Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Atheistic Faith

Recently, while conversing with a rabbi who is fast becoming a good friend of mine, I was "accused" of being a "man of great faith." The rabbi was of course making an ironic statement that followed our two hour discussion on religion. I advocated for raising children through reason-based ethics, and he, a man who has raised a few very fine children (within religion) told me that I must have a lot of faith if I believe I am going to be able to raise children in this crumbling world, without God.

I appreciated the irony of the statement, but also began to wonder about it's validity. Am I going to be successful in raising godless children to be as ethical and universally-focused as I am? Can reason withstand the roaring waves of emotional complexities that accompany raising children? Obviously, I am not leaning all aspects of child-rearing on cold calculative reasoning. There are no mathematical laws that can help parents raise a youngster. Every child is a vastly different universe sui generis.

However, rationalism in a broader sense, can be a guide. Is not the understanding that every child requires their own unique love and care, a rational discovery? In fact, it is irrational to think otherwise.

Yet without the great Judge in the sky who can see and hear everything, without heaven or hell, how am I to convince my young children to behave before they reach the age of reason? Certainly, even a young child can be frightened into good behavior by a god who is ever-inscribing their good and bad deeds in an eternal rap sheet. Is it possible to raise ethical boys and girls without God, or at the very least, Santa Claus?

The rabbi went further to say that even if a deserter of religion can raise ethical children, it is only because he or she was raised in a religious and therefore, moral environment. It is only a matter of time, the rabbi claimed, before the second or third generations slip into narcissistic indulgence and, in the worst cases, vicious barbarism.

If these observations are in any way accurate (I'm not convinced they are), we must reiterate the question posed above: Can one, without the "policeman in the sky," raise children in such a way that will ensure the continuance of ethical behavior throughout many generations?

Here lies my so-called faith. I do not know whether I can accomplish this feat, yet I am confident enough to try. I may have been raised religious, but I do not believe that religion can take credit for all, of even most, of my ethical behavior. I was raised by religious humanists, who found every Biblical verse they could to bolster the teachings of universal brotherhood, and mankind's responsibility to protect and care for the earths inhabitants. I have met other religiously-raised people who have very shallow characters, and yet others who have used religion to unleash evil unto the world. It then stands that religion is no more than a medium for good people to be inspired towards good, and bad people to strengthen their evil. [As a side note, I once heard a quote from Steven Weinberg which is most befitting to insert here: "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil, that takes religion."]

I would rather therefore, place my faith in myself as a future parent, and mankind as a race. Indeed, both I and humanity at large have committed varying evils that have led the cynical to give up on our species. I am yet young, and therefore still retain the hope that man, given the proper tools, can rise above his base animal nature and create a more refined world. I do not believe that man need religion to escape the bounds of self-indulgence, but simply to be educated in the importance of reason-based ethics and morality. Man can transcend himself if taught the proper perception of reality. We may be products of evolutionary natural selection but we are not slaves to it. Indeed, reason is the very tool needed to free ourselves of the shackles of survival of the fittest, where the strong prey on the weak.We can be compassionate to the sick and distraught; we can care for the widow and orphan; we can build societies based on principles of justice and integrity; and we needn't abandon our reason in the process.

It is with such a spirit that I will attempt to raise my children. A daunting task indeed, but alas, a glorious one.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Good Religion vs. Bad Religion

Atheists are frequently charged with the crime of painting with too broad a brush when it comes to religion. As Islam has held a monopoly on cruelty inspired by religion in the recent past, it is said to be unfair to compare Christianity, Judaism and Islam when discussing the problems with faith. This is certainly a valid point. Everyday on the news we hear about the acts carried out by Muslim fundamentalists against Western civilizations and even other Muslims. ISIS is becoming more of a global threat everyday. It is not being dramatic or apocalyptic to say that a great war lurks in our near future that may spell the end of the world.

Judaism and Christianity have been somewhat benign for a long time now, and even though there are, of course, fundamentalists in each of these religions as well, their rare acts of violence, however vile, scrape only the surface of the evil that has been unleashed on the world in recent years in the name of Allah. It would be irresponsible of us to forget this distinction in our discourse regarding religion.

It therefore, is irrational to place all religious faith or dogmatic obedience on the same scale. Clearly, some sacred texts have evolved, at least somewhat to fit the modern world, where others have not. To put it another way, a way I have heard it from religious moderates, there seems to be "good religion" and "bad religion."

Let us examine these two phrases. What does a "good religion" consist of? Does a "good religion" necessarily fit snugly with a 21st century mindset? Does a "good religion" change whenever the moral zeitgeist does? If the answer to this question is yes, I don't see why we even call such a practice "religion" anymore! Perhaps, it is more fitting to call such a religion, a tradition instead. That is, sacred practices observed fervently, unless it conflicts with the morality of the generation.

Certainly many, if not most, religious people would be repulsed by such a description of their faith. They wish to follow the word of God, not distort the word of God to fit pop culture. This type of religious faith is certainly more respectable, but what then, is a "bad religion?"

Do Islamic fundamentalists go against the word of Allah? Do they corrupt the text in order to live lives of temptation? Perhaps some them do, but others are just following the words emblazoned in the book they believe to be the infallible word of the one God. "Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out from the places they drove you. Idolatry is worse than carnage. (Qu'ran 2:190)" These fundamentalists are following the word of God to the letter. Where the "weak-minded" have modernized and changed the texts to better fit into society, these "pious crusaders" are ridding the world of the evil infidels. Can this be called: "bad religion?" Are they not, in principle, acting the same way believers of other faiths do? Are they not simply going according to the text they believe to be sacred? To act any other way would be irreligious, would it not? It would seem that the only difference between religions is that some texts are more hostile to modern society and others less so.

Of course, it can be said that interpretations of these verses vary, and therefore, other Muslims believe such verses to be time-bound, and no longer relevant. This is, of course, what religions like Judaism have done. It is clear, for example, that most religious Jews do not hearken any longer to such commandments as: "If your brother, the son of your mother, or the son of your father, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is like your own soul will entice you secretly saying: 'Let us go and worship the gods of others'...you shall not accede to him and not hearken to him; your eye shall not take pity on him...Rather, you shall surely kill him; your hand shall be the first against him, and the hand of the entire people afterwards." (Deuteronomy, 13:7-10) For reasons of interpretation, the religious Jewish people have abolished such commandments. One would be hard-pressed to find a case of a Jewish man killing his brother for trying to entice him to Buddhism.

It would seem then, that the real distinction is not between good and bad religions, but rather interpretations that are more compatible with Western culture and interpretations that are more dangerous. How is one to know which interpretation of a given verse to follow? Say, for example, a Jew were to kill his brother for trying to convince him to convert to Buddhism, could he not simply cite this verse and explain that his interpretation varies from the norm? Surely the Jewish people would rise up and condemn such an act, but could they say more than that such an interpretation isn't the popular rabbinical one?

Indeed, once we allow ourselves to believe without needing evidence, we have, in a sense, opened the door for religious extremism. This is a harsh statement to make, and it must be read in the spirit in which it was written. Obviously, I am not claiming that all religions are the same, nor am I stupid enough to think all religions pose an equal threat to the continuance of our species. I am merely saying that faith as a principle, belief which "transcends" evidence, is a dangerous and uncertain path from which the human race should distance itself. We should try our best to expel such dogmas from our minds. We must demand evidence before accepting fantastical claims, or we run the very real risk of cultivating men and women who will do as we did -- that is, accept claims without evidence -- with simply, more adverse interpretations. This is a danger every religion, every faith-based dogma, poses to the world at large. To compare religions is certainly unfair and inaccurate, but to point to their common "thinking error" is perhaps the most important thing we can do. Such "thinking errors" are currently plunging parts of our world into a dark abyss, and making large strides towards complete annihilation of the human race.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meaning in a Meaningless World

Upon leaving religion many people feel a sudden and rather terrifying loss of meaning in their lives. Since almost every religion informs man that he is part (a crucial part) of a divine plan, and that the universe and everything in it was created with him in mind, the very act of breathing for the believer becomes a meaningful one. For the believer, doing a good deed is forever recorded in heaven by an all-seeing Being who is intimately concerned and in love with him. His life is ever-infused with a divine purpose that supersedes this world entirely. Is there any meaning more fulfilling than believing oneself to be an emissary of the one true God?

It is therefore obvious, that someone who ascribed to these beliefs for part of his life will feel a blow to his ego unparalleled when he accepts, however reluctantly, that he is just a creature living a finite life, ever-awaiting the grave which may come at any time. His good deeds seem to lose their grandeur as does the whole of his being. The world begins to look gloomy. He becomes cynical about words like "hope." For a brief time his life may, in his mind, cease to matter.

I experienced these feelings upon the rejection of my childhood faith. I had spent 24 years engulfed in the "reality" of my beliefs, and "knew" that I was destined for greatness. I felt that I was an important part of the divine scheme and would constantly seek to uncover the purpose that I had been fashioned by God to accomplish. I would be lying if I said that it did not cross my mind once or twice that perhaps I was the Messiah. Every action that I carried out, I "knew" was of universal importance. I was mending a world filled with sin, a universe of darkness, and I was helping usher in the new age, the age of redemption.

When I left my faith I was broken. I would take long walks trying to understand life anew. How could the world have no meaning? How could my life have no meaning?

It did not take me too long to discover that it did, in fact, have meaning. Perhaps not the eternal and ultimate meaning I had attributed to my life before, but meaningful my life certainly was. To be there for my loved ones. To give to humanity. To be compassionate and kind. To seek truth relentlessly. To write and teach. To help others with their problems, however, I could. Yes, the meaning in my life was not hard to find once I understood what to look for. Of course, everything listed above can be stripped from me, however unlikely that may be, and therefore, the question arises: Is it worth anything at all?

This question is almost meaningless (pun intended) for it would be difficult to find a person who has no meaning to live for. He may not be aware of the meaning of his existence, as many of us are not, but he cannot say with certainty that his existence is futile.

Does life itself have meaning? Well no, but our subjective meaning should not be effected by this conclusion. In fact, we should realize how important it is for us to find meaning in our lives, for no one will do it for us. We must actively create the meaning in our lives. For some, spending their every waking moment reciting the words of a prayer book is meaningful. For others it is pushing the boundaries of the universe through scientific discovery. For yet others, it is creating something that will outlast them. To find, or rather create meaning, in my opinion, is the key to unlock what, for lack of a better word, can be called: Happiness.

Happiness may be a difficult word to define, as most words describing emotions are, but mankind has been relentlessly seeking it since the beginning of time. If we were to do a poll of people who claimed to be genuinely happy, I would be willing to bet, that the majority of them would quickly be able to define the meaning in their lives. The two are inseparable. I believe the sadness that so permeates many people, is due, at least in part, to a misunderstanding of the linkage between these two concepts. If we are going to be happy, we must have meaning.

Meaning need not be eternal nor of universal importance for it to matter. Subjective, finite meaning may be all we have, but it is more than enough. For the fact that something ends, does not rid it of it's potential meaning. How foolish is man who worries about the grave, whilst life passes him by! Though this is a common human failing which leads inevitably to despair, it can be rectified by simply being aware of life, and the meaning which you have cultivated within it. The pursuit should therefore be not of happiness, but of meaning.

If this is the only life we get, if we will all end up in the grave and be gone forever, should happiness not be the only goal of man? However, as I have presented here, happiness is not to be found without having meaning in one's life. The question of how to find meaning in a otherwise meaningless world deserves an essay of it's own, one I hope to write in the near future. I only wish to present here the importance of understanding that even though we may only live once, your life can have meaning. I also hoped to present the unbreakable connection between both meaning and happiness.

However, fleeting life may be, it can be meaningful, and we can be happy.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Religion Answers the "How" Questions

It is oft said that where science answers the "how" questions, religion answers the "why." Put another way, whereas how the world came to be, may eventually be answered, so to speak, in the laboratory, the question of why the world came to be, is one that is to be answered in a house of worship. Religious moderates will cite this as an attempt to show the equal importance of science and religion, as well as there compatibility

Richard Dawkins in his book "The God Delusion" chastises this way of thinking: 
"It is a tedious cliché (and, unlike many clichés, it isn't even true) that science concerns itself with the how questions, but only theology is equipped to answer why questions. What on Earth is a why question? Not every English sentence beginning with the word 'why' is a legitimate question. Why are unicorns hollow? Some questions simply do not deserve an answer." 
When I first read these words, I remember being swept away by their objective and rational precision. It was true, after all, that some questions are so outlandish that to answer them insults the person who wasted the time. Yet, are the "why" questions religion claims to answer as ridiculous as such questions as: Why are unicorns hollow? Does inquiring into the purpose of existence, seeking the meaning behind the universe constitute a question undeserving of an answer? In a completely rational sense, yes, these questions are as strange and irrelevant as to inquire into the nature of a unicorn's biology. Perhaps, they are unworthy of answering if we are judging questions by their practical applicability

However, as I once heard from Martin S. Jaffee, a recently retired Professor at the University of Washington who spent the majority of his career studying and teaching Judaism and comparative religion, "These questions are important because people are asking them." 

Jaffee was telling me that whether or not these questions are answerable, whether or not the answers religions have provided are true, we must address the fact that man, unlike any other species that we know of, has been asking these questions for centuries. These questions, therefore, are real, and of utmost importance. Yet, we must ask: Can they really be accurately answered?

Dawkins seems to preempt this challenge and closes the paragraph quoted above with: "Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can." This, in my opinion, is a far more accurate objection to religion's "how/why" sentiment. 

Let us, for a moment, accept that perhaps religion is capable of answering the seemingly unanswerable "why"questions of man. Is that really all religion attempts to do? Is the Bible really just a moral guide making no claims as to the nature of the world? 

Upon brief reflection, or rather upon glancing at the very first verse in Genesis, one will discover the fallacy of such a statement. Genesis 1:1 begins with the "fact" that: "In the beginning God created the heavens and earth." Is this not a claim as to the nature of the universe? Whether God exists or not is a fact, perhaps an impossible one to prove in any scientific sense of the word, but it is, or is not, a fact. Whether or not such a Being created the earth and is constantly attentive to it, is yet another fact, or not, about the world. 

The Bible recounts many times that the Divine Hand intervened with the natural course of events. God allegedly caused water to turn to blood, hail to come crashing onto the Egyptians property, and all the Egyptian firstborns to simultaneously fall over dead. Not to mention perhaps the most glamorous of all the miracles, that of the splitting of the sea. Where, according to the Bible, the Israelites marched through the raging sea on dry land. These were but a few miracles of the plethora found in the biblical narrative of the Exodus. Are these not meant to be read as accurate accounts of history? Are we to read these supernatural events as mere metaphors? 

It may be impossible to answer any of the "why" questions without making certain "how" claims, but that does not justify making claims about the universe without evidence. Therefore, if religion truly wants to answer the "why" it may have to either admit it's rejection of science, or be quiet. 

It would seem that up until science destroyed the "scientific" claims made by the Bible, religion was able to claim to know the "how" of the universe as well. Once science advanced to a point able to challenge the origins of the world, as well as it's age, religious moderates were forced (reluctantly in some cases) to resort to religion's comforting values. Though science has answered, or is in hot pursuit of answering the "how" of the entire world, religion will always be able to comfort man's searching soul with the "why" answers. This, religion claims, was always their intention. 

Science of course, will not be able to take away these "powers" from religion, for science does not, nor will it ever, pretend to know the unknowable. As of now however, science has shown that chances are, there isn't a "why" to be worried about. Though this conclusion, if it is indeed true, is uncomfortable and will leave the contemplative rather disappointed, there is some good to be found in it. Mankind can stop worrying about why we are here, and instead focus on the fact that we are, and get to planning what we should do about it.
    
The point is, whether or not religion is comforting to the "why" questions that so plague humanity, we need to face the reality that religion was not meant to simply answer such questions, but attempted at answering the "how" questions as well. Lucky for mankind, science broke through these answers and found them to be what they are: primitive guesses made by men who were collectively more ignorant about the universe than a child in the grade school today. 

That religion was only meant to answer the "why" questions is a thinly veiled attempt to distract from the fact that for centuries they had professed absolute knowledge of the "how" questions, as well. They were effectively, through openminded inquiry, proven to be utterly mistaken. The Bible is an attempt of man to understand the earth (which was thought then to be flat). Today, ancient poorly-educated guesses should be considered for nothing more than an accurate account of how man thought before he knew basically anything about the universe. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Is Religion Child Abuse?

Is religion child abuse? Before I begin, I must note that the question is not: Can religious teachings be used to harm children? Nor is the question: Have religious people, even clergy men, been guilty of cruelty against children? A quick glance at religion's tainted history will reveal that both these latter questions can lamentably be answered in the affirmative. The question I have posed here is: Is teaching the doctrines of religion to children inherently child abuse?

Many out-spoken atheists would posit that the teaching of religion to minors is indeed child abuse. Though this is certainly attention-grabbing, can they really mean what they are saying? Do these fine thinkers truly believe that teaching religious doctrine to children is tantamount to beating them? Since most religious teachings today, however erroneous, seem to focus on the "good parts" of their holy scriptures, do they really equate such teachings to the wide-spread physical, sexual, and psychological abuse against helpless children that contaminates much of our society?  

After reading the horrifying accounts of Dave Pelzer, in his book: "The Child Called 'It'," I have learned to reserve the usage of the term, "child-abuse," to circumstances requiring it. In fact, after reading about the suffering Pelzer endured, I scarcely find "child abuse" an appropriate term. However, certainly to throw this word at people whom you happen to disagree with, is both a misuse of the term and an idiotic comparison. 

What could they mean when they call religious teachings child abuse? Could they mean that if parents rebuke the skepticism of their children, if they refuse them the right to inquire into the nature of their faith on fear of punishment, severe or otherwise, then, that is to be regarded as child abuse? If this is what they mean, then I absolutely agree, and I imagine, many parents both religious and secular would also wholeheartedly agree with such a sentiment. I know this is true of my parents (as I have written here), and most of the religious parents I have met in my life. Therefore, to say that religion is child abuse, is again an unfair exaggeration, if not down right slander. 

Misusing terms like child abuse, Nazi, genocide, or evil, is wrong for it robs the word of its power. When the State of Israel is called out for "committing genocide" against Palestinians, or when they are ironically referred to as Nazis, one who studies the reality objectively will instantly notice the wild misuse of these terms. If language is to mean anything to us, we must use it responsibly, and not hijack words to promote our cause, however important we may feel to be. 

So, is religion child abuse? No. Certainly not the way most religious children in the West are being raised. To refer to the multitude of alleged accounts of child rape by priests, rabbis, and mullahs is, as well, unfair. Insofar as these tales are true -- no doubt some of them are -- they are evil according to all, religious and secular alike. There are yet children in the darker parts of the world whom are abused by their parents, perhaps because of a specific religion, this is, as well abhorrent, and condemned by many. These awful unspeakable acts, however, cannot make us say that all teaching of religion is child abuse.

There are factions in every faith where children are abused by the strict nature of their parents' doctrine. There are places in the world, and even in Western countries, where children are forced to accept the faith of their parents' at the risk of punishment; this is child abuse. Anytime a child is forced to accept a doctrine or belief, be it Christianity or Communism, to name just two examples, we can confidently say, that the child is being stripped of his basic human rights and therefore, is suffering from abuse.

Unless I am mistaken, this is not the commonplace reality however. Most religious children are brought up in homes where they are free to inquire into the truth of their parents' faith, as well as, choose to abandon it. Such people would laugh if someone were to tell them they had been abused as children.

We must now address another accusation against the religious. The concept of hell is predominant in most faiths. Is it child abuse to dissuade a child's bad behavior with fear of eternal suffering? I do no think it to be. As wrong as it may be, to categorize this with beating, raping, and psychologically torturing children, is unfair. This may be bad parenting. It may be a cheap ploy. In the worst case, it may scare the child into serious worry and guilt, but no real harm is happening, if the child is raised in a home that promotes the freedom to question. In most cases, parents who resort to scaring the child with hell-fire, are doing so out of love for the child and a desire for him to remain safe. Again, this is a cheap ploy, and should be admonished, yet it is not child abuse. Should a parent who takes their child to the cancer ward in the hospital to try and scare the child away from smoking be considered an abuser of children?

[It doesn't matter that cancer is an actual result of smoking, and hell a made up result of sins, for the point being made here is that such scare tactics against children's bad behavior, however cheap a ploy it may be, cannot be made out as child abuse.]

However, religious parents should be sure that they "know" their faith to be correct before indoctrinating their children into it. Since in most faiths there are numerous sins to which their children must now refrain from committing, it behooves the parents to research both the tenets of their faith as well as the truth of it. As an example, in some religions, like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the repression of sexual desires can be very damaging to a child. Many religiously-raised adolescents struggle with the natural sexual desires of people their age, and the guilt (brought on by the religious doctrines) that follows any indulging in it. Imagine how hard it is for a 14 year old boy to wrap his head around the fact that every time he thinks of a sin, it's as if he committed it; and if he masturbated, it is as if he has murdered someone. There are other tenets of faith that are equally, if not more horrifying than my example, and religious parents must be very careful before they raise children in them. Or, at the very least, religious parents must be able to explain their faith in such a way as to protect the emotional stability of their child.

In conclusion, religious upbringing generally, should not be regarded as child abuse. However, there are aspects of every faith that can harm children, and therefore, religious parents must do all they can to teach their scriptures in a way that will enlighten and help the child, not subjugate them. All healthy parents, religious and secular, will teach their children what they feel to be the best and most healthy way for them. They will make rules on how much television their children should watch and with whom they should spend their time. At times, parents may make mistakes in the raising of their children. Yet, if all is done out of love for the child, if the child is given an environment in which he or she can discover, question, and ultimately accept or reject the teachings he or she was raised with, chances are such parents will not be guilty of abusing their children. A result, no parent should want, and no human should allow.

[The reader may notice that I left out the topic of circumcision. The reason for this omission is that this topic is very complex and, quite frankly, I have not researched it enough to come to a final opinion. The commandment gives me much discomfort, for it is very bothersome to my moral sensibilities to cause harm, however slight, to any body part without the consent of the person involved. I will return with an essay on circumcision as soon as I have come to a conclusion regarding it.]