Friday, November 20, 2009

Important Terms and Definitions

If I could start this blog over again, this article would have been one of the first posted, because it is an important first step in writing and discussing the topic of religion.  My experience in talking with others has shown that there is a lot of confusion with these terms. This is likely because schools and religious institutions do not emphasize and clarify the meanings of these terms, perhaps with the exception of science classes for some of the terms.  Many of these words have multiple definitions and in some cases, colloquial definitions are quite different from original or more literal definitions.  In this article, I will clarify the definitions of these terms and discuss how they are relevant to religious discussion for the purpose of clear communication, as clear communication can only take place when there is a mutual understanding of terms.

What I will provide are basic and clear definitions of certain terms.  Mountains of pages have been written about all these terms, so in no way will I try to go into all they entail.  I will only offer as much as I feel is important to point out why they are relevant and in fact necessary to the discussion of religion.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Concept of Prayer

Prayer is a central component of many religions as well as a core practice of spirituality. Different theists assert there being different meanings, purposes, and ways of practicing prayer. For some, prayer is a, or perhaps the, means of connection between the person and what they describe as being god. It is the means by which the relationship is formed and maintained. Through this connection, they say they experience the presence of god and may even receive god’s "guidance". There are also prayers of gratitude, compassion, and forgiveness.

While these kinds of prayer are routinely practiced by some, there is no doubt that the vast majority of believers look to prayer for another purpose. To most believers, this purpose is perceived either overtly or covertly as being one of the greatest benefits of believing in god. This purpose is asking god to intervene in reality in some way to give the theist what they are asking for. It is almost as if prayer is treated as magical wish granting.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Secular Serenity Prayer

I’ve always greatly admired the wisdom contained in The Serenity Prayer. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” In fact, it from The Serenity Prayer that I thought of the name for this blog of mine, which some may find a little ironic.  However, as an Atheist, I don’t like the first few words of it. Yet like the good morals and lessons in the Bible, Tao Te Ching, Qu'ran, Sutras, Vedas, Purvas, and more, I can keep what is moral and discard the immoral and supernatural.

What I specifically don't like about The Serenity Prayer is the first few words, which imply that wisdom is given by god. This serenity is not given by god, but is a serenity based on and accumulated through life experience and effort.  In fact, as a psychotherapist, I frequently bring it up to the people I work with and have them try to remember it and act based on it in between the times when we meet.  It is certainly easier said than done, but like most things in life, the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

I've created a different form of The Serenity Prayer, which I call The Secular Serenity Prayer and is a charge to myself which I try to keep in my mind each day.  "Through my efforts, I gain the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Dilemma in Writing: "God" versus "god"

One of the struggles of being a novice writer is having to make some initial, basic decisions about how to write. As I am writing, I am finding that when the topic is religious beliefs, a writer has more decisions to make than one may have in writing a novel. One dilemma I have faced is what one of my readers called the balance of both sensitivity and assertiveness. Another seemingly more basic, but none the less important, is the choice of using the word “God” versus “god”.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Contrasting "Agnosticism" and "Atheism"

Within the secular community and our broader society, there is much debate over the meaning and use of the words Atheist/Atheism and Agnostic/Agnosticism.  Each of these words mean different things to different people, which obviously creates problems, because clear communication can only occur when people either agree or are aware of the definitions of words used by those they communicate with.  In this article, I'll discuss these words, common definitions of them, and offer my own ideas.  Also, for the sake of brevity, I'll use the word "god" to also include the possibility of "gods".

Monday, September 7, 2009

Why I Don't Like the Word "Atheist", But Take It On

I've never liked the word "Atheist" for many reasons. The primary reason is that it describes what I'm not, instead of what I am. This word has contributed to misconceptions about Atheists. It is a negative word and implies we are negative people or worse. It's not unusual for this word to be spoken by theists as if they are spitting something distasteful out of their mouths.

Instead of the word "Atheist", I prefer "Freethinker". The first part of the word, "Free", implies that our thoughts are not restricted by anyone or anything, which is a great thing. Freedom is the core of what our wonderful country was founded on. Censorship doesn't lead to truth. It impairs the journey to truth. I've had many experiences with theists who have told me not to think certain things I think or refuse to think such thoughts themselves, typically out of fear. This is unacceptable. I will not be bound and have my ideas caged. The journey to find truth is paramount. It is through the killing of sacred cows that knowledge is fed and grows.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Benefits of Atheism: Never Having to Ask, "Why Me?"

It was a number of years that I spent dabbling with the idea of becoming an Atheist. There were times when I spent some days as a Christian and other days as an Atheist, to notice what if any difference there was. Yet there was one day in particular, one moment to be precise, when I decided to finally abandon my religious and spiritual beliefs altogether, and I remember that instant clearly. I had just finished a conversation with a teacher who meant a great deal to me. He was very intelligent and kind and I remember him telling me that he was an Atheist. He said so much that rang true for me, gave good questions to answers I posed, and I respected him greatly. I remember leaving his office and walking outside. It was a beautiful fall day. The air was cool and as I looked up into the sky, I saw clouds and the sun in a new way. There had been countless times I had looked up into the sky before, as if I was stretching and trying to reach or get closer to God. This time I looked up and thought, "There really is no God" and the beauty and wonder of the world was still there, unchanged. At that moment, I felt a sense of happiness, excitement, and peace that I never had before and I realized it was because for the first time, my thoughts, feelings, and beliefs were congruent. This was the first benefit of Atheism I noticed and it was wonderful. What I had no idea of at that time was all the benefits of Atheism yet to come.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

"Aren't You Afraid of Going to Hell?"/Pascal's Wager

The primary emotion I experienced in my journey from Christianity to Atheism was fear, specifically fear of going to hell for denying the existence of God. The origins of this fear rested solely on some of the religious and spiritual instruction and teachings I experienced as I grew up. As a child, I had different adults teach me many different things regarding what was true religiously and spiritually. This mostly created in me a confusion about what was true.

When I was very young, I remember my parents held to some conservative and literal interpretations of the Bible, however over time, their beliefs became increasingly flexible, less literal, and more inclusive of other religious beliefs. They focused mainly on the good messages of morality in the Bible and didn't discuss the more rigid and violent verses of the Bible. Most people who were closest to my parents were flexible as well, more interested in the messages of love taught in the Bible.  Of course I was exposed to the beliefs of others who thought differently from my parents. I remember a Sunday school teacher telling our class that everyone is continuously sinning all the time. I remember being quite confused of this statement, but it was there, presented as truth.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Mortality, Atheism, and Euthyphro's Dilemma

Because theism is so dominant in our society and many Atheists are closeted out of justified fears of discrimination and persecution, many misconceptions about Atheism exist unquestioned. One of these misconceptions is the idea that Atheists are either inherently immoral or are less moral than theists because Atheists do not believe in a god. This assertion doesn't hold up for many reasons.  After all, different theists believe different things regarding morality. There are many different religions and many different deities, each making different assertions regarding morality. Even within the religion of Christianity, there are many different denominations holding different beliefs of what is right and wrong. As there is a lack of consensus between theists as to what is moral and most theists have not made a study of Atheism and morality, it makes no sense for them to claim that Atheists are immoral or less moral than they are.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Thoughts on the Christian God

The overwhelming majority of Christians are all good, moral, smart, caring, loving people. I am well aware that different Christians believe different things, so for the purpose of this article, I will define a Christian as someone who accepts Jesus into their life as their personal savior, believing that Jesus was the Son of God, sent by God to be crucified, so people could be saved from their sins. For many years, I was such a Christian and a serious one at that. I accepted the belief that I was a sinner and believed there was a devil and a hell. I frequently read and studied the Bible for guidance, understanding and to strengthen my faith. I prayed to God in the name of Jesus multiple times a day. When I would do something that I believed was a sin, I would ask God to forgive me in the name of Jesus and again would reinvite Jesus into a relationship with me, so that I would avoid sin and the Devil.

Yet as I grew up and in reading a lot of the Bible, I struggled for many years with the actions of a God whose behavior and choices were so unlike the good Christians I knew and myself. These doubts only grew as I read and learned about logic, reasoning, and critical thinking. I felt confused and guilty for these thoughts. Looking back, I feel the confusion really stemmed from the fact that our society as a whole and the church neither teaches nor encourages logic, reasoning, and critical thinking. If anything, such thought is not only discouraged in most churches, but it is actually mocked and scorned to an extreme degree. My own experience of being taught in Sunday School that it is wrong to be a "Doubting Thomas", is but one of many examples.

Ironically, it was the story of Jesus and God which was the biggest problem for me, though the number of contradictions in the Bible didn't help either. According to the Christianity I described above and was taught, God was omnipresent, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent. God created people. God gave people rules to follow. It was at this point that the problem began for me, because essentially, God set people up to be tempted to do the very things he told them not to do, by creating temptation, a devil and "free will". God also told them that if they broke these rules, which is sin, they would be punished by burning in hell for all eternity. I could actually stop here, because I have always believed that torture is evil. In fact, it's hard to imagine anything more immoral and evil than torture. The fact that a being would willingly cause excruciating pain to another being for the sheer purpose of inflicting pain is the worst thing I can imagine. Yet the Bible was telling me that God's punishment for finite misbehavior was ETERNAL torture. There was no way I could reconcile that contradiction in my head. How could this omnibenevolent God do such a thing?

I was also taught that we are the children of God and that God loves us more than we could ever love anything or anyone. I have two children and there are no words in the English language that could possibly encapsulate the love I have for them.  Even before my wife and I had them, I knew I would love them more than anything. I also knew that no matter what they ever did, there was no way I could intentionally cause them harm, especially physical harm. Even spanking was simply never an option.  To this day, the idea of a parent torturing their child, is inconceivable for me. Not only is it inconceivable for me, but I'm willing to bet anyone reading this would feel the same way. Ask yourself this: Is there any rule which your child or the person you love most could do which would lead you to feel justified in torturing them by actually burning their skin with fire, even for a few seconds? Of course not, because doing so would be not only wrong and immoral, but evil. Any parent who would do that in our society would be sent to prison and rightfully so.

For me, the story only became worse and more contradictory, because after thousands of years (accepting even the most conservative estimates by Young Earth Creationists) of witnessing people sin, while beforehand knowing that people would never be able to live up to the expectations He set, God then decided that He had to "create a loophole for himself", so these humans wouldn't go to hell (quote credit to Matt Dillahunty). Of course, God could have chosen any option or loophole to fix this. He could have just appeared and said, "Hey humans, just say you're sorry for breaking my rules and I'll forgive you." But no. Of all possible options, God chose to create an innocent human being, who was also Himself, and decided that this person had to be horrifically tortured to death so people could then go to heaven. In other words, God chose to torture to death part of Himself to correct His own problem that He created and would have foreseen. There simply is no logic in this story.  Logically, it completely falls apart. It made no sense to me years ago, and it makes even less sense to me now, as I have had children and now truly know what it means to wholly and completely love your own child.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Future Articles


There are a number of articles I plan on writing on this page. Here are some of the topics to come:

Currently Writing:
-Differences Between Science and Religion
-Logical Fallacies:  Descriptions and Examples
-The Unintended, Underreported Consequences of Unquestioned Beliefs

Future Articles:
-A Series on the Concept of Faith  (Faith vs. Confidence, Dangers of Faith, and others)
-The Concept of the Afterlife
-Psychics, Cold Reading, and the Barnum Effect
-Precognitive Dreams and Statistical Selection Bias

The Purpose of this Blog

This blog has multiple purposes. First, when people ask me what my thoughts are regarding religious and spiritual matters, my first thought is to ask how many hours they have. I've done a lot of reading and study on the subjects of religion, spirituality, and philosophy over many years and can't fully express what I think in any brief conversation. I've always felt it would be best if I just wrote my thoughts down, so the person could read them if and when they wished.

Second, I think I am unlike many people in that I want people to poke holes in my belief system, point out errors they see, offer other perspectives, and give me new information. It is through such discussions that I arrive at more accurate and true beliefs.  I think a blog is great for this purpose as people can post comments to the articles. Ideally, this will be a place where I can share my thoughts and get feedback, questions, have people both agree and disagree, and make me think, so that my own thoughts can continue to grow and evolve. I wholly agree with Matt Dillahunty who said, "I want to believe as many true things as I can and as few false things as I can." I never profess to have all the answers and enjoy learning from others. Throughout my life, I have and continue to change what I think based on such conversations with others.

Third and perhaps most important, I feel it's important for me to reach out to others who struggle with the same questions I did in the past. In fact, I feel it's not only important, but I feel a great deal of responsibility to help them and to do what I can to ease their struggles, if I can. I felt very alone in the past with these ideas and wished I had someone to discuss them with. My plan is to keep these articles free from swear words, but here, in this one instance, I feel it necessary to break from this self-imposed rule:  I feel I received a lot of bullshit answers to some very good questions when  I was younger.  Perhaps you feel the same way.  So feel free to comment on what is written or email me. I've always had a soft spot for the underdog and people who feel alone when their thoughts differ from the majority.  I welcome all comments from theists and Atheists alike.

There is a plaque at the University of Wisconsin-Madison near where I live, which reads, "Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that The Great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found".

I can't think of a better quote to describe what I strive to do in my life and thoughts.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Coming Out as an Atheist

Coming out as an Atheist seems very much like the process I took from being a Christian to being an Atheist. In the very beginning of the first process, there was the question of whether this was the right thing to do, but the combination of learning, time, experiences, and encouragement led to the answer that it was the right thing to do. The process, however, was by no means easy.

The central emotion, which apparently has to be overcome in both cases, is fear. "What will God think?" was the initial fear in moving towards Atheism, which really meant, "Will I be punished for this?". I was by no means ready to jump into this new lake, so I tested the waters. With time, I felt my confidence grow in what I believed. The water wasn't freezing and as I inched my way in, I didn't drown. Bad things and good things continued to happen to me with the same frequency and in the very same ways as before. I have now been an Atheist for many years and there is no more fear anymore. Not one little bit. What I could never have expected early on is the way I feel now. To be truly free of this fear and reach a the point where my emotions and thoughts are congruent, is an indescribable, wonderful serenity.

More time passed and recently I discovered myself bound by another fear. The fear is no longer about a god, but about people, such as friends, family, and even those who don't know me. "What will they think?", which really meant, "Will I be punished for this?". As before, I had to test the waters. I began by letting those closest to me know first. Of course, the easy part was telling my friends who are Atheists themselves, but soon I began to tell others. I'm very happy to say that the water is very comfortable, as others have been very accepting. I still have some fear inside, but I have confidence in the outcome of the previous path. It is clear to me that the more people I tell, the more peace I have inside. I look forward to the day when the peace is so overwhelming, that it breaks through into serenity once more.