Monthly Archives: February 2012

Why Do Atheists Care About Religion?

<< Previous in this series: Why Do Atheists Care About Other People?

I’ve noticed on the CNN Belief Blogs and elsewhere that atheists comprise many if not most of the commenters. That puzzles the believing portion of the commentariat.

When I was a Christian, I, too, could never understand why an unbeliever would care one way or the other about religion. Why would he or she waste time commenting on CNN’s Belief Blogs? Why not just leave religious people alone?

Now on the other side of the fence, I find that there are at least three reasons. [What follows is a Beagle’s Bark. ;) ]

To Warn of the Dangers of Faith

Many atheists are former believers. We have seen not only the benefits of a faith-based life, but also the damage it can do. Just as evangelical Christians want to warn the world about the peril of hell, atheists want to sound the alarm over the dangers of conservative Christianity. For me, these included the following.

  • I  became morally compromised by having to justify some of the commands and actions of God in the Bible. I’ve posted about this here.
  • I became intellectually twisted by having to fit modern, scientific knowledge into a framework that was forged in the Bronze Age.
  • I became emotionally damaged by believing that my Heavenly Father’s very best plan for the world included so many seemingly gratuitous instances of suffering, and by believing that even my righteousness is like a filthy menstrual rag.
  • I became relationally insecure when the God with whom I was supposedly having a relationship so often did not speak a word to me — at least none that I was able to hear.
  • I became socially toxic due to an excessive, us-versus-them mentality. It’s hard to be both graceful and sincere toward the rest of the human race when the Bible specifically says that “friendship with the world is hostility toward God” and calls all non-believers “fools.”
  • This one did not apply so much to me, but I saw others become bound by fear due to the doctrine of hell. (Here is a gift one otherwise gracious person gave me when I left the church.)
  • …and on and on.

To Do Penance For Our Sins of Faith

Second, some of us former believers feel guilt over our years spent in religion. Warning others away from it is a form of penance. In the Bible, God

This list, too, could go on and on.

During my 40 years as a Christian, I never felt as guilty and ashamed as I did when I realized that the book I had promoted as God’s Holy Word teaches atrocity after atrocity, and all my excuses for it were totally lame. I felt that my hands were drenched in blood. I hope that by speaking out now I can undo some of the harm I have brought on society.

To Protect the Body Politic

And speaking of society, here in America conservative Christianity drives at least one side’s passion in many political issues: abortion, homosexual marriage, school prayer, science curricula, global climate change, and recently even birth control.

While evangelical Christians seek to make their faith-based views into law, they ironically complain that our secular government is trying to deny their religious freedom. I say this is ironic because, far from promoting religious freedom, the Bible demands the death penalty for even a whispered suggestion of worshiping another god. But I digress. For now, let’s just say that the Bible’s definition of religious freedom is “worship Jehovah or else.” When a substantial portion of the American electorate upholds the Bible as God’s Unchanging Word, the rest of us get a little nervous.

That wraps up this series. I hope the reasons I have given for why an unbeliever would care about religion, other people, right and wrong and indeed anything at all make sense. If not, please leave a comment!

Why Do Atheists Care About Other People?

If you’re just joining me, I’ve been responding to my Christian friends who ask, “Why would someone who doesn’t believe in God care?” I have suggested why I would care about anything at all and about right and wrong. This time, I’ll explore the reasons a non-believer has for caring about other people.

The prior posts actually apply to this question as well. First, humans are social animals, so caring for others is literally in our DNA. Second, even an unbeliever can observe that what goes around comes around.

I have only one thing to add, and once again the Bible provides a germane quotation: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). The Message translation renders it, “You’re far happier giving than getting.” And it’s true. We feel good when we help others. We feel bad when we’re selfish.

Atheists may be without God, but they are not stupid. Even an atheist is smart enough to do what feels good.

This has been a short post, so let me jump right to the next subject: Why Do Atheists Care About Religion?

Why Care About Right and Wrong?

<< Previous in this series: Why Care About Anything at All?

When I was an evangelical Christian, I thought that God was at the center of every sound reason for doing the right thing. For example, Jesus encouraged us, “Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). It was all about bringing glory to God, showing gratitude to God, respecting God, fearing God, etc..

I thought that when unbelievers did good, it was in spite of their philosophies of life, not because of them. Selfishness was the only consistent result of any “worldly philosophy.” The Bible told me that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9), and that’s what I believed.

In my final years of wrestling with my faith, someone close to me said, “You’re too afraid of yourself.” I did not believe her, but her comment stuck with me.

Imagine my surprise after my deconversion when I discovered she was right. Even without God, I still wanted to do the right thing.

How could that be?

Evangelicals themselves tell us the answer, perhaps unwittingly. Google God’s commands for our good and you’ll find statements like these.

Some of God’s commandments may require self-denial on our part. But in the long run we will discover that they are for our very best. A father doesn’t give commands to his children to burden them or harm them – but only to help them. This is how we need to see the commands that God gives us too. — Zac Poonen

In other words, if we follow biblical precepts, we will be happier in the long run.

Jesus, too, gave very pragmatic reasons for following his teaching, as in this famous verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. (Matthew 7:1-2)

Even God’s so-called ceremonial laws, such as the prohibition on eating pork, are for our own good, say believers:

Pigs are known to carry up to 200 diseases and 18 different parasites and worms. — Eating Pork Can be Hazardous to Your Health, at OnlineTruth.org

It does not require a belief in God to stay away from unhealthy food, or to realize that what goes around comes around. For the most part, God’s commands in the Bible do make sense, even to an unbeliever. I find that I still want to obey them.

I will admit to one huge difference. As a Christian, I took the Bible as God’s Word. If it commanded something, then it must be right. For reasons that I cover elsewhere on this blog, I can no longer believe that. Today, I base my moral judgments on how actions affect other people.

Although my ways of appraising right and wrong have changed, I still care about morality and ethics. There are sound, obvious, pragmatic reasons for doing so.

What Christians say is true: people are generally happier when they follow the Golden Rule and other universal principles that are in the Bible. A life of immorality and dissipation is usually an unhappy one. It’s far more fulfilling to devote oneself to improving the world and serving others. Christian, you and I disagree about a lot of things. Will you let me agree with you on this?

Why Care About Anything at All?

As I mentioned in my last post, some of my friends wonder why a non-believer would care about religion, about other people, about right and wrong, or about anything at all.

I sympathize with the question. As an evangelical for about 40 years, everything I cared about most was tied to my faith. I tried to love others because of Jesus’ example and out of gratitude for my salvation; I started my career at an insurance company because of Galatians 6:2 (“sharing one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ”); my romantic life took its meaning from God’s purposes for man and woman as I understood them; even hobbies were to be conducted “for the glory of God.”

Without my faith, I thought, I would have no reason to love others; no meaning in my work; a hedonistic, selfish relationship with the other sex; and leisure that was nothing more than marking time until my death.

It was a genuine surprise when I found I still cared about life even after I shed my faith. In fact, now that I don’t count on anything beyond this life, I find I care even more.

To the believer who wonders how that’s possible, I offer the most direct answer I can, and in case that’s not good enough I’ll fall back to asking a question of my own.

The Direct Answer

Imagine two men. The first does not care about anything. He is indifferent to other people, amoral in his actions, and unmotivated about both work and pleasure. He’s a total dud.

The second is the opposite. He cares deeply about others, has integrity, is motivated to provide for his family, and has a zest for life. He’s a Great Guy.

Which man will be more attractive to women?

The answer is obvious, and if you read my series on The Selfish Gene, you will smile in recognition. Caring, like altruism, is an evolutionary adaptation. Our genes motivate us to care about life and people as part of their own selfish program to increase their odds of reproduction. (I speak anthropomorphically, but of course our genes are totally unaware of this or anything else.) How wondrous that the unconscious play of our genes fashions us into beings that are not only conscious but caring!

So if you want the direct answer to “Why do you care?” it’s that we are all evolved to care. It comes with the package of being human.

If you have a Golden Retriever, he cares about human affection and fetching sticks. It’s how we have bred (evolved) him. It doesn’t bother you that he cares about these things even though he’s an atheist. Why should we call “Hypocrisy!” and “Inconsistency!” when a human atheist cares about things?

A Question

Now I have a question for my friends who still insist that if it weren’t for their faith, they would cease to care. My question is:

Really???

Can you really not thing of anything you care about apart from faith?

When you pat your dog, do you always pray, “Thank you, God, for this dog. I am patting him because you commanded me to be kind”? Could it be that once in a while you give love and receive some in return, with no theology attached?

When your dinner is burned, do you really not care at all, since it matters not at all in light of eternity?

Go ahead and admit it. ;)  You’re human like the rest of us, in spite of years or even decades of trying to be 100% heavenly-minded. To some extent, you love your dog in the same way I do, and you get irritated in the same ways I do.

I also care for the same reasons you do.

Next time: Why care about right and wrong?

Why Care? (Introduction)

Here is part of an email I got from from a Christian pastor:

…if you are right [that there is no god], neither what you think nor what I think is ULTIMATELY significant anyway. A thousand years from now none of it will mean anything to anyone, if there is even anyone left to whom it would otherwise mean something.

And if there is no ULTIMATE significance, I would hold that there is no REAL significance.

The idea of any significance would be rendered illusory.

If you are correct, nothing REALLY matters.

The implication, of course, is that I have no good reason to care about anything.

Yet here I am, caring.

Why? Am I failing to follow my convictions to their logical conclusion?

I’ve already touched on this in my post View from the Outside; View from the Inside but there’s much more to say. In the next few posts I’ll answer this question in each of the ways I’ve been asked it:

 

The War of the Memes

In my last post, I outlined the concept of memes as coined by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. A meme is a unit of cultural evolution: a custom or an idea, for example.

Sometimes we say that ideas have a life of their own, and that is exactly true. They parasitize first one brain and then the next, and like any good parasites they have evolved diverse ways to ensure their survival.

Some ideas are what we’d call good memes. They survive by giving benefits to their human hosts, who are then happy to transmit them to others. “It is better to give than to receive” is one such meme.

Others are evil, manipulating their hosts through superstition and fear. I have earlier written of a tribe in Venezuela who believed that if twins were born one was good and one was evil. The meme directed the parents to leave the evil one to die in the jungle, at the direction of the witch doctor. Sadly, the parents were slaves to their memes, as we all are.

Memes are at war, and our souls are the spoils of war. In the case of the Venezuelan Indians, the meme of child sacrifice was defeated by memes of Christianity as carried by missionaries. One might say that an invasive species did some good.

So who will win: the good memes or the evil memes? Will the human race fall back to the Dark Ages, or is our future brighter than that?

I am optimistic, and here’s why.

Humans are physically weak creatures. We want to succeed but the only way we can do so is to cooperate with each other. We’re also relatively smart, so we do observe the world and eventually figure things out.

One thing we’ve observed is that the most successful societies are dominated by good memes. These societies have encouraged democratic participation by their citizens; valued women; elevated family and monogamy; developed effective and relatively corruption-free judiciaries; built an ethos of relatively honest dealing in business, as well as laws to punish dishonesty when it arises; and (most of all) shunned the extreme, gratuitous violence that so characterized society 500 years ago. On that last point, I highly recommend Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Also, do watch his TED talk on the subject.

We have a long way to go, but we have also come a long way.

People whose societies don’t have those beneficial memes tend to invite them. China is opening up. Last year, we saw the Arab Spring. The world is becoming more free; societies are becoming more just. The good memes are winning.

The march of history is largely one-way in this respect. There may be fits and starts (as in Russia), but the trend is very clear. People want to be prosperous and happy, which only happens when the good memes dominate.

Thus, the ecosystem in which memes develop is changing. A successful society based on cooperation, honesty and tolerance cannot long host memes of phobia, criminality and bigotry. Even in my lifetime we have seen once-unimaginable gains in civil rights; the removal of stigmas; better treatment of the handicapped; and a “not gonna take it anymore” attitude toward formerly sacrosanct powers such as priests who sexually abuse children.

And then there’s the small matter of truth. People have now seen that the scientific method finds the truth more reliably than does dogma and blind faith. There are pockets of resistance, but Reason has been steadily marching forward ever since the Enlightenment. I can tell you from personal experience that once people have awakened from a lie, they don’t want to go back to sleep, no matter how pleasant the dreams were.

As society ratchets upward from the violence (you really do have to listen to that TED talk), superstition and bigotry of the past, evil memes are being squeezed out of their habitat. Simultaneously, the ecosystem is expanding for memes of cooperation, reason and tolerance.

If we were solitary creatures, the outcome might differ. It all comes down to biology. Fortunately, in yet another miracle of emergence, our weakness must beget cooperation, reason and tolerance. It has been a long, slow climb, but whether you look back 50, 500 or 5,000 years the trend is clear. I see no reason why it won’t continue.