Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Belief, Tradition, Myth and the Insecure Atheist

I think a lot of people maintain a "belief" in god because they fear the apparent void of not believing. The label "atheist", and to a lesser degree "agnostic", suggests a very cold, dark, and unfulfilled existence. To many, the concept of atheism conveys an illusion (and it is an illusion) of immoral living; of a person wandering selfishly amongst the believers doing as he or she pleases because he or she believes he or she can without any consequences, neither present nor in an afterlife. I am atheist. My life has never felt more meaningful, full of purpose, and replete with morality. I enjoy my  life because I know I am good to the earth and the creatures on it for the right reason: because both deserve it. Not because I am afraid of hell. Not because a voice other than my own has told me to. Nope, I am a good person because I control my life and it is the right choice for me to make. I don't think being a believer is the only path to moral living. In fact, since I have found my place in the Humanist approach to life, I feel a greater need to approach each day by the "Golden Rule." And before you tell me that the "Golden Rule" is a Christian creation do your research....it's not. I could get into all of the scientific evidence out there suggesting that charitable, moral living is a genetic trait with all kinds of evolutionary foundations but this is not the time nor place (although a future post will be). Instead, I'd like to talk about Christmas. Not seeing the connection? You shouldn't......yet.

I love Christmas. Everything about it, I love. It is the one period of winter that I enjoy. The snow is fresh and white and the temperature here in Ottawa  is generally humane. I love the cheesy music, even that which celebrates Jesus.  I love getting gifts - admit it, you do too. I love giving gifts (in fact, I bought my wife's the other day and ended up giving it to her within an hour - I  hate waiting). I love Christmas parties. I love all the food and booze. I love the "free pass" everyone seems to get. Free to eat a lot. Free to drink a lot. Free to spend too much money. Free to tell people how much you appreciate them. Free to visit friends on "school nights". Free to put a tree in your home.  There is just an intrinsic sense of good cheer that makes the holiday season a wonderful time. So how does an atheist justify being a Christmas junkie? If you are Christian, especially an argumentative one, I am sure you wish you were sitting in front of me right now ready to pounce on this crock of hypocrisy. Not so fast.

Let me start my "defense" with one simple historical fact: "Christmas" as we know it (late December celebration of the birth of Christ) was, and I say this respectfully without dramatic intent , hijacked by Christianity. I'm not upset by this. I have no problem with, and in fact quite enjoy, nativity scenes and songs about the birth of Christ. I even miss going to Church on Christmas Eve - one of the best memories of my childhood (maybe I will go this year). In fact, I think Christianity has done some great work with a celebration of the winter solstice that existed long before Christ was thrust  into fame. The difference between how I celebrate Christmas and how believers celebrate Christmas is that I approach it as a celebration of a fictional myth whereas the believer celebrates a literal historical event of supernatural quality. I love the story of Christ in spite of the fact that I don't believe anything more than the idea that he was born to a woman named Mary and that he spent his time on earth spreading a message of love, charity, and good will. The concept of him using the "vehicle" of divinity to spread this message speaks to the fact that he was probably delusional, mentally ill, and alive during a time of limited explanation for mundane, worldly phenomenon. I also consider the idea that maybe he knew exactly what he was doing; not believing in God  at all, but knowing that such an outrageous claim would be the perfect spectacle to bring attention to his noble message. In the end who really knows and, I would argue, care what the truth on Jesus is? The important point here is that I feel comfortable celebrating Christmas because I celebrate the fun, romantic, mythical element of it without believing in it literally. It does not bother me as an atheist to celebrate the fictionally divine birth of a man named Jesus who spread messages of morality even though I know some believe the story literally.  I even enjoy the story of him being considered the son of God. I, of course, don't believe this but think it is a great piece of the story revealing how far science has come bringing us to a point where we no longer need this belief to explain so many elements of our existence. In other words, I enjoy the divine element of the Christmas story much like I enjoy a good Grisham. It's a nice way to escape reality without ceasing my belief in reality.

My comfort level with Christmas is illustrated in my "conservative" thoughts on how  politically correct Canada has become during the Christmas season, often at the hands of insecure Atheists. While I certainly welcome and enjoy displays of other celebrations such as Hanukkah and Kwanza, I find it absolutely ridiculous when people suggest Christmas trees should be referred to as "Holiday Trees" or schools should cancel Christmas parties to avoid insulting non-Christians. The fact is that Canada was founded by believers in the Judeo-Christian faiths. Our history is based on this and we will (and should) always have traditions based on these once-held beliefs. I am secure enough in my non-belief to support the maintenance of national heritage through the celebration of traditions, like Christmas, that originated from that which I don't believe. I challenge other Atheists to quit the insecure attack on the Christmas season and allow this great celebration of tradition, myth, and heritage enhance their already liberating atheist living.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Richard Dawkins - "What if you're wrong?"

"What if you're wrong?" implies that we should just throw evidence-based probability out the window any time we are faced with deciding whether to believe any tenet that is not conclusively proven. The magnitude of evidence against creation, deities, and the supernatural does not eliminate the fact that it is impossible to prove the non-existence of something.  Essentially, it will always be impossible to claim with 100% certainty that god does not exist. But because we cannot conclusively prove that god does not exist we should avoid making the claim in fear of being wrong regardless of  the growing mountain of evidence against such an existence? The fact is this, both theists and atheists might be wrong. However after I review the arguments in favor of both and the total sum of evidence collected by each camp, I have chosen the only option that has any evidence. I'm quite comfortable with my choice and not too worried about being "wrong".

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Was thinking last night.....

I can accept others wanting to believe in "something"  although I don't want to believe in that "something" myself.  It's when these people claim to know what  their "something" wants for the rest of the world that we get intolerance, hatred, and ........religion.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Atheism and Why I’m Talking About It – Part Two

So, have you thought about it? Have you determined exactly where you reside on the theistic/gnostic axis? It can be complicated, I know – especially if you have been raised to believe. Or maybe you found it simple and just needed to be prodded into being honest (and this applies to those who find themselves to be true believers as well). I will say that after finding my own theistic address my day-to-day has become a much simpler place; almost as if I have finally washed a dirty pair of eye glasses. A fully transparent lens so to speak. Never in my past have I felt so naturally connected with this world and the people in it. Never in my past have I felt so at peace with my future. Never in my past have I so enjoyed my present. Okay, enough sap.

So how do I classify myself? I have diagnosed myself as an agnostic atheist with "Gnostic tendencies". Essentially, I don't believe in any gods or the supernatural but don't claim to have conclusive proof that they don't exist. My "Gnostic tendencies" stem from the fact that, although I can't claim that I am conclusively certain that no god(s) exists, if I had the luxury of being a career scientist (a la Richard Dawkins) I have little doubt I would declare that I have seen enough conclusive evidence to state that I know this non-existence to be true. I would undoubtedly fall into the Gnostic realm of atheism. For the sanity of all my friends and family (and those who actually choose to read my blog without really knowing me – all two of you) it's a good thing that I am not a scientist. An interesting point I will touch on later is the fact that most atheists thrive on the idea of being proven wrong, as this is the foundation of good science. This is also the root of my unwillingness to state that I am absolutely certain of the nonexistence of the supernatural. Can the same be said of believers? I know, I know – that's fate. I think fate is dangerous but again, more on that later.

Before I begin to explain why I believe (or not believe) what I do, let me share a recent change of heart. If you are reading this you likely know that I generally like to take an irreverent approach to challenging that which I don't believe, like, or respect. However, this topic is too important to me to address it with a "shock" slant. There are enough non-believers out there taking the atom bomb approach to atheist conversion (If you are interested in this approach please do watch The Root of All Evil – Dawkins is brilliant). Don't get me wrong, I hope this post persuades doubting, skeptical, liberal, believers to declare their innate disbelief. However, I also want to acknowledge that I do not wish to disrespect those who are willing to truly open their minds to the possibility of there not being a god only to find that their innate response is to believe. I respect your right to religion and appreciate your dedication to faith. I'll be frank: my targets are those "believers" who are lying to themselves; misinformed; apathetic; pretending; hypocritical; unsure; or scared. I have a particular ire for those who "cherry pick" the elements of their chosen religion that they like while declaring the more outlandish, improbable (i.e. impossible), and often offensive claims to be mere elements of the faith that are meant to be allegorical or ignored.

So, here's my personal rationale for being atheist, which I have a sneaking suspicion will be the rationale of a significant number of people who open their minds, look at the facts, allow their doubts to be investigated, and transform their instinctual beliefs to overt expression. My rationale is far from complex in any way because the scientific, historical, and logical evidence presented to me makes it uncomplicated. Simply put I just do not believe in myths in the literal sense. At the risk of sounding arrogant (which I will talk about later), my intelligence, level of education, and I suppose personality, just do not allow me to believe nonsensical (yet I admit romantic and enjoyable) stories of impossible feats and events. I cannot believe that there are any imaginary figures overseeing our lives and well being. The idea that this figure is also monitoring, policing, and taking note of the quality of my behavior for future postmortem consequences is farcical to me, especially when I review some of the downright offensive and immoral messages he allegedly "spoke" to the authors of his holy books. Let yourself think about that with honesty and then ask yourself if that is something you are willing to believe without evidence.

Okay, here are some myths I want you to think about:

1. Icarus: The Greek dude (son of Daedalus) who attempted to escape from Crete using wings his dad constructed out of wax and feathers. Poor bugger flew too close to the sun and his wings melted. Bye bye Icarus.

2. Poseiden: Created the horse (bet "god" has something to say about that) to impress a chick. His weapon, the trident, is capable of shaking the entire Earth.

3. Zeus: Throws lightening at people.

4. Apollo: Roman guy who holds the daily tasks of harnessing his chariot with four horses and literally driving the sun across the sky.

5. Izanagi: Japanese god who got undressed one day and each piece of clothing that hit the ground transformed into another god.

Most people who claim to belong to any of the Abrahamic religions (the "Big Three": Christianity; Islam; Judaism), and those who are pretending to belong to these religions will tell you that they don't believe these myths to be true. This means that YOU don't believe them. Why? Because they just couldn't happen.

Okay, so consider:

  1. Noah: An old man (and I mean old, over 900 years) gathers two of every animal, flea, and gnat onto an arc he built of wood. It is a "love boat", as his purpose is to ensure his "passengers" all have sex.
  2. Mary: Had a kid without having sex (it is that simple).
  3. Jesus: Said kid. Walked on water. Came back from the dead. Turned water into wine (I so want to believe this one and, if I am wrong about all this, hope he will forgive me over a glass of water on his return visit).
  4. Jonah: Got swallowed by a whale where he "hung out" safe and sound for three days and nights (similar to Marlin and Dory in Finding Nemo).
  5. Moses: Raised his hands and parted a sea. Just like that.
Now tell me, what makes these any more believable? Do you really believe any of this? If so, why? There is no rational reason to believe that these things happened. There is no proof. Suggesting that the proof lies in the bible itself means that we have to hold as fact any historical fictional literature that someone claims to be true. Research the history of the Abrahamic religions and you will learn that they were all well "marketed" at a time when the masses needed something to believe in. In other words the "proof" of these fallacies lies in the sheer magnitude of people who have been indoctrinated into these faiths over thousands of years. "If so many people believe it,  it must be true."  It is self fulfilling but certainly not valid. In the words of Dan Gardner, "Truth is not attained by vote."

I'll be back with more reasons to free your mind and conscience, but I figured I'd use the simplest element of my own disbelief as the foundation for my persuasive journey with you: there is just no reason (neither testable evidence nor just plain common sense) to believe that this stuff happened. I wish there was a more eloquent way to put it but the impossibility of these myths occurring in a literal sense is too primitive to paint in an erudite manner. Is it coincidence that these "truths" only occurred during a time when science had not yet explained the many mysteries of the world (which we continue to strive for)? Why aren't people now splitting oceans, walking on water, being born to virgins, and living in the abdomens of animals? Because they can't. They couldn't then and they can't now. My request of you is this: When your intelligence and sense of logic whisper in your ear that these myths are just that, mythical, pay yourself the credit you deserve and stop believing them. At the very least, doubt them and dig deeper.

See you soon. I want to chat about my love of Jesus Christ. Honest.