Do We Need God In Order To Be Moral?

I’m going to be exploring in the next few blog entries the idea that in order to be moral, we need God’s guidance. This is one of the main arguments of Christians against atheists, that if we didn’t have a belief in God we would all degenerate into stealing, killing and all sorts of other reprehensible behaviors.

I haven’t quite got my thoughts all together on this yet, so I’m not going to say much about it now. It is both an interesting and important question that people have been debating for thousands of years and I’ll be exploring the history of that debate and how the question is still relevant today.


Being Friends With a Believer

I have a dear, cherished friend who lives in Vermont, half a continent away. We knew each other way back when she was senior in high school and I was taking a year off before college. We would have those long, meaningful conversations that would last hours. We also smoked a lot of pot, which apparently made the conversations even more meaningful (if not incomprehensible to anyone else not sufficiently stoned!) We lost touch for about 20 years and finally met up again on Facebook in the past year.

Why are you telling me this quaint, if not banal, story? I will tell you why. She is spiritualist who believes in a god of sorts. I love my friend dearly, but I have to confront various forms of magical thinking in my friend while at the same time respecting and valuing the beauty, love and joy she brings me. I’m telling you this because I want to talk about how to not just talk to, but be friends with, believes.

My friend, Bre, is an artist, a spiritualist, psychology major, bi-sexual, polyamorist, and a fierce defender of the rights of others. I love her and cherish her more that I can say. Still, she has, what many of us would consider, some less than rational beliefs. She knows my position on magical beliefs well, having both read some of my writings on the subject and listened to me explain them to her.

She is stridently non-religious, but believes that there is a God who has spoken to her. She is a psychology major who has a clear understanding of psychologic conditions like delusions, psychosis and other conditions. In short, she is a walking contradiction of experiences and thinking.

We had a debate last night on the phone about our beliefs, or non-belief in my case. She started the conversation by saying that though she loves me dearly, she could never be in an intimate relationship with me because I am an atheist and she is spiritual. My response was that she should only become intimate with someone with whom she was totally comfortable being that way with. I also told her that I understood her point of view completely because I would find it difficult to form an intimate relationship with a believer because at some level, to be truly intimate with someone, there needs to be an intense level of comfort and acceptance. Something as important as a core world view concept such as belief in spirits and such would preclude my being able to have complete and total comfort with someone.

She also shared with me her story of when she was 14 years old and had decided to kill herself. She said to god, please show me a reason that I shouldn’t kill myself. She said that she felt a presence, which she identified as god, telling her that she was worth something and that she should be the artist she knew she was. That, for her, was proof that god existed. She understands that she can’t prove this to anyone else, but that it didn’t matter because this was real, important and valid to her.

But (and I know I should never start a sentence, never mind a paragraph with “but” but fuck convention!), and this is a very big “but”, I can still respect and value Bre and most of her beliefs and values. Just because we have this important difference does not preclude us agreeing on so many other important things.

We both agree on the basic human right of people to have any sexual identity they have (notice that I did use the word “choose” in there. But that is a subject for another post). We both believe that everyone has the basic human right to believe what they want to, as long as those beliefs aren’t harmful to themselves and other and as long as you don’t try to use your beliefs to tell others how to believe and live their lives. We both agree that owing dogs is way better than owning cats. What it comes down to is that we have many more things in common than we do differences. And that is a very important thing to realize in our relationships with others.

While we can disagree about the reality of her experiencing god, the fact that she experienced something profound and life changing is not in dispute. While we can disagree about the empirical existence of this god of hers, the fact that it is deeply meaningful to her is accepted.

Not once did she ever try to convince me that because god was real to her, god should be real to me, just as I never once tried to convince her that she should give up her belief in her god.

Now, you are probably wondering how our conversation ended up. The conversation was a long one and there was much defending of our respective positions. It also ranged into other related areas such as the theory of mind and the empirically of internal experiences. My basic, final argument was this.

As long as her belief was internal to her and she wasn’t trying to make others believe it, than it was ok. As long as her belief cause no harm to her or others, than it was her right to believe it. We found common ground upon which to continue our friendship, while agreeing to disagree about certain things.

In a wold full of people who hate one another just because of their beliefs, finding the things we have in common and agreeing to disagree on others is possibly the only way we can continue to live together as a human race without destroying ourselves with hatred born of prejudices based in differences of beliefs.

Visions of Hell – When Does Religions Teaching Become Child Abuse?

PZ Myers had a post on his blog asking readers their experience with being taught about hell.

Here is my response:

I was raised Catholic so hell was a prominent feature of many sermons. We weren’t constantly barraged with it, but it was always lurking in the background, to be brought to the forefront whenever the priest felt that his flock might be forgetting that God’s mercy wasn’t infinite.

I do remember a period of time in my pre-teens or early teens when I lived in constant, palpable fear of going to hell. It was an overwhelming, irrational, terrifying fear that was akin to having a major panic attack on constant basis.

To subject people, especially children, to this kind of terror is unspeakably cruel and is emotional abuse, as far as I’m concerned. I see no difference in scaring a child out of her wits with visions of hell and the threat of physical violence for any possible trespass. Why we allow people to do this to children is beyond me.

Why is it that a parent can be charged with child abuse if they threaten physical harm, but not a Sunday school teacher when he promises the same child eternal torment for the same offenses?

Review of Your Religion is False, by Joel Grus

I just finished reading Your Religion is False by Joel Grus. This is a light-hearted, very humorous book that pokes fun at just about every religion and belief systems that you can think of and tries to explain why they are false.

He takes on each religion, one at a time, as well as covering general dogmas that most religions have in common, using humor to point out the logical premisses they all have in common. Here are a few examples:

The existence of God: God exists because there’s no evidence he exists.
Perfection: People say god is perfect, so he must exist, otherwise he wouldn’t be perfect.
Divine revelation: Except for great-aunt Geraldine there’s no history of schizophrenia in the family, so those voices in my head must be god talking to me.

At times the humor borders on the blatantly absurd, but this works well as it reinforces the tone of the book, which is that all religions are absurd at their base.

He covers all the major and minor religions as well as cults and pseudo-religions like Hooliganism, Environmentalism, and Chopraism. The consistent theme that runs through the book is that, whatever your religion/belief system/deeply held belief is, it is false, and he bolsters this by satirically lampooning the convoluted and circuitous illogic that underpins all faith based belief systems.

For example, when giving a brief history of the Jewish religion, he takes the passages as they are in the bible and modifies them so that they become laser guided missiles of satire such as this gem:

The Jews complained about being hungry and water-thirsty and blood-thirsty, until Moses found them manna (nutritious psychoactive mushrooms), produced water by hitting a rock, and ordered eternal war against the Amalekites, who today are known as “atheists” or “freethinkers” or “the sensible.”

Or when commenting on the Ten Commandments he gives us this commentary:

I am god
No other gods
No making idols
Don’t use god’s name wrongfully
Celebrate the sabbath

These first five are what Biblical scholars often call the “domestic violence” commandments, as they are eerily similar to the hyper-controlling restrictions used by abusers in dysfunctional relationships: “Don’t look at other men!” “Did I say you could talk to your friends?!” “It’s after sunset on a Friday! Why the hell isn’t dinner ready?”

He is equally adept at skewing Christianity in his discussion of the concept of the trinity and how people who try to defend it give a mumbo-jumbo of mystical nonsense:

…they might offer the uncompelling analogy that an egg is three distinct persons (a yolk, a white, and a shell) combined in one “egghead,” ignoring the fact that the shell never claimed to be the yolk’s father and yet also a yolk, and also the fact that the white has never been claimed to dwell inside people who believe in eggs.

He can take something as supposedly secular as Environmentalism and use it as a metaphor of all faith-based beliefs when he says:

The most important Environmentalist holiday is Earth Day, celebrated each April 22 to commemorate the birthday of Vladimir Lenin. (Although Lenin was not himself a Gaiaist, he nonetheless embodied Gaiaist values like anti-capitalism, persecuting and demonizing one’s ideological opponents, and not tolerating dissent.)

At times he seems to veer of course to says something just to get a laugh, but that still has a bit of sarcasm in it:

While most people from India speak incomprehensibly (if you attended college you probably had such a person as a teaching assistant for your math courses), occasionally you will find one who speaks with a rich, beautiful, British-style accent. For reasons that are unclear but that probably have to do with the movie Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, many people find these well-spoken Indians unrealistically credible. This, as far as I can tell, is the only explanation for the popularity of Deepak Chopra.

There are points, mainly in the last quarter of the book where, even though he is being humorous, the overall impact is one of deep seriousness. The following three quotes are examples of this and are quite sobering and really bring home the absolute ridiculousness of faith-bases beliefs:

Imagine that some television star … begins hearing voices in her head, commanding her to kill her fans. You and your moderate friends can argue over what the voices in her head “really” want her to do, but it would be much more practical (not to mention much less delusional) to point out that these voices are obviously hallucinations and to demand that she get medical help. Don’t we owe our “talks-to-Jesus” acquaintances the same type of concerned honesty?

Some people argue that religion is a necessary source of morality, and that if people all realized their religions were false, they would no longer have any incentives to fly airplanes into skyscrapers, to chop off the tips of their babies’ penises, to restrict poor people’s access to contraception, to censor cartoons, to make it difficult to purchase liquor on Sundays, to stone homosexuals, or to murder apostates and heathens. Society, they argue, would subsequently break down.

Overall, Your Religion is False is a wonderfully fun, satirical look at religious belief that pervades our society. Like all great satire, it uses humor and absurdity to highlight important truths about its subject. I would recommend this book to anyone was is at all interested in religion’s place in our society, especially those who are believers themselves, for perhaps while laughing at the author’s take on all the other religions, maybe it will make them step back and take a look at their own.

An Interesting Survey About Religious Knowlege

There was an interesting survey by the Pew Institute which found that atheists and agnostics scored higher than any other group in their knowledge of religion. I took their 15 question sample test (the test that the survey is based on contained 32 questions). I scored 14 out of 15 correct, for 97.3%.

I don’t think it should be any surprise that atheists and agnostics are the most knowledge about religion, since most of us started out exposed to some kind of religion and came to our atheism/agnosticism through careful study and thought, so it makes sense that we would know more about religion because we have actively studied it.

Mormons came in second, which again makes sense, because many the Mormons have a very big emphasis on evangelicalism. In fact, Mormons and Christian evangelicals were the two most knowledgeable groups about Christianity. If you are going to go out and try to convert others it helps to know your religion and the religion of those you plan on converting.

Those religions that put a bigger emphasis on the actual religious organization, such as mainstream Protestants and Catholics scored lowest. Being raised Catholic, I can tell you that there isn’t much emphasis put on actually studying religion. It’s more towing the party line.

Personally, I feel that world religions should be taught in every elementary school in the country. The more exposure children have to different faiths the more tolerant and understanding they will tend to be. It also benefits them when they get older because then they can make their own choices as to what faith (or not) to follow. A belief that is arrived at by thought and conscience choice is much more meaningful that one that is foisted upon you. It is important to know why you believe, not just what you believe. Understanding why you believe something gives it a very deep and important meaning.

A Founding Father Speaks About Religion (Again)

I’ve written several post here , here, here, and here about the fact that the United States was not founded as a Christian nation or even upon Christian ideals. It was firmly founded on the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Most Americans are ignorant of this fact and many would have the history of the Enlightenment’s effect on the birth of this nation buried and even seek to teach against it.

The fact is that virtually every one of the founders were was a man of the Enlightenment and embraced its ideas and ideals. Washington, Madison, Adams, Jefferson, Pain, and Hamilton were all progressive supporters of the ideals of the Enlightenment. These ideals are defined by Wikipedia as:

“The Enlightenment took scientific reasoning and applied it to human nature, society and religion. Politically the age is distinguished by an emphasis upon liberty, democracy, republicanism and religious tolerance – culminating in the drafting of the United States Declaration of Independence. Attempts to reconcile science and religion resulted in a widespread rejection of prophecy, miracle and revealed religion in preference for Deism – especially by Thomas Paine in “The Age of Reason” and by Thomas Jefferson in his short Jefferson Bible – from which all supernatural aspects were removed.”

I’m currently doing research for a more comprehensive article about what I call, “The Myth of the Christian Nation. The idea of the United States founded as, having been, or being a Christian nation is a complete and utter myth spread by those who would use religion, specifically evangelical, fundamentalist Christianity, to perpetuate and spread that myth in order to create the reality of a Christian Nation where their form of Christianity is the only religion and all laws would be based on their reading of the bible. This country was founded on principles that were meant to prevent exactly this type of theocracy from even taking hold here.

I’ll end with a quote from Thomas Jefferson who, if the Texas Board of Education has its way, will be written out of the history books for his staunch statements in support of the separation of church and state:

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

– Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, 1816

The New Freethinking For Dummies Media Site

I’ve set up a site, the Freethinking For Dummies Mediasite, where I’ll be posting audio and video related to the topics I cover on this blog.

If you have any videos or MP3s that you think might be of interest, please let me know so I can post them there.

Curing The God Virus

I am currently reading The God Virus, by Darrel Ray. I already owned his book when I heard him speak at the Midwest Humanist Conference last month, but I hadn’t really started reading it in earnest until last week.

In his talk and his book, he likens religion to a virus. He compares the way that a virus or parasite can take over its host’s brain functions causing the host to do things that are actually against it’s own well being.

He gives the example of a parasite which infects a specific species of ant. Once infected, this ant will be compelled to climb to the highest stalk of grass that it can find where it is likely to be eaten by a cow. This, of course, is suicidal as far as the ant is concerned, but is just want the parasite wants because it is only in the digestive system of the cow that the parasite reproduces. It’s offspring is then excreted from the cow in moist excrement which the species of ants seek out as a form of moisture needed to survive.

Another example given is that of certain species of rat who, when infected with a particular pathogen, completely lose their ability to detect cat pheromones, making them that much more vulnerable to being caught and eaten. This pathogen needs to get into a cat in order to reproduce and thus infects the rat in such a way that it loses it’s innate ability to detect when a cat may be nearby.

And thus, Mr. Ray continues, does the God virus, the pathogen of religion, infect and alter the behavior of humans in such a way as to maximize it’s own survival, even at the expense of it’s host’s well being.

A perfect example of this are Islamic terrorists who’s minds are infected with a religion which fills their heads with images of paradise and keeps them from thinking rationally about the consequences of their intended actions. Because of the infection of religion, they have become unable to think rationally about anything that may contradict their religious teachings. This leads them to easily persuade themselves that killing innocent people is both right and required by their religion.

All religions show these same infectious qualities that interfere with people’s ability to rationally consider other views or even the consequences of their own religiously motivated words and actions: Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest ideas against their beliefs; right wing religious fundamentalists who kill abortion doctors; Sikhs who kill Hindus who violate their sacred temples; Christians who beat and murder someone just because they are homosexual. All of these heinous acts are caused by an infection with the God Virus which turns off the part of people’s brains that allow them to think rationally about anything that contradicts their beliefs.

Although I know it is anecdotal, I wish to relate my own personal experience of having been infected with the God Virus.

To give you a quick background that leads up to the events of my infection, let me summarize my religious background unto that point.

I was raised Catholic, received First Communion and Confirmation. I considered myself a devout believer in God, but always questioned many of the teachings of the church and the bible. After moving onto college and the Army, I became what I called a generic Christian, eschewing the teachings of the Catholic church because I could no longer, in good conscience, support most of them.

As time went on, my readings of and about the bible taught me that there were far too many contradictions and human tampering with the source documents of the bible to be able to believe in much of any of it, except as allegory.

By the time I married my first wife, I was a believer in God, but believed that any sources for the “true” Christianity had long been lost, adulterated, or destroyed. Still, I converted to her religion of Armenian Orthodox, which was, at is basics, little different from Catholicism.

In about 2002, I had what I thought was a revelation from God to become a Muslim. I became completely consumed by Islam and read and thought about nothing else for months until I finally under went the Shahada, or conversion to Islam.

I was sure I was saved. I was sure that the Qu’ran was a divinely revealed (not inspired, but revealed) book.

The Qu’ran taught me that Christianity and Judaism had been corrupted, as had the original teachings of the prophets, which were the same for Islam as for the other two religions. This completely reinforced what I’d already come to believe from my own studies.

But I began to change. I started to allow myself to look down on others, to view everyone else as misguided. I even allowed myself to hate others, those enemies of Islam.

Hate was something I had never allowed myself to feel before, believing we were all human and therefore, equal. While I could justify hate for certain individuals, because of their words and actions, the idea of hating a whole group of people was, up till this point, an anathema to me.

My first marriage fell apart, due to many reasons, but as my mental energies were focused on divorce and all that goes with it, religion took a back seat to the turmoil I was going through.

There came a time when I had some breathing room to look at my religious believes again, and I was horrified by what I’d allow myself to become. Someone who hated; who ignored the evidence that was contrary to my world view.

I had another revelation at this point, not a religious one, but an emotional and intellectual one. I realized that I needed to apply the same standards to studying Islam as I did Christianity earlier. Once I did this, the entire house of cards fell down and the infection of Islam was gone from my mind.

Still, the infection of the God Virus was not completely gone as I struggled to figure out what my spiritual beliefs were in the aftermath of my rejection of all religions. Did I still believe in God? Yes, I told my self. But what kind of God was he?

For a short while, I decided that maybe he was a deistic God, one who created the universe and then moved on, never to interact with it. So was I a deist? Maybe God was just completely beyond our knowing so maybe I was an agnostic?

But, as my long suppressed love of science and thinking returned, I realized that being agnostic is merely, for me, a way of avoiding the really hard thinking and the requirement to actually answer the question for myself.

I could then see the choice between deism and no belief at all present itself. As I suggested in my post yesterday, if there was a deistic creator, that fact makes no difference at all for our existence and the fate of our universe, leaving me with non-belief, or atheism.

So, I feel that I’ve finally rid myself of the God virus. It’s taken 50 years and more ups, downs, back and forths and wild roller coaster rides than I can even count.

Inoculating yourself against the God Virus is hard and fraught with pitfalls, but well worth the freedom that it brings. I suggest that everyone give it a try.

On The Bedrock Of Ground Zero Should Be The Bedrock Of Our Freedoms

James Underdown at CFI wrote on his blog about the “Mosque at ground zero” controversy. In a piece titled An Immodest Proposal for Ground Zero, he suggests building the Center for Inquiry-New York on the site of the World Trade Center instead of an Islamic Center.

He says,

“As secular humanists, we don’t have to worry about the political correctness or the Constitutionality of whether or not to build a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple at Ground Zero. All those buildings would all be near the bottom of our desired list of buildings to erect anywhere. I don’t have to think twice about whether I’m being fair to Muslims vs. Christians, because my answer is the same to a Southern Baptist Chapel as it is to a Scientology Center: Better something else.”

I agree that it would be better to build something else as long as it’s not any kind of religious building. As a t-shirt I recently saw read, “9/11 was a faith based initiative”. In that case, it was the faith of radical Islam. In another part of the world it could, and often is, a different faith that is carrying out acts of violence.

He ends by asking,

“Wouldn’t it feel right to occupy that space with an organization that promotes the idea that we can rise above the animosity that caused it to be available in the first place?”

Yes, it would. But I propose that this organization shouldn’t be an ideological organization either. CFI does wonderful, important work in trying to make sure that all people are afforded the same rights and privileges. Unfortunately, even though I don’t think it is true, CFI, and other organizations like it, are considered by many average Joes to be linked with atheism, and therefore is, in the minds of many, painted with the same ideological brush as all religions or political organizations. This is a matter of perception, not fact, but unfortunately in our society, perception always seems to win out over facts.

If any publicly accessible building is going to be built at ground zero, I say let it be one dedicated to the study and preservation of that which our society was founded upon and which still makes great; a library and museum for the study of the U.S. Constitution.
This single document, more than any other in history, literally changed the world. Before it, freedom was something accorded to those privileged by birth or wealth only. After it, freedom was considered to be a right for all human begins. Freedom of, and from, religion; freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the right to partition the government for redress of grievances, none of these things had existed, in law, for everyone, before.

This document gives us secular humanists the tools we need to promote our causes and perform our missions and is a most fitting tribute and memorial to those who lost their lives at that site almost 9 years ago.

It is a much better symbol of freedom and human rights than even a CFI-New York building, and a damn sight better than any mosque, church, synagogue, or temple, and something that everyone in this country can share in equally.

I May Not Agree With , But I Will Defend You’er Right To

Ahmed H. Sharif, a NYC cabbie, was attacked by a passenger who slashed his face and neck after asking him if he was Muslim and he replied in the affirmative. Once again, intolerance has reared its ugly head. This time, apparently, it is religious intolerance.

If you have been a reader of this blog for any length of time, you’ll know that I’m no fan of religion. I believe that religion is harmful, breeds intolerance and hatred, and oppresses women and those who do believe as they do.

I also, however, believe that people have a right to believe and worship as they choose (or to chose not to believe or worship at all), as long as they don’t use their belief to try to harm or oppress others. Its basically and live-and-let-live thing.

There are basic human rights that we all have and freedom of thought and belief are one of the most personal and integral to our sense of self and wellbeing. It is this freedom, along with many others, that I, as a humanist, feel I must respect and fight for.

How do I fight for it? Well, first of all, I write this blog. Getting the message out there is the first step in educating people about these things.

I also support many organizations like The Freedom From Religion Foundation, Non-Believers Giving Aid, Doctors Without Borders, and others with what money I can donate and with my time in any local activities they sponsor.

But I do more that just this. I talk to people. I express my belief in our basic human rights whenever a story like Mr. Sharif’s comes up. Some people don’t agree with me, so do. Some, however, never gave it much thought and I can see the realization in their faces when they listen to my arguments supporting Mr. Sharif’s right to be a Muslim. I can tell that, perhaps thought I didn’t change their mind, I did give them something to think about.

This is the message I want to send to you today. Don’t just sit back and let these kinds of incidents go by without doing something, writing something or saying something to someone about them. You don’t have to get all up in people’s faces or climb up on a soap box and shout it out (but please feel free to do so if you choose). If you hear these things mentioned in conversation, put your two cents worth in. Bring it up yourself if no one is talking about it. Just a, “Hey, did you hear about…?” will suffice to get the conversation going.

Issues like religions freedom, or as I prefer to call it, freedom of conscience, along with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, freedom of choice (to chose what happens to your body, to choose who to marry, etc), the right to health care, the right to shelter and food, and many more, are all things that we, as humans, have in common.

To sit back and let an injustice go by ignored and unanswered is perhaps one of the greatest evils that we, as humans face. It is more so our indifference, rather than our cruelty, that causes the greater harm.