Atheism and Religion01 Dec 2007 08:51 am

As quoted in the second page of this Reuter’s article:

The Pope seemed to be addressing the fresh interest in atheism in the developed world with phrases such as: “Let us put it very simply: man needs God, otherwise he remains without hope.”

Ha! That’s pretty funny.

Here’s the real deal: “Pope needs reason, otherwise he remains without clue.”

Atheism and Religion23 Oct 2007 09:09 pm

“Having faith” means believing in something unconditionally, no matter what the evidence.

For a number of years in my youth I wanted to believe — tried to believe — in various supernatural phenomena.

I believed that if I tried hard enough, I could will actions to happen at a distance. I could move that lamp on the table from across the room. I believed that given enough practice, I could read someone’s thoughts. I could predict the future. I could make luck turn my way. I had faith that I could succeed in these things.

I never collected real data, but after enough years of never seeing anything I could repeat, not seeing consistent evidence that I was right, I began to change my mind. [Fortunately, others have collected hard data and debunked bogus claims.] Sure, sometimes I convinced myself that I had moved that lamp — if just a little bit. Occasionally I did predict something that came to pass. Sometimes I rubbed my special rock, and then got lucky. But too often the converse was true, and eventually I had to admit it.

This self-admission was tied to the realization that reality is the best criteria for believing in something. Sure, I could spend the rest of my life believing in my ability to move lamps around just via thought, but in the absence of evidence, that was fundamentally no different than me believing my imaginary friend was real, or believing in ghosts or goblins. Alas — in the end, my faith in my supernatural abilities seems to have been unfounded. It would have been completely silly for me to keep pretending. [And since then I've never seen any evidence to contradict this conclusion. But hey -- I'll keep my eyes peeled, just in case I'm currently on the wrong path...]

On a related note…

I also spent some years in my youth assuming that what people around me were saying about God was true. There is a God, you can learn about him (oops, Him) from the Bible, you should pray to God, you should not take His name in vain, and so on.

Of course, the same realizations that I had about the supernatural apply in spades to religious belief. Neither I, nor anyone I’ve met, has any sort of compelling evidence that a God exists, or that if he / she / it does exist, that he / she / it gives a hoot about the world as it exists today, much less any of its inhabitants. In the absence of any objective evidence, why should we pretend that God exists, or matters in any way?? Because we’re scared? Because we’re just not sure, and want to hedge our bets? Because we want to be good people? Because we find comfort in going to Church? These may be common responses, but (as we’ll discuss in future posts) they’re certainly not good answers.

I think it took me longer to free myself from religion than it did from other superstitions just because right now religious faith is the most pervasive type of superstition in our society. We are social creatures, and when everyone around you assumes a thing, it can be hard to question (or even think to question) its veracity.

There is no doubt that the influence of religion is pervasive and strong, and seems especially difficult to shake if you were raised to believe in it from a young age (Richard Dawkins has some insightful thinking about this situation in The God Delusion). Nevertheless, I urge you to question your belief. It is also true that religious communities can provide support, a sense of belonging, feelings that you are behaving charitably, a sense that you are following a moral path, and more. But do yourself a favor: separate those things in your mind. You don’t need a belief in some god in order to have healthy, positive relationships with other people, or to do good works, or to behave morally.

If you find it hard to believe in something that has no basis in reality other than what some biased people are saying, then ‘fess up (if only to yourself, at first): “I have no faith.”

Having no faith is not a bad thing. Completely to the contrary, it is something to strive for. It is saying “I don’t believe in fairies, or Greek gods, or vampires, or silly superstitions, because there’s no good evidence for any of that stuff.” Yahweh, Mohammed, and Jesus Christ all fall squarely into this category too. You can believe in them, but given lack of any credible evidence that they were other than myths or ordinary (albeit celebrated) humans, it’s no different than believing your make-believe friend is real, or believing that ghosts or goblins exist, or that walking under a ladder will harm you.

In fact, I would argue that believing in something unconditionally despite all evidence to the contrary is on the whole a very bad thing, and probably causes more pain and suffering in this world than it relieves (another topic for future discussion). And at the end of the day, it just isn’t a reality-based way of dealing with the world around you.

If “having faith” means believing in something unconditionally, no matter what the evidence, then it is a thing that a reasonable person will avoid at all costs.