Sunday, December 5, 2010

The "God" of Science versus the God of religion

One more thing I'd like to discuss while I'm at it, is this odd habit people have of trying to "prove God with science" (or vice-versa). You may or may not be familiar with the "Teleological Proof," which is one of the go-to arguments "proving" that the Christian God exists. I will open this posting with a cartoon from SMBC which demonstrates the fallacy of this reasoning in fewer words than I am probably capable of using:

This argument can also (but doesn't always, necessarily) draw on the fallacy of "specified complexity" as well; from wikipedia:

1. Nature exhibits complexity, order, adaptation, purpose and/or beauty.
2. The exhibited feature(s) cannot be explained by random or accidental processes, but only as a product of mind.
3. Therefore, there exists a mind that has produced or is producing nature.
4. A mind that produces nature is a definition of "God."
5. Therefore, God exists.

Note how the assumption stated in #2 appeals directly to the "specified complexity" fallacy?

But I digress. What I want to address is the fact that, yes, there is a scientific opening for something to exist beyond this universe. It is entirely possible that some force we have yet to discover is what set this universe in motion. However, let me clarify what I mean (and do not mean) by that statement:

1) I do NOT mean that there is room for a god that actively influences the universe today;
since we are talking about a god that can (supposedly) be proven by science, I am going to address this from a physical perspective: our universe is basically one giant closed Thermodynamic System, and the law of conservation of energy tells us that energy can never be created nor destroyed, it can only be transferred. So by these laws, it is theoretically possible that our universe is not the only closed system that exists, but due to physical limitations, if there are other universes that exist, we can never interact with them physically because our spaces are not connected. So that's basically unknowable.

If there existed such a being as a god that acted physically, then this should be easily demonstrable --- any incident in which this god interacted with our universe would cause a disruption of the laws of physics, however temporary, that could be detected in some way (a sort of "supernatural footprint;" I want to attribute that term to Richard Dawkins, but I cannot find a proper citation, so I'll leave it uncredited for now).

Because the system of our universe is closed and stable --- which is to say, every system within it and every bit of mass or energy within it (along with all of their reactions to one another) is mathematically accounted for --- if some force were to intercept any of those processes, it would interrupt them in such a way as to disrupt what should be the natural, physical laws of interaction; such an interception would, in other words, cause things to behave in a way that should not, physically speaking, be possible. That point in time should, at least in theory, be detectable in some way.

On the other hand, if it is NOT detectable --- if the interactions of 'god' with the physical universe are indistinguishable from the natural laws, or if he does not interact with the universe physically --- then god's interactions are not provable by scientific means, because there is no way to tell whether a given event is simply the result of nature following the laws of physics, or of god working through the laws somehow.

Keeping in mind, it's possible that such a god could interact with the universe in a non-physical way --- if you wanted to argue for the existence of some other dimension of which we are not aware --- but I will not touch on that here because it is unknowable and thus not worth discussing from a scientific perspective. The argument I presented above only applies to a god whose existence can be confirmed physically.

2) I do NOT mean that any god of any specific religion exists;

Off the top of my head, I'll refer to Christianity here. The Christian god says that we were created 6000 years ago, at the same time as the planet earth, the universe itself, all life and all laws within it. We can demonstrate that humans and the earth are significantly older than 6000 years, and that many life forms have come and gone since the time it was created; the theory of evolution explains how all life on this earth has changed significantly since it first began, and various dating techniques (such as tree ring dating, carbon-14 dating for small periods of time, etc.) can be overlapped to give us a picture of a planet that is very old, indeed. Not even considering the age of the universe itself, the Biblical literalist account of Genesis has been demonstrated to be scientifically inaccurate. So as I understand it, it is impossible for the legends of Judeo-Christian origin to be literally, specifically true, given what we know about the planet and the universe. Therefore it would be odd to proclaim that the god who supposedly said these things exists. Some god may exist, and maybe he did say something to some humans somewhere which was recorded at some point, but it's possible that if he did, the humans got it very wrong or twisted it of their own accord. In any case, it's unknowable and therefore cannot be proven (or disproven) scientifically.

With that out of the way....

As demonstrated in the SMBC cartoon, it is possible, even for someone who is purely a materialist, to believe in a scientific "creator god" who caused the universe to begin to exist. However, the implications of using this as a proof for god's existence must be understood --- the god inferred by scientific necessity (the 'god' that may have created physics) would likely not be the same as any god claimed by any religion today. Such a god would probably not be personal, like the Christian god; it would not likely actively involve itself with the contemporary universe; the most that we can actually say about this god is that it exists, and that it must (by definition) be as energy, un-creatable and un-destroyable. If we do not assume that much, then it defeats the purpose to assume it in the first place, for we're left with the assumption that such a god can be created, can cease, and therefore had to have a creator itself who was infinite (to avoid an infinite regress of gods who were created by gods who were created by gods, and so forth).

No...a scientific 'creator god' has only two known qualities --- it created the universe, and it can neither be created nor destroyed. That second one may sound familiar; this is because it is also a property shared by the energy that exists in this universe. That's interesting, isn't it? Let's see how far we can extend that analogy without contradicting ourselves:

- God can not be created or destroyed; neither can energy
- Therefore god has always existed; energy has always existed, then, too
- God created the universe; so....did energy create the universe?

One has a slightly more scientific grounding if one wants to claim that energy itself is god, or some extension thereof. For energy seems to have all of the properties of god as far as its nature, and yet it also fuels the interactions within our universe. But notice if we extend the analogy further:

- Energy is uncaring, unfeeling and is god uncaring, unfeeling and impersonal?
- Energy is bound by the laws of physics and cannot behave is god bound by the laws of physics? Can he behave uncharacteristically and defy his own nature?

Odd implications. But also strangely realistic; these are all very possible statements of god. In fact, in my arguments with apologist Christians like Frank Turek, I've been confronted with the argument that God can't defy or change his own nature, and that god essentially is equivalent with the laws of physics and the universe (i.e. the laws are part of god's essence or nature). So the more we extend the analogy, the more we begin to see god as a sort of "robot" (for lack of a better term), a being that does not make decisions, per se, but rather operates "on rails," doing whatever its nature commands it to do....much in the same way that the systems within our universe behave. Physics are not held in check by intelligent life; they run independently of it, obeying their nature and not changing. So could the same be true of god?

I'd tell you, but as an agnostic atheist, I believe god's existence (or non-existence) is ultimately unknowable. It's just something to think about, I guess @_@


Specified Complexity

I want to talk about something today that's been coming up a lot in conversation lately: the aspect of the pseudo-scientific theory of "Intelligent Design" known as "Specified Complexity."

UPDATE (1/14/11): I have added new information to this post, indicated below.

If you're not familiar with the subject, it's most famously touted by the "analytic philosopher" Bill Dembski. It's more commonly demonstrated as "the watchmaker argument." It basically states:

1. The complex inner workings of a watch necessitate an intelligent designer.
2. As with a watch, the complexity of X (a particular organ or organism, the structure of the solar system, life, the entire universe) necessitates a designer

I knew from the first time I heard this argument that there was something wrong with it. But I've always been hard-pressed to put it into simple language (as I have a tendency to drone on and on and go off on tangents). Today I will attempt to do just that --- I will explain why this argument is nonsense in as few points as possible:

1) The only reason we know that a watch must have been designed is because we know in advance that a watch was designed; as such, it is impossible to cite this argument without first referring to something which we know prior to be designed (such as a watch). Ergo, it is the prior knowledge of design which allows us to infer that it was designed, in the first place.

2) Therefore, it is not the function of the device which leads us to assume that it was designed, but rather the fact that we know it to have been designed.

3) Ergo, we do not infer specified complexity based solely on the functionality or complexity of the object; for "specified complexity" is defined not by the functionality or complexity of the object, but by the fact that it was designed. We infer specified complexity based on whether or not we know if something was designed.

In short, specified complexity is completely circular. There is simply no logical or mathematical proof which demonstrates that complexity (of any extreme) necessitates a designer. We require prior knowledge of design in order to infer whether it was designed; we cannot use such proof to conclusively infer that something which we do not know a prior to be designed was designed.

In summation: "Specified complexity" is not useful as a predictive tool; it is only useful in hindsight, which means that it can only be used to judge things which we already know to be designed or not designed. Which means that it's redundant, and therefore basically useless --- a "hypothesis" which requires the knowledge it supposedly "predicts" in order to predict it.

UPDATE: In Information Theory, it is said that if information being transferred is already known in advance of its transfer, then no information has actually been transferred. Wikipedia gives a solid example of this in strict numerical form:

Suppose one transmits 1000 bits (0s and 1s). If these bits are known ahead of transmission (to be a certain value with absolute probability), logic dictates that no information has been transmitted.

This is where "specified complexity" falls short. The question is, "is something which is complex, necessarily designed?" Yes, the watch is complex, and yes, it is designed; but is the watch complex because it was designed, or is it designed because it is complex? If it is designed because it is complex, then why? Why does complexity necessitate design? If we say, "because things which are complex are designed," then we are again begging the question and equivocating:

(1) Why does complexity necessitate design?
(a) because complexity cannot arise naturally; it's too improbable.

(2) Why is complexity too improbable to arise naturally?
(a) because the only things we know of that are complex were designed.

(3) How do we know that those complex things were designed?
(a) because we observed them being designed; ergo, we already know they are designed before making this inference.

The "information" contained in the conclusion, 3a, is already available before the inference is made. Therefore the "information" is redundant and Specified Complexity is a fallacy according to information theory.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Essay: Why Atheism?

I had an interesting discussion on a forum earlier this week. It started off with someone else making some affirmative statements about God and free will; I responded to those statements with some statements of my own, and at this point a third individual joined in the conversation and said to me:

I would argue that you act as though God were some person, and should be judged accordingly. Wouldn't God be about as foreign to us as extra-terrestials? On what scale would we then judge?

This person went on to say (or at least imply) that it was odd of me to try and argue against the concept of god, given that there are so many possible definitions of "god" that it would be unrealistic for me to even try to address all of them.

I think that's an interesting point, because it's true. Arguing that it's impossible for any kind of god to ever exist, or to try and decide what kind of god he would be if he did exist, is impractical. It's true, and yet, it doesn't really apply to any of what I say when I argue in favor of my own atheism/agnosticism. So why would someone say this to me, then? I asked myself, "What am I doing wrong here?"

I thought about it for moment.

As an American citizen who is actively engaged in politics, I have come to an understanding that it is fairly routine to see Christian Evangelicals arguing forcefully against things like abortion, gay marriage, stem cell research, etc. etc., using Biblical quotes and religious arguments. In fact, it is precisely because of people who act that way that I have become so enveloped in the study of religion --- I realized, awhile back, that when I was arguing with religious people, I was not really on equal ground because, even though I felt it was wrong to base civil and criminal laws on theology and Bible quotes, I didn't really understand why they felt that way, or exactly what parts of the Bible they were arguing from, or even if their beliefs were an accurate reflection of scripture. I heard so many Christians arguing amongst themselves, even, trying to decide whose interpretation was "right" and whose was "wrong," and while everyone on all sides of this debate was always telling me, "go read the Bible, it'll make sense," etc., any time I would produce a passage that interested me and try to ask questions about it, I would get so many radically different answers from different Christians....I soon gained the impression that nobody knew what the hell they were talking about, and that there was nobody I could go to for information on the Bible that would be consistently acknowledged as a credible source. So I eventually picked up a Bible again and started doing serious research, as opposed to casual verification and reference for argumentative purposes. I wanted to have my own experience and knowledge to draw on, so I could stand my ground if I thought I had a point to make, without having to divert all criticisms to a third party and say things like, "well, that's what I was told," or, "that's what some people believe."

How this is all relevant is the process of re-familiarizing myself with Christianity and its tenets --- particularly the new American brand of hardcore Evangelical Christianity in all its attempts to invade science and philosophy and government --- I've become so distracted with this particular version of Christianity, specifically, that I've completely ignored many other (arguably more viable) versions of the same religion, not to mention many countless other religions' views or statements about God. Reading blogs like Frank Turek's and Neil Mammen's, I've grown accustomed to the use of the word "God" as referring not to a vague spectrum of possibility, but as a specific type of entity. So when I refer to "god" in an argument, there's a strong chance that I'm thinking specifically of the American Evangelical Christian movement's god, and to the claims that such people make about their idea of god.

Now why is this so important, you may ask? Aren't all gods the same when it comes to philosophy (which is the only way an atheist can relate to god, since we don't lend credit to theological claims)?

Well, actually, the answer is "no." You may see it as a "cop-out" or as "re-defining god" or "re-defining religion," but there are actually a significant number of ideas of god that many people have, even just counting Judeo-Christians in America. In fact, many Christians do not even agree amongst themselves about what god is really like; there are some basic founding tenets, but specific details (such as whether god created Satan on purpose to test us or whether Satan acted alone, or whether or not god intervenes with our lives in today's world) tend to remain up in the air. Chances are, if you ask two random Christians on the street about the more specific tenets of their faith, you'll find many differences, some small, some more important. As Greg Epstein said in his book, "Good Without God," we tend to assume that all people who answer "yes" to the question, "do you believe in god," are talking about the same thing, when in fact they are very often talking about completely different things --- to some, god describes abstract concepts like "love" and "justice," while to others, it describes nature and the universe (pantheism). And there are many other possibilities.

So then, the reason this is relevant to my frequent bouts with religion and theism is because it helps me make a few very good points about my atheism, and really, about atheism in general, points that will help put a lot of my past and future comments into perspective:

1) Atheism is NOT a worldview; it is a component of a worldview, a stance on a particular issue. Atheism comes from the prefix "a-", which means "without," and the word "theism." All this word literally means is "without theism;" it is in fact theoretically possible for a deist to be an 'atheist,' even though he or she may believe in some kind of god, because the deist may reject theism. So taken by its strictest literal definition, atheism is simply a rejection of a specific claim or set of claims. In order for that to be true --- in order for me to be an atheist about something --- there needs to be a claim for me to reject. So again, atheism is not a claim or a view in itself, but rather a response to someone else's view. It cannot exist on its own; it requires a pre-existing theistic claim on which to base itself. This can refer to a rejection of theism as a whole, (the overarching concept that a god has given humans doctrines to live by), or it can refer to a specific theistic claim or type of claim.

2) As an atheist, I do NOT believe that it is "impossible" for any kind of god to exist. My own beliefs are that god, if he exists, probably has a nature that will forever be beyond our understanding, and so it's a waste of our time to bother with trying to decide if he's real or not (simply because if he IS real, it's entirely possible that his existence defies any rules or logic we could use to prove or disprove it). I do not believe that humans will ever know if god is real or not, in that sense. So I see no point in quarreling over it. So in the strictest sense you might say I'm more of an agnostic than an atheist....but this is where my claim of atheism comes in; I believe that god is unknowable. Theists claim that he is knowable, and that they know him. It is this claim that I reject. And that is why I choose the label, "atheist."

I do not believe that Christians (even Evangelicals) are "wrong" simply for believing in God. And I don't even think they are "wrong" as far as their doctrines, should they choose to abide by them. I think Christians (specifically, the American Evangelical brand) are wrong because they believe that they know (a) that god exists, (b) what god wants, and (c) that this justifies acting in ways that are socially harmful or heartless towards others. I am rejecting the possibility that Christians are "right" about god, or that their text is the "one true religion." I reject the idea that anyone who is not some specific type of Christian will go to a place of torment and suffer supernaturally for all of eternity; I reject the idea that god would be just for doing that if he DID exist. I do not believe that these are realistic views to hold. To reiterate, I am an atheist not because I affirm that there is no god or that there could never be a god, or that people are stupid or silly for believing that there is one; I am an atheist because I reject claims made by theists about god, and so anytime a theist claims that they can know god, I challenge them to show me how in a way that cannot also be applied to any other person's religious belief or idea of god.

In closing....going back to the comment that sparked this entire post, I find it interesting that people are so often ready and willing to come to the defense of "god" by asking an atheist, "are you so sure that god has to be within your realm of understanding in order to be real?" or, "how do you know that you can even know anything about god in the first place?" or something else about god's general "unknowablility," and yet, so few apply this same reasoning to the theistic claim being made in the first place --- how is it that a Christian can get away with saying, "I know god, I know what god wants, and that justifies my actions," when an atheist can't get away with saying, "oh, really? And how is that?"

The more I think about it, the more I think that it's probably a matter of equivocation; when a theist says, "I know (or believe) [x] about god," they're talking about a specific god, and a specific type of god. Some atheists will respond to that claim, specifically (this is my type of atheism), and others will respond to the general idea of a god existing. These may seem like narrow distinctions but they are important, because if you are talking about god with somebody, you may very well be talking about completely different things and not even realize it --- if you're railing against a certain type of god that the other person doesn't believe in, or if you're treating an atheist like he or she is saying something that she isn't (i.e. if you act like he or she is attacking the general idea of god, as opposed to a specific god or claim about god), then whatever you have to say is probably just going to go over the other person's head.

--Tim D.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Short Essay: Sin, Sacrifice and Codependency

This is a new segment I'll be posting under every so often, the "Essay" segment. Sometimes it'll be short, sometimes it'll be long, but it's usually a combination of opinion piece and independent research. Feel free to offer criticisms or correction; unlike some of the works I refer to and criticize, my work is not sacred :D

In the Old Testament (specifically, the book of Leviticus), God explains that blood is life and life is the price of sin, and that is why the Israelites were not supposed to eat the blood of any animal. It's also the reason why they were ordered to mutilate animal corpses and offer them as bloody "sin offerings" to "make atonement" (or "ransom," depending on your translation) for their lives, or their sins.

I understand that Christians think that everyone can be "saved." I also understand that this desire to "save everyone" was probably born from the realization that, by OT laws, the guilty were punished harshly or put to death while the innocent were allowed to live in peace (mostly). It seems to me that Christianity was not born from the hearts of the innocent, who obeyed the laws they believed were right (and for whom society was more or less acceptable and sustainable), but from the guilty, who were unwilling to accept their own faults and actions and instead desired a scapegoat onto which to project these transgressions (in fact, the ritual of Azazel/scapegoat is described in detail in Leviticus 16:20-22). This need to "prove one's innocence" to an external witness is a common psychological trait of people who are unwilling or unable to cope with their own "cognitive dissonance," actions which are inconsistent with their own moral beliefs. It is, by and large, considered very unhealthy to seek external validation for an internal conflict of judgment --- this sort of behavior can lead to codependency and obsession, whether with God or with another person. Have you ever heard a person say to someone, "What are you trying to prove?" Or, perhaps, "Who are you trying to convince?" Chances are, they're talking about this sort of situation.

If this system of sacrifice were to, in some way, allow both the innocent and the guilty to overcome their transgressions, then it would at *least* be consistent. But rather, what it does is sacrifice the innocent to "cancel out" the sins of the guilty. I see this as no more than the particularly violent coping mechanism of a people which had not learned to deal with their own imperfections as human beings, created by God or not, and so they codependently and violently projected this dissonance onto an external recipient.

This is one important thing that I find wrong with Christianity; we are not encouraged to accept ourselves and our faults, and our flaws, and our imperfections, but rather reject them as unholy, evil, and terrible, and to consider ourselves as unworthy of anything without God's grace or acceptance. An important stage of the personal and moral development of a mature human adult is learning to accept oneself and have realistic expectations of oneself; I see modern Christianity as running counter to this vital process, attempting to mire us in our own desire for perfection, talking down to us and convincing us that we have no value on our own, that we can never be "good enough," that we need some external source to verify us and tell us it's okay and that we're worth something. We are encouraged to deny ourselves and refuse to give our own lives personal meaning that we can relate to, and instead we're encouraged to seek external verification and purpose, relying on something outside of ourselves to establish the identity that forms the center of our relationships with the very external forces we seek to identify with.

Seeking meaning and importance in others is not a bad thing, of course; however, it's a kind of bridge-building. If I may lapse into order to build a bridge between two places, there must first be two individual places which someone desires to be connected. Which means, you (and the person you are having a relationship with) should really have a firm understanding of yourself and what you expect of yourself before you try to build a relationship; everything else comes as a result of the interaction of your identities. You can't really, truly and honestly interact with someone if you aren't being honest with yourself and admitting who you are and what you expect of yourself, and what you're capable of. Seeking verification of your intrinsic "self" in the intrinsic "self" of another person is dangerous because that person, like you, is mortal and finite and can disappear at any moment. You must be ready to answer the haunting question, "What will I do if this person disappears?" Is this person a fundamental part of your identity? If so, you are codependent --- you rely on others to define yourself and who you are. This is what the Judeo-Christian mythology teaches us, to allow an external source to define us as individuals, before we even attempt to reach out and touch other people through relationships, such that we never really have a chance to be honest with ourselves or try to build natural, realistic expectations of ourselves; instead we abide by the commands of someone whom we endeavor ceaselessly to please, in the hopes that this entity will validate us in the way that, we have been taught, we cannot validate ourselves. I believe that this is a negative teaching and a negative pattern of behavior; if I were going to sum it up into a catchy book title, I might go out on a limb and say that "Judeo-Christianity makes us codependent."

--Tim D.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why I'm Starting A Blog

I said in my last post (what, a month ago?) that I would explain briefly why I've decided to start a blog.

Yes, lame, more blog posts about blog posting. I promise this will be the last such post for awhile. But it's important, so bear with me....the reason I'm starting this blog is because I was recently put in a situation where I could very well have lost my job, solely because I am an atheist.

About a month ago, I went to a lecture at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Hemant Mehta was speaking to the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) there, and as I'm a fan of his (more on that later), I went to hear him speak and have him sign my copy of his book. I actually got a lot more than I bargained for --- at most, I expected him to say, "thanks for coming," *maybe* sign my book, and that would be that. But as it turned out, several of the other SSA members stuck around after the lecture and we all ended up going out to eat at this Mexican place a few blocks away. And Hemant came along! Woot! Got pictures and everything. It was really cool --- laid back, discussion (not really debating, just talking), meeting people who were just "coming out" as atheists or agnostics, as well as people who had identified as such for a long time. It was an interesting evening for someone who lives in Alabama and can't take three steps without running into five aggressively evangelistic Christians.

So anyway....I want to say real quick that I DO NOT talk about religion or politics in public, ESPECIALLY at work. EVER. It's a personal policy because of situations exactly like this.

The problem started that next Monday. I went to work, just like normal. No problem. I've mentioned to some of my friends at work (in passing) that I don't really do religion, that I don't believe in an afterlife, etc., so it was my understanding that they basically knew this much about me, and were more or less "okay" with it --- even if they didn't *like* it, per se, we seemed to get along pretty well, and nobody ever tried to argue with me or convert me or anything. So it's not like this came out of NOWHERE; they knew that I was nonreligious. We just never talked about it because there was never a reason to.

Well, that Monday, this older lady I work with asked me how my weekend was. I figured if I kept light on the details, it would be no problem to tell her that "I met one of my internet heroes this weekend, and got him to sign me a copy of his book." She asked who it was, I told her his name, and she had never heard of him. I said, "Well, he's this atheist guy who basically promotes synergy between religious groups and atheist/secular charities and stuff. He has a blog," etc. etc., minor details. Well, she stuck on that word "atheist" and made it clear that she disapproved.

I didn't want to argue about it, so I kinda tried to defer the conversation in another direction. Instead of outright defending Mr. Mehta, I said something to the effect of, "well, at least he's not like that pastor guy that was gonna burn all those Korans. I mean, it's not like he's going around ****ing on people's faith, he's just trying to help people out." She said that yes, he WAS as bad as the Koran-burning pastor, actually WORSE, because "at least that guy believed in some god." That was when I realized it was a bad conversation. So I just kinda shrugged and went back to work, like, "well, anyway, it's over now, so...."

But she followed me into the other room and started trying to argue with me. "So you don't believe in god? Well how did all this get here, then? Who created everything?" I told her, "I don't know." She said, "that's right," and kind of mocked me, like "take that!" I tried to walk away again, but she followed me and said, "What I don't get is, you don't believe in god because you can't see him, but can you see the wind? Do you believe in the wind?" I told her that this was a really gross simplification of even the most primitive atheist belief. It really seemed to be bothering her, though, so I said, "Look, it's not like I'm hostile to religion. My mom's Baptist and my dad's some weird kind of naturalist or something. I've grown up around Muslims and Christians and all kinds of weird stuff. It's no problem to me." I basically tried to assure her that I wasn't going to try and convert her to Satanism or whatever. She interrupted me, though, and insisted that I "must've had some tragic event happen in my childhood to drive me away from GAWD," since my mom was so Baptist (she's actually not that religious, she considers herself "spiritual") and I was raised that way.

Well, I got pissed at that point and decided to bail out. I just said, "That's entirely wrong," and I walked out. She was busy with something by that time, so she couldn't follow me.

Well, I thought it was all done with after that. In a completely unrelated story, I had just purchased this book (the same day, as it were) by Christopher Hitchens (for research purposes) called "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything." It was sitting by the coat rack in the back of the store, and I had taken it out to read it earlier when I'd gone on break. Well, I have a feeling this lady went and said something to somebody, because *all of a sudden* people were taking a heavy interest in what I was reading at the time. The book got slightly defaced (someone poured water on it), but since it was still readable, I decided to keep bringing it to work. Other people bring prayer books all the time, so I figured fair is fair --- breaktime at work is pretty much the only time I have to read most days, so I'll be damned if I'm not gonna read what I wanna read. I never talked about it to anyone, and I never showed it to anyone. The only way it would've bothered anyone is if THEY looked at it or if THEY asked about it. Otherwise they'd most likely never even know I was reading it.

But then, a couple of days later, my GM came out and asked me blatantly, "So you don't believe in god?" She's a Christian, too, but I figured if anyone would have some sense about this it would be the GM. So I said, " could say that." So then my manager says, "Well, how do you think this all got here? Who created the world?" And that other lady, who's at the other end of the room listening, says, "That's what *I* asked him." And I told her the same thing I'd said before, "I don't know." So my GM smugly says, "You know, that's the one question that people who 'don't believe' just don't have an answer for." I tried once more to derail the conversation in another direction to keep the peace, so I said, "yeah, you're right. It's a mystery. But there are mysteries no matter how you look at the world, not even god explains everything." She countered with, "Well, the Bible has probably more truth in it than any other book."

This is when I started getting I ****ing ASKED you for your advice? Jeez, leave me alone! So I said, "Yeah, my favorite part is where Jesus teaches us how to properly beat our slaves, with a close second place going to the verse that says women can't hold authority over men or teach them." She just looked at me with this weird expression like she'd never heard of those verses before.

And so suddenly people started to have "complaints" about my work, which, for the last 3 years, had been perfectly satisfactory (to the point that they still call me in to work when other people don't show up). I started putting in applications elsewhere, just to be safe.

Well, I do still have my job now, and the issue seems to have blown over....but you can tell that something's not the same, and it probably never will be. The lady who first tried to convert me seems to have realized that she overstepped her legal boundaries by harassing me at work, and she's stepped her game down a little bit, but she still doesn't like me and she's not afraid to let me know. She doesn't trust me at all anymore, anytime I make a mistake she acts as though I did it deliberately to piss her off (even if she wasn't even involved or affected at all), and she talks trash about me when I'm not there. She shamelessly tries to egg me on about religion in front of other employees --- just a week or two ago, she told me about the miners that had been rescued in Europe or wherever that was, and what a miracle that was. I just kinda said, "Yeah, that is pretty cool that they all survived." She turned to me really conspicuously and said, "If that don't prove to you that there's a god..." and trailed off, as if waiting for a response. I shrugged it off and went back to work. I tried to deal with the passive-aggression by just acting like I always do, while also going the extra mile to be prompt and considerate of everyone, so they'd be able to see that I'm not some kind of relativist assface just because I don't share their religion.

It all went well until one day when she was trying to get me to do some asinine job that she should've been able to do. I was very, very, VERY busy, and she was not, and I have reason to suspect that she was doing this just to give me a hard time, but she asked me to perform a specific job. I said I was busy but that I'd try to get to it as soon as I could. She said, "you're a man, and men do things like that," as if the fact that I was a man had any bearing on whose job I should be doing besides my own. I got irritable and I said, "Oh, yeah, I have a penis! That means I can perform incredible feats!" She went on to argue something about how men could do things that women can't, and so in my frustration I said, "Look, I know the Bible says that men are better than women and we're supposed to rule over you, but I don't buy that." It shut her up very quickly, and we haven't had any issues like that since. I didn't like being rude like that, but I felt it was necessary to stand my ground --- up to that point, she seemed to have this impression that I was just going to keep letting her push me around and harass me and make my job difficult. That quip was my way of putting my foot down and letting her know that there is a line that should not be crossed.

I realized something after all this happened: if I had been a shy person, or an easily-intimidated person, then this environment would very easily have driven be "back into hiding" as an atheist. I would have succumbed to the constant pressure from people who want to change me by force or get rid of me if they can't. As it stands, this situation actually made me more confident in my atheism, and more inclined to speak out about it and stand up for it when it comes under attack. I realized that there are other people out there who are less inclined towards confrontation that I am. And so that is one purpose of this blog --- to reach out to people who are atheists, or maybe who are just agnostic or even religious, but who have felt the sting of alienation that stems solely from discrimination based on religious difference, be it in the workplace, at home, or among "friends." I don't expect to change the world or change anyone's life, but I can tell my stories as they happen and provide knowledge and experience to people who want it and who will listen. Statistics are made one person at a time, after all :D

That pretty much sums it up....I started this blog because of a small period of time wherein I could have lost my job due to my atheism --- I want to say something now, while it's fresh in my mind, so it can be on the table for future reference --- but it is by no means restricted to that topic. That's just the jumping-off point for where I plan to go in the future. I won't be re-treading ground like that. Expect new content like essays, debates, musings, maybe even some interviews at some point. I also write songs, I'll upload them here if they're relevant to the topic.

Well, thanks for reading, all three of you --- see you next post!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Post #1 --- Welcome to The AlabamAtheist!

That's a portmanteau of "Alabama" and "Atheist," by the way. My little attempt at being clever :)

My name is Tim D., and I am an agnostic atheist!

So yay, another atheist blog, right? You're probably wondering what exactly I plan to do to distinguish this place from every other place like it on the internet. Well for one, I lay claim to the rare "benefit" of being an "open" atheist in the deep religious south, or as I call it, "the buckle of the Bible belt." A lot of what I write here will deal with my various experiences that come as a result of that (at times disadvantageous) juxtaposition.

In my next (i.e. second) post, I will delve more into the actual reason why I finally decided to start my own blog....but since this is the first (and therefore "definitive") posting, I should probably spend as much of it as I can laying out the basics --- my intentions, some of my core beliefs, and most importantly, some common misconceptions people have about people (atheists) like me.

Before I get started, I'll take this time to point out that, while this *is* a blog about atheism and religion, I invite anyone who may be reading this (regardless of religion or viewpoint) to share their perspective on whatever I have to say. The point of this blog is not to be an ass or lash out at people, it's an attempt to improve what I see as a very negative perception of atheists as human beings with moral systems (a perception that is, in part, due to a severe lack of real information from real atheists). If you have a question you'd like to ask, or a problem you'd like to pose, then by all means feel free to put it forward. Especially if you are a religious person who has never spoken TO an atheist; I actually *want* you to ask questions, even if you're afraid they might sound stupid (or you think *I* might think it's stupid), because I would much prefer that you have REAL answers that come from an ACTUAL atheist, as opposed to hearing rumors or anecdotes from pastors and the like, people who aren't atheists and don't actually understand them as well as they'd perhaps like to think. I'll do my best to be straightforward and not condescending or rude in trying to provide you with an answer. I've heard a LOT about this subject, so it will take a LOT to "offend" me. With respect to that, there's really no need to hold back for fear of "hurting my feelings."

Alright, now let's move on...first, some frequently asked questions. We'll start with the obvious one:

"Hey, Tim, why don't you believe in god?"

I will answer that. But first I will list some (commonly-assumed) reasons that do NOT apply to me personally:

-I am NOT an atheist because I'm "angry at religion" or "angry at religious people"
-I am NOT an atheist because I was "hurt" by someone and "turned away from God"
-I am NOT an atheist because I had a bad childhood or bad experience
-I am NOT an atheist because "the world is so sad, there couldn't possibly be a God"
-I am NOT an atheist because "I only believe in what I can see"
-I am NOT an atheist because "I just want to do whatever I feel like all the time"
-I am NOT an atheist because "It's easier to just not try to be righteous"
-I am NOT an atheist because "I revere myself in the place of God"

If I think of any other reasons (or they come up in discussion), I'll come back and add them to this list (with proper notations).

Now, as to why I AM an atheist....there is no one solid reason. This can be (but not always is) a big point of difference between atheism and theism; I've been in many debates/arguments where people insist on one single, underlying reason that keeps them adhering to their faith, usually something regarding morality or creation. That's not how it is for me. So in the interest of brevity and simplicity, I'll lay out some basic reasons why I do not believe in any particular god:

(a) The Origin Of The Universe

(Q) "How do you think all this (i.e. the universe) got here? It had to be created; everything has an origin."

(A) First, I don't know how the universe got here. There are some interesting scientific theories, but I am not a physics student (yet!), and I don't fully understand them enough to say "I know."
Second; I am okay with that. Just because I don't know doesn't require me to default to a god (that doesn't mean god DIDN'T do it, either, of course, it just means I don't have the information to make that judgment).
Third; who created god, then? If everything has an origin, then god has an origin; likewise, if god has no origin and was not created, then *not everything* had an origin, and the premise is invalid (this means, there's no need to presume that the universe had to have been created in the first place, because we've shown that it's *possible* for something to both (a) exist, and (b) have no origin).

(b) Morality

"Where do you get your morality from, if you don't rely on revealed laws from God?"

This is a complicated question....I do not have the time or space to give a truly definitive explanation, but I will try to give as detailed of one as I can.

This has long been a point of contention between myself and theists, because to say that morality exists as a sort of "law" that can be revealed in the first place is to say that morality is cold, like logic or physics --- that it is set in stone, that it is finitely measurable, and that it is clear and simple. I do not believe that any of those things are the case --- we humans all have a basic sense of what we feel is "right" or "wrong," and we all strive to abide by that sense, but how we should do this is not always obvious. Sometimes we do things that we think we should do, only to find out that they were wrong after all. Sometimes we can only judge whether something is "right" or "wrong" in retrospect, after the damage has already been done.

But I digress....I do not believe in a final, finite, or "objective" law of "morality" against which our actions can be measured, like one would measure the length of something against a ruler. I believe that morality is a very complicated issue that stems from many factors, both social and personal --- most people agree on some basic rules, such as "killing is pretty much never justifiable" (some go the extra length and add, "unless it's in defense against another killing"), but by and large, you will not be able to find two people who agree exactly on every kind of moral issue, even people who otherwise share similar religious (or nonreligious) beliefs.

A religious person may ask me, "Well if morals are constantly evolving, what keeps them from evolving to the point where it's considered 'moral' to go around killing people?"

That is an interesting question. It's also an important one because it demonstrates my philosophy very well: the need for us to take personal interest (and action) in determining our society's idea of morality. It is exactly BECAUSE I do not see morality as a "final law" that I feel the need to constantly offer my input on subjects whenever I have the influence to do so, to vote towards my personal beliefs on an issue whenever I am given the chance to. In that sense you could say that I see the idea of an "objective moral law" as sort of "lazy," in that it does not require that we exercise our minds and question WHY certain things are "wrong" or "right;" such "revealed knowledge" from God only requires that we accept THAT it is true, not necessarily understand WHY it is true. If we can press past the "revealed" knowledge and try to understand WHY it is beneficial to our society and ourselves to, say, outlaw murder and rape and theft, then I believe the impact on any lasting definition of "morality" in our society will be much more powerful and long-lasting than any preconceived "revealed moral objectivity."

A simpler way to phrase it would be: "If you are afraid that morality will be 'derailed' somewhere down the line, then take action to make sure that it doesn't happen." Even in a completely secular society, the only way that our morality will degenerate into allowing murder and rape and genocide will be if we allow it to. Therefore, if we expect anything of ourselves and of each other as "moral" human beings, then it is our duty to exercise our own cautious judgment in thinking our moral beliefs through, and determine what is reasonable and acceptable and what is not. If our reasoning is sound and compassionate, and we take care to create and maintain a world where reasonable behavior is expected, then future generations will have every reason to adhere to it and build a steady foundation for it that will make it harder to uproot. If it is cold and inflexible, then people will feel disconnected and alienated from it, and may even rebel against it on principle simply because they don't understand it.

Someone may ask me then, "But WHY do you care about any of that? Why should we even try to be moral at all?" I will say, "morality" is defined as a form of positive self-discipline with respect to oneself and others; if we're talking about it in the first place, then it's self-evident thus far that "morality is good." Therefore the discussion is only about "what is moral and what is not," which is discussed above.

Also, keep in mind when you ask this sort of question that there are two kinds of people it deals with: (1) people who need a reason to do HELPFUL things, and (2) people who need a reason to do HARMFUL things. Some people feel like, yeah, maybe we should run around and be a bunch of dicks to each other, because there's no reason not to, right? Others see it the other way, which is, we don't NEED to be jerks to each other to survive, so why go to the trouble? I mean, it's not ALWAYS easier to be a jerk. And even when it seems to be, it can actually be easier in the long run to NOT be a jerk, because you build lasting relationships with people that will ultimately serve for the better.

So even from a purely altrustic standpoint, we can provide at least a basic framework for a moral system that is not entirely self-centered; the existence of person #1 described above does not "invalidate" or "negate" the existence or value of person #2; it may even help to think of it in terms of Batman versus the Joker. Neither of them obey the law, so they're both operating on their own definitions of what is right....the Joker is a nihilist who enjoys causing chaos just for fun, and Batman is a moralist who believes in stopping people like the Joker. Does the fact that the Joker exists in the first place mean that Batman is *wrong* for opposing him, or that Batman's values are somehow "less important" than the Joker's? That is what people tend to assume when they think of a moral system that is not completely objective; they often ask me, "on what grounds do you condemn someone like that, if morality is totally subjective? Isn't he just doing what he thinks is right?" As if that should negate my desire to ALSO do what I think is right.

To show why that doesn't make sense, let's turn the tables slightly; if Batman and the Joker represent two clashing systems of *subjective* morality, let's look at two systems of morality that are based on the idea of *objectivity;* Christianity and Islam. Both rely on "revealed knowledge" from their respective gods (argued by some to even be the *same* god), and yet both have clashed throughout history. If you are Christian (or Muslim), then ask yourself this: does the fact that the "other religion" thinks that they are right and you are wrong make it any less justifiable for you to believe that you are right and they are wrong? If you say "no," that you are still justified in acting on your beliefs, then you will understand my response to the Batman/Joker dilemma --- just because someone *thinks* they are right does not obligate me (or you) to respect that they think that. And so, we are not being inconsistent by contradicting *their* beliefs with our own.

Someone once asked me, "what right do you have to trample on someone else's moral beliefs? If they think it's 'moral' to kill you, then you, as a moral 'subjectivist,' have no right to stop them." I say, if I have no right to stop them because there is no objectivity, then they have no right to kill me, either, because there is no objectivity. So there is no inconsistency here; I am actually enforcing my beliefs, not contradicting them, by acting to stop them. This all rolls back into what I was saying earlier about standing up for our beliefs today so that they will remain strong and coherent in the future.

For more on this subject, I would highly recommend the book "Good Without God: What A Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe," by Greg M. Epstein, the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University. I'm reading it right now and it's just as interesting as everyone said it was; it also deals heavily with the subject of human, non-god-derived morality, so if you're interested in learning how people who don't believe in god come up with solutions to moral issues, then it's worth your time. It's also a lot less blatantly hostile to religion than many of the other atheist bestsellers (something the author isn't afraid to tout at times~).

(c) I don't know/philosophical reasons.

At the end of the day, for all the philosophical and religions ponderings that we all do, I cannot honestly find it in my heart or mind to say that I do or do not believe in god (I still use the term "agnostic atheist" for the simple reason that, while I do not actively believe there is "no god," I do live my life as though there probably isn't one, so I am effectively an atheist). I guess you could say "I don't care," although it's not quite that simple --- I DO care if there IS a god, it's more that I have been around the subject so many times that I am firmly convinced that definitively proving whether god exists (or doesn't exist) is basically impossible. Many say that this is true by nature, that god is "supernatural" and thus defies natural explanations, but to me that is silly....if god created nature, then doesn't that make him "natural" as well, in a way? Perhaps transcendent of physical nature, but still....

For example, Richard Dawkins proposes the idea of god's "print" on the universe --- the finite point at which, should some miracle occur to transcend, suspend or break the laws of physics at any point, we would be able to see the evidence of this. An example of this would be (to be blatant), if god magically healed an amputee through the power of prayer, and the amputee grew a limb back. We would be able to observe that claim and see, yes, this person was missing a limb, and then it miraculously, instantaneously grew back in stern defiance of the laws of physics. That kind of thing WOULD be provable and it WOULD break the laws of physics. So I don't think it's fair to say that you can't prove god's existence (or nonexistence) simply by nature.

On the other hand, if you prefer the C.S. Lewis school of thought (that "God can do any thing that is possible, that doesn't mean he can do nonsense"), that would seem to imply that god CAN'T break the laws of physics, which doesn't make sense to me because, didn't he CREATE them? So if he can't break them, how did he work before they existed? And how does he perform miracles? If you believe that God uses the existing systems of the universe to perform 'miracles' (i.e. he uses the laws of physics), then one could make the case from that that God effectively *is* the universe (this is called "pantheism"). In that sense, the only thing separating you from atheism is the idea that the universe ("God") is sentient, as opposed to apathetic.

All of these questions are purely philosophical, though, and I'm not trying to throw them out as "gotcha" questions; I'm just trying to demonstrate my point, which is that god's very nature, if he does exist, is a complete and utter mystery to us, and it would take us a lifetime of "supposing" and "theorizing" just to come up with one possible interpretation of how he might exist. There are billions of possibilities, and hundreds of religions, and I don't have enough time in my life to sort through all of them and try to decide who's right (if anyone is). All of the things that people say they can get from religion, I have been able to find contentedly in myself and in the people I live and interact with every day, among other things. I find peace in creating art and sharing it with my friends and loved ones; I find happiness in doing what needs to be done *just because* it needs to be done, and not because I think someone is watching me or plans to reward me; I find challenge and engagement in trying to figure out how the world works, both physically and philosophically; I find purpose in all of these things.

You may be familiar with the philosophical "Ockham's Razor," which says that a theory works best when it is based on the fewest assumptions. My life's philosophy uses this principle to exclude god, not because I "hate" god (or the idea of god), or because I am hostile to the concept, but because it really just isn't necessary for me to operate and be fulfilled (and even if it was, there wouldn't be much I could do to prove or disprove it).

I guess that's all for my introduction....comments are open (if anyone is actually reading this, and if you actually *understood* any of it at that...), so if you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave 'em. I'll be checking this thing once or twice every day (or couple of days), so I'll read it eventually.