Monday, March 23, 2015

Open Letter to Christians

Note: If you are a believer, you will naturally read it as a cynic. You'll look for quick opportunities to dismiss the things I say which make you uncomfortable. Be cognizant of this tendency within yourself. When you notice yourself thinking "That's ridiculous!" or "What an idiot!", use that as a cue to stop and consider the claim more carefully.

I was once a Christian. Just like you, I felt Jesus's love. I talked to him through my prayers. I believed he loved me personally. But knowing is more important than believing, so I explored the justifications for the beliefs I was taught as a child. This exploration of my core beliefs was both frightening and incredibly valuable for me. If you're ready to consider the same, I have some fundamental questions to ask you, or rather for you to ask yourself. I'll lay them out below.

How do you know it's real? 

If it's a feeling, have you considered that every religion has the same sorts of feelings about their particular incompatible beliefs? I occasionally attend secular services and have the same feelings of joy and love and awe I had in church.

If you know because the Bible is true, how did you learn that? Did you test it yourself? Or did you learn that from an authority figure as a child? What method could possibly confirm that  the entire Bible is accurate?  It's passed through so many human hands.  How would you know if some of them influenced it or even created it?

I've heard so many times that he Bible is true for one reason or another.  Here's a few and some questions about each:

  • The Bible is true because the stories are confirmed by archaeologists and / or historians.
    This certainly can't be true in its entirety.  Many parts of the Bible stories couldn't be verified if the events happened yesterday.  Take for example the stories in Matthew 8, Healing people and driving demons into a herd of pigs. Such stories leave no historical or archaeological trace to be verified.  If someone told you this happened today, what evidence would you need to believe it?
  • The Bible says all scripture is God-breathed.
    The Bible makes claims in its text, just like the Koran or the Odyssey. Its original authors or their intentions are lost to history. But make no mistake: The bible you hold in your hands is man made. Humans printed it. Before that, humans translated it. Before that, humans copied it. Before that, humans wrote it down. I could fabricate anything I want and call it a "bible." So could any of those other humans along the way. We would never know. Each of these steps is subject to human error or worse: deliberate misrepresentation. 
  • If the Bible isn't true, the consequences would be bad
    By this logic, we should reject that the holocaust ever happened.  It's very negative, reflects poorly on humanity, and I'd very much prefer that it didn't exist. But it does. And pretending it doesn't just because I don't like it would be dishonest. For me, honesty is more important than happy outcomes. I hope that's true for everyone, but I'm not sure.

Would you believe it today?

You were most likely taught your religion as a child. The vast majority of religious people follow the religion of their parents or their local culture.  What do you think of other religions from other parts of the world which you learned about as an adult? Good examples might be Scientologists, Mormons, or Buddhists.  Did their beliefs like reincarnation or alien visitors seem silly or absurd? Are you able to take an outsider's perspective at your own beliefs? Seriously challenge the assumptions you've taken for granted since childhood. If you're Christian, consider this: 
  • How does the death and suffering of Jesus pardon your own sins?  How is that moral or ethical to transfer guilt like that? We'd NEVER let someone else take the punishment for a criminal. Isn't that basically what God did with Jesus?
  • Do you really believe that your faith is somehow different from the faith of other religions or sects? 
  • It's plainly evident that people can firmly believe false things. You're a person. How do you keep from believing false things? 
  • Do you apply the same kinds of skeptical and rational thinking to religion as you do to making a purchase or healthcare decisions? Why or why not? 


I believe that honesty in our beliefs requires us to treat all claims equally.  And in my personal experience, believers do not.  It's common to give one's own belief system a free pass on all the absurd claims while criticizing others for beliefs that to an outsider seem no more absurd. 

It's very hard to be objective about faith.  In fact, I believe the church tries to teach us not to.  But honesty demands objectivity, and true things stand up to scrutiny. Giving your personal faith a pass on scrutiny is tantamount to being dishonest with yourself. 

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Why Souls Do Not Exist

Poem of the Soul by Louis Jammot
The idea of a "soul" was one of the last things I clung to as I drifted away form the Presbyterian religion. After I realized an ethical god couldn't torture someone for not believing when he's conspicuously absent, and a much more ethical judgement would be based on the values of a person's life, I began to question whether my consciousness would survive my own death. I now firmly believe such ideas are bogus myths for three main reasons:

  • The idea originated in a time when thinking mechanical machines were unimaginable.  Today, cell phones are miniaturized, portable, and carried in most people's pocket.
  • Any connection to a non-physical world must violate conservation of mass, momentum, or energy
  • Studies of brain damage by injury and stroke show that all parts of your person can be affected: memory, emotion, cognition, personality, and values. 
It's easy to understand why someone would like to believe that their consciousness will continue beyond their own death -- even though it clearly didn't exist before their birth.  The problem with comforting or pleasant ideas is that we have a tendency not to question them. But upon a deliberate and rational review of what we know, it's clear that the concept of a soul is very unlikely to be true.  Below, I will discuss each of the three main points.

In the days of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, they believed it was not possible for something mechanical to think.  The psyche was conceived as a model which could explain the apparent problems. The psyche was split into three main parts to explain our ability to both desire and abhor something at the same time (e.g. stealing a toy).  With the advent of modern computers and information theory, it is becoming more and more clear that mechanical (or electrical) things can INDEED think. Modern pharmaceuticals can alter emotions, suggesting these parts of our "soul" are within our bodies.

Landauer's principle states that the minimum amount of energy necessary to erase a bit of information is kT ln 2, which is roughly 0.017 eV at room temperature. Recently, some have suggested that information could be created or destroyed by transfer of angular momentum without affecting energy.  Still, a conserved quantity must be altered.  Now, suddenly, if the "soul" is to convey information in the form of feelings or thoughts or actions, it must also alter our world, seemingly the laws of conservation in of physics to do so.

Finally, it's clear from the medical research into patients suffering brain damage that all parts traditionally thought of as "soul" are affected. What more is there to our consciousness than our memories, personality, emotions, and thinking abilities?  Yet each of these faculties are affected by brain damage int he right location.  I personally watched my Grandfather lose his mental faculties after his stroke. He didn't remember my name. He had been very conservative but was suddenly uninhibited.  He was definitely not thinking clearly, needing a lot of help.  

Medical researchers have also determined that a strong magnetic field can disrupt mental activities in a specific portion of the brain. Finally, functional MRI scans help confirm the linkage between brain damage and specific regions of the brain where aspects of our persona are handled. If our personality were somehow stored outside our bodies, how could it possibly interact with us? Why would loss of certain aspects of our "soul" map to particular areas of brain damage?

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

My Boy Scouts of America Survey Inputs

Boy Scouts of America asked me to take a survey.  Here are some of the comments I left:

I forget the exact question, but it's something like, "I enjoy participating with my son...".  I ranked it fairly high, but not the top and left this comment:
I've been Cubmaster of a large and successful Cub Scouts pack for over two years now. Many months into my service, I learned that as someone who happens to not believe any gods exist, I'm not technically welcome to serve.
Or maybe I am.  The policy is unclear. There's something about believing in things larger than ourselves. Like humanity? physics? The universe? I've not made an issue of it, but it's a lingering concern and it weighs heavily on my willingness to volunteer in the future.  I sincerely hope BSA can adopt a policy of non-discrimination soon.
If there was one thing that I would suggest to improve my Scouting experience, it would be. . .
End policies which discriminate based on beliefs and sexuality. Scouting SHOULD be a safe place for all, not another opportunity to exclude the out-group.  These policies must extend to all people: adult leaders, not just scouts.  Our kids see the bigotry wrapped in "family values".  They notice when an organization practices school-yard style exclusion.  
Discriminatory policies are a vestige of old cultural ignorance of beliefs and sexuality.  It's time to end them.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Update on AiG's Frivolous Lawsuit

A Couple weeks ago, I posted a blog entry criticizing Answers in Genesis for filing a frivolous lawsuit in response to the Commonwealth of Kentucky denying their request for special Christian privileges. In short, AiG asserts they are entitled to special tax incentives for their first ever theme park to celebrate an act of mass-genocide (The Ark Encounter), despite the fact that as a bigoted religious organization, they intend to discriminate in employment based on religion, sex, and sexuality.

The intellectual dishonesty of AiG just pisses me off. It's one thing to have crazy religious beliefs. It's fine to build a theme park to genocide if that's what your horrific "god" demands of you. But to misrepresent the facts and accuse the state of "religious discrimination" is appalling. In a video released by the organization, Lawyer Mike Johnson, says, “Religious groups, ideas, and organizations can’t be treated with hostility by the government." Apparently, it's "hostility" to deny tax incentives to organizations that intend to discriminate?! This is Christian privilege and persecution complex at its finest.

Despite AiG's stated intention of serving only a select group of ignorant Christian conservatives within the Commonwealth of Kentucky, AiG apparently believes that Kentucky taxpayers should foot the bill for their theme-park-celebration-of-death. Just take a look at the artwork on their announcement page (right). It's a guy behind bars! As if to suggest that the "religious discrimination against Christians" is Kentucky is rounding up and arresting Christians?! The trumped-up persecution complex is just astonishing. How can anyone take this organization seriously?  It's not religious discrimination to reject your tax break when your organization plans to discriminate!

Tax breaks are for organizations that better the whole community, which AiG decidedly does not. Sorry AiG, but if you want the tax incentives, you'll need to serve everyone. Not just the heterosexuals; not just the protestant Christians. You'll have to hire and admit the the following groups of people to your theme-park-of-destruction:

  • Gays
  • Fornicators
  • Catholics
  • Jews
  • Muslims
  • Apostates
  • Mormons
  • even … Atheists (!!!)

Sunday, March 1, 2015

How my Cub Scout Outed me as an Atheist to my Parents

My parents knew I doubted religion long before I left their home.  I was confirmed as a Presbyterian, but my "statement of faith" was weak.  I wonder if my mom still has it.  I attended church from time to time when I was away at college -- mostly to appease my mom.  Christmas, Easter, and the occasional special event.

My wife and I were married in my parents' church, but we'd likely make a different choice if we made it again. We chose the church for all the wrong reasons: tradition, family expectations, comfort.

For almost a decade after that, I was something of an apatheist. Of course I didn't believe there was a god, but I didn't really care much either.  But as my kids entered grade school and started to be able to ask coherent questions about religion, I realized they needed to be prepared for the sorts of indoctrination they would no-doubt get from their religious classmates here in the Bible Belt of Ohio.

I started taking an academic interest in atheism. I started watching debates, reading books, and listening to podcasts like The Thinking Atheist and Dogma Debate. For the first time, I discovered atheist authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. I started talking with my kids about what I believe and why. My kids know what I believe and they know that I will love them no matter what they believe.

My kids know that their grandparents (my parents) hold Christian beliefs. And I've told my kids that they're welcome to ask and discuss with grandma and grandpa. So when my Cub Scout son was reading a Bible story in a Boy's Life magazine with my conservative Christian father, he simply said, "Dad doesn't believe in God". No biggie. Very matter-of-fact. He had no idea that I hadn't really discussed my atheism with my parents.

As I've come to hear more apostasy stories, I've learned that I'm pretty fortunate in how well my parents behaved.  My parents are Presbyterian, one of a handful of American churches that has taken the first steps to supporting same-sex marriage where it is legal. I never once thought that my parents would disown me for my beliefs. My relationship with my parents was somewhat awkward for a couple weeks, but in the en it started a more open dialogue. I took the opportunity to thank them for raising me to know that love is more important then faith. But after listening to a podcast titled Coming out Atheist by Seth Andrews and The Thinking Atheist, I learned that I shouldn't take such things for granted. Shunning is still quite common in fundamentalist religions. Extremist parents actually cut ties with their children who turn away from their religion. It's appalling to me to think that religion could trump family. Of course, that's what Jesus demanded, isn't it?

After the "event", I discussed boundaries with my parents. I said that they're welcome to share their beliefs with my kids, but threats of eternal damnation are off limits. They told me that they don't believe in hell. I was glad to hear that. I've come to believe more recently that people chose the Christian sects that agree with their personality.  The relationship may be reciprocal (with religion also influencing personality), but I suspect with the broad range of Christian Sects, from United Church of Christ to Westboro Baptist, there's a Christianity for everyone.

Overall, I think it's a good thing that my son just laid it all on the table like that. I've been able to share with them the challenges I face as an atheist in conservative Christian community. From my role as Cubmaster in an organization that openly rejects my conclusions about the nature of the universe to my career in a conservative business where most of my coworkers are Christian. 

Resources for Atheist Cub Scouts

As a Boy Scouts of America (BSA) Cubmaster, father of a Webelos scout, and atheist, I'm frequently struggling with how to deal with the scout's bigoted policy regarding atheism and homosexuality. It's an unfortunate part of life that otherwise good organizations fall victim to the glorified bigotry of religion in an attempt to teach "values."  Rather than reject the whole organization over one disagreement, I've thus far decided to work within the organization.  Note that I discovered that atheists weren't welcome after I'd already accepted the Cubmaster position, and I've stayed on because the pack needs me.  Though our pack is sponsored by a church, they have been very hands-off, allowing us to run a secular pack that largely serves the local schools.  Few of our scouts members are members of the church that sponsors us and provides us with meeting space.  I can't help but wonder how they'd respond if they ever asked my religion -- I wouldn't lie, but it's never come up.

But this isn't about me. It's about my 10 year old son in Webelos Scouts.  Ten is too young to have a firm and defensible opinion on the nature of the universe. But since he's close to me and I talk about my beliefs with him often, he identifies as atheist. This could wind up being a problem for my him since BSA doesn't consider it an acceptable to admit honest, rational, and reasonably skeptical world views. I've been looking for a good solution, and I found a few useful tidbits to share.

Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowships are not merely tolerant of atheist world views; my atheism is welcomed as the perfectly rational worldview it is and there are many other open atheists in our local fellowship. I know that some atheists consider UU a religion, but I think of it more as a socially conscious club to which I'm a member. There's no dogma (no creed to join), and a very wide range of beliefs are welcome.

Why am I talking about "church"? Because to earn the Webelos badge, scouts MUST accomplish a religious requirement.  The Unitarian Universalist Scouters Organization UUSO Answers the mail for atheists by providing a comfortably secular perspective on scouting in their "Religion and Family" program (note the lack of "god" in the title).  They've done the hard work of getting a dogma-free curriculum through the scouts religion panel. hosts PDFs of relatively simple workbook you and your scout can work through to complete his religious requirement without being brainwashed into accepting absurd and indefensible claims of magic sky wizards. The material focuses on values and the role of religion plays in society. By helping your son understand what other people mean when they say "God", it's possible to get all the valuable aspects out of scouting without the spiritual woo.
There are two main charitable organizations I regularly donate to that are working to solve this problem over the long haul. 
  Scouting for All:
  Scouts for Equality:

Unfortunately, LDS, Catholic, and Baptist influences hold substantial sway and their closed-minded one True™ answer worldview makes them difficult to work with.