Thursday, February 26, 2009

Agree to Disagree

My friend and I got together last Thursday evening and discussed what had happened between us and where our friendship should go from here. We spoke for a little over two hours and thus I'm not going to go into every little detail here. We actually did discuss religion and science a little bit although I wasn't intending too. We only discussed it where absolutely necessary to clarify a viewpoint. There were some moments where each of us became a little emotional. So here's what happened...

She Said
I asked her to start by telling me how she felt about everything. She explained to me that she was upset that I was so consistently "negative" about her beliefs. (I wasn't meaning to be negative, I was just skeptical). She was upset that nearly all of the questions I asked and remarks I made were in this light. In one of my e-mails I said something to the effect of "I don't mention the positive things because we already agree there, so there's not much to discuss". In hindsight, I think that was a mistake on my part. When I went to church with her she asked me what I thought of it and I started by telling her the things that I agree with before getting into the things that I disagree with. I should have tried to be more like that throughout the entire discussion, though it was difficult for me to agree with events that were said to have taken place nearly 2000 years ago. I could have at least agreed on some of the principals taught in the bible, because I do agree with a good number of those. She also said that she arrived at the (false) impression that I was having "fun" with her, pointing out contentious issues about her faith. I told her that absolutely was not the case and that I never at any point intended to upset her.

So throughout my "negative" questioning of her faith for several weeks, she was getting more and more upset about it. The day of our falling out she was at work (where she often has to deal with many rude people) and it was a combination of what I said at that moment, the ongoing negativity, and what was going on at work that caused her to have the outburst that she did. It was the straw that broke the camel's back. I was somewhat relieved to hear all that, because she reacted in a way that totally shocked me and I didn't understand. Because she had all that pent up frustration towards me, it makes much more sense that she acted the way that she did. So then I asked her why didn't she let me know how she felt before this event happened. She said it was a flaw in her personality to hide those sorts of feelings, which I can perfectly understand because I used to be the same way. So we both agreed that that was something that she should have done.

One of the things that she said that somewhat surprised me was that she was more upset at my follow-up e-mail the night after the falling out. I had carefully crafted that e-mail to try and be as sensitive as possible and to explain why I had said the things I did, and I even gave her an example of how my thought process works. Particularly, she was upset because I said in that e-mail that I was disappointed that she never asked me any questions. I wanted her to ask me questions so that she could better understand where I was coming from and thus better be able to communicate how she thought and felt to me. She told me that she simply didn't have any questions, as there is no "doctrine" of atheism to question and I had been telling her how I felt through our discussions as well. I do find it a little strange that she had absolutely no questions for me at all and part of me thinks that our discussions would have gone better if she did ask me questions, but its too late for that now. I also still don't really understand how my saying that I was disappointed she never asked me any questions could make her upset.

He Said
Then it was my turn to talk. I told her how I felt sad because there were now things that we could not share together. I explained how some of her beliefs actually hurt me (like how she thinks I'm going to hell) and that I had been fine up until now because I was at least able to talk to her about them. I told her my opinion that some of her beliefs that she holds are actually detrimental to the well-being of herself and those around her. (For example, the statement "I would kill children for God" and "Evolution is just a theory"). I also told her that I had been writing to this blog for the last month about all of these things and I also talked about calling in to the Atheist Experience TV show and talking about our falling out. I told her how to find the blog and video clips in case she was ever interested in reading/watching them.

Then I presented her with a couple of analogies. Both analogies were to illustrate to her how I feel. The first was a role-reversal analogy where I was convinced that eating a diet full of trans fats and sugars was healthy for you and she was trying to convince me that it was not. The second was where I contracted a horrible disease but refused to see a doctor because I didn't trust doctors, and instead asked for a carpenter to give me medical advice. Both analogies were used to explain to her the fallacies of relying on a non-scientist like Carl Baugh (a creationist "scientist" who I've mentioned before) to explain science to her. Fortunately, what I found out was that my perception of her infatuation with Carl Baugh and his Creation Evidence Museum was not an infatuation at all. During our discussions, she had recalled hearing about him once and noticed that he had some "science-like" explanations on his site, so without looking at them too deeply herself she had referred me to them for an explanation. So she wasn't apologetic towards him at all and didn't necessarily believe that what he said was the truth, which made me breathe a deep sigh of relief because her acceptance of his pseudoscience that I had falsely perceived was probably the issue that I was most upset about.

The other major issue I had been upset about was her willingness to do anything for God, regardless of how immoral it would be otherwise. I explained to her just how sick it makes me feel when I recall her saying she would murder children if asked by God, and I told her I hoped that she could understand why I feel that way. She pointed out that it was highly unlikely that that would ever happen and I immediately agreed her, but pointed out that we agreed on that for different reasons. I agreed because I don't think God exists, and she agreed because she thinks God is a wonderful being. That led us to discuss the bible a little bit, and I pointed out to her again that God does murder children (and nearly the entire world) so if the bible is accurate and true, then it is not so unlikely that he would ask. I explained to her that as a person who had never read the bible and never believed in or perceived some sort of invisible all-powerful being, reading the bible is a rather horrifying experience. I asked her to try throwing out her preconceived notions of God and his greatness next time she reads the bible, and if she can do that she'll understand why I reacted towards it in the way that I did.

Philosophy of Thought
At one point my friend provided me with her own analogy asking how I would feel if she began questioning something about my life. She used exercise in her example because she knows that's something important to me. She asked "What if I told you I think you're dumb wasting all of your time with exercise, wouldn't that upset you?". But I told her no, it wouldn't upset me at all. In fact I'd like to hear more about why you or anyone would feel that way. And I think we realized then that this was the core of why our discussions went as badly as they did. We have different philosophies of thinking and understanding the truth.

In my philosophy, I like to look at everything and examine all viewpoints, arguments, and evidence. My beliefs are based on these things, but my beliefs are not permanent. If new valid evidence or a well-reasoned argument comes along, I will evaluate it and if necessary, change my beliefs accordingly. I do this because I want to hold as many true beliefs as possible, and hold as few false beliefs as possible. I think the best way to know the truth is to look at everything and continually analyze and evaluate things. And I feel I should never dogmatically hold myself to believing something as true. On the contrary, my friend has already decided what she believes is true. She is not interested in finding out about other arguments and evidence that may insert doubt into her beliefs. She doesn't want people to question her position, while on the contrary I do.

So I think this was the central problem between us. I was treating her in the same way that I would like to be treated by asking questions and looking at evidence that contradicts her stance. On the other hand, she was treating me in the same way that she would like to be treated by not questioning any of my positions. So I was frustrating her and she was frustrating me. Some of the people I had spoken too just prior before our meeting told me that we need to "agree to disagree", but I told them that I don't think I'm capable of that in this case. I'm sure that other people can't "agree to disagree" with others as well on topics that are important to them, such as racism (can you "agree to disagree" when you find out your friend is a member of the KKK?). My stance here is "I will agree to disagree if I understand why it is that you disagree with me". And I think I got my reason for why she disagreed with me because of our different philosophies of thought.

At least I can now understand why she would hold her beliefs with this philosophy. I think I have been around so many analytical thinkers (engineers/scientists) in the last few years that I forgot that there are people who think in different manners. I still do disagree with that philosophy of thought though. I feel that it is an absolutely horrible way to find out what is true. If you intentionally make yourself close-minded and don't look at outside opinions and evidence, how could you ever know whether or not you are right? I think I'll elaborate on truth and thought in a later post.

So after we both laid it all out, I brought up the question of whether or not our friendship should continue. (There are some other issues between us besides religion, but that's not interesting enough to share here). We decided that our friendship should continue, that we both want it continue, and that we won't revisit this topic. But I made sure to tell her before I left that I would be always willing to talk about anything with her, although if we decide to talk about this again in the future we should probably first talk about how we're going to talk about it...@_@

The discussion went much better than I thought it was going to. We also shared some casual conversation and had a few great laughs together during the discussion. I left feeling much better about the situation with my friend than I have felt in the past month. I only wish that we had this discussion much earlier.

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Countdown to the Reconcilliation

Exciting news to share. Tomorrow evening I am set to meet with my religious friend to talk about the future of our friendship. Its going to be a little tough for me to talk about since I'm sure it will be an emotional dialog and since I am no longer allowed to speak of her beliefs. I have a few important things I want to say to her but some of those things I am unsure of whether or not they should be said at all (they may serve no useful purpose). I'll decide during our discussion about which of those more controversial thoughts/feelings I should share with her. I've preempted the discussion by asking her to please be as honest and open as possible about this and to not hold any of her thoughts or feelings back regardless of how painful they may be to her or to me. I know that's kind of ironic to ask that because I actually am planning on holding some things back, but she continues to get upset when I am honest with her about something I disagree with so I don't really know what to do about that other than just not bring up anything contentious.

I may not have time to write a post after our discussion tomorrow night so hopefully I'll get around to sharing the results on Friday. No video clip to share tonight, but I do want to share something that popped into my head the other day. I asked myself "If God exists, does He really love me?". I thought about this long and hard, based on what properties I "know" about the Christian God and did a logical assessment of this question to see if I could arrive at an answer, or at least get close to one. Here's my logical analysis in a bulleted list format, first with several assumptions stated.

  • Assumption A: God exists
  • Assumption B: God is omniscient (knows everything)
  • Assumption C: God is omnipotent (able to do anything)
  • Assumption D: God is omnibenevolent (possesses infinite benevolence)
  • Assumption E: All humans who do not believe in God will go to hell for all eternity (also: hell exists)

  1. I do not believe in God, primarily because of a lack of evidence to support the claim that He exists. (And contradictory to what some theists might think, I am totally willing to change my mind if I am provided sufficient evidence to believe).
  2. Because of God's omniscience, He knows precisely what it would take for me to become a believer
  3. Because of God's omnipotence, He is in no way prohibited from providing me with the proof I need
  4. Because of God's omnibenevolence, He should desire for me to become a believer so that I would not go to hell (which by the way, this omnibenevolent being created).
  5. God has not shown me sufficient evidence to support His existence, although many others around the world claim that he has revealed Himself to them in a manner sufficient for them to believe.
  6. Therefore one or more of the five assumptions must be false, or some other condition I am unaware about is in effect (explained below).

Analysis of False Assumptions

Lets take a look at these one at a time. If assumption A is false and God does not exist, then all of the other assumptions are also false. Pretty simple, although not a nice outcome for everyone who does believe.

If assumption B is false and God is not all-knowing, then the reason God hasn't revealed himself to me is that he doesn't know how to convince me that he is real. This concept seems a little silly to me though that he can be all-powerful but not all-knowing. If he had the power to make me believe in Him, then why wouldn't he do it? Oh that's right, its because he's omnibenevolent and loves his creations so much that he gave us free will. Including the free will to damn ourselves and suffer eternal torment and torture after death. Speaking personally, I wouldn't exactly call that love...especially since he can change the rules (he is God after all) so I wouldn't go to hell at all.

If assumption C is false and God is not all-powerful, God knows what I need to believe and wants me to believe so that I can be "saved", but is unable to. That kind of sucks. I mean, he had the power to create the universe and everything in it, right? But he doesn't have the power to provide sufficient evidence of His existence to an open-minded human being like myself? Seems kind of far fetched to think that only this assumption is false.

If assumption D is false and God is not omnibenevolent, well then that would pretty much say right there that God does not love me. You know, I think it actually makes a lot of sense if this assumption is false. I mean, God created hell just like he created heaven, Earth, and absolutely everything right? Well what purpose does an omnibenevolent creator have for making a place like hell where people suffer infinite punishment for finite "crimes" in their mortal life (where that crime can be as simple as not believing in the right God)? That doesn't seem like the actions of an omnibenevolent God, or even a good God. That seems like the behavior of an evil, vengeful, immoral God. But again that's just my opinion.

If assumption E is false and hell does not exist, then maybe God doesn't really care what we believe at all if he's not going to punish anyone after death. If E is false, that may also indicate that heaven does not exist, or it may not. I heard in a recent Pew poll that a surprisingly disproportionate number of people believed in heaven but not in hell (more believed in heaven than believed in hell). I also heard that many Christians do not believe that atheists will go to hell either (phew, hope they're right about that one!). I really wish I had a link to these poll results but I haven't been able to find it yet, I just heard about it on a recent episode of The Atheist Experience. I'll talk about it in a future post though, and I'll be sure to find the link then. Anyway, if E is false then that would explain how God could be both willing and able to prove his existence to me, loves me, but has not provided me with the evidence that I require.

Like I said one or more of these five assumptions should be false, so which one is it? Well obviously I'm biased into thinking it is assumption A (and hence all the rest), but I don't want to let my personal bias effect this, so for sake of argument lets say that assumption A holds true. Assumption B's falsehood doesn't make much sense and neither does assumption C. In fact, thinking about it both B and C seem to be kind of intertwined with one another. How can you be all-knowing without being all-powerful, or vice-versa? So lets rule both of those out. That leaves us with D and E. Assumption D could lead us to conclude that God is not a good God, or at least does not possess infinite kindness, which is why he doesn't love me and why I'm going to go to hell as a result. Assumption E means simply that there is no hell, leaving only heaven or a non-existent state after mortal death (or possibly reincarnation or another option, but lets keep it simple and say its one or the other). So God may know that I'm already going to have the same fate as his followers after my death, and since He sees me living a happy life he feels no need to prove Himself to me (although it would still be nice of him if He did). My personal opinion in the order of most likely to be the false assumption to the least likely is: A - D - E - B - C.

Possible Apologetic Counterpoints

Now the falsehoods of those assumptions couldn't possibly explain everything and I'm sure a Christian apologist would be quick to jump in and "correct" my logic. So what are some alternative options for this answer? Well, one could be that God will provide evidence of Himself to me eventually, but just hasn't yet. To which I would respond, what's the wait? There are millions of people younger than I am that he has already proven Himself too. Especially for Him to hold back now, when I am taking a serious look at these sorts of questions, doesn't seem very fair to me. But hey what do I know, I'm only human.

Another argument might be that its not God's fault, but rather it is my fault. Its my fault for setting my standards too high. Really? So I should lower my standards to believe in something without sufficient evidence? If that's the case, then I should be just as ready to believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Allah, Shiva, Zeus, etc.. One page I looked through on was addressing the question of whether or not there is evidence of God. I didn't read the entire response but I do remember reading a line that said (paraphrasing) "God wants us to believe in him on faith". So, he doesn't want to provide evidence of his existence, yet expects us to believe anyway or otherwise we face the worst punishment possibly imaginable. Well, that's going to be a problem for me. And I reject the notion that it is my fault that I have high standards for what I believe and what I don't believe. After all, before God even made the "rule" that you go to hell if you don't believe in him, he knew that I would eventually be born into this world and I would reject this notion that I have to believe in something without sufficient evidence.


I'm sure there are some other arguments a good apologist could come up with, but those were the two that I immediately thought of. Well I ended up talking a lot more about this little hypothetical situation than I intended too, but oh well. Wish me luck (or pray I guess, if that's your thing) for my discussion with my friend tomorrow evening!

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Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Biblical Interpretations and History

Now back to my Atheist Experience video clips. This one is on the biblical interpretations and accepting the bible as a true and accurate historical record of events.

This clip begins with the caller and the hosts debating over how one can know whether or not their interpretation of the bible is "correct". By correct, I mean the intrepretation is how God intended that to be read. Matt (guy on the right) makes a great point when he notices that the caller fitting his preconceptions of what God is before analyzing the text and deciding on his own interpretation.

I think this is a problem for many believers. If you have a preconception of what God is and you apply that when reading the bible, quite naturally you will either consciously or subconsciously try to "fit" the words of the bible to your image of God. That is not a good way to read the bible, or any book, in my opinion. For example, I could tell you that Adolf Hitler was this great guy who was trying to build this perfect society and the world just didn't understand him. If I convinced someone of that and then they went and read Mein Kampf, it would be unsurprising that the reader who is predisposed to believe that Hitler was a good person would interpret his racism and antisemitism as "oh he doesn't really mean it as harshly as he said it" or "well he's likely right that the Jewish people are conspiring against us". God murders and tortures many many people in the bible but these immoral deeds get overlooked by Christians who say "well he didn't really kill them like that" or "well they deserved it or it must have been for the greater good". Hopefully the analogy I provided here makes sense, I realize that it wasn't a great one.

What people need to do when reading any text (including divine scripture) is to approach it with an open mind and an unbiased conscious. When I read the bible recently, I was not convinced that the portrayal of the Christian God was neither good nor evil for I had never read the bible or been preached to. If anything, I was perhaps influenced a tad into believing that He was a good, just God since many of my friends and associates in life have been believers and that's what they agreed upon. But after reading it for myself and seeing God commit all these immoral acts, I just could not accept that this God was a good person. After all, this is a God who tortures, burns, mutilates, and brings misery upon countless souls over the ages for "offenses" as petty as not believing in God himself or being a homosexual. I would like to think that God is good (who wouldn't?), but my reasoning tells me that if the bible is true to the letter, then he is an evil deity not worthy of my worship.

Anyway, the discussion in the video then turns to how can one know whether or not the bible is a true historical record. The caller believes it "on faith" to be true. I really like it when Matt says the following.

The only thing that should be used to accept whether or not a claim is true is evidence to support the claim. Not a lack of evidence to prove it wrong.

This is another great point. Just because I can't disprove God doesn't mean that God exists. It is impossible to disprove a negative. I can't disprove that aliens have visited Earth. I can't disprove that Big Foot is not real. I can't disprove that every flower has a fairy that watches over it as it grows. But what I can do is examine alleged evidence to support the claim that "X is true" and use what scientific or historical means to examine the evidence. If that evidence has significant flaws or is insufficient to prove the claim, then it is correct for me to say "I reject your claim that X is true based on the insufficient/flawed evidence that you have provided me with". A lot of believers have this distorted sense of logic that "you can't disprove God, therefore He must exist" while turning around and saying "you can't disprove that evolution is false, therefore it is false". That's just ridiculous, and that kind of thought process needs to stop.

That's all for tonight.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Some Religious Humor

I've been talking about some very serious issues in the past several days, so I thought it would be nice to have a post with some humor and a more laid back discussion. I watched the movie Religulous this weekend. It was very entertaining, had some great comedic moments, and also had a touch of sad seriousness. I was a little sad it didn't cover more religions though. It covered Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Mormonism. I recommend seeing it regardless of your beliefs. Its both entertaining and I bet you'll learn a thing or two.

This is a video clip from George Carlin's stand-up act. I know its not meant to be taken seriously, but I think he makes a very good point about sun worship. Worship of the sun makes more sense to me than worship of some invisible being whose existence can not be verified. Everyone can see or feel the sun. We know for a scientific fact that were in not for the sun, we could not exist. Indeed, many ancient civilizations did worship the sun, or attribute some personification to the sun and worshiped that. Perhaps the reason that people don't worship the sun now is that we know the sun is nothing but a star. A big giant ball of burning gas that will eventually run out of fuel and its existence will cease (as well as all life on Earth). Kind of sucks when you compare it to the Abrahamic personal God who is an intelligent being and cares very deeply about every tiny aspect of your life, loves you no matter what, and is always ready to forgive you for being you.

Finally here is a funny clip I found this morning. This is from a new Comedy Central show called Important Things with Demteri Martin. It is a fake advertisement for a new rat extermination product that uses religious differences to cause rat colonies to self-annihilate one another. The punchline at the end is especially ironic. "And I can feel good about it [killing the rats] because they are dying for something that they believe in".

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Bible as a Source for Morality

This video is about morality in the bible. A lot of religious people mistakenly think that morals come from God. Considering I've been an atheist my entire life and I'm a very moral person, that clearly proves them wrong. The truth of the matter is, in both the Old and New Testaments there are scores of absolutely immoral and atrocious acts done by God either directly or indirectly (though his followers), or human acts that God condones. For example, God decides to kill nearly all of his creations via the flood described in the story of Noah's Ark. At about the 2:50 mark, Russel (the co-host to the left) makes a great point about people dismissing some of what is written in the Old Testament, but accept other parts (like the Ten Commandments). This "picking and choosing" from the bible is something that I don't understand in Christians. Jesus himself says that he did not come to refute the old laws, but to fulfill the prophecies (yet he went on to break many of those old laws anyway). I would quote the biblical passages if I could recall them off the top of my head, but I forgot where exactly I read it. But I'll talk about "picking and choosing" from the bible at another time.

Here is another short clip related to this subject.

The whole argument that "morality comes from God" is a non sequitur. On what basis do people make this claim? It is true that the bible states that "God says these things are good and these things are bad", but that doesn't make them moral! The bible is filled with tons of immoral teachings! I won't bother to give you a long list of examples but here's one: stone your unruly children to death if they do not listen to you. I think we would all agree that killing your children for not listening to you is immoral. Even if the bible did contain nothing but good moral advice, that still doesn't mean that morals come from God. Until about a couple months ago, I had never read the bible (except for some small excerpts from Genesis as a teenager). And yet all my family and friends would say that I am a moral person. I am kind to others, treat all living things with respect, volunteer my time and money, and make an honest effort to make this world a better place in my everyday life.

So where did my morals come from? Were they "revealed" to me by God without me knowing it? No. My morals come from thinking how I would like to be treated as a person and treating others in that way. They come from reading the stories of both great and infamous figures of the past such as Martin Luther King, Adolf Hitler, Ghandi, and Joseph Stalin. I look at these important figures of history and decide for myself "Hey, MLK was a good guy who tried to make the world a better place and I want to be like him. Hitler was an evil man who killed many innocent people because of an ambition towards an ideology and I should strive to never be like this person". I think that we all operate in the same way or a similar way, even if people don't acknowledge it. Otherwise we'd have Christians torturing and killing people (including each other) for petty offenses. If you think that you need to keep believing in a God and the bible so that you don't go on a immoral spree of rape, theft, and murder, then I hope you continue to go to church every single day. But moreso, I hope that you realize that the absence of a God would do nothing (or perhaps very little) to change your morality as a person.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Emotional Attachments to the Church

As I said in an earlier post, I collected several video clips from the Atheist Experience to share with my religious friend so that we could watch and discuss them together, and hopefully come to a better understanding of one another. Unfortunately we never got around to watching a single clip because our conversation ended before we could get around to it. I put a lot of effort into compiling this arrangement of clips and it would be a waste not to share them, so for my next several posts I will share these clips one at a time and comment on them.

This first video is on emotional attachments to the church.

The atheist caller in this video was raised by a very religious Christian family and he discusses how emotionally upset his mother becomes when she is unable to "win her son back for Christ". She believes that he is going to go to hell and it hurts her emotionally. The caller mentions the single "unforgivable sin" mentioned in the bible, which is denial of the holy spirit. I've read this in the bible myself. It is found in Matthew 12:31-32 (and repeated in Mark 3:29 and Luke 12:10), and these are the words spoken there by Jesus Christ himself.
And so I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
For those who are lacking in understanding of Christian beliefs, "Son of Man" refers to Jesus himself. I still don't understand why its okay to speak against Jesus but not okay to speak against the holy spirit. The "holy trinity" in Christianity is the father (God), the son (Jesus), and the holy spirit. Somehow all three of these entities actually are God, but I guess they are different manifestations of Him? I don't know. It doesn't make much sense to me so consult a preacher.

Back to the subject. Matt and Don (the show hosts) make a good point about how religious persons are so emotionally attached to their beliefs that many times trying to approach a logical argument with these people just goes over their heads. I have sometimes felt the same way when talking to my own friend. When I present a logical argument that she does not want to have (say, about why she believes God is not immoral) she usually will fail to give me a response to my question or try to change the subject. But I always try to make sure to thank and praise her when she does give me a legitimate and logical answer to a question I have. Those are the kinds of responses that I need in order to understand. I am a logical person and a rational thinker, its just how I work. Providing some emotional plee such as "but Jesus died for your sins!" doesn't move me an inch (my friend never said this to me, but others have).

First of all, I'm still not convinced that Jesus ever existed. I would need historical documents outside of the bible that would lead me to believe that he did, and I am planning to do that research myself in the near future (I already have a list of sources to investigate). Second, even if I conclude he exists, I'm not convinced that he is a manifestation of God (assuming here that God does exist, although I obviously don't believe that claim to be true). Jesus Christ performed miracles such as creating matter from nothing, instantly healing the sick by touching them, etc. Furthermore every time he performs some miracle, the bible specifically states that word of his deed spreads throughout the countryside. So why are there no writings external to the bible about these miracles? There were historians during those days, so why didn't anyone ever catch word and investigate and write down what they found? Third, I reject the Christian principal that I (nor any other human) was born into this world guilty. I find it ridiculous that I am guilty for the "sins" of my father and my mother, their parents, and so on back as far as humanity goes. Newborns are innocent, and I welcome any debate where someone would like to argue otherwise. And finally, many other people have died for me in the past. Brave men and women gave their lives to protect the freedoms that I now cherish. Brave men and women struggled in the civil rights movement so that I and others could all have the same liberties and privileges. If I'm going to honor the dead who have died for me, then I would rather honor these people. After all, when Jesus died he got to be resurrected before going up to heaven and ruling the universe. Those normal humans gave their only shot at life for me and for all future generations, and though many of them may be in heaven now too, many of them are also now in hell. At least, assuming that heaven and hell do exist.

Matt then talks about his own family (who are religious) and how they have mutually agreed not to discuss this anymore because its non-productive. My own friend stopped talking to me about this even though I want to continue discussing it, so we've sort of come to the same conclusion at this point even though it was not a mutual decision. But it is different because Matt and the caller's family are trying to convert them back to their religion, where as my friend never did that. I merely wanted to understand why she believed what she did, and at some point she wanted me to understand as well, although I don't know whether or not she still feels this way. Family is not something you can just cut away due to religious differences, but friends are. And although I do not want to end our friendship over this, I know that it is a very real possibility.

This video, along with some other stories I've heard in my studies, have made me very grateful that I was not raised in a religious family nor pressured to believe or disbelieve in any thing. Were that the case, both I and my family would be going through the same pains I imagine.

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Monday, February 16, 2009

Why I Believe

I want to throw out a little disclaimer before I start getting into the real meat of this religious discussion. I realize that religion and gods and beliefs are a sensitive subject for many people. I further realize that there is no way that I can prevent offending someone. But what I can do is try to be as respectful as possible and to always be willing to discuss what I have said in my blog. So if you read something here and you take offense to it, leave a note in the comments telling me so. But also make sure to tell me why you were offended. I am completely willing and open to have a conversation about what I write and why I write it. So please likewise be willing and open to having that conversation with me when you disagree.

I have stated before that I believe in science and do not believe in any religion that involves some supernatural phenomenon. Why do I believe in science? Why do I trust scientists and not religious preachers when I want to understand the truth about the world?

First and foremost, scientific understanding is based on evidence. What we can measure, what we can demonstrate, and what results we can reproduce. Scientists don't just sit around thinking about how something works, get an idea, and then seek to find evidence to support their idea. On the contrary, they seek evidence to disprove their idea. Sometimes they find evidence (or lack of evidence) that doesn't completely disprove the idea, but discredits it to a degree. And in their work, they make sure to point this type of evidence out to others so that they can evaluate it as well. But if they find that the total accumulation of experiments and evidence supports their theory, they will write up a scientific paper summarizing their findings. This paper is submitted to a journal, a conference, or some other venue where other scientists with equal credentials can review the work. These scientists then too seek out to disprove the author's theory. They will criticize and analyze it to a pedantic degree, perhaps pointing out experiments that were not done in the original work that they feel should be done. They will reproduce the experiments in their own laboratories to examine if they get the same results. And if no scientist can come up with evidence that completely debunks the theory and the theory is the best explanation that anyone can come up with to explain how something works, then that theory is accepted as a scientific fact. But at the same time it is still also a scientific theory, a theory that currently does the best job at explaining the observable fact. This can be confusing to a layman, which explains why some people think evolution is simply a theory. But the truth is that evolution is both a scientific theory and a scientific fact.

In case you missed it, the process of a scientist coming up with a hypothesis, testing it, measuring results, and having those results scrutinized by other qualified individuals is known as the scientific method. I believe that it is the best way for us as a species to find out answers to the world we live in and the universe that we exist in. Providing and testing explanations for new evidence that we discover is the best way to learn the truth about that evidence. For the most part, religion has it backwards. Religion provides an answer, then tries to find evidence to match that answer and discredit any evidence that conflicts with that answer. So called creation science is a blasphemous label against science. And yes, I realize the irony in using the adjective blasphemous here :). It is a pseudo-science, a want-to-be science that will not and can never be true science. The reason is because creation "scientists" have already made up their mind about what they believe are the answers to the questions they seek. Rather than being objective and open about it, they fervently seek out only evidence that supports their answers and try to hide, obscure, or explain away that evidence which serves to discredit their answer. That is why no creation science efforts will ever hold any acceptance within the greater scientific community.

Furthermore, I place my trust in the results of the scientific process. I do so because I know that even if one or a few scientists are "bad apples" who want to prove their theory true even when the evidence indicates it to be false, there are a thousand fold more scientists who will see the flaws in their work and will not accept their theory as fact until those flaws are addressed. I myself have been a part of this process and I have learned to respect it. While in academia I submitted scientific papers and had them reviewed. Some were accepted and others were rejected. And when they were rejected, I was provided with explanations from the reviewers on why they were rejected. I too have been a reviewer of many papers. Some of the better and more sound ones I accepted, while the ones which were weak or significantly flawed I rejected (and gave legitimate reasons why I rejected them). Contrary to what I imagine my religious friend believes, I am much more harsh in my criticism of scientific papers than I am on any particular belief system.

The issue of trust is very important, and could merit its own post. I am not an expert in evolutionary biology, geology, chemistry, or theoretical physics. In fact, I am a non-expert in pretty much every scientific discipline, and only consider myself to be a well-educated and interested reader of science. I don't have the time, energy, nor lifespan to devote my entire being to seeking out answers to everything in life by myself. So I have to ask myself "Who do I trust to give me those answers?". I've already laid out my reasons for why I trust science, and I think that I have very good reasons for trusting them. So why then, does my religious friend distrust science and instead trusts in the bible?

I'll probably never know the answer to that question since she is no longer willing to discuss it with me. I have never asked her why she believes in God, because I honestly don't care whether she does or not. I do care when her belief in God prevents her from forming relationships, when it causes her to be willing to commit murder of innocents, and when it causes her to deny scientific evidence and accept false truths. During our first discussion I pointed out to her that the bible had over 40 authors and three languages, and that some of the old Christian scripture (such as the Gospel of Thomas) were not included in the compilation of the New Testament. So I asked her "Why do you believe in the bible? Why do you believe it is the inerrant word of God from the man himself?". Especially since we can not verify who a single author of the bible was. Her answer baffled me.
"I don't know, I just do."
Seriously? This is the book that she, at some point, decided to believe in and follow to the letter. And when asked why she believed that, she couldn't provide an answer? I honestly find it to be ridiculous! So in the e-mail that I sent to her after she became upset with me for my disagreements with her church's philosophy on marriage and sex, I pointed out to her the following verse in the bible, 1 Peter 3:15.
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,
I implored her to stay true to the bible and provide me with a real explanation. In her e-mail response (which was also the last time I had any real communication with her, about a month ago), she told me she understood that her response then was not an acceptable answer and attached a testimonial about her life as a believer and why she believes in God. Well, that's fine and all. But I never asked her why she believed in God. I asked her why she believes that the bible is the work of God and not the work of men. I know that she trusts in God, but I don't know how she can likewise trust that the bible is inerrant and is the word of God. There are many Christians who don't believe that it is, so I am infinitely curious as to why she does believe that. I have my own speculations about the answer, which I may share at a later time.

Anyway I am getting off topic. I've stated why I trust science and why I distrust "creation science", but why do I distrust religion? Well the answer is pretty simple really. It again boils down to evidence and dogmatic beliefs about the truth. I find no credible evidence of an invisible being that penetrates everything and everyone, influences the universe at every location and every instance of time, and cares infinitely about me as a person. I am willing to listen to evidence that people can provide me, but just because I don't know an answer to something doesn't mean that suddenly "God fills the gap". Ancient civilizations used to think that gods pulled the sun across the sky until gravitational theory was well understood. So you see, God filled the gap back then too. Just because we currently do not have a good scientific explanation for some phenomenon that we witness does not mean we should automatically attribute its workings to some mythical being.

The answer to why I distrust religion is that it asserts that it knows what is true without evidence to support their claims. Time and time again, religion has shown to stand in the way of real truth. Just look to the Catholic church's prosecution of Galileo Galilei for seeing the evidence that the Earth revolves around the sun, instead of vice versa. It took centuries for the church to formally vindicate this innocent man from his "crime" of promoting this scientific truth. Any body, religious or otherwise, that would try to hide such evidence (as the church banned his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems) automatically loses any crediblity with me as a promoter of truth and understanding. The fundamentalist Christian movement, not learning the mistakes of the past, are now repeating the same dire mistake with Charles Darwin and evolution. They would seek to erase the scientific truth, or at least "muddy the waters" as much as possible to make the public doubt this truth. And what's worse is that they target the children, trying to insert intelligent design into schools as if it were a scientifically valid theory that holds equal validity with evolution. It doesn't. It is a theological belief with no evidence to support it. In my own observations, I noticed that the ID movement expends much more energy trying to discredit evolutionary theory than trying to prove their own theory (if you can call it a theory). Even if evolution were disproven (nearly impossible given the massive amounts of fossil, genetic, and modern evidence) it does not automatically mean that the story of creationism is true.

Wow, I am really bad at staying on topic. I think I am just going to quit here and now before I diverge again into some other tangent. But to summarize the main points in my post:
  • I believe in science because it uses existing evidence to formulate theories to explain the evidence.
  • I disbelieve in "creation science" because it asserts a single theory as true and then seeks evidence to support it (and ignores evidence that refutes it).
  • I trust in the scientific method because it prevents bad science from being written as true.
  • I still do not have an answer about why my religious friend believes in the bible and trusts it to be the inerrant word of God.
  • Just because we can not currently provide an explaination for some phenomenon very well does not automatically prove the existence of a higher power.
  • The church has in the past, and does currently, try to hide and distort scientific evidence that contradicts their dogmatic ideologies, which is one reason why I distrust them.
  • I distrust any institiution, religious or otherwise, that asserts a dogmatic idea as truth and fact, especially when they fail to provide sufficient evidence to support that claim.

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

Cause and Effect

In this post I'll discuss what happened as a result of this recent experience of mine. What were the bad things that happened, what were the good things that happened, and why did I decide to begin writing about this in my blog?

The Bad
Its pretty obvious what the most negative consequence of these discussions was. My friendship with this girl has taken severe damage and it remains to be seen whether we can salvage it. I don't want to belittle this point, because this alone makes me very very sad. I got closer to this girl than I could have ever imagined. I typically don't form close relationships with people because I have a hard time finding friends that I really connect with. She is the one friend I have in Austin who I felt completely comfortable with. I felt like I could talk about anything with her and do everything with her. I really, really value my friendship with her and she's a very important person in my life. It makes me sad to think that religion could tear us apart forever. Even if that is not the case, I doubt that we will ever be as close as we once were.

I'm not so sure I feel entirely comfortable around her anymore as well. Her admission that she would kill young children if God commanded her too really scares me. I thought about this carefully and during an online chat once I told her I wasn't sure that I could feel comfortable around her anymore. She asked why, and I cited her earlier admission and said "What if God commanded you to kill me? How can I feel comfortable knowing that you wouldn't even question that command?". (She never responded to this question so I don't know her answer). There are numerous examples in the bible where God commands people to kill those close to them, including parents sacrificing their children. If God would accept the blood of the innocent, he surely has no problem asking my faithful friend to extinguish a blasphemer such as myself. Of course I don't believe in God so I don't think that he will ever tell my friend to kill me. I raised the point as more of a hypothetical question. Because if I did believe in God, then I may have good reason to fear my friend.

And her YEC stance makes me greatly uncomfortable as well. I've been thinking very deeply and philosophically about this lately. My friend and I have a list of activities to do around the Austin area. A couple of those things were to go exploring the local historical cave sites and to go star gazing. But can I really appreciate doing those activities with a friend who believes the earth is only a few thousands years old? If that were the case, most of the stars in the sky should not exist. If that were the case, then there's no way that she could appreciate the millions of years of erosion and geological formations in those caves. I can't imagine viewing the universe in the same way as a YEC does. For example, if I'm touring a beautiful garden with a friend and this friend says "Wow, look at all the fairies in this garden!". I don't see the fairies but my friend insists that they are there, making the flowers beautiful and taking care of them. Are we really appreciating the same garden? Can I appreciate nature and the stars and history with such a friend?

The Good
There are, however, many unexpected good results of this too. The best one is that my thirst for knowledge and understanding has been revived. When graduate school ended back in December 2006 I had to take so many months to recover from my anxiety disorder. By the time I was feeling back to normal, I just no longer really cared to learn anything anymore. But now that feeling is back and it is just as strong as it was before I became a graduate student. My passion to learn really drives me in life and I am very thankful to have it back again.

I have learned so much in the past two months it is incredible. Initially all that I was learning was about Christianity and the Bible. As I was reading the bible though, I began to wonder how true the stories in it were. For example, the book of Matthew discusses King Herod of Judea under the Roman Empire. This king really did exist. Matthew describes how Herod heard that the Messiah (Jesus) had been born in his lands and ordered that all infants two years or younger be killed (see massacre of the infants). Jesus and his human parents fled to Egypt to escape this massacre. The problem with that story is that Herod had a personal historian who kept detailed records of his days. Although Herod committed many awful acts as King according to his own historian, there is nothing in these records that describe the massacre of the infants. Furthermore, there is very good evidence that King Herod died in the year 4BC, 4 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. I've learned a lot of history about the times which are mentioned in the bibles.

After talking to my friend and learning about her YEC stance, I began re-evaluating my own stance. I do believe in evolution, and I do believe that the universe is billions, not thousands, of years old. But why do I believe that? What evidence support my beliefs? Am I justified in my beliefs? These questions led me to go back and re-discover the answers that I once found, evaluated, and decided were true. I've studied biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, cosmology, palentology, archaelogy, and history. And I'll share the things that I have learned through my studies in future posts, and justify why I hold the views that I do.

I've also been learning about religion in general, not just Christianity. My roommate (also an atheist) took a couple courses on religion during his college years and lent me the textbooks that he studied. I've studied them to try to understand why people hold the beliefs that they do. Why do some people reject science and historical evidence when they conflict with their beliefs? What role does our childhood experiences play in what we believe as adults? I've started looking into psychology and sociology to find these answers. I have my own hypotheses about these answers, which I will share in future posts. I do hope to share them when I have better knowledge of the human mind and childhood development.

Another positive benefit I've gained from this experience is awareness. I am more aware of (what I consider to be) some of the dangerous beliefs that some religious people hold. I can no longer afford to be naive about these people, because their views do affect my life both directly and indirectly. I'm aware now that as an atheist, I belong to the most distrusted group in America. In the past I've been somewhat of a "hidden" atheist. I didn't tell people that I was an atheist unless they ask or unless it is relevant information to share. That's probably why I haven't experienced a lot of discrimination from believers that other atheists have experienced. I've decided to be more open about being an atheist and to do my part to try and dispel the negative stigma about atheism. Like everything else, I'll discuss discrimination and atheism in a future post.

The Effect
So why have I decided to start blogging about all this? The main reason is because I've learned so much and prepared so many questions for my friend, and now I can't share them with her anymore because I agreed to not speak about religion or her beliefs anymore. All these thoughts in my head that I was going to share with her suddenly had no where to go, and it was driving me crazy. Thus, I decided to share them in my blog because I need to get them out of my head!

A secondary reason is to raise education and awareness about these sorts of questions that are so fundamental to our lives. I'm speaking to both atheists and religious people in this respect. If someone decides to accept or reject a viewpoint, I want them to have well supported and intelligent reasons in doing so. Education is something that I think our society doesn't respect enough here in the United States and across all other nations. And I do blame religion in part for playing a role in making people less educated and less enlightened about the world and the reality in which we live.

I realize that being on my blog and avaiable in the public domain, my friend has the access and opportunity to read what I have to say here. I'm not going to force my blog entries down her throat, but I will tell her that what I think and feel is available here. It will be up to her whether or not she chooses to read what I have to say, but I hope that she does. But I don't want her or anyone else to mistakenly think that I am writing these postings specifically for her because that is not the case. Using this blog to indirectly share my thoughts with my friend is a teriary reason for why I write.

That's all for now. Next time I think I'll discuss why it is that I trust science and likewise distrust religion.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A New Friend: Part II

Picking up where I left off in my last post, I had just talked to my friend about her beliefs and began reading through the bible that she lent me. My single motivation for doing this was because I wanted to understand her beliefs. She was (and still is) a close and dear friend to me, and I felt I should at least know about this aspect of her life that was so important to her. I read through the bible and other materials I read/saw online, I began constructing a list of my own observations and questions for her based on what I read.

About a week after our first talk, we decided to spend Saturday together going to a yoga class, getting lunch, and going for an afternoon walk/run. It was nice and we both had a lot of fun together like we usually do. We didn't talk about religion scarcely at all (I didn't want to and I don't think she wanted to either then), but during lunch she did ask me a sudden question. "Do you believe in evolution?". I was somewhat surprised, but I answered that yes, I did. (I can't remember clearly if she then asked me why I believe it, but if she did I'm sure I responded because all of the scientific evidence and studies have shown it to be true). Naturally I asked her the same question in response, and she said that no, she didn't. I inquired why not and she replied "Because it contradicts the bible". This was the second shock I received when talking to her about her beliefs. First she displays an absolute devotion to God, even if it means killing innocent children. Then she uses an ancient text which can not be verified by any means as true as her reason for rejecting a near universally accepted modern scientific theory. That's about the extent of our conversation about evolution that day (I wasn't going to debate her on it right then and there). Little did I know just how far down the rabbit hole would lead our talks from there.

After that day I did some research about Christian views on evolution. What I read lead me to believe that my friend was a young Earth creationist (YEC). I knew that many evangelical Christians held this view, but I would have never imagined that my friend was an evangelical nor that she would hold this opinion that the universe was created no later than 10,000 years ago. I had not confirmed that she was a YEC, but I was afraid that it was likely to be true. As an engineer and a science enthusiast, I know off-hand of many, many pieces of evidence for why our universe and the Earth are billions of years old (I'll devote separate blog posts about this later). I can't even imagine how one can live with a YEC view. So many books that I've read on ancient history, chemistry, genetics, and theoretical physics simply could not be true if our universe was this old. Yes, it is true in fact that YECs reject any evidence that shows our universe to be as old as the evidence suggests. From the wikipedia article on YEC:
YEC is normally characterized as opposing evolution, though it also opposes many claims and theories in the fields of physics and chemistry (especially absolute dating methods), geology, astronomy, cosmology, molecular biology, genomics, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology and any other fields of science that have developed theories or made claims incompatible with the Young Earth version of world history.
About a week later, we had our second talk. And I did confirm that she was a YEC, and further that she believed that man and dinosaur once lived on the Earth at the same time. To begin I had just general thoughts and questions for her, nothing too controversial. But one of the points I tried to hit home is "If the bible is literal and true as you believe it is, how can you believe God is good when he allows so much suffering and causes so much suffering directly himself in the bible?". I don't remember what her response was. Actually I can't remember how much we talked about this at all. She printed up copies of the questions I sent her and I later found out that several things I had asked in the online document that I shared with here were not in her printouts. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, it is certainly plausible that she printed out the document before I was finished with it (I was still adding questions to it just a few hours before our arranged meeting time). But I never got around to confirming with her if that was the case, or if she somehow felt the questions were inappropriate. Anyway, I won't go into every single question and response during this talk we had (although in my later blog posts I'll touch on specific examples from it). But I did want to share what was said about evolution.

When we began talking about it my initial question to her (IIRC) was that how can she say that its false when there is so much evidence to support her. Her answer was a man by the name of Carl Baugh, a YEC who runs a "Creationism Museum" here in Texas. I had snuck a peek at her answers prior to our meeting and since I had never heard of the man, I looked him up on Wikipedia. The consensus against him was damning. He claims to have evidence of man and dinosaur existing together, but all professional scientists and archaeologists who have visited him and viewed his evidence all came to the same conclusion: it is false. I won't go into the details, but read the wikipedia article about him and the associated links if you care to. I pointed this out to her and her initial defense of him was that I read Wikipedia "which anyone can edit to say whatever". I gave her that point, but later I did read many of the references in the wikipedia article (to external and professional websites) which said the same thing the article did. Big surprise. And what came out her mouth next saddened me greatly.
"But evolution is just a theory!"
Just a theory? Forget talking about evolution, my friend was failing to demonstrate that she understood the scientific method! (She's not a scientist, but she does have a bachelor's degree, graduated with high honors, and studied nutrition, which is at least based on science). I went into a long, passionate, spirited explanation about why I trust science and why I trust the conclusions of scientists. I explained that science isn't about trying to prove that your idea is right, but trying to prove it to yourself that it is wrong. And when you can't prove it wrong, you write down what you think, what you did to test it, and what you observed in your tests. You sent that paper to other scientists, who then also try to prove you wrong. If they are able to reproduce your results in their own experiments and not find any critical flaws in your method, then they keep scrutinizing it and looking for weaknesses (and every scientific does have weaknesses, including gravity). But even with the weaknesses if its still producing reliable and predictable results, thats when we accept it and say "this is true as far as we know and to all the lengths we went to try and disprove it". She didn't have a response for any of this that I recall, but I do remember the look on her face. Its very difficult for me to put her expression it into words, but the feeling I got from her was "she is understanding and acknowledging that what I am saying makes sense".

We concluded that night with deciding that we needed more time to talk. I suggested that perhaps next time she could ask me questions about what I think and what I believe, because it wasn't fair for me to keep asking her all the time. She expressed a great disinterest in doing so, to my disappointment. So instead I suggested that next time instead of me asking questions, we could watch some video clips together and discuss them. During my studies I came across a local TV show in Austin called The Atheist Experience, which has a lot of great dialog about atheists, religion, separation of church and state, science, beliefs, and related matters. Its also a call in show where people can talk about whatever is on their minds. Most of their 90 minute shows (and several minute clips from those shows) are hosted on Google Video. I'll share many of the best clips in my later posts.

Before she agreed to watch these videos with me, she asked if I would be willing to go to church with her. To which I said "Of course, I'd be happy to". So that was our deal. A couple of weeks passed before I attended church with her, and I don't think we ever hung out or did anything fun between the end of our second talk and me going to church. We did talk online almost everyday (we chat while we're both at work sometimes). I was feverishly researching and reading and learning new things during this period and I was getting rather anxious about it because I had accumulated so many things I wanted to ask her and talk with her about, but she's a pretty busy person and doesn't have a lot of time to spare. So I started talking to her about these things a little bit here and there online. She told me that she felt I was attacking her beliefs with some of my questions and I told her that I was not. I was merely asking critical questions (like I would of anything else) and letting her know how I felt and how I interpreted readings from her bible so that she could better know my position and thus it would hopefully be easier for her to explain her beliefs to me. So things were starting to get a little tense at this point.

Then came Sunday, and I went to church with her. I hadn't been to church in almost 10 years (and I had only been two times before that, both to Catholic churches). I went with an open mind (as I always do for everything). The sermon was about sex and marriage. There were a few parts that I agreed with, but many more parts that I disagreed with strongly. After the service I thought that we'd sit down and talk about it but she was too tired and had to work early in the morning. But she did ask me what I think, and I told her honestly and directly. She just kind of sat there with a curled lower lip and nodded her head, then told me she was happy that I went. The next day we were chatting over IM once again and we came on the subject again after talking for a couple hours. I went into more detail about what I disagreed with and why I disagreed with it. i also recalled a study on U.S. divorce rates for different faith groups (found here). I found this study well over two months ago while I was doing some curious investigation into divorce trends (note: this was before I even sent the e-mail to my friend discussing religion). I wanted to provide this evidence to support my stance, because any claim (I feel) should have this kind of support so that its not just an uneducated opinion, but a reinforced position on an issue. She got very upset at me when I pointed out that the divorce rate for atheists/agnostics (and all other religions and denominations of Christianity) had significantly lower divorce rates than fundamentalist non-denominational Christians. She then said she's through talking about this with me and logged offline before I could offer an explanation. Later that evening I wrote her an e-mail apologizing that I upset her, and explained why I did what I did. She responded by accepting my apology, but stood defiant about not talking to me about her beliefs any longer in any form. I responded and told her I would respect her wishes and never speak nor ask of them again unless she changed her mind.

I have spoken to a lot of different people of a lot of different faiths and backgrounds (Christian and non-Christian) to get their opinions. I questioned if what I did was the right thing, because certainly at the time I didn't think it was wrong to share evidence of my claim with her, nor did I feel like I was attacking her belief. I was just demonstrating a constructive criticism and expressing my disapproval of it (particularly, I was speaking with regards to the idea of gender roles in a marriage, which was probably what I disagreed with most at the church sermon). In fact, I even called in to The Atheist Experience and told them this, and asked there opinion of it. The video clip is embedded below, watch it.

That's the end of this story (so far). Its been two weeks now. I called her once (and got her voice mail) and asked what her thoughts were about the future of our friendship. (Does she want to continue to be friends, or not?). She responded with a brief e-mail saying that she's been busy but will eventually respond to me. She's out of town for the next week so I won't hear back from her until she gets back I imagine. Next time I think I'll talk about what has happened to me as a result of this experience (both the good and the bad) and why I decided to start writing in my blog about it.

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Monday, February 09, 2009

A New Friend

Now on to the subject of why I started writing about religion in my blog, and the continuation of my story as an atheist. Back around June last year, I met a girl online who lived in my local area. My first impression was that we shared may interests and had many of the same ideas and philosophies about life. This is pretty rare as I am a very different person than most others in my generation (I'm sure I'll post about that eventually, but not now). One thing that I did notice that was different between us is that she seemed to be a very religious Christian and didn't know that I was an atheist. So I told her I was an atheist and asked if that would be a problem for her. She said no, but that it meant we could only be friends. I didn't think much of that response and at the time I was only thinking about friendship, so I said that was fine with me.

Well over the course of the last several months I got to know her pretty well. I always had a great time whenever I hung out with her. Over time I ended up opening myself completely to her, because I felt totally comfortable around her and wasn't afraid to share everything. We constructed lists of things to do around the area, places to go eat together, and so on. It felt really good because I don't really have any close friends that I feel comfortable hanging out with and doing whatever. I have plenty of friends from work/training, but there's no one I can really call up at any given moment and say "hey, lets go hang out" and not have it be awkward. We became really close friends, and continued to grow closer all the time. Naturally, I started to have feelings beyond friendship for her. I mean she is a great girl. She's smart, fun, cute, and someone I can talk to about anything with. As my feelings for her grew stronger and I knew that they were not going to go away, I had to tell her. But her initial statement of "we can just be friends" still lingered in my mind. So first I wanted to ask her about that.

And I did ask her in an e-mail I sent over the winter holidays. I wanted to ask her in person, but we never got around to having any serious discussions at the time (whenever we were together we were too busy having fun). I certainly didn't want to let her know my feelings over e-mail though, so I attached that question (along with several others) in an e-mail about my views on religion. I also asked her if she thought that I was going to hell for being an atheist. (I also pointed out that I am a good person, I donate time and money to charities and I try to make the world a better place every day). This is what she said.
Yes, I do believe that if you do not believe in God, heaven, and accept Jesus as your Savior, you will go to hell. As hard as that is to say to you because you are a great friend and I would not want that for you, yes it is what I believe. No preacher has to tell me that either. I believe int he bible, and the bible states that is what happens.
I've been told before that I'm going to hell. Several times by several different people in fact. But it surprisingly hurt me when she said it. It hurt because she's such a close friend that I care about so much, and for her to think that I am deserving of the ultimate and eternal suffering, of never-ending torture and torment just breaks my heart. But hey, I suppose not believing in God is as bad as say, murdering millions of innocent people like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin? (Note I'm being sarcastic). And when I asked her if her statement that she could only date other Christians was something that her church promotes, is her personal belief, or is just a preference she had this to say.

Yes, I have tried dating people who are not of similar religous views, and it does not work. I want a partner with the same beliefs so we can share, learn, and grow together. Plus, I believe God intended it that way. For a man and a woman to have that in common, to build a stronger partnership. My belief is such a huge part of my life, that I do not think I could (anymore, now that I am older and dont want to date just for fun) be in a relationship that could not share that with me. Plus, I want someone to go to church with and experience everything with.
Obviously I was disappointed by her response, but it was not unexpected. I understood and accepted her reasoning. (Although I had explained in my e-mail to her that if I married a religious woman, I would be willing to go to service with her on special occasions like Christmas or Passover). What I did not understand nor accept was "God intended it that way". Really? What a sad world it would be if people never dated nor associated with people outside of their religion. Does God really want this for people? Curious to know, I went to the best source for answers. The Bible. A book I have never read before (well, I read a little bit of Genesis when I was studying a theory about the merging of scientific evidence with creationism). And I found some Christian websites to help me find where in the bible it says that God intended it that way, along with an explanation of why it says that. The best site I found was, which has a pretty nice repository of information and responses (although I disagree with a lot of their logical explanations on there). And the best answer I got for my question on why God forbids Christians to date/marry non-Christians is right here. Specifically this bible verse told me all that I needed to know.

2 Corinithians 6:14-18
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty."
Here's how I interpreted this verse: "Don't marry unbelievers. They are evil, wicked beings and you have nothing in common with them. Be separate from them, they are dirty". I was devastated. Did my friend really think of me in this way? Did she secretly hide these thoughts that I am an evil person? Until I read that I would have never imagined that that was the case. From that point I went nuts. I started reading as much material as I could find on Christian beliefs, and reading more bits and snippets from the bible trying to understand this line of thinking.

The next week we were both back in town and I had told her I had something very serious I wanted to talk about in person. So one night I went over to her apartment and I laid it all out. I told her my feelings for her, told her about my hidden intention in that e-mail I sent her about religion, read that verse from the bible that I found so upsetting, and asked her "Do you think I am evil?". She told me no, which relieved me. But I still didn't understand how she could not believe that I was evil (which is God's reason why she should not date someone like me) and yet still believe that God says she shouldn't date me. She pulled out a bible and explained that "oh well that was in the old days when non-Christians were evil" or something to that effect. She also gave a second answer which I can't recall (this was a pretty emotional discussion for both of us). I started asking her more questions. She seemed to be willing to do anything that God asked her to so I asked her a hypothetical question that I firmly believed she would say no to. I asked "If God appeared before you, proved to you that he was the one true God, and then gave you a subautomatic machine gun and told you to go walk into the nearest elementary school and kill as many children as you could, would you do it?".

Her initial response was "Well God would never do that". Wrong answer. If you believe the bible to be inerrant, then you can't deny that God has killed millions of people (and animals) in the past, including asking humans to kill other humans, even their close family members. I didn't point that out to her at the time (because I didn't know this yet), but I pressed my question again. Her answer was "Yes, I would". I was in complete shock. I unquestionably expected her to say no. She's a kind and sweet girl and I could never imagine her killing anyone at the behest of anyone else, not even God. My reaction was to ask her "Then how does that make you any different than a jihadist? After all they are believing that they are to kill because God has instructed them to do so". Her answer was "Well they're not really talking to God". Which I responded with "And how do you know that? What provides you with the means to think that you are talking with God and they are not?". She had no real response for that, and I think we got onto another topic.

So I felt better about knowing that she didn't think I was evil, but I was still deeply disturbed at her willingness to commit murder. Obviously. Who wouldn't be disturbed by that? She lent me a bible for "new believers" to read and study so that I could better understand her beliefs, and we agreed to have a second meeting and talk some more. So I did read. I read the 50 page introduction in the book that "summarized" the Christian way and Christian teachings. Then I proceeded to read through the book of Matthew and Mark, to be followed by John and Luke. For our second meeting I agreed to send her my questions in advance so that she had adequate time to prepare a response to each of them instead of being put on the spot. But this post is getting too long already, so I'll continue it next time. I'll also include a video that I'm in talks about this subject, so look forward to it!

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.