Since I am recently talking about The God Virus, it bears mention that religion is not the only viral idea out there. In my youngest years the “god virus” (to use the metaphor) was not the only viral idea I was exposed to. I was also infected at a young age with a high regard and respect for science and for logic. For a long time I thought these two ideas, the religious idea and the scientific and logical idea, were in no conflict with each other because, naturally, Truth cannot contradict truth.
Throughout my life I have been driven by the search for answers. Not just any answers, but answers that make sense, answers that I can understand well enough that I can competently explain and defend to another person. According to the evangelical religious tradition in which I was raised, it was my duty to “witness” to anyone that I could to bring them into the fold of Christianity so that they would be saved. But I had a problem….even at the point when I most deeply believed, when I tried to speak the ideas out loud I felt a conflict, like there was something unfathomable that was just not right. I didn’t really understand this thing that I was trying to convince others to believe, and I could just imagine all the ways in which a non-believer could shoot down every argument I had in my arsenal. This bothered me immensely. I had to resort to just parroting what others had told me, or just skip the theology completely and just invite my target to come to church with me. My lacking witnessing skills guilted me tremendously, and I prayed fervently that God would grant me boldness and tell me what to say.
So, in my search for sensible answers, I dug into apologetics books by authors like C.S. Lewis, Josh McDowell, Ravi Zacharias, and Max Lucado. Without going into the details of each one, I found the following pattern nearly every time: I would read the book and it would bolster my faith and make me feel good about what I believed. Then, a week or two later the doubts and uncertainties would creep in again and I would read another apologetics book and feel good again…then go back to doubting again in about a week. I ran to the apologists and gobbled up their encouraging words, but didn’t really examine the arguments they were using. I so wanted to believe their conclusions that I didn’t really care if their arguments made sense or not. So when I tried to explain to myself what I had learned from them later I remembered the conclusions and good feelings, but still couldn’t reconstruct the arguments behind the conclusions. So back into doubt I would slide. After several cycles of this I started to get really frustrated.
Little did I realize, I had two conflicting viruses vying for dominance in my mind. I wanted verifiable, scientific, logical answers and I just was not getting what I needed from the previously mentioned apologists. Then I got into creationist literature, including my heavily anti-evolution home-school biology text, and thought for a while that I found what I needed. That science really did support the Bible and Christianity.
I found bits of the truth about evolution and creationism later in college, with the help of Astronomy 101 which explained to me about the Big Bang, and showed me a timeline of the universe including that of life on Earth. That piqued by curiosity and lead me to read more on my own. I was furious at first and felt I had been misled on clear scientific matters by Christian authors I had trusted in the name of God. I gave up on the apologists and creationists and started perusing the science section at our small local library. That is where I found the book form of Cosmos by Carl Sagan, and River out of Eden by Richard Dawkins. And I was hooked.
I started checking out all the books in the local library I could find on both cosmology and evolution. I would bring them home read them guiltily in my room, hiding them under the covers when my parents knocked at the door for fear of their disapproval (I was a bit paranoid perhaps?). This was my rebellion, searching outside the family religion to find my explanations in science. Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins and other science writers I discovered didn’t simply rush to a desired conclusion. They actually explained each step in the progression of their arguments in a way that I could grasp, slowly building up to the conclusion while I followed along. And it made sense, and still made sense a week later (though I usually had to go back and review.) I was actually learning new things when I read, unlike when I read the apologists, and the new understanding I found was intoxicating. The more I learned, the more my former supernatural beliefs fell away in favor of natural scientific explanations, all the way back to the origin of humanity and the origin of the universe. I could see that there were still gaps in scientific knowledge of course, but science had replaced the supernatural explanations so many times in the past. I couldn’t see any sense in posing supernatural explanations for what we didn’t know yet. To insert “God did it” anywhere in the natural world just made no sense.
The viral idea that truth cannot contradict truth lead me to embrace science and reason over faith.
It’s perfectly natural to think of ourselves as something separate from our bodies. I’d bet that a major factor in the starting of religions thousands of years ago was the uncanny sense that we each have a “self” floating somewhere behind our eyes. Surely our vast range of emotions, mental capacity to contemplate the universe, empathy and communication with other people, and the whole of our personalities are evidence of a special spark of the supernatural inside each of us that goes beyond what is possible in the mere physical world.
Yet, even before I gave up my belief in Christianity, I concluded that the whole concept of the soul was totally superfluous.
A number of things that I learned in my college classes regarding philosophy and psychology caused me to question the existence of immortal and immaterial souls. It was in a class on psychology at my Nazarene University that I was first exposed to the concept that some people think that the mind is identical to the brain, with no soul needed. Being that this was a Christian university, the idea was quickly glossed over and was apparently only mentioned for completeness, but the idea stuck with me. It shocked me.
The same semester, in an introductory philosophy class, we discussed Descartes and the ways he tried to figure out how an immaterial soul could influence a physical body. Descartes thought that the soul interacted with the body though the penial gland. Everyone in the class thought this was funny, but the question was interesting. And it got me thinking: How would an immaterial soul interact with an influence human flesh? Did it even make sense at all?
Back in Psychology, the professor had the class watch a video recreation of the story of Phineas Gage. This particular event sticks out in my memory, not least because one of the students in the class fainted when the metal bar shot though Gage’s head up through his cheek and out the top of his head. (The prof warned us this could happen, and had happened before. I heard this was the last time he showed the video in class.) The most amazing thing about the Phineas Gage story is not that he survived, and was conscious and coherent even in the minutes right after the rod blew through his brain. It was the way this injury totally and irrevocably changed his personality and his character (though I have also read since that the changes were not fully documented and may have been exaggerated). If both his personality and character changed due to a physical injury, that must mean those things are contained in the brain and not in an immaterial soul.
And it’s not just Phineas Gage, but look at all the people who take drugs that affect mood, personality, and a range of other mental characteristics. What about people who lose their memories due to a blow to the head? Assuming there were an immortal soul, does that mean that when we die we lose all of our memory since memory is stored in the brain and dies along with our body? If an immortal soul lives on, but without our memories or personality, then what would that even mean? Would that thing that survived my death even be me at all?
What about animals? It’s clear that our mammalian relatives have emotions and personality. Chimps, for example, have been observed to show compassion and empathy towards one another and even at times towards members of other species — impulses once thought to be the domain of humankind alone. Yet I still hear from time to time that the thing that separates humans from animals is that we have souls, and they do not. What sense does it make to try to prove our uniqueness by claiming that they don’t have something that we cannot even clearly define or prove we have ourselves?
I mentioned above that I stopped believing in immaterial souls while I still was a Christian, which may be puzzling to some of my readers. But the thing is, Christianity has never had a hard-line, consistent, explanation of what is supposed to happen to our soul after we die. Some Christians believe that the soul goes directly to heaven or hell after death. But others believe that after you die, you “sleep” until the resurrection at the end of time. So when I no longer believed in the soul, the second option made the most sense to me. However, I eventually gave up all those beliefs using the same type of reasoning that lead me to doubt the soul.I think that the concept of the soul is a wonderful metaphor for who we are inside, even if I don’t believe such a thing literally exists. We can use the concept of the soul just like astronomers use constellations, even though the stars that make up these shapes really have nothing to do with each other. There is not really a lion in the night sky, or a hunter, or a bull. Constellations are intuitive and useful, even if not actually real. Such it is with the soul.
My disbelief in the soul did not directly lead me to atheism, but it was a step in that direction. The same method of thinking that lead me to conclude that the soul is superfluous and probably made up was the same type of thinking that lead me to conclude the same about God.
What makes an action good or bad (or neutral)? Atheists are asked by theists, quite frequently, where we get our morals. However, I think that the Biblical theist has a much harder time when it comes to morality than the atheist. This dilemma for the theist is most elequantly stated by Plato as Euthyphro’s dilemma: Is something morally good because it is commanded by God, or is it commanded by God because it is morally good? (my paraphrase. Click the linked text for further detail.) Unlike the Divine Command theory of morality, which states that moral duty comes from God’s or a god’s command regardless of how an act or belief looks in light of secular reason.
The Biblical story that is most cited in discussions about secular morality vs Divine Command morality is the one where God commands Abraham to kill his one and only son as an offering. If you are not familiar with the story, I recommended the illustrated version of The Brick Testament here: God Demands Child Sacrifice. So, if God were to tell you to kill your child, what would be the proper response? According to Divine Command theory, which is championed in the Bible, it is to not question God’s will but to do whatever it is he said. (That Isaac was spared at the end is irrelevant, because Abraham clearly fully intended to carry out the command and was considered righteous for that reason. ) According to secular morality, which is generally followed in modern cases such as that of Andrea Yates, the proper response if you think God wants you to kill your child (or anyone’s child!) is NO, ABSOLUTELY NOT! And it appears that most Christians that are put to the question actually agree with secular morality on this one.
The modern version of the Divine Command theory that I encounter most often comes from self-proclaimed “Biblical” Christians who believe in the authority of the Bible as the final say in all matters of morality. To an unbeliever like me, who does not trust the men who wrote the literature that came to be included in the Bible, nor the counsels of men who determine which of these writings would be considered as authoritative scripture, this assertion is absurd to the highest degree. However, there are plenty of people who, for whatever reasons, still consider the Bible to be a source of authority.
A recent prime example of this is found in the political debate over the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage. Conservative Christian politicians like, every single GOP primary candidate, is pounding on this issue that homosexuality is a “sin” and that gay couple should not be allowed to marry or raise kids or adopt kids for really no reason whatsoever other than what they believe religiously. (Or, to be more accurate, what they think their voters believe religiously.) All of the studies that have been put forth to say that kids raised by homosexuals are harmed in some way have been exposed as the crap that they are, as pointed out most eloquently by Al Franken (see Sen. Al Franken Slams Focus On The Family During DOMA Hearing and watch the video). The motivations here are purely religious and political. This is what it looks like when a “Biblical” idea of morality is put ahead of human happiness and autonomy, and above the wellbeing of kids who would otherwise be adopted into a loving home.
This example of how “Biblical” Christian morality to be out of step with modern society and rational morality is one more reason why I am now an atheist.
For further reading on the contrast between theistic moral beliefs and humanism, and a talk on why secular morality is superior to “Biblical” morality, see the links below.
I have gotten these questions before. I actually have quite a lot of reasons that I am an atheist, but I’ve found that when someone just asks me point blank I freeze up because I can’t think of where to start. Because I’m not always sure of which reason would be the most effective for the asker to understand, because I don’t usually know their background or what their concept of “god” looks like. While considering this situation, I thought maybe instead of trying to jam my reasons for being an atheist into a single post why not have a series of posts where I can address each reason one by one? So, over the course of the next few months I will be writing and posting a series of essays on the various reasons why I am an atheist.
As a preview, here are some of the reasons I am looking forward to explaining:
The conspicuous absence of God, and my repeated observations of God being “given the glory” for human actions and chance events.
The historically dubious origins of Christian doctrines, including early church disputes about the nature of Jesus himself.
Moral philosophy and the “Divine Command” theory.
The soul: how I became convinced that mind=brain and that the idea of the soul is superfluous.
Sexism and injustice in the Bible (probably other holy books too, but I don’t know the other books well enough to comment on them.)
The constant replacement of supernatural and religious explanations with understandable scientific ones.
Evolution, the origins of life, and creationist lies I was told when I was young.
And this list may change during the series, as I think of other things. If any of these intrigues you, make a note in the comment section and I will try to get to that reason sooner rather than later.