Saturday, 31 December 2011

"I did not come from a monkey!"

"I did not come from a monkey!" is a frequent sentiment among creationists.  They feel that they have been created "in God's image", and are simply superior to animals in every conceivable way.  We have something they lack: a soul.  I find it extremely ironic that it is among those less educated that this attitude of supreme pride is most prevalent.  Scientists seem to have no problem accepting that we thinking apes (not monkeys, which are a different branch of the primate family).  We are, quite simply, animals.   
Even among the general more well educated population, there seems to be a prevailing perception that humans are fundamentally and orders of magnitude smarter and different from other primates.  There is a memorable quote, I wish I could remember who said it or exactly how it was said.  It says that humans and chimpanzees share 97% the same DNA.  But in the 3%, you get language,  art, music, literature... in short: civilization.

Do we really?  I this where it comes from?  Is it just genetics that make this seemingly gaping chasm of difference between us and chimps?  Is that 3% (or 1% I think is now the more correct understanding), really what makes the difference between an animal and us?  And is the difference as big as we conceive it is? Let's disregard the question of the presence or absence of a soul for the moment and instead focus on nature versus nurture.

Consider two pieces of evidence: Feral Children.  Intelligence, tool use, and cultural transmission among chimps.

Numerous examples exist of children who were raised isolated from other humans.  Some were living alone in the wild.  Some were being cared for by other animals.  Some were neglected and abused by parents and never taught even to speak.  Without the benefit of learning from other humans, these children lacked all culturally transmitted knowledge and behavior.  They lacked language.  Most did not walk upright, or not exclusively upright.  They didn't dress themselves.  They behaved like animals, often mimicking the behaviors of the animals they interacted with.

Chimps live in social groups.  They have social structures and culturally transmitted learned behaviors.  They plan ahead.  They make and use a variety of primitive tools.  They excel at intelligence tests and there are even areas where they surpass humans.  They resemble, to a great degree, what we know of prehistoric anatomically modern humans.

Humans have been physiologically "modern" for tens of thousands of years, possibly as long as 200,000.  This means that these past humans, if they had had the benefit of being brought up in modern society, would likely have been not much different from you or I, if at all.  We have had the capacity for language, art, culture and such for a very long time, but it took many many generations of transmitting learned behaviors and knowledge and developing new behaviors before we even began to evolve what we now call civilization.   The examples of the feral children show us that without standing on the shoulders of our inherited cultural knowledge,  we would be primitive and animal like, much like modern chimps and prehistoric modern humans.  I hypothesize that if a population of humans were raised as feral children, without being taught any language or other skills, and allowed to simply live "naturally,"  and breed and exist for generations without any interaction with any "civilized" humans, it would take them many hundreds of generations to begin to approach a level of cultural sophistication beyond what we see in chimps.  It would obviously be unethical in the extreme to carry out such an experiment.  But as a thought experiment, it is rather intriguing, and would probably make an excellent sci-fi novel.

 Conversely, the examples of apes learning sign language and other complex behaviors shows us just how small the gap between humans and our closest relatives is.  The fundamental difference between us is, to a large degree, a matter of circumstance.  Given the right environmental stimulation and enough generations, perhaps other apes could evolve civilization as well.  We already know there were other branches of the human family tree that had made significant advancements along that path, such as the Neanderthals.

If, as I am suggesting, the difference between us and other apes has much more to do with the transmission of accumulated knowledge from generation to generation, than to do with genetics, or the presence of a soul this should bring us to two important realizations.  Firstly, we should be proud.  We should look with awe on the incredible achievements of humanity that all rest on one fundamental behavior: teaching our children.  Secondly, we should be humbled.  We should recognize how close we still are to our animal selves.  In this lies the promise of evolutionary psychology: by looking at the behaviors of our closest cousins and knowing how we have behaved through history, we can better understand ourselves.  Thirdly, we should look forward. Recognizing we are cultural animals, and not divinely created beings.  Recognizing we are a young civilization only beginning to understand our own nature, not the end product of evolution.  Recognizing that our history, our cultures, values and the conflicts that go with them are not a fundamental part of our nature, but learned behaviors and ideas.  We can reinvent ourselves.  We can do away with historical shackles.  We can accept those aspects of our animal nature that are good, and control those that are harmful.  We can shape the future of our species.  This is of course, much easier said than done.  But it can be done if we do one simple thing: teach our children.  Teach them not to cling to past traditions and accepted "wisdom", but to boldly question and seek always the best answers, supported by evidence and reason.

Friday, 16 December 2011

I am an arrogant atheist!

I am an arrogant atheist.  I am so arrogant that it is greatly offensive to some believers.

I am so arrogant that I feel that if there is a creator of the universe - which is vast beyond my human ability to comprehend - he, she or it probably did not create it specifically for me and my species.

I am so arrogant that I do not believe the creator of the universe has a plan for my life.

I am so arrogant that I disbelieve the idea that a being capable of creating the universe and everything in it  revealed himself to humanity through contradicting prophets and preachers in ancient history.

I am so arrogant that I find the idea that an omnipotent being would deign to listen to my requests and complaints to be silly.

I am so arrogant that I reject the idea that an omniscient deity is concerned with my every thought.

I am so arrogant that I reject the notion that this being is particularly interested in my sex life and those of others.

I am so arrogant that I seek knowledge from a variety of sources, and do not consider any book to be better than any other ever written.

I am so arrogant that I change my mind frequently, as new evidence and better answers present themselves.

I am so arrogant that I often admit that I do not know things.

I am so arrogant that if something is unknown to science, I try to resist inserting an explanation from an ancient source as the answer.

I am so arrogant that I admit that I have been wrong in the past, I probably currently hold some erroneous views, and I am certain I will be wrong again in the future.

I am so arrogant that I believe my thoughts, actions or omissions are neither evil enough, nor important enough, to require that a deity in the guise of a perfect human be tortured and executed in atonement for them.

I am so arrogant that I believe that humanity can determine what is moral and what is not through rational thought without having to receive lists of rules from prophets claiming to speak on behalf of the creator of the universe.

I am so arrogant that I reject the idea that I can direct someone to a path that will give an eternity of infinite bliss.

I am so arrogant that I reject the notion that my thoughts and beliefs might be so vile or wrong as to merit a punishment of unimaginably excruciating torture for all eternity.

I am so arrogant that I stubbornly reject things that have no evidence to support them, no matter how nice they sound, how comforting they may be, or how internally consistent they are.

I am so arrogant that I believe I am an animal, a single member of a species in a very long evolutionary line, and that my life does not have any eternal or cosmic significance.

Yes, my towering arrogance is an affront to humble believers everywhere.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Christians don't really believe in the god of the bible!

One thing I and my fellow anti-religionists often encounter when speaking with Christians is a claim that we don't understand god, or Christianity, or the bible, etc.  Given that most of us don't walk into these discussion without doing our research, and that most of us were former believers ourselves, this claim rings hollow.  But why does it persist?  I think it's because we tend to point at the bad and immoral side of faith - the biblical atrocities, the doctrines about hell, etc.  The average Christian simply doesn't see those things as a central part of their faith.  And neither did I.

God is love.  Being a Christian is about being Christlike, being charitable, praying, forgiving, etc.  The modern day vision of god focuses on a very narrow portrait of "the lord."  Ask most any Christian to tell you about their faith and what they describe will resemble very much an imaginary best friend who is the most amazing friend ever!  Even though I was extremely well read compared to most Christians and especially my fellow Catholics, my own focus was mostly the same.  No one uses the term "God fearing" as a virtue anymore.  I've actually heard sermons about how we should not fear god.  Why would you fear your best friend who loves you infinitely?  No, the modern god is "awesome" not because he is jealous, vengeful and wrathful even though there are literally hundreds of references to these attributes of god in the bible!.  No, he is "awesome", because he's so unimaginably nice and loving.  When you point out the vicious genocidal monster called Yahweh in the old testament, or the hard-nosed Jesus of the new who demands such things as the selling of all your property, and talks of the tortures of eternal hellfire, they push these to side as peripheral minor things that are easily explained away by "context."

Like them, the god I believed in was not a god who would command us to slay infants.  My god would not demand death for minor offenses.  My god would not rejoice in destruction and war.  My Jesus was "the prince of peace."  A benign dictator who was strict but fair and loving.

 But that is not the god of the bible.  No matter how all loving we feel his son is, we cannot dismiss the fact that this is the same god who commanded the deaths of millions, who drowned the entire world, who destroyed cities.  This is the same god who demanded the stoning of women for losing their virginity before marriage.  The same one who condoned slavery.  This is the same god who - in the new testament book of Acts - struck dead Ananias and Sapphira because they "lied to the holy spirit" by trying to keep some of the money of the sale of all their worldly possessions instead of giving every bit to the church.    This "holy" book they carry contains material which, if penned by a modern person, would be deemed hate speech in most democracies (except most of the hate speech is directed at races and tribes that have already been wiped out by the genocidal Israelites... though homosexuals and pagans are still around).  But the Christians do not point to these verses and say "look how great god is that he commanded us to stone people for picking sticks on the sabbath."  They do not say "our god is great because he rejoices when we conquer our enemies and dash the heads of infants against the rocks."  They do not say (anymore), how great their god is for permitting slavery.  No, they hide these passages, ignore them, disregard them, or - when forced to face them - they try and explain them away and excuse god by saying he had good reason, or that it makes sense in the historical context.  They rather wish those things weren't in the bible.

I did an interesting experiment a while back.  I went onto the Facebook page called "The Bible", where people posted their favorite bible quotes.  When someone posts a bible verse that is inspirational about how loving god is, everyone "likes" it, and comments "so true!" and "amen!" etc.  I simply posted this from 2 kings 2:   23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some boys came out of the town and jeered at him. “Get out of here, baldy!” they said. “Get out of here, baldy!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys."  I didn't get any amens, or so trues... no, I got a lecture about how it was out of context and I should do my homework about the historical context... Bethel was a center of calf worship - and how the Hebrew word doesn't really mean boys, but young men... Basically, a reinterpretation of the story as Elisha was being attacked by an angry mob of pagan youths, and he was just defending himself.  I guess that poster is better at ancient Hebrew than every single bible translator out there, since some variation of "boys" appears in every translation I looked at.  Other posters backed him up.  All I did was post 2 bible verses.  I didn't make any comment.  Nevertheless, some felt it necessary to jump to the defense of the almighty lest his acts be misinterpreted.  Funny, no one cries "context!" when someone posts about the loving god.  And in other times they would have not felt the need to defend this verse, either, but might have seen it as proof of god's power over his enemies requiring no explanation.  But morality has evolved, and the pious now squirm uncomfortably when confronted with the unpleasant parts of the bible.

So my question to bible believing Christians is this:  if you really believe you worship the god of the bible, why pick and choose which parts to read?  Why defend and excuse the "crazy stuff"?  These are things done by or commanded by your eternal god, so shouldn't you be proclaiming them as great instead of trying to justify them, minimize them, reinterpret them, or otherwise show how ashamed you are that these things are part of the "word of god."?  Shouldn't I be able to post ANY bible verse or story and get a bunch of agreement from Christians?  

Monday, 12 December 2011

On and on and onanism

The sin of Onan. Self-abuse. Self-pollution...  Masturbation.

This is not a topic many people address openly.  And that embarrassment about the subject cost me a great deal.  Now, right about this point, I'm sure any people who know me personally instead of as an anonymous blogger are starting to feel a little uncomfortable.  Tough.  It's a normal part of life and just about everyone does it.  Adults should be able to talk about this like adults instead of like giggling adolescents, or squirming prudes.  So pretend it's someone else writing this or whatever you have to do.  But if you have any interest in not psychologically traumatizing religious teenagers, please read on. 

From a very young age I was intensely interested in sex.  As a typical adolescent boy, I discovered the pleasures of self pleasuring.  This wasn't much of a problem in those earlier years aside from the fact that I didn't have any idea that I was normal or that other guys did it (they all denied it... bunch of liars!).  I was pretty sure it didn't cause blindness or hairy palms, since I hadn't yet developed either of those troubling symptoms.  Though one friend's claim that looking at too much porn - we were checking out his dad's magazine stash at the time - would lead to a near permanent erection lasting seven years seemed to be pretty plausible.  But when I was sixteen and began the path to extreme religiosity, my little habit began to become a serious problem.  It never even occurred to me to talk to my parents to inquire about their opinion on the subject.  Even if I had, by that time I had gotten far enough into studying the teachings of the church to realize that the average Catholic, my parents included, didn't know very much about the actual teachings and wouldn't be any help.  So I did my own research and naturally found the answer that masturbation, and even more so the lust that precedes and accompanies it, are considered mortal sins that will remove one from being in a state of grace.  For those unfamiliar with Catholic doctrine, salvation is a bit more complicated than the "I'm saved," you may be used to hearing from born-again Protestant Christians.  Basically, if you have confessed your sins and had them absolved, or have performed an act of contrition (which is asking god for forgiveness and resolving to go to confession), then you are in a state of grace which means if you die at that moment, you will go to heaven... after a sufficient time spent in purgatory being cleansed of your sins, of course.  However, if you have committed a mortal sin - as opposed to the more minor venial sins - it removes you from the state of grace.  If you die in a state of mortal sin, you go to hell.  On a side note, if you are in a state of mortal sin, it is an additional sacrilegious sin to receive communion, which means that pretty much 95% of the Catholic population is doomed to hell since the list of mortal sins includes such things as skipping church and using birth control... yep, right up there with murder.  So, from the age of 16 until well into my twenties, I lived in a cycle of sin, self-hatred, guilt and shame followed by repentance and a test of willpower.

Before getting a bit deeper into my personal experience, let's look a bit more closely at what the Church says.

First, the bible doesn't actually say anything directly about masturbation (see my earlier post about how  incompetent god is at telling us about important questions).  The closest it gets is the coitus interuptus of Onan in  Genesis 38:8-10.  This is the origin of the term Onanism.  It's a pretty big leap from Onan being bad because he didn't want to provide a son for his brother, to spilling your seed in general is bad.  What seemed much more relevant to me was the fact even just lusting was wrong.  There are several references to lust in the bible, but there are two verses that when looked at side by side, put it in perspective.  "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart."  Matthew 5:28   and Mark 9:47-49  "...if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’ Everyone will be salted with fire."  

The 1975 Encyclical Persona Humana written by The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is pretty clear in chapter IX:

"The traditional Catholic doctrine that masturbation constitutes a grave moral disorder is often called into doubt or expressly denied today. It is said that psychology and sociology show that it is a normal phenomenon of sexual development, especially among the young. It is stated that there is real and serious fault only in the measure that the subject deliberately indulges in solitary pleasure closed in on self ("ipsation"), because in this case the act would indeed be radically opposed to the loving communion between persons of different sex which some hold is what is principally sought in the use of the sexual faculty.
This opinion is contradictory to the teaching and pastoral practice of the Catholic Church. Whatever the force of certain arguments of a biological and philosophical nature, which have sometimes been used by theologians, in fact both the Magisterium of the Church--in the course of a constant tradition-- and the moral sense of the faithful have declared without hesitation that masturbation is an intrinsically and seriously disordered act."

I hadn't directly read the whole above quote back then.  But I did read the Catechism when it came out.  It was one of the first things I looked up when I got my copy.

2396 Among the sins gravely contrary to chastity are masturbation, fornication, pornography, and homosexual practices. 


2352 By masturbation is to be understood the deliberate stimulation of the genital organs in order to derive sexual pleasure. "Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action." "The deliberate use of the sexual faculty, for whatever reason, outside of marriage is essentially contrary to its purpose." For here sexual pleasure is sought outside of "the sexual relationship which is demanded by the moral order and in which the total meaning of mutual self-giving and human procreation in the context of true love is achieved."
To form an equitable judgment about the subjects' moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.

Now, despite that last sentence about the mitigating factors that turn a mortal sin into a venial one, I didn't cut myself any slack.  I reasoned that, despite the presence of "acquired habit" and "conditions of anxiety," I was fully conscious of the gravely sinful nature of my action when I partook of them, so I had no excuses.
 Not only did I know it was wrong, I knew exactly why it was wrong and just how wrong it was.  I even wrote an essay in English class (much to the chagrin of my liberal protestant teacher!) about the evils of birth control from a Catholic perspective.  The theological basis for that teaching is the same as the teaching on masturbation.  In the eyes of the Church, sex is reserved strictly for heterosexual married couples, engaged in it for the dual purposes of love and reproduction.  Oh, by the way, this also means any married Catholics who engage in oral sex, anal sex, mutual masturbation, or basically anything but a bit of foreplay before getting down to the intercourse (without any birth control other than natural family planning, of course) are also committing mortal sins and going to hell.  

So my cycle went something like this... I would go to confession and get absolved.  I would strive to maintain that state of grace as long as possible.  Sometimes I made it months.  Sometimes just days or even only hours.  Most commonly it would be at least a week or two.  I would stay up late to catch whatever R rated movie with a few seconds of nudity happened to be playing on the CBC late night movie.  I would get very pissed when the movies were delayed due to long-running hockey games, since unlike the majority of teenage Canadian boys, I had no interest in the sport whatsoever.  Sometimes I would borrow the Sears catalogue for the lingerie section, or one of my older sister's fashion magazines for the skimpy outfits and the occasional exposed breast.  And let's not forget the National Geographic topless tribal girls!  On rare occasions I might somehow manage to get my hands on a porn magazine.  After I turned 18, getting those was much easier, though still very embarrassing.  After I went to college and got that slow dial-up internet connection that took 10 minutes to load a single nude photo, the temptation became ever present.  It was simply inevitable.  No matter how hard I tried, no matter how strong and sincere my resolve to quit was, no matter how hard or how much I prayed, I just could not escape the temptation.  I even tried lessening the sin by trying to do it purely for the sensation, without lusting. That wasn't a great strategy either.  I just couldn't help myself.  This led to depression and, especially, shame.  I regarded myself as a "pervert."  I was constantly aware of my sinfulness and I was always keeping track of whether or not I was in a state of grace.  The church taught that we are responsible for our own sins, but anything good we do is through the grace of God.  So, when I managed to be good, it was God who got the credit.  When I sinned, I took all the blame.  After I sinned, I would sometimes decide to continue being sinful for a while.  I was damned anyway.  But eventually, I would always repent.  If I had any porn, I would destroy it.  I would soak the magazines in water or rip them up before throwing them in the trash in order to prevent myself from retrieving them later.  If it was on the computer, I would erase it.  If it was a video tape, I'd record over it.  Then I would return to confession - I had the schedule of the Fransiscan friary memorized - tell the priest about what I'd done, do my penance (usually a few prayers, or reading a particular bible passage), and start the cycle again.  I am sure I must have confessed to at least a couple dozen different priests and even a bishop or two over the years.  Despite all of them having themselves been horny teenagers once, and despite having to wrestle with celibacy, not a single one of them ever told me to ease up on myself, that it was a normal part of being a young man, or anything of the sort.  They told me to try sports to get rid of some of that sexual energy and things like that.  I can only wonder how incredibly difficult it must be for priests to suppress their sexual appetites through the long years.  I am so very thankful that I did not end up becoming a priest myself as I thought I would!

At one point, after returning home from several months on an exchange program and finding myself suffering from a great deal of culture shock, I went into a long period of being in a state of mortal sin and not having the strength to break out of it.  I went to mass, but abstained from communion, to the inquiring stares of my family.  I prayed as Saint Augustine did: Lord, grant me chastity... but not yet.

When I was first married, the problem continued.  My wife discovered my porn.  To her it was tantamount to adultery.  I tried to give it up.  I even started attending sex addicts anonymous for a time.  There I met men who frequented prostitutes and strip clubs.  It was actually a good experience to a certain extent.  It normalized my own experience.  Sure, I shared some features in common with these guys, but I wasn't really one of them.  And looking back I think most of them probably didn't belong there, either.  They just needed better outlets for their own high sex drives.

It took a very, very long time, but I have finally completely let go of that cycle.  I am finally accepting of my own sexuality and no longer ashamed of it, and my wife no longer views it as adultery or something to be jealous about.  Since we've bot set aside shame and guilt around the topic of sex, and focused on communication and being honest about our feelings, our marriage has improved tremendously!

  I want to stress that I did not leave the church so that I could sin without guilt... the guilt over this continued long after I had abandoned Catholicism.  I also want to stress that though I now loathe the teachings of the church on this subject, and I am angry at the church's perpetuation of this harmful dogma, that anger didn't lead to my atheism.  Forgiveness is one Catholic lesson I learned very well, and I long ago forgave anyone who directly or indirectly contributed to my cycle.  I do not blame any person but myself.. and I have forgiven myself, too.  The problem lies in the deepest core of Christian teachings about sin and salvation.  Though these teaching are so watered down as to be nearly unrecognizable in most Catholic households and many parishes, they are still there.    

If you know any religious teens, don't let them enter this cycle.  You don't even have to address the topic directly.  A little hint here and there that masturbation is normal and OK will go a long way.

  Peace... and happy wanking ;)

Monday, 28 November 2011

The Incompetence of the Christian God

Looking back, I am astounded at the degree to which I suppressed the questions, doubts, and observations about my faith that now seem so obvious to me.  This god I worshiped is completely incompetent, inept and downright stupid!  I know how offensive that statement is and there was a time when I would have boiled with anger had I read or heard something similar.  But now that I have seen the truth, I can't unsee it.  Even if someone could convince me that there was a divine creator, it could not erase from my mind the problems that exist in the bible.  The conclusion is inescapable; if this god of the bible actually exists, he's a cruel and incompetent child, and no amount of appealing to "free will," can erase the evidence of his profound ineptness.

Here are a few examples.  *warning - sarcasm ahead*

The garden of Eden.  The supposedly omniscient god puts a tree with appetizing fruit in the middle of the garden, knowing full well in advance exactly what will happen.  You don't even have to be omniscient to realize how dumb of an idea this is!.  Then he tells the innocent and childlike Adam and Eve not to eat it, yet allows a talking snake to tempt them.  Then he punishes them and all their progeny forever because they gave into temptation.  This is the equivalent of leaving a dog alone in a room with a big steak just sitting there, and commanding him not to eat it.  Then torturing him, and every puppy descended from him, for giving into his completely natural desire, and eating the steak.  Not only is that incompetent in the extreme, is also cruel beyond measure.

Complex moral issues versus stupid rules: I think we can all agree that abortion is a controversial topic.  Within Christianity itself, there are some denominations that consider it to be OK.  And others, like the Catholic church, who consider it so evil that even helping someone get an abortion, or belonging to a pro-choice organization, results in automatic excommunication.  An omniscient god should have foreseen how difficult and divisive this topic would be and instructed or inspired one or more of the biblical authors to say something clear about his instructions.  Nope.  Not a word.  The only way to arrive at a biblical position on the matter is to cherry pick and interpret various passages.  I have heard very sound biblical arguments both for and against abortion (I was quite surprised to find the argument FOR was more convincing!).  But, despite his silence on such an important issue, this all powerful all-knowing god did make sure to inspire his bible authors to make long lists of geneologies,  because it's important that we know who begat who back in bronze age Palestine.  He also gave long lists of what we could and could not eat, wear or grow.  He went to pains to provide detailed instructions for important everyday situations like how to punish a woman who accidentally grabs a man's nuts while trying to break up a fight (cut off her hand), and reminds us to bury our poop when we're camping so he doesn't step in it when he stalks the camp at night.   These things were deemed important enough for god to include in his holy book,  his revelation of eternal truth, along with various other long lists of rules, often repeated in more than one section of the bible just in case we forget what was said a few chapters earlier,  on how to live properly in a bronze age desert tribe, and how to properly conduct rituals, most of which he then rendered obsolete just a few hundred years later, by sending his son and the apostle Paul to give us a new version of rules to live by.  Seriously, how can anyone believe god intelligently designed the universe when he couldn't even intelligently design his own holy book?

Lies mixed with great truth?:  
As an answer to critics it's often said that the bible is not a science manual or a history, it's a spiritual book.  This is, of course, a modern idea.  It wasn't until science proved that illness wasn't caused by evil spirits, and that the world wasn't created in 6 literal days and isn't only six thousand years old, that some started reducing the role of the bible from the be all and end all of human knowledge to a mere "spiritual book".  Of course, some do still cling to literal interpretations.  But regardless, why, if this book was inspired by god and meant to "reveal" to us things about god, does it contain inaccuracies and outright falsehoods about the natural world, which was supposedly created by god?  Why would god tell us illness is caused by demons when he should have known damn well about viruses and bacteria.  He went on and on about what was ritually clean and unclean, but didn't bother to tell us about washing your hands before performing surgery or assisting in childbirth.  A couple of simple lines in scripture could have saved innumerable lives and prevented suffering on a massive scale.  Why would he tell us crap about a firmament, and the world being supported by pillars, when he could have just said the world revolves around the sun and there are other planets, etc.  Why does this book, inspired by an all-powerful god, contain not one bit of knowledge about the world that humans didn't already know?  Why, when it does say something about the world, it just reflects the misunderstandings of the human writers?  Because it a human book, written by humans.  Since what it says about the natural world is demonstrably false, why on earth should we think it got it right on the spiritual stuff?  Why would an all-knowing god reveal a great spiritual truth mixed in with lies about his creation?

Unintelligent design:
How can any man who has ever been hit in the balls claim that we are intelligently designed by god?  Take that logic a step further; god is male, and we are made in his image...  Does he have a foreskin?  Did he circumcise himself?  Does he have a celestial scrotum?  How can an all-powerful being have a weak spot like external testicles that are ultra-sensitive?  Jokes aside, any god who would create our frail human bodies as the crowning achievement of his creation is a terrible designer.  Other than thinking and making good use of our opposable thumbs, whatever we can do, there is another animal that can do it better.  Our knees are prone to wearing out.  Without glasses, nearly half the population would be nearly blind.  All of our senses are dull.  We see poorly and in a very narrow spectrum.  We hear poorly and in a very narrow range. We smell poorly.  Our immune systems are weak, and we are very prone to microbial diseases of all sorts.  We are so weak and frail, the only reason any of us survive is because we live in groups, taking care of each other.  A lone human in the wild is generally food for other animals.   

Poor documentation:
If you were god walking around the earth as a man, in direct communication with your father, preaching a message that would need to be passed on through many generations and different cultures, wouldn't you or dad or the holy spirit - being omniscient and all - think it might be a good idea to either have the son of god maybe learn to write, or pair yourself up with someone who does?  I mean seriously, how hard would that be?  Instead we have to rely on four differing accounts of his life, written decades after the events they describe.  The four gospels contradict each other on some very important things.  And those are just the four versions that the church accepted.  There were many others written that the church tossed out, not because they checked to see how historically accurate they were, but because they didn't suit the doctrines that the church wanted to keep.  As if the gospels being accounts based on stories that had been told and re-told for decades wasn't bad enough, some portions such as the story of Jesus saying "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" (one of the best stories in there in my opinion), weren't added until centuries later.  So, if the god of the bible exists, he is an extremely poor communicator and record keeper. A reporter for a junior high school newspaper could have done a better job!

No new info? None at all?
Bible believers will of course argue that the bible is full of useful knowledge and revelations.  But is it really?  Why then, is all the information that can be verified - i.e. history, science, understanding of the natural world, etc. never anything ahead of it's time?  Never anything useful.  Just imagine what the world would have been like if god had said to Moses, there are little animals that cause disease and so you need to wash your hands before helping a mother in child birth, performing surgeries, etc.  Nope.  We had to wait until about 19th century to figure out the concept of hygiene.  Maybe god could have proved himself by revealing some amazing mathematical principle that wouldn't be fully understood until centuries later.  Nope.  Maybe tell us how to invent the printing press, so we could spread his word easier, you know.  Nope.  How about predicting something exactly - as in date, time, exact details, instead of obscure prophecy that can be easily interpreted to fit.  No - can't do that either?  Man, just how omniscient are you? 

Military might:
The old testament is full of stories of god helping his followers kill neighboring tribes, commit genocide, dash infants' skulls on rocks,  take young virgins as spoils of war (gee, what for?), and other wonderfully all-loving and merciful stuff.  But since this particular blog post is about god's incompetence, and not his vileness, I won't go into detail about that stuff.  Everyone knows the story of David's near miraculous victory over Goliath.  An almost as popular story is the supposed destruction of the walls of Jericho by blowing trumpets.  But for some reason, they don't make any bible colouring books about Judges 1:19 "The LORD was with the men of Judah. They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron."  So almighty god helped his army conquer weaker tribes, but he wasn't quite almighty enough to overcome those iron chariots.  Isn't that interesting.    

Legal loophole?
For god so loved the world that instead of just forgiving them for being stained by their first ancestors' having eaten a stupid piece of fruit that god tempted them with, he instead created a loophole.  You see, despite being all powerful, god can't just forgive.  He requires blood sacrifice.  And since eating fruit is the worst possible thing one can do, you need the absolute best blood possible to satisfy his bloodthirsty craving.  So, what better idea than to manifest himself as his son and sacrifice himself to himself?  But even that wasn't good enough, he then decided it was a good idea to require belief in this oh so well  documented sacrifice, and obviously not made up resurrection story, in order to obtain forgiveness.  What better way to make sure everyone knew about it than to have it happen in a tiny illiterate corner of the world and have it take nearly two thousand years to spread to the point where it could actually be known about worldwide.  Not to mention that had not Constantine's devout Christian mother Helena influenced him to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, it's quite likely this odd little new religion might have died out or been reduced to a small community instead of coming to dominate the West.

I'm sure I could go on and provide more examples, but these few are more than enough to convince me that the god of Christianity is not worthy of my respect, much less my worship, devotion, or 10% of my income.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Apostate's Creed

One of my favorite parts of the mass when I was a devout Catholic was reciting the Apsotles' Creed.  I won't reprint it here, you can click on the link to read it on Wikipedia.  I'm not sure why it appealed to me so much.  In part I'm sure it was because it was so concrete.  It was a concise summary of the foundation upon which I had built my life.  I loved it so much I once spent hours drawing a sort of calligraphy version of it that I had intended  putting on a T-shirt.  I often included the creed in my prayers.  To me, it just sounded cool. 

 I decided to adopt a position of being a proud Apsotate after reading this line in the Wikipedia article about apostasy: "Apostasy is generally not a self-definition: very few former believers call themselves apostates because of the pejorative implications of the term."
I came up with the idea of writing an Apostate's Creed in part because it sounded cool.  Apostle and Apostate sound similar but are almost polar opposites.   
The idea also appealed to me, because it is a statement of conviction.  I am not just a non-practicing Catholic.  I am not just a sheep that has wandered away from the flock.  I was exactly that for a long time, but I have since moved on.  I have since taken a very hard look at my former beliefs and I have not just abandoned them.  I reject them and I renounce my membership in the Catholic Church.  I renounce the sacraments I received from the church:  my baptism, my confirmation, my communion, the religious part of my marriage, and the confessions I made (especially since most of the "sin" I was confessing, despite being categorized as mortal sin and deserving of hell by the church, was nothing more than a completely normal part of being a teenage boy. that harmed no one). 

I'm sure many would be tempted at this point to conclude that I am an angry atheist, that I'm lashing out emotionally.  I won't deny that I do harbour some resentment over the psychological damage my own beliefs did to me in those years, but my motivation to speak out is not some quest for revenge.  I speak out because is not just false, it's a bad idea.  Its doctrines have influenced history in incredibly negative ways and they continue to cast their shadow over the world.  I know it's out of context and deliciously ironic that I would quote the bible in an inspirational way, but I like Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 13:11 here: "When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me." Religion is a part of humanity's childhood.  It's Santa Claus fairy tales for adults.  But humanity needs to grow up, put this childish doctrine behind us, and reason like the thinking animals we are.  So... without rambling, here it is:

The Apostate’s Creed

I don’t believe in gods,
Or anything almighty.
There is no heaven, no god created earth.
Jesus Christ is not my lord, he was just a Jewish preacher.
He was conceived by a human father
And born of a non-virgin Mary,
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, died and was buried;
He did not descend into hell, because it does not exist;
He did not rise from the dead, and neither will the millions killed in his name;
He did not ascended into heaven, and his followers won't either.
He is not seated at any anyone’s right hand, because he is dead and there is no heavenly father.
He will not come again to judge the living or the dead.
I do not believe in any spirit,
The holiness of the Catholic or any other Church.
There is no communion of saints.
Forgiveness is human.
Resurrection is a myth.
And life is not everlasting, so make the most of what you’ve got.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

What about the resurrection of Jesus?

Paul says if there is no resurrection, then the Christian faith is worthless. 1 Corinthians 15:14-17 So, having always been keenly aware of this important lynchpin of theology, when I picked up a copy of the book Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, I went straight to the chapters about the resurrection.

The arguments in a nutshell are:
1. The bible says so.
2. ...

Actually, that's really it. The whole thing is about looking closely at the bible and what it says and why we should accept it as a good historical document. I'm not going to bother going into detail on each little event that's recorded in Paul's epistles or the gospels, that's already been done by people far more qualified than I am. So, instead I'm just going to give some thoughts on the matter based on comparison with my own experience (trust me, you'll see there's a point). If you want the scholarly historical analysis of texts and sources and all that, I'll include some links.

The first thing that struck me was the lack of material. This is supposed to be the single most important event in the history of humanity according to Christian theology, and yet there is not a single written contemporary - and by contemporary I don't mean decades later - mention of it that we're aware from anyone, anywhere. No one at the time of this most important thing to EVER happen bothered to write anything down about it; not the Christians, not the Jews who you would think might have had some interest in trying to discredit a story that was so important that it threatened their entire faith, not the Romans, not anyone. We're supposed to believe god is perfect and omnipotent and omniscient, yet he was apparently so nearsighted he didn't think to maybe say to one of his followers, hey, you know, it might be worth writing something down for the future about me rising from the dead and all? Oh, but the early Christians thought Jesus was coming back within their life-time so they didn't need to write it down. So what? Jesus should have known and could have given instructions. Apostate XP 1:7 'And then Jesus said unto them "Peter, write this down. Thomas, you too." and they did.' There, done, history changed, we now have an accurate record of everything by two separate independent first-hand witnesses to everything. Nope, guess it was better to be mysterious and have thoughts higher than ours that don't fit into a puny human conceptions of what a perfect deity should look like. The earliest records are in Paul's letters and come from oral tradition. We're told that since this is from a creed - a memorized statement that is transmitted word for word - that it must be reliable. Ummm, seriously? So rumours have been spreading for a decade or two about a Jesus rising from the dead (a feat which wasn't all that outstandingly amazing considering the semi-literate and ultra-superstitious cultural context), it gets worked into creed, repeated over and over, and eventually Paul writes it down, and that's good evidence? So, if I write a story about some dude based on a poem I heard about from a friend, who heard it from his cousin, who heard it from her boyfriend about events that happened two decades ago, would you trust it to be true and accurate even about something important and noteworthy, yet completely believable with no element of supernatural? No? What if it was a ghost story? No? What if it was in an email forward from your mom? Maybe. What if you pray about it and you get a warm fuzzy feeling? Yes! Oh, ok then.

Apparently, it's especially good evidence since it mentions real people, alive at the time it was written, as witnesses and anyone could have checked them out. So therefore, someone must have checked them out and since no-one bothered to contradict it that we know of, it must mean the witnesses cited agreed with what was written. Really? There are chain letters circulating on the internet that are supposed to be quotes from or stories about real people and real events and even include references. Bill Gates said... The Dalai Lama said... etc. etc. Anyone could look them up in a fraction of a second with a Google search. But guess what?  These things still circulate for years, are re-posted in blogs and various social media, re-told orally, added to, embellished, etc and BELIEVED, even though literally anyone could fact check in seconds. Very few actually do. And despite there being those who try and correct the record, they barely make a dent in the circulation of these stories because they're good stories that people want to believe. Most of the people passing these things along are reasonably intelligent, certainly more educated than first century Palestinians, and are at least passingly media savvy enough to know that not everything you read is true. But still, they pass it on uncritically. Add onto that the bias of belief and trust. Sure, people COULD have done some fact checking to find out if the preachers in the early Christian movement really did get their story from so-and-so who lives in that town, but why would they? Human nature says they didn't.  Yet on this most important matter we are meant to conclude that since nobody in this semi-literate culture wrote down that he talked to Bob and Bob said Paul is full of crap, that it means Bob must have corroborated the story, right?

Lee Strobel spends a lot of his efforts to try and debunk theories (actually they are speculations or at best hypotheses) put forth over the years by scholars and other authors about possible alternative explanations. In most cases he's right, these alternative theories don't make sense. For example, Jesus probably did actually die, he couldn't have just passed out (the swoon theory) etc. This may sound very convincing to one already convinced; oh, so if these speculations by other people aren't right, then by default it must mean that the resurrection story is true, right? This is right in the same vein as saying you can't disprove god, therefore Christianity is right. That argument is probably equally convincing to those who already believe.  But anyone with a skeptical mind can see that is illogical. One thing being wrong, doesn't make the alternative automatically true.  The only evidence either for or against the resurrection is an interpretation of the bible itself.   Short of having technology that allows us to look into the past and view events exactly as they happened, we can never know for certain the entire truth of what went on at this turning point in history.

But what about the witness of the apostles who were martyred for their faith? The argument here - and repeated others - is that they would not have died for something they knew was a lie. First, where is the documentation of any of them being given an ultimatum to denounce the resurrection as a lie or be martyred? You can take a look at a critical examination of the existing evidence (most of it legends written long after the supposed events) here.  For most, we don't have any idea how they really died.  Even if we had proof that every one of the apostles died professing the resurrection, it would only prove that they had strong faith.  We see examples of people willing to die for strong belief all the time.   Faith doesn't necessarily mean that their memory or interpretation of events was accurate. Do we know for certain that they believed in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and not a spiritual resurrection? Maybe they saw a man who pretended to be the resurrected Jesus. You don't have to look very far for examples of people who believe they saw things that aren't possible and will swear to their deaths that what they experienced was real. Think alien abductions, ghost encounters, religious experiences of all stripes like appearances of Mary, of saints, and on and on. Put yourself in the shoes on the apostles. Their whole life has just been taken away from them, their world shattered. They are distressed, they are vulnerable, they are praying for a sign. They are also superstitious believers who accept the miraculous as a part of their lives, and interpret what they experience with a bias towards seeing the hand of god in every event. They are already primed, ready to believe, ready to interpret what they experience in light of their beliefs and expectations. They are poor witnesses, as biased as any witness can possibly be.   Even if they are completely sincere, their  testimony is highly suspect.

According to the bible, there were hundreds of people who saw the resurrected Jesus.  This from that creed I mentioned earlier: 1 Corinthians 15: 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (NIV)

We know Paul didn't see Jesus in the flesh, but in a vision (Acts 9:3-8) yet in this passage he places his vision on the same footing as the other encounters. Interestingly, this is the only place anywhere that these 500 witnesses are mentioned. Perhaps none were literate enough to write down their encounter with the living lord. Perhaps some did know how to write, but for some reason chose not to. Or maybe they did write, but their testimonies were not considered important enough to ensure they were preserved.  Maybe there were some oral traditions regarding this encounter, but no one preserved them. Was it not important enough? Why, if so many people witnessed the resurrected Christ is there so little written about it? Seriously, the son of god rises from the dead and walks around, preaching and teaching to hundreds, and there's barely a handful of accounts written about it? Not even a single story about what happened at this encounter with 500 brothers and sisters. What did they see? What did he say? What did he do? Sure, it's not like there was an army of bloggers or facebookers in Jesus' day to report their encounters for everyone to see, but you would think that something so momentous would have had numerous written accounts circulating. But all we have about this mass appearance is Paul's one-liner.  God did not see fit to inspire others to write about this important event.  How mysterious of him.

So, all in all, considering the extraordinary claims, I would like extraordinary evidence before I accept this story and revert back to my formerly religious mode of life. But, unfortunately, the best the creator of the universe could manage to provide was an event less well documented than what happens in the locker room after any major league sports game.

Interested in further reading?

Why I Don't Buy the Resurrection Story (6th ed., 2006)
Richard Carrier

The Rest of the Story (1999)Jeffery J. Lowder

Monday, 7 November 2011

The China Teapot, the Dragon in the garage, The Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Invisible Pink Unicorn

The stories in the heading are all attempts by atheists to illustrate to theists how ridiculous their beliefs are.  If you're unfamiliar with them, there are links to videos about them below.  They all make basically the same case - believing in the existence of god is just as ridiculous and just as impossible to prove or disprove as a teapot flying in space, an invisible dragon in my garage, a unicorn that is simultaneously invisible and pink, or that a flying spaghetti monster created us and the world and touches us with his noodly appendage.  While all quite brilliant analogies, they usually fail to even dent the faith of true believers.  Why?  Precisely because they are ridiculous.  The believer simply has a disconnect, a blind spot.  Their own belief does not seem ridiculous at all, it makes sense to them, it is supported by millennia of history, tradition, and - perhaps most importantly - communal belief.  They may be able to see a superficial resemblance between these examples and their own faith, but most will just smile in that smug way that says cute, nice try.  I know, I have been one of those faithful that smiled like that.

There is a real blind spot that the faithful have that simply does not allow them to view their own beliefs through the same lens as  they view the beliefs of others.  I remember studying the mythologies of the Greeks, Romans, Norse, etc. and thinking how could anyone have ever believed these obviously made up stories?  I know he was speaking of sin, but Jesus' advice here is just brilliant:  Matthew 7:3-5  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?  How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." (NIV)  Believers place their faith in a protective bubble, isolated from criticism.

But what if I were to say that there was a modern day prophet who received the word of god and he built upon the foundations of Christianity and other world religions, synthesizing them with the best ideas that rang true to the sensibilities of believers, but not outright rejecting the prior faiths?  What if he - or she -  preached things like the importance of individual lives, that all races are equal, that the sexes are equal, that no one may be made a slave, that war must be avoided, and other ideals that we hold dear in our modern society?  What if his visions resembled those of the old testament prophets, his language beautiful and poetic?  What if miracles were performed that defied easy explanation, and had eyewitnesses?  What if his followers were rational people, upstanding members of society, professionals, people we admire and respect?  What if this new religion was persecuted and had martyrs willing to die for their faith, not in some obviously cultish way like mass suicide, but murdered by intolerant people who saw the ideas as dangerous?  This new religion would seem real, on par with others, and over time as it gained adherents and mainstream credibility it would join the ranks of other respected world religions.  I could do it.  Anyone with sufficient charisma and a dedicated core of followers could create such a religion.  But would it mean that it was true?  That it was real?  What if, at some appointed time in the future decades from it's founding, the followers opened a time capsule set up by the now deceased founder, and in it was a video of the founder clearly admitting the whole thing was made up, and showed how the miracles were illusions, mere magic tricks?    Now that, a real life example of an admittedly invented religion, would shake the faith of many.  It may even shake the faith of those who believed in older religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam.  They might think if this seemingly legitimate religion with miracles that were even more well documented than those of my own religion is a complete sham, how can I know that my own religion isn't also a sham perpetrated by well meaning people who really truly believed it?  

You know what?  Even then, many, and possibly most, of this phony religions' adherents would say that the founder actually was guided by god unknowingly, even if they didn't believe it themselves.  It would be held up as an example of how god can work wonders in the heart of an unbeliever.  It would be proclaimed as a miracle that god used an unbeliever to reveal his true religion.  This fact that disproved the religion would be held up instead as proof of its veracity.  And people would believe it.  By the millions.   
People want to believe more than they want real truth.  They want hope.  They want to know that there is a higher purpose, that there is an eternal truth, that it all means something.  I think perhaps they fear the empty and depressing anomie of nihilism they imagine would be a natural consequence of not believing   I have heard this question again and again - if there is no god, then what's the point?  What's the point of living?  what's the point of having morals?  What is the point of anything without god?  My answer is that the point of life is what we make of it.  It's freeing to know that I was not born with a particular destiny not of my own choosing, but that I can choose to live the life I want.  My life has meaning and worth because I have made it that way.  I want to live because, quite simply, I enjoy living.  My family, my relationships, my community ties, my accomplishments, hopes and dreams are no less worthwhile for the lack of god.  As many Christians feel that the best way to evangelize is to live a life of love and charity and be "christ-like", so too must we atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and those with a naturalist worldview show others through how we live that we are moral, we are loving, we are charitable, ad we live lives worth living.  A believer will be more willing to consider unbelief if they can see that on the other side of that fence is not a desolate wasteland, but a world just as - if not more - green and vibrant as their faith world.     





Monday, 17 October 2011

Fear of losing faith

When I was a true believer, I thought my faith was reasoned and informed.  I rejected the idea that my faith was blind.  I studied apologetics, devouring books with a voracious appetite.  I had a self-perception that I was very self-aware.  I believed I was honest with myself.  I was very good at seeing my many sins and feeling guilty for them and for my inability to live up to the moral standards of my faith - I was a teenage boy with a libido after all.  But did I subject my faith to that same level of scrutiny?  I thought I did.  But in hindsight it's plain that I was, perhaps unconsciously, deluding myself.  The challenges I threw at my own faith to test it were not serious ones.  I trusted the pat answers given by the church and the apologist literature.  If I didn't fully understand it or it didn't sit well intellectually, my faith glossed over that.  The so-called "problem of evil" comes to mind.  Evil exists because of free will and sin, of course.  In the back of my mind, I knew this wasn't a good enough answer, but I felt the issue settled.  So, when I heard that argument, I just brushed it aside as if it had already been resolved.  I didn't truly explore the question.

I wanted to become a priest, and since the first step in that is getting a degree in philosophy, I wanted to attend the Fransiscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. It was a Catholic campus and I knew I would fit in there well.  Unfortunately, the cost was prohibitive, so I looked to universities in Canada.  But I was, quite literally, afraid I would lose my faith.  An acquaintance of mine who was also at least nominally Catholic, had told me that in his first year university intro to philosophy class, he heard an argument that disproved god.  The idea shook me.  I asked my priest about it and he said that part of a priest's training tested and broke your faith, before it was then rebuilt in seminary.  I feared this.  I feared it greatly.  So much so that I wrote to the heads of philosophy departments to ask naively about how orthodox their philosophy was.  Many of the replies I got were understandably confused - what does learning philosophy have to do with Catholic dogma, they wondered.  Interestingly, by chance (or "godincidence" as I used to say), I ended up at a school where the philosophy professor was a Muslim, and he reaffirmed my faith in God because he was, of course, a theist.  He didn't challenge my faith, so my time as a devout Christian was extended, and my faith only deepened. 

But why, if my faith was so strong, so reasonable, and so true, did I fear it being challenged?  Why did I seek always after affirmations of the correctness of my belief instead of just living my faith without a need to defend it?  Well, one is just that I am naturally that kind of a thinker, searching for knowledge and answers.  Plus I bought into the idea of a kind of culture war between the evil secular world and the faithful, considering myself a "prayer warrior."  But the deeper reason, I suspect, is that I feared I may have built the foundations of my life on sand and not solid rock.  Faith was everything to me.  I was once asked if I could use a single word to describe myself, what would it be.  My answer, without the slightest of hesitation, was "Catholic".  When that is the cornerstone of your life, it is very uncomfortable and scary  to have doubts and questions.  So whether I realized it or not, I avoided anything that would pose a serious challenge to my.  But in the end, it was no external challenge that crumbled the foundations of my belief, but the slow erosion caused by my own thoughts.  

So, to people of faith everywhere, I issue this challenge: test your faith.  Hold it to the harsh light of reason.  Ask the tough questions, the ones that scare you and make you feel uncomfortable.  Take a step back, let your defenses down and expose the soft vulnerable belly of your beliefs.  By this, I mean temporarily remove yourself from those things that re-affirm your faith; skip church for a few weeks, avoid watching or reading anything that supports your faith.  Don't converse with those who will re-assure you.  Pray before you start this challenge, but not during it. Open your mind to the possibility that your beliefs may be wrong.  You can't truly honestly undertake a real challenge of your faith if you do so having already made up your mind about the outcome.  Evaluate your faith critically without holding back as if you were looking at someone else's beliefs and not your own.  Read books, watch videos and have conversations that challenge your beliefs. 
If your faith is as rock solid as you believe it to be, you have nothing to fear.  If your faith can stand up to this scrutiny, it will come out stronger than ever, right?
If you can't do this, why not?  Why are you afraid? 
If you lose your faith, you might lose friends, community, your purpose in life etc.  I know that.  It's a scary prospect.  It's not an easy thing I'm asking.  I am inviting you to experience a dark night of the soul, to wander in the desert and be tempted, to wrestle with angels.  But if your faith can't stand against such a test, then can you really base your life on it?  Can you truly, honestly look at yourself and belief in the rightness of your faith without having really tested it?

My journey was long.  But in the end, though my faith did crumble, my life did not.  I am free now.  I follow reason and evidence and I know I can be wrong, I know I can change my mind if new evidence presents itself.  I no longer have to be on guard against attacks that may cause me to question myself.  Instead I welcome them and I follow the truth where it takes me.  The truth has indeed set me free as Jesus promised, but not at all in the way I had envisioned.  I fear no hell.  I am not burdened by guilt for my human failings, for my natural desires, for questioning or doubting.  I no longer have to model my thoughts and behaviors against an unattainable standard.  I emerged from my long dark night of the soul to find a world brighter and more magnificent than I could have dreamed.  I invite you to undertake your own journey.    


Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Awe at the beauty of the world

One summer when I was 17 years old, I taught swimming lessons at different lakes in he region where I lived.  One stint was a couple weeks in the Duck Mountains on the western edge of the Canadian province of Manitoba.  These so called mountains - it's the prairies, so to call them mountains is quite a stretch - are a beautiful collection of tiny lakes surrounded by knobby spruce trees dripping gauzy moss from their drooping limbs.  I was staying with a very nice family.  One of heir daughters was my age, a devout born again Christian, and I had a crush on her.  I was deep in my most religious phase at that time.  Everywhere I went I brought with me a collection of religious books I was studying.  The two of us would often stay up talking about our faith, about various doctrines, and the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism.

One night the two of us took a drive.  We stopped at one of the small unnamed lakes by the side of the gravel road that wound it's way through the provincial park and sat on the small dock.  There was no wind to disturb the stillness of the moment.  The moon shone bright on the glass-like surface of the water, a lazy mist clinging in patches to its contours and wafting about lazily.  The sky was clear, filled with clouds of stars.  The trees stood, pointing to heaven, their ragged silhouettes eerie in shadowed light.  It was a moment of serene awe-inspiring beauty.  As we looked on it, we asked How can anyone look on such beauty and doubt the existence of God?   The sheer beauty of our planet encapsulated in that perfect moment seemed, to us, to be evidence of a divine creator.  It filled us with awe.

This was not the first such experience, or the last.  Many times have I marveled at natural beauty and felt it to be a justification of my faith.  Even throughout my years of wandering in the desert after I had lost conviction, but still searched for truth and hoped for god, that awe never left me.  Only its meaning changed.

Now when I look on nature as an atheist, with something of an understanding of evolution, natural selection and the natural history of our planet and it's place in the greater universe, do I feel any less awe?  No, I feel more awe.  Much more.  Previously, I thought the world the product of the imagination of an omnipotent being; a divine work of art, created with no effort.  He simply willed it, and it was.  The mechanism he used to create it, whether he guided evolution, or if it was the magical creation of Genesis, wasn't so important to me at the time. Now what do I see?

Now I see the current world as a snapshot in time of an astronomically long and improbable natural history.  Just think, there are billions of galaxies, our own Milky way just one among them.  Our sun is just one star among billions in our galaxy alone.  Our planet, Earth, one among who knows how many countless planets.  And on this rock, life took hold.  The simple unalterable laws of nature, plus time, allowed that life to proliferate into millions of species.  And those species have interacted with each other and with their environments to form an incredibly complex set of biological systems that are always adapting, changing, evolving.  98% of all species that ever lived are now extinct, yet we still have an estimated 8 million species on the planet at the moment.  We alone, among all of those creatures, and even among our close relatives the primates and our cousin hominids, have developed intelligence that goes beyond simple tool use.  We alone have developed civilization.  And we are still a very young species, our history as a species to date a mere speck on the timeline of life on earth.  And our very existence is highly improbable.  If the ancestors of vertebrates had not survived mass extinction events, we wouldn't be here.  If the ancestors of mammals had not survived the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, we would not be here.  If the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had missed the earth and not brought about their demise, we would not be here.  If our hominid ancestors had not survived against impossible odds, adapting to climate changes and extinction level events that at times reduced our numbers to the point we were an endangered species, we would not be here.  But here we are, the only species capable of contemplating our place in the universe.  And each one of us the unique outcome of a one in a billion pairing of a specific ovum and a specific sperm from two specific people, themselves the outcome of a similar pairing, dependent on two people among billions meeting and procreating, which was dependent on their ancestors surviving the wars and plagues and other dangers that have culled our numbers throughout our history.  Knowing all this, and knowing that it occurs by natural observable processes, and not just the magical wish of an omnipotent being, fills me with more wonder and awe than my previous faith ever could.  The very improbability of our existence and the opportunity we have as the sole species on this planet that we know of to ever have had this level of awareness is mind boggling, stunning and humbling. 

So now, when I sit amidst nature and marvel at its beauty, I no longer think there must be a god to have dreamed all this up.  Instead, my mind reals at the vastness of it all, and I am awed and grateful that I, a tiny insignificant creature, have a place here and an opportunity to live a life.

Here are a couple of videos that inspired me.  I hope they will also inspire you.