Sunday, May 15, 2011

Why I Write This

            I'm going to take some time today to address an issue that have covered in brief before, when I first began writing the blog, but which I have come to understand in a different light in the time between now and then.

              I am referring to my motivation for devoting so much time in this space to writing on the subject of religion and faith. I feel this needs addressing because I would have to be fairly thick to not realize that these are very touchy subjects, and that I have probably already done a decent job of offending some people, including some near and dear to me.

             I wouldn't blame the reader who thought I devoted so much time and energy to raising criticisms of religion simply because I enjoy pissing people off. Readers who know me in real life might be even more inclined to think that, because I can be a bit of a contrarian. However, this is very much not the case. I've spent much of my life in silence on these issues, and have felt no differently about them at any time during the past 15 years than I do now. So let me try to clarify just a bit why I do take the time to do this, and hopefully readers who are put off by the whole project might be slightly less so.

             First of all, this blog is in no way an attempt to deconvert the faithful. While I will admit that I sincerly believe a world free of the twin scourges of faith and religion would be in many ways superior to the one we currently inhabit, it is not my mission to make it so. There are a few reasons for this, the first being that I am aware of how utterly pointless it is to argue with faith.

              As I have gone over at length in these pages, faith, by definition, is belief in something in the absence of evidence, often even in spite of the evidence. Since evidence is the means by which two subjective beings can come to an objective, mutual conclusion about something, the very prospect of a productive discussion with someone who chooses to use faith as a means of making truth-judgments about the world is doomed from the start.

             Lest the reader think my perspective here is biased, I will share some of my own experience with faith. I was raised in the Christian faith, by two devout but far from oppresive parents, who regularly encouraged me to read the Bible and interpret my faith for myself. (This was ultimately their mistake, if their goal was that I remain Christian.) I followed their advice, and before I left high school had read the book through twice, and spent many more hundreds of hours in the study of my favorite passages. I took my faith extremely seriously, and by the time I was applying to colleges, my intention was to go to school for a theology degree and become a priest.

             This goal changed for me over the course of the year before and that first year in college, and I eventually switched to studying physics and philosophy. But I recall my years of faith very well. Specifically, I recall the discussions I had with those who thought otherwise, and how little anything they had to say affected me. Even when what they said made a lot of sense, I was always able to return to my Bible, return to my faith, and dismiss all other ways of thinking as simply being temptations meant to drive me from my true faith. 

             Now, looking at faith from the outside in, I am keenly aware of the pointlessness of addressing those who hold it, because I myself held it very dear at a time not too long ago. So I say it again; My objective with these posts is not to deconvert the faithful, because I realize the utter pointlessness of this venture.

              At the same time, even if something I could say would make a chink in the impenetrable mental armor that is faith, I'm not necessarily sure that I would want to. For many of the people in my life for whom faith plays a central role, I don't honestly think they would be better off without it, particularly those who are at later stages of their lives. Life without faith is not easy, despite some suggestions of the faithful to the contrary. Trying to find meaning and happiness rooted in the sometimes blind and arbitrary world we actually live in is much more challenging than having it handed to you in a host of elaborate (and unverifiable) promises. So when someone has lived their entire life planning on eternity, pulling that rug out from under them is arbitrary and cruel. Many people seem to need the idea of angels watching over them when they drive to work, or apply for a job or get on a plane. Whatever. It really doesn't make the slightest bit of difference to me.

              So if you are a person of faith, and for some reason you regularly return here to read what I have to say (why?), take heart. I intend no harm to your faith. You are as free to feel and believe what you wish as you have always been. Enjoy. At the same time, if you truly believe you have a personal relationship with the creator of the universe, surely nothing a mere human might say could possibly affect or offend you in anyway, right?

             So why do I write this? Originally, it was my means of taking a stand against an assumption. For someone who thinks the God hypothesis to be extremely unlikely, living in a world chock-full of faith and its adherents can get quite tiresome. Whether it is the countess references to "God's will" in congenial discussion, the religion-themed books one gets at the holidays, being expected to say "Under God," in our nation's pledge of allegiance, the expectation that you care about mythology-based holidays, or the nearly constant "spiritual messages" I see cycled through Facebook, it all gets very, very old.

            But that is the harmless stuff, and although it is mildly irritating, it is relatively easy to ignore. What is harder to ignore is the endless history of violence, murder and oppression, both physical and intellectual, that is the historical and contemporary fact of religion's existence. I have explored these topics at length, and don't believe they need any more attention here.

            But the thing about religion and faith is this; not matter what your complaint against them, you're not supposed to say anything. "How dare you question someone's faith?" "That's their religion, and it's none of your business." "What do you know about their relationship with God?" It doesn't matter what horrible aspect of religion you are objecting to, if you criticize religion or faith you are the one at fault, you are being horrible and insensitive, you are being close-minded for raising concerns that the perpetuation of another's beliefs might be doing the rest of us an awful lot of harm.

             I've spent a good deal of time being immersed in, studying, reading and thinking about religion and faith. And I have come to the conclusion, fairly well-informed, I would argue, that religion and faith are the two most harmful artifacts of human society, excepting war itself (although the three have long been conjoined triplets). But raising this concern invariably paints me as a heartless jerk, simply out to ruin people's happiness.

             Many people have issues they feel are of pressing concern, each possibly threatening to bring an end to the world as we know it; inflation, taxes, abortion, cruelty to animals, climate change, violence against women, war, poverty, famine, pornography, homosexuality, single-parent families, conservatism, liberalism, whatever your cup of tea. And it is pretty much fair-game to voice concerns with any of these... except religion and faith. Not okay. Now you've crossed the line, buddy.

              So most people whose eyes are opened to the endless folly that is belief in things that neither you nor anyone else has ever seen, and using that guess as your moral compass, simply keep their mouths shut. Which is where this blog comes in. Many others, and many more talented, have come before me, but not everyone out there has chanced to come across the works of Paine or Dawkins or  Dennett or Hitchens or Harris. And very few people seem to know someone in their own lives who is willing to rock the boat to such a degree. But, what I have discovered, is that a great many of them appreciate it.

            For every negative comment I get on the blog (there have been surprisingly few, which is a disappointment) or on Facebook (more there) I get at least half a dozen that are gushingly positive. But still, even when it is my name attached to the posts, and it is my work, people who find that they agree with what I have to say are still too cautious to even put a positive comment on a controversial idea in the public space like that. So they come in emails, text messages, private Facebook messages, or in conversations over a glass of scotch. And the refrain is this: "I am so glad you are saying what you are saying on your blog. I completely agree with you. I just never dare to say anything when people bring it up, and you articulate it in a way I never could." (I add the last part not to boast, but because it is relevant to a point I will make in a minute.)

              Of course, there are those few who have no problem commenting, my oldest friend, my wife, and it is no coincidence that they have these places in my life. And I don't blame those who don't. There is a huge stigma attached to not buying into the universal myth, and there can be real-life consequences. (Atheists regularly poll as the least-trusted minority in the US, behind even homosexuals and Satanists. I'm not kidding. Satanists.) Not only are you different than most everyone else you know, your lack of belief is a direct affront to theirs. If they buy-in, why don't you? Do you think you are smarter than everyone else? That you know something the rest of us don't know? Why don't you go mind your own business?

            Sigh. And so it goes. But those who know me know that public opinion is not very high on my list of concerns. (Probably not the best attitude for a public-school teacher, but despite my best efforts, I still can't bring myself to give a crap.) So, for now, I don't mind leading the charge, at least within the small circle of my life. And I understand that a great deal of this has more to do with personality than conviction. I know many who feel as strongly as I do about these issues, some more so, but who are far less likely to voice their opinion because it really isn't in their personality to make waves. I, however, have never had a problem with that, whether it is on this topic, or many others. To these people I will say; I understand your concerns, but know that silence affects no change. Your opinions and beliefs are never going to find more acceptance if some people don't take the risk of opening their mouths. At some point I would think that one might feel guilty if it were always someone else taking the hits.

             There are others who have precisely the type of personality that has no problem making waves on issues they feel strongly about, but have not had the time, background or experience to articulate their beliefs in a succinct and lucid way. To these people I would say; Have at it. I have no problem with others using or recycling anything I say here. If it helps you make the world even a slightly saner place, please, please do.

             So while I have grown tired of this particular topic, I have come to realize that there are many out there that find these posts useful. And so I plod on. Because I know the frustration of being part of a society, a community, a family where faith is a given, and those who don't accept it had better keep their goddamn mouths shut. We are expected to hold hands and bow our heads at family meals, listen politely when people discuss the way they "just knew" that God helped them get a job that 18 other people were denied, remain silent when their assertion that those who don't accept Jesus are all doomed to an eternity of torment, and nod in agreement when they snicker about how much God hates "them queers."

             And I'm sure there are some out there who are questioning their faith. If you are among these, I hope I am able to give you some idea what a life without faith, superstition or magic entails, what you might use to guide your moral life, what might still hold value, what might not, and what might take on new meaning.

            The decision to pursue this thread on this blog has strained some of my relationships with people who I respect and love very much. While this has not reached the point of animosity, I would not have wished even the slightest bit of ill-will between myself and those I care about. But such are the casualties of the war for the future, and I firmly believe that my daughter's life will be better if she inherits a world with a little less faith, superstition and magic in it than I was born into. And, ultimately, that's all I give a damn about.

              But I hope those who remain silent will eventually have the courage to open their mouths. I have taken on this role, and I make no complaint, but know that a burden shared is a burden more easily borne.


  1. so beautifully put. poignant as always. i too am in the group of those who might write more if i felt i could express my opinions clearly in written form, but alas as someone who runs a business it is a huge risk for me to take a stand in this area. as you described above it is expected that i will be polite and keep my mouth shut when anything at all religious is spoken. i risk alienating many clients (and friends) by the simple act of saying that i don't believe in god. sigh. it is frustrating a lot of the time. i am so proud that you are among those that stand up publicly for what you think despite what society expects. i find that so admirable. i hope to get there someday myself.

  2. You do your part by never telling me to back down, even when I get on the topic monotonogamy or something else that hits closer to home. You're the best.

    Oh, and you scrub the kitchen floor on your hands and knees and watch the girl so I have time to write. I'm the luckiest guy in the world. I love you.

  3. It seems this post may partially be a response to our most recent Facebook debate. Obviously it's bigger than that, but since a few of the comments here seem to directly address our previous discussion, I think it's worth noting, for the record, nothing I've read here or on Facebook has pissed me off, or made me feel any differently about you than I did prior to reading.

    What you have to say on the topics of faith and religion is interesting and insightful. I'm not going to agree with everything you say, but I do agree with a good amount of it. I think the role of organized religion in the world today, and throughout history, has given faith a bad name. And I still maintain that faith, in itself, for most people, is not a bad thing.

    One additional comment not in any way meant to go off topic: I'm pretty sure abortion is no more fair game for public discussion than faith and religion. If I go into that on Facebook, I probably see more backlash than you do for discussing religion. But I do get your point. And you're right.

  4. Yes, Ian. I've been meaning to write this post for awhile, but several Facebook conversations over the past couple of days made it seem more pertinent.

    As for your being upset, I felt pretty sure about that. If you were the type of person to fly of the handle about things, I wouldn't bother responding. There are more than a few people I know like that, and more than a few who sit around on FB just waiting for something to get wound up about. They aren't worth responding to.

    As for abortion, you might be right. But even that subject isn't taken as personally as questions of faith, at least by most people. There are plenty of people who get all wound up about abortion, for sure, but I've found that even people who aren't religious will get all fired up defending it. It's a strangely touchy subject.

  5. Ah, this clears up some confusion I've had in reading your blog.(Admittedly, I'm a new reader and haven't gone back to read the early posts.) You define faith as, "belief in something in the absence of evidence, often even in spite of the evidence." I too am opposed to belief in spite of the evidence. I agree that irrational belief seems to be fertile ground for injustice.

    That said, I've always used the word faith differently, to mean something akin to "belief without any way of knowing for sure." I have faith that things will turn out for the best, that good will prevail over evil, and that I am raising my daughter in way that prepares her for the future. I also have faith that God exists.

    In French, non-assertions tend to trigger the subjective. An example would be "I wish you were here" -- in French, like English, the verb "to be" is expressed in the subjunctive. However, the verb "espérer" (to hope) is followed by the indicative mood, rather than the subjective. When I was puzzling over this years ago, my instructor explained that it is because the French use the word espérer to express their hope that God exists. Rather than being a wish or a statement contrary to fact -- the kinds of things the subjunctive express -- the French (or some French, undoubtedly, as there are French atheists, just as there are American) wish that God does exist. To me, that's faith.

    It reminds me of the word "Amen," which I've been told means, "So be it."

  6. Oops - I wrote, "Rather than being a wish or a statement contrary to fact -- the kinds of things the subjunctive express -- the French (or some French, undoubtedly, as there are French atheists, just as there are American) wish that God does exist." I should have said that the French *hope* that God does exist.

  7. Yes Jessica, we are using the word faith differently. I do find what you had to say interesting, even if it more grammar than I was ready for after a day of teaching the subject.

    Also, since it only says, "Jessica" I have no way of knowing if you are the Jessica A. I am thinking of. If it is you, you won't find much new here. Most of it is just revisions of the rough drafts you got in the mail all those years ago. : )

  8. Regarding my definition of faith, lest it be thought I am setting them up simply to knock em down- I've adopted that definition as the one people who take faith seriously seem to be the most proud of. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but that's what I keep hearing.

  9. I actually got chills reading this post, it seemed so heart felt. I really enjoyed this as I do all of your other posts. I'm glad you haven't given up, although I was getting worried :)

    I have tried to spread your word. I've posted you on facebook many times, I've sent your articles to my local newspaper along with your blog. All really to no avail. I get very few responses. In fact the only positive ones I have gotten is from my own brother. The shit hole that I live in(farm country Indiana) is very conservative and christian. I'm really amazed I was able to shake off all the indoctrination(although it took 35 years). The more I educate myself and the more religious/political shit I have to hear around here, the angrier I become. I think I need to move to a place where people are a bit more liberal before I explode!

    Anyway, i wanted to comment on faith as well. I have no problem with faith. I have faith. I have faith in people who I love and I know. I have faith in my parents, wife, my children and I hope they have faith in me. And I have no problem with someone who is "spiritual" who happens to have faith in God. What I do have a problem with is faith in religion. One can allow you a feeling of well being(such as a guardian angel or something more creepy like a peeping Tom) while the other one is dogmatic purposely invented to inflict control, fear, hate, intolerance , etc all under the disguise of "Unconditional LOVE". Religion like everything else has evolved but it's evolution is unnatural and not for the betterment of our species, but ultimately the destruction of human existence.

    My fear is it will get worse. Our age of enlightenment is over because enlightenment doesn't spread like the disease of religion. No matter how great and beneficial it actually is. I think our society is becoming more ignorant based on things I have read. It seems evolution was more accepted before WWII, and the evangelicals have done their best to make it seem like a crack pot idea.

    I don't hate but I am angry and fearful for my children. My eldest became an atheist before I did. She admitted to me that she was in 8th grade, which actually impressed me. It was her who helped me with my vomiting out of religion. My youngest girl still believes, although I don't in anyway nurture the idea. Funny story; the other day I was playing around with my kids and had a Burger King crown on. I happened to be picking up my daughter from cheerleading practice which just so happened to be at a church *sigh*. I'm goofing around with my kids and i say "Look at me, i'm the king of the Jews yahda yahda yahda". My 8 year old daughter as sincere as anything looked at me and said "No your not dad, jews are evil". I'm like WTF, where did you hear that from. She didn't know, but said the jew's killed Jesus. We are going to have to have a long talk after she quits believing in Santa Claus.

    sorry for being so long :( Keep up the GOOD WORK

  10. As always NJ, thanks for reading and all the work you do to put the blog out there. You work way harder at it than I do. : )

    Yes, my own complaints about faith are not as universal as they sound. I just think it is a very, very slippery slope, since faith, by definition has no reality check. But people seem to keep mixing up faith and trust. Having people in your life that have proven to be reliable, and expecting them to continue to be so is trust. Sending someone in East Timor your credit card # because you got a letter saying they could make you rich is faith. Faith is stupid. Trust and hope are not.

    Yeah. As for your daughter. That's hard. It is hard to avoid raising a kid and teaching them to think for themselves while trying to avoid the temptation of indoctrinating them the same way most of us were. That is a challenge all sane minded, non-religious folks face. Good luck!

  11. for what it is worth nj i too spent some time living in indiana before moving to maine. i HAD to move away. i hear you! it is way easier here to have this belief system than it was there. i was always shocked at the way (generally) most people thought when i lived there.

  12. I was wondering who "nj" was till I realized I screwed up abbreviating "kneejerk" too. Funny. And I would just use your real name, but not sure you're cool with that. Let me know if you see this, KJ. (Phonetically, NJ IS better.)