The Benefits of Atheism

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“Imagine that the brain is a computer and that religion is a virus. Atheism is the wiping of that virus.” – Nick Harding[1]

 

What does atheism offer?”, “What good is it?”,  “What benefit can be gained from not believing in God?

Well that depends on how much you value intellectual honesty? How valuable is reason? And I say this without a hint of hubris or intellectual snobbery, although it is often taken to be the very height of just that by theists. But I mean this with the utmost sincerity born out of a genuine caring for people and concern for the future of my children and humanity as a species. For me, intellectual honesty and reason are incredibly important. I’d argue that progress as a person, a society, and as a species is contingent upon it. So when it comes to beliefs that shape our very lives, that provide the foundation from which we conduct ourselves and how we see the world, then nothing could be more important. Now before we delve deeper, let’s be clear, atheism is not a worldview, ideology, or philosophy[2]. Atheism doesn’t provide a foundation of it’s own. But it provides firm ground free of the debris of theism and clears out the religious weeds before they can crack through the foundation of rationality. Allowing instead for solid foundations to be laid. Well grounded foundations such as naturalism and secular humanism, for example. So then what good is it? Well provided that one accepts how rationality, knowledge, and human flourishing are of the utmost importance to the continuing development and progress towards the betterment of humanity as a whole, then one must also give consideration to how these are able to be derailed by bad reasoning, dogmatic ideologies, and faith-based beliefs[3], then the benefit of atheism becomes clearer. To make an important distinction, I’m not arguing that atheism is more rational than theism, I’m arguing that theism is irrational and must be rejected and/or removed from the methods of reasoning altogether. We even see this in the cases of credible scientists who are in fact religious. Those scientists who hold such a belief only hold to it when the white coat is off. They reason like atheists in the lab. Atheism in the context of this discussion is that acknowledgement. The crux of my argument is simply this… atheism clears the way for reason to properly operate.

 

There is a clarity in thinking that comes with having a foundation unfettered with underlying supernatural assumptions. Assumptions like a supernatural deity created the whole of reality and is pulling the strings. And that this deity has an ultimate plan and is watching everything with divine judgment. This foundational clarity allows for the methods of sound reasoning to build. We must be diligent in our efforts to be clear in our thinking and to be objective and honest in our analyses. It’s crucial to build our knowledge on a solid foundation. Even if it means arriving at conclusions that force us to abandon our most cherished beliefs. And the problems that are brought on board when one adopts a god belief chokes reason off at the root. These problems are found in the methods a believer must adopt of defending that belief at all costs. It’s in the fideistic attitude that reason is inadequate and ill-equipped or even an outright misology. It’s also found in the demonization of reason whenever reason challenges the belief in a god and the methods of attaining it. According to theism, faith trumps reason. The best reason can accomplish is to compliment faith. Reason serves to merely placate faith. Reason alone is the trickery of Satan or the product of a prideful fallen creation. Atheism, at this fundamental level, doesn’t allow for such manipulation to take hold. And thus allows for honest, critical analysis. That is all atheism needs to do. But let’s not think this as some trivial thing. Far from it.

 

“It is the absolutism of theism, its pernicious influence upon humanity, its paralyzing effect upon thought and action, which Atheism is fighting with all its power.” – Emma Goldman[4]

 

But there’s another, more personal reason how atheism can be a benefit. It must be acknowledged that many atheists were religious at some point in there lives. And given that religion is deeply ingrained in practically every society around the world. There’s no escaping it’s influence in some capacity. For those that escaped the grip of religion, or are constantly having religion shoved down their throats, atheism can be liberating. Many have witnessed first hand the harm these beliefs have on relationships and we are bombarded daily with news displaying the immense tension caused by religion in societies around the world. Many have been shunned by their community and ostracized by their own family. But consider those who live in regions of the world where harsh religious oppression is everyday life. Where religion isn’t a free choice and apostasy is punished. Where religious totalitarianism suffocates every independent thought of the people around you. Just uttering the words “I’m an atheist” is like a breath of fresh air. Even if it must done clandestinely behind closed doors out of fear of punishment, including death. It is a push-back against the unrelenting inculcation of dogma and religious extremism. Taking into account these two points discussed here, the necessity of atheism couldn’t be more apparent and its benefits are far-reaching. The fewer false, irrational, faith-based things we believe, the better we will be able to grasp reality and thus flourish. And atheism eliminates the biggest offender.

 

-Rich

 

Notes:

[1] Nick Harding, News Talk, January 25, 2016

[2] This isn’t to say that one’s atheology doesn’t contain philosophy, or the reason for one’s rejection of theism. But that’s irrelevant to the topic as atheism doesn’t require any. One can be perfectly justified in simply saying they have no place for a belief in a god belief in their lives.

[3] see my blog where I argue against faith and it’s incompatibility with reason… https://coupleofatheists.com/2013/11/05/unreasonable-faith/  

[4] Emma Goldman, Mother Earth, Feb. 1916

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Religious Vs Secular Ethics: “Where Do I Get My Morality From?”

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We cannot abandon the idea of human well-being and pretend that our moral discourse make sense.” – Philippa Foot[1]

“Where Do I Get My Morality From?” This question simply doesn’t seem to suffice. It doesn’t get to the crux of the matter. I think the questions that would be better suited are “what is the foundation of our morality” and even more importantly, “how do we develop our morality?”[2] In this blog I’ll attempt to briefly summarize my argument as this topic could easily take several books to cover. Here I argue that a secular moral framework is the only way to understand and develop a proper moral system. Whereas religion (or God as the argument goes) not only cannot provide the foundation for morality, but actually undermines it.
Broadly speaking, morality has a naturalistic foundation as we evolved as a social species that can reason. And how we develop our morality is from the recognition and reasoned reflection of the human condition we find ourselves in and the states of affairs that affect it. It is the critical analysis of the various data that inform us about the correct and incorrect actions that affect the current state of affairs in such a way that is most conducive to human flourishing, thus improving the overall human condition. Then we implement these principles in everyday human interaction, so much so that they can become character traits. This is then in turn passed on to the next generation. Our actions have positive and/or negative effects on other people. And by extension, these actions affect or create states of affairs that are either beneficial or detrimental to well being, societal health, etc. that are necessary conditions for overall human flourishing. This is an objective moral fact and what we mean when we speak of “morality”.
Now a common objection to this is to say that there’s no “authority” from preventing me from doing otherwise, that may be, but we have a word for that… it’s called “immoral”. To suggest that “torturing for fun is moral” is a nonsensical statement. The word “moral” has a specific usage (which I outlined above). It’s this basis of what we mean when we say “moral”. It’s also how we can judge acts and ideologies (such as religion) as “immoral” as they don’t conform to any sense of the term properly applied.
Another common objection isn’t really an objection at all, and that is to ask “why should I care about human flourishing?” But this is a different question than what we are addressing here. However, this question when applied to religious morality does expose the real nature of the religious moral framework as being a self-serving consequentialism. Because when we pose the question to the believer, the answer is typically along the lines of “because God knows what’s best for us” or “this is God’s moral law” and by following these laws there are rewards and disobeying these laws result in consequences. Whether the consequence for disobeying God is eternal torment in Hell, the complete annihilation of the soul, or simply not being in God’s presence and experiencing him.[3]

“For our values to have universal appeal, they must be rooted in our common humanity, not in the faiths that divides us.” – Minette Marrin[4]

This shallow, self-serving consequentialism is ultimately predicated on blind obedience and thus an abandonment of our rational faculties. It destroys the very foundation of ethics and the means in which we develop them. It provides a cheap and hollow understanding of morality that doesn’t provide a means to get to the core of the issues and cuts us off from delving deeper. And this deficiency of religious morality is revealed when we attempt to apply it to real world moral problems we face today.
Religion, being an authoritarian ideology (and the most widespread and thus influential), lends itself to the forming of beliefs that have metastasized in some of the most evil acts imaginable. It’s primary fault is the psychological consequences of the beliefs it fosters. It gives justification for attitudes and worldviews that often result in actions that are detrimental and corrosive to any civilized, modern society and on a global scale.[5] Given this, the believer can no longer make any moral judgments beyond “what did god command” or “is this in accordance with God’s nature”. Within a religious framework, we are left without the ability to weigh “goodness” against other “goodness” or “evil” against other “evil” as these terms no longer have a demonstrable foundation in humanity. Good and evil become an outside standard that you cannot participate in, only obey.

“We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.” – Socrates[6]

When I use terms like “moral” and “ethics”, I am talking about something of substance, something demonstrable. Religion can’t make even this most basic of claims about morality. Whereas religion destroys the very foundation of morality and thus results in a deficient and shallow ethical system, a secular moral philosophy grounded in humanistic principles and informed by science provides us with a robust moral system with the ability to grow and develop as our understanding grows and develops. It provides the solid foundation necessary to make proper moral judgments and not a system of simply following “laws”. This makes it the only viable moral framework and eliminates the faith-based religious framework from contention. I take it as my duty to challenge such ideology as it undermines morality, and morality is arguably the most important topic we as humans need to understand if we are to continue to progress towards a better future for all of humanity, here now and for generations to come.

-Rich

Notes:
[1] Virtues and Vices, Philippa Foot
[2] I will use our instead of I as our refers to an objective standard that would apply to every human universally, whereas I would simply be referring to the subjective acceptance (or not) of this standard.
[3] There have been many variations on punishment as apologists have been attempting to reconcile the concept of an eternal Hell with a supposedly omni-benevolent God.
[4] Minette Marrin, Twitter, 02 Jul 15
[5] The argument isn’t about whether religion once was wholly beneficial to developing a society (which I reject) or not. Only that we see the problems that arise in today’s societies.
[6] Republic, Socrates

Reflecting on the Jesus Question

“What Have I Changed My Mind On?” I was asked by my Christian interlocutor when I stated that I have in fact researched the topic of the historicity of Jesus. It’s a great question in general. One I probably haven’t reflected on in a while. It can be enlightening and something that I urge anyone who values intellectual honesty to do. However, I don’t think the answer I have is quite what he was expecting.

I had long since rejected the biblical stories of miracles and the divinity of Jesus. However, for years I just took it for granted that a historical person named Jesus was the actual person being referenced in the Bible and his life was chronicled in the New Testament. But when I started actually looking into it, I quickly found that the New Testament itself has some real problems that simply couldn’t be ignored if I was to remain intellectually honest[1]. And these challenges were fully exposed when I began reading the work done by mythicists[2]. The works of Richard Carrier, Robert Price, and Earl Doherty provided convincing scholarly arguments to the mythicist position. When I cross-referenced these arguments with the work published by theologians and Christian historians, I found that the evidence for a historical Jesus is much weaker than I had ever considered. It became glaringly apparent that many of these Christian Scholars were simply writing in there own religious beliefs wherever these difficulties were found. They simply glossed over many of them as not being difficulties at all. Ignoring that from a historical standpoint, these issues are actually quite devastating to their particular reading of the history[3]. Given all this, I began to realize that the mythicist position has real credibility to it.

Another obvious problem I found was that most of the prominent biblical scholars are already believers in the divine Jesus and how this belief can be clearly seen to taint their investigations into the historical Jesus. Religious and supernatural language can often be found peppered throughout their work and miracles and/or the divinity of Jesus are commonly invoked to mask the dubiousness of their conclusions drawn. Not surprisingly, this goes largely ignored by christian readership. Such a grandiose presupposition (that Jesus is their God in human form) can’t help but to impose upon the very method by which they build their hypothesis. Historian Richard Carrier points out a number of these flaws in the methods used by these mainstream scholars[4]. These are methods that are not permitted (or at least not held as very credible) in other historical investigations, least not if the historian wants to remain credible as a historian[5]. Much like in other fields in science, the bias towards their deeply held religious convictions couldn’t be more obvious. An easy way to spot these biases is to read some of their investigations of other religions. Needless To Say, you won’t find any even-handedness in method there.

We can hear the bias (and profound ignorance) echoed in the rhetoric of the average Christian. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard that “the resurrection is the best attested fact in history” or “there’s more evidence for Jesus than for Julius Caesar” and nothing offered to support it. It’s simply just not taught that there is very strong evidence pointing to the gospels[6], and several of Paul’s letters, being forgeries. Or that many of these accounts were written well after the events supposedly took place. That there is evidence of scribal error, omissions, redactions, and not to mention a lack of contemporary outside (non-biblical) sources. While the majority of biblical scholars don’t much contest this, the general public seems oblivious. I too, was unknowingly influenced by such obscurantist rhetoric and misinformation. I grew up believing that the historicity of Jesus was a foregone conclusion and NO scholar disputed it (which in hindsight should’ve been a red flag). So I was quite surprised to find that there were, in fact, even prominent theologians that not only doubted the evidence for a historical Jesus, but actually argued against such a claim. Take theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer for example. He is one of several prominent christian scholars that argues that the quest for the historical Jesus is hopeless[7]. His work on this topic is never mentioned by these mainstream apologetic historians and go largely unknown in the Christian community.

But is this enough to cast the credibility of a historical Jesus into doubt? I think so. However, this brings me to the most significant issue that I have changed my mind on, and that is that the question simply isn’t that important of one. Not in regards to the claims of Christianity. Historically speaking, it’s not really a particularly interesting question, either. Let me explain…
First off, we can demarcate between a historical Jesus and a divine Jesus that performed miracles and such. The parts that ARE entirely myth are those stories of a divine Jesus (for reasons other than just the criteria we use for a historical, human Jesus). These dubious claims can be refuted wholly apart from a historical Jesus. So could there have been a person at that time claiming religious divinity, or claiming to be acting on behalf of the divine, that people found believable enough to follow? Sure, I don’t find that to be particularly controversial or all that improbable. We have countless accounts of such people doing that very thing, even today! Are there some stories in the Bible that are a reference this same person? Maybe, maybe not. We may never have conclusive evidence of this. But if we are to honestly engage in such an investigation, we must also consider that many of the stories in the Bible could be embellishments of what may have taken place. Perhaps to give Christianity a foothold? Seems plausible. Could many of these embellishments be borrowed from other myths? Of course. Given the evidence, this line of thinking seems highly likely. Or could many of these stories justifiably be complete fabrications with no connection to a single person? Absolutely!

The question is, without being weighed down by the baggage of the “divine”, where does this leave the historical Jesus? Well, it seems that when stripped of the exaggerations and embellishments of what very well could be references to a historical person in the character of Jesus, then we’re left with a quite unremarkable figure. Just one of many such figures in antiquity. The true “power”, influence, and interest surrounding Christianity is in the myths and propaganda of Jesus and not in the historical living human that people came to know as Jesus. Without the myths of the miraculous, then there’s just not much to talk about. I, like many, used to think that the existence of a historical Jesus was somehow one step closer to “proving” the existence of a divine Jesus and this was one step closer to proving God exists and to verifying Christianity. I came to realize that that is not the case. Jesus, a human, the son of a carpenter, a preacher and prophet from the ancient times, is not the what Christianity is built upon. Jesus, the son and lamb of God, 1/3rd of the trinity, the crucified and resurrected savior, is the foundation of Christianity. The existence of a historical Jesus has no bearing on the existence of the Divine Jesus of the Christian faith. It does not take us one step closer in any way to the existence of a god anymore than the existence of a historical Muhammad brings us any closer to existence of Allah and vindicating the miracle claims found in the Quran.

– Rich

Notes:

[1] I think it is uncontroversial to state it as philosophy professor Matthew McCormick does. He writes “…we have learned that a well-justified conclusion must be based upon a wide, objective aggregation of evidence followed by a balanced evaluation that adequately explores possible counter-evidence, alternative hypotheses, an error checking.” and then goes on to correctly point out that the process whereby the Jesus story was recorded and transmitted to us failed miserably on these criteria. The religious goal of fostering belief is at odds with the epistemological goal of believing only those conclusions that are justified by the evidence.” Atheism and the Case Against Christ, Matthew S. McCormick, p12.

[2] (Broadly)Those who argue there is not enough evidence to support a historical Jesus and posit that it is more likely that the whole story is a myth and no such person existed.

[3] In his book, Jesus is Dead, Robert Price systematically dismantles several of the most influential of modern biblical Scholars, such as N. T. Wright, William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas, et al. Taking apart their arguments with surgical precision.

[4] Why I Think Jesus Didn’t Exist: A Historian Explains the Evidence That Changed His Mind – Richard Carrier
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mwUZOZN-9dc

[5] Here Robert Price details the Historical Method and why these popular apologists, theologians, and Christian biblical Scholars are mistaken and why we can’t honestly reach the same conclusions they do.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ITq6Cv-R8JM

[6] It is important to point out that the gospel authors we not historians, they were writing to serve their theological motives
The Case Against Christianity, Michael Martin – p38

[7] The Quest for the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer
*It must be noted that Schweitzer challenges the secular view and the traditional Christian view.

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle[1]

Atheists cannot entertain deep intellectual thought exercises because they are close-minded.”[2] This is basically the charge I’ve been confronted with recently in several discussions. So I think I’ll take a moment to argue not only that it’s unwarranted, but that the opposite is indeed the case.

There is nothing about atheism that suggests one has to avoid thinking about such topics as gods. It just means that we’ve come to a conclusion about certain claims being made regarding a particular beings existence and (as in my case) the attributes typically ascribed to them. Take studying philosophy and science, their respective histories contain various concepts of God(s) dating back to the ancient Greeks. Many of the most influential early scientific works, such as Isaac Newton, contain mentions of a god(s)[3]. So to heed the words of Bertrand Russell, one must be willing to confront the absurd[4]. These are concepts that atheists have been exposed to and, more times than not, have thought about. Many have even accepted one concept of god or another at some point in their life. It’s not that atheists haven’t entertained such thoughts, it’s that most atheists have. We are not close-minded to new or extraordinary ideas and concepts, or even counter-intuitive ones. But that doesn’t mean that we should not separate the wheat from the chaff in the arena of ideas. Especially with respect to intellectual development and scientific progress. This is a necessary process for moving out of ignorance and not some dogmatic adherence to an ideology.

We see that given the dogmatic assumptions that typically accompany theism, it is actually the atheist that is open to new discoveries, and following the new evidence extrapolated from them, to where it leads. However, we recognize that there is no need to open the flood gates so wide as to lose our grounding in reality. We needn’t abandon our faculties to reason in this way. Nor do atheists need to shoehorn the whole of reality into a belief around one particular deity, as theists (of any particular faith) do. We needn’t abandon our intellectual honesty in this way. That is the epitome of the very thing the atheist is being charged with. I can think of little more close-minded than to start all scientific inquiries and philosophical investigations from the presupposition that one particular deity, with a particular set of attributes, conveniently the same one that the theist already believes in, is the creator and ruler of all. Also it just so happens that this particular deities divine instructions for living in this world comes from their particular holy book (again convenient).

It must be addressed that there is a bit of hypocrisy being exposed here within the theists camp. Does the Christian actively think that it is possible that his god doesn’t exist? Does the Muslim actively think that she may be wrong and Hinduism could be right? Are we supposed to allow for equal possibility for all god concepts to exist? To accept this nigh impossible. At least to anyone who has a basic understanding of the differences and similarities of the concepts of deities and the theologies that give them life.

What about just some vague, undefined “something”, as in, I assume, a powerful supreme intelligence that got it all started? Well, even with that, one must take on a lot of unjustifiable baggage. Assumptions about intelligence and consciousness become a problem as contemporary science and philosophy have a few things to say about the matter. Physics and cosmology have quite a bit to say about the universe and how it came about. Then there’s the problems of temporality and spatiality and the nature of what it means to “exist”. These matters are clearly not settled, but it shows that the conversations are moving further and further away from god talk. Could there be some as of yet undiscovered “something out there”? I don’t know because I don’t know what that “concept” (if we can allow the term) would entail. But I could conceive of there being something more in principle, whereas the believer cannot do so outside of their concept of god. And their god not existing is unthinkable, even in principle. It’s even seen as a failure or test of “faith” in many religious circles. But even if we accept such a concept as this unclarified and ambiguous “something”, is that what we are to call “god”? Will that satisfy the typical religious believer? I doubt it. I, on the other hand, like many atheists, am open to entertaining such ideas like of other forms of life elsewhere in the universe. I’m open to the possibility of a Multiverse. And I’m sure I’m not the only philosophile to give considerable thought to the “brain in a vat” problem. I can give serious consideration to moral dilemmas and truly look for meaning and purpose in life. I can think honestly about “gods”, without taking any of them on board or adopt any of their dogmas. I can entertain a great number of possibilities without being beholden to any.

And yet, all these things are restricted to the religious believer. Taboo even, to the more fundamentalist. Believing in a god essentially strips these subjects of thought of their value and relevance. Reducing them to a mere glimpse of a gods whim or fancy. The best religion can offer is the hope that their god will reveal a little bit more so our “feeble minds” can get a little closer to him. That doesn’t sound very open-minded to me at all. No, I say I am getting the full experience as science and secular philosophy fosters the kind of thinking that aids in fruitful “open-mindedness”. I’d argue that atheism is the best (and quite possibly only) position that can allow for the open-mindedness it takes to entertain these thought experiments and still maintain a grounding of rationality and commitment to intellectual honesty.[5]

– Rich

Notes:

[1] from Aristotle’s Metaphysics

[2] This was pretty much the gist of several different conversations I have had recently. Within those conversations there were statements like “atheist weren’t exposed (or willing to be exposed) to the idea of theism” and how this led to our “ignorance”. And how atheists are supposedly dogmatically holding to materialism and unwilling to consider anything other than some narrow, strictly empirical view of reality. Never to venture too far from our “master”, science (as erroneously described as basically our line-of-sight personal observations). And it is because of this we are missing out on the full experience of thinking about reality and to engaging in such philosophical thought experiments. So I decided to combine these conversations and attempt to address them all at once.

[3] Regarding these early scientists, it must be stated that god(s) was not used in any important, explanatory way. The concept of a god typically served as a widget at the limits of their understanding. We see this happening over and over again with vastly different concepts throughout the ages. From Zeus and other gods of polytheism to the monotheistic God of Abraham.

[4] “Whoever wishes to become a philosopher must learn not to be frightened by absurdities.” The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell, p.24

[5] If one wants to object that rationality and intellectual honesty are somehow a hindrance to open-mindedness, then what good can being open-minded serve? It would seem that this version of “open-mindedness” would be detrimental. Like the saying goes, “so open-minded that your brain falls out”.

Further Up The Mountain: A Response to Robert Jastrow’s Infamous Quote

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“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”[1]

For those who haven’t encountered this quote before, it’s from American astronomer, physicist and cosmologist, Robert Jastrow. This statement has been championed by theists and has even found its way into high profile debates against atheists[2]. I probably wouldn’t have given much consideration to it had it not been thrown at me on more than one occasion. I assume it’s touted by theists so ardently because they think it carries significant weight simply because of his scientific credentials (and not on the scientific merit of the statement itself, proving once again that in apologetics, it’s not what is said but who is saying it). It would seem that Jastrow’s renown is all that is needed to confer the stamp of legitimacy, even if the statement itself doesn’t pass muster.

So what are we to make of this? Many of us will no doubt balk at such an irresponsible utterance, having heard such rhetoric before, but it deserves a retort if for nothing else than the widespread patronization of it by crass apologists.

In taking a closer look, right away we see there are problems. Not just with the statement itself, but also with the way theists present it. For example, it is often used as a point of argument by theists that Jastrow was a self-professed agnostic, but given the many interviews he’s given in various Christian forums, and by the tone of his books, like as evident by the statement on offer here, he’s pretty clearly of a theistic (or at least deistic) slant[3]. Funny how these same theists that prop up this tripe as an honest concession of a skeptic fail to take into consideration that an agnostic can in principle be a theist and continue on portraying him as if he were of the more common atheistic type.

Also, I could spend quite some time addressing other obvious issues that jump out to me. Like in the use of the word “faith” here or the way theology is expressed to take precedent over science (It is a bit surprising to hear such a dismissal if science coming from a scientist). These two issues alone could fill an entire book. But I’d rather focus on analyzing the symbolism of the analogy itself because there’s several problems contained within that I don’t think Jastrow anticipated. In my analysis, I noticed how this analogy could easily be used against theology instead of in support of it. And the finale is that it actually exposes what has been argued by my fraternity to be true of theology in the modern scientific climate all along, and that is that science has passed this antiquated ideology by and left it far behind. Allow me to illustrate what I mean, then offer a response to Jastrow’s analogy in kind.

First, it could be asked if they’re even on the same mountain as theology never answered any such questions about reality. But for the sake of argument, we’ll assume they are. If they did happen to reach any point of the mountain before the scientist, it wasn’t because they knew where they were going nor did they even know where they were. They were essentially wandering in the dark and lost[4]. But it’s even worse for the theologians because in their faith induced self assuredness, they stopped climbing the mountain (the scientist is greeted by the theologians who are just sitting there). Their religious faith gave them the illusion that they have reached the top. We see that the theologians here assume they have met the scientist at a pinnacle that, as science has shown us, hasn’t been reached. Their faith essentially serves as clouds obscuring their view to what lies beyond. And this is the obstacle religious faith creates.

So now that I laid a bit of foundation, allow me to offer (oh so humbly) my response to Jastrow’s careless analogy. This is what the logical conclusion to the story would be…

“As the scientist sat amongst the theologians, he found that he was not content with just faithfully sitting on the rocks. His commitment to reason and scientific inquiry compelled him to explore further and he discovered that the mountain continued past the clouds that had kept the theologians from seeing any higher. So he began climbing further up and out of the clouds to find the vast universe beginning to open up to him as he left the theologians below to gloat by their dwindling fire beneath the cover of the clouds. Left clouded by their faith, they arrogantly thought they had reached the highest peak and so they just sat… as they have for centuries.”[5]

– Rich Hess


Notes:
[1] From God and the Astronomers, Robert Jastrow (1978). Jastrow’s allegory was about the Big Bang Theory (which many fundamentalist Christians still deny). This isn’t relevant to this particular discussion however and I only mention it here for accuracy. But for further research, I recommend looking up works from philosophers of science, such as Quintin Smith, and any number of contemporary physicists and cosmologists (Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, Victor Stenger, just to name a few) who explain the Big Bang and why the theologians are wrong.

[2] The example I had in mind was the debate between Frank Turek and Christopher Hitchens (23:44 mark) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oVZnwZdh-iM

[3] Now I’m not going to go out on a limb and speculate that he was a believer in God, but it’s enough to point out that there is a distinction in how we are to understand “agnosticism” here. It’s certainly safe to say that he was sympathetic to theology.

[4] After all, it’s theologians that teach as fact Noah’s Flood, the Genesis creation myth, talking animals, etc. Even if they were to stumble onto some observation that turned out to be factual (or even partially factual), we can hardly credit their “methods” of getting there.

[5] The “clouds” here represent the theologians faith. In thinking they had all the answers they were looking for as prescribed by their religious dictates, they were ignorant of the possibility of there being anything beyond. And thus they have stopped searching. Unlike religion, in science, the climb is never ended. 

A Uterus from Nothing (part 8)

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1 month old

 

 

Arabella has arrived! It is exactly one month since the birth of my baby girl and finally I am able to sit down and share our story with you. The past month has been one of the best, maybe the best, of my entire life… but as seems to be the case for this entire journey, the road was not a particularly easy one.

It was July 19 when I first started feeling minor contractions that were different than the Braxton Hicks I had been feeling for months, the pain was mainly in my back and something just didn’t seem right. I went to labor and delivery on the 20th and they said it was too early and were about to send me home when a gush of fluid (like the kind you see in a movie) came out. I was quickly moved to a birthing room and the process started. The pain in my back began to intensify and then I began having full blown back labor. The pain in my back was so intense that I could not even feel contractions in my stomach, just my back. It turns out baby girl was facing backwards and her head was resting on my spine. She was unable to drop into my pelvis and so I could not dilate properly- I was given pitocin to try to rectify the situation, but it just wasn’t working. After about 8 hours of this, the doctor suggested they preform a cesarean section, this was the absolute last thing I wanted to happen. However, as soon as it was explained that it was not only best for me, but for my child, I consented to the procedure. The spinal block was administered and the procedure began. I remember while being in a twilight like state and looking into Rich’s eyes, that it was astounding that I had such options. Once baby was safely out of my abdomen they began to put me back together. I was not able to hold baby immediately, so her first skin-to-skin was with Rich. I was still on the table in a similar position as you typically see with Jesus on the cross. Within 20 minutes I was back in my room and breast feeding- and that has been her favorite activity ever since.

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1 day old

I was surprised at how many people seemed saddened by my situation. I received many apologies, some going as far as to say it was a shame I was unable to “give birth”. For the record, that is a bunch of b.s. . Sure, natural birth was not an option but I am thankful that medical science was there to intervene. I still feel that I birthed a child that day and no one will ever convince me otherwise.

Since my Atheism was not known by the nurses, residents and physicians I received many comments about my “little angel” who is “such a blessing”. I did not use this as an opportunity to chastise them for disrespecting me and my lack-of belief. Anyone who has read my blogs will already know that is not my style. Instead I thanked them and thought, she may not be a gift from God but she is a gift from the medical community. From the moment I conceived to the moment I delivered medical science was involved. I could not have done it without the perseverance of doctors, researchers and scientists. So I thank you all for my baby girl- you have changed my life.

As Arabella grows I hope to pass on to her the secular values that I hold so dear. I want to show her that just because someone may feel differently than you do, it doesn’t make them a bad person or a stupid person, it just means that they have had a different journey than we have. I want her to know that bashing those who believe is never the answer, but taking the time to hear them out and educate them is likely to go a long way. People always ask what we will do if she decides to take a different path than we have and chooses to believe. Well the answer is that I will respect her, I will love her, and I will only expect the same in return.

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A Uterus from Nothing (part 7)

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As my pregnancy is coming to an end I find myself reflecting on the experiences I have had and the things that I have learned. I cannot cover all of it, so I am picking the top two. First, when you are pregnant, people have no filter towards you. They will comfortably make comments about how you look, what you are doing, what you might potentially do once baby has arrived and sometimes you just have to ignore it. More importantly I learned that not every mention of religion is meant to be insulting. Some people just don’t know how to express themselves without a religious undertone. Miracles, blessings and even prayers can be appreciated by the secular, if the good intent is clear. Here, let me give you a few examples of what I have encountered.

While attending a book sale at our local Half Price Books a man approached me and said “Do you know anyone who is pregnant?” I assumed he was teasing me since the bump was quite obvious at that point. In jest, I replied “nope”. Then he went off on a rant about circumcision. The rights of a man to not be mutilated. The carelessness of parents who choose to risk infection on their sons. I interjected, letting him know that he didn’t have to worry- I am pregnant with a little girl and that I certainly do not condone female genital mutilation. This was not sufficient. He was relentless. Coming at me insisting there is never a valid reason, religious or otherwise.  I eventually just had to find Rich and leave. The topic of circumcision is so controversial that many of the internet groups I am involved in (concerning pregnancy) have banned the topic. So having a complete stranger approach me and feel that they could preach their views was surprising. I did not witness him engage anyone else in this type of conversation, but for some reason my baby bump made him feel it was ok to spill his guts on this particularly hot topic. 

Another strange situation occurred at a local McDonald’s restaurant. A woman came up to me and made a remark about how I look like I am about to burst (it’s true!) and then touched my belly without asking. I politely backed up at which point she removed her hand and went into a story about her mother’s at home abortion. That’s right, as I was waiting to order my plain chocolate milkshake I had to hear about how good it is that I chose life… that it is sickening when people overstep God and take life into their own hands. The story was disgusting and I won’t go into details, but the overall point was that she was filled with resentment that she could have had a sibling if only her mother had followed God and chose life. I am not sure why I didn’t stop her preaching as I had with the man at the book store, maybe I was just in shock, Once again, someone felt that my pregnancy gave them carte blanch to say anything and everything that they wanted… and once again, I walked away without a fight.

Those examples are extreme and certainly don’t represent a regular day in my 39 weeks 2 days of being pregnant. Overall this has been the most incredible experience of my life. It has taught me so much about myself and at times restored my faith in humanity. One of the most beneficial things I learned was not to sweat the small stuff…specifically tolerance of random acts of religion…  seriously, it made my pregnancy much more enjoyable. 

For instance, there have been countless moments where strangers and friends alike have referred to Arabella as a “blessing”. I know some of my fellow Atheists would find this insulting, but I do not. For what a “blessing” is meant to represent, it is actually quite a compliment. Whenever someone would say that I would simply agree because to me, becoming pregnant truly is a gift, the only difference is that I don’t believe it is a gift from God… but why split hairs and start a fight when we are just celebrating my beautiful baby girl. 

Another moment that religion decided to sneak into my pregnancy came around the time of the baby shower… in the form of Noah’s Ark themed gifts and wrapping. I received at least 3 presents in gift bags with colorful animals on an ark (No Noah) that read something along the lines of “welcome baby”. I also received an adorable gift set that included a first year photo frame, first foot print/hand print frames and a special holder for the birth certificate. They all feature the ark and animal pairs (again, no Noah). I love the gift set and cannot wait to fill it with Arabella’s big moments… and to be clear I find absolutely nothing offensive about it at all. 

I have also had people pray for me and the health of my baby. They have prayed for a safe gestation and delivery. I know that they do this out of love and true concern for Arabella and I. Yes, I agree with the secular masses that praying is a useless act that doesn’t really mean anything… to us.  To them however it is meaningful and they are just saying “I wish you well” so why start a fight.  

There would be a great difference if the person calling Arabella a miracle added that she is a miracle of God and it is our duty to teach her his ways. If the person buying the Noah’s ark gift bag happened to fill it with rosary beads and a bible- this would be a reason to speak up. If the prayers that were being offered were meant to save my soul as well as the baby- asking that we lose our heathen ways and learn to follow God, I would absolutely tell them that they are out of line. None of these examples, or anything remotely close came into play throughout my pregnancy. 

I made the choice to embrace this experience all that it had to offer. When someone would mention my blessing or miracle, this just opened the door for me to educate them on exactly what advancements in medical science were able to do for me- how we created “a uterus from nothing”.  It has been an amazing ride and I have loved every moment… next stop, the arrival of my daughter.

 

Out of Context

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“It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”- Mark Twain

 

It can often seem like a mugs game to bring the bible into question during discussions with Christians. It never fails that when I post a verse from scripture that I think supports my argument, I’m immediately charged with taking that verse out of context. The arguments that ensue tend to deteriorate quickly and often frustratingly run in circles. When giving a critical analysis of Christianity in general, the religious faithful are quick to accuse me (and all atheists) of not doing my homework. But this is especially the case when I dare to tread on holy ground, which is the bible itself. It’s as if they assume I was never a Christian (which I was), never read the bible (which I have), and am just being exposed to it for the first time (which I haven’t). The general consensus among Christians seems to be that merely being a non-Christian automatically disqualifies one out of hand from accurately citing the holy book. This careless, outright dismissal proves to be little more than a dodge and it doesn’t excuse the believer from demonstrating this supposed misrepresentation.  

 

It’s confusing at times to know exactly what is meant by “taking it out of context”. Take the story of Elisha’s journey from 2 Kings[1] for example. It’s hard to imagine how a passage stating that God sent two bears to massacre forty two children in gruesome fashion for mocking Elisha’s baldness could be taken out of context. Not to mention how nonchalantly this terrible event is treated and how casually the story moves on. It was as if the children getting torn apart was a mere bump in the road. As if it was hardly worth mentioning. What else are we to interpret from this? In what other context could this be taken? It can hardly be disputed what those words say here. According to the story, either God sent bears to maul forty two children or not. Any extraneous interpretation the Christian wishes to read into this doesn’t do much to make the story less vile and horrific. When Christians offer a different “interpretation” to this story, what they are doing is offering more than the words say. Whatever addendum is made, however many excuses are made, the context is pretty clear. When confronted with the merciless brutality of a passage like this, they often instead focus their attention on finding a way to establish some moral meaning behind it, which ultimately proves to be too big a boulder to push in this case, or they argue that it was badly mistranslated.  

 

Translation is a tricky bit of maneuvering that seems to be the preferred tactic for the more indefensible passages found within the bible, as it is for the passage referenced above.[2] While I don’t doubt that there are occasional mistranslations interspersed throughout the bible, scholars and historians still debate over this very topic, we can hardly say that this alters the context as currently presented in such a significant way as to warrant disregarding entire passages on a whim simply for the purpose of recreating them to appear more acceptable or reasonable. Nor does it account for all the versions of the bible circulating today that translate these passages in a very similar way. Lest the Christian wishes the conversation to regress to the very origins of the bible. At which point it may be the case that we ought to disregard the entire bible altogether. This, of course, would leave the Christian at quite the disadvantage and hardly seems to be their intention. So instead of conceding the bible, many shamelessly commit themselves to an act of intellectual dishonesty and create their own “translation”. And in doing so, they in effect become the ones taking verses out of context, and in the most disingenuous manner, I might add. Tailoring the bible this way is not only indecorous of the Christian, but also immoral. The attempt to hide the horrific nature of this passage, and many others like it, by assuming translational errors ultimately can’t salvage the bible from failing to uphold what we would consider to be the most basic of humanities and common sense. Furthermore, what the Christian fails to realize is that this “lost in translation” argument creates far more problems for the believer than for the skeptic. The biggest one being that they have effectively stripped their bible of any practical reliability, and along with it, any argument for biblical inerrancy.

 

As I stated earlier, being a non-Christian seemingly disqualifies one from accurately referencing the bible. Maybe the problem is in how “accurately” or “correctly” is applied here. Historical implications aside for a moment, the meaning here appears to be supernatural. The Christian often claims that the only way to truly understand the bible is to believe in God, because they believe the bible is the word of God. So, according to the Christian, it stands to reason that if one doesn’t believe in God, then one won’t be able to interpret the bible correctly. Along with the obvious objection of circular reasoning, as well as being a thinly disguised attempt at unfalsifiability, it fails for another very big reason. One that I see as being the most difficult problem for the Christian to overcome. This is the problem of the many various denominations of Christianity. They all believe and interpret the bible differently in some key areas. All claiming the same justification from God. To put this into perspective, just think about how many millions and millions of people claim, and have claimed, that the bible is the word of God. And how millions and millions of these same professed believers disagree with other believers, who are just as sincere, on some significant points. The thing they all have in common is they all claim God assures them they are right. They also have the same explanation as to why the others are wrong. To try to account for every interpretation that is accepted as truth by the vast number of denominations would be far too exhaustive and it isn’t the non-Christians responsibility to do so. My business isn’t to sort out all these doctrinal disputes. It’s as if skeptics (atheists especially) are being saddled with the burden of needing to know every interpretation of every denomination just to even mention the bible in any critical manner. And when we fail to satisfy this imposed burden, the charge of misinterpretation and atheistic bias is assumed justified. But then this would mean the individual believer must also know all the varying interpretations as well. For the believer to be excused this, then they must concede that their own claim to “biblical truth” could not have been from the the same exhaustive search that they hold the non-christian to and either accept that it isn’t necessary or admit they could be wrong. All these problems the believer is now faced with not only render their original objection moot, it sheds light on the shear volume of inconsistencies contained within the bible, and as we see, thus further expounding the Christians own problems…

~ Rich

 

[1] 2 Kings 2:23-24 (NIV) 23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.

 

[2] Apologists frequently attempt to re-invent this passage as if Elisha was being attacked by a mob of young men. In it’s original Hebrew, while the word na’ar (boy or youth) could mean “young man”, it is paired with the qualifier katan which means “little” or “small”. Translating literally as “small boys”. And they are telling him to “go on up, baldhead” or “get out of here, baldy” and Elisha turned around to curse them. This indicates that they were behind him and taunting him, not blocking his path or threatening him.

 

 

“There’s a difference between a homosexual and a Christian.”

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Pittsburgh Pridefest is one of my absolute FAVORITE events of the year.Typically I will kick the day off by marching with out local chapter of COR and CFI and then see where the day takes me…since I am 8.5 months pregnant I decided it was too much heat, too much walking and (apparently) just not safe. I almost always end up fighting with the religious protesters, trying to get them to leave everyone alone and move on their way… that seems to have backfired on a 19 y.o girl who was arrested, and assaulted by the arresting officer during a confrontation with the protesters… This video was released several hours after the assault occurred.  http://www.wtae.com/news/woman-arrested-during-pittsburgh-pridefest/26510854#!ZPG8D You hear the main protester comment that someone is about to be arrested and then you see a young woman being pulled, grabbed by the hair and punched in the stomach. My first thought was that, if she went a bit too far with them I understand the officer breaking it up, I even understand her being arrested…it is easy to become frustrated with people who only want to agitate and belittle a crowd of joyful individuals.  Others kept saying that we don’t know what happened and in one interview the officer stated that he was being physically attacked by her and that was why he threw her to the side to stop the fight… I always assumed that our police were trained to take down an individual in a humane manner. We put trust in them to use their best judgement to keep us safe… but when you grab a girl by the hair and punch her in the stomach multiple times you are out of line… plain and simple.

Last night the full video was released on our local news website. You will see the officer standing by along side the protesters, you will hear the girl argue against the protester, you will hear him yelling about pedophiles and the evil of homosexuality (including the statement “that’s what happens when you let homosexuals in the church” to explain child molesting priests ), all while she is overcome with emotion at the hand of this hate speech. After that it quickly escalates to the assault from the other video, no prior attack being shown. http://m.wpxi.com/videos/news/raw-full-video-officer-attendee-encounter-at/vCfBYf/

I love my city, it always seems that our citizens are accepting of just about everyone… that is why events like PRIDE, Anthrocon, and even the PA Atheist/Humanist conference can typically go on without a problem. What was sited as one of the most successful Pridefests our city has seen ended with this unfortunate ordeal… and what was the instigator? Religion. This  problem came about because bigoted, close minded, angry people felt the need to shove their beliefs onto others. They are not able to promote their views in a productive way and so coming down and disrespecting others seems to be their bread and butter. I hope that they are proud of themselves. On the video we hear that “there is a difference between a homosexual and a Christian”… well this is the only truthful statement I have ever heard from those men. Our LGBTQ brothers & sisters do not go out seeking to promote hate… they don’t stalk churches in hopes of hurting those that believe in Christ and the ones that believe in God themselves still stand by the church hoping that good is at the root of the evil that is promoted. Thankfully men like the ones on the street corner are not the majority, hopefully the Christians will join together to show us that this is not how they want to be represented and that  there is indeed a difference between a Christian and a bigot as well.

 

 

 

Not all Atheists are created equal…

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When it comes to living an openly secular lifestyle I am often confronted with questions that start out with “Does an Atheist…” or “Do Atheists…”. Of course I have no problem answering any questions that are thrown out to me, but whenever they are prefaced with this type of generalization I make sure that one thing is clear… I cannot speak for all Atheists, I can only speak for myself.  Somehow this is frequently met with a bit of confusion, as more and more people are lumping Atheism with religion. People assume that, just like religions have rules that you (are supposed to) live by that Atheists do as well but this is not so. The only thing that all Atheists have in common is a concrete stance that their is no deity directing their life. After that it is up to the individual to decide what type of life they want to live.

I know a lot of times people believe that being an Atheist automatically makes you an Anti-theist, this is incorrect. Personally, I have no desire whatsoever to abolish religion. I do not want to take away the rights of anyone to be able to practice as they wish and I am not trying to create a completely secular world. My non-belief is not strengthened just because I can force it onto others and so I am not in favor of doing so. Simply keep it out of my public policy and this Atheist will gladly let you go on your way.

Another one that I encounter on a regular basis is that all Atheists are Humanists… again, this is incorrect. I would never pretend that all non-believers are living with humanistic values in place. I am in fact a Humanist, our household is run with a Secular-Humanist system of reasoning and respect. The “golden rule” approach in respect for how to treat others is encouraged by both Rich and myself, but this is not something all Atheists believe in. Ideally everyone, believer or non, would use mutual respect and personal dignity as a foundation … but the rules that come with religion do not allow for it, and the lack of rules that come with being an Atheist do not require it… so we are left with a wide range of right and wrong in our world.

The insinuation that only believers can hold seemingly irrational beliefs is possibly the most ridiculous of all. Dismissing the existence of God does not mean that you will not fall victim to the paranormal. I know many Atheists who claim to be “Agnostic” towards ghosts… and I also know some who absolutely believe in aliens. Sometimes if this topic comes up in a discussion group Atheists will start to turn on each other, stating that you cannot believe in the things just as ridiculous as God and still call yourself an Atheist… they are wrong. In fact , as long as God is not a factor you can believe the world is flat and still be a perfectly fine Atheist.

So when confronted with questions about what an Atheist does or does not do, try to make it clear that the better question would be, “since you don’t follow a religious belief system, what do you use to guide yourself through life?”. There are no commandments that Atheists abide by and so each one of us must speak for ourselves. At the end of the day there is no right or wrong way to live your life as an Atheist. The only thing that you need is a lack of belief in God, everything else is optional.