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A Brief Silence

October 7, 2006

I apologize for the last few weeks of silence. I’ve recently started a new job, and professional responsibilities combined with schoolwork have left me little energy to devote to this blog.

Still, this project is very important to me. As such, I’m going to begin updating on a weekly basis. At the moment,  Tuesdays look best, so expect to see new posts every Tuesday evening.

There’s still so much to say!

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Jesus Camp

September 5, 2006

As detailed in earlier posts, I am doing my best to remain impassive and accepting of religious belief that differ from my own. The harder I try, however, the more often I notice negative reactions to religion. Most often I find a sour taste in my throat when confronted with that particularly insistent sect of Christianity known as Evangelicalism.

Take, for instance, the subject of the new documentary Jesus Camp:

I haven’t seen the movie. It hasn’t yet been released, and won’t be in a theater convenient to me until October. Still, the trailer alone makes me so angry that I can hardly see straight. I’ll withhold more in-depth comments until I see the movie itself, but I thought it was worth sharing.

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Faith in Atheism

September 1, 2006

Most atheists are going to hate me for this one.

Ahteists are a pretty proud lot. We are proud that we have thrown off the strictures of religion despite enormous pressures from society. We are proud that we can defend our views against religious folk. Most of all, though, we are proud of how rational we are. After all, we’ve used our faculty of reason to determine that there is no god, right?

Since many view reason and faith as opposing forces, many atheists come to view faith in an extremely negative light. Faith is what causes people to believe in god. Faith can be blamed for holy wars and suicide bombings. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile!” (source).

In arguments with atheists, many religious persons will claim that atheism itself requires faith. The argument goes something like this; a person cannot claim with utmost certainty that god does not exist without complete and total knowledge of all existence. As no one possesses such knowledge, the assertion that there is no god therefore requires a leap of faith.

This argument is enough to make most atheists red in the face. Many respond by saying that the burden of proof is on believers, not on non-believers. Others respond to the liguistics of the assertion without addressing the actual claim. Some attempt to logically defend their claim, and still others simply sputter in impotent rage.

I choose a different track. I admit completely and whole heartedly that atheism requires faith.

Faith, as used in this sense, is defined as belief that is not based on proof (source). It is my supposition that the best proofs can be obtained through scientific inquiry. Any belief that cannot be scientifically tested is based on faith. Neither the statement, “God exists,” nor the statement, “God does not exist,” come even close to passing scientific muster. For someone to believe in either statement, they must first make a leap of faith.

There are other ways of answering the question of god’s existence. Agnostics make the claim that the truth of god’s existence is essentially unknowable. Non-theists answer that the question, “Does god exist?” is irrelevent nonsense. Some claim that these outlooks are more rationally valid than atheism, because they do not believe one way or another.

I say that any claim as to the existence, nonexistence, or relevance of god requires faith, as there is no scientific method for verifying or falsifying any such statement. In some ways, this view is similar to that of logical positivism, only I believe that belief in postivism itself requires faith.

Why then do I choose atheism over all other forms of belief? Simply put, I take it as an article of faith that there is no god. There’s a great quote that sums my feelings up pretty well:

“I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I’ve been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn’t have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I’m a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don’t have the evidence to prove that God doesn’t exist, but I so strongly suspect he doesn’t that I don’t want to waste my time.”

- Issac Asimov
(source)

There’s more to say on this subject, but I’ve run out of writing time for the day. I’ll be away from my computer this weekend, so I may not have the chance to write anymore until Monday. Have a great weekend, everyone!

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Christianity vs. Scientology: Favoring Tradition

September 1, 2006

Most atheists and non-theists have a certain degree of scorn for religion and those who practice religion. Atheists tend to think their non-belief superior to religious faith. Many have a great deal of difficulty understanding how others fail to come to the “rational” conclusion that there is no god. Many even come to the conclusion that all who follow religion are lacking in fundamental critical-thinking skills.

As for myself, I believe that most religious folk are just as intelligent and critical as atheists. While many of us love to point out the many important and notable atheists there have been, few like to talk about how many thousands more were firmly rooted in religious dogma. Religiosity does not make a person irrational, it only makes them religious. Still, I would be remiss if I did not mention that religion can cause people to believe some strange, even laughable things.

As I’ve remarked earlier, I am as guilty as anyone of being critical and dismissive of religion. Lately, however, I’ve been trying to do better. I try to see the cross on a necklace as jewelry, nothing more. When someone speaks of God’s mercy, I try to ignore them, as I would anyone talking about a subject that doesn’t concern me. When my mother says that she’ll pray for me, I choose to interpret her words to mean that she wishes me well.

Still, I have a long way to go. The subject of Scientology came up today, and I was surprised at the strength of my reaction. While Christianity frustrates me, Scientology absolutely infuriates me. Why the difference in reaction?

Upon reflection, I decided that my reaction to Scientology was due in part to its validity, or lack thereof. Clearly, a system of belief invented in the 1950′s by a second-rate science fiction author is invalid. The entire system is based around a core belief that directly contradicts scientific consensus. The organization’s pyramid structure seems designed with the singular intent of financially exploiting novice followers. Finally, the group was involved in “the single largest infiltration of the United States government in history” (source).

However, even taking all of this into account, it is irrational to view one religion as more or less “valid” than any other. If I uniformly declare non-belief in any god, afterlife, or supernatural influence, I must also uniformly dismiss all religions. As such, my particularly strong aversion to Scientology is rationally unfounded. Clearly, I showed preferential treatment to the “traditional” religion, unconsciously assigning more validity to Christianity only by merit of it’s age and popularity.

Upon further thought, it occurred to me that Christianity, faith to which I previously attested, has indubitably done far more damage than Scientology ever will. There have been no crusades in L. Ron Hubbard’s name. Scientology will never gain enough influence to govern Europe for a millennia. “The Wall of Fire” will never, ever, be taught in schools as an alternative to evolution.

Taking all of this into account, which is more deserving of scorn, Christianity or Scientology?

The answer, I believe, is neither. Scorn by atheists of religion and the religious will do nothing but harden public opinion against atheism. One of my great dreams is a world in which atheism is afforded the same respect as other religious beliefs. While I have no illusions as to the likelihood of this dream’s fruition, I must do what I can to bring it about.

To this end, I must respect other’s religious views, no matter how irrational or ridiculous they may seem. In return, I can only humbly ask that they respect my belief. While that respect is probably not forthcoming, at least I’ll feel that I’ve done my part.

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A Predilection for Faith

August 31, 2006

In American pop culture, there is a particular stereotype for religious leaders. No matter what the faith, all priests, ministers, and rabbis are largely portrayed in the same way. They are wise, stoic, and nearly always carry an air of quiet mysticism. This stereotype doesn’t hold for comedies, but it pretty much holds in any dramatic work.

The reality is, of course, far different. Religious leaders run the gamut of human existence; some are serious, and some light-hearted. Some are wise, and some are short sighted. Some are good people, and some are monsters.

Regardless of personality, all must have one thing in common; A reason for dedicating their lives to their religion. While a fraction may be involved for less than savory reasons, most come to their position through faith. Many speak of a literal “calling” to god that brings them to faith.

Now let’s assume for a moment that my particular leap of faith is correct, that being that there is no god or any other supernatural force above us. If this is true, there is no calling. God has not called them, simply because he does not exist. What then brought these people to their positions?

Again, the reasons must be as varied as the people. Still, I have a theory. In order to dedicate one’s life to a religion, one must first have a strong predilection for faith. This predilection is no different than a taste for danger, or a liking for the color red. A person can either be born into this predilection, or it could be learned over time.

As for myself, I was born with an extremely strong predilection for faith. I loved gods. Absolutely adored them. As a child, I constructed elaborate fantasy worlds full of gods and goddesses. Some children had imaginary friends; I had imaginary universes, populated with thousands of gods and goddesses. Not to give the wrong impression, I didn’t believe in my imaginary pantheon, but it’s clear that I was truly fascinated with faith and religiosity.

If I had remained Christian, I have little doubt that I would have chosen to become a priest. If I had chosen to devote myself to any of the other myriad religions I experimented with in the following years, I would have devoted myself totally. Unable to find faith, instead I devoted myself totally to the concept of no god.

Regardless of the differences between myself and a priest, we have a few things in common. First, we share this predilection for faith. Second, we choose to inform others of our faith. Finally, we tend to view followers of our faith in a more positive light than those who do not.

One of the reasons that religion dominates America is that clerics constantly broadcast their message to the entire population. Is there any room in atheism for clerics to preach our own message?

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The Demonization of the Faithless

August 29, 2006

“Even though atheists are few in number, not formally organized and relatively hard to publicly identify, they are seen as a threat to the American way of life by a large portion of the American public.” (source)

I’m sure nearly all socially conscious atheists are familiar with this story. Earlier this year, a University of Minnesota survey found that atheists are the most mistrusted segment of American society. We are ranked below all other religions and minority groups. We are “…the minority group most Americans are least willing to allow their children to marry.”

This really made me think. Have I ever felt oppressed because of my views on religion? The answer is no, I have never been discriminated against because of my atheists beliefs. I’ve never given anyone the chance, because I’m a closet case. I just don’t tell people that I’m an atheist.

I live smack dab in the middle of the bible belt. There are, at last count, five churches within a one mile radius of my house. None of the atheists I know are publicly open about their beliefs. There is such a strong pressure exerted to be faithful that we all fear the repercussions of being revealed.

Why are we so mistrusted? Americans are fairly tolerant of all religions. Isn’t a belief in no god, in essence, a religious belief? What makes us different from any other religion?

I think there are two main components to the answer. First, there is absolutely no atheist lobby to speak of in this country. When a religious leader rails against “godless heathens” on national television, there is no one to stand up to defend us. As a matter of fact, we are so weak as a political entity that very rarely do we even take offense.

Second, atheists I know tend to be extremely disrespectful of religion and faith. Granted, religion is extraordinarily disrespectful of us, but we tend to lash back hard. Most atheists I know can’t discuss religion without being rude, crass, and angry. How can we mount a serious defense if we can’t have a reasonable discussion with those we disagree with?

I’m as guilty as the next atheist of scoffing at religion. For the purposes of this blog, however, I’m going to try to keep it to a minimum. I want this to be a place for serious reflection, and vitriol can only get in the way of that.

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On Atheism and Purpose

August 28, 2006

This is not an edited work. I’ll try to make sure that each post I make is free of spelling and grammatical errors, but I will often say things that later need clarification. I find that, already, one of these situations has arisen.

In the Pensées, Blaise Pascal wrote that without a belief in god, man has no purpose (source). Without purpose, a man’s actions are meaningless. Without meaning, man falls into nihilism. In my introduction, I detailed how my own experiences actually followed Pascal’s assertions. However, I do not mean to imply that this is relevant to all atheists.

The flaw in Pascal’s argument is that in order to lose purpose with the loss of faith, a person must first derive their purpose from that faith. If someone instead has the drive to teach, or sing, or cure cancer, the lack of theism in their lives has no effect on their sense of purpose. This can be likened to an opera star who has no rubber work boots. Sure, they don’t have any boots, but will they notice?

In this way many atheists avoid Pascal’s predicted nihilism. Still, I was effected, and strongly. I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one. Why is this?

The answer is that I at least partially derived my purpose from faith. Personally, I think this problem is more widespread than most atheists are willing to admit. Most former Christians I know are so fervently dedicated to their adopted faith of non-belief that they will utterly deny any lasting impact of losing faith. On the other hand, when asked what they do believe, many have a simple answer; “Nothing.”

What is that belief replaced with? Certainly something must fill the void. As for myself, I dipped into hedonism. Believing nothing, I felt that nothing had meaning. Since life had no meaning, there was nothing stopping me from doing things that made me feel good, regardless of their impact on my life or those around me. While this may not be a universal experience, by and large the people I came into contact through hedonistic pursuits were ex-Christians.

I found hedonism to be particularly unsatisfying. The problem with great parties is that they must eventually come to an end. When there wasn’t some great bash to occupy my attention, I slipped into depression. After several years, I finally hit bottom. I needed something to believe in.

Clearly, God was right out. I’d already given up any illusions that religious beliefs were something I could dedicate myself to. Instead, I dedicated myself to finding a meaning of life without god.

And really, that’s what this blog is all about.

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