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.