Mo*Con IV: My Atheism Part II

(Continued from Part I)

I didn’t become an atheist because I was mad at God. You can’t be mad at someone that doesn’t exist. I didn’t become an atheist because some tragedy befell me that made me turn my back on religion and deny the existence of God like some sort of grudge. If I was mad at God I wouldn’t deny his existence because if God doesn’t exist than he’s not responsible for anything. God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist. That would be like denying the existence of Hitler because I was pissed off at him over the Holocaust. It wouldn’t make sense. I’m not an atheist because I find Christian morality too hard to live up to and I want to just sin freely without repercussions. There are always repercussions for your actions in this life.

There’s no need for a heaven or a hell because we get them both right here, right now and it isn’t as simple as good befalling the good and bad befalling the bad. You can be the most loving and giving person and still make bad decisions that you ultimately suffer for. The morality I subscribed to, in my opinion, holds me to a much higher standard because it requires me to be more than simply good, it requires me to be smart. It doesn’t allow me to hate someone for no other reason than because some book says I should.

I became an atheist when I realized that the only reason I had ever believed was because that’s how I had been raised. I had been a Christian only because my family and everyone else I knew were Christians. That was it. That was my only reason. It had nothing to do with proof. If I had been raised by Hindus I would have been Hindu. If I had been raised by Muslims I would have been Muslim.
When I realized this I was embarrassed. To me, it was the most random, the most arbitrary, the most ridiculous reason I could think of to believe in anything. And that’s the way most people adopt their religious beliefs, it is simply handed down to them like a used sweater and we put it on before we are old enough to question it. Most people go their entire lives without ever questioning why they’re wearing it, if they need it, or whether they would be better off without it.

I didn’t have any proof that anything in the bible was true and once I read the bible, I realized that I didn’t believe half of the things in it and that neither did most of the people I knew. Yet somehow they still called themselves Christians. Most of the people I knew didn’t believe in Adam and Eve. They didn’t believe that Jonah lived inside a whale’s belly for days. They didn’t believe that Noah put two of every animal onto a boat for thirty days and thirty nights and that somehow every animal on earth lived within walking distance of Noah’s house, several million species of insects, thousands of birds and rodents that would have taken several lifetimes to collect. They didn’t believe that women should be silent and subservient. They didn’t believe in slavery. They didn’t believe that if someone worked on Sunday or cheated on their husband or didn’t obey their parents they should be stoned to death. They didn’t believe that it was a sin to eat crab or lobster or rabbit. Most of the Christians I knew had never even read the entire bible. They accepted this ideology and didn’t even know what the book really said. I became an atheist when I realized that I had no logical reason for being a Christian.

When I first began to question religion I assumed that I would find answers to my questions and that nothing would change. I assumed that the failing was in me and not in the bible. I thought that if anything, my belief would be stronger in the end. Instead, the more I read, the more I questioned, the more doubts I acquired and the harder it became to hold on to my beliefs. I found falsehoods. I found contradictions. I found immorality. I found that all the things I had believed made no sense and those things that I believed that did make sense were not even really in the bible or else were actively contradicted by other passages in the bible. That so much of what was written in its pages flew in the face of reason and morality. At that point, I would have had to deny all logic in order to believe and I just could not do that.

Isaac Asimov said, that when “Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for Atheism ever conceived.” That’s why those who know the bible the best and follow it the most literally look crazy to most people. Even moderate and liberal Christians think fundamentalists are crazy. Because the passages that most sane and reasonable people completely ignore or choose to interpret symbolically or metaphorically, they believe. So we call them extremists and zealots when what they really are, are true believers. When the church was burning infidels at the stake and sending armed missionary soldiers abroad to slaughter or convert entire cultures, they were following the bible. Today’s fundamentalists don’t even follow the bible 100%. They can’t. If anyone was to follow every command in the bible 100% they would be a criminal and a murderer. They would be a thoroughly reprehensible human being—a racist, sexist, homophobic, wife beating, gay bashing, child abusing, slave trader. But the bible was written to be followed 100%. There’s nothing in there that says or even suggests that certain parts were to be ignored or taken lightly. When Jesus said, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.” He didn’t wink afterwards. He didn’t laugh. In Titus 2:9 when it says “Tell slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect.” Afterwards it doesn’t have a little note in parentheses that says “just kiddin’”. He meant that literally.

In order to keep Christian beliefs in line with modern morality you have to reinterpret passages that are relatively black and white or else disregard them entirely because so much of it runs contrary to commonsense morality. To be a good person and continue to believe you have to cherry-pick the good stuff and disregard all that slavery, homophobia, and misogynism stuff.

So, after reading the bible, I decided to reevaluate all of my beliefs. I abandoned everything I had believed for which there was no evidence and I started over, putting my beliefs back together piece by piece and only including the things I could logically support and defend.

I realized that the first step in achieving true knowledge was admitting my own ignorance. Not going in already committed to a conclusion and just looking for facts to justify the conclusions I had already reached. If I had begun asking questions when I was already one hundred percent emotionally committed to a conclusion those questions would have been worthless. So I let all these emotional convictions go and it was like a great weight had been lifted. The scales had fallen from my eyes and I could finally see the world as it was rather than how I had been conditioned to believe it was. My mind was now opened by wonder rather than closed by faith.

History has shown us again and again that the closed mind created by faith is fertile ground for hatred and prejudice, not to mention that it has often been an impediment to both moral and scientific progress. To quote Blaise Pascal, “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” That alone would be enough for me to reject faith. This irrational illogical thought process, to me, contradicts the very definition of a human being, the rational animal. We were given these great big brains in order to allow us to answer questions and find true knowledge. Filling in the gaps between what we know and what we don’t know with beliefs that we lend the same weight as knowledge ensures that true knowledge will have a hard time ever finding fertile ground upon which to grow.

The virtue of ignora
nce is that it allows for knowledge. The sin of faith is that it does not. If you believe before you know and are committed to that belief you will NEVER know. Your belief has taken the place of knowledge. Why would you search for truth if you believe in your heart that you have already found it? Faith does not give you the answers, it just stops you from asking the questions and that alone is enough reason for me to reject it. You cannot fill a vessel that is already full and that is the problem with faith. That alone is reason enough to be an atheist. Not because I have anything against any one religion but because of the foundation of faith upon which all religions rest. That is why I am and will always be a skeptic.

The reality is that when it comes to creation and the existence or non-existence of a creator we just don’t know. Anyone who says he does know is either deluded or disingenuous. We don’t know. There is no shame in admitting that we don’t know. There is no dishonor in admitting our obvious ignorance. The dishonor is in resigning ourselves to remaining ignorant. Not just belief without evidence but belief against all contradictory evidence. That type of willful ignorance is a sin against all the potential within human nature. An open mind that leads to the pursuit of knowledge is the very definition of what it means to be human and as such is the highest virtue.

Thank you.

Mo*Con IV: My Atheism Part I

By Wrath James White

Good afternoon, my friends. I’d like to first thank Maurice for inviting me here and thank you all for welcoming me. My name is Wrath James White and I am a humanist, an atheist. As Maurice’ll tell you, I am about as passionate in my disbelief as he is in his belief.

Let me begin by explaining what atheism is. Atheism, simply put, means not believing in any god or gods. There’s a quote made popular by Richard Dawkins: “We are all atheists about most of the gods that societies have ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.” We are all atheists when it comes to believing in Zeus or Odin or RA. I just believe in one fewer god than you do.

But, so what? I don’t believe. You do. Who cares? And if there was a way to keep these two viewpoints from coming into conflict with one another I wouldn’t care. But I believe in many things that are threatened by the church.

I believe in euthanasia. I believe that people should have the right to choose when and how they die. I believe they have the right to a dignified end. But because of the dominant religious beliefs in this country, if I became paralyzed with some crippling, agonizing illness that deteriorated my quality of life to the point that I no longer wanted to live, I do not have the legal right to end my life. That pisses me off a little. I believe in same-sex marriage. I believe that society benefits from people being in committed relationships. It serves a stabilizing function by encouraging people to settle down, get a job, raise children in a stable loving environment, buy a house, and pay taxes. But once again, because of the dominant religious beliefs in this country many loving couples are not able to enjoy the same rights as every other American. And that pisses me off. I believe in a woman’s right to choose. I don’t believe it benefits this society and, in fact, it does great harm to bring unwanted children into a world already straining beneath the weight of overpopulation, crime, and poverty. But the dominant religion in this country is constantly trying to curtail that right.

I believe that people should be judged by their abilities, their morality, and their actions rather than by their religious beliefs or lack thereof. But yet, in this country atheists are the minorities least likely to be elected to public office. And yeah, that pisses me off. When asked who you would like your son or daughter to marry, once again, an atheist is at the bottom of the list. Despite the fact that atheists are most likely to be college educated, least likely to go to prison, and least likely to get divorced. And finally, I believe in reason. I believe that the practice of believing without evidence is demonstrably dangerous and has historically led to abominable acts of intolerance and cruelty. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”

I don’t think it‘s a coincidence that nearly all the racist organizations in this country are religious organizations. When you don’t need evidence for your beliefs you can believe anything and that tendency can be easily exploited by the corrupt and the unscrupulous.

Atheism is not a belief system. There are no dogmas attached to it. No mores. No rituals. There are no Ten Commandments of atheism. It is simply the absence of belief.

I’m sure you have been told and many of you perhaps believe that atheists hold science up like a religion. That we have faith in it the same way believers have faith in their religions, but there’s no such thing as scientific faith. Science is the study of evidence whereas faith is belief without evidence and often in spite of all evidence. They are the antithesis of each other. There are no scientific beliefs that are sacrosanct. If a scientist could disprove evolution or gravity or relativity he would be famous. He’d be almost guaranteed a Nobel Prize.

“… my belief in evolution is not fundamentalism, and it is not faith, because I know what it would take to change my mind, and I would gladly do so if the necessary evidence were forthcoming.”

That was Richard Dawkins who said that. He is about as close to a fundamentalist atheist as they come. And that is why there is no such thing as a fundamentalist atheist, because if there were scientific evidence that God existed there would be no atheists. I know exactly what it would take to convince me of God’s existence, verifiable evidence, facts.

I don’t have, and never had, the ability to suspend my disbelief and natural skepticism. Not even when I was a believer. I always questioned and doubted. That’s just who I am. I can’t believe just to satisfy anxieties about death or my place in the universe. I can’t believe simply because a particular belief system is popular. Truth isn’t decided by majority vote. I can’t be persuaded just because some priest or minister talks real pretty. I know they are just men like me. I talk pretty too. That doesn’t mean I’m not full of crap sometimes. I can’t just choose to believe because I don’t trust my own moral compass and fear that I wouldn’t be a good person without the threat of damnation and the promise of paradise. I cannot believe just to fit in, for that safe, comfortable, sense of community. I cannot believe just because everyone in my family, culture, or country believes and it has become a custom or a tradition. My mind just does not work that way. I am not terribly skilled at the art of self-deception.

I can only believe in any religion or ideology when I know it to be true, when it can be verified by empirical facts, by experiments that produce predictable results that can be duplicated. That’s the basic standard of proof we use for everything except our religious beliefs. If someone were selling me a TV set and they said “You can’t turn it on. You just have to have faith that it works. You can only turn it on after you’re dead.” I’d think they were crazy. And hopefully, so would you. But religion doesn’t allow you to turn it on and try it out before you buy it. You don’t know if religion works until you’re dead. Now, I’m just a kid from the ghetto so to me, that sounds like a con.

When I was growing up on the streets of Philadelphia, I learned the hard way not to blindly trust in pretty words and beautiful fantasies spun by charismatic individuals no matter how desirable the fantasies were, no matter how well they fit my personal aesthetic, my personal vision of how things ought to be, no matter how much they flattered my ego or calmed my fears. I learned to question everything. I wasn’t fooled by the pimps, hustlers, conmen, and drug dealers because I questioned every lie that came out of their mouths and I demanded proof. I demanded evidence. I saw what a crack addict looked like and so I never fell for the lies of the crack dealer. I saw the drunks and winos. That’s why I never drank when I was young no matter how much peer pressure there was to get drunk and party. I never smoked cigarettes. I never smoked weed. No matter how many of “the cool kids” were doing it. I never got into crime. I saw the end results of the drug dealer’s life, the pimp’s life, the gangster’s life, and so I was never impressed with their temporary wealth and ghetto fame.

Likewise, I heard the preacher telling us that “Jesus Saves” and then I saw my friends and neighbors gunned down in the street by drug dealers. I saw them in welfare lines and unemployment lines. I saw them get sick with cancers and diseases and die in agony. I saw crack babies born into abusive homes. I saw the socio-economic oppression of my people, crushed beneath the weight of racism and poverty and it was hard to rectify that with anything the preacher was saying. I read in the bible, Mathew 7:8 , where Jesus said “For everyone who asketh receiveth; he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh, it shall be opened.
Or what man is there of you, whom if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him?” It floored me, because I had been asking for bread for as long as I could recall and had usually received stones and serpents. My own life proved the lie in this statement and it called everything else into question. As I looked around at my neighbors I saw that most of them had likewise learned to subsist on stones from heaven. The bible was obviously wrong. And so, like the lies of the pimps, drug dealers, gang bangers, and conmen, I learned not to trust it. Just as it had on the streets, being a skeptic kept me from being a fool and a victim.

Atheism, for me, is not a statement of any knowledge concerning the origins of the universe or of life. It is not saying, “I know for a fact that there is no God.” What it says is simply, “I don’t know if there is a God and neither do you. And because I don’t know I can’t believe.”

(to be continued)

An Atheist and a “Pastor” Go Into a Convention Part V

[Bringing you up to speed, here’s Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV]

To say that the conversation went off the rails would be a mild understatement. Something got under B’s skin.

Sorry, Maurice. But I think we may need to take a break. I’m not enjoying this. And neither are you, it appears.

[“To be compatible with secularism, we would have to remove any sense of mystery, any sense of the transcendent, and to do so would remove the essence of faith.”] – Faith is not an end unto itself. Faith is not its own justification. Faith does not justify faith. Faith does not justify ignoring and dismissing relevant information that shows the faith isn’t justified.

Yes, “faith” sounds romantic and at times like a “beautiful” thing (ministers are great at making “faith” sound like a wonderful thing), but using “faith” as a justification in promoting a “lie” makes “faith” dishonest. It makes “faith” ugly.

“Good works” don’t change that. “Good works” don’t make God and Jesus *Christ* realities.

For myself, when I went looking for “answers,” I decided that I had to embrace all the relevant information, from both sides. What I wanted, first and foremost, was to know the truth. All those things that you talk about with regard to personal experiences may provide motivation, but they don’t determine what is really true. I decided for myself that I was going to put knowing and speaking the truth first. All that other stuff you talk about serves only to blur the lens and it’s morally impure to use those things as justifications for promoting a lie.

I didn’t dismiss all the historical, cultural, and environmental information that shows Christianity’s roots in Greek, Roman, and Egyptian culture and pre-1st century religion. Some of what I’m talking about are the Egyptian gods and religious beliefs as well as Greek/Roman gods and beliefs – where they intersect with Christianity and where they diverge…how these things influenced Christianity. What about the pre- 1st century Essenes and their documents? I’m also talking about the relationships of the non-canonical gospels and their relationship to the 4 gospels of the canonical new testament. I’m talking about making an honest attempt to know the truth – instead of sitting contently with a popular and comforting lie.

The Jesus you think you know didn’t exist. Was there a Jesus of some sort, yes. Are the gospels his story? No. You don’t do apologetics. Fine, do you want to know what there is to know? To ignore the historical and cultural environment that Christianity grew out of is no honest attempt to learn the truth.

That my “message” rubs you the wrong way isn’t a surprise. I consider it a normal consequence of my message. I’m bascially saying “you’re wrong.” And no, it’s not acceptable for me to simply keep this to myself and leave you unchallenged. There are too many negative consequences of Christian “faith” for the non-believer. I know you don’t want to “own” any of those consequences. You don’t feel you’re promoting discrimination and mistreatment of others – but it’s the message of Christianity that those that don’t believe are inferior. You’re promoting “faith” in Christianity. You’re promoting the “lie.” You don’t have the power to cut that message out of the Bible. You don’t have the power to cut that message out of popular Christianity. You don’t have the power to stop those that discriminate because they feel justified by “faith.”

I’ll place my “faith” in telling the truth based on the whole of the information, not just looking at the slice of information that appeals to me.

-B

If it sounds like I don’t “respect” your beliefs, it’s because I don’t respect your beliefs. I respect you as a person who wants to be a good person and wants to do what is good and right. But your “beliefs” support the promotion of a lie. Your “beliefs” are unjustified and hurtful to people like me. Your “beliefs” I will NOT tolerate.

Again, I don’t know if B was engaging “me”, per se, or generic Christian/religious guy. I get disrespected from many of my fellow Christians, so getting an e-mail where I’m told how wrong I am, well, it’s like the sun greeting me in the morning. To be honest, all I was interested in was B, the person. What he believed didn’t concern me as much as me wanting to know how he believed intersected with his life. I wanted to know and understand HIS story. I sense a lot of (probably justified) anger at Christianity, but I don’t think that I got to the “why?”s of it.

Still, I think he had some interesting points for me to think about. I’ll hopefully re-visit some of them before too long.

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An Atheist and a “Pastor” Go Into a Convention Part IV

[Bringing you up to speed, here’s Part I, Part II, and Part III – I now respond to B]

Sadly, I’m quite used to the tone.

Atheists constantly try to convert me and whether they realize it or not, usually with a chip on their shoulder. I know (or at least try to remember) where it comes from. Many of their stories follow similar trajectories. Many were burned by the church. We have burned a lot of people, literally and figuratively; and frankly, as much as one person can apologize for other’s history of mistakes, I’m sorry. If for nothing else, my participation in that history of mistakes. We, as the church, fall short of who we ought to be and what we ought to be doing.

Many have been burned (or enlightened) by their own faith, as in they asked questions and didn’t get answers that made sense to them and it led to them becoming disconnected with the historic Christian faith and led them down other paths.

Overlapping those two trajectories of stories are those who, due to their re-experience with members of the Christian faith, walk into conversations with Christians anticipating certain reactions. In other words, it takes a while for their guard to drop.

However, the tone does rub me the wrong way when it’s not just enough for you to not believe, but you want to spread the “truth” or, more on point, when anyone who doesn’t believe like you is stupid. It smacks of not respecting the beliefs of others and, in truth, you become everything you don’t like about religion and/or Christian folks.

So let’s just be careful that the tone doesn’t end the conversation.

Let me tell you where I’m coming from. Whenever anyone is trying to convert me (or even engage me in an agenda driven conversation), their message is only as good as the messenger. It forces me to constantly be evaluating my life and faith. If my life isn’t marked by me loving others and taking care of the poor, my faith (or whatever I profess to believe) is meaningless. If I’m not being formed into the kind of person my faith claims to make, then all of the logical arguments in the world is not going to convince anyone of anything.

Of course what I believe is foolishness. Faith often is. Look, I’m basically saying I believe there was a guy running around 2000 years ago claiming to be God (a claim which would get folks committed these days). Whose life impacted those around him. Who was crucified, like so many others were, but then folks said he rose from the dead. And that’s before the 3-in-1 God I believe in or even the idea of God incarnating and becoming a man.

There are days when I’m not feeling it. Days when I wake up and go wtf? Days when my prayer feels like me talking to my imaginary friend. So folks wanting to convince me of “the truth” probably aren’t going to share anything I haven’t thought about.

Is there a God isn’t necessarily a good question. A better question would be if He does exist, has He revealed himself in a way we understand but not exhaust? After all, if He hasn’t revealed Himself, He might as well not exist. (In my faith paradigm, He has revealed Himself truly and fully in Christ). To be compatible with secularism, we would have to remove any sense of mystery, any sense of the transcendent, and to do so would remove the essence of faith.

Faith isn’t an epistemology, but it is how you know what you know. It’s meant to shape you, to create a relationship, what could be described as a mystical knowing of God or the supernatural. Which is what I would describe as the role of the Bible in my life.

The Bible is a collection of stories. Not a history book, not a science text, not even a series of dogmatic propositions. To treat it as such is a failed proposition, reducing and misusing the canon. It’s a collection of stories I’ve chosen to let shape my life. It is a tool for spiritual transformation and formation, not necessarily given as a “Christian epistemology.” In short, I use it to affect my life. The idea of the Bible as a story especially appeals to me as a writer as I firmly believe that stories convey truths propositions can’t, or rather, fall short in being able to do it. Stories can be grasped in any age, by any culture. And a story doesn’t have to be totally true in its details for it to be true.

The only thing analogous to faith that I can think of is the act of “falling in love”. Falling in love isn’t rational. We can pretty it up to where “the practical information outweighs the romantic notions to the point where the romantic notions are meaningless.” Is love an evolved response to protect our genes being passing on? A biological imperative dressed up, given more meaning that it has? That kind of answer is sure to crimp ones dating life.

Since it can’t be quantified, I measure my faith experientially. Though there are days when it doesn’t make sense, there are many more days when it does. If only to me. And when all is said and done, all faith is personal and experienced individually.

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An Atheist and a “Pastor” Go Into a Convention Part III

Click here for Part I and Part II. At this point in our conversation, I got the feeling B was talking at me or rather at the person he expected me to be. It was like he was engaging the Christian response he was used to getting rather than engaging me. But maybe that’s just my reading of his response:

I apologize for the “tone”. I’m continually criticized for having an attacking style of writing…but my primary goal is simply to be honest.

[“Cold embrace”] – yes, the laws of nature are indifferent to our feelings and emotions. However, people are not. I still have feelings. I have family I care about and who care about me. I spend a lot of time with friends. We grow, we learn. I develop attachments and affections. I continue to experience joy and sorrow because of life events. My life isn’t lifeless, very much the opposite.

[Are you left with only becoming a humanist or a nihilist?] I certainly don’t agree with nihilist attitudes. My life has meaning to me. My life has the purpose I recognize and that I choose to give it. There are things that are worth doing. There are still goals and challenges. There is satisfaction. I still empathize with others. I still want to lessen pain and increase satisfaction and happiness for myself and for others. I recognize the patterns of life. Doing things with friends is fun and is a good thing. Our lives are better because of our caring for each other and accepting each other. I don’t struggle with the meaning of life. I accept life.

[Humanism:] I don’t feel constrained by Humanism which seems to be what you’re inferring. Humanism is about having positive values and a positive outlook. Humanism recognizes the things I’ve been talking about in the proceeding paragraphs. But by itself, humanism isn’t limiting.

Non-belief is not inherently negative or sub-standard to belief which your “tone” of questions suggests. Non-belief does not preclude happiness or satisfaction or love…we’re all still human. But even if non-belief were less “joyful,” Are you going to choose to promote fictions because accepting the truth appears to be unattractive? How does integrity apply?

[Is telling the truth about reality just a “different precept?”] Consistently in your writings, you attempt to equate faith and belief as being equally dependable as the known truths of our reality. They are not on equal footing. As I have said before, no one can produce any practical evidence for the existence of the Christian God. I have plenty of evidence for the existence of natural law. The Christian God and Jesus as “Christ” easily fall in the category of human invention. Gravity is not a human invention. The Earth, the solar system and the Universe are not a human invention. Subatomic particles are not a human invention. The laws of probability are not a human invention. And there is solid evidence for all these things. The Christian God, by definition is “super-natural.” Yet, no practical evidence of a “super-natural” being, active and participating is shown. Human feelings, human desires, and human emotions don’t make the Christian God a reality – a truth.

[although i’m curious, i would think that being an atheist would be enough. everyone’s beliefs are their own and folks tend to get prickly with religious/social movements when they seek to convert. how is your “spread the message” about “what the truth is” make you any different from any other evangelistic religion except with differing precepts.]

“everyone’s beliefs are their own.” Really? That’s not the approach I see the typical Christian taking. How many atheists have come knocking at your door to preach atheism? I get Christians knocking pretty regularly. I find their leaflets in my front door. In my personal experience, dealing with Christian family and Christian friends, my non-belief is NOT considered acceptable, nor is it respected. For me to discuss anything that seems to contradict Christian teachings is “unseemly” and “distasteful” in these Christian dominated groups. And yet, all I’m presenting is presenting something that is part of our reality…the only reason it’s “unseemly” or “distasteful” is because of Christian teachings…which are based on what? Certainly not the hard evidence that shows evolution to be true…and by the way, when I talk about evolution, I’m talking about Common Descent. Christians like to argue about “survival of the fittest” and the relative merits of what steers evolution…but the key issue is really Common Descent. Common Descent has been shown to be a truth. We share common ancestry with other animals…to this point, no living entity can be ruled out as not sharing common descent with humans…maybe there is something, but to this point, we either find that a living entity does share common descent or it’s inconclusive. My point being that common descent is simply the way it is. Why does (public) school stop for an hour on Wednesday’s in my county for Weekday Religious Education? And why are children of non-believers separated out and sent to the library? Is it ok for the majority to isolate the minority socially? What ways are acceptable and what ways are unacceptable?

I was at the Brickyard 400 last Sunday. There was an invocation prayer given before the race that prayed to the Christian God and referred to Jesus Christ, lord and savior. Now, understanding my “take” on Christianity, it would be hypocritical for me to take off my hat and bow. Yet, that is what is expected of me by the Christian majority. We are on opposite sides of a gap…what is there to bridge that gap? I would say God if there were any chance that God were real. But God isn’t real. What’s left? The information that describes the truth of reality is what is left. Those things that show how nature and natural law really work…and they consistently show no involvement by the Christian God.

The reality is that people, in groups, discriminate against others outside that group. Are they justified? My interpretation of Christian teachings, and I think this is more than fair, is that if you’re a “believer” you’re acceptable to the Christian group and a “non believer” is unacceptable as a full and complete participant in society. The “non believer” is marginalized. As an atheist, if Christians on the whole were truly accepting of me and respected me, then I wouldn’t have any (meaningful) problem with Christians. I wouldn’t focus my attention on them. But that’s not the way it is. So I am fighting back and I’m fighting back with the truth of our reality.

Because, eventually, in the end, the truth of reality shows itself for what it is and, in my opinion, it’s the best possible common denominator for us to share. I’m trying to help that process along to what I hope is its inevitable conclusion. It’s very sad for me to think that humanity ultimately allows fiction to win out over the truth of reality. Humans don’t always put telling the truth as their highest priority.

-B

Any takers on responding to B’s points?

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An Atheist and a Pastor Go Into a Convention Part II

Okay, to catch us up from last time, I started this e-mail exchange with a gentleman (named for the purposes of this blog, B) who attended a panel I was on at InConjunction about whether science and religion can peacefully coexist. My answer, in short, was I hope so since I’m both a scientist and a hack theologian. Both need to give the other room to do what they do as well as allow one to inform the other as needed. There will be times when science will clarify matters of faith just like there will be times when faith can temper our sometimes irrational admiration for the rational.

And yes, I realize that as the constant skeptic and the black guy, we’d be the first two people killed in a horror movie.

Anyway, here was my response to the initial e-mail. I basically try to get at where the person is coming from and see if there is any common ground that we might share:

there are “word games” i may seem to play. for example, i know you are probably going to react poorly when i use faith and certainty, but i truly don’t mean them in a strictly supernatural/spiritual sense. for example, i truly believe all quest journeys begin with a leap of faith, that is, what we choose to put our trust in. for some, it is ourselves (the individual or humanity). for some, it is science (the determination of our senses). for some, it is the spiritual (under the assumption that there is more to this life than presented, both in terms of the spiritual and in terms of after this life). and there is/can be some overlap.

the other is with certainty. i know we seemed to cross swords on that one. i think there are things that we can know for certain (eg, how photosynthesis works) but that’s different from having an attitude of certainty. when i say that true spirituality and true science abhor certainty, it is because an attitude of certainty stops you from questioning. once you’re certain, you “know” and not only do you close your mind to further conversations, but there is no point in further investigation.

ceding to the cold embrace of science as our epistemology, i guess that would only leave me with a couple of choices in terms of my world view: become a humanist or become a nihilist (if i were to remove God from the equation of my life, i’m pretty much left with these options if i am being intellectually honest). would that be a fair assessment?

although i’m curious, i would think that being an atheist would be enough. everyone’s beliefs are their own and folks tend to get prickly with religious/social movements when they seek to convert. how is your need to “spread the message” about “what the truth is” make you any different from any other evangelistic religion except with differing precepts?

Actually, B’s e-mail also led to more thoughts about why and how Wrath and I manage to get along. We have a mutual respect for one another. I also have come to believe that we’re more alike than not or at least cut from similar cloth. We actually want similar end results in people. We want them living up to their full potential, and see the lack of it—not living up to what we were created to be—as a “sin”. That might be either me couching my faith as a form of Christian humanism or me couching humanism in spiritual language. Either way, I see it as a logical extension of my faith to move outward and be a blessing to others. I believe that faith or any truth claim is only as real as I see it lived out in the proclaimers life. In other words, is how you are anything that I’m interested in being? Because if it’s not, and if my life isn’t anything anyone else would be interested in, all of the words in the dictionary isn’t going to convince anyone of the truth of your faith.

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An Atheist and a “Pastor” Go to a Convention Part I

Folks often ask me about the kind of conversations I get into, so I thought I’d begin a bit of an on-going series involving one. With B’s permission, I am reprinting parts of our conversation. My question to you is how would you respond to B’s questions and the issues he brings up? (Be warned, I’ll probably make a blog out of the more interesting responses).

Hello Maurice!

I am the atheist, B, that you met last Friday evening at the InConjunction session titled “Religion and Science – Can there ever be peace between the two?”

You had told me during the panel discussion last Friday, and then again when I bought your book, that I’d like Wrath. And I assume I will. I would like to meet Mr. White or see him in action in your suggested “debate” type of event. But, at the risk of always focusing on the negative, I’m a little surprised at what you and he both write in the foreword and afterword of your book.

You write, “We’re both men of faith.” This would be a major insult to me as an atheist. But it’s not for Mr. White? I think that’s surprising given the atheists I know. I find that Christian believers are constantly trying to bring the atheist down to their level when it comes to standards for establishing the truth of our reality. You did the same during the session last Friday by saying atheists have “faith.” I do not have “faith” according to how Christians use the word. I’d like to think that if you give me solid evidence to the contrary, I’ll back down on even the propositions that I hold to be the most certain. Please try to understand that my attempting to maintain an open mind is not the same as lacking certainty.

“We each are on our own spiritual journey…” I consider myself spiritual in a loose definition of the word, but it’s not the definition for the word “spiritual” that believers in the supernatural use. Again, I’m surprised that you feel comfortable in describing Mr. White that way – inferring that he accepts this.

And then, in the afterword, Mr. White writes “Or, we could do the honorable thing and admit that neither of us know anything about these big cosmological questions with anything approaching absolute certainty…” This again brings me back to the panel discussion last Friday where persons repeatedly tried to infer that we, as humans, cannot know anything with confidence or “certainty” thus putting religious propositions on equal footing with known physical realities. Is that honest?

I’m ready to state that after my investigations, I am certain the Christian God and Jesus as “Christ” are not realities. There is no practical evidence that the Christian God participates in our reality. There’s no practical evidence that a man can lie dead and decaying for 2.5 days and be resurrected. Nature, as shown through science, doesn’t provide for these things to have happened. In addition, the known history of the world, of mankind, of religions in general and the history of Christianity, in particular, shows that it’s very common that man creates god and that people, for their own reasons, buy into it. The history of the Christian Bible, the history of Christianity, shows man’s fingerprints, not God’s.

And the human race has only been around for a very short time compared to the history of the universe, the history of the Earth and the history of life on Earth. And a lot of what is known today, wasn’t known very long ago – especially in relation to the history of the human race. Galileo only publicized that the Earth was not the center of the Earth in 1610. Newton published his theories of motion and gravity in 1687. Einstein published his theory of relativity in 1917. Hubble “discovered” the universe outside of the Milky Way in 1930 when he”saw” less than a handful of galaxies. Now we can “see” billions of galaxies, with an average of 1 billion stars per galaxy. It’s only been in the last 10-15 years that the human genome has been mapped and compared to other animals. We now have genetics to show the underlying processes that result in the evolution of life. Genetic analysis in combination with archaeology has given us some good information on the migration of the human race around the world (everyone alive today shares a common male ancestor who lived some 60,000-80,000 years ago in Africa). Only recently has the background microwave radiation of the universe been mapped to help show the pattern of the universe’s formation and its development. And research into quantum electrodynamic mechanics is helping to describe the mechanisms that provide all matter and energy.

Amid all this, Christians expect the Bible, a collection of letters and stories written by men thousands of years ago (The first independent evidence for the NT gospels is Justin Martyr in 150AD) to supercede what we know as the truth of our reality – the truths we know about nature. I won’t pretend that we “know” everything. I won’t pretend that some of what we know may need refining and maybe some of it is just plain wrong. But we know enough with enough confidence that I know the Christian Bible is wrong about God and Jesus as “Christ.”

And we haven’t even touched the subject of human psychology and human motivations that result in “belief” despite the evidence to the contrary. If the Christian God does exist, then he’s provided me with so much proof that he doesn’t exist, it’s so completely one-sided, that I can’t possibly think he’s a reality without giving up my honesty and personal integrity or my sanity.

Just so you know, I don’t write all of this solely to be antagonistic – but rather, to provide you the ability to compare my perspectives to what you’ve gotten from Mr. White. And you seem to be open to at least hearing other perspectives. Perhaps, if the opportunity presents itself, I will have a role to play in future events involving Mr. White. I’m not much in the way of a polished public speaker, but I have studied and thought through a lot of relevant information.

-B

to be continued …

Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V

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Humanist Quandry

Every now and then, I’m prone to thought experiments. It’s an attempt to relate to other perspectives as a lens to examine my own thinking. Most times it eventuates in intellectual naval gazing, but I have time to kill. This one started as a way to be less judgmental of people.

I’m quick to glance at a person’s life and pronounce “how can you call yourself a Christian?” I’m quick to rationalize such a pronouncement under the heading “I’m as hard on them as I am on myself”, since even a cursory glance at my own life makes me shudder anytime someone describes me as a Christian. So I’ve been allowing the grace of “where would they be if they weren’t a Christian to temper my thoughts/judgments.

(Including with myself: a friend of mine, an agnostic, thanked “whoever I’m suppose to thank” that I was a Christian, otherwise, I’d be the fifth horseman. He went on to describe me, in love mind you, as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, which was an odd bit of spiritual truth when you take Christ as the Lamb in question).

So now I’m coming at this from the perspective of my belief of how I’d be without religion. So let’s say that I’ve removed religion from my worldview lens (note: I HAVEN’T. THIS IS A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT), what would be the ramifications of a humanist worldview for me? Basically, I’m trying to think of why I’d want to be a “good” person and the lofty idea of “for the betterment of mankind” isn’t cutting it, so I’m going to need some of the ideas fleshed out a bit.

The quandary of my little thought experiment is that as problematic as faith in God can be, I have no faith in humanity (other than my faith in our ability to use any idea—race, religion, nation—as a weapon/destructive force).

For the humanists in the house, would you describe yourself as a humanist (with the idea of a belief in humanity and its ability to progress as a whole) or an individualist (meaning that you believe in yourself, the power of the individual, with enough individuals empowering themselves humanity progresses – which may take us into Ayn Rand territory)?

And then, two more questions, one on an individual level one on a social level:

-how would a humanist philosophy attempt to shape and form me as an individual? I understand do not steal, murder, lie, rape as universals in order to run a society; but for me as an individual, how would it address an idea like “greed” or what would be the motivation to be loving?

-on a social level, how would this shape social mores? Even an idea like monogamy or being married til death do us part, seems like things we’ve decided to buy into, but don’t—humanistically—have a good reason to do.

[I’m in a real questioning mood. There’s an ongoing conversation on the message board about how would atheists react if God was incontrovertibly proved and on the flip side, for Christians, what if the resurrection was incontrovertibly proved to have never happened. All merely thought experiments, but the discussion’s been interesting.]

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Fundamentalist Atheism

Fundamentalists of all stripes have more in common than they think.

I was thinking about this after a conversation with someone who I consider an atheist fundamentalist as well as with someone who I consider a Christian fundamentalist. (I don’t mean fundamentalist as in they have a few fundamental tenets that undergird what they believe. I mean fundamentalist as in that cultural mindset of a strident adherence to a set of beliefs.)

There are some universal characteristics of fundamentalists. Fundamentalists tend to view the world from a reactionary perspective. They see themselves as defenders of their faith, be it a belief in science and the doctrine of the scientific method or rationalism in general. And they view these principles as vital to not only a way of life for them, but for society as a whole. Through their belief system, salvation is possible. When their beliefs are challenged or threatened, it is felt at a personal as well as social level.

They (have elevated and) believe their cause to be of central importance. Certain issues become fundamental, all or nothing type beliefs, thus their posture of having to fight back perceived encroachments on their worldview (or more generously, fight for their worldview). Unfortunately, this tends to lead to a demonizing, a caricaturizing, of their enemies (backing up, it leads to them declaring some people their enemies). Enemies that need to be converted. They become just as evangelistic when laying out the atheist equivalent to the “Four Spiritual Laws”/Chick tracts. True fanatical devotees spend time on blogs, message boards, endlessly raging about the Church and Christians. It all becomes about reinforcing their identity. I keep waiting for an atheistic jihad (or Crusades, depending on which side you are on of the analogy) to be declared.

Basically, I get as big a headache talking to them as any other fundamentalist. Mostly because conversation is limited due to the fact that they are more inflexible in their thinking than they want to believe. The idea of faith is irrelevant. The God question is irrelevant . Ultimate questions become any questions. So conversations with people who take their faith seriously becomes difficult. It’s one thing to question, doubt, critique, but when you dismiss people of faith as idiots, conversation ceases (and typically further name calling ensues).

The journey of knowledge begins with an assumption: atheists begin with human reason (“I know through my reason, I know because I’ve reasoned that”); people of faith with theirs (“The Bible is the word of God because it says it is”). Oversimplified, I know, but minds of inquiry and genuine intellectual curiosity can journey together. I have enjoyed conversations with many of my atheist friends. I also understand how many have had bitter experiences with the church, faith, or those who call themselves Christians (and we’ve given plenty of reason for folks to be bitter) and have become fundamentalist in their thinking. When there is mutual respect, conversations can be had, and both sides can learn from the other.

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