Thursday, February 09, 2006

I Am Going to Hell

If this little post were coffee, it would be really rank by now. It's been percolating here for two weeks or so*. What the hell - I'm going to publish it. Anyone who disagrees with me or has ideas to add is welcome to leave a comment.

I think about religion quite a bit. I am an atheist, and I am pretty sure I have never believed in God**. This is not to say I have been 100% rational my whole life. (Hardly.) The point is, I have been puzzled for years by the ubiquity of religion because the esoteric beliefs and the notion that faith is a virtue are anathema to my existential worldview. I don't get it, basically, but I am trying to understand.

This past Thanksgiving, I borrowed the December issue of the Atlantic Monthly from my father in order to read Paul Bloom's piece on religion entitled "Is God an Accident?" It is a good article, dealing mostly with the prevalence of religion and the role it may play in society. It is an interesting article, and it covers a variety of topics, so go read it if this topic interests you. Bloom quotes anthropologist Edward Tylor, who "got it right in 1871, when he noted that the 'minimum definition of religion' is a belief in spiritual beings, in the supernatural." This definition of religion is important, because for many if not most people, a belief in spiritual beings is conceptually coupled to some set of moral principles they associate with their faith. I see no reason why one cannot exist without the other. Indeed, this is often the case. I have a strong sense of right and wrong, I work hard to be tolerant and forgiving and I feel awful if I cause others pain, yet no one would use the word "religious" to describe me. On the other hand, someone like Fred "God Hates Fags" Phelps, who intentionally inflicts pain and intolerance, is undeniably "religious." Why? Because he believes in God. A hideous and vengeful God, granted, but his supernatural beliefs are reason enough to apply the term.

I rarely discuss my lack of belief with others - certainly not with casual acquaintances - and I think this is due to the widespread notion that religion is the only source of a person's morality. I don't like to waste time defending my worth as a person simply because my beliefs place me in the minority.

In addition to reading Paul Bloom's article in the Atlantic, there was a recent event that prompted me to write this post. A coworker of mine belongs to a "fundamental Bible church." He explained to me recently what his church is all about, and I admit I felt a bit uneasy. I was uneasy about the beliefs themselves, and I was uneasy about his uncritical acceptance of them. He is a recent convert (he received his baptism at his new church in October) so he is still learning the specifics, but his church believes - and by extension, he believes - there is evidence in the Bible that salvation is attained through faith alone, rather than through some combination of faith and good works. My thought upon hearing this was that his church was throwing out any social responsibilities religion might impose. Good works have always seemed to be the greatest - if not the only - benefit of organized religion. This man was brought up as a Catholic, so I can understand how the lowered threshold for salvation might be enticing. Do I sound judgmental? If so, consider the fact that my coworker thinks I am going to hell. What could be more judgmental than that?

I don't know whether religious beliefs are inherently dangerous to society. I am disturbed by irrationality in all forms, and religion is the pinnacle of irrationality. The prospect of an afterlife is clearly a tremendous source of comfort for many individuals. For my fundamentalist coworker, belief in a God who will forgive his trespasses - and apparently there have been many! - is his reason for getting up and going to work each day. I don't see a real benefit in denying him that.

I realize I'm not covering much new ground here, but it is useful for me to write about what I think. Even if no one reads this post or comments on it, I will have tied some loose thoughts together for myself. Plenty of good writing on religion, morality and human nature can be found at Majikthise, Pharyngula and Universal Acid.

*My grandfather used to leave the coffeepot on the stove for hours at a time while he talked politics with my father and uncles through the night. He sometimes left the pot on the stove overnight, only to discover a metallic puddle under the burner in the morning. I don't want this post to suffer the same fate.

**I did have a mental picture of heaven when I was little. It was a small wooden house in the sky, and it had white wallpaper covered with little yellow butterflies. I don't think there was any furniture there.


Blogger driftwood said...

Not long ago I had a conversation with my brother about whether it was a good idea to mock ridiculous superstitious beliefs even if they don’t seem particularly vicious. He has a coworker who is a friendly guy who hosts the monthly poker game, but who is also a fundamentalist nut. My brother’s take is that he has to get a long with the guy, so there is no reason saying anything he find offensive. But this guy makes plenty of offensive judgments himself based on his religious views. Just because it is religious nonsense, why should it be off limits?

I have friends who are “new age” types and I make fun of them all the time in the hope that they will waste less of their money on hucksters selling “quantum harmonic crystallized energy focusing purifying skin lotion” and the like. I can’t say I’ve had much luck, but I figure if a few more people who value reason and evidence chipped in, maybe we could make a dent. Or maybe I’ll just start a web site selling over priced quack junk.

Oh yeah, have you ever asked any of the religious people why a moral code based on supernatural entities is any better than one that is not? The only answers I’ve ever gotten to the question are circular, so I point out the circularity and leave it at that. Or sometimes I’ll have a bit of fun and concoct an equivalent circularity using silly morals and silly supernatural clowns. (Tilting at windmills can be fun.)

10/2/06 9:42 PM  
Blogger graefix said...

I have friends who are "new age" types...

As do I. I have flirted with some dopey, irrational ideas myself (don't ask - very embarrassing). It is probably a good idea to offer some alternatives or to gently express doubt when the subject of purifying skin lotion comes up (or Airborne, or Bach's Flower Remedies, or raw food diets, or $15 vitamins...), but mocking is contraindicated, I think. The quacks are usually much louder than the evidence-based crowd, so it is understandable that a lot of people are persuaded by them.

As for your brother's coworker, I would say that confronting a friend about strange healthcare decisions is one thing, confronting him about his religion quite another. Of course, for some alties, their devotion to their treatment of choice bears a strong resemblance to religious faith.

Oh yeah, have you ever asked any of the religious people why a moral code based on supernatural entities is any better than one that is not?

No, but I have discussed this with other atheists. I will make it a project of mine to ask a religious person about this, but I will have to think long and hard about who that person will be!

12/2/06 9:29 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

It is more interesting to have such a talk with somebody who is religious but has not studied theology.

I find it frustrating to try and talk with the theology types because of the bizarre mixure of very unreasonable starting assumptions that they then follow with (usually) very carefully reasoned arguments. I mean if you are going to take such care in how you reason, why not start with a higher grade of material?

As to making fun of my friends, I guess I haven't cultivated thin skinned friends. Everybody comes in for some sort of ridicule from somebody in my group. And their consumer choices are part and parcel of their larger religious views--they have a highly commodified, if otherwise rather vague, religion. But they are fun and friendly people.

13/2/06 3:53 PM  
Blogger estifallen said...

My friend Beckett on dating a Christian:
"It sucks because you always have to take the backseat for someone who doesn't exist."

22/2/06 12:18 AM  
Blogger estifallen said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

23/2/06 6:53 PM  
Blogger estifallen said...

Theoretically God is all-knowing, correct? Therefore he would be able to see the future. He would know *ahead of time* exactly what decisions he would be making in the future, both near and distant. Therefore, he really makes no choices because he already knows exactly what those choices will be before he makes them. Thus, he lacks free will. How can someone who lacks freewill also be all-powerful?

23/2/06 6:58 PM  
Blogger driftwood said...

Well Estifallen,

There are a variety of standard responses to questions like yours that have been hashed out over the centuries. The one that amuses me is that mere pip-squeaks like humans cannot understand such lofty issues. By the way, that response is probably also the best defense of the Bush administration's Iraq policies.

26/2/06 11:03 AM  

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