“I’m Not an Atheist But…”

I’ve been pretty fortunate; after 38 years of living in Texas, I’ve only encountered blatant anti-atheist bigotry in person a handful of times.

And while I could do a whole write-up about what happened in those encounters (maybe another day), here’s what I found most interesting: Most of those encounters were with people who were/are atheists themselves.

Now I suppose I should back up a bit and clarify what I mean by that. Each of these individuals identified as “agnostics” and explicitly rejected the atheist label while they made incredibly derogatory and blanket characterizations of “atheists”… Yet they also made it explicitly clear that they themselves did not hold any beliefs in the existence of gods, thereby being literally “without theism” and making them also—by definition—atheists.

Now I realize what I just said raises a controversial issue. American Atheists President David Silverman recently took some heat after saying on CNN that those who use labels for themselves such as “agnostic” or “humanist”–while refusing to identify as “atheists”–are “lying” (though in Silverman’s defense, he later said his words were edited to the point of misrepresentation).

And I can understand why the “forcing” of labels onto those who refuse to adopt them is a legitimate concern: If someone in good faith explicitly refuses to adopt a label which indicates a particular ideological position (or in some cases, a whole slew of ideological positions), it’s poor form to force that upon them and essentially say “No, you do subscribe to that ideology (or set of ideologies), despite the fact that you claim not to.” (I add the “in good faith” modifier to make exceptions for cases where the rejection of a label is blatantly self-serving and disingenuous, e.g. white supremacists who reject that label).

But comedian Aziz Ansari provided a counterpoint recently, when he said, regarding feminism:

tumblr_nhvvnpmt3e1s9rx9zo1_1280

And I’m inclined to agree as far as feminism is concerned (though of course, the overwhelming majority of those who reject the feminist label tend to have a pretty skewed definition of what the word means).

But notice that the point Ansari makes regarding feminism also applies to the “atheist” label, and even more so. Because atheism isn’t an ideology at all; there isn’t an associated set of beliefs, principles, doctrines, etc. which comes along with the adoption of the term. To be an atheist simply describes your lack of belief on one specific point—the existence of gods. And provided that someone has made clear their position on that one issue, to describe them as an “atheist” isn’t even really a matter of subjective discussion, but rather a simple statement of fact according to their own stated position.

Really, I’m not even sure “label” is even the right term to use when it comes to the word “atheist”. If you describe someone as being “left-handed” because they write with and predominantly use their left hand for fine motor tasks, are you “labeling” them as a left-hander, or are you simply referring to them as what they are by definition? What of describing someone who holds U.S. citizenship as being an “American”? Or someone who has two legs and walks upright as being “bipedal”?

Provided that someone in their own words professes that they don’t believe in the existence of any gods, how is it any different to call them an atheist?

It’s really not.

Yet as simple as this may seem, even brilliant people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who can be right on virtually every other issue, manage to get it horribly wrong.

Now it’s important to note that this logic doesn’t necessarily apply to other terms which are often used synonymously with “atheism”. Humanism, for example, actually does entail a set of principles and ideological positions, and is far more than simply an objective descriptor of one’s position on one specific issue. So it makes sense that if someone chooses to explicitly reject the “humanist” label/identity (for example, if they disagree with certain humanist principles, even if they agree with the overwhelming majority of the rest), it would be wrong for others to ascribe that label to them against their wishes.

But to call someone an “atheist” who–according to their own words–doesn’t believe in the existence of any gods? It’s simply expressing a tautological truth, like calling a doctor who treats skin diseases for a living a “dermatologist”, and no matter how much they may dislike the use of the word it doesn’t change the fact that they are one.

Why, When it Comes to Religion, the Ends ALWAYS Justify the Means

morality

One of the great philosophical debates (and the first thing you learn in any Intro to Philosophy class) is about deontological vs. utilitarian morality: Are “right” and “wrong” a result of certain actions being inherently right or wrong (killing and stealing are wrong in principle) or is it determined based on the consequences of those actions (killing and stealing are wrong because of the harm they do to others)? Or, in even more simplified form, when it comes to “right” and “wrong” do the ends justify the means?

Traditionally, these two approaches to morality seem to line up pretty closely with debates surrounding religious vs. secular morality. Either we should obey the commandments because God commands us to, since through his divine authority he has determined what is “right” or “wrong” via cosmic fiat, and going against those divine dictates is, quite simply, wrong (Euthyphro’s Dilemma be damned), or we should follow secular/humanistic ethics, which generally consider right/wrong to be based on the real-world consequences of our actions, meaning in some cases it may be permissible–even morally obligatory–to perform acts which may otherwise be considered “immoral” (a parent stealing medicine to save the life of his child, for example).

Traditionally, this leads to the notion that secular/humanistic/utilitarian ethics means that the ends justify the means, and as long as the final outcome is beneficial the methods you use to get there are ultimately irrelevant (think Watchmen’s Ozymandias).

But it seems to me that in a way, this dichotomy is precisely backwards, and not only do the “ends justify the means” when it comes to traditional religious morality, but they do so to a literally infinite degree, and that’s for one reason: Because the traditional concepts of “Heaven” and “Hell” introduce the element of infinity to the equation, with notions of everlasting infinite torment or everlasting infinite bliss; and when you perform the cost/benefit analysis on anything involving infinity, the answer is always similarly infinite (math nerds like me might point out exceptions like series of infinite sums which converge on finite numbers, but obviously that doesn’t apply in this case).

So what does that mean? It means that any amount of harm you do to anyone—lying, killing, even torture or mass murder—pales in comparison to the harm you can inflict on someone by causing them to go to hell. Infinitely so. Even increasing the odds of someone going to Hell by a miniscule fraction of a percent is still a transgression of infinite harm, since even .00001% of infinity is still infinity.

And the same goes for heaven; no matter how much good you may do in the world, it will be infinitely trivial compared to even one act which increases the odds of someone reaching Heaven.

Even more disturbingly, the flipside is also true: any action, no matter how abhorrent, is perfectly acceptable in the Heaven/Hell equation, and the ends ALWAYS justify the means provided that the end goal is helping others reach heaven or avoid hell since that end goal is literally a positive of infinite value.

Of course thankfully, with the exception of religious extremists, nobody really applies this logic to their day to day lives, or actually considers these implications and takes their beliefs to the logical extreme.

And we all should hope it remains that way.

Follow-up: Sacrificing One’s Soul

One of the Most Disgusting Prayers You’ll Ever Hear (Yet Nobody Thinks Twice About)

Since the recent horrific tragedy in Nepal, we’ve already seen countless examples of Christians seizing on the opportunity to promote their ideology, largely through public proclamations of prayers—specifically prayers asking for the (largely-Hindu) survivors to repent and accept Jesus.

These predatory “soul vultures” have been harshly condemned in the atheist media (and to a lesser extent in the mainstream media), and rightfully so. But this brings to mind another type of prayer that’s a little closer to home, and is similarly (in some ways even more) deplorable, yet so common, almost universal, that I doubt most people even give it a second thought:

Think about when there’s a missing persons case and an unidentified body is found. What’s the most common prayer you’ll hear?

“I’m praying it’s not him” (or her).

But think about the implications of that for a second. What they’re essentially saying is, “I knew there was already one person who’s missing, and very likely dead. But now I’m praying that there’s at least one person who IS dead, AND someone else who’s missing, and very likely dead.”

They’re essentially praying for ~1.9 deaths as opposed to 1.0 deaths, just for the possibility that the person who IS dead isn’t the one they’re hoping for.

“But surely what they really mean is they’re praying it’s not him/her AND praying that he/she is still alive”, one might say. Ok, well in that case they’re still praying for one person to be dead over another. Is that really that much better?

“Please God, kill this person I don’t know.”

And I really don’t mean for this to sound insensitive, since the people quoted saying this are usually the severely traumatized loved ones of those who are missing. And I can understand how in such a moment of extreme grief it’s natural that they would pray for any possible outcome other than the discovery that their loved one is dead. So I’m willing to give them a pass.

But what about the people who have no such connection, or any connection to the victims at all? Check out the comments section of any article about a missing persons case where a body is found, and you’ll see random people chiming in with the same prayer. It’s basically the default prayer in such a situation, much like “I’m praying for the family” might be for a typical story involving a family tragedy.

And almost certainly, these people simply mean it as such: as a gesture of support that they probably consider to be a sincere expression of kindness. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are quite literally praying for more death, or at the very least praying for someone to be dead who wouldn’t have been otherwise.

My Take on “Humanism 101”

A few high school students from a local Christian Academy reached out to me recently, asking if I could answer some questions for them about Humanism for an apologetics class where their assignment was to interview people from different faith (or non-faith) backgrounds.

Here was my response, and basically my personal take on a “Humanism 101”.

As it’s geared more towards someone who may have had no prior exposure to Humanism it’s probably a bit basic for most readers of this blog, but hopefully a good primer/refresher on some of the basic principles of Humanism and secular morality.

1. What is the origin of the universe and man?

While there are still many unanswered questions about the origin of our universe, our current state of scientific understanding is that the universe began as a single point of nearly infinite energy about 13.8 billion years ago, which expanded rapidly in an incredibly short period of time and formed the early universe, which over time has become the universe as we know it today. While this process is now known as “the Big Bang“, that name is somewhat misleading since it was not actually an explosion, but rather an incredibly rapid expansion of space itself (and the energy within that space), kind of like blowing up a balloon. We also now know that the universe is continuing to expand, and will continue to expand indefinitely until–many billions of years from now–all of the energy within the universe has been expended.

Here is a good video of a talk by Physicist/Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss about what we know about the origins of the universe, and how it is possible that our universe could have come “from nothing”:

As for the origin of man, all of the evidence in the biological sciences (biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, biochemistry, genetics, paleontology, etc) indicate that all humans today are descendants of a common ancestor which existed approximately six million years ago. This ancestor was a primate species which is now extinct, but from which we inherited many of the attributes that modern humans share today.

2. What is the purpose of mankind?

Humanists believe that a person’s purpose in life is what he or she chooses to make of it. Without a divine being to make that decision for us, we believe that we are free to pursue the things we find meaningful, and free to determine what gives each of us the greatest sense of purpose.

Here is a good (and short) video by humanist Neil DeGrasse Tyson on how he finds meaning in life.

3. What is satisfaction and how do I obtain it?

Much like #2, satisfaction is up to the individual to determine what provides the most satisfaction in their own life, based on their own personal desires and circumstances. However, I would also add that studies have consistently shown that almost all humans share in common certain things which provide us with the most satisfaction. These include:

-Being a part of a social and active community.
-Having meaningful relationships with others.
-Showing compassion for others and helping others in need.

All of the above are key parts of Humanism, much as they are for other religious communities such as churches. In those aspects, Humanist organizations are similar to religious churches, with key differences being that we do not have any rituals, holy texts, dogmas, or belief in the supernatural. Instead, we believe in an entirely reality-based worldview in which our actions are not driven by supernatural reward/punishment, but the desire to do good for the sake of making the world a better place.

4. What has gone wrong with the world? Why is there evil in the world and why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a common belief that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and that things are worse now than they were in the past. Yet the opposite is true in pretty much every way imaginable. Crime levels have plummeted dramatically, both in the U.S. and worldwide, over the past 50 years. The number of people dying in wars (as a percentage of the population) has dropped to their lowest levels in recorded history (and probably all of history). Economic equality, poverty reduction, education, and civil rights have seen (and are continuing to see) enormous strides. And despite the popular notion that our society is getting “dumber”, average IQ levels have increased dramatically throughout the 20th century all over the world, and are continuing to increase. And, of course, the number of deaths due to natural causes (particularly infectious diseases and famine) have dropped enormously even while the total world population has skyrocketed.

Of course, most people seem to be under the impression that things have “gone wrong” with the world, and wish we could return to how things “used to be”. One reason for this misconception is that we are now so much more connected to the outside world than ever before, with constant exposure to news media. And for a variety of reasons, news media tend to focus on negative news such as crimes, disasters, and tragedies, even when those things are actually relatively rare.

And, of course, the popularity of apocalyptic end-times theology, particularly in Christianity, plays a big role in this misconception as well.

To be clear, there are many things in this world which are extremely tragic, and many horrible things that we should be doing everything in our power to prevent. We certainly still have a lot of room to improve as a civilization. But the reality is that with rare exceptions (most significantly, environmental issues) the world is now better than it has been in just about every way, and continuing to get better all the time.

As for the question of why bad things happen to good people, the simplest answer is that we live in a world where people have the capability to commit evil acts, and according to Humanism there is no supernatural overseer (such as God) or supernatural entities (such as angels) to prevent them from doing so. Which is why it is especially crucial that we do whatever we can to help each other and try to make the world better, because if we (i.e. humanity) don’t, then nobody else will.

5. What is right and wrong? Is moral truth absolute or relative?

Simply put, the Humanist view of “right and wrong” is that it is wrong for someone to cause undue harm towards others (whether through action or inaction, or though the prevention of progress), and that we should strive to reduce the overall level of suffering in the world while increasing the overall level of happiness and prosperity. While this may seem rather obvious, Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews in that we do not believe in moral restrictions against behaviors and practices which do not actually cause any harm in the real world (for example, homosexuality and same-sex marriage), or practices which may actually prevent harm (for example, birth control technologies).

Also, the Humanist view of morality is that our understanding of the world is constantly improving as we continue to learn new things about science, about society, about ourselves, and about ethics overall. As a result, the Humanist understanding of “right and wrong” is also something which improves over time, as our knowledge and understanding improve. In that sense we do not necessarily view moral truth as “absolute”, because we do not see morality as “fixed in place” and never-changing; instead, we look at morality as something which is ever-improving.

At the same time, that is not to say that humanists believe in cultural or moral relativism. So for example, we would not say that all perspectives and moral systems are equally valid, or that certain behaviors are unethical in certain cultures while ethical in others. Rather, Humanism sees morality is a human principle, and because all of us are human it applies to all of humanity equally.

And finally, another way Humanism differs from some of the more traditional worldviews is in the motivating factors which drive Humanist morality. We do not believe in being good because we’ve been commanded to, or in order to please a divine creator, or in order to obtain supernatural reward (or avoid supernatural punishment). Humanism is the belief in being good for the sake of being good (and for whatever intrinsic rewards may come about as a result), and the desire to live in the best society that we possibly can.

6. Is there a universal moral law? Does everyone know the difference between right and wrong?

With very rare exceptions (basically people who have neurological disorders of the brain), all of us naturally have a sense of right and wrong, and an innate sense of empathy that enables us to feel for others and desire to be good towards others. Studies of human babies, for example, have shown that these tendencies start being displayed at an extremely young age, before being taught right from wrong. And even several animal species show these behaviors as well. And all of this makes perfect sense in light of evolutionary theory: Humans managed to survive throughout the centuries and become the most dominant species on Earth not only because of our intelligence, but because of our innate desire to work together with others and establish cooperative societies, and that increases the odds of everyone surviving and passing on those qualities to the next generation.

7. What happens at death? (Where are we going when we die- How do we know and what does it look like, and if it is heaven- then how do we get there)

The Humanist view of death was probably best summarized by Mark Twain: “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

While most humanists would love for there to be some way for us to continue existing after we die, we realize that there is no credible evidence that the afterlife exists. Most likely, being dead is simply going back to the same state as before you were born.

And because humanists believe that one life is all we get, we believe that every moment of life is precious and we should do everything we can to make a positive impact during the limited time that we have. And if there is any kind of “immortality”, it exists in the continuing influence of the things we did while we were alive and by our ideas (hopefully) continuing to positively affect those in future generations.

Further Reading:

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe by Greg Epstein

Sense and Goodness Without God: A Defense of Metaphysical Naturalism by Richard Carrier

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Write an Atheist (Prisoner)

I recently found out about a website called writeaprisoner.com, a website which lets you do exactly what it says; it’s actually a lot like a dating website, with photos of each person, self-written bios which read just like dating website bios, and a detailed search function, just like a dating website. And one of the parameters they allow you to search by is… religion.

So I decided to run some searches, curious to see how the percentages break down in terms of atheists/agnostics vs Christians vs. other religions. Before we get into the results (which were quite interesting), there were a few caveats regarding the data which became immediately apparent:

  • Many of the “religion” options are obviously not mutually exclusive, with some of them actually going “three levels” deep (e.g. Baptists are also Protestants, and Protestants are also Christians). For purposes of what I’m interested in though, that’s pretty much a non-issue since all of the Christian denominations clearly fall under the umbrella of “Christianity”.
  • Another category is called “Non-Denominational”, which–here in America at least–is often used (somewhat disingenuously) as a synonym for fundamentalist evangelical Christianity. Which of course is only “not a denomination” in a technical sense; their core doctrines of Biblical literalism, strict inerrancy, salvation by faith, political conservatism, overemphasis on Paul, and underemphasis on Jesus are really just as much of a “denomination” as any other (granted you’ll find some N.D. churches which don’t fit this mold, but those seem to be in the minority). Either way, N.D. Christians are still encompassed within “Christianity”, so ultimately it doesn’t really affect the Christian vs. non-Christian breakdown (though I admit it’s possible that not all of the N.D.’s understood the term to mean “non-denominational Christianity”).
  • Slightly more problematic is the category of “N/A”, which could conceivably mean anything from an atheist to a non-religiously affiliated theist, much like the “None/Unaffiliated” category that you’ll typically see on religious surveys. So certainly some of the “N/A’s” could be atheists/agnostics who reject the label for some reason or another, though it would be sheer speculation to guess how many that could be. However, as is the case with the N.D. category, the site allows for the specific options of atheist or agnostic to be selected for those who identify as such, and the numbers I’ll be comparing against also include the “Unaffiliated” category, so regardless of how many of the “N/A’s” may actually fall under one of the other categories, it will still be an apples-to-apples comparison.
  • Obviously the people who have signed up to participate as prisoners are not a random sampling of the prison population, so this is far from a truly “scientific” analysis. Such is life.

So, on to the data. The first thing that jumps out: The percentage of atheists and agnostics is virtually nonexistent. Among the 8,353 male prisoners, only 33 identify as atheist and 81 as agnostic, making for a combined 1.3%. Among the 728 female prisoners, only three are agnostics and one is an atheist, for a combined percentage of about 0.5%. Overall, only .37% (about a third of 1%) of all of the prisoners explicitly identify as “atheists” (and interestingly, the numbers of atheists/agnostics in this sample, as miniscule as they are, are actually significantly higher than those from prior surveys of the prison population).

Here are the combined numbers in one chart:

writeaprisoner

So how does that compare to the general population? According to the 2012 Pew Research poll, 2.4% of all poll participants in the general population identified as atheists while 3.3% identified as agnostics. Those percentages have grown dramatically since 2007, when the numbers were 1.6% and 2.4% respectively. While it would be tempting to use the latest figures (and doing so would certainly be more favorable towards atheists/agnostics), obviously the participants in writeaprisoner.com weren’t all arrested/convicted after 2012, so a more fair comparison would be to use the older figures (such as 2007).

And when we look at the 2007 numbers, what we find is that “atheists” are under-represented by a factor of about 77% (in other words, only 23% as many atheist prisoners as you would expect) and atheists/agnostics are under-represented by about 69%. Christians, meanwhile, are also moderately under-represented, by about 24%. Perhaps no group is as under-represented as Hindus, however, who make up only .0044% of those on in the sample, despite making up about .04% of the U.S. population (i.e. under-represented by about 90%).

The difference then, comes almost entirely from those in the N/A and “Spiritual” groups, (and to a lesser extent Muslims) which are vastly over-represented compared to the general population (a combined 29% in prison vs. 12% outside). This is also consistent with other crime/prison studies which have also found that those towards the “middle” of the theistic spectrum tend to commit the most crime, while the highly devout (i.e. regular churchgoers) and the highly secular (i.e. “committed” atheists, and to a lesser extent those who identify as “agnostics”) commit the least.

It’s worth noting, however, that there is another likely explanation for the huge number of N/A’s among the prisoner sample. While the percentage of “unaffiliated” in the general population was about 12% in 2007, the demographics of the unaffiliated nationwide skews drastically towards younger age groups, which also tend to commit the most crime. So it’s not surprising (in fact, it would be expected) that you would also see a larger percentage of them in the prison population too.

Of course, this factor also makes it even MORE remarkable just how few atheists and agnostics there are in that same prison population, given how much those skew towards the younger demographics as well.

Bottom line: Despite the fact that 45% of all Americans claim that a belief in God is necessary to be moral, and despite the widespread belief that atheists lack any objective moral standards (or, according to some, any moral standards at all), these numbers further affirm what we’ve known for quite some time now: that statistically speaking, atheists actually commit the least crime of just about any demographic group (which happens to be the case not just in America, but globally as well).

Can History “Prove” a Miracle?

The overwhelming consensus in secular circles seems to be no, that whether or not a supernatural and miraculous event occurred in the past is simply outside the purview of history, and history is literally incapable of establishing an event as being “miraculous” in nature. But is that really the case?

Imagine if we were to simultaneously discover hundreds of ancient documents, unearthed from all around the world, each one dated conclusively to approximately 2,500 years ago, and each document corresponding with one of the civilizations which possessed writing during that time (including ones which had no possible means of communication with each other). Each document is written in the native language of that civilization, and on each one the message is essentially identical: “On this day, every single person in our region received a psychic message, which said to write down these numbers, and said that one day thousands of years from now we would understand the meaning of the numbers”. And when you take all of those hundreds of number strings from the different civilizations and assemble them into one long string, it matches the digits of pi starting at the billionth digit…

Yeah, it doesn’t really look 2,500 years old. But we’re talking miraculous documents here.

Of course, there’s a big difference between the above scenario and the supernatural claims in, for example, the Bible. No number of historical attestations could possibly prove the resurrection of Jesus actually occurred, right? Well let’s consider the following scenario. Instead of four grossly contradictory and plagiarized accounts written decades after the fact by anonymous sources (i.e. the Gospels), imagine if we had consistent, clear, signed accounts by known historical figures who claimed to be witnesses to the crucifixion and the resurrection, and each claimed to have spoken with Jesus afterwards firsthand. And imagine if, in these accounts, Jesus told them that while he was dead he visited God, who told him to provide each of his disciples with a different string of numbers, and each of these numbers were recorded in the documents, and when you assemble those numbers into one long string…

Such a scenario wouldn’t necessarily prove that Jesus was the Son of God or any such nonsense, but as much of a staunch atheist and proponent of naturalism as I am, if documents such as those above were discovered I would be more than willing to admit that something supernatural/miraculous occurred, based simply upon those documents alone.

Now to those who have read this blog in the past it should be rather obvious, but just to be absolutely clear: I’m not saying any of this to suggest that we should give greater credence to the Gospel accounts, or somehow be more “open-minded” to the possibility that Jesus was resurrected. Quite the opposite. What I’m saying is that it is possible–at least in principle–for “history to prove a miracle”, in the sense that it is possible to prove anything, through historical means or otherwise (in other words, not proof with absolute 100% certainty, but sufficient proof to establish a claim as true). And instead of just dismissing the “historical” claims of supernatural events in the Bible with a simple hand-wave, these hypothetical scenarios show just how high that bar should be in order to meet the evidentiary standard of historical proof for a supernatural event. And they show just how far the Bible’s gospel accounts fall short of reaching that bar.