Skepticism, Religion Archive

Friday, April 8, 2016

Answering Quora - Is technology replacing spirituality?

In keeping with the spirit of my recent entry, Does spirituality provide anything that science cannot provide?, this week I'm answering a related question that was recently posted on Quora, Is technology replacing spirituality?. Here is my answer.

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Below is perhaps my favorite photograph of all time, the The Chandra Deep Field South*:

Deep Look Into Space

That's only a very low-res version. Go visit the ESO page, A Pool of Distant Galaxies, download the full image, and take some time to look at it and marvel (really, I mean it, you won't be disappointed). Practically every point and smudge of light in that image is an entire galaxy, not just a single star. And that image covers a portion of the sky smaller than the full moon. The image is awe-inspiring, humbling, and marvelous all at the same time. Thousands of years ago when people looked up at the night sky, they thought the stars were shiny objects embedded in a firmament, or mythological beings. There was no conception at all of how unimaginably vast the universe really is. It's only technology that makes images like this one possible, and that reveal to us our place in the universe.

And how did I come to find this image personally? The Internet - a vast collection of networked computers sharing practically all of human knowledge. And this image is but just one example. There's a whole vast array of mind-blowing lessons to be found online, from understanding evolution and our place in the vast tree of life, to the tiniest known portions of nature, subatomic particles, that are only known about because of technologies like the LHC at CERN. And the Internet itself is only possible because of humanity's understanding of semiconductors, electronics, logic, etc. Without that type of technology, I'd be stuck with magazines and other print sources for whatever scraps of information I could find. And even those 'old' information sources rely on printing technology. Before the printing press, my only information sources would have been hand written manuscripts or word of mouth.

Science and technology have revealed so much that would have been impossible to know before. Sure, it's given us distractions, as well. But for those willing to look, it's provided us with a far deeper understanding of nature and the universe and our place in it than any ancient culture could have dreamt of.


*I've used this image before, in the entry, The Universe Is Big. I had a little more explanation putting this image into perspective. And while I was at it, I did take some time to study that image again. It gives me butterflies in my stomach every time.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Answering Quora - Does spirituality provide anything that science cannot provide?

MeditatingRecently on Quora, somebody posed the question, Does spirituality provide anything that science cannot provide? Below is my answer.

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This question presents a false dilemma. Of course there are many, many aspects of our lives that science doesn't address, but why should we turn to spirituality to address those areas when there are other, better human endeavors to address those parts of our lives?

Science is great at what it does - answering objective questions. It's by far the best method humanity has developed for this purpose. But really, that's its only purpose. Science has nothing to say on right or wrong, beautiful or ugly, awe-inspiring or mundane. Surely, we may find wonder in some of the findings of science. Looking up at the night sky is so much more marvelous knowing what those stars actually are. And science can help inform our actions, using our morality that comes from elsewhere. We wouldn't even know about global warming nor its consequences without science. But our emotional reaction to the night sky, or deciding to do something about global warming, are not part of science itself. Science has only given us the objective information, and then we use other parts of our humanity to react.

The problem with 'spirituality' is that it's plagued by so many historical connotations and associations, that it's hard to know what people really even mean by the term. Just take a look at the Wikipedia entry, Spirituality, for how many different ways people use this term, from Christians ("A spiritual man is one who is Christian 'more abundantly and deeper than others' ") to Muslims to Buddhists to Hindus to New Agers and a whole bunch of others. The one thing that most of these definitions have in common is the mystical or supernatural. But if the mystical and supernatural aren't real, then those versions of spirituality aren't based on anything real. At best, they're noble human endeavors entangled with outdated superstition. So, why not just drop the superstition and focus on the noble parts? But once you do that, is 'spirituality' really the best term to describe it?

We're human beings. We have worries and passions and morality and wonder and all types of subjective concerns. We should spend time reflecting on and fostering these aspects of our lives. We should read literature, go to art museums, study philosophy and ethics, take time during the day to pause and reflect, or even meditate if you want to take that reflection further. But these can all be secular pursuits. There's no need to pretend there's anything mystical about them.

Image Source: Wikimedia with further editing by me

Friday, February 26, 2016

Answering Some Questions About Atheism

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismThis entry is another I've recycled from Quora, but unlike all of my previous recycled Quora material, this one comes from the comment thread to one of my answers, and isn't the answer itself. The Quora question was What questions (and answers to these questions) led you to become an atheist, or to denounce your belief in religion?. If that sounds familiar, it's because it was the subject of a blog entry of the same name not too long ago. Just recently, someone left a reply with a series of questions. I responded in that thread, but figured that since these are someone common questions from religious people, I'd repost them here on the blog. The person who posted these questions has followed up with a few more, which I plan to answer on Quora, but the new questions, in my opinion, aren't as interesting or informative, so I don't plan to re-post them here. Still, if you want to follow along with more of this discussion, go check it out on Quora.


1.I don't get it why people always say that God is only to explain the unknown. God is the source of the unknown and the known. i.e. why is that drinking water quenches your thirst, while drinking oil will not? How is that water has the water-ness, if you say because its made of H2O, then how is that H2O has its H2O-ness?

There is an Arabic saying from Ali: camel crap* leads you to a camel, a building leads you to an architect, how is it not that a whole universe with such delicacy in its creation shall not have a creator/architect?

We have countless examples of camel crap*, and can use that experience as a great predictor of where a newfound piece of crap came from. Likewise for buildings - we have lots of experience seeing buildings coming from architects. We only have one universe, and so don't have any experience to draw from to say where universes come from.

To add to that - canyons come from erosion. Snowflakes come from freezing water molecules. Rivers come from water flowing downhill. We have plenty of examples of 'things' that form without conscious creators. Why require a conscious creator for the universe? (Then there's also the standard question of who created the creator? A creator creator? Is it turtles all the way down?)

Also, I wouldn't say people always use God to explain the unknown, but God of the gaps arguments are pretty common. And reading through a book like Genesis really does seem like a collection of just-so stories.

2.We as humans have wisdom...and an accident or bing bang is wisdom-less to create us--humans who have intellect. For us to be created by something that doesn't have wisdom is as if a robot would create something that has life from it's own robotical tissue( birth, sickness, fear, love, hatred, pain, anger, sex, death, etc.)whatever created us must have had wisdom as well or perhaps even a higher level of wisdom.

You're making an unfounded assumption. Evolution is a fact, and explains perfectly well how we evolved to become intelligent without an intelligence guiding the process. (Please don't tell me that you reject evolution.)

Even from a gut feel, I just don't understand this. Which makes more sense - that our universe had rather simple beginnings and over eons and eons the interaction between all this matter gradually led to increasing complexity, until eventually evolution produced organisms as intelligent as us; or that the very first thing to exist was a super-intelligent, super-complex, super-powerful being that just was out of nothing? Does the second answer really seem more satisfying?

And like I pointed out in response to your first question, if something with wisdom or intellect requires a creator with wisdom or intellect, does that creator then require a meta-creator with wisdom and intellect? And then does that meta-creator require a meta-meta creator? And on and on. Obviously, both of us accept that something with wisdom and intellect can come about without a prior being with wisdom and intellect that created it.

3.We as humans have free-will, and again that is beyond the level of reach of an accident or bing bang, whatever created us must have had free-will as well. Or perhaps even a higher level of free-will

I reject your premise - I don't think humans have free-will in the sense that most people understand that term.

4.I can not imagine a God who is not just, this is probably the only point where you took it too far! I think you have read too much of Zeus and Hades. :|

Many people believe in unjust gods, even if they're unwilling to admit it. Any god that would massacre every last man, woman, and child on Earth other than one family doesn't sound particularly just to me. Neither does infinite punishment in response to a finite life.

5.Do you only believe what you see? Do you see jealousy? joy? Karma? love? pain? Do you see hope? Do you see luck? Do you believe in good and bad? right and wrong? [None of these are scientific]

Do you believe that working making money with your own money and working with money stolen from orphans are same and there are no scientific outcomes when you steal from orphans?

I try my best to only accept as objectively true things for which there is sufficient evidence. There is plenty of evidence of jealousy, joy, love, pain, and hope. They're emotional states of people (and perhaps other animals). My personal experience is evidence enough for me that I feel them, and the actions of other people around me is strong enough evidence to convince me that those people experience the same emotions. Karma in any type of cosmic sense is something I haven't seen evidence for. Luck is just a word we use to describe good things happening outside our own control. Good, bad, right, and wrong are similar to the other emotions I already talked about. They exist in people's minds as subjective feelings, and we can see evidence that people have these feelings. They do not exist objectively outside of that.

I don't understand the point about scientific outcomes from stealing from orphans. Since science deals only with the objective (and not morality), of course there are scientific outcomes - the orphans have less of whatever was stolen from them. If you're looking for a moral judgment, then science isn't the right place to look. Instead try philosophy, like secular humanism.

6.Other than Christianity disapproving homosexuality, did it provide any reason? [ you can ask me a single question and I can give you 100 different answers. My point is how do you conclude such easily]

CARM.org - What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

7.Did you try any other priest? Or you just said 'I'm done with all religions'? HOW can you be sure that there is no out there that has an answer to your questions?

I did try a few different Christian sects. I also read a bit about a few other religions. But honestly, without being indoctrinated into religions from childhood, most don't seem to have any compelling reasons to accept them. Do I really have to examine all 4200 of the world's religions to say I'm reasonably sure none of them are true, even though atheism seems to fit so well with the evidence I've seen? If so, are religious people under the same obligation to examine all 4200 of those religions to be sure that they've chosen the right one?

8.Why is that people always challenge religion, but never challenge atheism? Isn't atheism identical to that of religion which also requires to be challenged? If you are challenging then go out and read about other sects/doctrines/approaches...

First of all, the onus is on a person making a positive claim to back up that claim with evidence. If you claim that something exists (gods, souls, afterlives, demons, fairies, unicorns, leprechauns, etc.), then it's up to you to provide evidence for your claim. Otherwise, it can simply be dismissed along with all the other myths people have dreamt up over the millennia.

Second of all, you must interact with a very different community than the ones I interact with. Here's just the very first result that came back from Google when I searched 'atheism is wrong', 7 Things Atheists Get Wrong About God. And believe me, there were a lot more results than just that one. It's also not as if Americans have very positive feelings about atheists, as revealed by several public opinion polls (e.g. How Americans Feel About Religious Groups). In my experience, atheism gets challenged plenty. (And rightly so from a skeptical perspective, even if I think most of the challenges against atheism are unconvincing. We still need to examine the reasons why we believe things and always be open to changing our minds given new evidence.)


*Actually, camel 'crap' wasn't the term used, but I've had this site blocked a few times by network admins who had set up prudish firewalls, so I went with the PG term on the blog.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Ken Ham to Bring About Destruction of Kentucky

Gustave Doré's The Confusion of TonguesOkay, maybe Ken Ham isn't really going to bring about the destruction of Kentucky, but I do find this amusing. I just read an article, Noah's Ark takes shape in Grant County, describing Ham's biblically themed amusement park, the Ark Encounter. As the headline and name of the park suggest, the centerpiece is a life-sized 'reconstruction' of the ark. Of course, 'reconstruction' is a pretty fanciful term for a mythical item. Anyway, what I found so amusing is that the article mentions how one of the next stages of the park might be a reconstruction of the Tower of Babel (I saw this confirmed in an older article - Ken Ham's Latest Plans: Solomon's Temple and the Tower of Babel). Is Ham so sure he wants to do that? Last time mankind supposedly tried to build the tower, God was none too happy about it. You'd think a Biblical literalist like Ham would be a little more reluctant to poke God in the eye like that.

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Image Source: Wikipedia

Friday, February 5, 2016

Answering Quora - What questions (and answers to these questions) led you to become an atheist, or to denounce your belief in religion?

The Out Campaign: Scarlet Letter of AtheismOnce again, I'm going to recycle a Quora answer for this website. This time, the question was, What questions (and answers to these questions) led you to become an atheist, or to denounce your belief in religion? (follow the link to see other people's answers). My answer was similar to things I've said on this site before, but I do like the way this essay turned out.

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I can't say there was one single question or moment of epiphany that led me to abandon Christianity, but in hindsight, I think I can identify some of the first major seeds of doubt that led me down that path.

First, let me be clear that prior to becoming an atheist, I was a devout Christian. My family went to church nearly every Sunday. I attended CCD and was an altar boy. We were active in church activities. I read the entire Bible. I prayed privately every night, not to mention innumerable small prayers throughout the day, and truly thought I could feel God's presence when I prayed. I wasn't faking it or just going through the motions. I was very sincere and earnest in my religious beliefs.

Like most Christians, I had minor doubts throughout my life, but I did my best to either rationalize them, or simply push them to the back of my mind and ignore them. I think the big moment for me came when the Intelligent Design movement was around its peak popularity. Prior to that, I'd always accepted the mainstream scientific view of the history of Earth and the rest of the universe. And I rationalized it with the Bible by assuming that the Genesis accounts were figurative, though without ever giving those accounts any real scrutiny. I naively assumed that most other Christians also accepted mainstream science, and that it was only fringe types that took creationism seriously as a literal story. It was the Intelligent Design movement that finally made me aware of the extent of creationism. And that realization made me wonder if I was being a bad Christian by accepting the scientific view of the history of the planet & the universe when so many other Christians were saying that you had to accept creationism. So, I began to research the topic from both points of view, particularly in biology. I learned a whole lot more about evolution than what I was ever taught in high school biology class, and I read various creationist websites to see their arguments. Needless to say, there's a reason why evolution is so overwhelmingly accepted in the scientific community, so this only strengthened my acceptance of the scientific viewpoint. And the outlandish and many times dishonest arguments put out by the creationists greatly tarnished the reputation of Christians in my view.

But, that wasn't enough by itself to make me leave my faith. After all, I'd already accepted the mainstream scientific view prior to that - I just didn't realize how many other Christians didn't. So, with a bit of hubris, I thought I might be able to reconcile this conflict. I decided to study the Bible even more closely to figure out the best way to reconcile it with reality, since by this point I was aware that my figurative interpretation was a bit strained. I didn't read the Bible cover to cover again, but I did focus in on certain areas, read commentaries and studies by others, and allowed myself to notice and acknowledge the contradictions that my faith didn't allow me to see clearly before. And I'm not just talking about Genesis Chapter 1 vs. science, but all the books, including the discrepancies in the Gospels. I eventually came to realize that the Bible wasn't divinely inspired, but even this wasn't enough to make me abandon my faith. After all, there's no logical requirement that the Bible has to be divinely inspired in order for God to exist. But at this point, having gone so far as to question the divine inspiration of the Bible, I was well on the path to questioning all of Christianity.

There were a few other big questions & issues that happened somewhat simultaneously with the above. The first was how the Bible dealt with homosexuality. From secular ethics, I could see nothing wrong with homosexuality. It was just something two people did that didn't affect anyone else. Further, it seems almost certain that people's sexuality is innate, and people don't choose who they're attracted to (not that sexuality is necessarily purely genetic, but some result of development that we have no conscious control over). So, if homosexuality wasn't all that wrong, and people had no choice in who they were attracted to, how could a just God condemn it so vehemently, and have commanded punishments as harsh as stonings?

Another question was the whole concept of Hell. This one actually predated my investigation of the creationism vs. reality debate, but I didn't let myself fully consider it until I was questioning everything about religion. I recall reading a book by Douglas Adams while I was still a Christian. It was after Adams had died, and I remember feeling so bad that a man that good could be suffering in Hell because he was an atheist and hadn't accepted Jesus. It made me lament all the countless others who would suffer similar fates. At the time, I blamed Adams - how could he have been so stupid as to not accept Jesus, knowing the consequences. Later, once I'd begun to question things, I wondered how a supposedly loving god could inflict that type of punishment on anyone, let alone for a crime as minor as disbelief.

And granted, those issues about homosexuality and Hell are arguments from consequences, or emotional appeals, rather than evidence. After all, there's no reason a god would have to be fair or just or loving. But they certainly made me question the traditional representation of the Christian God.

The final issue wasn't a question about religion, but a life change for me. I became a father. I hadn't fully abandoned my faith, yet, but with the responsibility of raising my daughter, I wanted to be damn sure that I raised her properly and didn't teach her falsehoods or indoctrinate her the way I had been simply out of tradition. So, that gave me extra motivation to look deeper at religion and try to get to the bottom of it.

Of course, that's far from the full extent of the questions and issues I considered. At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I'll include a link to a collection of essays I wrote during my process of deconversion, Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays. But the original question was about the issues that led me to become an atheist, and those were the initial ones that put me on the path to leaving religion behind.

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