Friday, October 28, 2011

Loosing Faith in Faith!

The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews (It’s almost certainly not Paul the Apostle, as Christians generally assume:, in Chapter 11 Vs. 1 describes faith as follows:

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”

I personally agree.  When a believer in any religion talks about faith in their God or Gods, it seems to me, they mean something very close to what is defined above, and give it an almost mystical quality that is taboo to attack.  It is as if when someone claims his or her beliefs to be matter of faith, they expect to be immune from criticism in polite society no matter how stupid or insane the belief is.  Personally I think faith is a horrible thing to value and to hold sacred.

Another term for faith or “being sure of what you hope for” is “wishful thinking”. People behaving as though they are “sure of what I hope for” are likely to spend money they do not have, as if it their bank account is constantly being replenished.  They are likely to try any strange new intoxicants offered to them, have promiscuous sex with many anonymous partners, drive recklessly without fear of legal punishment or accident, quit their jobs, start fights, and behave as though they lived in a consequence free world.

Obviously, such behavior would be disastrous for the vast majority of people, since the things we hope for regarding these matters are often obviously not true.  Our actions do have consequences, our money supply is finite and strange intoxicants will do us great harm, (as will actions when influenced by them).  Anonymous sex will likely end in disease and unwanted pregnancy. Quiting our jobs will impoverish us, driving recklesslywill lead to death or injury, and randomly getting into fights will do the same.

My point with all this is that our uncertainty of what is hoped for is an important tool for our survival and well being.  It is nice to hope for the best, but live as though the best is guaranteed is a sure recipe for the worst kind of self destruction, not to mention a good way of consistently being wrong about things. That is why, rather than going through life believing that the best possible outcome is bound to happen, I refrain from believing anything until I have a good amount of tangible evidence that an outcome is likely.
Most religious people do this too, in most areas of life except for their religious beliefs.  Most religions demand you accept their claims on faith, because they lack the tangible evidence needed to convince anyone with a shred of critical thinking ability that they are true.  This disturbs me a great deal, since believing based on evidence has been a major, if not primary, factor in our survival as a species, as well as the development of the technologies that we enjoy today.  Believing things without evidence is the surest way to guarantee one’s actions will have the opposite of the intended impact.

That a supposed God wants us to set aside our ability to use logic and practice skepticism, and instead engage in pure wishful thinking is a huge red-flag to me!!  To be clear, faith is a horrible tool for determining fact from fantasy and is the most over-rated of all human virtues. When a religious person tells me their beliefs are based on faith, the game for me is up. They are essentially saying they have no good reason to believe what they believe, but they hope that it is true, so will continue to believe it anyway.  This the epitome of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice.

With this, the believer may point out that even if they are wrong, following their wishful thinking about their God and their after life will not lead to the physical harm, death, sickness, and poverty that the wishful thinking I’ve described above will. Generally speaking this may be correct for most religious people. However, there are countless examples of all these things caused by religious faith.  These include the September 11th attacks, the inquisition, religiously justified slavery, incidents where children die due to their religious parents praying or seeking faith healers instead of actual medical care, and the decent into a 1,500 year dark age brought about by Christianity.  To be fair the wishful thinking of most believers will not cause all this harm, but here in America it is likely to cost you:  Your Sunday mornings, a 10th of your income, your human dignity (since the biggest religions hold humans in very low regard), your appreciation for the women in your life, your ability to appreciate the findings of science, your time and energy, and most of all the only life you will be sure you will ever have (which will have been wasted pursuing an after life that is probably not there).
With that I reject faith and choose to deal with reality on it’s own terms.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Christianity: It's a Religion not a Relationship

Recently a Christian told me that Christianity is not a religion, but a relationship.  I had heard thisbefore, and have seen it on t-shirts and in Facebook posts. The implication is that it is a relationship between the believer and Jesus Christ himself.
I have to wonder how this is not a religion.  Many of the belief systems that the Christian dismisses as religions have similar ideas.  I have a Hindu friend who believes herself to be in a relationship with Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity with multiple sets of arms (This being supposedly protects her from harm and gives guidance).   Then there are Bhakti Hindus who believe themselves to be in a relationship with Krishna, their deity of choice.  How do I distinguish the Christian’s claim of being in a relationship from the claims of other religions? It strikes me as being a lot like the kid claiming that he has a girl-friend, but she hasn’t sent him a full-body shot yet.   In order for me to take any of these claims seriously some evidence needs to be shown that the being you are in a relationship with even exists.
Honestly, even if this being you claim to have a relationship with does exist, your worshiping of him or her still constitutes a religion.  I would say the same about people who’s praise of their boyfriend or girlfriend crosses the line into worship (which apparently happens to people in relationships with cult leaders). Christians, who play the “it’s not a religion, it’s a relationship” card seem to do so because they don’t like the baggage associated with term religion.  They view the term religion as implying dogmatic, and unthinking types of belief.   Which they usually are.  Rather than accepting that he or she is being dogmatic, the believer seems to prefer telling herself that she has a direct line to the all-knowing creator of the universe. As far as I can tell Christians are Dogmatic, and often very unthinking.  To me it seems that they are simply believing in something they were indoctrinated to believe in, usually since childhood, when they had no way of knowing reality from fantasy.
When I look at it, their relationship seems like a pretty weak sauce one, at best.  Christians are supposedly communicating with the all-knowing creator of the universe, and yet all the supposedly demonstrable things he does for them are totally unimpressive.  He helps them find their car keys, but if one wants a cure for AIDS or a solution to our energy problems, one has to look elsewhere.  I have never heard a Christian claim that Jesus has provided guidance that they could not have come up with on their own.  To me the relationship Christians have with Jesus is in no way distinguishable from the relationship children have with their imaginary friends.  I’ll change my mind in the event that a Christian demonstrates that Jesus can do something tangible that an imaginary friend cannot.
Also, the idea of being in a relationship with someone who condones eternal torment for anyone who rejects him has horrendous moral implications. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to be in a relationship with such a monster, unless it’s something similar to the women who date gangsters and thugs in an attempt to stay on their good side. In this being’s eyes the believer is a vile, sinful, undeserving wretch, who needs to come crawling and begging for any shred of forgiveness he or she gets.   There is also the problem that the being you are supposedly in a relationship with, actively allows an evil supernatural being to work towards undermining your relationship.  Everything about it is truly bizarre.
Anyway, I’ll simply ask all the believers out there:  Why should I take the claim that you are in some sort of relationship seriously?  What evidence do you have that this being exists, and that he views humans in any way other than a shallow binary: believers=1 and nonbelievers=0?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Imagine: Some reflections on Music and 9-11-11

September 11th of 2001 was a day that will live in infamy, and on it’s 10 year anniversary, many of us took time to look back on it and how the events of that day rocked our world. As atheists we tend to look at it as a day that really highlights the horrors that religion can bring about. After all, it was on that day 10 years ago that a handful of deeply religious men acting in full accordance with their interpretation of their holy-book committed a horrendous act of mass murder on innocent civilians. As I have often heard it put “Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings”.

I’ve seen this message very starkly expressed in a popular Internet meme over the last few years. Simply put the meme features a picture of the World Trade Center buildings standing tall on a sunny New York day as they once did. This image features the caption “Imagine no Religion”. This phrase was taken from John Lennon’s famous song Imagine. Since nearly everyone is familiar with this song, and the lyrics are readily available on line, I won’t rehash it’s subject matter other than to say that one friend of mine said the following about it:

“No countries, nothing to fight for, no wars, nothing for men to test themselves against, no religion, no hope for a better existence beyond this, living one day to the next, no wondering about the future of humanity, no religion, no philosophy, no possessions, so no ambition, nothing to drive you, no meaning or purpose for existence, no Alexander the Great, no Churchill, no Caesar, …John Lennon you may call this a dream, but I call it a nightmare.”

Here is my response (feel free to share your thoughts):

1. No religion- since there is no evidence that any of the world’s religions are true, the world would be a better place without them. What good is a hope if there is no good reason to think it will be fulfilled? It is far better for people to make decisions about the world based on what is actually likely, rather on some hope that things will be better when they die. The realization that life is finite makes people try to live everyday to the fullest. Religion is one of if not the biggest sources of violence, hatred, pain, suffering and divisiveness in human history.

2. No wars: How can you say that without wars men would have nothing to test themselves against? We are constantly testing ourselves by improving our ability to survive longer in the natural world, in the business world people are constantly testing themselves through competition, in athletics people are constantly pushing the limits of what their physical bodies can do. In science and intellectual pursuits people constantly test themselves by pushing the boundaries of human knowledge and improve lives as a result. Wars on the other hand, destroy human lives, well-being and wealth. The fact that they give men something to test themselves against is in no way a justification for the destruction they cause.

3. No philosophy: I don’t think that one is in the song, in fact the song seems to be sharing a sort of personal political philosophy.

4. No possessions: I personally like possessions, but it is possible that Lennon meant that he preferred wealth be spread more evenly throughout society and concentrations of power be dismantled (He’s dead though so I can’t ask him & ironically he was a guy who had a great deal of possessions and wealth).In such a society people would still have ambition and be driven to innovate by their desire to make life easier for themselves, gain knowledge,and experience new things etc. Also if access to wealth is more abundant to all, it means less people will be dependent upon small numbers of elites for work, and as such will be freer to pursue what ever type of inquiry one wants. (Note: the extent to which such an arrangement is possible is highly debatable, but I think that is what the song is saying, and have no problem with someone throwing it out there.)

5. “No meaning or purpose for your existence” The purpose and meaning for your existence are the purpose and meaning you choose. There is no authority but yourself. You don’t need a celestial dictatorship to assign meaning to your life, and even if you desire one, it does not matter because there is no evidence to suggest there is one, anyway. I personally, find meaning in the time spent with my friends and loved ones and exploring this amazing world and learning more about this amazing universe we live in. For me the human experience is more than worthwhile in and of it self and the fact that it does not stretch into eternity does not change this for me.

Alexander the great and Caesar were warlords who fancied themselves as Gods and used theft and violence to gain dictatorial power and force others to pay them tribute. While their military genius may have been admirable and impressive they used it for offensive purposes and much of what they did should not be glorified.

Churchill is a slightly different case since he was fighting a defensive war against Nazi Germany. I honestly share John Lennon’s hope that one day we will cease to see attacks from regimes like Nazi Germany and not need people like Churchill, to counter them with further violence.

That is why, this September, let’s not take for granted the struggle that took place to make the life you live so much nicer and more comfortable than that of your ancestors, and the role that science and technology contributed to this. Also, let’s try to be more mindful of how harmful dogmatic, rigid belief systems can be and try to be more open to the possibility we all could be wrong about even our most cherished beliefs.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Why Does the Christian God Send people to hell

A while back I was conversing with a Christian friend who was outraged that Evangelist Rob Bell declared, in his most recent book, Love Wins:

“It’s been clearly communicated to many that this belief (in hell as conscious, eternal torment) is a central truth of the Christian faith and to reject it is, in essence, to reject Jesus. This is misguided and toxic and ultimately subverts the contagious spread of Jesus’ message of love, peace, forgiveness and joy that our world desperately needs to hear.”

He was outraged because for him hell is very much a real place, and by implying that it is not, my friend feels that Bell is really undermining an important and biblically supported piece of Christian Doctrine.

As a response, I stated that I agree with him that the bible, does support the concept of a hell, but it is for this reason (and many others) I find the bible to be morally and logically absurd and repugnant. Additionally, I said that the fact that Mr. Bell is inclined to reject this is a reflection of how divisive religions are and how much they tend to fragment. Also it is a reflection of the fact that Christianity as a whole is under pressure to adapt the norms and morals of our post-enlightenment era, just as it has had to adapt to a heliocentric solar system, evolution, the germ theory of disease ect. I have heard it said, and agree that “Christianity has been dragged kicking and screaming into the 20th/21st century.” and I’m glad it no longer burns witches or tortures heretics. For a religion that is still in need of dragging see Islam and certain sects of Mormonism.

At this point my friend pointed out that it is his belief that the eternal punishment of people in Hell “is necessary for people who reject Christ’s atonement for their sin.”

My question for Christians, then is Why should that even be necessary?: If this God is truly the all -powerful, all-knowing all-benevolent being of love he is claimed to be, he should be able to forgive everyone with out a brutal blood sacrifice. After all, nothing is too much for a God that is all powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent. The messed up thing about this theology is that this God created us such that in his eyes we are worthy of nothing but eternal torment in a place worse than anything the Nazis ever created. That’s important. If we are all wretched sinners it is because either:

A. He created us as such (& punishes us for it)


B. He created us with the full knowledge and intention that we would become such (and punishes us for it, which is just as bad as A).

Either way hell is simply God’s way of punishing us for being the way he created us (which is insanely immoral). But it gets more messed up, the God of Christian theology has decided that to prevent himself from punishing some subset of people this way, he would have come down in human form, and in a disturbing piece of theater allow humans to brutally murder him. This way HE could act as the blood sacrifice HE demands in exchange for His own forgiveness. That is of course forgiveness for being the way HE created us. The catch of course, is that the only way you can obtain this forgiveness is by setting aside your ability to think critically and be willing to accept that such a wild, bloody, immoral and nonsensical story is true.

That’s the scary thing. This God’s decide who gets sent to this eternal torment he created not on the basis of the quality of our character but on what we happen to believe at the time we die (which is a rather trivial thing to judge someone on). Christians can argue that God has a right to judge us however he likes, and they’ve got a bit of a point. If he exists I can stop him from judging me, but that doesn’t make it in anyway just. It certainly doesn’t justify sending me to a torture chamber forever. If an earthly dictator did this he would rightfully be declared a tyrant and a monster. Why then is it something praiseworthy that a God would do it?