Sunday, November 3, 2013

What I do Believe

So if you don't believe in God, what do you believe in? Well here goes...

I believe in a different moral code. My morality is based on compassion, not rules.

I have different virtues and different vices. My virtues include curiosity, tolerance, and even doubt. My vices include faith, bigotry, and willful ignorance.

I am not offended by criticism. I am offended by hate. The only words that should be censored are ones that dehumanize. People deserve respect; ideas do not.

I tolerate the responsible use of mind-altering chemicals, and recognize that those who abuse it need help, not a cage.

I tolerate other people's lifestyle choices, and respect the privacy and preferences of individuals who differ from myself.

I believe that the sanctity of a truly sacred bond between two people cannot be lessened by someone else's.

I do not forgive in the religious sense, because I do not believe in guilt. I make mistakes, but when this happens I don't turn to ritual sacrifice. Further harm to an innocent third party does nothing. It only adds to the total suffering, and does not subtract from the harm that was done. So when I trespass my neighbors, I seek to repair the damage. And when the damage is irreversible, I can only move on, learn from my mistake, accept the consequences, and try to do better, as always.

I believe I am a product of genetics and experiences, set on a predetermined path. I do not believe in free will. Yet I believe we should hold each other responsible, because this is the only way to maintain order for the greater good. Justice is our artificial karma.

I strive to be right, but reserve the right to be wrong. If I am, I deserve criticism, not hell. I cannot seek the truth objectively while under threat to reach a certain conclusion.

I believe it is far better to say "I don't know" than to fib. To assert a fable in the absence of confirmed knowledge is to be a coward of the dark. I believe it's better to embrace the unknown, and march unflinching into the darkness of our own ignorance, bearing the light of inquiry.

I begin with what I can see, hear, and touch. Reality is my starting point. Reality is my ultimate authority. No book or person is immune to criticism.

I do not equate ignorance with innocence. Instead, I strive for knowledge and understanding, to better myself.

I associate with the atheist community, but we have no leader; we are headless, but not mindless. Total submission is not an option, so we must each bear the burden of the responsibility to think. Thus, our intellect is decentralized and distributed, yet in total we move as one, because an honest pursuit of truth tends to lead to unanimous conclusions.

If I were in charge of things, religious people would still have the freedom of religion. They would still enjoy all the same rights except one: they would not have the right to force others to conform to their ways. My freedom ends where yours begins, and vice-versa.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Man With the Red-Faced Monkey

A long time ago, my mother told me this story. I don't know where she got it from, or if it really happened, but here it is, as best I can remember.

There was a street magician who lived in a very superstitious town, and he always had a red-faced monkey perched on his shoulder. His best trick he would perform with a simple wooden bowl. He would place it face down on the table, and when he turned it over, money would have magically appeared underneath. All the while, the red-faced monkey would stare silently from his shoulder. People passing by would be amazed by the magician's trick, but even more amazed when he offered to sell them the bowl.

"Will it work?" They would ask.

"Oh yes!" The magician would reply. "Just do as I did. You can use it as many times as you like!"

The price of the bowl seemed fair enough, considering you could, in theory, produce infinite money from it. So they would eagerly hand over their money in exchange for this magical bowl. But before they left with their prize, the magician would give them one final piece of advice.

"Whatever you do, don't think about the red-face monkey when you lift the bowl. Otherwise, it won't work."

Heeding this advice, the customers would rush home to try and strike it rich. But no matter how many times they tried, they couldn't produce a single coin from the bowl because they couldn't stop thinking about the red-faced monkey.

One must appreciate the deviousness of the business that magician had going. If any disgruntled customers came back wanting a refund, he could simply ask them if they thought about the red-faced monkey, and they would have to admit that they did. The bowl's failure to produce money would be their own fault.

I'm reminded of this often when certain religious types defend their claims. You didn't pray sincerely enough; that's why God didn't answer you. You didn't have enough faith; that's why God didn't heal you. You didn't believe hard enough, you didn't have the right mindset, or you had sin in your heart. Somehow it's your fault that their voodoo magic didn't work. Don't buy it.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Review: Why We Believe In Gods

Why do we believe in Gods? Is the human mind inherently theistic? In his lecture "Why We Believe In Gods" Andy Thomson provides a compelling and scientifically supported argument that our minds are hard wired to believe in Gods because of the way we evolved. I'm going to comment on a few of the highlights and try not to butcher it too much with my layman's understanding, but I strongly recommend watching the video if you have the time. Better yet, check out his book.

Andy Thomson explains that religion is a "by-product of cognitive mechanisms designed for other purposes." In other words, we evolved to think in certain ways that helped us survive, but then there were side effects. As you'll see, these "cognitive mechanisms" can combine to create religion.

Decoupled cognition: The ability to have an imaginary conversation with someone who is either absent or nonexistent. We can replay past conversations, rehearse future conversations, or even imagine what we would say to Elvis Presley and how he might respond. It's not much of a stretch to use this ability to talk to an imaginary agent, such as God. Sprinkle in a little magical thinking, and the imaginary conversation becomes an actual conversation. Some Christians might even imagine what God would say in response and misapprehend the imagined response as the actual voice of God.

Thomson says "It's natural to think of disembodied minds" because there may have been an evolutionary advantage to being able to think about someone's intentions or goals without them present. He talks about an experiment that was done where children were shown a puppet show of an alligator eating a mouse. The children were then asked a series of questions about the mouse.

"Does the mouse still need to eat or drink?" No.

"Is the mouse still moving around?" No.

"Does the mouse still think and want certain things?" Yes.

So apparently we're born thinking about minds and bodies as if they are separate things. This is evident even in adults when we ask "where do we go when we die?" This kind of thinking not only stimulates belief in souls, the afterlife, and ghosts, but also enables us to imagine a great disembodied mind in the sky.

Hyperactive agency detection: The tendency to assume that intelligent agents are behind every unknown. Think of this as a kind of abstract pareidolia. Similar to the way we unconsciously scan for faces in the clouds, we also look for other patterns that might indicate an agent.

We look at nature and think an intelligent designer must have made it. We experience a strange coincidence and think someone caused it to happen for a reason. We look back at our lives and think someone had a hand in the way things played out. Everywhere we look, we assume agents are behind everything.

Machines break down: gremlins did it.

Mushrooms appear in a circle: fairies did it.

Strange sounds in the night: ghosts did it.

Tide goes in and out: God did it.

The sound of a twig breaking nearby: a saber tooth tiger did it.

That last one might have something to do with why we think this way. There is an evolutionary advantage to being paranoid and constantly on the lookout for agents. Eons later, we no longer have to worry about that darn tiger, but we still have this sloppy detection mechanism built in, and we can't turn it off.

Attachment Mechanism: The tendency to turn to a caretaker when in distress. As children, we instinctively cry out for help whenever we're hurt or we need something. Prayer is when we continue that behavior into adulthood, instead of growing up and learning to be self-reliant. A lot of prayer is just childish crying for a celestial parent to make everything better.

Childhood credulity: The evolutionary advantage of being gullible. This is something Dawkins talks about as well. If a parent tells a child: don't play with snakes, don't swim with crocodiles, or don't eat a particular kind of berry, the child is more likely to survive if they don't try to be a skeptic and test those things. Unfortunately, this gullibility is still in effect when the parent tells the child what they need to do or believe in order to avoid the wrath of God.

These are just a few of the cognitive mechanisms that make the human mind a fertile petri dish for the memetic virus of religion. It's often said that everyone is born an atheist, but if Thomson is right, we're also born with a whole toolkit of evolutionary leftovers in our heads that make us naturally religious. This helps explain why theism has spontaneously and independently arisen in so many cultures around the world, a fact that many theists offer as evidence of faith.

I also strongly recommend Daniel Dennett's lecture "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon". If you haven't seen that one, it will blow your mind. You will never see religion the same way again. Dennett explains how a religion evolves as a memetic virus, a virus made of words and ideas instead of physical stuff.

While I still think Dennett's memetic theory about the evolution of religion explains a lot, Thomson's ideas are better at explaining the "abiogenesis" of religion. In fact, I think Thomson's and Dennett's theories mesh perfectly. A virus, even a memetic one, works by exploiting the weaknesses of a system, and the cognitive mechanisms Thomson has studied are the weaknesses that allow religion to take hold of a mind.

Unfortunately, religion has had a long time to evolve, and it has become exceedingly efficient at exploiting the human mind. If atheists want to make a difference, we need to understand how religion works to be able to fight it effectively.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Atheist's Fine Tuning Argument

The theist's fine tuning argument is so wrong that it's actually a good argument for strong atheism. In fact, the opposite argument would be more indicative for theism. For example, if we with our frail carbon-based bodies survived impossibly in a hostile environment with acid rain, a toxic atmosphere, and molten lava knee-deep, on a planet that miraculously existed in a universe where the laws of physics do not permit the formation of planets, then you might have a case for the supernatural.

But we're here instead. We are here, on the one planet that can support us naturally. We are here, in the one universe that does allow for our existence. We are here, in the only place in the known universe where we can possibly survive without supernatural support, because we couldn't be anywhere else without help from a god.

Friday, July 5, 2013

God Does Not Forgive

Forgiveness is mentioned in the Bible about 140 times. It is a central talking point in most churches. But if we read the Bible with a critical eye, a very startling fact becomes clear: the Christian God never actually forgives anyone. Seriously. There's a lot of talk about it, but it never happens. In practice, God's "forgiveness" fails to meet any description of forgiveness. The problem is three-fold, but any one of these problems alone would make it absurd to call Yahweh a forgiving god.

1. To forgive is to to erase a debt. Yet we're told that for some unfathomable reason, God cannot erase our debt. He can only transfer it. This is not forgiveness; this is scapegoating.

2. God's "forgiveness" is conditional. Not everyone is forgiven, only those who play by the rules of his game. You must believe without evidence, somehow. You must love God with all your heart, soul, mind, body, and worldly possessions. You must confess your sins, ask for forgiveness, accept Jesus as your savior, and be his servant for the rest of eternity. If you don't jump through these flaming hoops, you still go to hell, despite God's "forgiveness." This is not a true erasure of debt. God's "forgiveness" again fails to meet the definition of forgiveness. What we have here is a renegotiation of debt. "Instead of burning in hell, you can just be my slave for the rest of eternity. Deal?"

3. Again, the definition of forgiveness is to erase a debt. Yet even after God "forgives" us, we still owe him an eternal debt. We must be grateful, and thank him for the rest of eternity. We owe him our allegiance, our servitude, 10% of our income, and 100% of our souls. Why do we owe Jesus? Because he forgave us. In other words, he erased our debt, but now we owe him a debt for the service of erasing our debt. Only a religion could be so twisted.


On the other hand, God expects us to do what he is incapable of: to truly forgive our neighbors. What if we followed his example instead? What if we actually put WWJD into practice? Let's say you accidentally break an irreplaceable vase in my home, and I "forgive" you, God's way. What would that look like?

Hey, it's cool. Don't worry about it. I forgive you.

But wait. I can't just erase the debt; someone must pay the price. There's no other way: I must punish my son for what you have done. He will be crushed for your transgressions, and his blood will atone for your sins. Then you will be forgiven.

But wait. You have to accept my forgiveness. To accept it, you must confess your sin, ask me to forgive you, and accept me as your Lord and savior. Of course once you've accepted me as your Lord and savior, that means you have to do whatever I say. I basically own you now. You must thank me and love me for the rest of your life. If you fail to do so, or if you ever dare to reject me or curse my name, then my forgiveness will become null and void. But as long as you promise to abide by these conditions, I forgive you.

But wait. Where are you going? You still owe me. No, not for the vase. You owe me because I forgave you for the vase. And that is a debt that can never be repaid.


What would Christianity look like if Yahweh actually forgave? For one thing, there would be no need for a crucifixion, and the Christians would have to find another symbol.

Hell would be empty. All those dictators and serial killers would have to go somewhere, though. Maybe they would each have their own isolated world designed to help them learn and grow and eventually become compassionate human beings. Some might argue that it would be better to just end them, but I think eternity is long enough to reeducate even the most evil person.

What about atheists and everyone who picked the wrong religion? If God forgives, he's not going to hold a grudge about that. "Welcome to the pearly gates. Yes, I'm the one true god; some of you may be surprised by that. But hey, no hard feelings. Everybody come on in!"

And what about those of us who would still reject God? Maybe we're still sore about the Old Testament atrocities. Maybe we just don't like God, or we don't agree with policies. Well, if God is omnipotent, he can create a way for us to live apart from him. Maybe God would create a second heaven for those of us who want to live independently. We would be allowed to build our own humanist society and walk to the beat of our own drums. A forgiving god would not be offended by our decision. He would probably even keep an "open gates policy" in case any of us change our minds.

Earth's history would have been vastly different. Since Adam and Eve seemed genuinely sorry for eating the wrong fruit, God would not have cursed them and thrown them out of the garden. Even if there was a legitimate reason why they shouldn't digest the knowledge of good and evil, a forgiving god would not have triggered 6000 years of suffering over a problem that could have been solved with a stomach pump.

If I try to imagine a forgiving god, not a single prediction I can make from that hypothesis matches the behavior of the Biblical god. And when I try to imagine forgiving my neighbors the way God does, I realize it's no kind of forgiveness at all. None of these obvious things ever occur to a Christian. It's not that they're stupid; it's just that they're not allowed to think about it that way. God forgives because the Bible says so, and you'd better believe it. You're allowed to think, as long as you control your thoughts and steer them toward the correct conclusion. Because free thought is a corrosive acid to religion.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

I Don't Know

Ever hear this one? "Atheists have a problem. They can't explain where the universe came from. You can't create something from nothing, and that's a big problem for atheism."

It's a common and bewildering notion that atheists need to be able to explain every mystery in the universe before making the audacious suggestion that maybe there isn't an invisible magic man in the sky.

Ok, so I don't know where the universe came from. I don't know why there's something rather than nothing. But why would my lack of knowledge conflict with my lack of belief? Ignorance and disbelief go together perfectly. In fact, one logically follows from the other. If I don't know what caused the universe, then I don't believe in any particular explanation. I'm open to the possibility that a god created it, as well as other possibilities, but I'm not going to settle for any particular explanation without proof. To put it as simply as I can, I don't know that God created the universe, so I don't believe that God created the universe.

In a Venn diagram of a rational person's mind, knowledge and belief should be indistinguishable. They should be right on top of each other, not just overlapping. To know without believing is denial, and to believe without knowing is faith.

If we are honestly seeking the truth, we won't find it by inventing magical explanations for things we don't understand. The existence of the universe doesn't prove a god anymore than presents under a tree prove Santa Clause. Just because we don't know how it got there, doesn't mean there has to be a supernatural being who put it there.

The fact that I don't know where the universe came from is not a problem for me, because I'm not the one claiming to know where the universe came from. The problem is with theists who claim the universe came from a god, but have no proof.