Herding Cats?

It's said that organizing atheists is like herding cats. We're implicitly compared to believers, who have acknowledged leaders, authoritative texts, and formal organizations. The reason usually advanced to account for this phenomenon is that we atheists are generally rather individualistic and thus reluctant to follow someone else's lead on such matters. But there's another reason which I've never seen presented in the context of explaining the herding-cats idea: atheism is much too broad a concept under which to seek to organize. The proper comparison is not to individual religious sects but to theists as a whole.

If we randomly put a dozen people who don't believe in any gods in a room, then they're no less likely to reach an agreement on any given issue than if we randomly put a dozen people who do believe in gods in a room. A representative sampling of a dozen of the world's theists would include four Christians (two Catholics, one Orthodox, one Protestant), three Muslims (two Sunnis, one Shiite), two Hindus, a (theistic) Buddhist, a Taoist, and an Animist. I rather doubt they would agree to much at all, since they don't even agree on the basic definition and identity of the gods. In fact, the random group of atheists might even be more likely to reach agreements since many atheists have great respect for science, which provides an objective way to establish underlying facts, since appeals to faith would be roundly rejected, and since atheists have no prejudices against other atheists who don't believe differently than they do. The task of organizing atheists seems significantly different from this perspective.

I'm not expressing an opinion about whether atheists should attempt to organize. Atheists—as distinguished from the much larger group of the non-religious—number very few in many parts of the world, including my own, so there may be wisdom in trying to gather as many people under the umbrella as reasonably possible. My point is only that organization works best when it's structured around a specific set of beliefs and not a general belief or disbelief. Only with that in mind can one make real comparisons between groups.

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Go to Mass or Go to Hell

The Catholic Church teaches that its members must attend mass on Sundays and all other holy days of obligation under pain of mortal sin. This means that if they purposely miss mass, they commit a mortal sin and, as with all mortal sins, if they then fail to repent of and confess this before they die, God will condemn them to hell for all eternity. If you choose to sleep in, to stay home and read a book, to have a picnic with your family in the park, to do anything but sit, stand, kneel and—most important—hand over your money in church for an hour each week, then you risk frying in a lake of fire for your grievous transgression. While I understand the pragmatic benefits the Catholic Church reaps from people who still take this threat seriously and begrudgingly shuffle off to mass each week when they would otherwise actually enjoy their alleged day of rest to the fullest, it makes little sense from a theological perspective.

Why would God threaten believers with punishment for failure to attend mass? The most plausible justification, at least initially, is that he wants to encourage them to attend, in the same way that a parent punishes a child who skips school. The problem is that God inflicts a punishment identical to the harm to be avoided in the first place! We can presume that God wants believers to attend mass with the ultimate goal of saving their souls from damnation; the danger in not attending mass regularly is that one may stop believing and/or commit acts which are inherently wrong such as murder, theft or adultery and end up in hell. But threatening believers with the potential danger is absurd, as it unnecessarily increases the danger which believers face, giving them an easier and more certain avenue to hell. (Of course, hell itself is already infinitely unjust. Of course, God himself created the original danger. I’m just showing how it’s absurdity upon absurdity.) It would be as though the state executed drivers who failed to use their seat belts. That’ll show them to be more careful next time! Never mind that there’s no next time, either for the executed or the damned, and that they would have been perfectly fine without either punishment.

Of course, if God has purely selfish motives for demanding his believers worship him every week, we might have a different analysis. One might think that God, for every person he tosses into the everlasting flames, loses an infinity of worship from this person, but St. Thomas Aquinas argued the saved in heaven will delight in the suffering of the damned, so perhaps God’s interests are served no matter what. Then why go the whole charade of earthly existence? I would say that perhaps the drama is interesting, but God already knows how it’s going to end anyway. What’s the point of playing it out? It’s impossible to avoid absurd conclusions when one postulates an infinite being, and throwing in infinite rewards and infinite punishments doesn’t help. My intention here was just to point out one additional absurdity peculiar to Catholicism.



Enduring Injustice

Many religions teach an afterlife in which all wrongs are righted and every sacrifice duly recognized and applauded. The virtuous will be rewarded, and the wicked will be punished. No one will get away with anything, no matter how great or how small, and no one will be unappreciated or forgotten. Everything is made right, and everything lost is restored. Such a vision appeals to anyone who has ever suffered unrectified injustice during life, and that includes everyone of us to varying degrees. But anyone who believes in such an afterlife will never fully appreciate the idea of injustice. They will never know what it means to accept the reality of an unfair and uncaring world because they will always have someone to make everything all right in the end. As believers, they will never experience a major aspect of what it means to be human.

Personally I’ve never suffered any great injustices in life. I’ve never been a victim of crime worse than some relatively minor property crimes. No one has ever taken pains to humiliate me publicly. I’ve never had any family or friends murdered. With that said, I have received my share of slights, rudeness, unfair treatment, economic exploitation, as well as all the vicarious injustices of family, friends, and society at large. It’s fairly easy to dismiss each small injustice, but it’s more difficult to accept that there’s no guarantee that any of the people over the course of a lifetime who hurt you will ever feel bad about it. It’s even more difficult to accept that mass-murderers and large-scale swindlers sometimes avoid receiving their just desserts, that their victims will never be brought back to life or have their life savings returned. I think it takes a certain amount of maturity to come to terms with this reality, and the proper response is not to rely on baseless hopes of future justice but to strip ourselves of an expectation of justice. We have no guarantee justice will ever be done, and it’s precisely for this reason that we must work hard to achieve it as much as we can in the short time we have. This disillusionment about the world is a kind of virtue and as such provides its own bittersweet reward, the ability to remain somewhat more calm and rational in the face of great injustice.

One response to the Problem of Evil is that God allows suffering so that we can develop certain virtues such as compassion, sacrifice, and humility. I find it remarkable that, with an afterlife as described above, he necessarily denies us the opportunity to experience enduring injustice and thus develop the virtue of resignation and detachment. Of course, any afterlife at all denies us the opportunity to accept the reality of a finite existence and grapple with the extinction of our consciousness. Neither of these observations are direct criticisms of this proposed theodicy, but they do indicate that God would have had to choose which virtues to cultivate in us to the exclusion of others. It seems very odd for God to create a universe in which only atheists can develop certain virtues and still condemn them to hell.

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God is Worse than Kim Jong-il

In my international human rights course, we've spent a lot of time discussing North Korea, both because it presents the most egregious examples of current human rights violations and because our professor has a special research interest in the topic, his family having fled Korea during the war and he having also taught in South Korea. The professor recently recounted a familiar story about foreign doctors entering the country, curing people of their ailments, and the healed immediately thanking and praising the dear leader before his portrait for helping them and curing them, despite his totalitarian and ruthless regime most likely being the direct cause of their suffering in the first place. Everyone in the class rightly considered the situation ridiculous and sad. My mind, both then and when I first heard the story years ago, immediately made the comparison between how many people in other countries would have turned to their gods in exactly the same way after the medical treatment and how it's equally ridiculous and sad.

I honestly believe that an omnimax deity who fails to help his creatures and who sends any of them to hell would be infinitely more evil than Kim Jong-il. Even leaving aside the eternity of hell which really trumps everything else, God could distribute food and medicine to the populace without any effort whatsoever whereas the North Korean government at least has to arrange to let humanitarian relief organizations enter the country to do the same. Indeed, God could miraculously heal everyone of every lament, but he never does. All the excuses that theists make on God's behalf could be equally well applied to Kim Jong-il—he knows better than we do, it's for the greater good, we have to trust in him despite all appearances. It was depressing to see documentary footage in class of North Koreans escaping into China and constantly talking about how they trusted in God to help them. It's very understandable under the circumstances of extreme hardship, extreme ignorance, and extreme fear, but it's still disheartening to see them exchange a real dictator for an even worse fictional one, one who ultimately let them down when they were captured and returned to North Korea to be imprisoned in death camps.

The only point that God has in his favor is that he doesn't actually exist. This certainly excuses his failure to help people. It also means he cannot inflict any of the suffering which he allegedly threatens; only people's belief in him can, and that level of suffering is relatively minor, especially in nations which don't take religion especially seriously. My experience with scrupulosity, while the most serious suffering of my life, is nothing compared to starvation, imprisonment, and torture. Life—or more accurately existence—in North Korea, however, would in turn be nothing compared to eternal hell, if it were real.

I'm sure that many theists feel revulsion at the comparison of the God to Kim Jong-il, but they've never provided adequate responses to the Problem of Evil or to the Problem of Hell, so I feel entirely justified in making it. This is why I blog: to say things that simply need to be said.



Noble Objectives and Deficient Methods

In my legal philosophy course this week, the professor asked us what we thought of religion in general. Although I’ve discussed my views on other religious questions in earlier classes, I didn’t respond to this particular query. I did, however, formulate an answer that expresses my simultaneous interest in and rejection of religion, whose precise terms I had never previously used: I think the objectives of believers are mostly noble, but the methods they use are deficient with respect to some of their objectives and additionally cause unintended harm to themselves and to others.

Although the list of reasons people believe in and practice religion is potentially endless, I believe I’ve identified a fair number of noble or at least unobjectionable things people seek in religion:

  • knowledge of…
    • where we’ve come from
    • where we’re going
    • why we’re here
    • how we should act
    • nature of reality
  • hope for…
    • existence beyond death
    • ultimate justice
  • identity
  • community
  • quiet contemplation
  • emotional experiences
  • escape from the mundane
Of course, there are also a number of less noble things people seek in religion such as power, respect, money or sex, but this is true of business, politics, sports, acting and music, as well as many other areas of human activity. The only point is that one can have neutral or even good reasons for considering religion.

Just as people’s objectives in religion vary, so do their methods. But here are some very common unreliable methods people use to achieve their objectives:
  • blind faith
  • unquestioned trust in authority (text, person, tradition, etc.)
  • emotion and intuition
  • dogmatism
These methods are sometimes effective in achieving the last five items on the list but not knowledge or (justified) hope. That is, stirring one’s emotions with song is certainly a useful way to escape the mundane, but it’s not a legitimate tool for establishing the truth of supernatural claims. In the same way, dogmatism can help build orthodoxy and thus a sense of community, but it doesn’t help anyone understand our origins if it limits acceptance of scientific inquiry. Believers may object to my classification of these methods as unreliable on the ground that their faith, trust or emotion corresponds to the voice of a deity, but my point here is not to explain in detail why I think they’re mistaken but merely to state my general view of religion. Let’s just say I don’t think anyone has a justified claim to have access to the mind of any disembodied spirit. Some believers may also respond that they’re open to the voice of science and reason as a source of knowledge. This is true, but to the extent they receive such information, it’s not from their religious leaders or sacred texts; it’s from scientists and philosophers. I certainly don’t object to that. Others may say that they’re not interested in actual knowledge or that they’re satisfied with any hope at all in the face of great injustice and certain death. This may be true of them, but not of me; I prefer the best approximation of the truth available, not simply what is accessible or comforting. I just don’t think any of the listed methods are valid avenues to knowledge, and I’m not willing to sacrifice knowledge in order to achieve any of the other objectives on this list, as offered by many, if not most, religious groups.

My personal view of any given approach to spirituality strongly correlates negatively with its reliance on faith, authority and dogmatism rather than skepticism, reason and progressivism. I hold a very negative opinion of religious fundamentalism, tied to a rigid interpretation of a static text, and a much more positive opinion of liberal religions such as Unitarian Universalism, in which individuals are actively encouraged to question and to think for themselves. I’m still too much of individualist, however, to belong even to a UU congregation, so it seems I’m on my own seeking the bottom part of the list of objectives. At least I have science to help me with the first!



The Importance of Atheism

Atheism is nothing more than not believing in deities, so I often question why I devote so much time and energy to mere disbelief. The activities are mostly devoid of positive content, consisting mostly of critical thinking applied to this one very controversial topic, and therefore almost entirely reactive toward religion rather than creative. And when I try to be constructive, as when I focus on Humanism rather than just atheism, I still concentrate heavily on the atheistic aspects rather than on the purely secular aspects. I’ve come up with a few possible explanations for this phenomenon.

Atheists, especially explicit atheists, are a rather small minority worldwide, even smaller in the United States, and smaller still in the southeastern part of this country. What’s more, theists make their presence known through churches and a thousand other ways that atheists generally don’t, for vocal atheists are the smallest minority yet. Indeed, many atheists have no interest whatsoever in their atheism and even consider expressing one’s atheism, except perhaps upon direct questioning, to be inappropriate, in bad taste or simply ridiculous. Given this extreme minority status and the constant reminders of it, it’s not surprising that I sometimes feel slightly insecure in my position despite feeling such confidence whenever I actually examine the arguments on both sides. In fact, this dichotomy explains the situation almost on its own.

When I think about how as an atheist I believe the rest of the world is not only mistaken but very badly mistaken, I feel the need to remind myself why I think this and to make sure I’m not the one who’s mistaken. And although I don’t get many opportunities to have sincere, honest and good faith discussions with believers on the topic of religion, that’s why it’s something I really love to do when I can. Whenever there are two sides to a debate, which is essentially always, I don’t feel comfortable dismissing the other side unless I know exactly why they’re mistaken and can present specific errors in their thinking. I want to show them these errors, in exactly the same way I would like others to show me mine rather than simply dismissing me as an idiot. Dismissing others and disengaging from the debate is generally unconducive to the search for truth.

There’s an additional reason stemming from my past not only as a believer but as a scrupulous believer, deathly afraid of hell. Although I haven’t really felt anxious about the possibility of being wrong about Christianity in over five years, the indoctrination certainly left an indelible mark on my psyche that will probably remain until I die. I’ve never for even the briefest moment feared that Islam was true and that Allah would send me to hell, so I know the only reason I’ve ever feared Christianity was true is because it’s part of my past and part of my culture. But whenever I see a new book at bookstores claiming to justify belief in God or Jesus, I immediately feel a little bit of anxiety at the possibility that I’ve somehow overlooked something. I know this reaction isn’t rational, especially since it’s emotional and almost reflexive, and I sometimes calm myself by picking it up, thumbing through it, and seeing that it’s the same arguments theists have been making for centuries. It's notable, however, that I've never felt the urge to do this regarding other religions.

Sometimes I feel like I really should fully dismiss all belief in the supernatural, completely disengage from all discussion about atheism, and focus my energies elsewhere. But atheism is an important hobby for me and sometimes reduces anxiety, though disengaging may be more effective, for all I know. And someone needs to help fly the banner of atheism, as it were, so that religious doubters have somewhere to turn for help. I’m very happy all the people who helped me on my road to deconversion didn’t just decide to focus their attention on something “constructive” after they personally decided religion was false and instead actually took the time to express their atheism and their reasons for disbelief. Without them, I would very likely either still be a very miserable scrupulant with no life or a suicide. Atheism, not Humanism or any other positive philosophy, has been very constructive in my life and made me very happy comparatively, and I want to help offer other people that option if that’s what they need.



Vestigial Prayer

In religions whose gods are less than perfect, the purpose of petitionary prayer is simple and clear: People ask their gods for something because otherwise they might not grant it to them. If the gods are not omniscient or even forgetful, people need to inform them or remind them of what they need. If the gods are not omnibenevolent, people need to beg the gods repeatedly so they will grant them favors. If the gods are not omnipotent, maybe they can’t do anything unless enough people ask long enough and sincerely enough to grant them power. In this context, asking makes sense.

In religions whose gods are perfect, such as the Abrahamic traditions, however, the purpose of petitionary prayer is totally unclear. An omnimax deity knows exactly what his creatures need, cannot forget it, has the ability to give it to them, and loves them perfectly such that he always wants to give it to them. Furthermore, as infinitely perfect, such a god’s will cannot be changed. In this context, asking makes no sense. Of course, the Abrahamic tradition hasn’t always been monotheistic, much less believed their god was omnimax, so it appears that petitionary prayer may be a vestige from this earlier time since it’s completely incompatible with its theology over the past couple of millennia.

It baffles me to understand how billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims have spent their entire lives engaging in, thinking, preaching and writing about petitionary prayer without realizing its absurdity in light of their beliefs. The logic involved is extraordinarily simple. I suppose at least some have recognized the problem, but it’s a tiny minority, and most of them probably still use the actual form of petitionary prayer with a different purpose in mind. If one believes his gods are perfect, it’s irrational to ask them for anything, ever. It also baffles me to realize that this issue didn’t cause me more trouble than it did before my deconversion. The truth is that I was probably too afraid of being sent to hell for doubting and tried not to question it, even though I could never understand it. At least I now understand why I couldn’t: it just doesn’t make sense.


Afraid of Nothing

It’s been almost exactly five months since my last post. There’s no special reason for this; I just haven’t had much to say on the topics of religion and irreligion so far this year. I still receive occasional comments on my prior posts, and there’s one particular type of feedback that draws me back in and makes me want to write more. It comes from former or current scrupulants who tell me that my blog has helped them in their suffering and given them hope. As a former scrupulant, I can identify with their struggles from my own experience, and I’m certainly much more aware of their plight than most others. The vast majority of scrupulants avoid anything questioning their faith, at least during most their time in that condition, but the few who do when the time is right, like me, truly benefit from hearing someone address their exact concerns and show them the path to mental freedom. I don’t know how to reach this target audience better, but they’re certainly a major part of my desire to write more and provide them with more resources if and when they find my blog.

Scrupulosity is not a disease. It’s a perfectly rational reaction to the threat of eternal damnation. The solution is to realize the threat is false. There is nothing to fear.