Why do I believe? Part 14 – A little more on fruit

I’ve previously described how, at least in my own experience, there seems to be something about the way of Jesus that motivates more and deeper altruism than I have observed elsewhere.  But there’s another corollary that I have observed that I think deserves mention.  I have known quite a few people who have, during their adult life, either come to or left the Christian faith, however they describe it.  I have known fewer (but not none) who have chosen to adopt other faiths.  And while this is about as unscientific an observation as any, there is a pattern I have seen that I cannot dismiss.  While stipulating all the requisite provisos about the good non-Christians I know (and they are many) and the nasty Christians I know (and sadly they, too, are many), I have seen the way of Jesus (some would say the Holy Spirit) change people for the better in a way I don’t find replicated anywhere else.

What I mean is this:  I count as good friends–good enough to have some grounds to say this–a number of people who, in the process of placing their trust in Jesus Christ, have become visibly and unmistakably (and sometimes radically) kinder, gentler, humbler, and more generous people than they were before.  While it seems to me theoretically possible that the philosophy of Islam, Judaism, or Buddhism might also produce this change, I have neither seen it nor met anyone who claims it.  And perhaps most tellingly, I have never seen such a change to the good for one who abandons his or her faith, and in fact I frequently have seen quite the opposite.

A qualification is in order here:  I have known quite a few people whose baseline was a strident and decidedly not-humble fundamentalist Christianity.  Thomas Paine is said to have observed that “a cruel god makes a cruel man,” and nowhere I have I seen this more true than in fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Islam.  Some portion of those people, mercifully, come to recognize the cruelty of their ways, and because of kindness discovered, leave their fundamentalism.  Of those, some move from fundamentalism to a more-open, gentler form of their faith, while others abandon faith altogether.  But in either case, it appears to me that becoming kinder is the impetus, not the result, of their change of faith/philosophy.  As a consequence I think it important to be mindful of that potential confounder when evaluating their change of heart.

Recognizing this caveat, I have known a number of people who have abandoned their faith because they came to find it wanting, incredible, false, or otherwise untenable … I have yet to see one of them become, as I said above, kinder, gentler, humbler, or more generous … in fact quite the opposite is often the case.  Abandonment of faith tends, it seems to me, to generally be accompanied by a sense of superiority toward those benighted souls left behind, or bitterness toward the institutions they inhabit, or at least a general apathy toward the whole business.

So in summary, it appears to me that coming to Jesus has the potential to genuinely sweeten an individual’s behavior toward others, while moving in the opposite direction has no such potential and may in fact produce the opposite.  Now as I said, this is certainly not an epidemiologic case-control study.  I’m describing impressions here, not data.  Nevertheless, one thing that keeps me from abandoning my faith in my darker days, and in fact keeps me coming back to it in happier times, is seeing the good it has done to others.  The way of Jesus really does appear different from all the other stuff on offer.

39 thoughts on “Why do I believe? Part 14 – A little more on fruit”

  1. River Wood

    Hi Dan,

    Perhaps your sample size is small and skewed, and there might be a little confirmation bias at play here. While I can say that there is a tendency among ex-believing atheists toward smugness (which is completely understandable once you get there), I can also say that I have become a better person: kinder, more open, more generous, more friendly.

    The version of Christianity that I was raised with was very judgmental, and it made horrible people out of what could have otherwise been decent human beings. To this day, I do not associate with any of my extended family (all the same religion) because they are batshit crazy. They shun their own children for everything from apostasy to divorce to LGBT.

    If the good things you describe are an inherent part of Christianity, then so are the bad things. They all read from the same book. If people can read the same bible, and be terrible humans, then I don’t think it’s the bible that’s responsible for the good stuff you describe.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I don’t for a moment dismiss the possibility of confirmation bias, River (and by the way, thanks for stopping by! I appreciate it!). I guess I would turn the same tenor of question on you, and ask whether it is turning to atheism that made you the better person, or whether you, becoming a better person, found your kindness/gentleness/etc. incompatible with the religion with which you had been inculcated and therefore abandoned it. Please understand that I do not — not for one instant — dispute your characterization of that kind of religion. I’ve seen it too.

      Whether the Bible leads people to be the terrible humans many of them are, or whether terrible humans have, Machiavelli-style, co-opted the Bible to support their ‘terribleness’ (is that a word?) is another valid question IMHO. As you may have noticed depending how much you’ve poked around on this blog, I have come to the conclusion that an awful lot of the errors in Christianity (not all, by any means, but enough) are built on what people say the Bible says, not so much what it actually says. It is my conviction in this regard that led me to start this blog, and I am trying — with limited success I grant — to make the case for reform from the inside.

      Whether that’s sufficient in the mind of the generic atheist, or you the specific one, is not mine to judge.

    2. Steve

      i agree….the bible has a lot of condemnation in it, and most christians skip over all that stuff…you have to to be a normal human being!

  2. River Wood

    Ah Dan, it gets complicated when we start trying to figure out which way the causal arrow points. Did I become a better person before I became atheist? In some measure, yes. Did I continue to get better afterward? Still do, I think. I will say that I let go of the particular fundamentalist religion as a teenager, but it took me another 20 years of wandering and seeking to finally let go of the last grasp that “God” had on my mind.

    I use “God” in quotes, because I’m pretty confident that no such thing exists, so when I use it, just know that I’m only referring to a conversational item.

    When you say that it’s about how people interpret the bible, sure, I can largely go with that. But I don’t think it matters. All of its believers only pay it lip service anyway. Literally EVERY single Christian cherry-picks verses, and EVERY single Christian has a different view of exactly what Christianity is. Is that really humans screwing up a good thing? Or is it just not a good thing in the first place?

    I have to think that if there is any good at all to Christianity, then it should just work right for everyone, and not cause so many people so much pain and suffering. I don’t understand how you can see any good in it, honestly.

    One guy on the BBC forum told me that my parents just had the wrong theology. Great. What good would that have done ME? My father was a stubborn obnoxious asshole of a preacher who was fond of using a leather belt to foster obedience. He wouldn’t listen to anyone. *Especially* not another preacher. Is that what “God” allows? What good is a bible that can be interpreted so wrongly? It seems to me to be useless.

    The more parsimonious explanation, I find, is that the bible is really nothing more than a collection of old stories. That’s why it’s so easy to misuse and abuse. And that’s why “God” apparently escapes any responsibility for any misery suffered by children in religious families.

    People are people. Sometimes a religion can make them better; sometimes worse. That’s not supernatural, in my estimation. Just plain old human stuff. And by the same token, human suffering is just… here. It’s part of the unfeeling, uncaring, red in tooth and claw world that we find ourselves in. One thing about it, though… we know that we humans can alleviate our own suffering, and we have only ourselves to count on for it, as the landlord seems to be out to lunch for the last million years.

    May I ask why you still hold to belief at this point? I don’t know if you have a simple answer to that, but it seems to be much simpler (certainly in my experience) to let go and quit trying to defend the indefensible.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      River, I hear you … really, I do. I think my only decent answer is to model what I said at the beginning of this whole series, which is that this is my attempt to analyze and explain to myself, why I’m still a man of faith … NOT in any way to make a case that will necessarily compel anyone else.

      I’m not done with that process, but the simple answer to your last question, for now at least, is my own experience. By this, I do not mean my experience of God, which I have repeatedly testified I do not have. Rather, my experience of people. Those I know (and there are several) who have walked away from faith have universally not become better people, by my “kinder, gentler, more humble” metric, than they were before. In fact quite the contrary in several cases, no better than neutral in others. On the other hand, among those I know who’ve come the other direction, I have seen better men and women emerge–not, again, in all cases, but in some remarkable ones.

      Taken together with what I see in the character of Jesus, who still stands apart from the other greats as I see him (even murkily) through the Gospels, and I still see a balance that keeps me in the faith side of the equation. Not dogmatically, certainly. But there nonetheless. For now at least, I can do none else, so help me (or not) God.

    2. Steve

      i feel what you are saying, man…and i don’t think the condemnation and contradictions in the bible are just due to misinterpretation, either. there’s some pretty clear shit in there that most people ignore because it’s so damn inhumane. i’m not talking just old testement, either.

  3. River Wood

    “Those I know (and there are several) who have walked away from faith have universally not become better people, by my “kinder, gentler, more humble” metric, than they were before. In fact quite the contrary in several cases, no better than neutral in others. On the other hand, among those I know who’ve come the other direction, I have seen better men and women emerge–not, again, in all cases, but in some remarkable ones.”

    Since I have had exactly the opposite experience, would it be safe to say that anecdotes aren’t really a good chain of evidence for the existence or nonexistence of a god? I suspect that the reason you and I see the opposite, is because we are looking in opposite directions.

    To illustrate further, other people didn’t speak too well of me when I left the church. They decided I was an awful person because I left. It’s what they do, and it’s pretty basic in-group/out-group behavior. Well, you are still part of the in-group, and people left your in-group. Your opinion of them will be negative simply because of basic human psychology, regardless of the actual decency of the person.

    It’d be like if you and your best buddy were fans of the same sportsball team for decades, and then your buddy decided to root for your biggest rival team. It’s betrayal. And I think that’s why you see it the way you described.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Anecdotes aren’t a good chain of evidence for anything. I work for an agency in which one of our mantras is “the plural of anecdote is not data.” But I hope you would be able to see that my asking you to trust my experience for me, is no different than you asking me to trust yours. That there could be some confirmation bias in this situation is obvious. I would merely encourage you to look carefully at our interaction and ask yourself who’s trying to proselytize whom here.

      I’m not going to go into the details of my assessment of friends/family who’ve left the faith. You are projecting onto me an attitude that, while I’ve seen it myself among Christians and I do not doubt for a moment you have experienced it, is not the analytic I am using. Kindness, gentleness, and humility are the metric I proposed, and they can be evaluated dispassionately, if not entirely objectively. I stand by my characterization.

      If there’s one thing of which I’m trying to convince you, and other atheists with whom I engage, it’s not that they’re wrong about (many) Christians. It’s that they’re wrong in assuming that those things they loathe in Christians are universal among us, and that to abandon them it is necessary to abandon any faith in God. I agree with many — though by no means all — of their/your critiques. Yet I remain a Christian. I’m not particularly compelled to defend that apparent paradox, but it’s there for you to deal with if you wish/dare.

      1. Steve

        dan, we all deserve respect. river deserves respect for his beliefs, and so do you. i think you did a good thing by expressing your observations with the disclaimer that you simply aren’t sure, and don’t have enough evidence.

  4. River Wood

    “Kindness, gentleness, and humility are the metric I proposed, and they can be evaluated dispassionately, if not entirely objectively.”

    How can those be evaluated without bias? Especially if you are talking about friends & family?

    Your opinion of a person’s kindness may not be the same as another’s, right? To illustrate, there was this guy in our church when I was growing up. He owned an insurance agency, and he had a shiny pretty wife and shiny pretty kids and a big house and a Cadillac. He was liked and respected by everyone in the church, lay people and clergy alike. He was, for all intents and purposes, a completely upstanding Christian man.

    Then my mom ended up working for him at his insurance agency for a couple of years. She ended up with a completely different opinion of this man, who treated his employees like shit, didn’t pay his bills, ripped people off, cheated someone on a deal, and used petty cash to support his margarita lunch habit while pretending to everyone in the church that he didn’t drink. Then, my dad did a remodel job on his house, and this guy tried to not pay.

    So there you are. All the church people think this is a nice guy, but he’s a piece of shit to literally everyone else he comes into contact with. My mom and one of her co-workers quit at the same time when they got fed up, and he almost had a heart attack. He died some years later of an actual heart attack, and all the church people mourned the loss of a nice Christian man who the rest of the town knew to be garbage.

    I’m not suggesting that you are not capable of forming judgments about people; we all are. I’m only suggesting that your opinions are biased and incomplete, like everyone else’s, and that someone you perceive as a saint may not be. Many people do genuinely feel anger when it comes time for them to leave religion, but that doesn’t mean that they are bad people. It often simply means they’ve been hurt.

    It’s not my intent to proselytize. I’m also not asking you to trust anything about my experiences; I share them only to illustrate the point that anecdotes are not useful evidence, but we already agree on that.

    I guess there isn’t a whole lot more I can say about this. If you feel like your judgments of people are the final word, then I guess you have an argument that is logical to you. I just don’t see how you can get there.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      “Final word?” Never. First of all, I think I’ve wholly validated your claim that there are downright evil people within the church. In case I haven’t made that abundantly clear, I’ll say it outright: there are downright evil people within the church.

      I’m merely sharing the observations that have led me to where I’m at. Your mileage may vary … obviously, it has. Never once, I hope, have I suggested that your experience is invalid. Mine is what has brought me to where I am.

      I guess what befuddles me a little is how easy it is for me both to see and to acknowledge the reality and reasonableness of your conclusion, and how unwilling you seem to be to extend me the same courtesy. The only point at which I flat-out hold your are wrong is this: you seem to claim that someone who sees the awful stuff you’ve seen, and who agrees it’s awful, has no choice but to abandon faith in God. I hold that I accept your observations but am evidence that your predicate is incomplete. That’s all …

      1. Dan Martin Post Author

        Maybe I should state this a different way … I cannot think of a single atheist, either among my acquaintances or among people of sufficient fame that I should recognize them, to whom I look and say “I admire that person … I should count myself fortunate to be more like him/her.” Even those I respect … I can’t offhand think of one I’d like to emulate in any serious respect. The character traits I admire (the kindness, gentleness, humility I already described) do exist in people I’ve known and seen … theist people I’ve known and seen, not atheists.

        Do I know plenty of pricks on both sides of the divide? Absolutely. Prickishness does not seem to correlate with one or the other IMHO. But the kind of decency I most admire does, at least in my own limited experience.

        1. Steve

          i think your experience is indeed, limited, and i think maybe you shouldn’t generalize so much based on that limited experience…just saying….

          1. Dan Martin Post Author

            Fair enough on one side, Steve … but on the other, don’t we all generalize from own experiences to some extent? In my case, the question with which River is challenging me is, given the tenuous nature of my evidence, why don’t I just leave the faith? My answer is twofold: one, I see enough evidence the other direction that I’m not sure leaving would be correct either; and two, those I’ve seen leave have NOT been good commercials for that vector.

          2. River Wood

            Dan,

            Absolutely, we generalize from our experiences. That’s a core aspect of how the human brain operates. We find that our mental shortcuts, our heuristics, generally work on a day-to-day basis about decisions we make. Should I go to the post office or the store first? Should I have the bacon cheeseburger or the salad? We don’t rationally think out every decision that we make. In fact, few humans ever think out *any* decision they make.

            Which goes back to that tabula rasa thing. Making good decisions about ones beliefs is a learned skill, not an instinct. If you don’t want your puppy to pee in the house, you have to train it. Human pups are more complicated and intelligent than dogs, but the same principle applies. We are animals, in a nutshell. And that explains a *lot* about human behavior.

      2. River Wood

        “I guess what befuddles me a little is how easy it is for me both to see and to acknowledge the reality and reasonableness of your conclusion, and how unwilling you seem to be to extend me the same courtesy.”

        I’m not saying that your conclusion is unreasonable. I’m not saying that it’s wrong, even. I’m only pointing out that your conclusions are as subject to the same human biases and cognitive glitches as everyone else’s. Just Psychology 101 stuff. It’s okay to trust your conclusions to an extent, but it serves us all well to always retain a degree of suspicion about them.

        I can’t actually argue with your conclusion, because it’s not falsifiable.

        “The only point at which I flat-out hold your are wrong is this: you seem to claim that someone who sees the awful stuff you’ve seen, and who agrees it’s awful, has no choice but to abandon faith in God.”

        That’s not a claim I made, either. Obviously, people do have a choice, as evidenced by Steve here. He was also abused within a religious environment, yet has retained his belief. I would say that abandoning faith is a reasonable thing to do — not just based on abuse, but on all of the factors one considers — but that does not mean that everyone will do (what I think is) the reasonable thing.

        And that’s okay, in the end. You’re thinking about these things, unlike so many of your fellow believers. I give you tons of respect for that, because in my mind, that puts you into the category of “good Christian”. I don’t actually judge you all by the bad ones. Just the religion itself.

  5. Steve

    If I might add a little more to this discussion without adding fuel to the fire, let me just say that I don’t find a lot of “horrible” people in my experience. I was brought up in a fundamentalist charismatic church, and even though I’ve seen a lot of hypocrisy and it’s done a lot of harm to me, I really strive not to think of any of them as “horrible.” My stepfather was abusive to me and used to force food down my throat if I didn’t eat everything on my plate. I developed a nervous stomach after that and could keep ANYTHING down. I eventually was taken to the doctor, who said I had become anemic. Yet, after all that, I found a way to forgive him and to think about the pain and suffering in his life that led to his actions. He wasn’t a horrible person, just had his demons to deal with like we all do. Jesus taught us to forgive and love one another, but I often wonder if the disciples got it all right. In the gospels, Jesus seemed to have no use for hypocrits, scribes, or pharisees. So, according to the Bible, he wasn’t all lovey-dovey either. That attitude toward groups of people or even individuals in the Bible has really caused me to wonder about the Bibles validity. On the one hand Jesus commands us to love everyone, but on the other he seems to put down certain people. I’m trying to tread carefully, because I don’t want to be blasphemous, so I’m just reporting this as an observation of the Bible, not a judgement of Jesus. Here again, Jesus also warns many, many times of Hell’s fire, and I just don’t think any of us deserve that. There may be a few, but very few. I believe there is good and bad in everyone. And yes, I think we should love hypocrites, too, as they have there own hell to live in and reasons that we can’t always fathom for what they do. In fact, we’ve all been hypocritical from time to time. I may even be hypocritical in writing this, as I’m not sure I always live up to being non-judgemental and loving. My points are twofold: there are very few “horrible” people, and the Bible seems to be contradictory and judgemental sometimes. On the one hand, do I really want to believe in such a Bible, yet when I forgave my stepfather I was asking for Jesus’ help. Help me out here, I’m trying to put this all together, but I seem to be rambling. I can tell it’s time for bed. Goodnight all.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Steve, to your comments on “believing the Bible,” you know that I think you’re looking in at least partly the wrong direction. I think that the character of Jesus is different from the character of the Bible as a whole, and provides a very different way of living and loving. I point to the article on Jesus in this series for more detail on that topic. And as to Jesus’ words not all being sweetness and light either, take a look at who he’s talking to/about when he gets harsh … it’s mostly to people who already think they’re “in,” not to those who are “out” and seeking.

      As to the horrible people … I think it is important to acknowledge, to those who have left the church in excruciating pain, that their pain is real and the people who inflicted it were doing evil. It’s a common objection raised by ex-Christian atheists, and I do not see any reason to soft-pedal it because I think they’re right.

    2. River Wood

      Steve,

      “Horrible” may indeed be the wrong word, or perhaps I should explain. I do tend to take a somewhat “tabula rasa” view of humans, as in, the vast majority are blank slates who become products of their environment. I don’t think there are any *innately* horrible people. Their life makes them that way.

      In similar vein to yours apparently, yeah, my father had a shitty childhood (Great Depression) and PTSD (Korean War and even worse) and all that… was he a horrible person? To me, he was. Not all the time, because he was human, and there was a decent person in there somewhere. I get that.

      But that didn’t matter, as concerns how his behavior impacted me — for my entire life. I was treated horribly. Not in all ways, but in ways that could have been easily remedied, if he were someone of an open secular mind, instead of a closed religious mind. You see, he believed that what he did to me was “biblical”. From God himself. You can’t argue with that against any believer, let alone a preacher. So I suffered, and continued to do so for long after I left home.

      Theists — and Dan, this goes for you as well — like to assume that it’s the abuse that made us abandon faith. It’s not always so direct. The abuse was why I got far away. I abandoned belief in a god because I was convinced by sound arguments, such as from Dawkins, Hitchens, Dillahunty, etc. There is reason and process to where I’ve arrived in my belief structure, and I can explain many parts of it. There wasn’t any *one* thing that made me atheist.

      Seeing horrible people (again, those who act horribly, whatever the reason) call themselves Christians was only a thing that pushed me to ask more questions. It wasn’t the answer. Let’s keep that in mind. 🙂

      1. Dan Martin Post Author

        That’s a good dichotomy to keep in mind, River. The only real pushback I’d offer is that the open mind required in your third paragraph is neither assured by secularism, nor unattainable within faith.

        1. River Wood

          “the open mind required in your third paragraph is neither assured by secularism, nor unattainable within faith.”

          Agreed. Surely open-mindedness can strike anyone at any time. How else could believers become atheists? 🙂

          As to the first part, I completely agree. I know atheists who believe in “chemtrails” and hate LGBT people. I do tend to find them open to discussion however, and at least, if they disagree with me, they don’t view me as some wretched hellspawn or something. Just a pinko or whatever.

          “To clarify, I don’t assume abuse “made” you abandon faith, but I do presume it is a fundamental factor in the lens through which you view it.”

          Yeah, that’s fair to say. It’s also a factor in why I’m studying psychology. I’ve gotten more into the biology end of it, into neuroscience, because that seems to me fundamental to what makes us tick. But it seems to me that even as the churches are dying out, they will keep therapists in clients for a very long time to come. 😉

          1. River Wood

            Oh, and about those few atheists who have weird or bigoted beliefs — frequently, those are former Christians who already held those beliefs or prejudices before abandoning their god beliefs.

            People are generally able to compartmentalize, and only eject part of the belief structure at a time, it seems. I have a friend who is like this. He has all the same beliefs that he did 5 years ago, except for the god thing. He is unaware that those were kind of a package deal, and that the whole lot needs to be re-examined.

  6. Steve

    Hi River. I actually can’t say that I’m a believer at this point. I guess I’m still searching for what will work for me. I have such a fear of Hell that even if there is only a slight chance that all atheists go there, I cannot allow myself to be one of them. After “camp meetings” that my Mom would take me to as a very young child, I remember staying up at night just thinking about eternity in a lake of fire, with no hope. Now days, I simply lie awake thinking about eternity in a situation where I have no control over my sanity, no matter what I tell myself. You see, I have schizoaffective disorder, and I think Hell would be more than enough to leave me in perpetual insanity. However, I don’t blame my upbringing for my illness, as my brother has the same thing, yet he was brought up differently, although it was still in a Christian home.
    Anyway, sometimes I wonder if I would have been the same gentle person I am if I hadn’t been raised in a Christian home. I do like Jesus’ example for the most part, and deep inside I have a belief in the absolute truth of everything I was taught as a child.
    But that is where the word, schizophrenia, comes from- split mind. There is another side of me, a very logical side, that is 100% sure there is no god, no afterlife, and no true choice in life. If you were to feed all my experiences, environmental influences, genetics and everything else from the beginning of time into a huge computer, you could compute exactly what my next thought or action would be.
    Of course, this kind of reasoning is not very comforting to me, so at times I see myself reverting to the other, deeper, me. Neither one of these options are very good for my soul, so for years I have been trying to find a middle ground, but to no avail. I feel stuck.
    River, perhaps someday you will do some kind of research that solves my dilemma. Let’s keep in touch, even if that is not a possibility. You seem like a good person.

    1. River Wood

      Steve,

      You’re in a tough spot, in between belief and reason. I know it’s tough — I was in that spot for 20 years. I did not become atheist overnight. I walked a long gradual path from fundamentalism, through more liberal versions of Christianity, through various other things like Buddhism and Wicca, and only recently did I finally manage to “flip the switch” to “off” for good. Dawkins’s “The God Delusion” was the final straw.

      I used to have nightmares and panic attacks, too. When they put that stuff into your brain as a child, it gets in there deep, and sticks really hard. It stuck harder for me because I was really into reading. I started reading the bible at a young age, and it seriously freaked me out. But no matter what, I still believed for a very long time that it was true, because everyone around me believed it too. And I couldn’t talk about it with anyone, because I lived in a culture of judgment where asking questions was considered doubtful and rebellious.

      When I finally lost my god belief for good only two years ago, I lost the depression too. I had been depressed for years, thinking I was doomed to that “lake of fire” thing. (Actually, I couldn’t think of a time when I wasn’t depressed.) I legitimately believed that there was such a punishment waiting for me because of my very nature that I was born with — doomed from the start — and I was basically just waiting around to die. I could have hastened the process, but I wasn’t sure that suicide wouldn’t land me in hell too, so basically everything was just… shit. I spent my 20s and half my 30s trying to drown that pain with booze.

      I don’t know if I can adequately describe the darkness that I lived in. It was like being in the middle of an infinitely dark emptiness, extending infinitely in all directions. Just darkness. No light anywhere, and no clue which way to turn. No prayers were ever answered. No signs were shown, at least, none that I could see. Just infinite, impossible, impenetrable, unending darkness.

      And through it all, I kept seeking. I even went back, at one point in time, to the church of my youth, looking for something I might have missed. We very often do that, I’m told. And I kept waiting for something to change. Maybe if I just got this thing right, or believed that thing, that the heavens would shine down a light to indicate my path. Nope. Nada. Nothing.

      I wish I had the magic words for you, to free you from your pain. I don’t. But I am looking. My goal when I decided to go to college (right after my “off” moment) was to help other people find their way out, and that’s why I chose psychology. My schooling is taking me in a slightly more hard science direction right now (neuroscience/neuropsychology), but I promise you, my “fire in the belly” is always going to be about reducing the suffering that religion inflicts on humans. It will always be my hobby.

      Search my name on Facebook and send me a request if you like. Just add a note to tell me who you are. I’ll be happy to stay in touch with you. 🙂

      1. Steve

        River, thank you for opening up, and sharing in a way that could help me. However, let me explain something: Fear of nonexistence is probably worse for me than fear of hell. As it is, I’m afraid to go to sleep at night in case I won’t wake up, and will no longer exist. That said, there are several things I’d like to ask you.
        Why do you get angry at religion and hypocritical religious people? I would think that an atheist would have absolutely nothing to be angry about. In fact, that is what is so appealing to me about atheism! Since god doesn’t exist, then there is no such thing as good and evil, so no one can do you wrong. Since free will is an illusion, then people only do what their environment and genetics dictate, so how can we be angry at them? And, most importantly, since we all die very soon, and no longer feel pain, then why try to fix the problems in the world? It just doesn’t matter! Soon, each of our lives will be over anyway, and none of the suffering will matter. After all, in the big picture, each of our lives is a blip in a vast emptiness! There is no meaning in life, no reason for anything. So, is it really worth getting mad?

        1. River Wood

          Steve,

          Obviously I can’t give you *the* answers to any of those questions, but I can give you *my* answers. I’m representative of a sample size of one. 🙂

          “Why do you get angry at religion and hypocritical religious people? I would think that an atheist would have absolutely nothing to be angry about.”

          Religion, and hypocritical religious people, have been a bane to my existence for my entire life, and have caused harm to me and millions of others. Religion is a scourge upon the earth. It’s a stumbling block to human progress. I could write volumes about the harms of religion — indeed many books have been written — but suffice it to say here that there is plenty to drive anger. And I feel that anger is a valid reaction to injustice. It shouldn’t be the only reaction, but it’s okay if it drives one to take more effective action. (Hitchens’s “God is not Great” is an excellent treatise on the harms of religion.)

          There is no requirement, however, that atheists be angry. You need not be angry; you can just go on with life. I go to school with lots of atheists. Most are like “meh”. It’s just not a big deal. Most of them weren’t hurt by religion though — they just didn’t buy in to it, and weren’t forced into it. I wish they were angrier about what religion is doing to our society, but it’s hard to get people worked up about things which haven’t impacted them deeply personally.

          “Since god doesn’t exist, then there is no such thing as good and evil, so no one can do you wrong.”

          Whoa whoa whoa! There aren’t “good and evil” in the biblical sense, but there are still plenty of completely human harms to address. If I punch you in the face, I’ve harmed you. We don’t need a god to tell us that, do we? If we as humans want to live in our comfy houses and be safe, then we need to make rules like “don’t steal your neighbor’s stuff” and “don’t punch people unprovoked” and “don’t dump toxic waste in your backyard” and the like. Why do we need some supernatural being to tell us this? We’ve invented smartphones; we’re not a stupid species.

          This is perhaps one of the most insidious lies about atheists — that we have no basis for morality. We don’t need a supernatural basis. Morality is an evolved trait, and it’s found in many other pack animals, besides our primate cousins. Morality is how we can cooperate as a species. The pack hunts together, so the pack must share. No stealing. Etc. The only needed basis is, “reduce harm to humans”. Since there isn’t universal agreement on which harms should be punished and how, we argue and legislate. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we’ve got.

          “Since free will is an illusion, then people only do what their environment and genetics dictate, so how can we be angry at them?”

          It is, and it isn’t. This is part of human evolution — we have sort of decided that we aren’t going to live like savage animals. We want to be comfortable, so we make rules. Here’s the kicker: the moral rules we make are, in fact, part of the environment that shapes us.

          This is another lie about atheism, really. It’s as if the Christian says, if you don’t live by OUR moral code, you can’t possibly have any kind of morality at all… and that’s horseshit. We humans have been making our own rules since the start, which is apparent from cursory readings into evolutionary psychology. The most obvious piece of evidence for this is that there are written moral codes far older than the bible.

          “And, most importantly, since we all die very soon, and no longer feel pain, then why try to fix the problems in the world?”

          Because there isn’t any magic sky wizard who is going to do it for us.

          There’s only us to fix the problems. I look at it as “pay it forward” — build a better world for our next generations. I enjoy a lot of creature comforts today that once upon a time didn’t exist. I enjoy those things, because another human cared enough to change the world, knowing they’d die anyway.

          Don’t discount the human effort into medical science. It’s doubled our lifespans in a mere couple of centuries. Religion has promised a second life for aeons; science has already delivered it, and we’re just getting started. All of it is because people care enough to put their lives into alleviating suffering. The only “reason” we need is this: suffering sucks. If we can find ways to reduce suffering, we should do them. Do we need more reason than that?

          “There is no meaning in life, no reason for anything. ”

          Why do you need something or someone else to give you meaning?

          I tell people, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is, you have to make your own meaning in life. The good news is, you *get* to make your own meaning in life. That’s the hard reality. If you’re waiting for someone else to make your life meaningful *to you*, which is what it’s really about, then you’re going to continue waiting. The only person who can make your life mean something is *you*.

          Do you enjoy time with your partner, with loved ones, with friends? Start treating that human connection as the *goal*, as the thing in itself that gives you meaning, instead of as a bone tossed to a pet by a capricious master. You must admit that even if there were a sky wizard, humans are closer and easier to reach for connection, for hugs, for sympathy, for the sharing of experiences, memories, victories, struggles.

          For myself, I don’t think there’s any special purpose to my existence. But I derive meaning from friendships, from knowledge, from meditation, from spending time outdoors, from altered states of consciousness… and at the end of it, if I leave behind more good things said about me than bad, I guess I’m doing okay. What else do we need, but a life well lived? If there’s nothing else that we know for sure, we can at least have that.

          “So, is it really worth getting mad?”

          Not for everyone, I’m sure. But I was never the sort to take injustice lying down, at least in my mind. I’m a fighter. I’ve been kicked around my whole life, and I’ll die fighting.

          Right now, I look around the country, and what I see bothers me. I see enormously powerful and well funded groups of evangelical nutjobs trying to take over my country. They’re trying to get their Bronze Age moral ideas enshrined into American law in the 21st century; they’re trying to teach creationism in the public schools that they are also simultaneously trying to de-fund; they’re attempting to legislate their bigoted beliefs into acceptability in the name of “religious freedom”.

          Those people will die, too, and what they leave behind won’t be permanent either. But they will surely leave behind a dark world for future generations, if no one opposes them.

          4 billion years of evolution, and it’s still a bloody dog-eat-dog world. Someone has to fight for something better than that. And again… there’s nothing out there to do it for us.

          Lastly, “Fear of nonexistence is probably worse for me than fear of hell.”

          I find that to be illogical, although I completely understand the sentiment. Maybe someday we will be able to upload our consciousness into a computer and live on.

          Is there something beyond this life? We can’t confidently say no to an infinitesimal possibility. But is it anything as defined by religions? A heaven, a hell? I’m going with an unequivocal no. Thing is, if I were to accept this Christian version of an afterlife, just so I could hang on to the notion of a heaven, then I must also accept that I have the Damoclean sword of hell above my head also, just waiting for the slightest infraction.

          1. Dan Martin Post Author

            I have to say I’m sad that your representation of religion — accurate though it be for many — is the only version some ever see. I only hope I’ve modeled a different path on this blog.

          2. Steve

            Thank you for your comments, River. I have heard many of these arguments before, but I still have not come to my own conclusions. Suffice it to say that there is a lot for me to think about.

          3. River Wood

            Dan,

            I think your perspective is that there are good and bad Christians, but that the religion they share is fundamentally good?

            I’m saying that there are good and bad people, but that the religion is problematic because it makes good people do bad things.

            I talk with a lot of the queer kids at school. Many of them come from religious families. Some of those families are accepting of their children, but many are not. It is the religion that is causing families to break apart over sexuality. Without the religion, there’s nothing to tell a parent that there’s anything *morally wrong* with having a queer kid.

            Did you know that something like 40% of Utah’s homeless population is LGBTQ *teenagers* who have been kicked out by their parents?

            You can protest all day long that those people are interpreting their scriptures incorrectly, but in the end it doesn’t matter. It does not matter to those kids, many of whom will end up assaulted, sexually abused, addicted, or dead. All because their parents *believe*. It is the belief itself, I propose, that is at the root of this evil.

            You can’t control how people read the words in the book. Fred Phelps was raised mainstream Methodist. Yet look at who he became. And if anything, we have to grudgingly admit that Fred Phelps’s interpretation was pretty literal. All of the hate that he spewed, he quoted right from the bible. The hate is in there.

            Another thing is child abuse. Religion hides a lot of child abuse — or should I say, encourages it. Read a book called “To Train Up a Child” for a lesson on that — it’s fucking horrifying. The bible says that parents are to be strict and harsh, and use corporal punishment, and even death by stoning, to control their children. What kind of abuse cannot be excused by this thinking?

            Again, are they interpreting it wrong? But again, I would ask, does it matter to those who are harmed?

            As long as parents believe that they have a divine imperative to beat their children, or to turn their backs on a gay child, the problems will continue. And that will be for *as long as anyone believes in a divine imperative to do **anything** at all*.

            Therefore, my personal conclusion: people can be good without religion, but the harm of religion will continue for as long as religion exists. If we can have good without it, and less bad without it, then let’s do without it. Religion should die.

          4. Dan Martin Post Author

            Well River, Steve beat me to the punch on part of my reply. He’s right, I think, that Jesus is the right focus and that eliminating the way of Jesus would be a loss to the world.

            But let me take a slightly different tack. You know by extrapolation, that if I believe that (a core of) Christianity is true, then other opposing religions must to that extent be false. Now note carefully, I did not say that I believe that the mere exercise of that religion means the adherents are hellbound … I’ve made that clear elsewhere. But to continue the main thought, it seems to me self-evident that no matter how much you and others might wish it so, there remains a substantial majority of the world’s population that is attracted to religion in some form, and whatever they think about other religions, reject the notion of atheism/non-religion. This population is not only not susceptible to your goal, they actively oppose it. What are we to do?

            I happen to think when a religion has within it a core which, if amplified, has the potential to lead to positive outcomes and to the lessening or even elimination of negative ones, that core can and should be encouraged. That’s why I work within Christianity to point out, using Christian values and thought processes, the peaceful way of Jesus. It’s also why I feel Christians should welcome the peaceful outreaches of peaceful Muslims. I honestly think such reform-from-within stands a better chance of achieving the more-peaceful world we all want, than does imagining no religion.

  7. Steve

    On the other hand, a healthy religion which teaches Jesus’ words can encourage us to be gentler, kinder, and more loving. Remember, Jesus’ said to those who were about to stone a prostitute, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Remember that Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” His whole attitude was one of acceptance and love. We can’t base our ideas of Christianity on a few fundamentalists seething at the mouth. Personally, I don’t think I would have turned into the gentle, loving, and kind person I believe I am if I hadn’t heard the words of Jesus. Jesus was a Liberal in his day, and it bothers me that the Conservatives of today are claiming to be followers of Jesus.
    Then there are other religions that I’m not really familiar with, such as Buddhism, that teach being one with the universe, and taking care of our environment. Again, liberal ideas.
    No, River, I think that without religion we would be a much more materialistic and uncaring society. We just need to get rid of the baggage that comes along with some of the Christian churches. The Old Testament was written thousands of years before Christ, and I would argue that He was countering some of the long-held beliefs of that time.

    1. River Wood

      Steve,

      That same Jesus, though, told his followers to buy swords, to hate their parents, and that he did not come to bring peace. Conservative Jesus is in the bible too. You just read different verses. I think people read into it whatever they want.

      And maybe you read it in a good way, and that’s great. However, the bible did not make me a good person. It made me hate myself first, and then by extension, I reflected that hate back out to the world. It made me a terrible person, always doubting of myself, and extremely judgmental of everyone and everything.

      I explored Buddhism for a brief time, years ago. I really liked it, and adopted some of its tenets for myself. It didn’t require anything from me but thought — no churches, no worshiping, no slavery.

      I think you’re getting down to the core now, though. The important thing is the liberal ideas, the enlightenment philosophy. That seems to be the common “good” element of all of the religions that have good elements — liberal ideas. Thomas Paine’s “The Age of Reason” was the first book I read that put me on that path toward enlightenment. Have you ever read it?

  8. River Wood

    Dan,

    “You know by extrapolation, that if I believe that (a core of) Christianity is true, then other opposing religions must to that extent be false.”

    I don’t agree with that, no. If you are going to say that, despite all the evil done in its name, that if there is a decent core of good things in your religion, it deserves to live… then I think that logic should apply to all religions. After all, they all have some good parts, and those good parts serve good people.

    If, however, a religion is to be declared false because part of it is false, then they are ALL false. There isn’t anything about your argument (that I can see) that is any different from anyone else arguing in favor of *their* religion. I don’t think there is a hell, so that doesn’t really enter into the discussion.

    “there remains a substantial majority of the world’s population that is attracted to religion in some form, and whatever they think about other religions, reject the notion of atheism/non-religion.”

    That is correct, but there is a simple and parsimonious explanation for this. Religions and folklore came from our ancient past as we tried to make sense of our world and tell our children stories about its origins. Our brains are pattern-seeking machines that need to make sense of the world around us.

    Religion is easy. When you can make up stories about the cosmos and the life in it, anything goes. No fact-checking is necessary. But understanding the scientific perspective is hard. It requires hard work to learn about geology, about anthropology, about DNA, and about all of the other things that point to an accurate explanation of our origins.

    And I think that you know as well as I do, that level of education has not reached very much of the planet yet. We don’t need religion, and people aren’t clinging to it because it is somehow necessary or better. They cling to it because they don’t yet know any better. The solution is education.

    “I happen to think when a religion has within it a core which, if amplified, has the potential to lead to positive outcomes and to the lessening or even elimination of negative ones, that core can and should be encouraged.”

    Thomas Jefferson agreed with you when he edited his own version of the bible. You can still find it out there — the “Jefferson Bible” — and it is Jefferson’s idea of what that core should look like. Essentially, it’s the red words of the NT. It’s the good stuff. And it’s the size of a pamphlet, maybe 2% of the whole.

    If the good stuff makes up that tiny of a proportion of the bible, then maybe we should raise our standards a little bit. I don’t see the point of keeping something around that is 90% bad and only 10% good, do you?

    “I honestly think such reform-from-within stands a better chance of achieving the more-peaceful world we all want, than does imagining no religion.”

    I wouldn’t say that reform from within is a better way, no, but I would say that it’s part of the path of minimizing the damage that religion does. The less seriously people take religion, the better off we will all be. But the problem is that people take it seriously. That’s the part that needs to die.

    If you could convert all of the Christians to the Jefferson Bible, then you’d have something. That probably isn’t going to happen, though, because that takes away all the parts that preachers use to inflict guilt on their flocks and thereby control them. Without hell, and without guilt and sin, they cannot control people.

    If you want a better book for making better humans, though, throw the whole bible away. The best thing anyone could read is “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. The message is simple, clear, and in plain English. And it makes people behave better in interactions with other people. If everyone read this book, the world would certainly be a better place.

    No faith necessary. 🙂

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      Due respect, I think it’s pretty arrogant of you and your colleagues to presume that your “enlightened” point of view is the inevitable result of education, and that those who remain influenced by religion are to that extent less educated, less willing to exercise intellectual rigor, or whatnot. Any reasonable observation demonstrates that many extremely intelligent, educated Westerners are still committed to one faith or another. Education is not the key here.

      A couple points in response though … while I do believe that Christianity offers some things other religions don’t, if you look around on this blog you’ll find I spend no time at all dismissing other religions, and in particular with Islam, I have a great deal of passion toward convincing Christians to treat Muslims with kindness and respect. So really, your competing-religions arguments won’t wash with me for the simple reason that I’m not in that fight.

      As to the notion of evil done by religions/religious people, you don’t find me defending that. To the contrary, I call out the evil done within my faith with great regularity. But seriously, I’ll see your Crusades and your Inquisition and raise you Stalin and Pol Pot and Mao any day. Abandoning religion has not, in any meaningful sense, led to peace and love anywhere in the world either.

      Ultimately, it’s quite clear that you have chosen to abandon religion, and you see in it only, or mostly, the evil it has perpetrated. I have chosen to stay, never denying that evil, but only denying that it’s a necessary part of the faith … in fact holding rather that we can use the things religion holds to be true as the evidence necessary to make it better. But if we’re each honest with ourselves and with each other, both of those positions are choices–based in part on the evidence we each have observed, but choices nonetheless. I don’t expect to convince you to adopt mine, nor should you expect that you’re going to win me over. We can still speak respectfully to and of each other, and I happen to think that’s something worth preserving.

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