What Would Convince You That You Were Wrong? The Difference Between Secular and Religious Faith

Prayer“You have your faith in your relationship. In your friends. In your talent. In yourself. How is that different from my faith in God?”

I want to talk about the difference between secular and religious faith.

I’m irritated by the argument that, because atheists don’t have faith in God, we therefore don’t have faith in anything. And at the same time, I’m irritated by the argument that, because atheists do have faith in things and can take leaps of faith, therefore an atheist’s secular faith in love and whatnot isn’t really any different from religious belief.

At the risk of sounding like I’m quibbling over language, I think secular faith and religious faith are very different animals. They’re not entirely unrelated, but ultimately they’re not the same thing at all. In fact, they’re so different, I’m not sure they should even share the same word.

So let’s take this one at a time. What is secular faith?

AisleLet’s use an example. I have faith in Ingrid. What does that mean? It means that I trust that she loves me; I trust that she’ll act with my best interests at heart; I trust that she’ll keep her promises. It means that I rely on her, and that I believe my reliance is justified. And it means that I don’t need a 100% ironclad guarantee of these things. It means that I know what a ridiculous expectation that would be — we can never have a 100% ironclad guarantee of anything — and that I’m willing to trust her anyway. It means that I’m willing to take the evidence that I have, the evidence of her feelings and character that I have from her actions and words, and then take a leap of faith by trusting that they mean what they seem to mean.

Ballot_boxsvgOr let’s use another, more complicated example. I have faith in democracy. That’s a tricky one, as democracy has let me down time and time again. But I have faith in it. I have the conviction that, while far from a perfect political system, it’s still the best one we have, offering the best hope we have for a better and more just life for everyone. And I have hope that, with commitment and hard work, its problems can be… not eliminated, probably, but mitigated.

AvatarAnd one more example before I move on with my point: I have faith in myself. Possibly the most complicated of all, as I’ve lived with myself for my entire life, and have therefore probably let myself down more than anyone or anything else that I’ve ever had faith in. (With the possible exception of some notable ex-lovers and the Democratic Party…) But I have confidence that, when I set my mind and my heart to it, I can accomplish the things in my life that are important to me: being a good partner, a good writer, a good worker, a good citizen, a good friend. And when I take on a big new task — writing a book, moving to a new city, getting married — I have confidence that, if I seriously commit to it and put all my energy and talent and intelligence into it, I’ll be able to accomplish it.

So now we have some pertinent synonyms for “secular faith.” Trust. Reliance. Confidence. Conviction. Hope.

Keep those synonyms in mind.

And religious faith is… what?

See_no_evilI don’t agree with certain hard-line atheists who insist that religious faith is always blind faith; that it always means refusing to question or doubt; that it always means absolute obedience to the authorities and precepts of one’s religion. Sure, it often means these things. Many religious and formerly- religious people have said so, in so many words. But I’ve also known believers who do question, do doubt, do think for themselves, do have their eyes open. For at least some believers, a faith that can’t weather questioning is a weak-ass faith that isn’t worth having. Faith in honest doubt, and all that.

So religious faith is… what?

In writing this, I didn’t want to be a jerk and assume that I know better than believers do what faith means to them. I always hate it when theists assume they know what atheists think without actually bothering to check, and I don’t want to commit that error myself.

4_religious_symbolsBut it was surprisingly difficult to find definitions of faith from organized religions. I spent many hours looking at websites of different religious organizations — Islam, Judaism, Hindu, Bahai, and many Christian sects including Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist (American and Southern), UCC, and MCC. And I didn’t find definitions of “faith” on any of these. (The Catholics were an exception; see below.) Lots of religions clearly state what it is they have faith in: but what exactly it means to have faith is either ignored, or it’s just assumed that everybody knows. “Our faith is in (X, Y, Z)… and what that means is that those are the things we believe. Believing (X, Y, Z) is what it means to be in our faith.”

That being said, here are a few definitions of religious faith that I did find.

Faith_3“Divine faith, then, is that form of knowledge which is derived from Divine authority, and which consequently begets absolute certitude in the mind of the recipient.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, www.newadvent.org)

“…since faith is supernatural assent to Divine truths upon Divine authority, the ultimate or remote rule of faith must be the truthfulness of God in revealing Himself.” (catholic.org)

“Faith therefore is to believe that which you do not see, truth is to see what you have believed.” (St. Augustine”)

“‘Faith’ involves a growing recognition of who Jesus is… It is much more like an intuitive perception — a kind of ‘sixth sense’ — about this person Jesus: an inner prompting which compels us to go after him, to engage with his words and character, to ‘relate’ to him… But ‘faith’ is also not just about the intuition to seek. ‘Faith’ consists in taking Jesus at his word. This story illustrates clearly that ‘faith’ is characterised by a willingness to grasp what is being offered in the encounter with Jesus… ‘Faith’ in this story is not primarily some settled and serene conclusion reached at the end of a chain of philosophical reasoning. No, faith is rather the readiness and eagerness to receive what is offered to us in Jesus Christ. It is the hand that grasps the gift of God in Jesus and makes it our own. This is biblical faith.” (Revd Dr Paul Weston, ely.anglican.org; emphasis mine)

“Assent to the truth is of the essence of faith, and the ultimate ground on which our assent to any revealed truth rests is the veracity of God.” (Christiananswers.com)

“The dictionary definition of faith is, ‘the theological virtue defined as secure belief in God and a trusting acceptance of God’s will.’ For a Christian, this definition is not just words on a page it is a way of life. Faith is acceptance of what we cannot see but feel deep within our hearts. Faith is a belief that one-day we will stand before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (Allaboutreligion.org; emphasis mine.)

“Biblical faith, however, is specific and unique. It describes the person who chooses to believe, trust, and obey God. This principle is vital — the object of faith determines its value. Thus, it is very important that what we believe, what we have faith in, is really the truth!” (Herbert E. Douglass, The Faith of Jesus: Saying Yes to God’s Love)

Duererprayer“Faith means an individual’s personal, existential connection with the reality and power of God. Faith is not a ‘thing’ that is possessed or an ‘idea’ that is pondered, but rather a relationship that infuses divine power and creates an attitude and a vision for living and acting.” (Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word: Meditations on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew)

“Faith is not a power or faculty in itself which “moves” or “compels” God. It is an attitude of confidence in God Himself. It always points to the One in whom it is placed.” (inchristalone.org)

“Faith, then, is like the soul of an experience. It is an inner acknowledgment of the relationship between God and man.” (John Powell, A Reason to Live! A Reason to Die)

“Faith saves our souls alive by giving us a universe of the taken-for-granted.” (Rose Wilder Lane, The Ghost in the Little House)

“Reason is an action of the mind; knowledge is a possession of the mind; but faith is an attitude of the person. It means you are prepared to stake yourself on something being so.” (Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, 1961–74)

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1)

So let’s sum these up, and make it as simple as we can without being simplistic.

GodReligious faith means believing in God. (Or gods, or the World-Soul, or the immortal spirit, or whatever. For the sake of brevity, let’s say God for now.)

And it means believing in God no matter what. It means an unshakeable belief in God. It doesn’t necessarily mean an unquestioning belief in God — again, many believers do ask questions, and hard questions at that — but it means a belief in God that survives those questions, and any questions. It means having belief in God, not as a hypothesis that so far has stood up to the evidence but might not always do so, but as an axiom. A presupposition.

GenevabibleNow, it isn’t the case that religious faith always means faith without evidence. Some of the more fundamentalist religions actually say that evidence is an important part of their faith. But the things they consider “evidence” — namely, the Bible, and its supposed inerrancy — are themselves objects of faith. Despite the Bible’s historical and scientific errors, its contradictions, its moral atrocities, etc., the belief in its inerrancy is itself, for these believers, an unshakable axiom.

Here’s a test that I’ve found to be extremely useful. Central to my whole thesis, in fact. In Ebonmuse’s excellent Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists, he makes this observation: “Ask any believer what would convince him he was mistaken and persuade him to leave his religion and become an atheist, and if you get a response, it will almost invariably be, ‘Nothing — I have faith in my god.'” He then goes on to offer several examples of the types of evidence that he, as an atheist, would accept as proof that a given religion is true.

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3But only two people have taken up Ebonmuse on his challenge, stating the evidence that would convince them that their religious faith was incorrect. And both replies consisted of either physical and/or logical impossibilities (things like, “Proof that all miracle claims are false,” or “Falsifying the resurrection of Christ”)… or irrelevancies, non-sequiturs (things like, “If it could be demonstrated conclusively that I was deluded in thinking that life has meaning, I would deconvert.” As if the fact that people experience meaning proves that this meaning was planted in us by God… and as if creating our own meaning was the same as being deluded.)

Only two responses to the challenge, “What would convince you that your faith is mistaken?” And both those responses are strikingly unresponsive.

Now. In contrast. Let’s return for a moment to secular faith. And let’s offer one of the examples I mentioned before: my faith in Ingrid.

Is there anything that could convince me that my faith in Ingrid is mistaken?

Sure. Yes. Absolutely.

She could murder all my relatives. She could set our house on fire, purely for the thrill of watching it burn. She could clear out our joint bank account and run off to Brazil with Keith Olberman. She could be revealed to be a Russian spy (or a Cylon agent), who’s pretended to be in love with me all these years simply to gain information. She could shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die.

None of these things is logically impossible, or physically impossible. (Well, except the one about being a Cylon.) They’re not very likely, of course… but they could happen. And any of them would convince me that my faith in her was mistaken.

EvidenceSo my faith in Ingrid isn’t irrational. It’s reasonable. It’s based on evidence — the evidence of her past behavior. It’s true that I take a leap of faith with her every day: I can’t be 100% certain that she has never done any of these things and never will. And more to the point, I take leaps of faith with her every day that are both smaller than these and more serious. I have faith that she puts the right amount of money into our joint bank account; that the medical advice she gives me is as unbiased as she can make it; that she really is going to dance practice every Tuesday instead of seeing a lover she hasn’t told me about. These are all leaps of faith… but they’re leaps of faith that could conceivably be overturned by evidence.

And that doesn’t make them weaker, or less valuable. Quite the contrary. It just makes them rational. It makes them grounded in reality.

Let’s look at those secular synonyms for “faith” again. Trust. Reliance. Confidence. Conviction. Hope. Those are the things that secular faith means. They mean a willingness to move forward in the absence of an ironclad guarantee. A willingness to hang onto the big picture in the face of small failures and setbacks. A willingness to persevere during difficult times.

But not one of these synonyms for secular faith implies a willingness to maintain that faith in contradiction of any possible evidence that might arise. Even when people’s secular faith leans towards the irrational — faith in lovers who repeatedly cheat, faith in leaders who repeatedly let us down — it still could theoretically be contradicted by evidence. Yes, some people maintain their faiths in the face of ridiculously obvious evidence to the contrary. But I think there are very few, if any, people whose secular faith in their lovers and leaders, their plans and ideologies, could not possibly be shaken by any imaginable evidence whatsoever.

Even if there are some people like that… how shall I put this? That kind of unshakability isn’t inherent to the very nature of secular faith. It isn’t a necessary and central part of the definition. Even if there are people whose faith in their cheating lovers could never be shaken even if they caught those lovers actually having wild naked sex with another person… I don’t think anyone thinks that that’s what it means, by definition, to have faith in your lover. I don’t think anyone thinks that giving up on your faith in your lover’s monogamy when you see them screw someone else somehow means that you didn’t really have faith in the first place… or that your faith wasn’t strong enough. (An argument that does get aimed at atheists who once had religious faith.)

BlindfoldIn fact, when someone hangs onto a secular faith in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, we stop calling it “faith” at all, and start calling it less complimentary words. Words like “pigheadedness” or “blindness,” “willful ignorance” or “delusion.” (Our current President is a prime example.)

And that, I think, is the difference between secular and religious faith. That is why my faith in Ingrid, in democracy, in myself, are fundamentally different from a theist’s faith in God. I have faith in Ingrid… but it’s not a central defining feature of that faith that nothing could ever shake it, even in theory. I don’t answer the question, “What would convince you that your faith in Ingrid is mistaken?” by saying, “Nothing. Nothing could convince me that I was mistaken. That’s what it means to have faith.”

Barbara_ann_scott_studing_leap_1948We all have to make leaps of faith. We can never have all the relevant information when we make a decision; we can never have a 100% ironclad guarantee that our beliefs and actions will be right. So it’s not irrational to have secular faith; it’s a calculated risk (unconsciously calculated much of the time, to be sure), necessary to get on with life in the face of uncertainty.

What’s irrational is to maintain one’s faith in the face of any possible evidence that might arise. What’s irrational is to assert ahead of time that no possible evidence could ever shake your faith; to assert, essentially, that your faith trumps reality. And what’s profoundly irrational is to insist that doing these things is a virtue, an admirable trait that makes you a good and noble person.

Which leads us to a somewhat explosive question: Is religious faith irrational?

And that’s the subject of tomorrow’s sermon.

(Many thanks to Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism for his help compiling the “definitions of faith” list.)

Onward Christian Soldiers: Theocracy and the U.S. Military

ArmylogoThis one scares the bejeezus out of me.

A lot of atheist blogs have had this story. For some time now, actually, But the New York Times has finally covered the story, which seems like a good excuse for me to talk about it.

The Times headline sums it up pretty darned well:

Soldier Sues Army, Saying His Atheism Led to Threats

And here’s a few pertinent quotes before I get into my analysis:

When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.

But minutes into the talk, the officer, Maj. Freddy J. Welborn, began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism, Specialist Hall wrote in a sworn statement. “People like you are not holding up the Constitution and are going against what the founding fathers, who were Christians, wanted for America!” Major Welborn said, according to the statement.

Major Welborn told the soldiers he might bar them from re-enlistment and bring charges against them, according to the statement.


Perhaps the most high-profile incident involved seven officers, including four generals, who appeared, in uniform and in violation of military regulations, in a 2006 fund-raising video for the Christian Embassy, an evangelical Bible study group.


Specialist Hall began a chapter of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers at Camp Speicher, near Tikrit, to support others like him.

At the July meeting, Major Welborn told the soldiers they had disgraced those who had died for the Constitution, Specialist Hall said. When he finished, Major Welborn said, according to the statement: “I love you guys; I just want the best for you. One day you will see the truth and know what I mean.”


Complaints include prayers “in Jesus’ name” at mandatory functions, which violates military regulations, and officers proselytizing subordinates to be “born again.” After getting the complainants’ unit and command information, Mr. Weinstein said, he calls his contacts in the military to try to correct the situation.

“Religion is inextricably intertwined with their jobs,” Mr. Weinstein said. “You’re promoted by who you pray with.”

Okay. Do we have the picture now, everybody? Read the whole story if you don’t. And this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this story: plenty of atheist blogs have been carrying it for a while, along with many others like it. (More info — not just on this case, but on an appalling number of similar ones — at the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.)

And here’s why this scares the daylights out of me. More than just about any instance of creeping theocracy in our country. More, even, than creationism and other forms of religious fundamentalism being taught in our public, taxpayer-funded schools.

With_god_on_our_sideThis is the Army.

This is the branch of our government with the big rifles.

And increasingly, they seem to be placing their allegiance to their religion over their allegiance to the country and the Constitution.

There’s a story that Ed Brayton (who’s been covering this story a lot) had over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. The whole story is excellent, but here’s the truly terrifying part:

One individual, posting under the name “Hidog,” suggested Hall put on an orange vest and carry a sign “Bong hits 4 Allah” through the streets of Iraq, “because apparently, your Bill of Rights trump your CO’s (commanding officer’s) orders.”

ConstitutionAs Ed pointed out, “Well yes, the bill of rights does trump the orders of a commanding officer when those orders violate the bill of rights.”

And it scares the merciful crap out of me to think that the Army is increasingly full of people — not just mooks with no power, but officers — who don’t understand that. It terrifies me to think of an Army populated by both officers and enlisted men whose hearts — and guns — belong, not to the citizens of this country who employ them, but to Jesus.

And it terrifies me to realize these are not isolated incidents. There’s so much more to this story that I haven’t gotten into, that I don’t have time to get into without this turning into an unreadably long screed. It is becoming increasingly clear that this is the dominant culture of the current United States Army.

With support from the Pentagon.

Because that, people, means that we really are living in a theocracy. Right now. The armed enforcers of our Federal government are the defenders, not of our country, not of our Constitution, but of their God and their faith.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

Okay. Perhaps I’m being a little panicky, a little overdramatic. The good news is that we’re not overtly a theocracy. Yet. When caught in these shenanigans, the perpetrators still have to shimmy and sidestep, deny that it happened or hastily issue regulations to halt the more grotesquely blatant examples of it. And if the Supreme Court hasn’t become completely craven, hopefully they’ll be spanking the Pentagon long and hard over this. (Military fetishists, take note.)

NytimeslogoAnd the good news is that the story finally got out of the atheist blogosphere and into the New York Times. (CNN has the story, too.)

But this is not a few isolated incidents. This is not a few bad apples. This is, as Mikey Weinsein of the MRFF called it, “the intentional dismantling of the Constitutionally mandated wall separating church and state by some of the highest ranking officials in the Bush Administration and the U.S. military.”

SoldiersThe intentional dismantling of the wall separating church and state. By the armed enforcers of the Federal government. By the branch of the Federal government that has the big rifles.

What is that but theocracy?

(P.S. I’m not even going to get into the fact that these are the people who are enforcing our foreign policy overseas, in parts of the world that are primarily and quite passionately not Christian. Except to say: Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. What a colossally, appallingly, mind-twistingly bad idea that is.)

This has been all over the atheosphere; but Susie Bright is the one who sent it to me. So thanks, Susie.

Going to Church

Churchsvg_2So I went to church last week.

Odd experience. Neat, but odd.

Quick explanation. A friend of ours was being installed as senior minister in a local Bay Area church, and we went to the installation ceremony. A very lefty, groovy church, of course: completely gay-positive, sex-positive, feminist, very ecumenical, very inclusive, no smiting or hell or judgment talk, a major focus on compassion and social justice. And a nice place, too: warm, friendly, welcoming, with a great capacity for joy and a surprising sense of humor about itself.

I was surprised, though, at how God-dy it was. I hadn’t been expecting that. Somehow, I’d assumed that leftist, gay-positive, ecumenical, etc. churches didn’t really talk about God that much. Like the Unitarians. But the belief in God was very much present in the service, to a surprising degree. And so the churchiness and religious aspect of it was much more up in my face than it would have been in a less God-focused service.

It was a long ceremony. Over two hours. And while it wasn’t boring — quite the contrary, I found it a fascinating experience, and often a very pleasant one — it gave me a lot of time to contemplate religious belief up close… as well as my own reactions to it.

ArgueHere’s the first thing I noticed: The reflex to argue with religious beliefs has become very deeply ingrained in me. Throughout the ceremony, I found myself mentally quarreling with the content of the sermons and the songs. “Oh, God is not your creator — no perfect conscious being would have cobbled together these ad hoc, Rube Goldberg systems of biological life.” “If you’re going to give God the credit for all this wonderful love and bounty and happiness, doesn’t he also deserve the blame for all the suffering and starvation and selfishness?” Etc.

But the arguing wasn’t fun, the way it is in the atheosphere. In fact, it made me feel like kind of a jerk. Not a fair or accurate feeling, I don’t think, but a feeling nonetheless. Even though I wasn’t saying anything out loud (except the occasional sotto voce comment to my companions when I just couldn’t stand it), it reminded me of the unpleasant fact that, in our society, the role of the skeptic/ vocal atheist/ critic of religion and spirituality is often the role of the buzz-kill, the party pooper, the Great Rain God On Everyone’s Parade. And it reminded me, quite viscerally, of just how much of an outsider I was in this place. Even in the grooviest, friendliest, leftiest, most inclusive church I could hope for, I still felt like an alien.

Plus, because of how God-dy the service was, I was having a near-constant struggle with myself about how much I was and was not willing to participate. One the one hand, I didn’t want to be rudely conspicuous about my lack of assent to the proceedings. After all, as Miss Manners would say, if I’d felt such strong disapproval of the event that my only honorable response would be conspicuous defiance, the proper thing to do would have been to not attend at all. And I didn’t feel that way, at all. But at the same time, I was absolutely unwilling to say or do anything — and I mean anything — that expressed, or even symbolized, agreement and assent with what was being said or sung.

Closed_mouthI did reach an internal compromise that I was ultimately okay with. I went along with the basic physical proceedings, standing and sitting and holding hands when everyone else did… but I declined to say, or even sing, anything that I didn’t agree with or assent to. Which, given how God-dy this ceremony was, meant pretty much not saying or singing anything at all. And I wouldn’t make gestures that I considered gestures of assent, either, such as bowing my head during prayer, or putting money in the collection plate. It was a compromise that I was completely fine with in theory… but in practice, it meant that I was hyper -self- consciously parsing my actions, pretty much constantly, throughout the service.

But on the flip side of all that, something else occurred to me, and occurred to me very strongly:

If this were what all religious belief and practice was like, I wouldn’t really care about it.

IndifferenceI’d still not believe it. I’d still disagree with it. I definitely wouldn’t participate in it, except for special occasions such as this one. And if asked my opinion about it, I’d still offer it. But it just wouldn’t be that big a deal to me. The world is full of mistaken beliefs — urban legends, folk etymologies, etc. — and while I’ll happily discuss them if they come up in conversation, I don’t get all that worked up about them. I certainly don’t devote the bulk of my writing career to pointing out the mistakes and offering alternatives. And if all religions were like this church — woman-positive, queer-positive, sex-positive, genuinely accepting of other religions, genuinely accepting of people with no religion at all, respectful and indeed enthusiastic about separation between church and state, etc. — then that’s probably how I’d feel about religion, too. Mistaken belief, sure, but people seem to get something they need out of it, so who am I to judge, and what business is it of mine anyway.

All religions aren’t like this one, of course. Religions like this one seem to be in the minority, and not a very large minority at that. And so my ongoing critique of religion will continue. Furthermore, while I don’t 100% agree with certain hard-line atheists that moderate religions give credibility to extremist and intolerant ones, I do think there’s a valid point in there somewhere. If nothing else, moderate religions give credibility to the idea that believing in things that don’t make sense and that you have absolutely no good evidence for is not only acceptable, but a positive virtue. And that is a big problem for me — especially since most religion isn’t groovy and tolerant and ecumenical.

It was good to have a reminder, though, that while I still don’t agree with churches like this one and still have serious problems with them, they really aren’t the enemy. These are good people, likable people, people I’m thrilled to have in the world.

But here’s the main thing, the final thing, the surprising and surprisingly large thing that I took away from this church service that I hadn’t even remotely expected:

I no longer have church envy.

At all.

PraiseFor many years, I’ve had a certain creeping envy of people who belonged to religious groups. The whole idea of having a place to go once a week to seek ecstasy and transcendence and meaning and share it with others, as a link in a chain going back hundreds or even thousands of years… it was something I felt a curious longing for. During my woo years, I even sought out, in a half-assed way, a religious group that I might be able to join up with. It was kind of like that Onion article: Black Gospel Choir Makes Man Wish He Believed In All That God Bullshit. (Especially the line where the pastor says, “Perhaps our abiding faith in Jesus and love for our fellow man will, at the very least, inspire him to quit living in his head all the time.”)

But at no point during this church service did I think, “This is something I would like to have, and don’t.”

Jump_for_joyThere were many wonderful things about the service, and it clearly offered something of value to the members of the church. There was joy, community, celebration of life, transcendence and ecstasy, wonderful music (really — the choir was something special), a shared sense of purpose and meaning, etc. etc. But all the things that I liked about the service, all the things I found meaningful and moving, were all things that I can and do get from other areas of my life. I can get them from dancing, from music, from good food, from good conversation, from reading, from writing, from nature, from art, from sex.

PrayerAnd the things I didn’t like… well, those were all the actual religious parts. And I don’t want them. I found them alien, and alienating. They didn’t make sense to me — not intellectually, not emotionally, not viscerally, not in any way. I found them baffling and mysterious, and not in an enticingly mysterious way. (Or, obviously, in a “beautiful holy mystery” way.) They weren’t unpleasant, exactly. They just completely failed to strike any chord in me whatsoever. If there’s an opposite to striking a chord, that’s what they did.

Ingrid said something after the service that struck me strongly. I hadn’t thought about it in those terms, but as soon as she said it, I realized it was true for me as well. The night before the church service, we had gone to Perverts Put Out, a semi-regular reading series by local sex writers. (I was one of the readers, in fact.) Now, Perverts Put Out is always a high-quality event… but this night was exceptional, even by PPO standards. One of those nights that you remember for years. And what Ingrid said is that, at that Perverts Put Out, she felt more transcendence, more joy, more sense of meaning and connection and community, than she even came close to feeling at the church service.


Now, it’s not like this is a question of “either/or”. It’s not like you can have a porn reading or you can have church, but you can’t have both. Especially with this church. In fact, we weren’t the only people who went to both: we ran into a couple of people at the church service that we recognized from the porn reading the night before. I’m not trying to draw a contrast in that way.

I’m just trying to say:

Slash_circlesvgI no longer envy people who have religion.

There is nothing here that I want or need.

If any church — certainly any actively God-dy Christian church — was going to fill me with church envy, it would have been this one: this gay-positive, sex-positive, warm, loving, ecumenical, inclusive, progressive, social-justice church. And it didn’t.

And that’s an amazing realization. Even when you take away all the icky stuff from religion — even when you take away the conformist indoctrination and the fucked-up politics, the hatred of women and the fear of sex, the intolerance of other religions and the insidious terrorism of the concept of hell — I still don’t want it. It’s not just the obviously fucked-up trappings that I don’t want. It’s the religion itself.

A while back, I wrote a post asking, If You Weren’t An Atheist, What Would You Be? In it, I pondered this very issue: the yearning I had for the things religion seemed to offer, the search I’d been on in my past for a religious organization that I could be part of. I looked at religions that I had a fondness for, and asked: If I weren’t an atheist, what would I be? Would I be a Quaker? A pagan? A Bahai? A Jew?

But now I have my answer to that question.

If I weren’t an atheist, I’d be an atheist.

Humanist Symposium #18

CarnivalThe Humanist Symposium is on its 18th edition! It’s old enough to vote!

My pieces in this Symposium:

Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason


Memories of a Good Science Education… and Worries About Bad Ones

My favorite other piece in this Symposium: Peace Among Primates, Parts One, Two, and Three. A fascinating, entertaining, readable, and marvelously optimistic look at the “nature, nurture, or both” question when it comes to violence in humans and other primates.

But really, everything in the Symposium is great, and it’s all worth reading. This is always my favorite blog carnival, and this edition is unusually strong. Check it out.

“Everything happens for a reason”: Atheism and Learning from Mistakes

Project_runwayI’m not sure when I started noticing this turn of phrase. But I think it was during one of our Project Runway marathons. When designers lose a challenge and get kicked off the show, roughly half of them say something along these lines:

“Obviously I’m disappointed… but I think everything happens for a reason.”

And it’s driving me nuts. Not just when I’m watching Project Runway… but all the time. Whether it’s presented in conventional theistic terms — God has a plan for us all — or in more vague, woo terms — X happened because it was meant to happen, it happened to teach me a lesson, I guess the universe is trying to tell me something — it still drives me nuts. (I think it drives me especially nuts because I used to believe it myself, and I’m always more irritated with irrational beliefs that I used to hold myself.)

Cascadia_earthquake_sourcesI mean, in the most literal sense of the words, of course everything happens for a reason — if by “for a reason” you mean “as a result of cause and effect.” Earthquakes happen because of shifting plates in the earth; I got pneumonia because I got bacteria in my lungs at a time when I was physically vulnerable; designers get kicked off Project Runway because the judges don’t like their designs. And since every effect has its own cause, you can trace that chain of cause and effect almost as far back as you like, until you run out of either knowledge or patience.

Pen_in_handBut that’s clearly not what people mean when they say that everything happens for a reason. They mean that everything happens for a purpose. They mean that everything that happens has intention behind it. They mean that earthquakes and illnesses and getting kicked off reality shows are part of a plan, either a conscious plan of God or an unconscious plan of some vague Fate or World-Soul or Universe… a plan to teach us lessons, or to point our lives in new and fruitful directions, or to give us things we need and don’t find it easy to accept.

And it bugs me.

It bugs me for the obvious reason: I think it’s mistaken, and I think it’s a mistaken idea that does more harm than good — if for no other reason, simply because it is mistaken.

ThinkingBut it also bugs me because I think it hinders the learning process. It gets in the way of learning from your mistakes. It’s not like every bad thing that happens to you is a result of your mistakes, of course. But if you think that every bad thing that happens to you happens because it serves some larger purpose, how are you going to figure out which bad things are things you could have avoided, and could avoid in the future? How are you going to have a clear perspective on which parts of your life are things that you caused, which are things that other people caused, and which are just accidents that nobody could have any control over?

And it’s so unnecessary. I understand that “Everything happens for a reason” is often a way of saying, “This happened so I could learn from it.” But it’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, without believing that someone or something made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson. In fact, it’s not just possible — it’s easier. What with the clearer perspective on cause and effect, and all.

More on all that in a bit. I think there are a few basic processes driving this kind of thinking, and I want to take a quick look at them all so I can take them apart.

How_we_believe1. False perception of intention. The human mind has evolved — for very good evolutionary reasons — to see intention, even when no intention exists. Michael Shermer talks about this in How We Believe. Example: When shown triangles moving about on a screen, people tend to describe the action as the triangles “chasing” each other or otherwise acting with intention… when in fact the pattern was completely random.

Mistakes_were_made2. Rationalization. Saying that “everything happens for a reason” can be a great way to evade responsibility when the “everything” that happened is, in fact, your fault. “Yes, I didn’t study and I flunked chemistry and now I can’t go to medical school… but everything happens for a reason. I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school. I guess I was meant to repair VWs and grow marijuana.”

Mask3. Saving face. This is a lot like rationalization, except that it’s less about making a good excuse that you yourself can believe, and more about not wanting to look like a loser in front of others.

Mans_search_for_meaning4. Wanting to find meaning. This one I have more sympathy with than any of the others (although I actually have at least some sympathy with all of them). Believing that everything happens for a reason is a way to make the lousy things that happen in your life feel like they have some meaning. If you can convince yourself that there’s some Greater Purpose to getting laid off and your car breaking down… well, some people find that more comforting than thinking that Sometimes Shit Happens, with no purpose or function. (I sure don’t, but that’s another post.)

So let’s take a look at these.

Holdingarulingpen1. False perception of intention. Not sure what else I have to say about this. Again, the human mind has evolved to see intention even when none exists. If we see our lives as shaped by some external guide, when that guide doesn’t really exist, it skews our ability to see how we affected the situation ourselves… and what we might do in the future to make things turn out differently.

Long_dark_teatime_of_the_soul2. Rationalization. I get that we all rationalize our mistakes and failures. And I even get that rationalization is psychologically necessary, to let us make decisions and live with them and not have dark nights of the soul every night. I just think that “Everything happens for a reason” is a particularly pernicious rationalization, one that mucks up the learning process and creates a passive approach to life. Try some other rationalizations instead. “I was having a bad day,” “I didn’t understand the instructions,” “I guess you can’t please everybody”… these are time-honored rationalizations that let you sleep at night without convincing yourself that your mistakes and failures are all part of someone’s brilliant master plan.

Face_gray_23. Saving face. Again, I get it. You flunk out of chemistry or get kicked off Project Runway; you don’t want to look like a loser in front of your friends and family and millions of strangers. But again, there are better ways to save face than the “Everything happens for a reason” trope — ways that don’t encourage passivity and get in the way of learning from mistakes. The losing “Project Runway” designers who didn’t say, “Everything happens for a reason” had some excellent ones. “I’m sorry I lost, but I’m proud of my work, and I wouldn’t have done it differently.” “This week’s challenge was hard for me, and I didn’t do my best work — I’m just sorry I didn’t get a chance to show the world what a great designer I am.” And my personal favorite: “I learned a lot from this experience, and I’m going to come out of it a better designer.”

Meaning_of_life4. Wanting to find meaning. And again, I get it. Mistakes and failures and pain… well, they suck. Believing that they have meaning can help make them suck less. But I think there are far, far better ways to get meaning from your mistakes than, “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s completely possible to learn from our mistakes and failures and pain, and to weave them into the meaning of our lives, without believing that someone or something outside of us made those mistakes and failures and pains happen, on purpose, in order to teach us a lesson.

It seems to me that the “Everything happens for a reason” philosophy is kind of a passive one. It’s a philosophy that sees the plan for your life — and the meaning of that life — as belonging to someone other than yourself. It’s a philosophy that looks out in the world for signs and clues about what you should be doing, instead of looking at yourself and your own life.

Harvard_medical_schoolAnd it’s a way of avoiding responsibility — not just the obvious responsibility for your mistakes, but responsibility for the desires you have and the choices you make. Saying, “I guess I wasn’t meant to go to medical school” means you don’t have to say, “I guess I don’t actually want to go to medical school,” or, “I guess I screwed up my chances of going to medical school.”

Or, for that matter, “I guess if I want to go to medical school, then I need to make some serious changes.”

I remember this vividly from my own woo days. The number of times that I said to myself. “I guess I was meant to do X,” or, “I guess I wasn’t meant to do Y”… it’s embarrassing to think of it now. I was meant to live in San Francisco, and to work for On Our Backs; I wasn’t meant to stay in my first marriage, or to go to nursing school.

Crowley_tarot_artIt would have been a lot more honest for me to say, “I guess I really want to do X,” or, “I guess I really don’t want to do Y.” But it was so much easier to interpret the successes and failures of my life, and the happy and unhappy accidents, as signs and symbols from a benevolent spirit guiding me to my path, then it was to think of them as my own damn choices intersecting with random chance. The benevolent guiding spirit of the universe seemed so much kinder and more thoughtful than the indifference and stupidity of random chance; and it seemed about a thousand times smarter and wiser than I knew myself to be. It was a belief that let me avoid taking responsibility for my choices and desires — and the ways that they shaped my circumstances and opportunities — without feeling like a piece of paper being blown about by the wind.

Scarlet_aBut I can’t believe it any more. The evidence just doesn’t support it. And letting go of that belief has made me both more responsible and more accepting. It’s like the atheist version of the Serenity prayer. Letting go of thinking that everything happens for a reason has helped me have more courage to change things that I can, more serenity to accept things that I can’t, and more wisdom to know the difference.

Atheist Plumbing

As promised. Sometimes dreams really do come true…

Brain_question_markQuestions of religious belief — or the lack thereof — can touch every aspect of our everyday lives. The effect can be obvious or unconscious; powerful or subtle. And yet it is in these everyday applications where theology or the lack thereof can touch us most deeply: in our approach to commuting, to home electronics, to long distance providers, to auto maintenance.

And, of course, to plumbing.

SinkThe theistic approach to plumbing is well-known. Drains that are clogged or free-flowing; toilets that flush or overflow; water heaters that are reliable or inefficient — all of these are seen as the work of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-benevolent Great Plumber, who ultimately has our best interests at heart. The clogs and overflows, the scalding or freezing showers: these are seen as punishments for sins against God. Or as tests of faith. Or, if all else fails, as that last-ditch, circular excuse: mysterious ways.

Old_broken_urinalBut the evidence does not bear this viewpoint out. Even a cursory glance at the workings of the world shows that good and bad plumbing strikes good and bad people in roughly equal proportions, apparently at random. In fact, recent research shows that countries with high rates of religious belief are more likely to suffer from bad plumbing, not less. And while few would argue that religious belief actually causes bad plumbing (it’s far more likely that poverty and poor education results in higher rates of both), it is clear to all but the most fervently close-minded true believer that, if God is handing out good and bad plumbing as reward and punishment for good and bad lives, his systems and pipe fittings leaves a great deal to be desired.

PlungersMany theists cling to their belief in the Unclogged Clogger as a source of great comfort, and find it impossible to imagine how anyone could find meaning in a world where clean flushes and dripping faucets are doled out by an unconscious and therefore indifferent universe. But the atheist approach to plumbing is not only better supported by the evidence — it is far more effective as well. Atheists see good or bad plumbing as resulting simply from cause and effect in the physical world. And therefore, I believe, we are better equipped to deal with them: to see with clear eyes which of life’s clogs can be plunged, which can be Dranoed, and which must simply be accepted.

Adjustable_wrenchThe Great Wrench is not in God’s hand, or in Satan’s. It is in our own. What could be more comforting than that?

Atheism, Bad Luck, and the Comfort of Reason

Warning: The first bit of this piece contains a hearty gripe. Stick with me: except for occasional outbursts, the kvetching doesn’t last past the first couple of paragraphs, and there really is a point.

Pneumonia_x_rayAs people who are close to me know (and as people who follow the blog closely may have guessed), the last month or two has been among the lousiest times of my life. I’ve had worse months — months of death, of divorce, of serious family illness. But in terms of the sheer stupid dogpiling of badness upon badness, I’m hard-pressed to think of another that’s sucked more. It’s not just been the pneumonia and my cat dying; I’ve been dealing with other health problems (mostly behind me now, but it wasn’t fun); a trip to the emergency room for Ingrid (she’s totally fine now, but it was a scary few hours); a small but painful second- degree burn; missing the queer contra dance camp because I was sick; and my hard drive crashing. (Yes, I’ve been doing backups; no, I haven’t been doing them often enough, and I lost some work that I really did not want to lose.)

It’s getting to the point where it’s almost comical, except that I lost my sense of humor about a week and a half ago. Along with my patience. But of course, you can lose your patience all you want to with bad things in your life, and it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference — you still have to endure them.

Catoninetails_psfI don’t bring all this up to cadge sympathy, or to dump on you. I bring it up because of this: This has been the kind of month (two-month? fortmonth? bimonth?) that would make believers in God wonder what they were being punished for. It’s the kind of bimonth that, back in my woo days when I believed that everything happened for a reason, would have made me rack my brains trying to figure out what the fuck it was that the universe was trying to teach me. (Amazing, isn’t it: the arrogance of thinking that the universe arranges itself around you in order to personally teach you a lesson.)

But I don’t think that. Any of it. And I’m so glad that I don’t think any of it, I can’t even tell you.

I know that religion is repeatedly defended as a source of comfort in difficult times. But this has been one of the more difficult times in my life… and I’ve been finding that my atheistic, skeptical, rational view of my difficulties is more comforting than any religious belief I’ve ever held, or could ever imagine holding.

So here is my atheist, skeptical, rational look at why runs of bad luck happen.

Snake_eyes_2svg1. Just plain luck. Anyone who studies statistics will tell you that, in any random sequence that’s long enough, mini-sequences will show up that look like patterns. Pseudopatterns, they’re called. You roll a pair of dice for long enough, chances are that at some point you’re going to get snake-eyes ten times in a row. And that’s some of what this run of bad luck is about. A good example is my cat dying and my hard drive crashing. Nothing to do with each other, as far as I can tell. They just happened to happen in roughly the same time frame. When a lot of it happens in a row, it can feel like a pattern, with intention behind it… but that doesn’t mean it is.

Tired2. Bad things can cause other bad things to happen. If you’re tired, stressed, distracted, sleep- deprived, etc. from a bad thing happening, you’re more likely to make serious mistakes, get into accidents, and/or get sick. Ingrid and I are convinced that this is why she had her trip to the emergency room: it happened in the middle of Catfish’s final illness, and Ingrid was upset and distracted and not looking where she was going. And I think it’s very likely that the dogpile of stress was a big factor in my getting pneumonia. (At the doctor’s visit when the pneumonia was diagnosed, my blood pressure, normally in the very healthy vicinity of 120/70, was 144/87.)

Negative_affirmations3. Bad things make you less able to cope with other bad things… thus making them feel worse than they otherwise would. I don’t think pneumonia is ever a picnic… but I think I’d be handling it with a lot more patience and good humor if it hadn’t come at the tail end (what I hope is the tail end, what bloody well better be the tail end) of this ridiculous run of shitty luck.

Lemon_zinger4. Big bad things make you more conscious of, and more sensitive to, little bad things. This, I think, is a big one. Normally, I pride myself on my ability to take the ordinary bumps of life in my stride, even to have a sense of humor about them, to make them part of the overall optimistic pattern of my life. But in the last month, every little inconvenience and annoyance has been magnified by stress. Ingrid getting a cold, a stain on our nice bedspread, the store being out of the kind of tea that I like… all of it gets magnified into One More Fucking Thing I Have To Deal With This Month. All of it seems like part of the pattern. The non-existent pseudopattern.

Or, to sum it all up in a couple of words: Shit Happens.

So where’s the comfort in all this?

Here is the comfort:

I know what’s happening.

I understand what’s happening.

So I’m not afraid of it.

And I don’t have to feel guilty about it.

GuiltI don’t have to add guilt to the dogpile. I don’t have to add the shameful and frightened feeling that the dogpile is a punishment for some unknown sin. I don’t have to add sleepless nights trying to figure out what I’ve done wrong, what I’ve done to deserve this, what lesson is being taught me that I’m too dense to learn. I don’t have to feel like it’s my fault. (Okay, not backing up my data often enough was my fault… but other than that.) I don’t have to take it personally.

Now, I understand that “not taking it personally” is itself hard for many people. If shit happens simply because shit happens, and not to teach you a lesson, then the shit can seem both meaningless and out of control. Believing that runs of bad luck are punishment for some sin is a way to give your suffering meaning… and it’s a way to convince yourself that you have it in your power to prevent it from happening again.

AltarBut given a choice between thinking that the meaning of my suffering is “Shit happens,” and that the meaning of my suffering is “You’re a bad person,” I’ll take “Shit happens” any day. And given a choice between spending my life in a desperate, futile attempt to figure out which set of rituals and sacrifices I need to make to appease my god and prevent the shit from happening again — and instead having some sort of reasonable expectations and wisdom about what in my life I can and cannot change — I’ll take the latter in a heartbeat.

The Blasphemy of Creationism

Calvary_chapelThe story of the UC-Calvary lawsuit has been all over the atheosphere in the last few days. I’m not going to get into it in much detail (good pieces about it on Daylight Atheism and Dispatches from the Culture Wars), but to give you a quick summary so you know what I’m ranting about: A federal judge recently issued a preliminary ruling saying that UC Berkeley could, in fact, refuse to give college credit in biology for courses that taught young-earth creationism. (Calvary Chapel Christian School was trying to argue religious freedom; UC Berkeley was arguing that Calvary could have all the religious freedom they wanted, but they shouldn’t expect UC to drop its academic standards and recognize non-science as science.)

So the Daylight Atheism piece on this had an excerpt from one of the textbooks in question. The textbook is Biology for Christian Schools, and the excerpt is as follows and begins now:

(1) “‘Whatever the Bible says is so; whatever man says may or may not be so,’ is the only [position] a Christian can take…”
(2) “If [scientific] conclusions contradict the Word of God, the conclusions are wrong, no matter how many scientific facts may appear to back them.”
(3) “Christians must disregard [scientific hypotheses or theories] that contradict the Bible.”

Biology_for_christian_schoolsAnd this isn’t buried somewhere in the back. This is on the very first page of the textbook. The science textbook.

After the top of my head had finished blowing off, I finally figured out why exactly this bothers me so much. Apart from all the obvious reasons, of course: the arrogance, the close-mindedness, the complete missing of the point of what science is about, etc.

What bothers me so much about it is how grotesquely disrespectful it is to their own God.

Let’s say you’re a theist. Let’s say you believe in God, a creator god who made the world and the universe in all its beautiful and astonishing complexity.

Wouldn’t you want to understand that universe, as well and as thoroughly as you could?

GalaxyTo me, the idea that scientific evidence is always trumped by the Bible is one of the most disrespectful attitudes you could possibly have about God. Even if you believe that the Bible was written by God (and you ignore all the evidence to the contrary), wouldn’t you believe that the universe was also written by God? And in a much more direct way than the Bible was written, without having to be dictated through human secretaries? Wouldn’t you put the universe, at the very least, on equal footing with the Bible? In fact, shouldn’t you really be seeing the universe as much higher, much more important than the Bible, because the Bible is just one small part of God’s creation and the universe is so much more vast?

BibleIt seems to me that setting your human religion above the enormous and awe-inspiring majesty of God’s creation is blasphemy of the worst kind. To say that the Bible is always more real than the reality of the universe seems to me to be spitting on God and his creation. And it’s not just spitting on the universe: it’s spitting on that part of God’s creation that is your brain and your mind, your capacity to perceive the universe and use reason and logic to understand it.

Breaking_the_spellOf course, this sort of thinking is a perfect example of what Daniel Dennet was talking about in “Breaking the Spell”: the ways that religion functions as a self-perpetuating meme, one that has built up an impressive array of armor and weaponry to defend itself against being seriously questioned. The idea that sacred texts can’t be questioned; the idea that letting go of doubts and questions about your faith will make your life easier; the idea that holding onto faith in the face of evidence contradicting it makes you a good person… all of these function as an immune system that stops questions from breaking down the belief, or even from penetrating it in the first place.

Synchiropus_splendidus_2_luc_viatouBut I think that’s awfully sad. To think that your faith — not just a general faith in the existence of God, but your particular version of the specific details of how God does and does not work — is more real than the reality of the universe…. that’s just sad. It’s isolating. It’s cutting yourself off from reality, from the enormous, majestic, unutterably complex, constantly- surprising reality of the physical universe. And if you believe in God, a god who created all this majesty and whatnot, it’s cutting yourself off from God.

It’s saying that, given a choice between trying to understand the reality of God’s creation, and convincing yourself that you and your sect are right, it’s more important to be right. And that really is placing yourself above God… in a way that I think is more blasphemous than anything any atheist could ever come up with.

(Photo of Synchiropus splendidus by Luc Viatour.)