Conversation with Escaping Atheism

I recently spoke with Max Kolbe, formerly known as Dean Esmay, of the Escaping Atheism project and recorded the discussion for public consumption. I hoped to host a discussion to discuss outright contempt Kolbe has for atheists, misconceptions I believe he has about atheists/atheism, and our philosophical differences.

For instance, Kolbe has a strong distrust of atheists. He says he would not vote for an atheist running for public office and claims that atheists have no morals or firm ethical base, thus they should not be trusted and Christians should ‘assume betrayal is in the cards.’ Kolbe paints atheist groups as a toxic hate cult, dangerous, and having contempt for Christians stating “Christians are nothing but ni**ers to atheists.” Kolbe sees strong arguments for belief in God. We discuss some of this and more in our close to 45-minute discussion presented below.

I won’t offer much comment in this piece, but may respond at greater length to some points in the video beyond responses I had to Kolbe in the discussion itself. Sadly, much of the conversation from Kolbe was filled with personal attacks and strong language rather than inquiry into issues. However, I was extremely patient and did not respond in kind. As I said in the video, I do not prefer a caustic approach and treat others by standards of how I would like to be treated even if I believe others are behaving in a nasty manner. I’m generally not one to take offense, but it’s worth noting here — as I did in the discussion itself — that lamenting others’ poor behavior while behaving in a disrespectful manner is not advisable.

Atheist YouTube personality NoelPlum99 has responded to some content from Escaping Atheism which you can find here, here, and here.

Future content on my YouTube channel will likely be focused on Stoic Philosophy as has been the recent trend — mentioned in the conversation with Kolbe — talk about applying a practical philosophy to enrich everyday life.

An atheist’s thoughts on ‘God’s Not Dead 2’

http://www.godsnotdead.com/
http://www.godsnotdead.com/

God’s Not Dead 2,’ much like its predecessor ‘God’s Not Dead’ (read my thoughts on ‘God’s Not Dead’ here), advances the idea that contemporary Christians are persecuted for their beliefs largely by atheists in positions of power. Christians in ‘God’s Not Dead 2’ are painted as martyrs under attack who can lose everything as a result of an atheist agenda to ‘prove God is dead once and for all,’ but ought to prefer (and welcome) persecution rather than ‘staying silent.’

Ms. Wesley, played by Melissa Joan Hart, is a public school teacher who responds to a student asking whether Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr’s perspectives on non-violence were similar to those of Jesus. Rather than answering in the affirmative or dodging the question in some manner (rather than injecting religious teachings into a public school history class), Ms. Wesley quotes a Gospel verse in the classroom and is later reprimanded. Instead of apologizing and agreeing not to quote scripture as school board members suggest, Ms. Wesley is sued by the ACLU who ‘dreams of a case like this.’

Throughout the film, Pureflix, the film’s creator, presents many scenarios – both relevant to the main plot and not — which they believe are indicative of Christian persecution. A public school football coach objects to being asked to refrain from prayer and moments of silence at football games. A minister – also a juror in Ms. Wesley’s court case – is arrested for failing to produce documents related to his sermons (the movie doesn’t directly explain why he was issued with a subpoena, but whatever…). Christians talk about coming persecution that has been ignored which will culminate in government saying what can and can’t be said in churches. Saying ‘God bless you’ might result in breaking the law in time to come.

The movie’s ending encourages viewers to contact Alliance Defending Freedom if they are being ‘challenged for living their faith,’ presents a laundry list of cases in which people were allegedly persecuted, and encourages people to tweet with the hashtag ‘TheHumanRight’ joining a movement noting that silence is the enemy of truth. Christian band Newsboys sings ‘Don’t let them silence you. You’ll wish you spoke your mind’ and ‘When did it become a rule not to say your name in school?’ Newsboys lyrics also encourage people to be guilty, speaking about God even if it gets them convicted.

As expected, PureFlix, producers of ‘God’s Not Dead 2,’ once again paints atheists as vindictive, heartless, intolerant, and rude. Unlike previous Pureflix films, there are no scenes including a breakup between a couple because a woman is soon going to die (How could you do this to me? We had a commitment!) or an atheistic philosophy professor telling his Christian student that he’s going to take pleasure in failing him, but there are new scenes taking jabs at atheists.

According to the main character’s father or grandfather, atheism takes away hope (and also doesn’t take away the pain). Freethinking parents seem to show no grief following the death of their son and are just ‘over it’ following the loss – so much so that they don’t speak with their daughter about the loss on-screen, are merely focused on work-related tasks, and have ‘people from a charity place’ (for some reason they don’t mention The Salvation Army) collect the son’s possessions. A student, presumably an atheist, says he wouldn’t die for his beliefs and the Christian teacher notes that ‘some don’t have that courage.’

http://godsnotdead.com/videosphotos
http://godsnotdead.com/videosphotos

A father slaps his college-aged son across the face, tells him he has disgraced his family, disobeyed, says that he is foolish for throwing away everything his family has done, and that he is no longer his son…all for becoming a Christian. The son says that he is willing to throw away everything for Jesus (there’s that martyr encouragement again) and later opts to become a minister.

After a minister collapses in a courtroom, an atheist attorney says that this proves there is no god.

Parents engage in a lawsuit on their daughter’s behalf because they believe this will help her get into an Ivy League school through the prestige of being in the case and with the money won from judgment. They don’t bother to ask about her thoughts, though, and many talk about how she is a minor whose rights and views don’t matter in the eyes of the court. Atheists want to dismiss jurors who enjoy the television show ‘Duck Dynasty’ or who have have served in the military because they resemble ‘God and country.’

Cameos from Lee Strobel, Gary Habermas, Mike Huckabee, and other Christian authors grace the cast and courtroom. The case itself, involving some of these Christian authors, is painted as ‘faith being on trial’ and aims to prove Jesus was a historical figure (the defense maintains that if Ms. Wesley merely quoted a historical figure she was not preaching, but rather just answering a question). The author of a book ‘Cold Case Christianity‘ argues that the reliable eyewitness testimony of the Gospels is sufficient to establish Jesus was a historical figure and Lee Strobel says that because our calendar was split into A.D. and B.C. Jesus’ existence is vindicated.

Although the movie paints Ms. Wesley as being unfairly persecuted and her right to believe in God on trial, I think this description misses the mark. The movie actually presents a compelling case for Ms. Wesley’s remarks being constituted as an endorsement of religion and preaching in the classroom, but she is ultimately found innocent (did God intervene?) following a passionate dare from her attorney challenging the jurors to convict her: “In the name of tolerance and diversity, stomp her out!” He talks about how she should be the last spark of faith in society and that if people fail to hide their beliefs they should be arrested by ‘enforcement on the end of a gun.’

http://godsnotdead.com/videosphotos
http://godsnotdead.com/videosphotos

Ms. Wesley may of course engage in religious activity in her private life, but in her capacity as a public school teacher, she shouldn’t preach in the classroom. She’s not being sued because she is religious or because she merely mentioned Jesus, but rather because she unnecessarily quoted scripture in the classroom; she didn’t ‘just answer a question honestly’ as the movie argues.

After all, the atheist attorney noted in courtroom proceedings that faith and Christianity were not on trial, but rather Ms. Wesley was on trial for giving an endorsement of what she believes as a Christian. Ms. Wesley, he noted, took an innocent question and used it as a moment to preach similar to how a devout Muslim quoting the Koran in a class – chapter and verse – would be reasonably viewed as giving an endorsement of the Koran, presenting it as superior to other faiths. This all was lost on the film’s producers, though, but at least one line of reasonable argumentation was presented by an atheist in the film.

Even if one were to argue that there is a lack of merit in the lawsuit against Ms. Wesley, many Establishment Clause violations are apparent throughout America – some much more serious than a teacher quoting scripture in a classroom as a response to a student’s question…and these are not instances of faith being on trial, Christians’ rights being stomped out in the name of tolerance and diversity, or a campaign to prove that God is dead. Christians are simply not being persecuted in a manner this movie or other PureFlix films suggest.

Read more thoughts about this film on Friendlyatheist.com.

Read my thoughts on the PureFlix film ‘Do You Believe?’ here.

 

Misericordia University atheism presentation transcript

Earlier today, I delivered a speech concerning atheism and the question ‘does God exist?’ to students studying intercultural communications at Misericordia University in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Below is a transcript of my talk. As always, feel free to leave comments below.

Thanks for having me today. I’m here to talk about atheism and my thoughts concerning the question ‘Does God exist?’ Individual topics I’ll mention in my presentation could be entire speeches on their own – I won’t give an exhaustive treatment to all of my sub-topics, but instead will give a brief overview of several items I am interested in discussing. I’ll take questions and explain more in the question and answer session following my presentation.

First, I’d like to tell you relevant information about myself as it relates to my presentation. I was raised in a religious Roman Catholic household and attended religious C.C.D (Catholic Childhood Development) classes from kindergarten through high school in addition to my public school education. I went to church quite regularly with my father and received Roman Catholic sacraments from baptism to confirmation.

I don’t recall questioning the religious belief I was raised with until later years of high school when I was challenged by some friends and eventually during my undergraduate education at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre. Philosophy classes and presentations I attended led me to deeply question my religious beliefs and ask myself whether there was good reason to maintain my religious beliefs. College was a great opportunity to question my own beliefs, even those outside of religion, as I was exposed to many new ideas and encouraged to think critically. Attending a Catholic college, too, allowed for many discussions about religious belief as there were Bible discussion groups, religious speakers, and a campus ministry office which held several events I attended.

Eventually, as you might guess, I found that the answer to ‘are my religious beliefs justified?’ was ‘no’ and declared myself an atheist – not only keeping this a private matter, but rather going public by joining and becoming an active member of a community organization I would later become the spokesperson and organizer of – the Northeastern Pennsylvania Freethought Society – having conversations about religion, actively writing on a blog, hosting a podcast, participating in public debates/discussions, and challenging several instances of government entanglement with religion.

I first came into the public spotlight when I challenged a nativity scene prominently placed on the lawn of the Luzerne County Courthouse in 2009 arguing for a more inclusive display and less focus on religion in government. I protested a school voucher rally in Harrisburg and was rebuked by a government official told to go back to my “community of privilege.” I worked alongside an organization, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a group whose focus is opposing violations of separation of church and state and educating the public about non-theism, to get ‘God Bless America’ removed from Lackawanna County buses. I participated in a lawsuit to overturn legislation declaring 2012 ‘The Year of the Bible’ in Pennsylvania. I placed several banners, also with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, in response to religious events and symbols on government property. I protested rallies and events including a National Day of Prayer rally calling for more government involvement with religion. I challenged prayer at Wilkes-Barre city council meetings and offered a secular invocation of my own.

As one atheist, I can’t claim to speak for everyone – I can only speak about my personal perspective. Knowing that a person is an atheist tells you only one thing about that person – that he or she lacks a belief in any gods – this is no guarantee of critical thinking skills or anything else like political affiliation, stance on particular social/political issues, or philosophical positions. The atheist, or most atheists according to my experience, does not say for certain that no gods exist or even make a positive claim that no gods exist, but rather just simply doesn’t believe any gods exist – likely because they don’t find good reason to believe. Maybe an atheist was raised in a non-religious household and wasn’t brought into religious belief by their caretakers or people in their community, but many atheists, like me, have a religious background.

The atheist has simply not been persuaded by arguments and reasons for religious belief provided by religious individuals. Even Richard Dawkins, one of the most well-known public atheists today, puts himself as a six of seven on his seven point scale of religious belief in which seven is absolute certainty that god does not exist – very low probability but short of zero. What, though, do atheists believe?

Personally, one of my main motivations in life, how I find meaning in life (I’ll get to more about this later), is pursuing knowledge and learning through study, conversation, and challenging myself. I enjoy facing challenges, overcoming adversity, finding answers to questions, thinking about complicated topics, and learning new information. I’m curious – I ask questions, challenge information that is often taken for granted, and examine that which I’m confused about. I’m interested in discussion about all kinds of issues.

From my experience, there seems to be a lack of thoughtful discussion about matters of religious belief in our society. People perhaps 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. Perhaps because people closely identify with their religious beliefs and cherish their religious traditions, they view people who openly question religion in a negative light and view such challenges as disrespectful – confusing questioning ideas or challenging ideas with attacks on a person.

I believe that people should be concerned with holding belief that is both true (corresponding with reality) and justified (having good reason/argument). 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. Discussions and disagreement can and should be had in a respectful manner – discussing ideas vigorously rather than attacking 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.

Some think there is no such thing as truth, truth varies from person to person, or that holding truth is impossible. Some believe that it is just fine to believe something because a belief makes one feel good, because a belief is held by many people, because a belief is handed down through a respected tradition, or even solely because of faith – steadfast belief without evidence, sometimes contrary to evidence. I believe that we, even though we may be limited with our current state of limited knowledge, can talk about truth and collectively work toward reaching it.

A misconception atheists face is that we are closed-minded – unwilling to change beliefs and unwilling to engage with arguments from religious believers. I am willing to change any and all of my beliefs provided good enough reason and argument is presented. I seek to find lapses in my own reasoning and reasoning presented by others should something seem suspicious. If a convincing argument for any gods or the Christian god comes forth, I will be better for encountering that because I will have more justified true beliefs and fewer 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 disagree provided something is learned. Justified true beliefs, after all, should be able to withstand objections.

Sometimes religious believers, rather than giving reasons for belief in god, say that it’s just simply wiser to believe God exists because the risk of not believing is just too big (punishment in Hell for eternity or separation from God for eternity) while the believer has nothing to lose through believing God exists and everything to gain. This formulation is better known as Pascal’s Wager. Believing something is true, though, shouldn’t be based on rewards and consequences of belief – that doesn’t seem at all genuine to me and certainly isn’t based on good reasoning. Wouldn’t God know if people believed just because they didn’t want to go to Hell? Should this sort of belief be rewarded or even desirable? I think not. Anyway, why privilege the Christian god? What about thousands of other gods and religious traditions? Surely the Christian, for instance, isn’t worried about the consequences of disbelief in regards to other proposed gods.

Why be so public about my atheism and openly challenge religious beliefs? Am I strident or militant for doing so as some perceive? We cannot doubt that our beliefs inform our actions and some of our actions have the ability to harm others – we live in societies in which our actions can have impact on others. Of course not all religious beliefs or beliefs derived from religion are harmful, but many can be.

Religious belief leads parents to refuse medical treatment for their children leading children to die rather than receive simple vaccinations or medicines. Religious belief inspires a great deal of divisiveness leading to violence, shunning, and discrimination. Atheists fear that going public about their thoughts on religion — especially in highly religious areas like the American South, the Bible belt — may lead to job termination, financial distress, political suicide in that people would not vote for an atheist, and suspicion.

Religious people, too, will not trust individuals of a different religious worldview and even isolate themselves from entire communities of other religious people. Some religious people believe, for instance, that atheists lack morality or otherwise have no reason to be good people – likely because these religious individuals think that morality comes from religion and without religion people are simply without a moral compass.

Thinking about complicated moral questions often seems difficult. Should we focus on the needs and wants of society at large rather than needs and wants of specific groups of people? Should we focus primarily on the consequences of implementing certain actions or policies rather than the process – do the ends justify the means? Should morality be something of universal consideration or should certain practices vary from culture to culture?

Although we can face difficulty in considering ethical dilemmas or determining right and wrong, I think most people – even though, of course, there are people who take advantage of others or break just laws – have a general sense of right and wrong which is a product of cultural influence, self-reflection, and an understanding that other humans have similar wants and needs. After all, we humans are social animals – beings that work together in social situations, cooperate in a larger society, and benefit from interaction with others. Through cooperation, rather than violence and war, we realize that by working together we can improve ourselves, the world around us, and make a lasting impact.

Why, as an atheist, should I be a good, ethical person treating others with kindness and respect? I would imagine that religious individuals would provide similar answers although there may be some differences in opinion about the source of morality. Perhaps we want to treat others with kindness and respect because this is the way we want others to treat us – we want to model the behavior we want to see in others. Perhaps we take personal pleasure in treating others well and would be wracked with guilt, rightly so, should we treat others poorly – a blend of a self-interested motivation and a yearning to treat others well. Perhaps we feel an inner obligation to help others because we have the resources and time to do so.

Personally, I tend to lean toward what is referred to as virtue ethics – an ethical framework by which we aspire to make decisions and live our lives based on certain values we hold dear rather than referring to duties or rules. Act how the virtuous person would act in a situation says the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy in its article on virtue ethics. Virtues such as tolerance, compassion, humility, fairness, kindness, loyalty, moderation, and many others guide by day-to-day life.

Indeed, there is some good within religion. Religion can provide some good ideas about morality, advice about how to live life, and even good social networks and community services. People are often inspired by religious beliefs to do good in the world. However, all of the good that comes from religion, I would maintain, can be had without religion. Religion, too, as I mentioned, can warp moral priorities and lead to harm.

Another misconception about atheists is that they are uninspired individuals who find no meaning in life. This misconception likely comes from the religious conclusion that without God, life is pointless because the purpose of life on earth is to serve god and fulfill some divine, externally imposed will. While it might be the case that some atheists maintain that life itself or the world itself is without meaning, many atheists, find meaning in life through a process of self-creation – determining what in this life makes it worth living – what motivates, what leads one to wake up in the morning, what breaks the monotony of the usual day-to-day grind, what is a valuable use of time, and what is worth our efforts.

For the atheist, finding meaning in life comes with a great deal of freedom. Although some – both religious and non-religious – may encounter pressure from society-at-large and from specific individuals about what is meaningful or which goals should be pursued, individuals can ultimately decide for themselves how they can find meaning in life and what they should strive for. Rather than saying meaning is simply what God or a religious tradition declares or desires, the atheist can determine his or her own meaning and live life accordingly.

A common question I get is ‘What if you’re wrong about God? What if you die and go to Heaven to see God only to be denied eternal paradise. What would you say?’ I would respond similarly to the philosopher Bertrand Russell and say, “Not enough evidence God, not enough evidence.” Should I be punished for eternity or denied an eternal paradise simply because I lacked belief in a god, using the brain that I was born with to arrive at a conclusion that I found no good reason to hold religious belief? Could an all-loving being really punish someone for being thoughtful and honest? I just haven’t found good reasons to believe God exists.

With that, I’d like to move on to a new topic that I was asked to address – the question of ‘Does God exist?’ As I mentioned, an atheist is simply one who lacks belief in any gods. I am an atheist because I find no good reason to believe any gods exist. I have not been persuaded by arguments put forth by religious believers. In fact, I find the arguments to be severely lacking – many of them not even pointing to a specific god or leading one to a specific religious tradition. It is a wide gap, for instance, between the assertion that the universe was created by a supernatural being to Jesus died on the cross for our sins; God disapproves of same-sex marriage; and God is both the father, son, and holy spirit who is an all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-good being who is a disembodied mind outside of space and time who created the universe just for us.

I find that many reasons people give for believing in gods are based on a lack of understanding about the world – that people often, rather than simply saying ‘I do not know,’ jump from ‘this seems complex and I do not understand it’ to ‘God must be responsible’ – what philosopher Dr. David Kyle Johnson calls the ‘mystery therefore magic’ fallacy. Indeed, there are many things about this world we do not fully understand.

Just because we don’t understand something or have an answer to why or how something works does not mean that we should jump to the conclusion that God exists. After all, throughout human history, there were many phenomena we did not understand including earthquakes, diseases, lightning, and mental illnesses. While there are still gaps in our understanding, we now understand much more about the world than we did in past generations – we no longer believe that earthquakes, for instance, are punishments from God. We have understanding about tectonic plates and can predict when earthquakes are likely to occur through using machines and making observations – there is simply no need to invoke god to explain this.

Perhaps in time we will know much more about phenomena which currently puzzle us such as the nature of consciousness, the origin of the universe, and quantum events and later have answers to questions which currently lead some to believe God exists. As human knowledge increases, though, it seems that gods are often only present in the gaps of understanding; over time explanations involving god fall by the wayside. Rather than assuming God is responsible in the gaps of our knowledge, I find the more fitting explanation to be ‘I don’t know.’ Simply because one has no explanation for something does not mean that one is justified in believing God exists.

Concerning the creation or existence of the universe, religious individuals argue that since everything we know exists has a cause, the universe itself must have a cause. This line of argumentation usually appears in cosmological arguments or arguments from contingency. They say that this cause must be an uncaused cause – a personal god outside of time and space lest there be an infinite chain of causation which religious individuals would also argue is impossible. Religious individuals will point to buildings, human inventions, and much more to give examples of that which we know has and needs a cause.

The problem with this reasoning, though, is that while we have experience with buildings having builders and can understand the process by which buildings are built, we don’t have experience with the process of the universe beginning to exist or coming into existence. We can’t justly reason from one area of life in which we have experience and understand to another area of life in which we don’t have experience and don’t understand. Perhaps the principles we apply to our everyday lives here on earth simply don’t apply to the realms of the really, really large – universes and the really, really small – quantum events.

Perhaps the universe itself doesn’t have a cause in the same way we see a building needing a cause or explanation for its existence. Personally, if asked questions about the universe and areas in which I don’t understand, I’ll say ‘I don’t know’ rather than assuming a god caused the universe to exist. Either way, even if the universe has a cause or was created, I don’t find this to point to any specific god or creator.

Some religious believers will pose what they call fine-tuning arguments pointing to certain constants in the universe such as gravity, expansion of the universe, and electromagnetic forces arguing that if certain rates or constants were changed ever so slightly life as we know it would not exist. Such fine-tuning, they say, points to intelligent design and more precisely a creator god. This argument, though, fails to properly account for randomness and understand probability. Sure, one particular assortment of particles in the universe that allows for life to exist is extraordinarily rare considering all possible configurations. However, given enough time and chances of situations which can be life-permitting, life existing somewhere in the universe at some time – given how big the universe is – doesn’t seem so rare at all.

It’s possible too that life can exist in other states than that which we intimately know. Surely our carbon-based life and physical constants here on this side of this galaxy can’t be the only possible life-permitting configuration. How can we possibly definitively say it’s the only possible one? Chance, rather than God, is a better explanation for why the universe is the way it is. Another problem with the fine-tuning argument, too, like cosmological and contingency arguments, is that it doesn’t lead to a specific creator. It’s a big jump from ‘the universe is finely tuned for existence’ to ‘The Christian god is responsible.’

Next, some religious individuals will appeal to religious experiences as a means to justify their religious belief – because some seemingly extraordinary circumstances happened in their lives they believe God exists. For instance, a mother may say that her son was diagnosed with a terminal illness and was given six months to live, but because her son lived past the six months God must have intervened and performed a miracle. Maybe a person attributes divine intervention to her recovery from alcohol or drug abuse. Maybe a person claims to have received a vision in which God appeared and offered some advice.

One problem with such stories about religious experiences is that people around the world of different religious traditions tell similar stories yet come to different conclusions about religious beliefs. The Christian and the Hindu, of course, can’t both be right in that Jesus and Shiva intervened to save them from death, but they could both be wrong. Additionally, religious experiences can very often be better explained by other means which do not include supernatural explanations. Diseases go into remission. Doctors can be mistaken about diagnoses. People recover from drug abuse through a good deal of personal effort, changing behaviors, counseling, and social support. Even if we lack an explanation, as I explained previously, we should not jump to conclusions about God existing and instead should more humbly say ‘I don’t know.’

I find that the most powerful objection to belief in God lies in what is known as the problem of evil or the problem of natural suffering. The evidence of such an egregious amount of suffering in nature is incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good god. This is introduced quite well in dialogue from the movie “The Masque of the Red Death” starring actor 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. If a god of love and life ever did exist he is long since dead.” The ancient philosopher Epicurus also said, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then from where did evil come? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”

Should we expect so much suffering which occurs through natural causes if a god or love and life created the universe? Would we expect a predatory food chain in which animals are devoured by other animals as a means of sustenance? Would we expect stillbirths, infants dying shortly after birth due to particular diseases, people being born with chronic illnesses which make life incredibly difficult? Would we expect tsunamis which ravage humans and devastate populations of animals?

In response to the problem of natural suffering, religious individuals have offered several responses which I find incredibly inadequate. Perhaps God didn’t intend suffering, some say, but because of human disobedience or sin the world is of a ‘fallen nature.’ I find it difficult to believe that God would change the laws of physics and the structure of the earth so that natural disasters and diseases would exist – would such a loving being allow or introduce calamity in the world because of human action? Punish future generations of people because of the actions of few? Introduce a predatory food chain in nature because of human behavior?

Perhaps God has some unknown mysterious reasons for allowing such natural suffering? Maybe God has some sort of cosmic plan in which he allows suffering for a higher purpose we just can’t understand? For all we know, the religious can say, the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which killed about 100,000 people can seem horrible to us, but it’s actually not so bad because it’s part of God’s plan and since God is good, there must be some really good reason for allowing such devastation but we just don’t understand the mind of God. I would think, though, that an all-powerful and all-knowing God can achieve some significant ends to a cosmic plan without such grievous suffering here on Earth.

If a human had the ability to end gratuitous natural suffering by putting an end to a deadly disease or preventing a natural disaster and could do so with ease yet she opted to just stand by and do nothing, we would rightly be outraged and would not accept a response from the person such as, ‘Well, I could stop this, but I’m not going to’ or ‘There may be good reasons for suffering to continue, but you just can’t understand the reasons I have for letting it continue.’ We would start to question the moral character of this person and rightly come to the conclusion that she was not good-hearted even if we had previous assumptions that she was morally upstanding.

Why, then, if we would consider the person in this scenario to be of problematic moral character would we not think the same about a supposed God? Shouldn’t we, instead of saying God may have a reason for permitting natural suffering, reconsider the all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving nature of God? Shouldn’t we have higher standards for God – expecting more of such a being, expecting not to live in a world with so much natural calamity which could easily be done away with by an all-powerful and all-knowing being?

Some argue that without hardship and challenge humans wouldn’t feel compassion, grow, or live a fulfilled life. Humans, though, can face hardship and challenge without such grievous suffering in life – we don’t need earthquakes, deadly diseases, and the like to be fulfilled individuals. In fact, such natural suffering takes life away from individuals who otherwise could use their time here on earth to help others.

Thanks for your attention. I’d like to move on to the question and answer period.

 

Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower mag demonizes skeptics

Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

A 2011 piece from the Jehovah’s Witness publication The Watchtower considers apostates to be mentally diseased criminals who should be shunned and avoided.

A frequent criticism of organized religion I and others voice is that religion often creates division. While creating division does not necessarily make particular religious ideas false, one can focus on the harm that is caused by religion when talking about its divisive nature.

Personally, I’ve encountered a large amount of vitriol from religious individuals (some of whom are family members) in my community following my activism for separation of church and state – most prominently in 2009 when I objected to a nativity scene placed on county courthouse property. A local disc jockey, on his radio show, called me the ‘third most hated person in Luzerne County‘ (only to be ‘topped’ by two judges implicated in the infamous Kids for Cash scandal) reflecting the outlook of many in my community who sent me hate mail (physical and electronic), tried to interfere with my education/scholarships, and sent nasty letters to my parents.

I have maintained that if the Christian faith (or any religious belief for that matter) is based in truth, individual believers should welcome critical discussion and be prepared, as the Bible says, to answer objections. Shouldn’t one be sure about what they believe if they want to dedicate their lives to a belief? I began a journey listening to criticisms of the religious beliefs I held and determined that there is no good reason to believe the Christian god exists after finding significant objections — unsatisfactorily answered by Christians — and determining that the reasons Christians provide for belief in God are not sufficient to justify belief.

It’s often the case that those who question religious belief are demonized – portrayed as agents of Satan trying to ruin the lives of Christians – bringing them down the wrong path in life. A piece titled ‘Will You Pay Attention to Jehovah’s Clear Warnings‘ in 2011 issue of The Watchtower — a Jehovah’s Witness publication — is a clear example of this. Apostates — people who have abandoned religious faith — are compared to and/or considered ‘false teachers,’ ‘wolves that eat the sheep,’ ‘criminals,’ ‘mentally diseased’ people, ‘and ‘gossipers.’

The Watchtower provides advice about how Jehovah’s Witnesses should deal with such ‘false teachers,’

“We do not speak to them or invite them into our houses. We do not read their books, watch them on television, read what they write on the Internet, or add our own comments about what they write on the Internet. Why are we do determined to avoid them? First of all, it is because we love “the God of truth.” So we do not want to listen to false teachings that go against the truth in God’s word.”

The divisive nature of religious belief is apparent when viewing this passage; the message for Jehovah’s Witnesses is to shun those who disagree on matters of religious belief. Witnesses are not to even respond to or be friends with ‘false teachers.’

Personally, I’m friends with many religious people. It’s almost never been the case — barring some fringe cases of extreme disrespect almost certainly due to religious beliefs — that because I was aware someone was religious I abandoned a friendship or refused to talk to a person. On the contrary, I enjoy interactions with people I disagree with whether the disagreement falls in the realm of religion, politics, law, or other areas.

 Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania
Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania

The religious person who refuses to interact with sincere non-believers* or people questioning religious faith seems weak in their religious beliefs and very likely worse off for not examining their own beliefs. Openness to experience, exposure to a variety of ideas, and a rigorous examination of one’s core beliefs are almost always beneficial and critical to self-development.

If religious belief cannot stand inquiry and must be abandoned, religious believes will be better off – holding beliefs better reflecting the way the world actually is. If reasons for religious belief are based in truth and atheists must abandon their non-belief, atheists will be better off.

Don’t demonize people merely because they disagree with you on matters of religion. Do not let religion be a more divisive force than it already is.

As always, feel free to leave comments below.

* By sincere non-believer, I mean a person who appears to be genuinely interested in a meaningful discussion. I don’t believe everyone should answer or take seriously people who do not appear sincere in their criticisms or are extremely disrespectful/attacking persons. A burden of responding to every person would also be unreasonable.

My thoughts on God’s Not Dead film

godsnotdeadthemovie.com
godsnotdeadthemovie.com

The movie ‘God’s Not Dead’ portrays non-Christians as monsters and does a disservice to Christians.

I must admit that I missed the hype surrounding the movie ‘God’s Not Dead‘ when it had released in theaters. Today, after becoming aware that the movie released on DVD, I rented the film and took copious notes planning to — as an atheist — combat the negative stereotypes I knew were on display in this film.

Almost every identified non-Christian in the film including a businessman, a philosophy professor, a reporter, and a Muslim father is portrayed as a monster.

An atheistic businessman fails to provide directions to his significant other — following her GPS being stolen — saying ‘what is in it for me,’ calls his significant other ‘not just another pretty face,’ says — upon finding his significant other developed cancer — ‘can this wait until tomorrow’ showing a complete disregard for her well-being in addition to saying ‘you are changing our [relationship] agreement and breaking the deal.’ The businessman ridicules love saying that it is overused and implies that people who love need to ‘grow up.’ He also repeatedly ridicules an elderly woman diagnosed with dementia (both in and not in her presence) and explains that seeing her is a waste of time.

An atheistic philosophy professor takes delight in failing his Christian students, ridicules his Christian students in front of others, assigns a disproportionate amount of homework to his Christian students, tells a Christian student that he plans to prevent him from attaining a pre-law degree, has a romantic relationship with a current students, fails to acknowledge others’ feelings of grief, implies that atheists cannot have relationships with Christians, repeatedly ridicules his girlfriend in front of others, says life is “full of nothing,” and shows almost every sign of being closed-minded.

An atheistic reporter is unprofessional, asks loaded questions, ridicules people during her interviews, claims that people are offended because Christians pray, and has no answer for where she derives hope in her life.

A Muslim father abuses his daughter and kicks her out of his house — not before slapping her in the face two times — because she listens to Bible readings.

Christians too, although they are often portrayed as heroic throughout the movie, don’t receive a great shake. When a philosophy professor is stricken by a vehicle and is dying, one person suggests someone call an ambulance, but almost no attention besides this suggestion (no one on screen used a cell phone although, at various other parts in the movie, cell phones are shown) is paid to physical well-being. Instead, the mission is to convert — as if belief in the Christian god is like a lightswitch which could be turned on and off — a dying person and a scene of death is regaled as a “gift,” “God’s mercy,” “a cause for celebration” (because a conversion happened…although someone died), and “joy” (because someone was said to have entered Heaven.”

Christians advance extremely poor arguments and assertions throughout the movie: ‘no one can disprove God exists’ (swapping burden of proof, appeal to ignorance), ‘science is wrong [we can’t trust scientists because ideas were revised]’ (ignoring the fact that belief revision is a strength and a sign of progress rather than a weakness), ‘there is no credible explanation for the universe without appeals to god’ (another appeal to ignorance – just because something is unexplained does not mean we can assert God did it), ‘if the universe created you who created the universe’ (begging the question – one is assuming God created the universe while arguing for such a claim), appeals to [inappropriate] authority (rejecting claims Stephen Hawking — a non-philosopher — makes about philosophy does not undermine philosophy or arguments against theism), and so much more…

The atheistic philosophy professor — called an expert in his discipline by his peers — says he hates God (rather than saying, as the Christian later did, that he doesn’t hate God but rather doesn’t believe God exists because the reasons Christians provide are inadequate) and does not even provide an accurate definition of atheism (he says atheism is the belief that there is no god).

The movie ends, saying the film was inspired by stories of Christians being condemned because of their faith, and generally cast Christians as persecuted individuals. This movie, cast as a drama, is more accurately thought of as a fantasy – that Christians are continually persecuted for their religious beliefs in America (when this is actually not the case) and atheists are monsters.

Might the Christian viewers, failing to be critical of themes presented in the movie, walk away thinking that they may cannot and should not have loving relationships with atheists – people who, in the movie, severely mistreat their partners? The movie even references the Bible verse urging believers to not be “unequally yoked” with dark and wicked unbelievers.

Sadly, Christians possess negative stereotypes about atheists — many of them on display in this film — and these may translate to real-world situations (beliefs do impact actions after all). This film ironically vindicates atheists’ claims that religion is often harmful because it warps moral priorities and causes division.

Many atheists — contrary to the message of ‘God’s Not Dead’ — can and do live meaningful, hopeful, positive, healthy, thoughtful, motivated lives. Atheists can and do have love for others, maintain positive relationships, express empathy, help others in need, treat people with fairness regardless of their religious beliefs, and examine others’ beliefs with philosophical rigor.

If you’re interested in more worthwhile philosophical discussion than that which was on display in the movie, please consider reading David Hume’s classic “Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion” (not to be confused with the non-existent piece ‘Problem of Induction’) and watching my debates and discussions with Christians who presented themselves far better than those in this movie. I can continue with my thoughts, but would rather not surpass 1000 words.

Consider also reading commentary on this film authored by Dr. David Kyle Johnson.

As always, feel free to comment below.