Tag Archives: atheism

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

My Year Without God

(PREFACE – This post is going to offend some people.  There’s no way to be honest about this subject without rubbing people the wrong way.  Kindly remember that this isn’t about you – this is my journey and my story.  A college professor I had once said, “There is a difference between an offense given and an offense taken.”  I’m not trying to offend anyone.  For those close to me who consider yourselves Christians; my own views and beliefs don’t change how I feel about you and hopefully you will feel the same in return.  To those who read this and are offended; that’s your own insecurity talking and maybe you should explore that a little more.  In any case – keep your toxic bullshit to yourself.  Most of this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly.  To say I’ve been hinting at it would be an understatement.)

Awhile ago I wrote about Ryan Bell and his Year Without God.  This coming Easter will mark the one-year anniversary of my own Year Without God.  I wasn’t as intentional as Bell was, but our journeys are similar.  My faith started to unravel a couple years ago.  I held on as long as I could, hoping that my prayers would be answered and that I could make sense of everything.  Those prayers were never answered and things only got worse.  So, last Easter, I quietly left the Church.  I quit praying, quit reading the Bible for inspiration, and started trying to figure out if any of it was worth holding on to.  Like Bell, I began reading the “sacred texts” of atheists – Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Krauss, etc.  I also read books from leading scientists, scholars, historians, humanists, and mystics, as well as exploring other religions and philosophies.   Now a year in, I thought it would be good to make a confession of sorts, to come clean about a few things.

One of the first things that really started to grate on my nerves when I was a part of a church was it’s tribalistic nature and it’s upholding and defending of marker beliefs.  A marker belief is a way to differentiate one group from another.  It’s a quick, easy way to tell who is in the group and who is out of it.  Evangelicalism is obsessed  with their marker beliefs, theologies, and dogmas.  These distinguish who is a TRUE CHRISTIAN and who is not.

So, after a couple of years of unpacking everything I had ever known about faith/God/the Bible/Christianity, and looking at it under a microscope, I have found nearly all the major tenents of modern Christianity to be either unprovable or simply untrue.  And, because of Evangelicalism’s (and most Christian faith’s) exclusivity and demand for conformity to these tenents,  I no longer see any reason to label myself a Christian and belong to their ranks.  Here are a few examples of how I’ve head this phrase, and how it applies to me:

I don’t believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, and authoritative word of God.

I don’t believe in The Fall, Original Sin, or the need for salvation.

I fully believe in evolution and the scientific method.  I don’t believe in Creationism or Intelligent Design. 

I don’t believe that Jesus was God.  I don’t believe in his bodily resurrection.  I don’t believe he died for the sacrificial atonement of my sins.

I don’t believe in the “End Times”, the Rapture, or the second-coming of Jesus.

I don’t believe in hell.

I don’t believe in the Judeo-Christian version of God presented in the Bible.

It seems I tick all the boxes that most assuredly make me not a TRUE CHRISTIAN.  The above statements are just a few of the things that I can find no credible scientific, historical, or scholarly evidence to support, at least not in the literal and/or historic sense.  So, when it comes to Christianity – I’m done.

Many are probably thinking, “Maybe there isn’t any scientific evidence for these things, but you just need to accept them on faith!”

Let me just say a quick word about faith and why that word is like nails on a chalkboard for me.  When I started having serious doubts about my beliefs and went to others in the church about them, I would get one of two answers.  Either it was an answer that was steeped in apologetics,  based on presuppositions, and never contained any actual evidence.  Or, I was told that I just needed to “have faith!”  Here’s the deal with faith and how it’s used in Christian language:  faith is a fucking cop-out, it’s a defeat – an admission that the truth claims that one holds are unknowable through evidence and reason.  It is only undemonstrable assertions that require suspension of reason, and weak ideas that require faith.

Most of the truth claims made by Christians require an enormous amount of faith to swallow unquestioningly.  Some obviously have that level of comfort in not questioning, but I don’t. And I have enough conviction and self-respect to not sit in the pews week after week and pretend that I do.

I’ve come across a few enlightened people who have assured me that I can still be a Christian, even if I don’t believe in the above statements.  I appreciate the sentiment, and the effort to be inclusive, but the label “Christian” is of no value to me.  It beares no real meaning or purpose in my everyday life, and is usually more of a burden then anything else.  Calling yourself a Christian means you are expected to act and think like a TRUE CHRISTIAN, and I’m done playing that game.

So where does that leave me?

I’m not really sure.  Right now I’m in this weird no-man’s land between religion and atheism.  If you reference the Dawkin’s Scale, I’m somewhere around a 5:

I don’t believe in theism (the belief in one god as creator of the universe, intervening in it, and sustaining a personal relation to his creatures) or in any sort of divine deity.  But, I’m open to the idea of something bigger than what we can understand in the natural world, which could could metaphorically be described as “God” – love, beauty, justice, an energy, a force, “the ground of all being”, etc.

Or, one could say that I am an atheist in the historical sense of the word.  While atheism has been around for thousands of years,  the current definition of atheism – the rejection of the belief in deities- is a relatively modern idea.  For much of recorded time atheists were those who rejected the culturally predominate view of God, and that would certainly apply to me.

If forced to wear a label right now, it would probably be closest to a freethinking humanist.  A freethinker is one who arrives at their beliefs through the use of reason, science, logic, and empiricism rather than by relying on dogma, tradition, and authorities.  Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.

Soren Kerkegaard believed the old creeds and doctrines of the modern church have become idols, and were flawed and inadequate ways of seeing God.  Just as the true nature of a person can never fully be put into words, whatever it is that “God” may be – he/she/it’s essence is beyond our human ability to comprehend and understand, and certainly beyond our ability to properly define.

Like Ms. Anthony, I’ve become incredibly untrusting of any person, institution, or religion that claims to have a monopoly on God, knows his will, and can therefore judge everyone else according to it.  This is the epitome of human arrogance, and has lead to more wars and human suffering then could ever be measured.

This past year has been one of the most stressful years of my life.  It’s been a year filled with anger, confusion, a sense of loss, loneliness, questions and paradoxes.  But, I’ve come a long way.  I don’t know how much further this rabbit-hole goes, all I know is that I’m committed to seeing it through.  At one point I wrote on here that I was done de-constructing and wanted to move forward.  Well, I found a few more boxes on the shelf that needed to be gone through and torn apart.  I also found that putting things together is much harder then I had anticipated.

But, there’s an incredible sense of freedom that come from cleaning out all that clutter and getting rid of burdens that have held you down for so many years.  I feel like I’ve taken a heavy pack off of my back and can now run unencumbered for the first time.

If you would have told me five years ago that I would give up my faith, I would have vehemently denied it.  “Nothing can separate us from the love of God!” and all that pious bullshit.  Yet, here I am – a non-believer, at least in the American evangelical sense of the term.  If this journey has taught me one thing, it is to never be too certain of your place in life.

Circumstances change.  Beliefs change.  I’ve changed.

Here’s to the future, and to the shedding of old scales.

 

A Cure For Doubt?

Ryan Bell has reached the end of his Year Without God. The Christian pastor who decided to “try on” atheism for a year and live as if there was no God (not going to church, praying, reading the Bible, referring to God as the cause of things, etc.) ended his journey this past Dec 31st with a blog post about his experience and this video:

What started off as a personal journey of self-discovery quickly gained the attention of everyone, with multiple news agencies and publications all over the world picking up his story.  With that came the inevitable responses, both positive and negative. While many embraced his decision and offered support, others were skeptical if not outright critical.

To back up a second, it’s important to gain the context of Bell’s journey.  Many people saw the headlines like, “Pastor to Live as Atheist For a Year,” and assumed that he was preaching a sermon one Sunday and reading Dawkins the next.  In actuality, Bell’s decision came after months, if not years of doubts regarding the Church, the Bible, and God.   Bell had lost his job as pastor over the issue of LGBTs in church, and there had been many other issues prior to this that had raised serious concern for Bell in regards to his faith.  (You can read about that here)  At the start of 2014, Bell sought to find the answer to the all-important question:

What difference does God make?

I became interested in Bell’s journey from the start and have followed his blog and heard many of the interviews he has given.  I appreciated his openness, honesty, and search for truth.  Much of what he has to say I can relate to, myself being on this “second journey” of faith.  After some time of reflection on Bell’s journey, my own, and numerous others I’ve talked to, here’s what I’ve come up with:

If every Christian who had serious doubts about God lived a year without Him, very few would return to their previous faith.

I’m not saying that they would become atheists or agnostic, what I am saying is that if they truly lived like an atheist and *honestly explored the other side of the argument, most would come away with a  radically different belief system and a world view than what they started with.  There might be bits and pieces of their previous ethos that they take away with them, but overall they would be completely changed.

I believe that everyone, at some point in their life, experiences doubt regarding the path they have chosen.  I’ve spent enough years in the church to know, that many people experience this in regards to faith, God, the Bible, church, etc.

What if instead of the general prescribed “cures” for doubts that the church usually recommends (pray more, read the Bible more, read this book that bolsters our theological claims, talk to a pastor/elder/leader), people chose to put their faith to the test and see if any of it was worth holding on to?  See what difference God really makes by living without Him.  Explore other faiths, traditions, and worldviews.

I would like to see more people have the courage that Bell does and take a giant step back from their faith and see what’s on the other side of the fence.  Most will find that it’s not as scary as they thought, and can even being liberating.   I think more people need to explore those deep “meaning of life” questions for themselves, and see what kinds of answers they get.

 

* By “honestly explore” I mean investigating, with an open mind, the claims against one’s own presupposed dogmas.  So often when people have doubts about an issue, they simply seek out material that supports what they already know to be true and dismiss the arguments against it.  Bell spent his year reading texts by atheist, naturalists, agnostics, non-theists, and others.  He also attempted to speak to as many actual atheists as possible — scholars, writers and ordinary unbelievers — to learn how they had come to their non-faith and what it means to them.