Monthly Archives: October 2008

What atheism means to me

Note: This is a follow-up to my post, Why I argue against religious belief, because, in my opinion, it’s not enough to criticize without offering an alternative.

I was never a very religious person.  The closest I came was during my teen years when I consistently attended the LDS (Mormon) daily religious instruction known as Seminary, and of course the regular hours-long service on Sundays.  I observed the rituals and prohibitions (well, most of them), tried to get my family back to church, and embedded myself in the cloistered LDS culture.

But even then, I never felt committed.  Other Mormons talked about “feeling the Spirit,” which always remained an alien experience to me.  I never tithed, and I never seriously thought about going on a mission.  There were two constant nags in my mind which probably explain why.  The first was the rank hypocrisy and intolerance of the Mormons I knew – some of it even my own – which belied the carefully cultivated Mormon notion that we were specially imbued with spiritual righteousness.  The second was the BS factor.  I could never quite swallow the explanations we were given about certain difficulties with Mormon history or doctrines.

When I essentially quit the LDS in my late teens, it was not to join another religion (unless you consider surfing a religion, which some certainly did!).  Part of the reason was some bizarre experiences I had with my stepmother’s own brand of Christian fundamentalism (e.g., curses placed on fellow Christians, beliefs in demons, etc.).  Religion, or at least its Christian variant, thus came to represent something rather backward and superstitious in my mind.  I did not immediately become an atheist, however.  I retained god-belief and even prayed on occasion, but never did I obtain that “touched by the Holy Spirit” experience so many believers describe.

My path to atheism began by chance when a Mormon contacted me a few years ago and asked if I would like a home visit.  Mormons, you see, consider you a member for life, unless you’re kicked out or take specific steps to remove yourself from their rolls.  Incensed that I was seemingly being tracked decades after I stopped attending church, I began the formal process of disassociation.  I’m not sure why, but this prompted an interest in learning about Mormonism, but from an outsider’s perspective.  So I started reading material critical of the Mormon faith, primarily from Christian sites such as Utah Lighthouse Ministries and the Institute for Religious Research.  I was completely fascinated and appalled by what I learned; “scam” is a word that often came to mind.  I read LDS apologetics and literally laughed out loud at their feeble, logic-defying rationalizations.

Somewhere I read – it may have been from a Mormon – that the very kind of attacks used against Mormonism could be levied against Christianity.  A light immediately went on, so I began research into Christianity and discovered that the accusation was true.  Even more, when I read Christian apologists, I found they employed precisely the same fallacious reasoning as their LDS counterparts.

This realization was the final push I needed to become an atheist.  Every religion I’ve encountered is built on the same foundation of myths and tall-tales, so obviously untrue it sometimes boggles my mind that people actually believe the stuff it peddles.  One need not be an atheist to relate to this feeling; every believer feels the same with respect to some other religious belief system.  Atheism merely extends the insight to all, without prejudice.

What does all this have to do with what atheism means to me?  Very simple: atheism means to me the search for truth, unburdened by ancient and disproven dogmas.  Since most of the world remains mired in such traditions, atheism also means progress in humanity’s development.  It is the viewing of reality as it actually exists, not as we wish it to be.  Atheism is not in and of itself a worldview, but it does unlock the doors to those which arrive more effectively and efficiently at truth.

As an atheist, I feel free to explore, discover, and revel in the life experience.  And even err, because that is often how we grow.  Religion is a cage, while atheism is an open plain, a blank slate, a clear window.  It allows that alternate views may be true, even religious ones, which cannot be said of those religious views themselves, divisive and discriminatory as they are.  The simple fact that no rampaging army has been rallied in its name is enough alone to commend it.

This is why I am an atheist.

Why I argue against religious belief

Note: The following is an short essay expressing why I argue against (some) religious belief.  It will be followed up by an essay explaining what atheism means to me.

Spend enough time in discussion with theists and the question inevitably comes up: “Why are you even arguing against religion?” or “Why do you care what we believe?”

From the perspective of a moderate believer, the question is perfectly understandable.  They’re generally peaceful folk, desiring to do good, and harming no one (at least, directly).  Their faith is extremely personal and a bedrock source of strength in their lives.  To have someone attack it must seem very much like attacking motherhood or apple pie.

Before I answer, allow me to observe that the question is hypocritical.  Don’t these believers argue against other competing faiths?  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, is it not? In the market place of ideas, one should expect competition.

So, why do I argue against religious belief?

1) My survival, and that of humanity’s, may very well depend on it. This is perhaps the key point made by the so-called new atheists.  The infliction of suffering and death on the innocent is an inherent feature of religious belief, which sadly continues even today.  But in a time when our capacity for destruction includes the ability to extinguish most life on the planet, this dirty little secret of faith is something we can no longer countenance.  When some traditions pray for war, while others seek the means to bring it to ever larger populations, it falls to the reality-based community to sound the alarm.

But widespread destruction is not the only threat; neglect and improper stewardship of our planet could very well produce the same end.  A fatalistic or blase attitude toward this issue, based primarily on theological doctrines like end-times belief, characterizes the views of too many theists (though, fortunately, there is some sign that this is changing).  They’re taking a faith-based gamble, but my life and welfare are not theirs to gamble with.

It may very well be that the solution to such suicidal expressions of faith lies in its moderation.  Though atheists like Sam Harris make a strong case that faith itself is the problem, I believe we can increase our odds for survival by simply sanding religious belief down, diluting its toxicity, mixing it with doubt and a healthy dose of skepticism.  We can encourage “figurative re-interpretations,” if not outright repudiations, of morally repugnant religious doctrines, though the ones widely held now have far greater scriptural support than ones held previously (like slavery).  Still, when I read about some religious organizations endorsing gay marriage, or how those unaffiliated with any religion are the fastest growing segment of belief in our society, I gain confidence and hope such a whittling process is well on its way, along with (hopefully) a corresponding shift toward greater rationalism.

I don’t claim that religion is the root of all evil, and that by eliminating it will we achieve some sort of nirvana on earth.  It’s clear that most people have a deep-seated thirst for spirituality which will not be disappearing any time soon.  Instead, our challenges lie in divorcing faith from dogmatism, and in assisting its inevitable yielding to science.  Would more theists adopt the view of the Dalai Lama:

If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview.

2) Atheists today are unjustly one of the most, if not the most, maligned groups in American society today. This is remarkable because it’s based not so much on anything atheists have done, but merely on the absence of a particular belief.  Atheism is thus, apparently, a thought-crime.  But in any society which calls itself free, the fruits of one’s actions, not the contents of one’s mind, are the arbiters of her character.  Unfortunately, we see this principal ignored in favor of irrational and hypocritical manifestations of prejudice against atheists.  In some instances, this prejudice is codified and sanctioned in law.

The only source of this cancerous intolerance are the alleged words of the believer’s god, which is rather ironic given that one of its commands to followers is to “love your enemies”.  If I’m a “fool” for not believing in their god, the only way I’ll get a fair shake is to help re-make the image of this god to one less odious, or give doubt to its existence in the first place.  Fortunately, atheists are assisted in this task by the hard-core believer himself, whose behavior and invective repulses everyone, making toleration and acceptance appear the moral alternative.

3) The opportunity cost of religious belief is too expensive to ignore. The waxing of religious belief is generally accompanied by the waning of scientific and human progress, and vice versa.  The American 50s are often considered a “golden age” among Christians, yet when the Soviet Union became the first country to put a man in space, it came as a real shock, resulting in a re-evaluation of the education curriculum, including abandonment of creationism in favor of evolution.  The hostility toward science exhibited by some believers represents lost opportunity to create the new technologies necessary to alleviate humanity’s afflictions and capitalize on its potential.  Large population swathes where religious belief is the dominant force in society remain stunted and underdeveloped, resulting in avoidable suffering.  While some argue that science and religion are compatible, the fact that scientists are far more irreligious than the general population should give pause, though some form of spirituality remains popular among them.

I know many believers will scoff at these reasons, preferring instead to maintain that I’m “mad at God” or “want to be free to sin”.  That’s their perogative, but then they shouldn’t expect non-believers to take their testimony about being “touched by the Holy Spirit” any more seriously.

You are a True Christian™ if…

You are banned. You are not a Christian for Christians don’t accuse brothers and sisters in Christ of being non-Christian.  – Troy, Bibliocality (as cited at Fundies Say the Darndest Things).

One of the more curious Christian practices (as opposed to those that are simply bizarre) is the routine denunciation of fellow believers as not truly Christian (read a recent discussion I had on this topic here).  The accusation is usually based on disagreement over a certain doctrine, disapproval of a particular behavior, or the espousal of a “heretical” belief.  Up until the recent past, these disputes would sometimes help spark bloody conflict, but today’s disagreements are fought more by the pen than the sword.

There’s one thing, however, that will cause one Christian never to gainsay another: persecution or death at the hands of a non-believer.  Funny how that works, huh?  In one fell swoop, doctrine, behavior, or belief are cast to the side as the Christian rushes to the side of his brother, and, channeling Matthew 5:11-12, holds him in her arms and cries, “See? See how the cruel world treats us poor Christians?!”

The reliability of the New Testament – a response

Amidst my surfing of Christian blogs, I came upon one that asked, “How can a rational person trust the New Testament?”  Ever the contrarian, I responded that one cannot rationally trust the New Testament (NT), and offered a few reasons why, among them:

1.) The original manuscripts do not exist;
2.) There are well-documented instances of textual corruption (errors, additions, deletions, etc.);
3.) Some of Paul’s epistles are verified forgeries;
4.) To trust the NT requires trusting the Old Testament, which makes it far more problematic given the state of modern scientific knowledge.

I also noted that these were but a “tip of the iceberg” in terms of questioning NT reliability.

Milestoneworship (I don’t have the name of the actual author) responded graciously to my post, thanked me for the questions, and promised a rebuttal, which was recently posted.  In the spirit of dialogue and debate, below I offer my response.  None of this will be new to students of the Bible, but hopefully the small crowd of onlookers who happen upon it will advance their understanding in some beneficial way.

From his response, it is clear that Milestoneworship has a more nuanced appreciation of history and NT difficulties than the average lay Christian, many of whom would respond with the typical apologetic fare of “fulfilled prophecy” or “the Bible is an accurate historical record.” I note, however, that he has not disputed any of the four points above; therefore, I presume he grants them.

To begin, Milestoneworship slightly misrepresents my position, which, to be fair, had not been wholly spelled out.  He writes,

However, Robert’s “all or nothing” tone in his claim reflects a lack of understanding of the scholarship concerning ancient historical documents.  It seems that Robert is suggesting that just because there are elements of controversy within the accounts of events in the New Testament, the New Testament as a whole is invalidated.

Well, not quite.  To an inerrantist, invalidating part of the NT would invalidate all of it, but I never assumed Milestoneworship held such a belief, so that was never my position.  On the contrary, my actual position is that the NT’s problems, from a historical point of view, are far more fundamental than a few “elements of controversy.”  I’ll demonstrate what I mean by examining a few of Milestoneworship’s NT claims.  To start with, consider this:

Yet, when we approach the accounts given in the New Testament, we have at least five seperate accounts of the basic events of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection (the four Gospels and the Pauline account in I Corinthians).

Milestoneworship has chosen his words carefully.  Technically, what he says is true, but the impression I’m sure he wishes to convey differs from the facts in several important respects.  Yes, the gospels are indeed separate (I’ll deal with the Corinthians creed in a bit), but are they independent, and more importantly, do they recount truthful history? On both counts, the question can only be no.  Surely, Milestoneworship is aware of the synoptic problem, which concerns the obvious literary overlap between Mark, Matthew, and Luke.  The problem is such that, in the words of Christian NT scholar Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, “It is quite impossible to hold that the three synoptic gospels were completely independent from each other.”  In other words, the authors copied material.  What did they copy from?  Many scholars believe from Mark, along with another document no longer in existence.  Matthew and Luke come later, contradict each other in some ways, and contain information not originally included in Mark, such as the birth narratives and the resurrection appearances (our earliest copies of Mark end at 16:8).  John, which comes later still, parallels only 8% of the synoptics, contradicts them in several important respects, and was rejected as heretical by many early Christians.

So what we see with the gospels is progressive literary embellishment, a sure sign that we are not reading so much as history but legend.  This becomes even more obvious when we read the earliest Christian writings, Paul’s epistles.

The striking thing about these epistles is how little data they contain of Jesus’s life.  From them alone, one would never know that Jesus was born a virgin, performed miracles, raised the dead, was crucified at Calvary, and subsequently buried in a tomb.  Paul never quotes any of Jesus’s sayings, never places him in any historical settings, sources his knowledge to God or the scriptures, and answers questions which Jesus had (supposedly) already settled.  What possessed to Paul to claim that the Romans never punish the righteous, but only the wicked?  I Corinthians 15:3-8, to which Milestoneworship presumably refers, is but a creed with only minimal reflection in the gospels, and the gospels in it.  In sum, Paul’s epistles are theological statements, only affirming what Christians believed, and raise serious doubts about the historicity of the NT gospels.

If the gospels are largely ahistorical, as I maintain, it would explain another anomaly for Christianity: their utter lack of attestation in the contemporary historical record.  Jesus’s miraculous deeds are well-known to us now, but they were apparently so unremarkable then that no one took written note of them.  And what of the events surrounding his death, such as the resurrection of all those dead saints who walked around Jerusalem and “appeared unto many” (Matthew 27:52-53)?  An every-day occurrence, it seems.  Some apologists have suggested that no historian of that era would scarcely be concerned about another itinerant rabbi in a backwater of the Roman empire, but in fact there were such historians.  Chief among them, Philo of Alexandria.  Philo was a Jewish philosopher and historian living in the early first century Middle East (25 BCE – 47 CE) whose theology would be familiar to any Christian.  For example,

And even if there be not as yet any one who is worthy to be called a son of God, nevertheless let him labour earnestly to be adorned according to his first-born word, the eldest of his angels, as the great archangel of many names; for he is called, the authority, and the name of God, and the Word, and man according to God’s image, and he who sees Israel.

About Jesus, nary a word can be found among Philo’s more than fifty works.

So, if the NT gospels aren’t historical, from whence the stories about Jesus?  As NT scholar Robert M. Price has shown, mostly from the Old Testament.  Through extapolating and re-interpreting scripture, the gospel authors weaved their Jesus narratives.  As Price describes, “Today’s Christian reader learns what Jesus did by reading the gospels; his ancient counterpart learned what Jesus did by reading Joshua and 1 Kings.”  This explain such gospel oddities as Matthew’s Jesus riding into Jerusalem on the backs of two donkeys, from Zechariah 9:9, while Luke and John have him riding on one.

Milestoneworship continues his case for NT reliability with the following:

However, with such a variety of accounts, and the close dating of these accounts to the occurence of the events recorded, historians have virtually agreed on three factual events that the Gospels record:  1)the discovery of an empty tomb three days after Jesus’ crucifixion, 2)the post-mortem appearances of Jesus, and 3)the disciples belief in the resurrection.  I argue that the best explanation of these events is the miraculous resurrection of Jesus.

I consider this to be a moving of the goalposts, so to speak.  The question before us concerns the overall reliability of the NT, not a specific claim made within it.  But since support of the latter can assist in making the case for the former, I’ll nonetheless address it.

Milestoneworship’s argument is one popularized by Christian apologist William Lane Craig.  The facts presented here may indeed be agreed upon by historians, but that doesn’t necessitate the conclusion that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead.  This is a theological statement, not a historical one, as NT scholar and historian Bart Ehrman pointed out to Craig in a formal debate on the topic.  And as Richard Carrier has shown, it is far, far likelier that Jesus survived, to give but one possible outcome (theft and misplacement are a couple others).

The above response is but a partial case against the reliability of the NT.  Much more could be said about the anonymity of the gospels, their possible authorship well into the second century, formation and disputes over the NT canon, parallels to previous religions and deities, the tremendous amount of early Christian apocrypha which testifies to a wide diversity of belief, and so on.  It is a fascinating subject, but one that is extremely historically clouded, as well.  To be sure, Christian apologists have their responses to each of these objections, and more, just every other faith does with respect to its traditions and holy texts.  But when neutrally evaluated, the reliability of the NT cannot be established by any rational standard.

Another conversation ends in…censorship

Has this happened to you?

You’re in a dialogue with a believer of some stripe on their blog site. You feel you’ve made some excellent points against their arguments. You return to see their response and find that your reply has been deleted. No explanation given. It’s just…gone.

I’ve had this experience more times than I can count.  The latest example comes from the blog of Canon Press, a Christian “literature ministry”.  The topic which led me to comment was the boasting about the relative success of their book Is Christianity Good for the World? I started off with the reasonable observation that the goodness of something does not necessarily relate to its truthfulness.  A staff member, Frank, replied with what I considered a woolly-headed rationalization, namely,

We all live as if telling the truth is good, while telling a lie is bad. And if it’s right for us to live this way (which it is), then it make sense that seeking good is also seeking truth.

Huh?  I pointed out that telling a lie can be good, depending on the circumstances, which rendered his formulation invalid.  Unfortunately, Frank continued to dig himself into a hole with that comment that,

“Truth” is what God says, and everything that God does and says is good.

I’m sure you can predict my response.  If everything God does is good, and God killed children, logically, that makes killing children good.  I continued to press this point, as well as faulted Frank for his equivocation and logical fallacies.  Apparently this was too much for Frank, as he – or someone else at Canon Press – deleted my reply.

The really ironic thing is the statement made at the top of their blog,

sometimes it looks like our efforts only make unbelievers more stubborn in their resistance to the Gospel.

When your fatuous reasoning is exposed and you panic by erasing the evidence, is it any wonder why?

Christian, read your Bible!

Strange, isn’t it?

Why am I, an atheist, encouraging Christians to read their holy book?  Shouldn’t I be telling them to toss it aside instead?

No, for a very simple reason with which fellow skeptics would wholeheartedly agree: the Bible debunks itself.  It is this I believe which lies at the bottom of the highly shallow knowledge Christians exhibit about a work they, on the surface at least, maintain is either “inspired” or “authored” (depending on their sectarian persuasion) by the creator of the universe.  Modern ethics have evolved so far beyond many of those laid down in the Bible – even those held by most Christians – that pastors and Bible instructors understandably pass over the large swathes of scripture which run contrary to them.  It is not easy, for example, to reconcile the popular narrative of a god who loves children with one who murders them (e.g., Exodus 12:29; 1 Samuel 15:2-3, etc.).  The apologetic disassembling required to harmonize such examples of God’s schizophrenic personality is truly herculean.

There is another, more self-serving reason for Christians’ growing Biblical amnesia.  If you lead a flock of believers for whom the Bible is the literal Word of God, a position as its sole authoritative interpreter affords tremendous power.  The Catholic Church recognized this truth long ago by severely restricting the teaching of Latin, which the Bible was written in for most of its existence, and banning its private possession and mass production.  Today’s Christian clergy and leaders need not resort to such drastic measures; soft-censorship and the repetitive harping on a few chosen themes accomplishes much of the same.  Every Christian knows God surely detests homosexuality, but to learn He just as surely condemns shrimp and cotton-polyester blends rather deflates belief.

This is not to say that Bible-reading automatically converts one into skepticism, but that it can lead one down such a road.  The idea is to create enough cognitive dissonance that the believer is forced to relieve it by conducting a fuller investigation of the Bible, which, thanks to the ubiquity of information on the internet, is more easily accomplished than ever before.  It’s true, only a handful will end up rejecting their religion, while another handful will end up more faithful than ever before, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the former is far likelier to happen than the latter.  Still, those who become hardcore, fire-and-brimstone literalists indirectly help the skeptic’s cause as Christianity subsequently becomes increasingly associated with intolerance and hypocrisy.

A third possible outcome is just as important.  Having been exposed to the vast diversity of scholarly views on the Bible, both from within Christianity and outside it, the believer becomes less confident of its claims, increasingly interpreting them as metaphors rather than dogmatic truth.  From there, it’s not a great leap to rejecting them altogether, though the process proceeds piecemeal.  Europe may very well be a harbinger of such a trend, where polls show an increasing divergence in beliefs between clergy and laity.  Many fundamentalist Christians recognize this slippery slope towards skepticism, consequently insisting on literal interpretations and upholding inerrancy at a time when such positions are wholly untenable.

How unorthodox it must be to the lay Christian mind to be told by a non-believer to study their Bible.  The suggestion alone is a powerful message, disarming in its invitation to simply examine the basis of their religion.  “What do they know that I don’t?”  While there are some efforts by believers to improve Bible knowledge, I think those skeptics who were former theologians and apologists can and should join in by ensuring that a complete picture is presented.  But even those who are less proficient in Bible studies can assist, by 1) reading the Bible themselves (a good place to start is at The Scripture Project) and 2) improving one’s knowledge about the Bible, both from critical and Christian liberal scholars (who often debunk themselves).  When skeptics demonstrate superior knoweldge of the Bible to believers, not just about scripture but how and why it was created, the effect can only be disconcerting.

The Bible consistently remains the number one best-selling book.  Christian, time to brush the dust off yours and start reading it today, so the next time your pastor or bishop tells you things like “God defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman,” you can firmly correct his nonsense, citing God’s long support of polygamy.  Won’t that be fun?