good amount of words to Christians Gone Wild.  There’s not a week that goes by that self-proclaiming Christians aren’t making headlines involving sex-scandals, hypocrisy, bigotry, ignorance, lust for power, and all around fuckery.  The thing is, I was against these types of toxic Christians back when I was a Christian, and was pretty vocal about it too.  While the constant exposure of the dark underbelly of religion didn’t drive me away from it, it certainly solidified for me the fact that the Christian believe system does not make people any more moral or upright than any other religion or ethos.

“You just want to sin and not feel guilty about it”

Umm… no.  This would be too ridiculous to even mention if it wasn’t for the fact that it comes up frequently.  First off, let’s be clear- when Christians talk about “wanting to sin” they are almost always talking about sex.  The Church is obsessed with sex and trying to control what people do in the bedroom.  Christians often assume that those who don’t follow their archaic, oppressive rules must be having weekly orgies.  Well, let me set the record straight – I’ve been in a totally monogamous relationship with the same amazing women, my wife, for eight years now.  No, we are not going to start seeing other people.  No, we are not going to start swinging.  We are both very happy with monogamy and feel that it is what’s best for our relationship.

If anything, I have become a decidedly more moral person since leaving religion.  I no longer embrace the fierce tribalism that permeates all low religions, especially Evangelicalism.  I no longer judge people based on who’s in/out, saved/unsaved, gay/straight, Christian/other.  I now embrace humanism, a system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.  Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of all human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems. (definition from Wikipedia)

“You were never a True Christian”

Well, I’m not sure what defines a True Christian these days, but this sort of statement is incredibly condescending, self-righteous, and disrespectful.  My faith and church life meant a great deal to me.  I was actively involved in activities both in and out of the church – Praise Team, Outreach Team, Lifegroup Leader, etc.   I read the Bible daily and studied it diligently.  My book shelves still hold dozens of volumes on theology, apologetics, Church history, and prayer books. In fact, it was my devotion to seeking “The Truth” that ultimately lead me out of Christianity.  I would probably still be a Christian if I had just remained a nominal believer, content to show up to church a couple times a month, trust everything the pastor said,  walk the party line, and never seriously question what I believed.

Every year there are thousands of people who , despite having done everything right in regards to their religion, will still walk away from it.  It happens to young and old, leaders and lay people alike.  As science continues to provide the answers that the Church once claimed, as infighting continues amongst denominations, and as the dark side of institutionalized Christianity is further brought into the light, it’s inevitable that Christianity will continue to loose people, influence, and respect in this country.  More and more people are finding out that the claims so often made by religion simply aren’t true.  And no amount of rationalizing is going to change that.