Saturday, November 27, 2010

Some thoughts on doubt and questioning my current beliefs

A Christian reader of my blog recently wrote to me in response to my Moving beyond ex-Christianity post. I wrote a lengthy response, but I thought I would include below two issues that I touched on in my email, as I thought they adequately captured elements of where I am in my journey.

The first point covers my thoughts on why I think so many Christians seem to struggle with doubt, and the second is my response to the reader's plea that I should put as much effort into questioning my current position as I did when I questioned Christianity.

Christian doubt

Some Christians often struggle with their faith; I no longer have that burden. This is because I've come to a place of simply accepting nature at face value, without having to clutter my view of the world with invisible forces and beings that cannot be demonstrated or verified, but for which I'm told (by major religions) exist. I think many Christians struggle with doubt because they sometimes observe instances where the two worldviews that they hold within their minds - the natural for which they plainly see and experience around them, and the supernatural for which they cannot see or demonstrate - don't always fully gel with each other when it comes to understanding the nature of existence and our place in it. For me, the physical world won the painful battle of cognitive dissonance because I finally realised that if something is invisible and unverifiable, it is indistinguishable to something that does not exist.

Questioning my current beliefs

I've realised recently that questioning my current position isn't the same as giving the supernatural any kind of consideration. When I first deconverted, I would tell my friends that I was a seeker, and I did a lot of reading across the board, from atheist books to apologetics to Hindu writings. But there are thousands of gods, from Apollo to Vishnu to Yahweh to Zeus. Maybe one of these gods exist, but it would be near impossible to research every single one in the hope that I would find the truth. I then realised that it's not up to me to find God (if he/she exists); it is up to those who claim that a specific god exists to make a strong case. In other words, the burden is no longer on me to try and find something; the burden is on those making the claim of existence to show me that something is actually there.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

US atheists know religion

I've heard the claim before that atheists and agnostics generally have more knowledge about a specific religion than the religion's actual followers, but this is the first time I've come across a formal study that suggests that this is the case.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Moving beyond ex-Christianity

A Christian friend of mine asked me recently how my faith struggle was going. The question took me a little off guard because it's been a while since I've thought of myself as being in some sort of struggle. As I thought of an answer, I realised that I no longer think about 'ex-Christianity' as often as I used to; I've spent much less time thinking about religion in general.

This, I think, is a good sign.

It is a sign of the fact that during the last year or so, I've finally reached a place of peace and stability in a new worldview, realising that a person can indeed live a moral, philosophical, and fulfilling life without belief in the supernatural. The metaphysical storm that engulfed me since I lost my faith has now all but gone.

As a result, the entire theme of my blog is becoming more out of sink with my current thinking. The issue, you see, is that the title of my blog is all about what I am not, rather than what I currently am. When I was in a place of struggle, labels of 'atheist' or 'ex-Christian' suited me fine because at the time I did not know anything except that which I had left behind.

I am an atheist, yes; but I am more than that. I've started thinking about my values; exploring what I do believe, rather than what I disbelieve; discovering what I stand for, rather than defining myself by that which I disagree with. In other words, I no longer care that much for the label of 'ex-Christian';
I'm ready let this go.

What does this mean for my blog? I don’t really know, to be honest. I suspect that I will still think and write about religion, although not as often as I used to. After all, I still live in a predominantly religious culture, so the next leg of my journey will involve trying to find an answer to the following question: how can I live out my values as honestly as I can, but still live in harmony with others who might not share the same values as I do (as a result of their religious upbringing)?

Letting go of ex-Christianity sounds strange, I know. But it makes perfect sense when you think about it. When I was a Christian, it was a big deal that God existed. When I became an atheist, it was a big deal that God didn't exist. Now, I'm entering a new stage of my life where God doesn't matter.

Maybe this is what it means to become truly secular.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

What about the four?

In September last year a South African Airlink Jetstream 41 crashed just after take-off from Durban International Airport. The aircraft had the capacity to carry about 30 passengers, but this was a maintenance flight and all the seats were empty; there were only three crew members on board. The pilot managed to crash-land the plane in a school field without diving into any homes. As luck would have it, it was a public holiday, so the school was empty.

I recall listening to the news report on the radio that day, and I remember the news reader saying that the accident could have been much worse, and added: "God was smiling on South Africa today." I guess, if I had any belief in the supernatural at all, that I could bring myself to accept the idea that God chose to guide the pilot's hands so as to avoid the homes; that God somehow tweaked the natural order of events so that there were no passengers on board; that God somehow arranged that this happened on a holiday, so that no children were injured.

I could bring myself to accept all this, but for four problems . . .
  • Captain Alistair Freeman: he later died from his injuries.
  • Co-pilot Sonya Birman: she sustained multiple fractures and broke both her ankles.
  • Flight attendant Rodelle Oosthuizen: she sustained a fractured spine and facial injuries.
  • Ebrahim Mthethwa: a municipal worker on the ground who was hit by the plane, and later rushed to hospital in a critical condition.

God might have been smiling on South Africa, but was he smiling on these four, and their families? Some theists claim that God is all-loving and all-powerful, but if this is the case wouldn't he have used his omnipotence to help all parties involved by ensuring that this accident didn't occur at all?

If a theist praises an all-loving god for only helping some and not others, are they not implicitly acknowledging a god who struggles, sometimes unsuccessfully, against suffering; a god who has the ability to help only a little, but is often beaten by forces greater than himself; a tinkerer of events, rather than the master helmsman? If I ever come to a point of believing in some sort of god again, this is the only concept of god that would make sense to me, considering what we observe in the world around us.

Some changes

Hi everyone

I've finally decided to freshen things up by changing and (hopefully) improving my blog's look and feel. I hope you like the new design :-)

I also want to let you know that I've turned on comment moderation. For the last couple of weeks a spammer has been making his/her presence known on the comment section. I don't like comment moderation at all, as it hinders the flow of discussion, but at least I will be able to root out any potential spam. This is only a temporary measure and in time I hope to return things back to normal.
But please feel free to comment as per usual; I will try my best to approve any comments as quickly as I can.

Thank you!


Monday, May 31, 2010

Raising children in a atheist/Christian marriage?

As most of you know, I am an atheist who is married to a Christian; Cori and I have been together for almost five and a half years, and it's been great.

When people learn about our cross-faith marriage, they often ask us how we plan to present our beliefs to our children. Well, to begin with, Cori and I have not yet had children, and we are not planning to have any. This isn't because of our differing beliefs, but rather because we are not, at this time, interested in parenting.

But what if we decide one day to have children? Cori and I were talking about this the other day, and the conclusion we came up with was this: if both partners in a cross-faith relationship have some founding values that they both share, raising children shouldn't be that much of a problem.

What values do Cori and I share?

  • It is important to respect others.
  • We believe that it is healthy to have relationships with those of differing cultures and worldviews.
  • We believe that it is healthy to explore and grapple with different points of view and different beliefs, even with those that might make us feel uncomfortable or threatened.
The important point above, for me at least, is exposing our children to different ways of thinking. I'm an atheist, but I will be very happy to send my children to church or Sunday School, simply because Christianity is an extremely important part of Western culture. How can my children understand much or art, literature or history if they are not exposed to Christianity?

But as parents, we will also be responsible for taking our kids on visits to Hindu temples, Mosques and Synagogues, and to introduce them to common problems with theistic thinking. We will encourage our children to make friends from different cultures and religions, so they can find beauty in variety, and learn that – despite the fact that there are many differing beliefs out there – we are all basically human. I hope that, as parents, our children will learn to respect others, critically assess ideas and beliefs, and not feel threatened by doubt.

After all of this, it will not bother me in the slightest if my children finally decide to become Christians, atheists, or anything else. What they become will eventually be their choice, and I think the goal as parents is to give them enough information so that they can make a choice that is well informed.

What do you think?

(See other posts on our cross-faith marriage)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Imposing our morality on God

A recent study at the University of Chicago suggests that people tend to use their own personal beliefs as a guide when thinking about what God might believe. Researchers asked a range of volunteers about their opinions on highly controversial issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, the death penalty, and affirmative action.

The subjects were asked three basic questions:

1. What are your beliefs regarding this specific issue?

2. What do you think other people believe regarding this issue?

3. What do you think God believes regarding this issue?

The results of several tests showed that the subjects' own beliefs matched what they thought God would believe, but were less constrained when thinking about other people's beliefs. In two tests, researches subtlety caused a change in the subjects' beliefs on a specific issue, and this in turn changed the subjects' own estimate of what they thought God believed.

The most interesting part of the study involved functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure the neural activity of subjects as they reasoned through their answers to the three questions above. The scans showed that separate regions of the brain were activated when subjects answered question 1 (what I believe) in comparison to question 2 (what other people believe). However – and this is the interesting part – question 3 (what God believes) activated the same part of the brain that was activated when answering question 1, suggesting that we draw on our own personal beliefs when thinking about what God might believe.

This comes as no surprise to me. I've often wondered, if there is indeed an objective morality set out by the creator of the universe, why there is so much disagreement between theists on what this morality actually is. Does God think homosexuality is wrong? Does he condone the use of condoms? You will find different answers depending on the theist you talk to. Irrespective of whether God exists or not, the above study seems to suggest that people tend to colour what they think God's morality is according to their own beliefs.

In other words, the type of God you believe in might tell us more about you than God.

(Download the full article here)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Apple butter on a biscuit

Have you ever come across an article, book, or video that resonates with you so deeply that it brings you close to tears, simply because it somehow manages to describe exactly how you feel or what you believe?

I've struggled so hard to describe on this blog, and so inadequately, my own beliefs regarding my place in this universe, and my reason for getting up in the morning despite not believing in a god. In just five minutes, the video below (I came across it here) does a far better job than I did in five years. It's a beautiful representation of how I view life.

If you watch this video, then you will gain some understanding of what it means to be a naturalist. But more than that, you will gain some understanding of the person named Kevin Parry.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Was Hitler an atheist?

I've heard a few Christians claim that Hitler was an atheist. I think this claim is made (see an example here, a comment on a previous post of mine) in an attempt to discredit atheism by associating it with something like the Holocaust.

The truth is, though, is that it is not really clear if Hitler was in fact an atheist, or even a Christian. Richard Dawkins, in the God Delusion (pg 272-78), lists specific examples where Hitler seems to be anti-atheist and pro-Christian. In a speech in 1933 Hitler declared a fight against the atheistic movement, and claims to have stamped it out. In another speech in 1922 he repeats several times that he is a Christian. Then there is his famous quote from Mein Kampf:

Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.

However, there are other references (see here) where Hitler expresses anti-Christian sentiment. For example, during a private conversation on the 19th October 1941, Hitler was recorded to have said the following:

The reason why the ancient world was so pure, light and serene was that it knew nothing of the two great scourges: the pox and Christianity.

Moreover, Hitler heavily persecuted members of the Confessing Church; the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, for example, was hanged in a concentration camp in April 1945.

So Hitler's religious beliefs are not as certain as some apologists, or even some atheists, would have us believe. My own view on the matter is the same as the one put forward in this article: that Hitler's 'god' was not the Christian god, but rather the German national identity. This is what he worshiped, and he persecuted anyone, atheist or theist alike, who did not do the same.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Atheists within the clergy

When I left the faith, I was extremely lucky. When it came to my social circle, my family and friends took the news mildly. My work didn't suffer, as I was starting a career outside the ministry. The only real struggle, other than my own inner turmoil, concerned my relationship with my wife, Cori, who was my girlfriend at the time, and who is a Christian. But we both managed to make our relationship work.

Other ex-Christians, however, find themselves in tougher circumstances. Daniel C. Dennett and Linda LaScola, from Tufts University, recently published a paper on practicing preachers who are also atheists (see here). Five members of the clergy, from various denominations, were confidentially interviewed to explore their reasons for walking away from faith and why they still remain in the ministry.

Although the authors rightly stress that the sample is too small to make reliable generalisations, there were some common issues raised by all (if not most) of the five subjects.

  • As believers, the primary reason why the subjects joined the ministry was to help others.
  • The road to doubt began during their years of study in seminary, when the 'truths' they were taught in Sunday School were suddenly challenged for the first time.
  • All five have kept their unbelief secret from their congregation, friends and even their families, and have struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • One or two justify remaining in the ministry to encourage their congregation to think about ideals such as democracy and tolerance.
  • The main reason cited for not leaving the ministry, despite their unbelief, is that they feel that they won't be able to start another career to financially support their families.
  • There is a huge gulf between what is taught from the pulpit compared to what the clergy learn in seminary. The authors suggest that the clergy generally don't preach what they have learnt because they fear damaging their parishioners' beliefs.
It is easy to accuse these five, and many others who might be in the same situation, of hypocrisy. But when I remember how difficult my own faith struggle was, and when I consider the fact that I didn't have deal with the possible loss of a job, career, friends, or family, I feel a great deal of compassion for anyone who might be stuck in this position.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Post rapture pet care service?

Are you a Christian? If so, have you ever given any thought to the welfare of your pets who will be left behind if the rapture occurs tomorrow?

My friend Cobus mentioned the following site to me during the weekend. It's called Eternal Earth-Bound Pets, and involves a group of animal loving atheists who will, for a small fee, look after your pets in the event of the rapture occurring.

Our network of animal activists are committed to step in when you step up to Jesus.

I don't know what to make of it: is it a joke, or is it serious? Gave me a good laugh though.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Monogamy is just one of many relationship models

There has been recent debate about the South African president, Jacob Zuma, over his open practice of polygamy. He has been married five times, and currently has three wives.

When it comes to polygamy, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, it is an important cultural tradition for many; on the other hand, polygamy is primarily based on patriarchy.

Polyamory, however, is one model of non-monogamy that seems to be more inclusive of both sexes. Also referred to as open marriage, polyamory (from the Greek word poly which means 'many', and the Latin word amor which means 'love') is the philosophical idea that it is possible to have more than one romantic relationship at a time, provided that these relationships take place
with the knowledge and consent of everyone involved.

As this interesting Wikipedia article states:

What distinguishes polyamory from traditional forms of non-monogamy (i.e. "cheating") is an ideology that openness, goodwill, intense communication, and ethical behavior should prevail among all the parties involved.

The first major different to polygamy is that polyamorous relationships are not necessarily bound by an act of marriage. The second difference is that polyamory is not patriarchal. Rather, it is based on

. . . such concepts as gender equality, self-determination, free choice for all involved, mutual trust, equal respect among partners, [and] the intrinsic value of love . . .

From what I've read, polyamorists tend to stress responsible non-monogamy, placing importance on honesty, negotiation, respect, and the use of safe sex.

In one Oprah poll, 7% of woman and 14% of men who responded indicated that they are in open marriages. There are families where the kids grow up with two dads and one mom in the house. In this article, the parents of one polyamorous family - consisting of a child, one father and two mothers - explain how they make it work.

As a Christian, I grew up believing that the only valid model of romantic relationship was monogamy, but it is interesting to learn that there are many people out there who are practicing various forms of non-monogamy. And it seems as if many of them are making it work.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The cost of wonder

I often describe my walk away from Christianity as a failed exercise in puzzle building. Growing up, we all struggle to build a puzzle of understanding about life, the universe, and the nature of existence. I think my Christian faith started to take strain when I began to realise that the puzzle forming in my mind – each piece representing a new insight gained by understanding or experience – was starting to look less and less like the box cover Christianity had given me, a box cover that claimed to have all the answers.

In an attempt to match the Christian paradigm, I tried unsuccessfully for a while to force pieces together that didn't fit. I gave up in the end, finally deciding to throw the box away, as it was unsatisfying in meeting the demands imposed by my thirst for understanding.This image of the Puzzle of Life came back to me when reading an essay written by J.L. Schellenberg, Professor of Philosophy at Mount Saint Vincent University in Canada, in the book 50 Voices of Disbelief: Why We Are Atheists. Schellenberg, an atheist himself, describes his own journey away from faith, and argues that his sense of wonder was a major cause. On page 28:

Plato says that philosophy begins in wonder. What he doesn't tell you is that many things end in wonder too. One of the things that ended for me as I sought to conform my life to the ever-expanding sense of the world’s wonderful complexity was religious belief.

His essay resonates with me, probably because I can identify with his sense of wonder, but also because I can relate to his story. At a young age, Schellenberg channelled his wonder through religion, but as he started to learn about himself and the world around him, he slowly realised that – when it came to the complexities of the universe, history, and the human condition – the
answers provided by the type of Christianity he had grown up with were far too simplistic and shallow (pg 28):

What I swiftly discovered was that my Christianity had sought to confine the world within a rather small package. The world could not be thus confined! Carefully smoothed into a Christian shape, it kept bursting free. And I discovered that, even without God or Christ, wonder remained.

Schellenberg describes his sense of loss after leaving the faith (pg 30):

It hurts to have your neat picture of the world torn to shreds, your emotions left jangling. But no one said that a commitment to live in wonder, straining for real insights and understanding, comes without cost.

I like that phrase: a commitment to live in wonder. I think that if there is any phrase that describes the basis of my current worldview and the reason why I get up in the morning, that would be it. But I also realise that a commitment to live in wonder can come with a difficult cost: the cost of changing one's mind about things when learning something new, of leaving behind cherished beliefs when you suddenly accept things for what they are, not for what you want or hope them to be.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Moving towards a postconventional morality

In the sci-fi Christian movie, Time Changer, a professor in 1890 – who wants to publish a book advocating non-religious morality – is sent 100 years into the future to witness first hand how society degenerates when it separates morality from Christian teaching. The professor walks around modern day Los Angeles, shocked at all the blasphemy and rebelliousness. At one point a little girl steals his hotdog, and when he reprimands her, saying that stealing is a sin, she replies, "Says who?" and runs off, leaving him flabbergasted.

Time Changer, along with many conservative theists, advocates an autocratic paradigm of morality, that morality only has meaning if there is something or someone telling us what is right and wrong. The assumption is also often made that this is the only way in which morality can be understood. However, child psychologists who have worked on moral development – most notably Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg – have shown that there are different moral paradigms, and that we move through these as we age.

Kohlberg, for example (see here and here), outlines three broad levels of moral development, which he further divides into six stages. The broad levels are:

  • Preconventional morality (Level 1): An egotistic form of morality, generally exhibited by young children, who judge right and wrong according to physical consequences. An action is wrong if you get punished for it; an action is right if it advances your own interests. "It's all about me!"
  • Conventional morality (Level 2): Generally exhibited by adolescents and young adults, who judge actions according to the norms and beliefs of their social group, culture or society. "It must be wrong because dad/the Bible/the law says so."
  • Postconventional morality (Level 3): Right and wrong are determined through negotiation. Rules are viewed as changeable mechanisms that maintain social order but at the same time protect the rights of individuals. "How can we best advance social justice and human dignity?"

The important thing about Kohlberg's theory is that not everyone reaches Level 3. Many adults remain at Level 2 their entire lives. I would think that those entrenched in Level 2 are those who ask the question "Who says so?" when told to do something they don't want to do. If you remove their source of authority, then – for many of these individuals – you remove their ability to distinguish right and wrong. I wonder if Level 2 individuals are those who are inclined to throw themselves into destructive lifestyles when they leave their parents for the first time, or decide that God no longer exists.
Apologists have argued, and this forms the premise of Time Changer, that without God anything is permitted.

The apologists are absolutely right, but only within the confines of Level 2 thinking.
If we move to Level 3, then the premise of Time Changer no longer holds, because the emphasis is no longer on authority. Rather, concepts of right and wrong arise from a space of negotiation that unfolds between individuals and society.

I sometimes imagine, if the plot of Time Changer occurred in a world where a postconventional moral outlook was dominant, what question the little girl would ask when reprimanded? I don't think she would ask "Who says it is wrong?" but rather "Why is it wrong?" Asking 'why' allows for reason to enter the moral dialogue, allowing for societal negotiation, discussion and agreement on what the ethical and moral rules should be.