Life is Meaningful Here and Now

Believers, especially those who make their faith the cornerstone of their lives, have a tendency to think that life without God is meaningless. They claim that, in an atheistic world, living would be absurd and that nothing would matter at all. They sometimes even view atheism as an irresistible cause for despair and a reason to commit suicide. The consequence of this opinion is that it can discourage those with serious doubts from pursuing them for fear of where they will lead. But I believe that it’s a terrible mistake to think that belief in God is necessary to find meaning in life, and I believe that theism no more helps answer existential questions than it helps answer scientific ones.

If God’s existence can have meaning without other beings, then so can our existence have meaning without other beings. But if other beings are indeed required for meaning, then we have other people and don’t necessarily need God for that purpose. Alternatively, if God assigns our otherwise meaningless lives meaning with his plans, then so can we can with our own plans. People find meaning in their familial roles, in their friendships, in their careers, in art, in science, in politics, in their hobbies, and in many other aspects of their lives, including in their religions. But not only does meaning need not be assigned from on high, it really cannot be, for one has to adopt God’s plans as one’s own for them to be meaningful. Meaning isn’t objective, existing in the abstract, independent of persons. Rather, in order for something to be meaningful, it has to mean something to someone. If my life has meaning, then it’s because it means something to me. The plans of another being, even my alleged creator, are irrelevant unless I make them my own. And whether the plans originate from one’s creator, another person, or from oneself is also irrelevant as long as they ultimately become my own. It is we who give our own lives meaning, though we rarely ever do so consciously. The non-existence of God negates only one potential source of meaning for us, leaving us a great number of other excellent candidates.

But believers often argue that, without God, our existence will eventually come to an end, and that at least from our perspective, it will be like we never even existed, so nothing we do in life matters. But if something cannot simply matter here and now for its own sake, then it cannot matter because of some future here and now or even an unlimited series of future heres and nows because they all in turn would depend on points even further in the future, ad infinitum. If nothing matters, then an eternity of nothing doesn’t help and so belief in God doesn’t help.

Theism doesn’t provide meaning to life. All it does is push the problem back, either to another being or to a future you, neither of whom are any more prepared to answer it than the present you. There is room for a lot of debate about whether life has meaning, but believers should understand that belief in God doesn’t make the difficult questions simply disappear. In fact, believers already address them implicitly, and if they were to discard their faith, they would probably feel the same about the meaningfulness of their lives as when the believed. Atheists aren’t miserable people constantly considering suicide, and for good reason: life is worth living for its own sake, here and now.

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I am a secular

With relatively little formal organization and a strong tendency toward independent thought, the nonreligious use many different labels to describe themselves. Many of us have adopted more than one label, vary our usage according to the situation, and consciously change our preferences over time. I’m certainly no exception to this pattern. Today, I would like to state that I have decided to adopt secular as my preferred personal label and to explain my reasons by comparing it to terms which I have used previously and which still accurately describe me.

+ general meaning is always understood
– precise meaning is often misunderstood (≠ certainty that gods don’t exist)
– does not communicate whether belief in absence or absence of belief
– says nothing about belief in supernatural in general
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ communicates disbelief in all supernatural without emphasis on gods
– meaning is often misunderstood (≠ nudist, ≠ nature lover, ≠ scientist)
– does not communicate whether belief in absence or absence of belief
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ positive principles are more than rejection of supernaturalism
– positive principles are unremarkable in modern western society
– meaning is often misunderstood (≠ worship humanity, ≠ speciesist)
– often seems like an ideology rather than a simple description
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ communicates an approach to claims rather than a particular belief
– used almost exclusively by atheists, so above distinction is lost
– meaning is generally not understood, requiring explanation
– says nothing about whether one is religious or spiritual

+ meaning is usually understood
+ says nothing about belief or disbelief in anything
+ says that one is neither religious nor spiritual
+ greatest potential as umbrella term
– noun form is currently somewhat awkward

First, I acknowledge that whether a particular feature of a label is considered positive or negative is largely subjective, and thus I only claim to present my own opinion.

Second, I acknowledge that extending the meaning of secular from “not religious” to “neither religious nor spiritual” and using it as a noun rather than merely as an adjective are both somewhat novel, but I contend that these are reasonable extensions without obvious substitutes and that neither is unprecedented. In addition, the noun form can be avoided in most circumstances by using the adjective form instead, for example, by saying, “I’m secular,” just like someone might say, “I’m Hindu” or “I’m Buddhist.”

Third, I strongly prefer not to capitalize the term secular since it indicates the absence of an ideology and capitalizing it would suggest otherwise. Typographical conventions dictate that I nevertheless capitalize it the title, but I have chosen to ignore this rule in this instance—precisely because the title is so prominent—in order to avoid any potential confusion regarding my opinion on this matter.

Fourth, I want to distinguish a secular from a secularist: a secular is one who is neither religious nor spiritual whereas a secularist is one who believes the government should be neutral toward religion. This distinction mirrors the Christian/Christianist and Muslim/Islamist distinctions which have become increasingly familiar. In my estimation, almost all seculars are secularists, but most secularists are not seculars. In contrast, it’s almost impossible to imagine a Christianist who isn’t a Christian or a Islamist who isn’t a Muslim. This clearly speaks to the inherent fairness of secularism.

Fifth, I want to emphasize that I’m not rejecting any of the other labels on my list; I simply think calling myself a secular conveys just the right amount of relevant information when the topic of religion arises and provides me with a clear self-identity without committing me to any particular belief, principle, or ideology.

So until further notice, I am a secular first and foremost. It seems quite appropriate that I have finally landed on the same term that I chose when naming this blog over five years ago and largely for the same reasons!



An Old Friend's Divergent Path

Yesterday I was feeling bored and decided to browse through some old files on my computer from back when I was a devout Catholic and to check out some websites that I used to visit at that time. I had the idea to look up an old online friend of mine, my first online friend in fact, and to see what he’s been up to in the years since we last spoke. It was quite interesting to compare how our paths have diverged.

I first encountered Mr. Mario Derksen of Coral Springs, Florida, on the Prodigy religion message boards sometime around 1994, when my family first got internet access. He was very active in apologetics threads, primarily debating with Protestants, and I soon joined these discussions armed with what I had read in the new catechism. Mario and I became allies on the message boards, and we began to e-mail each other regularly. Mario recommended the first apologetics book I ever read and watching him debate encouraged me to learn more. At some point, Mario set up and operated his own apologetics website where he published and organized his own materials, and I did the same, though on a much smaller scale. We remained in contact for years, but my interest in apologetics ended when my scrupulosity and doubts caused a personal crisis, and we eventually lost touch about ten years ago.

In order to find Mario, I first tried to visit his old website, Catholic Insight, but the domain is no longer registered, and it seems that he has discontinued it rather than simply moved it. I then tried to load an archived copy of the site, but archiving has been disabled. Next, I simply searched for his name. Most of the results are his contributions to various apologetics websites from about a decade ago. For a moment, it seemed that he had just disappeared off the face of the internet. Then I found some information indicating that Mario, who was already an indult Catholic when I knew him, had moved further into religious extremism.

In particular, I read an excerpt of an announcement by Mario from his website that had been posted elsewhere that he had become a sedevacantist, that is, one who denies the validity of the recent popes and claims the papal throne is currently empty. Sedevacantists typically assert that the Catholic Church largely abandoned its infallible claim to exclusivity of salvation during the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, making the alleged popes since then heretics. Conclavists move one step further and take it upon themselves to elect a new pope to fill the vacant seat, often from among a small circle of like-minded family and friends. I was disappointed not to find the full text of his announcement, but I noted with interest that he had published it in August 2004, while I was in the midst of my intense deconversion to atheism.

I continued searching for anything from the last seven years. I found more excerpts of and responses to his arguments for sedevacantism from around that time but little else. Finally, I found his website devoted to a hundred-page letter to a bishop regarding an ordination controversy by a Vietnamese sedevacantist bishop in France in 1981. The site includes audio files from a presentation by Mario on the subject given earlier this year, indicating that he has maintained his basic position since 2004. I had been hoping that he had quietly followed the trail of logic out of the church completely like me rather than around and around into ever smaller reactionary circles on its outskirts. Mario is certainly a very intelligent man—I largely agree with his conclusion that the popes changed their teachings on religious liberty during the twentieth century—and I know he could see through the entire ecclesiastical charade if he simply had sufficient motivation. Scrupulosity was an absolute nightmare for me, but I suspect I would still be a Catholic if it hadn’t prompted me to question absolutely everything and everyone and that I wouldn't be nearly as happy as I am today if I hadn't left. Our views could hardly be more different today, but I wish him all the best and hope he's doing well.

At the beginning of his audio presentation on his website about the ordination controversy, Mario mentions three things he shares in common with Benedict XVI. In this spirit, I’d like to mention three things I share in common with Mario: We’re the same age. We both grew up in Florida. And neither of us today thinks that Benedict XVI speaks with any authority.

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Positive & Negative Conceptions of God

Although I’ve always known that most believers sincerely love God or at least have very positive feelings toward him, I’ve recently come to realize how much I’ve failed to appreciate this fact when dealing with others, and I suspect my own feelings about God have clouded my perceptions. That is to say, I think my negative view has prevented me from understanding how precious their beliefs are to them, and I would do well to remind myself that most people don’t share my opinion, no matter how justified I think it is.

While I was certainly a devout believer before my deconversion, I can’t say that I ever really loved God. As a child, I was completely uninterested in religion, and when I became interested as a teenager, it was primarily because I was worried about avoiding hell. I didn’t care nearly as much about serving God for his own sake, bringing him glory, building a relationship with him, or even entering heaven when I died. From the beginning, my view of God was heavily influenced by my fear of eternal damnation, and this fear intensified during my struggle with scrupulosity, eventually transforming into frustration, anger, and even hatred during my last few months as a believer. Most Christians love God for creating them, blessing them, and “saving” them from hell; I, on the other hand, could never bring myself—no matter how hard I tried—to love a being who threatened to burn me in a lake of fire if I didn’t meet his demands, especially his demands that I completely repress my sexuality and suppress my doubts. For this reason, though my deconversion itself was emotionally draining, I emerged from the experience happier than ever. I didn’t feel like I had lost anything except my unfounded fears. It sounds strange for someone who built his entire worldview and identity around religion to say, but my belief in God was simply never important to my happiness; it was instead mainly a source of worry and anxiety. Sure, the prospect of living forever in paradise and the promise of having one’s viewpoint vindicated to all humankind after death were certainly nice consolations, but they never came anywhere close to negating the misery of having hellfire constantly hanging over my head. Once I stopping believing in God, I was happy the divine blackmailer was gone, and I didn’t want to see him ever return.

Now when I deal with believers, I frequently forget how their view of God radically differs from my own. If I present arguments against their religion, they’re generally unreceptive because they want God to exist. They’re not going to consider the possibility that they’re mistaken unless they absolutely have to. Their faith is a source of hope and joy for them rather than a source of fear and sorrow, as it was for me. God is often the most important person in their life, as it were. To those who sincerely love God and especially those who have never even seriously contemplated the possibility that he doesn’t exist, merely expressing my atheistic viewpoint is akin to suggesting that the parents who raised them were actually paid actors who never really loved them, as in The Truman Show. It’s no wonder they react so negatively toward atheists, especially atheists who directly challenge their beliefs and sometimes even insult their beloved heavenly father. Followers of other religions may worship other gods, but none of them really explicitly deny that the Abrahamic god exists and thus deny the validity of their special relationship with him. This is why the highest level of contempt from believers is reserved for atheists. Of course, it doesn't at all excuse their mistreatment of us atheists, but it does help us understand it.

This is not at all a new insight, but it’s especially important for me in particular to bear in mind when thinking about or discussing religion. It’s so easy for me to forget that very few people, even other atheists, have such negative emotional reactions to the mere mention of God. Not only does it bring to mind irrational belief without evidence, it conjures an image of the deity who killed Egyptian babies, who ordered the genocide of the Canaanites, who damns billions of unbelievers to hell, and especially who made my life such misery for so many years. Whereas some nontheists are attracted to deism or pantheism as a way to salvage belief in God when their traditional conception is dismantled, I want nothing to do with the idea at all. Instead of an emotional attachment to it from past positive experiences, I have an aversion due to my past negative experiences. I think it’s noteworthy, however, that this aversion doesn’t extend to every aspect of religion. In fact, I’m sometimes drawn to the idea of a humanistic and potentially naturalistic religion like Unitarian Universalism. I rather like the idea of frequent, regular meetings of a community united in their values, if not beliefs, to discuss ethical, social, and personal issues and enjoy each other’s friendship. I know that if I ever wanted to join such a community, I would need to overcome my distaste for the idea of God, at least as a metaphor, and appreciate that it means so much to so many people because they conceive of it so differently.

Even if I never join such a community, it’s still a good idea for me to attempt to rid myself of such emotional baggage, for my own sake and for the sake of understanding others. I stopped believing in God years ago, and now it’s time for me to stop loathing the idea of God itself, by disassociating it from the idea of hell, which I will always rightly hate. Perhaps I can approximate the mental state of most believers by imagining a universalist god who never even considered creating hell and who will welcome absolutely everyone into heaven. Such a deity would still be vulnerable to criticism from the Problem of Evil, but it's so much easier for me to have less negative feelings about this concept. It's an interesting mental exercise, and I hope it will help me improve my interactions with believers.

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Now on Twitter!

I've been using Twitter for a few months now to gather news from various non-theistic, political, and entertainment sources, but I haven't really used it to post my own material until very recently. Yesterday I decided to associate my account with this blog since my tweets generally concern similar topics, and it only makes sense to have them reinforce each other.

While I'll provide a link to each new post here, most of the content on the Twitter account will be unique to that medium, so even regular readers may be interested in checking it out. Not only will it contain thoughts on irreligion too short to warrant a full blog post, I also intend to discuss ethics and politics with some regularity. Most of my sentiments on these topics can be expressed in strings of 140 characters or less, so Twitter is a more appropriate forum for them. And since tweeting takes much less time than blogging, I can post much more frequently than I do here. I'm hopeful it will even generate new ideas for blog entries. So here's to tweeting!

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The Eroding Wall of Separation

As a secular American, the Establishment Clause is my favorite part of the United States Constitution. It originally operated to prevent direct federal funding of churches and the formal establishment of any Christian denomination—or even Christianity in general—as the official national religion. With time and further legal developments, courts have come to interpret it to mean that government at all levels should remain neutral toward religion, neither promoting nor discouraging it. While over the past decade the federal judiciary has weakened the substance of this rule and especially the means to enforce it, government neutrality toward religion remains an important and accepted legal principle. But I’m happy that the Establishment Clause has existed since the beginning, for I believe that such a law could not be passed today.

If I understand history correctly, it seems that American Christians at the end of the 18th century were much more sectarian than they are now. That is, they identified rather strongly with their particular denominations and largely rejected ecumenism. They wanted the government to sanction their own denomination and opposed the government sanctioning others. I imagine that most citizens probably didn’t think the Establishment Clause would entail total neutrality, and if the federal government wouldn’t make their own church the official national church, then they were satisfied that at least no other church received this status. And since almost all states had official churches at this time, there was no need for a national church.

American Christians today are rather different. Many of them change denominations, especially within Protestantism but also to and from Catholicism, some identify as “non-denominational,” and they all generally identify much less than with their individual churches than their ancestors did. Far fewer of them have negative opinions of other denominations or even non-Christian religions, with some even having favorable opinions of all other religions, especially when contrasted with atheism. This last sentiment is sometimes expressed as, “I don’t care where you worship, as long as you go somewhere.” While this may be relatively open-minded, it’s especially dangerous for church-state separation. Another problem is that historically disfavored minority denominations such as the Baptists have almost totally forgotten their former commitment to secular government now that the threat of another denomination becoming established has long disappeared and they have become a major group themselves, especially here in the southeast.

If the Establishment Clause, with its long history and secure position—requiring a constitutional amendment to repeal—didn’t already exist, I think a law establishing general Christianity as the official national religion would be a real possibility. At the very least, it seems that most Americans would not oppose a law which allowed government to favor religion in general, as long as it didn’t discriminate between faiths. I believe the existence of faith-based initiatives for over a decade supports this view. The average American thinks religion is good and doesn’t necessarily object to the government actively promoting it as a whole. I find this disturbing.

In the absence of a constitutional amendment, major changes to the law can still come through the Supreme Court. I fear a majority of the justices will eventually agree with the popular sentiment and simply overturn the precedent requiring neutrality toward religion altogether. It’s worrisome, but all I can do is vote for presidential candidates who are less likely to appoint theocrats to the federal bench and to support organizations that promote secular government. I suggest we all do the same in order to hold up the wall of separation between church and state.

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An Evil Deity Cannot Be Trusted

While there are many well known objections to Pascal’s Wager, in a recent e-mail discussion with a reader I formulated a simple argument which I don’t remember ever having encountered and which I would like to share here: A deity who causes any of its creatures to suffer eternal torment is necessarily evil, and thus we cannot trust such a deity to honor its promises regarding salvation. Therefore, we have no reason to believe that practicing any religion in order to enter its heaven and avoid its hell will be more successful than not practicing it. It’s better to practice virtue as informed by our reason and not worry about unsubstantiated threats from unknown gods.

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