Truth is not inherited

Another recycled post, a short one this time. This was first published on this blog in April 2010.

DNASeveral religious friends of mine have, through the course of conversations, admitted that they are only members of their particular religions because that is the religion they were raised in. Because those are the beliefs their parents taught them. They recognize, or at least claim to recognize, that if they were born in another time or another place, they would probably have been followers of a different religious tradition.

For me, as an atheist, this seems like the endgame. If one’s faith is just an accident of birth, then it doesn’t reveal any special truths about the nature of reality, and one should leave that faith behind! But for some reason, this is not the reaction of my friends. They just nod and smile, and I imagine they are thinking that they are lucky to have been born into a family that knew the right religion to be.

If I were more brave, less worried about the social stigma that can come with positively advocating atheism, I would tell these friends of mine: When you say you are a member of a religious group, you are asserting that the ideology of that group is correct to the best of your knowledge. You are telling me that you agree with that group’s claims about the origins of the universe, about human consciousness and moral development, about what happens when we die, lots of claims about various aspects of reality. You are telling me you think these claims are true. But truth has nothing to do with the source of your genetic material, or the people who fed and clothed you as a child. (Surely you can think of times when your parents were wrong!) Truth has to do with what actually exists and what actually happens. Now that you are an adult, it’s high time to think about these issues and decide for yourself what you think is true. Start at the beginning, and question everything.

Like a child

You may have heard Christians heaping praise on the faith of little children. I’ve sometimes seen it with reference to this passage from Matthew 18:1-6 (ESV),

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Jesus leaves it somewhat ambiguous in his answer what the key feature of children is that makes them the greatest in heaven: is it their low status, or their belief in him?

Another passage often cited is Luke 18:15-17 (ESV):

Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

Again, there’s some ambiguity — this is also invoked to justify infant baptism. But these two passages are often combined to tell adults that they should be trusting, unquestioning, even naive in their faith in Christian teachings.

So it was these two passages I thought of when I saw this ad on a blog I was reading. (Sorry for the lower image quality, it’s a screenshot from my phone.) It’s actually a GIF with a few different children’s pictures, but this is the only frame with the second line of text.

Children believe in miracles.
What if we all did?
Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors.
The people of the United Methodist Church

Methodists aren’t who I think of when I think of fundamentalist Christianity. The Methodists I know are pretty mainstream, even liberal. That motto, “Open hearts. Open minds. Open doors,” sure suggests that they are not the sort of Christians I usually discuss here.

And if you visit the website, the overall message is pretty solid, even I have to admit. They’re talking about welcoming a diverse congregation and helping those in need. Celebrating diversity and promoting charity are values I share. But I don’t hold those values because children do; I value those things because I’ve thought about it and decided they are good ideas.

The fact is, the emphasis on “childlike faith” is troubling no matter who advocates it. The ad text tells us, “Children believe in miracles.” Well, okay, but children also believe there’s a monster under their bed, that you have no idea they ate those cookies despite the crumbs all over their face, and that water poured from a short, wide glass into a taller, thinner glass becomes more water somehow. Kids are great, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t think we should necessarily look to them as a group to figure out what’s true. They’re very much still learning how to process the world using evidence and reason.

Moreover, children don’t believe in [biblical] miracles ex nihilo. They believe in them because you told them they really happened, and they trusted you. It seems a bit backwards to glorify that belief, and to use it to justify your own. Maybe don’t teach children to believe things you think are false, eh?

This ad itself isn’t a big deal, and the website it’s promoting has a heartwarming message. But I think it’s a good illustration of how even warm-and-fuzzy liberal denominations of Christianity can contain and promote harmful memes. I’d be glad if every fundamentalist, literalist, young-Earth creationist switched denominations … but as long as we’re “rethinking church,” I think we can rethink a bit more.

Beauty without God

Another one from the archives. This post was originally published on this site in March 2010.

One claim I’ve heard several times from believers is that, without their religion and their god, the world just wouldn’t be beautiful and mysterious and awe-inspiring. They like that sense of beauty and wonder, so they cherish their religious beliefs. I’ll share my thoughts about this method for determining reality some other time. For now, I just want to explain my objections to their conclusions — that a world without God is cold and boring, but a world with God is beautiful.

I am an atheist, but I am familiar with the type of feelings that religious people have, that sense of wonderment at God’s creation. I feel it too; I just don’t think it has anything to do with God. When I go hiking and come upon a scenic vista, or when I watch a tiny bee climbing across a flower petal, or when I see the sunrise or the starry night sky: I am overcome with awe.

And believers and I are having almost the same thought processes when we see these amazing sights in nature. We each start out thinking, “The world is so complex, the universe is so large. There are so many processes at work that make the universe what it is, make this planet what it is, allow me to be alive here to experience my tiny sliver of it. The vastness of the universe, even the vastness of our tiny planet, is incomprehensible. I am so lucky to experience any of it, and every day of my life is precious.”

The believer adds one extra step, which goes something like, “And God is great, because he made all these things, controls all these processes, and gives me the privilege of observing it.”

Someone recently told me that, while they liked learning about science and watching nature documentaries and all that, in some sense they didn’t like it because it took away some of their sense of wonder to understand the explanations. Focusing on the “God did it” belief left the precise mechanisms mysterious to them. It surprised me first of all because this is an artificially and deliberately imposed ignorance — again, something I will talk about another time — but also because I think the science is amazing enough.

Saying “God did it” definitely leaves a lot of precise questions unanswered, but I don’t see what’s really so beautiful about it. It simplifies the intricacies and complexities of the natural world into one single cause, a cause perpetually beyond our reach, a cause we’ll never really know anything about (until, perhaps, we’re dead and have left the natural world behind forever). If anything, this makes the beauty feel rather hollow. I see so much beauty in the experiences and the scientific discovery that I don’t feel any compulsion to go that extra step beyond it.

I remember learning about how plants grow in elementary school, and being thrilled to see the little bean I was given finally sprouting, wrapped in its wet paper towel. I remember the first time I dropped a tennis ball and a Wiffle ball and saw them really hit the ground at the same time. I remember learning about sediments and rock formation, and being thrilled to go for walks with my parents in the park by the river, where I’d collect smooth pieces of shale and count the stripes in the rock walls along the path. That excitement about learning is still with me today, and the more I learn, the more exciting it is. The world is a complex and chaotic place, but we are still able to extract an ever-increasing number of the basic principles that govern it — including an understanding of the chaos.

If what you want is mystery, perhaps it would help to remember that as we learn new things, we unlock more and more questions. Our knowledge increases, but so does our understanding of how much we still have to learn. (It’s not as though Niels Bohr just figured out electrons one day, and that was that for subatomic physics. There’s a lot of work still being done, and a lot of unanswered questions.) If what you want is an appreciation of things on a larger scale than we normally encounter as tiny dust specks in this universe, perhaps it’s time for some amateur astronomy. For me, a glance at NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day usually does the trick. If those images aren’t true beauty, I don’t know what is.

Mysterious ways

Here’s another old favorite. This post was originally published on this blog in March 2010.

Bonifacio Bembo [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsBelievers often attribute personal good fortune to the deity or deities they worship, or otherwise proclaim the influence of their god/s on their lives and on the world. This leaves nonbelievers with a lot of pretty tough questions. Why does your god care so much about the results of that football game? Why are you thanking your (supposedly benevolent) god for saving those three people from the crash, while he apparently let the other 97 die? Why are you so eager to thank your (supposedly omnipotent) god for what you think of as good things, but don’t express anger at your god for all the evil and suffering in the world?

What I often hear, in response to this type of question, is something like, “God works in mysterious ways.” In other words, we can’t possibly be expected to understand the intentions and the plans of a superior being that operates on a higher plane of existence. God surely has his reasons, which are beyond our mere mortal comprehension.

Yet, the rest of the time, these same people seem pretty clear on exactly what God wants and why. Pray in this certain way, eat in this certain way, love in this certain way, hate in this certain way. Do good things and get eternal reward, or do bad things and get eternal punishment. For a mysterious, incomprehensible being, this God character sure seems to have a lot of explicit and well-known rules about what constitutes good or bad behavior! (You might even say, in some cases, that those rules are “set in stone.”)

So which is it? Are God’s ways too mysterious for humans to understand? Then stop making claims about how God wants us to behave. You couldn’t possibly know what God thinks, or wants, or values. In fact, if God is beyond our comprehension, theistic religions should be asserting nothing as dogma or doctrine, aside from maybe God’s existence — no attributes of God whatsoever. There’s no basis from which to draw any of it. Belief in any specifics about God just amounts to completely blind faith in a handful of completely arbitrary ideas.

Or are God’s ways understandable after all to us puny humans? Perhaps even laid out explicitly in some holy text or other? In that case, I’d really like to finally get some answers to these tough questions. I’m tired of hearing theists use the “mysterious ways” excuse to dodge fair and legitimate inquiries about the beliefs they hold to be true.

Congratulations, you changed your mind!

It seems to me that changing your mind gets an unfairly bad rap.

Over a decade ago now, in his 2004 US presidential campaign, John Kerry took a lot of flak for being a “flip-flopper.” Remember how he tried to defend himself by explaining, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion [appropriations bill] before I voted against it”? That wasn’t a great sound bite, but the fuller story was entirely reasonable; Kerry supported an earlier version of the legislation which reduced the Bush tax cuts in order to cover military spending, but when the final version of the bill wasn’t satisfactory to him, he voted against it. That’s what we want our legislators to do: to consider and debate the details of policy implementation, to pay attention to amendments and riders, to cast their ultimate vote based on more than a bill’s title and PR spin.

Hillary Clinton caught some heat in the 2016 campaign season for having changed her views on same-sex marriage. In 2000 she’d said that marriage was “between a man and a woman,” and later endorsed “civil unions with full equality of benefits, rights, and privileges,” but didn’t openly favor marriage for same-sex couples until 2013. Some people thought this reflected some kind of dishonest cynicism about how to win votes … although I somehow doubt those same people would have really preferred Clinton stuck with her 2000 stance just for consistency’s sake. They wanted someone ideologically pure, someone who had never held a “wrong” opinion in the past.

Of course, we want our elected officials to represent the opinions of their constituents — that’s why we call their offices and mail them letters and show up to town hall meetings. So even if Clinton changed her official stance because she noticed that public sentiment had shifted, I don’t see anything wrong with that per se. But it seems equally likely, if not more so, that her views shifted along with those of so many other straight Americans, and probably for some of the same reasons: more empathy and understanding, greater familiarity with constitutional arguments, and seeing states that had legalized gay marriage not descend into some gay dystopia. Whatever the bouquet of reasons that changed each mind, I’m certainly happy that as a country we’re moving in the right direction.

Changing one’s mind in the face of new evidence or new circumstances is exactly what rational, thinking people ought to be doing. Holding on to obsolete opinions is harmful. But that doesn’t mean changing your mind is easy. Confirmation bias is incredibly powerful, not to mention our tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance in the wrong direction. (Consider the new pledge who’s even more proud to be a fraternity brother after his humiliating hazing, instead of walking straight out the door and never looking back.)

As an atheist, plenty of religiously-themed examples come to mind here, but I’ll leave those as exercises for the reader. For now I’d rather stick with my political theme and bring your attention to Trump Regrets, a Twitter account that retweets people saying they’re beginning to wish they hadn’t voted for our current president. Often their reasons are painfully obvious to anyone who’s been following the news for the past year or two, and a lot of the responses to them betray very natural frustration. (Why couldn’t you have gotten fed up with Trump’s lies sometime before November 2016?!) Ditto for the Trumpgrets Tumblr. I share the frustration, and I get it. It’s cathartic to snark at these folks, to lash out. But my own hope is that these are minds ripe for changing, and I want to welcome them, not push them away. Especially when there are far too many supposedly-#NeverTrump Republicans who are now struggling with their cognitive dissonance and losing.

We make it hard enough for ourselves to change our minds. So why do we put other people through the wringer for it, too? Are we worried that if others revise their opinions, we might have to take a closer look at our own beliefs? Or perhaps, if people can change their minds, the world can’t be so neatly divided into good-people-who-agree-with-me and bad-people-who-think-wrong-stuff?

Yes, it’d be better if everyone held the right opinions about everything starting from the first time they formed any thoughts on each issue, but we live in the real world and people — all of us! — are sometimes wrong. Rather than tease and call out mind-changers as hypocrites or flip-floppers, I think we ought to praise them, or at least respect them, for reflecting and genuinely attempting to reach the best answers available. We should all practice the art of examining our beliefs and changing our minds when appropriate.

The story of Adam and Eve

A blast from the past! This post was originally published on this blog in March 2010.

A LEGO-minifig Eve picks an apple. Image credit: The Brick Testament.The account in Genesis about Adam, Eve, the serpent, and the forbidden fruit is fairly well-known. If you’re a member of a religion that includes the book of Genesis in its holy texts, you probably believe it says something significant about morality, even if you don’t believe it to be literally true in every detail. For my part, once I really gave it some thought, I found it to be very troubling — even if you forgive the nonsense about a talking snake, all the archaeological evidence against literal Biblical history, and so on. We can even set aside the ludicrousness of an omniscient and omnipotent God making a tree with forbidden fruit and putting it in Eden. (Wouldn’t God have known ahead of time that they would eat the fruit? Couldn’t he have just not made the tree in the first place?) Even if we view the story simply as a metaphorical moral teaching, the story of Adam and Eve is repugnant.

The forbidden fruit comes from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” God lies to Adam and Eve and tells them that eating the fruit will cause them to die that day. (We know it’s a lie, because they do eat the fruit and that’s not what happens.) The serpent points out the lie, and convinces Eve to eat an apple from the tree, and she gives it to Adam. Unsurprisingly, it gives them “the knowledge of good and evil.” God gets really mad, and punishes them in various and sundry ways, including kicking them out of Eden before they can also eat from “the tree of life” — which incidentally Adam and Eve have never been forbidden to eat from.

Did Adam and Eve know the difference between good and evil, between right and wrong, before they ate the forbidden fruit? Presumably not, since that is the knowledge that the fruit conferred upon them. But if they did not know the difference between good and evil, how could they have known that obeying God’s orders (at least in the context of this story) was the good thing to do? They could not have — they would be literally incapable of this judgment call — and it seems completely unfair to punish them for that ignorance. The other possibility, of course, is that Adam and Eve did already know good from evil, so they could fairly be expected to know they ought to follow God’s orders. However, that would imply that forbidding the fruit from that tree was a total waste of time, an arbitrary and capricious rule. But since Genesis 3:7 says that “the eyes of them both were opened,” it does sound like they learned something from the fruit, and this second possibility is unlikely.

So, the story of Adam and Eve suggests either that the justice of the Judeo-Christian God runs contrary to our most basic notions of what fairness should look like, or (less likely) that the Judeo-Christian God is so arbitrary as to cross the line into antagonism. If you believe in this God and you revere the text of Genesis, please tell me: which one is it?

While we’re at it — why wouldn’t God want his people to know the difference between good and evil? Wouldn’t God want people to be able to choose good over evil, and doesn’t that require being able to distinguish between them? A deity that punishes his people for finding out the difference between right and wrong does not sound very benevolent to me.

An atheist resurrection

Hi there, friends.

It’s been a very long time since I posted here. So long that I would be shocked if any of my old readers still check the site — though I know a couple of you will probably see this through Twitter, and maybe some others haven’t deleted the RSS feed from their readers. Most of my traffic in the last months/years(?) has been from search engines. But all that old content is gone from the site now.

What happened? Well, in all those many months of neglect, I failed to keep my WordPress installation up to date. And the thing about security fixes is, they’re essentially lists of vulnerabilities in the older versions of the software. Yes, I got hacked. Got notifications about malware from my hosting company. So I figured, rather than spend ages (or pay someone else to spend ages) rooting it all out, I’d just delete the whole thing and start fresh. I’m excited to be back!

In case you’re wondering: I did back up the text of my old posts. My plan is to repost the ones that are still interesting and relevant — the ones that aren’t about the minutiae of current events from half a decade ago — and also to get back to writing new content as I’m able. I’m feeling optimistic right now about my ability to carve out enough me-time for writing a post per week, but even if that’s hilariously naive, the reposts should be able to provide a sufficiently steady stream of probably-new-to-you content to get us through the times when I’m too busy with Real Life™.

With that:
In memoriam: NFQ 1.0, March 2010 – September 2015
Here begins NFQ 2.0, March 2017 – ?

If you’re reading this, I’d love it if you’d say hello! How’ve you been? It’s great to see you! (Figuratively speaking.)