Archive for the 'Religion' 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.

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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:

Ethics and Science

One of the recurring arguments amongst more moderate religious and irreligious people is that science and religion really aren’t incompatible, it’s just that they concern themselves with different areas. Science is about observation and fact, whereas religion is about morality and ethics.

I am one of those people who thinks that religion and science are, at the most fundamental level, completely incompatible. I know that there are many religious scientists, and scientific religious people, but this does not mean that the two can really coexist. In these instances, it’s just that these people have erected some sort of partition in their head that has declared a certain set of beliefs (the religious ones) off limits to scrutiny, or at least subject to different standards of scrutiny. Science promotes free inquiry, and demands that all claims be backed up with empirical observation. Religion simply ignores empiricism and demands its followers believe based on faith. From a scientific point of view this is absurd. If you do not have any support for your hypothesis, no one is going to accept it. And, unlike religion, science won’t chastise other scientists for being “closed-minded”. No, it will in fact chastise you for not having any empirical backing.

                But, what about ethics? There is no doubt that being an ethical person is very important. But did you know that science has a lot to say when it comes to ethics? It may surprise you to know that, using evolution, you can not only predict the existence of an ethical code, but also which exact principles the code will have.

                This is a tremendous claim. Many religious people point to The Ten Commandments or some other code as a basis for their own morality, but, using science, we can actually construct a parallel list, derived solely through evolutionary logic.

                First, we must determine just what is an ethical code. I define it as something with which we have a “gut feeling” is right or wrong. We feel what is right and what is wrong, even if we can’t articulate it. Why would we have these feelings? From an evolutionary standpoint, we would have them if it would give us a competitive advantage to have them.

                So what ethical feelings would we have if they were evolved? Well, a taboo against murder would be the most obvious one. If you hang around someone who tends to murder people, you’re much likely to end up murdered yourself. Since evolution depends on creatures which survive and reproduce, shunning people who murder is evolutionarily prudent. A similar argument goes for stealing. Way back in time, whatever we bothered to lug around with us was very likely essential for survival. Without it, our odds for survival go down, and so allowing such behavior will be selected against.

                Helping others is also something that would selected for. If you help someone, say by bringing them food when they cannot hunt or gather themselves, they are more likely to survive, and if you are helped, you are more likely to survive. What is interesting is that we can winnow down all these ethical codes and declare that our ethical feelings are all based on what will help our social group remain cohesive. As group animals, we depend on others for help. By banding together, the odds for all of us to survive increases.

                This is why most animals in the world live in groups. There is an evolutionary advantage to it. And such groups will develop rather complex ethical systems, at least in higher animals. What is interesting is that we do see these complex social systems develop. Chimps instinctively know it’s wrong to murder another chimp within their own group. Wild dogs will develop social structures without fighting or bloodshed, because such behavior would be counterproductive. It all points to an ethical code that evolved naturally, rather than having it being dictated by a supreme being.

Of course, one could argue that a god could have simply given us and the animals these codes because they do help with survival, but that does not mean that god’s sanction infuses these principles with “right” and “wrong”. They are right or wrong regardless of a god’s sanction.

So what is our evolved ethical code? If we test each one of these, we see that evolution easily selects for them (note: not all ethical codes are listed, due to lack of ingenuity by the author).

1)      Do not murder

2)      Do not steal

3)      Submit to authority

4)      Take care of your children

5)      Take care of the females in the group

6)      Promote promiscuity, especially among males

The last one is interesting contrasted against traditional Christian values. We are hard-wired to intrinsically feel all of these (and more), and it’s almost impossible to break them. Four billion years went into their development and a few decades of trying to oppose it is futile.

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.

And Iran…Iran So Far Away…

Turning to the other major evil nation on Earth, Iran is actually currently in the middle of what could be termed a revolution. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know alarge segment of the population is currently in revolt and protesting against the highly-religious conservative government (conservative in Iranian terms, like using the Koran and Hadiths as absolute law). The people revolting support a more progressively-person, someone who could hopefully help guide Iran out the shadow of Islamic rule and into a fairer, more secular society.

For both the sake of Iran and the world at large, the people revolting need to succeed. It’s unfortunate that they have to resort to violence, but sometimes that’s the only way to free yourself of a tyrannical dictator. Hey, it worked for us, didn’t it?

The reason is because of the fact that the country is completely ruled by a theocracy. And the worst part is that the religion in question is Islam. For me, religions fall on a sliding scale. Some, like Buddhism and Jainism, are near the good end. There are relatively benign and sometimes even beneficial. Jainism, for example, basically commands its followers to never hurt any living thing ever. Christianity is somewhere in the middle, trending towards the good end (now that the Inquisition is over, and Europe is no longer effectively ruled by the Pope). Islam however, is firmly and squarely near the bad end. Islam doesn’t have a problem. Islam is the problem.

I mean, perhaps it’s unfair to completely condemn a religion that is practiced by over a billion people, but when you really look into it, you can see how scary and insane it is. On nearly every page of the Koran, God directs Muslims to make war on unbelievers, to either kill or convert them, and that getting yourself killed in the process is not only unimportant but encouraged. Seriously. Imagine that you seriously believe, with all your heart, that if you go on a rampage and kill as many unbelievers as possible before being taken out yourself, God will put you on the fast-track to heaven. That you will be able to take with you any persons you select to join you (though there is a limit I can’t remember right now). Suddenly, it becomes surprising there aren’t more suicide bombings.

When an entire nation adheres to this ideology…yikes. And combine that with the fact that they are trying to acquire nuclear weapons…oh my. Plus they already have the technical capability hit any other point on the planet with a missile…excuse me while I go change my underwear.

But what does all this have to do with the protests? Everything. If the people protesting are actually successful, then Iran will no longer be (hopefully) absolutely ruled by Sharia Law. Iran will no longer be (hopefully) a threat of nuclear war. And, you know what? This is exactly the path it needs to take. Reforming Iran, and the Middle East in general, can’t be done from outside. It has to be done by its own people, by courageous people standing up and demanding change. If we were to put sanctions on or even invade Iran, all it would do would bolster support for the local government to stop us, and Iran would slide even further back. But if people inside start opposing the government, others who may also have grievances will also stand up, and so on.

Incidentally, the media, particularly the internet, is helping keep this revolt alive. All totalitarian governments need to have control of information to maintain their power. Without that, people learn what’s going on outside their country and how other countries view them. And then, the government loses their power. This is one reason the Soviet Union collapsed, particularly in the Soviet Bloc. People began having things like television, where they could see how screwed up their world really was, and did something about it.

Why Do Christians Cry When People Die?

It’s never made much sense to me. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but, you know that you’re going to see them again, at least, assuming you both get into heaven. I suppose if someone dies, but they weren’t a good Christian, and so they’ll probably end up in hell, then I could understand that you’d never see them again. Plus, you’d be upset that someone you love is going to be tortured for eternity.

If I were a Christian, and I had a friend who died, someone who I knew was very likely going to heaven and that I’d follow, I’d probably be happy for him. In fact, I might even be a little jealous. He’s made it, and he no longer has to worry about having enough faith and being a good Christian. But I’d be able to overcome that jealousy by realizing that the little time I have in this world is insignificant compared to the billions of trillions of years I’ll spend in paradise, with the opportunity to see my friend whenever I wish.

Now, being an atheist, and not believing in an afterlife (because the two are not necessary related), it is entirely reasonable for me to be sad. The person I cared about is gone. I will never see them again. Ever.No matter how much I want to, short of building a time machine, I will never be with them again. I’ve known a couple people who were around my age when they died. Not really friends, but acquaintances that I liked.

Well, crazy athiestic rant over. Today is the first day in three months where I have no work or school and absolutely no plans. I get to stay home in my pajamas and write politically-charged blogs all day! No actually I’m working on my game some more. I know I said I was done, but I’m mostly just re-doing the layouts and adding tiny things here and there.

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.