The sacred and the superstitous
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is then to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.” – Carl Sagan
It’s been quite some time since I sat down to update this blog. I have been writing, thinking, reading, and above all else living; but I wanted to give my thoughts proper time to settle before putting them out there in this format.
I am happy to say I recently married a very bright and beautiful partner, my wife Salome. Our wedding was a great day. To have friends from all over the world visiting us in November for the ceremony reminded me of how blessed I have been in my life. I don’t count many things to be of greater value then an authentic and true friend. I’d be lucky to have one, or two, within a lifetime. To have accumulated the ones I have around me now, the wild community of the most sincere and amazing humans, is a fortune I won’t pretend to have thus far earned. But I intend to do it justice in the coming decades.
Along with spending time with my children, two teenage boys who live with us, the gym, the community of people within it, and my financial obligations, I have had the inevitable questions that I imagine most of us ponder as our responsibility grows with our age. And all of that has helped to keep a puzzle continually popping into my conscious thoughts. The question is this: "Do you feel that what is practical always matches what is important?"
As that question has percolated in my brain, other concepts and ideas have become clearer to me over the years. Much of it is related to this blog, and all the things I have written about and experienced over the last decade. To explain this in a manner which will hopefully remains lucid and clear to the reader, I will have to weave some personal background in, along with the broader topics of rational thought, superstition, religion, metaphor, values, and my relaxation into the realization that I am now a confirmed atheist.
What follows is a brief outline of a book I have been working on. And I intend to expand greatly on many of these ideas as the years go by.
I have come to believe, for many reasons that I will attempt to lay out in this piece, that one of the great objectives of the 21st century will be separating the sacred from the supernatural. And within the last couple years of my life, it has been a personal and internal process, I have myself have engaged in; one that has left me happier then at any point previous. And one that has cleared the way for me to write in a manner, and on a topic, which I find both practical to everyday living, and important within our current social time frame.
In short, the contemplation I have engaged in over the last few years has helped me to answer the question that lingered in the back of my thought process. It blended the practical with the important. And it showed me that we can indeed have a life which is filled with joy, and at the same time, aesthetically pointed towards the profound. We don’t need to focus our awareness on the trivial, on the consumption of the material, or the hamster wheel of the mundane, in order to be ‘practical’, or happy.
And here is the part that caused the greatest personal shift for me, and the one which I will attempt to articulate in as clear a language as possible. That in so doing, we do not need to take anything on faith. We never need believe anything on insufficient evidence.
We do not need to look to the superstition of religion in order to experience the majesty of the truly sacred. They are not the same, in fact they need not be related; and that in addition, one is clearly true and therefore profound; while the other is clearly false and therefore at best, an impediment.
Here is my argument, and something that by the end of the piece I hope to have convinced you, the reader of, through the power of human reasoning.
That transcendent, does not mean supernatural.
That it is in reality, doubt that propels us forward. And it is belief without evidence (faith) which actually holds us back. That doubt, is always the fuel of the real truth seeker. And belief/faith, is the parking brake that is clutched by the hand of fear; by the mind afraid of revealing its own nature. Doubt is the fuel of the mystic, and the scourge of the clergy. And religion (all religion) by its very design, is something that creates a state of arrested development in an individual’s spiritual growth process as a human being.
To demonstrate this I will need to do a few things. First, I will have to draw a distinction between deism and theism. Secondly, I will have to show how both are clearly false, or at the very least hold the same amount of evidence for their reality as does the belief in the tooth fairy. Third, I will try and explain why clinging to belief in the supernatural, or for that matter anything for which there is not sufficient evidence, is in fact a danger to both the individual, and the society at large. Fourth, that real human values, have absolutely nothing to do with the superstition of so called “sacred” books. And fifth, that the reality of the universe, a universe devoid of the supernatural, the superstitious, of the gods and devils of our ancestors, is in and of itself, not just sacred enough; but in actuality, far more sacred, far more profound, far more majestic, and far more numinous then any of the make believe religious stories we tell each other about it.
And in conclusion I will try and explain that this is done with the intention of description, not prescription. I am not offering any substitute, or alternative form of dogma. I am not selling any form of faith. There is no alternative religion being given.
My description of a process, one involving real critical thought, skepticism, introspection, attention, and contemplation, does not in any way negate the beauty of authentic surrender, the value found in the release of anxiety, fear, and judgment, the non-dual realization, and reality of the inter-connected nature of all things, the values (worth) of compassion, the understanding that the increase in compassion is the direct result of our ability to see ourselves in others, the understanding that compassion itself is the building block of true ‘morality’. And the truth that doubt, skepticism, and its marriage with intuition and inspiration, can indeed carry us to a greater aesthetic appreciation of transcendent moments.
The truth I have experienced in my life so far is this, the realization that those moments of peak experience give us, and the depth of their profundity, is actually cheapened by the inclusion of superstition.
And when we let go of all that we hold no evidence for, we are actually given a freedom we would otherwise not experience. A freedom which offers us the volition to move forward to a greater, and deeper understanding of the universe we live in, and the way we live within it.
“There is a real value for the profound in our lives. We do not need to waste our lives on the pursuit of the trivial. But does that mean that we ever have to lie to ourselves or our children in order to experience the profound? I think it’s obvious we don’t. Yet all faith based western religion is predicated on the idea that you do. That you must lie to yourself, that you must stifle doubt.” - Sam Harris
To give some context to this journey I need to offer a little personal background. This is something I have not done previously in my writing (beyond the background related to my work trade of coaching) for various reasons. And before I do, I need to explain something very important about the distinction between my job, and my personal beliefs on the nature of the universe.
First off, I don't want there to be any confusion regarding the philosophy of SBGi, and my own ideas regarding atheism, religion, philosophy, or dog training.
Those of you that have trained with me in person during the last couple years know that when I am teaching a seminar or Martial Arts class, I am teaching a seminar and Martial Arts class. I don't wax philosophically about the worth or lack thereof as it relates to religion, or other such topics. It is not what I am getting paid for. I don't think it would be fair to the students who are attending the class. When I am teaching a class, I am there solely to teach the skill sets of BJJ, MMA, etc. Anyone’s religion, politics, philosophy or beliefs is irrelevant in that context. Everyone is welcome to attend, religious, republican, atheist or otherwise.
“I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” – Richard Dawkins
I will also say this, I went through a brief period of a few months, many years ago, where I considered moving my own teaching into a more philosophical area, i.e.: adding things like Yoga meditation into my classes more, as well as more discussion of philosophy, etc. I saw it as more of a lifestyle (health & well being) market, as opposed to a strictly Martial Arts market. In fact, on my last trip to Africa several years ago I had a discussion about the potential of this market with Rodney King. For my own reasons I decided completely against this approach. I have no interest in becoming anyone's "life coach", and I saw a lot of danger for both the students and the teachers; the whole guru/mentor trip is easy to get lost in, and I want no part of it. It is always a trap.
My writing on this topic should be understood as something completely distinct from SBGi, or my job as a coach. SBGi is a Martial Arts and sports organization, based around Aliveness. That is enough.
That stated, I do see some parallels in the thinking processes people have as they relate to both religion, and traditional martial arts. There is the same level of distinct cognitive dissonance in both. And as a consequence, I think the arguments against both tend to follow very similar patterns.
When I first started to write and teach about Aliveness I was hit with the charge of being to aggressive in my presentation. Ironically this charge was often leveled at me by people who otherwise claimed to agree with my views. In other words, ya we agree the whole thing is nonsense. But why say it? Just let them be, and we will continue to train our way.
“The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.”
– Thomas Paine (American hero)
As far as I am concerned there are two problems with that point of view. First, it denies the reality that many of us, myself included, started with traditional martial arts, JKD, Karate, or otherwise, and through our own experience, we came to realize that much of it was nonsense. And part of why we went through that process, rather then cutting straight to the functional/real delivery systems of boxing, wrestling, or BJJ was because those that came before us of whom we had contact, and discovered the truth, didn’t find it necessary, convenient, or simply couldn’t be bothered to be blunt about the fantasy paradigm they had left behind as not practical. And that greater shift in the zeitgeist only occurs when at least a few, do speak out loud. To that point I will always be a bit grateful to Alfonso Tamez, who was an JKD instructor who wrote a piece in the early 80’s which spelled out the truth related to martial arts. He did take the time to leave a trail of bread crumbs, and a few of us followed.
Secondly, there is hidden within that mindset which says leave them be, a deep undercurrent of arrogance. It is incredibly condescending to assume that others will not be capable of being persuaded to see reality as it is, simply because it may have taken you so long.
The analogy there with religion could not be clearer. Religious moderates of all faiths fail to realize that they have reached the point of ‘moderation’, in their views and ideas, precisely because the rational thinkers that came before, sacrificed enough energy, and time, to at least attempt to persuade a large enough segment of the population that they were wrong. And this is always done through the same process, the power of reason.
The church did not discover that the earth revolved around the sun, and it wasn’t a deeper reading of scripture that convinced most ‘moderate’ Christians that evolution is indeed a reality, or that the earth is not 6000 years old. Those advances came as a direct result of persuasive arguments. And when those arguments where first given they went against the tradition of the time. But only always. And as such, the moderates became moderate as a direct result of someone speaking out, and offering an alternative to the traditional paradigm of the era. An alternative based on evidence, the powers of rational thought, and human reasoning.
“The engineer says the bridge will hold; the doctor says the infection is resistant to penicillin, these people have defensible reasons for their clams about the way the world is. The mullah, the priest, and the rabbi do not.” -Sam Harris
The second point is similar. I have spoken with more then a few scientists and doctors, all of whom realize that religion, and belief in folk gods, be it Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, Allah, or Jehovah, is clearly absurd, yet who at the same time seem to adopt an attitude that even though its obviously not true, those masses of individuals who seem to believe it is, must need it. And although I agree that it is a far more trivial topic, this is still the same exact argument people made as it related to traditional martial arts. Even a small bit of contemplation reveals this attitude as profoundly condescending. Though they themselves find no need for the superstition, the unwashed masses must. I am not convinced.
At this point I think its probably useful to confess a bit of personal background. I was raised in a deeply religious family. My father was an agnostic, something which I am really grateful for, because he was the only link to rational thought within my family life. My mother’s family, including my mother, are all fundamentalists. As a child I was given a bible that had pictures of little dinosaurs within the cover. And they believe that the garden of Eden, talking snake and all, is a literal telling of our human origins. Convinced that the world as we know it will end with Armageddon within their lifetime, two of her brothers refrained from having children. And for them, Satan is a literal spirit being who roams the universe seeking to do evil.
I fully realize that is all insane, but before we all laugh at the silliness we should remember the fact that according to recent polls 46% of Americans take a literalist view of the bible. That means that they believe Noah actually took two of every type of animal on a boat, including the millions of species of insects, and that man as we know him to be, is about 6000 years old; a date that is off, factually speaking, by about 246,000 years at least.
So while it is easy to laugh at this all as an educated adult, along with the humor we should rightly be a bit terrified that this level of ignorance and superstition still exists within a large population of our adult population.
And to be clear, though these religious ideas are clearly stupid, in the most accurate sense of that word; that does not mean that the people who believe them are stupid. My mother’s family was not the victim of unusually low IQ’s, nor for that matter is 46% of the American population.
What we have here is a level of cognitive dissonance that we as rational human beings must confront. If we don’t, the results could be catastrophic for us a species. And harmful to those we love who still find themselves trapped by the nonsense and superstition of a demon haunted fairly tale.
It should be carefully noted by all seekers of truth that the will to believe and the wish to understand are two completely different things.
And only one propels us forward.
“Tell a devout Christian that his yogurt makes a man invisible, or that his wife is cheating on him, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity,. . . . . and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.” -Sam Harris
There is a tendency within the liberal community and among more enlightened thinkers, one that I think is born of semi-noble intentions, to speak softly as it relates to any public challenge or criticism of religious thought. Part of it is an effort of tolerance for the cognitive dissonance of others. And in some circumstances I can see the value in that. And part of it is simply the failure to realize that for some reason, we as a society at large have granted religious superstition some form of immunity from rational discourse which we accept in no other area or realm of life.
“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage to reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson
If a scientist like Daniel Dennett or Richard Dawkins writes a piece pointing out the absurdity of some form or religious belief, they are attacked from all sides. And quite often the most emotional outbursts scream out from the liberal side. It seems to come as a shock to many on the left that religion, or especially the concept of faith itself, should ever be scrutinized or publicly questioned.
I wonder how many of us have stopped to think about how strange this truly is?
Imagine for instance that instead of religion, Dennett wrote a critical article about say, the military industrial complex. Perhaps he writes a very well documented piece about something GE is doing as it relates to weapons manufacturing. Do any of us hear the voices of the left rising up in shock at his gall to even address such an issue? Of course not.
Why is religion given a pass?
It is a curious question, especially when we take into account the dramatic effect it has on all our lives. The attacks of 9/11 are an obvious example of that. Many on the left would like to lay the blame for that attack, and the hundreds of others suicide bombings, primarily on political and socio-economic circumstances. But do any of us truly believe that absent the superstitious belief in Allah, an afterlife, and it's promised sexual offerings of virgins, those attackers would have flown the planes to their deaths?
Despite the patendtly absurd nature of the beliefs themselves, we as a society have to come to grips with the reality that through the mechansim of cognitive dissonance many otherwise educated, and intellgent people, can come to believe (to the point of suicide, or murder), in extremely stupid ideas. Ideas which hold no basis in fact.
And when pressed about the fairy tell reality of their belief system, the fallback position is always the same, faith.
So regardless of how little we like the idea of offending believers, the need to teach people the value of doubt, skeptical thinking, and the skill sets required to scrutinize supernatural claims, becomes very important. Encouraging religious believers to not believe, is indeed paramount to our own well being.
Having engaged at this point in hundreds of conversations and debates with believers, I am fully aware that some will throw out ad hominem attack that goes something like this, “well you clearly have some sort of built up anger from your background with religion, and that must explain your current point of view.” So for clarity, I should give you a bit more personal history.
When I left home at a fairly early age I had not rejected all of my religious background. Nor did I then, or now, hold any resentment related to it. It was simply what it was, my mother, like most religious people, had been raised that way by her mother. Uneducated about science, or the true nature of reality, she had no other belief system to hold onto. And my background as a child has given me a sense of understanding related to the topic, the people who believe it, and the nature of cognitive dissonance that those believers have to cling to, that someone not exposed in the way I was to literal belief in superstition, would otherwise not have.
After I left home, and entered life as an adult, I had a series of what for lack of a more descriptive term I would call transcendent experiences. I want to be absolutely clear here in explaining, without any attempt at false modesty, that I do not believe that this made, or makes me, in anyway different from anyone else; or in anyway, “special”. Point of fact, over the decades I have met many people who have had similar experiences as those I have had. I do believe that it is far more common then most of us may realize. And one of the only legitimate criticisms that I think can be leveled at the new atheists, or the movement towards rational thought, is that we somehow deny the importance, or validity of such experiences. This is a mistake. And it is also not accurate.
“The bible. That is what fools have written, what imbeciles command, what rogues teach, and young children made to learn by heart.” – Voltaire
Anytime we discuss religion, it is worth noting that most all religious believers are themselves atheists, as it relates to other peoples gods. Of course most non Muslim people, even those who hold strong religious beliefs from other factions, such as Christianity, realize that there is an obvious and solid reason to encourage people to not believe in the nonsense that is the Islamic version of an afterlife. In fact there are many. We have seen what the effect of believing that, death through holy war warrants one a harem of virgins, can do. It is destructive, not just to the individual, but to everyone. The list of destructive beliefs as it relates to religion is quite long; in fact too long to list. And every one of those beliefs is a button that once pushed creates a cause and effect that hurts, rather then helps human development.
What I am advocating in this piece is simply this, that we apply the same level of rational thinking, critical analysis, and mindful contemplation to ideas we formulate about the great existential questions, as we do to say, building a bridge.
And if we applied the same overall demand for evidence to the dogma of all religions as we did to the field of engineering, then there would be Mormons, no Scientologists, no Jehovah’s Witnesses, no Christian Right, no Islamic states dressing women in bee keeper suits, no prop 8 in CA, no Jerry Falwell, no attempt to hold back condoms from 3rd world nations, and likely no suicide bombers.
In addition, all the folk gods, from Krishna to Apollo, Zeus, Allah, Jesus, Jehovah, and the entire lot of them, would be relegated to the same status of any other fictional character of mythology. And along with their departure we would also lose the absolute certainty of the believers, all of which is based on equal evidence, that their god is the one true god. That is clearly the path mankind has to take if we are interested in the truth, and in our own self preservation as a species.
"In our next presidential election, an actor who reads his bible would almost certainly defeat a rocket scientist who does not. Could there be any clearer indication that we are allowing unreason and otherworldliness to govern our affairs?” – Sam Harris
I fully realize that not all superstition is the same, ie: the beliefs of a radical Muslim may indeed be more threatening to the masses then say the belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. But the fact remains that both rely on the same rational fallacies. And to call a spade a spade we must be honest about that.
I am not going to spend too much time addressing the believers who are so certain of their own religious dogma that they actually claim not just to know that there is a god, but to know what that gods name is, what his thoughts about human behavior are, and what our over-all purpose is. These believers are so far out of the realm of adult thinking, the only thing we really can do is more or less exclude them from the conversation.
However, I don’t think it is at all inappropriate to ask such believer for evidence. The idea proposed by some scientists of ‘non overlapping magesteria’ is something I simply don’t find truthful, or helpful.
The reality is that most religious people, and most religions, do make claims that by their very nature are testable through the tools of science. And furthermore, these same claims are used as valid reasons for specific social and political policies; policies that effect all of us, whether we believe or not. Therefore, we not only can expose such beliefs to the light of rational thought and the demands of evidence, we must.
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”
For example, if someone says they know for sure that Jesus is the son of god, or that the Koran was the last true revelation from the one true god, it is perfectly reasonable, and in fact I think important, to ask why.
There are some common responses you will find when dealing with these types of religious believers. For example, for people who are born again Christians, a common answer tends to be that they have had some sort of experience which showed them that Christ was indeed god; the age old argument from personal experience.
The first question I usually ask is whether or not they had considered that had they been born and raised in India, they might have seen, or felt, Krishna, instead of say, Jesus. Or had they been born in Saudi Arabia, had they considered that they may have felt the prophet Mohammed.
Believe it or not, it is actually quite easy for some people to overlook this fact, especially if they have never spent much time traveling in their life; or if they have little, to no real education in the field of comparative theology, or more properly put, mythology. The reality that believers from other parts of the world believe just as strongly in their gods, for the same exact reasons, using the same exact arguments, doesn’t always occur to them.
“Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.”
– H.L Mencken
Following this line of questioning, I ask them if they had considered that the vision, feeling, or emotional response was really just a biological function of the mind and body; and not in and of itself anything that could rationally be called “evidence” for the existence of a supernatural being; let alone one with a specific name.
Truth be told, many people have no real understanding about the fact that an emotional response is never by proxy, evidence for anything. This is made obvious by how humans relate with one another.
Furthermore, individuals who have never experienced the effects of hallucinogenic drugs may have no idea just how powerful the mind itself can be. The reality that our everyday subjective experience is created and sculpted through the nervous system, and within our brain, isn’t something that every individual has come to grips with yet. One of the more positive benefits of hallucinogenics is the fact that they can help reveal to the individual just how important our own brain can be in altering our view of what reality is. And to be clear, I am not advocating for or against their use in this piece. But I do think it is pretty obvious that individuals who have tried mushrooms, or LSD, at some point in their lifetime will have a leg up on those that have not, in so far as it relates to understanding the effect our own chemistry can have on our perceptions.
Another thing that can help is having experience with the mentally ill. Sadly, for a good portion of our history over the last couple millennia, superstitions beliefs relegated the mentally ill to the realm of religion. It was thought that they were possessed by ‘evil spirits’, or demons. Thankfully, only the most impoverished places on earth still hold to this ignorant view. Modern science has helped to prove beyond all doubt that mental illness is simply an issue related primarily to brain chemistry. But since we know, factually speaking, that even a very minor shift in brain function can cause dramatic, and sometimes devastating effects on how we see reality itself, shouldn’t that give us pause to think that most ‘religious’, or ‘spiritual’, experiences may also be related to altered brain chemistry, and not instead the evidence of any supernatural force?
“Do you think I am superstitious? I am a super atheist.”
–Mohandas K Gandhi
I am not in anyway attempting to mitigate, or marginalize the importance of numinous experiences here. As I have previously written, I do think that the mystical experience can have profound, lasting, and positive effects on individuals. And there has been volumes of research that has shown that to be true. But, I also think it’s something that should be left to modern forms of science and study. And it is within the realm of science, as well as art, poetry, music, movies, etc, that these things should be explored. Not the superstitious fantasy world of made up deities, and their associated religious, and cultural dogma.
In his book “The End of Faith”, which had a large impact on me, Sam Harris articulates the importance of the transcendent experience in the last portion of his work. And he does so in an eloquent manner that I can’t hope to replicate. Richard Dawkins, another proponent of rational thinking, and a confirmed atheist, has written some very beautiful and profound texts that would be fitting for any mindful event, funeral or otherwise. And Carl Sagan waxed poetically about the nature of the universe, and its grand majesty, in a way that no cleric could ever attempt to touch. And there is a very good reason for that. When Carl Sagan spoke of such things, he did so without pretending to know things that he didn’t know. And that is something that no religious priest, rabbi, mullah, preacher, or missionary can ever do when talking about religion.
“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for ever thinking I shall ever change them.”
– Abraham Lincoln (after the death of his son Willie)
On top of this, Christopher Hitchens has written eloquently about the respect and care he has for religious icons, architecture, and symbols. It was not atheists who blew up mosques, desecrated temples, or blasted millennia old Buddhist statues out of existence, it takes a believer to do that.
As a skeptical person, I obviously believe that the evidence on this matter is pretty clear. People have visions, or emotional responses to various stimuli, or circumstances. It’s not surprising that the nature of those visions or feelings tends to be associated with the religious superstition of their cultural upbringing.
Or stated another way, which is more likely, that despite all evidence to the contrary, there is indeed a personal god. In fact, that gods name is actually Allah, or Jesus, or Jehovah, or Krishna, or (insert deity here) and that he/she/it chose to reveal themselves through a very subjective, private feeling.
Or, that human beings are prone to have emotional, and even hallucinatory experiences under certain circumstances.
The answer is self evident for anyone honestly looking for the truth.
“As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In 1970 AH Maslow wrote the classic book, ‘Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences’, and in it, he talked about the importance these experiences can have on an individuals life.
I don’t think it takes even the slightest measure of “faith” to be persuaded by Maslow’s argument.
His points, and those of countless others who were before him and who have followed him, about the worth of such transcendent, numinous experiences is one that can made with the full weight of scientific study, and rational thought.
There is no need to pretend to believe the absurd, in order to value the profound.
We as atheists would be making a mistake, perhaps the only mistake, when we attempt to marginalize such experiences as something unworthy of attention. As I have shown above, anyone who actually takes the time to read the literature put out by the most well known atheistic thinkers will see clearly that they don’t make this mistake. But I still think it is important to take the time to point that out, and here is why. Because when we don’t, what we do is allow religion, superstition, the ‘new agers’, and all the associated con artists, full reign over the topic. We allow them to hijack peak experiences.
When in reality, the superstitious, and the sacred, have never truly been related.
Once you get past the argument from personal experience, the next answer many theist believers have, especially those of the fundamentalist bent, is that there belief is based on some form of ‘evidence’. This form of argument is absolutely testable using the modern forms of science and rational thought. And we have an obligation, if we are sincerely interested in the truth, to do so.
A simple example of this goes as follows. Questioner, why do you believe Jesus is the son of god? Believer: Because the bible says so. Questioner, other “holy” books differ, for example, the Bhagvad Gita would say it was Krishna, or the Koran would say it was Allah. Believer, yes, but the bible is the one true word of god. Questioner, what is your evidence for this claim? And from here a long list of supposed evidence is brought forth by Christian believers of all denominations.
“As to the book called the Bible, it is blasphemy to call it the word of god. It is a book of lies and contradictions, and a history of bad times and bad men. There are but a few good characters in the whole book.” - Thomas Paine
To be clear, there is of course absolutely zero evidence of any sort that the bible is anything other then just man made. And there is no credible scientist or scholar anywhere who claims there is.
But most believers are neither scientists, or scholars, and most don’t even understand what would actually constitute “evidence” to begin with. So a certain amount of patience is required here, and if the person you are speaking with is sincere in their belief, its worth taking the time to walk them through each of their claims step by step, and show them that everything they thought of as evidence is in reality, anything but.
As I ventured through my 20’s and into my early 30’s the intensity of the next few peak, or numinous experiences shocked me enough to drastically change how I viewed the nature of reality itself, and as consequence how I started to relate to other people around me. The exact nature, or definition of these experiences is at this point not something that I feel needs to be written publicly, or in any detail. It really doesn’t matter to the overall point of the text, or my greater argument. And as I stated, I don’t think it was anything all that unique. But their overall effect on my life has so far been one of very positive growth; and an increased realization, or insight, one that has helped me over time to form deeper connections to loved ones, and the environment around me.
“He who has made great moral progress ceases to pray.”
– Immanuel Kant
As the years went by I found myself telling a few friends and associates of some of my experiences, and what I felt the related insights were. This was a good process because for one, I realized that a good portion of them had at some point in their life, experienced the same thing. And two, it helped weed out a few relationships with people that clearly weren’t on the same page, and at any sign of anything beyond the superficial were headed out the door. Moments like this help us discover who our true friends and loved ones are. I am grateful for all the relationships I have had in my life, including those I no longer have. They all had a lesson, and a value. But I am also grateful for the ability to discern between an authentic friend, and someone who sees friendships as something akin to a networking strategy. It helped to teach me about the true worth of authenticity.
The bible is filled with an incredible amount of absurd claims, contradictions, and superstitions.
For example, many fundamentalist believers do in fact think that the Noah’s ark story is real. And as silly as that claim is, it is also something that can be shown to be patently false. There are no legitimate geologists who believe that the earth is 6000 years old, or that within the last 10,000 years it was covered by water. People have spent lifetimes studying the history of this planet, and building upon that knowledge through the vigorous demands of evidence, peer reviewed study, and the world of facts. The idea of the historicity of Noah’s ark has as much reality, factually speaking, as does the idea that the earth is flat.
But the only way to really prove this to truly deluded believer is to have them spend at least a little bit of time studying legitimate science. Even a small amount of education on the topic can wake them up to the truth that what they have believed all this time is nothing more then an old mythological fairy tale. One created long before mankind knew much about the true nature of the planet, or the universe. One created when even the most educated people knew about as much about the earth as the average 1st grader does now.
As always, the real problem is ignorance, and the real solution is education.
To encourage the believer to seek out that education, one thing I find useful to ask them is this, if you really want to live your entire life based around the belief that the bible is true, wouldn’t it benefit you to test the claims of the bible against the reality of what science factually knows about earths history?
And if you don’t, doesn’t that show clearly, through your own actions, that what you are interested in is not in fact the truth? After all, if you were really interested in finding out the truth, why be afraid to test a belief?
“Properly read, the bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.”
Whether they follow through with the actual research or not, by leaving them with that question you are doing them a great, and compassionate, service. Even if they are too afraid to look critically at their own beliefs now, they may seek out the truth at some point. And you have given them at least one key thing they will need when they take the first steps on that journey.
I had grown up reading Krishnamurti as a teenager. And although I was never really able to follow clearly his line of reasoning until I was in my early 30’s, I still found myself compelled to absorb his lectures and conversations. Because I never heard of these kinds of ideas being expressed outside a religious context, I, like so many who came before me, found myself feverishly searching through every religious, new age, Christian, Eastern, Buddhist, Sufi, and mystical text, for any sign of confirmation, or validation, as it related to the things I had experienced first hand. Along the way I accumulated a truly massive library, and met a staggering number of teachers, gurus, and writers, who wandered within visiting distance of where I was at the time.
Much of it, in fact I would safely say most of it, I found myself discarding as nonsense. And a small percentage of it showed itself to be truly insightful for me. The Upanishads, Shankara, and the talks of Ramana Maharshi certainly make that list for me. As did most everything Alan Watts, or Joseph Campbell put out.
But all that consumed, I still found myself in the difficult position of sharing time and space with religious believers, and the cultural decorations of superstition that inevitably attached themselves to the truth in the same way a barnacle attaches to a boat. And sometimes the layers of nonsense where so thick, that the truth within the teaching became buried under a pile of dogma. Dogma that I could no longer pretend was anything other then just as silly, and just as potentially dangerous, as the ridiculous theology of my childhood.
“Just think of the tragedy of teaching children not to doubt.”
Just about the time all this was coming to a head, I ran across the previously mentioned book called ‘The End of Faith’, by Sam Harris. I would strongly suggest that book to everyone, religious or otherwise, because it clearly, factually, rationally, and logically lays out the case against religion, and the very concept of ‘faith’ itself, in a manner of writing I find to be most effective. One that is clear, simply stated, truthful, and blunt.
Although I may not agree with all the political arguments related to terrorism that Harris advocates for, his overall thesis against faith itself is nothing short of rock solid; and I was persuaded by his argument.
There are a couple things to point out here. The first one goes to all the people who say that to have conversations like this is fruitless, that you will never convince anyone who believes anyway, and because it won’t really matter in the big scheme of things. I am living proof that both arguments are false.
For one, I was persuaded by rational dialogue to let go of the things for which I had no evidence. And secondly, that letting go process had a profound and positive effect on my life, and therefore the broader environment around me. I am quite sure I am not the only one, and as the minds of a few believers who are bold enough to at least question their own version of reality begin to change, so to do the relationships around them, and ultimately to some degree, the over all society.
Another form of ‘evidence’ some believers will offer is that of ‘prophecy’. This is perhaps the simplest to deal with, because a working knowledge of science is not needed in order to demonstrate the silliness of this idea, just good common sense.
This topic came up in conversation with a relative once. When asked for any evidence that the bible is anything other then man made, the answer given was ‘prophecy’. In particular, the idea that the bible declares that in the “end times”, there will be “wars and rumors of wars”.
“The further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path of genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.”
- Albert Einstein 1934
One of the saddest aspects of fundamentalists Christians is their adherence to the belief that theirs is always the “last” generation. That Jesus will be coming back like some sort of super hero within their lifetime. And that everything thereafter will be groovy. Every generation of Christians, starting with the first, believed this to be true. And each generation has seen a great deal of suffering caused by this particular superstition.
I mentioned to this relative that the world has always had “wars and rumors of wars”, and that I would like them to name a time when that hasn’t been the case on earth. And furthermore, that there is larger majority of this planets population living in relative security, as compared to times past, then ever before.
And very quickly the subject changed, to disease.
“Well the bible also predicted great disease and famine in the end times”. Again I asked, when had their not been disease? In fact, at one point nearly half of Europe’s population had been killed due to disease. And thanks to the germ theory (science), anti-biotics (science), vaccines (science), and modern medicine (science), there is no time in the past that I would rather live then now, as it related to disease prevention.
Finally my relative said “well at no time other then now, has mankind ever had the ability to destroy itself”. I believe in this case they were referring to nuclear war. And I then reminded them that the bible makes absolutely no mention of ‘mankind having the ability to destroy itself’, let alone nuclear war.
At this point we had exhausted all the so called “prophecies” of the bible, and my relative was simply making up prophecy and attributing it to the bible. I felt the best thing to do there was to simply point that fact out to them. If you are going to make up prophecy then its no longer prophecy, it is fantasy.
“It is time we admit that faith is nothing more then the license that religious people give one another to keep believing when reasons fail.” -Sam Harris
When it comes to the idea of “prophecy” the case study of Nostradamus is useful here. Bookstores are littered with books related to the ‘amazing’ prophecies of Nostradamus. Even the history, and discovery channels have been infested with shows on the topic. People love the idea of knowing the future. Whether its biblical prophecy, fortune telling, or astrology, the evidence in favor of each ends up being the same, non-existent.
At first glance, the predictions of Nostradamus, written in a short poetic format called “qautrians”, seem fairly accurate. He appears to predict WW1, WW2, the Kennedy assassination, and even the name of Hitler. In fact, given the vagueness of the Bibles prophecies, Nostradamus seems downright detailed. But upon closer examination the whole thing quickly falls apart. With names being attributed to quatrains that were in reality meant to mean something else, with quatrains being written post-event, and back dated to appear to be prophetic, and of course with the tried and true vague generality that marks all forms of “prophecy”, such as astrology, and leaves the interpretation open to the reader. Anyone taking the bible prophecies seriously would be well served by taking just a little time to see how things like Nostradamus’s quatrains, and astrology work in the minds of believers. The mechanisms are always the same. And it always turns out to be utter nonsense.
“The Christian system of religion is an outrage on common sense.”
– Thomas Paine
So again, anyone claiming “evidence” for the belief in a particular god, especially one with a specific name, has at that very moment impeded on the world of facts, reality, and science. They have stated something testable, and opened the door for a rational dialogue which points out to them step by step, what the word ‘evidence’ actually means in the adult world of ideas.
There is a great value to this conversation. And I would discourage anyone from taking too seriously the pessimistic warnings of people who claim that religion, and superstition (belief without evidence), are things doomed to be with us forever. The garbage can of bad ideas is filled with hundreds of thousands of gods that society as a whole no longer takes as being any more literal then they do Othello. And at some point in the future I believe enough critical mass of rational thinkers can be reached so that we render the archaic god of Abraham to the same level of seriousness that most of us give to Thor. And that will be a beautiful thing for all mankind, and this planet.
“Imagine if we lived in a society where people spent billions of dollars of their personal income each year propitiating the gods of Mount Olympus…”
- Sam Harris
If we value the truth, if we believe that the truth is something worth pursuing, in and of itself. Then we must not give up. We cannot concede to the ignorant arguments of the religiously brainwashed, simply because we can’t be bothered to correct their absurdity. The negative consequences can be seen throughout our world when we do. Whether its stem cell research, birth control, or suicide bombers, ideas for which there is no evidence can harm more then just the individual believer.
Once you dispense with theism, the specific belief in a personal god, there is still deism to deal with. It might be useful here to go back into a little more of my personal history. During my journey through the world of the comparative mythology, I quickly realized that the idea of a specific cultural god being true was more or less absurd. But I had not by any means ruled out the idea of ‘a god’. One who is simply described differently, at different times, by different cultures. And it was during this time frame that I became fascinated by a pseudo-scientific idea that was being marketed to the public at large called ‘intelligent design’. According to the propaganda, some scientists had discovered holes in Darwin’s theory of evolution, holes which were so vast that they pointed to the need for some sort of designer; to the existence of God.
I have no science background. I am currently a very interested layman, but at the time had read very little on real science. Having been educated in the American school system, and raised by a superstitious family, I had little to no factual knowledge of evolution. The religion I was raised in wrote a book on the theory, one that attempts to discredit it. But as I later found out as an adult, the book is so badly written, so factually incorrect, and so childish, even someone with the educational equivalent of 9th grade biology would be able to render it a laughing stock. So I was ill equipped to evaluate the claims of these ID proponents.
“You are of course right to believe that there is more to life than simply understanding the structure and contents of the universe. But this does not make unjustifiable claims about its structure any more respectable.”
Being intensely fascinated by the topic I set about reading their work. Starting with the “text book” that they attempted to get placed into the curriculum in Kansas (Of panda’s and people), and continuing on with some of their other work, Michael Behe’s ‘Darwin’s black box’, and some other books not worth repeating. And though I have no formal education in biology, or science, the arguments put forth by these authors still struck me as hollow. For one, claiming ‘god did it’, is never really an answer to any serious scientific question about the universe, for reasons I will explain later. But in addition to that, there is the curious fact that none of these scientists had subjected any of their work to peer reviewed research. Peer reviewed research is the ever important checks and balances system of real scientific theory, and it is the thing which prevents science from ever becoming the utterly arrogant farce that is religion.
And finally, there is the fact that 99.9% of all scientists in the field, men and women who have built upon all the knowledge of those that have come before and who have spent entire lifetimes studying in one very specific field of scientific research, completely disagreed with the ideas and conclusions the ID proponents were offering. All of those things amounted to solid reasons for being deeply skeptical of all that ID claimed. And all of those things spurred me on to further research on the topic.
What followed was a few years of science reading. My favorite authors turned out to be the more popular ones like Dawkins and Dennett, primarily because they wrote in a manner accessible to someone who, like myself, lacked a biology degree. But there were many other good books as well. One worth repeating here is called ‘Intelligent Thought, science versus the intelligent design movement’, edited by John Brockman. It is a series of essays written by experts in the field, which literally destroys point by point, the entire public relations scheme that is “intelligent design.” I would highly recommend that book to anyone interested on the topic.
“Creationists are funny. They want to be taken seriously as scientific and have their comrades writings taught as science to our children in schools. But their attitude is unscientific. Rather then engaging in open minded investigation to figure out how things are done, at first glimmer of mystery they throw up their hands and say it’s beyond science. This is like not knowing how a magic trick is done and thinking no one else can know either.”
– Dorion Sagan
The bottom line is simply this, the evidence for our evolution as a species is truly beyond dispute. Evolution is not just a ‘theory’, in the common use of language sense of that word. Evolution is a fact. And there is no scientific reality to the ID movement. It is simply creationism, repackaged in a sort of trojan horse way.
As someone who was raised around deeply religious people, I can tell you that most of the time they have absolutely no idea how crazy, or far out there, their own religious beliefs are. Do you really think that most kids raised in a Mormon community, by Mormon parents, with Mormon friends, have stopped to fully realize how insane the teachings of a con man like Joseph Smith actually are? Until they step outside that bubble, the idea that the garden of Eden is located in Missouri, and that God is an old guy living on a planet, seem perfectly normal.
Likewise, for the child of Jehovah’s Witness parents, the belief that a spirit being called the devil was hurled down to earth in 1914, or that the Earth was covered by a world wide flood less then 6000 years ago, seems perfectly sane. It is only if they are introduced to the world of facts and science, and even then, have the strength of mind to be able to subject these ideas to the floodlight of rational thought, will any of them come to understand just how loony the nonsense that was taught to them truly is.
Remember there can be strength in numbers. For example, to most Catholics I am sure that the belief that mumbling some mumbo jumbo over a bowl of frosted flakes would turn the cereal into the body of Elvis, would seem like something only a lunatic would believe. But when millions of them believe that a cracker transforms into the body of Christ, that seems rational. Sometimes it takes someone who is willing to compare those beliefs with other things that are equally rational, such as say the belief in the literal existence of the god Apollo, or the belief that Elvis is alive and well, selling slushys at a 7/11 in Modesto CA, in order to reach them.
“It was of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. . . if there is something in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”
– Albert Einstein
So this leaves just a few basic arguments in favor of a ‘god’. Here is a conversation I had related to Deism, and my related answers. I have edited some of it for brevity. But I think it cuts right to the heart of the issue.
"Matt, as a self identified atheist, do you look around and confidently think that all of this -- the earth and everything beyond it -- the entire universe and all that is in it -- started by chance, or do you make room for the idea that we do not really know how all this started."
I don't know of any rational thinker or legitimate scientist who claims to "know" how the Universe, or life as we know it on earth, first occured. What they do have is various theories and hypothesis. From what I read (and to be clear I am just a curious layman), they are getting closer all the time to answers. But real knowledge (aka: science) doesn't pretend to know things, it speculates and tests. Which is of course what seperates it from superstition/religion.
"If the answer is the latter, does that in any way challenge the definition of atheism?"
There is no challenge to atheism there. Because we don't know something yet, or because science hasn't reached a great consensus on a topic related to the universe yet, does not therefore mean we should then fallback and say that must mean Apollo, or Zues, or Jesus, or any other make believe god did it. That is the silly god of the gaps argument. When our anscestors didn't understand where rain came from they assumed it must be related to god. It's sad people still do this simply because the breadth of our questions has grown.
"If there is some room for the idea of a prime mover, does it deserve our awe and wonder?"
A couple of things to consider here. First of all a "prime mover", or a god, or an intelligence, is never a real answer to a question like 'where do we come from'. It is in reality a failure to even ask the question.
But only always.
It is very similiar to people who say that aliens planted the seeds of life on earth. Though that may or may not be so (to be clear I don't believe there is evidence for that, but lets play along), it still begs the question, where did those aliens come from? To answer the question of where did intelligent life come from, by positing a greater form of intelligent life, be it aliens, god, or a prime mover, is simply to create a bigger problem. After all, where did that come from? So until such time as evidence for some 'prime mover' shows up, and to date I have yet to see any, its simply a failure to even attempt to answer the question.
And regards awe, I find the reality of what scientists tell us about our universe, which includes everything from black holes, to the real possibility of parallel universes and dimensions, to be Infinitely more awe inspiring then any creation myth I have ever read. Be that the one contained in genesis, or the idea that our planet rests on the back of a giant turtle. And to be clear, I suck at math and wont pretend that I can really even properly comprehend just how amazing our actual universe is. But I do know that the reality of it is much cooler then the made up fiction of religious belief.
“Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations towards rocks. To the degree that our actions can affect the experience of other creatures positively of negatively, questions of morality apply.”
- Sam Harris
Helping religious believers to compare the ideas of their own superstition with that of any other superstition that is not their own, is often very helpful in breaking through to them. After all, no Christian is compelled by the evidence Muslims offer that the Koran is the final true word of the one true god. And to date, I have met no Muslim who believes that Zeus is actually responsible for lightening. And why should they be? When we calmly demonstrate to them that their own long held beliefs hold an equal amount of evidence, which is to say, none, there is nowhere for their minds to go except back to the faith argument.
And this is where we have to explain that faith itself, that is belief in something for which there is no evidence, is not in any way, shape, or form, noble.
It is in fact the mechanism by which very bad ideas get passed down from adult to child. It is nothing more then the circular reasoning believers offer to themselves and each other when reality tells them the truth, that what they believe is simply false. In the same sense that the tooth fairy is false, or the idea that Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle is false.
Some will be too scared to face that reality, but others won’t. And they make it all worth the effort.
“What about all of the good things people have done in the name of God? It is undeniable that many people of faith make heroic sacrifices to relieve the suffering of other human beings. But is t necessary to believe anything on insufficient evidence in order to behave this way?”
And just to be clear, despite my opinion that some things can only be accomplished with bluntness, I don't think that is the route everyone should take, most of the time. I think there is a time and place for all of us to be blunt. And I think it is important that some people, such as Dawkins and Harris to remain blunt and lead the charge. But for the rest of the community I would simply advocate what they did with the gay rights movement. Make no secret of your non belief. Be open about it. And then lead a good, loving life alongside the believers. Just being out there is enough. Knowing that you are a non believer, and knowing that you are open to converse with them on the topic should they wish it, you create an open door that a few brave believers may have the tenacity to breach. But in order to do that you have to be honest about what you believe, whether you adopt the agnostic or atheist tag, it does us all good when you are open about it.
"You choose to speculate that science will someday find an answer to the start of all things and that that answer will not involve a prime mover in any way, shape or form" . . . . . . . "Again, it would seem more intellectually honest to say that without absolute evidence we cannot eliminate the idea of a prime mover. . "
What I stated was that to date I have seen absolutley no evidence to suggest a 'prime mover', a god, or anything of that sort. Let me try and be very clear here. I don't really know of any atheists who do absolutely rule out the possibility of some sort of god absolutley, or as you prefer to say 'prime mover'. Even Richard Dawkins prefers to use a scale when speaking about this. As an example, 10 being absolute certainty that no god exists, and 1 being that one does. Most athiests I am aware of would rate themselves a 9, Dawkins included.
Just because there is as of now no evidence or logic behind the idea of something, does not of course mean we can absolutley rule it out completely. This is the same for the tooth fairy, and santa claus. I cannot absolutley rule out the possibility that a tooth fairy exists. In the sense that the evidence absolutley proving the non existence of the tooth fairy is not absolute. Yes that is very true. However, I would not call myself a 'tooth fairy agnostic', for the same reason that I do not refer to myself as a Quezecoatal -agnostic, or a Thor agnostic, or a Jesus agnostic. Bertrand Rusell's tea pot analogy answered this question for me sometime ago. I understand that others with similiar views may still prefer the term 'agnostic', but for reasons of clarity as it refers to the common use of language I myself find atheist much more accurate.
I don't consider non belief in the tooth fairy to be a question of faith, anymore then I consider the belief that if I throw an object in the air gravity will cause it to fall back down, to be a question of faith.
And I certainly wouldn't ever equate it to the sort of faith people who believe in a personal god claim to hold. Those are two very different things, factually speaking.
When you attempt to answer the question, 'where did intelligent life come from', by positing an even greater form of intelligent life, you only compound the problem. And if you add to it that this intelligence is 'a force beyond my comprehension', all you do is relegate the question itself to a position beyond science. A position beyond testing, argument, or the tools of rational inquiry. This is what mankind has always done with questions they felt no answer was available for at the time. The majority handed it over to the clerics and witchdoctors, and instead of true knowledge mankind got superstition aka:
What if Darwin had said simply "God made it, and God is a force beyond our comprehension". That was after all the common paradigm at the time. Where then would modern biology be? God, the force, aliens, the flying speggetti monster, Jesus, Krishna, the prime mover, whatever name you want to insert, is not an answer to the question of life, it is simply a failure to seek further human understanding of our universe.
In that sense Monty Python was quite correct, science class would consist of a short one line sentence to all of life's great puzzles. . . . ."god did it".
“The average Christian sitting in the average church listening to the average Sunday sermon has achieved a level of arrogance unimaginable in scientific discourse.”
- Sam Harris
If evidence were to arise that pointed to some form of great intelligence which designed the universe, I'd love to see it and be very interested in it, to say the least. But in the absence of such evidence I see no more reason to posit a belief in some sort of personal creator diety, especially one with a cultural name such as Odin, Alah, Jesus, or Thor, then I do to posit the belief in the tooth fairy. And I certainly see the destructive nature of such beliefs systems posing a great threat to the future survival of our species. Each believing it holds the answers from the one 'true' prime mover, and each holding an equal amount of evidence for that said belief.
Which is to say, none.
Another argument some religious believers put forth is that religion itself, whether true or not, is a force for good. And along with this argument you will usually also find the fallacy that it has been atheism which has done more harm in the 20th century. This give and take answers both issues.
"People of faith do a lot of positive things because of their "stupid" belief system. History is absolutely littered with men and women who made great leaps in science, art, music, philosophy, politics, education, medicine, etc"
Though I think it's obviously true that many people who seemed religious have done many fantastic things, I think it's far less evident that they did so due to their religious beliefs. Mother Theresa, as one of many examples seemed to want to do 'good'. However, a strong case could be made that she created far more suffering then she relieved, due directly to her religious beliefs.
As far as science and art are concerned, it is true that the vast majority of great European scientists and artists in times past all claimed to be Christian. However, it is worth remembering that they were frequently tortured and killed if they did not. The wealthiest patron for artists was most often the church. And professing non belief was not an option for an artist, or tradesman seeking to feed their family.
In short, I do think a strong case could be made that the good deeds were in fact done in spite of the superstition/religion of the times. Being a non believer, or rational thinker was a rare option that was usually only available to the well connected and wealthy, such as Voltaire. For the vast majority, it was either be a Christian or else.
“The most heinous and the most cruel crimes of which history has recorded have been committed under the cover of religion or equally noble motives.”
– Mohandas Gandhi
Christopher Hitchens offered an excellent challenge about this very topic as he went across the country earlier this year debating believers. It is simply this, name one act of charity, goodness, or kindness that can not, and is not also performed by non believers. As of yet, nobody has been able to do that.
Now here is an even easier follow up question, name an act of destruction, suffering, or evil that can be directly traced to a form of religious belief.
As we all know, that list is almost infinite.
The belief in the end times, in demons, devils, and sky gods, the bronze age edicts against things like homosexuality, birth control, etc, these are clearly all destructive beliefs. And as our knowledge of science and technology increase, making things like weapons of mass destruction easier to create, these belief systems become incompatible with human survival. It is conceivable that you will soon have a Muslim fanatic who actually does believe that his murder of innocents will warrant him a great sex life in heaven, who holds a PHD in biology or physics, and decides to perform the obvious in accord with his own deeply held "faith".
The idea that any groups "god" is the one true god, is in and of itself dangerous. As is all form of superstition. And no form of good ever requires the belief in things for which we hold no evidence.
Regarding the ‘dangers’ of atheism, the examples of Stalin and the Nazis are often pointed out by believers. This tactic has become even more prevalent due to the really silly movie ‘Expelled’, which attempts to lay out this fallacious argument. Here are some key points about that idea.
You stated: "All of those regimes were first and, formost athiest in their beginnings"
Which is simply a funadamental misunderstnding of what athiesm actually is. A-thiesm is not a philosophy. It simply dentones a lack of belief in 'God', period, end of sentence.
The destructive nature of all superstition, including of course religion, is really beyond dispute. Anyone sincerely looking at the evidence would be overwhelmed by the over all harm religion has had, and sadly continues to have. But athiesm is not some sort of philisophical counter-point. It's simply the statement of non-belief.
In the year 2008 we shouldn't need a term like athiesm any more then we should need a term like a-astrologist, or a-unicornology. I don't need to state my non belief in astology or unicorns because most intelligent folks already acknowledge it's nonsense. Of course religion is just as non-sensical, factually speaking anyway, as the belief in unicorns is, yet due to rampant ignorance the term a-theist is still quite useful.
A lack of a belief in something is not a dogma or philosophy. I don't believe in the tooth fairy either (for the same reasons I don't believe in Apollo, Odin, Quezecoatal, or Jehovah), yet my non -belief in the tooth fairy does not constitute an "anti-tooth fairy" dogma. Simply the lack of belief in imaginary things.
“One if often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.”
– Bertrand Russell
Another things that happens quite often when discussing this topic with people is that they become extremely emotional, and try and argue that by arguing against religious belief, against dogma, that you are in truth “attacking” religious people. This is clearly poor reasoning on their part, but here is how I typically answer that particular reaction.
I have no issue with Christians, anymore then I do Muslims, Scientoligists, Hindus, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Buddhists, Mormons, etc. I have met kind people of all faiths, and of none. What I object to is superstition itself, not individual people.
I don't think pretending to know answers to things that nobody truly knows answers to is healthy. I don't think labeling a young child a mormon, a muslim (or any other such thing) makes anymore sense then labeling a child a conservative, or a liberal. And of course, I don't think we need religion in the year 2008 anymore then we need the belief in witches, or that Zeus is the cause of lightening.
But none of that is an indictment against the potential kindness, or lack thereof of any person of any belief. There are many kind people who still hold to destructive, or at best false beliefs. The fact that they hold that belief doesn't by proxy mean that they won't be kind. And the fact that they are kind doesn't mean that the belief itself is not destructive. Some good common sense will tell you that.
In closing I want to point out a few key things. And I hope I articulated my reasons behind these points in a clear enough fashion.
First, if what we are truly seeking is the truth, then it should be carefully noted that the will to believe, and the wish to understand, are two completely different things.
And only one propels us forward.
We can’t accept something on no evidence “faith”, simply because we wish it to be so. When we do, we are no longer looking for the truth, but instead attempting to console ourselves with a delusion.
Second, that religion, faith, dogma, and belief of all sorts, is never, and should never, be rendered immune to vigorous questioning. The tools of rational and critical thinking are the most powerful allies we have on the search for truth. And when we relinquish our responsibility to use these tools when questioning others, or ourselves, or we fail to hold to even the most basic standards of ‘evidence’ for beliefs which are clearly making testable claims about the nature of the universe we live within, then we leave the world a bit darker.
The superstition that is religion can only thrive within that darkness. Religion has been given some sort of place in polite society where it is assumed to be immune from the sort of rational questioning we would give any other topic of human endeavor; and that is neither justified, or healthy.
Third, that the growth of religion, particularly of the fundamentalist kind, threatens all of us. And that is true whether we participate in the belief, or not. Not all religions, not all beliefs are equally dangerous. But any belief that is not supported by evidence poses a potential threat to us if we allow it to enter the public discourse of adult decision making.
“The fact that an unjustified belief can have a consoling influence on the human mind is no argument in their favor.”
Fourth, that questioning religion, superstition, dogma, belief, and especially the very idea of ‘faith’ itself, is never arrogant. It is in reality, a required step for all seekers of the truth.
True arrogance is the religious mind, the mind which not only claims to know that there is in fact a god, but also claims to know what that god thinks, wants, and is named.
When it comes to the great existential questions, the fact remains that scientists are ready to admit that they do not know. In fact, scientific discourse is perhaps the most honest form of dialogue in existence as it relates to forthright humility.
“Faith” that you know something about the nature of the universe, something which is in reality based on no evidence whatsoever, and therefore requires the use “faith”, is in truth, the highest form of arrogance known to man.
If you start with the premise that belief without evidence is noble, everything else falls apart. It has to.
And finally, fifth, that skepticism itself is the highest “spiritual” path. If by spiritual you mean, truth seeking.
There are far better reasons to treat others well, to help alleviate the suffering of others, and to be “good”, then an imaginary sky god and his ever present make believe security camera.
People who want to become like the Buddha, or like Jesus, seem to think that they have to believe the preposterous in order to move forward. The highest states, the states of unconditional love, do not require that you believe anything on insufficient evidence.
You don’t have to cling to imaginary things in order to go into the laboratory of your own relationships. Discover for yourself the different perspectives and truths that can alter your life for the better. And question all of it with the full light of human reasoning.
Without believing things we have no evidence for we are forced to enter the full presence of the current moment in order to experience the reality of true happiness. We don’t give ourselves a future ‘out’. And that absence of theological or dogmatic grounding is positive. It is true, it takes courage to let go. And yes, surrender is the key, and yes, now is the objective. And in that clear and naked honesty, we are in no way diminishing either the mystery, the love of life itself, the depth of human connection, the intimacy, or the potential for growth; point of fact, we just clear the way for a more authentic approach.
“Religious thought is an attempt to find an out here there is no door.”
The action of true spirituality is engaged realism. And suffering is the result of a kind of ignorance. Not the ignorance of sincere not knowing (as a child), but rather ignorance of mis-knowing. Thinking reality is other then it is, and pretending to know things which we truly don’t know. Religion is in that sense, the formalized clinging to missknowing.
It is ritualized ignorance.
True spirituality begins with the process of letting go of all this. Releasing our attachments to the things we pretend to know, and having the courage to observe things as they really are in the moment.
True spirituality is dependent on equal measures of courage and surrender. And it never requires that you lose your respect for either intuition, or mystery. The respect of knowing how much we truly don’t know, and the respect that comes with understanding what a massive role all our millions of years of evolutionary honed intuition plays in its future discovery.
I am not suggesting the dismissal of the role creativity, inspiration, and dynamic quality plays in our lives. To the contrary. I am suggesting we clear a larger path for them.
I strongly suspect that Spinoza was right That Schrodinger, Emerson, Whitman and Watts were right. And I believe their journey was credible. But that doesn’t have anything to do with the supernatural. And understanding the distinction, that ‘I believe I know’, and ‘I know’, are two very different things, is critical to the truth seekers path.
Authenticity is the only true spiritual way. And the context of it is always the same, surrender. In this case, surrender to reality itself.
The ironic truth is that at the same time as we seek to learn about how to be happy alone, within ourselves, not due to external circumstance; we must simultanously seek to attain deeper, more authentic, and more intimate relationships with others.
It’s a balance act.
And it is not something we should ever attempt through a process of imitation. Imitation of the good, is never goodness, it is only imitation. I do believe, based on evidence, that it is in reality the truth which ultimately sets us free. And we have to be authentic to who we actually are, not who we want to pretend to be, or what we pretend to know, in order to even begin the first steps on that journey.
“Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
–Phillip K Dick
-The end of faith by Sam Harris
-The god delusion by Richard Dawkins
-The atheist universe by David Mills
-Letter to a Christian nation by Sam Harris
-God is not great by Christopher Hitchens
-The portable atheist by Christopher Hitchens
-The ethics and selected letters by Baruch Spinoza
-Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell
-Intelligent thought “essays on science versus the ID movement” by John Brockman
-Religions, Values, and peak-experiences by AH Maslow
In my next entry I will expand some more on the concept of ‘values’. Their relationship, or lack there-of to superstition/religion. And how they effect our lives and happiness.
And I would also like to make this offer, if you are a believer, and feel you have a reasonable claim to your belief, a rational argument, then please feel free to e-mail me. I can be reached at email@example.com future responses may be used on the blog, but I will honor everyones privacy.
Live your life fully.