Humanlight is a Humanist holiday celebrated today, December 23rd, as a secular counterpart to Christmas, Hanukkah and other religious winter holidays. According to the official website, it celebrates the Humanist vision of the future. It is my opinion that, given the name and the proximity to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, we should celebrate the growing light of human reason against the darkness of ignorance.
The celebration of Christmas is sufficiently secular that I feel completely comfortable celebrating it, but I like the idea of adding a Humanist holiday to the calendar. Happy Humanlight!
Humanlight is a Humanist holiday celebrated today, December 23rd, as a secular counterpart to Christmas, Hanukkah and other religious winter holidays. According to the official website, it celebrates the Humanist vision of the future. It is my opinion that, given the name and the proximity to the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere, we should celebrate the growing light of human reason against the darkness of ignorance.
What is Humanism? Humanism is a philosophy of life which affirms that the only solutions to human problems are to be found in humans themselves. In particular, Humanists value:
- human rights
- secular ethics based on human compassion
- meaning found in human relationships
Humanism shares several important features with religion, but it is not a religion because it has no belief in the supernatural. Additionally, there are no holy books, no temples, no priests, no rituals and no dogma. I tend to think of it as a philosophy of life, but others prefer to call it a life stance, an umbrella term intended to include both religions and philosophies.
It is my opinion that Humanism serves primarily as a label, though a very useful label with an important purpose. One doesn't accept Humanist principles after encountering Humanism; rather one realizes that one already holds these principles and decides to identify as a Humanist. Identifying as a Humanist doesn't affect one's daily life; the principles themselves could affect it, but even then there are no special Humanist practices resembling religious practices to give life meaning. Nevertheless, Humanism provides many atheists and agnostics with a positive label which describes what they do believe instead of what they don't believe, distinguishes atheists who hold these principles from those who do not, and allows them to organize based on these shared principles.
I am proud to say that I am a Humanist.
Posted at 7:30 PM
Today I saw a flier advertising the performance of a Christmas cantata entitled Born to Die by a community college gospel chorale. Although the existence of a gospel chorale at a public college strikes me as inappropriate, I am no legal expert and I cannot discuss any possible church-state separation issues. Instead I wish to comment on the name of the cantata and on the absurd Christian doctrines to which it refers: original sin, immaculate conception, incarnation and redemption.
Adam and Eve were unable to discern good and evil and thus could not sin. God then forever punished all of their descendants who were completely innocent of even this supposed violation and endowed them with an irresistible inclination to sin, thus causing all sins throughout history.
God does not punish Mary with original sin, so that Jesus could be born of a pure woman. This is pointless, creates spiritual inequality, and demonstrates that original sin was not logically necessary. (This doctrine is only professed by Catholics.)
God is born of a virgin. This is pointless, invalidates the genealogical claims through Joseph, and too closely resembles divine incarnations in many other religions.
God executes himself, in order to appease himself, for the sins of the beings which he himself created, against the rules he himself wrote.
Additionally, the name of the cantata also strikes me as very morbid. We are reminded that the primary reason that God assumed the form of a human baby was not so he could relieve human suffering, not so he could preach love and wisdom, not so he could found a church to act in his name, but so that he could be tortured and die in agony. What a macabre birthday!
The word faith is used to denote two rather distinct concepts, tending to create considerable confusion in assessing the reasons people claim for holding their religious beliefs. I have previously addressed the common failure to distinguish between unbelief and disbelief and now I would like to turn my attention to the two kinds of faith.
Theists often claim that they have “faith in God.” This phrase has two interpretations: “I trust that what God says is true” and “I believe that God exists even though his existence is not demonstrated.” The former is a theoretically sound position while the latter is simply unreasonable. A theist can mean one, the other, or both simultaneously, and unfortunately, theists very often confound the two, feeling justified in their unreasonable belief by reference to the alternate, inapplicable meaning.
Faith as trust
Theists trust God to speak truthfully and to fulfill his promises. If an omnimax deity truly exists, then this trust is wholly appropriate. An infinitely perfect being would be infinitely trustworthy and theists would be justified in placing unlimited confidence in his sincerity and abilities. (This is not to say that they would be right to believe and obey him under all imaginable circumstances, but this is because it would require unlimited confidence in their own determination that these messages really were from an omnimax deity, not because an omnimax deity in principle shouldn't be trusted completely.)
Faith as belief without sufficient evidence
Theists usually don't claim proof or overwhelming evidence for their belief that God exists or that a religious institution or a holy book infallibly reveals God's truth. Instead they often cite faith as justification for these beliefs and present this faith as a matter of trust in a perfect being. The problem is that this is circular logic as it assumes the truth of the belief in establishing that very belief itself. One cannot trust an omnimax deity before one has established the existence of such a being. This type of faith is really belief without or even in spite of evidence. In this sense, faith is irrational and absurd because it's a carte blanche to justify absolutely any belief whatsoever.
If someone wants to believe without evidence, let them at least admit that this is irrational and absurd rather than disguising it as matter of rational trust.
The following is a lengthy essay documenting my reasons for leaving the Catholic Church. It was written in December 2004, two months after my apostasy.
Before I begin explaining my reasons for leaving the faith, it would be appropriate to briefly examine the reasons I was a Catholic in the first place. The story of how I entered the Church is a very common one: my Catholic parents had me baptized not long after my birth, brought me to church each Sunday, and sent me to formal religious education at the church until I made confirmation at the age of thirteen. As do many children, I simply accepted what I was told by adults in essentially all matters without questioning it, and this certainly extended to what I was told about God and religion.
While my enthusiasm for religion waxed and waned, I cannot recall any doubts of any significance until the summer after I graduated from high school, at the age of seventeen. For the next eight years I struggled from time to time with these doubts, and reassured myself with various reasons for believing the Catholic faith true. Since this is not a deconversion story, I will not detail the reasons I began my investigation into arguments against the faith, but only summarize my research, reasoning, and conclusions.
The intellectual challenge to my faith was two-pronged: questioning the reasons I had for believing and discovering distinct reasons for disbelieving. With regards to general chronology and relative strength, the order of these two elements was in fact reversed, but for stylistic reasons I am presenting them here in the listed order.
II. Reasons to Believe
A. Argument from Miracles
The history of the Catholic Church is filled with volumes upon volumes of accounts of miraculous events of all sorts: healings, apparitions, divine artifacts, extreme fasting, levitation, bilocation, mind-reading, visible Eucharistic transformations, survival of deadly force, resurrections, and even a dancing sun. St. Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican missionary of the 14th and 15th centuries from the Iberian peninsula, is reputed to have performed 40,000 miracles in his lifetime alone, which incidentally only lasted approximately 25,000 days. It's an impressive record, and very effective in quelling the doubts of a young Catholic. Its efficacy in convincing skeptics, however, is almost non-existent and for good reason. There are a number of problems with using miracles to establish the truth of a religion.
I would like to begin by saying that the sheer number of alleged miracles can seem overwhelming until one examines why mistakes, hallucinations, fraud, and forgeries could be so common. We need to understand that there is a long tradition of miracles in Christianity. Jesus Christ performed a number of miracles to establish himself as the messiah and the Son of God. The apostles performed miracles to establish their apostolic authority. Saints are only canonized by the Church after two separate confirmed miracles are attributed to them or their intercession. People in an unscientific age would be less likely to fully investigate an unusual natural occurrence and more likely to mistakenly consider it a miracle. Additionally, miracles brought respect, fame, and fortune that would entice many to try to create their own. There are even so-called pious frauds which are contrived to increase the declining faith of the people. The number of claimed cases itself proves nothing.
The most glaring difficulty with using miracles to establish the truth of a religion is determining whether these events occurred at all. A miracle qua miracle is always the least likely possible explanation of any event. While scientists and historians may be reliable enough to establish the probability of natural events, they are simply not trustworthy enough to establish the occurrence of a supernatural event which violates the basic laws we otherwise never see broken. It is always more likely that the reports are mistaken, fraudulent, or the result of later forgery than that a natural physical law was violated. Whatever the individual case, it's important to remember that there are always other possible explanations that cannot be definitively ruled out so that divine intervention can be firmly established.
Beyond the difficulties of confirming miracles at all, there is also a major problem in that each person in the world would himself need to become an expert in logic, philosophy, linguistics, anthropology, psychology, history, and several other academic fields in order to be as certain as possible that no errors have occurred in the long line of research and reasoning. For while one may trust scientists and historians to establish the likelihood of natural events, one cannot confirm a supernatural occurrence and logically conclude that a certain institution is absolutely infallible on the fallible word of other persons.
The validity of using miracles to establish religious authority depends entirely on the truthfulness of whoever performed the miracle, in most cases assumed to be an omnimax (omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent) deity. This assumption, however, must be challenged. First, the very existence of such a being can be questioned; the problem of evil even suggests that such a being most certainly does not exist. Second, we cannot exclude the possibility of less honest supernatural or even advanced natural extraterrestrial beings performing these miracles. In fact, miracles in religions other than Christianity have sometimes been dismissed as the work of demons. Descartes argues that an omnimax deity would not allow supernatural beings to deceive us. This argument depends on the existence of an omnimax deity and certain knowledge of his will, and fails to consider that this deity does not prevent even other humans from deceiving us into false religions. One would need to exhaustively investigate the numerous miraculous claims in all other religions in case miracles confirm conflicting messages.
Finally, unless we blindly assume that whoever is most intimately connected to the miracle is henceforth absolutely infallible, we need a reliable method of determining when he speaks authoritatively. We cannot allow the authority to define it himself because we do not know whether this definition itself is infallible; the logic would be circular and thus invalid.
I personally consider fulfilled prophecy to be a special subtype of miracle. Everything I have said against miracles applies as well to prophecy, so there is no need to repeat my arguments. Mystical experiences are also of a similar nature to miracles and prophecy: they simply cannot establish an authority that we can trust without questioning. The argument from miracles fails.
B. Argument from Ecclesiastical Stability
The Catholic Church has experienced a certain amount of stability throughout her history. This point is certainly worth noting when studying the Church, but I argue that it cannot be used to establish her supernatural claims. First, the stability is only relative. In comparison to the doctrinal alterations experienced in the short history of Protestantism, yes, the Catholic Church has been quite solid. But in the earliest years of the religion, it was anything but stable. There were a good number of competing factions, teaching and believing very different things. These were not just heretical fringe groups. Often those who held the currently unorthodox positions greatly outnumbered those who eventually established their own beliefs as universal orthodoxy. Real and lasting stability didn't arise until Emperor Constantine converted and instated Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, and at the same time also outlawing all other religions. Now with worldly power, the Church became more and more disinclined to alter doctrines unnecessarily and thereby jeopardize the status and revenue it was accruing. It should be noted that there have always been heretical groups, but that they were unable to establish and maintain themselves indefinitely until the invention of the printing press strengthened their cause against the extremely powerful bureaucracy of the Church. The various inquisitions stand out as rather ungodly methods of maintaining ecclesiastical stability, but we should not forget how effective the economic, social, and spiritual devastation attached to the silent threat of peaceful excommunication could be throughout the history of the Church. We should also note that the Church places extremely stringent limitations on what she considers unchanged in her history. The teachings and attitudes toward non-Christians, for example, have undergone revolutionary changes in recent centuries and expert theologians have had to bend over backward to find some core teaching which fits multiple teachings. Both Vatican Councils have resulted in the birth of many schismatic or semi-schismatic groups in the last two centuries. Why is there such an appearance of instability, both in doctrinal matters and church governance, if there is in fact none?
It is not necessary that I establish the instability of the Catholic Church. It is not even necessary that I demonstrate that her stability is debatable. It is only necessary that I provide natural reasons for the stability she has displayed, and I believe I have done that. The Church's stability is not nearly strong enough to establish the divine origins she claims. If never there had existed any heretics, schismatics, or doctrinal development, if there had never been violent and non-violent threats against heretics and apostates, both in this life and the next, and if there had been only minimal worldly motives for maintaining stability, there would be some plausibility to the idea. But it is simply not the case. The numerous failings of the Church, especially on a grand scale, strongly suggest it is something other than divine. The Church may perhaps be a unique institution in world history, but it has all the markings of a merely human institution nonetheless. The argument from Church stability fails.
III. Reasons to Disbelieve
A. Divine Injustice
1. Original Sin
The doctrine of original sin teaches that all of humanity has been punished for the sin of our earliest ancestors. Punishing an innocent party for the transgressions of another party is clearly unjust. The association we have with the other party was even made without our consent. And even if substitutionary punishment were just, it would at least require the assent of the party to be punished, which we have never granted. No Catholic can argue that original sin is a logical necessity, for the Church teaches that God allowed the Virgin Mary to be conceived without any taint of sin. There exists no reason he could not do the same for each human conceived, who are all as equally innocent as the Virgin Mary before they are born. Original sin is pure injustice.
2. Eternal Punishment
Assuming for the sake of argument that God has the right to punish his creations for their sins, justice demands that the penalty match the severity of the crime. Eternal punishment in hell for temporal sins violates this principle. A human who inflicts a limited amount of unjust suffering will himself experience unimaginable agony for all of eternity. St. Thomas Aquinas recognizes this principle but argues in his famous Summa Theologica that because God is an infinite being, all sins against him are infinite in magnitude. There are two major problems with this idea.
First, God as an infinite being cannot suffer: we cannot do anything to diminish his infinite beatitude in even the slightest degree. The first reason that we imagine that we can is that our natural experiences involve only finite, harmable creatures so we cannot truly conceive of an infinite being. The second reason is that we have been taught that Jesus suffered despite the logical impossibility of the concept.
Second, the Church distinguishes not only between mortal and venial sins, but between transgressions that are inherently more or less grave. If we follow the idea presented by Aquinas, this distinction is totally mistaken; all sins are infinitely grave. One cannot argue that some sins are more infinitely grave than others.
3. Doubt, Disbelief, and Apostasy
Prohibition of doubt in matters of religion and philosophy is nothing more than tyrannical intellectual dishonesty to the extent to which it limits rational inquiry. If one is never allowed to question his own thinking, he will remained trapped in a mental jail which he has constructed for himself with the help of the Church. It should be noted that Church actually encourages members of other faiths to doubt their religions and investigate Christianity. Logical consistency would demand that they discourage them, for many non-Christians are as convinced of the truthfulness of their own religion as are many Christians.
The extent to which our beliefs are willfully held is debatable. I think that most would agree, however, that it is wrong to assume that all non-Christians, at least those sufficiently exposed to Christianity, deliberately choose to disbelieve the faith. Culpability could only be assigned if the non-believer makes the decision with sufficient consciousness and is sufficiently convinced of the truth of the faith prior to the decision. We cannot presume to truly know the mind of even one other person, much less everyone who has encountered Christianity, so it seems absurd to uniformly condemn all of those who refuse their assent to the faith.
The condemnation of apostasy rests entirely on the condemnation of disbelief. There is no reason to prohibit the discontinuation of the practice of a religion which one no longer believes.
4. Biblical Atrocities
The Bible is full of stories of violent injustice of all types committed by God, commanded by God, rewarded by God, or looked favorably upon by God: wars of conquest, slaughter of innocent men, women, and children, divine plagues, looting, slavery, death penalty for minor infractions, and a worldwide flood. The Skeptic's Annotated Bible is an excellent reference to Biblical violent injustice.
B. Divine Imperfect Benevolence
1. Prayer and Blessing
Prayers of petition are completely incompatible with the idea of an omnimax deity. With perfect knowledge, power, and benevolence, we would expect God to provide us with all of the good things we need simply because he loves us. Petitionary prayer implies that God would refrain from granting you or someone else something if you failed to ask for it. Would even a human parent fail to prepare dinner for his child if the child did not specifically ask for it, or would he cook one because he knows that is what is best for the child? Would he not attempt to catch his child falling from a tree and prevent a broken bone unless the child yelled for help, or would he try his hardest to prevent injury to his beloved child? When someone prays, for instance, that God grant him a safe journey and protect him from harm, he is essentially asking his all-loving Creator to prevent any injury that he would have allowed to happen to him if he had not made this petition. If God knows what is best for us and is completely capable of and willing to giving it to us, why ask him for anything? If he desires that we humble ourselves before him, there are other ways of doing that without making his blessings conditional.
The absolute disparity of the blessings bestowed upon each individual is normally answered by saying that God will judge each individual according to what he did with what he had and that God always judges perfectly fairly. Why not grant everyone the same blessings in this life? Why allow it to appear as though he does not exist and that blessings are randomly distributed? These questions prove nothing, but they do force one to ponder the situation. Regardless, I am often made sick when a rich person in a rich nation attributes some minor blessing to God on account of his faith and prayers when the same God allows thousands of orphaned, exploited, abused, malnourished, homeless, innocent children to die in filthy gutters around the world every single day.
2. Arbitrary Salvation
Salvation is a very highly disputed issue among Christians, with many contradictory opinions held fiercely by different groups. The requirement for salvation in the Catholic Church, however, is that one must die in a state of grace. One enters a state of grace by baptism, and if he should fall into a state of sin by committing a mortal sin, he must make a sacramental confession to a Catholic priest and receive God's forgiveness. This remains the teaching about what is necessary for believing Catholics. Over the years, the Church seems to have gone from condemning every single non-Catholic to hell to throwing her hands up into the air and making extremely vague statements about hoping for the salvation of even non-Christians. This is evidence of doctrinal instability, but the recent equivocation is almost impossible to criticize because it cannot be clearly formulated. There are, however, a number of serious problems with the clear teaching.
First, the time of death becomes disproportionately significant. One may lead a life of exemplary piety and faith, commit a single mortal sin in his dying moments, and be condemned to eternal fire. Alternatively, one may lead a life of debauchery and violence, sincerely repent in his dying moments, and be welcomed to eternal paradise, though admittedly having to spend a long time in purgatory beforehand. One may walk out of a church, having made a good and honest confession and thus in a state of grace, consent to one impure thought on the way home, get struck by lightning immediately afterward, and be condemned to hell. If the lightning had struck one minute earlier, he would have enjoyed the delights of heaven. It is completely arbitrary. Though I do not accuse the Church of having crafted the doctrine deliberately, they could not have designed one more favorable to her power: the faithful must diligently be cautious to remain in a state of grace lest their lives be wasted, while infidels are offered the chance to have their eternal condemnation voided and receive eternal paradise if they return to the Church, enter a state of grace, and die in the same. To remain in a state of grace, a Catholic must, among many other things, attend Mass on all holy days of obligation and generally contribute money to the Church.
Second, since the Church distinguishes between more and less grave sins, as discussed earlier, absurd lines must be drawn within sins that are not inherently grave. Theft is more or less grave depending on the circumstance such that, all other things being equal, stealing a small amount is generally venial in nature whereas stealing a large amount is mortal in nature. The line is sometimes drawn at an amount equal to one day's wages for the victim, but the specifics of the line are unimportant to my point. What is significant is that there does exist some line that separates two amounts which differ in the smallest monetary unit used, which would be a penny here in the United States. Let's say in one particular case that the line is drawn at $100.00. If you are in a state of grace, steal $99.99, and die immediately afterward, you would commit only a venial sin and thus go to heaven. All other things being equal, if you steal $100.00, you will commit a mortal sin and thus go to hell. Must a line be drawn? We humans must draw lines somewhere in government and business, but certainly an omnimax God could devise a superior system for determining whether we are granted entrance to paradise or to a lake of fire.
Third, the teaching allows for practically absurd scenarios to arise. Let's say that Person A hates Person B. Person A not only wants to murder Person B, but he wants to try to have him condemned to hell. Person B is a faithful Catholic and we can assume, for the sake of the story, that he would achieve salvation if Person A does not interfere. Person A, however, deliberately and successfully attempts to corrupt the morals of Person B, by encouraging and tempting him to commit various mortal sins and lose his state of grace. So Person B cheats on his wife by sleeping with a prostitute, and Person A kills Person B immediately afterward. Person B is now in hell and will remain there forever. Person A, however, can theoretically repent of his sins, go to confession, enter a state of grace, die in the same, and be rewarded with heaven for all eternity.
Fourth, with one's eternal fate always hanging in the balance, the Catholic teaching on salvation can easily lead to obsession with death, sin, and hell, if taken completely seriously. The stakes are simply too high to relax. One can diligently study Catholic morality, examine his conscience, meet with his confessor and still have doubts about the condition of his soul, whether he should go to confession when available or whether he should refrain from receiving communion. Confessors can confidently instruct their penitents to consider doubt equivalent to being no sin, but the obsession with the infinite cannot be so easily reined in. One doubts whether he should trust his confessor. He doubts whether he doubts and then fears that he claims doubts where none exist in order to excuse himself. It always seems safer to go to confession whenever possible and always refrain from communion. Can one live with the eternal consequences if he really does culpably excuse himself? Everyone does this every day when dealing with their earthly lives: we aren't certain that our food isn't poisoned, but we would rather risk our lives than ruin them obsessing over the extremely small chance of being poisoned. When you throw infinity into the equation, however, everything becomes skewed. No behavior becomes too radical. One can derive absolutely no comfort in hell by reminding himself that it was extremely unlikely that he was in a state of mortal sin when he in fact was. His choice to attend a sporting event instead of confession on one afternoon resulted in his eternal damnation; he would have been better off for the rest of his existence if he had played it safe. What's more, petitionary prayer implies that a decision to go to bed early one evening rather than spending ten minutes asking God for the gift of final penitence could eventually result in one's damnation. The Catholic teaching on salvation, if taken seriously, can easily lead to a life of obsessive-compulsive behavior. Although one can rightly argue that canonized saints certainly took the teachings of the Church seriously, it does not mean that they followed all of the teachings to their logical conclusions. The phenomenon of scrupulosity is extremely rare among canonized saints even though it affects a number of fairly devout believers. Since I have found no response to this issue, I hypothesize that canonized saints generally do not have obsessive personalities, allowing them to avoid obsession, while people who do are prevented from achieving sainthood precisely because of their personalities. I welcome research on this topic.
3. Superior Alternative Plans
Devising superior alternatives to what the Church teaches is God's divine plan of salvation is surprisingly easy. If we believe that God desires that every person be saved and avoid eternal damnation, we simply seek ways to achieve this objective while attempting to avoid compromises with different divine desires.
First, we must understand that Christians place great importance on free will and consider it logically impossible without the ability to determine our eternal fate. Christians, however, also believe two very significant things about heaven: First, no saint ever sins. Second, every saint has free will. This means that free will and not sinning are entirely compatible, which itself means that God could have created us in a state similar to heaven in which we have all the benefits of free will without anyone being damned to hell. There is no reason to think that an omnimax deity would have some other motive that would have been worth letting many of his beloved creatures suffer eternally.
Second, God could have chosen to refrain from placing temporal limits on his mercy. Catholics believe one has his entire life to enter and remain in a state of grace, and once he dies, he has no more chances. There is no reason to imagine that souls in hell cannot repent. On the contrary, they have more reasons than ever to do so. If they can repent, why would God not accept their repentance and forgive their sins, as he would joyfully have done one second before they breathed their last breath? If they can't repent, why would he remove them from the earth where repentance is always possible? The only response I have encountered is that, given an infinite amount of time to repent, all souls would achieve salvation and no one could really choose eternal torture. It is presented as though that's a bad thing! I am not convinced that an infinite number of opportunities necessitates that something will occur, but infinity is a difficult concept to grasp and apply, so I will grant this point for the sake of argument. Regardless, the one choice to repent, whenever it happens, would still be absolutely free and free will in that sense would still be maintained. Does it really matter that everyone is fated to freely accept God's love and live with him in perfect happiness for all eternity? Why would God allow us to freely choose eternal torture when he could have achieved all known objectives without a single soul in hell forever?
Third, assuming the principle that infinite chances equals necessary occurrence, God could have chosen to extend the lives of humans until they enter a state of grace and then allow them to die immediately, assuring their salvation. This plan is actually superior to the second because no one would have to suffer in hell even temporarily!
Fourth, God could have chosen to deny humans free will. Many, if not all, souls in hell would have preferred to have no free will if they had known they would be condemned to eternal torment. Unless this desire is irrational, there is no reason to suppose God would act against their wishes. Would a human parent hand his suicidal child a loaded gun so that he can freely choose whether to live or die? Or would he act in the best interest of the child and not give him that free choice? Why would God act differently?
Fifth, God could have chosen to annihilate the souls that now go to hell. I do not accept the explanation that because God wills them to be eternal, he cannot destroy them. Even if that were so, God would still have known better than to make creatures who will find themselves better off not existing. Who would prefer to suffer unimaginable pain for eternity than to be annihilated? If God is the source of all happiness, what is the point in existing without him forever?
C. Implausibility as Divine Plan
God becomes incarnate, suffers an execution to cancel a debt of justice to himself, incurred by his creatures by violating rules that he himself decreed. Paying someone else's monetary debts is certainly possible, but paying someone else's debts of justice is just not possible. Allowing someone to suffer in another's place for punishment is not possible for humans, and there is no reason why it would be logically possible for God either. Debts of justice are inherently non-transferrable.
Christians accept the importance of faith, ironically, as a matter of faith. Never have I encountered an explanation why one's salvation depends so heavily on believing a certain set of propositions true that made any semblance of sense. The best attempt casts it as a matter of personal trust in God, but there are two major defects of this explanation. First, it completely fails to address the fact that non-believers don't believe God exists, so any discussion of trust in him is nonsensical. Second, trust is not something that is freely chosen. If one believes he can trust someone, then trust is not praiseworthy. If one believes he cannot trust someone, then mistrust is not blameworthy. The issue of belief is central and cannot be replaced with trust. Let us examine an example to illustrate. One day a man is sitting at home and he receives a telephone call. The voice at the other end is unfamiliar, but the speaker claims to be a billionaire second cousin that the man has never met or even heard of. He says that if the man sends him all the money from his savings account within twenty-four hours, he will give him ten million dollars, but if he does not, he will receive nothing. He gives the man some reasons to suggest he is legitimate, but there are problems with his story that the man cannot resolve. He asks the man just to trust him despite the difficulties. Let's say for the sake of the story that this offer is legitimate. Would the man be blameworthy for not believing this story without sufficient evidence simply because it turned out to be true? Then why do Christians consider non-Christians not just blameworthy but deserving of eternal torment for not believing the story of Jesus without sufficient evidence simply because it turned out to be true? If someone does not believe one's important message, is it better to enlighten him to best of one's ability or to torture him forever?
One story from the Gospels presents us with an interesting question. Why is the Apostle Thomas' doubt indulged by Jesus and he later considered a saint whereas later doubters were condemned, excommunicated, and occasionally tortured and executed? Why are we not justified in saying that we will not believe until we can examine Jesus' wounds ourselves?
The Bible reports that the Jews are the chosen people of God. Christians view the Jews as being chosen primarily to prepare the way of Jesus to save the entire world. This presents some problems that are difficult to answer. Why did God institute the Mosaic Law if it was going to be rejected by the Christian Church? If it was salvific, then why replace it? If it was not salvific, then why institute it at all? Also, since most Jews, both in the time portrayed in the Gospel and ever since, have rejected Jesus as the messiah, why did God guard over them for three thousand years? Why would the chosen people be so unlikely to accept the message of their own messiah, who was the purpose of their entire existence? There is nothing definitive here, but it does cause one to question the plausibility of the story.
4. Biblical Problems
The Bible is full of material which suggests it is the work of humans and not of God: contradictions, failed prophecies, scientific errors, religious intolerance, misogyny, racism, sexual perversion, and blatant absurdities. I recommend The Skeptic's Annotated Bible as an excellent reference to Biblical imperfections.
5. Human or Divine?
The story of Christianity, and especially of Jesus, has all of the markings of a purely human phenomenon.
- similarities to god-men in other religions
- divine father, human mother
- gathered apostles
- suffered for the sins of humans
- resurrected from dead
- ascended into heaven
- message not proclaimed universally
- attested to by small, unoriginal, unverifiable miracles
- recorded by men decades after death with many imperfections
- Christians themselves deeply divided into many sects
- still has not reached all persons
- superior alternatives absurdly easily devised
- doubted by those who knew him best
- St. John the Baptist
- return expected imminently for millennia still not accomplished
We can either conclude that God had some mysterious motivation for letting his perfect divine plan appear like a human-made religion, or that Christianity is a human-made religion. The choice is clear to me.
IV. Faith Paradigms
I have examined all of the major reasons I had for believing and have rejected all of them as insufficient for establishing the truth of the Catholic faith. At this point, some readers may be thinking that I have missed the entire point of religion: that it's about faith in that which you cannot prove, not about logic and science. Allow me to respond to this.
I had no definitive understanding of faith until high school when I acquired one, which I call the rationalistic faith paradigm, that differs from what appears to be the official position of the Catholic Church. The rationalistic claim is that one can firmly prove the truth of the Catholic faith using only reason and sense perception. That is, one can establish the authenticity of the Gospels, the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the divinity of Jesus as the Christ, the establishment of the Catholic Church, and the certain meaning of the promise of the Holy Spirit to guide the Church, all without any appeal to faith. One normally cites the reasons I have examined and rejected above, often called the motives of credibility, as the evidence. Having demonstrated the Catholic Church to be a divinely inspired, infallible authority, we can accept as definitively certain what the Church presents for our belief. Faith is merely a matter of trust and assent to the authority that one has discovered through rational inquiry, and thus in its foundations is completely rationalistic.
What I call the mystical faith paradigm approximates the teachings of the Catholic Church to the best of my knowledge, though I am certainly open to correction and clarification. It presents all of the same motives of credibility as the rationalistic faith paradigm, and with the same intention of arguing for the reasonableness of faith, but it makes more modest claims regarding the effectiveness of this sort of reasoning. It does not claim that these motives of credibility actually prove the faith, but that they are nonetheless strong arguments in its favor and help incline the individual to believe. The mystical faith paradigm differs from the rationalistic primarily in its insistence on faith being a supernatural grace granted at God's good pleasure. Thus our faith is based on supernatural grace, not on the motives of credibility.
While imperfect and mistaken, neither paradigm is particularly troublesome until one considers the Church's condemnation of unbelief. St. Thomas Aquinas, widely considered the greatest philosopher and theologian in the history of the Church, in his famous Summa Theologica, boldly states that unbelief is the worst of all sins, thus saying that not believing in Christ is worse than murder, without providing any clear reasons why it's sinful in the first place.
Under the rationalistic paradigm, which I repeat is not accepted by the Church but under which I operated for many years, the condemnation would imply that the Catholic faith is so obviously true and divine that anyone who encounters the arguments in its favor will, without exception, believe it's the one true religion. Failing to profess the faith becomes a morally culpable choice to ignore the truth. This is so obviously absurd, and additionally irrelevant, that I will discuss it no further.
Under the mystical paradigm, the condemnation implies that God grants the mystical “light of divine faith” to people of good will who encounter the arguments in favor of the faith so that they can believe, even though the arguments themselves are not completely sufficient in themselves. In fact, it is even said that the arguments are totally insufficient without this grace! This is slightly more difficult to address because of its mystical nature, but not much more. The first objection is that people, in general at least, are not consciously aware of the offer of divine grace, thus it is impossible to make a willful decision to accept or reject it. An act must be willful in order to be sinful, but the supposed worst sin of all is not willful, nor even conscious. The second objection is equally damaging: the only reason we have to believe in the existence of the light of divine faith is the authority of the Church, and the only reason we have to believe in the authority of the Church is the existence of the light of divine faith!
Anyone can present insufficient arguments for any faith, claim there is an undetectable and mysterious light of divine faith, and then condemn all unbelievers for rejecting something they don't have sufficient reasons for believing even exists. Should we take seriously everyone who makes such a claim and tremble in fear of displeasing a deity that we're supposed to believe without sufficient evidence and of burning forever in that religion's hell? Then why should we take the Church's threats seriously? If the evidence does not firmly establish an infallible authority, and I argue that in principle and for more reasons than I present in this essay that one can never be established, then we can ignore anything that is not supported by evidence.
Whether intuition and feelings, however, constitute sufficient reason for believing something falls within the jurisdiction of the individual, but I personally do not trust my own intuition enough to decide that a particular comprehensive metaphysical belief system is absolutely, objectively, and universally true and live the only life that I know that I have according to its teachings. If anything, my intuition tells me that Christianity is a purely human and historical phenomenon, not a divine religion instituted by an omnimax deity.
Having demolished all of my former reasons for believing, discovered numerous significant, unresolved difficulties, alternate explanations which make much more sense, and established that believing on faith unacceptable, my belief had disappeared. My desire for intellectual honesty and my sufferings from scrupulosity had lead me on an extensive search for the truth. My deeply ingrained fear of hell resulted in prolonging it for several months after I could no longer profess the creed. The threat of infinite suffering as infinite, discussed earlier, had not lost all of its power. Eventually, however, I mustered the courage to say to myself, “If there exists a deity who will punish me forever for rejecting something as absurd, implausible, and disgusting as Christianity, then so be it.”
Today is Thanksgiving Day in the United States. Although this thanks has always been directed primarily toward God, it's not considered a religious holiday and it belongs to people of all religions and of no religion. Americans generally do not attend religious services on this day and the only common religious ritual is a somewhat lengthened prayer before the feast of turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, yams, mashed potatoes, corn and pumpkin pie. There is no well-known Thanksgiving prayer and each gathering often has its own unique invocation.
There is another common tradition before Thanksgiving dinner. Each person in attendance mentions one or more things for which they are grateful. My own family, however, does not participate in this practice, but I would like to present my list here:
- intellectual freedom
- political freedom
- financial prosperity
Apostasy and deconversion refer to related but distinct concepts in changing one's religion. They differ not only in denotation, but also in connotation and in regular usage. Apostasy is the willful, external and often public act of leaving a religion, especially a religious organization such as a church. It often suggests betrayl and even treachery by those who reject their former religion, and it is less commonly used by those who do it themselves. Deconversion, in contrast, is the unwillful, internal and usually private process of losing one's belief in the claims of religion, often over the course of many months or even years. It carries no negative connotation, and it is almost exclusively used by former believers who are now non-theists. (People who leave one religion in order to adopt another simply refer to their conversion to their new religion, and their experiences are very different from those who label themselves deconverts.)
Through discussions with other deconverts, I have discovered that my experiences in the aftermath of my deconversion and apostasy are rather dissimilar to those of many others. In particular, it seems that many believers enjoyed a considerable amount of comfort and consolation from their belief in gods and from their religious communities, and that leaving their religion resulted in a feeling of true loss. For my own part, I never felt close to God in any of his personas, nor to the saints to whom I often prayed, nor to the people with whom I worshiped every week. Deconversion was a difficult process, though certainly no more difficult than my nightmarish experiences as a scrupulant, and resulted ultimately in a feeling of freedom and peace. Apostasy was mostly uneventful, consisting only in the decision not to attend Mass, go to confession, or pray anymore, and was pleasant in that I no longer felt that I had any religious obligations which would consume my free time and interfere with my plans. At no point did I ever feel like I had lost something.
I have never been a spiritual person, even when I was a devout Catholic. My approach to religion was rationalistic and legalistic. I believed that logical argumentation proved that God exists and that miracles proved that the Catholic faith was the true religion. I never really felt faith like many do and almost never felt the spirit of God. I certainly never developed a relationship with God and never truly loved him. Then and now it appears that one is only interacting with one's own imagination and intellect. My primary emotions toward God were fear and resentment. I was deathly afraid of eternal torture and I resented him for threatening me and for simultaneously demanding that I love him. In this regard, my deconversion can be likened to finding out that a bully who has tormented you during your entire life has suddenly moved to the other side of the world, never to bother you again. God was never my friend and I didn't mourn his passing.
I have also never been a particularly social person. Although I attended Mass every week for twenty-five years, I cannot recall making a single friend from this activity by meeting people before, during, or after the service. I did make some friends from a couple other activities at church, but I was never very involved in my parish outside of my volunteering teaching a language class during my college years. (I continued to teach at the parish and help people despite my apostasy until it conflicted with my work schedule.) Church was never a real social network for me and when I stopped attending Mass, my life did not suffer in that manner either.
I consider myself fortunate not to have suffered any sense of loss upon my deconversion and apostasy. For me, they were positive experiences and the best of my life.
The 2002 film adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic novel The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my all-time favorite movies. While the book itself is one of my favorite pieces of literature, I enjoy the shortened and simplified plot of the film even more than the original storyline. It presents a tale about betrayal, revenge and redemption, with plenty of action, adventure, romance and comedy. Although it hardly affects my enjoyment of the film, I find its generally theistic overtures and its negative portrayal of atheists worthy of comment. Two characters are portrayed as atheists at some point in the film:
At the beginning of the story Dantes is a theist, presumably a Catholic, who is happy with his life. Upon his imprisonment at the Chateau d’If, he prays to God and even continues work on an inscription in the wall begun by a previous inmate which reads, “God will give me justice.” At a moment of despair, Dantes attempts to commit suicide by hanging himself with a piece of cloth, but he relents when he reads the inscription. Eventually, however, he loses his faith in God. After seven years alone, Dantes meets Abbé Faria, who tunneled his way into Dantes’ cell mistakenly thinking he was moving toward the outer wall. When Faria explains that he himself has had only God as company until that moment, Dantes responds, “There is no talk of God in here, priest.” Faria asks about the inscription on the wall, and Dantes explains, “It's faded, just as God has faded from my heart.” Faria then asks what has replaced it and Dantes answers, “Revenge.” Revenge is indeed Dantes’ motive throughout the rest of the film. He strangles Armand Dorleac to death during his escape, he spends three months as a smuggler with Luigi Vampa, he tricks an innocent Albert Mondego into thinking he saved him in order to advance his motives, he entraps Philippe Danglars into committing a crime and being imprisoned, he manages to have J.F. Villefort unknowingly confess his involvement in the murder of his own father and be imprisoned, and he forces a showdown with Fernand Mondego whom he eventually kills in self-defense. Toward the end of the film, Mercedes displays her interest in a new relationship with Dantes, but he asks her not to take away his anger because that is all he has. She tells him, “God has offered us a new beginning. Don't slap His hand away.” He responds, “Can I never escape Him?” They do re-establish their relationship and he feels he has found happiness once more. Finally, at the very end of the film Dantes stands on the edge of a cliff at the Chateau d’If and acknowledges his renewed belief in God and promises to use his enormous fortune only for good from that point forward.
Dorleac is the prison warden of the Chateau d’If, the island prison where Dantes is wrongfully held in solitary confinement for fourteen years. Although we know nothing of his history, Dorleac is portrayed as a cruel and pitiless man who mocks the idea of God. He readily admits to Dantes that he knows that all of the prisoners are innocent because only inmates of which the government is ashamed are sent to his facility. Nevertheless, he treats them viciously, giving them a severe beating on the day of their arrival and on the anniversary of their arrival each year. Before Dantes’ first beating, Dorleac says to him, “If you're thinking to yourself just now, ‘Why me, O God?’ the answer is God has nothing to do with it. In fact, God is never in France this time of year.” When Dantes counters, “God has everything to do with it. He's everywhere. He sees everything,” Dorleac responds, “All right. Let's make a bargain, shall we? You ask God for help and the moment he shows up, I'll stop.” Additionally, Dorleac scoffs at the inscription in Dantes’ cell while acquainting him with it. As mentioned above, he is murdered by Dantes during his escape.
Misconceptions and Stereotypes Reinforced
- Atheists really do believe in God. Atheists are just angry at God. Dantes believes in God when he is happy, doesn't believe in God when he is miserable and angry, and believes in God once more when he is happy again. He references his desire to “escape” God to Mercedes.
- Atheists are evil people. Dantes commits many violent, deceitful and vengeful acts only during the time he claims not to believe in God. Dorleac is a cruel man who beats the inmates in his prison.
- People usually get what they deserve in the end. Dantes and Mercedes, who were both innocent of any misdeeds prior to Dantes’ imprisonment, end up happy together with their son and an enormous unearned fortune. Dorleac, Danglars, Villefort, and Fernand Mondego end up either imprisoned or dead. Faria dies in prison, but he was very old and Dantes’ return to God vindicates his opinion in the end.
- Both implied sexual encounters between Dantes and Mercedes within the film would be considered mortal sins. The first sexual encounter on the beach near the beginning of the film was fornication. According to Catholic dogma, it's sinful even though they were soon to be married. The second sexual encounter is adultery because Mercedes is still married to Fernand at the time. Again, according to Catholic dogma, it's very sinful. I also find it very odd that lying in bed after the adulterous act, Dantes stares at a painting on the ceiling of the Virgin Mary ascending to heaven without feeling awkward.
- Dantes’ repentance is false. The audience is expected to be sympathetic to Dantes’ vengeance, especially given that Dantes would have be killed if he didn't join the band of smugglers, that Danglars and Villefort were very rightfully imprisoned, that the murder of Dorleac may have been necessary to escape, and that Fernand Mondego was eventually killed in self-defense after being allowed to flee. The audience is expected at the end of the film, however, to consider them wrong when Dantes repents of them. This presents us with a dilemma which the film does not resolve in its attempt to portray theism in a positive light: If the acts were justified, then repentance is unnecessary and thus a moral charade. If the acts were not justified, then Dantes is wrong to enjoy their fruits. He is happy with his situation, having regained his beloved, the son he didn't know he had, and an unimaginable fortune. It's simply too convenient to get what you want by sinning, repent after have gotten it, yet keep it without a twinge of conscience. One cannot expect him to reject Mercedes and Albert now, but it does not seem unreasonable that he should donate the remaining Spada treasure to charity which, while not unjustly obtained, was completely unearned, and undertake some serious repentance.
Posted at 3:00 PM
Today is the second anniversary of my apostasy from the Catholic Church. As detailed below, I had experienced almost four months of an emotionally tumultuous deconversion by 3 October 2004. It was on that day that I attended Mass for the last time, that I found and extensively read an excellent website by a Catholic apostate which addressed my concerns quite directly, and that I decided to completely reject the Catholic faith. I have only been inside any church twice since that day: once in November 2004 to attend the baptism of one of my nieces and once in June 2005 to accompany my girlfriend who wanted to see the inside of the admittedly beautiful church where I used to be a parishioner. I have not prayed, I have not read scripture, I have not meditated, I have not repented and I have not returned to the Church at all. I have shown that I don't need any belief in the supernatural to lead a happy life.
The anniversary of another very important day occurs on either 5 June or 12 June. That was the day when I shared an enlightening conversation with a good friend, who had apostatized in the preceding years, which encouraged me to begin my investigation into the claims of Catholicism and actively pursue the doubt which had lain dormant in my mind for several years. The date is uncertain because I didn't make any written note of the conversation at the time. The earliest record documenting my religious difficulties during this time period is found on 18 June and I clearly remember the conversation taking place on a Saturday afternoon in the parking lot of a restaurant in another city during that month.
The past two years have been, without the slightest doubt, the best of my adult life. Sincere belief in the Catholic faith colored my entire existence for six years and made me miserable, full of fear, anxiety, and even loneliness. I have recounted the details in my first entry in this blog and I will not repeat them here, and I will only say that the removal of that dark, threatening cloud of doom hanging over my head alone rendered my life almost infinitely happier. Indeed, atheism itself does little to advance human happiness except by its service of demolishing the false hopes and fears of religion. Nevertheless, I celebrate my atheism for liberating me from the chains of religion and granting me the freedom to truly live in the light of reason.
Posted at 3:00 PM
I am pleased to announce that this blog may now be found using the domain SecularPlanet.org! Both .com and .info of the same name have been registered since I established this website five and a half months ago, though I doubt that my choice of names influenced the interest in those domains, and I wanted to secure this domain before it became unavailable. The domain is currently a redirect to the current host, though I am considering finding alternate hosting in the near future.
As though the well-publicized, disturbingly violent reactions of Muslims around the world to mere verbal and iconic criticism of Islam as a violent religion were not proof enough, I have another example of Muslim immunity to irony.
In a previous entry I mentioned that I had posted a film adaptation of my story The Judgement of God at Secular Planet Cinema. While it received some positive feedback, presumably from the nonreligious, it also soon became a favorite of some Muslim viewers who mistook my anti-religious film as a pro-Islam film simply because I used an extremely superficial assumption that Islam is true within the story in order to criticize Christianity more directly. In the film, I portrayed Allah in the most negative light imaginable: he was irrational, angry, cruel, vengeful, hypocritical, and dishonest. An educated western viewer was expected to realize that everything he said and did could also be attributed to Yahweh and Jesus, thus attacking Christianity as equally demented. Despite my having never picked up the Qur’an at the time of the story's authorship, my film met with unanimous approval from the Muslims who watched the film. I have since learned that Islamic scriptures are no less violent, intolerant, and hypocritical, simply more tedious and disorganized. The Muslims completely failed to realize that their religion was being mocked when I placed the violent words in Allah's own mouth and the violent deed in Allah's own hands, depicting him as an absolute monster! As remarkable as this was, it was not the end of the irony.
The film was originally posted at the company website of the software package I used to create the film. While it received some positive feedback, it was eventually removed by the administrators, depsite the fact that violated absolutely no terms of the service agreement, at the prompting of another nonreligious user who objected to it on grounds that it was intolerant. This person specifically cited my portrayl of Allah as an evil, idiotic tyrant in his complaint. That Muslims themselves complimented me and even praised Allah for my work is purely delicious irony. Nevertheless, this is an excellent example of moderates attempting to impede the progress of secularism by demanding, despite their own disbelief, that ancient myth and superstition be totally beyond question and criticism.
I eventually removed the film because, despite the irony, the acclaim of Muslims was not the desired reaction in writing the story.
Posted at 11:30 PM
Although I lack the patience to create anagrams by hand, I enjoy using online anagram generators to discover alternate arrangements of letters of names of people and organizations. Due to its moderate length and the absence of uncommon letters, the name of this blog is rich with possibilities and may be rearranged into several interesting anagrams. I recently found two which deserve special comment because they represent the two opposing worldviews which are its focus of discussion and which may be found in this post's title.
This anagram represents religion. In religions with a heaven, such as Christianity and Islam, life on this planet is seen as nothing more than a temporary testing-ground for eternity. In religions with reincarnation, such as Hinduism, life is seen as nothing more as a temporary testing-ground for a future life. As such, in either case, our lives are disposable and of limited worth. Such a devaluation of human life creates an apathy toward suffering in this world and a willingness to sacrifice this life for the false promise of another life. Rental capsule thus represents theists' attitude toward their bodies and their planet.
This anagram represents secularism. Religion has been a major source of violence throughout history to this very day. Religion is primary point of antagonism in Palestine (Jews vs. Muslims), Iraq (Sunnis vs. Shiites), Northern Ireland (Catholics vs. Protestants), Kashmir (Hindus vs. Muslims), Sri Lanka (Buddhists vs. Hindus), Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Indonesia and the Philippines (Christians vs. Muslims), the Balkans (Catholics vs. Orthodox vs. Muslims), and the Caucasus (Catholics vs. Orthodox vs. Muslims). Let us not forget that religion is also the primary motivation behind Islamic terrorism which has struck too many nations to list. Communism in China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, promoted as irrationally and as dogmatically as any authentic religion, is the other significant source of tension and potential violence in our world. Imagine, however, a world in which these memes have all vanished: a peaceful and harmonious existence emerges as people begin to see each other as human persons and not as infidels whose very existence offends their gods. Religion is the disease and secularism is the cure. Neutral places thus represents a truly secular planet, free from religion and superstition.
Posted at 3:30 PM
I am pleased to announce the opening of Secular Planet Cinema, a collection of short films on secular topics written, directed, performed, recorded, and produced by the author of Secular Planet. The first film released is The Judgement of God, an adapatation of the story and post of the same name. I hope to bring you more short films in the future.
The following is the fifth in a series of writings which I have composed previously. It is a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. It was written and published in May 2005.
Dear Editor,It received no direct responses from other readers.
The most relevant point to the discussion about intelligent design is that it simply is not science. ID is the argument from ignorance in its purest form. Evolution allegedly cannot offer a complete explanation for some phenomenon, therefore God must have done it. This offers no more insight than just saying it's magic - it contributes absolutely nothing to our understanding. If we are unable to explain something today, one is not justified in saying that we will never be able to explain it. ID is not science but rather surrender to ignorance.
We do not fully understand the nature of black holes, for example, but in the face of incomplete understanding, no one suggests that we chalk up their behavior to a supernatural act of God and stop searching for a physical explanation. The only reason that anyone does so with respect to evolution is that his worldview is threatened by a naturalistic explanation for life. The force behind ID is not scientific, but purely religious and political.
While ID theoretically could be correct about the origins of life, such a truth would remain outside the realm of science, which deals with the natural and not the supernatural. As such, ID is a theological idea which doesn't belong in a science classroom any more than the ideas of karma, atonement, or transubstantiation.
Posted at 11:20 PM
The following is the fourth in a series of writings which I have composed previously. It was written in December 2004.
I never realized how much Christians attempt to use public institutions to promote their religion and regard any opposition as an attempt “to take Christ out of Christmas.” (I suppose Catholics could accuse Protestants of attempting “to take Mass out of Christmas.”) This perception is simply not true. Secularists do not question the right of Christians or anyone else to celebrate as they wish in their churches, homes, and private businesses. They only oppose the use of their tax dollars to finance someone else's religious observances. Why is this so difficult for many to understand? Being the majority doesn't mean one can trample on the rights of the minority. There are two basic principles, to which any person can reasonably subscribe:
- One may use private resources to celebrate any religious observance.
- One may not use public resources to celebrate any religious observance.
Axial tilt is the reason for the season.
Posted at 11:15 PM
The following is the third in a series of writings which I have composed previously. It was written in November 2004. It has been slightly edited to maintain privacy.
I have listened to a local easy listening music radio station operated by a small private business college for more than a dozen years. Each weekday, they present a short segment by one of the producers in which he presents some various thoughts of the day. Sometimes they are philosophical, sometimes they are humorous, sometimes they are civic, and sometimes they are religious. Today's was religious or, more accurately, anti-atheistic. The basic story he presented can be found at Snopes Urban Legends, though I must acknowledge that he did not falsely identify the student as Albert Einstein. In response to today's commentary, I sent the following e-mail:
Mr. (name removed),No response was ever received.
I am writing in reference to your commentary of 19 November 2004, the story of the atheist professor and the Christian student who silences him with an ancient theodicy that this professor has somehow never encountered in his lifetime.
If anyone thinks that he has solved the problem of evil by such philosophical legerdemain, then he is greatly mistaken. Anyone who believes that the existence of murder, rape, theft, and disease-causing bacteria can be dissolved by defining them as “the absence of good” is not being intellectually honest but is rather seeking a cheap defense of his religious beliefs. It supposedly answers the Epicurean paradox by challenging the fourth proposition, that evil exists, but it is only satisfactory to those who will accept any answer rather than consider the idea that he is mistaken in his religious beliefs. Further, if he thinks he has found some brilliant new insight, then he is badly in need of religious, philosophical, and historical education. To the best of my knowledge, this response first appeared in the famous Confessions of St. Augustine of Hippo circa 397 CE.
Occasionally the student in the story you told is falsely identified as Albert Einstein. I was pleased that you presented it without this baseless lie; admittedly, it would have not have been dishonesty on your part if you had done so, but it would have been gullible and irresponsible.
I respect everyone's right to believe or disbelieve. I spent the first twenty-five years of my life as a devout Catholic Christian before I faced my fears, questioned my reasons for believing, and realized that my belief in the divinity of Christ was an untenable tradition I had been taught since my youth. My point is that I know what it is like on both sides of the fence.
Here is my bottomline: I resent and protest your depiction of an atheist professor as an ignorant buffoon. If you want to promote Christianity or even criticize non-theism, I have no objections whatsoever. I consider unfair mockery, however, to be outside the realm of good taste and respectfulness for even a privately owned radio station. I have been a faithful listener of (station removed) for more than half of my short life and never have I been as displeased as I am today.
With Utmost Sincerity,
Posted at 11:10 PM
The following is the second in a series of writings which I have composed previously. It was written in October 2004.
Religion is unique among the phenomena of human existence in at least one very important way. Only religion can demand that individuals devote their entire lives to it and get away with it: Go to church more often. Spend more time in prayer. Eat less and go hungry. Read more religious books. Give more money to the church. Give more money to charities. Spend more time volunteering. Think of yourself as less than dirt and remind yourself that everything bad is your fault and everything good is an undeserved gift from God. Surrender your most precious desires for freedom, family, and possessions to the church and vow to God that you will do this forever.
Nothing is ever good enough for God. He always wants more, more, more. You must always push towards the literally unattainable goal of absolute perfection and never rest; if you stop trying, you might slip up and be tortured in unquenchable fire forever. Imagine if your employer always made you feel guilty and imply that you might suffer eternally if you didn't work longer each day; your school if you didn't write longer reports; retailers if you didn't purchase more products. It's unthinkable. But religion gets away with it because it's “divine” and we “owe” everything to some mysterious hidden creator.
Posted at 11:05 PM
The following story is the first in a series of entries presenting writings which I have composed previously. It was written in October 2004. A film adapation, recorded in January 2006, is available at Secular Planet Cinema.
A Christian dies and ascends to the throne of God for judgment. As he has been a faithful follower of Jesus Christ throughout his entire life, he arrives in the heavenly room filled with much anticipation, knowing that God will reward him for his faith and extensive evangelization. He steps forward toward the bright light, and he hears a loud, deep voice bellow, “I am Allah and Mohammed is my prophet!”
The Christian's jaw drops to the floor, he begins sweating very nervously, and anxiously says, “But, but, what about my sweet Jesus? He said he would testify before the Father on my behalf! Where is he?!?”
Allah responds, “Jesus of Nazareth was just another prophet. I told you so in my holy book; the message was very clear. You chose to believe the lies made up by wicked men about someone who was simply preparing the way for the greatest prophet, Mohammed. I told you that you must have faith in Islam or you would be cast into everlasting fire, but you ignored my commands. I am just and I keep my word. Depart from me, ye cursed polytheistic heathen into neverending torment!”
The Christian shouts out, “Wait! Wait! I didn't know Islam was true! This isn't fair!”
Allah replies, “Why didn't you know? I made it very clear in my book! You knew exactly what I taught because I watched you every moment of your life, so I know you even researched Islam at the library! You cannot claim ignorance!”
The Christian continues, “Yes, that is true, but I didn't think it was actually true! It looked like a myth and there were other explanations that were more reasonable, so I didn't believe it. In the Qu'ran there are contradictions, inconsistencies, atrocities, absurdities, and other things that made me think it was the work of a man.”
Allah retorts, “You filthy liar! My book is absolutely perfect! Your sinfulness blinded you to the truth and made you see difficulties where a holy man would have seen nothing but pure wisdom! I gave you the grace to believe, but you chose not to accept it!”
The Christian pleads, “What?!? When did you give me that grace? I don't remember ever consciously being offered any grace to believe, so how can you condemn me for not accepting it if I wasn't even aware it was present?”
Allah says, “Who are you to question me and my ways!?! How dare you! I am mysterious, way beyond your puny human comprehension. You should have bowed down to the ground and trembled for mercy before the Almighty Allah. If you had just believed in me and trusted in me, then you would have rewarded with paradise. But in your insolence, you exalted your reason and logic above holy faith! And you shall be justly punished forever!”
The Christian desperately begs, “But I didn't know it was true! If I had known it was true, then I surely would have followed you, your prophet, and your holy religion. But I didn't know! That's just not fair!”
Allah continues, “You despicable hypocrite! You were ready to condemn all the followers of the true religion, people of all beliefs, and people of no beliefs to the exact same fate for not following your heathen cult! You even tried to lead my faithful people away from the path of righteousness with your wretched lies by telling them they must convert to your cult or they would be tortured in hell for all eternity! I will not tolerate any more demonic arguments from you, ye evildoer! Depart from my holy presence forever and ever!”
Posted at 11:00 PM
I have recently noticed three signs for churches upon which I would like to comment.
(1) The Pentecostals: The Church of Champions (local church sign)
First, this seems to be modeled after the cereal Wheaties, breakfast of champions. This is so ridiculous that no further comment is necessary. Second, this congregation cannot be very humble if they call themselves champions. Third, it entails that members of other faiths and denominations are losers.
(2) If you can wish, you can believe. (United Methodist Church billboard)
This appears to be saying that faith is nothing more than wishful thinking. This cannot possibly be what they meant, but I don't understand what they did mean and I don't understand how they could ignore the obvious interpretation.
(3) Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. (lettering under local church sign)
I realize that this sentiment is not original, but it deserves comment nonetheless. There are multiple interpretations. The first is, “Christianity is about a relationship with Jesus.” This is a reasonable claim, but that doesn't mean it's not a religion. The second is, “Christianity is true. Religions by definition are false. Therefore, Christianity is not a religion.” I reject the main premise as false, but obviously Christians accept it as true. My main objection is the defintion equating religion with false religion. Now I believe every religion is false, but not by definition.
Posted at 4:30 PM
Although I had read online about the joke that 1 April is “National Atheists Day,” it was not until yesterday that I saw a bumpersticker with this message on a vehicle while driving around town. At the top it had the name of the day, then “April 1st” in large lettering, and then “Psalm 13:1 — The fool hath said in his heart: There is no God.” I fully support the constitutional right of citizens to express their opinions, including views directly antagonistic to mine. I wish to point out, however, that this message is the paragon of “preaching to the choir” as it says nothing more than, “We are smart. They are stupid.” Deprecation of the intelligence of unbelievers is a completely ineffective method of evangelization.
Purely linguistic considerations
- Why is the day national instead of international or even universal?
- Why is atheists plural? It's grammatically incorrect to use a plural in a compound noun.
- Why isn't it Atheism Day? I know of no actual observance that uses the term for the person rather than the idea.
Near the end of last year I noticed that my social life had been particularly active during that time. After about five consecutive years with very few to no dates, I had dates with about ten different women that year. I even had a wonderful relationship with a gorgeous, intelligent, responsible yet delightfully fun-loving and playful woman for about eleven weeks until she moved back home across the sea during the summer. My social life has remained fruitful since I made the observation. Until then, I hadn't pondered why there was such a tremendous change, but upon reflection I soon realized the reason: my deconversion!
When I was a very devout Catholic, I never would have considered dating a non-Catholic since I wanted someone who shared my faith, especially if I were to marry her. More than that, I wouldn't even date a weak or even moderate Catholic since I was so committed to living my life according to absolutely everything the Church taught. This meant that my potential dating pool was extremely small and on the rare occasions when I did find a woman who fit my stringent religious requirements, whom I liked, and who liked me, she almost always lived far away. This all meant that I didn't really date for about five years because of my religion.
I wouldn't have dated any of the women I've dated in the past year and a half except for my deconversion. None of them were practicing Catholics, most of them were not religious, and a few of them were even nontheists. While I would ideally prefer to be with another nontheist now, I am completely open to dating someone who believes in the supernatural as long as it doesn't adversely affect our relationship. This primarily means that she doesn't let attendance at religious services significantly interfere with our plans, she doesn't ask me to attend them, and her beliefs don't negatively affect our sex life. Obviously the field isn't totally wide open, but there are many more nontheists, apatheists, nonreligious and nonfundamentalists than truly devout Catholics. Dating is easier without one's choices shackled by religious fundamentalism.
Though atheists are the most mistrusted minority in the United States, they are in a unique position among mistrusted minorities: they can be practically invisible at will. Racial minorities cannot hide their physical features. Immigrants cannot hide limited English language ability and can never completely lose their accents if they began learning the language after a certain young age. Religious minorities cannot hide their attendance at services, special diets, special dress, or other public practices; their religions might even demand them to boldly proclaim their faith publicly. Homosexuals and bisexuals cannot hide their relationships without difficulty and considerable inconvenience, and sometimes cannot hide their orientation due to their voice and mannerisms. Atheists, however, differ from the mainstream only in terms of their beliefs, which are inherently undetectable unless expressed by the one who holds them. Atheists remain invisible until they choose to reveal themselves.
Fear of Rejection
This is a decision, however, which atheists must make, repeatedly in the case of new acquaintances. The only substantive reason either to actively hide or to passively conceal one's atheism is fear of rejection. Upon acknowledging their disbelief, some atheists are disowned by their families, some by their husbands, wives or partners, and some by their friends and co-workers. It is for good reason that revealing one's atheism is occasionally referred to as “coming out of the closet”, a term normally used in reference to revealing one's unorthodox sexual preference or identification. Fortunately not all atheists experience such negative and unpleasant reactions from those closest to them, but almost without exception they encounter varying levels of rejection from at least some people who learn of their lack of faith, ranging from a slight cooling off of fomerly fully amicable relations to immediate, hateful and highly vocal repudiation. Occasionally atheists will receive a positive reaction upon professing their disbelief, almost exclusively from fellow nontheists, with whom personal connections can often be more easily established due to mutual empathy.
Coming Out of the Closet
Despite the power of potential rejection, there are numerous motivations to reveal one's atheism:
- to feel honest with oneself and with the world
- to establish personal connections with other atheists
- to increase the political influence of atheists as a group
- to educate believers that atheists are normal people, not evil or crazy, thus reducing the stigma of disbelief and making it easier for other atheists to reveal themselves
My personal experiences in acknowledging my disbelief have been somewhat favorable as compared to other atheists. The reactions have ranged from loud exclamations asking how I can possibly not believe in God to friendly respect from other atheists. Some people tell me that they had never met a professed atheist before. Without my actively raising the topic, my family and friends have all learned of my atheism. I am grateful that my mostly religious family has been so understanding and respectful of my position, and that my relationship with them has not suffered at all. My employer and co-workers remain unaware of my atheism, despite occasional opportunities to address the issue, because I consider it unprofessional to discuss religion in the workplace unless absolutely necessary. I have, however, never lied or mislead them about my beliefs.
Anonymity of Secular Planet
Readers may question why this blog is completely anonymous after hearing the author advocate openness regarding one's disbelief. The answer is quite simple: the internet can be very dangerous. One should always be cautious in revealing one's identity online, especially when promoting a minority opinion which is so reviled. Consider some of the various terms used by the religious to refer to the irreligious: infidel, heretic, heathen, apostate, wicked, impious, idolatrous, godless, ungodly, unholy. In a world of violent lunatics, I will choose my battles carefully. An anonymous blog acheives the goal of championing atheism without endangering my personal safety.
Posted at 2:30 PM
Although I am no proponent of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, it is notable that our language fails to clearly distinguish two distinct but similar ideas which often confuse unreflective intellects. It is precisely on this account that I must explicitly delineate my meaning in order to discuss the topic. Thus, I present three definitions for the purpose of this entry, the second and third being of greater interest:
- belief: an opinion that a certain proposition is true
- unbelief: lack of an opinion regarding a certain proposition
- disbelief: an opinion that a certain proposition is false
Let us consider an example to understand the three concepts. Say someone tells you that you have won the lottery. If you accept this as true, you believe that you have won. If you reject this as false, you disbelieve that you have won. If you fail either to accept this as true or to reject this as false, you neither believe nor disbelieve that you have won. The three choices correspond to the three most basic responses to a question: Yes, No, and I don't know. When the question is whether you believe a certain proposition, the second and third options are frequently lumped together in the minds of many.
The implications for atheism are evident. Atheists may be divided into two main groups: those who don't believe in any gods (unbelief; often called weak atheists) and those who believe that no gods exist (disbelief; often called strong atheists). Unfortunately weak atheists are very often labeled, and even often label themselves agnostics despite the original technical meaning of the word which can apply not only to both varieties of atheist, but even to theists! This usage causes many to assume that atheist always means strong atheist. To further complicate matters, many also quite wrongly assume that strong atheists must necessarily claim absolute certainty.
Additional linguistic considerations
There is one additional word similar to disbelief and unbelief which further complicates the situation: nonbelief (also spelled non-belief). Moreover the statistical inequality of these words in their various inflections and derivations indicates deserves special notice. I present the following the table comparing the three words based on the number of hits at Google on each term:
Note: The numbers for nonbelief include the alternate spelling of non-belief.
The table sufficiently demonstrates why English speakers at least might have difficulty with the important distinction of not believing something true and believing something false.
- Simple and clear: Simplicity and clarity contribute to aesthetic value and to ease of recognition and mental association.
- Connected to concept: Atheism, the negation of theism, is inherently a negative concept and as such requires a negative symbol. Religious symbols indicate a positive religious belief, and the null set indicates a lack of religious belief.
- Devoid of unnecessary conceptual baggage: Other proposed symbols often seek to attact certain values, such as rationality, skepticism, science, or tolerance, which are not essential to the concept of atheism.
- Culturally neutral: Due to its mathematical origin, the symbol is familiar to all cultures. Additionally it makes no specific religious reference.
- In the public domain: As a pre-existing symbol, it cannot be copyrighted or controlled by any private or government party.
- Easily reproducible: By virtue of being a part of the standard character set, one can create computer graphics of any size, color and style by simply adjusting the font.
Posted at 5:00 PM
In the interest of providing additional perspective to my thoughts, I will now share the tale of my journey from Catholicism to atheism.
The circumstances of my entrance into the Church are very commonplace. My Catholic parents had me baptized shortly after my birth, brought me to Mass each Sunday, and sent me to formal religious education until I received the sacrament of confirmation at the age of thirteen. Around that time, I developed a serious interest in religion and became relatively devout in my faith. I sought to understand the teachings of the Church more deeply. I read the Bible, the newly published universal catechism, and a few books on apologetics, though my forays into online apologetic debate were largely uneventful. Discussion of religion with two atheist friends at the end of high school, however, planted seeds of major doubt in my mind, which seemed to flower immediately before being quickly crushed by fear and anxiety.
At university I entrenched myself even more deeply into religion, leading to serious considerations of entering the seminary or the monastery, but the fear of an eternal hell which had forcefully preserved me in the faith soon created a terrestrial hell for me in form of scrupulosity. I will not discuss the details of the situation, but I will say that it truly was a nightmare. The condition persisted for years with only temporary, partial, and sporadic reprieves despite extensive assistance from the clergy and other persons. Eventually, however, the issue of doubt became a major focus of my obsession and the seeds planted years before germinated such that they were ready to blossom with the proper amount of cultivation.
A frank discussion with a friend who had earlier made a similar journey provided the catalyst to a thorough investigation of my doubts over the course of several months. During this time I read everything that I could find, online or in print, pro- and anti-religion. I spoke with family, friends and priests. I spent much time in prayer and in thought. In the end I found that I had lost my faith from a combination of the obliteration of my former justifications for belief, the establishment of numerous insurmountable objections and difficulties, and the realization that everything in life makes much more sense if Catholicism is indeed false. I left the Church almost four months after my initial decision to question my religion.
Though my sufferings certainly helped prompt the investigation, my loss of faith and subsequent apostasy were the result of logical, systematic inquiry rather than an emotionally motivated escape from the torment I experienced at the hands of religion. I am certain, however, that many believers will dismiss my reasons as less than noble. In response I would like to indicate that my decision to face my doubts and fears demanded a certain amount of courage. With my understanding that to entertain and indulge one's doubts was a sin grave enough to merit eternal damnation, I willfully endangered my soul in order to satisfy my sense of intellectual honesty and desire for truth. Additionally, I realized that it would perhaps be impossible to feel sorry and thus seek forgiveness for the sin of doubting if I found the Catholic faith to be true, meaning that I effectively had to surmount a point-of-no-return in order to even begin. Whatever the case, supposed emotional motivations do not discount rational argumentation and criticism.
My scrupulosity immediately and substantially diminished upon my apostasy, though the fear of hell lingered for approximately six months before fully dissipating. I initially considered myself an agnostic, but the more appropriate term would have been weak atheist. A further examination of the problem of evil a few months later prompted my transition to strong atheism. I have maintained that position since and that is where I stand today.