Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Atheist Position, Part 2: Ethical Science

About 14 billion years ago, existence as we know it emerged from a reality beyond our comprehension.

About 9 billion years later, our planet formed through accretion from the solar nebula, and life began to emerge from inorganic matter.

That life changed, evolved, and the natural forces of the universe formed it into what we have today.

Consciousness emerged and we realized we didn't understand anything going on. So humanity invented gods.

Eventually, some decided that there is only one god, and they killed anyone who disagreed.

2,000 years ago, a teacher from this religion created a new one, which remains influential to this day.

1,400 years ago, another teacher created a religion out of the original monotheism, and it also remains influential.

When man created the gods, they fought conceptual (and some very, very real) wars until some said there was only one god. We are still fighting wars over which god is the correct one, intellectual and military wars. Is it Allah? Yahweh? Jesus? Is God Tri-Une? Is there only one undivided god? Are there actually many gods and El/Yahweh/Allah/Jesus is just one of them that happens to be claiming their religious writings are the correct ones?

Could humanity have invented religion out of tribal fear, and subsequently created all of the gods?

This doesn't even begin to delve into the way religious adherents fight amongst themselves, splintering into many other groups, all with their own god or gods. Among those that believe in Jesus, some say that god is ultimately sovereign and has destined all of history according to his good pleasure. Some say that god, though ultimately sovereign, chooses to allow real choice in the matter of who we serve and what we do, though ultimately he will torture us for eternity (or allow us to torture ourselves) if we do not love him. Still others do not believe god is totally sovereign, and is limited in power, though he is still the greatest possible being, or the god. This is only three of dozens of extremely nuanced views within the wide stream of Christian thought about one particular aspect of its' theology: God's sovereignty.

If there is one ultimately uniting force to all of these religious movements, it is that of power. Love god or go to hell and burn for eternity, serve my god or die, believe how I do or be ostracized, we are against you. To argue against such things is to be dangerous indeed, but danger is inescapable because no one will ever placate all religious groups. By nature, they are tribal.

When one speaks of Christianity, for instance, the discussion is not about one thing, but about thousands to millions. Every church, every sect or denomination, even every person represents a tribal religion, influential only through conformity and the power of people.

This is not theory, it is historical fact about the emergence of religion. Religion exists because we don't understand everything about reality, so dogma sits in the gaps of our knowledge and tells us this god exists that can't be disproven, and is a sort of primal cause for all that we don't fully understand. Ra, the god of the Sun, is a popular and well understood example. Because no one understood that the sun is a massive ball of plasma powered by fusion and giving off solar radiation to keep us alive, it was a supernatural force. Now we understand it all too well, but other things evade our knowledge, such as the nature of reality as multiple universes, dark matter's complete influence, miraculous occurrences within the human body, and any other unexplained or supernatural phenomenon you can think of.

If you think about it, supernatural refers only to that which we do not have complete knowledge of. Otherwise, it is purely natural. The sun is natural, even though it was presumed to be supernatural for millennia.

You see, you can and should argue scientific conclusions. Please disprove anything I've said about the nature of reality, or even about religion if you want. It does not change that tribal religion's primary driving force is dogmatic, and it is not the only way to think.

Where the religious mind is dogmatic, the scientific mind is questioning. While historically religion has demanded drastic action that must be justified, science has been asserting things about the nature of reality, such as the fact that the Earth revolves around our star.

Some say that religion picks up where science leaves off, that science can only go so far until religion has to take over, otherwise we will lack morality and kill each other. Even if we ignore the bloody and violent history of religion, especially those claiming to be the nature of peace, this argument still ignores the incompatibility of the two's approaches to reality

Tribal religion is spawned from dogma, which must be defended. This is war.

Science is spawned from questions, which lead to answers. This is knowledge.

You do not attack someone that disagrees with your scientific theory, you run tests. If you are disproven you have learned something, you aren't imprisoned or killed or ostracized. Your ego may be bruised, but in general, you do not stab someone that disagrees with your theory, you think better and you come up with a better theory.

If that does not have moral implications, I don't know what does.

Our universe is on the order of 13.77 billion years old, and it is possible that there is a god that is the primal cause of this existence. However, this possibility only exists because we do not understand something. Lack of understanding does not constitute assertions about god, it constitutes questions. You can claim things, or you can ask questions.

The current god has become the primal cause and the personal god. More and more we keep finding out, through questioning, that things seem to all have natural explanations. More and more, our god is not the one that takes care of us, he's a creator and an inner voice. He must be let into our minds and souls and we must lose all of our self esteem and only esteem god because he simply cannot exist anywhere else but the beginning of our universe and the gaps in our knowledge.

When a person's conscience is given to them by god, anything can be justified. One need not ask questions or read history or participate in discussion when they simply need to read a holy book and allow their inner voice (holy spirit, conscience, intuitive perception of reality, whatever) to tell them what is right. Faith communities can work in this context only so far as groupthink goes, and anyone not part of that groupthink is ostracized by the offended group.

When a person's conscience is a product of their thinking, their doubts, their questions, and their continued research into the nature of reality, they are learning from others all the time, approaching others for more reasoning, more perspective, and they rejoice when they've been wrong, because they've learned something new.

No person is truly a scientific creature, and no person is truly a tribal creature. Rachel Evans, a popular Evangelical voice ( if you wanna check it out), possesses a keenly scientific way of thinking, but she claims Evangelical Christianity regardless of this. This creates a unique dissonance that I find very enjoyable to read, not to mention her incredible compassion and attention to morality.

Likewise, one need only look so far as the popular atheist voice to find that they are far from bereft of tribalistic thinking. The Christians are the enemy for the atheist in America, and a lot of them are very angry about it. Though I find the moral outrage good, and though I am also angry, it is dangerous to bring one's dogmatic thinking with them when leaving religion, lest one become angry at everyone and everything instead of coming to productive and natural conclusions through thought and dialog.

Regardless, there is a correct way to think, and that way is scientific, not tribal. This way is correct because the consequences of scientific thinking are life and knowledge, and the consequences of tribal thinking are death and war. The well-being of life must be furthered by our approach to life, because we are the most highly evolved beings on this planet.

Besides these consequences making scientific thinking the moral choice, true knowledge is, in and of itself, an end that we should all move toward for its' own sake.

God is dead, but we continue to create him wherever there are gaps, wherever there is dogma, and whenever we feel psychological pressure that requires relief. We create our god, and our god continually recreates us in his image.

The human mind is far from being fully understood, as are some very key things about existence itself. We can continue to create god in those gaps, ignore what understanding there is and assert god in spite of evidence, or we can continue to ask questions and find god, if he does truly exist.

I assert that the correct position is to ask questions, lose one's need to be right and control others, one's tribal nature, and begin to think scientifically about our reality and its' history, and it is correct because it is by nature compassionate and reasonable and in touch with reality.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Atheist Position, Part 1: Definition

I've pondered a good bit over how to start saying what it is that I have to say next, and I've found that, as always, a direct approach is the most beneficial and, furthermore, the most necessary. I've always found that people are going to be mad about one's choices, especially if they are well thought out and without regard to sentiment or subjective experience. So, the question is, what sort of decision is this, and how have I come to it?

A cursory reading of the early days of this blog will tell you that I was a Christian and furthermore, regardless of what type of Christian I was or whether my beliefs fell in line with any definition of the word "Christian," I really and truly believed in the Christian God, and I had a lot to say because of it. One of my first posts was regarding the concept of Virginity and why I believe it is a bad concept. For a Christian to post that is risky indeed, and I paid for it.

Regardless, this blog has never been about maintaining the status quo. Cognitive dissonance, by its' very nature, is uncomfortable. When you are in a state such as this, your beliefs and your ideas are all thrown into chaos by realizations regarding how reality actually is. In other words, it is a rude awakening. This is what I've sought all my life, and I think I've finally found dissonance that has me overwhelmed.

What I really wish to address here is how I could go from being a theist and, indeed, a strongly believing Christian, to being an atheist. I've gone over and over this, and the answer is not at all a small nor a simple one. However, if you stick with me, I will endeavor to explain as completely as possible how such a thing could happen to the beliefs of a person like me, and why I'm sure that a reasonable approach to reality will lead people to agree with me.

I hope none of you take any of this personally. I still love all of you, and I wish to continue in dialog about philosophy, mythology, science, and to maintain the personal relationships I have with you. It grieves me every time personal differences come between me and another person, because I think anything short of direct disrespect can be looked past. I mean do direct disrespect to any of you, but I will criticize your religion. I criticize not out of anger or because I enjoy pissing people off, but because I must criticize that which I find to be worthy of its' sting.

One final disclaimer before I get started: This is not about my emotions, my experiences, my anger, or anything other than my informed opinion. Though I am all too aware of intuition and emotion's influence on the thoughts that one has, I believe the only way to explain what I mean is to reason with you, the reader, and invite you to follow my line of reasoning to the end. This will take us through many emotional issues, and you can expect a few rabbit trails into the emotional or experiential, but our main path in exploring this is one of a simple question: What is true? I choose to do this because I've never been primarily concerned with anything else when it comes to these things, and I don't believe that an exploration of my emotional state is necessary or beneficial at this time.

Very well then, on with it! The best place to start here is the question of what is true. This quickly became an overwhelming concern of mine in college when I came to reason that the Bible is not the cornerstone of truth.

Long story short, through countless hours of research, reasoning, and discovery, I concluded that the Bible is a legendary text, like many others, with an unbelievable amount of historic and scientific flaws. It has historically been used to justify many, many things, and modern society has come to see some of those things as evil, and some as good. Regardless of the fact that the Crusades seemed to be a good idea with Biblical grounding, we have come to realize that they were a terrible stain on an already filthy church history. Combine this with the reality that Jesus is not a unique historical or mythical figure, the Bible is not a book that has stood the test of time but one that has been revised over and over with time, and the many, many errors present in the book if you consider even other historical documents of the same age, and you come to a point of either accepting the book regardless of what you must conclude, or you come to a point of it being a flawed book. This is where I came to, the point of the Bible being a flawed but inspired text, and with it communicating who God is and the saving message clearly, but nothing else. A rather tenuous position that was open to so much criticism that a good portion of my college doubted my status as a Christian, but one that my faith and my reason demanded of me. In other words, I was concerned with both what I must believe and with what I had come to conclude by research and reasoning.

This is not new to anyone who's tried to do Philosophy or Theology in the context of a faith community. In fact, it is a relatively common struggle to those steeped in religion. Does faith or reason win out in the end?

For me, this question was already answered with another I'd been asking: What is true?

If my faith was to survive, then my reason must not disprove it. What I discover about reality, scientifically and philosophically, must not conflict with my faith. If it did, then my faith would be destroyed. There was only one choice, as far as I was concerned, when it comes to this sort of thing. Because I truly believed, however, my assertion was a little different. "If our faith is true then we have nothing to fear from science or from philosophy or thinking well. In fact, it is our calling to think better than any, for we know reality as it is!"

I could never understand why this made my fellow Christians uneasy. Why were they not agreeing when it was so obvious? Why did my nature as a doubter and one who asks questions make people uncomfortable and make me socially ostracized so many times? Did these people not have confidence in the truth of their beliefs?

I'm not one to portray myself as one of pure faith or as superior to anyone else, and I never have been. I've always been desperately aware of my own flaws of character and issues, even if they're ones that don't actually exist. However, in this case, I do believe that I demonstrably had such blind faith that I believed that science, philosophy, and reality itself would bend to the faith I so passionately held onto, and that if my beliefs needed to change it would be because I realized I was getting closer to understanding who God is and what reality is.

As it turns out, the more I discovered about the nature of reality, the farther and farther I moved from being what anyone would term a "Christian." I came to conclude that Evolution was the method by which humans have come to exist, and that church authority did not have any more power than any other political or religious force in history. I studied psychology and became a student of the human mind, only to come to the stark realization that humanity is vastly and scarily capable of self-delusion, many times without realizing it. The state of medicine, archeology, physics, astronomy, chemistry, and history had led me to vastly differing conclusions than those asserted by the people that tell me one God created reality and me along with it, and I was made to love him.

What's disturbing about this is not that science lead me away from faith, but that it very nearly didn't. You see, the more I learned, the more I believed that I was discovering things that humanity is meant to discover, and God exists in the gaps between my knowledge, or perhaps He exists somehow through this knowledge, as a primal cause of the universe.

The real problem at this point becomes one of presupposition. I presume that God exists, and so no matter what evidence comes my way about how reality works, no matter what new data comes to light about the people that have historically told us that the Christian God exists, and no matter how little evidence there is for a God existing, one can choose to believe what one wants to. The "God of the Gaps" can survive almost anything scientific or historic thrown at it, but one problem still remains that I had yet to realize.

The problem is Epistemology, or the way one relates to knowledge. You see, when you orient yourself to reality in such a way that truth acts on you, then you gain the ability to change your mind, should it become necessary. The "God of the Gaps" concept fails this Epistemic orientation spectacularly, for a few simple reasons. Firstly, if God must exist regardless of what one is discovering, then we are talking about asserting a truth claim, rather than discovering or reasoning to a truth claim. By its' very nature, this assertion is at the very least uncomfortable when accompanied by the way we understand reality as beginning in a large explosive event that lead to the formation of our universe and eventually our planet, which in its' cooling state began to generate organic matter that gave rise to life, gradually evolving to our present state.

This picture of reality not only has a pile of evidence and explains a whole laundry list of things about how our universe works, but it is something that I grew up being taught to be hostile toward, likely because it is scary to the mind that actually believes their faith can be deconstructed by such things (which it can and should be).

The real problem, however, is that when we have to believe in the "God of the Gaps," we are asserting a particular type of God. The type most commonly asserted in the nation I live is the Christian God. This is a problem because if we accept current scientific and historic data, God had nothing to do with the creation of the universe (or at the very least had very little to do with it beyond some sort of initial spark, AKA the Deistic God), and He's had nothing to do with reality henceforward, unless His objective has been to confuse us with differing legends regarding the God claim and fossils, all of which have much more readily available explanations.

To accept the "God of the Gaps" is to think badly, but one may do so at this point and be a Deist, if one wishes. At the very least, this god has nothing to do with the religions that exist today, and certainly nothing to do with any sort of Abrahamic religion, the exclusive market on monotheistic religions. The only other option is to ignore what we know about reality and put one's philosophical head in the sand, practicing the science of knowledge no more, and choosing one's own delusion over what is really true. Some days I wish this were an option for me, for it would be far less costly than where I've chosen to go. But I can be no other than who I am.

I'm not an atheist because I'm angry, I'm angry because I'm an atheist. It makes me angry that I've been lied to about science for the majority of my life, that I've been given false hope and poisonous fear when I should have grown up learning and wondering and being amazed at the way things are. It makes me angry that I have a degree polluted by religious thinking, when I could've studied something useful. But then, one can be angry about these things and change nothing whatsoever.

I choose to allow that to exist where it will, and to confine my pursuit of truth to the facts. I wish, and have always wished, to be proven wrong where I am wrong. I was wrong about Christianity being true, and it was proven to me by science, by philosophy, and by history. I plan on going into these things all separately, but for now, I wish to lay down a definition of what I mean when I say I am an atheist.

Atheism - The conclusion that there is a lack of evidence for a tenable belief in god or gods.

This is the only definition I wish for you to think of in my writings. I may fit the "angry atheist" paradigm at times, but I do not believe that it is necessary to be angry to be an atheist. It is, however, necessary to understand theism to be an atheist. Atheism, by its' very nature, is an opposite conclusion to theism. Theism says that there is a god or gods, atheism says that there is not.

Atheism has been associated with being a political force, at times. I do not have any interest, at this time, in making what I write or what my life represents political. Indeed, atheism is simply a statement regarding gods. Politically, I would align more as a secular humanist at this point, but one need not be a secular humanist to be an atheist. One need only come to the conclusion that gods do not exist.

Atheism is not a religion, it is a philosophical orientation. A religion is a specific belief system, and it says specific things. It is, in many ways, much much more specific than a philosophical orientation. One being a Christian or a Muslim or a Hindu is not a philosophical orientation, it is an alignment with a political religious force. In their cases, however, their philosophical orientation includes a type of theism, or an acceptance of gods or a god existing. Atheism is merely the opposite, the philosophical orientation that there are no gods. Whether Atheism has been used as a religion in our society is not something I wish to address at this point, because if I spent my blog posts addressing what every group does with the terms I use, I'd have a very different, and what I would consider to be a pointless, blog.

To reiterate and conclude what I have to say at this point: Atheism is a position I came to over a period of about 7 years of questioning, reasoning, and research. Atheism simply means that one has concluded that there is a lack of evidence for a tenable belief in god or gods. Atheism is a conclusion I came to by science, history, philosophy, and Cognitive Dissonance. More on these soon.