The Consequence of God

8 03 2009

I have never made it a secret to anyone that I am a very staunch atheist. A lot of people have engaged me in very civil conversations about my position on the existence of a god and, I’ll admit, I haven’t always been as clear as I wanted to be. I thought it would be a good thing to write a very thorough and comprehensive post about my lack of belief in a god and my general disdain for religion in general. While I do this, it is not to “convert” anyone to my “belief,” but to expose an area of the religious debate that is generally overlooked and thought of as being bad. (Quote from a wikipedia article on Religion in the US: University of Minnesota researchers, in a nationwide 2006 poll found that despite an increasing acceptance of religious diversity, atheists were generally distrusted by other Americans, who rated them below Muslims, recent immigrants and other minority groups in “sharing their vision of American society”. They also associated atheists with undesirable attributes such as criminal behavior, rampant materialism, and cultural elitism. )
I ‘ll start off by trying to explain my view about religion and spirituality as simply and bluntly as I can. I do not believe in the existence of any god. I do not believe in angels, spirits, ghosts, miracles, heaven, hell, or any kind of divine intervention. Actually, I look at many of the organized religions and their mythology and, to me, it seems just plain silly. I know that hearing this from anyone raises a number of questions and common arguments against this position, so I’ll try to address those first before I get into why I believe this, how I got to this place, and why I think this discussion is important.

The questions:

Agnosticism vs. Atheism
A common debate surrounding the disbelief in a deity revolves around the definitions of atheism and agnosticism. Atheism gets a negative connotation because many people see it as hypocritical. The misconception is that atheism is the belief that there is no god. It is labeled as being hypocritical because it is thought that atheists question the faithful beliefs of the religious while they, themselves. hold the position that there is no god that is based on an unprovable belief. The problem with this is that one can not have a belief in disbelief. The definition of atheism is the lack of belief in a god (theos = god, the prefix a- meaning “not”). Thus, atheism cannot be both a belief and the lack of belief at the same time.
Agnosticism is wrongly thought to be the middle ground between theism and atheism. It is the “nice” version of atheism where you don’t have to state your disbelief but instead state that you don’t know. In fact, agnosticism has nothing to do with belief at all. Belief in a god (theism) or lack of belief in a god (atheism) cover the entire spectrum of belief. You must be one or the other. It is a very black and white concept. Saying “I don’t know” places a firm skepticism in your position, which means that you have not been convinced to believe, so you are, by definition an atheist. Agnosticism deals with “knowing.” One can state that they are agnostic if they answer the question of “Is there a god?” with “I don’t know.” Thus, one can be a theist or an atheist and also be an agnostic.
I am an agnostic atheist. I believe that it is just as hypocritical for an atheist to say for sure that there is no god without any evidence to support this claim. I am an agnostic because I am comfortable enough to acknowledge when I do not know something. At the same time, I am an atheist because disbelief is the default position that we all take in our lives. Outside of religion, we ask for evidence and proof and until we see something that is stated to exist, we do not believe it to be. I always use the example of the purple unicorn. If I stated that there was a purple unicorn standing behind you all the time, but the moment you turned around, it disappeared, you would think I was crazy. You wouldn’t believe me until you could see the purple unicorn. You would try to turn really quickly to see the purple unicorn before it disappeared. You would hold up a mirror to try to catch sight of the purple unicorn, and you would take the position that no such purple unicorn exists until you got that evidence. While this might sound like an absurd example, it is the way that I look at religious claims. If you want me to believe in a god, let me see one. Until I do, I will take the default human position of nonexistence and answer any inquiry into the existence of gods with a firm “I don’t know.”

Pascal’s Wager aka God is a good bet
“”If you believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you have lost nothing–but if you don’t believe in God and turn out to be incorrect, you will go to hell. Therefore it is foolish to be an atheist.”
This statement is fundamentally flawed. First, which god should I believe in? Any god? If I get a choice then I choose Backlum Chaam, the Mayan god of sex. Talk about best of both worlds… The second flaw in this argument is that it states that if you believe in a god and are wrong, then you’ve lost nothing. I would firmly disagree. It is my lack of belief that drives me to want to do great things. I feel a strong sense of urgency to do great things during THIS life because it’s the only one I have. The belief in a god would destroy that urgency.

How did we get here?
A common argument against atheism is that there HAS to be a god, otherwise, where did we come from? The simple answer to this question is another question: Where did God come from? This inevitably leads to the original questioner telling me about how god is god and he’s all powerful and has always existed. There is an idea called Occam’s Razor that was originally stated as “Do not multiply entities unnecessarily,” but which can basically be modernized to say that we should “Take the simplest solution.” I just wonder why we can’t apply the timeless existence of god to the universe and call it a day. It baffles my mind that these questioners can be taken back when I state that the universe could have always existed but are completely OK with applying the same idea to a god. My answer to the “How did we get here”  question is “I don’t know.” I’m comfortable with that. Most people aren’t.

There are many other questions that I’m sure come up. These are just some of the ones that I heard a lot. Hopefully I’ll touch on the other ones as I continue. Feel free to comment and ask any questions if you have them.

How did I get to be an atheist?

I was not always an atheist. I was an atheist when I was born, but my parents decided against that course for my life. I was raised in a Roman Catholic family. I went to church every week for almost 20 years. I spent 9 years getting a Catholic education. I was an altar boy. Even more then all of this outward evidence of my religious background, I was a firm believer. When I was a teenager, I considered an active role in the church as a deacon or a Eucharistic minister of some sort. So what changed? I went to college. Knowledge happened.
Prior to college, I was sheltered. I had never been exposed to anything outside of my religion. I spent 9 years being taught about one religion and the following three years of public school having the subject avoided entirely. My first assignment in my freshmen year English class was to read and write about Martin Luther’s “95 Theses.” This was a list of all of the problems that Luther had with the Church. Reading it hit me like a ton of bricks (or a ton of feathers, either way, it was heavy). Here were 95 problems with my religion when in 18 years I had never heard one. That’ll wake you up. That single moment was the first crack in the dam. During the next few semesters, I took three different classes on religion dealing with all of the religions of the world, the various beliefs about death and the afterlife and one more the evades me right now. Here, it was exposed to me that the Noah flood story was probably not original source material. Neither was Jesus. Ouch. Talk about a big oopsie. These stories made me extremely skeptical about my own religion. I’ll try to give a quick summary of them here:

Noah and the flood
During one of my classes we read a story about a great flood. The story said that all of the people were bitching to a god and that the god couldn’t sleep, so he decided to wipe them all out with a great flood. A god went to some guy and tipped him off and told the guy to build a boat. It rained for a week straight, flooding everything and wiping out all of the annoying people. The guy tried to release a dove to find land but the dove kept coming back, so there was no land. Eventually, the flood waters subsided and the man found land and repopulated the earth with quieter people so that the god could sleep.
Who was this man? His name was Gilgamesh. The story was from a poem from Ancient Mesopotamia and dated to around 2700 BCE. The story of Noah dates to around 2300 BCE, given the chronology of the Bible.

Jesus, the source material
Just like the Noah story, the story of Jesus was predated by other source material that is too similar to be mere coincidence. The most popular of these early gods is Horus, an Egyptian god. Let me try to quickly summarize all of the similarities.
Both were born of virgins, Horus was born to Meri while Jesus was born to Mary. Both had foster fathers who are from a royal line. Horus was born in a cave while Jesus was born in a stable. Both births were preceded by an angelic annunciation to the aforementioned mother. Both were heralded by a star in the sky. The birth of Horus is said to be the winter solstice (typically December 21st) while Jesus’ birthday is December 25th (which oddly enough is the same birthday as Mithra, Dionysus and the Sol Invictus). Both had births that were witnessed by shepherds. Both have no documented history between the ages of 12 and 30. Both were baptized in a river. (Horus by Anup the Baptizer, Jesus by John the Baptizer). Both of the aforementioned baptizers were beheaded. Both were taken from the desert to a mountain and tempted. Both had 12 disciples. Both walked on water, cast out demons, healed the sick, calmed violent waters, and restored sight to the blind. Both also raised their friend from the dead. Both were transfigured. Both were crucified and accompanied by two criminals. Both descended to Hell and were resurrected after three days.
That is a lot of similarity. The story of Horus was found in “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” which was written prior to 3000 BCE. The Bible accounts of Jesus date to between 30 and 100 ACE. Barring blind faith, this has to make even the most committed Christian skeptical.

In the interest of keeping this posting to the size of a short book, I’ll also point you to all of the inconsistencies that exist in the Bible via a convenient web link that you can check out on your own:

Why bring all of this up?
Why bring all of this up? I have heard complaints that I should just let people believe in their gods. I really think that, while religion does to a wealth of good, it does significantly more harm in both a physical as well as a mental sense and I don’t think its right to stand by and accept this. Religion is filled with hypocrisy and people are either unknowingly ignorant of this hypocrisy or knowingly ignorant and choose not to question. Many religions say you should give to the poor and then spend millions of dollars on the vanity of their houses of worship. Most religions dictate belief and create a system whereby questioning that belief is wrong and that wrongness is backed up with a sense of guilt to stop us from questioning. We should always question. It is by questioning that we move towards a better society and way of life. An inquisitive mind is a mind that will create the next great advances of our civilization and religion muffles this out and calls it evil for the sake of its own survival.
Religion divides us as much as it brings us together. I would make the claim (without actually researching it thoroughly) that religion has caused more wars and the deaths that resulted then from any other single cause. There has been war in the middle east over the same plot of dirt all because it is considered holy. Can’t they just share it?
I recognize all of the good things that come out of religion. Religion is a great tool for conveying morality (not to be confused as a source of morality). Religious groups perform much charitable work in our communities. These things, however, could be done without religion. There are many moral people that are raised without religion. There are plenty of charitable organizations that do the same work as the religious ones and I’m sure that more would spring up into the void if there were no religious charities.
I understand why we have religion. Religion is a placeholder. It is the answer to the questions we can’t answer. Zeus was the god of rain to the Greeks. He existed because the Greeks did not understand where rain came from. Now that we understand how rain occurs, there is no more Zeus. As I’ve stated before, people don’t like to not know. It is uncomfortable. Knowledge is, perhaps, the driving force of all of humanity. Perfect knowledge is what we all strive for. Thus, there is a god to create the universe because we don’t yet have the answer to the question: “Where did we come from?”
Religion is also a comfort tool. People are uncomfortable with death. We don’t like thinking that our loved ones are gone for good. There is comfort in a divine afterlife where we’ll be able to see them again. We are also uncomfortable with the fact of our own demise. Religion gives us this comfort and masks the inevitability of death. It cures our loneliness. When we feel like things are hopeless and there is no one to turn to, religion gives us that person to talk to. This is the reason that they say that there are no atheists in a foxhole. Some people would say “What’s wrong with this?” I think that we’re all stronger then we give ourselves credit for. I think that we can face death, loneliness, and hopelessness and make it to the other side without a god to prop us up. We don’t need the crutch of religion to get us through because we’re strong enough to do it without that help. We’re on our way there but people are afraid to make the leap.
It’s important to remember that religion has been around for several thousand years. Science has just started to explain the world in the last three to four hundred years. It has, however, started to show people how powerful knowledge really is. As of 2001, the group of “non religious” people sits around 16% of the world’s population. This is third behind Christianity and Islam. This category has also seen a huge jump in the US statistics. In 1990, about 14.3 million people categorized themselves as “non religious” and by 2001, that figure was closer to 30 million.

Ok, I’m done

So what’s the point? Why have this discussion? Why attack religion and attempt to cast doubt? People are afraid to challenge the status quo. I’m sure that more people have doubts then they let on (the “I’m Christian but I don’t practice” people, I’m looking at you.) Doubt is good. Questioning is good. Knowledge is what we need more of. Religion tends to suppress these things. I honestly, truly have faith (irony intended) that we, as a people, will move towards a much more enlightened and prosperous place when religion is gone. I’m not looking for you to shed your religion. For some, it’s as much a family tradition as it is a religion. It’s simply my hope that you’ll doubt, question, seek knowledge, and challenge the status quo. These things are typically counter to religious belief and thus lead to a position like mine.

(check back later this week to read my updated view on the economy)




One response

9 03 2009
Aaron Cherney

This is a topic that I’m super interested in (basically the sole reason I studied philosophy in college). Just a few things: I think in terms of Pascal’s Wager, the idea is not that there is no expected value for not believing in a god and being right, or for believing in a god and being wrong, it’s just that their expected values are so much smaller in magnitude that they pale in comparison. The EV for not believing in god, and being wrong, is negative infinity. The EV for all others is either positive and finite, or negative and finite…but either way, it would lead people moved by these types of arguments to go with better to bet on god and risk losing a little, than bet against him and risk losing everything.

I’ve never found that argument to be all that moving either way, because while it is an interesting application of old school game theory, it doesn’t do much for people who are not on the fence (it basically just serves as a push off the fence to the believe in god side).

I think it’s super interesting to read and study all of the proofs one way or another for the existence of god…i took a cool class on phil of religion in college, I’ll try to find the books I read and pass them along, I think you’d like them. I definitely would like to talk to ya more about this (myself being somewhat of an agnostic – definitely believe in god, but dont know about his form, and am 100% against nearly everything about organized religion)

Good post!

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