Tag Archives: religion

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.

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. 

 

 

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.