Sunday, February 22, 2015

A brief rant about knowledge, God, and Leprechauns

I don't understand why the standard for knowledge switches from reasonable certainty to absolute certainty in conversations that are about the existence of God, even peripherally. And anything less than absolute certainty get's labeled "faith" by believers and "agnosticism" by nonbelievers.
I was helping out at an "Ask an Atheist" table last Wednesday and had to bite my tongue as I listened to two theists and one agnostic agreeing with each other that we couldn't really *know* that there wasn't a Leprechaun hiding in the back corner of the bookstore where no one could see.
The fuck we can't!
Yes, in some navel-gazing, purely philosophical way, we have to be intellectually honest and admit there is a non-zero epistemic probability that there is a Leprechaun that hides in book stores. But that doesn't mean we can't say we know there isn't one. No one holds themselves to that standard of knowledge in pretty much any walk of life. No one ever stands up during a murder trial and says "hold on a minute, guys. A wizard may have done this. We can't know who's guilty." and then they all nod their heads in agreement and drop the charges. We try, convict, imprison, and even execute people based on a standard of the absence of reasonable doubt. Even in literal life-and-death situations, we don't hold ourselves to a standard of absolute certainty.
I can understand why some nonbelievers do this. Some of them have a strong aversion to saying anything that smacks of dogmatism, which makes sense coming from the backgrounds that some of them escaped from. Others want to be able to argue without having to take up the burden of proof, which is forgivable when they haven't had time to sort out a positive worldview after ditching their old one, but is pretty weak when it's just a tactic to keep their side of the debate easier.
And I understand why some believers do this. Some like to take what I call the nuclear option where they nuke epistemology itself and try to level the playing field that way. Everything gets labeled "faith," and all faith claims are presumed to be equal. Oh, you have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow? Well, then that validates my faith that a man was raised from the dead.
We don't need to play word games. We don't need to pretend it's arrogant to say that you know something when you truly think the evidence is overwhelmingly on your side. We don't need to slip into black-and-white thinking in one area when we accept probability and nuance in every other. We really don't.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Too Long For Twitter: atheist atrocities

As much as apologists like to bring up the innocents murdered by Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot as a consequence of atheism, it's difficult to actually find an atheist who supports those atrocities.

Meanwhile, finding a Christian who is willing and eager to provide excuses for slavery, genocide, and other atrocities in the Bible, or for the torture and execution of heretics and a host of other crimes throughout the history of the church, is trivially easy. You can go to any given church on any given Sunday and it's almost certain you will find at least one. Hell, the apologist who brought up Stalin is probably one.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Plans for the new year

2014 hasn’t been a great year for the blog. My views about naturalism and the nonexistence of God solidified early on in the year, ending my desire to find a religious community where I could fit in. With that ended the one thing that would have somewhat set my blog apart in a sea of other atheist blogs, which made me question whether or not I should even try to keep it going. The world doesn’t need another atheist blogger writing about the exact same things that hundreds of others are already discussing, especially when I have so little to offer compared to more eloquent and educated writers.

But, for reasons that I haven’t bothered reflecting on, I feel like I really do want to try to get things started again. It may be because I’m pulling out of my latest “angry atheist” phase and am starting to think more about the positive aspects of my worldview, like Humanism, rather than the knee-jerk antireligious side that just wants to debate people.

Whatever the reason, I’m going to try to put out more worthwhile content over the coming year. I have some ideas in mind for how I’m going to go about this, but only time will tell if any of them will be successful.

First, I’m going to stop blogging about blogging. In other words, no more posts like this one. If I go for months without posting something, I’m not going to break the silence just to talk about how I haven’t been posting lately, or how I feel bad about not updating regularly, or about what I want to post in the future. I feel obligated to acknowledge it when this happens, but I recognize that it is incredibly boring and there’s no reason for anyone to actually care. So, I’ll just be sticking with actual content from here on out.

Second, I’m going to be adding some semi-regular, filler-type features just to keep me in the habit of posting and, hopefully, free up my writer’s block so I can post things that are actually worthwhile. I’m a draft-and-delete writer, and at any given point I have a dozen or more blog posts in progress that, if finished, would actually be pretty decent. But they never get finished unless I’m able to hammer out the entire thing in a single sitting. I think that if I get myself in the habit of sitting down, writing something quickly and then posting it, I’ll have an easier time of it.

To distinguish the fillers from the “real” content, I’ll be tagging them depending on what type they are. The first two are what I’ll be calling “Shit theists say” and “Shit atheists say” (STS and SAS for short). These will be quick responses to statements I stumble across, online or in person, that I want to express some thoughts on but may not have been able to in that moment.

The other type is what I will by calling “Too long for Twitter.” These will just be quick comments or aphorisms that I want to share but can’t phrase concisely enough for a tweet. This happens to me a lot, and while I sometimes will put them on my Facebook page, sometimes they’re a bit much for what my friends and family want to see from me (I've already been pegged as an “intolerant asshole” who “hates everybody” for the stuff I already put there, all of which I consider to be pretty mild). If it starts cluttering up the blog, I’ll stop.

Next, I’m planning on hashing out some of my thoughts about ethics. This has been the topic I’ve been reading/hearing/thinking about most over the past several months, and I think it’s time I put some of my thoughts down in one place where other people can start poking holes in them. This is a big, complicated topic, and I want it to be clear that I’m not planning on writing this because I think I’ll be contributing anything to the conversation. Quite the opposite. I don’t know enough philosophy to even get away with calling myself a layman, so I’m not pretending that I’ll be saying anything that nobody has said a thousand times before and better.

And finally, there is a chance that I’ll begin something similar to the search that first led me to start this blog, but the search will be more narrowly focused. When I began, I wasn’t sure if I would remain an atheist (or even if I wanted to), and I was looking for a place where I could explore my “spiritual” side. It’s clear now that there is no place for me in Christianity, Buddhism, Paganism, or any of the other places I was looking. It’s also clear that I am a Secular Humanist, and there is plenty of room within that for me to begin searching again.

There are no explicitly Humanist groups in my area that I am aware of, but there are some general atheist/agnostic/freethinker ones, one of which I have been an active participant for the past several months, so that will be my starting point. Sam Harris’ newest book has spawned some discussion about “spirituality” and it’s secular connotations, and it looks like there may be some like-minded people in the group. Also, I’m planning on participating in an online course about Humanist community-building, and I’ll possibly be putting that to use.

So, there you have it. This is my plan, at least. Only time will tell whether or not it pans out, but in either case, you’ll be able to read about it here.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Quick thoughts on evolution and God

A wandering street preacher visited the local campus this past week to warn people of the evils of evolution. In the aftermath, a few thoughts have come to mind.

I haven't taken a class in any of the hard sciences since I graduated high school over ten years ago. Everything I've learned since then has come from reading on my own, listening to lectures, and the like. And even to an under-educated layman like me, the evidence in favor of an old universe, evolution by natural selection, and the common ancestry of living things is so overwhelming and comprehensive that, even if someone was able to convince me that some sort of God exists, I would still believe in those things.

In fact, if someone convinced me that the God was the God of Christianity, and that this God verbally inspired Moses to write the Pentateuch, including the creation stories of Genesis, the evidence supporting "evolutionism" is strong enough that I would have to conclude that God was lying to Moses. I would assume that he had good reasons to do so, but he nevertheless would be lying.

This, of course, would not sit well with many Christian. "God cannot lie," they say (Numbers 23:19, Titus 1:2, and all that).

But there are different kinds of lying, and not all of them are morally reprehensible. Take the classic scenario of someone hiding Jews in their basement and lying to a Nazi official who comes snooping around. There are situations where telling a lie to prevent a greater evil or bring about a greater good may be justified. God using Moses to spread a lie about the origins of the universe could be one of those situation.

But the people who would insist the God could not lie like this make God into another sort of liar instead. If the Genesis creation stories are true and evolution and the old universe are false, then God created the universe in such a way that we, using the best methods we have to examine and explain anything, would inevitably reach wrong conclusions (conclusions which, according to the street preacher, put us in danger of going to hell). I've never heard an explanation as to why the evidences in favor of evolution fit together so well when evolution didn't actually occur that didn't turn God into some sort of trickster, a liar of a different sort.

The first type of a lying God, the one who lied to Moses, could be analogous to a parent who hides a destructive or damaging truth from their child until they're ready to hear it. In those cases, the parent remains trustworthy; they have the child's best interest in mind, and the child will be able to see that once they are old and mature enough to know the truth.

But the second kind of lying God, the trickster who planted the evidence for evolution, is not that sort of loving parent. In that case, we're being misled, not in a way that will protect us, but in a way that could ruin us. We cannot trust the scientific method. We cannot trust our own reason. And we cannot trust God. We would be doomed.

One way or another, creationism implies a lying God. There is no escaping it.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Why Christianity will never lose a culture war

Some critics of Christianity will point out that there are tens of thousands of Christian denominations in the world today. While some of these are simply products of geography and culture with little to no difference in fundamental beliefs, there are also many that contradict each other on various important points of doctrine. From the outside, this looks like a problem. If the Christian god is real, how could it allow for so much confusion? This line of questioning has some weight, but it can be explained away rather easily and isn’t really a knockdown argument against the validity of Christianity. In fact, it occurred to me recently that the diversity of Christianity is a major reason for its success and likely will make it damn near impossible for us to every truly be rid of it.

Christianity is massive. One of the reasons for this is that Christianity appeals to an incredibly wide variety of people. You can approach it and enter into it with almost any strongly held beliefs and still find a place somewhere under the Christian umbrella.

Are you a staunch pacifist? Do you abhor violence of any kind, even in self-defense? Do you think that war is never justified and that capital punishment is barbaric? Christianity has a place for you.

Do you believe that war is frequently justified, or even sometimes mandated and given divine approval? Do you think that torturing enemies is acceptable, that the state is obligated to execute certain criminals? Do you revel in the deaths of enemies and want to see even more bombs dropped on their homelands? You can find a place in Christianity, too.

Do you believe that there is only One True God, that only your small denomination has the proper understanding of who or what God is, and that anyone who believes otherwise should be treated as a second-class citizen and is destined for eternal punishment? You can be a Christian.

Do you believe that God is loving and forgiving and that people can come to know God outside of a specific religious path? Do you think that everyone will eventually come to know God, no matter what religion they belong to, and that no one will ever be eternally separated or punished? You can be a Christian, too.

Do you think that all people are equal in the eyes of God, that all races and genders are equal and should be afforded the same rights? Christian.

Do you think that men are inherently superior to women, that God selects certain races or nationalities to be his “chosen people,” and that people from other, “inferior” races can be owned as slaves? Christian as well.

Of course, anyone who calls themselves a Christian can read all of the above, pick out some views and say “yes, those are Christian” and point to others and say “those aren’t Christian at all!” But someone who agrees with the exact opposite points can do exactly the same. That’s the entire point. And you both could point to passages in scriptures that help support your views, or cite various theologians who agree with you, or talk about how the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you espouse your views is the Holy Spirit telling you that your views are the correct ones.

Look back throughout history and you can see examples of this. You can point to the Spanish Inquisition or the African slave trade and show support from Christians at the time. But contemporary Christianity as a whole condemns these things. They look back and see those supporters as representing a lunatic fringe of Christianity, or not representing Christianity at all, even if their views were the most popular at the time.

This brings me to my point: Christianity will never truly lose a culture war.

Think of all the battlefronts in the culture wars of today. Abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, wars in the Middle East, displays of religion in the public square. All of these issues have Christians on both sides, some more strongly than others. The result of this is that, in the end, Christianity cannot lose.

My side of the same-sex marriage battle is winning. Equality is coming to more and more states, and it seems inevitable that it will be nation-wide relatively soon. Public support for it increases every year. And we know that, to a large extent, the people who are trying to prevent this from happening are Christians. That’s not to say that we’re fighting Christians exclusively or to deny that that are still Christians on our side. But the majority of the opposition in this case are Christians using Christian language and reasoning to halt our progress. Because of this, some people on my side frame this as a battle against Christianity. When we win, they say, Christianity loses.

But that’s not the case. Again, we have Christians on our side as well. When we win, Christianity will also win. It cannot lose this fight, no matter the outcome. And fifty years or so after same-sex marriage comes to all fifty states, once all the dust has settled, we’re going to hear about how Christianity always supported same-sex marriage and how it wouldn’t have come to pass without their support and guidance. We’re going to look back on how just a small, crazy fringe element of Christianity opposed the change, but "true" Christianity won out.

No matter how many times it's had to be dragged kicking and screaming towards progress, Christianity always manages to reverse itself and then take credit for that same progress. This is doubly frustrating since Christianity's popularity and longevity are given as "proof" for its validity, and it's seen as being necessary for moral advancement since it always manages to appear to have been on the right side of history.

This would all be funny if it weren't so damned depressing.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Small changes bring bigger changes

I’ve struggled for the past six months or so as to whether or not I should start up this blog again or start a new one or stop blogging entirely. The last option is appealing; I have this personality quirk where once I’ve been away from something or procrastinated long enough I’d rather move on and forget it rather than return to it. Trying to return to it is like a reminder of some sort of failure that I’d rather not think about. However, I’m trying to get over this, so that option’s out.

The second option, starting a new blog, might be a good idea since I’m going to be shifting focus a bit, but after some consideration I don’t think it’s worth it. This one’s already here, and I’m probably going to be referencing previous posts from time to time. Plus, the focus shift probably isn’t going to be so dramatic as to warrant a complete change in venue.

One of the main issues I wanted to work my way through with my writing was to figure out if there was a way for me, as an atheist, to find a place in some sort of religious or spiritual tradition. I’ve come to realize that the answer is ‘no.’ Not for me, personally, anyway. A lot of my beliefs have solidified in such a way that makes it difficult to make me feel comfortable in a religious setting. I cannot think of declaring myself to be a part of any religion without it sounding like a lie.

I’ve become a “strong” atheist, as opposed to my previous “weak” atheism. In other words, I’ve changed from being someone simply doesn’t believe in God into someone who actually believes that God does not exist. This is not a switch I expected to ever make, but a few posts by my favorite philosopher over at Camels With Hammers convinced me that this is a completely reasonable position to take, in spite of all of the theists and atheists (including myself, until recently) who insist that it’s not.

Also, I’ve become a metaphysical naturalist. I previously still characterized myself as a naturalist, but I’d usually qualify it by saying I was a “naturalist by pragmatic assumption” or something along those lines. Like with my atheism, I didn’t think it was reasonable to push that assumption too far and start making positive claims. But again, another atheist convinced me otherwise, this time Richard Carrier with his excellent book Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism.

So, with the strengthening of my beliefs combined with the failure of what I’m determined will be my last attempt to find a way back into Christianity, I’m pretty much done with religion. I’ve unsubscribed to a number of religious blogs I had been following because I just couldn’t stand to read through their posts. I have no interest in finding a church to attend regularly. I have no interest in adding the trappings of any religious tradition or system into my life, even if I do continue to explore something akin to “spirituality” from a naturalistic perspective (which will happen at some point in the future, I’m sure, but I have no taste for it right now).

I recognize that I’m in an “angry atheist” phase for the moment, but that will mellow with time. The overall tone of the blog will probably reflect that. However, I am, and hope to remain, an unashamed atheist. I’m tired of biting my tongue when people talk about religion. I’m tired of telling half-truths or giving misleading answers when people ask me about what I believe. I’m done with that. That’s probably going to cause problems with some people in my life, but what I’ve come to realize is that that’s their problem, not mine.

All in all, I feel like I’m in a good spot. I have a better understanding of where I stand, and I no longer feel the need to try to wedge myself into any particular idea or mindset that doesn’t seem to fit me.

Friday, January 10, 2014

"If you are not a Christian, you are going to hell."

This tweet by Mark Driscoll got a lot different thoughts flowing.

I didn't stop believing in hell until about a year before I stopped being a Christian altogether. It pains me that I not only used to think that any number of people were going to be tortured for eternity, but I also in some way believed they deserved it. It fills me with grief and shame when I think about that, to the point that I want to go around apologizing to random strangers for once believing something so hideous.

Now that I'm an atheist, it's a bit strange knowing that there probably are people in my life who think the same way that Driscoll does, or that I used to. Does the aunt sitting across from me at the Thanksgiving dinner table know that I'm not a Christian, and does she think that I'm going to hell for it? That I deserve to go to hell for it? I want to ask.

Anyone who tells me I'm going to hell is wrong. Anyone who tells me I deserve to go to hell is an asshole.

That doesn't happen all that often, but on occasion it does. What's more common is that someone will make a comment that about how nonbeliever are bound for hell without knowing that they're talking about me. I should tell them. I want to know what they'd say.

People try to use hell to scare people into believing. That doesn't work on me. I don't know how it could. You could tell me that there's a monster under my bed and that I need to sleep with the lights on or else it will eat me, and I wouldn't do it because I don't believe you.

If you told me that most people do it, I won't believe you.

If you tell me stories about a lucky few people who have survived monster-under-the-bed attacks and lived to tell of its horrors, I still won't believe you.

If you point to ancient books that tell of the monsters, I won't believe them, either.

And no matter how much you appeal to the fact that it's really, really easy to take the safe bet and sleep with the lights on, it still wouldn't matter.

And it would be much, much easier for me to choose to sleep with the lights on than for me to choose to be a Christian. I don't even think that is a choice I am capable of making. I don't know how to unlearn so much of what I've come to know and understand so I can go back to believing in something that ridiculous based on evidence that tenuous. And even if I actually was capable of making that choice, I don't think that I should. I guess I'm willing to risk my soul just for the sake of being intellectually honest.

But there's more to it than that. If hell really does exist, I'm going there. I have to. It's the only moral thing to do if the alternative is worshipping the being that created something so evil and unjust in the first place.

I once told someone that if I did become a Christian again, I'd have to be a universalist. And if I was wrong, if there was a hell, then it wouldn't matter how strong my faith had been or how much I truly, deeply loved Jesus. I'd have to go hell.

He said that that was the saddest thing he had ever heard in his life. I think he needs to get out more.

"But aren't you afraid of going to hell?" That's one of those questions that people love to ask when they find out they're talking to an atheist. And of course I tell them no, I'm not afraid at all. Because it isn't real. There's no good reason to think it is real and several good reasons to think it's not.

And that's not a bravery thing. I don't think that it's courageous of me to not be afraid of hell. It requires very little bravery to offer to fight a monster you know doesn't exist. But not everyone gets that.

It doesn't just bother me that I used to believe in hell. It bothers me that I did so casually. Like it wasn't a big deal, or not that important. Does that mean I didn't really believe in it? Or was I just that unthinking that I never examined what that belief meant? I suspect more the latter. And I think the same is true for a lot of people who believe in hell.

I feel like I want to warn them.