Blog Response: “3 Reasons Why I am Glad I’m Not an Atheist”

For this post I will be responding directly to a specific blog post written by Deborah-Ruth Ferber. I highly suggest that you read the original post to get the context.

  • There is absolutely no need to apologize, I am not offended by your blog post. I assume we don’t agree on much in this area, and perhaps we don’t even understand each other very much either. But that’s the reason I’m taking you up on your offer for discussion.
  • I am an Atheist and a Secular Humanist.
  • Generally speaking, yes, I do think that Christianity is (among other things) just a bunch of fairy tales that are often used as crutch in hard times. But I don’t think that that’s an audacious thing to say. In fact, you also seem to be OK with the idea of using Christianity as a crutch. You say that it takes strength not to believe in God and that you do not have that strength. So doesn’t your Christian faith sustain you where you are weakest just as a crutch does? You also say: “In seasons of distress, when we cling to God, He does not disappoint.” I think it’s normal to rely on our most core understandings/beliefs when things are hardest and most confusing. I can relate to that now as an Atheist. Also, (not that this reflects your opinion) when I was  a Christian I definitely used my faith as a crutch.
  • (#1) I would summarize your main point here as: “prayer always works except when it doesn’t”. Which is pretty much a non-statement. At least it can’t be tested or verified in anyway. You also claim to have witnessed miracles. I’m curious what those were and how you know they were miracles. I won’t bog this down with the usual scientific and epistemological arguments used in response to miracle claims. But I’m going to assume (and of course correct me if I’m wrong) that you would be using some type of “God-of-the-gaps” type argument in support of your claims.
  • (#2) You say: “humanity in and of itself is not able to understand the vastness of the universe”. I have no idea what you mean by this. Also, how does faith help us to understand the vastness of the universe? Humanity has recently observed gravity waves for the first time! So we’re taking a pretty good stab at understanding the vastness of the universe, even if there are an unknowable amount of things we still don’t know. Go humans!
  • (#3) If you google the words “What If You’re Wrong” you’ll probably find this video very quickly. It’s so well known that you can also watch it animated by South Park instead if you like. That’s my answer to Pascal’s Wager.
  • I notice that in your concluding paragraph you use the word “us” when describing the benefits of Christianity and the word “I” when describing the drawbacks of atheism. I suggest that you are falsely assuming that the benefits that you get from Christianity will also benefit other people.

Conclusion

The title of your post says that you’re glad you’re not an Atheist. You then describe three main reasons why you are not an Atheist. In the process you describe many wonderful benefits of Christianity and then ask “why do you not want that?”.

Essentially, my answer is that yes, I do want all the warm happy feelings of eternal bliss that you describe. But it’s just unbelievable for me. I have had a long transition from being a Christian to being an Atheist, which I describe in other blog posts. But I have always thought that there is actually something more comfortable about being a Christian than being an Atheist. Eternal life sounds good, heaven sounds good too, I like my friends and family and don’t want to never see them again when I’m dead.

Given the choice of paradigm between Christianity and Atheism, I’ve never thought that Atheism is a more comforting or blissful existence. I do think that it has benefits and that it is much more realistic, more true and more reasonable – but I won’t go into that now.

So allow me to pivot the conversation and present you with another religion. I call it Super Christianity! Super Christianity is just the same as Christianity except that the feelings of love and forgiveness are even greater, the Super Bible is longer and reveals more guidance from God and more of Jesus’ love. It’s fundamentally a more robust worldview with more answers, more love an more Zweibach. Would you chose Super Christianity? Perhaps. But you’d first need to be convinced to believe in it, right? I feel like your blog post has described the wonderfulness of Christ, but given me no reason to think that it is more than fairy tales.

LGBT and the Church

I have experienced discussions about homosexuality in church circles ever since I was a teenager. So for me, this is a well worn topic, and my views on it have changed during and after my time in the church. There’s more about that in this blog post.

A key point of objection that non-church people have against the church is that it is homophobic and subverts anything outside of its heteronormative patriarchy. For this reason, progressive churches often make a point to communicate that they have a welcoming attitude towards homosexuals and the broader LGBT community.

Many of the Christians that I know are genuinely and completely convinced that the church should be fully welcoming to LGBT people. I’ve never known anyone to be insincere about this or just take this position merely as a tactic to keep the church relevant. And to these people – for what it’s worth- I’d like to thank you and encourage your good intentions. Let’s work together on this important issue in our society. Even though I’m not part of your church, your church is part of the society I live in. And any way that society becomes more inclusive of marginalized people is a good thing.

Rationalization

There are many different reasons to reject the anti-gay history of the church. The most common argument that I’ve heard is basically that Jesus was a cool, relaxed and loving guy that would not have any problem with gay people. Some people go farther and make an argument that the Bible is actually not anti-gay in any way. One claim used to support such arguments is that when considering the Biblical historical context it’s clear that the anti-gay parts of the Bible are referring to abusive and/or pedophilic relationships in ancient Greece. Obviously, pedophilia is bad, so this is a great way to reframe and dismiss extreme anti-gay verses in the Bible.

I really don’t know what truth there is to this historical context argument. Even if abusive man-boy relations were prevalent in the past, how can anyone be sure that these Bible verses refer to only the pedophilic relationships and not to all homosexual relationships? Also, why doesn’t the Bible just say pedophilia is bad? But at this point this reasoning gets utterly absurd. No one should need the Bible to clarify the indisputable: abusive pedophilia is abhorrent. Few people I know read the Bible as a clear set of dos and don’ts. It’s obviously not Morality for Dummies.

Clearly, I am not convinced of the idea that reading the Bible “in the proper context” helps it make any more sense. The content of the Bible has already been retold, rewritten and translated over time and there is already so much latitude for interpreting it however one sees fit. Adding the “proper historical context” layer does not narrow down the possible interpretations, it just gives more freedom for anyone to interpret the Bible however they want to.

But I do agree that overall, the collection of Jesus’ teachings in the Bible promote love, forgiveness and inclusion. Also, many churches decided a long time ago that quoting the Bible to derive literal truths was kind of a fundamentalist thing to do. So rather than play that game with the fundies, they just resort to easier and less pedantic reasoning: Jesus is love, therefore it’s ok to be gay.

The modernizing of the church and its stance on LGBT is clearly a good thing, regardless of the reasoning used by religious people. This change is vaulting churches over the line from being on the wrong side to being on the right side of history.

Of course, I need to point out here that I do not think that modern Christians came to their conclusions from a relationship with a God. My alternative hypothesis is that decent people understand that being anti-gay is bad from observing the world around them and then they adapt their religion to support their own conclusions. Classic rationalization.

Imagine that you knew someone who was extremely selfish. If they used prosperity gospel to justify their over consumption you would probably want to be critical of their selfish actions and on the post hoc rationalization of their actions. In the case of homosexuality, I want to congratulate pro-gay Christians on their actions, but I’m still critical of their rationalization (as I understand it). To my mind, this is just being consistent.

That being said, I don’t intend to dwell unnecessarily on the reasons why people are solving the ills of society. Doing good things is still good, irrespective of my particular interpretation of the do-gooder’s reasoning. I’m happy to waive a rainbow flag with a group of Christians for the benefit society.

Staying Together

But alas, unfortunately, very few churches have completely transitioned to being LGBT friendly. And the reason for this is exactly that one detail that I try so hard to not get hung up on: LGBT friendly churches draw their LGBT friendliness subjectively from their religion and not from objective moral reasoning. Unfortunately, because of this, modern Christians are being slowed on their walk to justice because they are carrying kicking and screaming conservative Christians along with them.

And of course I can understand the desire to keep the Christian family together. I grew up in a church that provided me with a unique inter-generational community that I haven’t really experienced anywhere else. And just as people like their family despite disagreements I understand that people in church communities will like being in a community with other people despite their differences.

Unfortunately, in a religious context this often means extending far too much respect for traditional views on sexuality and gender roles. Modern Christians are afraid of being not Jesus-like and rejecting the religious beliefs of others (usually older people) in their churches. Churches are groups that are bound by belief statements, and rules about who’s allowed in the group, who can vote, who can lead and who can get married. Families don’t have any of these written covenants. So you can go to Thanksgiving dinner without representing your relative’s bigotry. But you can’t be a member of a church without in some way representing the written statements of shared beliefs of your congregation an/or church conference.

The desire for unity and respect in church comes at a very high cost. I suspect that any marginalized or minority group observing this process would not be comforted by the slow, respectful deliberation on the most basic issues of non-discrimination.

Imagine playing on a baseball team that was having a conversation about how to “address the issue” of black players on the team. Imagine attending a school where the principal was “carefully listening” to everyone’s opinion about whether or not girls should be in science class. Imagine attending a church that has lengthy discussions about how to “approach the issue of same-sex people”.

A Plea to LGBT-Friendly Christians

Hey you, liberal Christians, LGBT equality is the defining social justice issue of our time, so please get extremely serious about working on this in your church. I know many of your Christian friends and family are not as progressive as you are, but you need to decide what your priorities are! You can keep your friends and family, but you cannot continue to support anti-gay policies in your church institutions. Declaring yourself an LGBT ally but still appeasing the haters means that you’re still sitting on the fence.

So vote, make decisions, split churches, reorganize, rebuild, reinvent and do whatever it takes. Maybe some old people will leave your church or maybe you have to find yourself a different church. Please, just get this done for the benefit of your church and our society.

Obviously, there is also a cost to taking the extreme position that I’m recommending. I presume that your instincts tell you that such a tactic is based too much on mortal hubris and that it usurps your community of believers and the Holy Spirit itself.

It’s true that this might add a significant burden of cognitive dissonance to your mind. Using an uncompromising approach could make you feel that you’re admitting to yourself that modern secular values are a better framework for decision making than reading the Bible, praying or having church discernment processes. My personal solution to this problem would be simply abandoning Christianity and becoming an Atheist and a Secular Humanist. In my opinion, that’s the best way to make all of the cognitive dissonance go away.

However, in the interest of social justice, I honestly would not mind at all if you proved me completely wrong. The issue of equality for LGBT people is not owned by any single person or group. So, if there is a religious argument for taking an unrelenting stance in favour of LGBT rights, I encourage you to embrace it with energy and passion and preach it from a mountain top. I will be very happy to be an ally with you, regardless of the reasons for your conviction.

However, if your first priority is to be a church at all costs and you stay languishing in stagnant, conciliatory language and interminable dialogue with anti-gay Christians, you will not be treating LGBT people fairly in my opinion.

Besides, what are you afraid of? Social justice movements are accelerated by activists but only truly take root as older generations give way to new ones. Are you afraid that all of the older and more conservative people in your church will break off and suddenly they will become the future of Christianity? I doubt it.

CRD

Afterword

I do recognize that in this post I am really using broadstrokes to paint every thing anti-gay with one brush. I think that there is some room to make the case that some Christians do not discriminate against homosexuals, they just hold a religious belief that God commanded no one to ever engage in homosexual acts. So while these things may not all be exactly the same, I do think that any heteronormative interpretation of religious morality is a disservice to modern society. Thus I think my broadstrokes approach is appropriate in this case.

“LGBT” and “gay” are used here somewhat generally and sometimes interchangeably. I could have been more wordy and specific.

Young People Leaving the Church

People are leaving churches in large numbers. And there has never been a subgroup that causes more hand-wringing among the faithful than “young people”. With so many potential years of church attendance, church leadership, childbearing and parenting ahead of them, young people are a church’s most valuable future investment. And just as every good advertising agency knows that the 18-35 year olds are marketing gold, churches have for a long time also been focusing on winning the attention of young adults.

Of course the trend of shrinking churches is not universal. Outside of North America and Europe, the church might even be growing and here in North America there are some congregations and some denominations of Christianity that show signs of growth. But in “the west” the overall trend is clear, and it has been going on for decades already with no sign of slowing down.

Communication

When Paul Ryan lost his bid for the White House in 2012, he explained it by saying “We have to do a better job of explaining and demonstrating why our ideas are better”. His reasoning was that his problem was communicating ideas, and not his ideas themselves. Democrats rolled their eyes. Naturally, it’s always easier to admit that you’re misunderstood than to admit that you’re misguided.

Many churches have said the same thing: if people are not coming to church, it must be because we are not communicating what we are really about. Churches – at least the ones I’m familiar with – are quick to humbly take the blame and claim that they need to change focus, undo past wrongs and even completely rebuild themselves.

I think that the problem with church is not a communication problem at all. The church’s problem is that it is a church. I do not mean to say that the problem is the legacy or institution of church. I’m not saying that the church is shrinking because churches can’t think of themselves as more than a weekly meeting within four walls. Other iterations of “being church” have been tried for a long time. What I mean is that just as most Americans did, in fact, understand the Ryan/Romney campaign, I think that most people do, in fact, understand what church is all about. People get it, they just don’t want it.

Scientologists believe that their Thetan has been trapped by engrams, Muslims try to aim prayers towards the Ka’bah and Christians believe that Jesus listens to prayers. What all of these beliefs have in common is that they are comforting, they provide us with an identity, they support our worldview and they are all equally and completely detached from reality.

However it is presented, the core proposal made by churches is fading into the background tapestry of all of the other supernatural belief systems of history. Jesus doesn’t standout from Ankhet, Pinga or Zeus. So it can’t be a surprise that more and more people are choosing to keep Jesus out of their daily lives and comfortably in the realm of myth and history.

Keeping the Good, Leaving the Rest

Churches teach a lot of good things like peace, love and harmony. Churches also teach a lot of bad things like how and why we should feel shame for victim-less sins. But let’s just talk about the good stuff at church. Many of the moral lessons are pretty obvious and specific, like don’t murder. Others are more general virtues like honesty and humility.

But which of the good things that the church teaches could you not have figured out on your own? To ask it another way: could you imagine God telling you to do something that you thought was bad, but doing it anyways, just because God thought it was good?”

Some Atheists and other people who don’t like church say that churches prevent people from thinking. While I’m sure that this is true in some churches, my experience has been different. I have seen many churchgoers think very hard about many big questions about philosophy, generosity, social justice, the environment and ethics. I interpret this as a credit to the character of the individuals doing the thinking, but not as evidence to support any conclusions about the existence of God.

While the thoughtful churchgoer may have experienced this process as prayerful or spiritual, there’s no reason to conclude that they did anything other than just use their brains to think through an important issue. Humans have evolved brains to think thoughts and feel feelings. Some people experience their thoughts within a religious or spiritual paradigm – usually when it was taught to them from birth.

Furthermore, if there’s a position that you can reason yourself into, it’s not necessary to invoke a spirit or God to explain how you got there. Many churches do things like grow community gardens, support summer camp and support LGBT rights. But these things all stand alone on their merits without any Abrahamic God there to support them. The church community garden is like a free sample of bacon in a grocery store: sure you’re interested, but it’s not worth it if they really just want to sell you something else.

And this is exactly what many young people are coming to realize. Bible camp isn’t better than hockey camp, hymn signing isn’t better than karaoke night and playing boardgames the third Thursday of every month isn’t any better if it’s done in a church basement.

Post-Christians are also realizing that rejecting the idea of God doesn’t mean that they need to reject every idea that comes out of a church. I don’t know churchgoers to categorically reject an idea just because it came out of a mosque or a temple or the mind of a non-believer. And there is no reason for a non-believer not to acknowledge the merits of “churchy” ideas.

Let’s take that foreboding no-sex-outside-of-marriage rule cast over us from the very first sex talk. Abstinence, marriage and monogamy have many ungodly benefits. To name a few: children are raised in committed relationships and there is a greatly reduced risk of contracting an STI. Chaste individuals may find that they have lower social anxiety in today’s “sexualized” culture and that when they do have sex it is a better expression of intimacy.

Leaving church doesn’t require the endorsement of promiscuity, it allows consenting adults the guilt-free freedom to define their own morality. If something is good, it can be explained with words, not God. And if something is good only when God is invoked, then it’s not actually a good thing.

Think of the Children

Sometimes when an older generation watches the majority of their young people leave the church when they leave home, they assume that they just need a few years to find themselves before they will rediscover their roots and find their way back to a church. Sometimes the assumption is that this will happen when they have kids of their own.

It makes sense for young people to return to church when they have kids. Since a lot of who we are come from our parents it’s unsurprising for us to follow their example and make going to church a family activity.

A friend of mine once made a comment to me about how it must have been really hard for me to make “that choice” – referring to my intention to not raise my future kids with church. This comment reveals what I believe is an unfair framing of “choosing not to believe”. Anyone who goes back to church as soon as they have kids is obviously also making a choice – it’s just that they may not be thinking of it as a choice. People have worshiped innumerable Gods throughout history, and sometimes people just choose to make up a new God if they don’t like any of the options available. So of course raising your kids in the church that your parents raised you in is a choice.

Obviously, every new parent has a responsibility to raise their child as best they can. I know many young parents who believe the best thing for their children is to be raised in church, and I understand that. However, one day your kids might ask you why you raised them as you did, and saying “because that’s what my parents did” will be a terrible answer to that question.

I love my grandfather, and he tells many great stories around the dinner table. But he also reveals his dated stereotypes about women, Jews and Mexicans. Clearly I’ve decided that these ideas will not be passed to my children.

To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s completely impossible to justify raising kids in a religion. What I’m saying is that you owe your future adult children a genuine explanation of your choice of the worldview in which you raised them, and ancestry, social pressure and convenience are not good reasons to explain your choice of default worldview of your kids.

I’m not trying to rewrite history, of course ancestry is important. Whether we want to or not, as parents we will all impart our language, culture and idiosyncrasies on our children. When you teach a child to speak English you’re giving them a tool that is one of many languages that they may learn and use in their lifetime.

Of course your child could also learn about other religions, but ultimately if they’re growing up in a church they are going to be indoctrinated into Christianity and merely informed about other religions. The only way this would not be the case is if every Sunday morning your child attends educational classes on world religions and philosophies without being instructed to actually practice any of them (which I think is a great idea). Kids need to be taught to speak a language, but they do not need to be taught to practice a religion.

Conclusion

Many of us have been lucky enough to grow up with great parents who loved us very much and tried their best to raise us well. I know mine did. And in my upbringing was a whole lot of church. We owe our parents a lot for everything that they’ve done for us, but the perpetuation of their religion is not something that we owe to our parents.

Churches, for as long as they exist, will always have an open door and wait patiently for anyone who wants to return. But I encourage you not to think of the secularization of our society as simply a sad and one dimensional move away from God, morals, and family and towards apathy, self interest and soccer practice. I encourage you to make the choice to leave religion and to own every aspect of this choice. I would like to see less people drifting away from religion, and more people actively deciding not to be a part of a religion.

All people should be good and moral. My motivation is not vengeance against a church that wronged me. That’s not my story. I’m concerned that the church has shackled morality to the unreasonable idea of an Almighty Loving God. And since God seems to be a losing proposition, I’d like to encourage everyone to unshackle their morality from God and to make a smooth transition from being good Christians to just being good people.

CRD

 

PS For anyone new to this blog, I invite you to learn more about me in my introduction post. I’d love to hear from you.

Being an Atheist at a Christian Funeral

My grandpa died last year. He had had a fairly long life. Unfortunately his mind had already deteriorated significantly in his last few years. The rural community where he lived was very familiar to me. I had spent summers running around on my cousins’ farm and some winters skating on the backyard rink that grandpa made for us. Grandpa was a minister for many years. He and grandma had also been missionaries overseas.

So I spent two days in this town again to attend the funeral. The close-knit community was overwhelmingly Christian and evangelical. As expected, the visitation, funeral and all of the family time in between revolved around religion. Grandpa dedicated his life to his god and lived and breathed the church everyday. But even if religion hadn’t been his profession, the religious focus would have been the same. Religion is deeply woven into grandpa’s family and friends. And this religion anchored every public expression of grief, sadness and celebration of grandpa’s life.

Since grandma had died about ten years earlier, it was hard not to remember her funeral and compare my experiences. When grandma died I was much younger. In fact, now that I think about it, these two funerals pretty well bookended my entire young adulthood (and thus also my apostasy). At the time grandma was by far the closest person to me to have died. She hadn’t really attained “a ripe old age” yet, and I guess her death was a good test of my ability to deal with death as an adult. As a devout Christian at the time, I would pray at night that God would comfort grandma in heaven and be with her while she waited many years for other family members to join her. I looked forward to the day when I could hug her again in heaven.

When grandpa died last year it was much different. I was already comfortable not being a Christian anymore, at least in private. I had hardly told anyone about my Atheism at that point. I never really decided if or how I might talk about my Atheism at the funeral or at any of the family meals before and after. Although during my flight on the way there I decided that maybe I should think it through ahead of time rather than just “winging it”.

On the one hand, I thought I should find a way to gently bring up the topic. Everyone always says that funerals aren’t about the deceased they’re really for the ones they leave behind. So this family time at the funeral was for me to grieve and remember grandpa just like anyone else that was there. I thought that maybe I should just tell everyone that I’m an Atheist. This would help my family to know me better and might have helped me to grieve.

But grandpa left behind many more people than just me. And I knew that many of them genuinely (and some I suspected only tacitly) were using religion as their main source of comfort in their grief. This was important for me to acknowledge because it was important to give people space to deal with things in their own way. For this reason I did not want to use the funeral as an opportunity to actively promote Atheism – or even to seem like I was formally announcing something about myself. All of the mourners shared with me a love and respect for my grandpa, and I wanted us all to get the most that we could from this important time together.

This leads to the only point on which I was completely certain: I had absolutely no obligation to shelter religious people from knowing about my irreligion. That would be akin to asking a person to never identify themselves accurately because other people have difficulty dealing with that person’s identity. This is something that we do not ask of any invisible minority in society (the examples that come to mind are: homosexuals, intersex people and people with mental disabilities). Besides, if knowing that I’m an Atheist causes religious people to lose their ability to take comfort in their god, then they can’t have a very strong relationship with their god. I was sure that my family would not want me to have felt isolated by being closeted.

On the other hand, I thought that maybe I should just put this issue on the back-burner as much as possible. It wouldn’t have been that difficult for me to just drift along in the unending religious metaphors and talk of eternal salvation for a few days. Also, I felt that if I were to (even unintentionally) “rock the boat” at all I might make the people who planned the funeral (my parents, aunt and uncle) feel very stressed out and uncomfortable. And I really did not want to feel responsible for that. Remember, like everyone else, I was still dealing with grandpa’s death.

And on that note I started to think less about talking about me being an Atheist and spent more time thinking about how I was dealing with death as an Atheist. How was grandpa’s funeral going to be different for me than grandma’s funeral?

Obviously, I understood death to be a bit different than my Christian family members. They kept talking about grandpa celebrating Christmas in heaven and finally being with grandma again. Unfortunately my Atheist outlook felt a little bit less comforting to me. I’m pretty sure that grandpa was just dead in the ground, with all of his thoughts, memories and his entire consciousness completely non-existent anymore. Just as the recent years of dementia lessened his ability to experience the world, his death finally ended all of his experiences forever. I wasn’t completely sure about this, and I’m still not, but it is the most reasonable understanding of what death is. And even if I was wrong and there was an afterlife, there’s no compelling reason to think that the Christian heaven is where grandpa is now. As far as I know he’d be just as likely to be crossing the river Styx and telling Charon about an old tractor that he once had. I laughed out loud at the thought.

Compared to being certain that grandpa is spending an eternity in heaven, my Atheist perspective seemed a bit more cold and frightening. Many Atheists say that not believing in an afterlife makes your time in this life all the more enjoyable. I’m not sure that I agreed with that. And definitely in the context of my grandpa’s death it was not a very comforting thought. This was probably because my grandpa undoubtedly believed that he was glory bound, and would see his wife again in heaven. It made me sad to think that he was probably wrong and had already seen the last of grandma many years ago. The only consolation from that sad thought for me was reminding myself that there was nothing left of grandpa to experience that disappointment.

And in this way I found a point of agreement between the Christian view of death and my own: grandpa was released from his Earthly suffering. He wasn’t going to feel pain again. In his last years he must have had moments of lucidity in which he realized the extent of his deterioration, but he wouldn’t have those anymore.

So having found at least one point of common understanding with the immersive Christian narrative around me, I tried to focus on what I had in common with everyone else around me: we loved grandpa, we missed him and it’s good to be around family at times like this.

And I never did talk about my Atheism to anyone. In none of my many conversations during my trip did anyone actually talk to me individually (as opposed to in a group conversation) about religion at all. In retrospect this seemed odd given how Christian the environment was. In any case, it never seemed appropriate or necessary for me to mention my Atheism so I never did.

CRD

 

 

There’s Crap in the Bible

In my last blog post I made the argument that it’s important to try to evaluate moral questions objectively (as much as that is possible) and, to the extent that something is objectively good, it should be promoted to other people. For example, it’s good to aggressively and unwaveringly promote the idea that spousal abuse is bad, but it’s absurd to promote the idea that apples taste better than bananas.

In this blog post I’m going to argue that the Bible contains bad verses. These bad verses are so bad that they cause harm just by being in the Bible. And these bad verses are so obviously (objectively) bad that religious freedom (individuals subjectively choosing their own religion) is an insufficient reason to perpetuate these Bible verses. In other words: there’s crap in the Bible.

Christians that consider the Bible inerrant use it as a basis for all sorts of harmful beliefs and actions. Recently there has been increased media attention on the misogynistic nightmare that are Purity Balls. But of course, that’s an extreme example. My experience in the church was defined by the ideas of love, forgiveness, welcoming others and building community. In practice my church abhorred any notion of gender discrimination or patriarchy. In these important ways I think that my former church was – and still is – a lot better than more fundamental churches.

But the Bible remains a key cornerstone of all types of churches. And the Bible says a lot of things, some good, many useless and some things in the Bible are absolutely terrible. There are many repugnant lessons, themes and individual verses in the Bible. For now, let’s just focus on one verse:

“If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” Leviticus 20:13 (NIV)

Certainly most Christians I have ever met would – at some level – wish that this verse wasn’t in the Bible at all. It’s abhorrent, violent and terrifying. This Bible verse is in every way as bad as Nazism. Of course this verse is not a defining scripture for modern Christians. And of course there is certainly some context and historical framing that should be applied to these words. And of course many Christians find it very convenient to forget about this verse and just talk about “the good stuff” in the New Testament.

But there is only one good reason to reject this verse outright: we can use very basic moral reasoning to decide that this is a terrible Bible verse. Consenting adults should be able to “lie with” whoever they want to without fearing a fatal beating. The idea that through prayer and study people can understand the Bible better and then learn that this verse is not to be taken literally (and others verses are) is absurd. This verse is obviously terrible, and I would be frightened of anyone who couldn’t figure that out themselves and needed to pray to realize this.

And yet, Christians (even those that agree with the above paragraph) continue to treat the entire Bible as the inspired (even if not inerrant) word of God, and have faith that the entire Bible still has some relevance to their modern lives in the twenty-first century. This faith in an immutable Bible that is somehow made up of so-called “living words” was very hard for me to take seriously when I was a Christian and now that I am an Atheist it seems absolutely insane.

When I was eight years old I proudly walked to the front of my church and I received a Bible from my pastor. My church had a long tradition of giving a Bible to all kids entering grade three. And in that Bible were these words in Leviticus about beating gay people to death. As I and the other children stood at the front of the sanctuary – holding our brand new Bibles – we were encouraged to read the whole Bible and to spend our lives trying to understand it better.

At no point during this ceremony did my pastor remind us that some of the Bible is insane, evil crap. In fact, at my church it was standard practice to have a large decorative Bible laying open at the front of the sanctuary. Children were always taught to treat the entire Bible with love and respect.

Again, of course I know that there were good people surrounding me and teaching me to be a good person and not to kill homosexuals. But giving children a Bible is like giving them a gift of matches and gasoline, telling them to go exploring, and then just hoping you can teach them not to burn down any buildings. It’s stupid and dangerous to give children these violent words no matter how loving and well-meaning the context. There is simply no amount of teaching kids to be good that compensates for continuing to accept these words in Leviticus.

I truly believe that Christians are constantly making reasonable decisions about what actions they should take based on how they affect other people. That’s why most Christians I know do not believe that God will judge, punish and kill homosexuals. And yet, Christians cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that some parts of the Bible are so evil, so dated and so irrelevant that they should be removed and left to be forgotten by history.

The reason for this is simple: it’s much easier for Christians to leave the Bible immutable and unchanged and then use post hoc reasoning to rationalize (or theologize) about what it all means. It would be far more difficult for Christians to make all the needed changes and omissions for the Bible to provide a modern and useful moral compass.

In case you think that I’m exaggerating about the negative effects of the bad parts of the Bible, let me share with you my personal experience. It is with great shame and regret that I must admit that at one point in my life I did entertain the thought that perhaps God was using AIDS as a means to punish homosexuals for their sins. I didn’t consider this idea for very long (perhaps a few months) and I did eventually reason my way out of it (in part thanks to the “good stuff” in the Bible). But I had this thought long enough to believe that it may be true, and to share the idea with a few other people.

In my case, my family and church were reasonable and moderate enough to prevent me from taking this idea too far. However, I was primed to be open to very fundamental and dangerous ideas about Christianity. I didn’t start thinking this way because I accidentally changed the channel to a Bible-belt televangelist one day. It was, in fact, my liberal Christian upbringing which taught me that:

  • God is mysterious and hard to understand.
  • God is real, alive and at work in the world today.
  • The entire Bible is important, even if it is hard to understand and contradicts itself.
  • God punishes people for their sins, sometimes severely. To be fair, this point was not the focus of any Sunday School class or sermon that I can remember, but I did learn this during my childhood in a few other ways:
    • reading the Bible by myself (which I was encouraged to do)
    • one of my camp councillors harped on this for an entire depressing week of summer camp
    • many other Christians believed this, and it’s part of the popular understanding of Christianity
    • and most importantly: no one ever taught me that this was not true, or if they did I was unconvinced (because it was true enough to still be in the Bible)

All of these building blocks set the stage for me to be open to receive this idea of God condemning homosexuals to die from disease. And while the strong and loving community around me did (in my case) choke out this evil idea, for other people this idea does not always have a happy ending. And that is precisely why the Westboro Baptist Church exists. Because there’s crap in the Bible.

For these reasons I think that it is objectively bad to use an immutable Bible as a basis of faith. On this topic I am very confident in promoting Secular Humanism as an (not the) objectively better choice than Christianity – even the moderate and humble Christianity in which I grew up.

CRD

Promoting Objective Worldviews

In my last blog post I mostly compared worldviews as if they were subjective personal choices like ice cream flavours. And in the same way that I have a favourite ice cream flavour (praline) I also have a favourite worldview (Secular Humanism). For my own reasons I think that both of these things are right for me. These are subjective choices.

But whereas evaluating ice cream flavours will always be only a matter of personal taste, evaluating different worldviews can – to some extent – be done objectively. Go ahead and think of a common “ism”, religion or philosophy that people you know identify with. Now compare it to Nazism. Clearly Nazism is worse than the other thing you were thinking of. Because the other think you were thinking of did not promote the idea of an Aryan master race.

Of course, not all worldviews are mutually exclusive, and perhaps the best thing about Nazism is better than the worst thing about some other belief system. But there are definitely objectively better and objectively worse belief systems. The same cannot be said for ice cream flavours.

I like my belief system because I think it is well-reasoned and useful. I want to promote it. But I do not want to just be another annoying Atheist that goes too far in promoting Atheism. So I decided that my framework for promoting Atheism and Secular Humanism is as follows:

I will promote my worldview to the extent that it is objectively better than other worldviews.

Obviously, every single word in that sentence is up for interpretation and has many shades of grey (especially “promote”, “objectively” and “better”). Also, this is almost certainly not an original idea. I probably heard it somewhere else and just thought about it long enough until it felt like an original thought. I also think it sounds quite pretentious. But I don’t really care what it sounds like, I only care if it’s a good idea or not.

In order to use practical examples, I’ll try to apply this framework to three different ways that Secular Humanism and Atheism compare to my former worldview: liberal Christianity. This way we can discuss real issues rather than making easy hypothetical arguments against Nazis.

CASE ONE: The difference between Christianity and Atheism and Secular Humanism is only subjective

A Christian may say that their faith provides them with happiness, feelings of community and a reason to get up in the morning. Since these things are subjective experiences of faith there’s not really any reason for me to think that Secular Humanism would be any better for this person.

Now that’s not to say that if someone tells me of these great benefits of Christianity that I’m not allowed to say anything. In fact, I would probably respond by telling them that I am happy for their positive experiences, and say that I also have these positive experiences as a result of my Secular Humanism.

The analogous ice cream conversation sounds like this:

Other: “Wow! I love mint chocolate chip ice cream!”

Me: “Awesome! I love praline ice cream!”

No one is really trying to convince the other of anything, it’s just an exchange of subjective choices. Maybe someone will try a new flavour of ice cream to see if they like it, but there’s no argument to be made. But there’s also no need for annyone to be ashamed or awkwardly silent about their favourite flavour of ice cream. Certainly no one would label me an “annoying praline person” after that conversation.

CASE TWO: Christianity is objectively better than Atheism and Secular Humanism

One area where this may be the case is with charitable giving. My understanding is that religious people give a lot more time and money than non-religious people (link to first relevant hit on Google). This is easily quantifiable, and donating time and money is objectively a good thing.

In this area I think that the godless community could learn a few things from religious organizations. When the religious get on a soapbox and laud their own efforts to relieve poverty and suffering in the world, Atheists should listen and congratulate them. I think that most Atheists do genuinely value and promote philanthropy but often not nearly as much as we should (note: Peter Singer is a counter example).

EXAMPLE THREE: Atheism and Secular Humanism are objectively better than Christianity

The use of the Bible is one very basic issue on which I think that Christianity (yes, even moderate and liberal Christianity) is objectively worse than Atheism and Secular Humanism. My worldview aspires to increase human flourishing by promoting reasonable morality based on how our actions affect others in the real (natural) world. Christianity also does this (which is good) but Christianity is also restricted by and dependendant on faith and magical beliefs in a God that is by definition outside of the real world inwhich we live.

Christian morality is like an engineer that uses math, science and measurements to determine how strong to build a bridge, but who then also includes some randomly generated numbers into their calculations. There is mostly sound reasoning in this process but there is always at least some amount of belief in magic that dilutes and confuses the conclusions.

In cases like these, I feel my worldview is objectively better than other worldviews. Of course it’s possible that I’m partially or completely wrong about this, and I’m open to criticism at every step in my thinking. But (unless I’m very wrong) I don’t think that it’s appropriate to dismiss this point as just my subjective opinion.

I still have many questions about in what way it is appropriate to promote one’s worldview. I’m not always sure how loudly or with what tone people should speak about their worldviews. But I think that the framework described above is the right way to begin deciding in which areas people should promote their worldviews.

CRD

Promoting Subjective Worldviews

After a long journey and a bumpy landing I’ve arrived at my new godless identity. It would probably be folly to declare the relocation permanent (even though I’m assuming it is). But so far my new association with Atheism and Secular Humanism feels comfortable and it also feels more permanent than Christianity had felt for me for many years.

So the next question that I ask myself is: “Great. Who cares?”

Part of this is just me wondering what I should do next. In my Introduction post I described how I’m interested in communicating my current belief system to other people mainly because I did not want people close to me thinking that I’m still a Christian if I’m not.

But as for who cares, some of that answer is easy: I care and I know my parents and some of my close family and friends care. Some of them care a lot. Although beyond that I’m not really sure who cares. Just because my highschool friends knew I went to church at that time doesn’t mean that I should now find them all on facebook and send them a personal notice to tell them that I’m not a Christian anymore. So far I’ve just been sending emails to small, but increasingly larger circles of people around me. I figure as long as I would be reasonably interested if they sent me a link to their blog, then I’m in safe territory sending them a link to my blog.

Now to take a step back to a larger question. Generally speaking, in society as a whole, how vocal should I (and other Atheists) be about promoting Atheism? The answer to this question is important. Mostly because I do not want to be an annoying Atheist. I also don’t want to be timid or ashamed about my belief system just because I switched from Christian to Atheist. Where is the ‘annoying line’ and how do I use up all the real estate until that line but not cross that line?

There are a few things that I’m sure are on the right side of the line: (1) writing a blog, (2) inviting friends to that blog, (3) writing transparently about one’s personal story, beliefs and opinions and (4) writing with such wit, style and humour that one begins a meteoric rise to the heights literary fame. Obviously, I’ve done all of these already.

There is also another simple way of determining which public expressions of Atheism are “OK”, and that is to just do everything that religious people do that is “OK”. This might include mentioning casually to a friend that on the weekend you enjoyed a nice Sunday morning brunch at a new restaurant with your local Atheists group. Since no one really takes offence when religious people mention church related events in non-church circles, no one should have a problem with Atheists doing the same thing.

I think it should be generally agreeable that Churches and Atheist groups should be treated the same in similar situations. Let’s call them both “worldview clubs” and then ask what types of public actions a “worldview club” should take. Which of the following actions are “ok”, which are “annoying” and which are “wrong”?

  • A worldview club promotes their worldview on their own website, on TV, in print media, by distributing flyers on the street corner, and knocking on your door.
  • A worldview club heavily promotes a large, high budget public event. A worldview club tries to expand their future base by promoting their worldview to children.
  • A worldview club collects donations and uses the funds to alleviate poverty, and promotes these actions as being in the true spirit of their worldview.
  • A worldview club donates money to political candidates that share their worldview.
  • A worldview club receives public funds to create institutions of higher education guided by, and promoting their worldview.

I don’t have a complete answer to which of these are ok/annoying/wrong. But the last two immediately make me uncomfortable because they imply a close relationships between a worldview club and the government. Related to this are another set of questions: Does it matter if a worldview is shared by the majority of society, or just a very small minority? Does it matter if a worldview has a long history? What if a worldview was integral in the formation of a society or government?

Again, I don’t think I know the answers to these questions. But I do think that I can evoke different feelings in myself by “messing with the dials”. For example, let’s say I am participating in a group effort to promote my worldview and the effort succeeds in increasing the percentage of society that identify with our worldview from 15% to 16%. I think this would feel great. We’ve made headway! But what if the increase was from 98% of society to 99%? Would we still care to promote our worldview at that point? Also, is there a point at which having a pluralism of different worldviews in society is more important than further expanding your own worldview?

To answer these questions we would need to take a close look at which worldviews are involved. If Nazism was the worldview of 2% of society, then anyone with a worldview opposed to Nazism should feel no remorse in dissuading Nazis of their worldview. Obviously, this Nazi example has veered this conversation in a completely different direction. Suddenly we’re talking about what is objectively good or bad. In this case Nazism is obviously objectively bad.

Until I muddied the waters with Nazis (see Reductio ad Hitlerum), I had been describing different worldviews as if they were only subjective and innocuous personal choices. In many ways the difference between Atheism and Theism is purely a subjective choice. I believe that after death we all rot in the ground, and maybe Bob believes that there are streets paved with gold waiting for us in heaven. I like Daft Punk, and maybe Bob likes The Who. Just personal choice.

All of the questions that I asked in this blog post are important when worldviews are subjective choices, but they also remain important even when comparing worldviews that may be objectively better or worse than others. Of course the concept of what is “objective” and what we should do about it adds many more questions. I’ll take a swing at them in my next blog post.

CRD

Note: I often get the feeling that in my writing I’m basically referring to already well established concepts of ethics/theology/philosophy. But since I have very little education in these areas I’m just not aware of better ways of expressing myself. If you know of any authors, ideas, resources or definitions of big words (or even small and easy words) that might apply to any of this, I welcome the feedback.