Tag Archives: humanism

Take Aways: The God Argument

(Because of my love for books and the profound insights I gain from them, 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.)

My latest read was A.C. Grayling’s The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism.  A synopsis is not really needed, as the subtitle pretty much says it all.  The book spends the first half arguing against organized religion and the second half discussing why humanism is a better option.

I mainly grabbed this book as I was interested in the second half; what Grayling had to say about humanism as a personal philosophy.  I’ve heard of most of Grayling’s arguments against religion before, but he still offered some insights and new ways (for me anyways) of looking at things.

There’s an old saying when it comes to religion – “They can’t all be right.”  Grayling expresses that same sentiment towards the beginning of the book when describing the term “God” and what it means to people:

Even more significantly for religious people, the word [God] typically invokes to denote the all-encompassing and unanswerable source of authority governing what people can think, say, eat, and wear… The fact that different religions claim that their god or gods have different requirements in these respects should be evidence that religions are man-made and historically conditioned, but religious people think that this insight only applies to other people’s religion, not their own.

Grayling also devotes a good amount of his book to science and how it differs from religious truths, particularly when it comes to the idea of Intelligent Design:

ID theorists know in advance the answer, and are seeking to arrange the right questions to get to it; they know what they wish to prove, and are suborning evidence which, when applied and understood, leads to very different conclusions.  They subscribe for non-rational reasons to one of the many creation myths from the infancy of mankind… and are looking for justification in support of it.  This is far from science, rationality and intellectual honesty as one can get, and it is the essence of the Creationism-ID project.

Also:

A central plank of the scientific method is the open invitation to others to test, probe and question the work that any scientist or group of scientists does.  The generalized version of this is the invitation to submit oneself – one’s ideas and proposals, one’s efforts – to challenge by and disagree with others.

One of my favorite subjects of the book was the idea of probability.  In talking with believers about the concept of God and his intervention in this world, the idea of possibility inevitably gets thrown out as a sort of last-ditch effort to get you to consider their position.  Statements like, “Isn’t it possible that God made things appear old, but they’re really not?”, “But isn’t it possible that God caused the Big Bang?”, “Isn’t it a good idea to bet on the possibility of hell really existing?”  Yes, these are all possible – just like it’s possible that there is a Chinese teapot circling the sun.  But, it’s not very probable.  Everything humans believe in is (or at least should) be based not on whether it is possible, but to the degree of which it is probable:

One line of thinking in the theory of knowledge has it that belief is not an all-or-nothing affair, but a matter of degree.  The degree in question can be represented as a probability value.  A virtue of this approach is said to be that it explains how people adjust the weighting they give to their various beliefs as the evidence in support of them changes when more and better information becomes available.  People might not talk of probabilities unless challenged to say just how strongly the believe something, but their beliefs are nevertheless measurable in terms of how subjectively probable they appear to their holder.  In what is known as Bayesian probability theory this is taken to underlie all acquisition and evaluation of beliefs.

In the beginning of second half of book, Grayling gives a concise description of humanism:

In essence, humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such.  Humanism recognizes the commonalities and, at the same time, wide differences that exist in human nature and capacities, and therefore respects the right that the former tells us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have.

Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demands to the informed, alert and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the later.

Humanism is the concern to draw the best from, and make the best of, human life in the span of a lifetime, in the real world, and in the sensible accord with the facts of humanity as these are shaped and constrained by the world.

Humanism is an attitude towards ethics based on observation and the responsible use of reason, both together informing our conversation about human realities, seeking the best and most constructive way of living in accordance with them.

Throughout the book, Grayling distinguishes between humanism and religion.  As one example:

Religious ethics is based on the putative wishes – more accurately: commands of a supernatural being.  For the humanist, the source of moral imperatives lies in human sympathy.  If I see two men do good, one because he takes himself to be commanded to it by a supernatural agency, and the other solely because he cares about his fellow man, I honor the latter infinitely more.

Grayling also points out something that I have been saying for years- you can’t claim to live your life according to the Bible and still live in a modern society; the two notions are mutually exclusive.  One has to pick and choose what they believe and leave the stuff that is no longer culturally relevant (as much as some would wish it was):

When people submit to systems, they are handing over to them (to those who devised them) the right to do their thinking and choosing for them.  Given that almost all the major systems are religious, which moreover originated in a remote past to which most of their teachings apply, they can only be adapted to contemporary conditions by much reinterpretation and temporizing, and alas – by straightforward hypocrisy.

Grayling spends a great deal of time focusing on human interactions on both a small and large scale.  I do wish he would have devoted a little more time to how the philosophy of humanism relates to the earth as a whole – how we treat animals, take care our environment, etc.

Overall, The God Argument was a good read.  I would recommend it to anybody who is on the fence about religion.  For those who have already made up their minds, I would say that you would be safe skipping to the middle of the book.  I’ll leave you with one final quote that is in the book, this one from Leibniz:

In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realizing it, all the love of God and all his glory.  For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary? 

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.

 

 

 

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.