A Man of No Faith

In dialogues with atheists, I regularly see theists pose the following inquiry:

If you don't have faith in God, then what do you have faith in?
The most typical answers include rationality, science and humanity. While I find nothing truly objectionable in these responses, it's my opinion that the most appopriate response is in fact, “Nothing. I have no faith.”

The problem is that a believer's faith and an unbeliever's faith are completely different. When a believer says they have faith in God, they mean that they believe in his existence without sufficient evidence, that they trust God to always do what's right, or both. When a nonbeliever says they have faith in rationality or science, they mean they think that's the best method to discover the truth about the universe, and when they say they have faith in humanity, they mean that humans must solve their own problems and that they have hope they in fact will, but it's never unbounded confidence like believers put in their deity. These two religious and two secular varieties of faith just don't truly overlap. Support for the scientific method and recognition that we must address our problems without divine assistance are not at all equivalent to belief without evidence and absolute trust in an invisible being, even though we often call them all by the same name of faith.

So in the sense that theists probably mean when they ask the question, most atheists simply have no faith whatsoever, but I don't really fault them for providing a seemingly more positive and optimistic answer than what I recommend. For my own part, however, I prefer to answer as honestly as possible and to challenge the assumption of the believer that I must have faith like they do.



A Man of No God

UPDATE: I officially resigned a week later. While I originally became ordained for the sake of novelty and as a protest against the special status of religious leaders before the law in performing certain ceremonies, I became increasingly concerned about confirming misconceptions about atheism, about my own conceptual clarity, about the apparent seriousness of the organization and finally about potential legal issues.

Today I have become an ordained minister with the First Church of Atheism. From time to time over the past few years I considered being ordained online with other groups, but I always decided against it because they always seemed too mystical or spiritual despite being completely non-dogmatic. This is not an issue with the First Church of Atheism. I'm fully legally ordained, but by an organization whose principles I support and which cannot possibly be mistaken for a liberal Christian denomination.

When I was a devout Catholic, I seriously contemplated entering the seminary to become a priest. Then as now, I didn't want any children and I knew that I couldn't in good conscience marry with the intention never to have any children, so it seemed like a reasonable option. I went so far as to write to a traditional seminary and look into scheduling a vocational retreat but no further. Eventually my scrupulosity came to dominate my life and removed the possibility from consideration. It surely would have been a major mistake to pursue that path and I have no idea what my life would look like today if I had. It probably though wouldn't have been as disastrous as if I had married a devout woman and had a child with her before undergoing a deconversion! It's remarkable that I might have become a Catholic priest and that now I'm an atheist minister.

I'm currently considering ordering the package which includes an official ordination certificate and identification card. I don't actually intend to perform any services, but I'm rather pleased that my new status means that in theory I have the same legal rights to preach my ideas to congregations and to perform weddings and funerals as any believer in the supernatural. I also like referring to myself as an atheist minister!


’Tis the Season

Regular visitors, if indeed I have any, will notice that I've added a logo to the site indicating that I celebrate Humanlight, a Humanist winter holiday about reason, compassion and hope. In order to avoid any possible copyright violations, I've created my own image without the logo from the official website and I'm rather pleased with the result. In my opinion, a burning candle symbolizes the idea of Humanlight much better than a shining sun. The festival occurs at the time of year when the sun provides the least amount of light and heat in the northern hemisphere, where the majority of humanity resides. Furthermore, the sun is a natural object whereas a candle is a human artifact, one which represents our ability to illuminate a dark world using the power of our reason and creativity. If anyone wishes to use the image I created on their own websites, then please do so.

This is my third year observing this festival and I intend to make this year the most meaningful yet. I've enjoyed starting my own traditions and personalizing my observance of this new holiday. Last year I purchased a simple metal candlestick and a white candle which each evening several weeks prior to December 23rd I lit while saying, “May the light of human reason illuminate a dark world.” This year I plan to repeat this ritual, to decorate my balcony with colored lights and to devise other ways to mark the holiday. I still observe Christmas by exchanging gifts, dining and visiting with my Christian family on December 25th as well as with my co-workers earlier in the season, but I would like to focus on Humanlight rather than a formerly religious and now essentially consumerist holiday.



Not Following Jesus

If Christians fully embraced and lived their lives according to all of the teachings of Jesus rather just those which still allow complete integration into society, the history of the western world would remarkably different. Jesus preached voluntary poverty, radical pacifism and irresponsible spontaneity; he told his followers to sell all of their possessions, to actively do good to their enemies and even to avoid thinking about tomorrow! How many Christians do you know who practice all of these teachings? Even the vast majority of monks, friars and nuns live in communities where they share possessions and which require a certain amount of administration. There are some truly nomadic and mendicant groups, but they are extremely rare. Perhaps less than one Christian in a million actually lives their life completely according to the Gospels. The rest generally enjoy a more conventional and comfortable lifestyle, excluding the significant number in the third-world who are involuntarily poor. Why is there such a disparity between what Christians teach and what they practice?

The key to understanding this divergence is to realize that Jesus' ministry as portrayed in the Gospels was essentially an apocalyptic cult. The major theme of Jesus' preaching was that the “Kingdom of Heaven” was coming very soon and that his followers were to repent of their sins, ask for forgiveness and amend their lives. His followers expected that the end of the world would happen at any moment and only with that in mind can we make any sense of his directives to live so irresponsibly. If he had intended to found a religion that was supposed to last for millennia, then he surely would have given some more practical instructions. When Jesus' didn't return very soon, his followers did what they had to do in order to survive: they compromised with the world. All of the difficult guidelines, which technically appear optional in the Gospels themselves, have been de-emphasized, especially in Protestantism. The majority of believers don't seem to worry about their possessions making them larger than a camel trying to pass through the eye of a needle. Christians today are no more likely to give money to charity than any other group and, here in the United States, they seem more likely to start a war than many other groups.

When I first started reading the Gospels on my own as teenager, I was very disturbed by what I read because I lived a normal lifestyle, not a radical Gospel lifestyle. I owned some possessions. I didn't start fights, but I would defend myself if attacked. I planned for tomorrow by studying. I wanted to get married. I loved my family and I didn't want to leave them to serve God. I didn't really spend any time volunteering. All of this made me feel very guilty and very afraid that God would damn me to hell for not obeying his commandments well enough, but I didn't want to live the insane life preached by Jesus. I didn't see anyone else worrying about this, but it was impossible for me to see Jesus' ministry for what it was, for that would mean that Jesus was mistaken and therefore not God. Eventually I learned the Catholic Church's teachings that one only has to die in a state of grace, not give away everything you own, to go to heaven. Similar yet distinct problems arose because of this, but that's another story. I knew I wasn't really following Jesus and it bothered me. I don't know why it doesn't bother more people.

I was prompted to write on this topic by the now annual coverage of Christians' war on “The War on Christmas.” I find it ironic for Christians to demand that minimum-wage employees explicitly say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays” while they spend hundreds of dollars on frivolous gifts, often manufactured in dirty and dangerous factories by malnourished children in third-world countries. What an odd way to celebrate the birth of their lord who instructed them not to own even a second pair of sandals!



Death as Non-Existence

I find it remarkably difficult to fully conceptualize the extinction of my consciousness and personality upon my death. While I logically expect my subsequent non-existence to be identical to the billions of years prior to my birth, it seems that I actually tend to imagine it more like a deep sleep from which I will eventually somehow awaken at the end of time. I have to consciously remind myself that I won't ever even know that I'm dead because I won't exist. I then naturally wonder what it will be like not to exist and I have to remind myself again that it won't be like anything because it simply won't be. My mind simply cannot grasp what it means not to exist since from its own perspective it has always existed. It has been argued that fear of death is the principal cause of religious belief in humanity and I would argue that our instinctive tendency to think of our minds as always existing greatly contributes to it as well.

Like practically all humans, I certainly want to exist indefinitely. I say indefinitely rather than forever because I don't preclude the possibility that I might want my existence to end at some point. The only aspect of religion which I sincerely miss is the belief that life will continue forever. And it's not that I want just to believe; I want it to really be true. The promise of eternal bliss in a never-ending paradise is alluring, even if inconceivable, but I'm much more intrigued by the idea of repeatedly reincarnating and leading radically different lives in radically different circumstances. I would like to know what it's like to be both sexes, every ethnic group, attractive and ugly, strong and weak, intelligent and stupid, rich and poor, in every combination thereof, in every locale and in every age. It would be necessary that the memory of those lives be maintained, perhaps for later review and reflection outside of the physical universe, in order to distinguish it from an existence of only a single life. It seems that such a spiritual paradigm would be far more satisfying and poetic than the unchanging heaven of Christianity. None of this matters in the least, however, because I have no reason to believe that it's anything but an idle dream.

It's rather difficult to accept that I have no even remotely reasonable hope for life after death and that my consciousness will almost certainly be extinguished in a matter of decades at the latest. It's not that I really fear non-existence; I simply dread an existence filled with the despair of ever realizing my desires. In the end, all I have is a wish to exist indefinitely and all I can do is live this life to the fullest, trying not to waste too much precious time on idle dreams.