Saturday, February 07, 2009

An Atheist's Perspective on Religion

Before I continue with the story I started in my last post, first I want to talk about some of my own views about religion. I'd like to consider myself "moderately" tolerant of other's beliefs. In general I really don't care what people believe, with a few exceptions. I do however care about why they believe what they do. I think that there are good reasons to hold a belief (evidence, experience, research) and bad reasons to hold a belief (indoctrination, dogmatism, fear). Regardless of what people believe, I do acknowledge that people have a right to believe whatever they want in this country (guaranteed by the first amendment to the US Constitution), to the extent that their beliefs do not infringe on other people's rights and beliefs.

There are some things that religions and religious people teach/practice that I feel are wrong. These are the "exceptions" I mentioned about my tolerance in other's beliefs. I'll explain what those exceptions are now.

1. Conversion
I think that "passive" conversion is totally acceptable. Sharing what you believe with others and casually inviting someone to attend your service is fine with me. But I think that actively "hunting down" the non-believers to try and save them is wrong. If they are unsure about their beliefs and you want to provide them with your perspective, I feel that is acceptable. But if someone is firmly settled and content with their beliefs and a person attempts to aggressively "uproot" them without sufficient reason, I think that's wrong. What then, is a sufficient reason? Well for example, Jehovah's Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions and that means they are much more likely to die as a result of an accident. People should be free to believe what they will (within reason) and one shouldn't try to enforce their beliefs on others. I categorically disagree with any religion who teaches its followers that their mission is to convert as many people as possible to share in their belief system.

2. Condemnation
This kind of goes along with conversion. A common example I hear is "you need to become a Christian or you'll burn in hell!". This is insulting and threatening. If you want to believe that I'll go to hell, that's just fine. But you don't have to shout it at me, remind me of it constantly, and use it to try to convince me to change what I believe. Especially if you can't even justify why you believe I'm going to hell. The usual justification I get is "because the bible says so". Well why should I believe the bible is true? "Because it is the word of God." How can one know that it is the word of God? "...I just believe that it is." A belief based on faith and not evidence is not sufficient means to justify why I should change my beliefs to match yours.

3. Justification
By justification, I mean justification for atrocious, racist, immoral acts on family, humanity, animals, or even oneself. The most obvious and modern example of this is radical Islamic terrorism. But sadly this stretches far, far back in our history. The Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the list is depressingly long. I think its so sad that for so many centuries humans have used their religion to justify murder, rape, torture, slavery (yes, Christians once used their own bible to support slavery), and genocide. I know that religion does a lot of good for a lot of people and overall I'd like to think that it has a net positive effect on the world, but the negative consequences of religion are so great and so numerous that its hard for me to convince myself that that is true.

4. Infringement of Rights
What I mean by this is denying people of other genders, sexual orientations, etc. some of the rights that you allow yourself to have. The most prominent and recent example that comes to mind is gay marriage. On TV and in the news I see again and again people who want to make gay marriage illegal because they believe that their religion condemns it. I am a strong supporter of gay rights and gay marriage (or civil unions, or whatever you want to call it) and believe firmly that gay couples should be afforded all the same civil rights and liberties as heterosexual couples. But people often vote against such legislation simply because "the bible says that being gay is wrong". That statement is true, and is also irrelevant. This is not a Christian nation. We have no state sponsored religion. Even to those Christians who hold that prejudicial belief that God does not support homosexuality, I say that should not be justification for you to vote against their rights and their happiness. "All men (and women) are created equal" in this nation, even if your God disagrees with that.

In other religions like Islam, the rights of women are basically non-existent. On Google Video the other day I came across a video of some Arabic men discussing the proper way to beat your wife. In one country (I believe the United Arab Emirates, but I forgot the source where I read this) the only thing women are allowed to own is their jewelry. Everything else they have, including themselves, are the property of men. They are basically slaves to their fathers, husbands, etc. And its not just Islam, Christians used to be like this as well. To marry a girl, you had to ask permission from her father for him to "transfer his rights" of the woman to you. I think that is so horrible. I've been learning more about the history of women's rights lately and the more I learn, the more disturbed I am that this used to be the norm in the world.

5. Dogma and Denials of Contradictory Evidence
If someone wants to believe that flowers grow because invisible fairies are there to pull the flowers up from the ground, I'll look at you weird but it won't really bother me. However if I find and provide evidence that flowers grow through natural means (cell mitosis) and that person denies, ignores, or attempts to explain away that evidence with something ridiculous (like, oh but it contradicts X, which I dogmatically believe to be true), then I have a problem. I have a problem because I care about the people in my life, and for that matter I care about every human being on this Earth. Categorically denying/ignoring every scrap of evidence against your beliefs simply because you are scared to find out that your beliefs may not be entirely true is unhealthy for your intelligence and reasoning. It becomes an even greater problem when those people start trying to enforce that such beliefs lacking scientific evidence should be taught to children in public classrooms (see intelligent design).

To that extent, my problem is not just with denial of contradictory evidence, but with all dogma, religious and non-religious. To assert that something is absolute truth and that any and all evidence that contradicts that truth is false is very harmful to your personal well-being. I simply can not wrap my head around this. I believe there is no God. However I am willing to change my mind if I am provided with sufficient evidence that proves that God exists. Sufficient evidence is not a 2,000 year old text and "everything you experience in life". However, there are many Christians and other religious people that even when you provide them sufficient evidence, they do not change their minds. They are in a sense trapped inside a mental prison, completely unable to look at the world objectively and rationally with a healthy amount of skepticism. There are those who claim that our universe is no older than 6,000-10,000 years old and who deny evidence of evolution simply because they believe the bible is a literal and true record of what happened. So called young Earth creationists I do have issues with, because even provided with evidence many of them will not change their minds (yet they expect me to change my mind when they provide me with "evidence" of the existence of their God), or they will simply deny/ignore such evidence.

It is the dogma and denial of evidence exception in my tolerance of beliefs that has ultimately led me to do research, begin these writings, and to express my own views and opinions. In my next post I'll continue with the second part of my personal story, including some video clips where I appear. Stay tuned.


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