Sunday, November 4, 2007

My answers to questions often asked of atheists.

The Friendly Atheist has asked atheists to give brief answers to several questions that are often asked of atheists. Here are my answers:

Why do you not believe in God?
Everything I’ve learned about the universe leads me to believe that it operates by natural processes. I don’t see any convincing evidence that there are supernatural beings of any kind.

Where do your morals come from?
Morals are ways of dealing with common problems of living. I make moral decisions on the basis of my estimation of what would bring me the greatest happiness in the long run. This includes the well-being of my family, friends, and all people.

What is the meaning of life?
The meaning of a person’s life is the message communicated to other people by that person’s words and actions. The idea that a particular message is intended by someone or something outside of that person is a natural consequence of belief in gods, but it implies that people are not responsible for their own lives.

Is atheism a religion?
Theism and atheism are beliefs about the existence of one or more supernatural beings that control or influence life. Neither is a religion in itself. There are many theistic religions, and many atheistic ways of living.

If you don’t pray, what do you do during troubling times?
I read, think about what I have read or experienced, talk with other people about the issues that concern me, write about my concerns as a way to help me think about them, and take whatever actions I can to improve the situation.

Should atheists be trying to convince others to stop believing in God?
Learning the truth is the best foundation I know of for making wise decisions. We should all present our reasons for what we believe to be the truth, and be open to learn from each other.

Weren’t some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century committed by atheists?
All the worst atrocities were committed by people who considered other people to be less human than themselves. Their actions were guided by their personal agendas more than by their nominal affiliations with particular religious or philosophical stances.

How could billions of people be wrong when it comes to belief in God?
Billions of people disagree with other billions of people about everything, including belief in gods. They can’t all be right.

Why does the universe exist?
Our current knowledge of the universe is inadequate to know the answer to this.

How did life originate?
This question is being researched, but many aspects of the origin of life are still unclear. To the best of our knowledge, the first living organisms developed from self-replicating molecules that formed from combinations of simpler molecules.

Is all religion harmful?
The greatest harm caused by religion is that many religious belief systems encourage people to treat other people in ways they would not want to be treated themselves. Religions that are tolerant and respectful of other people are nevertheless harmful in that they promote false beliefs and ways of thinking that discourage learning.

What’s so bad about religious moderates?
Religious moderates are not bad. Their values are generally humane, and their influence often tempers the effects of extremist positions.

Is there anything redeeming about religion?
Religious groups provide opportunities to develop friendships with people who share similar values. Cohesive groups often provide emotional and physical support when needed.
Religion itself can offer comfort in difficult times as well as a sense of worth in being part of a beneficial historic or cosmic movement.

What if you’re wrong about God (and He does exist)?
If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. The implications of that would depend on what the god is like. If the god is strict and demanding, we’re all in trouble. If the god is loving and merciful, we don’t have anything to worry about.

Shouldn’t all religious beliefs be respected?
All people should be respected. Beliefs deserve respect to the degree that they are supported by evidence, not merely because someone holds to them.

Are atheists smarter than theists?
I doubt that there is any difference in intelligence between theists and atheists. I do believe there is a positive correlation between atheism and a broad education.

How do you deal with the historical Jesus if you don’t believe in his divinity?
Jesus was a man whose life was exaggerated to promote him as a deity, and whose teachings have been adapted to support the purposes of other teachers who followed him.

Would the world be better off without any religion?
The world would be better off with more focus on truth—without religion or superstition in any form.

What happens when we die?
Like all other living things that die, we decompose, and the substances of which we are made are recycled.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Necessity of Submission

I posted a comment on The Jesus Manifesto today. My key point was in response to the author's remark, "In my mind, as hokey as it sounds, everyone must to submit to something outside themselves."

Here's what I said:

Why do you think so? Because I can't know everything myself? Of course I depend on other people for knowledge, but I am responsible for judging what I hear, and deciding whether or not it is credible enough to act on.

To me, the only thing I see any reason to "submit to" is reality. Over the years, I rejected many of the contradictory and "unscriptural" teachings I encountered. I never found a teacher or book (including the Bible) that seemed entirely credible. My idea (adopted from several of my friends) was that I would submit only to God--not to the Bible, not to my image of God, but only to God himself. To me, God was the only and ultimate authority. My problem was that I couldn't find a way to communicate with God reliably. Eventually, I realized that the whole idea of God was one I had accepted from my parents, teachers, and friends, and that I didn't believe in God anymore.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Benefits of a non-theistic worldview

I watched a small town Fourth of July parade today. One church had a pickup truck float with a boom box playing "Awesome God." I wondered what an atheist float would feature.

Non-theists don't have any obvious benefits to offer. We can't promise a happy life that lasts forever. We can't even offer pot luck dinners. Our biggest attraction is an endless universe of questions and a perspective that encourages us to freely pursue satisfactory answers to them.

I miss the pleasure of singing in church and the social events churches provide. But I'm learning to live without them. To me, the ring of truth is far more thrilling than waving flags, and even more satisfying than apple pie.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Are embryos more valuable than adults?

On Wednesday, President Bush for the second time vetoed legislation that would allow federal funding for new embryonic stem cell research.

"If this legislation became law, it would compel American taxpayers for the first time in our history to support the deliberate destruction of human embryos," Bush said. "I made it clear to Congress and to the American people that I will not allow our nation to cross this moral line."

This seems very hypocritical to me. As long as Americans have been required to pay taxes, they have been compelled to support the deliberate destruction of human adults in warfare.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Toto and thinking critically about religion

One of the thickest walls that defend religious beliefs is the taboo against thinking about them objectively.

I didn’t discard my religious views after a deliberate evaluation in which I came to the conclusion that they were all false. Rather I left them behind one by one in a trail of litter as I found that I no longer believed them.

I want to help people who have difficulties with faith to find a way past the walls that hold them in, to think outside their religious boxes, and to live a life of freedom. It seems likely that in many cases such escapes will be gradual, as mine was.

When I left religion, I began asking myself questions that I would never have dared to ask before. I wondered how I could have failed to consider those issues over the years. I concluded that the inertia of my worldview and my lack of exposure to other ideas simply hid those issues from me. I was so distracted by the vision of Oz the great and terrible that I never even noticed the curtain, and no Toto pulled it down for me.

I want to be a Toto for other people. I want to raise the questions that I had never noticed before, and reveal possibilities that I had never before considered. I want to learn more about how the world really works, and help other people to do the same.

My curtain didn’t fall all at once, and I can understand how traumatic it could be for that to happen to a person. I guess I want to be a Toto who tugs persistently at the curtain, opening it little by little, until the true frailty of Oz finally becomes apparent.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Always reading

I’ve been an avid reader since I was in the second grade. Every two weeks during the years I was in elementary school, my family drove the 10 miles to the public library, and each of us would check out as many books as we were allowed. Reading is very important to me, because I think I’ve learned more from my reading than from all my years in school.

During the 40+ years I was a Christian, I guess I read close to a hundred books on Christian living and various aspects of Christianity, along with some Christian fiction and many other books, mostly non-fiction. I read a fair amount of science, primarily astronomy and physics, but very little biology. I accepted the theory of evolution, but had little interest in it because it seemed to have little relevance to my life. I was more interested in learning about God, the real force in control of life and nature.

Over the last few years since I went free of religion, I’ve turned the focus of my reading from Christian literature to books on science. Feeling that I had paid little attention to how the world actually works, I’ve tried to catch up a little bit. I’ve added geology, biology, paleontology, psychology, and social history to my list of reading interests.

As I look down the list of what I’ve been reading, I find a focus on books that contribute to an understanding of human nature. Having discovered that my theological concepts of myself and humanity were groundless, I want to gain a more accurate picture of what we are and what I am. Three subjects have been particularly helpful in building this perspective:

1) Two books on human nature by Steven Pinker and Paul Ehrlich, and two on physiological psychology by Antonio Damasio and Gerald Edelman have given me a glimpse of how the complex and extremely sophisticated behaviors of people can be generated by a physical body and brain, without resorting to vague concepts like “soul” or “spirit.”

2) A few books on sociobiology have helped me put together at least a rough image of the origins of moral values and their subsequent adoption by religions.

3) The most fascinating and enlightening books I’ve read are Jared Diamond’s two major works: Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies and Collapse: Why Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail. Diamond’s sweeping panoramas of social change from prehistoric times to today powerfully depict the forces that molded our history and that will shape our future.

My recommended reading list has more details on these and the other books I’ve read in the last few years.

Time to go to the library…

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Blame for the Virginia Tech Massacre

A friend forwarded Del Tacket's editorial on the Virginia Tech massacre to me today. Tacket blames this tragedy on "an inherently sinful nature," and claims that "Evil lurks in the heart of man and it will erupt when it is allowed to act unconstrained."

Like Tacket, I'm disgusted by the callous adoption of this tragedy to promote political agendas without first taking time to mourn it. And I agree that blaming various social problems for it obscures the fact that Cho was responsible for his own actions.

But I see no benefit to placing blame at all. I think attempts to do so are oversimplifications of the many interacting influences on events. It seems to me that people who try to pin blame on one person's character, weak gun control laws, inadequate mental health care, or whatever, are hoping to find a simple way to prevent such events. I think it's much more beneficial to try to understand as much as we can about the various contributing factors that led to this event, and take steps to mitigate the problems that led up to it. This was a highly visible tragedy, but many less obvious ones happen every day becase of the same problems that caused this one.

I think Tacket would have presented a stronger case if he had avoided judging people as "wicked" or "sinful," which simply condemns them according to his moral standards; I don't think doing so is helpful in understanding their thinking. He apparently believes that there are only two possible judgements of human nature: tragically flawed or basically good. I see people as natural. Some are better than others by my moral standards, but each is different.

I don't see evil lurking in the hearts of the people I know. My impression is that the vast majority of people are motivated primarily by good will toward other people. Some commit heinous crimes in misguided attempts to improve their own lives or those of others. I've heard very little about Cho's manifesto, but the fact that he wrote one seems to indicate that he hoped society would benefit from his murders.

I sympathize with the families and friends of those who were murdered, including the family of the murderer. I grieve especially for those people who, like Cho, feel desperately lonely and angry with the "wicked" people who fail to welcome him into their society.