Archive for the 'Atheism' Category

My Story

One of the problems with being an atheist is that you’re always perceived as something negative. And that perception really isn’t that far from reality. I mean most of what you hear about atheists is that they’re usually arguing or fighting against something. They’re trying to remove the 10 Commandments from government buildings, or getting prayer out of school, or they’re writing books blasting traditional religious thought.

While I do believe this is necessary at some level, there’s really nothing substantive about atheism or non-religion in general. There is secular humanism which does have positive core values, but that usually just gets lost in the mix.

I’ve also struggled to come up with something positive while at the same time promoting critical thinking. It’s kind of contradictory to lay out a set of positive values, but then saying “and be critical of everything, even what I just said”. Imagine if a Christian said, “God loves you and wants to save your soul, but also question everything. Even question whether this God exists in the first place.” It just makes it confusing.

So, what I thought I’d do was simply tell my own story of how I got to where I am today in my atheism. Well, not just atheism. Atheism is practically nothing. It is a mere sentence in the thick novel of my personal beliefs. I am a secular humanist, a transhumanist, and deeply convinced of the value and correctness of scientific methodology and of the ongoing scientific endeavor.

First, my parents. I grew up in a non-religious household. My mother is also an atheist, though not much of a critical thinker. She’s into things like Carl Jung and Carlos Castaneda; fairly flakey things about consciousness and perceiving the universe. But she’s not really hardcore into these things. She’s like the moderate Christian version of them. Sort of believes it, but isn’t devoted to it. My father was into Scientology, but was never a member; mostly because he had no money and they wouldn’t have him.

After my parents divorced, I lived with my mother and she decided to take me to the Ethical Culture of Brooklyn. If you don’t know, the Ethical Culture is a group dedicated to ethical ideas. Everyone was accepted, and no one was made to feel inferior because of their personal beliefs. It’s sort of a non-religious Unitarianism. But its main focus is on ethics: what is right, what is wrong, how we should act, etc, but also the discussion of those ideas, not just swallowing it whole without thought.

We stopped going after we moved to California. We tried the Ethical Culture here but didn’t it interesting enough to stay. A year later, when I was 12, I met a girl (now my wife) who asked me to go to her and her friends to church, which was the Methodist Church. I agreed, and found it kind of interesting. I eventually went through confirmation and joined the church, but I never really believed in it. I had just done because that was what everyone else was doing so I figured why not.

As it turned both she and her friends really didn’t believe in it either, and stopped going. I found myself alone there now, continually pressured to go by my mother. She obviously didn’t believe either, but she said I made a commitment to them and so need to see it out. Eventually I convinced her that I hated going and she let me sleep in again on Sundays.

It was during this time that I really started questioning religion and whether God exists. I hadn’t believed them before, but I hadn’t really been critical of it, and mostly didn’t even understand the concepts. I was an “implicit atheist”, where my non-belief was simply due to the fact that I hadn’t been indoctrinated into it. It was here where I shifted to “explicit atheism” where I did begin questioning and coming up with logical reasons why there is no God, and understanding just what “God” is. I now knew what I was rejecting.

So for a few years I did that until my sophomore year of high school when one of my friends, who was pretty devoutly Catholic, invited me to his church. I decided to go, but due to curiosity about what Catholics believe, not because I thought it might be a way to the truth. I went there for a couple years, and, I have to say, I actually enjoyed it. I didn’t think any of the Catholic dogma was true, but they were nice friendly people to be around. They weren’t pushy at all about their beliefs. I mean, I went to their youth group, called Life Teen, and there was a lot in there about what the church’s teachings were and how to be a good Catholic, but I was never singled out. I felt part of a group that was being taught. And I definitely learned a lot more about Catholic teachings than I did about Methodist teachings at the Methodist Church.

But I eventually decided to move on. During this time I had also really learned a lot about critical thinking and the scientific method, both from my teachers at school and online articles (particularly about.atheism.com). It was in these that I saw the true majesty of the universe. The fact that we have the tools to objectively understand the very fundamental nature of reality is astonishing.

The true power of science is in its ability to test and verify theories, and to discard those that do not conform to nature. It is this that really distinguishes it from religion. There is no faith, there is no condemnation of questioning, and there are no logical gaps and fallacies. There is just no comparison. Science is adaptable. It takes this premise that we don’t know anything about the universe, and tries to figure it out. It doesn’t claim a dogma, then try to work backwards to find the evidence for that dogma. Everything is open to investigation.

By the time I was in college I was pretty set in being an atheist. I still say that I would believe in God if there were sufficient evidence (and given the nature of the claim, the evidence would have to be extraordinarily good), but nothing has made it in so far. There are just no good reasons to believe that a supreme being exists in the universe, and a great many reasons to believe otherwise.

I still struggle with personal beliefs, though. I first discovered transhumanism when I was 19 through Marshall Brain’s web pages. At first I didn’t like it. It just seemed too bizarre and undesirable to me. But, eventually, I sorted through it with my mental critical thinking tool kit, and found there was something here. We could make people better, or rather, develop the capabilities to let people make themselves better. We could develop the technology to upload the human mind to become immortal. We could develop the technology to create vast simulated realities and live in them as literal god-like beings. It is practical.

I’ll close out here with my rejection of my belief in extraterrestrial life, and not just because it’s my latest personal discovery. I had believed that aliens must exist in some form somewhere. Given the incredibly vast number of stars in the universe, coupled with the relative ease it is to make life, the universe must be teeming with life and other civilizations. But, as I started to investigate the consequences of those beliefs, I found that they were incompatible with the universe I saw around me. Where were these aliens? I believed aliens would colonize a large volume of space, as large as they possibly could, and do it quickly, since their only limited by the speed of light. So why aren’t they here already? Eventually, I realized that the simplest explanation was that they didn’t exist at all. It was devastating to me. I wanted to believe that alien life existed so badly, but the evidence just didn’t bear it out. I had to discard that belief, but it was actually not so bad. Because of my experience with having to prune my beliefs when necessary, I found that I was glad I came to a logical conclusion. Critical thinking gets easier, the more you do it. Changing your beliefs that you hold dear, gets easier.

And it’s a good thing too. We don’t know the nature of the universe when we’re born. It makes no sense to then pretend to.

Atheism: Good Enough…

I like funny infographics. Here’s one:

(From here. L-R, T-B: Ernest Hemingway, Abraham Lincoln, Carl Sagan, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin.)

Now, you might argue that not all the men pictured here were really atheists. While it is true that people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Benjamin Franklin did believe that there was probably some sort of god, it was only because scientific knowledge in that day was so lacking.

In the 18th and first half of the 19th century, there was no theory of evolution, or the big bang. It would have been very difficult to reject the Christian belief that god created everything, when there was no real alternative theory that could explain everything. If you could somehow bring these people into the 21st century, and teach them all that science has discovered along with the vast bulk of evidence that goes along with it, I’m almost certain they would accept it.

What we do know for certain is that all the people pictured were not faithful Christians, or believed in a personal god.  And that they were at least adherents to rational thought and skepticism, which is the most important thing of all.

And The Winner Is…

A) He will say his mathematics were in error. Thank you for playing…erm…this game that I just made up.

So yeah, as I already noted, and as you may already be aware, the Rapture did not happen. However, Camping has announced that, going through his “math”, he now predicts the whole thing will happen on October 21st.

Ok, the thing is, all this does is cause people who don’t know better to get panicky and so dumb things like sell their possessions. Yeah maybe it’s their own fault for not being critical enough in their beliefs but it still causes real harm to real people who might otherwise not have done anything.

Another thing that surprised me is how a lot of attention is still on Camping about his failed prediction. Usually when someone gives a date for the end of the world (or Rapture, whatever) when the day actually passes, people just tend to forget about it and the person who made the claim is basically let off the hook. But this time it seems to be different.

Anyway, my estimation of the odds of this happening on 10/21 are about the same as the last time:

The End Is Nigh (Impossible)!

So apparently there’s been this idea around that the Rapture is going to happen this Saturday, May 21. (See here)

There’s no point really going through Harold Camping’s arguments, since they’re all based on numerology and superstition, but needless to say I take a pretty dim view of them.

I predict that on May 22nd (or anytime thereafter), Camping will likely state either A) his mathematics were in error (as he did after a similar 1994 “prediction”), B) We’ll have to wait and see still, or C) the “Rapture” actually happened in some way (i.e. “So and so in Town X, Arkansas went missing that day and therefore was raptured!”). If he chooses “C” he’ll probably add that apparently very, very few people actually found favor with God and so the Rapture was microscopically small.

I will also state, for the record, if such a Rapture does indeed occur, whether it’s through hundreds of millions of people literally vanishing, or perhaps them apparently just dropping dead for no reason (i.e. just their “soul” was taken), I will immediately convert to his version of Christianity. That would be sufficient evidence to believe in God, in my view.

Anyway, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. I’ll lose sleep over working overnight the next couple of days, but not this.

Yay! An Atheism Documentary Worth Watching!

Finally, a documentary/TV program that is about religious skepticism and atheism that is intelligent and not (very) insulting or degrading towards religious people. I am talking about “The Atheism Tapes” by Jonathan Miller.

To be honest, I have been recently quite disappointed by documentaries that are about religious skepticism. The first was “The God Who Wasn’t There”, whose ads you’ve probably seen around teh interwebz. It’s got really great reviews, but I thought it was just sort of meandering and pointless. There’s not really an overall theme, and it just left me feeling that I hope religious people don’twatch it because it would give them the wrong impression. It just made me feel its about some guy exercising his personal grudge against religion and the people who tried to cram it into his head.

Next was “Religulous” with Bill Maher. This one was better, but still left me feeling a bit empty. Maher talks with religious people, apparently just trying to understand why people are religious, but doesn’t really come to his main point until like ten minutes before the end, which is that religions can be very harmful in that they instruct people to act in a certain way against creating a sustainable rational world, that is against working for a better world, because there’s no point. They’re going to be rewarded in a few decades anyway, why make this world better?

“The Atheism Tapes” really nails it by saying that religions are harmful and that there is a real problem with the world in that religions do exist. I also liked that this documentary program was much more philosophical and grappled with the dense issues like: How can evil exist if God exists? What really happens after death? Exactly how do religions inform the behavior of human beings? It lambastes the common idea that people use religion as a cover or justification  to do horrible things (which implies that these people would do these horrible things anyway even if religion wasn’t around), and correctly states that these people do these things because they sincerely and deeply believe certain wildly implausible things are true. People blow themselves up and fly planes into buildings, not because they really like doing it, but because they KNOW God will reward them for doing so.

I especially liked it because I identify myself as a philosopher first and foremost. I may be a physics-major, and I may design complex games about finance, but when it comes right down to it, I’m a philosopher, something actually quite uncommon among physicists and the scientific community in general. Scientists do science, which is founded on empiricism, the idea that you have to be able to gather data from the world in order to know anything about it. I, of course, agree with that, but most scientists completely shun any issue in which you cannot gather data because you can never know if your musings are correct or not.

“The Atheism Tapes” is also apparently a supplement to the BBC program “Atheism: A Rough History of Disbelief” also by Johnathan Miller. The main program I can’t find on Amazon or Netflix, but I’ll keep looking. If I have to buy from the UK at least I have a Region 2 DVD player in my computer.

Hey, Things Are Looking Up…

According to this article, Americans are moving away from Christianity, and it is mostly because of an overall rejection of religion, rather than people converting to other religions.

Without sounding too obnoxious, YIPPEE!!!

I’m not a big fan of religion. Not that I think religion is always bad, but–at best–it’s just unnecessary. I mean, yeah, having to pray five times a day in the direction of some city may not hurt anyone, but why? Are there any solid verifiable reasons to think that Joseph Smith really did find golden plates in Manchester, New York? That being a good warrior means that you can expect to wind up in Folkvangr or Valhalla? Or that any of the literally hundreds of thousands of gods that people have believed in over the course of human history actually exists?

If there aren’t, then why are they given any rational consideration at all? Oh yeah…faith. While I may not be explicitly anti-religion (it depends on which religion we are discussing), I am staunchly and rabidly anti-faith. Faith is, to put it mildly, evil. Believing in something without evidence or support is, I think, a form of insanity. It means that something in your brain has gone spectacularly horribly wrong, yet people think that it is a virtue.

The ability to reason, to be able to sit down and objectively figure things out, is what makes us human. The ironic thing is that most people (in religious fundamentalists) are rational people in most ordinary circumstances. It’s just that they seem to have set up a divider in their heads, where the most imporant and profound questions are shielded from honest inquiry. The very fact that subjects like the meaning of life and the existence of god(s) are profound demands careful investigation, skepticism, and rigor when confronted with possible answers.

Oh well, perhaps this poll shows that people in the future will be less religious and more rational. If the rest of the world is any indication, non-religion is correlated with better, safer societies. It would only be a boon to the human race.

Thou Shalt Steal

I’m not sure exactly what to make of this. An athiest organization put up a sign attacking religious thought, which was then subsequently stolen, presumably by someone who disagreed with the message, and so who was almost certainly religious. Isn’t there some sort of religious rule against stealing. I mean, I know the Bible is big book, but I’m sure I saw that in there some place.

Of course, the sign itself is a little insensitive. One of the lines on there reading, “Religion is but a myth and a superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”. I’m always trying to come up with ways to promote disbelief in god(s) while still being positive and respectful for other people’s beliefs, but it’s hard to do. Atheism is just a simple negation of single claim, nothing more. It’s hard to be encouraging when speaking against a belief that someone has made the core of their life.