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Can Atheism Support Objective Morality?

18 Jun

objective moralityThe first thing to get clear about is precisely what an objective moral theory is.

  • A moral theory is objective only if the moral judgments it generates are perspective-independent.

So, for example, if a moral theory generated only one moral rule, a prohibition against any and all harm, it would be objective because no matter what anyone believes about the rule, harm would still be wrong. Even if we are brainwashed to think harm is good, even if we are completely confused about the matter, and even if we disagree with our wits about us—nevertheless the fact would remain that according to this moral theory, harm is wrong.

Now, notice that in defining and concretizing an objective moral theory, I have made no reference to God. There is no need to, because objectivity is simply a matter of perspective-independence, and to assert that perspective-independence is dependent on a deity is absurd.

Does that entitle us to say that atheism can support objective morality? In one sense, yes, and in another no. In the first sense it is absolutely true that objectivity in and of itself does not require the supernatural. In another sense, however, it can be argued that all atheistic moral theories fail—including objective ones—and that therefore the atheist is not entitled to objective morality.

The second response is perfectly tenable. If a rational, informed person thinks that atheistic moral theories fail, they are entitled to the claim that the atheist cannot have objective morality. But in theistic rhetoric, this claim is often conflated with the claim that there are no plausible atheistic objective moral theories on hand. This is patently false.

To demonstrate the falsity of the claim (but not to defend this theory), I offer a brief sketch of contemporary Kantianism.

Kantianism

Kantianism begins with the thought that we are rational beings who can step back from our actions and examine our reasons for those actions. When we do so, we find that the rules that guide our actions are our identities themselves; they form the basis of our character. Who we are through time can be described by the rules that guide our choices.

Since we have free will, we are free to adopt or reject any set of rules we want. We can choose to be mean-spirited or compassionate. But if we are to be rational, the only requirement is that we should always behave in accordance with our character. This makes sense if you think about it. If I am to be a rational person, I cannot adopt and reject identities at whim; I must choose who I am and then live accordingly. And remember this isn’t constrictive (yet), because we are free to choose who we want to be.

We should say then, that is therefore an unoverridable law for humans that to be rational, they ought to behave consistently with their chosen set of rules for behavior. So what rules should we adopt?

Well, whatever rules we adopt, we must remember that all rational humans would be required to adopt them as well. Since there is no relevant difference between me and other rational beings deciding what to do, both I and them will adopt the same rules if they are truly rational.

So it would be irrational to adopt rules that I wouldn’t benefit from. If I adopt a rule that I will always steal, that would hurt me in the end, because other people would do the same thing and I would get stolen from. Since a part of being rational is pursuing my own self-interest, this wouldn’t be an acceptable law. But everyone adopting a prohibition against killing innocent people would certainly be in my self-interest, and so it would be rational of me to adopt such a rule.

  • Right actions, then, are actions conforming to a rule which you could rationally will everyone to conform to.

Now, putting aside objections to Kantianism, let us ask ourselves whether the rule which it generates is objective. Recall that the only criteria for objectivity is perspective-independence. Is the rule that we ought only act on a rule which we could rationally will everyone act on, perspective-independent? Of course it is. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you stand, or what you believe about it. If it is true, then it establishes an objective moral rule.

What else could theists mean when they claim that atheism can’t support objective morality?

Mind-independence

It is sometimes suggested that atheistic theories are subjective rather than objective because they are mind-dependent. But what does it mean for a moral theory to be mind-dependent?

  • A moral theory is mind-dependent only if it asserts that moral facts would not exist were there no minds.

So, for example, if a moral theory states that moral facts are woven into the fabric of reality and that they persisted and will persist regardless of the existence of humans, it would be mind-independent. The technical term for this is moral realism. By contrast, moral anti-realism asserts that were there no minds, there would be no morality.

Are atheistic moralities necessarily mind-dependent? No. Atheists can maintain that moral facts are mind-independent, as does Erik J. Wielenberg, or else that moral facts are mind-dependent, as do Kant and Rawls.

Conclusion

It should be clear that when theists claim that atheism can’t support objective morality, they are simply mistaken. Robust, objective morality is just as available to the atheist as to the theist.

But why care in the first place? Theists often care because they are very concerned about relativism. If it turns out there are no objective moral truths, then the atrocities of genocide and torture might be endorsed since there would be no objective standard from which to condemn them. Now in point of fact, I’m concerned, too. While I don’t think the world would head to hell in a hand basket if relativism were true, I am much more comfortable with objective morality. Fortunately, I subscribe to Kantianism.

To sum up, I hope the word “objective” will be used more carefully by Christians and atheists alike.

 
 

The Letter I Should’ve Sent

04 Jan

earthSome atheists remain in the closet their whole lives, some come out to most people, and some burst out of the closet blaring a trumpet. You all know which category I fell into.

But it probably wasn’t the wisest strategy. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have toned it down a notch or two, though I still would have come out publicly. Recently a family member contacted me about my atheism and I had the opportunity to personally come out to them in what seemed a much more pleasant and thoughtful way than I had come out to everyone else. From that dialogue, I’ve adapted this announcement letter, which I wish I would have sent in the first place.

Should anyone who wants to come out stumble upon this, feel free to plagiarize.

Dear [Christian Friend],

I hope this letter finds you well. Recently, I’ve changed my worldview and I want to let you know personally. After a long period of reflection and study, I have come to accept atheism as the most likely answer to whether God exists.

Religion is a hazardous topic to broach with anyone, and it is especially so with those with whom I have a cherished personal connection. Nevertheless, I’ve contacted you because I value our friendship and I’d like to try and head off some potential problems right away.

It is and always has been a privilege to know you, regardless of how much our religious beliefs may differ. But the fact that I’ve lost the faith that at least initially formed much of the common ground on which our relationship was built leaves us in a difficult position for several reasons. First, my rejection of the faith we used to share could easily be misconstrued as a rejection of the value of our friendship–but nothing could be further from the truth. My dissenting conclusions on matters of metaphysics should be irrelevant to whether or not we can do the things friends do–like take a road trip or enjoy a meal together. I still value our friendship. Of course, I can’t attend church or pray with you anymore, but I hope you don’t take personal offense; my absence is simply a matter of maintaining intellectual integrity.

The second reason my loss of faith puts us in a difficult position is that holding a differing opinion is almost unavoidably interpreted as arrogant. Any time someone asserts that someone else’s opinion is wrong, especially if they’ve carefully considered it, they are bound to offend. Unfortunately, Christianity and atheism are simply at odds. But if we can agree to disagree, and wrap our opinions in humility, perhaps we can stave off the arrogance and offence long enough to understand each other. I pledge to do my best to be humble, respectful, and thoughtful.

The third reason we’re in a difficult position is that given the depth of your commitment to Christianity, it’s possible to take my deconversion as a wholesale rejection of everything you stand for. Clearly no friendship can survive that kind of assault. But fortunately, it would be a mistake to interpret my deconversion in that way. While we may disagree about the existence of God, we still share a number of core values. Compassion and truth-seeking, for example, are still of utmost importance to both of us. Moreover, we still share the values of beholding the mysteries of our existence, finding beauty in art and in nature, and enjoying friends and family. While our friendship previously pursued these goods under the banner of Christianity, there is no reason it cannot continue to do so under a secular banner.

The final reason we’re in a difficult position is more recondite. For any number of reasons, you can attribute my loss of faith to a deformity of character rather than to an error in judgment. An agreement to disagree notwithstanding, interpreting my loss of faith in this way is the surest way of damaging our relationship.

Deconverting–as we atheists call it sometimes–was the most difficult decision of my life. When I returned from University, I launched a personal study of other religions because and only because I longed to “seek and save the lost”. I began to study Islam, Buddhism, and Judaism so I could better reach those communities, both in the U.S. and abroad. Ironically, my search for the best way to propagate my beliefs ultimately disabused me of them. For reasons beyond the scope of this letter, I lost all faith in the conception of God I had obediently and sincerely served for twenty-two years. Upon realizing I was an atheist, I was devastated.

Now, as I mentioned before, this can be taken one of two ways. My friends can believe me and credit my decision to what they as believers see as a tragic error in judgment, or they can credit my decision to a deformity of character. From my viewpoint, taking the latter position would be the emotional equivalent of contacting me after I had lost everything in a house fire and calmly informing me that not only was I at fault, but that I secretly wanted it to happen. Besides castigating my character, it would also belittle the incredibly taxing emotional and intellectual ordeal I endured. If at all possible, please interpret my deconversion in the more charitable light.

Although there are more obstacles we will have to address, hopefully these remarks will start us down the right path. To be sure, this shift in thought and lifestyle marks a significant change in the way we will interact, but I believe we can find a new way to successfully continue our friendship. Moreover, we can cultivate opportunities for fruitful dialogue if you so desire. I’ve written a short introduction to my new position and welcome your comments.

All the best to you,

Andy Walters

 
 

This Just In: Rick Warren Tweets Nonsense

03 Dec

Rick Warren recently tweeted this drivel:

“People become atheists because of hurt, then seek intellectual arguments to validate their desire to live without God.”

Rick WarrenFrom the heights of solipsistic arrogance, Warren has performed the verbal equivalent of pulling his pants down and wagging his bare butt at the entire atheist community. Allow me to pull his pants the rest of the way down.

For starters, he is dead wrong. Most atheists are atheists primarily for intellectual reasons. End of story. Even a casual relationship with a few atheists will make this fact obvious.

Second, consider the plausibility of what Warren really believes: an invisible being who created the universe by speaking a few words also revealed himself to an obscure Middle Eastern sect by causing a virgin to conceive a son that was 100% himself and also 100% not himself, and then that son died, un-died, saved all of humanity and flew back into heaven. And it’s supposed to be hard to see why people might disagree for purely intellectual reasons?

Warren’s sentiments represent the worst of Christian xenophobia. Even Christian theologians–the category we reserve for those crazy enough to devote their lives to the study of the invisible and confusing–understand that there are plenty of intellectual reasons to abandon the brand of faith Warren traffics. Sure, they might not do so themselves, but their exposure to the pressing intellectual problems of Christianity makes them much more circumspect and far less apt to accuse atheists of believing the way they do for no other reason except being hurt.

I myself have heard some Christian friends and family parrot Warren’s idiocy to me, and it’s insulting. First, how dare anyone tell me why I made the decision I made? I was the one making it(!), and I assure you it was for intellectual reasons. Second, why would anyone think that the mere moral failure of a few Christians would motivate me to reject the faith altogether? I wasn’t hurt–I actually had a pretty good Christian experience–but even if I was, how dare someone insinuate that I would sacrifice my intellectually integrity to an emotional response? That’s just downright rude, and even I, an atheist, grant my intellectual opponents more respect than that.

Finally, it is only from the apogee of blind faith that people believe there can be no purely intellectual motivation to disagree with them. The hideously effective belief encoded in many strains of the Christian meme is that it affords literally no space for the possibility of its untruth. Those infected are so convinced that they cannot be persuaded otherwise by evidence or logic. At least us atheists usually acknowledge the possibility of being wrong.

No doubt Warren will continue spouting his nonsense to the cheap applause of some Christians. But the rest of us will just laugh at him flailing about with his pants down.

 
 

Billy Joe Daugherty’s Word of Faith Teaching Debunked By His Own Death

23 Nov
Billy Joe Daugherty

Billy Joe Daugherty

The reverend Billy Joe Daugherty, a leading Word of Faith minister famous for preaching earthly healing as every Christian’s right, has died of lymphoma at the age of 57. An expression usually limited to child playgrounds will suffice: I told you so.

In the fortunate event you haven’t encountered Daugherty’s theology, I have here reproduced three of his “daily confessional” verses, which are supposed to suspend natural law in the confessor’s favor:

  • “I believe that I will live and not die to declare the works of the Lord in this earth” – Psalm 118:17.
  • “God has said that I have been given at least seventy years to live and because of strength, I could live eighty years or more” – Psalm 90:10.
  • “It is God’s will that I prosper and be in health, even as my soul prospers” – 3 John 2.

Pardon me for asking, but where is the miraculous health promised to Daugherty on earth? Last time I checked he was in a coffin. Surely he had enough faith and confessed the right things—his Twitter account is evidence enough of that.

Perhaps Daugherty needed to to shout louder to God. Or maybe God was just daydreaming, or relieving himself. Or maybe God was away on a trip, or was asleep and needed to be wakened.

Word of Faith is a load of tripe that was condemned to the trashheap of religious history long ago. It is one of the more depressing facts of life that despite the movement’s manifest failure, its leaders will no doubt press on, raking in more millions selling their shamanic wares to credulous and uneducated lay people. Shame on Billy Joe Daugherty, and shame on them.

Update: It’s true that this note is untimely and disrespectful. As a humanist, I do feel the loss of a sincere soul on this planet, and my condolences go out to those who knew him personally and are aggrieved. But I refuse to sit on the sidelines and watch yet another episode of Word of Faith denial play out without saying my piece. Already I hear people babbling on about how Daugherty “graduated to heaven”, as if his tragic death was perfectly expected. Are you kidding me? His death was so totally incongruous with the whole of his teaching that it is an understatement to call it the 900 Million Pound Gorilla with Flashing Red Lights Doing Cartwheels in his ministry. But no one is talking about that.

“But I shouldn’t be so mean”, you say. Folks, remember that this man made a career out of collecting money for declaring that the reason people are sick or die early is that they didn’t do something right in the supernatural realm. He regularly threw salt in the wounds of so many Christians who opened their hearts and pocketbooks to him that I cannot just sit back and coast while everybody praises him. Someone has to stand up for the truth, and hold him at least journalistically accountable for what he did and believed. Someone has to stand up and say that his death is certifiable, concrete evidence that the Word of Faith brand of Christianity is bunkum. I’ll take one for the team and deal with the consequences.

 
 

My Spiritual Atheism: A Very Short Introduction

31 May

There are moments I know the divine, when the world suddenly warms my soul and everything becomes beautiful. I’ve known it in music, in study, in suffering, and in silence. Most of all, I’ve known it in people. Sometimes I sit among total strangers and can’t help but feel as if I am among intimate lovers.

The divine is real. I cannot deny it.

***

I am an atheist.

The trouble with the term is that rejecting “God” is as precise as rejecting Italian cooking: who knows what that is? Pizza was probably first invented in Italy, but only after tomatoes were imported from the Americas. Is it Italian? What about the scandal of pasta? Similarly, the label “God” applies to so many different conceptions of the divine, each of them borrowing and modifying so many ideas from their neighbors. These conceptions have then been interpreted in as many ways as there are thinkers, so that to reject or affirm “God” altogether is almost useless. “Atheist” is too broad a denial. As a spiritual atheist, I mean that I reject the supernatural but affirm the reality and value of what most people usually mean when they say “the divine”.

Unfortunately, many Christians have accepted the idea that the divine cannot be explained without the supernatural. And if it were, they say, the divine would lose its value. If the experience of transcendent love and overwhelming awe were, in the end, entirely natural, those experiences would be less wonderful. Somehow, they think, their understanding of God can emerge from being boxed up and studied by modernity totally unchanged.

But it can’t. The scientific revolution has shown that the universe humans inhabit looks exactly as we would expect it to if there weren’t any supernatural interference. Evolution happened, and when it did, it built the machinery of the “the divine” into our brains: the capacity to seek and find transcendent love, inner peace, and total awe. It also built us with some useful but logically dishonest biases towards assigning things agency as well as focusing on the hits rather than the misses of a theory. Consequently it is no surprise that religion before modernism mistakenly assumed the natural elements had manipulable agency, and people kept this belief for a long time.

If we are to be intellectually honest in the twenty-first century, however, we must abandon the supernatural, superstitious elements of religion. Rain dances don’t bring rain. Sacrifices don’t avert natural disasters. Prayer doesn’t heal people.

This wouldn’t be so difficult except that Western religion developed to identify the divine with the supernatural. Whereas in the East, they were largely conceived of separately, in the West, God was not only the God that healed people and performed miracles–he was also the only way and reason humans could experience love, peace, and awe. For Westerners, having intertwined the supernatural and the divine so tightly turned out to be difficult–at best–when modernism began its assault on supernatural explanations. If Western religions hadn’t linked them so closely, they might have been more eager to abandon the superstitious, supernatural elements of their religion and simply focus on the divine. Instead, they interpreted the advance of modernism as an attack on more than just superstition–as an attack on the divine, which is by definition sacred to all humans.

We must be careful then, especially in the West, to acknowledge that although modernism has peeled away the supernatural elements of religion, its core–the divine–remains largely intact, regardless of the fundamentalists’ frantic suggestion otherwise. Religion is valuable because it leads us to the divine; not because it introduces us to a genie.

***

Obviously most of what I’ve said hinges on the definition of the divine. So what do most people mean when they speak of “the divine?”

First, they mean transcendent love. Transcendent love is valuing others’ interests above your own. It is no accident that the golden rule is the bedrock of all religions: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. For me, behaving in this fashion on a daily basis–practicing respect, humility, compassion, and altruism, for example–is intensely gratifying. While my ego often wants to sidestep this difficult program, there is nevertheless a part of me that doesn’t care and experiences the gratification even when my ego is throwing a temper tantrum. It is the divine–the part of me that “transcends” my ego. I suspect the process of identifying with this part of oneself as opposed to the ego is loosely correlated with what many Christians mean when they speak of salvation–they “die to themselves” (their ego’s), but find “life in Christ” (the divine). Discovering this part of themselves is like a complete rebirth, shedding the “old nature” and finding the new.

To be clear, valuing people’s interests over your own doesn’t mean you become a doormat or a people-pleaser. I’m not a doormat for people because I know that I wouldn’t want anyone to be a doormat for me. I’m not a people-pleaser because I know that I wouldn’t want people to only act to please me.

Second, by “divine”, people also mean inner peace–being unafraid of what is, has been, or will be. Christians often refer to it as a “peace that passes understanding”. When I experience it, I am flooded with a sense of “alright-ness” with myself and my circumstances. Although it is a sense of acceptance, it does not rid me of the desire to better myself and my circumstances. Instead, it shows me those desires are only one part of me. “I”, the part of me that can experience this peace, exist independently of the part of me that experiences desire. It is the “inner”, unchanging me. So while my desiring self may be unsatisfied, there is another part of me that doesn’t care–it is the divine.

Awe is the final component of what people usually mean when they speak of the divine. Divine awe is a sense of utter astonishment and wonder at the mystery of existence. Although people have intimations of this type of awe when they see a good magic trick or contemplate the opposite sex, the degree of awe that can come from observing the mystery of existence is so much larger that it is probably a different type of awe rather than a different degree. When I experience divine awe, I am forcibly humbled as I am reminded that my mind is never going to understand everything–there will always be mystery. On the question “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, for example, we humans will probably never have an answer, and even if we do, it will always intuitively sponsor the kind of awe I’m talking about. As a Christian, I experienced awe as I contemplated how completely “other” and “separate” God was. It is no mistake that Christians speak of their God as “awe”-some, and mysterious.

Thus completes my short list of the core elements of the divine, although I’m sure I’ve left some important things out. All of these components are properly viewed as effects of the divine, rather than the divine itself. Until we come into into contact with the divine–and by that I mean only finding it within ourselves–we can never fully know it, and our descriptions are bound to be only shadows of the real thing.

But there is a real thing.

***

My spiritual atheism is a rejection of the supernatural but an affirmation of the divine. For thousands of years, humans have mapped out the divine and many have explained it in terms of the supernatural. With the advent of modernism, however, that language no longer makes sense. But that doesn’t mean that the divine isn’t real–it only means we need a different vocabulary to describe the same reality. I call it spiritual atheism.

 
 

Obama’s Inaugural Speech: Utopia?

20 Jan
Barrack Obama

Barrack Obama

First, I must say it is an unparalleled privilege to live in these United States. Today we witnessed the peaceful transfer of power, dearly paid for with the blood and fervor of our patriot forefathers. Few nations can boast such a noble tradition. For this and many other hard-won traditions we must be thankful.

But we also felt the tingle of our new President’s silk words brushing up against our ears, full of promises for the future and disdain for the present. As for the latter, he said “this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control — and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous.” As I watched the crowds blithely cheer at our new leader’s indictment of the free exchange of private property, I was struck by both the gullibility of our nation and the foresight of Aristotle. Aristotle wrote in his Politics, some 2400 years ago, “Men readily listen [to Utopias], and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody’s friend, especially when someone is heard denouncing the evils now existing [...] which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, arise from quite another source–the wickedness of human nature.”

Perhaps there is some truth in the saying “There is nothing new under the sun.”

 
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A Tale of Misguided Christian Fundamentalists

20 Nov

As of late, I have been off the anti-religious bandwagon. On the whole, I think belief in the supernatural is a useful shorthand for grappling life’s biggest questions: those of meaning, purpose, and morality. But there are limits to its usefulness.

Today I watched a young fundamentalist Christian woman recount how she and her group were physically attacked for willfully venturing into one of San Francisco’s best-known openly gay communities and holding a public prayer and worship service “to love them.” A hostile crowd quickly gathered around the team, and what began with taunts and jeers ended in a quasi-riot, with the crowd resorting to dousing the Christians with hot coffee, hitting them, and blowing whistles in their ears. Eventually the police had to escort the Christians out for their own safety.

What saddens me is that these fundamentalists seem misguided enough to believe that their actions were noble. That being attacked for proactively antagonizing a community openly hostile to them was the result of anything other than their own stupid choice. That searching out enemies of the church and igniting their hatred is any more noble than the pathetically xenophobic superbowl riots.

It is inexpensive to note that the effort by the Christians did little more than provide them with an adrenaline rush, inflate their sense of self-righteousness, and piss off a bunch of San Franciscan homosexuals. That these fundamentalists knew beforehand their efforts were bound to be fruitless casts serious doubt on their motivations: were they really sincere Christians trying to save souls?, or were they just a rowdy band of religious marauders trying to scare up a cheap adrenaline rush?

I’m not condoning the behavior of the attackers, but I am accusing the Christians of lugubriously bemoaning getting only what they asked for. I hope my Christian friends will join me in condemning this stupidity.

 
 

What is Meaning?

30 Nov

sunset-beachIt’s the secret that the world is in color when everyone else thinks it’s grey. It is expressed in tears, laughter, and silence. It resonates with the sunset and rejoices with the sunrise. It is the bridge between footwork and dancing. It cannot be bought, but sometimes it is stolen. Philosophers cannot define it, but a child can tell you what it is.

 
 

Why I Renounced Christianity in Favor of Atheism

31 Oct

universeFew people have the courage to look beyond their contexts, and fewer still the courage to embrace what they find. Thus most will turn a blind eye to my logic, but perhaps there will be a few who will bare themselves to the raw implications of my story. Be the latter.

The aim of this essay is to explain how I arrived at the conclusion that atheism is the most probable answer to the God question. Note that it is not to convince you of my position, though you may find it convincing; the only persuasive aim I may have is to prick your curiosity. I have chosen a narrative format instead of a logically argumentative one because I wish for you to understand the events and thought processes that led to the formation of my position, as I believe many people reading this will find themselves in positions similar to my previous one. My essay is a bit long, but I assure you it is worth your time.

Before I begin it is necessary to briefly address the myth of certainty. I am nearly certain that it is impossible to know anything with perfect certainty. What we call “true” is simply an artificial construction of our minds based strictly upon the empirical sense-data we receive and organized by our intelligence’s faculties. Nothing more. Evidence and an attempt for proof of this point is outside the scope of this essay. However, the essential implication of such a view is that a proper epistemology will recognize the limitations inherent to the human and consequently employ a probabilistic heuristic over against an absolutist model. The best ontological formulation one therefore can hope for is a highly probable map of absolute reality with full knowledge it may not be entirely accurate. Accordingly, my quest for the truth about God will be couched in terms of probability rather than absolute existence or non-existence.

I, like many of my American generational counterparts, am a victim and beneficiary of information-age modernism. A beneficiary because of the unprecedented body of freely available information and a victim because of the confusion which arises due to contradictory claims contained in such a global body. With respect to religions, never before in the history of humanity have so many minds been acutely aware that their people group is part of a larger global community fraught with mutually exclusive conceptions of God. For example, even during early American history, arguably one of the most religiously heterogeneous experiments theretofore, most of the immigrants, while being divided doctrinally, still adhered to some version of Christianity. In addition, no mechanism was available whereby one could vividly demonstrate that a great number of intelligent, spiritual people in different parts of the world held conflicting supernatural beliefs. Given this extremely localized context compared to our own, it was much more practical to write off large swaths of humanity as irrational or simply incorrect. Now, however, in an increasingly “flat,” or connected context, it has become imminently necessary to find some way to reconcile the competing conceptions of the supernatural. I believe this to be the zeitgeist of my generation—finding truth in the midst of an unprecedented number of widely held, contradictory truth-claims. The popular answer, which I find insufficient, is the rejection of the absolute. The essence of postmodernism is this: if I trust George, Gracie and myself, but George, Gracie, and myself all hold mutually exclusive ideas, then what is true for George is different from what is true for Gracie is different from what is true for me. Never before the twentieth century would such a preposterous view of reality have been widely adhered to and the only reason it is commonly accepted today is the mammoth of plurality facing this new generation. Fundamentally, however, postmodernism merely surrenders to this giant rather than slay it. I have the intuitive gusto to believe there is a rational explanation for these disparate phenomena, particularly of the religious type, and it is in this spirit my story is framed.

After I obtained my undergraduate degree, I embarked on a study of world religions. I assimilated information about, in addition to others, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism and also about the history of their formations. In the process, I was confronted with the fact that fundamentalism, the idea that God has always been experienced the same way by all people, is antihistorical. I had always believed, as a good Christian does, that the God of the Jews was precisely the same God of the Christians and that any sufficiently exhaustive examination of their histories would reflect this. I was mistaken. In fact, the conceptions of God within only Judaism itself were mutually exclusive. For example, I, for the first time, understood that the Jews enslaved in Egypt initially conceived of YHWH as merely a tribal deity dedicated to their survival and material success. When it became inconvenient to believe this, however, for example during the time of the prophets when the northern and southern kingdoms were being destroyed by their enemies, they quietly abandoned this belief and chose instead to believe YHWH was an omnipotent being that either conquered or encompassed other gods and was using the other nations to judge the kingdoms. There are literally thousands of examples of this type where beliefs morph into contradictory yet more pragmatic versions of older ones both within Christianity and other religions. The examples listed are not meant as proof, but merely as representative samples of a large species of alike instances.

One can see the plurality of the conceptions of God I had to deal with extended now not only through the third dimension, but the fourth as well. In other words, not only did the diverse landscape of religious beliefs about God come from currently held ideas in other areas of the world (spatially), but also the immense amount of ideas held in their iterative versions throughout all of history (temporally). The mammoth had multiplied itself to gargantuan proportions.

In the face of such a behemoth of plurality, a key shift in the burden of proof took place. Before, naively assuming there were relatively few conceptions of God to deal with, it was reasonable to hold that since my theory of God seemed to be consistent with my reason, experience, and tradition, the burden of proof would rest with other religions. But two factors changed this: first, the amount of possible conceptions of God increased dramatically, and second, I realized there were billions of people who also had beliefs they considered consistent with their reason, experience, and tradition, and yet they were quite contradictory to mine. If a great many other people were using the same methods to justify their beliefs and yet many of them came to vastly differing conclusions, I could no longer trust those methods prima facie as I had before. This warranted a far more thorough analysis than I had previously given it.

On my new ground I was as neutral as possible. At this point, the chief question in my mind was epistemological, viz. “How can I know the true conception of God?” I believe there are three primary epistemological tools available to man: tradition, experience, and reason. Many protestant Christians would add Scripture to this list, but it is clear that Scripture is nothing more than an extension of tradition. I will digress a moment to further clarify my beliefs here, specifically because much of my audience is probably protestant. Scripture is merely a set of books containing narratives, poetry, wise sayings, apocalyptic writings, and incidental communiques, usually transmitted orally first (in most cases for a long time), then compiled, edited, and voted on. There was no magical aura placed over the “right” books and the authors were not magically possessed to say precisely the right things. Acceptance into the canon was determined by criteria as simple as a vote. Furthermore, Scripture contains many doctrinal contradictions which reflect its varied and colored formation. Martin Luther himself, widely believed to be the father of the Protestant Reformation, vehemently decried the canonization of James as it disagreed with his theology, closer associated with the Pauline view, and went to his grave calling for its removal. This is not to say that Scripture does not contain truth—in fact I believe it contains quite a bit of it—but it is to say that truth does not contain Scripture. In any case however, what is of chief importance here is that one recognize it is an extension of tradition. This is readily seen considering the oral tradition which formed much of it and the latter councils which canonized it.

Back to my original point. We have only tradition, reason, and experience at our disposal to evaluate the world. But how could I use these same methods to arrive at a more accurate conclusion, given that I had used them to justify my previous beliefs? The key is that I now employed these tools a priori, vs. a posteriori. Candidly, I had used my tradition, reason, and experience to shore up or tweak my position after I had assumed it was true. Now with the burden of proof shifting, I was forced to abandon my old position and evaluate all other positions impartially. This yielded a more accurate conclusion.

Presumably, to evaluate the traditional, reasonable, and experiential merits of each conception of God that has ever existed would take a great deal of time. In addition such an enterprise would have been very confusing because so many highly intelligent, spiritual, educated people have disagreed so vehemently. For example, regarding tradition, Protestant Christians would have argued to their graves that the Old and New Testaments were inspired, but so would the Muslims of their Qur’an. With regard to reason, as far as I can tell, every single religion on earth has considered itself reasonable, and as a result of modernity, arguments from reason supporting religions have increased considerably. Finally, with regard to experience, there were millions of loyal followers of each religion that would have died for the conviction that they had a personal experience with their version of God, though they be mutually exclusive. Though this confusion did not render the problem insurmountable, it was clear a more elegant way was needed to evaluate religions.

Such a method came to me after evaluating the problem for some time. In order to understand it, it will be necessary to establish some background information. When studying world religions, I came to understand that most Eastern religions believe in karma and reincarnation. In fact, they believe this to be the universal human condition, that the endless process of rebirth and redeath causes a great deal of pain. This is a completely different notion from the Western conception of the universal human condition, which says that separation from God causes a great deal of pain. These two different notions also have very different supposed remedies. In the West, it is reconciliation to God (through a number of avenues) and in the East, it is the ending of the cycle of rebirth and redeath (also through a number of avenues). It is imperative to realize if one were to split the world into these two categories, literally billions of ardent adherents would be represented on each side.

And it is here I had a stroke of genius: how could both of these broadly defined religious groups have been successful? It logically follows that if the Western religions were true then the universal human condition is that of a need for reconciliation to God, and no religion could be successful if it did not address this concern. And yet the while the Eastern religions did not remotely address such a concern, they were wildly successful. And conversely, if the Eastern conception of the human condition were true, that humans needed a way to end the cycle of rebirth and redeath, then the Western religions could never have succeeded and yet they did. Note that I am not saying popularity determines correctness. What I am saying is that since both religious groupings make unavoidable claims about the popularity of other religions, we can use popularity as a metric to evaluate these claims.

The main objection to this argument is that a religion can be successful without being optimal. In other words, that, say for example, the people in the East are living a suboptimal life compared to the truth of the Western religions. This objection is inadequate in two ways: it fails to recognize the severity of the predictions of each religion, and it it cannot account for the overwhelming satisfaction reported by adherents of each side. The fact is that if the Western conception of the human condition is true, there could be no satisfaction found in the East, and vice versa. Each side vehemently argues for their human condition as an innate and inextricable need. It is not fair to say the remedies proposed by each religious grouping are even close theologically. It follows then, that no halfway solution could have ever propagated a successful religion. And yet we see very high acceptance rates in each religious grouping. Some would argue that since religion is usually passed down generationally and is so tied to people’s cultural contexts the acceptance and satisfaction rates are meaningless. This fails because it cannot account for the original, very large group of people who found the religion satisfying in the first place.

The question then was “why were the Eastern and Western religions so successful?” If it was not because they were true, what elements contained within these religions made their acceptance rates so high? What was the true universal human condition of mankind that could account for the success of both religious groupings? Again after some time and study, I came to the conclusion that fear could universally describe the success of both Eastern and Western religious groupings. There are several basic fears that each religious grouping addresses: the fear of death, for example. In the West, it was believed one could inherit eternal life and admittance into heaven and therefore avoid death. In the East, it was believed one would either experience rebirth, or one would come to the point of realization that life is just a temporary bundle of consciousness and death was nothing more than the separation of this bundle. In either case (rebirth or nirvana) the fear was alleviated. Let us take the fear of the absence of security. In the East, such a fear was no longer necessary if one followed the religious plan because one learned to take refuge in nothing, which was ultimately a source of peace. In the West, the fear of the absence of security was alleviated because God was supposedly looking out for his followers. Adherents found great peace in this doctrine, just as in the East. Another example of fear would be the fear of the absence of meaning in life. In the West, the meaning of life was to become reconciled to God, a task which took a great deal of time and provided men a means to living a moral life. In the East, the meaning of life was to become nothing, or to extinguish the process of rebirth and redeath, which also took a great deal of time and provided support for morality.

There was no other logically probable possibility that could account for the success of both sides. Therefore I was forced to believe that the universal human condition was not what either side said it was; that both sides were being shortsighted. There is one other item I became aware of in the study of religions which pounded the last nail in the coffin. It turns out that historically, religious beliefs have always developed much more along the lines of convenience than of truth. In the Israelite example earlier, the beliefs about YHWH changed not because of some a priori, impartial logical or philosophical realization about God. Instead the change occurred because it was far more convenient to believe something different about God that provided a more meaningful and secure existence. In other words, it is highly probable that religions have employed tradition, reason, and experience after the fact to justify whatever convenient conception of God is needed at that moment. This is well documented and I do not intend to convince the novice theologian of this point here. But taken together, the formation of religions based on convenience vs. truth, and the truly universal human condition of fear that neither current Western nor Eastern religions can explain, it seemed to me highly probable that God was nothing more than an imagination.

An analogy will help: suppose you are in a room with a flyswatter and several flies. After you had swatted a few of them, to deal with the fear of the absence of security and meaning in their lives, they would develop beliefs about what is going on to help them cope. In order to deal with their fear of being swatted, it is possible they would develop the belief that you are a benevolent creature who only swats flies who have violated some sacred order, and therefore based on their fly-righteousness (or perhaps the righteousness of a Super-fly) they could be saved from swatting. In order to cope with their fear of death in general, they would perhaps develop the belief in the fly-afterlife wherein they would continue on in their fly-souls, and thereby alleviate their fear of death. In order to cope with the seeming injustice in their fly-world, it is possible some would develop a belief in fly-heaven and fly-hell where final justice would be enforced, and some others would possibly develop a belief in fly-karma and fly-reincarnation whereby in the next life based on their actions in the previous one, they would be repositioned on the scale of fly-importance accordingly. The analogy shows us that essentially, religious beliefs are a coping mechanism.

When, in the absence of meaning and security, humans could find none, it seems probable they simply reached beyond the realm of the visible and created beliefs that would shore up this deficiency. It was likely an evolutionary necessity that allowed mankind to ensure its survival in the face of extreme adversity. In our own time, given the new conditions of free access to information and globalization, if people will shed their biases, I believe there will be an increasing percentage of atheists who will “come out.” Whether or not “God” is still necessary to our survival is up for debate, but what is clear to me is that it is nothing more than an illusion.

When I came to this realization, I exclaimed “Oh my God! I’m an atheist.” And then I cried. So much of my understanding of security and meaning were wrapped up in these ideas that without them I felt naked and vulnerable. I was faced with the choice to go on as a Christian, laboring with enormous doubts, or to simply jettison faith altogether. It was an incredibly difficult decision to make considering the investment I had (and for that matter, others had) in my faith. But after much deliberation, I decided that regardless of the consequences, I had to believe that “veritas vos liberabit,” or, “the truth will set you free.” And that is how I came to be an atheist.