Monday, September 28, 2009

Deliver Us From Evil

I have had many worthwhile discussions with Demian Farnworth of the Christian blog Fallen and Flawed. Our most recent exchange began with his description of writer A.N. Wilson's reconversion to religion.

I found several of the statements made in Farnworth's analysis to be provocative. Perhaps the most intriguing statement I found was this claim:
Materialism can not adequately explain our complex world. Christianity, on the other hand, as a working blueprint for life, can.
Since a substantial portion of my deconversion from Christianity has hinged upon the exact opposite argument - that while Christianity cannot adequately explain our complex world, naturalism can provide a working blueprint for life, to paraphrase the structure of Farnworth's claim - I was intrigued to see a discussion of this argument from a viewpoint distinct from my own.

I decided to enter the fray, and set my naturalistic beliefs side by side with Christianity, and attempt to compare which view could actually better explain the complexities of our existence.

I made a brief argument against Christian theism via the origin of suffering.

Traditionally, almost all Christians have interpreted the text in the Genesis creation stories to imply that their god originally created a paradise on Earth, and that only the disobedient sin of Adam and Eve introduced suffering into our world.
If suffering is inherent in the nature of the world, and not brought into the world by the transgressions of humanity – if the evil that happens in the world cannot possibly be the direct result of a Biblical Fall as depicted in Genesis, then traditional Christianity is falsified. Do you agree?

I have found that suffering persisted in our world for an incredibly long time before the first existence of humanity, therefore I believe it is impossible that humanity is the direct cause of evil and injustice in our world, and that therefore almost all types of Christianity are either absurd or implausible.
Here's an excerpt from Demian's reply, which he made shortly after my original comment:
Second, your argument for naturalism hinges on suffering existing before man. I don’t quite understand that. How could suffering exist before mankind? And how do you know? Furthermore, how do you define suffering in terms of naturalism? In other words, if the natural state of things is beast eat beast, how can you say “that’s suffering?” How are you defining suffering, that’s really what’s at stake.
Those are good questions. How should suffering be defined? How could suffering exist before humanity? Here's a hint to what I believe, courtesy of YouTube satirist Edward Current:

At the end of the video, Current's character states:

"You know, it's almost like, here on Earth, it's every species for itself.

Humans don't get any special treatment at all, do they?

It's because life evolves - through natural selection, not Intelligent Design."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

My Deconversion Story

This is the story of my deconversion from Christianity. I originally posted this account on the Forum of the blog "Unreasonable Faith". I hope you'll enjoy it.

I have been raised as a Christian, having attended services for most of my life at a small ELCA Lutheran congregation. I was baptized as a baby, and I was confirmed around the time I entered high school. I attended Sunday school, Bible studies, and church camps. I sang in the choir and I was an acolyte, usher, and greeter.

However, despite my active involvement in the church, I had not thought much about the basic essentials of my beliefs. I had read large portions of the Bible (I still haven't gotten myself to read it all - I've been meaning to do it), and I prayed often, but while I grew up, I was never confronted by any serious challenges to my perspective. I had friends who went to other churches, but I didn't really know anyone who was non-religious. I had this default assumption that there was a God, and that most of things I had been told in church were true.

I was never really one to question authority, and I enjoyed church greatly, and I had a lot of friends there at first. I wish I had a higher voice so I could sing "I Wander As I Wonder" in the proper key. That hymn is eerie, and that is why it was always one of my favorites.

Many things happened to me when I was in junior high and high school. Several rifts developed in my church, attendance lowered, and we had some pastoral changes. I also first learned that some of my friends were atheists or agnostics. It actually shocked me at first -- I grew in a fairly conservative community. Every time I drive on the highway, I spy a large billboard which declares "Trust In The LORD With All Your Heart". I thought to myself, 'atheist?! I don't believe that.'

But I didn't really know them that well, so I shrugged it off.

When I was a junior in high school, one of my closer friends let me know that he is an atheist when we were discussing religion. I started debating (casually) with him and his friends about religion during our study hall period. I was the Christian, and there were two others who were atheists.

Some of the questions he asked made me reflect for a bit, but I wasn't very phased. I didn't have a literal interpretation of the Bible, and I accepted evolution, so we actually agreed on a lot. I wasn't affected by a lot of the arguments he used in the areas that we agreed. However, looking back on the experience, I think if my friends had spent more time on how those points specifically apply to religion, I would've been more receptive. But I also realize that they didn't want to push me too hard, because we were friends, and they didn't want to ruin our friendship, which I also appreciate and understand.

He did ask me why God would create homosexuality and condemn it in the Bible? I didn't know - I was unsure. I didn't think he would. My friend referenced Leviticus, and I pretty much ignored it, I have to admit. I could've been more open-minded.

He also wanted to know if I didn't take the Bible literally, how did I *know* which parts were metaphorical and which were not? I gave an answer I had already heard, that the Holy Spirit guides the believer in the interpretation of the Bible. If I were my friend now, I would've emphasized the divisions in church history. I do remember that my friend emphasized the corruption of certain church leaders, but I always brushed these criticisms away by saying that God's church was for imperfect people, as everything human in this world was imperfect. Maybe I would've been more receptive if he had argued specifically that the existence of so many divisions on interpretation and meaning of scriptures, which accord with cultural practices, makes it supremely unlikely that the texts are divinely inspired. However, that is a complicated argument and hard to fit into a 25-minute study hall period, and I know that when atheists talk to Christians, the harder they argue, the more militant or harsh they seem. I know this can be the case, so I can again understand why my friend didn't press me harder, and I do appreciate his willingness to put our friendship ahead of mere ideological differences.

When I was a senior, my English teacher exposed me to existentialism - I started reading Camus and Sartre. However, I maintained that this was fully compatible with my Christianity, and in retrospective, I don't think that this was a contributing factor to my deconversion.

I also began reading a lot of Vonnegut when I was in high school. I read Player Piano, Cat's Cradle, Slaughterhouse Five, and Slapstick. Those are all excellent, and I also read Vonnegut's brief essay autobiography, the title of which I cannot recall. I <3 Billy Pilgrim! But I hated the ending of Cat's Cradle - I despised it. It was so irredeemably depressing and gloomy. Somehow, Slapstick was the most amusing and intriguing book of the four, though it seems to be the least popular and the least well-known. There are many excerpts about tribal and community ties which really hit home what it means to be part of a group of people with the same feelings and the same beliefs. I think that book did lay some of the groundwork for my later epiphanies.

Finally, last year I was a freshmen in college. The summer before I left, I had to arrange a schedule of coursework. I was trying to fill my schedule with general education requirement classes, and I wanted to take World Politics very badly. Instead, my counselor stuck me with Forms of the Sacred, a class on Eastern religion. This would prove to be quite fateful.

The second or third week of school, we also had an activities fair. I was out walking after lunch one day, and I strolled along the path in the main common area to visit the booths for all of the clubs on campus.

I spied a banner for a non-religious group. Intrigued, I stumbled over to the display, and asked the volunteer about the nature of the club. I was told that this was a new club for discussing religion, which would primarily be focused on atheists and agnostics. Since I had discussed religion with my friends in high school, I added my information to the mailing so I could stay in contact with the club.

So two or three weeks afterward, I am sitting in my religion class, nonchalantly scribbling notes. We're talking Hinduism, and my professor is going off on a tangent. My ears perked up. The tangents were what made that class - I loved my professor's sense of humor and offbeat commentary.

So anyway, he's talking about all of the different religions in the East, and how they relate, and he casually lets out that some scholars speculated that there might be a link between the proto-religions of the East and some of the western religions. Normally, that would just be an interesting tidbit, a typically inane musing which may fascinate those students who are paying attention.

But that careless slight, that unintended observation -- it struck me. I really had an existential crisis. I felt a surge of doubt paralyze me at that very moment; thoughts of "what if this (my beliefs that I had grown up with) isn't true??!!"

"What if this isn't true?!"

Doubt. I was struck by doubt. Nagging, overwhelming, unceasing, terrifying doubt.

I suddenly realized that I had no idea why I believed what I did.

That was the beginning - that was the day I quit believing in "faith".

And of course, one of the first ever meetings of the atheists and agnostics organization was scheduled later that very week. So I went, not knowing what would happen. All I knew was uncertainty.

So I went. The chairs were arranged in a circular fashion. One of the first things that occurred, since everyone was just getting to know each other, was that each individual in the circle was supposed to say a little bit about themselves: what year they were in, where they were from, something cool about themselves, and if they were an atheist or agnostic, when they became one.

I was one of the last people to be reached, so I got to hear almost everyone else's accounts first.

I was quite nervous at that moment, I must admit. I really didn't know what to say -- I hadn't really reached out to anyone by that point. When I first told my Catholic roommate that I was going to go to the meeting, he looked at me with suspicion because I had already told him that summer that I was a Christian. I told him that I was a Christian, but that I was going anyway because I was interested in the group.

It was sort of a fib. I wasn't sure anymore if I was a Christian or not, because of the doubt that I was experiencing at that time.

Finally, it was my turn to speak. I related my year, where I was from, my hobbies, and my name. Then I stammered something like this:

"Well, I'm not really sure what I believe right now. I was raised as a Christian, but since I've gone to college..."

My brain fizzled. What was I going to say?

"I think my faith has..."

I couldn't say anymore, but I took my hand and made a downwards motion.

In the days before the meeting, I had begun to do some additional research about religion, and I continued this after I returned from the meeting.

Every time I examined my old beliefs, they made less and less sense to me.

The Bible seemed incomprehensible to me. I started asking a lot more questions about it that I couldn't answer. The evidence for a historical Jesus who did the things the Bible claimed was less than I would have liked to believe (I had never actually thought about whether he actually had existed and did the things the Gospels said he did.) It seemed there was too much cruelty and suffering in the world. Evolution and naturalism seemed to be performing spectacularly. Christianity was failing miserably. Everywhere I turned, it appeared that the answer could be better explained if there were no all-good, all-loving, interventionary god.

Finally, there was one particular area that seemed to be the nail in the coffin for my prior religious beliefs.

All the other religions in the world. I had heard Krishna call for grace - I had heard Buddha call for compassion in the wake of suffering - I had heard creation stories which sounded more plausible than the ones I heard growing up. "There was a time when there was neither nothing, nor something". That's a real creation story.

Frankly, Christianity became just another religion, just another faith, and just another mythology. People who believed in other religions seemed to be just as moral as Christians. People who were Christian based their moral ideas on the same principles that non-Christian people used.

And almost all of the so-called religious experiences claimed were more similar than they were different, no matter what the religion.

I remember reading of Near Death Experiences where Native Americans saw a vision of a great chief, where some Hindus saw a great bureaucracy in the sky, and Christians saw heaven and hell.

And even if that weren't enough, I began reading about neuroscience. I became convinced that there is no such entity as the soul. If I needed yet another nail in the coffin, that was definitely it.

The experiments demonstrate that when the brain is harmed, all of the things which have traditionally been identified with the soul are damaged.

What is the soul? Isn't the soul the essence of who you are? And what is the essence of who you are? When the brain is damaged, the essence of who you are changes irrevocably. So when the brain is damaged, is your soul damaged, or is your soul the brain? But we know what happens to the brain when you die -- it rots. So much for the after-life? How can you have a soul to be judged without the brain? It's not plausible.

Lastly, I was already an agnostic atheist for many months before I read "The Evolution of God", but it really cemented many of the conclusions which I had already reached. The evidence which emerges from the sections about political influences on the Old Testament, why the Israelites came out of Canaan and not out of Egypt, and why Paul sold Christianity the way he did in the days of the early faith really make it difficult for me to revert to Christianity or any religion similar to it.

I am an agnostic atheist. I believe that most, if not all, of the gods ever worshiped by humanity are implausible. I do not know if there are ultimately any gods or higher powers. However, I live as if there are none.

Even if there are gods or higher powers in or outside of the universe, I believe that I am living more deeply in communion with them by not adopting a set of beliefs which I am 99% sure are false, and by trying my best to live a moral life based on empathy and respect.

I know that I have prattled on at great length, but I thank all of you for sharing in my journey and my experiences. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Is Faith More Reliable Than Science?

“Science is not only less reliable than faith, but faith is used in science."

Did I miss the science Crusades, the science Thirty Years War, or the science Spanish Inquisition?

How reliable is your faith, exactly? Are you a Christian? If so, what kind of Christian are you?

If you’re a Catholic, you may believe that your god directly revealed himself to a line of men who frequently embodied corruption, nepotism, and hypocrisy.

If you’re a Protestant, you’re already admitting that your faith is not 100% reliable, because why would there need to be a Reformation if faith is generally reliable?

If you’re Orthodox, how do you explain the abundance of Protestants and Catholics if faith is so reliable?

If you’re any kind of Christian, then how do you explain the plentiful and confusing abundance of contradicting interpretations of the same exact sacred texts?

If you're a Muslim, which tradition do you adhere to? How do you explain the existence and persistence of other sects? Why is your faith so fragile? Your holy book is even written in the same universal language, and you still have many of the same problems as the Christians.

You think faith is reliable? The wise walk by sight, not by faith.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

An Indifferent Universe: The Original 'Original Sin'

Here's a thought experiment:

"Sin is the fault of humanity, but it had to be that way, and fortunately, we still have free will.

How do I know this to be true?

Well, for hundreds of millions of years, various animals and plants endured enormous levels of suffering before humanity existed. So it is difficult to claim that the direct actions of humanity are responsible for suffering in our world. However, one could say that suffering was predetermined for humanity. Essentially, it must then be our fault that the suffering of the world was predetermined for us. So everything's our fault (even if it's not), and we still have free will (even if we don't). Christianity makes complete sense."

Obviously, I'm being sarcastic here.

We can now determine that there was never a Paradise - that there was never an Eden - and that the "original sin" of humanity is merely our own existence in an indifferent universe. Sure, Christian tradition can try to pin the blame on a species which only arrived on Earth during the most recent instant of geologic time, but the growing evidence across nearly all disciplines of science can easily refute such a bold and unsupported assertion.

How can I prove that the only reason a god would permit evil is to bring about some other end? How can I know that this is not the only possible world that it is feasible for a god to create? I most likely cannot fully prove either of these things to you; what I may be able to demonstrate adequately is the incoherence of Christian dogma when its doctrines are contrasted with the harsh, vivid realities of our existence.