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.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

What did sharks eat before original sin?

Most christians that believe in the Genesis account of a six-day creation believe that there was no death before original sin. Of course, we are left with the ridiculous picture of lions munching on apples, velociraptors enjoying a nice salad and sharks eating seaweed. While we can all agree that this is a pretty silly mental image, there are people who actually believe this. I don't see anywhere in the first three chapters of Genesis that explicitly says there was no death before original sin, but I can see how you would get the picture:

Then God said, "I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. 30 And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air and all the creatures that move on the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food." And it was so. - Genesis 1:29

Whether the Bible necessitates that there was no death of any kind before original sin is beside the point for now, though, because the fact is that most christians believe that this is the case.

The problem is that if all animals were originally vegetarians, then the "amazing design" that people claim to see in animals is quite pointless. Sharks are amazingly "designed" to hunt and kill. Christians claim this amazing ability as proof that the universe is designed. And sharks certainly aren't the only creatures that have an amazing ability to kill. Cheetahs are perfectly built to catch gazelles, although gazelles are equally built to escape cheetahs. Alligators, tigers, hawks and snakes are all built to hunt their prey. Mice, monkeys, clown fish and deer are all built to avoid becoming another creature's next meal.

If the original creation was one without death, then why did god design creatures to compete with each other? Perhaps he saw what was coming, and wanted to make sure the animals were prepared. You could make this argument, if you were willing to admit that god is unjust and humans have no free will. Because if this were the case, then god created humans to disobey him. He didn't create them with free will, and they happened to fuck things up. Before he created man, he created animals that were good and ready for a world of limited resources. So in order for his amazing design to work, he needed a world filled with death and competition. He brought man into this supposively perfect world in order to be his patsy. He said "don't eat this fruit, or else..." knowing damn well that we would eat the fruit. Once we fucked things up, he could blame all the evil in the world on our sin. We never had a chance.

But let's say you want to take another route. Go back to the beginning of the argument and concede that animals killed each other before original sin. After all, the Bible doesn't explicitly say that there was no death (at least not that I can find. If anyone knows of a verse that directly makes that statement, please share).

Well if every event must have a cause (the backbone of the ID argument), and we can witness that organisms are in direct conflict with each other, then wouldn't that suggest multiple, battling creators? One creator created cheetahs, and made them fast enough to hunt gazelle. But the creator that made gazelles also made gazelles very fast so that they could escape from cheetahs. Both creators did a very good job, but the two creations are in constant battle with each other; sometimes the gazelle gets away and sometimes it doesn't. There would need to be a seperate creator for every organism that is battling for the prescious resources.

If everything was created by a single god, then he designed his creation to destroy itself. Which means he created a world that had conflict from the beginning. This is probably why christians are insistent that the pre-sin world was one without death or conflict. Because from conflict comes death, sickness and poverty. So quite blaming butt sex for all the misery in the world. If god created the world, he created a world where all of these evils were unavoidable.

Its rare to have a discussion with a christian without them saying that the design in the world is obvious, or that the misery in the world are the result of sin, or that god created a perfect world in six days, or some other related nonsense. Well from now on, I'm countering these claims with a seemingly innocent question.

What did sharks eat before original sin?

Why do smart people believe in god?

Part of being a free-thinker is being able to admit when you don't have the answer. In fact, this is absolutely critical to being a free-thinker. I have met a lot of people who claim to be free-thinkers, but have a strong opinion on every topic, even when they don't really know much about the topic.

I have slowly been developing the ability to admit when I don't have the answer. Ask anyone who has known me in the past, and they will tell you that this is quite a change.

I am still very argumentative on topics that I have developed a strong opinion on, such as gay rights, abortion, most social programs, etc. In fact, I have become even more bullheaded in some of these areas now that my opinions are the result of a lot of research, discussion and reflection, instead of blindly mimicking the opinion of someone else.

But for crying out loud, I'm only 23 and certainly do not have all the answers. I have, like maybe, .001% of the answers. Some people assume that my strong atheism is a sign that I think I know everything (the tired argument that atheists are all arrogant pricks). The truth is that it really doesn't take all that much research, discussion and reflection to realize that there is almost certainly no god. All it takes is a willingness to question everything you've ever held to be true.

So here's the question that I am trying to figure out: Why do smart people believe in god?

A large number of atheists understand the absurdity of such a belief, and make the blanket assumption that all theists are irrational, gullible and generally kind of dumb. But the truth is that I know some very smart people (people much smarter than me) that believe in a god. Now, sure, most of them just never think about it all that much. But you're still left with some very smart people taking the existence of a god on faith, with no evidence. It doesn't seem like something a smart person would do. These people would be skeptical about reports of aliens or bigfoot until sufficient evidence was produced, but do not question the existence of god.

My initial suspicion is that belief in a spiritual world is hard-wired into our brains. We are naturally dualists, after all. Even when we fully understand that our feelings, personalities and individualities are just a bunch of neurons firing off in our brain, we still maintain a feeling that there is something more to us: a certain "me"-ness (more commonly known as a "soul"). Especially when we are young, we have a tendency to believe in ghosts, angels and souls, because of our natural dualism. Combine this with our natural inclination to blindly believe whatever our parents tell us when we are young, and it becomes hard to shake the theism that dominates our culture.

That's about all I have so far, but the point I'm trying to make is that we cannot dismiss theism as something for idiots to believe, because there are a lot of very intelligent people that are theists. There is something that makes it extremely difficult to shake. Why was I able to question, and eventually dismiss, the existence of god while other people that are equally or more intelligent than me are not able to ask those same questions? To atheists, the notion of god is absurd, but why is it so hard for theists to see the absurdity? Hopefully I will have a more concrete answer soon.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Religion claims another victim

Anyone who says that religion does nothing but help people ignore stories like this one. A 14-year-old boy refused a blood transfusion that could have saved his life, because blood transfusions are banned by the Jehovah's Witness faith. A Washington judge ruled that he had the right to refuse treatment, and the child died of leukemia.

When an adult wants to make some ridiculous decision based on religion they have that right, as long as it hurts no one but themselves. But no 14-year-old in the world has enough perspective or independence to make such critical decisions.

So let this be a reminder that whether it is a newborn baby boy getting his most precious organ partially chopped off (I'm proud to say that my son has everything in tact) or it is simply telling children that their non-christian friends are going to hell, the greatest victims of religion are children. Somebody please think of the children!

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sex Appeal

The great thing about being a free thinker is that you never have to accept anything, 'because that's the way it is.' Accepting things without reason is for children (they have to accept that you can't take toasters into the bathtub). Once we mature and develop a reasonable perspective of the world, we should begin asking some pretty difficult 'why?' questions.

And with that, I give you Richard Dawkins' article questioning, but not necessarily debunking, the value of sexual fidelity.

This is one of those areas that a) fuel the fire for theists who claim that Atheism leads to immorality (of course, so does our acceptance of homosexuality), and b) is a direct clash between reason and emotion, for most people.

While I value reason more than most people, I do not consider it to be the only factor in decision making. Whether we like it or not, our emotions play a role in everything. More often than not, sexually "cheating" on your partner is wrong simply because it hurts your partner. Where that painful jealousy comes from is an interesting topic. Is it possible to eliminate all sexual jealousy? (It would take a long time, if at all possible) If it was possible, would it lead to a better world? (I think that it would, considering how much violence and hatred is the result of sexual jealousy). The suggestion that Dawkins' article makes is that sexual jealousy is irrational.

It would be hard to argue otherwise, but some forms of irrationality are just as important to humanity as rationality; think prisoner's dilemma. Whether sexual jealousy is an irrationality that is useful or harmful is still up for debate, in my eyes.

One final point on this topic is the way that movies and TV shows can manipulate the way we feel about fidelity. We see several undesirable characters who are undesirable because they are cheating on their girlfriends, but just as often (probably more often) we see desirable characters who are desirable because they are cheating on their significant other, or because they spark a romantic relationship with someone already in a relationship. Take Wedding Crashers, just because it's a movie most people have seen. The entire love story aspect of the movie has us cheering for Owen Wilson to "steal" Rachel McAdams from her fiance. This isn't a suggestion that Hollywood is trying to brainwash us into thinking that sexual infidelity is okay, because Hollywood goes both ways. The point is that when we watch movies, we want the two people that treat each other right to end up together, regardless of who's married or committed to who.

What you will rarely see outside of low-budget indie films are desirable characters who maintain multiple loving relationships. One movie that comes to mind is "Y Tu Mama Tambien," which is (obviously) a foreign film, so maybe that says something.