Question with Boldness: Thoughts on Belief

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
— Thomas Jefferson

What do I believe? I find it a bit odd when people say that atheists believe in nothing. To be human is to hold beliefs, for better or worse.  I am giving some thought to the things that I believe. I can’t say that I know that all of these things are true, or that I can prove them to be true, but they seem true to me.

  • I believe that people are basically good. That when they are freed from fear, want, and desperation people will usually do the right thing.
  • I believe that the natural word provides enough mystery and wonder to make the notion of supernatural miracles just seem silly and wrong.
  • I believe that the best guides to the truth are science and philosophy working in cooperation with one another. Science provides the facts, and philosophy makes the facts meaningful.
  • I believe that the best guide to morality is reason guided by empathy.
  • I believe that all gods in all religions were invented by human minds, and that the supernatural claims of all religions are false.

When I was a Christian teenager, when my doubts about the religious tenants that I had been taught would rise to the surface, I would try to beat them down again by declaring my belief (even if only to myself) and insisting that I really did believe. The problem with that is clear to me now. I had been told that there were certain things that I must believe, no matter what, or my soul was in danger of eternal damnation. Or even worse, that if I disbelieved in the story of Christianity my remaining years on earth would become empty and meaningless. To tell the truth, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that this last statement was a complete and utter lie. Life actually becomes more meaningful when you are not trying to force yourself to believe in things that don’t quite make sense.

Beliefs

Beliefs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Actually, I’d say it’s not so much that I didn’t believe the doctrines, but rather that I didn’t know that not believing them was a viable option. It’s hard enough to question your beliefs even without the threat of punishment if you should change your mind. This is the difference between this enumeration of beliefs that I am doing now and what I did as a Christian teenager. Now I am actually pondering my own mind and behavior and trying to pull to the surface what I really believe, rather than making a declaration of the things I think I ought to believe.

Everyone has beliefs. In fact it would be impossible to function as human beings without beliefs, because we are always acting in the face of incomplete knowledge. I find myself in a bit of a dilemma when trying to enumerate the things that I believe because I have the strong suspicion that a large number of things I believe are lurking below the surface of my consciousness…the assumptions that I hold without knowing that I am holding them until the truth comes up and slaps me in the face.

This is a point of humility for this atheist. Sure, you can make a lot of the fact that I boldly questioned the religious beliefs of my upbringing and found them to be utterly unsupported. It is a big deal. I had a lot of help–such as a friend who questioned me and asked “how do you know?” and books and professors that teachers who showed me that there are other ways to look at the world. The sort of beliefs that worry me the most now are those that are so engrained in our culture that we may rarely if ever be exposed to other points of view. What other irrational and unsupported beliefs might I be holding now?

The red flag that I might be holding one of these false beliefs is if I get angry or offended at someone else’s words. Why would someone else’s expressed opinions ever have that effect on me?  The key is to keep learning and keep searching and keep questioning. Any opportunity to adjust my belief to be more in tune with reality is an opportunity that should not be missed.

So go ahead, offend me.

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What I learned at Skepticon 7

I just got back home from Skepticon 7 late last night, and now is the time to recover and reflect. (If you don’t know what Skepticon is, visit http://skepticon.org/what/.) This year they had lots of speakers that I had not heard before (despite having gone to plenty of atheist conventions and hearing the most famous speakers multiple times). There was a very good variety of speakers and I commend the organizers for putting together such a fantastic lineup!

Here are some of the main ideas and learnings that I took away from Skepticon 7.

I learned about Ben’s firsthand experience of a Humanist Service Trip with the Pathfinders Project. The trip included teaching kids, helping villages develop a system to access clean water, a visit to a camp for accused witches in Uganda (and the heartbreaking results of superstition), and building latrines in Haiti. Also, a dangerous bout with malaria, reinterpreted as a process of personal transformation. Honestly, I am starting to cry as I write this, it was so heartwrenching and inspiring at the same time. So go to http://pathfindersproject.com and check out what they are doing. (Ben ‘Sweatervest’ Blanchard)

I learned that experiments with rats that show them helping other rats get out of a trap show that empathy and helping are hard-wired into mammals and do not require fancy cognition or culture. (Peggy Mason)

I learned that a careful analysis of studies that address the correlation of religion and wellbeing shows that when atheists are actually included in the studies and when the survey questions are relevant to atheists, the commonly media-touted claims about the religious being mentally healthier than atheists falls apart. It is a stable worldview is correlated to mental wellbeing, not a commited faith. (Melanie Brewster)

I also learned a concept of ‘minority stress’ that can affect atheists because of pervasive religous and anti-atheist prejudices in American culture. When atheists are compelled to self-censor out of fear of social censure from religous family or neighbors, and when they are exposed to frequent anti-atheist comments, the stress can cause mental and emotional damage. This is the major reason why atheist meetups and communities are important — they are safe spaces where atheists can get away from the sources of minority stress. (Melanie Brewster)

The distinction between natural and supernatural claims — between scientific and religous claims — is an illusion. There is no good reason not to think of the ‘supernatural’ (if it exists) as a natural realm that follows rules just like the natural world that we know. This idea has interesting implications for the sorts of claims that the religous make about God. (Scott Clifton)

I learned about ‘citizen science’ and there are websites like http://scistarter.com that anyone can go to to participate in the data-gathering process for scientific experiements, and participate in a casual or commited way depending on their own motivation and time. (Nichole Gigliucci)

I learned how an outsider to our culture can give a fresh perspective on the taboos and unspoken rules of our culture. (Heina Dababhoy)

I learned that ‘genderqueer’ is a gender category. I’d encountered the term before in blogs and speeches, but I never quite had a clear idea what it actually meant. I also learned that if you see something like ‘they/them’ in an online profile that means that those are the pronouns that the person wishes to be addressed by instead of ‘he’ or ‘she.’ Also, that it is appropriate to ask a person identifying as genderqueer what pronouns they prefer if you are not sure. (Twitter conversations in the #sk7 hashtag)

And last but not least, I learned that Skepticon organizers and participants put on the best Prom ever! XD

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My favorite fact of science

One of the fan questions in last night’s COSMOS panel (live streamed on Tuesday night ahead of the TV première of COSMOS 2104 on Sunday) was about the panel member’s favorite fact about science. It’s such a huge question that it would be hard to answer on the spot. My answer to this (after some thought), is that science is weird beyond what we can imagine and yet it is everyday, and all around us. Ever think about why, when you put your hand on a tabletop your hand does not just slip right though, although supposedly the atoms both are made of are mostly empty space? It’s because the electrons in the tightly packed atoms of your hand repel the electrons in the tightly packed atoms that make up the table—what you feel is the result of electromagnetic repulsion. I know I’m a big geek but when I first read about that I started tapping my hand against the table and felt slightly giddy with fascination. (NOTE: My understanding of how that actually works is not precise. Feel free to send corrections my way if I have described it incorrectly.)

Then there is that favorite fact that I learned first from my astronomy prof at UofL, and then heard again from Carl Sagan, that we are made of “starstuff.” It’s a bit of a romantic notion since people have long mystified the stars, but there is such an incredible depth to the idea that I never entirely get used to it. It encompasses the Big Bang and the formation of the simplest atoms of hydrogen. Those hydrogen atoms then clump together from gravity (since the expansion of matter from the Big Bang was not entirely uniform) into big balls of gas so massive that the pressure of gravity at their centers started smashing those hydrogen atoms together so hard that they fused together to make helium—producing vast amounts of heat and light in the process. Then the new star took billions of years to burn up all its hydrogen, so it then starts fusing the hydrogen into carbon—the basic elemental building block for life—and then carbon into iron (assuming it was a really massive star) and then exploded as a supernova since a star can’t sustain itself on iron fusion. And the heat and pressure from the supernova (which sometimes outshine their entire galaxy!) finishes the job and fuses the elements that are heavier than iron. *Deep breath, ‘cause that was a mouthful.* The supernova blasted those atoms out into space where they eventually formed dust clouds and new stars and solar systems, and…us. The wonder of massive stars far away and long, long ago, and the strangeness of atoms and nuclear processes, time scales beyond our innate comprehension…that’s what we’re made of. When you really get it, doesn’t it make your heart pound?

For a more technical and in-depth, yet simple and concise, explanation of the life cycle of stars and the building of elements, visit http://burro.astr.cwru.edu/stu/stars_lifedeath.html.

You can also view the panel discussion for Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey online at COSMOS: A SPACETIME ODYSSEY Live Event.

NO- Part II: Using the ‘Soft No’ and the ‘Dog-voice No’ in Sexual Situations

Mikel:

This is worth a reblog.

Originally posted on Disrupting Dinner Parties:

content note: discussion of ‘almost’ sexual assault

In NO (Part 1), I talked about how my mother taught me to assert my boundaries when I was I was a little girl. She taught me to say “No!” or “Stop!” loud and clear, with a straight face and a deep, firm voice as if I was talking to a misbehaving dog. When I grew up, it clicked that I could apply this loud, forceful ‘Dog-voice No’ to asserting my sexual boundaries. Furthermore, I took the principle of using firm serious body language and removed the loudness to create what I call the ‘Soft No’—a more palatable, but still potent I-mean-what-I-say signal.

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Fortunately, I haven’t had to use the Dog-voice No or the Soft No very often. I am lucky enough to have spent most of my life surrounded by people that listen to my words. Nevertheless, every now and then…

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My Faith, a poem

Are we all…

Unworthy?
Sinners?
Lost?
Corrupted?
Needy?

You say I should get my eyes off myself and look to God?

NO!

Don’t tell me to look away, don’t you dare!
I have my faith
Faith that I can not only look at myself
But that I can turn that magnifying glass deep inside

Insecurity?
Doubt?
Fear?

Take it all in

Risk it
Accept it
Embrace it

And Then Look Deeper

I find Goodness inside of me
Compassion
Hope
Love

I will not turn away
I will not avert my eyes
I am worthy

And I am not afraid

The Cost of Atheism (or just asking questions)

Mikel:

Looks like the “year without a god” guy has been let go from all of his jobs with religious organizations and schools because of his openly questioning religion. Apparently, he has made some people very uncomfortable. The Friendly Atheist has started a fundraiser to help him make ends meet while he lands another job.

And, as his blog post puts very well, he is really learning the costs that being atheists have for some members of our society.

Originally posted on Year Without God:

We still love you!

So many of my closest friends and colleagues have said this to me in the past few days. My initial, unspoken reaction was, “Well, I certainly hope so.” Now I understand that this is not a forgone conclusion. I didn’t realize, even four days ago, how difficult it would be for some people to embrace me while I was embracing this journey of open inquiry into the question of God’s existence. I have to say that anyone who knows me personally, while they may not agree with what I’m doing or fully understand it, has expressed their support for me personally. I deeply appreciate that because the organizations that I have been affiliated with have not been able to do the same.

It began on the evening of January 1—the very first day of my year without god. First text messages, then email saying, “We need…

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Microblogging #365DaysofGratitude

For the past couple months I’ve been occupied with projects that do not include writing new blog entries. However, in the meantime I have made it a personal goal to post something on Twitter each day this year (since my birthday in June) about something for which I am thankful. Well, not quite every morning since I find it incredibly difficult to do anything consistently every day for a year, but the intention is still there. :) These are posted to my Facebook page as well as Twitter, so if you are interested you can follow either source.

https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Skeptical-Seeker/185390804824946

@SkepticalSeeker on Twitter

Today’s Church Experience

Today I attended Sunday morning services with four other atheists from the Secular Student Alliance at the University of Louisville. For an explanation of what we were doing in a church, see my post immediately before this one: I am going to church tomorrow and here’s why. If you haven’t read that one yet, I recommend it for the back story before you continue with this post.

The church we attended was Walnut Street Baptist Church in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. The service was very typical of my experiences both growing up in the Church of the Nazarene and in visiting Baptist churches when I was looking for something different. The sizable sanctuary was well filled with mostly white  but also a scattering of black middle-class families, mostly dressed in casual and semi-dressy clothes. As far as looks go, our group fit right in. No one would have known we were not typical church-goers unless they recognized us or heard our post-service conversation.

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This is the view from where we were sitting. This photo was taken while the choir was singing.

The order of the service was as I expected, except that the taking of the offering happened at the end just before the benediction, and not right after the congregational singing. Otherwise the service was pretty much identical to the ones I had grown up in. The call to worship (the opening song) was “Because of Who You Are,” and it felt surreal to me to sit and listen to it because I used to be incredibly moved by that song but now I was just rather bored and waiting for it to end. I thought the same of most of the song service, which was a mix of contemporary songs and hymns. The one song that I enjoyed was “It is Well With My Soul.” It is a pretty song and was always one of my favorites. It started out with a trumpet solo and then the congregation joined in and I sang as well. It was the best part of the entire service.

The sermon was about worry and anxiety, and drew from Matthew 6:25-34. It started with an anecdote about distraction, namely the distraction of the pastor himself when he was a young child on a baseball team. As we all know, very young children are very distractible. He transitions into the rest of the sermon by saying the things that distract Christians the most from following Jesus are worry and anxiety. Without reproducing the entire sermon, which was fairly well organized with three sets of three points each, I’ll jump straight to the main point. According to this sermon, anxiety is experienced by Christians who forget to keep their focus on Jesus and instead worry about making preparations for their future. The point of the passage is that we should not worry about what will happen tomorrow or what we will eat or wear, since God will take care of all that. And Jesus is good and doesn’t want us to be anxious. Given that everyone in that congregation looked pretty well fed and clothed, I doubt that this pastor was making points about basic sustenance (like Jesus was) as much as about desiring the best clothes or the best food–things not necessary for survival and a basic level of sustenance and personal security.  I assume that at least the adults in the congregation are not so naïve as to think that they should not therefore store up provisions for the future for themselves and their children. After all, even the bird of the air starve to death when there is a drought or overpopulation or other such misfortune. In part because, as the Bible says, they don’t store up in barns. Perhaps we should be more like the squirrels of the trees than the birds of the air…but now I am getting off topic.

The part of the sermon that bothered me the most was the pastor’s response to the obvious objection to his message: What about when God is NOT providing for me what I need? After all, there are a lot of starving people in the world, and some of them are Christians. Here is his answer: “God will provide what is sufficient to do what he wants us to do.” In other words, if you are praying and begging and not getting what you need, it’s all part of God’s plan. He will reward you in the afterlife. Oh, also “your definition of good is not the same as God’s.” Well then. Stop complaining and trust the one who is invisible and inaudible. Just don’t worry.

I was also disappointed to not hear him mention the real things that any person, Christian or not, can do to help deal with anxiety: taking to friends, journaling/blogging, not procrastinating, avoiding negative thinking, and even seeing a therapist and taking medication in extreme cases. If all you knew about anxiety and its causes came from this sermon, the take away message would be that the reason you are anxious because you do not have enough faith in Jesus. It’s long been my problem with preachers that they are very good at times at pointing out real problems, but their advice usually misses the mark by so much that it would be laughable if it was not so sad. I always got frustrated with sermons because I have expected them to give a rational and persuasive case, but most church sermons are not persuasive speeches. You just either just believe what the pastor says, or you don’t.

It was an interesting experience to see church though the eyes of a total nonbeliever, as an open atheist. As expected the people were precious and I would have no problem associating with any of them. But (most of the) music and the doctrine and sermons are clearly not for me. But I don’t mind attending to raise money for a worthy cause. :)