Category Archives: Religious belief

Are our societies cult-like?

Given my interest in analyzing cults and how they brainwash people, I suppose it would be natural that I would want to apply that same understanding to society as a whole. After all, our societies are totalizing groups, like cults. Everything we do and think is either a consequence or a reaction to all the socialization and indoctrination we have received. Pledging allegiance to a cult means foregoing allegiance to the society. Does that mean, therefore, that society is just a bigger cult?

We designate certain groups as cults, and other groups as quasi-cults, cultish, or not cults at all, based on their separation from the larger society they inhabit: separation of language, segregation of information, separating friends and families, shifting value systems and allegiances. Therefore, judging any society’s level of cultism is, strictly speaking, impossible, because we have no greater society to compare it to.

However, in another sense, we already do judge societies on the basis of our own. For example, we can say North Korea is a cult because of its political system. We can do this by talking about a section of it, the political system, and comparing it with other political systems. Of course there is a degree of self-indulgence in this. What we’re saying is, “look how much more cult-like North Korea is compared to us.” This does not prove that our societies are not cult-like, merely that one is more cult-like than the other. This evaluation is therefore inherently relative.

While we cannot evaluate societies literally on the same criteria as cults, we can still reason by analogy. Let me list the main criteria for identifying cults:

1. Milieu Control. This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

2. Mystical Manipulation. There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes.

3. Demand for Purity. The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection. The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here.

4. Confession. Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group. There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders.

5. Sacred Science. The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute. Truth is not to be found outside the group. The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism.

6. Loading the Language. The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand. This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking.

7. Doctrine over person. Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group.

8. Dispensing of existence. The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not. This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology. If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the members. Thus, the outside world loses all credibility. In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also. (Lifton, 1989)

Again, I am saying we need to reason by analogy, not literally. Society is not a group with a clear and definite structure, a charismatic leader, and a set of doctrines that are clearly laid out to the initiate. Society encompasses vast and numerous groups which interact in complex and often vague ways, many leaders with various qualities, and doctrines which are either “common sense,” technical knowledge, historical or social myths, religious doctrines which vary wildly from group to group, scientific principles, beliefs disguised as science, positions that are part of political worldviews, and so on. This list narrows down quite a bit if we give a more precise definition of the word “doctrine.”

What is a society formally delimited by? It is delimited by its border (a society exists within a country or territory), by its government (monopoly of control over a country or territory), by its economy and currency (who you can trade with, who you can work with), and more vaguely by its culture (the way things are done). There are, of course, other structures that are extremely important within a society (such as the family structure or the gender hierarchy), but these are the particular structures that separate societies from each other.

What are the ideas and beliefs that separate societies? Well, obviously, allegiance to a country, a government, an economy, and a culture. But there are also more general principles, such as us versus them (or more generally, manichean thinking), racism, neo-liberalism (which sets economies against each other), war and a history of war, religious hatred, and so on.

Based on this reasoning, what can we use an analogy to these criteria?

Milieu Control: Information is controlled within society by the capitalist media, and particularly by the capitalist media’s dependence on the government’s favor for access to important people and information. While this has been especially noted in the case of the United States (e.g. see Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent), people in all societies are artificially limited in their access to information and communication by the constraints of capitalism. Only certain groups are allowed to use the mass media, and only in certain ways. The Internet, of course, represents a significant attack against those limitations (in the same way that the Internet has been very bad for cults in general).

Mystical Manipulation: Because it is impossible to manipulate the direct experiences of the people of an entire society, this is not a possible means of control. What can be manipulated is access to information and how to interpret that information, the former which I’ve already covered.

Demand for Purity: Most of the ideas and beliefs I listed above are examples of black and white thinking, and we are constantly exhorted to conform to them (be on the “right” side). We are also encouraged, through the belief in positive thinking, to purify our minds. There is no general idea of “perfection” in our societies, only success, so that doesn’t really apply here.

Confession: Again, because of the size of any society, there is no way for this to be a working principle. But the principle of confession applies to various areas of society, including parenting (confessing your disobedience), justice (confessing your crimes), and religion (confessing your sins).

Sacred Science: This principle is taken literally by cultural relativists (culture is always right), authoritarians and right-wingers (power is always right), and others. But as a more general analogy, the belief in one’s society as the “good” side, and in your culture as the “right” culture, is beyond questioning or doubt (and anyone who questions them is considered a traitor, a secret “them”). We do not consider our leaders infallible, but we do consider them to be representatives of the society, and therefore people who are necessarily on the “good” side.

Loading the Language: The way words are manipulated, in politics for example, is well understood. We use plenty of thought-terminating cliches, even in normal language.

Doctrine over person: All groups affirm the superiority of their agreed-upon beliefs against the personal disagreements of their members. Any group that did not do this would not remain a group for long. Societies are no different. Experiences which lead people to deny some socially mandated belief (e.g. the superiority of “our” way of life compared to others) are denied or reinterpreted.

This is an extremely cursory examination of the issue, and I am not claiming otherwise. And again, I am not literally saying societies are cults (because such an evaluation is impossible). What I am saying is that by reasoning in analogies we can see ways in which societies sometimes operate in a similar manner to cults.

This is not to say that society is evil. Actually not all cults are evil, and some are rather benign (although they tend to be the exception rather than the rule). The reason why we are against cults is because they are the perfect sort of environment for a leader to brainwash people. And we don’t like brainwashing because it negates the native value system of the individual in favor of some imposed value system, a value system which benefits someone who is not the individual holding it.

Well, of course we have that in our societies also, just not in the same extreme form. Take religious brainwashing, for instance. It is a well known phenomenon that people who deconvert from a religion generally and suddenly drop all the other positions that came along with it (like political positions or ethical positions). This is because most people are indoctrinated as children into a religion, which includes the value system imposed by that religion on the believer. That value system overrides the native value system of the individual. Once they leave the religion, they also drop that imposed value system. The same thing is true of people who leave cults. Other ideologies, like political ideologies, philosophical ideologies, child-raising ideologies, racist or sexist ideologies, and so on, can warp people’s value system to some larger or smaller extent, making certain things acceptable which otherwise would not be, and making certain things unacceptable when natively the person would have nothing against it.

With brainwashing and indoctrination in general comes its opposite mechanism, cognitive dissonance. If you don’t know what that is, cognitive dissonance is the mental tension generated by acquiring a belief which contradicts one of our other held beliefs. For example, if you believe that your friend Peter is an upstanding individual who would do no wrong, and then you observe him punching a person you believe is innocent, you would experience cognitive dissonance because you both believe that Peter is an upstanding individual and that Peter punched an innocent person, which is a contradiction. If you want to no longer experience the discomfort, you would have to resolve the contradiction by rejecting one of the two beliefs. People who change their minds about something they used to believe strongly usually do so because of cognitive dissonance.

In cults, people often experience cognitive dissonance by observing things happening within the group that contradicts what they were told about the group (e.g. “the group is a paragon of virtue” vs “the group kicked Peter out even though he did something praiseworthy”). Likewise, we experience plenty of cognitive dissonance between commonly accepted beliefs in our societies and what we observe or read about. Belief in the rightness of the country or government may be challenged by what the government actually does or has done in the past. Belief in the inferiority of certain classes or races may be challenged by meeting and living with such people. Religious and political beliefs may be challenged by a wide variety of events, including reading about scientific or empirical counter-evidence, being unable to satisfactorily answer contrary arguments, and so on.

What does it mean for something to be possible?

At first glance, the question in the title seems like a no-brainer. When we say an event is possible, we’re saying that it could happen. It is possible for me to meet an old friend tomorrow, because it could happen (note that it is possible from my point of view regardless of whether it will actually happen tomorrow). It is not possible that the Earth will fall into the Sun tomorrow, because that can’t happen according to the laws of physics.

So what are we talking about when we talk about the existence of something being possible or not? Is it possible for God to exist? Is it possible for there to be a teacup on the dark side of the Moon? Is it possible for ghosts to exist? In order to make such pronouncements, we must have evidence of what can exist. We know what can or cannot exist based on what we know of nature, history, the laws of nature, and so on. So for example, minds are predicated upon working brains, therefore it is not possible for ghosts to exist.

People who do believe in ghosts may very well reply that it is possible for ghosts to exist because some people have seen them. No one is denying that people see something that they identify as ghosts, but this does not prove that disembodied minds or spirits can exist. The identification is done with the concept of ghosts already in our minds, and all we’re doing is associating assorted phenomena with the concept of ghosts. We know that identification changes depending on prevalent beliefs: we used to believe that sleep paralysis was the result of demons, and now we associate them with aliens. So this is a cultural construct, not a fact.

What I am talking about is actual evidence. We have no actual evidence that ghosts could exist, because we have no evidence that there can be such a thing as a disembodied mind (let alone a disembodied mind that can still do bodily things like talk or make a room colder). Can you conceive of a ghost? Sure. In fact, it’s quite an ordinary thing for us to conceive of ghosts. But that doesn’t mean ghosts could actually exist.

And this is the big problem that I see with Christian apologetics: they can’t understand that being able to conceive of something does not necessarily mean it is possible for that thing to exist. Christian belief is all imagination-based: no one’s ever actually seen a god or a soul, and in order to make sense of those things we have to imagine them. This leads believers to blur the line between imagination and reality. If God is real (according to their worldview) and can only be apprehended through the imagination, then the imagination becomes, at some level, evidence of the reality of something.

We construct our beliefs, in a large part, from narratives. Older religions exploit this quite heavily, by presenting the believer with all sorts of stories about the creation of the universe, the early history of humankind, gods and demons traipsing around and manipulating humans, human heroes or demigods, and so on. These stories all have attributes of myths and fables, and lack any sort of realism, but most believers accept them as being at least partially real.

This is in contrast with other areas which are also populated with narratives. Take politics, for example. While the domain of politics is full of false beliefs and logical fallacies, there are still measurable aspects to the things that we have beliefs about, and therefore those beliefs can be verified (whether the believers care or not is another matter). By and large, people agree with what is being observed, they disagree on how to interpret it, and I would say that’s in a large part due to religion and prejudice, not for any rational reason. We can observe people and institutions, we can’t observe gods and demons.

We see this confusion in many areas of Christian apologetics. For example, they are always very insistent to point out that “Creationism is a theory, just like evolution.” The main issue with that sort of pronouncement is that they don’t understand the word “theory.” A theory is an explanation for the observed data. Evolution is a theory because it explains the data, and Creationism does not.

But even if we interpret the statement to mean that Creationism is a hypothesis (which seems to be what they really mean), well, that implies that Creationism is possible. Of course this is predicated on the belief that God is possible. But it’s also predicated on the belief that God creating all the life on Earth ex nihilo is possible, and we know of no mechanism that can explain such a process. The possibility of Creation has never been demonstrated, it has only been assumed, and we have no reason to assume that it might be true.

The most important thing we must have in order to ground a belief in reality is material evidence. Supernatural entities either do not interact with reality, in which case no evidence could ever be found and we must reject their possibility out of hand, or they do interact with reality, in which case we need to demand to know how those interactions are possible. Belief in the soul, for example, begs the question of how a soul, which is supernatural, could interact with a material body. If we cannot even begin to explain how such communication could take place, then we cannot deem souls possible, no matter how much we conceive of them.

“Do you hope you’re wrong?”

Jewish religious writer Dennis Prager is interested in “understand[ing] the atheist as a person and as a thinker.” Because of this, he wants to ask us two questions:

1. Do you hope you are right or wrong?
2. Do you ever doubt your atheism?

He has some… weird opinions about what these questions imply. Here is his analysis of question 1:

I respect atheists who answer that they hope they are wrong. It tells me that they understand the terrible consequences of atheism: that all existence is random; that there is no ultimate meaning to life; that there is no objective morality — right and wrong are subjective personal or societal constructs; that when we die, there is nothing but eternal oblivion, meaning, among other things, that one is never reconnected with any loved ones; and there is no ultimate justice in the universe — murderers, torturers and their victims have identical fates: nothing.

Most of that is just plain wrong. Atheism in itself does not imply that existence is random, that there is no ultimate meaning to life, no objective morality, or that there’s nothing after death. Prager is confusing the atheistic culture, which is areligious and pro-science, with atheism, which is just a lack of belief in gods. You can lack belief in gods and belong to some denominations of Buddhism, Hinduism, Satanism, be a Subgenius, or be a follower of certain secular cults, which all do impart an ultimate meaning to live, an objective morality, and so on. So this is simply sloppy reasoning.

All that being an atheist implies is that any conclusion based on the existence of God is incorrect. This does imply no divine creation, no divine judgment, and no divinely appointed afterlife. However, I don’t see this as a “terrible consequence of atheism.” First of all, it’s not a consequence of atheism: the fact that I don’t believe in a god does not cause the non-existence of an afterlife. The only consequences of atheism are changes to the person who lacks belief, and the people who care about that person’s belief or lack thereof (such as religious family or clergy).

Our thoughts do not cause external things to exist or not exist. To say otherwise is magical thinking. There already is no ultimate justice and no afterlife. The number of atheists in the world, no matter how small or large it is, does not change that.

That being said, I personally do agree that there is no meaning to life, that there is no afterlife, and no ultimate justice (I have no idea what “existence is random” is supposed to mean, and it seems meaningless to me). Do I wish I was wrong about those things? No, because a god would need to exist for these things to exist. The idea of a supreme dictator which created all the evils in the world and who is the supreme arbiter of morality is a horrific one. Such a profoundly evil being is not worthy of admiration, let alone worship, and it is so unreliable that it makes the supposed upsides questionable: what kind of ultimate justice or afterlife would such an immoral being devise, and do we really want it? I sure as Hell don’t (pun intended).

Anyone who would want all those things has either not considered the consequences of atheism or has what seems like an emotionally detached outlook on life. A person who doesn’t want there to be ultimate meaning to existence, or good and evil to have an objective reality, or to be reunited with loved ones, or the bad punished and the good rewarded has a rather cold soul.

I know what being a cold person means, but I don’t know much about cold souls. Either way, I can’t blame anyone who wants there to be objective morality, but there already is, so that’s not a problem. As for ultimate meaning, an afterlife, or ultimate justice, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone who doesn’t want any of those things. I also don’t blame people who do want those things, especially if they are coming off of religious indoctrination.

Within the Christian or Jewish worldview, for example, these things are taught as being extremely good, but they are also taught as extremely simplified concepts and with the (false) belief that God is infinitely good. Ultimate justice is not so attractive when you consider that the judge also created a world with profound evils. The afterlife is not so attractive when you consider the length of eternity and who you get to spend it with. Ultimate meaning is not so attractive when you consider that it means that every life can be judged on its basis, and could be found wanting.

Someone who rejects these things, in my opinion, is not a “cold soul,” but rather a realistic person who’s able to see through the ultra-simplifications of the religious believer.

That’s why I suspect atheists who think that way have not fully thought through their atheism. This is especially so for those who allege that their atheism is primarily because of their conclusion that there is too much unjust human suffering for there to be a God. If that is what has led you to your atheism, how could you possibly not hope there is a God? Precisely because you are so disturbed by the amount of suffering in the world, wouldn’t you want a just God to exist?

This is a nonsensical argument, and I don’t understand why he thinks it makes any sense. Why would I hope that all the suffering in the world was caused by a god which has control over mankind? That would make things much, much worse, in the same way that human hierarchies, and the power they enable some people to wield, magnify and concentrate the evil qualities of humans.

The formulation here invites another question: what does it mean for a god who creates evil to be a “just God”? Where is the justice in this world? God didn’t create justice, it is apparent nowhere in his creation. It can only be created by human beings and other beings who have evolved as social animals. God did not evolve, and therefore has no justice in its heart.

As for question 2:

…I never met a believer who hadn’t at some point had doubts about God. When experiencing, seeing or reading about terrible human suffering, all of us who believe in God have on occasion doubted our faith. So, I asked the atheists, how is it that when you see a baby born or a spectacular sunset, or hear a Mozart symphony, or read about the infinite complexity of the human brain — none of these has ever prompted you to wonder whether there really might be a God?

This is such an old argument that it has to make you smile that a religionist seriously believes we’ve never heard such a thing before. The emotions a person gets when they listen to music, grasp something extremely complex, or see a childbirth, are strong emotions, but emotions, like beliefs, do not cause any external thing (like a god) to exist. The fact that the feelings a religious believer like Prager gets when he goes to temple and when he listens to classical music are similar does not mean that the two objects are similar as well. A sunset is nothing like a piece of music, and a piece of music is nothing like a human brain. The similarity of feelings tells us something about us, about the way our brains process stimuli, but nothing about the objects themselves.

I have no doubts about my atheism, because atheism is not an ideological position. I have doubts about actual positions that I hold, sure. It’s necessary to keep watch for possible errors in your beliefs, if you want to keep being rational. But what does it mean to doubt a lack of belief? It is a fact that I lack a belief in gods. There is nothing to doubt about that. The very idea of this is nonsensical and proves that Praeger doesn’t have the experience of communicating with atheists that he claims to have, because I think an atheist would have pointed that flaw out pretty quickly.

Now, I do also believe that there are no gods, and that is an ideological position. I don’t really doubt that, either, because gods are mythical creatures and that’s the extent of the evidence we have. I assume that Praeger does not believe in, say, leprechauns or Santa Claus, based on them being mythical. Does Praeger doubt his position that leprechauns do not exist? Does Praeger experience doubts on the issue of whether Santa Claus exists?

It is not surprising that people who believe in God experience doubts. Their belief is so irrational, so immoral, so inhumane, so disconnected from reality, that I would be surprised if someone believed in such a thing and never doubted the validity of their belief. I don’t recommend believing in things that are insane. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with having doubts, but this method has limits. Doubting everything all the time would just leave us paralyzed with indecision and confusion. I am willing to bet that Praeger, like all of us, is selective in his doubting abilities. So there really is no issue here.

The fundamental problem with Christianity.

There are a LOT of things wrong with Christianity as a religion. Its history, its holy book, the kind of person it molds you to become, the fact that it’s still strongly socialized in many children, the political dogmas it has sprouted in the Western world, and so on. It is important to talk about all of these things.

However, none of these things are necessarily fundamental to the religion. All ideologies or worldviews have a core, a set of fundamental premises which must be true in order for that ideology or worldview to make sense. In some cases, these premises are explicitly stated, and in other cases, you have to infer them. Even if they are explicitly stated, you must still verify their fundamental nature: sometimes a group will have a strong incentive to lie about its fundamental premises (for example, cult idelogies), and sometimes followers who state core premises may simply be mistaken (for example, the people who try to reduce religion to love or peace, when these things have little to do with the core of religious worldviews).

Buddhism is one example of a religion which has explicitly and clearly stated its core premises: the Four Noble Truths. If you believe that the Four Noble Truths are invalid in some substantial way, then you couldn’t be a consistent Buddhist, because everything is (in theory, anyway) derived from them or supported by them. You may believe in the Four Noble Truths and not be a Buddhist. You may also not believe in the Four Noble Truths and claim to be a Buddhist, although you would be dishonest in doing so. If the Four Noble Truths are true, this does not thereby prove that all of Buddhism is true. But if the Four Noble Truths are false, then this definitely would prove that Buddhism is invalid as a worldview (this, of course, does not imply that every single part of Buddhism must be invalid).

What are the fundamental premises of Christianity? There is no explicit list of such premises. However, we know how a Christian is defined by Christians: a person who believes in Jesus as their savior. What premises does this imply?

1. There is a god that created the universe.
2. This god sent its son, Jesus, to be sacrificed in order to make our salvation possible.
3. We must worship this god and its son as the way to salvation.

I have problems with premises 1 and 3, but these problems are frequently discussed in arguments and debates. What is seldom discussion are the implications of premise 2. This process is called atonement, and there are many opinions about what it really means, many disagreements, even though they are all supposedly based on the Bible. No surprises there, as Christians agree on very little, while spending a lot of ink (or electrons) quoting Bible verses for their side. But the proposition that no one disagrees about is that Jesus was sent by God to be sacrificed in order to make our salvation possible. How this actually works in relation to God, humans, and Jesus, who’s forgiving who and why, is of no further relevance and only serves to keep theologians employed.

That, I contend, is the most evil principle ever proposed by any religion. Not because of its consequences (telling people to kill heretics, for example, would bring about a great deal more destruction), but because it represents a complete negation of justice in the purest form ever devised. Nothing else that I know comes close to it.

If justice means anything, it is the assignment of responsibility for actions, and the rational and just evaluation of a person based on that responsibility. You are responsible for events in the world based on the actions you commit, and you are responsible for that part of events which you caused by your actions. To give just one simple example, if you run a pedestrian over, and they die later of their wounds, you are responsible for the death to the extent of the medical consequences of you running them over.

The principle of atonement is the exact opposite of justice, in that it posits that the sacrifice of one person atones for other people’s responsibility. This is the equivalent of, in our example, killing the judge’s child in order to atone for running the pedestrian over. It is a principle which, if implemented to any degree, would lead to nothing but pure evil. It is a principle which runs contrary to all notions of fairness and empathy that are inborn in the human organism, notions which Christians profess were crafted by God, but which contradict this unjust principle.

Christians generally act as if convincing atheists of principle 1 is sufficient to turn them into Christians. In practice, this may be so, but logically it cannot be so. One can accept principle 1 and still reject principles 2 and 3. And in my opinion, anyone who is an ethical person to any degree must reject principles 2 and 3, otherwise they are being inconsistent. People who claim to have been atheists and having been converted by some argument or other must either be evil or ignorant of what they converted to. The latter is most likely. Unfortunately, too many debates and arguments about Christianity revolve solely around whether God exists, creating the illusion that accepting the existence of God must mean accepting Christianity as a worldview.

In order to prove that we should adopt the Christian worldview, Christians must demonstrate, not only the existence of God (an impossible task, as almost 2000 years of apologetics has demonstrated), but also:

* that delegating responsibility of one person’s actions upon another person, and punishing that other person, is just;
* that worshipping a being which created evil, and brought about this evil sacrifice, is a good thing.

These two other hurdles do not follow from the first. Even if one could prove that God exists, this would not prove that justice is exactly the opposite of what it is, or that one should worship such a being in view of all the evils of the world. If God exists, but is pure evil, then the correct, sane response would be to opposite it with all our energies, not worship it. To say otherwise is nothing more than might makes right rhetoric.

Of course, Christians already have a strong incentive in worshipping God: that’s what their in-group does. They also have a strong incentive to accept the injustice of the Jesus narrative: they believe that they benefit from it, by being saved. Of course they are incorrect about the latter, since God does not exist and therefore there is no salvation to be found in Christianity. But even if God did exist, it would still be an irrational proposition: why should anyone trust an evil god about its claims of salvation? I suppose we could call this Chamberlaining (in reference to Neville Chamberlain trying to appease Hitler).

The basic fact is that, if God exists, then all bets are off. This is exactly the flaw that they project upon atheists (“If god does not exist, everything is permitted”). It is Christians who believe that salvation delivers us from sin, even the sins they commit during this life. If Christianity is true, then everything is permitted. Christians try to get around this by saying that anyone who loves God will obey God, but that makes no sense. We don’t obey people because we love them. We obey people because we fear them. And that is what Christianity is really about: fear, fear of sin, fear of impurity, fear of “the world,” fear of disapproval from one’s fellows, fear of being “unsaved,” fear of Hell.

The denial of justice at its most basic level opens the door to treat God as a moral absolute. If there is no justice, then you can’t object to God’s orders being automatically good. You can no longer object to genocide, mass enslavement, mass rape, familial murder, cold-blooded executions. And that’s the corruption of the human sense of morality that Christianity does.

Of course, Christians believe that they are moral people. No one seriously believes (apart from some mentally disturbed individuals) that they are evil people. But Christians are stealing the concept of justice from secular worldviews. Which brings me to another popular apologetics projection, especially on the Internet: presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalists propose that secular people “borrow” a number of concepts from the Christian worldview, that logic, morality and the uniformity of nature can only make sense if God exists.

But this is exactly backwards. It is the Christians who have no grounds for logic, morality and the uniformity of nature. There is no logic, morality, or uniformity of nature possible if God exists, because everything goes if God exists. God could make it so that logic no longer applies, that something immoral becomes moral (like genocide), and miracles are by their very definition a break in the uniformity of nature. Christians only believe in justice because they borrow it from secular worldview, because there is no such thing in Christian doctrines. Christian doctrines give us no objective standards about what makes an action good or evil, only God’s will, which is a subjective construct. If genocide can be both right and wrong within the same worldview, then it is absolutely useless.

Feelings are not a good basis for believing things.

What is people’s relation to the truth? I would say that most people are not insanely preoccupied by ideologies, and therefore do not think about such trivial topics. To them, “the truth” can mean a lot of things, even contradictory things. People who care about what’s true and what’s not see it quite differently. To them, there is a core issue at stake: how do we know what’s true? Knowing this, we can then reject inadequate methods. The hardest challenge, then, is to remain consistent and honest.

Is it really that important to know how to find the truth? Well, I think it may be mildly useful to divide truth into categories here. For instance, there are truths that are widely known and do not require any special ability to reason. Most of our practical, day-to-day truths are in this category. There are also truths that populate the technical and scientific fields. While these truths may be under fire depending on prevalent ideologies, all that matters is that those training to take the mantle of the discipline in question understand and uphold them.

Note that I am not saying that all propositions widely believed in these categories are automatically truths. There are plenty of propositions that are widely known, and propositions that are technical in nature, which are not truths. I am speaking here only of the truths (that is to say, of propositions acquired rationally).

And then there are abstract, non-technical truths. These truths are often just as crucial to human existence and human societies, but they are not widely agreed-upon. They tend to be of a philosophical nature, simply because “philosophy” is, generally speaking, the rubric under which we stuff everything that’s abstract but not scientific. Things like epistemology (how to know), morality (the standards upon which an individual’s actions should be evaluated), ethics (how the rules of society and its institutions should be constructed), politics (the study of power, its distribution, and its application), and the origins of human thought and behavior, are included under this label. Religion is another vast area of abstract, non-technical truths (unless you delve into the mechanics of specific doctrines in an inter-subjective manner, that is to say, assuming the doctrines are true, in which case they can become quite technical).

The first two categories are generally not problematic. We learn day-to-day truths through growing up and observing adults or being taught by them. We learn technical truths when we learn a trade or a field of study. We learn how to groom ourselves from our parents, and we learn algebra from our teachers and school books. While they may be prone to errors (especially in family structures and school systems, which have powerful intellectual distorting effects), neither of these methods are particularly complicated.

Abstract, non-technical truths are another thing entirely, because they are highly partisan and therefore difficult to consider dispassionately. Take religion, for example. Most of us are indoctrinated into following one religion or the other. The question of whether God exists, or whether God is a moral standard, is not merely an issue of fact but also a worldview issue: a person may be unwilling to look at a fact, or any fact, related to this question because doing so would put their worldview into question. Questioning one’s worldview creates mental insecurity and can be painful, and we seek to avoid pain (unless doing so creates the risk of more pain down the line).

This is not, by the way, an issue of “rational” versus “irrational,” or “reason” versus “faith.” It is perfectly rational, if you want to use that word, to seek to avoid pain. Actually, you’d probably call someone a fool or a masochist if they did otherwise. People only deconvert when the cognitive dissonance they are experiencing makes continuing to believe more painful than the alternatives. Again, it is a basic moral imperative that we seek to avoid pain, so this is not too surprising.

It is these abstract, non-technical truths that concern me on this blog, and which also concern a great number of people in some fashion. It seems humans have a thirst for universal, absolute truths about the human condition. Given that fact, how best can we arrive at any sort of truth within this area?

Well, I think that you have to maintain a strict separation between what you know to be true, on the one hand, and what you feel is true, what you want to be true, or what fits your pre-existing worldview, on the other hand. In general, any personal criteria for belief are unlikely to be valid, because it is very unlikely that universal, abstract truths have anything to do with your feelings or desires. The things which have to do with our feelings and desires are usually either personal or inter-personal. You may care about what you desire, but the laws of reality don’t.

Now, there are some people who think that subjective reasons for belief are valid because, after all, we are dealing with humans, and humans are moved by their feelings and desires. What they fail to realize is that there are two different things to talk about here: the thing being analyzed and our truths about the thing being analyzed.

This is a complicated point, so let me use a pretty clear-cut example, that of homeopathy. Homeopathy is clearly absolute, laughable nonsense, but there are enough people who believe in it to sustain a flourishing worldwide industry worth billions and billions of dollars. Most people who believe in some form of alternative medicine do so on the basis of their own subjective evaluation (“it worked for me!”) or on the basis of other people’s subjective evaluations. I acknowledge that this is the case. However, that does not mean that I must accept those evaluations as true, only that the other person believes they are true.

The fact that health is influenced by subjective factors does not mean that my evaluation of that fact itself must be subjective. My belief that “health is influenced by subjective factors” is based on scientific studies about the placebo effect, prayer, meditation, and other such methods. These methods take effect in the body in ways that we can analyze scientifically, without ever appealing to the subjective domain.

I hope this illustrates my point well enough. As a general rule, we must analyze subjective effects on material systems using our observations of those material systems, not with subjective evidence. Or more simply: what we know to be true must be separated from what we feel is true or what we want to be true. The fact that the material systems we are analyzing are human-run systems does not change that fact.

For example, a few years ago I wrote a great deal about theories of price, comparing STV (subjective theory of value, generally upheld by ancaps) and LTV (labor theory of value). To simplify, the STV holds that price of a product is whatever people agree upon as the worth of the product. This is pure illogic. But they arrive at this conclusion by observing that everyone values products at different levels, and that people buy or do not buy products based on how much they desire them. In short, the evidence is entirely subjective. But we know that’s not how prices work.

Even if that was how prices worked, that would not therefore mean that we should analyze prices subjectively, for desires still come from somewhere and that must be analyzed. You see a lot of that fallacy in pseudo-feminist analysis, where desire is held as primary and therefore outside of analysis. But desire cannot be primary, as our desires are constructed by the sort of society we live in and the context we personally live in. All you’ve done is drawn an arbitrary line and said “this far and no further, shall you look.” But this is likely to convince only the incurious or people whose worldview would be harmed by looking.

This brings me to the last point, which is that we should strictly separate what we know to be true and what fits our worldview. Now, to a certain extent it is impossible to follow this principle becaue of our cognitive biases, but this should not stop us from trying to correct this state of affairs as much as possible.

First, we must acknowledge that the ideologies we believe in all have tensions and contradictions. This is true of the most absurd ideologies and the most reasonable ideologies, the main difference being that the tensions and contradictions in the former are clearly visible to anyone who thinks about it for more than a minuite, while the tensions and contradictions in the latter are less obvious and require more effort to see. No matter what you believe, it is important that you seek out those tensions and contradictions, and try to resolve them. This is a good exercise because it forces you to look at your system of thought from outside of it, and it stimulates change and growth.

Second, we must read the best counter-arguments we can find, the most credible opponents, and try to answer them. I say “the best,” because there’s obviously a lot of nonsense objections to all sorts of things. For instance, an antinatalist shouldn’t waste his time answering a hundred variants of “why don’t you just kill yourself?”, and I wouldn’t expect a feminist to waste her time answering “you must be really ugly and incapable of getting a man.” We should go for arguments which are at least sophisticated. In some cases this is very difficult. Finding sophisticated objections to anti-childism is impossible because, as far as I know, they simply do not exist. Likewise for the pro-abortion position. In other cases, like atheism or socialism, finding sophisticated objections is not too difficult (but still harder than finding stupid objections, which are legion in any case).

The spiritual quest of the atheist, in six questions.

A Chick Tract example of the fundamentalist fascination with nihilism.

Atheism, because it refuses to believe in gods, is necessarily a rejection of the religious order, which claims to be based on the will of the gods. While most Christians recognize this as an attack against traditional beliefs and values, and treat it as a spiritual war, a few are clear-headed enough to recognize that most secular people are not engaged in spiritual war against Christianity and actually try to engage “the world” instead of attacking it.

One such example is Brian McLaren in his book Finding Faith: A Self-Discovery Guide for your Spiritual Quest, which is an attempt to adapt Christian faith to our postmodern age. While such attempts are silly, because Christianity is a primitive, corrupt, fear-based religion at its core, it does demonstrate the one good thing that Christians are able to do: cut to the fundamentals of why we believe what we believe.

McLaren, in suitable postmodern fashion, frames faith as a spiritual quest, a profoundly individualistic and pragmatic endeavor, in order to appeal to “millennials” and other hip young people. In the chapter “Can I Believe in Atheism,” he asks six questions to try to disprove atheism as an alternative to spirituality. These questions are garbed in academic philosophical terms in order to sound sophisticated, but ultimately they are no different from the “gotcha” questions given to us by mainstream Christians. Still, I think that their reformulation brings up some interesting points to discuss.

1. If there is no God, “the big questions” remain unanswered, so how do we answer the following questions: Why is there something rather than nothing? This question was asked by Aristotle and Leibniz alike – albeit with differing answers. But it is an historic concern.

I think the question “why is there something rather than nothing” is a linguistic trick, nothing more. “Nothing” is an abstraction, and “something” designates actual things, so they cannot be compared at all. It’s as silly as trying to compare apples with square-circles. Furthermore, we have no idea what it means for there to “be nothing.” No matter what we point at, no matter what state we experience, it’s “something.”

Why is there conscious, intelligent life on this planet…

This question is answered by the theory of evolution. This is not a possibility for a lot of Christians, who reject science except when it fits their agenda. Furthermore, Christianity fails to answer the question altogether, since “God did it” is not an answer. “God” is a label we put on questions to which we do not have the answers: as the area of our knowledge increases, the label “God” gets progressively pushed back. To say “God did it” is merely a roundabout way of saying “we don’t actually know, but I’m pretty sure my religion is the only right framework to think about the issue anyway.”

…and is there any meaning to this life? If there is meaning, what kind of meaning and how is it found? Does human history lead anywhere, or is it all in vain since death is merely the end? How do you come to understand good and evil, right and wrong without a transcendent signifier?

I put all these questions together because they highlight something that is interesting to me. I think many Christians, especially those who think about their faith a great deal, have a sick fascination with, and toy with, the idea that there is no innate meaning. Christianity deals in absolute meaning generated by a universal, abstract Creator. Like conspiracy theorists, they cannot help but believe that everything in the universe has a reason and a purpose, and therefore everything that exists has a clear innate and absolute meaning. The idea that there might not be any innate meaning frightens them, because it strips their worldview of any potency, but at the same time they recognize the dizzying mental freedom that this idea entails. They are obsessed about this idea and it has a dark allure to them, a little bit like a housewife reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

Christians often make claims like “without God, everything is permitted” and “if I was not a Christian, I would become a murderer.” Taken literally, these statements are psychotic. But I think we should understand them as a fear of the mental freedom entailed by rejecting Christian absolutism. Like a furtive reader of dark literature, the Christian does not want to know about the average non-Christian or even bad non-Christians: he wants to fantasize about the Stalins and the Hitlers (and McLaren does get into his dark fantasies about non-Christian dictators in question 3).

Meaning is the product of a mind. This does not necessarily imply that one must create something in order to give it meaning: one may give meaning to things that already exist (like how Christians superpose their absolute meanings over things that already exist). As such, the question “is there meaning to this life” can mean two things:

1. What meaning can people give to life? A lot of different meanings, as it turns out.
2. Is there any innate meaning to life? Even if a god existed, there could not be; and if there could be, it would be unknowable to humans anyway.

To explain point 2, think of a text written in English. This text has definite meaning, which can be understood by anyone who reads it and understands English well enough. Is this its “innate meaning”? To someone who doesn’t understand English, the meaning may be inferred depending on where the text was found, or it may be assumed based on words that look similar to their language. To someone living a thousand years from now, the text may be regarded as entirely meaningless. Which meaning is the “innate meaning”? One may argue that our understanding of the meaning “improves” with our understanding of the language, but that’s precisely the issue: it cannot be “innate” if it depends crucially on our own knowledge.

Furthermore, the “understanding helps decipher the innate meaning of a text” is disproven by the Bible. In this case, we have billions of people throughout history who have had the highest incentive to understand it completely, some of whom had deep knowledge of its original languages, and yet there are still deep disagreements between Bible-believing Christians on what any passage may mean. If we start from the premise that the Bible was inspired by God, and that therefore we do not, and cannot, understand the mind behind it, then looking for “innate meaning” becomes strictly impossible. And finally, the Bible being the product of a mind means that its “absolute meaning,” as attributed by God, is actually subjective, since it is dependent on a mind for its very existence.

A Christian would probably say that this is a very postmodernist approach to the question. But this book is supposed to be a postmodernist approach to Christianity, anyhow, so there is hardly room to complain here.

I do want to come back to the issue of right and wrong, since that’s a different issue from that of meaning. Christians tend to lump them together because God’s absolute meaning carries with it moral absolutism as well, God being perfectly good (whatever that means), therefore whatever God approves of is right and whatever God disapproves of is wrong (even though the things designated right and wrong vary wildly within the Bible itself). To moral realists like myself, right and wrong are not subjective, i.e. their truth-value is not dependent on feelings, whims, desires, or beliefs, but rather are a factual part of the world. Right and wrong, like all other forms of knowledge, can only be understood by looking at reality, not by believing things strongly enough.

Spirituality, as I understand it, is about finding and understanding our place in reality. It’s about relating to something greater than yourself, a universal common ground, a higher level of reality than the mundane level of our everyday lives. The staple of Christianity, and other monotheistic religions, is that they try to take you out of a spiritual path and comfort you by telling you that you are special: you were specially created by God, you have a purpose determined by God, you have the knowledge of God that no one else has, and you live at a crucial moment of the history of the cosmos. There is no curiosity about “the world” in the Bible, only disdain and separation, a retreat into one’s specialness at all times. The only desire Christians have for engaging with “the world” is in converting more people.

If you are content within atheism, what circumstances would serve to make you open to other answers?

As a question asked at the end of a series of questions about meaning and morality, this ends up being rather tortuous. Am I content within atheism… as regards to meaning and morality? I don’t really think anyone thinks of their attitude about their atheism as being dependent on answers about meaning and morality. Am I content about being an atheist in general? Sure. So what circumstances would make me more open to other answers about meaning or morality? I have not the faintest clue. How is one supposed to answer such a question? A blow to the head might just do it, but I doubt this is what McLaren has in mind.

2. If we reject the existence of God, we are left with a crisis of meaning, so why don’t we see more atheists like Jean Paul Sartre, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or Michel Foucault? These three philosophers, who also embraced atheism, recognized that in the absence of God, there was no transcendent meaning beyond one’s own self-interests, pleasures, or tastes. The crisis of atheistic meaninglessness is depicted in Sartre’s book Nausea. Without God, there is a crisis of meaning, and these three thinkers, among others, show us a world of just stuff, thrown out into space and time, going nowhere, meaning nothing.

Why don’t we see more atheists who experience a “crisis of meaning”? Well, there’s many reasons for that. The most obvious is that there is no “crisis of meaning” without God. Being liberated from the absolutism of believing in a Creator god is an opportunity to develop one’s own reasoning faculties and critical thinking, to discover more about reality, not a crisis that cripples us. It is the narrowness of the Christian worldview that is crippling, not atheism.

This also connects with the anti-naturalistic line pushed by Christians, which holds that denying God means we’re just a bunch of atoms banging around, or as in this case, “just stuff thrown out into space and time.” Yet this is clearly not true: we also have an inner life full of emotions, understanding, truths, and yes, meaning. The fact that there is no inherent meaning to anything does not mean there is no meaning. As the existentialists discussed, we create our own meanings and take responsibility for our own actions.

McLaren brings up the book La Nausée, by Jean-Paul Sartre, as the literary representation of the “crisis of meaning” (so perhaps this book is his “meaninglessness porn”?). Personally, I really like La Peste, by Albert Camus. Perhaps McLaren should read it, although it probably would not turn him on. La Peste shows the struggles of various characters as a plague sweeps an Algerian city and forces authorities to seal off the town. This book, like existentialism in general, is about people trying to follow their values and make rational decisions in an irrational universe.

The point that McLaren is missing here is that atheists can adopt all sorts of systems of meaning, of which existentialism is one. He only sees crisis because he sees only the vacuum left behind by the rejection of God, not the fresh air that replaces it afterwards. All that concerns him is the despair of absolute freedom. The spiritual path is about finding out who you are, what your highest values are, and how you can bring them about in your own life. Freedom is only the first step in that path.

3. When people have embraced atheism, the historical results can be horrific, as in the regimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot who saw religion as the problem and worked to eradicate it? In other words, what set of actions are consistent with particular belief commitments? It could be argued, that these behaviors – of the regimes in question – are more consistent with the implications of atheism.

The problem with this statement is that there are no “implications of atheism,” apart from the rejection of all theistic positions. State Communism is not theistic, and therefore is compatible with atheism, but it cannot be “consistent” with implications that do not exist. Atheism is not an ethical or political position. Furthermore, the horrors of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot are no more or less salient than the horrors of Christianity and Christian-backed capitalism throughout history. Bean-counting for one side or the other is pointless: the point is that all forms of tyranny, including Christianity and dictatorial statism, are evil.

The question of what set of actions are consistent with particular belief commitments is an interesting one, but it seems to be more of a throwaway than anything. Indeed, McLaren should not look at that question too closely, otherwise he might come to some unsavory conclusions about Christianity as well.

Though, I’m thankful that many of the atheists I know do not live the implications of these beliefs out for themselves like others did! It could be argued that the socio-political ideologies could very well be the outworking of a particular set of beliefs – beliefs that posited the ideal state as an atheistic one.

By definition, all atheists lack a belief in God, and therefore they all “live the implications of these [atheistic belief commitments] out,” insofar as the atheistic belief commitment should be a commitment to not believe in any theistic ideology or system. No atheist believes in Christian Creationism or in divine command theory. No doubt McLaren was actually clumsily referring to State Communism, although in that case I have no idea what “the implication of these beliefs” is supposed to mean.

Likewise, I have no idea what an “atheistic state” means, apart perhaps from being a State which does not recognize theism as a basis for governance. This would presumably include the American government, of which McLaren is a subject. And yet McLaren’s own government is not busy exterminating Christians on its own soil, and it is not outlawing Christianity in any form (except in the mind of paranoid schizophrenic fundamentalists who see anti-Christian ghosts in every news story).

4. If there is no God, the problems of evil and suffering are in no way solved, so where is the hope of redemption, or meaning for those who suffer? Suffering is just as tragic, if not more so, without God because there is no hope of ultimate justice, or of the suffering being rendered meaningful or transcendent, redemptive or redeemable. It might be true that there is no God to blame now, but neither is there a God to reach out to for strength, transcendent meaning, or comfort. Why would we seek the alleviation of suffering without objective morality grounded in a God of justice?

These questions show a definite lack of self-awareness. Christianity devalues justice at a very fundamental level: the belief that Jesus Christ saved mankind by sacrificing his own life is the antithesis of what the concept of justice is supposed to be about, and the fact that salvation comes from believing and not right actions shows that there is no “ultimate justice” or “God of justice” in Christianity. The belief system of Christianity is fundamentally about denying moral responsibility and demanding that believers forego justice on this Earth in favor of the “next life.”

The problem of evil has been solved a long time ago, by Epicurus (and probably before that, even). Christians cannot accept this because it leaves evil as an opaque, inscrutable force which does not yield to their absolute meaning. Having accepted a morally perfect deity, they have no grounds on which to justify the existence of indefensible events like tsunamis, plagues, or genocides. The problem of evil forces Christians to stop treating these events like so many walls on which to hang their theoretical frames, and to look at them as actual problems, as actual things that happen to real people in the world.

What solution does the Christian offer to suffering? Ultimate justice? None to be found in Christianity. The attribution of meaning to suffering? As I said, the problem of evil has dealt with that (although, of course, many are unconvinced). Redemption through suffering? A fine philosophy, as long as one does not have to go through real suffering. But these are people who hold Mother Teresa, a torturer, a sadist, as a holy woman, and who hold a tortured man as their savior. This is the bloody esthetics of BDSM without the sexual pleasure: the worst of both worlds.

Suffering is the one issue that does not invite easy answers. Physiological or psychological, it is the one thing that the vast majority of humans are biologically programmed to evade at all costs, and we will go to extraordinary, and profoundly irrational, lengths to do so. The Christian doctrine that suffering is actually a good thing goes against our every instinct and intuition, and it takes quite a deal of religious conviction to uphold it.

Unfortunately, the existence of suffering is itself a painful fact that most people want desperately to evade, creating a vicious circle. Many people are content to simply ignore it as best they can. Christians exploit other people’s suffering for religious purposes. Any spiritual path which refuses to confront the reality of suffering is a path which is dead set on ignoring a large part of reality. Suffering is an inexorable part of life: it must not be glorified or ignored, but examined with at least as much care as we examine happiness or pleasure.

5. If there is no God, we lose the very standard by which we critique religions and religious people, so whose opinion matters most? Whose voice will be heard? Whose tastes or preferences will be honored? In the long run, human tastes and opinions have no more weight than we give them, and who are we to give them meaning anyway? Who is to say that lying, or cheating or adultery or child molestation are wrong –really wrong? Where do those standards come from?

Here we are back again with the fascination with meaninglessness. In this delirium of freedom, where God does not dictate anything, who will dictate to us what to do and what not to do? The real answer to all these “who” questions is “no one.” The truth does not depend on the opinion of any single individual, or any group of individuals. Standards do not become more or less valid based on popular approval. If the entire world declares that torturing prisoners of war (to give just one relatively recent example) is a good thing, that fact alone does not in itself make it a good thing. Even McLaren realizes this, as the rest of his point demonstrates:

Sure, our societies might make these things “illegal” and impose penalties or consequences for things that are not socially acceptable, but human cultures have at various times legally or socially disapproved of everything from believing in God to believing the world revolves around the sun; from slavery, to interracial marriage, from polygamy to monogamy. Human taste, opinion law and culture are hardly dependable arbiters of Truth.

He is essentially correct. Subjectivity is not a criterion of truth. And that is a profound argument against Christianity, whose moral standards are based on pure subjectivity, the subjective will of God (as interpreted by the subjectivity of the believer).

Human beings come pre-loaded with intuitions which apply to many different areas of thought, including morality. Humans are social animals and, like all primates, we are equipped with the mental abilities necessary to navigate social hierarchies and keep them functioning. That is why there are core values which exist in all known human societies: we all think murder, assault, theft, are things which should be avoided for a society to persist and be relatively fair. Belief systems like statism and religion come in and impose their values on the individual, distorting the incentives we’re faced with. As the famous maxim says, “it takes religion to make good people do evil things.” The main reason why societies vary so much in what they accept and what they do not accept is mainly due to these belief systems.

Christianity has not been a force for good in Western societies. It has defended slavery, it has justified monarchies, and now capitalism. It has justified religious intolerance all the way up to genocide. For these things, we cannot lay the blame on “society” but on Christianity specifically. There is nothing inherent to the nature of societies that makes arbitrary and capricious laws/social rules/social norms necessary. In general, the more a society is riddled with delusional and tyrannical belief systems, the more arbitrary and capricious it is (I think this is so obvious that it might as well be an iron law).

McLaren wants to blame the extreme freedom of atheism for the vagaries of human cultures, but many of the cultures who held the things he deplores were Christian cultures, so I’m afraid the connection doesn’t make much logical sense. Christian societies seem to be no better at preventing lying, cheating, adultery, child molestation, slavery, interracial marriage (??), or polygamy.

Like pretty much everyone in the world, religious people don’t like criticism. But to equate social criticism of religion with lying, cheating or adultery is just plain stupid. Wouldn’t the fact that Christians themselves publicly criticize other religions make them lying cheating adulterers as well?

6. If there is no God, we don’t make sense, so how do we explain human longings and desire for the transcendent? How do we even explain human questions for meaning and purpose, or inner thoughts like, why do I feel unfulfilled or empty? Why do we hunger for the spiritual, and how do we explain these longings if nothing can exist beyond the material world?

The answer to that last question, I think, is pretty simple: we don’t really have a longing for something “beyond the material world.” What religions like Christianity provides is something that secular belief systems are able to provide as well, and that’s specialness. You can have specialness for all sorts of reasons which are purely material: because you have special knowledge that no one outside the group has, because you are enlightened (according to the group’s definition of enlightenment), because you have access to a wise guru who shows you the way to a better life, because you have power over other human beings, and so on and so forth.

That being said, I don’t want to say there is nothing to the spiritual aspect, I just don’t think it exists “beyond the material world,” whatever that means. I think it stems from the fact that human beings are paradoxical: we are bound to remain completely and utterly physical, but at the same time we have minds that can dwell in the rarefied air of pure abstraction. We are physically unfree but mentally free, to the extent that we allow ourselves to be. It’s no wonder that we have a natural attraction to limitless abstractions like “God” or “spirit.” We yearn for freedom from our physical limitations, freedom from the body, freedom from old age, freedom from death. There’s no need to invoke anything beyond human minds.

As for why people feel unfulfilled and empty, I think that is a result of Christianity waning: not because Christianity was doing us any favors, but because its system of meaning has lost credibility to people with modern thoughts. This has created an ideological vacuum which has not yet been replaced. We know religions are good at taking space in people’s lives, because they propagate mostly by brainwashing children or young people. It’s obvious that people who were raised with such a sense of self-importance, and then lost it, would feel like there’s something missing in their lives. Again, no mumbo-jumbo required to explain it.

The answers to our spiritual quest can be found in the human mind, not in some imaginary non-material mind that has all the answers. That’s a seductive idea, and it makes people feel special that they have all the answers, but it’s an illusion. The goal of a true spiritual quest is not to fall to illusions, but to confront the reality behind the veil. That much seems to be a constant of spiritual awareness. What Christianity has to offer is not real spirituality, it’s the equivalent of McDonalds compared to real food, if McDonalds was toxic and changed your body chemistry to the extent that you became unable to eat real food (I know, I know, it already is, ha ha). If I was a spiritual seeker, I would look elsewhere.

“You can’t prove God doesn’t exist!”

If you listen to The Atheist Experience show, or are involved in apologetics, you’ll find that one of the go-to arguments Christians rely on is “you can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore atheism is based on faith!”

The standard answer is that atheism is a lack of belief, not a belief that there is no God. This seems extremely difficult for Christians to understand, probably because they are stuck in the mindset that anyone who’s not a Christian must have some alternate religious worldview to compensate (and a lot of atheists are stuck in that mindset, too). This leads dialogues into one of two directions: either the Christian acknowledges the lack of belief in God and equates atheism with nihilism (because they confuse an apparent lack of worldview with an actual lack of worldview, which they equate with a conscious form of nihilism), or the Christian, due to their intellectual limitations, simply cannot understand how a lack of belief is different from a belief in the negative. Neither of these avenues are fruitful, and they both lead to frustration. This is partially why I think talking about atheism is a waste of time.

So the inevitable question posed to atheists is: “what is your proof that God does not exist?” To which atheists usually try to keep the high ground and reply that they only lack belief in God, and that it is the Christian who is making a statement about reality. The Christian is the one who has to prove that God exists. The atheist is free to disbelieve in anything that is not sufficiently justified, without having to prove anything in turn. So the atheist doesn’t have to prove anything, which is why it’s a good route to take if you’re having a dialogue.

But there is a difference between an expedient answer and an honest answer. Christians play fast and loose with the truth, and it’s hard to nail them down (pun intended). We have to resort to expedient answers in order to not get bogged down in details that just slow the conversation down.

The honest answer, I think, should be that there is no God. Of course there isn’t. We know the Christian god does not exist. We know the Greek gods don’t exist. There are no gods at the top of mountains, on the clouds, or in one of the ten to twenty-six dimensions that may or may not exist, all rolled up like an atomic swiss cake. To this people will inevitably reply, as Al Sharpton ill-advisedly tried to argue against Christopher Hitchens in their debate on the existence of God, what about the abstract concept “God”? Sharpton’s arguments failed, as these arguments always do, because there is no such thing as a “generic God” that is revealed to us by nature. The only concrete pieces of evidence we have for gods are holy books which proclaim the existence of a specific God, which can be easily disproven. These holy books are unconvincing, to say the least, but at least they are evidence. There is no evidence that someone like Sharpton can point to and say “look, here is a conception of God you can’t disprove!”

To continue along these lines, I think the perennial comparison with Santa Claus is never followed through, and that’s unfortunate. We don’t disbelieve in Santa Claus’ existence, we know Santa Claus does not exist. How do we know Santa Claus does not exist? The existence of Santa Claus is established through mythical narratives which don’t have much connection to reality. We also know that the concept of Santa Claus has evolved over time, from the Wild Man and Odin to Sinterklaas to the Santa Claus we know today. Like other myths, God’s existence is established through mythical narratives, such as the Bible or the Quran, and has evolved over time, from living and breathing pantheons to polytheism to highly abstract monotheism. Is this conclusive? It’s conclusive enough for us to declare Santa Claus, leprechauns, elves, fairies, and werewolves to be mythical creatures.

There are other strong arguments against the existence of God. The one I find most persuasive is the argument from physical minds. All the minds we know are the product of an evolutionary process and function on a material substrate, and we do not know of any minds which are not the product of evolution or which do not function on a material substrate. Therefore there is no reason to believe that such a mind could exist.

The Kalam Argument.

Christians have latched onto the Kalam Argument as a more sophisticated response to atheism. A product of the mind of theologian and deranged lunatic William Lane Craig, the Kalam Argument tries to accomplish what no other Christian argument has: make an argument that starts from natural facts and specifically proves the existence of God (as opposed to a generic designer, a universal force, or a really powerful alien being). His basic case is the following:

If the universe has a cause of its existence, then [we find that] an uncaused, personal Creator of the universe exists, who sans creation is beginningless, changeless, immaterial, timeless, spaceless, and enormously powerful and intelligent.

How he goes about proving this is a different matter. The linchpin of his argument is the position that the personal cause of the universe, or as he calls it, the Creator, is uncaused, because an infinite regress of causes cannot exist. I will gladly concede this premise, but it does not prove the point at all. The belief in a caused Creator does not imply an infinite regress of causes. For instance, one may believe in a finite number of causes, of which the Creator is the penultimate one. One may believe in a cycle of causes which is winding down from some extremely high-energy beginning. One may believe in a pantheon of gods where the Creator is part of a divine family. One may believe in a Creator that is the product of another universe or dimension.

There are so many possibilities that there’s no point in listing them all. There is just no way to go from “there is a Creator of the universe” to “that Creator is uncaused.” And if there’s no logical path there, then Craig’s attempt at specificity fails, because it’s a chain that depends on each link being true, and the very first link is invalid.

But Christians who argue theology do not even use the argument in this intended manner. Instead, they simplify it by saying that the Creator cannot have properties of the universe, like being material or existing in time. Here is one example of such simplification:

So, space, time, and matter began to exist. What could have caused them to begin to exist?

* Whatever causes the universe to appear is not inside of space, because there was no space causally prior to the creation event. The cause must therefore be non-physical, because physical things exist in space.
* Whatever causes the universe to appear is not bound by time (temporal). It never began to exist. There was no passage of time causally prior to the big bang, so the cause of the universe did not come into being. The cause existed eternally.
* And the cause is not material. All the matter in the universe came into being at the first moment. Whatever caused the universe to begin to exist cannot have been matter, because there was no matter causally prior to the big bang.

Despite the title of that entry (“How to defend the Kalam Argument just like William Lane Craig”), this is definitely not how Craig defends these conclusions (for instance, see this handy guide written by Craig himself). For all of Craig’s illogic, this reinterpretation is far more illogical. God cannot be spatial, temporal, or material because the universe is spatial, temporal, and material, and God created it. There’s no other premise that can lead you to these conclusions.

But this is a self-defeating reasoning. For one thing, Craig argues that the Creator must be a person. But by this reasoning, God cannot be a person, because the universe contains persons. Likewise, God cannot have any other property of persons, like morality or intelligence.

Any Christian who replies “but the universe did contain one person, and that’s God” (never mind how incoherent the concept of personhood is when there’s only one being) is stuck with the same ad hoc line of reasoning. Because we can formulate the objection in the exact same way:

“All persons came into being with the universe. Whatever caused the universe could not be a person, because there were no persons prior to the big bang.”

If they say this is a circular argument, well, so is the reasoning I’ve quoted. Why could God not exist in space, time, or matter? If the reason is that it’s physically impossible, well, how is a person magically existing without a material substrate even remotely physically possible? I see no reason to believe that this nonsense (a person existing without a material substrate) is any more or less impossible than the other nonsense (space, time and matter existing “before the big bang”). Who the fuck cares?

Craig’s argument assumes that proving infinite regress is impossible (a point which I do not deny, by the way) logically proves that the universe must have an uncaused Creator. Like most Christian arguments, it assumes far, far more than the evidence can bear. Denying the possibility of infinite regress does not, as far as I can tell, disprove any cosmological position currently held to be even remotely credible. All it proves is that Craig is shit at philosophy.