Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anecdotal Evidence

For those of you who don't know, my mother-in-law is an evangelist. She is an Apostolic Faith evangelist who is chairperson of the missionary department at my former church.

If I told her now that I am an atheist, her head would spin around three times. Then she'd rebuke the devil and lay hands on me until she pushed me down through the floor.

That's how I'd imagine my "coming out" experience, anyhow.

See why I stay in the closet?

She came to our home for a short visit (on the night that I'm writing this). And she told us a cute little anecdote:

A little boy gave a report about how God created the heavens and the earth according to Genesis. After his report, the teacher began to ask him a few questions.

Can you see my hair?
Can you see my blouse?
Can you see my shoes?
Can you see my face?

The little boy didn't understand the teacher's line of questioning. But he answered "yes" to all of her questions.

Then the teacher asked, Can you see God?

The little boy sheepishly answered, "no".

Then the teacher explained to him how he need not believe in God because we cannot see God. Since we cannot see God, he does not exist.

The teacher was an atheist.

Then the next little boy gave his report. He directed his questions towards the class:

Can you see the teacher?
Can you see her shoes?
Can you see her blouse?
Can you see her hair?

All the students answered "yes".

Then the little boy asked, Can you see her brain?

The students answered, "no".

Then the little boy concluded his report:

Well then, she must don't have no brain.
I admit that I found the story cute. And my mother-in-law has a knack for delivering a good punch line.

I laughed to myself.

But, sorry, that story doesn't count as sound anecdotal evidence.

An autopsy would revel that the teacher in the story indeed has a brain. Although, she might not have been all that smart.

A CAT scan would also revel her brain too, I guess. So, I suppose we have no need of cutting people open to prove they have brains.

The mistake? Many theists seem to misunderstand. Atheists do not doubt God's existence simply because we cannot see God.

Atheists doubt God's existence because no one can produce sound, physical evidence that proves God exists.

The Bible doesn't count. We can't prove God actually wrote it. The same goes for any other sacred scripture text.

Philosophical arguments and "common sense" arguments (such as the complexity of the universe or the human eye) are only opinions. More physical evidence seems to support the idea that the universe can exist without a God of any sort rather than the idea that any particular God created the world.

I didn't say that science disproves God's existence. Perhaps an impersonal God exists. Maybe a Personal God exists.

Maybe personal gods exist because the people keep making up different, personalized gods with their imaginations?

Regardless, the theists aren't proving God's existence either.

Again, belief in God is by faith-- not by sight.

Nor by CAT scans or ultrasound.

See? Atheism isn't quite so unreasonable after all.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Religiously Bad

Gregory S. Paul has recently published a study that strongly suggest that a society's belief in God correlates with social ills found within that society.

And not in a good way.

We've heard this kind of thing before concerning the territories within the United States. The "religious states" tend to fair worse in all things good. And I should know, I live in one of them.

OK, maybe that last statement wasn't fair. But it was fun to say!

Well, this study shows a little more ambition and takes a cold, hard look at several other rich, Westernized democracies across the globe.

The findings suggest that religious societies exhibit higher pathological and dysfunctional markers. Examples of these markers include a higher incidence of rape, murder, STDs, teen pregnancies and abortions. All of these activities raise significantly higher-- not only within the United States, but also in other religious societies where belief in God is more prevalent.

If this is true, then why does religion make people become bad?

I can only speculate-- but perhaps religion causes people to practice their pathologies in their closets. The pressure from within a religious society may cause people to pretend to be pious. But around the bend and behind the barn, they're being religiously bad.

That possibility may account for the flurry of Republican congressmen who have gotten tied up into sexual scandals in recent months. To date, polls indicate that the best predictor of religious affiliation is political affiliation. So, I'm not simply picking on the Republican party.

And as a side note, I'm not saying Democrats do not get into sexual scandal (er, Bill Clinton, Jessie Jackson, John Edwards all come to mind). But somehow it doesn't seem so bad when Democrats do it. Oh, it is just as bad and damaging to the loved ones involved. But typically (not always I suppose), Democrats haven't prefaced their scandal with hypocritical religious piety. So, this tendency makes it easier for them to recover after getting caught up in a few social "nasties".

Now strictly speaking, perhaps belief in God isn't so much the problem. Perhaps religion in and of itself isn't really what's wrong.

Perhaps the real issue is fear to fully express oneself because of religious rules. Perhaps such fear prevents people from coming out and being open about who they are and what they truly love. What happens when you become too afraid to explore life and truly find yourself? Something pathological seems to breed when people are afraid to participate in harmless social taboos. Such suppression seems to push people across the line that lies between social taboos and maladaptive behaviors.

And most interestingly, the United States rates the worst in negative social markers when compared to other democracies. And the United States has the strongest overall religious overtones of all the other democracies according to Gregory Paul's publication.

Oh great. I live in the worst state within the worst democracy.

Well . . . when I compare my situation to something like living in a tiny village where people still perform witch hunts . . . I'm happy with living right here in the good ol' U.S. of A!

The United States is a wonderful place to live, in spite of these findings. But, our nation could be better. We could really grow into the nation that our Constitution originally tried to form. Perhaps we can forge an even better nation than what was ever intended by the Founding Fathers. We should never think that we have completely formed that more perfect union.

And from the appearance of things, we probably don't need God to accomplish that either.

My thanks to the Universal Heretic for inspiring this post. I was struggling to find something to write about. Not any more! Thanks!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Daddy, Does God Care About Me?

Children can ask questions that require answers way beyond a parent's comfort level. You worry that your child isn't ready for the answer you really want to give. You worry that what you really mean will get lost in his or her lack of experience with life. Maybe your child will get the wrong idea and develop some sort of anxiety, neurotic complex, or compulsion over a completely benign issue.

So, I tread lightly when my son asks me a deep question. And I worry over when my daughter will start asking deep question, too; I am safe for now since she is still in pre-school. But of course, that will change all too soon.

While out on vacation, my mom asked me to take her to a Christian book store. As she browsed the merchandise in search of a gift, my son and I wandered just out of her earshot.

Just then, my son accosts me:

"Dad, what's a Christian anyway? I mean, is all this stuff in here Christian? It all looks so boring. Why are we in this store anyway?"

I gave him that look. You know, that glare that parents give their children when they are talking too much.

But he persisted.


He tried to claim innocence as he shrugged his shoulders.

"What did I do? Did I say something wrong? I just wanna know what a Christian is."

My son, who should already be a Christian in my mom's view, is asking what a Christian is.

Very loudly.

In a Christian bookstore.

With my mother nearby.

That's bad news if my mom hears that kind of talk from my son. She'll know that I haven't been "training him up in the way that he should go".

I told him that we'd talk about it later. But for now, he needed to keep his mouth shut.

Then I gave him the parent glare again. This glare was a bit meaner than the previous one.

That time, he got the point.

Luckily, I remembered to keep my word and started talking more about religion with him a few days later. Because unbeknown to me, my son had another tough question coming down the pike. Our initial little talk would form some important groundwork for the next tough questions that was formulating in his mind.

I prefaced our first discussion by warning him that I would break his thumbs if he went back to his grandparents and talked about the things we would discuss concerning religion.

Okay, okay, I didn't tell my son I would break his thumbs. That's cruel.

But, I did explain to him that people can be very, very passionate about religious faith. He needed to realize that while his mother and I are very open, his grandparents are not and will become deeply hurt if he asked them certain taboo questions or misrepresented (or tattled about) something I said.

I'm taking a risk here. But, I think he got the picture this time.

I think he understands because he then admitted to thumbing through a copy of Babylon Religion that I have. My son claimed he found a story within that book where someone's arm was sawed off for believing in the "wrong" religion.

He said that after seeing that, he fully understood that people can get really mad about religion.

How the hell did he find that book anyway? I thought I put it away out of his reach.

Oh well . . . better for him to find that book than to find -- oh never mind.
(What? I was referring to my copy of The God Delusion.)

Unbelievably, he kept his mouth shut to listen to what I had to say. That doesn't happen often. He must have been really eager to have this talk.

So, I started discussing religion with him from a "history class" point of view. I explained to him that there are many faiths in our world. I told him that you'll find as many different ideas about God as you'll find cars in a Super Wal-Mart parking lot. Some of the followers from different religions get along with each other, whereas others do not. The same holds true for followers within the same religion. I told him that he needed to respect other people's beliefs and that he was responsible for finding his own sense of religious belief. And I told him that I would love him just the same if he ever decided to have no religious affiliation at all.

I also mentioned (as casually as I could) that many people do not believe in God at all. I told him that such people shouldn't be looked down upon, just like you shouldn't look down on anyone else of a different faith.

I told him that the three most noticeable religions today are Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. I told him about their most basic differences in a simplistic fashion. I told him that Christians are followers of Christianity.

Then I explained that Christianity is simply a religion where followers worship Yahweh. But, to please Yahweh, you must believe in the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ. I also tried to explain Judaism and Islam in similar, simplistic terms.

I also pointed out that other religions and belief systems are widely practiced. I mentioned Hinduism, Buddhism, and Wicca as other examples.

Eventually, he asked me why so many religions seemed to end with "isim".

After talking with my son, I sense that he is a theist at the moment. But I don't think he realizes Christian influences are being pushed onto him. He doesn't seem to see himself as Christian exactly. Just someone who believes in God. He only speaks of Jesus because he hears others throw that name around at church, at his grandparent's house, or on religious programs.

He didn't even realize that when he says "grace" over his food, that he is praying a Christian prayer. I even had to point that out to him.

But I also sense that my son has doubts about theism.

How do I know?

Well, the whole religion talk we had was about a week prior to this post.

And even more recently, my son asked his toughest question yet:

Daddy, does God care about me?

How does a closet atheist answer such a question?

Why, you answer such a question with a question!

"Son", I ask with parental tenderness (ha, ha), "why do you ask such a question?"

"Because," he replied, "I ask God to do things for me and I pray to him, but he never seems to answer or say anything."

Ah, I see.

I know exactly what you mean.

Well, at least, that's what I thought inside my head.

But I didn't divulge my thoughts completely. Instead, I drew in a deep breath as basically said:

I can't answer that one for you, son. You have to decide what God means to you for yourself. I won't share my (non) belief about God with you right now. When you're older, I'll be more open with you. But for now, you need to decide how to believe in God.

You ask an important question, however. Don't feel ashamed for asking it. I have asked that question myself.

He sat quietly for a moment. Then went on talking about his favorite comic books and video games.

He can see that if he asked his Dad a question, he gets a response. Daddy cares.

But when he asks God for something, all he hears is silence.

I can certainly see why he wonders whether or not God cares about him.

I just hope my son doesn't develop feelings of worthlessness simply because he can't get an imaginary person to answer him.

I might need to bring up atheism to my son sooner than I though.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Show Me

I can't seem to think of a good or clever way to start this post.

So, I'll just start it:

Is teaching Intelligent Design in a high school biology class fair?

Maybe (just maybe) Intelligent Design should be mentioned in a history class or philosophy class.

But, in my opinion, Intelligent Design should not come up in a science class.

At least, no one should be forced to teach ID as a scientific theory.

I don't mean to belittle history of philosophy with my previous statements. These subjects have a different emphasis that may warrant discussing a topic such as Intelligent Design.

But within the subject of science, Intelligent Design has no place-- especially if introduced as a scientific theory.

You know, an equivalent alternative to the theory of evolution.

Let me explain my point of view in a nutshell:

Science says, "show me"; religion says, "only believe".

Now, here's the long version of my point of view:

The word science has Latin roots which mean to know or knowledge.

Science sets out to learn what we don't yet know. Good science attempts this quest for knowledge while still realizing we don't (and probably won't) know everything. Also, science attempts to gather knowledge with the realization that we make mistakes and sometimes misinterpret our findings during our knowledge quest.

So then, a hypothesis should be thoroughly examined and supported by a wide range of facts before members of the scientific community accept it as a scientific theory.

And even after becoming a scientific theory, the idea should remain subject to scrutiny, modification, and even deletion should new facts come along.

But scientific theories are usually supported by a lot of intellectual substance. A hypothesis already has trouble becoming a theory. So, overturning a theory won't come so easily, either.

And, I will admit here that bias can interfere with this process.

However, the error-correcting mechanism that I alluded to beforehand is the overall goal of science.

And when the scientific world finally accepts an idea as knowledge or as a scientific theory, the proponents of such findings tend to stick to their claims.

At least, until better information comes along.

Such tenacity from scientists can sometimes be mistaken as dogmatism.

And I will also admit here, that sometimes it is dogmatism. But not always. Otherwise, we wouldn't enjoy the advances of technology that we have today.

The followers of religion tend to place faith within a scripture text whose interpretations and meanings can be quite subjective. Also, faith is often placed in a tradition with is passed along from parents towards their children or from proselytizing efforts towards a non-believer. The congregants of faith tend to share in the same traditions and teach new disciples how to follow the rules of faith. Yet these rules of faith, like scripture, are often subjective based upon the interpretations of believers and non-believers alike.

And some people are bold enough to forge their own religious faith from within their hearts. I admire this very much and find that a bravery goes along with doing such. But even here, such religious notions are subjected to the interpretations of the lone disciple.

For many religious people, the adherence to a religious belief becomes a source of knowledge. The belief itself becomes the evidence of an assertion or claim. And while one has a right to opinions and beliefs, this does not necessitate that such opinions or beliefs are actually right.

Or wrong, for that matter . . .

The tenacity that one has for his or her religious beliefs can often be admirable.

But when religious belief is treated as an absolute truth that everyone must follow (rather than an opinion or personal preference), such tenacity often changes from admirable faithfulness to religious dogmatism.

Now, don't get me wrong: you don't have to believe that life formed out of a soup of hot water and chemicals to accept evolution. And not everyone who believes in an Intelligent Designer rejects evolution. Many religious people with a deep sense of faith accept evolution. Evolution doesn't answer the questions about the origin of life-- only the origin of species. Evidence showing that life could have formed in a hot soupy mix is growing. But that notion still remains a hypothesis, unlike in the theory of evolution where one species slowly gives rise to another.

And since evolution is a scientific theory with a series of facts supporting it, teaching evolution in a science class (such as biology) is quite appropriate.

But what tangible evidence merits teaching Intelligent Design as a scientific theory in a science class alongside evolution?

The proponents of Intelligent Design theory often accuse evolutionists of dogmatism. They claim that evolutionists are biased towards Darwinism and only teach the theory because evolutionists constantly ignore the "other valid theories".

Like the Intelligent Design "theory", for example.

However, evolution has a wide range of testable, verifiable evidence whereas Intelligent Design has no evidence of any scientific sort.

Faith does not count as evidence in science.

I don't look down on anyone who believes that God created the universe. I don't look down on anyone who believes life originated through an Intelligent Designer. You can find good scientists who personally believe this way.

But to ask the students, teachers, and practitioners of science to treat Intelligent Design as a scientific theory is no more appropriate than asking religious followers to allow Darwinism into their Sunday School classes and pulpits as a "valid" explanation for the Genesis account.

Often, believers reject evolution theory on the grounds of their religious belief. As a result, many believers fail to see the evidence that supports evolution. And worse, too many believers (but not all) fail to see the difference between tenaciously supporting a scientific theory in lieu of a so called Intelligent Design theory.

Science will not accept Intelligent Design as a theory without some solid evidence.

While individual scientists may personally believe in a Designer or Creator, the discipline of science remains reluctant to simply believe.

The scientific method will always pose this same unwavering challenge:

Show me.