Saturday, February 2, 2008

New blog up and running

I have finished constructing my new site, Very Special Monkeys, and am eager to get some deep thoughts out there. Why "Very Special Monkeys" you ask? My reasons are the same as monkeys sell!

See, your curious to see what it means, aren't you? Well the only way to find out is to go there.

By the way, I have decided to write one lengthy post per week, which will be posted every Wednesday night. So make sure to check back once a week, and spend the rest of your time reading other people's thoughts.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

At a crossroad...

The original reason I started this blog was that I wanted to make all my arguments against religion without the inconvenience of directly attacking single persons or small group of people to their face. Despite the perception of people who have seen me on the sauce, I'm actually a pretty non-confrontational guy, but I enjoy a good argument. The problem with anti-religious arguments are that they almost always become confrontational because you are telling people that they have based their entire reality on a childish fairy tale. There's really no way to go about that delicately.

Unfortunately, I have grown tired of making these arguments. There are maybe two dozen arguments that are used in one form or another to dismantle any argument for religion. And they don't get anyone anywhere, because as any argumentative atheists knows, religion is self-reinforced against reason. Even when a religious person begins to doubt their beliefs, they are taught that the doubt brings them closer to God, ala Mother Theresa.

In essence, what I'm saying is that I have found structured, impersonal argument rarely if ever changes the mind of the religious. And quite frankly, I get sick of making the same arguments over and over when they seem so obvious to me that I shouldn't even have to make them once.

So I'm not sure I want to continue writing anything that tries to convince theists that there is no god, because I have had much more success making these arguments in person. And I have plenty of passionately religious people in my life to last me a lifetime of argumentation. So as far as "deconverting" goes, I'm going to focus on my own family and friends for the time being.

That said, I want to continue blogging, but want to go in a different direction. I want to go into non-religious areas that can only be truly explored once the shackles of religion have been thrown off. Because ultimately that's what my anger and frustration with religion boils down to: it stops us from advancing and exploring the reality of the universe, specifically our own nature and what it means to be human. What really irks me about religious doctrine is that it claims to be the ultimate authority of truth, based on absolutely no good evidence. There's a good chance that the universe is much stranger (and much more wondrous) than we can currently imagine, but our societies are built on a religious foundation that actively hinders exploration of that strange-as-hell universe.

Of course, for humanity to truly explore these wonders as a whole we must get rid of religion. But I doubt I'll be around when religion is gone, and I don't want to completely miss out on the fun. There are plenty of people in the atheist blogdome to fight religion, and I will continue to do so as a commentator and in (yikes!) "real" life. But there are enough rational voices out there to begin the exploration (indeed, it has already begun) of the universe, reality and beyond. I want to throw my hat in that ring.

I'm not sure exactly how I'm going to go about this; I will probably start a completely new blog. I'm sure I will still deal with religious issues that arise in the news and in my personal life, but I want to shift my focus to more non-religious topics. I also want to discuss issues that are generally connected to religion (like morality, death and consciousness) without mentioning religion at all. It will probably take me a week or two to figure out what the hell I'm doing, but when I figure it out, I will post it here.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Beauty and awe for an atheist

My theme for the day is why I simply cannot understand theists. This is not necessarily a belittlement of theism; I am admitting that the way I instinctively view the world is very different from the way that a theist views the world. Admitting these fundamental differences goes a long way in avoiding fruitless arguments.

This time, I’m talking about beauty and awe. I have heard theists deride atheists for their nihilistic view of the universe. I have heard the arguments that without god, our lives are without meaning and without joy. I have paid little to no attention to these claims because I am an atheist, and I know that my life is full of meaning and joy. In fact, I’ve gotten to the point where I feel that the joy and awe of religion cannot hold a candle to the joy and awe of atheism.

I can only think about the immensity and complexity of the universe for a short time, and then I physically shutter and have to shake my head to clear my mind.

Theists and atheists have similar views of what is beautiful and what is not. Mozart’s “Symphony no. 25 in G Major” is beautiful; fingernails on a chalkboard are not. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautiful; smeared shit on a bathroom stall is not. The Rocky Mountains covered in fresh snow are beautiful; the remnants of a ravished New Orleans are not.

The difference is in how these things (the beautiful ones) came to be. For a theist, the beauty is the direct intention of a single, omnipotent being. For atheists, the beauty is the result of an infinite string of mutations and survival of the fittest. There is no intention involved.

Humans are more aware of intent than any other creature on our planet, and intent seriously changes how we view something. A simple melodic string of single notes is not nearly as beautiful as a Mozart symphony. But if a bird—which we view to have less intent than a human—produces that simple string, it becomes much more beautiful. If the pitter-pat of a rainfall—which we view to have no intent at all—produces that melodic string, it becomes even more beautiful than the bird.

Of course, intent can make some things more beautiful, rather than less beautiful. This is often the case in intentional art. A blank slate of paper is not beautiful in itself. But if we understand that blank slate to signify the artist’s feeling of emptiness, it becomes more beautiful. If a movie follows a conventional format and then breaks away from that format at the last minute, we admire the director’s intent to break the format, not the break itself.

Intent can make something both more and less beautiful and amazing. It is not inherently a negative or positive quality, but it certainly affects how we view everything from a spill on the floor to a great piece of art.

But in the case of the universe, intent detracts from the beauty and awe, at least for me. If the entire universe is the intent of God, then all of our admiration and awe must funnel back to the creator, just as our admiration for a good piece of art funnels back to the artist.

In situations where we are admiring the artist, we not only take intent into consideration, but also handicap. Beethoven’s music is beautiful. It is even more beautiful when we consider that he was a mortal human being with flaws and limitations like the rest of us. It is even more beautiful when we consider that he had a limitation (deafness) that would severely handicap most people from doing exactly what he specialized at—writing music. A drawing of stick people standing outside a house is unimpressive if done by a 20-year-old fully capable woman, but if it is done by a two-year-old girl it is much more impressive. Watching a normal, grown man walk is hardly an act worth noticing. But when Kevin Everett walked into Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, it brought some of the toughest football players to tears. So handicap matters. A lot.

The problem is that if the creator is omnipotent, then how impressed can we really be? If God has no flaws and is all-powerful, I am not overly impressed that he could create something so beautiful and complex. If I was immortal and omnipotent, I could have done the same thing.

On the other end of the scale, if the universe was created without any intent at all, it becomes infinitely more beautiful and awesome. Not only is there no intent, but the handicap is nearly infinite. The chances of things coming together exactly as they have to create sunsets and mountains and bird songs is are so small that they are virtually impossible, not to mention our existence and our ability to appreciate all of this beauty. Our appreciation of beauty does not seem to serve an evolutionary purpose (not that I know of anyway…I would love to hear a theory that explains its advantage) so it seems to be an accident of evolution. And what a wonderful accident it is.

Question even the existence of faith

In my last post, I said that I will not teach faith to my son as an alternative to reason in determining reality. A large reason that I will not teach faith is because I cannot teach faith. In this post, I want to explore my inability to understand faith.

Many, but not all, arguments between atheists and theists are fruitless because our standards of argument are fundamentally different. Mainly, theists value faith and atheists do not.

Now, I am only speaking for myself here, but I suspect that a lot of atheists would agree with me when I say that I absolutely do not understand how someone can value faith as a tool to view reality. I understand faith like a blind man understands "red."

As a former Christian, I have often heard people tell me, "Well you were never really a true Christian if you converted to atheism." Ignoring the indefinability of the term "true Christian" I tend to agree with this assessment of myself. The way I understand religion, and specifically Christianity, is that it necessarily requires faith. Meaning that you must accept something to be fact in the absence of evidence, and quite often in the face of opposing evidence.

I never had this kind of faith. I believed in God, and Jesus, and the Bible as literal truth because it was all I ever knew. I don't really consider that faith, because once I gained the cognitive abilities to question aspects of my religion (and eventually, the existence of God altogether) I favored reason over what my religion taught. If reason directly conflicted with what I believed, I quickly changed what I believed.

Through high school and my early college years, I believed that God existed only because everyone in my life accepted this as an unqestionable fact. No one ever challenged me to test God's existence against reason. But I was never passionate about my religion. The only Christian tenant that I held on to with any kind of conviction was sexual "purity." And even with that, I was constantly testing the boundaries. In the face of explicit orders to avoid all sexual activity, I was good at justifying my right to mastrubate, make out with a girl, touch the fun spots, receive and give oral sex, and eventually engage in coitous.

The overall point here is that at no point in my life have I believed something because of my subjective hunch that it was true, without trying to justify that belief through reason. From an early age, I understood that feelings are not good tools for determining what is true and what is false. I don't remember being explicitly taught the scientific process until college (or possibly very late in high school) but I instinctively understood the fallibility of the human experience, and that it needed to be tested.

Even when I accepted the existence of God without question, I did not accept faith as proving reality. As a young child, when I heard people tell stories of how God directly intervened in their life, I always rolled my eyes and thought, "There's a perfectly rational explanation for that." I remember times when I could not find my wallet or my keys, my mom would tell me that I needed to pray. I remember how ridiculous that seemed to me. So I would tell her (falsely) that I prayed, and then 10 minutes later when I found what I was looking for she would say, "Make sure you thank God for helping you." I remember wanting to laugh at her and scream at the same time.

The overall point here is that I have always naturally turned to reason. That doesn't mean I make all my decisions based purely on reason. There are a lot of daily decisions I make based almost entirely on irrational, subjective feelings--decisions like who I love, what football team to cheer for and what I should eat for dinner, to name a few. But these are decisions of preference, which are inherently subjective, not decisions about reality. When it comes to determining what is real and what is not real, I rely entirely on reason and evidence.

I turn to reason and evidence so instinctively that I cannot imagine how anyone could turn to anything else. Just about every time I get into an argument with a theist, they end up turning to subjective experiences or "faith" to justify their belief in a supernatural being. To an atheist such as myself, this is simply absurd. To a theist, it is a clinching argument.

I think this is where a lot of hostility between atheists and theists comes in. Theists insist that faith and subjective experiences are good enough reasons to believe in a supernatural being; atheists say that those are absolutely horrible reasons to believe in anything.

But do theists really absolutely believe anything because of faith? I have admitted that faith is an inconceivable notion to me, so I don't understand exactly how it works. So perhaps it is because I can't understand it, but I have to question just how prevelant faith actually is. I suspect that a lot of people who claim to have faith are not being entirely honest with themselves. This is based on my exposure to people that claim to have Christian faith (thus, I am talking only about Christianity in this case, as my exposure to other religions is little to none), and my philisophical and religious discussions with those people. And there are a few common themes that prod me to question whether anyone can really possess faith.

First, I must define what I mean by "faith." There are several definitions in Webster; the one I am referring to is, "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." Okay, definition out of the way, here are the reasons I am not convinced that faith actually exists in anyone:

The constant arguments for creationism and a young Earth
For the time being, I will ignore the fallacies in the creationist's arguments. What is important for now is that creationists try to use reason and science to prove that the planet is less than 10,000 years old, evolution is impossible, the Grand Canyon was created by Noah's flood, etc. But the creation/evolution argument is just one example of Christians using reason and evidence to argue the validity of their religion. Some times they just try to show that their version of truth is possible, but a lot of times they try to prove that their version of truth is the only possibility. To me, this suggests that they are not entirely convinced by their faith, and need evidence to try to back it up.

Doubts in their faith
Any Christian that is the least bit honest will admit to doubting their faith at some point or another. Unanswered prayers, sudden deaths of loved ones, and clinical depression are just a few events that cause people to question their faith. For some people, like myself, these questions are never answered and lead to a complete abandonment of religion. But most people return their beliefs. Why? A lot of people cite faith as the reason, but when I have prodded these people further, I discover that it is always something more than that. Their reasons for not abandoning their faith in times of doubt are usually along the lines of, "I can't imagine living without God." They return to their beliefs for comfort and stability, but not because they are actually convinced that their beliefs are true. It is hard to restructure your entire view of truth, and most people simply don't want to go through the hassle, so they return to what they are familiar with.

Subjective experiences
Earlier, I grouped subjective experiences with faith, but I do not mean to suggest that they are the same thing. Subjective experiences are often used in the place of objective evidence. If faith is holding a belief in something for which there is no proof, then you cannot have faith if you offer subjective experience as proof. In my experience, almost every person that claims to have faith offers their personal experience as proof of God's existence ("I have felt the hand of God"). The next step is rarely, " I feel like God exists." It is much more often, " God exists." Not only is this arrogant because it assumes that you have a direct pipeline to the creator of the universe and universal truth, it is oppossed to faith. Subjective experience is bad evidence that God exists, but it is still (in the mind of the theist) evidence. Therefore, anyone who claims that their experience is proof that God exists does not have true faith.

In order to have true faith, you would have to hold the following position:

"I know that there is no evidence for God's existence. I understand that any subjective experience I have is just that--subjective--and provides absolutely no evidence for God's existence. I understand that evolution and other scientific discoveries have negated the necessity for God's existence. I understand that when all the evidence and reason has been considered, the possibility of God's existence is the same as the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I understand all of this, but I full-heartedly believe in the existence of God."

That seems harsh and belittling, but understand that I am not suggesting that anyone actually holds this position (if someone does, please let me know. I would be genuinely interested in trying to understand your viewpoint). If someone held this position, they would truly have faith. I suspect that true faith does not exist.

Instead, what most people call faith is actually a lack of knowledge or bad reasoning. When someone says that they have come to believe in god's existence purely through reason, I am always intrigured, and listen to their reasoning. To this date, all of their arguments have used faulty reasoning at some point. I will continue to listen to anyone who tries to prove god's existence through reasoning, but I am skeptical that I will ever hear a logically sound proof.

The other common form of bad reasoning is adhering to subjective experience as objective evidence. Theists who do this are much harder to argue with, because of a fundamental difference in what qualifies as evidence.

Whether someone does not understand evolution, uses subjective experience as objective evidence, or uses flawed logic, they do not actually possess faith in its literal form. As humans, we are rational beings, so even when we try to justify irrational theories, we do so in the form of a rational argument. To do otherwise goes against our nature. This is why I don't believe literal faith is possible.

Then again, maybe I just don't understand it.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Raising a free-thinker in a Christian environment

Because my son is only six months old, I didn't think I would have to confront this issue for at least a few years. But a couple weeks with my immediate and extended family has made me realize that I need to figure out my game plan quickly. I'll explain the urgency a bit later, but first let me set up the dilemma.

The issue I speak of is how to raise a child to be a free-thinker. And by that, I mean equip him to make his own decisions about religion (and everything else). This was brought to the front of my mind by Greta Christina, one of my favorite bloggers.

The first question raised is how to teach a child critical thinking--assuming that you view this as a necessary tool, which I do--without teaching them to be non-religious. To an atheist like myself this seems impossible, because I see critical thinking as necessarily leading to atheism. In fact, if your decision-making process is purely rational, you cannot come to the conclusion that god exists. Belief in any god requires a leap of faith, something I absolutely do not understand, but understand that it exists for other people.

So then I have to ask myself whether I should provide faith as a legitimate alternative to rational thinking. My basic instinct screams no, and I don't really see a reason to ignore that instinct. If I teach my son to think critically and he chooses blind faith instead, I can live with that. But I cannot bring myself to teach him that faith is a legitimate way of forming beliefs. For one, I wouldn't know how to teach faith. I plan on writing a more detailed post about this, but basically, I have never had faith and cannot even conceive it.

Even if I did, how do you teach faith? Even religious parents don't teach faith, they teach that God created the universe, Jesus died for our sins, etc. They teach these things as fact. It is only after children have learned these things as fact that they are asked to "believe" that they are true.

And herein lies the twist of my personal situation. In an ideal world, I would teach my son to think critically with no reference to religion at all. Once he possessed the ability to think critically and make at least semi-independant decisions, I would introduce him to all the religions of the world, explain why people believe in them, and explain why I do not believe in any of them. I would not "preach" atheism, but I sure wouldn't hide my beliefs.

The problem is that my world is anything but ideal. I realized this when I went home for the holidays. The children in my family are indoctrinated with Christian teachings early and frequently. It disturbs me and kind of sickens me, to be honest. But I'm not the type to interfere with how my aunts, uncles and cousins raise their children except when a relative makes a blatant anti-gay or homophobic remark, which I cannot sit by quietly and ignore. For the most part though, I just stay out of it.

What really troubles me is that they don't keep these teachings within their own family. They pray aloud for my son to "develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ," give him Christian-themed toys, and preach Christianity to all the children in the family as soon as they understand language (even before they understand language in a lot of cases). This is highly disturbing to me, but it does not anger me because I understand where they're coming from. They sincerely believe that all non-Christians will burn in Hell for eternity. In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of them are completely unaware that I am an atheist, since they don't talk to me about religion at all. My parents hide that fact, and I don't flaunt it, mostly because I don't want them trying to convert me. I know they do it out of love, but that doesn't make it any less troublesome.

So while I would like to completely shelter my son from religion until he is old enough to make his own decisions and think critically, this will most likely be impossible. My family is very important to me, so I'm not going to run away from them. I will ask family members to refrain from teaching my son religion (at the risk of being alienated by some of them) but I don't know if even that will keep them away. Remember, in their eyes, eternal torture in Hell is at stake.

Thus I will inevitabely face a two-year-old asking me something along the lines of "Daddy, why don't we go to church?" or even scarier, "Daddy, did Jesus die on the cross because I'm bad?"

How do I respond to these questions without attacking Christianity? Especially if my family continues to pound doctrine into his mind any time I turn my head. Of course, he will take his father's word over his aunt's, or grandma's, or anyone else's. But one of my biggest problems with religion is that it takes advantage of childrens' tendency to take adults' word as unquestionable fact. I do not want to do the same thing with the opposite message. That said, I have a responsibility to protect my son from other peoples' doctrine. So the more my family teaches him Christianity, the more I am really forced to counter it, and the more my son will become ingrained with godlessness.

Of course, I will not flatly say "Sorry, God doesn't exist. Grandma's wrong." I will try my best to explain the reasoning behind my answer, but children that young don't understand reason. To protect my son from being indoctrinated while he is too young to know any better, I will be forced to tell him the truth, rather than let him discover it on his own. As a result, I will be indoctrinating him when he is too young to know any better. This makes me uneasy, but I feel like I am left with no other option.

This is my dilemma.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Monsters in the closet

Well, I thought I was too tired to write an entry tonight, but sometimes I get an idea in my head and just have to write it out.

This has nothing to do with Christmas, because I really don't care all that much about that debate. Not that it's not an important one; I'm just not passionate about joining the discussion because I just end up wishing that Bill O'Reilly would be imprisoned for his public hate speech.

So I'm not discussing Christmas. I want to talk about religious experiences. This is generally the fallback defense for religion when reason fails: "Well you can't understand it, but I have felt God's presence." It essentially ends the discussion, because no one wants to hear that their mind is playing tricks on them.

For the time being, I'm not going to get into the technical psychology of religious experiences. There are people out there who can do that better than me. I just want to share my own experience that many people would call a supernatural occurence.

First, let me point you to a good post about transcendent joy from an atheist's perspective over at Daylight Atheism.

My experience is considerably less pleasant.

As a young child, I always had a wild imagination that leaned toward a scared paranoia when I was trying to fall asleep. I would think that Bigfoot was circling our house (and one time even could have sworn that I saw him) or that the coyotes outside were going to go insane and attack me by jumping through my window. I was never scared of anything inside my room like the standard monsters under the bed, but I knew that a window and a wall would not be enough protection if some large beast from the outside decided to feed on my flesh.

But the most terrifying experience of my life came about two years ago when I was living in a studio apartment in Milwaukee.

For as long as I can remember I have had recurring battles with insomnia. I don't mean pulling two all-nighters in a row during finals, but actually going upwards of a week without sleeping. For those of you lucky enough to have never experienced long-term sleep deprivation, it is not a fun thing to go through. After about 72 hours of sleeplessness, you absolutely cannot trust your own mind.

On this particular night, I was somewhere around hour 100 of sleeplessness and desperate for some sleep, so I lay down in my bed even though I had no confidence in my ability to fall asleep. After about an hour in the dark it started raining outside. When I looked at the rain splashing against the windows, I saw hundreds of faces forming and melting away with anguished expressions. I was frightened and decided to look away, but I could not convince my body to stay turned away. Without my conscious permission, my head would turn back to the window and continue to watch the tortured rain souls.
So I did what any person does in a scary situation: I hid under the covers. At this point, I absolutely felt the presence of another person in the apartment. I didn't know where this person was exactly, but was absolutely convinced that there was another living being in my apartment. I was as convinced of this as I was of gravity.

In perhaps the bravest moment of my life, I convinced myself to look from underneath the covers...and of course, I saw an empty room and no physical sign of anyone or anything else being in the room. I also saw that the deadbolt on my door was locked. I could reasonably conclude that I was alone.

But my reason was unable to conquer my fear. In fact, I became increasingly more frightened. I was still 100% convinced that there was someone else in my apartment. Not only that, but I was equally confident that this person was the most evil person in the universe, with absolute contempt for other human life. This person was not just going to kill me, but torture me in the most painful ways possible.

I don't remember exactly when I regained my reason, but it was suspended for the duration of the night. For approximately six hours I lay motionless in my bed. I was literally paralyzed by fear. I kept telling my arms and legs to move, but they wouldn't flinch. I tried looking around the room, but my eyes would not move from the ceiling. I lay there waiting to be brutually tortured by this being, and had no question in my mind that it would happen.

Until today, it never occurred to me that I had what many people call a "supernatural experience." I grew up in churches hearing conversion stories about people who reached a low point in their life, had an encounter with Satan himself, and was saved by God. When this experience happened to me I was in a pretty bad situation. I had recently discovered that my girlfriend had been cheating on me, which I didn't take well, and I spent a lot of time drinking and getting into fights.

I could have easily interpreted that terrible night as an encounter with Satan, demons, or a general, capital-E Evil. I could have decided that I had allowed myself to fall away from God with all this atheism talk. I questioned God's existence, and He left me for a short while to show me what it would really be like if He didn't exist.

Doesn't that make a nice story? I would have congregations crying and saying "Praise Jesus!" and holding my story as proof of God's existence and power. I could give a rousing speech to teens about the dangers of questioning God's existence. Hell, with a story like that, I could have become a pastor.

But until today--some two years later--those thoughts never entered my mind. It didn't cross my mind because I had enough of an understanding of psychology and neuro-biology to know that sleep deprevation can turn your mind against you. Thoughts of demons and evil never crossed my mind because I had a discussion with a psychology professor who described insomnia as "a motherfucker of a disease," and explained exactly how something like this could happen.

The people I know who say they have a personal relationship with God need these kinds of experiences to keep their faith. Well, actually, they rely more on the positive "supernatural" experiences, but supernatural nonetheless. And many people will fast or deprive themselves of sleep to "open themselves to God's message." Of course, when you deprive yourself of food and/or sleep, your brain does not function properly. Reason becomes hindered, and you begin believing things are there when they are not.

Even when there is no form of deprivation, our brains are not entirely trustworthy. We see design where there is none, we see faces where there are none, etc. This is a topic I am currently studying in more depth, so I will be able to provide more credentialled opinions in a few months. But I do know that our minds occasionally play tricks on us, and depriving yourself of essentials such as food and sleep can stimulate and amplify these illussions. Sometimes this can be a transcending, wonderful feeling.

For me, it was the most terrifying night of my life.

Holiday break

I just had a second of free time (for the first time in at least a week) and wanted to quickly mention that this is not a dead blog. For the few people out there that have discovered my blog in its infancy, and the fewer still that enjoy reading it, this is just a promise that I haven't fallen into the second-month death trap of a young blog. I've just been ridiculously busy celebrating the day's victory over night (one of the original reasons for the season).

In fact, I've been having some interesting discussions with my brother, a fellow free thinker who is not quite an atheist...yet. I also finally got a copy of Sam Harris' "The End of Religion." And of course, I've been spending a lot of time around my very religious family. All of this should make for some interesting posts when I return. And I should return in a couple days.