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.

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