Sunday, July 29, 2007

If you are a Christian, imagine the following scenario

You open your door one evening and find a neatly dressed man, handing out pamphlets. He tells you that Allah is the one true God, and that you can only find fulfilment and meaning if you join Islam.

A few months later, you listen to the news, and find out that Muslims are demanding that the commands of Sharia law be placed on the wall of your local court.

Sometime later, your daughter comes home from school and informs you that Muslim parents are requesting that Muslim prayer be instituted at the school, and that the biology teacher should teach that Allah created all living things.

A Christian friend of yours suddenly finds out that his promotion at work has been blocked because he does not believe in the truth of the Quran.

As a Christian, how would you feel if this happened in your country? What would be going through your mind?

Think about this for a moment, and then read through this passage again and replace ‘Muslim’ with ‘Christian’, ‘Islam’ with ‘Christianity’, and ‘Allah’ with ‘God’. Now you have some idea of how atheists feel about the rising power of the Christian Right in the United States, the teaching of creationism in schools, and the slow erosion of separation of church and state.

Laughing Boy, while commenting on a recent blog post of mine, posed the question of why atheists are so concerned about that which they don’t believe:

I'd think a person with your obvious positive qualities (and I am most definitely not being sarcastic) would quickly get bored writing about what he considers nonsense. Do you have other blogs where you invest as much time and energy discussing other things you find equally absurd as God, e.g. trolls and fairies?

This is a good point. I can’t speak for other atheists, but I have my own reasons for writing about Christianity (see here). However, there is another, less personal reason: the protection of secular society. The power of a supernatural being is directly proportional to the number of people who believe in that being. Few people believe in trolls and fairies, and those who do lack the power to influence major political decisions with their supernatural beliefs. However, belief in the Christian God is widespread in the Western world, and this has both good and bad, but very profound, implications for society.

I agree with Laughing Boy’s sentiments elsewhere on this blog: an incredible amount of suffering has resulted in societies where religious belief, and maybe even non-belief, has been forced onto individuals. One of my aims, like many other atheists and theists out there, is to protect secular society, which ensures that each and every individual has the freedom to chose what they believe, and that each individual should be free to worship (or not to worship) according to the beliefs that they have chosen. No person should be forced or coerced – by family, society, culture, law, or government – to believe in, or subscribe to, a specific religious creed.

I’m probably overambitious, but I hope, in some small way, that my blog furthers the ideals of secular society: by keeping the debate alive and by informing individuals that no belief is perfect or free from error or abuse.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

More on finding meaning in life

When people find out that I don’t believe in God, two questions often arise: (1) as an atheist, how can I be moral, and (2) as an atheist, how can I find meaning in life. I’m busy working on a number of posts to answer the first question, but I’ve already provided some thoughts regarding the second question here and here. If you read these posts on finding meaning in life, two important conclusions are made:
  1. Life can be meaningful, even if it is temporary. We can find meaning in the here and now.
  2. Life can be meaningful, even if it does not form part of some higher purpose or greater scheme.

Richard Carrier, in Sense and Goodness Without God, also discusses how an unbeliever can find meaning in life. He argues the above points on page 161, and then writes:

Nor do we need to be some superbeing’s creation for our lives to have value. After all, believers seem comfortable with the fact that God was not created, yet his life has value. Just as theists understand God’s love as giving God himself and the universe value, so naturalists understand our love as giving ourselves and the universe value. Even if I were the accidental by-product of a giant rubber tire machine, my life would not be meaningless. It would be meaningful to the precise extent that I endeavored to make it so, to imbue my own life with meaning and purpose, to make it valuable, to myself and to others. But if I did nothing to make my life meaningful, even being created in some god’s image would add no meaning to my life. I would be nothing but a pawn or lab rat, a mere homunculus cooked up in some divine kitchen, if I did nothing on my own to make myself into more than that.

Richard Carrier is adding the third point to the above list: atheists create their own meaning and purpose. Meaning and purpose are elements that can be formulated from within, not necessarily from something outside of one’s self.

What do you think?

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Dear creationist

Dear creationist

Since I was a child I’ve always been fascinated in the ‘ho
w’ questions of life and the universe. How do clouds form? How do plants grow? How do computers work? The answers that science provided were, and still are, deeply satisfying; the main reason being that science provides detailed and useful explanations that stir wonder and satisfy curiosity.

But I’m sorry to say that, after reading many of your books and watching some of your seminars, I’m still dissatisfied with your explanation of how we got here. You see, the only explanation that you provide concerning life on earth is “God did it”. You do not provide any detailed information of how God did it. Did God simply pop organisms into existence out of nothing, or did he use chemical and physical processes to create? How exactly did God create living things?

Imagine I asked a climatologist how clouds form. She can tell me, in detail, how hot air rises, how condensation occurs, how water molecules attach to small dust particles to create droplets. This detailed answer not only satisfies my curiosity, but I can in turn use this knowledge to solve practical problems (for example, artificially seeding clouds to produce rain in drought stricken areas). But imagine if the climatologist simply answered “God did it”, and left it at that. Can you see why such an answer is no answer at all? Can you see why it has no value?

Moreover, creationism does not seem to provide adequate explanations to some perplexing things that we observe in nature. If God was the creator, we
are left with some ‘why’ questions regarding his motives. For example, why did he give chimps and humans (who are closely related according to evolutionary theory) similar DNA? Why did he decide to place the majority of the world's marsupials in Australia? Why are whales and dolphins mammals (and not fish), and why do they breath air despite the fact that they are sea faring creatures?

I don’t fault ‘scientific’ creationism for not having answers to these questions. Rather, it seems to me that creationism is not even attempting to find answers. Maybe I haven’t read all your resources, but I haven’t found any reference to creationists who have actually suggested creationist explanations to these problems, and have then gone out into the field to empirically test their ideas.

Yes, there is a lot we don’t know regarding biological evolution, but at least evolutionists, like other scientists, are attempting to solve the mysteries of nature with workable explanations that we can empirically verify. Every year they are making important discoveries
regarding life on earth, and they are filling gaps in knowledge with specific details.

As an individual who has always found meaning in understanding, empowerment through knowledge, and excitement in detail, you can understand why I'm not satisfied with the answer of “God did it” to the question of how we got here.

Thank you for listening


Sunday, July 01, 2007

If we have souls, why do we need physical brains?

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m reading through Richard Carrier’s Sense and Goodness Without God. I like his book because it focuses on what atheists are, rather than on what they are not. Most other atheist books that I’ve read are mostly devoted to criticising religion, but Sense and Goodness is somewhat refreshing as its main goal is not to attack religion, but to defend metaphysical naturalism, the worldview to which most atheists subscribe.

One section of the book is devoted entirely to defending the idea if mind-brain physicalism. Carrier argues that what we think of the soul is simply the mind, and that the mind is totally dependent on, and cannot exist without, a functioning, material brain.

Theists believe that intelligence is possible without a brain (think of God, for example). Moreover, when we die, most religions teach that our souls or minds (containing our feelings, thoughts, impulses, memories, and sense of self) will live on, independent of the body.

Carrier makes the observation that mental powers of living animals are in direct correlation to the complexity of their brains. The human brain is possibly the most complex, containing a large cerebral cortex. He then argues on page 153:

It follows that a physically complex brain is necessary for a mind, and that a mind can only develop when the brain develops physically . . . If our minds were not dependent on the human brain, then there would be no plausible reason for us to have one. At best, all we would need is the minimal sort of hardware a comparable mammal had, though even that would be hard to explain the need of, since if the mind were independent enough to be able, for instance, to see, hear, think, and remember all on its own, the vast majority of the brain of even an ordinary mammal would be useless material to us, dead weight, a needless drain on our oxygen supply, of which our brains now take the lion’s share.

This is an interesting thought. If intelligence is possible without the body, then why did God give us such a large brain, an organ that is a physical disadvantage?