Justin Vacula speaks atheism to Marywood students

I address Wilkes-Barre City Council at its July 2013 meeting
I address Wilkes-Barre City Council at its July 2013 meeting

I was recently invited to record a speech concerning atheism for Intro to Religion students attending Marywood University. Here is the video and rough transcript of that speech.

I would have attended in person, but was unable to do so due to the early time of the classes and my work schedule. Students can still interact with me through commenting here and/or sending me questions/comments through the contact form on my website. Comments on the YouTube video have been disabled so that the conversation can happen here – in one place. I look forward to feedback and questions from students and whomever else may comment. Enjoy.

Justin Vacula addresses Intro to Religion students at Marywood University on the topic of atheism discussing what it means to be an atheist, common misconceptions about atheists, and why he considers himself to be an atheist. He also talks about his religious background, his path to atheism, why he finds atheism to be important, and the problem of natural suffering.

Rough transcript:

Hello, Intro to Religion students. I am Justin Vacula – a graduate student here at Marywood studying Mental Health Counseling. Thank you for having me. I’ve been invited by your professor to be a guest speaker today to provide a perspective of an atheist. This discussion, I hope, will be a start of an ongoing conversation about religious belief and atheism.

I’m very excited to be afforded this opportunity to speak with you all today and look forward to interacting with you on my website at justinvacula.com and perhaps elsewhere following your watching this video. I would have liked to meet you in person, but due to work commitments and the early time of your class, I can’t attend. We can still interact with one another, though, by you leaving comments on this video.

Some of the topics I will talk about – all related in some way to me being an atheist – include my thoughts on the need for reflection and respectful conversation with those whom we disagree, why I consider myself an atheist, what it means to be an atheist, my religious upbringing, my path to atheism, misconceptions about atheists, and discussion about the problem of natural suffering.

There seems to be a lack of substantive discussion about matters of religious belief and what seems to be even worse, a lack of concern for holding justified true beliefs – and this isn’t only in the arena of religious beliefs. People avoid conversation because they want to preserve harmony or what some call ‘respect beliefs.’ Some view disagreement as disrespect. Some even think that disagreeing with people’s religious belief in whatever manner or even providing counter-arguments to religious belief is intolerant. Outside of religious discussion, many are quick to attack persons and shut down discussions by (often unfairly) labeling people as homophobic, misogynist, anti-American, privileged and thus unable to have an informed opinion, and the like.

Some even think there is no such thing as truth, that we create our own realities, or that holding truth is impossible. Some believe that it is permissible to believe something without good reason, because a belief makes one feel good, or even solely because of faith (I’ll get to that one later.) I believe that we, even though we may be quite limited as human beings with our current state of limited knowledge, can talk about truth and collectively work toward reaching it.

Students in a university setting should be concerned with holding belief that is both true and justified. The Bible even, in some points, specifically in 1 Peter 3:15, instructs people to, if asked give “the reason for the belief in your heart” to “prepare a defense and do so with gentleness and respect.” As an atheist, I am very much in favor of this attitude and hope to foster it. Discussions and disagreement can and should be had in a respectful manner without a person pulling punches – attacking ideas, not people.

In challenging our beliefs, especially our cherished beliefs, we can only learn and progress. If it is the case that arguments can serve to lead us away from particular beliefs, we are better for that – for having beliefs which are justified and true should be a primary concern in our intellectual lives and much more important than possible temporary discomfort. Challenging one’s beliefs can be difficult and uncomfortable, but the journey is well worth it and should only improve our intellectual lives.

As an atheist, or more broadly as a skeptic, I am willing to change any and all of my beliefs provided good enough reason and argument are presented. If it so happens that a convincing argument for any gods or the Christian god comes forth, I will be better for encountering that for I will have more justified true beliefs and less false unjustified beliefs. Even if we happen to not change our minds on issues, we’re also, I would think, generally better off for encountering people with whom we happen to disagree provided something is learned. Justified true beliefs, after all, should be able to withstand objections. In encountering people and ideas we disagree with, we can formulate responses and be better prepared to deal with them and even to better understand ourselves.

I am an atheist – the term, I think, properly understood, is simply used to describe a person who lacks belief in any gods. This does not mean to have a belief that no gods exist or serve as a claim of absolute certainty. I am an atheist because I find no good reasons to believe that any gods exist. I have heard multitudes of arguments for religious beliefs and have found all of them very lacking.

Atheist is a label which only indicates that a person lacks belief in gods – it does not entail any other conclusions like political affiliations, thoughts on political and social issues, economic views, etc. My views on political and social issues are independent of my atheism; there is simply no logical connection. While a majority of atheists in the United States may tend to favor candidates from the Democratic Party, for example, this is not true for all atheists and does not stem from a lack of belief in any gods any more than someone who disbelieves in the Greek god Zeus may hold positions on other issues.

Atheism and religion alike aren’t monolithic entities in that atheism and religion is one ‘thing’ and that all atheists or all religious persons (of specific religions) believe the same thing. Some who consider themselves to be Christians, perhaps mostly in academic settings, think of God as a metaphor, see the Bible as a book which is nothing more than a beautiful and interesting narrative in which individuals attempt to understand the world. It is both unhelpful and inaccurate to make wide assumptions painting all religious people or atheists with a broad brush. Perhaps it is best to try and understand the person who holds a belief – to ask questions, to see where they are coming from, and even have understanding of their background.

As one atheist, I can’t claim to speak for everyone, but only can speak for my perspective – some atheists may agree with everything I will say and some atheists will agree with portions of my speech.

Some people hold misconceptions about atheists. I’ll address some of these.

1) Atheists are simply angry at God. Since an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe any gods exist, it doesn’t make sense to say that atheists are angry at God. While many atheists might think that the Christian god, for example, isn’t an all-loving being according to how the Bible portrays him or how theists portray him, this is a different story. Some atheists may come to their position because they didn’t find the concept of God to show an all-loving and all-just being, but this is a whole different story.

2) Atheists have no reason to behave morally since they don’t believe in any gods. This misconception, from my experience, is mostly voiced by religious believers in the form of “If you don’t believe in a god who establishes morality, this means that anything goes. Society would crumble.” When I hear this from religious people, I typically ask them if they would murder, rape, and steal if they suddenly came to the conclusion that God didn’t exist. Obviously, this wouldn’t be the case. Worse, though, I have had religious people tell me they would murder their children if they believed God told them to do it. Clearly religious people don’t have a monopoly on morality and people don’t need belief in a god to understand basic concepts of right and wrong and behave well in society.

3) Atheists live depressed, pointless lives. This misconception, from my experience, is typically voiced in the form of “What reasons to do you have to live if you don’t believe God exists?” I ask religious believers if they would kill themselves if they suddenly stopped believing in God. They say no. On the topic of meaning, I don’t find meaning or purpose through external standards or others telling me what should be important in my life. I decide what holds value, what gives me pleasure, and set my goals for the future. Religious individuals, I think, largely do the same. While they may believe holy books tell them how they should live their lives and aspire to follow what they believe to be the will of God, they still personally value these concepts (and not so just because a book says so) and they find meaning in other activities.

Further, many atheist communities – both online and offline – exist. The online community is particularly active and wide including hundreds of blogs, podcasts, Facebook groups, and forums. Conferences pop up throughout the United States and overseas. I’ve attended conferences in Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., Wisconsin, Maryland, Ireland, and Ohio. Atheists clearly aren’t alone.

4) Atheism is a faithposition. As I said before, I am an atheist because I don’t find sufficient reasons to believe any gods exist. Even when saying this to religious people, they tell me that I have to have faith that the world exists because of chance or that the mind can come about through natural processes. While there are certainly some phenomena in the world that I or others may not fully understand, I can honestly say “I don’t know.” This isn’t a faith position, but rather an honest answer. I just don’t see the Christian god or other gods which have been proposed as reasonable alternatives. If we can’t explain a phenomenon, we can’t rightly just assume that – because we have no answer – that god is responsible and, because there is no better answer, it is reasonable to believe in god. After all, I find significant challenges to belief in the Christian god which I will get into later.

5) Atheism is illogical because no one can show god does not exist. This misconception usually rests on a misunderstanding of the burden of proof. People who make a positive claim about the word, namely that God exists, have to provide evidence, argument, and reason for the claim. It’s simply not up to others to ‘disprove’ the claim in order to show it isn’t justified. Suppose that I told you I have powers to levitate objects using my mind. I can tell people who question me or ask me to show my powers that they can’t disprove my abilities – that I just don’t want to display my abilities or that my abilities can’t be shown to others. I would be very foolish…and people wouldn’t have reason to believe me. If no good reasons exist to justify a claim, the claim should not be believed.

6) Atheists don’t believe in God because they were raised in the ‘wrong religion.’ Ex-Muslim, ex-Catholic, ex-Mormon, ex-Jehovah’s Witness, and ex-Hindus exist. Atheists who were apostates of likely every religion imaginable exist or have existed. Many of these people, coming from their religious traditions – including myself – once valued their religious beliefs and were genuine believers, but over time, they have arrived at unbelief. While exposure to other religious traditions or beliefs might happen to convert them to a new religious tradition, this simply hasn’t happened, and isn’t the case for all atheists.

Many have simply – regardless of religious traditions – found the arguments for gods to be lacking. Some have come from fundamentalist preachers to positions in atheism…and some atheists have become fundamentalist preachers. People who imply atheists would believe in certain religious traditions if they were exposed to them need to supply the reasons to believe, not just assert that atheists would convert. Also assumed in this position is that atheists are not intelligent and haven’t really evaluated the arguments given by religious believers…but many have evaluated such arguments and still don’t believe.

Moving on from misconceptions, now that you should have a better understanding about atheism, let me talk about my backstory.

As a student in kindergarten in a public school, I first started to attend religious education courses learning, among other things, at the age of five or six, that Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I would go to church for about an hour to hear words of encouragement and preaching from a priest and then go to class for another hour. In addition to this, throughout my childhood and teenage years – I would regularly attend church services. I was also an altar boy, a reader for masses, and participated in religious plays as an actor and, in later years, a narrator.

My parents were also religious – but mainly nominally – they went to church with me, although this was mainly my father. My mother and my father, as it seems today, think that one should ‘just believe’ and found that I should have been ‘raised in the church’ – so I was. I received various sacraments in the Catholic Church from baptism to confirmation. I was very much a believer – and so to the point in which I had considered, although never acted on it, entering the priesthood – and people recommended that I do so…at quite a young age, even. I suppose they saw much religious promise in me.

In my second year of undergraduate education at King’s College — a liberal arts Catholic university in Pennsylvania – I started to seriously question my religious beliefs mainly as a result of a philosophy course, “Ethics and the Good Life,” and am on-campus  discussion about atheism. Also important was a friend of mine, an English teacher I had in high school, who had – as far as I can remember – been the first person to seriously cause me to question my religious beliefs although I, at the time, had seriously considered that he was acting as a minion of Satan or otherwise was possessed by the devil.

After writing a paper for my “Ethics and the Good Life” course in which the prompt concerned whether one needed to believe in God to find meaning in life – I defended a position that one did not need to believe in God to find meaning. From there, I found it important to determine whether there were good reasons to believe in the Christian god. Long story short, as should be obvious, my answer was ‘no’ after all sorts of discussions with religious professors, ministers, priests, friends, and fellow students. I found these discussions, as an atheist, to be extremely productive and valuable as I could better understand their positions and challenge my own beliefs.

Entering my third year of college as an ‘out atheist’ wanting to start a student group – a chapter of the Secular Student Alliance – I received a tremendous unexpected amount of hate mail and general hate from students…simply because I wanted to start a student group for secular students. Following this, and a notification from college administration that my group was not allowed to exist, I received much more hate including threats and a great deal of nastiness – and this time from the community of Northeastern Pennsylvania and two aunts of mine – following my challenging the constitutionality of a nativity scene on a courthouse lawn. I was declared the third most hated person in my county by a radio show host. #1 and #2 were two judges indicted in the ‘Kids for Cash’ scandal who received kickbacks from a private facility when they sent children from their juvenile courts to a private detention center.

More recently, I submitted an advertisement to a county bus company that had the word “Atheists” in large text. This was denied as it was declared an ‘attack on religion’ and a controversial sign that would spark public debate of controversial issues – thus not permissible on county buses. I’ve also protested rallies calling for more religion in government, objected to religious prayers at City Council meetings in Wilkes-Barre, participated in three debates about religious belief, and placed banners on Public Square in Wilkes-Barre in response to religious events and decorations. Here at Marywood, I proposed a student group for non-religious students and was rejected because, according to staff, it was not in-line with the mission statement of the college. I also host an online radio show, am active in a local community atheist group, and maintain an active online presence discussing atheism, religion, separation of church and state, and more.

I’m an out atheist and believe that my activism – and the activism of many others – whether that consists of writing, protesting when called for, opposing legislation and other governmental activity contrary to the Establishment Clause is important. I even feel a sort of moral obligation to make my views known, address governmental wrongs, educate others, and continue my efforts. As you can see, I take this quite seriously.

I believe religious beliefs are not only unjustified, false, and irrational, but also often dangerous. We cannot doubt that our beliefs inform our actions and some of our actions have the ability to harm others. Of course, though, not all religious beliefs or beliefs derived from religion are harmful, but some are. Additionally, not all people act on their beliefs – there is a wide gap, for example, from the person who believes that atheists are morally deficient (as Psalm 14 declares) to those who will openly discriminate against or show contempt toward atheists. Still, ‘average Joe believers’ vote for bad legislation or poor candidates according to their religious beliefs, neglect to take medicine or vaccinate their children because of their religious beliefs, and show contempt toward people who are not of their religious tradition.

As I said earlier, I don’t believe in any gods because I don’t find any reasons to do so. Additionally, I don’t find faith to be a reliable or proper mechanism to arrive at justified true belief. A philosopher friend of mine, Dr. Peter Boghossian, thinks of faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know” and also considers it to be a “cognitive sickness.” Others, Dr. Boghossian included, view faith as belief without sufficient evidence, argument, or reason. Faith, it seems, at least under this understanding, doesn’t seem to get one to belief in any gods for a good reason – in fact, conclusions are arrived at absent of reason. Perhaps, though, it is possible to combine faith and reason? If reasons, though, can lead one to belief, why would faith need to enter into the picture?

I also don’t find faith to be a reliable method to arrive at truth. After all, millions of religious believers claim to have faith and believe different gods exist. Many of these even use similar types of reasoning to explain their belief in gods – that they have witnessed miracles, heard god speak to them, had prayers answered, or have had a religious experience. All of these people can’t be right about their beliefs because there would be contradictions – the Hindu gods and the Christian god can’t both exist (after all, the Christian god is said to be the only god that exists). If we doubt the religious experiences of Muslims, for example, and say that these experiences can be explained through natural reasons or that the stories are unbelievable, why shouldn’t we then doubt the testimony and experiences of Christians – or even doubt our own religious beliefs?

The arguments typically given by religious believers – at least by academics and apologists – seem to me to be faulty and not lead to justified true belief in the Christian god or any other gods. Arguments like fine-tuning arguments, cosmological arguments, and moral arguments – even if accepted as valid and sound, don’t even get – as I see it — to the Christian god in particular. I don’t find any good reason to believe in miracles or, perhaps more particularly, the resurrection of Jesus. It seems to me that the natural world is all that exists.

Over time, phenomena or explanations that were associated with the supernatural have fallen to the wayside in favor of naturalistic explanations that better account for phenomena. In other situations in which a natural explanation is simply lacking, I find no good reason to jump from “I can’t explain this” to “A miracle happened.” While questions  regarding the cause of the universe (if there even was one) or the nature of consciousness exist, for example, I find no good reason to jump from “I can’t explain this” to “God must be responsible” as some do.

One of the strongest objections to the Christian god that you discussed in class – and that I will often use as an argument against the Christian god – is the problem of natural suffering.

The problem of natural suffering is well-known throughout the history of philosophy and is one which many, including religious believers, find compelling. Even Christians, confident in their belief in God, have a very difficult time reconciling natural suffering with belief in an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful god. The problem is echoed quite plainly in the 1964 film “The Masque of the Red Death” starring Vincent Price who says “Can you look around this world and believe in the goodness of a god who rules it? Famine, pestilence, war, disease, and death! They rule this world!”

How can an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing god coexist with natural calamities throughout history – having nothing to do with human action – such as deathly birth defects, late-term miscarriages, and deathly diseases; devastation of communities by famines, tsunamis, earthquakes, and other natural disasters; and a predatory food chain in which species must kill and consume other species in order to survive?

Throughout most of human history, when medicine and technology was not at the level it is today, people died at very young ages from cholera, smallpox, yellow fever, plagues, tuberculosis, whooping cough, and malaria. Many of these problems are still widespread today in underdeveloped countries. Can we really say that this is the handiwork of an all-loving perfect god?

The world would be a much better place, almost everyone realizes, if this natural suffering did not exist. All of our moral intuitions point to the conclusion that natural suffering is a horrible thing – something we would be much better off without. If we were able to stop or avoid natural calamities, we would. In fact, we attempt to. We erect flood walls, inoculate ourselves with medicines, flee dangerous areas, and use technology to anticipate natural disasters. When disasters happen, we mourn and donate – realizing tragedy that we would be better off without.

While reasons for belief in the Christian god may seem compelling – such as the complexity of the universe dictating a designer – such reasons are challenged by the existence of so much natural suffering. Even if we were to grant, for the sake of argument, that there are reasons to believe some designer exists, this is a far leap from an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving god who sent his son Jesus to die on a cross for the forgiveness of mankind’s sins.

After all, a being, other than the Christian god, could have created the universe. The universe may also be accounted for by natural causes. Who knows? How is it that we infer moral and other properties from what we perceive as complexity in the universe? It takes more to lead us from complexity to design to an all-knowing, all-loving, and all-powerful being.

Surveying the egregious amount of natural suffering in the universe should lead us to a conclusion that an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing being does not exist – this universe is not what we would expect had such a being created it and remained active in human affairs. For if such natural calamities were not the handiwork of the Christian god, however they came about, such a god could easily put a stop to it, but instead – from the view of many Christians who continue to believe God exists despite such calamities – does nothing.

One of the most popular responses to the problem of natural suffering is that God might just have some undetectable reasons for permitting and designing natural suffering – that in the long-run there is a reason for all of this, but we – in our limited knowledge and capabilities – just can’t understand.

There are many problems with this response. First, it renders belief in the Christian god unfalsifiable – meaning that nothing can show it to be false – and thus irrational. If a belief isn’t willing to be changed given good reason, argument, and evidence against it (namely, in this situation, the problem of natural suffering), the belief is irrational.

Further, if, for all we know, natural suffering might just be a good thing in the long-run, but we just can’t know, we would be forced to a position of moral agnosticism – unable to say that anything is good or bad because, for all we know, it might just be good in the long run. This moral agnosticism, of course, would have to be applied to that which Christians consider to be good – including God’s character and we would be forced to accept more ridiculous conclusions. For all we know, God could also be lying to us about his true character for some unknown, undetectable reasons. For all we know, a god exists which fooled people into believing the Christian god exists in order to test their character – to see who would disbelieve the Christian god and later reward people who doubt.

Thanks for your time and attention. I can’t possibly cover everything I’d like to cover in 30 minutes, but hopefully this was informative and thought-provoking. I welcome you to interact with me on my website by leaving comments and questions in response to this video or giving questions to your professor. You may also message me with your comments and questions through the contact form on my website at justinvacula.com. Thank you.

Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula hosts the Stoic Philosophy Podcast; serves as co-organizer and spokesperson for the Northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA) Freethought Society; and has hosted monthly Stoic Philosophy discussion groups for the Humanist Association of Greater Philadelphia. He has appeared on and hosted various radio shows and podcasts; participated in formal debates and discussions; was a guest speaker for college-level courses; was featured in local, national, and international news; and has been invited to speak at various national, local, and statewide events. Vacula received bachelor's degrees in Philosophy and Psychology, a minor in Professional Writing, and the distinguished W.A. Kilburn Memorial Award for Philosophy from King's College in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He is currently living in the Scranton, PA area attending Marywood University's graduate-level Mental Health Counseling program and has worked with the Arc of Luzerne County's Transition to Community Employment program as a teacher's assistant and job coach alongside adult learners with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He also plays poker; volunteers as a member of the website and media team for the Greyhawk Reborn Dungeons & Dragons campaign while playing at events in the Eastern United States; and enjoys metal music.