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Why yes… I did just use math in my Christian Spirituality class.

attend a Catholic school where I am required by the administration to participate in one theology course each semester. At the end of my Christian Spirituality class last semester, I was asked to choose a symbol of my spirituality and write a paper explaining this decision. The following is an adaptation of my response.

Symbol: Ø (null/empty set)

Over the summer, I was discussing religion with a few friends at work. One of my friends, a devout evangelical Christian, seemed surprised by my lack of religion. Confused, she asked, “Why do you get up in the morning? How do you stay happy? Why are you even here?” I wasn’t sure how to answer. It wasn’t because I have no motivation for life, of course. It was because I couldn’t understand how someone would need religion or God simply to get through the day, to find fulfillment.

 

When asked about my personal spirituality at the beginning of this class, I asserted that I was not spiritual because I was neither religious nor theistic. While I knew that spirituality and religion are somewhat distinct, I maintained that spirituality generally draws its strength from some form of theism or supernatural belief.

 

This class has not changed my opinion. At its core, spirituality is just religion, which stems from the impulse for transcendence and comfort, stripped of the dogmatic principles that accompany most organized religions. It appeals to higher forces for comfort and friendship. Spirituality is in many ways a personalized form of religion – an individual’s own method to appealing to their preferred superior being for worldly prosperity and other-worldly salvation. Perhaps spirituality lacks the threat of dogmatism posed by organized religion, but it still promotes a basically irrational view of the world.

 

However, while my personal views of spirituality have not changed significantly over this semester, I have gained insight into the source of my friend’s questions. Through the study of various religious and spiritual experiences my understanding of spirituality has grown. I better understand the ways that a personal spirituality can fulfill the basic fears and insecurities of humanity. I may not be spiritual, but I can see how spirituality gives some people purpose and drive.

 

Yet despite all I have learned, my fundamental beliefs (or lack thereof) remain the same. I simply do not believe in a god or a “higher power.” I cannot feel intellectually honest believing in Christianity or any other modern faith I have encountered. Behind the fancy theology and rigid dogma, religion is simply a means to avoid suffering and death contrived by humanity throughout the ages. Some people seek refuge from the world in religion and spirituality; I don’t feel like I need to. Yes, the world around us is imperfect. There is pain, suffering, and injustice. But there is also beauty. There are things that make me happy. There is sunshine, chocolate cake, rock ‘n roll, laughter, and stupid british sitcoms. Instead of taking Pascal’s wager, I would rather spend my life enjoying the things that make me happy and working to stop the pain, suffering, and injustice that keeps others from being happy. Life has too much potential to be thrown away in pursuit of an alleged afterlife.

 

Because I am neither religious nor theistic, I thus conclude that I am not spiritual. Despite some theologians’ attempts to equate motivation and spirituality, everything we have discussed in this class about spirituality has been of theistic, mostly Christian derivation. Spirituality has a clear theistic component, so I have no spirituality. For this reason, I have again chosen the empty set symbol to represent my spirituality, showing that the “set” of my spiritual feelings is empty. Not, as my friend might think, because I have no drive to live my life, but simply because my life and happiness isn’t contingent on the existence of an unseen deity.

Church of the Godless: The Ethical Society of St. Louis

Church of the Godless exterior

Church of the Godless

As I was enjoying my time back in my hometown of St. Louis over the winter break from my studies at Boston University, I was driving westbound down Clayton Road from Downtown when I noticed just past the Galleria a building that appeared like a futuristic chapel or church. It bore the standard marquee sign outside, but instead of bearing the name of a church, it read “The Ethical Society of St. Louis”

 

Instantly intrigued, I pulled over into the buildings parking lot and trudged across the snow over to the sign to get a closer look. The sign bore a phone number and website, so I decided to do some more research. I called the number listed on the sign, but the pre-recorded message told me that services and other events were postponed for the holiday break. So I then turned my efforts to the website.

On their website, the Ethical Society proudly boasts the slogan, “A Welcoming Home for Humanists”. Since I tend to count myself in that number, I read on, specifically focusing on the “Who We Are” section of the website. The contents stressed the history as well as the ethical focus (shocker, I know) of the society. The history was rather compelling. The Ethical Society of St. Louis has been around since 1886 and has affiliation with two groups I knew a bit about (the American Ethical Union and the Greater St. Louis Coalition of Reason). The website stressed that it was a place for atheists and agnostics, as well as members of religious communities, to come and talk and hear discussions about ethical issues that all of us face.

Reading on, I discovered that the Ethical Society offered what seemed to me like a church service every Sunday. This church service, which they called Platform, did not involve a faith-based liturgy, but instead focused around a speaker giving a talk about some ethical issue. The idea of having a churchlike service without god and religious dogmatism spread throughout had a very strong appeal.

As a born-and-raised member of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and having been constantly exposed to Catholic and Jesuit tradition throughout my years in high school at De Smet Jesuit, I possess strong opinions of church services based on my experiences. I had always enjoyed church growing up, especially the social and musical aspects of it. As I grew through my teen years, I participated in some of the musical groups at Ascension Lutheran Church, where I was confirmed, and almost became a drummer for the church band at Messiah Lutheran in Weldon Springs, MO. Aside from music, I enjoyed seeing my friends at church and going to Mass with my friends at DeSmet, even if at that point I was not so gung-ho about singing the praises of the Judeo-Christian god. The one thing I missed being an agnostic throughout most of my high school years and now an atheist was the loss of community. So I decided to attend Platform at the Ethical Society.

After showing up a minute or two late due to time mismanagement, my girlfriend and I took our seats in the back of the elaborately done-up main room. A speaker had just begun her bit about how she had felt no connection with the god and spiritual aspect of her former religion but found the Ethical Society a place where she could get all the parts she liked about church without god and spirituality in the strict sense. She particularly encouraged the congregation to support a pseudo-confession program, wherein people could come in to the Ethical Society just to talk to a leader or counselor about whatever struggles were going on in their life. Having gone to Catholic confession myself, I had enjoyed relieving my burdens on someone else but did not quite connect with God judging my sins and then having me go say 10 prayers to the Virgin Mary. The idea of a non-religious confession, more like counseling, appealed greatly to me.

After the speaker left, an astute piano man played a lovely piece, and then the leader of the service and of the Ethical Society, Kate Lovelady, came and gave her Platform speech entitled “The Good of Guilt, The Bad of Shame” in which she argued that guilt can motivate us to do good, ethical things when it does not overbear on us, but shame, especially in a religious context, was highly detrimental to our well-being. While I took up some qualms with her definitions of guilt and shame, preferring Friedrich Nietzsche’s distinctions in On the Genealogy of Morals, my semantical difference was, all-in-all, just that. It was wholly refreshing to hear a philosophically-focused speech rather that the recanting of some biblical story with a message that required little to no thought, especially the 500th time I had heard it.

Following some more musical renditions, the one-hour service ended, and my girlfriend and I left before the coffee-hour post-service congregational meet-up in the basement. Leaving the building, two thoughts rang clear in my head. The Ethical Society was the perfect place for those disenchanted with religion to come to get the community aspect of church, something I found endearing. This seemed to make up a large part of the audience at the Platform I intended, where many of the members were elderly and seemed disenchanted from their religious backgrounds. The second was how something like this had escaped the admittedly small non-religious community of St. Louis, especially high school and college students. Often young atheists and freethinkers like myself struggle with isolation and a lack of a sense of community, and a place like the Ethical Society of St. Louis would provide a perfect place to seek community. And, lucky for us, god will not be pissed off at us for missing a Platform.

Ben Conover is a first-year philosophy, film, and classics major at Boston University.

 

An Atheist’s Message: Please Read About Your Religion (and the rest of them)

Religious BooksThere is an oft-quoted colloquialism that suggests the best way to encourage someone towards atheism is to give them a Bible.

Actress and comedian Julia Sweeney’s monologue “Letting Go of God” exemplifies this tried-and-true method of the emergence of skepticism through the study of holy texts. She discusses a reinvigoration of her Catholic faith that brought her to church, where she then enrolled in a Bible study class. As she progressed through the book, the girl who was once eager to join the sisterhood began seeing some serious discrepancies and injustices in the word of God. She mentions the child sacrifices of Abraham (although his son Isaac was spared) and Jephthah (his daughter was not so lucky), God’s afterthought about the necessity of the flood, and the characters flaws of the perfect Jesus among many other instances where she felt disinclined towards the holy book of her faith.

Along with her growing skepticism of the Bible and her “more conventional” Catholic faith, Sweeney recounts a story of two Mormon boys who came to her door to enlighten her about their faith. The two boys tell her the story of how the prophet Lehi came to Americaby boat in 600 BC with his family (the only good family in a totally evil Jerusalem). Lehi’s descendants from his son Nephi were the totally-good light-skinned people known as the Nephites while the rebellious son Laman’s descendants were the totally-bad dark-skinned people known as the Lamanites. If you sense some racial tension at this point, you would be spot on, as the Mormons tend to view the Native Americans as descended from totally-evil people. As the story continues, Jesus stops by America after his crucifixion on his way to heaven and tells the Nephites they will win the war against the Lamanites if they remain totally good. As Sweeney dictates it, “somebody blew it” and the Lamanites decimated all but one of the Nephites, a prophet named Mormon. He wrote down an entire account of what had transpired up to that point and this was later found in Palmyra, New York by Joseph Smith who translated the reformed Egyptian hieroglyphs with the aid of a special stone whilst looking into a hat into English. Today, we know these writings as the Book of Mormon, one of the canonical books of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which boasts over 13 million adherents.

At first, Sweeney says she wanted to feel self-satisfied that she was apart of a more traditional religious order. However, she admits she would have felt the same shock at hearing the Catholic dogma and tradition as she did the Mormon dogma if she had heard it for the first time. She cites the importance of the Virgin Mary as the untouched, God-inseminated mother of Jesus to Catholic and Christian lore as an example of a ridiculous story having crucial importance to her religion.

Julia Sweeney’s story eventually leads her to atheism and compels her to become one of the many activists working for the promotion of secular values in the world today. She serves on the board for the Secular Coalition of America. Please read and/or listen to her monologues and other work (links below). Sweeney’s Bible study-turned-atheism shows that the old adage may have some truth, and she is not the only one exploring it.

Cognitive scientist and philosopher Daniel Dennett offered in his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, a plan that would make it compulsory for public schools to provide education on the facts, traditions, and histories of all the world’s religions without bias to any specific religion or religions. The driving force behind Dennett’s proposal:

“It’s just an idea, and perhaps there are better ones to consider, but it should appeal to

freedom-lovers everywhere: the idea of insisting that the devout of all faiths should face the challenge of making sure their creed is worthy enough, attractive and plausible and meaningful enough, to withstand the temptations of its competitors. If you have to hoodwink–or blindfold–your children to insure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.” (Breaking the Spell, 327-8)

The idea has been accepted by some of the religious, but by others it has been called totalitarian and fascist. I find it hard to disagree with Dennett in saying that this approach seems almost libertarian. It helps create an educated and well-informed population while preventing parents from lying to their kids or indoctrinating them into their faiths without exposing them to other faiths. As Dennett says, “This knowledge will enrich their minds in uncountable ways, since it will acquaint them with some of the greatest music, art and literature that the world has to offer, and give them the sort of perspective on their own lives that you can only get from comparing your life with the lives of others.”

For more information about this idea, please watch Daniel Dennett’s TED presentation or his debate with Dinesh D’Sousza, an outspoken critic of the idea. (Links below)

I am very supportive of Dr. Dennett’s proposal for 3 main reasons:

  1. An informed citizenship.
    1. An unbiased teaching of the world’s religions to all increases the knowledge of cultures that are not one’s own in an extremely diverse world. It would allow for more stable connections between different religions and countries, and could move the goal of peace forward exponentially. Also, as Dennett points out, parents are stewards of their children and not their masters. They should not be allowed to lie to their children about their faith or anyone else’s faith and exclusively indoctrinate them into their religion.
  2. Open, honest discussion of religion
    1. A presentation of the facts, history, and tradition of all religions would allow us to sufficiently praise specific religions for the good they have brought to the world while also allowing us to examine the severely negative things that have happened in conjunction with religion. I think this may be the reason some people critique Dennett’s idea because they fear a true discussion of the facts, history, and tradition of their respective religions will diminish their influence and expose their inherent flaws.
  3. The Bible Theory
    1. As with Sweeney and the Bible Study, or the story of the Mormons, I believe that reading religious texts often breeds skepticism, and that skepticism is a healthy thing. We should never blindly accept anything we are told without research and should pursue truth, knowledge, and reason. Showing religions based on facts, tradition, and history should paint them in a positive light if they are worthwhile to have in our world but it often exposes inherent flaws. I think Dennett’s idea takes this idea and implements it for all to see.

Some critics of this idea will look at point 3 and say, “Exactly! Dennett’s basically trying to abolish religion!” However, look at what Dr. Dennett’s plan calls for. It calls for faith and religion exposure to all in an unbiased light. So if you believe this plan would destroy your religion, it might be because your religion inherently has flaws that can only be allowed to continue with indoctrination and the breeding of ignorance amongst your offspring.

What Dr. Dennett is calling for, and what I am supporting, is an open presentation and critique of religion. The religious right and many of its moderate members argue that political correctness is ruining America. (See Catholic League president Bill Donohue’s “discussion” with American Atheist president David Silverman in the link below) All Dr. Dennett and I are asking for is that religion be scientifically presented, bigotry and lies aside, and offered to all. If the Bible Theory rings true, maybe the atheists have a point after all.

Ben Conover is a philosophy, film, and classics major at Boston University.

Editor’s Note: I cannot write this article without mentioning the efforts of Sam Harris, founder of Project Reason, and Steve Wells, creator of the Skeptics Annotated Bible, Koran, and Book of Mormon, in the Scripture Project. Please take a look if you are interested in skepticism and religious texts.
http://www.project-reason.org/scripture_project/

Julia Sweeney’s TED talk (an excerpt from Letting Go of God): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtIyx687ytk

Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bqh53RCkURQ (part 1)

Daniel Dennett’s Ted talk:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DTepA-WV_oE

Daniel Dennett v. Dinesh D’Sousza:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iw7J15TeDG4 (part 1)

Dennett’s idea source:

http://www.stoa.org.uk/topics/education/Daniel%20Dennett%20-%20Teach%20Our%20Children%20Well.pdf (from the Washington Post)

Silverman and Donohue on FOX

http://www.youtube.com/user/AtheistMediaBlog?blend=2&ob=1#p/u/3/OewwDBMrF5Q

Is Atheism a Religion? (And Do Atheists have Faith?)

AtheismAs an atheist, I have truly grown to hate the title. Not because it holds ridiculous negative connotations, or because it is a title that is completely misunderstood, but because it legitimately says nothing. People define themselves by what they believe, not by what they reject (how many people do you hear calling themselves non-liberals or non-soccer players). Many people (atheists included) make the mistake of thinking that atheism is the belief that NO GOD exists. This is incorrect for about 99% of all non-believers. What most atheists really do is REJECT the claim that a deity exists. I understand that this seems like nothing but semantics; however, the distinction is important in order to truly understand what an atheist is.

To claim that there is no god is a faith-based position that I personally find as stupid as claiming that there is one. There is absolutely no testable way to prove that god does not exist and almost no one argues this point. There is no way to prove a negative, making such a claim unfalsifiable. However, no intelligent atheist will ever claim that there is no god (doing so is often referred to gnostic atheism or “hard atheism”). Most atheists will reject the claim that there is a god based on insufficient evidence (what is known as agnostic atheism or “soft atheism”). It is very important to understand the difference between asserting a negative (stupid in almost every case because a negative cannot by definition be verified) and rejecting a positive claim. What this means in simpler terms is that most atheists do not necessarily claim that there is no god (although most will say that they do out of simplicity); they believe that there is no good reason to assume god exists. Again, this is an important distinction because claiming that no god exists is a faith-based claim; it is totally and completely unverifiable under any empirical experiment.

I have recently become aware that many believers consider atheism to be a religion of nonbelief. This claim is of course ridiculous (unless the term religion is defined so loosely that it loses all actual meaning and comes to include every form of ideology). Not playing football is not a sport, not collecting stamps is not a hobby, and not accepting a faith-based assertion is not a religion. Only hard atheism may be considered a religion, because it is a faith claim, as opposed to soft atheism, which requires no faith in anything beyond the empirical.

The term atheism really has no meaning except “someone who does not believe that sufficient evidence exists in order to make the claim that god exists”. I am sure that many people will jump in arms after reading this and claim that what I am actually describing is an agnostic, and to a degree they would be correct. Colloquially, an agnostic is a fence-sitter of sorts. It is used to describe someone who claims that they are unsure if there is sufficient evidence to accept the claim that god exists. However, the true definition of an agnostic is someone who does not know, whereas the true definition of an atheist is someone who rejects theism (and for simplicity we also say they reject deism). Atheism and agnosticism refer to two different ideas: beliefs and knowledge. To be an agnostic atheist is to be someone who does not know whether god does exist, but believes that there is no reason to assume that a god exists, whereas a gnostic atheist would be someone who claims that they know (or almost certainly know) that god does not exist (and believes that there is evidence to support such a claim). Similarly, an agnostic theist would be someone who believes that god exists but does not know that sufficient evidence to make a claim either way exists, and a gnostic theist claims that they know (or almost certainly know) that god exists (and believes that there is evidence to support that claim).

Both gnostic theist and atheism present the same problem, which is belief without sufficient evidence (I am of course assuming that there is not sufficient evidence to adequately prove god’s existence, because that is not the point of this article). Agnostic theism provides a problem because the default position for any unknown claim of significance should be skepticism. For example, if someone told me that I would marry Scarlett Johansson, it would incredible foolish of me to live my life thinking that I will marry a millionaire until I was shown sufficient evidences (such as a wedding contract, or I actually talked to Mrs. Johansson). So unless evidence exists to make a gnostic claim, it makes no sense to believe such a claim to be true so long as the belief actually has some bearing. For example I might believe my friend if he told me that his brother had green eyes without fact checking, because such a belief has little bearing on my life.

So overall, atheism is a title based on the rejection of a deity, NOT the claim that such a deity does not exist (this excludes gnostic atheists, but I believe most atheists to be agnostic atheists, so I am generalizing). Atheists therefore do not possess faith (defined as belief without empirical evidence). Atheism is therefore not a religion in any strict sense of the term. It is not a lifestyle or an ideology. It is nothing more than title given to those who reject a claim.

The Intelligence of Design

Intelligent DesignThe world is a beautiful place.

The tides of the sea, the sun setting on the golden plain, the immortal ripples of lakes in the mountains. How could such an intricate and wondrous thing ever come to be by pure chance? If you find a shiny silver watch in the woods, does it not follow logically that it was created by an intelligent mind?

This is the classic emotional argument for the necessity of a Divine Creator, an Intelligent Designer. God simply must exist! Despite our continually expanding scientific knowledge of the vast universe and our own fanciful minds, the human race is determined to believe there is something supernatural behind it all.

The logically weak yet emotionally powerful argument of the watch and the watchmaker implies that an omnipotent super-being must have created the world because the chances of everything happening on its own are so very slim. Despite the incredibly low chances of this world forming into exactly the world it is today, it has―that we know. We know nothing definitive of any way it could have come to be otherwise, so there is no reason to assume so. The watch and the watchmaker argument does not reflect reality―no scientist could explain how a watch could have simply formed on its own, but this is not the case with the universe. Thanks to Charles Darwin and Stephen Hawking, we have a perfectly logical explanation of how things could have happened without any help from anyone.

Furthermore, how on earth could you calculate the actual probability that a god exists? And that not only is he not another concocted deity like Zeus and Santa Claus, but also that he comes in paradoxical packs of three and frowns upon homosexual love and calls only men to be priests and sends us all off to the Demonic Fires of Hell or the Abstract Glories of Heaven or the Divine Waiting Room of Purgatory to be either punished eternally for our transgressions or rewarded eternally for our good deeds or cleansed indefinitely with expired holy articles on Natural Family Planning and Why You Should Have Heeded Christ Jesus from your local religious newsletter, all because he loves us? Someone please tell me, what is the probability of that?

I believe that somewhere in the world there is a legitimate Pink Elephant.

Natural and everything.

It’s capitalized because it is actually God.

Don’t disrespect my beliefs, people. It’s Faith.
The nice thing about the Pink Elephant is that elephants are real and pink is real and misfits are real and genetic mutations and toxic vats of chemicals of war and circuses and deserts are real. It is a legitimate possibility. And thus, it could be calculated (if I happened to know a thing or two about the various ways a pink elephant might come to be).

But can we say that for God? To make a long story short….no. To know the probability of the existence of the Pink Elephant, it is necessary that I know rather a lot about Loxodonta Africana and animal genetics. If I didn’t have such knowledge, any logical projection I made about the probability of such a thing actually existing would be completely worthless. Such is the way with God: there is absolutely no definite evidence of his existence, and there is no supporting argument in his favor that cannot be aptly refuted by physics and psychology. For all our electron microscopes and distant space probes and quantum physics equations, we know as much about the universe as an ant in a bottle knows about glass. Lacking the necessary omniscience, we must turn to what we do know of Reality­―which is significantly more than nothing, as meager as it is­­.

I happen to live nearby a herd of elephants and have in my days on this earth seen many an elephant, and the fact is that none of them are pink. That’s all I’ve got―and thus I must face the reality: the Pink Elephant is probably not real. All the elephants I see are gray, therefore it is fair to assume that all elephants of the Loxodonta Africana variety are gray. (Thankfully, I just care too much about the Pink Elephant to stop believing because of a little thing like evidence, and I am thus quite capable of ignoring a perfectly logical criticism if I feel like it.)

How many supernatural beliefs of ancient peoples can you think of that have been proven false, or gods whose mystical powers have been stripped by scientific discoveries? Remember when we used to believe that violent lunatics were possessed by demons? Remember when we used to believe the sun revolved around the earth? (Though that’s hardly supernatural―Lord only knows what exactly the Vatican was doing there). Remember when we thought lightning emanated from the fingers of Zeus? Remember when we used to think that supernaturally connected Seers could predict the future (and still do)? Remember when we believed in Santa Claus?

But yet again, humanity demonstrates its impeccable ability to adapt to even the most tumultuous changes―the sort of changes that are so shocking people simply refuse to accept they have happened at all and resort to algorithmic prayers for the souls of the reasonable. What happens when a scientist discovers that the sun actually does not revolve around the earth? He is imprisoned, of course. (Truth is all too often a threat to authorities such as the Church.) What happens when scientists discover that lightning is actually an atmospheric discharge of electricity? People find a new god that cannot be disproven. Unfortunately for humanity, it is far easier to find a mysterious facet of the natural world to worship and build temples for than it to scientifically or logically disprove it. As our understanding of the universe increases, our gods become increasingly abstract (although unceasingly particular about how we mere humans live our lives).

This is the course of history, as scientific knowledge increases and religious explanations eventually retreat into vague abstraction:

God made the lightning, Amen.

Actually, it turns out lightning is actually an atmospheric discharge of electricity―

Heresy! Burn him at the stake!

God made the lightning, Amen.

(much time passes)

Fine…. lightning is indeed an atmospheric discharge of electricity.

No! cry the fundamentalists

Actually, God is in all things. He still definitely created the lightning.

Well, that is to say, he created the clouds that created the lightning.

Well, he created the meteorological currents that created the clouds.

Well, he created the process of atmospheric stratification that created the meteorological currents.

Well, he created the molecules that created the process of atmospheric stratification.

Well, he created the atomic particles that created the molecules.

Well….he created the universe which created the atomic particles because, well, someone had to create it all, and he himself just….always was….because he’s God and he can do that. Why should the Almighty God be subjected to the laws of logic and physics he himself created? That would just be too logical to be True.

The more we understand about the universe, the less we rely on religious explanations. The reason so many people believe in God is that we all need something to believe in, something to help us understand the world around us. But it does not have to be a tyrannical supernatural being telling us all how to live our lives―the elephant in the room is that such a being probably does not exist. Whether or not we need God emotionally and morally is uncertain―although C.S. Lewis believed all morals derive from faith in God, an atheist would say that if God himself derives from our own imagination then so does our sense of morality. One thing is clear, though: scientifically, there is no need for God.

http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/09/02/god-didnt-create-universe-stephen-hawking-argues/