Saturday, January 10, 2015

Is Atheism Just A Means To An End?


I don't think about atheism all the time, but I do think about it a lot. Recently, while thinking of atheism and what it means to me, I realized that atheism might just be a means to an end. Let me explain. Atheism may not even be the right term here, because after all, in its most disabused definition, it simply means lacking a belief in any gods. It's not even technically a worldview simpliciter. But definitions and proper usages aside, trying to increase the number of people who lack belief in any gods in a way, to me, is just a means to achieving an end, and that end is having and sustaining a peaceful, humanistic, liberal, free-thinking society, that employs the best of reason and evidence towards all modes of thinking, and one that lacks any religious, ideological and financial hindrances.

The way the atheist sees it, why should religion get a free pass when it comes to anything we honestly think is getting in the way of trying to achieve the best kind of society intellect can produce? I don't know exactly all the details of what that society looks like, but humanists like myself have a general goal that we're trying to achieve and we see that the goal posts are always moving and consider it a good thing.

If and when it's ever the case that atheism or agnosticsm becomes the dominant views in the world toward god, active atheism and counter-apologetics wouldn't really need to be a "thing." In such a world, my primary goals and interests would probably encompass a broader range of social and economic issues and I wouldn't really care so much about disbelief in god per se. Therefore, the real goal in sight is not a world in which active atheism really plays a significant part. Active atheism is merely a reaction to active theism and a strategy to decrease the level of religiosity in the world. Sure, it's still interesting to think about the deepest metaphysical questions the mind can conjure up. Naturalism, in and of itself, is pretty fucking amazing if you really think about it deeply. That we're giant bags of atoms that are mostly empty space, evolved and determined by the laws of physics, that have the ability to think about this very process and environment that it's a part of, is, in my opinion, just fucking mind blowing. (I've always liked to think that the ultimate nature of reality, whatever it turns out to be, is going to be mind blowing.)

But I digress...

The real goal secular humanists like myself have is a world that best fits humanist ideals. A world where evidence matters; a world where empathy and compassion are treated among the highest virtues and are not limited to fellow man; a world where freedom and equality reign supreme, where there are no dogmas or faiths that put limits on intellectual growth and moral progress. Atheism is just a means to that end, and is by no means the only mean; it's just one among many. We have to rid ourselves of religion and religious thinking if we are going to make this possible.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Why Should "Knowing" God Be So Hard?


I've been debating with theists for years and the one thing I've learned is that there is never any shortage of interpretations of god and religion. For just about every position a theist takes on their religion, there is always a theist adamantly supportive of the exact opposite view within the same religion. This has led me recently to wonder why, if a god exists, and its primary goal is for us to have a relationship with it, it makes it so hard to "know" such a being exists and what its message is?

Many "sophisticated theologians" argue that the common understanding of their religions are wrong. In order to know the correct, or more probably correct versions of their religion, one has to do a tremendous amount of research into the history, culture, language, theology, philosophy and science that relates to their religion. One must know the original language that the religious texts were written in, and the historical and cultural context in which they were written in, because otherwise one is ignorant as to the true meaning of the text.

For example, the New Testament was originally written in ancient Greek, a language almost no one is familiar with today. Some words have multiple, ambiguous meanings, and translations can easily deliver the wrong message which can have huge theological implications. So in order to know what the New Testament really says, one has to know the original language and context it was written in, or at least be aware of a scholar who has done the necessary work. Another example, is the fact that Muslims claim that the Koran is only perfect in the original Arabic spoken and written in the 7th century. Any translation to another language degrades the message somewhat. Muslim apologists use this as an argument for their faith by arguing that only something divinely inspired could have been so perfect. That means that in order for me to verify this, I have to learn classical Arabic.

Then there's the science behind all the many arguments for god. Some of them rely on extremely complex physics, chemistry, and biology that the vast majority of people do not understand. Why should I have to have knowledge of things so complex, and so esoteric, in order for me to rule out or confirm god and a particular religious interpretation? In other words, why would an omni-benevolent deity, whose primary goal is that it wants us to know it exists, make its existence and message so highly dependent on complex cosmological models, chemistry, and biology? Why not make its existence and message more easily known? There is much debate in various religions on whether faith alone can guarantee salvation, or whether it is faith and works. Regardless, one has to first believe that there is a plausible religion and god out there in order to be motivated to do any works as a result of this god-belief.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Here's A Quote Every Atheist Should Memorize


“The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike.”
Delos McKown

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Bank Robbery Analogy To The Problem Of Suffering


Suppose I had a goal to give you a bag of money. And suppose I'm omnipotent and I can literally poof the bag of money into existence without any effort. But instead of doing that, I decide on a more elaborate scheme. Right before your eyes I decide to poof an entire bank that has a safe with a bag of money in it into existence, and I populate it with bank tellers, a bank manager, a few security guards, and a few dozen customers. Then I enter the bank and declare a robbery and pull out a machine gun and start indiscriminately shooting people, starting with the security guards. The bank patrons are horrified at the brutality. I grab a terrified bank teller at gun point and force her open the safe where the bag of money is. She does what she's told and promptly opens up the safe and retrieves the bag of money for me. Then, after killing several people, and seriously wounding a dozen others, I calmly walk out of the bank with the bag of money in hand, and deliver it to you.

I fulfill my goal of giving you a bag of money. Then I quickly disappear, and vanish into thin air. You stand there, wondering why I chose to deliver the money by brutally slaughtering several people who need not have existed, instead of the many easily conceivable less violent ways. You ask one of the surviving bank patrons, who's still a bit shook up from the incident, why he thinks I chose to give you a bag of money the way I did. His best answer is that I must have had a sufficient reason for doing it the way I did, but that no one can know why. Another patron stumbles out, covered with blood from one of the deceased victims all over her shirt, and suggests that maybe I'm a mysterious artist who takes pleasure in the method that I lavishly concocted to give you the bag of money. Yet another, clinching his still bleeding arm from a surface wound, chimes in and hypothesizes that maybe it was to make the money mean more to you after you've seen how much death and suffering went into its delivery. You stare at them, perplexed, looking at the result of all this carnage, unconvinced of any of these hypotheses.

This pretty much describes how I feel about explanations to the problem of suffering, particularly the suffering found in the millions of years of evolution. If god is omnibenevolent, and can do anything logically possible, if he could have simply just poofed human beings into existence, why use a method that required millions of years of suffering? Theists have struggled to explain this and usually resort to saying either a) human original sin was applied retroactively, b) demons created all that suffering, it was not originally in god's plan, c) the suffering is somehow required for "soul-making," d) god isn't an engineer, he's more like an artist who takes pleasure in the extravagance of creation, or e) we just don't know.

I don't think, nor do many philosophers think, that any of these explanations are plausible. Theists, you've got to try harder.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

I'm A Sam Harris Fan


At a cocktail party last night I ran into philosopher Massimo Pigliucci and we had a nice little conversation on philosophy and science. Talking philosophy is very different when you're talking with an actual philosopher who knows their shit. I brought up free will because it's one of my favorite subjects to talk about and I mentioned how I'm a big fan of Sam Harris. "Nobody's perfect," Massimo replied (he's a vocal critic of Harris). Like Harris, Massimo rejects libertarian free will as he says just about every respectable philosopher does, and says that he's "some kind of compatibilist." I told him of my struggles between compatibilism and hard determinism and mentioned how I think Harris, who's a well known hard determinist, makes a reasonable case defending the position. (Harris wrote a short book on it called Free Will.) This prompted Massimo gave me his thoughts on why he thought Harris' view on Free Will was wrong.

Even among atheists, I find myself occasionally defending Harris against his haters.

I first came across Sam Harris probably back in 2009 when I became obsessed with watching debates on YouTube between theists and atheists. I liked his ability to poke fun at religion and to use humor to expose the absurdity of religious belief. He's a controversial figure, even among atheists. He's got his fans, and he's got his haters. I'm a Sam Harris fan. I don't agree with him on everything, but I do tend to agree with him more often than not.

For example, I totally agree with him when it comes to Islam and the negative effect its beliefs have on people who are inspired by it to commit violence, oppression, and acts of terrorism. There is no doubt in my mind that violent verses in the Koran inspire terrorists like those in ISIS to behead infidels and take female sex captives. And political correction, especially among liberals, is preventing us from having an honest conversation about the relationship between Islam and violence, terrorism, sexism and homophobia.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Even If I believed In God I Still Wouldn't Be A Christian


The religion that I am most familiar with is Christianity, because it's the dominant religion in the culture that I grew up in. And although I'm reasonably knowledgeable about Islam and Judaism, I primarily debate with Christians. The Christian apologist has two goals when he's trying to convert you. First, he has to try to convince you that god exists. Not just any god. It has to be an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving god. Then he has to try and convince you that Christianity is true. That is to say, that there is only one true religion, and it is Christianity. That means (in most cases) that he must try and convince you that Jesus was the son of god and died for our sins and that salvation can only be achieved by believing this.

In my opinion, this is a monumental task for an apologist to fulfill, especially to a well informed skeptic like myself. Not only does the Christian have to show me Jesus is divine, he has to make a convincing case that Jesus even existed in the first place. It's no longer a given that Jesus existed and that the New Testament accurately describes the events surrounding him. In fact, there is plenty of room for doubt. (I've become a little bit obsessed with the debates over the historicity of Jesus between mythicists and Christians.)

That said, even if you could convince me god exists, I still wouldn't be a Christian. I simply cannot trust the Bible as a book that describes god or history accurately. It's flawed on so many levels I can grant you an omni-god's existence and the Bible doesn't become 1 percent more plausible. The same is true for the Koran. In fact, since Christians believe in the same kind of god as Muslims do, and yet they reject the Koran's divine authorship, they way they view the Koran would be the same way I'd view the Bible if I believed in god: man-made.

If I believed in an omni-god it wouldn't change anything about me. I'd still have the same moral beliefs, political beliefs, the same views on sex, money, and family, and I'd still have most of the same goals and aspirations - I'd just believe in god. That's it. I wouldn't praise god, or worship it, and I wouldn't claim to know anything about it or its will. I'd hold the view that no one else can either, because god existing doesn't make any supposed revelation any more probable than a lie or a hallucination, no matter how brilliant it seems. After all, regular people have have brilliant ideas all the time who claim no divine inspiration.

I think it's logically impossible to connect the idea of an all-knowing, all-powerful and all-loving god, to Yahweh. You'd have to twist your logic into a pretzel to even try, and it still wouldn't work. I'd challenge anyone to make a coherent argument trying to do this. To me, belief in god is irrelevant to what's just, what's moral, or what our purposes in life are. There is simply no way of knowing what a god would want even if it existed. And no human being can be trusted when they tell you they "know" the mind of god. Period.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Christianity and Homosexuality


The topic of homosexuality continues to be a hot button issue among many Christians. Most liberal Christians have accepted homosexuality as a natural aspect of human nature that is not harmful or sinful and have moved on. Most conservative Christians however, still think homosexuality is a sin that is unnatural and an abomination, and should either be discouraged or outright punished. Then there are Christians in the middle of this spectrum who are somewhat undecided on whether it's a sin per se,  it's unnatural, or should be tolerated.

Personally, the relationship between Christianity and homosexuality always showed me what a farce Christianity is. There are many reasons why. From within the conservative Christian mindset, I ask why god would create people who only desire a form of sex that god has deemed an abomination, and that possibly warrants the death penalty? This never made sense to me. So the conservative Christian often responds by saying that god didn't make anyone gay, rather, gay people "choose" to be gay through sin out of free will. This makes no sense either given the evidence. One cannot "choose" what sexually arouses them. I cannot make myself get an erection from something that does not naturally turn me on. I either get aroused, or I don't. I don't choose what sexually arouses me. So why would a heterosexual man, who is sexually aroused by women, one day "choose" to only get an erection by other men? That just doesn't happen. Homosexuals are wired to be sexually aroused by the same gender and is not something of their choosing.

So, the fundamentalist position on homosexuality is obviously false. Homosexual desire is not due to willful sinning, it's something innate. And that leaves us with the moderate position within Christianity, who rejects the fundamentalist's view that homosexuals are just straight people who are willfully sinning and recognizes that it's an innate part of human sexuality, but are not willing to go as far as the liberal Christian and say that homosexuality is just as normal and good as heterosexuality. That is, they still think it's a sin and against god's will, even though they acknowledge it's put into the "design" of human beings by god.

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