Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Supernova Worry

I just came up with a silly little argument. It contains a fairly large amount of reasoning that many Christians would reject outright—not on the basis of the reasoning being faulty, but on the basis of it conflicting with Biblical “science”—so I don’t know how far it’ll get me, but oh well. I’m going to call it…

The Supernova Worry

I feel that this would be better laid out as a narrative rather than in premise format, so that’s what I’ll do.

Suppose God exists. Suppose He designed the universe and everything in it. Moreover, suppose the Bible is accurate in its depiction of the creation of the universe. God spent a couple days creating everything else out there, from galaxies to black holes to comets, and then devoted a huge amount of time to crafting one tiny planet. He stuck that planet in orbit around one of the flaming gas-balls He’d made and kick-started life. If the universe was designed by God, a perfect being, then that would mean everything that occurs here—from flowers blooming to atoms splitting to stars exploding—is part of God’s grand plan, and that what God has made is good and does not at any point need to be fixed or repaired. God did not create an imperfect universe.

But if this is the case, then what of our own sun, the star that provides heat and light to our planet? One day—granted, a day so far in the future as to be incomprehensible to those currently living—that star will erupt into massive flames, and the Earth will be burnt to a crisp. Is this part of God’s beautiful, majestic design? If He cares so much for humans, why would he put them on a planet that has a limited lifespan? Surely it is within the scope of God’s powers to create a sun with infinite energy, or a planet that supports itself without the need for a star to nourish it? But God has done neither of these things. It would appear as though God has placed human beings on a very unstable tract of land, one that He put a ton of effort into designing just for us but seems content to allow to be annihilated by another one of His creations—for recall that God also made the sun, and designed it to explode violently when it runs out of fuel.

The fact that our Sol will one day consume us suggests one of several options: a) that God created things this way for a reason, b) that God created an imperfect solar system and will need to step in to prevent the destruction of Earth, or c) that there was no special favor garnered to Earth (and therefore its inhabitants) in the designing of the universe.

If (a) is true, then what would the reason be? Some might argue that it is the unfathomable will of God, but this is just as much a cop-out now as ever. Oh! Could it be because God is encouraging us to develop space travel and find a new planet to live on? But wait… why would God want that? He made the Earth for us; doesn’t He want us to stay? And the Earth is where saints, prophets, and Jesus himself walked and spoke. People kill each other for control of places that Christ visited or lived. Wouldn’t God want us to remain here, if those places are that important? Maybe it’s because of “evil” (this feels like the Catholic answer, although I don’t know what the Catholic answer would actually be). My reply is: how? How does “evil” have anything to do with the machinations of the stars? Is Satan going to make the sun blow up? Ooh, bad Satan! Naughty Satan! And obviously God can’t intervene, because doing so would interfere with Satan’s free will, right? Or maybe the free will of the sun? Or wait, was it only humans who have free will? So how would preventing Satan from detonating the sun affect our free will in the slightest? Perhaps I’ve taken the wrong tack here; maybe it’s supposed to coincide with the Rapture, and all that fire the Bible talks about is actually the rapidly expanding sun coming to eat us up. But if that’s the case, then we know when it’s gonna happen. Isn’t it written that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thess. 5:2)? Could it be that we, mere humans, have unlocked the secret of the Apocalypse? And more importantly, if the sun going supernova is the Day of Judgment, then why are people so convinced it will be sooner than that? It can't be both ways; either the sun’s temper tantrum is the end of the world, or it isn’t. If it is, we can rest assured that we’ll all be long dead before it occurs. If it isn’t, then there must be another reason for God to let the sun expand and kill us, or (b) or (c) is true.

If (b) is true, then God is certainly much less perfect than was initially reported. Perhaps it’s just unavoidable; despite His power, God is not omnipotent and thus cannot create a fully functional universe on the first try. Or perhaps it’s a matter of awareness; God is not omniscient, and thus couldn’t foresee the vaporization of Earth before it happened (although how we, just tiny insects compared to God, are able to predict it remains a mystery). Denying God either of the properties I just mentioned makes God seem a whole lot less worthy of worship than most people would like. Do you want a God who can’t do everything to be looking out for you? What if He can’t protect you from a more powerful evil? How about a non-omniscient God? Do you really want a being who doesn’t know everything to be your judge when you’re put to trial for your “sins”? Maybe it’s just a matter of God not wanting the Earth to last forever; but this brings us back to point (a), and the refutations explained there still stand.

If (c) is true, then nothing happens. God’s behavior or creative “error” doesn’t need to be explained, because human beings are not (shock of shocks!) the center of the universe. This option allows for design theories to remain on the table (only to be brushed aside by other arguments) while simultaneously pruning away our arrogant assumption that everything in the universe happens with us in mind. We’re the center of nothing but our own worldviews.

Questions? Comments? Feedback is appreciated.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Read & Blog Fail

Well, shoot. Here I was, all geared up to do a “Read & Blog” thing with this book I picked up from the library, and now I’m not going to. Why? Because this collection of pages is, if you’ll pardon my language, the most capricious, delusional, unreasonable, biased piece of Christian literature I have yet laid eyes upon. To say that this book portrays atheists in a fair and accurate light is an understatement on the magnitude of calling the Pacific a charming pond. The author clearly has it out for us, and not in any way that can be fought against with weapons of the intellect. To be frank, the only thing that’ll stop this guy from thinking the way he does is death, and I’m slightly saddened by the fact that he won’t be able to experience the crushing disappointment of discovering that the afterlife he has long dreamed of is a lie. I have no malign intent here; all I’m saying is that there is nothing on this Earth than could convince the author of… well, anything he doesn’t already believe to be true.

The book I’m referring to is You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, but You Can’t Make Him Think, by Ray Comfort. Here’s a picture of the cover:

From the foreword to the endnotes, this book is one colossal, misinformed attack on atheists and what Ray has convinced himself they believe. Others have done a better job than I can of giving this waste of paper the thrashing it deserves, so I won’t do much of that. What I will do, however, is point out a couple of things that occurred to me, and then cast this wretched tome back into the library’s deposit box faster than Ray can decide I’m an idiot simply because I’m an atheist.

First, I really do feel sorry for Ray. It’s clear that he believes what he’s saying with every fiber of his being. There is not a single un-Christian inch of Ray Comfort, and I must admit that his ability to remain steadfast in his theology despite what I’m sure are a number of warning sirens that have been going off in the rational part of his mind for quite some time (assuming he hasn’t already eviscerated that part of his intellect) is quite impressive. And thus, I don’t feel any particular anger toward him for being so bigoted against non-believers. What he wrote I can be upset at. But him, the person? Naw. He’s not trying to be insulting for insult’s sake. He’s just doing what anyone would do if they truly believed Hell is a real place where anyone who doesn't practice the right kind of Christianity goes. I can’t say that I blame him. I don’t agree with him, not in the slightest, but I can’t say I blame him. Incidentally, I find it very interesting that there aren’t more Christians out there who act as if Hell is real. Maybe they just don't want to think about it? I’ll have to ask my Catholic friends (I’ve told some of them that I’m an atheist).

Second, I wonder why Ray is the way he is. Has he ever read anything about evolution? I’m no scientist, but I think I already know more about evolution than he does, and could explain it better than he did in this book. So why not study up? Wouldn't it be better for his arguments if he could say that he was intimately familiar with the other side? Oh, wait, silly me. That’s not in the least what he’s trying to do here; Ray’s “arguments” hinge entirely on an audience that is just as uninformed as he is. Without an ignorant readership willing to take everything he writes at face value, Ray’s entire literary empire would collapse overnight. Luckily, uneducated believers are a dime a dozen.

Which brings me to my third and final point: it terrifies me to think that there are people—perhaps millions?—out there who honest-to-God believe the stuff in this book. They believe “the atheist is someone who pretends that there is not god” (Preface). They believe that evolution means random chance with no controlling factors or forces. They believe that the acceptable way to answer any and every question is to ignore the question and quote the Bible. Are there really people out there who buy into this stuff? I heave a sigh as I realize, yes, there are. And they may well have read this book. Which means if any of them were to meet an atheist on the street, you can bet they’d have some totally ridiculous things ready to say.

All right, enough with this. I’ll be glad to rid of this book; maybe the next time I grab some apologetics from the library, they’ll actually present a decent intellectual challenge. YCLAEYCMHT, on the other hand (wow, what an acronym!), could be refuted by a four-year-old… assuming that four-year-old wasn’t brought up by fundamentalist Christian parents.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Final Thoughts on the Mission

This entry was written while I was away from home on a Catholic mission trip and subsequently placed in its correct timeslot. Line breaks generally indicate some amount of time between the writing of the paragraphs, as I penned these thoughts over the course of the day. I have not changed the content of this entry, save for minor spelling and grammar corrections.

Social justice is important for everyone. It doesn’t matter that these people are Catholic and I’m not; equality and respect of human dignity are things that we can both agree upon. I’ll be honest: I agree with almost everything I’ve seen this week, with the exception of the Catholic stuff. Take all that faith nonsense out, and you have an amazing set of morals and some people who will do anything to promote social justice. These are good folks. They’ve got it all right… except, again, the religion part.

I feel a bit like I’ve been unplugged from the Matrix of religion. I can hear Morpheus’ words as I write this: “Most of these people are not ready to be unplugged.” They’re not! I asked Allison today if she thinks the story of Noah’s ark is literally true, and she said yes. When I asked her why, she more or less said that she didn’t have a reason. I realized then that Allison is in deep. And why wouldn’t she be? She’s been doing it her whole life. I respect her and I think she’s very intelligent, but here’s the thing: She doesn’t want to think about it. It matters very little to her whether it’s true or not, because what’s more important is her children, her husband, her career, and her social status. Whether God is real or not is, overall, not that important. And this is likely true of a lot of Catholics/Christians I know. So ultimately, all I can do is agree to disagree and leave it at that.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Wishing for the Truth

This entry was written while I was away from home on a Catholic mission trip and subsequently placed in its correct timeslot. Line breaks generally indicate some amount of time between the writing of the paragraphs, as I penned these thoughts over the course of the day. I have not changed the content of this entry, save for minor spelling and grammar corrections.

Back in the chapel again. I… I wish it was true. All of it. I’m scared. I don’t want to leave. I’ve been drifting away for over a year, and yet still I cling. Still I hope. But this mission is the last straw for me. I’ve seen now that even a strong desire to delude myself is not enough. I’ve chosen reason. I’ve chosen the truth. Harsh, biting truth, colder than the dark side of Mercury. No matter how I’ve tried this week, I know in my heart and mind that I can never go back. I’m out forever. I am an atheist through and through. And thus, here I sit. Alone. Quiet. Calm. Contemplating. Resting before the tabernacle, a relic I once believed holy and cosmically significant. I look up at it with pleading eyes, because for the first time since I became a non-believer, I want to have my knowledge wiped away. Alas, nothing. No final, shocking revelation from God. No whispered words of an angel. No loving embrace from Christ. I am alone in this chapel, and with a sickening lurch, I realize that I’ve always been alone here. Even in days gone by, when I would pray in places like this. Even at the heights of religious ecstasy. Even when among thousands of believers.

No matter how much I want it to be true, it is not. Christianity is false. I am alone here.

And I think I’m finally ok with that.

I think empathy is one of the most beautiful emotions in the human repertoire. The ability to feel the pain of others is unique to our species, and thus we carry a special type of burden that other creatures do not. I’ve seen lots of empathy this week, but nowhere is there more of it than during the closing ceremony for the mission. Everyone shares a story about something that touched them this week. Most of the stories are about events that cause others to feel happy. Many people cry during this ceremony. Myself, well, I guess my heart has been hardened. I used to be too empathetic (note the suffix). Now I’m not empathetic enough. But oh well.

I’m suddenly reminded of a line from a Regina Spektor song: “You laugh until you cry/you cry until you laugh/and everyone must breathe/until their dying breath”.

This is a beautiful ceremony. There is so much love in this room. So much compassion. I wish desperately that I could say a magic word and suddenly everyone would realize that God isn’t here right now; and more importantly, we’re fine without him. “People! Listen! You don’t need God to tell you to be here! You can just be here!”

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Worshiping Bread

This entry was written while I was away from home on a Catholic mission trip and subsequently placed in its correct timeslot. Line breaks generally indicate some amount of time between the writing of the paragraphs, as I penned these thoughts over the course of the day. I have not changed the content of this entry, save for minor spelling and grammar corrections.

I didn’t write much yesterday, primarily because I was really busy. It was our distribution day, which means we had to hand out all the food, clothes, and supplies we’ve been organizing all week. I saw a lot of great things from the students (leadership, patience, etc.) and of course the warm fuzzy feelings you get from helping people were also nice. And again, let me stress: No faith necessary. It’s just me, the human. I’m looking out at a world that will someday fade, but for the time being it’s here, it’s now, and I’m part of it. And no matter what happens, the fact that I existed will always be true. I live my life by a guiding principle similar to the one held by the faithful: what we do in this life is what matters.

On an unrelated note, I now find it very funny to put “sin” in perspective. Why would the creator of the universe care one iota about what we, mere insignificant specks on an insignificant speck, do with our time? “But God wants to have a personal relationship with each of us,” you say. Is that so? God’s idea of a personal relationship is pretty fucked, then. “I’m going to silently watch you everywhere, at all times, and if you screw up even once, I’m not letting you back into Heaven until you say you’re sorry. And mean it. Cuz I’ll know if you don’t.” For Catholics this means you must tell a priest your sins. It’s not good enough to say them to yourself, even though God is everywhere and in each of us. We’re all with God, but some people are more with God than others.

I sit now in the presence of “Christ”. “He” is locked up safe and warm inside the golden tabernacle here in the church. Did you know that tabernacles and dishes for Mass are supposed to be made of gold? After all, we must show proper respect to our God. Can’t be keeping him in any of those other metals he created, no sir. Only gold is fit for God. Anyway, looking at this situation from an outside perspective reveals just how ridiculous it is. I’m sitting in a special room designated for one purpose: to house a golden box in which is held, under lock and key, a few pieces of unleavened bread. I’m supposed to genuflect to this box when entering and exiting the room.

The other day I heard someone say, “Christ is really, physically present, in the form of bread and wine.” What? This is nonsense. It can’t be both ways: either the bread changes into some other physical substance, or it doesn’t. It if does, that’s testable. If it doesn’t, then the implication is that the bread and wine have immaterial/spiritual properties. But that’s absurd. Wheat and grapes don’t have souls. This is why they call it a “mystery”.

There’s no mystery. You’re worshiping a piece of bread.

We celebrated Mass at the migrant camp today. It made me a little sad. These people put up with the horrible state of their lives partly because they believe that they’ll go to paradise after death. Sure, maybe the thought of that gives some of them the hope they need in order to keep going. But at the same time, it cripples their drive to fight for change and equality. They stay where they are because they believe God will reward them for their suffering.

False. There is no God. Heaven is a logical impossibility under Catholicism. These people have been brainwashed, and they’ll stay that way until something drastic occurs.

I feel bad sometimes, thinking this way. In our group, I find myself placing people into one of several categories as I stand among them: too young or naïve to truly believe; indoctrinated by their parents; not smart enough to understand the arguments against their faith; intelligent, but unwilling to search for the truth; set in their ways and unwilling to change; and so on. Is it wrong of me to think this way? Every single one of these people is deluded in some way. Each would require a different style of argument or piece of evidence in order to convince them otherwise, assuming it’s possible to do so.

But that’s not my place. They may believe as they wish. All I ask is for the same privilege.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

no title

It’s true what they say: there are no Christian children. There are only the children of Christian parents.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

St. Claire's Cat

This entry was written while I was away from home on a Catholic mission trip and subsequently placed in its correct timeslot. Line breaks generally indicate some amount of time between the writing of the paragraphs, as I penned these thoughts over the course of the day. I have not changed the content of this entry, save for minor spelling and grammar corrections.

Another restless night. I hope I can sleep this evening, because waking up each day with progressively higher levels of exhaustion is not something I’m looking forward to. Oh well. That’s what I get for not bringing an air mattress.

Entertained an erotic fantasy about previously mentioned older woman; fantasy involved shower room and relative privacy enjoyed therein. More on this story as it develops.

Mass again. We’re gonna do this every morning, I’m thinking. Oh well. If God were real, he’d be pis (Mass began as I was writing the preceding statement. Make of that what you will.)

St. Claire’s cat: During Mass, the fast-talking Irish priest told us about St. Claire of Assisi. At one point he said, “According to legend, when St. Claire was bedridden, she wanted a towel from across the room. So she asked the cat, and the cat got it for her.” Everyone laughed.

…seriously? The idea of an invisible best friend who follows everybody everywhere all the time and can grant wishes is totally fine, but the notion that a woman—who, by virtue of being a saint, is able to call down favors from God Himself—can somehow communicate with a cat is a little too far beyond the pale?

Theists… *shakes head*

I suspect that a few of the junior high girls have taken a liking to me. No matter. My heart beats only for one; perfection, thy name is MILF.

Ironically, someone made a joke this evening about Allison [note: name has been changed] and me showering together. The circumstances permitted such buffoonery. I laughed it off… and got just a tiny bit aroused. More on this story as it develops.

Today was long. Very long. But worthwhile. My old passion for social justice is coming back. And totally God-free too! I gave a very inspiring speech this evening about how immigration isn’t a black and white issue. They ate it up. I was phenomenal. And again, didn’t need to mention God even once. I’m starting to see that my life isn’t as different as I thought it would be. I still do the same things. Now I just don’t waste time praying to an imaginary being. Saves precious minutes and hours of my very finite life.

All right, time for rest. Until tomorrow, I remain: Closet Atheist.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Leave Jesus at the Door

This entry was written while I was away from home on a Catholic mission trip and subsequently placed in its correct timeslot. Line breaks generally indicate some amount of time between the writing of the paragraphs, as I penned these thoughts over the course of the day. I have not changed the content of this entry, save for minor spelling and grammar corrections.

Thankfully, holy water doesn’t burn holes in atheist foreheads.

I’m sitting inside a church, getting ready to endure Mass. Sigh… the things I do for the sake of appearances. But revealing myself would be far worse, I feel, so for now I will put up with it.

A good day. Almost no mention of religion at all. When we began working at the distribution center, we went around and said why we’d come on the trip. I think maybe two people said something about God. I thought to myself, “Why bring that in? It’s clear that most of you didn’t even think of it when you signed up. Just leave Jesus at the door!”

Also, I find myself strangely attracted to a woman at least fifteen years my senior. More on that story as it unfolds.

You know how I know that I’m really an atheist? Because I’m in the thick of it. I’m in the best that Catholicism has to offer. We’re not telling people what to believe. We’re just handing out food and clothes. This is a place where I thrive, a place where I want to be. But what makes it different is this: I don’t need God to tell me I should feel good. I don’t need God to compel me to be here. And I think if my companions really thought about it, they’d realize they don’t need God either.

The definition of “confirmation bias”: Claiming that a certain turn of events is a miracle or a godsend or a blessing or whatever when you prayed or wished for it beforehand, while simultaneously ignoring the overwhelmingly large number of times that similar prayers or wishes went unanswered.

If you get what you want, surely God has blessed you. If you don’t, well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. The random nature of when prayers are answered does nothing to sway your faith. Yet if, say, a parent treated you that way, you’d claim child abuse.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Beginning The Mission

This entry was written while I was away from home on a Catholic mission trip and subsequently placed in its correct timeslot. Line breaks generally indicate some amount of time between the writing of the paragraphs, as I penned these thoughts over the course of the day. I have not changed the content of this entry, save for minor spelling and grammar corrections.

You know how I know I’m not just going through an “atheistic phase”? A “dark night of the soul”? Because I wish it were true. I wish desperately that it were true, that I didn’t have to go from moment to moment knowing that one day it will all disappear. I know it’s not a phase because no matter how desperately I’d like to believe that the amazing, wonderful people I know won’t someday perish, never to be seen again, I just can’t. I can’t force myself to believe. There are so many reasons against it that it can’t be true… yet I want it to be, very much.

I had to lead the prayer before we left the church this morning. Thankfully, I’ve always been good at spontaneous prayer. Still felt really weird though. Felt like someone asked me to lead a prayer to Demeter, or Thor, or Quetzalcoatl.

I am an atheist in isolation here. A lonely stone in a sea of believers. And no one has a clue. I’m on my own here.

I also led evening prayer, and am apparently the go-to guy for prayer this week. Shit. One of the first things I lost faith in was the power of prayer. I never should’ve redone those journals [Note: I reformatted the reflection journals for this trip prior to our departure].

I don’t know what to expect from this week. Already I’ve had to conceal my non-belief multiple times, in the form of leading prayers and reading Bible passages. I might as well be reading from Harry Potter, for all the truth that’s in the Bible. And prayer to a nonexistent being seems like a big waste of time. I wanna relax and enjoy myself here instead of constantly entertaining a sarcastic inner monologue about all the church talk we’ve gone through. I’ll make an effort to do that tomorrow.

Thought from Mass this morning: When they say, “This is the body of Christ,” all I hear is, “The emperor is wearing clothes!”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Another Week

Well, the time has come once again: I’m to pass as a Catholic for a week. Remember the service trip I mentioned in my deconversion story? The one that got me started on the trail to a life of faith? It’s that same trip, led by my home parish of St. John of the Cross. I’ll be going with a number of other adults and a huge group of junior and senior high school students, some of whom I will be directly responsible for. These details are largely irrelevant; what is relevant is the fact that this is, in every regard, a Catholic event. We have prayer time built into the schedule. We’ll be attending Mass during the week. Discussions about faith will be the norm. I’ll be expected to plan evening prayer at least once.

I’m not looking forward to any of these things. So why am I going, you might ask? Well, one of my siblings is attending, so I’d like to spend time with them. But more importantly, I want to serve. Just because I don’t have God elbowing me in the ribs and saying, “Aren’t you gonna go help them?” anymore doesn’t mean I don’t want to care for my fellow human beings. If anything, atheism demands an even greater attention to human suffering, because there’s no great equalization at the end of life. If people aren’t treated justly here and now, they won’t be compensated in the future. So I want to be a part of bring about a more socially just world.

Nervous is probably the best word to describe what I’m feeling. I’m nervous. I don’t want someone to come up to me and ask my where I’m at with my faith, because I’ll be forced to do one of three things: lie, evade, or confess. Lying is something I try to avoid if possible. Evading is difficult. Confessing is the most ideal of the three, but doing so will lead to a much more involved conversation, one that I’m frankly not sure I’m prepared to have.

I guess there’s no real point to this entry except to vent. I’m worried about what will happen and kicking myself for thinking this would be a good idea. I’ve been away at college for years now, but the same youth pastor still works at the church. She knew me quite well back then. When the meetings began for the adult leaders, she instantly assumed that my beliefs were the same as before. And why wouldn’t she? I’ve given her no reason to think otherwise. I’m debating whether I should tell her or not. On the one hand, telling her seems like the honest thing to do. She thinks I’m someone that I’m not. But on the other hand, she was an integral part of my Catholic development. To tell her that all her efforts ultimately did nothing to prevent my departure form the faith may be an unnecessary blow to her ego. But maybe I’m over-thinking this.

I plan to write a bit while I’m away. I’ll post those entries when I return, but backdate them so they correspond to when they were written. Until then, peace.

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Tonight I attended a training session designed to educate me about child abuse. I needed to go to this because I’m going to be working with kids next week and it’s required that all volunteers undergo training of this kind. Members of the Catholic Church put the training materials together (why I’m attending Catholic training of this sort is a matter for a separate entry, which I’ll hopefully have finished by tomorrow, but the long and short of it is that I’m going on a Catholic mission trip). I went in with no expectations. I came out shaken to my core.

I suppose this may be one of the many lines that separates me from the believer I used to be—or, if I’m honest with myself, might well have never been. We saw a few training videos that included commentary from actual sexual abuse victims and stories told by real, convicted child molesters. These stories were utterly devastating to listen to: children as young as two being taken advantage of; girls being touched by their pastors, priests, coaches, foster fathers; boys being touched by their teachers, uncles, friends of their parents; abusers who found themselves unable to stop despite repeated attempts to quit… the list goes on and on. One particularly horrifying story involved a boy who was already a “problem” student when the abuse began; he felt trapped by his previous behavior, because his credibility had been damaged and he no longer thought anyone would trust him. On the other side of the spectrum, one of the perpetrators told his story on screen as a bearded adult, but ended it with the revelation that he was 15 when he was caught, thereby implying that he’d been in prison or rehabilitation since that time. Every story was heart wrenching. I became simultaneously horrified and furious: what sort of world is this that we live in where these things happen?

And as these emotions hit me, so too did something familiar: doubt. I remembered the doubts I’d faced many months ago, and the fact that some of them had come about because of similar situations. I’d hear about some kind of ghastly violence or terrible disaster, and I’d gaze upward and wonder, “Would a good God let this happen?” As I sat reminiscing, the rest of the class began discussing the films. I was easily the youngest person there, and undoubtedly the only non-believer. After all, this was a Catholic event: why would anyone who didn’t believe in God be present? But, again, that’s a story for another time. I noticed that instead of any expressions of uncertainty about God, everyone seemed quite able to fit sexual abuse into their Catholic worldview.

This may all seem trivial, but allow me to make my point: these stories of child abuse did not cause the die-hard Catholics in the room to question their God in the least (as far as I was able to tell). But that same stimulus, when shown to an atheist, made me wonder how anyone could believe in a perfectly good God (and I say this with full awareness of my own past faith). I was sitting there asking myself how I could’ve ever thought God was watching out for humanity, while everyone else was perfectly fine with letting God permit such despicable evil.

What justification can there be for sexual abuse of children? What possible reason could God have for letting innocent children be abused? I’m aware of the stock answers: free will, opportunities for others to be caring, unknown purposes, and so on, but (as is likely obvious) none of these answers satisfy me.

Perhaps they never did. Perhaps my faith was never as strong as I thought it was. But I’m ok with that now, because I can stand behind one thing that I’m very proud to say: I will not make excuses for a God who does nothing to prevent the sexual abuse of children.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Born for Hell Dilemma

Many thanks to Ebonmuse for his commentary on this argument.

Hell is an all-to-familiar concept for most theists. Depending on the tradition in question, human beings may be cast into that infamous lake of fire for just about any offence, from lying, to being a member of the wrong religious order, to simply eating the wrong kind of food or working on the wrong day of the week. The properties of Hell—and the punishments suffered while interred there—differ from sect to sect, but one thing remains relatively static: Hell is a place of punishment, and is reserved for those who have failed to meet whatever criteria for goodness the religion in question has laid out.

For my purposes here, I will be exploring the deity of the dominant monotheistic religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity): omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly good and just, and so on. I wish to present a logical argument against God having certain properties, namely either perfect justice or omniscience. Although this argument may already exist in some form out there in cyberspace, I have not yet been able to locate it. If any reader has information about this argument or one similar, I’d love to see it! All right, without further ado, allow me to present:

The Born for Hell Dilemma

A quick definition first: by ultimate fate, I am referring to the final place where the soul in question will end up, after living out its time on Earth. There are two possible answers under the monotheistic religions: in Heaven with God, or in Hell. Every soul will go to one of these places, with no exceptions. All right, let’s begin. The argument can be laid out as follows:

1. Either God knows the ultimate fate of each human soul from the moment he creates it, or he doesn’t.

2. If God knows the ultimate fate of each human soul from the moment he creates it, then he sometimes knowingly creates souls that will be sent to an eternity of torment in Hell.

3. If God does not know the ultimate fate of each human soul from the moment he creates it, then there is something that God does not know.

4. If God sometimes knowingly creates souls that will be sent to an eternity of torment in Hell, then God is not perfectly just.

5. If there is something that God does not know, then God is not omniscient.

6. So, either God is not perfectly just, or God is not omniscient.

This argument, as far as I can tell, is logically valid. However, to be assured of its soundness, I will provide a defense of the premises:

1. This premise is a simple binary: either A or not A.

2. If God possesses perfect knowledge of where any given soul he creates will end up, then he obviously knows what he’s doing when he makes that soul. Thus, he is well aware of the fact that he occasionally creates souls that, from the moment they come into existence, are doomed to Hell.

And occasionally is probably too gentle a term, if many theists are to be believed: under most versions of the monotheistic religions, the majority of people will end up in Hell; thus, if God knew what he was doing when he made those souls, then he created the majority of humans with a one-way ticket to Hell built in from the start. Some examples: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

3. If God creates souls without knowing where they’re going to be once their Earthly lives end, then there is—perhaps obviously—some fact of which God is not aware.

4. This is the premise that I think requires the most defending, so pardon me if this section is a tad on the longer side.

What does it mean to be perfectly just? It means that in every instance, a perfectly just being will act with justice in mind. He will never punish any living thing unfairly. He will give unto each of his creations what is due to them, and nothing more or less than that. Now, suppose for a moment that God is about to create a new, Hell-bound soul. What possible reason could God have for forming this soul and placing it in the world? God knows that no matter how hard the person he’s about to make tries, that person will nevertheless be damned to eternal suffering (a fate so horrific that it’s practically impossible to justify… but that’s a different topic, and one that has been covered quite well elsewhere.)

So why make this person? Why bring into existence a being that will live on the Earth for an amount of time so short as to be inconsequential, and then be forced to suffer terrible pain for eternity? Surely it is within the scope of an omnipotent God’s power to only create souls that will end up in Heaven? Furthermore, wouldn’t a perfectly good God desire that state of affairs? God wants his creations to be with him in Heaven (John 14:2-3, KJV), and allegedly does everything he can in order to prepare his followers to go there. Why would he make a soul that had no chance of getting to Paradise?

One more thing: if God can create one soul that’s doomed to Hell and another that’s bound for Heaven, why would he ever make anything except Heaven-bound souls? Surely a good God wouldn’t want to put anyone in Hell unless he absolutely had to? So why would God ever make anything except souls that were pure enough to be worthy of redemption and eternal life?

It is not, I wish to argue, in any way just for God to perform this action. Let me explain: in order to be eligible for punishment, one has to be in command of one’s actions, and then commit an act of injustice. If a person is not acting freely, then it is unjust to punish her. If she has done nothing wrong, it is unjust to punish her. Yet through no fault of their own, certain people come into existence already marked for Hell. Their punishment is set in stone before they are able to commit any actions that might condemn them! Moreover, God made them this way! What justice is it for God to stack the deck in this manner? How could a perfectly just being commit so unjust an act as to create a soul that has no chance for redemption? If life is a test (as some believers assert), then God has already given certain people a big red F stamp before he’s even handed out the exam.

5. This premise appeals to the definition of omniscient. An omniscient being is one who knows all that is knowable. Thus, if God does not know where the souls he makes are going to end up, then he is unaware of certain knowable propositions, and thus fails to meet the requirements for omniscience.

6. This is a logically valid conclusion that follows from the premises.

I will now address a few possible objections:

“Everyone has a chance to get to Heaven / some people choose not to love or accept God / people choose to go to Hell / any other statement regarding the reasons why people are condemned to eternal suffering.”

If everyone were on a level playing field, this might be the case. But as I pointed out, a God with the knowledge of where each soul ends up is a God who is rigging the game. God creates souls that, no matter what they might do, will wind up in Hell. They have no chance at redemption, because God knows where they’re going as soon as he brings them into existence. And thus God is committing an injustice that no human sin can compete with, an injustice for which countless souls are suffering endless pain, if theists are correct.

“God makes neutral souls. Our choices on Earth decide where we go.”

You’re missing the point. Check premise 1 again: either God knows what will happen to us, or he doesn’t. There’s no middle ground here. He can’t just have a decent guess about the matter. It’s one way or the other, and the argument continues from there.

“Human souls choose by their own free will where they will end up. Whether God knows where we’re going or not, he is still acting justly when he punishes people to damnation for sinning.”

Allow me to provide a quick analogy to illuminate why this is not the case. Suppose I am a police officer. If I caught someone in possession of stolen goods or illegal drugs, it would be a just action for me to arrest that person and ship her off to prison. But what if I planted the goods on her? What if I slipped the drugs in her pocket? Then we can easily see that I am committing an injustice by arresting her.

This is exactly what is taking place when God creates a soul that he knows will end up in Hell; that soul had sin written on it from the start. It is unjust for God to judge that soul before the soul has a chance to prove itself, and yet if God knows how he’ll eventually judge every soul he makes, then he never gives those souls that chance. Hell-bound souls are deemed guilty before they even walk into the courtroom.

“The ultimate fate of a soul is not a knowable proposition at the time of that soul’s creation.”

This may be a possibility, but I think it is highly unlikely. Look at it this way: God is alleged to have perfect, intimate knowledge of our souls. He knows us through and through; not a thought crosses our minds that God is not aware of, nor can we ever do anything to shock or surprise God, for he so fully knows our nature as to be able to know what we are going to say before we say it (Psalm 139:1-5, NIV). Surely it is necessary for God to be completely aware of who each person is, in order to judge him or her fairly? If that’s the case, then that knowledge stems from an awareness of our souls, for it is in the soul that all of our memories, personality, and morals are said to reside (and if that’s not where they are, then what does the soul do? For more on that topic, try Ebonmuse’s A Ghost in the Machine).

But then wouldn’t it be the case that God knew of all of those factors when he created the soul? None of those things arose by chance; God put all of them there, carefully, intentionally, and with full awareness. So it doesn’t make much sense to say that God created everything that will eventually decide a person’s ultimate fate, but then isn’t able to figure out what that fate will be until the person has lived out their life. It would be like an author with perfect knowledge of her characters claiming that she doesn’t know—and furthermore, cannot know—how those characters will fare at the end of her book.

I have attempted to show here that God must either be lacking in justice or lacking in knowledge, for there is no way a God with maximized versions of both those attributes could create souls that will end up in Hell. This is because God must either be creating souls that he knows he will condemn, in which case he is acting unjustly, or he is creating souls without any idea where they’ll go, in which case he is missing a rather critical piece of knowledge. Either way, God loses an important characteristic.

Thoughts and comments are very welcome.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

My Deconversion Story, Part 3

I can’t really pinpoint a moment or a specific event. Most people can't, it seems. And part of me is really glad for that fact, because if I could point to one thing and say, “That's it. That’s what did it,” then I’d have to wonder if maybe I just haven’t done a decent job of getting over whatever tragedy I blamed on God and religion. Maybe that would be easier for my Catholic friends to accept. Maybe if I had this big, terrible event I could blame, then I could get my faith back.

But it wasn’t like that. It wasn’t just one thing. It was thing upon thing upon thing.

“Why is there so much suffering in the world? Why does God seem to answer only the most random of prayers? Why is it that even when I pray for someone with the deepest convictions of my heart, nothing changes? Why do I have to watch my friends go through pain and agony of many different kinds—physical, spiritual, emotional—without so much as whisper of reassurance from God? Why is it that every night I stare at the ceiling for hours, wanting so badly to feel that presence again, but try as I might I can’t? Has God abandoned me? Furthermore, why does it seem like I’m coming upon more and more aspects of God that just don't make sense? If God is good, why did he perpetrate so many evils in the Bible? If God is all-knowing, how can we have free will? If God is omnipotent, why is this world as horrible as it is? If God is perfectly just, how can he send people to Hell?” I could go on and on, and I know these questions aren’t particularly complex or deep, but they all came cascading down on me in the final months of my tenure as Retreat Planner. They shook me to my core. I sought professional counseling, for these and other problems. I wanted so badly to go back in time and erase the doubts, but I knew that was impossible.

Summer came and went. I thought a lot about what I believed. I realized that the reasons I’d had in the past weren’t trustworthy because they were primarily emotional. I believed in God because I felt like he existed. I loved Jesus because I felt like he loved me. But I had no reasons to back up those feelings. And try as I might, I couldn’t let myself believe something just because I wanted it to be true. I had to seek truth on its own, for its own sake, and without bias if possible. Nothing else would satisfy me.

I told myself I would take a break. See how things went without attending mass. Maybe I was just burnt out? Maybe I’d spread myself too thin during my service year? After all, some of my friends thought that, and I’d certainly devoted the majority of my free time to the Ministry. As my next and final year of college began, I opted to stay home on Sundays instead of going to mass. I tried to avoid weekly house prayers, but ended up going to those for the sake of keeping everyone on good terms. And a remarkable thing happened: nothing. I wasn’t struck by lightning. I didn’t get horribly sick. In fact, I had better grades that quarter than in any quarter of the previous year. I made new friends. I started living life for myself, instead of living for the expectations and approval of others.

And slowly, but surely, I let go of my faith. It was terrifying. It hurt so bad. But I let it go. I began studying arguments for and against God, seeing which ones held their ground and which ones fell flat. I told myself I was an agnostic, but once my last quarter arrived I could no longer deny how things had progressed. It felt good to step blinking into the sunlight. I was finally ready to face what had been coming for a year or more.

My name is Dale. I am an atheist. I once believed in God and his son Jesus Christ, but I don’t anymore. I don’t know what’s out there; I won’t claim to be sure that God doesn’t exist. But I know that I haven’t found a reason to cling to my old beliefs in the supernatural. I can understand a world that is purely physical. I can see it. It makes sense to me. And a world without a god seems more likely than a world with one, so for now the best answer I can give is that it’s likely that god does not exist.

I’m still searching for the truth. That hasn’t stopped either. This blog is a chronicle of my journey, written backwards, but also forwards, because even as I look at what I used to be, I get images of what I will become. I think and grow as I read more and more. Who knows? Maybe someday I’ll be eating these words. Maybe not. That’s part of the fun, isn’t it?

Our lives are a one-shot deal. Now that I’m no longer encased in a web of superficial, paper-thin illusions and imaginings, I can start making the most of mine.

Thanks for reading.

My Deconversion Story, Part 2

It was quiet. Subtle. I didn’t even notice at first. My nine-month tenure as Retreat Planner had already begun. I think it may have been in the first eight weeks or so that I discovered an alarming trend: I wasn’t getting as much out of Mass as I used to. I’d sit and stare up at the altar (makeshift; we held our masses on campus, so we had a plastic table with a cloth on it, but eh) during the Consecration and try to feel something. But there was less emotion there. There was less of a glow, less of an aura, less energy. I wondered why I’d been able to sense God’s presence easily in the summer, and now it was so difficult. As schoolwork piled up and the Ministry began demanding more and more of my time, I started to lose focus. I prayed for help. I heard nothing. I prayed more, harder, longer. Burned through rosary beads. Went to daily mass. Confessed my sins.

I’ll take this opportunity to mention that I moved into a house with seven other Catholic men at the beginning of that school year. It was a choice that made perfect sense in the spring prior, when I was still totally embroiled in the Ministry, but once I finally arrived I realized that it was going to be different than what I’d expected. The house maintained weekly prayer as a group, and there was an expectation of good Catholic behavior while in residence. These things weren’t a problem for me at first… but we’ll get there later. Back to the topic at hand.

I got totally screwed in a relationship early that year. Felt pretty beat up about it. On the plus side, my retreats were a major success. The one early in the year was a huge hit (Blair and I had to do some fancy footwork when an unexpectedly small number of students showed up, but we managed to turn a potential disaster into a night of fun), and the one in the fall was even more amazing (two words: Catholic Rave). We were on a roll. But something was missing. It seemed like there was… I dunno… a hole in me. Something that used to be filled, but wasn’t.

No, that’s not the right way to put it.

It was more like waking up from a dream. I kept looking around me and catching brief glimpses of the real world, but then I’d put myself back to sleep, sometimes forcibly. I didn’t want to see the world that ceaselessly tried to creep into my vision. I didn’t want to think about all the things that didn’t make sense about my faith, about God, about Catholicism, about religion in general. I didn’t want to confront the blatant hypocrisy and ignorance of some of my classmates and housemates.

Anyway, there was one more event that I feel is worth mention, and then everything else after that just continues downhill. Keep in mind, this was not a turning point; rather, I see it as a catalyst for a reaction already occurring. In preparing for and during the execution of that year’s “Search” retreat, I finally saw plainly just how artificial the whole of the religious experience on that retreat is, and it disturbed me.

Let me explain: Search is run almost exactly the same way every single year. Friday evening is when the students first arrive. We group them up and let them get to know one another. Make them comfortable. Saturday is filled with almost non-stop activity: prayers, talks given by older students, discussions among small groups, various faith related activities, and so on. The main event is that night; we give the students a long break in the late afternoon, and then subject them to another talk (usually their fifth of the weekend). But this is no ordinary talk. This talk is very carefully designed to evoke a certain emotional response in the students: guilt. We want them to relate to the wrongdoings of the speaker, and then feel in their hearts a desire to change whatever wicked ways they may have. The speaker calls for them to turn over their sins to Christ through the sacrament of Reconciliation (confession, for you non-Catholics). But things don’t end there, no sir. This party is just getting started.

We put on an “impact skit” for the students. Usually the older student leaders on the retreat do this. The show is generally about a student who becomes weighed down by sin and can only find peace and redemption by turning to Jesus. The purpose of the skit is to—and I kid you not—turn on the waterworks. Our objective is to not see a single dry eye in the house. And usually it works; the emotional charge from the talk carries over to the skit, causing that guilt I mentioned to compound upon itself. The students are now becoming malleable putty in our able hands, and there’s still one more shot to fire: the “impact activity”. This is a hands-on, prayerful event that allows us to transfer the students from the gymnasium they’re seated in to the nearby chapel, where they can go to confession. In the three years I attended and worked on Search retreats, we used blindfolds in two of the impact activities. They’re a fantastic way to maintain the emotional state we're shooting for. We didn’t use them that year, but nonetheless we succeeded in keeping everyone in the highly vulnerable state we wanted them in. They went to the chapel, they confessed their sins, they prayed their little hearts out, and low and behold, their faith grew exponentially.

Those poor kids. They had no idea we’d set them up.

Not even one minute of that evening is unplanned. We spend hours and hours before the retreat getting everything ready; coming up with the most impactful talk, skit, and activity, gathering supplies, rehearsing the performances, and generally trying our best to make the evening as emotionally evocative as possible. And we always succeed. Not a dry eye in the house.

This practice raised a red flag for me. At the time, I tried to justify our actions. “Perhaps what we’re doing is necessary?” I thought. “Perhaps these students (some of whom haven’t been involved in the Church for years when they attend) need a major hit of faith smack to have their eyes opened to the power of Christ’s redeeming sacrifice? Perhaps what we’re doing is making it easier for God to speak to the students whose hearts have been hardened by sin?”

“But why, then,” I reasoned, “would a God of infinite power need us to so flagrantly interfere with the emotions of these students? Surely God can do a fine job of communicating on his own? Moreover, it seems downright counterproductive to put these students in a highly emotional state; after all, how can we trust that what they feel when they’re all worked up is really the presence of God, and not just the feelings they think they ought to be feeling at the time? How do we know we’re opening a channel for God to speak to them, and not just making them extremely vulnerable to suggested thoughts and experiences (which we then graciously provide)?

Anyway, my apologies for that long story. The overall point is this: after seeing how crafted the whole of the Saturday evening experience is at Search, I realized that everything I went through on that fateful night at my first Search two years prior was, in fact, just as artificial. I could no longer trust the revelations I’d had at the time, despite how real they’d felt and how much they’d meant to me. I became jaded. I wondered how much of what I’d been through in my faith life up to that point was formulated the same way.

After that, things continued to crumble. I got embroiled in another unhealthy relationship. My grades fell. I did things that I knew my religion taught against (things that would make a nun blush, if you take my meaning). The final retreat Blair and I planned that year went well, but my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t feel like praying anymore. For months and months I’d been asking God for a sign, for help, for anything. Here I was, living with die-hard Catholics and acting as a spiritual role model for the Newman community, and I was having doubts about God’s existence! I hated what I’d become, and I tried even harder to hang on to the God who seemed to have disappeared from my life.

But like an old picture left in the sun… God faded.

Next time: The exciting conclusion! Stay tuned!