Thursday, July 18, 2013

Hard Heathen Hearts

You often hear that atheists “harden their hearts” toward God: that they put up mental and emotional barriers to keep themselves thinking secular thoughts, and the typical atheist response to this assertion is usually something like, “Bullshit: you don’t know what I’m thinking just because your Bible told you that I ‘harden my heart’,” and so the stalemate of “I think you think” continues.

However, I would guess that many atheists probably do “harden their hearts” toward certain beliefs, but with the caveat that “hardening one’s heart” does not only happen in the context of religion: everyone does this all the time, regardless of their religious beliefs. 

My best example of this is the way that non-drug users refrain from using drugs like crack and heroin. Specifically, the conflict between their hearts and their minds: between their feelings and their logic. As I recall, in the documentary “Cocaine Nation”, one former crack addict described the high as “better than sex.”

Just sit back and think about that for a minute…

Better than sex.

Wouldn’t you want to experience a pleasure better than sex? Of course! Of course you would! We all would! So what’s stopping you? Why are you sitting here reading this when you could be so incredibly happy? Remember, it feels better than sex. You know you want to feel it; it would be so incredibly wonderful. Just give in and do it.

Introspect for a moment: how do you feel right now?

I’m no poet, but hopefully, I’ve succeeded in triggering that feeling of having a hard heart. And therein is my point: part of you wants to try crack, but another part is holding you back. The reason you aren’t trying crack is (if I may guess) because you understand the consequences it has, both legal and personal. Your logic is overriding your more, shall we say, primitive, desires, which is precisely what it means to “harden your heart”.

Like I said before, we all do this all the time, regardless of our faith: we harden our hearts toward drugs, toward excessive junk food, toward our old boyfriends and girlfriends whom we loved but whom we couldn’t get along with (maybe they were abusive, etc., but we still loved them). And in this exact same way, I’m sure that some atheists harden their hearts toward the idea of a god who always loves you and who is always there to comfort you: it would be so nice to have that spiritual and emotional pick-me-up, but it would not be so nice to have to reconcile such beliefs with reality, much less to reconcile the Bible specifically with reality. For some people, the emotional high is worth the consequences it brings, but for others, it is not worth it. And for some people, the drug highs are worth the legal and personal consequences, but for non-drug users and recovering users, they are not worth the high.

I should clarify that this essay is only meant to address what you might think of as “feel good”, “loosey-goosey” beliefs like “Christianity is just about loving Jesus, not what the Bible says”, or, “Reiki makes me feel better”.

So sure, atheists do harden their hearts, but so what? What does that prove besides the fact that atheists are people, too? 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Atheists Build Straw Men, Too

I love debate.

Debate is pure discussion, a fleshing out of ideas, bare and in front of exactly the person that will challenge your idea most. For those of us with a deep passion for learning (and likely a craving for confrontation), little can provide such satisfaction. There are many that will attempt to belittle a debater, dismissing you as an “armchair activist” or otherwise accuse you of failing to act, but those people are stupid. 

What we believe informs our actions, and what we learn about the world informs our beliefs. If we want to believe in true things and have the best chance of success when we decide to affect our surroundings, we need to learn; we need to share our ideas. And when we're in a situation where our well-being depends on the actions of another, we want that person to have the best available knowledge when they decide what action to take. 

The feeling that we can all make better choices: 

That is why I love debate.

Any practitioner of the art of arguing knows that the most infuriating of bad arguments is the straw man fallacy. The employer of the straw man is one who inaccurately presents the position of their opponent only to attack an idea of their own invention. Immediately I think of Ray Comfort’s crocoduck to show exactly what evolutionists believe, but can't back up through the fossil record.” In a debate, Ray pathetically inserts a third position that no one is arguing for and wastes everyone’s time, and that’s what makes me so angry. We're trying to better human knowledge; we don't have time to waste! At this point if I put forth a straw man I would be a terrible hypocrite, yet in one of my most recent atheist/theist exchanges, that’s exactly what I did.
It's too good to leave this picture out
The topic was sacrifice, specifically, “how was Jesus dying on the cross a sacrifice?” It seemed to me that when we make a sacrifice, something is lost. If I want to become a better guitarist, I have to sacrifice some of my time to do it. From the biblical standpoint, men of the OT would sacrifice livestock to God, killing and burning their property. They lost sustenance, clothing material, and maybe some of their good conscience over killing an animal. 

If sacrifice represented a loss to us, how was Jesus dying on the cross a sacrifice by God? Something that is perfectly complete cannot be added to or subtracted from, so how did God suffer in any way? This would have been an excellent “gotcha,” a brilliant demonstration of the law of noncontradiction violated, IF my opponent carried the position I presented.

It turns out my adversary was better learned than I was in my time as a follower of the man Jesus, so allow me to present the correct Christian position as I understand it now. It’s true that the bible refers to Jesus as a sacrifice (Ephesians 5:21), but the bible does not teach that punishment or loss is required for it. And what do they mean by “sacrifice” anyway? uses verse to form a clear and consistent explanation (surprisingly to me) of what the bible means and thus what Christians believe about the word sacrifice in context. They show that the narrative of God had neither a desire for sacrifices themselves nor were they required. God desired the symbols of love, humility, and obedience that sacrifice represented, so it was merely a demonstration of these “holy” attributes. In this way, Christ lived to show that he was holy and pure, so the end of his life was a sacrifice: the end of the show. Hebrews 10 says sacrifice is doing God’s will, so Jesus needed to go through a bit of a practice run to show us what we should aspire to. This is simply what Christians believe the bible tells them. Whether or not the interpretation is correct or if any of it is true is irrelevant here (let’s not add false conflation to the list of offenses!). 

Adding unlike terms... tsk, tsk
Ouch. It hurts how wrong I was. Like a young earth creationist describing a theory, I used the wrong definition. Am I as bad as Ray Comfort? Is sacrifice my crocoduck? I like to think not, in that I eventually took the time to research the opposing position (I don't think Ray could pass a test on evolution if his life depended on it), but now we can get to the real discussion. Now I can point out productive questions that challenge the sacrifice of God himself to himself to save us from himself. No one is arguing that God took a hit in this little exchange. A better point of debate is how anyone knows this story isn't a legend in the first place.

A great question we can ask each other is one I heard from Matt Dillahunty: 

“Do you care what is true?” 

If your answer is no, please leave the planet. If your answer is yes, and you want to engage in a collective effort to better understand the universe, you must realize there are politics in public debate (even in the most obscure corners of the internet). The political recipe is one part what and one part how something is said. We should all be responsible in the way we handle this.

The thing is, atheism is pretty simple (lack of belief in gods) and with the hundreds of sects of Christianity, each with differing beliefs on some level, it's probably more likely for an atheist to misrepresent a theist than the other way around. Still, we all use the straw man fallacy unintentionally because both sides think we're right, and it's difficult to understand a belief you don't hold to be true. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory, but we must rise above assuming our opponent’s position or else waste everyone’s time. True, you may trade a better argument for one that will break through a cognitive barrier, but I will actually invoke Billy Mays here and say there are enough good arguments out there that you don't need to sell crap.

"Billy Mays here with another fallacy-free product!"
So go forth and debate! Share your ideas! But in doing so, don’t make my mistake. Ask what your friend believes and why. Don't assume you understand the position of the people you are arguing against; let them make their own points and engage them honestly

*Before anyone complains, I capitalize “God” so that it is clear I am talking about the Christian god. No matter how confusing it may be, it is the name they give him. If you want to talk about Thor, well, there you go.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why Do I Have to Care About This?

This is my first blog post, so I thought I'd take a moment to explain my background a little. I’d like to describe how I've come to be an active atheist instead of what I'd really like to be, which is an apatheist.

My browser doesn't recognize the word apatheist, so first maybe I should take a moment to define the term in case some of you are unfamiliar with it. Apatheism is, as you might guess, a combination of the words apathy and atheism. For me, what being apatheist would mean would be not having to care about religion.

I was raised Roman Catholic, went to Catholic School and was even an altar boy. We had Religion class daily where we were indoctrinated and forced to memorize things like the Nicene or Apostle's Creed:
"I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried..."

I think that the theory was that if I recited the words enough times, I might start to believe it.  For me, it didn't work, fortunately. I parroted the words and phrases, but my mind and heart weren't in it.  It wasn't that I was always firmly opposed to the religious beliefs at the time, I just found them boring.

From an early age, the idea of hell for me was similar to having to sit through that long Easter service.  An eternity of that sort of boredom would be far worse than burning in a sea of flames or whatever.  At least that would be interesting.

That's why, as a young man, the decision to become an atheist was influenced in some small measure by the desire to be free of the obligation of sitting through mass. Before I get quoted out of context and someone says that all atheists just want to avoid going to church, let me explain that decision a little more.

Avoiding the boredom was a motivating factor, but if I had actually believed the dogma, I would have done it happily. I'm not an immoral person, and I'm not lazy when it comes time to do the right thing. But from as early as fourth grade, I remember parts of the story not quite making sense.

I don't mean all the magic stuff about resurrections and virgin births and transubstantiation. I was too young and uneducated to fully realize the depth of that nonsense. What rubbed me the wrong way was the idea of original sin.

Supposedly there was this all-powerful being that not only created us in his own image, but also embodied and defined what it meant to be good, to be moral and to be right. But here I was being told that he held me, an eight year old boy, responsible for what two other people did 6000 years ago. Not Fair! Even an eight year old could see that that wasn't right.

So I wasn't motivated to sit through an hour of boring service in an uncomfortable wooden bench. Sitting, standing, kneeling and repeating. It was usually hot in there and for some reason God wanted me to wear tight, uncomfortable and restrictive clothing.

I really tried to leave it all behind. Just not think about it, you know? I just wanted to go about my business and ignore all of that. It didn't really work.  I was still interested in the answers to the big questions. What was the point of it all? Why were we here? What is my duty? So I read books about it-everything from Aristotle to Lao Tzu. In the long run, I've ended up reading more philosophical and religious books than I would have if I had just stayed Catholic!

Finally, I reached a point where I had answers to most of my questions. Maybe they weren't the ultimate answers, but they were good enough to be going along with. I could run my life and feel confident that I was doing the right thing in any given situation according to what I believed.  So now I could finally ignore all that religious stuff, right?  Yeah, not so much.

Today I can't get on Facebook or open the newspaper without reading another example of some innocent person or child suffering because of someone else's religious beliefs. In no time at all, I could compile a list of the types of horrible things that are being done in the name of religion today. Even in America, people are being denied basic rights and children and babies are dying because so many people still cling to the fairy tales that they have chosen to believe.

If it was just a simple matter of other people going to their respective places of worship and doing what they thought was right, I'd be able to ignore it all. But as long as they continue to use their faith as a club to beat the innocent into submission, I can't be apathetic.

Maybe one day when people wake up to how amazing this world is and start enjoying their lives here and now, they won’t have to take their frustrations out on each other and hide behind oppressive dogmas and hateful agendas. Then, perhaps, I can start focusing on something more important.