atheist

The Rest of the Story

In preparation for applying to law school, I spent hours today working on drafts of personal statements in various forms. While working just now, I was inspired to share something I should have posted years ago.

In April of 2011, I published the post “The Closet Agnostic: My Own Coming-out”. In it, I shared the letter I wrote to my father in February of 2009 where I confessed my disbelief in God. Writing that letter was, perhaps, one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had. What I neglected to mention in 2011, however, was that reading my father’s response affected me more powerfully than my writing him in the first place.

Until that point in my life, friends, family, and my entire worldview had been shaped by my membership in the Mormon Church. I worried that leaving it would mean losing friends, expulsion from the university, and—worse by far—wounding my younger brothers and sister, my mom, and my dad, who all believed that with faith in God and worthy membership in His church, family ties would endure beyond the grave and into eternity. Confessing my burgeoning atheism would, to them, come as a rejection of more than just faith—it would come as a rejection of their love and eternal companionship. I imagined telling my father—the man who had baptized me; the doctor who had once, full of faith, laid his hands on my head, and commanded me to be healed by the power of God; who had taken me aside as a boy and showed me a painting of Jesus calming the storm and said, “Son, I believe this really happened.” I imagined telling him that all my professions of faith had been lies. I imagined his disappointment, and it broke my heart.

It took more than a year to find the courage, but with shaking, clammy hands I finally wrote him that letter in February of 2009 and confessed my disbelief. At first the words were halting and awkward, but shortly pages of the most honest and cathartic prose I have ever written came pouring out of me. He responded simply:

Ryan,

I love you little man. Many people, including me, have found themselves in your position. We will work through it. I don’t have any doubt of that. Be your cheerful, optimistic self and do what you know is right. I can’t wait to see you.

Dad

Instead of addressing my concerns or asking why I hadn’t said something earlier or even telling me he was sorry I felt so conflicted, he told me exactly what I needed to hear, even though I didn’t know it was what I needed when I wrote him in the first place. He reaffirmed what was, to us both, so much more important than religion: he understood me, and he loved me. Absolutely and without question, he loved me. And nothing I had said or done had changed that or ever would. Reading that made me feel shallow-minded. I had worried, whether I knew it or not, that my family’s love for me would be, at least in part, dependent on our sharing a similar religious belief. Reading his response put my mind back into perspective. It reminded me that my family loved me dearly and always would, and it reminded me that there was nothing that could be more important.

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Give ’em What They Want

Someone asked me recently why so many of my posts deal with religion. It’s a fair question, considering religion comes last in my tagline.

When I began blogging more frequently, I had actually envisioned spending quite a bit more time discussing East Asian politics, Chinese history and literature, Sino-American relations, and other China-related topics that my education gives me somewhat more authority to discuss. I’m no foreign policy expert, and my Chinese isn’t at the point where I peruse PRC white papers over breakfast, but I thought with my penchant for things Chinese and my mild ability to relate international affairs to practical living, maybe my readers would find it worthwhile.

To my dismay, however, my few posts on Chinese culture and sayings are among my least popular posts. Even recent and flippant posts like “Weiner’s Weiner” have received more all-time hits than “Pulling Shoots to Help Them Grow“, which is still one of my favorite posts.

Judging by my stats page, what readers really want are abrasive rants on religion. My posts on religion receive many, many more on-site views, comments, and syndicated views than posts on any other subject. And the more I stray from dispassionate reasoning and toward impassioned raving, the more hits and feedback I receive.

So why do I write about religion so frequently? Here’s half the answer:

STIRFRIES hits per day. The arrows indicate new posts (red for religious posts and green for other posts).

 

And here’s the other half: I was taught to pray before I learned to ride a bicycle. I know more religious songs than most people know secular ones. I graduated from a 4-year religious seminary and attended a religious university where part of my general education was regular classes in scripture and doctrine. I spent two years as a missionary in Taiwan, where I was taught to feel guilty if I thought about anything BUT religion. And all told, I have spent over a year of my life inside a church building—and that’s excluding classrooms at BYU, all of which are dedicated to God and most of which are used for religious observance on Sundays.

Since I was a child—and until only very recently—my social and family life has revolved around religion. Doubting Thomas and perpetual critic that I am, I have spent thousands of hours considering the role of religion in my life, in society, in human history, its benefits, its drawbacks, its consequences, its veracity.

Religion is what I know. More specifically, doubting religion is what I know. If a few hundred hours of study and a piece of paper that says I know Chinese language, literature, and culture qualify me to comment on Sino-American anything, then a lifetime of theological study, indoctrination, and private criticism give me the right to say a few words about religion.

Happy Atheism

Often, the same individuals who argue belief in God because it makes them happy think that belief in no God should make me sad. They ask me—words gushing with sympathy and confident they know my answer before I give it—whether my worldview makes me depressed:

“If there’s no God, there is no right and wrong. So you don’t believe in morality, do you?”

“If there’s no God, then there’s no real purpose in life, is there?”

“Doesn’t it make you sad to think that there’s no life after death?”

Coming from theists, these questions are somewhat understandable, but what truly depresses me is hearing other atheists ask the same questions (or answer in the affirmative)!

But atheism does not imply absolute nihilism, and (rather than making me depressed) atheism makes me happy!

Atheism≠Nihilism

Nihilism is a multi-faceted concept with many meanings. Nietzsche himself described the concept in both positive and negative lights. I am a moral nihilist, as far as I understand the term. I do not believe there is a higher law that determines absolute right and wrong. And, consequently, there is no objective “good” and “evil”. But this is not to say I don’t believe in morality; I simply believe that morality is a subjective word, fluid in its meaning across national borders, situations, circumstances, and time.

I think most people (theists and atheists alike) are moral nihilists, though most theists would be loath to apply the term to themselves. Consider one of the great American moral debates: abortion. Moral conservatives (mostly religious) oppose abortion vehemently and consider Roe v. Wade an abysmal failure of the Supreme Court to protect basic human rights. However, the majority of these moral conservatives who oppose abortion agree that, in certain instances (e.g. if the pregnancy is a threat to the life of the mother, the fetus is nonviable, or if the pregnancy is the result of incest or rape), abortion should be permitted as a legal and moral option. Those who hold this view cannot claim that abortion itself is an immoral act; rather, it is circumstance and motivation that determines morality. Killing works much the same. If person A shoots person B and takes his wallet, it’s an immoral action. But if person A shoots person B while person B is holding a gun to the head of person A’s wife, thereby saving her life, it’s heroic.

But simply because we cannot establish clear lines between absolute right and wrong does not mean that we are unable to live moral lives or make moral judgments. As individuals, we judge morality mostly by the Silver Rule: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.”

I’ll wager that, were we to establish strict laws and punishments based solely on the Bible, most Americans would find Biblically-sanctioned practices (selling our daughters into slavery, killing everyone who works on the Sabbath or plants different crops side-by-side or wears clothing made from different thread) as abhorrent as they find the concept of Sharia Law.

In short, atheistic moral relativism is more moral than Biblical or Koranic law, and most Americans recognize that without thinking twice. The only attraction a theistic understanding of law and punishment brings to the table is the hope that evildoers who are never caught and punished in this life will get what they deserve later. (Which means that atheism, if accepted generally, would actually encourage a more effective justice system.)

Stepping beyond morality, atheism does not preclude the possibility for purpose in life. Asserting that if something ends (life in this case), therefore it is worthless, demonstrates absolute ignorance. Thousands of counterexamples to this sort of nihilism present themselves on a day-to-day basis—and none of them have anything to do with God.

Think about what you eat, what you wear, where you live, and the thousands of choices you made since waking this morning. Everything you do is, from your perspective, calculated to make you happy. Yet it is mostly transient. You enjoy and look for better sources of satisfaction. You want to wear more comfortable shoes or more fashionable clothing. You want to ride a roller coaster or play a video game. And yet, after the day is done, you have gained absolutely no long-term benefit from picking the apricot jam over the strawberry jam. The flavor lasts a few moments and fades. But because the flavor fades does not mean choosing the apricot was worthless. It made you happy.

If you were told right now that you have exactly one week to live, what would you do? Perhaps do what you can to put your family and financial affairs in order, but I’m confident you’d eat your favorite food, indulge in a bit more ice cream than usual, visit your parents and siblings.

We seek our own happiness in everything that we do—even when we don’t realize it. We choose to donate to charities because it makes us happy. We go to work for terrible employers because the long-term consequences are better than if we didn’t go to work.

The only difference between atheists and theists in this regard is that theists are impossibly optimistic in how long their happiness-seeking behavior will endure…and also in their ultimate effectiveness at achieving happiness.

Which brings me to my final point.

Life After Death, Unicorns, and Why Atheism Makes Me Happy

Asking if I worry that there is no life after death is like asking if I am actively dismayed that there isn’t a magical, time-travelling unicorn waiting outside my apartment. That more people believe in life after death than the magical unicorn does not make me regret its non-existence any more. To paraphrase Mark Twain, I have no recollection of existing for the billions of years before I was born, and it was of no inconvenience to me then. I don’t suppose I’ll care much when I’m dead either.

What I do care about is wrenching every last bit of happiness I can out of the world I’m in. This is where atheism makes life so much sweeter. Knowing that there is no tomorrow makes today particularly precious. Understanding the improbability of life makes me appreciate its impossible beauty. Believing that there is nothing about the universe that prevents us from understanding its mysteries makes me want even more desperately to satisfy my curiosity about quantum mechanics, the origin of our species, the history of human thought. And knowing that I’m too small, too short-lived, and too limited to learn everything I want to makes me yearn for a unified species of global intellectual cooperation and specialization.

Accepting and understanding my own atheism has driven me to a singular religious conclusion: Life is short. And then it ends. Happiness will not be doled out posthumously by a benevolent being to those who never had it here. Find it now. Cultivate it. And share it.

“Religion Makes Me Happy”

Not long after opening up (somewhat) to friends and family about my agnosticism, I was called into my bishop’s office after our regular Sunday meetings in the BYU 108 ward. The bishop was conducting interviews with members of the ward, and my turn was up. We chatted for a bit about life, school, and my post-graduate plans, and then he asked if I held a current temple recommend. I told him I didn’t, and so he began to ask me the standard set of questions associated with a temple recommend interview.

He asked, “Do you believe in God, the Eternal Father?”

And I told him no. It was the first time I’d given that answer to any bishop—and he was perhaps the fourth or fifth person I’d ever told I didn’t believe in God. He asked me why I felt that way, and we discussed it for a while. Surprisingly though, the interview didn’t end with that question. He asked if we could continue the temple recommend interview, and when I consented, he went through the questions one by one. And one by one, I denied faith in Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, the Atonement, Christ as Savior and Redeemer, and the Restoration of the Gospel. I denied that there was a prophet on the earth, and I refused to sustain the leadership of the church. Finally, I told him I didn’t consider myself worthy to enter the temple. But when we reached the end of the interview, what he said caught me by surprise.

“Well, Ryan, I know you feel like you don’t believe in any of this, but you served a full mission, you’re active in the church, you do your home teaching, you’re keeping the commandments as best you can, and I feel like all of that demonstrates faith—even if you don’t recognize it.” Then he signed his name on the temple recommend and gave it to me to sign.

I almost laughed at him. Explaining my smiles, I said, “I can’t sign this. Signing means I think I’m worthy to go into the temple, right? I just told you I don’t think I’m worthy, and if I meant that honestly, I can’t sign this. If I do sign it, then I lied when I told you that I was honest with my fellow men, which means I shouldn’t sign it.”

He seemed frustrated, but he understood. And then he said something that really disturbed me at the time, though it took more than a year (and reading Richard Dawkins’ excellent book The God Delusion) to understand why. He said, “Well, Ryan, I understand where you’re coming from. I think we all have doubts sometimes—and particularly those of us who, by nature or by education, think critically about everything we’re taught. I’m a scientist, and I’m used to having concrete evidence before accepting hypotheses. But in this case, believing in God and following his commandments has always made me happy, and to me, that’s evidence enough.”

It’s been a few years since our interview, but I have heard his words echoed many, many times by those who believe in God. Not just “It makes me happy”, but “It makes me happy, and that’s enough.” It makes me want to scream, to type in enormous font—bolded, italicized, and underlined: That it makes you happy does not make it true! That it makes you happy does not make it good for you!

That believing in something makes us happy does not make it true.

Believing in Santa Claus as a child made me as happy as I suppose it makes any other child. And it’s natural, of course. Consider the idea: a single, magical, bearded, jolly man who, out of sheer good will and holiday spirit, flies about the world in a single night, delivering elven-made toys to young boys and girls (but only so long as their names are on the “nice” list).

But St. Nick is nothing but God dumbed down for children! Too young to fear death and wish for eternal life, they get candy and toys instead. Too short-sighted to wait till the end of their lives for reward, they wait till Christmas. More easily threatened than their parents, their naughty behavior receives lumps of coal instead of an eternity of burning and suffering at the hands of sadistic monsters.

Happy as it made me, it was a lie—a lie that hid a much more beautiful and believable truth: my parents loved me dearly, buying gifts with money that could have been spent on themselves and giving them anonymously.

That the ideas of life after death and an all-powerful, benevolent being make us happy is no surprise. Of course these things give us hope and courage to face our own mortality. But that they bring happiness does not make them true…or even good for us.

Einstein Believed in God and Hitler was an Atheist!

Perhaps one of the most frustratingly illogical (and yet commonplace) “proofs” of God is celebrity endorsement. Too often, if I cite reasonable, scientific doubt as to the existence of God, I’m quickly met with some comment about how Einstein believed in God or how Hitler was atheist.

Numerous other celebrities can be used to replace Einstein and Hitler, but the logical fallacy remains: Regardless of X’s qualities (good or bad), X’s views on the existence of God have absolutely nothing to do with God’s actual existence.

Reductio ad Hitlerum (The Argument to Hitler)

Perhaps the most frustrating part of the reductio ad Hitlerum in this case is its poor choice of example. Hitler’s religiosity is one of the more trivial (but interesting!) question marks in recent history. Raised Catholic, he alluded to his faith in God and particularly the Catholic religion in public speeches. And in Mein Kampf, he uses language that seems to indicate he is a religious man:

The folkish-minded man, in particular, has the sacred duty, each in his own denomination, of making people stop just talking superficially of God’s will, and actually fulfill God’s will, and not let God’s word be desecrated. For God’s will gave men their form, their essence and their abilities. Anyone who destroys His work is declaring war on the Lord’s creation, the divine will.

Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf. Ralph Manheim, ed. New York: Mariner Books, 1999, p. 562.

In private, however, Hitler’s views regarding religion were often conflicting and confusing. Goebbels’ diary notes that Hitler felt revulsion toward Christianity and wanted to express that openly. But Nazi General Gerhart Engel’s diary records this statement of Hitler’s:

I am now as before Catholic and will always remain so.

John Toland. Adolf Hitler. New York: Anchor Publishing, 1992, p. 507.

Much better examples of evil (and confirmed) atheists include Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, who both sought to stamp out religion and those who practiced it, killing millions of their own citizens in the process. (Both, by the way, were responsible for many times more of their own dead citizens than was Hitler.)

Reductio ad Einsteinum (The Argument to Einstein)

The most frustrating part of the reductio ad Einsteinum is that it displays exactly the same lack of research as the reductio ad Hitlerum. In his own time, Einstein was criticized by multiple American religious groups for his statements against religion, including these:

It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.

quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side (1982) edited by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These…interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.

Randerson, James (2008-05-13). “Childish superstition: Einstein’s letter makes view of religion relatively clear”. The Guardian (London). Retrieved May 18, 2011.

If we are to credit Einstein for any contribution toward our understanding of religion, it is for his support of what I have been proposing with all these posts on the illogic of arguing for/against God logically:

I’m absolutely not an atheist. I don’t think I can call myself a pantheist. The problem involved is too vast for our limited minds. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. It does not understand the languages in which they are written. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn’t know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God. We see the universe marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws but only dimly understand these laws. Our limited minds grasp the mysterious force that moves the constellations. I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contribution to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things.

Frankenberry, Nancy K. The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words. Princeton University Press, 2009. p. 153.

We are indeed like children in a massive library. The world around us is filled with evidence of the past and the true workings of the greatest forces in the universe. It would be naive to say that we can understand what, if anything, gave rise to these laws and patterns. And, if some of us must assume a creator, it would be a shame to spend our lives praising the creator without understanding the creation. My greatest worry regarding the religious is that they spend too much time in the library praising the author and too little reading the texts.

Guest Post: How Complex is God?

I received a message yesterday from one of my dearest friends debating a point I made in Illogical Proof of God #2: Argument from Design. In it, my friend makes a very valid point and introduces a thought that I had yet to consider. Needless to say, cogent debate gets me all tingly inside, so, with his permission, I post his message here in its near entirety.

I almost posted this on your blog, but decided to message you instead, owing to the extremely dim view my professional colleagues take of public discussion of politics and religion.

I thought for a while about your post yesterday on argument from design, and while I ended up in the same place I usually do—that attempting to argue the God question one way or the other from pure logic or probability is a waste of time—there were a few interesting thoughts along the way.

The Ultimate 747 argument is pretty foolish, as we have no way of knowing how many worlds, how many universes, and how much “time” has elapsed before a single world like ours, with physical laws like ours, emerged. At the same time, I don’t find “God must be even more complex and improbable” to be a compelling counterargument either. It seems entirely possible to me that, if our universe was created, it could have been created by someone or something on a completely different plane of existence than the one we experience. Think SimCity; the “people” in your city have no way of knowing, or ever finding out, that they are just part of a simulation, but that doesn’t make it any less so. We can write computer programs with behaviors far too complex for any human to understand, but would you say the human is more complex than the program?

There are sort of 2 parts to that question. First, how do you (or can you) compare the complexity of a human and a program (or a God and its creation) apples-to-apples? Second, the complexity that arises in the observable behavior of a system often results from the interactions of a much, much smaller set of underlying rules. In the case of our universe as we know it, a few laws of physics (some of which we still don’t quite get, but bear with me) can explain what goes on around us. While the fact that these underlying rules don’t seem very complex when laid bare sort of debunks the Argument From Creation, it similarly detracts from the argument that God is even more unlikely.

I seem to have run myself in a circle, but it was an interesting thought experiment that led me to reinforce my thought that pretty much every purported “proof” for or against God should be treated with great suspicion. You either believe or you don’t, and there’s plenty of evidence to convince smart people either way they want to be convinced. The other interesting question for me then becomes: Is the choice to believe in a God and the choice to follow religion A, B, or C, fundamentally the same kind of choice, or are they something different? Believing in a God and purporting to know what he’s like, what he wants you to do (if anything), and why seem to be fairly different things. There is a similar abundance of evidence and dearth of proof in both cases. The former choice you can mostly keep to yourself; the latter tends to influence the way you interact with and think about others (at least if you go whole-hog with it). If you believe in God but can’t figure which, if any, religion is the “true” one, should you abstain? Should you narrow it down and then use earthly cues (e.g., “my family goes to church X” or “church Y has great food”) as tiebreakers? In my opinion, not enough attention is paid to the religion question relative to the existence-of-God question. In my opinion, the reason is this: The existence of God is important theologically and on a grand scale, but in our day-to-day lives it doesn’t affect us much one way or the other, so it’s easier to talk about than the religions that visibly impact the way people think and act. In other contexts, we call this bikesheddding.