Saturday, February 14, 2009

Why I don't call myself an atheist - By Jim Ebsary

Jim Ebsary thinks that religious ideas are a big problem in our society and should be challenged with reason and logic. He’s a firm supporter of the scientific method and critical thinking, the separation of church and state, and freedom of and from religion. His e mail is

Some material adapted from: Harris, S., The problem with atheism.


Why I don’t call myself an atheist

To me, the lack of evidence for God, and the silliness and suffering that still exists under the blanket of religion, calling myself an "atheist" seems like a logical position. But, why do I call myself a term that was thought up by believers as the enemy of their belief, someone to blame society’s problems on? There are plenty of us that identify ourselves as atheists or agnostics. In a recent poll (2005), about a quarter of us Canucks don’t believe in gods. That’s a really big minority within a country that is overwhelmingly Christian. I also believe there are enough people around who consider themselves spiritual, and don’t accept organized religion, which might be at least sympathetic to the way we feel. However I think we might be making a mistake by identifying ourselves as atheists.

What is atheism anyway? I believe that most people simply misunderstand atheism. To me, I think a pretty good definition is “disbelief in gods”. But when people find out that I’m an ‘atheist’, do they identify me only as a person who doesn’t believe in gods, that I base my life on atheism? Atheism doesn’t run my life, and the term doesn’t define me. I don’t have a post-secondary education, I have a family and good friends, I hold down a job (for now), I’m a productive person in society, and I try to be decent. I just don’t believe in gods, which I usually don’t think is worth mentioning, but I do tend to speak up when I think something is a really bad idea. My humble opinion is that everyone is usually atheistic when it comes to someone else’s beliefs that don’t agree with their own.

I think that "atheist" is a term that shouldn’t exist, just like we don't need a word for someone who rejects fortune-tellers. We don’t call people "non fortune-tellers,” or “a-fortune-tellers." All we need are words like "reason," "evidence," and "bullshit" to put fortune-tellers in their place; it can be the same with religion, or for that matter potential quackery like alternative medicine.

A problem with calling ourselves "atheists" is that every religious person thinks he has The Great Argument against atheism. We've heard these tiresome arguments (and they really are tiresome, because they offer nothing new. But I think it’s important to stay open to these ideas. If someone claims they have irrefutable evidence I will try to listen), and we’re going to keep hearing them as long as we call ourselves atheists. Some are stupid arguments like: atheists can't prove that God doesn't exist; atheism is a belief, just like any other belief; and arrogant arguments like atheists claim to know there is no God. We know the arguments are false, yet every time, we have to defend ourselves. We squander a lot of time doing this.

How many times are we going to defend ourselves against the accusation that Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot are the result of atheism? These arguments are not going away. Very articulate and well reasoned people like Sam Harris argued against it in The End of Faith, and Letter to a Christian Nation; Richard Dawkins did the same in The God Delusion; and Christopher Hitchens did the same in God is Not Great. This bullshit argument will be with us for as long as people call themselves "atheists." Religious people accept this argument, the same way they blindly accept the silliness of Pascal’s Wager. Unfortunately, it also convinces people that are moderate in their beliefs.

Consider the misunderstanding of atheists by the MPP’s when they debated abolishing the Lord’s Prayer at the start of Legislature at Queen’s Park. Now, as a result of this debate, atheists are given a moment of silence after the Lord’s Prayer before Legislature. What is an atheist supposed to do with a moment of silence? And, if we were acting as some kind of group, why were we arbitrarily given something we don’t want or need as some form of appeasement?

At the XXVIII World Religions Conference held at University of Waterloo last fall, I sat through speech after speech by MP’s, MPP’s, Mayors, Chiefs of Police, etc, who congratulated us all on our working together to help understand each other’s faith. The Secular Humanist group which attended this session to represent atheists and agnostics was thanked for their ‘faith’, and they have been thanked for their ‘faith’ every time they attended. We were completely ignored and insulted during these speeches. At the end of the conference, we had to sit quietly or leave the room while others prayed. If Secular Humanists have no faith, why are they participating in a World’s Religions Conference? In my experience, Secular Humanists are falsely labelled and dismissed as cranks that ‘take away’ the right to pray and ‘take away’ religious holidays. Usually you will see religious people spreading this myth, but I’ve read comments by my MPP Peter Kormos repeating the insulting remarks about ‘taking away prayer’ during the silly uproar of abolishment of the Lord’s Prayer at Queen’s Park.

So, if atheism isn’t a thing at all, why are we calling ourselves atheists? Atheism isn’t a belief—and still most people believe it is one and attack it like it is. We atheists might be continuing to assist this myth by letting others call us atheists and by even calling ourselves atheists.

It doesn’t help when we make mistakes ourselves. Recently, I had a difficult time trying to reason with a leader of a Humanist group that it was incorrect to capitalize atheist and atheism. His reply was that everyone else does it, so he was just doing the same. He’s over 75 years old; how long has he been making that mistake, just thoughtlessly copying, never questioning, just accepting? Atheism isn’t a proper noun, and shouldn’t be capitalized. Religious people who criticize atheism often capitalize the word in an attempt to strengthen their arguments that atheism is a belief like Christianity or Hinduism.

What would happen if we, as ‘atheists’ just used words like "reason" and "evidence" and “bullshit,” and not call ourselves anything at all? I believe that there are very few people, even among religious fundamentalists, who will admit to being against reason (Incredibly, in a recent report from Skeptical Inquirer (2008), a conference on parapsychology stated that ideas like e.s.p. and psychokinesis might be true because they share the characteristic of always eluding being proven by the scientific method. How’s that for rational thinking?) Fundamentalists usually believe they have sound reasons for believing in God. I don’t think anyone wants to believe anything on bad evidence. Searching for truth shouldn’t be relegated to an interest or lobby group just to be dismissed as some cranky people.

Monday, February 2, 2009

God, ethics, and humanism - a debate

On Feb. 3, 2009 I will debate god, Nietzsche, science and ethics with Brock University Professor David Goicoechea at the Pelham Public Library. What follows is the text of my opening remarks, which may be abridged for time.

After the debate I will post David's comments, our rebuttals, an overview of the evening and perhaps a video of the debate.

-Grant LaFleche.

Religious faith often dies a hard death. It fights with a particular zeal to keep its privileged control over one’s life. It can root itself so deep into the fabric of our beings, defining who we are, how we act and, ultimately what our fate is, that to cast it off can feel like chopping off a limb. When faith does die you are, after all, left the enormous question of “well, what now?”

But as Jawharlal Nehur said, “facts are facts and they do not disappear on account of your likes.” In my own case facts, evidence and logic were the ultimate corrosive for faith. In as much I was did not want to let go of the pleasant poetry of Buddhist cosmology, or long before that, of the simple certainty of Biblical morality, there wasn’t any other choice. Facts are facts. Evidence is evidence. And they matter.

But trekking off into the undiscovered country of a faithless existence is not a bad thing. You can start off feeling a bit like you are playing tennis without a net. But once you grit your teeth and grapple with that essential question – what now? – you enter a world brighter, more meaningful, more fascinating and, yes, sometimes more frightening, than anything you have previously experienced. That journey, in the spirit of Nietzsche – our patron philosopher this evening – is a critical step in becoming truly human.

I mention all of this because when David and I talked about getting together for this debate, he suggested it might be worth while to recount, by way of an introduction, what lead me to atheism and secular humanism. So I will spend the next few minutes, hopefully without boring you, providing a readers digest version of my own journey from believer to non-believer, and then get into the meat of tonight’s rather weighty subjects of ethics, morals, science and the existence of god.

My father was, not to put too fine a point on it, a “just in case” Catholic. He is not a religious man by any stretch and I have never once seen him pick up a Bible. But he is the sort of fellow who, to borrow the phrase from atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett, “believes in belief.” So my brother and I were baptized as Catholics, the faith of my father’s father, in what I often imagine was my father’s metaphysical insurance policy. Should it turn out, when we die, the Catholics were right, we’d be “covered” as it were.

Nevertheless, I was not raised in a particularly religious home. It really wasn’t a subject that came up that often, and from my mother’s point of view, it was really up to us. If we wanted to go to church she’d take us. If not, we didn’t have to go. Needless to say, I spent most Sunday’s eating cereal and watching cartoons.

Catholic school was a different matter entirely. Along with the regular academic course load, there were mandatory meetings with a priest for confession, regular church services and religion class – which really wasn’t a class about religion, but rather about how Catholicism is right and everyone else’s religion is just a bunch of nonsense – including other Christians! (
This is a view expressed by the present pope, who in 2007 declared that non-Catholic churches were “wounded” and because they do not accept the authority of his office, cannot really be called churches at all.) In short, I was well indoctrinated in the Catholic faith.

There were, however, several incidents which slowly, but effectively, drove a stake into the heart of my Catholic faith and by my senior year the Church seemed irrelevant to my life and often rather absurd. The idea accepting the words of a pope, whose election I had no say in, as a guide to how to live my life seemed ridiculous, as did the idea of original sin, the assumption of Mary, or taking sex advice from celibate men who had less experience with it than I did.

Like Abraham Lincoln, I came to see the “unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation” – the reasons for which I’ll discuss as the night progresses – and the inability of the religion to square itself with the mountain of scientific facts we have accumulated since the faith was formed.

But as I said faith dies hard, and like my father, I believed belief. It just seemed proper that you had to believe in SOMETHING. I ended up exploring Buddhism, which expressed a far more enlightened ethic and morality. Where the operating principle Christianity was righteousness, which is doing what god commands, Buddhism was about compassion. As Nietzsche correctly points out in the Anti-Christ, Christianity constantly tries to avoid sin, which is impossible, and so therefore is obsessed with redemption and forgiveness, while Buddhism seeks to end suffering. He regarded both as, ultimately, nihilistic nonsense, but regarding Buddhism as something far closer to what he regarded as the way human beings should live.

In any case, Buddhism, like Christianity, cannot avoid a headlong collision with facts and evidence. Just as Christianity cannot demonstrate the existence of its deity, so Buddhism cannot demonstrate the existence of reincarnation, or the cycle of samsara. And if it is as I have said, that facts matter, then they apply as much to Buddhism as to Christianity. And so it was with some considerable regret that I had to embrace intellectual honesty and let it go.

Atheism, it seems to me, is the rational position to take when one measures the faith claims against evidence.

So without belaboring my own history, I will turn to the point and which David and I agreed this debate would start – which is to say we are starting with the substance of another. Some months ago I moderated a debate, which David attended, between local evangelical preacher Peter Youngren and David Barker of the Freedom from Religion Foundation in the United States. Mr. Barker outlined six points to explain why he does not believe in god, and it is on these six points that our debate this evening will begin.

David, obviously, is unlikely to agree with Mr. Barker, or at least not nearly as much as I do. There are some points of separation between Mr. Barker and myself, and I hope to make these clear, so that this debate is not with Mr. Barker, but rather between David and myself:

1) No evidence for god. The evidence for god of the Bible is no different than the evidence for Thor, or Zeus or leprechauns.

On this point there is no argument between Mr. Barker and myself. There is no scientific evidence for the god of the Bible. There is no evidence for it that would stand up on a court of law. The existence of such a creature depends, completely and wholly, upon one’s religious convictions.
The fact of the matter is that faith is not evidence of anything other than what a religious person believes. And yet we treat religious faith, which is in the final analysis belief without evidence, as a virtue. And this is particularly true of Christianity.

There is a story in the New Testament where, after Jesus has risen from the dead, his followers gather. They tell one of their own, a skeptic named Thomas that Jesus is back. Thomas is incredulous. “I’m not going to believe something so insane unless Jesus stands before me and I can stick my fingers in his wounds.” Of course, this is the Bible, so Jesus does appear and Thomas gets to stick his fingers into Jesus’s wounds. Thomas, with the evidence of the resurrection standing in front of him, becomes a believer.

But the story doesn’t end there. Thomas receives a rebuke from Jesus. “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

The message is simple. Don’t doubt. Don’t question. Don’t investigate. Simply believe. Have faith. Thomas, according to Jesus, shouldn’t have been asking for evidence. He should have just believed the unbelievable.

I don’t see how this sort of credulity is a virtue. I rather think Thomas had it right. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

We protect faith from evidence as a society essentially by saying that it is taboo to question it. This is only in the area of our lives in which we do this. In medicine, law and justice, or even the safety features of your car, you rightly demand to have verifiable evidence. We do not respect quack medical claims and we come down rather hard on car manufacturers whose safety equipment fails. But when it comes to religion, we throw evidence out the window.

2) No coherent definition of god, and what definitions there are tend to be contradictory akin to calling a man a “married-bachelor.”

There lays at the root of the Abrahamic religions an unavoidable paradox. God is often described as being Love. Christians will sometimes call this “agope”, to use the Greek word. And something like the Sermon on the Mount is often considered one of the great statements on ethics. However, this is only part of the story of the god of the Bible. For the theology to hang together, Christians need the Jewish Bible, the Old Testament. Without it, the theology of the sequel text, the New Testament, is rendered inert. Yet it is not too much to say that god in the Old Testament is anything but loving.

He murders often and in great numbers. He orders several ethnic cleansings, including a standing order to wipe out the town of any people who dare suggest to the Hebrews that they follow another god. He orders a father to murder his own son as test of loyalty and even personally commits genocide and ecocide on a global level. Even if taken as metaphor, these are not stories about love, but about an uncontrollable, petty rage that would make even Zeus blush. Were such a god to actually exist, it would not be a creature to bow down to, but to openly oppose on basic notions of justice and human solidarity.

Even in the New Testament we see the contradiction continue. It is only in the New Testament that we are introduced to the utterly immoral concept of hell, where one can be tortured forever for rejecting god’s “love.” Where “salvation” comes in the form of a bloody human sacrifice that any of us would feel duty bound to stop if we had been there. It is made worse because the crucifixion would rob us of personal responsibility, upon which all ethics must be based, in favor of vicarious redemption – it encourages us to dump our wrong deeds upon the head of another. I am hard pressed to find a less moral and less loving doctrine than that.

Indeed, I openly reject the “sacrifice” of Jesus. I would want no part of it, were it to be true, because I reject the notion that someone has to die for my alleged crimes. The very notion of accepting personal responsibility is antithetical to the vicarious atonement offered in Christian theology.

3)No argument for god can be falsified – the ontological, moral, cosmological and teleological arguments are all poor arguments.

Imagine for a moment I told you the entire universe was created and governed by the Cosmic Platypus, and the only way to save our immortal souls was to make making offerings of frog eggs to it. Further, the commandments of the Cosmic Playtpus are laid down in the Texts of the Oracle of the Venomous Mammals. Also the Cosmic Platypus, living in a river outside of time and space, cannot be seen or touched or otherwise detected, but I nevertheless claim the Cosmic Platypus, in his all beaky glory, is as real as the nose on your face.

Now, even though that is a farcical example, the fact is you cannot disprove the existence of the Cosmic Platypus, can you? Really, you cannot anymore than you can disprove Shiva, or Baldur, or Mazda. Show me the evidence they don’t exist. So if I was seriously making the above claim about the Cosmic Platypus, his slappy tail be praised, would it not be reasonable for you to demand evidence?

The arguments for god are the same. At the very best they might point to a deist concept of a distant first cause, and all of them must eventually abandon their own logic to say, in essence, “god did it.” But such a claim cannot be falsified because it does not have any evidence to disprove. Some of these arguments, and we may want to discuss them further tonight, sound impressive. But they must, as all things, give way to facts and evidence.

4) There is no agreement among believers on moral issues.

Again, I agree with Mr. Barker. There is no agreement on moral issues, even among believers of the same faith, quoting from the same book! You can find 10 Catholics and ask them about a moral issue, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers.

What is more worrisome to me, however, when examining issues of ethics and morality is not that believers do not agree with one another – but the harm religious institutions cause by unfounded moral pronouncements.

The Catholic Church has an impressive track record in this regard, and one need only look at the Vatican’s continual and consistent condemnation of the use of condoms to combat the spread of HIV as an example. We know beyond any shadow of a doubt, thanks to science, that condoms have a significant impact in reducing the spread of this virus, yet the church sees fit to ignore this and reject it as a moral issue – which has a significant impact in the developing world where secularism does not have nearly as strong an influence and where the words of a pope carry significant weight. Well, it is a moral issue and the church’s position is plainly wicked because it contributes to suffering and death. No amount of declaring it to be a faith issue, and thus beyond reproach, can change that.

Where the secular humanist will examine the issue from a utilitarian perspective with an aim of reliving suffering, the church is irrationally dogmatic and dismissive of evidence.

The issue for me is not that believers cannot agree on moral issues. That is a common affliction of the human species. The problem arises when human suffering and well being plays second fiddle to dogmatic statements which have no basis in fact.

5)The problem of evil.

This is of course one of the great stumbling blocks of all Christianity, Catholicism included. If god is loving, if god is pure and benign, why is there such a great amount of suffering and evil. This is the question the Greek thinker Epicurus put forward hundreds of years before the supposed birth of Jesus, and it has gone largely unanswered ever since.

Often, suffering is declared to be the result of the hideous doctrine of original sin, in which the entire species is condemned for the supposed transgression of a mythological first man and woman (whose sin it seems to me to have been the acquisition of knowledge, hardly a crime at all. Indeed, the serpent in the story, far from being evil, is really a spiritual relative of Prometheus, bringing fire to mankind to free him from bondage.)

Others will say suffering and evil are mysterious in someway, and a state that brings one closer to god. We saw this in our lifetimes expressed powerfully in the person of Mother Teresa. In popular culture we treat her as a saint beyond criticism for her work with the poor in India. But as Christopher Hitchens so clearly demonstrates, Teresa was not a friend to the poor, but a friend of poverty. She believed that the more one suffered, the closer one is to Jesus. And who suffered more than the poor souls she “tended” to. Her order raised millions, but built no hospital or improved her own hospices, enacted no programs to put an end to the horrid conditions that lead to many to live such wretched lives. Instead, she gave them a place to die – a place where medical science was shunned, hypodermic needles reused by running them under cold water and people died from treatable illnesses. Her theology, rooted in a very Catholic idea of the “mystery” and utility of suffering, required these poor people remains poor, ignorant and sick.

Grappling with evil and suffering and lending aid to our fellow creatures is something that we, believer and non-believer alike, should gladly do. But never should we treat suffering as mysterious, unassailable or worse, as something good.

6) No need for belief in a god. Non Christians give more as a group than Christians.

Here is where I part company, to a degree, with Mr. Barker. He is correct to say that non-Christians “give” more in terms of charity or charitable works than Christians, but this is merely a question of demographics. Most humans on the planet today are not Christians. In a culture like the United States where most people are Christians of one stripe or another, you find believers giving more than non-believers. In countries like Sweden which have very low levels of religious activity, you see more secularists/atheists giving more than believers.

There is little point to tallying up who “gives” more because the statistics simply are not that clear cut. What does matter, however, is that a belief in god is simply unnecessary to do good things. It is not a prerequisite to do good. I was very proud recently to take part in a blood drive with the Niagara Secular Humanist Association. Those of us who took part did not donate our blood because we are ordered to do so by a sky god who holds out the carrot of punishment and reward. It is done because we know people need help and we are in a position to do so.

Indeed, secular humanism walks on the path of a much greater and humane tradition than what is found in the Bible. The Greeks had a basic moral and ethical idea that can be expressed as “Be careful whom you turn from your door.” It is famously the operating ethical system of Homer’s Odyssey. And it says that you help your fellow creatures in need because one day you might be the one who will survive on the charity of strangers. Human solidarity, as expressed in this fashion, gets us a very long way to creating a better society for everyone. It is not perfect. We will stumble. We will fail. But that is almost the point, that we struggle knowing this to be so. And knowing this is the only life we have, that we will cease to exist when we die as we did not exist before we were born, we have this one and only chance to make a difference.

And if god is not necessary to do good, if there are very human reasons to help one another, why bother with the concept of god in the first place?