Friday, June 27, 2008

The best idea anyone has every had about anything ever.

Just kidding, but this an excerpt from a post of the month in 2007 on talkorigins:

In a religious context, 'faith' and 'truth' are almost synonyms. And faith is automatically good. If an idea is considered truth in your religion, and you don't have faith in it, that's a reflection on your failure as a faith-holder rather than the idea's failure to be true. If you don't have enough faith on a given subject, you should work harder at it.

In the sciences, that kind of faith is not a virtue; it's a personal failing. Imagine a bridge engineer being invited to "have more faith" that a design has enough steel in it to keep his bridge from collapsing. His faith has nothing to do with it; either the bridge stays up, or it falls down. Faith in the sense of 'letting yourself be persuaded without adequate evidence' is morally wrong in that context. If the bridge engineer does so, and people die in the collapse, he's murdered them.

Scientists, or the good ones, feel the same way about their theories that good engineers feel about their bridges. It's their job to make them right, not to convince themselves for their own emotional comfort that they're already right, pretty much, close enough.

If a scientist says "I have faith this theory is true," he doesn't or shouldn't mean it in the religious sense of "I commit myself to this no matter what the evidence may say, forever. Don't try to change my mind, here I stand."

Instead, he means or ought to mean "I've tested this theory, and I've seen the results of other people's tests, and I'm as sure as I can possibly get on the available evidence that this theory is as close to right as we can get. Unless something else really radical turns up. Keep me posted."

I think it is absolutely phenomenal. One of my favorite posts on any forum I've read online.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Why are religious dogmas so utterly.... vague??

I am in the process of reading Pascal Boyer's "Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought" and I came across something that I thought was rather interesting. He was discussing the nature of religious beliefs and said basically that for people involved in religious rituals they are not really concerned about the details of how their deity of choice operates...but they are certain that he does. 

This critique of religious concepts is interesting from a historical perspective. If you think about it every single aspect of human knowledge and inquiry has advanced light years in the past 2000 years. The various fields of science have allowed us to see and know things we never knew possible. Business and law and even ethics have all shown dramatic leaps forward. Contrast this to religion...where people still rely on the same texts, the same stories, the same messages and the same 'evidence'. There have been no new revelations. The messiah has not returned. 

You could ask someone if God answers prayers or if he miraculously intervened to save their lives somehow and they might say yes. However, if you ask them how exactly he did this, they are unlikely to give you much (if any) detail. 

"God works in mysterious ways". It's as if religious people are content with knowing the 'what' and 'where' but never the 'how'. How exactly is jesus christ going to return to earth? Will he come flying through the sky in a blaze of glory like superman? Or will he be reincarnated in the body of some illiterate, poor catholic man in some remote south american country somewhere?

I think this was one of the reasons I was always (in my pseudo-christian past) so incredibly unfulfilled and underwhelmed with religion in general. For someone with half a brain it really provides very little substance. It is absolutely remarkable that such a system is still taken seriously after 2,000 years. Especially considering that in modern society we depend so much on the details. From science to medicine to law to business we rely on highly complex and intricate details. Yet somehow this does not carry over into our religious beliefs. It is as though we willfully suspend our curiosity the moment we step into a church or open up a bible. It really is a pity. 

Notes on Stupidity

I came across this today, and I have to share it.

There is a pastor in Cedar Rapids Iowa that thinks that the floods ravaging the midwest right now are a 'symptom of the curse initiated by the fall of man in Genesis 3."  He goes on to say that "Our source of hope is not FEMA....It is not flood walls. Our source of hope is that we have a King Jesus who can subdue the earth and have dominion over it." 

I thought this was interesting because it is a relevant example to what I posted last week about the dangers of religious thought. This man goes on to urge people to let the floods be a reminder that Cedar Rapids is not " our hometown." Apparently their hometown is the 'New Jerusalem' and they are waiting to be taken home. This is incredibly inappropriate in a time when mother nature is damaging lives and destroying livelihoods. These people should be out there helping to build levees and reinforce flood walls but instead they are content to pray for the return of king jesus. And of course, they are going to thank god for being so merciful and sparing their souls despite the fact that 1) he obviously just destroyed many peoples lives and 2) it will be modern technology that will provide them with relief. What do you guys think?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Is religion dangerous?

This is a provocative, but important, question to ask. I often hear people say that, even if there is no God, religion does not hurt anybody…therefore, atheists’ objections to religious dogma are pointless. My usual reply to this is to list atrocities that have been committed in the name of religions, and their respective Gods, throughout the millennia.

I think that recognizing the horrendous acts that the “godly” have committed over the years based on the tenets of their respective dogmas is important—especially when discussing the dangers of faith. However, because very few people today have experienced those atrocities firsthand, I think the point often gets lost.

Here are several tangible examples of the dangers of religion on both an individual and social level:

1. Faith and Federal Policy: Several recent polls show that 40-60% of Americans believe Jesus Christ will return at sometime within the next fifty years. This figure is absolutely astonishing. What this means is that there are 200 million of our neighbors and fellow citizens who think that the apocalypse will occur at some point within the next fifty years. This statistic should alarm any person who is even remotely aware of the potential harm this mindset can cause as we, as a nation, are confronted with very complicated modern problems.

How do we tackle problems like global warming that require long-term solutions when half of us do not even believe there will be anything to save? We simply cannot create efficient and durable environmental policies when most of us are expecting the world to end. Perhaps the problem with this way of thinking is best illustrated by Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, James G. Watt, who said “We don’t have to protect the environment, the Second Coming is at hand.”

This type of thinking also pervades our foreign policy. It is virtually impossible to craft effective long-term foreign policies with countries in the Middle East and Asia when those people are considered, by any biblical definition, to be heretics, non-believers and blasphemers. Religious dogma is clearly incompatible and incredibly dangerous in a global society where we must learn to put aside our differences and work diplomatically toward solutions.

2.Seeking Counsel in Clergyman: In my experience, this is especially prevalent within the African-American Christian community. Black churches across America teach their parishioners that when they experience an incredibly tragic event, don’t go to a therapist, but seek refuse in God—which usually means talking to the clergymen. The problem with this is that most church leaders are ill-equipped to counsel someone through complex emotional and personal issues. It is undeniable that attempting to help someone through an issue from the perspective of first century superstition and scripture is incredibly limited and potentially dangerous. I know someone who found several family members brutally murdered in their home, yet instead of hiring licensed therapist, this person pushed more deeply into church. They would often say, “God will get me through this.” Well it has been four years and they are still waiting on God.

Even in less extreme situations that confront most people like divorce or financial woes, there seems to be an ardent refusal among conservative Christians in our community to utilize the resources that exist outside the church for appropriately managing these situations.

3.Faith Fixes Everything: The fundamental problem with a belief in a supreme, omnipotent, omnipresent being is that this mindset completely undermines the responsibility that we , as individuals, have to take care of ourselves by making responsible decisions. How is one supposed to take full personal responsibility in a situation when they believe that God has already figured out exactly what’s going to happen?

People who honestly believe that ‘God will make a way can make potentially disastrous decisions without considering the full consequences—because they believe ‘the power of prayer’ will intercede to create the outcome that they desire. Applying this mindset to life’s important decisions is like jumping off a cliff and thinking that God will put out a safety net ‘just in time.’

In closing, it has become increasingly obvious to me that there are modern issues we are dealing with that will require enormous cooperation and foresight, and religious dogma is clearly an impediment to these goals. In addition to affecting our federal policies, religious dogma is destructive at the personal level because it offers people false hope in dealing with personal issues and it encourages them that they can do whatever they want to because God will ‘make a way’. I can only hope we realize how dangerous religious dogma is before it is too late.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Does a belief God give us morality?

Two of the most common arguments in favor of the existence of God—or against atheism— are: 1. God gives us morality, 2. without religion people would be immoral. These arguments, which are essentially one in the same, are illogical and ill-informed on several counts. Nonetheless, this type of thinking permeates so much of our culture. We can approach, and subsequently debunk, this argument somewhat scientifically:

1)One popular assumption is that the “godless” are less moral than those who believe in God. If we use propensity to commit crime as a measure of moral health, you would expect that there would be a high ratio of atheists in prison. But studies have shown that at least 80% of people in US prisons define themselves as religious: 50% as Baptist or Catholic, and roughly 30% claim to have a religious preference but do not specify a specific religion or denomination. Additionally, if morality was a byproduct of a belief in God, than states with a high number of believers would conceivably have lower rates of crime than those that are comparably more secular. But this is also entirely untrue. SC ,Tenn, Tex, Louisiana and Georgia all rank among the top 10 in terms of crime rates, and these states are the heart of the Bible Belt...but if there are so many believers then why do these places have the highest rates of crime? The point is if we use crime rates as a metric, a high degree of religiosity does not correlate with morality, which is exactly what you would expect if religion or a belief in God were the bedrock of our sense of morality.

2) What about Hitler? Theists just love to point out that the mass murderers of the 20th century (Hitler, Stalin, etc) were all atheists, which proves atheists are evil and cannot be trusted in positions of power. Again, this view is not based in the facts. Hitler's ideology contained both pro- and anti-religious doctrines and dogmas so at the very least his religiosity is inconclusive. On one hand, he speaks about carrying out 'His' (God’s) will in exterminating the Jews and the importance of prayer. On the other hand, he speaks of maintaining the superiority of the state over the church. Beyond that, anyone who has ever read the Bible knows it provides ample anti-Semitic ideology. Not surprisingly, anti-Semitism in Germany was biblically based and these ideas were prevalent in German society well before Hitler ever came to power. My point is that, despite Hitler's religious ambiguity, anti-Semitism would never have been tolerated if not for its biblical roots.

Stalin was a self-affirming atheist but he does not support the conclusion that atheism leads to moral decay since he never killed anyone because of his atheism. Compare that to murderers that are clearly motivated by their religion—Timothy McVeigh, the September 11th martyrs, abortion clinic bombers, etc. Who could dispute that, but for a belief in the afterlife and the ideas of martyrdom, Islamic terrorists would lose most of their destructive motivation? Who could deny that religious ideology has been the root cause of innumerable conflicts in modern times?

3) More recently, scientists have begun studying what underlies morality. They’ve found that regardless of social class, religious upbringing, or country of origin, people have similar basic principals regarding morality. Additionally, specific areas of the brain are activated in response to moral questions. Collectively, these studies suggest that our sense of morality is innate and, therefore, independent of religious background. If our morality is not dependant on religion then where does it come from? Although the jury is still out, there is evidence of morality in animals. One study demonstrated that a chimpanzee will starve itself in order to prevent harm to another chimp and studies from behavioral biology clearly demonstrate that social primate societies are intolerant of rape or theft. This is obvious evidence of morality among creatures that completely lack the capacity to believe in God.

From the examples above, it is clear that being religious and believing in God does not correlate in any way with social health or general morality. Furthermore, scientists are beginning to understand where our morality comes from and it is clear from the work done thus far that our sense of right and wrong has roots in our evolutionary past--not a system of beliefs and ideologies invented merely 2000 years ago.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

How did I get here?

My family is southern baptist. In fact, most of my home town area is southern baptist. I grew up in a town that is about 80% black, with a very high rate of poverty and unemployment. Not surprisingly, there are probably more churches per capita than most towns of similar size. Driving up and down the windy, dusty roads you see the unmistakable white steeples of a traditional southern black baptist church about every two miles or so. 

My family, though not really the bible-thumpin' fire-and-brimstone type, went to church at least 2-3 times per month. That doesn't include the bible studies, choir rehearsals and other assorted meetings of the holy that my parents frequented but (thankfully) didn't force us to go to. It's kind of odd that with all the indoctrination I was surrounded with, it just didn't 'take'. I can remember being a kid and staring out the window during church services bored out of my mind. 

When I got old enough to understand more of what was going on I became really confused. I didn't understand the things people would say-- "I want to thank god for getting me safely up and down the dangerous highways" or "I want to thank god for waking me up this morning". It was confusing because those things tend to happen about 99.9% of the time anyway so why was there a need to thank god? It's as if these people just expected to die every time they went to sleep or set foot in a vehicle and had to express gratitude every time it didn't happen. Beyond that, if there was a glorious heaven as everyone proposed then what was the harm in dying? Why thank god for keeping you in this 'earthly struggle' and delaying you from 'winning the battle' and taking your 'place among the righteous' in heaven?

My first reaction to these questions was to distance myself from fundamentalism. By fundamentalist, I mean an individual who believes that god directly intervenes in people's day to day lives. I became more moderate, and I thought there was a god but he doesn't really interfere in our day to day lives at all. I also started thinking of god as an internal sort of happiness or peace (nirvana?) that everyone should work toward. Moderation is where I stayed throughout my teenage years. I would pray, but my prayers become more of a recital of things I wanted to happen/change/reflect on as opposed to asking god to do things for me. I actually think a lot of people fall into this category, which is weird considering that 100 years ago today's moderation would have constituted atheism, but that's another post. 

It wasn't until about a year or two ago that I seriously considered that I might be an atheist. It wasn't a traumatic realization, probably because I was never really religious to begin with but there are those who struggle mightily with that very same realization. There are questions I had that I was finally able to fully articulate to myself. (Why is christianity any different from any other discarded religion? If god exists, then why do people suffer so much? Why is it that there's nothing about nature that suggests humans are special?) At the urging of a friend I bought a book on atheism and haven't looked back since. 

So there you go. From disinterested in religion to confused to religous moderation to full fledged atheist. And it only took about 20 years! I actually just realized how long of a process this was. I can't imagine how difficult it would have been if I had been really engaged in the church. It kinda makes you sympathize with people who hold on to religion despite the mountains of doubt they sometimes feel. It is difficult to let go of something when you grew up within it. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

What is an atheist?

Atheist- one who does not believe in a deity.

A lot of people hear the word atheist and have a negative knee-jerk reaction. They think of god-less and soul-less heathens with no morals. I can almost hear the negative tone: How can you even imagine that god does not exist? How do you know what is right and wrong? How did we get here? If there is no god, then what is our purpose in life?

It always confuses me because, for one, I consider myself a good person. I dont steal. I dont cheat. I work hard. I am very well-educated and well-read. I love the people around me and work hard to become a better person. The atheists I know all generally fall into the same category.

My personal definition of an atheist is a person who rejects the supernatural. That includes god(s), angels, demons, 'hellhounds', djinns and ghosts. (and leprechauns, santa claus, the easter bunny, etc.) Atheists also tend to be rationalists, which means they seek a rational, logical explanation for basing their particular worldview.

Atheism itself is NOT a dogma. It is NOT a religion. There are no rules to follow to be a proper atheist. That does not mean atheists have no moral code. If there were a universal atheistic moral code I suppose it would be something along the lines of "I shall seek to cause no harm to fellow humans, accept responsibilty if/when I do cause harm and attempt to diminish human suffering." Atheism is something of a secular philosophy of life that does not invoke or require supernatural agents.

I am not writing this blog to try to convert anyone to atheism, I am writing this blog for several reasons: to express my opinions about the various intersections between religion, society, politics, science and morality and to start conversations about issues concerning those subjects. The other motivation for writing this blog is that, despite the 'new atheist' movement of the 21st century, the opinions of the minority atheist community are conspicuously absent. This blog is my attempt to contribute something to this movement which, if recent polls are any indication, is only growing.