What casual remarks reveal about theism’s view of the world

I’m writing this on Monday, but have delayed the scheduled posting of it for a few days, in that I do think there’s such a thing as inappropriate timing. Some folks may still think I’m off base with this one, and that’s fine.

In the wake of the horrific shootings in Tucson the other day, there has of course been a lot of argument as to possible causes, motivations, the role America’s current volatile political climate may or may not have played in the event, and so on. I’ve been involved in a few arguments on Facebook myself.

What will go unnoticed — indeed what is almost certain to be praised — is the way theists will spout sanctimonious, pious bullshit so staggeringly stupid and offensive that it can only be by a willful disconnection of one’s higher cognitive functions that the stupidity of such pronouncements do not meet with immediate ridicule and condemnation. Here’s one such inane homily, plucked at random from CNN.

“The doctors are pretty clear that we just have to wait and see,” Mike McNulty said. But he added, “I can only think that God has more important things planned for her in the future.”

Now, sure, I’m willing to accept that Mike McNulty is a respectable Democratic congressman, a dear friend and colleague of Gabrielle Giffords’, a good man dedicated to serving his state and his country, and an all around decent and intelligent fellow. He is in a deeply fraught emotional state, as anyone would be, and of course I’m not unsympathetic to that. I’m not attacking him here, so much as I am the inanity he has uttered, and what it says about how religion asks us to view the world.

Let’s consider what kind of God this remark is proposing here.

As he sits upon his heavenly throne of purest gold and alabaster, he thinks to himself, “Hmm, I have important things planned for this Democratic congresswoman. Being omnipotent, there are any number of ways I can achieve this. But I think the best is this: I will arrange for a delusional psychopath to purchase a gun under his state’s extremely lax gun laws, fit it with an extended clip, and shoot her in the head at point blank range in broad daylight in public. In the process he will shoot a number of other people, killing some, including a small child. But these will just have to be acceptable collateral damage, even though in my omnipotence it would be easy for me to prevent all of it. I’ll just make sure the girl gets an extra-awesome Barbie collectors set when she gets up here, along with pie. Now, the congresswoman herself will not die, as I will arrange for the bullet to perforate only one of her brain hemispheres. She will be in a coma following this, and will be several years recovering. But the end result of it all will be that it will allow me to implement my important plans for her once she recovers. If she does. Even though I could do it any other way.”

Does that about sum it up?

Seriously, the only way a person could believe in a God like this is if they just don’t think about the implications of what they believe. Religion trains you not to think of such things. And this is why I think religion, far from being something to offer true comfort in a time of crisis, simply offers a way to delude yourself that every tragedy has a silver lining, and that a benign space daddy still has my back, even if making life better for me required a little girl to die.

If you think I’m being offensive offering a snarky critique of a statement made by a theist in the wake of a tragedy that happens to reflect his beliefs in the midst of emotional upset, well, that’s your prerogative. For my part, I am offended by the way religion so easily makes light of human pain and suffering to find some way, no matter what, to glorify its God. It’s not Mike McNulty I’m criticizing, it’s the indoctrination that’s influenced his thinking, and the way it values its God’s glory over innocent lives.

Teen Challenge Ranch—Pentecostal Rehab

I was contacted awhile ago by Tyler, a young atheist living in a Christian town in a Christian family surrounded by Christian friends. Not an uncommon story. At the time he was struggling with coming out and concerned about potential loss of his social support network and how others would react to his deconversion. Since that time he has come out as a strong atheist and anti-theist, lost friends along the way, but seems happier and more confident these days.

He had shared his history with me when he first contacted me. He was raised in a fairly moderate Christian home and experienced a very average American upbringing, until, at 16, he landed in juvenile detention on drug charges. That’s when things began to change, not just socially but religiously. According to his account, he wasn’t addicted or having trouble due to drugs. Like many young people he was experimenting and ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But when he was remanded to his mother, she informed him he would be going to the Teen Challenge Ranch in Northwest Arkansas—an all-boy Christian rehabilitation center for troubled youth in the mountains near Fayetteville.

“My parents had a list from Teen Challenge of what to pack and what not to…I needed all of the normal hygiene products, collared shirts and other appropriate clothing, and a NIV Bible. They also wanted me to bring an alarm clock, but it could not have a radio because they said they did not want anything ‘worldly’ interfering with my rehabilitation. The list of things we could not bring was quite a bit larger, though. We could not bring anything that was not Christian with us. No music, literature (not that I read that much back then anyway), no television, and no movies that were not approved by the staff. If it did not praise the Lord, it was not allowed.”

The Ranch itself sounds not unlike other such facilities, but clearly my interest is in the integration of religion into the program. As a Christian facility, it would seem expected that there would be a regular religious study of some sort—weekly or biweekly? But according to Tyler:

“The counselors informed me we would have three-a-day Bible study, which I was not too enthused about. I had been to Sunday school every Sunday for the better part of my life. But studying the Bible three times a day? I did not like studying the Bible for 30 minutes a week, much less three times a day for a total of three hours. That just seemed exhausting. I did not know much of the Bible, either. So, that worried me a little. Would I have to study harder than the rest of the class? I really did not know what to expect. And, somehow, this time spent in Bible study was suppose to be helping with my drug addiction. I did not need help with drugs; I had made my mind up that I was done with them while sitting in jail. But I was curious nonetheless. Also, I was told we would be going to a Pentecostal church twice a week in Fayetteville. We would be attending on Wednesday nights, and Sunday mornings. This was the first time I had heard the rehab center was Pentecostal. I did not really know what Pentecostal was, so none of this bothered me at the time.”

It didn’t take long for Tyler to learn what “Pentecostal” was:

“The chapel was where everyone got together for worship and Bible study. It was a small room painted light blue with a large wooden cross leaning on a bench. When we went into the chapel, the lights were dimmed and the counselors were standing around in a circle waiting for us to enter and join with them. We all joined the circle and the counselors introduced me as the new student. We all were told to tell something about ourselves and what we wanted to accomplish from being at the Ranch. Everyone went through it quickly, and then it was time for Bible study. Everyone grabbed their Bibles and got ready for the lesson. It was just a normal Sunday school lesson which did not differ too much from what I was accustom to. When the lesson was done, it was time for worship. I had no idea what they had meant by ‘worship.’ I thought ‘worship’ was what we had just done by reading the Bible and praying. I was so wrong. The counselors turned on some upbeat Christian music, and everyone started dancing around in a circle. They were praying out loud and holding their hands up. I looked over to the person next to me to see if I could get some sort of confirmation for thinking this was completely nuts, but he had his eyes closed and was jumping up and down. I was just standing in shock. I was a Christian, but all of this stuff was what I had heard about on the news and thought was insane behavior. In my eyes, this was not worship. My version of worship was mouthing the words to hymnals on Sunday morning. Some of the students were crying as they held both hands up and rocked back and forth. Some of the students had their heads bowed praying in the corners of the room with other students’ hands on their shoulders because, apparently, they believed the Holy Spirit worked better if believers touched each other while praying. One of the students looked up at the ceiling and started blurting out incoherent words and other nonsense. I did not know then, but this was called speaking in tongues. Finally, one of the counselors came over to me and said that if I was not comfortable with all of this, I could sit down on some steps in a dark part of the room. I was relieved that this was not a requirement, but that did not ease my dread of the months which would be spent in chapel. I was alone in a place I had never been before, with people I had never met who were doing things which I thought were crazy. I could not talk to my parents and tell them how insane these people were acting. I was completely alone.”

“School” at the Ranch “was taught by Christian home school books, and Jesus was on every page. For example, if you were studying math, the books would give you a Bible story on each side of the page to show how the mathematical problem could be used to glorify the Lord. And, science didn’t exist in these classes. The only science that was taught in these classes was either misleading, incorrect, or muddled with scripture.”

The daily routine consisted of the following: “After breakfast, it was time to get ready for Bible study. Then we were off to school. After school, it was time for another Bible study and then lunch. Everyday after lunch we would have a midday break and free time. We usually stayed in our lobbies or went to the gym. Free time did not last very long after lunch; then it was time for school again. Class lasted for about two hours, and we were released with free time until about 6:30 at night when we would eat supper in the cafeteria. Directly after supper, we would have Chapel until 8:30. Then it was time to get ready for lights out at 9:00. We could stay up as late as we wanted at night as long as we were in our rooms, but we still had to be up 6:00.”

Additionally, “We could only have one phone call home a week, and that was with a counselor. I did not have anyone around me that I knew and could not talk to anyone that I did know. And the people who were around me seemed certifiably insane.”

Eventually Tyler decided he needed to call home and have a conversation with his family away from the counselors’ scrutiny. Although the story of his escape from the facility is intriguing, suffice to say he was eventually able to call home. He explained the religious insanity to his mother, but she held firmly that the rehabilitation was for his own good and that he should stick with it. He sneaked back into the facility that same night and resolved to make more of an effort to work within the program.

“A couple weeks had gone by, and I slowly began to stop distancing myself from the counselors and other students. I did not like some of the things that went on in chapel, but I did not want to be an outsider anymore. I was growing tired of sitting in the corner of the room while everyone else was in a circle worshiping. Even if it was not the sam
e as I was used to, I still wanted to be a part of it.

“One night after Bible study, I stepped into their circle of worship for the first time since the night I arrived at the Ranch. As soon as one of the counselors saw me, he came over and stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders. He told me to just let go and give myself to God. So, I put my hands up toward the ceiling like the other students. I swayed to the music and sang along. Eventually, I stopped feeling embarrassed by what I was doing because everyone else was doing it. I became used to it. Then, a euphoric calm came over me. It felt like God really was there and wanted me to be happy. It was as though I was a child again and had no doubts about god at all—when just the thought of God gave me comfort. I began to cry. I did not know why I was crying, but it actually felt good. The counselor was still behind me. He saw that I was crying and pulled me over to the corner of the room. He told me that I had to ask for forgiveness and that I needed to let God into my heart. I told him that God was already in my heart, but he would not accept that. He said that I needed to ask. I got down on my knees, and I began to pray what he told me to pray. I asked Jesus into my heart and for him to be my personal savior. The other students saw that I was praying and came over to put their hands on me. By the time I had finished praying, everyone in the room was behind me with one hand on my back and the other hand held up toward the ceiling. Most of them had tears in their eyes as I did. I stood up and everyone gave me a hug and, basically, congratulated me. One of the counselors turned the music off, and we started back to the dorms. Just as we were walking in the door, I heard one of the counselors whisper to the other, ‘another soul saved, brother.’”

So, the behavior Tyler had considered crazy had now been normalized, rewarded and reinforced—techniques anyone who has been indoctrinated should recognize, even if you’re not Pentecostal. Tyler went on field trips to religious youth festivals and concerts and began to be more integrated into the Pentecostal movement—meeting more people socially who subscribed to the beliefs and behaviors, which continued to reinforce the doctrines in his own mind.

After a few months, Tyler was allowed a home visit over the Christmas holiday. His new beliefs impacted his reunion with stress and concern that his family was not truly saved, and mistrust of their “worldly” attitudes. This is an issue we hear quite often from openly atheist parents whose children are being indoctrinated by partners/ex-partners or other family members.

“My grandparents had arranged to pick me up…On the way home, I talked to my grandparents about my family; about whether they were really saved. I was worried about my father and mother. I knew they went to church a lot when I was little, but they had stopped going and were not living their lives like the Teen Challenge counselors said we should. I did not want my parents to go to hell. My father concerned me more than anyone else in my family. He believed in god, but besides condemning blasphemous behavior, he never acted like he did. My grandparents were not too welcoming of the fact that I did not believe my father was truly Christian, though. They repeatedly tried to convince me otherwise and made excuses for him.

“Also, I told them about how I had thought about becoming a missionary. My grandfather frowned on the idea, asking me how I would make money and said that it is not a good lifestyle. I did not understand this because I thought he would be happy to hear that I would be living the way Jesus would have wanted me to; I would be saving souls. He was one of the people the counselors had warned us about. He was someone who said they believed but did not really want to give his life to Jesus. And when I thought about it, everyone I knew was not really a believer.”

And so Tyler began to distrust his own family and fear their impact on his own salvation. It’s not uncommon for believers to be “warned” to not become too involved with people outside of their belief system (including family and close friends) who could confound their thinking and undermine their faith. “Worldly” interaction may be necessary, but should not exceed necessary levels. These types of teachings drive huge wedges within families. It’s another concern we hear all the time in our viewer mail.

Eventually Tyler’s time away from the Ranch resulted in a mild breakdown of the indoctrination, due in part to an interest he developed in a girl he met while visiting home. However, in attempting to resolve the doubts and conflicts that had arisen, he turned right back to the techniques he’d been taught by The Ranch:

“The first week back from Christmas break was horrible. I felt more depressed than I had my entire life. I wanted to go home and be with my new girlfriend and the people I knew. I prayed a lot during the first weeks back, but nothing helped. The counselors did not help too much either. They would just say that we cannot expect to be happy all of the time. That our happiness with God comes and goes. I thought that sounded absurd. Why would God not want me to be happy if I loved and believed in him? Was God punishing me for my new girlfriend? Was I on the wrong path? Does he want me to be Baptist or Pentecostal? All of these questions, and many more, were running through my mind at this time.”

So rather than step back to examine the issues objectively, he’d been taught to deal with doubt by diving into the very system he was doubting, even more deeply. This is another common indoctrination technique—teaching a person that the way to resolve doubts about faith is not to question or examine, but to pile on more faith. It makes as much sense as wondering if you’re the victim of a financial scam, and resolving the question by sending in more money, rather than researching the investment.

Eventually Tyler’s stint at the Ranch ended when he was involved with a physical altercation with a counselor. He recounts the ride to the bus station: “They lectured me and preached the whole way there. They condemned me for not wanting to be like those who wanted to spend their entire lives at the Ranch. I did not even try to argue with them. I was too happy to. I was finally going home.”

“It has been 10 years now. I am now a nonbeliever, I have not spoken to anyone at Teen Challenge since I left…

“I feel the Ranch had a lot to do with my disbelief. I came home from there not knowing what to believe. I felt that my beliefs were more Pentecostal, but Baptist churches were pretty much all that surround me in my home town. I went to our regular church on a number of occasions, but it just never felt right. So, I stopped going to church. I was always conflicted about what I actually believed. Was I “once saved always saved” as my Baptist upbringing had taught me? Or, did I have to keep striving to be like Jesus in order to be saved? Was speaking in tongues real? Or, did I just do that because I felt good and wanted to be like everyone else as a Baptist would suggest? All these questions made me want to look into what I actually believed.

“After many years, I finally stopped trying to figure out which Christian belief was right and started to doubt if any of the Christian beliefs I had were right. It was apparent to me that I would never find out whether the Pentecostal or Baptist beliefs were right, and because I could not find that out, I began to question how I knew any of my beliefs were right. It was a chain reaction. It was a long slow process, but after many years of research, and a lot of thinking, I began to think that there was no way for me to distinguish which beliefs were right because none of them were. No beliefs I had ever examined had good reasons to believe them. I still said I believed, though. I deeply wanted to believe in god and somewhat had these habits of belief that were ingrained into my t
hinking. Also, I had a real fear of hell that I could not get past. It all slowly faded away over the years, though. My fear of hell slowly vanished after questioning, just as all of my other beliefs had. I began to realize that I had no reason to believe it, and the only reason I had for so long was because I was scared of the possibility. The need to believe fell away shortly after I stopped fearing hell and the unknown. And I let myself search for the truth instead of what I wanted to see as the truth. I was finally free to think without being afraid of a hell which was built by a loving god. I was free to question whether any god existed. And I saw no reason to think that one did.”

Fear and threats of hell should not be underestimated as indoctrination mechanisms. The sheer number of people who use Pascal’s Wager demonstrates how many believers consider fear of hell a compelling “reason” to maintain belief. Fear of hell cannot reasonably influence an unbeliever, who does not accept hell exists. But for someone who believes in hell already, that fear is often sufficient to convince them that maintaining their belief is paramount, and doubts or questions far too risky. Overcoming that fear can be extremely problematic for people, even after they deconvert. I’ve compared it to an abused dog who cowers when a new, nonabusive owner lifts his hand to pat its head. It takes awhile to overcome childhood terrors that have been so deeply and methodically ingrained.

“I feel I should thank Teen Challenge for making me question the beliefs I held before I arrived at their facility. I feel I should thank them for giving me a place to stay when I needed to get away from drugs and alcohol. But, also, I understand how many troubled children and teenagers have been successfully brainwashed simply because these people manipulated them during a hard time in their lives. I understand that there are students who did not go home for Christmas and never had [anyone] to help them see reality. I understand all of this. So, a ‘Thank You’ will never leave my lips.”

Today’s Show: Deconstructing a Miracle

Since we’re only on for an hour now, I’m not sure how much time we’ll have for a topic, but if we have time, I would like to address the following miracle claim I was confronted with in a recent dialog:

Out of curiosity though, I ask how you can scientifically prove how this happened:

A young girl, between the ages of 3 & 4 drowns and dies. A man who has failed every CPR test in his life, brings her back to life. Later on, she tells her mother that she has a little sister named Emily. Emily does not exist. The little girl says she does. When asked who told her this, she said a lady in white did in a white room. Keep in mind the hospital had no white rooms where she was at and the nurses were not wearing white. Later on the mother is pregnant, the little girl says this is not Emily. It is not. It is a boy. Later on the mother is pregnant again, same thing happens, another boy. The family decides they are not going to have anymore children, but then the mother gets pregnant one more time. The little girl says this is Emily. A girl is born.

For the record, this is a true story, with many witnesses. How is it that this little girl saw this lady in white in a white room while she was dead and then predicted the birth of her sister?

This is why I am not atheist because I believe something or someone does exist and there is some kind of place after death besides six feet under or ashes.

Not to give too much away, but to skip to the end of the discussion, after making a few requests for clarification from the claimant, this miracle is exactly as impressive as saying “Yesterday I flipped a coin, and before it landed, a little child shouted ‘tails!’—and it did land on tails. How do you explain this?!”

Hope you’ll be there for the live feed!

You knew this was coming, didn’t you?

So the Rethuglican Taliban are on the warpath, and once again they’re all about using the government to shove Jebus down all our throats (all the while pontificating that they got back into power because they’re all about “less government,” of course). So far, we have one gasbag here in Texas wasting no time in making sure that Ten Commandments slabs are erected in every school in the state. Just how many lawsuits over idiocy like that do we need before they figure it out? And the San Antonio paper has a poll, in which jackbooted theocratic thuggery is currently ahead by a two-thirds margin. We aren’t Pharyngula (I and several other folks I know have emails out to PZ at the moment), but perhaps we can “AXP” this poll just a tad in the direction of religious freedom and sanity.

Anyway, to those of you on the left who sat out the mid-terms because you were disappointed that Obama didn’t fix the world fast enough, welcome to your new Saudi America.


Addendum: PZ has now posted and the squid hordes have acted, and the poll is where it should be, at over 90% against.

What Does Appeal to Pascal’s Wager Really Say?

Is This about Me or You?

Imagine this conversation:

Woman 1: So, anyway, at the end of the argument I just told my husband I thought he was wrong.

Woman 2: I can’t believe you said that. Aren’t you afraid he’ll hit you?

When I put myself in Woman 1′s place, I have two immediate thoughts:

1. Not in a million years would I be afraid my husband would strike me for any reason short of his own self-defense if I went violently insane.

2. How long was Woman 2 abused? Is she still being abused?

I wouldn’t expect Woman 2′s comment from a woman who has no history of abuse whatsoever. I suppose I could imagine a situation where someone was under a mistaken impression I was being abused, and was concerned for my safety? But as a general rule, that question would not be raised in seriousness by a woman who is not or has not been in a situation where she’s been battered.

The question, while aimed at Woman 1, actually speaks volumes about Woman 2, and tells us nothing at all about Woman 1.

Language, questions and comments aimed at others actually carry within them information about those who are speaking. Even the most innocent language does this. If I see a friend making a Lasagna, and I see her using cottage cheese, and I ask “Oh, you don’t use Ricotta?” I’ve just said, “I don’t use cottage cheese when I make Lasagna, I use Ricotta.” We spend our conversational time telling people all about ourselves, often without even realizing we’re doing it.

What Pascal’s Wager Tells Me about You

When we think of Pascal’s Wager, we generally think in brief of someone asking “What if you’re wrong?” The stakes generally are “something bad” if you’re wrong (that you’re risking), and either gaining reward or simply avoiding the “bad” if you’re right.

The Wager itself has a host of problems. But that’s not what I’m concerned with here. What concerns me here is what the Wager tells me about the person who puts it forward. When people ask, “What if you’re wrong?,” what are they telling me about themselves? What I hear when they ask this, is purely heartbreaking. And a letter writer recently put it in a way that evoked honest pity from me. Clearly directed to Matt, he asked:

I have watched many of your you tube videos, and from what I gather, you are a very intelligent man and you seem well educated.

But I wanted to ask you a question, just a simple question, perhaps a question that I myself toil with from time to time.

Q: “when the day is done, and you are sitting alone, or lying in bed, do you ever question your decision to be an atheist, are you ever scared at times, do you ever think that you might be wrong or fear what may or may not happen to you when you die”

Now, this question has no real direction, I just wanted to know if you were like so many others including myself, who at the end of the day either have a longing for an answer or experience doubts or concerns about the decision(s) you’ve made.

While he states the question has “no real direction,” it does, like all communication, carry a message — and more of a message than what is merely being asked. It carries that message about the speaker, which I’m describing.

Matt submitted back a very thorough and well-thought-out reply. However, I kept thinking of this letter after I’d deleted it, and this morning I sent by a separate reply myself to the writer:

I know this was directed at Matt, and he answered it quite thoroughly. But I would like to add something. There are a number of people who have reported being horribly tortured at the hands of malevolent alien abductors. I don’t believe these people’s stories are true. They could easily ask me the same question:

Don’t you ever worry about being abducted yourself? What if you’re wrong?

Certainly if I’m wrong, I could also be abducted and tortured, but I can promise you I don’t lose an ounce of sleep on it. I don’t expend a moment’s concern over being a victim of such an event. And I’m going out on a limb to wager that (1) you’ve heard these stories I’m describing and (2) you don’t worry about being abducted by malevolent aliens any more than I do.

If I’m correct, then you have just experienced what I experience with regard to fear of being wrong about god. It’s the indoctrinated believer who fears and who thinks that fear must plague others who weren’t indoctrinated with that same fear. Just as it’s the “alien abductee” who can’t understand why I don’t seem concerned about what these aliens are doing — not others who don’t believe in alien abduction; it’s the person either still in, or still suffering from the side effects of, indoctrination who can’t fathom life without that fear, which was most often burned into their heads as defenseless children. It’s put there as a mechanism to stop people questioning: “Even if you stop believing…you’ll be plagued by fear and doubt the rest of your life…WHAT IF YOU’RE WRONG?!” But the truth is, as Matt pointed out, and as I provided an example, if you don’t believe, then you don’t believe in the consequence either. And it’s just very hard to fear that which you do not believe exists.

This is why I consider religious indoctrination of children to be abusive. It scars people and they carry that fear of questioning well into adulthood far too often. Nobody should be made to fear asking questions, doubting, or not believing. Free and independent inquiry should be the basis for any sound ideology. Any ideology that puts mechanisms in place to impede free and independent inquiry — such as severe and exaggerated mental fear of such investigation, should be viewed very skeptically. After all, what sort of “true” ideology incorporates an avoidance of examination?

And I suppose that’s all I had to say about it?

Purpose and Meaning without God

We received a letter from “Rob,” who asked (emphasis his):

Specifically, I guess my question is this: how do you go from living a life where you 1) believe in a God who guides and protects you, 2) provides eternal security, 3) makes everything work out, and 4) gives current purpose and ultimate hope to your life, to believing that everything is essentially random chance, there is (probably at least) no afterlife, this life is it, and there is death, dying, pain and suffering all around, to continuing after losing all of that? I am finding myself often consumed with the feeling—if not the belief—that continuing to live is an irrational exercise. That it literally doesn’t make sense. Am I wrong? Why? And have others struggled with a lack of purpose and hope upon turning away from Christianity, and how have they death with this?

My reply:

Hello and thanks for contacting our list.

The first step is to realize that none of the things you thought god gave you were god given, and yet you were doing OK. Nothing about reality has changed—only your perspective on it. So, if you felt that god gave you strength to go through a rough patch, for example, you now know (or should know) you have that strength, but no god is, or ever was, required.

The fact is that religion robs us and cripples us by making us believe we need it. It instills that by taking children and not teaching them how to live without god and religion in most cases. When they try to leave the religion often they find themselves tied to it because they have no other mechanism for coping in reality—a reality they were robbed of a chance to get to know and appreciate, and a reality with which they have trouble coping without the blind obedience to authoritarian rules they’ve been taught to adhere to under pain of death or eternal torture.

That being said, know that you have all the things you had before, nothing has been taken, you’ve only been hoodwinked into feeling like something has been taken. You now may have to hone some real life skills you never had to manage before, that’s true. So, for example, any immorality condemned on god’s command now should be suspect. You now are responsible for determining whether and why actions are truly wrong or harmful. There is no more “I just say it because god said so.” This is another religious projection. Theists claim that atheists don’t want the responsibility and moral obligation of dealing with rules and morality. When, in fact, it is the atheist who must own his own ideas and actions and has no god to blame, only himself. From this day forward, you are a responsible human being in a way you probably never imagined.

So, that’s #1 and #2 of your questions above.

Three (#3) is that things don’t always work out. The universe can be a horribly cruel and pitiless place in which to find yourself. Many people live horrible and short lives or horrible and long lives and never know love, comfort, or compassion from another human being. Be very glad you aren’t one of those, and think about how you might feel if you were. Consider if that is sufficient to motivate you to want to help—knowing that no god is going to fix it, and only other people can lend a hand. To me, that puts, again, greater responsibility upon us all to do what we can to help other people. We can’t suggest they suffer for some divine reason, or that they will have a better reward someday. We must own up and step up. If they suffer for reasons we can alleviate, then they suffer due to our lack of compassion and assistance. And we help them with the knowledge that if we need assistance, most often other people will be there to help us in a similar fashion, because—thank evolution—most social animals really are biologically driven to care about group welfare.

Above may answer #4 as well. That depends on you. You have your life ahead of you after years of living in indentured servitude to a lie. It’s like being let out of prison after having been railroaded in, in the first place. “What do I do now?” can be daunting, but my answer is “live your life.” Find joy in what you do. Show compassion to those around you. Remember that it wasn’t just Jesus who observed that treating others in good ways is a good idea that helps everyone out and makes us feel good about our usefulness. There are countless people and animals and environmental issues just hurting for support and aid. Where to being?! Now is your chance to ask not “what does god want me to do?” but “What do I care about? Where am I needed? What makes me happy?” (Considerations religion often condemns.) The fact that you’re concerned about these questions tells me you have nothing to worry about. You are the sort of person who values introspection and reason. Those things will serve you well and guide you for your entire life in ways god never could have.

On your deathbed, when you say “I lived a full and satisfying life, I did what I thought was right, and I am proud of how I lived,” what would that be referring to? What would allow you to be able to say that at the last? That’s what you need to find and to do and to work hard at during this life—the only life you can be guaranteed you’ll ever have.

>that continuing to live is an irrational exercise

You are right that this thought doesn’t make sense. I have helped people before in ways I know made them very glad I was alive and there for them. I have, likewise, been helped, as well, by people—one person who wanted to commit suicide, believe it or not. But I was glad he was alive, as I was literally stranded in a blizzard in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere—locked out of my car with nobody around. He helped me get to safety, and in doing so shared a story about his family, expressing that he just wants to finish his life and end it all. But if not for him—I dread to think what could have happened to me that night. Suicide due to want of purpose is a sad and supreme waste of resources on a planet where every hand that helps can make a difference and can matter in ways we may never fully appreciate.

I’m glad you also have uplifting feelings. That’s good news. I did a blog post that got some comments that relate a bit to what you’re describing. Maybe reading what others had to say could help? You never know what will make an idea finally click in your head?

http://atheistexperience.blogspot.com/2009/12/wasting-your-life.html

Again, it was mainly the comments I thought of when I read your letter, not necessarily the post itself.

I hope this helps.

—th

Picking Up the Pieces

When I receive a communication like this one, I don’t know whether to be happy or to cry. On the one hand, it’s nice to be able to help someone. On the other hand, I’m sorry to have to help someone put their self-worth back together after it’s been badly damaged so unnecessarily.

I received this note privately from someone on Facebook:

I watch AE on ustream and just wanted to say that something you said really helped me work through a few things :) Forgive me for being candid about the subject!

While not brought up in the Catholic faith I went to Catholic schools and have suffered problems relating to sex due to various things (minimal relationship advice from embarrassed parents, virtually no sex education from school other than in science lessons). I have been in emotionally abusive relationships since a very young age and was taught to feel nothing but guilt and shame about anything sexual. Being English (and from Yorkshire to boot), we just don’t talk about those things with our parents.

Through my self-education over the past few years (and my interest in issues related to atheism) I have started to work through these things that have plagued me since I can remember. It really clicked for me however whilst watching you responding to a caller on one of the archived programmes a few days ago. You were explaining to the caller how we do not need saving from being human. You stated that seeing a person and thinking sexual thoughts is a normal state of being and entirely natural (even essential) to being human and why would we need saving from soemthing so inherant to us?

It sounds silly to say it now but I had never thought of it that way. I’d had so much misinfomation and guilt piled on me that I couldn’t see the blindingly obvious.

I’ve been reading John Gray recently and this concept of the human as animal and natural is only just now sinking in (I don’t agree with everything he says but that part got to me). It seems that you don’t need faith to be still affected by some of the dogma!

I turn 30 next year and have had so many good relationships ruined by this, so many tears and recriminations that I can’t explain it here. I can’t even begin to think how much I have lost.

I’d been working towards it for a while but you really made it finally click with your matter-of-fact approach. I felt like “duuuuuuuh” when I realised the crap I put myself through! And it was totally unecessary! :D

So thank you. I managed to open so much of my life recently and this was one part of the puzzle that bound me to that old guilt.

###

All I can say to her is “you’re welcome, and best of luck.”

And all I can add for anyone else is “Don’t tell me the average believer doesn’t cause any harm.”

A Christian’s Life Is Worthless?

We received a letter recently from a viewer who wanted to know how to talk to a Christian friend of his.

“She’s a moderate Catholic, and I’m an atheist. A few days ago, we were talking about religion, which we had done many times before, and I was explaining my reasoning for not believing in God, or an afterlife. I explained that I’m happy we only have one life to live. I make the most of life because of this. She said if it was proved tomorrow that I’m right, and there’s no God, no afterlife, and that death is the end of everything, she would kill herself.”

His actual question, however, was this:

“I didn’t know what to say, except ‘that’s insane’. I want to offer her a better response, and maybe enlighten her. What would you recommend I say?”

Well, I’m tempted to say “that’s insane” about covers it, but I understand what he’s asking.

My personal thought is “It’s sad religion has messed this girl’s values up so horribly that she believes her life isn’t worth anything at all on its own.” To her, living is a horror worse than death. How non-life-affirming.

The obvious question is, “If you don’t value this life, except in the context of a prelude to an afterlife—why not kill yourself now and move to the next level?”

But as we know, she can’t, because she’s Catholic, and suicide is, therefore, taboo. This means she’ll have to suffer through this cesspool of horrors she despises so much she’d rather die—until she dies naturally.

Wow. And some Christians wonder why not everyone subscribes to their ideology?

This ranks right up there with theists who call the program or write to us to say, “Sure, I’d rape my own daughter if god said I should.”

Seriously, what else can a sane atheist say to the statement: “I’d rather die than have to change my ideology if, in fact, you can demonstrate to me it’s wrong?”

This is your brain on religion.

Religion is abuse, pure and simple. Just check Twitter.

Today on Twitter, one of the big trending memes is “Without God”. Hordes of theists right now are tweeting what they think life would be like if Sky Daddy weren’t around to hold their hand, with the words “Without God” somewhere in the tweet (which is how people get topics trending). The most common tweets are the most disheartening, because they demonstrate with crystal clarity that the most effective tool religion has for keeping people docile and compliant is the utter destruction of their personal esteem. Seriously, what other than religion could get people so eager to boast of their personal worthlessness? Here are actual examples.

@Periyon Without God I have nothing else to live for…

@mandyymanders Without God I would have nothing.

@SupaBaddizI Without God I am nothin, have nothin, && will never be able to accomplish nothin!

@Rieno2 Without God, I wouldn’t know how it feels to LIVE…

@iLoveMJ147 Without God I am nothing.

@BellaKerber Without God, life has no meaning ..

@PeAce_SteLLa Without God : I’m NOTHING ! ! ! ! !

@taylormatthews Without God there can be no knowledge, good, evil, hope or joy.

@DJFoRenZic_JA: Without god, there is no life!

@iK00lKiDd Without God there is no me…

@nanamarie87 Without God i could do nothing…be nothing

And it just goes on and on and on like that. Thousands upon thousands of people, eager to devalue themselves. “I suck! I’m worthless! I’m nothing, nothing, nothing…without GOD.”

This is quite possibly the most unspeakable form of brainwashing a person can endure. It is what George H. Smith in Atheism: The Case Against God is talking about when he states that Christianity has “a vested interest in human misery.” First, convince the believer of their innate lack of value. Get them to believe that there is nothing good about themselves in any way, shape or form. Then offer them a thin straw of hope: God can give you worth. Sure, you’re a completely undeserving piece of shit, but no worries. If you pray and genuflect and abase yourself just enough, he might — if he happens to be in a good mood that day — might condescend to let you past the velvet rope into his Heaven. What’s that? You say you answered the altar call at church? Well, that’s great and everything, but you know, that still might not be good enough. Because without God you’re nothing, you miserable little shitstain! So just remember that.

By this time, you have the believer so utterly intimidated they’re afraid of their own shadow. Even the tiniest scrap of joy they experience in life, they’ll be damn sure to credit immediately to their God, just to make sure they don’t fall out of favor.

You know who else uses these kinds of brainwashing techniques? Abusive spouses. “Without me you’re nothing” is the biggest hammer in the toolkit of the controlling, abusive partner. It’s why abused women don’t leave their men when you’d think all common sense would have them fleeing at the first opportunity. It’s like Stockholm Syndrome. And it’s why it’s so difficult to use reason when arguing with believers about their beliefs. You’re calmly and soberly trying to lay out objective facts, while they’re thinking that if what you say is true, then they’re doomed to a worthless, miserable void of a life, because THEY. ARE. NOTHING.

When you read these tweets, you should understand that when Dawkins refers to the religious indoctrination of children as child abuse, he isn’t fucking around. These tweeters are folks who grew up with that indoctrination into an adulthood defined in its entirety by fear and self-loathing. They hate themselves, pure and simple, and see no pleasure in anything their brief time on this earth can offer them if it cannot be attached in some way to their God.

If this parade of misery isn’t all the reason you need to stand against religion, I don’t know what else is. And any accommodationist who tells me religion should be “respected” even though I don’t believe it will frankly get a swift kick to the jewels. Are you going to tell me to “respect” wife beating even though I’d never do it?

Excerpts from a Conversation

I recently had an exchange with a fellow atheist, and wrote quite a bit about a lot of different topics. A few observations I made could be of interest on this list, so I decided to post one or two things from that dialog. Well, that and I felt a need to prove I can post a “normal sized” blog entry.

On Anti-Atheist Prejudice
We get regular letters from young people (and on occasion older ones) who say they’re afraid to “come out”–in the same way a child might be scared to tell his parents he’s gay. Or they say they’ve lost their faith, and now their spouse has withdrawn from them, and their relationship is frozen. People who believe don’t understand there is this deep-seated prejudice. They think “nobody’s forcing you to believe anything–stop your whining.” But they don’t understand their son or daughter is in their bedroom upstairs writing to a group of atheist strangers on the Internet they’ve seen on Youtube saying, “I think my parents will throw me out of the house if I tell them I don’t believe in god.” And the kid is writing to us because he can tell us about his deepest beliefs–but he can’t speak to his own parents about his thoughts and feelings. How sad is that, really? If I were a parent, I don’t think anything would make me feel more like a failure than to find out my child was confiding in absolute strangers rather than me, because I had convinced him through my comments and prejudices that I would despise him if he told me what he really believes or who he really is. But I can guarantee you that if these parents found these letters–they’d hammer the kid about contacting us, and not reflect on their own views that made their kid so distrustful of their capacity to accept and love him despite any ideological differences. This is the stuff that really breaks my heart when I read it.

On Missing the Forest for the Trees
[A particular theist] won’t move toward replacing [religion] with Humanism, because he accepts there is a god. In one conversation he defends the idea of considering it a miracle if there is a horrible plane crash where everyone, except one child, dies. Focus on the child who survived–not the 200 people who just lost their lives. This sort of microscopic focus is par for the course with religious people. I once likened the Intelligent Design argument to Wile E. Coyote’s inventions. The believer has this amazing capacity to focus on a few specks of things and make them meaningful–totally disregarding this ridiculously vast universe in which we float amid vacuums, and radiation, and supernovas and hurtling comets–just a mess of chaos held together through physical laws. Somehow they are able to drill down to “people” and say that demonstrates a “purpose” to the whole mechanism. That would represent one of the most inefficient designs ever produced–if people on Earth really are the point of this whole universe. All this for some speck of existence in some far corner? And yet they see this as crystal clear. If you believe god exists and is good, and you can discount 200 dead bodies (and 99.9 percent of the universe) for one child–what ratio of bad to good would it take even to get you to say, “Even if this god exists, what a monster”?

On Responsibility
I like that you break down Euthyphro briefly as well. Christians rarely break this down. They seem to just have some amorphous surface sense of getting morality from god/the Bible–but don’t really consider it as a question of how that mechanism would function. After talking to them, you get to a point where they assert basically that you can use your personal (presumably god-given) morality to judge god as good, but you can’t judge god as bad. In my own mind, if I can’t fathom how a command could be moral, then I shouldn’t follow it, regardless of who issued it. To do so is immoral because to do so is irresponsible–but that’s faith, right? Kill your own child if god requests it. What I would say is that I can’t take responsibility for a thing if I don’t understand what I’m being asked to do. “Just following orders” is not an example of personal responsibility. But the Christian sees a “responsibility to god” as being on a higher order. They see the atheist exercising personal responsibility as wrong–since the atheist is not shouldering his “responsibility to god.” We end up being “irresponsible” for wanting to know exactly what we’re doing and what the reasons and implications are for the action, before we’ll do it.

The skeptic, however, looks at it like this: If it seems bad to kill my own child, I need to ask for an explanation–and refuse to comply until I get it. If I’m going to commit an atrocity, I think it’s fair to at least ask to know why I’m being asked to commit it. To you and I, that’s reasonable. The idea anyone would object to it is mystifying.

However, the theist sees this as presumptuous and arrogant. I will admit there may be some good reason I hadn’t thought of that would get me to comply; but I can’t say I’m “taking responsibility for my actions” if I’m simply deferring to a fiat-style command with no personal understanding of what I’m doing. In no other context, outside religion, would either the theist or the atheist consider that a description of “being responsible.”

So, in Christianity, if you want to take real responsibility for your actions, by understanding thoroughly what you’re doing, you end up being labeled someone who “does what he wants” because he doesn’t like responsibility–you refuse to own up to your “responsibility to god.”

Summary
In the end, I added notes about what I posted previously–that the doctrine of total depravity makes it more “sensible” to trust people who say you can’t trust them, than people who consider themselves and others fairly trustworthy. And I noted how in the post on hymns, the idea of a brutal human sacrifice is trotted out as an example of unmatched love and mercy. Ultimately I ended the exchange with this thought:

What would it take to screw a person’s head on this “wrongly”? I submit it takes the first several years of their life spent in a Sunday School with mom and/or dad endorsing the entire process.