Friday, May 22, 2009

How do we approach the debate?

Maybe it's just me, but it seems like most atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, etc. approach theological debate as a hobby, while theists approach it as the driving force behind their entire worldview. It's strange; when I was a believer, everything I did was influenced by what I believed. The debate was the most important thing in my life. Now that I'm not a believer, I approach the discussion as entertainment and an intellectual exercise. I could take it or leave it; it's just something to pass the time.

Am I alone in this view?

That's not to minimize the larger issues behind the influence of religion on our society; I'm talking about just the debating here.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Church Visit: Schenectady Church of Christ

On March 15, I visited Schenectady Church of Christ. I've been in a Church of Christ before; my longtime ex-girlfriend was born and raised in one, and we went together several times. For those of you not familiar with their theology: Read the Bible. Take it literally. That's all there is to it. From their own web site:
The original autographs of the sixty six books which make up the Bible are considered to have been divinely inspired, by which it is meant that they are infallible and authoritative. Reference to the scriptures is made in settling every religious question. A pronouncement from the scripture is considered the final word. The basic textbook of the church and the basis for all preaching is the Bible.
Even having been prepped by my previous experience, this was something entirely new for me. At my ex's church, despite the fact that they were insanely conservative and literalist, it still had the feeling of a bunch of old folks who were using the church as a social meeting place. At SCoC, there wasn't anyone there who wasn't there for worship.

Before the service even began, I was approached by two people who talked about how the church stuck strictly to the Bible - one in the parking lot and one in the pews. This was out of a congregation of maybe 25 to 30 people, mostly middle aged and older but no younger than maybe 15 or 16. The church itself looked like it could probably hold around 150, and the congregation mostly clustered up at the front, while I sat in the back. Most people wore dress casual outfits; only a couple of people wore suits.

As opposed to Niskayuna Wesleyan, the music here was entirely unaccompanied, not even going so far as to use a piano or organ. The minister (worship leader? whatever he was) shouted the lyrics out in a forceful baritone, eyes screwed shut, and the congregation droned along. Everything was very mechanical; the beat was either hard and plodding or tumbling and almost panicky, with no inflection.

There was little structure to the service (hence the lack of a bulletin). Mostly, they just sang song after song with brief interruptions. There was no sense of the "holy spirit" here; the service was entirely unemotional, almost cold, and thoroughly uninspiring. It was almost gloomy. (I have this in my notes: "There is an utter lack of the feeling of 'spiritual satisfaction.' most seem to be going through the motions.")

The minister offered up a prayer of thanks and supplication, mentioning that we were in the end times. I've never been in a church that brought that up in the service before. He also prayed for an end to "the slaughter of innocents". Wonder what that was about...

More songs, followed by a reading of the story of the first communion. Communion with unleavened, nasty little crackers and grape juice. (So much for taking the scripture literally...) Collection of the offering, more songs.

(In my notes: "I get the feeling that the minister has no formal training and instead relies on singing constantly to make up for his ignorance of church service tradition..." Now, I'm not so sure. I think he might find the traditional services to be heretical.)

The sermon, given by the church's token black guy, began with a recap of last week's subject, "The Family Under Attack." He talked about how the family was under attack by the devil, who wants to destroy the church and keep them from worshipping; that there was a time people sinned in the closet, but nobody hides their sin anymore; that society is degenerating because of foul language and unmodest dress; that the people are becoming like the world, and forgetting how god designed the family.

He went on a long rant about how we should thank god for women, since they're leading people to the church, but that this isn't how it should be; that women are supposed to be subservient, and the men are supposed to be leading the spiritual life of the family; that Adam was in charge, not Eve; and that if god had meant for women to take the lead in the church, he wouldn't have cursed them.

He said that snakes were literally the descendents of the devil, and actually used the "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" line like he thought he was being witty and clever.

He promoted the idea that women and children should submit to authoritarian thought control on punishment of being kicked out of the house.

He talked about how people had "gotten away from the Biblical things of the Bible," just to be repetitively redundant. He talked about how "sex was never intended for single folk; it was designed for married folk," and quoted Hebrews 13:4 :
Marriage is honourable in all, and the bed undefiled: but whoremongers and adulterers God will judge.
He said that every family problem results from the failure of men to lead the family Biblically; that "the world is tearing our family apart," and that we should worry more about our family than the economy, because "our Lord is bigger than the economy."

At this point, he was literally shouting at us.

He talked about the roles the Bible gives for men and women, in 1 Timothy 5:14 :
I will therefore that the younger women marry, bear children, guide the house, give none occasion to the adversary to speak reproachfully.
and in 1 Timothy 5:8 (which is irrelevant) :
But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.
He said that we should consider a working wife a double blessing, but we should chastise her for taking on a man's role and encourage her to return home to clean and teach girls to be ladies. He said that if the men can't work, we should do everything we can to keep our wives from working, up to and including taking social services like welfare. (Thanks a ton.) He said that a man should be more eager to work two jobs than to let his wife even have one.

He made a remark about a mother making sure to hit her children hard enough that they mind, and people laughed.

He said that there was never any excuse not to come to a worship service, no matter where you are, even if you're traveling abroad, and that you have to go to a church that worships based on the New Testament, where the focus was on worship, prayer, singing, communion, and scriptural teaching.

(In my notes: "Job's endless faith is what we should have. So if there's nothing that can shake it, how is that not delusional? ... THIS SERMON IS BORDERING ON INSANELY LONG. 45 minutes so far...")

After that was all wrapped up (about 20 minutes later), one of the church elders came up to discuss the church's attempts to reach out to the community. He mentioned that they were working on a commercial for the church, they were looking for a free advertising outlet, and they were making business cards for the church. He and the others seemed to be desperate for new members. He called on the entire church to give a second offering just for that.

The Lord's Prayer was never read, oddly enough. When we were finally dismissed, the minister's benediction included (in a deep monotone) "and oh, Lord, it's been uplifting." I begged to differ. It had been terribly disconcerting and alienating. I'd never felt more like I was in hostile territory, and I got out of there as quickly as I could before having to talk to anyone.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Insanity of the "Angry Atheist" Stereotype

[time to play theist's advocate, briefly.]

Boy, those atheists sure are angry. They're always mocking religious people, degrading their deeply-held beliefs and sniping at them with pompous, elitist remarks.

Who are they to tell us what to believe? Our beliefs give our lives hope and meaning. They help guide us to behave in the ways we should behave and stand up for what's right.

Not to mention how many smart people there are who believe what we do, and how many contributions have been made to the arts, culture, and society by the teachings of our various faiths. Where would we be without religion?

[OK, that's enough.]

When a child who believes in Santa Claus is in the company of other children who know he doesn't exist, mockery is acceptable. Expected, even. Yet somehow, when a theist's myth of choice is the subject under discussion, you'd better not dare mock it; in fact, somehow it is deserving of your respectful silence, if anything.

When we do get the courage to speak out about things we consider to be patently ridiculous, we're labeled as angry, intolerant, bigoted, and hateful. How does this make sense to people? If I think you believe in something silly, why on earth should I respect what it is that you believe? If, for example, you believed that the universe was powered by a hamster spinning in his wheel, and you called this a deeply-held and personal religious belief, should I treat this in the same fashion as I'd treat someone whose worldview was based on reason and evidence?

What is it that makes faith some unassailable target that demands respect? It's as though we're expected to consider virtuous those among us who are more willing than others to simply believe for the sake of believing. Worse still, we're supposed to give their opinions on any subject a good deal of respect if they manage to bring the subject of their faith up as part of the discussions on that subject, as though the mere fact of their having faith makes their viewpoint more respectable.

Whenever I find myself pointing out the silliness of what some people believe, they take my criticisms personally. They see an attack on their beliefs as an attack on them, and I can't help but wonder if this is because they've made their belief such a major part of their lives that they can no longer determine who they are without it.

Worse still are the people who believe in belief - those who don't hold to any particular religion themselves, but who will quickly rush to the defense of the religious whenever a religious belief is under attack, seeing the act of irrational belief as a positive aspect of character without really giving much consideration to what it is they're defending.

I would hope that responding to insipid blather with scorn and mockery would be embraced by reasonable people. When someone believes in UFOs, conspiracy theories, or anything else most people consider "kooky", we as a people tend to be quick to joke about their foolishness. But when someone believes in a mostly undefined/indescribable being who does things in ways that can't be explained or demonstrated, whoa now - step back! This is sacred territory, and if you talk badly about that belief, you're angry, bitter, a crashing bore, a whiner, and a wide litany of other such juvenile insults.

Clearly we don't disbelieve the nonsense because it's irrational and unsupported by evidence. Deep down, we must really still believe it, but because of some bad experience we had involving the church or an authority figure; or we just want to play the victim; or we justify the venomous stereotypes people have about us.

This is madness. I'm sitting here thinking of how to best phrase this, and I just can't. Basically, we're being told that we should shut up and just let people continue to believe nonsense, regardless of the fact that it is demonstrably nonsensical, and if we should dare to speak up and tell the emperor that he has no clothes, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

Let me put it bluntly: If you believe something not because it's true, but because it makes you feel better, I do think you're irrational and a bit foolish. Reality doesn't care what makes you feel better; reality works with what's real, and is more than happy to steamroll right over you while you lock yourself into your delusions.

I'm not an angry atheist. I'm frustrated that people think it's normal and right to believe things about the world that aren't justified and that lead to real harm, or at the very least detract from the capacity for real help.

This whole Daniel Hauser issue is just another example. Daniel Hauser, a young teenage boy with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, is now most likely going die despite the fact that medical treatment would've given him a 90% or higher chance of recovery in the early stages of the disease.


Because Daniel's parents are members of a sect of the Native American Church called the Nemenha Band, which advocates for "natural" and "alternative" medicine. (For those of you who are unaware, the Native American Church is one of the few groups in America legally allowed to use the hallucinogenic drug peyote, chiefly because they claim that it allows them to commune with god.)

Without actual medical treatment, Daniel's chances of survival drop to about 10%. Upon refusal to provide the treatment, a judge determined that Daniel's parents were being medically neglectful to him and ordered him to receive chemotherapy. That was within the last couple of days.

Yesterday, Daniel's mother disappeared. With him. Thus practically guaranteeing that he will die.

This is hardly the first time this has happened and it certainly won't be the last. And it's all because of religion. It's a piece of the Hausers' superstitious nonsense beliefs that are killing their son. (To his credit, Mr. Hauser now wants to seek actual medical attention.)

So when this story hit the mainstream news outlets, what did we hear? Well, Headline News had an 'audience interaction' segment where they took phone calls and e-mails about the story. Nearly all of them spoke out in support of Daniel's parents, saying that the government had no right to tell people how to treat their kids if it was against their religion.

Let me stress this one more time. People are willing to support medically neglectful parents whose decision almost certainly will kill their children as long as those decisions are based on some sort of religious belief. The type of belief and the details of the belief aren't even relevant. It's enough that they have beliefs, and that makes them special.

Am I angry? No. I'm sickened and disappointed. I'm tired of running into this kind of constant nonsense time and time again. And I'm disgusted by people who will call me an angry, vitriolic bigot for crying foul when I see this sort of insanity being perpetrated in the name of fairy tales or magic.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

I Doeth Good

There are two nearly identical sections of the Bible (in the book of Psalms) that say that atheists cannot possibly do good - in fact, that we do works of abominable iniquity and that we are filthy.

Yesterday, I spent seven hours working with Habitat for Humanity, both working on a couple of new houses and helping gut an old house that's set for renovation.

By Christian doctrine, what I did was a terrible thing and is not worthy of praise. By my own judgment, I did something that helped provide a real, material benefit to real people with real needs. I did a good thing. And I'll be looking into getting my atheist group to join me next time.

So much for Psalms...

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Hating Gays for Jesus (also, they're icky)

The following is from a letter to the editor in my local newspaper:

Bible clear in opposition to homosexuality

Re May 7 letter, “Don’t use Bible to oppose gay marriage”: Mr. Hunt’s ideology is exactly what is wrong with our country today.

First and foremost, our country was built on Christian values. Second, Mr. Hunt mentions how we should keep the Bible out of our lawmaking. This is where our country has been misguided in the worst way. Without God in our lives, there are no laws, morals or family values. What we would then have is a type of society in which there are no consequences.

Whether or not Mr. Hunt or Bill Maher want to accept it, there is a God, and there are rules he wants us to follow. One may interpret some things differently, but without any reasonable doubt, in no way is gay marriage an acceptable lifestyle. It is not normal or acceptable behavior for two of the same sex to be engaged in a sexual relationship. To be honest, it is flat-out disgusting.

This does not make me a bigot, hatemonger or bad person.

The opposition for gay marriage is a force to be reckoned with. I, for one, strongly support a normal marriage, which is between a man and a woman.

Sean Dufresne

Mr. Dufresne is, of course, entirely wrong. Let me explain how.

First and foremost, our country was built on Christian values.

Our country was not built on Christian values. It was built on thoroughly secular values, which is why, despite much debate on the subject, no mention of God, the Bible, Jesus, or Christianity exists in our Constitution, the founding document of our nation which laid out the framework for our democracy. This platitude is nothing more than an appeal to the popularity of Christianity among Americans. The personal faith of many of our founders is not relevant - the Constitution is.

Second, Mr. Hunt mentions how we should keep the Bible out of our lawmaking. This is where our country has been misguided in the worst way.

I'm afraid you're going to have to demonstrate how this is true. The Bible has not been in our lawmaking except in the dumbest of our laws (e.g. the infamous "blue laws" which provided religion-based limitations on the ability to buy things like alcohol or pornography). The Bible is far from a good source of morality or laws anyways, considering its excessive inclination towards the death penalty and its apparent love of slavery.

Without God in our lives, there are no laws, morals or family values. What we would then have is a type of society in which there are no consequences.

On the contrary, Mr. Dufresne, if you base your morality not on reason, logic, and the common good but instead on the dictates of a being whose moral authority comes from being the biggest, baddest kid on the block, and you obey them not out of true moral discernment but instead merely out of fear of his terrible, overeager wrath, your morality is shaky at best and juvenile at worst. Law, as well, does not come from God; it comes from the secular investigation and judgment of what is best for society, and how we should deal with those who violate our rights and safety. As for the nonsense about family values, to which god should we attribute them? To your god? Why? Why not Zeus? Family values come out of the kin bonds we evolved over millions of years, not a deity who capriciously orders the murders of millions because they're in the way of his favored people. Certainly not from a deity who murdered all of mankind in favor of a drunkard who so embarrassed his sons that they couldn't bear to look at him as they covered up his naked, passed-out body.

Whether or not Mr. Hunt or Bill Maher want to accept it, there is a God, and there are rules he wants us to follow.

The assertion that there is a god is not evidence that there is. It is simply your (poorly-thought-out) opinion. As for god... oddly enough, of course, his rules just so happen to coincide with your personal preferences, right? Assuming that we are discussing the Biblical god, you're promoting the ideals of a group of bronze age shepherds. Not only are the rules your god gave them puerile and simplistic, they are often conveniently waved off as “not applicable” because of some obscure point of doctrine – poorly interpreted doctrine, if I may say so, as it is instantly contradicted in the next verse of the text.

One may interpret some things differently,

This, of course, is true. And one person may interpret different parts of the Bible differently, even going so far as to hold two mutually exclusive positions on the same subject based on different parts of the book.

but without any reasonable doubt, in no way is gay marriage an acceptable lifestyle.

Millions of Christians (whom you so gladly welcome into your fold for the purposes of head counts) would vastly differ with you on this subject.

It is not normal or acceptable behavior for two of the same sex to be engaged in a sexual relationship.

Based on whose authority? That of your holy book? Clearly not. The book itself could be used to argue either way. This is simply a reflection of your personal position, and can be dismissed as such.

To be honest, it is flat-out disgusting.

And here we get to the true purpose behind your position: The ick factor. Your theological hand-waving is nothing but a paltry smokescreen for the truth: Homosexuality disturbs your fragile concept of 'normal' and makes you uncomfortable, and you think you should be able to legislate your discomfort on the rest of the world.

This does not make me a bigot, hatemonger or bad person.

To put it bluntly, yes, it does. You are saying that people whose behavior makes you squirm with distaste should not be able to have the same legal rights that you do in a loving, committed relationship.

The opposition for gay marriage is a force to be reckoned with. I, for one, strongly support a normal marriage, which is between a man and a woman.

Normal marriage” in that Bible you hold so dear was, more often than not, polygamous. And if we're going to go by what's “normal” (i.e. most popular worldwide) today, arranged marriage would be the rule. You're so terrified of people “redefining marriage” that you're oblivious to the fact that your church did it already.

Mr. Dufresne, if you are so intimately worried with the defense of marriage, perhaps you could take steps toward encouraging others to work through their difficulties rather than seek a divorce, and leave gay people alone. Unless you can provide evidence that their right to get married somehow infringes upon your rights or detriments your marriage, kindly keep your Biblical nonsense out of public policy decisions.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Betraying the Lie

Advocates of the non-science of Intelligent Design often respond indignantly to the claim that ID is really nothing more than a religious claim dressed in a thin garment of scientific-looking language.

We know, definitively, that this is the case, and the words of Michael Egnor of the Discovery Institute - the major pro-ID group - demonstrate this repeatedly.

A recent post on the Discovery Institute's "Evolution News and Views" blog offered a rebuttal to a blog post by Dr. Jeffrey Shallit. Dr. Shallit was reviewing
a piece by McGill philosopher Margaret Somerville in the OCUFA publication Academic Matters. (OCUFA is the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations.)
I haven't bothered to read the whole piece yet; it seems to be the typical drivel about how universities are becoming "intolerant" of "alternative ideas" and that anyone the author doesn't agree with or whose position the author doesn't understand is a "fundamentalist" scientist.

In his review, Dr. Shallit said:
With respect to religion, why should religious dogma, which maintains ridiculous and unverifiable claims, be treated in the same way as science and rational thinking?
The following is quoted verbatim from the Discovery Institute's post:
The existence of God is not a “ridiculous and unverifiable claim;” it's the conclusion reached by the vast majority of human beings living today and who have ever lived, and is a viewpoint held by most of the best philosophers, ethicists and scientists in history. While there are thoughtful arguments that can be made for atheism, the arguments advanced by Shallit and his comrades like Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers, and Hitchens are puerile. For example, the assertion that Christianity is disproven by assertions such as ‘If God created the universe, who made God?’ or ‘some bad things have been done by Christians, therefore Christianity is untrue’ would get a failing grade in any respectable introductory philosophy course. You'll get more genuine insight from a paragraph of Aristotle or Aquinas than from a library of Dawkins and Dennett.

Subtle arguments about God being the ground for existence and about the role of Christianity in Western politics and culture aren't "ridiculous and unverifiable;" these arguments are central to philosophy and to any informed understanding of history. New Atheist boilerplate trivializes the profound issues that religious belief raises, and the New Atheist contribution to meaningful discussion of these fundamental issues is ...well... nil. For New Atheists, ‘rational thinking’ takes a backseat to ideological spittle.

There it is, folks. Now, for sure, there's nothing particularly inflammatory about this response, apart from the blatant straw men, dismissal of theological problems as non-issues, etc.

But that's not the real issue here, which is in fact twofold. First, this is a blog hosted by a site that is supposed to be about a scientific claim, and yet it's discussing theological issues. If this were a purely scientific institution, this post wouldn't even be there. It wouldn't be relevant. Science is indifferent and impartial on the subject of eugenics, which is fleetingly referenced in the original piece. In other words, this is word straight from the mouth of the Discovery Institute that they consider religious claims relevant to science. They are not, and should not factor into scientific discovery one bit. Ethics, yes; religion, absolutely not.

The second issue is the aforementioned discussion of eugenics. In the original piece, the word 'eugenics' and its variations appear twice. In Dr. Shallit's response, three times.

In the Discovery Institute's blog post, it is mentioned forty three times, even appearing in the title of the post:

Dr. Jeffery Shallit on Eugenic Morality: "Why, exactly, would the world be better off with more Down's syndrome children?”

The implication here could not be any clearer: The DI blog wants to make its readers believe that Dr. Shallit is a proponent of eugenics. This is in keeping with the DI's (and by extension the ID creationists') theme of "evolution led to the Holocaust". I'm not simply fear-mongering here; they explicitly mention the Nazis in the post:
In the 1950's, Fredrick Osborn, the president of the American Eugenics Society, advocated a shift away from the more explicit negative eugenics that had been discredited by the Nazi's uncommonly skillful implementation of eugenic theory.
This is also directly in keeping with the theme of "evolution is atheism" as explicitly stated in the post:
In the atheist/Darwinian view, eugenics is moral, even virtuous. The Darwinian understanding of man’s origins is that man arose through a struggle for survival. Our highest traits are the result of Natural Selection. The kindness and charity that are inherent to civilization threaten mankind, because it impairs Natural Selection, which is the source of our humanity.
There you go. According to the Discovery Institute, evolution equals eugenics, Nazism, holocausts, praise for the destruction of the weak, atheism, and basically all that is wrong with the world. And Dr. Shallit is their unfortunate victim. Clearly their interest in intellectual honesty is minimal, in comparison to their affinity for character assassination.

P.S.: Notice that they don't even bother to spell his name properly. They're too busy building their case against the "evilutionist" straw man to care who it is they're talking about.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Facing "Harsh" Realities

When I was a kid I used to be obsessed with the idea of psychic phenomena - ESP, psychokinesis, astral projection, et cetera. I even did a "research project" in elementary school on the subject of paranormal investigations. I was an entirely credulous person; if something had even the slightest shred of 'evidence' to it, I was likely to dive into it head first, assuming it was true until I was proven wrong (which I never was, of course, since I basically only looked into the 'evidence' provided by believers).

Since becoming a skeptic, I think the hardest thing for me has been to force myself to take an objective look at the evidence presented and weigh its merits. It's much easier to simply uncritically accept what you're told, with a "where there's smoke, there's fire" kind of mentality. Developing a skeptical instinct has been an intellectually satisfying pursuit, though part of me is still attracted to the idea that wishful thinking isn't a fruitless exercise. I like the idea of magical, supernatural things. They would certainly make reality much more interesting. But reality isn't a fantasy novel, and we're not part of some sort of grand plotline in a world full of adventure and mystery.

That's not to say that reality is devoid of adventure or mystery. On the contrary, there's a lot of that in the real world; it's just more mundane. There probably isn't some secret quasi-magical power locked within the human brain that would allow us to do things in ways science is incapable of explaining. But there is a lot to learn about the universe, and the more we learn, the more we learn that there is left to learn.

Today at work I was listening to an old time radio drama called X Minus One, which featured half-hour-long science fiction stories. One episode was about a couple of children of incredible intelligence who discovered a way to shift between universes by using ESP to fold the fabric of reality around them in a sort of five-dimensional Möbius strip. I used to believe that things like this might actually be possible. Now that I've learned more about how the universe works, I know that the probability of things like this is astronomically low.

In becoming a skeptic, I've stripped off layers of delusion and irrationality that, strangely, comforted me and gave me hope in the sense that the universe was a magical place. But I realize now that I don't really need to feel any sort of sense of loss about this. After all, the delusions have been replaced with real mysteries and a sense of real wonder about what actually exists. While I once feared that a purely scientific worldview would just "make sense", and that'd be the end of it - no joy, no hope, just cold, hard facts - I'm constantly encountering new information that forces me to adjust my understanding. Often-counter-intuitive disciplines like quantum mechanics and particle physics constantly astound me with their discoveries, and with every new fact I learn I feel like a doorway has been opened into an entirely new world of knowledge.

Reality may not be a magical fantasy land, but there's still plenty of mystery to explore, and I'm eager to get into the thick of it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Atheism and U.S. Politics

I've been wondering lately if the problems atheists have in getting our voices heard in the political arena is less related to having the numbers and more related to having a consistent message. I think part of the problem with gaining consistency is that, as a group that's more of a common label than an actual group, we don't really have a message to get across, other than "leave your religion out of my politics".

There are a few atheist-friendly lobbying/political action groups, among them the Secular Coalition for America and Enlighten the Vote, though I can't begin to imagine how difficult it must be for them to agree on an agenda. Typically, atheists tend to lean more to the left, but I do know a few conservative atheists myself. This creates an interesting problem: atheist lobbyists and PACs wind up having to focus almost solely on issues of church-state separation and freedom of speech, limiting not only the scope of their message, but the base of talent that they draw to themselves and their chances of getting publicity.

There is also, of course, a great deal of hostility towards out atheists in this country. As a candidate for office, announcing that you're an atheist is almost guaranteed to kill your campaign. You face attacks from the hyper-religious right, not to mention the fear of atheists indoctrinated into even the more liberal Christians. We're one of the few remaining groups for whom stereotyping is still kosher in America. So not only do you have a smaller "automatic" support base, but you have to fight against lies told to defame your character - and any resistance you offer to defend yourself is usually seen as verification of the claims. (After all, if it's not true, why are you getting so defensive about it?)

I get the feeling that an increased atheist population wouldn't be enough to get us past these problems. After all, there are more women than men in the country, but we're still largely an androcentric culture. So how do we make our wishes known, despite the oppression of religious groups and the permeating fear of the 'godless heathen'? And as was noted in a comment to my previous post, how can we be public about our positions in places like the deep south, where an admission of atheism can be a social (or literal) death sentence?

I don't have any of the answers. I've got ideas, but again, I can't speak for all atheists any more than I can speak for all males. It's a conundrum...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Getting the Word Out

One thing I've heard from a lot of other atheists is that it's hard to make your views public, because you feel like you're surrounded by people who would instantly break off any social contact with you if they knew what you believed (and what you didn't). We can often feel isolated, as if there are no like-minded people around us.

This is why I think it's important for us to self-identify. With the atheist population in America growing in numbers and becoming increasingly vocal, we can be nearly guaranteed to meet another atheist every day, though the likelihood of us recognizing each other is pretty low. That's one thing the religious have on us - they have common symbols they can use to tell each other apart.

I've recently put a few bumper stickers on my car that make it quite plain what my theology is:

Today as I was leaving Starbucks I noticed a couple looking at the back of my car and writing something down. At first I was afraid that they were going to deface my stickers, but as I walked out they moved away from my car. I walked past them, opened my car door, and got ready to get in, when I noticed the woman coming back to me.

As it turns out, they were atheists, too. They mentioned that they liked my stickers and wondered where I got them from. They told me that they often felt like they were alone in a world full of people who disagreed with them, and it was a relief to finally see that they weren't. I told them that they'd be surprised how many atheists were in the area, and mentioned our Meetup group.

This, I think, is vital to getting the sort of recognition that atheism needs in America. People need to be exposed to us. It's not enough for us to just speak out online anymore; we need to be willing to be public with our disbelief, so that we can start to disassemble the myths that theists (especially Christians) have built up about us. The world needs to realize that a disbelief in the supernatural is a perfectly respectable and rational position, and that we shouldn't be ashamed to stand out.

I encourage anyone who reads this to seriously consider coming out of the atheist closet. The more of us that are willing to stand up and be counted, the more we'll be accepted by the mainstream of society.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Church visit: Niskayuna Wesleyan

On March 8, I visited Niskayuna Wesleyan Church. This was my first time in a Wesleyan church, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

The first thing I noticed was the style - very "new evangelical", complete with the praise band (including guitars and a drum kit), the progressive songs, the clapping and dancing, the raising of hands to heaven, the moderate-conservative message, and the big projection screen that displays the scripture and song lyrics. There was a response card in the bulletin that asked you to let them know if you've been saved, as well as a guide to the "ABCs of Salvation" (admit you're a sinner, believe in Christ, confess your sins).

There was a very relaxed atmosphere. Most people were in jeans and polos, though a few people were dressed up. The congregation of about 70-80 people was relatively ethnically diverse, and very vocal - lots of people would speak up in response to scripture, saying "amen", "yes lord", "thank you jesus", et cetera. They were very warm and friendly to newcomers. It was definitely not a fundamentalist church. The service was pretty open-ended; though the bulletin gave an outline of what was going to happen, the details weren't set in stone, and they did a lot more than just what was written.

Near the beginning of the service, they spent about ten minutes discussing an upcoming mission to the Dominican Republic, ending with a laying-on-of-hands prayer for the people who would be going and lots of requests for the ongoing prayers of the congregation.

The scripture reading was the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, which I found incredibly ironic as it's widely agreed to be nothing more than a forgery added after the original text was written. The entire sermon, in fact, was based on this story, and the minister talked about how Jesus had to preach "A simple sermon for a hostile audience" (the name of the sermon). He tried to allude to modern Christians having to give the gospel to people who want to hear it, but he didn't really make that point, instead spending a lot of his time talking about an apocryphal myth about how Charles Wesley brought the gospel to a hostile crowd (complete with the throwing of tomatoes) by changing the lyrics to bar songs so they talked about Jesus - making it a point to say "That's true! It's a true story!" (Oops.) He also talked a lot about the situations Christians live in around the world, never really drawing any parallels to modern America - apart from saying that a city with a big gay and lesbian community was a hostile environment.

Here's a note I took while listening to the sermon, on the subject of the forged story which the minister took as a good guide for moral judgment:
John 8:1-11 talks of Jesus ignoring people's accusations against a sinner, then acting like the people were never there! How does ignoring a problem solve it? Where, in this, is justice? The person who was wronged has no satisfaction. How do people accept a moral standard based on ignoring the real victims and forgiving the sinner?

Also, in the story, Jesus stoops twice to write in the dirt. Why was this important enough to mention, but not what he wrote? A bunch of pointless speculation on what Jesus drew - twice suggesting that they were depictions of miracles.
The minister actually had the gall to say that "Jesus was willing to address the tough questions." Sorry, no. Jesus avoided them completely, or just made something up that sounded wise. The minister also said that, when it came to Jesus and his message of forgiveness and love, "his whole life was an illustration of his message." Does this guy even know anything about the Bible? There are several years of Jesus' life that are eerily absent. How can he claim to know anything about them? Also, how did Jesus' attack on the moneychangers in the temple show forgiveness and love? How about his order that his disciples go out and buy swords?

The sermon was a mixture of shallow thinking on the concept of morality and a bunch of platitudes, such as "leave your burdens at the cross" - which is nice and all, but it doesn't get anything done and doesn't solve anyone's real problems.

He mentioned seeing a kid with an "Outlaw Straight Marriage" sign and said some silly thing about how his heart broke for the kid. (Why are these people incapable of recognizing humor?) This led into a discussion of the recent appearance of Fred Phelps' crew in a nearby town. The projection screen displayed some photos - one of Phelps' signs reading "God Hates Fags" and another reading "God Hates Hateful Christians." The minister equated the two, and made a point of calling Westboro Baptist Church a cult. How ironic. He also talked about how the New Testament means Christians don't have to follow the laws of the Old Testament, quoting the verse about Jesus not coming to abolish the law but to fulfill it. He conveniently left out the very next verse, in which Jesus says - surprise, surprise - the old laws still apply, and will apply until the second coming.

The minister said something to the effect of "Before you go around saying God hates someone, you better make sure he doesn't hate you." Then he later claimed that anyone accusing Christians of un-Christian behavior is doing the devil's work. Clearly he doesn't think the WBC are Christians, but who is he to judge?

Here's a bunch of other notes I took, which I can't form into any kind of coherent narrative...
  • Said that a sermon is successful if just one life is changed - "Just one more... at any cost!" So what's the limit of "at any cost"?

  • "they are all sinners, and they are all dying in their sin, and they are all going to spend an eternity away from God if they're not born again." They think ANYONE would find this positive??

  • (speaking of kids on a college campus) "Look in their faces, and they're empty, and you can see the lostness." Wonder how many of those kids were Christians? He said this about college kids in general because of the trend toward liberalism in college. Nothing like good old fashioned Christian prejudice.

  • Conscience is evidence of the knowledge of the truth of your sin? i.e. Feeling guilty is evidence of being worthy of eternal separation from unconditional love? Wow.

  • He compared natural gay tendencies to "natural" tendencies to drive off the road or try to jump off a building and fly. *What*? "I have a desire to sin. But I know that breaking that law of God has consequences." More whispered prayer - yes yes, that's right, yes it does, amen, praise god, etc.

  • We're all sinners, so we're no better than anyone else (... you just called WBC a cult.)

  • Some inane comment about how the three crosses of Calvary were symbols of the three step salvation process (ABC)

I'm simply astonished that these people don't realize how polarizing their message is, and how utterly incapable it is of attracting nonbelievers How many times must they try to convince me that I'm a terrible, evil, sinful, unworthy person? Have they never heard the adage about attracting flies with honey instead of vinegar?

What I found most interesting about this service was that people didn't really seem all that into it unless they were singing. They were most "praiseful" when the music was playing, which makes me wonder if they equated the singing and dancing with worship, and if it isn't just the beat and rhythm making them move instead of the "holy spirit".

I also couldn't get over the feeling that, if they knew I was an atheist, the "friendly neighbor" mode I saw the congregation in would quickly devolve into a "convert the infidel" mode. Part of me felt the old indoctrination stirring, but now that I'm able to recognize it for what it is I can ignore it.

After the service, I couldn't help but think about how much more I knew about the Bible and Christian traditions than even the minister appeared to. They truly, deeply believe, but they clearly don't give any serious critical thought to their beliefs (nor do I think they would ever want to). Though the service was invigorating (inasmuch as the music made me want to dance and the people were warm), I don't see any reason to return. The message was nothing but how disgustingly unworthy of God's love we are, but how he's such a nice guy that he's going to love us anyways.

I'm not a fan of that kind of emotional abuse.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Thought Experiment on Consciousness

When I was a Christian I had no problem with the concept of the soul, despite the fact that I'd never really figured out exactly what a soul was. Now, as an atheist, I recognize my consciousness as the result of emergent properties of the network of neurons in my brain, rather than a manifestation of a vague supernatural entity.

This presents some interesting possibilities. For example: Let's suspend disbelief for a minute and imagine that, after our death, our brains could be reconstructed into an exact replica of its form at any point in our lives - completely intact with its electrical activity and such - and placed into a matching body.

Is the consciousness of this brain ours?

As a Christian I would have definitely answered this with "of course not," since what made me "me" wasn't just my brain, but my soul. I suppose, in essence, that's what I defined the soul to be - a metaphysical aspect of my existence that made me "me". It was something that wasn't permanently attached to the body.

As an atheist I'm not entirely sure. It depends on how I define "me". Is continuity of consciousness a requirement? If so, my answer would again be "of course not", because my consciousness would be undeniably discontinuous. Let's not pick nits about whether or not sleep counts as a discontinuity; technically, I could be partially conscious while I sleep, inasmuch as my brain continues to function.

But if what defines "me" is really nothing more than the state of a neural network, I suppose the reconstructed brain technically could be me. (Interestingly enough, as I was typing that sentence I had to struggle to keep from ending it with "but not really me". That's the old dualistic impulse showing through - the idea that we're composed of both physical brain and non-physical mind.)

The problem with this scenario (apart from its implausibility) is that, given this sort of technology, we could just as easily reconstruct the brain while we're still alive. A dualist body-soul worldview would maintain that there's only one "me" here - that the rest would be missing a soul, a vital essence, a spirit, etc., and thus wouldn't be "me". But a purely naturalistic, material worldview would be utterly incapable of distinguishing between the various copies. They would each be utterly convinced that their experience had been continuous, apart from the moment where they were first "booted up" (since they would remember being in one place in one instant and in another in the next). The only difference between the various copies would be the physical continuity.

Which brings me to an interesting conclusion, which you may or may not agree with: Regardless of whether we believe or don't believe in a dualistic worldview, what we define as "me" would not be threatened by the production of identical copies of our bodies and minds. A dualist would likely see "me" to be "that which has the soul", while a materialist would see "me" as "the one with continuity of physical presence and consciousness".

That's enough for now... this "me" is ready for bed.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Problem with Prayer

One of the strongest evidences I've seen against the existence of God is the problem of the unreliability of prayer. The basic problem is this: every Sunday, in all the Christian churches in all the cities in all the states of this country, there are millions (if not tens of millions) of people praying - most likely, for many of the same things. An end to war, an end to hunger, healing of the sick, and so on; these are consistent themes for prayer in most moderate-to-liberal churches. More conservative and fundamentalist churches will pray for the return of Jesus, the spreading of the gospel, God's protection over the nation, et cetera.

It seems that the only "answered" prayers are those that are ambiguous - basically, praying that God's will be done (isn't it always?) or that God will protect our loved ones (in which case "nobody in my family died" means my prayers were answered). We still have plenty of war, hunger, and sickness. When I ask apologists why we don't see prayers about these things answered, I tend to get one of a few responses:
  1. God moves in mysterious ways. We aren't meant to know the mind of God, simply to accept that he knows what needs to be done.
  2. God isn't a genie. That's not how prayer works. You don't get everything you want just by asking.
  3. If God wants it to happen, it will happen. God has a plan, and sometimes we just have to wait.
  4. God answers all prayers. The answer is either "Yes", "No", or "Wait".
  5. (Matthew 7:21) "Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. In other words, just because you cry out, that doesn't mean you get what you want.
There are, of course, serious problems with these defenses.
  1. All well and good, but couldn't God be mysterious without being unnecessarily cruel and indifferent to the suffering of the people he "fathered"? I'd say it's much more mysterious for all sickness to be instantly healed than for it to just keep on going. If God is omnipotent and omniscient, why on earth can't he figure out a way to work out his plan that doesn't leave us high and dry?
  2. This is despite Jesus supposedly saying, repeatedly, that it is precisely how prayer works - Mark 11:24, John 15:7, John 14:13-14, and so on. I bring this up often, and the response I tend to get is that, even though he literally says you'll get whatever you want, that's not really what the words mean. Plus, even if it were, you're only supposed to ask for things that glorify God. How convenient; if you ask for something practical, and you don't get it, clearly it wasn't going to glorify God anyways.
  3. Fine. He has a plan. But this is nothing more than Stockholm syndrome. We're told that despite being in the grip of horrifying, needless suffering and being victims to the whim of a being that set our fate at our birth, it's really okay, because we can just trust that he knows what he's doing. Forgive me if I'm not convinced that we should blindly trust and love a person who doesn't explain himself - and, what's more, who tells us that we're wrong to expect him to.
  4. These are the only three options. This is not specific to any sort of real being. You can pray to a brick and get the same results. It's a matter of postdiction rather than prediction. You just have to massage the results to fit into one of the "answers". This isn't proof of prayer being answered; it's an exercise in intellectual flexibility.
  5. (Romans 10:13) "For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." In other words, just because you cry out, that means you do get what you want. Also see Joel 2:32. The Bible is, after all the Big Book of Multiple Choice. Of course, this all only applies to the Christian god. Other gods might catch a break for not matching up with all of his personality traits. Somehow, though, I doubt that any (personal) god's existence would fare better, considering that the failure rate is so huge.
Behind all five objections is one larger objection: If God doesn't answer every prayer, and in fact he only answers those which align with his plan, why on earth would he want us to pray at all? He's already got his mind made up; is our prayer nothing more than a symbolic-only, non-functional, groveling appeal to his vanity?

It seems to me that the fact that our prayers aren't answered the way we expect them to be shows that God is a bit short-sighted, seeing how it leads to reasonable doubt. It also makes him appear capricious, unreliable, uncaring, and irrational. Seems better to me to just say he's not there at all than to continue to make up nonsensical excuses for his lack of action.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Atheist survey meme

Stolen from Hemant Mehta. In boldface is the stuff I’ve done…

1. Participated in the Blasphemy Challenge.
2. Met at least one of the “Four Horsemen” (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris) in person.
3. Created an atheist blog.
4. Used the Flying Spaghetti Monster in a religious debate with someone.

5. Gotten offended when someone called you an agnostic.
6. Been unable to watch Growing Pains reruns because of Kirk Cameron.
7. Own more Bibles than most Christians you know.
8. Have at least one Bible with your personal annotations regarding contradictions, disturbing parts, etc.

9. Have come out as an atheist to your family.
10. Attended a campus or off-campus atheist gathering.
11. Are a member of an organized atheist/Humanist/etc. organization.

12. Had a Humanist wedding ceremony.
13. Donated money to an atheist organization.
14. Have a bookshelf dedicated solely to Richard Dawkins.
(not exactly, but I do have a shelf full of atheist books.)
15. Lost the friendship of someone you know because of your non-theism.
16. Tried to argue or have a discussion with someone who stopped you on the street to proselytize.
17. Had to hide your atheist beliefs on a first date because you didn’t want to scare him/her away.
18. Own a stockpile of atheist paraphernalia (bumper stickers, buttons, shirts, etc).
19. Attended a protest that involved religion.

20. Attended an atheist conference.
21. Subscribe to Pat Condell’s YouTube channel.
22. Started an atheist group in your area or school.
23. Successfully “de-converted” someone to atheism.
24. Have already made plans to donate your body to science after you die.
25. Told someone you’re an atheist only because you wanted to see the person’s reaction.

26. Had to think twice before screaming “Oh God!” during sex. Or you said something else in its place.
27. Lost a job because of your atheism.
28. Formed a bond with someone specifically because of your mutual atheism (meeting this person at a local gathering or conference doesn’t count).
29. Have crossed “In God We Trust” off of — or put a pro-church-state-separation stamp on — dollar bills.
30. Refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.
(haven’t had the opportunity, but I would.)
31. Said “Gesundheit!” (or nothing at all) after someone sneezed because you didn’t want to say “Bless you!”
32. Have ever chosen not to clasp your hands together out of fear someone might think you’re praying.
33. Have turned on Christian TV because you needed something entertaining to watch.
34. Are a 2nd or 3rd (or more) generation atheist.
35. Have “atheism” listed on your Facebook or dating profile — and not a euphemistic variant.
36. Attended an atheist’s funeral (i.e. a non-religious service).
37. Subscribe to an freethought magazine (e.g. Free Inquiry, Skeptic)
38. Have been interviewed by a reporter because of your atheism.
39. Written a letter-to-the-editor about an issue related to your non-belief in God.
40. Gave a friend or acquaintance a New Atheist book as a gift.
41. Wear pro-atheist clothing in public.
42. Have invited Mormons/Jehovah’s Witnesses into your house specifically because you wanted to argue with them.
43. Have been physically threatened (or beaten up) because you didn’t believe in God.
44. Receive Google Alerts on “atheism” (or variants).
45. Received fewer Christmas presents than expected because people assumed you didn’t celebrate it.
46. Visited The Creation Museum or saw Ben Stein’s Expelled just so you could keep tabs on the “enemy.”
47. Refuse to tell anyone what your “sign” is… because it doesn’t matter at all.
48. Are on a mailing list for a Christian organization just so you can see what they’re up to…
49. Have kept your eyes open while you watched others around you pray.
50. Avoid even Unitarian churches because they’re too close to religion for you.

That’s 28 out of 50… which ranks me thusly:

21-30: You are an atheist, but babies aren’t running away from you. Yet.

Breaking it in

I've finally decided to put together a serious blog about atheism, skepticism, and the like. I've been blogging occasionally on another site, but it was never about any consistent theme and I tended to get a bit silly about things.

I'll start this one off by reposting an essay I posted on my other blog, which details my progress from "cafeteria" Christian to door-knocking street preaching fundamentalist Evangelical biblical literalist to skeptical generic theist to atheist.

I've also been touring local churches and taking notes about their services and their theology. Expect a few of those soon.

-- Mike

Why I Am an Atheist

Life has a tendency of throwing us curveballs. For me, the biggest was realizing that I no longer believed in God.

All my life I was raised to believe in a soft variety of the Christian god. He was an all-powerful, all-knowing being living off in some indescribably wonderful place who loved me and listened intently to even the quietest whisper of a prayer. He was a comfort when times were rough and gave me confidence when my spirit sagged.

I never gave much thought to why I believed as I did. It’s just what I was raised to be; in our family, we were Christians. We were members of the United Church of Christ, a church that tends to be liberal and open to anyone’s interpretations – basically a step away from being Unitarian. We knew there was a God. And that was enough for me, at first; just to believe. I didn’t think He needed anything from me other than that simple belief. That is, until I reached high school.

In high school, I idolized my brother. He was everything I wasn’t – strong, tall, athletic, sociable, confident. I was a shy, weird little kid with a severe lack of confidence and a tiny social circle. I looked at my brother as the perfect example of what I could be. And so when he joined Young Life, a Christian evangelist group that doubled as a sort of social club for high school kids, I had to join, too.

It was fun. I met a lot of really great, friendly people. We sang songs, had parties, played icebreaker games to get to know each other; that sort of thing. I learned a lot about what other people believed about God, about life, about the afterlife, and about Jesus. My eyes were opened to a lot of things I’d never seen before, growing up in a mild church where a sense of community and kindness seemed more common than a deep and abiding faith.

Until then, my religious beliefs hadn’t been all that important. I basically made things up as I went, and occasionally I’d read bits and pieces of the Bible to learn about what other people might think about God. My education in traditional Christian doctrine was essentially nonexistent. I could never make myself pay much attention during the church services, and Sunday school was all about the same old Bible stories kids learn about. Junior high Bible study was interesting, because we looked into more of the New Testament than I’d read before. But it was never much more than a baseline pseudo-Christian form of theism – there’s a God, he loves you, he made everything (some way or another), and he’ll heap rewards upon you when you die. Heaven was a chance to get back together with all the loved ones who went before you. There wasn’t much theology to it at all. It was just a simple, comforting, unquestioned belief.

It was in the Young Life meetings that I was presented with a kind of “soft evangelism”. Looking back on it, I can identify it as a sort of love bombing – everyone was accepting of you, regardless of your faults; they were eager to tell you what a great person you were; they sang happy songs (both religious and secular); they encouraged you to agree with what the leaders told you was right; and they really pushed for you to come to their week-long summer camp. So, of course, I went. I liked the people, I liked the atmosphere, and I liked feeling like I was accepted. I’d always been the social outcast before, and I craved that wonderful feeling of being a part of something where people accepted me despite all my quirks and insecurities.

The camp was a blast. There was a lake, a pool, a rock climbing wall – all sorts of great activities. Plenty of stuff to keep us busy and keep reinforcing the positive, warm, euphoric atmosphere. Every now and then, we’d gather in the main lodge for a series of skits or games. It was at the lodge that they hit us with the standard evangelical positions – that we all sin, that we all need redemption because God is a just and righteous judge who cannot abide with sin, and that Jesus was persecuted and slain so that we could enter into the presence of God. They told it to us gently, but in a way that still managed to impress upon us that we should feel guilty and ashamed if we rejected God’s gift after all the pain and suffering he went through just because he loved us so completely and perfectly.

During the week I discovered the Left Behind series. The camp store had all of the books in paperback, and I blazed through them one by one, fascinated by the stories and by what people believed God was going to do for his people eventually. Combining that with the “plan for salvation” that the skits drilled into us, and by the fourth or fifth day I was really hurting to be saved. I felt like the fact that I hadn’t accepted Christ into my heart as my lord and savior was no better than if I had spat in God’s face. Forget the fact that, before all this, my religious beliefs had been a comfort to me; now, I knew I had been incredibly wrong about God. Just being a good person wasn’t enough. I had to develop a stronger faith, accept Christ’s sacrifice for my sin, to repent, and follow the Bible.

I honestly don’t know what year it was when this happened. It was important to me at the time, but these things fade as time passes. In any case, I came away from Young Life camp feeling like a whole new person. I threw myself into my faith harder than ever, diving into the Bible with gusto and wondering at the glory of God’s creation. I was sure that I was saved; that my sins were forgiven and I was free of my past.

During my first year in college, I lived in what was called the Healthy Living House – a part of our dorm set off for young men and women to live away from drugs and alcohol, where some students volunteered to be counselors who would help us keep each other in check. One of our counselors was a girl named A. who lived across the hall from me. A. and I became fast friends; she was a polite, friendly, cheerful girl, who also happened to be a Christian. She and I talked about God and Jesus all the time, and eventually she introduced me to Campus Crusade for Christ.

Crusade was like a more serious form of Young Life; we met once a week to watch skits, sing, pray, etc. Being among a community of believers only reinforced my faith, and it drew me more and more toward the Biblical literalist position that so many of the other members held. After all, the more I learned about God and the plans he had for me, the more I felt like I was on the right path. I was proud to hold my head high and proclaim the gospel to everyone.

There were only two things that troubled me. The first was that many of my other friends were either atheists or members of some other religion. It worried me terribly that they were putting their immortal souls in peril by turning their backs on God and Jesus. I tried as best as I could to understand why they didn’t believe, but it all seemed so obvious to me. Of course God was real; how else could we be here?

The second was my love of science and my literal mind. As I read the Bible I of course ran into things that were problematic – why would God punish Adam and Eve if they didn’t know the difference between right and wrong? Of course, as I spent more and more time with A. and other Crusade members, I learned all the “right” answers to these and other problems. (Adam and Eve may not have had knowledge about good and evil, but after all, God put his morality in our hearts from the very beginning!)

But I still ran into things that I couldn’t so easily accept. The idea of the Earth being less than 10,000 years old, for example, or that evolution was really a lie that scientists told to lead people away from God. My mind told me that it didn’t make sense. But my fellow Christians told me not to rely so much on my mind, since I’m only a human and I’m fallible; instead, I should rely on God’s immutable, perfect word. After all, it was right about so many other things; it must be right about these, too.

So I became a believer through and through. The Bible was literally true – after all, God wouldn’t lie or try to mislead us. (Disregard the verses that say God lies; I hadn’t read those yet, of course.) Science didn’t really know anything for sure; the only way we could ever be certain about what was real was to rely on God through prayer, meditation, and proper reading of the Bible.

At some point I began to wonder if my faith was true. Not if it was correct; just if I was believing the way I was supposed to, or if somehow I hadn’t quite gotten the formula right. I felt the joy and the presence of God, the reassurance in hard times, and all the things I was told I should feel. But I never really felt like God spoke to me. I spoke to him all the time. I almost always had a prayer in my mind, if not on my lips. But I never got that strong impression that he was giving me any kind of answer – the sort of certainty I heard of people who said things like “God has put it into my heart that X” or “When Y happened, I knew that it was God telling me Z”. I never had this sort of feeling! Was I doing something wrong? It tortured me. I was in fear of my soul all over again. So I pushed even harder to learn about God and the Bible. I read The Case for Christ, Darwin On Trial, More than a Carpenter, anything I could sink my teeth into. I devoured the Bible cover to cover. I took notes. I kept a journal. I prayed more fervently than ever.

I knew I was saved. I loved Jesus more than anything. I’d throw myself on the floor, weeping, thanking him through my tears for all that he’d sacrificed for someone as unworthy of grace as myself. I begged him to take over my life and guide me in whatever ways he desired. At some point, I considered leaving school to take up the seminary. I felt like I had to tell the world about what I knew about Jesus and salvation. I had to let them know about the joy that comes with a certainty that you’ll spend eternity with the loving, mighty God who made the universe and all within it. I wanted to be a beacon to them, to guide them to the hope that dwelt within me.

It was during this time that I was credulous to essentially everything – aliens, ghosts, psychic phenomena, conspiracies, alternative medicine; you name it, I probably believed in it. It never really struck me until years later that much of what I believed contradicted my religious beliefs, but that’s primarily because I never thought too long or hard about what it would mean if they were all true. Thinking deeply about things wasn’t promoted as useful by my fellow Crusaders – it was enough to trust that things were the way God wanted them to be, and leave it at that. Nothing beyond that was really important, anyways.

I spent the first two years of my college career in the Healthy Living House. The third year, I moved into an apartment with my friend J., who I’d met through some of my classes and who I really got along with. The subject of God and religion seldom arose, and when it did he tended to change it quickly. He knew what I believed, and I could tell that he didn’t believe it. Once we moved in together, things changed somewhat. I learned that he was an atheist (or at least an agnostic, I’m not sure), which in my mind put him just a step or two up from Satan himself. I was aghast. But I was also interested. I wanted to learn why he didn’t believe what I did. After all, I thought, it was so obviously true, and it brought great peace, comfort, and reassurance. Why wouldn’t everyone want that?

And so I asked him questions. He seemed eager to answer them, and to pose questions to me in return. Often I couldn’t answer him, or when I did, he pointed out the flaws in the answers I’d been taught. I tended to brush his objections aside; after all, I was basing my beliefs on something that absolutely had to be true. It was perfect, complete, immutable, infallible, and unchanging.

The thing that finally stuck with me was his accusation that the Bible wasn’t everything that had been written about God and Jesus. What a thing to say! After all, I knew that God wanted us to know everything we could about him; why would there be anything left out? I really got upset about it. I demanded that he prove what he’d said. And, of course, he did. He introduced me to the Catholic Apocrypha, pointed out the differences between their version of the Ten Commandments and ours, and introduced me to the Gnostic texts that had been left out of the Bible.

I was staggered. How could I not have learned about all this? Surely the other Crusade members had to know about these things, too; why didn’t they ever talk about them? I told A. about what J. had showed me, and she seemed nervous. She seemed to think I’d been spending too much time with him, and that it might not be a good thing for me to be living with a nonbeliever. I was shocked that she didn’t want to learn about these things! After all, if these writings were made about God and Jesus and had survived just as long as all the Biblical texts, why didn’t we ever learn about them? How did we know they weren’t God’s word, too?

The more I read the Gnostic texts, the more I was amazed. Everything I’d learned about the origins of modern Christianity was wrong. The Bible wasn’t the complete word of God; the beliefs I held weren’t the same ones people had held over the centuries; for goodness sake, the Bible as I knew it was just the result of a vote on what was and wasn’t going to be part of the canon! What was going on here? Why wasn’t there any other Christian I knew who had read these things? Why were they so violently rejected or scoffed at by any believer I mentioned them to?

I began to do more and more research into the origins of my faith. I learned about the Gnostic ideas of God – that God manifests in the universe in several forms called “aeons”, which could be principles, physical beings, attributes, and so on. I learned that so much of what we believed to be Christianity was really just stuff tacked on centuries after Jesus died, and that there were hundreds of competing early forms that were snuffed out by that which would eventually become what we know today.

I was outraged – not at God, but by my fellow Christians who were so closed-minded about these things and what they meant about the truth of our beliefs. Why did so few of them care if what they believed was true or not? Why was it more important for them to hold onto modern teachings and to abandon the truer, ancient ones?

Eventually I began to question all the things I’d been told in Crusade. After all, they were arguments based on a distorted, limited, chopped up and shuffled version of God’s word. Why should I simply accept them? The Bible was hardly a representation of what the early church was really like – rather, it was a representation of what had dominated and eliminated other early competing sects. I thought of it in much the same way as what would happen if the Lutherans (or any other modern sect) managed to eliminate the competition and rewrite the holy text to take out the bits they don’t like and add bits that sound more appealing to them. I wanted to get back to the earliest, purest roots I could find.

Worse still was when I discovered that for all my belief, there was nothing outside the Bible to confirm that Jesus had ever done anything at all that the Bible said. The only record we had of Jesus’ words was the Bible itself, and even that wasn’t good enough, because nobody who ever met him actually wrote anything that’s in the Bible today. I just basically assumed uncritically that people wouldn’t believe all these things if there weren’t evidence somewhere to back it all up, and that this assumption was enough to justify my faith. Of course, it’s not true; seldom will you find something in the Bible that has been confirmed by archaeology, and never has anything miraculous or supernatural been reinforced by any kind of discovery.

By the time I finally learned about who had really written the gospels and just how shaky the veracity of the Bible was, I wasn’t sure what to call myself anymore. I couldn’t call myself a Christian; after all, for most people, that would mean I believed (or at least believed in) the Bible. And I didn’t. I wanted to get back to what God really was, not what man had twisted him and voted him into being, and not all the unsupported mythology. I began to resent Christian apologists, because I saw in them the sort of short-sighted ignorance I had embraced myself just a short while before. Science, reason, critical thinking, and logic became more and more important as I sifted through the evidence to try to find out the truth. And when it came to my faith, these four things would become the four horsemen of the apocalypse, uprooting everything that remained of what I’d believed.

I was out of college and living on my own now, and I was close to being a Deist. I believed that God had, at the very least, made the universe. I figured that God was the spark that ignited the Big Bang, that he had perhaps guided evolution to lead it toward where we are today, and that maybe – just maybe – he was actually still around to listen to me when I prayed. Even if he didn’t bother to respond.

After a long period of consideration I began to question God even further. Could we ever really know the difference between God not answering prayer and God not being there at all? What evidence do we have that there is a soul, let alone an afterlife? Isn’t it possible that when we see something we think is unexplainable and that it must be a miracle, that instead it’s really just something we don’t understand yet that could be entirely natural? If a purely natural explanation can solve just as many problems, why do we need to tack on the supernatural? How can we possibly claim to know anything about God at all, especially when you discard the Bible as a book of fairy tales?

And so I became an agnostic. I spent hours debating on the Internet with Christians about the bible, about god, about anything. I tried to get them to give me some sort of rational reason to believe any of it, and time after time I heard the same tired, old, and worn-out apologetics that I’d heard from my fellow Crusade members. Nobody was able to tell me why their particular flavor of mythology should be considered any different from that of the Greek, Norse, and Roman mythology I’d learned about in school. And nobody could give me a reasonable answer to the problem of evil – that is, if God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why does evil exist, unless he allows it to?

Then my uncle died. Numb from emotional pain and confusion, and hours away from anyone I loved, I went out to a bar the night I found out to try to shift my focus from mourning to just trying to cope. And after a little while at the bar, I returned to my car, where I wept like a lost child, screaming at God to come back into my life and tell me what to do. I poured my entire being into it. I wanted nothing more than for something solid and permanent to reassure me that everything would be okay. I wanted that old comforting certainty again. And for a while, I felt like I had it. I started praying again, if not quite so fervently as before. And, of course, I noticed that the prayers continued to go unanswered beyond the realm of sheer chance and coincidence. The more obvious the result I prayed for, the less likely I would get what I needed. I had re-entered the echo chamber of prayer, and this time I realized right away that the voice I heard bouncing back was mine and mine alone.

So I lapsed back into agnosticism again. I truly wanted to believe that there was a God out there somewhere. But I was unconvinced. Through a proper application of skeptical and critical reasoning, Occam’s Razor slowly sliced bit after bit off of my faith, until there was nothing left of it but “God exists.” And I’m not entirely sure when it happened, but at some point, that fell away too. Likely it disappeared around the time I realized that I was using “God” as nothing more than a catch-all term to describe the things I didn’t know, and I convinced myself that if I didn’t know the right answer to a question, that it didn’t make any sense to just make one up. It slowly became acceptable to me to say “I don’t know” in response to the biggest questions.

I was an atheist. I no longer believed that there was any sort of god. The universe was what it was; nothing was certain or guaranteed, and we were all stuck here on our own to figure things out and make things better for each other. Prayer was just a way to try to make yourself feel good about doing nothing of real value. Rather than take comfort in the delusion that some invisible, inaudible, intangible, unknowable being was watching out for me – after all, if his eye were on the sparrow, why all the strife in the world? – instead I took comfort in the realization that I didn’t have to know everything. Not having the answers to all the deepest questions didn’t make me shallow or lost; it meant that I was being intellectually honest and open to change.

Since then I’ve been seeking out guidance from people who’ve been where I am now. I meet regularly with a nice-sized local atheist/agnostic group for coffee or beer; I read books on humanist philosophy and ethics; I devour science and politics. I’ve gone to church a few times, though it feels like an alien world to me now, and I do it mainly to see it all as an outsider looking in.

I don’t resent my parents for bringing me up the way they did. How could I? They only did it because it was how they were raised themselves. The depth my faith went to was far beyond what they’d ingrained in me. To them, God is very generic. They believe Jesus’ death saved everyone, no matter what; that everyone goes to heaven; that our dead relatives watch over us as some sort of guardian angels; that God cares more about what we do in our lives than what we believe; things like that. It’s a very liberal form of Christianity, and it gives them peace and comfort and a way to socialize with politically and theologically like-minded people. I can’t fault them for it; our minds are wired to receive pleasure from hearing people say things we agree with or we already believe. It’s all a part of being a social species. I won’t say that I want them become atheists, too, because I don’t have any right to try to take away something that gives them hope (even if I think it’s false hope).

So, what now? If there’s no God, what hope can I possibly have? Well, if this is the only life I have, I have to do everything I can to enjoy it and make it useful to myself and others while I have it. I have true moral responsibility – if I wrong someone, I have to make it right myself; I can’t just ask some uninvolved third party to forgive me. I take great pride and joy in my ability to determine what is and isn’t likely to be real or correct. Reason, logic, critical thinking, and skepticism help me understand the world and what is and isn’t worth my time.

When I was a Christian, life was just a waiting room for something better when I died. I didn’t need to involve myself in anything worldly, because I knew that nothing in this life really meant anything, apart from worshiping God. Eternity cheapens a temporary life. Now, I know that there’s no guarantee. There’s no big payoff at the end of the game; it’s the game itself that has to be meaningful. Life is precious because it’s short, and because once it’s gone we can’t get it back. There’s no do-overs. We get one shot to make a difference to the world. And yes, the world itself will eventually be gone, and everything we do is ultimately meaningless. But I think that it’s enough to try to make life a little easier, a little brighter, and a little more enlightened for the people who will come after me, and that maybe someday we as a species will reach the point where we can throw off our security blankets. After all, there’s no monster in the closet or under the bed; there’s just the big, scary, wonderful, real world out there.