Is it just that I had the wrong image of god?

Atheism, Deconversion, Philosophy

Tripp Fuller, a progressive theologian, recently put into words on the God Debacle an evasive tactic I used to be guilty of and something I have heard over and over again now that I am an atheist.

When talking to non-believers you spend a lot of time distancing yourself from other Christians. “You don’t understand, I am not like the other 99% of Christians. I am different.” * Paraphrased quote

I think Tripp was mocking this position not espousing it. It was a communally self-aware statement so I will not disparage him. But what I used to mean when I said it is “Don’t judge me by all the horrible things other Christians have said. I am different, I know about grace.” I did not want to own the baggage that came with associating with the “cultural” Christianity one sees on TV. I certainly wasn’t a legalistic, moralistic, hell fire and brimstone Christian and I didn’t want to have to defend those who were. “Don’t you want to hear about my version of Christianity?”

Christians tend to slice up the world into smaller and smaller slices. Theists and atheists. Christians and followers of other religions. Protestants and Catholics. Bible believers and liberal theologians. Baptists and Pentecostals. My specific denomination. My specific church. My specific beliefs. I am the 1% remnant who really understands the gospel.

If you ask 100 Christians what Christianity is all about, you will get 100 different answers. There is no arbiter of truth between faith positions. One might say, “the bible is the arbiter.” But Christians are using the same bible and coming up with conflicting belief systems.

Here is a subtler version of the evasion expressed by Andy Stanley while on the Life After God Podcast with Ryan Bell describing having listened to deconversion stories:

I am so glad that you let go of that view of god …

The thing that drove this person away from faith wasn’t even an actual part of the Christian faith.

What he means is the version of god or Christianity someone believed in was incorrect: god as authoritarian, capricious and vindictive. Of course a person would choose not to believe in that god. The implication: “If only they believed in the version of god that I do, they would be spiritually satisfied.”

I am ashamed to say I used to use this tack. A lot. Here is the problem with that argument. I believed in the version of god Andy does. I was a “Grace Junkie.” I wasn’t interested in scaring the hell out of people I wanted to share god’s loving grace. I have read Andy’s books! I could have written similar books with as much passion and conviction. But for one problem. When one takes in the whole bible, not just cherry picking the “good” grace filled parts, the inescapable truth is that the god of the bible is authoritarian, capricious and vindictive. The version of god in the bible when read without grace colored glasses is a monster.

I became an atheist not because I had a terrible image of god and not because of some tragic hurt against me. I became an atheist because as soon as I began to use the same level of scrutiny on my faith (which included reading the bible as whole) as I did with others it did not hold up.

What I have come to understand is that followers of religions do need to own the baggage of their chosen faith. If one’s religious ancient text leads some people to do terrible things to other people one does not get to ignore those parts of the ancient text. There is no arbiter of truth between faith positions because faith positions are not based on evidence. If one’s own sense of ethics prohibits one from accepting the whole of one’s ancient text, then the ancient text and the god(s) it purports should be abandoned.

* I am paraphrasing from memory. My apologies to Tripp. Please correct me if I got this wrong or misrepresented the idea.

The Beginning of Religion is Death

Atheism, Deconversion, Humanism, Philosophy, Secular Grace

Philosophy of religion has much to say about the origins of religion. Under no compunction to accept religious claims as fact, philosophy of religion can look at the root causes. In vernacular terms, the explanation tends to be that religion evolved due to early humanity’s attempt to explain that which they did not understand. The list of confusing phenomenon included everything from the weather to death itself. The idea of an unseen agent observing one’s actions helped keep group mores enforced. The priests, shaman and spiritual leaders likely enjoyed the recognition and power it brought and began to use said power to overtly control others by enforcing orthodoxy (right thought) and orthopraxy (right action).

While the above explanation is a good one it does not capture the pathos of why religion is so tempting to humans. I will argue the driving force for the evolution of religion is death itself. The soul (if you will permit me the term) of the continuing appeal of religion today is the fear of one’s own death and the need to understand the death of our loved ones.

Lest you think this discussion is in the abstract, I would like to make this personal. I am writing this within arms reach of my mother’s ashes. Eight months after my loss of faith my mother somewhat unexpectedly succumbed to the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction. I had to face the stark reality of her death without the comfort of my previous faith. She is gone. She will not one day be resurrected with a body impervious to addiction. I will not be seeing her again.

It is from this perspective that I would like to discuss how powerful a motivator the need to explain death can be. In my early not-a-Christian state I will admit it was tempting to fall back to the comforting self-delusion that I would get to see her again some day. Worse than that was dealing with the rest of my believing family showering me with similar platitudes that rang profoundly shallow to my ears. Not to mention, the misplaced attention on me by the family pastor who knew I was an atheist during my mother’s funeral.

We humans have a number of psychological defense mechanisms regarding death. We have the amazing capacity to ignore its inevitability until it is thrust in front of us. When we are young we are invincible. The understanding of our mortality slowly grows on us as we age. Some handle this gracefully, others rail against it until the end.

I am sympathetic to those who still believe and even more so to the early humans living in a hostile world they did not understand. The idea of our loved ones living on after death is a powerful one. Our minds take evasive action in order to protect ourselves from the grim reality that not only will we not see our loved ones again, but one day we too will cease to be. It is so much easier to tell ourselves a beautiful story about heaven, and easier still to ignore the evidence to the contrary.

Our cognitive goal is not one of truth but of validation. Opposition results in cognitive dissonance, a psychological conflict that is seldom resolved by the abandonment of belief. Consonance is restored through refutation, support, and proselytism. — Neil Brown

Accepting the truth that there is no life after death and the inevitability of one’s mortality has benefits beyond just being true. For one, I was able to truly grieve my mother’s loss without the pressure to “Buck up, because you’ll see her again someday,” I could allow myself to feel the pain of her loss, to weep with all of my being and to be inconsolable without the guilt of not having enough faith piled on top of my grief. This allows the eventual and even inevitable acceptance to feel freer and more complete. She is gone but the love that we had for each other continues on in me for a time.

Understanding at a deep level that this is the only life I get to live makes each moment more poignant. My time with my wife and children is invaluable to me precisely because it is finite. To be a mortal human is a glorious and terrifying thing.

As we as atheists* interact with and debate theists we must keep in mind the many powerful motivators pushing people toward faith. Our logic may come up short against the visceral need to believe life continues after this one. We need a bit of Secular Grace for them in our interactions.

Have you lost a loved one? Are you worried about facing death as an atheist? Need a bit of Secular Grace yourself? Tell me about it in the comments or on Twitter.

You keep using that word I do not think it means what you think it means

Atheism, Philosophy

Recently I have noticed in the twitterverse a number of theists arguing some variation of the following:

Atheism takes as much faith as theism

This is an interesting argument for me because even when I was a believer it would have never occurred to me to think this way. I spend a great deal of time trying to understand the process I went through from faith to lack of faith. I try to remember how I felt and how I thought when I was a believer. But I never would have made this argument.

Words have meaning

The definitions of words matter. Atheism is by definition Not-theism or the lack of belief in a deity or deities. End of conversation. Saying one is an atheist makes the very simple statement that one does not believe in god(s). Nothing more and nothing less. Atheism is by definition the absence faith. So to make the claim that atheism requires faith is a bit of a non-starter.

I am not trying to be obtuse or pedantic. If I am being extremely generous in an attempt to facilitate communication, I can almost understand the thinking of the theist. To the theist all things have their being in god and therefore, the concept of a universe that does not require god does not compute. To the believer god is self evident and therefor the atheist must be deliberately willfully rejecting god. They might call that a type of “faith.”

Bad argument

There are a number of problems with this perspective. Not the least of which is “Which god is self evident?” My believer friend, let me do you a favor.  Stop using this argument. It is a bad one for anyone who owns a dictionary. Atheism is a statement about what one does not believe. We do not say it takes faith to not believe in other things. The number of things one does not believe in is infinite.

  • It takes no faith to not believe that the titans were birthed by Gaia and Uranus.
  • It takes no faith to not believe Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are the creator, maintainer and destroyer of the world.
  • It takes no faith to not believe the world sits upon an elephant which sits upon a turtle.
  • It takes no faith to not believe Joseph Smith found magical golden glasses that allowed him to translate the angel Moroni.
  • It takes no faith to not believe in pan-dimensional super intelligent beings who happen to be green.
  • It takes no faith to not believe in an omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient god.

There is no evidence for any of the above statements.

Burden of proof

The problem arises when the believer assumes the atheist needs to disprove god. This begs the question. The burden of proof is on the believer to provide evidence that god exists. Most atheists are skeptics, meaning they require evidence before they will accept a claim. Atheists like myself have examined the arguments and the evidence and found it wanting. A rejection of the claim that a theistic god exists is based on lack of evidence or poor arguments for the claim and not on “faith.”

In a future blog post I will address some of the things that some atheists may be said to “believe.” Some of us are humanists, some of us are naturalists, some of us are materialists. But it is important to distinguish these positive philosophies from atheism. Each of them stands or falls on its own merits. If one or more were to be disproved, that would not constitute evidence for a theistic god.

Is morality objective and absolute?

Atheism, Humanism, Philosophy

Continuing with my series on presuppositions that lead to credulity or incredulity, I ask the question is morality objective and absolute? Your answer to this question will greatly influence your perspective on the existence of God.

A rock bottom foundational assumption of the theist is that morality must have an objective source. To believe otherwise is to cast oneself into the chaos of moral relativity. C. S. Lewis captures this argument in Mere Christianity. In fact, I suspect that most modern Christians have absorbed this way of thinking from C. S. Lewis if not directly, by osmosis.

Conscience reveals to us a moral law whose source cannot be found in the natural world, thus pointing to a supernatural Lawgiver. –C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis argues that because we feel like there is an objective moral ruler that we measure ourselves from it must exist and its source must be God. Now, I will grant, this perspective is understandable. Humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. The question is what is the source of that sense?

The assumption of an objective morality is so foundational that very few believers ever consider to question it. The threat of moral relativism is the specter that keeps them from evaluating its validity. Many arguments between believers and atheists spin round and round in circles because of not understanding each other’s presuppositions on this point alone.

This argument for God based on conscience that C. S. Lewis uses is called the argument from morality. It is important to understand that the assertion of moral order is taken as a given a prori.

Argument[s] from moral order are based on the asserted need for moral order to exist in the universe. — Wikipedia

The argument from objective moral truths for the existence of God goes like this

  1. If morality is objective and absolute, God must exist.
  2. Morality is objective and absolute.
  3. Therefore, God must exist (source: Wikipedia)

Now here is the thing, the second assertion is completely taken for granted. Nothing objective in nature suggests that morality is an absolute. Although differing cultures agree on some basic broad strokes of morality like “murder is bad,” they do not agree on many particulars like the treatment of women, the justification for war, etc.

What is the source of morality?

Back to my statement earlier that humans do feel a sense of right and wrong. How can this be explained without a deity? As in many things believers question atheists about evolution is the answer. Humans have evolved to have a moral conscience. We instinctively know some moral truths, cooperation over antagonism, do not mate with a sibling, murder is bad. This evolved conscience helped the human race survive against its competitors.

Culture then adds on top of these innate moral instincts. Individual cultures value certain morals above others. Some cultures value strength and honor while others value service and humility.

I argue that morality progresses. We as a the human race or even an individual culture recognize past mistakes and make improvements. In short morality itself evolves. The greatest case in point, is slavery. Who today in 2016 would make the argument that slavery is acceptable let alone based on inherent differences in the “humanness” of the races? We recognized this terrible mistake, realized that all humans have inherent worth and abolished slavery to the extent that now anyone who communicates racist attitudes is considered backward and ignorant not to mention morally repugnant.

An evolutionary morality married with progressive cultural mores explains both the similarities and differences in morality between cultures today. In fact, it explains this much better than an objective absolute morality. For if morality is objective how does one explain the change over time?

Christian morality has not remained static through history. The above example of slavery is again my prime argument. I assure you if you are a modern day Christian woman you would not want to be placed in a time machine and travel back to the first century. It would be unpleasant for you. Nor would a Christian of color wish to live in almost any time in history prior to today. Notice also the dramatic change in moral tone from the Old to the New testaments. Morality is fluid and influenced by the surrounding culture whether one acknowledges this or not.

This is why two ethical questions of our time are of great importance: the LGBTQ community and Black Lives Matter movement. I believe the church is on the wrong side of history on these issues. Why? Because morality progresses. We recognized our mistakes like marginalizing minority groups and we improve. Looking backwards to a 2000 year old document set in the context of first century culture and morality will not help us navigate these modern ethical questions.

On the fear of relativism, morality is relative it always has been. * We must accept that. Even within a particular faith group their are differences of opinion on morality. The very fact that we have different moral intuitions, even among similar faith groups is evidence for the non-existence of an objective moral truth.

Does this mean that we cannot argue between cultures over progress? No. We very much can and should push for progress on the ethical issues of our day. The world is shrinking by the day. We will have to cooperate and we are likely to disagree. But having the debate in the first place is already progress.

Can one be good without God?

Finally, the root of the believer’s discomfort on these issues comes from the assumption that one cannot be good without God. The believer is taught that human beings though made in the image of God are fundamentally broken by sin and incapable of good on their own.

To atheist ears the idea that Christians are moral only because God told them to be is an indictment. If the only thing holding the believer back from a murderous rampage is their belief in a non-corporeal judge, is this goodness?

I have been a Christian. I have held some of the above believer’s opinions. I then met a number of atheists who love their families, contribute to charities and give back to their communities, in short, very good people. I am now one of them. And though, I am still uncomfortable calling myself a good person due to the prior indoctrination, my morality has remained virtually the same. Just a lot less guilt.

* Update: I am entirely too flippant in this paragraph. This post is an argument against the theistic argument that morality is impossible without a god, specifically premise 1 above. It is not a complete theory of natural morality. The point I was attempting to make is that societies’ morality progresses and likely at different rates relative to one another.

I actually do think there are some objective moral truths. Not in the absolute sense but in the sense that humanity as a whole moves towards consensus like Martin Luther King Jr.’s “the moral arc of history bending toward justice.” The simplest example is “The unnecessary suffering of sentient beings should be avoided.” I will be the first to admit I have an incomplete theory of natural morality. It is a work in progress for me. As a skeptic I suspect that all moral theories are incomplete.

The thrust of the post is to say that the source of morality is us, human beings, and not a theistic god. We will get it wrong at times but through the process of error correction morality will progress.

 

Watershed Presuppositions

Atheism, Critique of Apologetics, Humanism, Philosophy

When I was a Christian I wondered often why many of my peers who were atheists did not believe. And more importantly I questioned why I did believe. We were of similar intellect, social and economic background so why the difference?

I theorized there was some watershed idea, experience or environmental variable that caused one person to believe and another to reject faith.

Now after having a deconversion experience and becoming an atheist myself, I think I have some insight into why intelligent people of good faith believe and others do not.

Culture

Our culture encapsulates us completely. Like a fish that is unaware that it is wet, we are blind to the culture that surrounds us. It influences us in benign and insidious ways. For the purposes of this discussion, let me just point out that the surrounding culture dramatically influences our thinking and perspective sometimes in imperceptible ways.

For me and my likely readers we are a part of Western culture. Western culture has been heavily influenced by ancient Greek thinking. We have many great cultural artifacts from our Greek past including democracy, the Socratic method and geometry.

Dualism

One of the Greek ideas that we could do without is dualism. Dualism, simply put, is the idea that the physical and the non-physical exist and may or may not be seen as in opposition to one another. The two major philosophical influences that lead us to dualism are the Platonic ideals and Gnosticism.

In The analogy of the cave Plato argues that the reality we experience is a mere shadow of the true reality. We are like cave dwellers who are looking at shadows on the wall rather than going out into the light and witnessing the reality that causes the shadows. Plato is suggesting that the perfect ideals are the real reality and that the physical reality we experience is crude facsimile of the perfect forms.

From Platonism we get the idea that the non-physical ideals (or forms) are more real than the physical world we experience around us. Let that sink in.

Soon after came Gnosticism which took dualism to the next level. They taught the dichotomy that the material physical world was evil and that the spiritual non-physical world was good.  The flesh is to be despised while the things of the spiritual world were holy.

Relevant to our discussion, the early Christian fathers argued with and against the Gnostics. Much of the early doctrinal creeds had to do with arguing against Gnosticism. Many of the rejected books of the apocrypha are Gnostic books. In spite of this effort, early Christianity was deeply influenced by the Gnostics. The Gnostic influence on Christianity is seen in the ascetic sects which taught the need to flagellate the flesh into submission.

This dualistic perspective has permeated what we call Western thinking throughout history. Dualism to one degree or another has continued to influence our thinking to this day.

It is in the sea of unexamined cultural dualism that most people view spirituality. The non-physical exists and it in some mystical way is more real than the physical reality around them. It is holy. Through the prism of dualism theism is not a huge leap.

To those who reject dualism either intuitively or analytically the physical, that which can be experienced, tested and examined is all there is. For these people theism is a very huge leap indeed.

Presuppositions

The point I am trying to make is that we have a number of presuppositions that lead us either to credulity or incredulity. One’s perspective on theism or atheism does not happen in a vacuum.

It wasn’t so much my rejection of Christianity itself that lead to my deconversion but the eroding of these underlying beliefs. I held on to faith in the resurrection for dear life up until the bitter end knowing that it was a binary choice. Once I admitted to myself I did not believe in the resurrection it was all over. This did not come from a rejection of the “evidence” in the bible because that was all of a piece, a closed system. It came by examining the assumptions that the closed system rested on.

To further make the point, given a certain set of presuppositions it might even be reasonable to have faith in a theistic god. This is why Christian apologists almost always use the same arguments. They are arguing within the closed system that makes assumptions about reality. The atheists who debate with them are speaking an entirely different language based upon an orthogonal set of assumptions.

You may note that I have not shied away from using the term assumption. At some level we must make assumptions. I think math is beautiful in that it conveys rock solid truth. 1+1=2 is True with a capital T. But even mathematics makes some assumptions about reality. For even the concept of twoness is abstract, not two sheep or two apples but two as a concept. It took humanity a while to understand numbers as abstract ideas. It is very easy to fall into an epistemological black hole when discussing assumptions, a hole which I would like to avoid.

Therefore, I would like to posit a number of presuppositions that act as watersheds separating those who believe and those who reject belief. My plan is to write a blog post about each of these in the coming months. We have already talked about dualism here,  and I have written about the soul. I’ll be adding to the list as time goes on. Let me know what you would add to the list.