Beyond Belief: The Albatross

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

–From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The line between free thought and subjugated thought is thin but absolute and can be determined with a simple question that requires no modification of current beliefs:  If there is no God, if we are all that is, would you want to know?

I believe abjectly that human potential is virtually limitless.  We have just scratched the surface of what we can do and become.  Unfortunately, we are constrained by a fatal flaw in our design (it also happens to be one of our greatest attributes):

Faith.

I’m not just talking about religious faith–although religion is a crucial aspect.  I’m talking about faith as the trust we have that we are correct about what we believe (i.e., hold to be true).  Because of that trust we make presumptions.  We hold some presumptions so dearly that we actually consider questioning them taboo.  But  presumption is simply unfounded belief, no matter how logical it may seem or profoundly we may believe it.  Religion then exalts these unfounded beliefs as the Will or Law of supreme and/or supernatural beings–who are themselves unfounded beliefs.   It uses evidence to justify–rather than evaluate–beliefs and either disregards or denounces contradictory evidence (such as evolution and radiometric dating).

It may seem like I’m calling humankind delusional, but as instinctive and intuitive animals, we are right so much of the time–purely by guessing–that belief has become innate.  Whether it’s navigating through traffic, recognizing whether a door is automated or manual, or realizing that an unattended child is getting into something, we guess right an overwhelming majority of the time.  It verifies our faith. It’s probably why it’s so embarrassing and even unsettling when we’re wrong; we’ve failed in our perception of reality.

Faith was crucial when we were ignorant of the natural world.   But as we have passed from the age of faith, through the age of reason, and into the age of knowledge it has become imperative for us to re-evaluate the principles and processes by which we discern what is true.

We have not only acquired more knowledge–beliefs supported by evidence–we’ve gotten better at acquiring it; knowledge chafes against the limits of faith, religious or otherwise.  Our understanding of the world, once buttressed by faith is becoming increasingly imprisoned by it.  We resist accepting new truths because they may dispel older ones.

It has become untenable.

If we are skeptical–which is to say we presume as little as possible, only accepting beliefs supported by evidence–we can get closer to the reality of existence than we ever could by faith in unfounded beliefs.  Because that faith may be displaced.  Skepticism is the purest search for truth and truth encompasses all possibilities.

So this is not to denounce religious beliefs.  The exploration of a transcendental origin, nature, or purpose for existence is at the very least well-intentioned.  And it may very well be true.  But until it is supported by evidence, it is only a belief in what is possible and therefore should neither be the basis for social law nor the arbiter of morality.

The only way to liberate thought is to prioritize truth.  Science and philosophy which share this mandate with religion, will always trump religion because science and philosophy admit to fallibility.  A core tenet of scientific method is scrutiny through peer review and the first rule of philosophy is that we may be wrong about everything. Meanwhile religion, particularly Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, and Judaism, profess, without evidence, to relay the infallible, yet wildly interpretive, word of God.   None hold up to objective scrutiny.  Their only defense is to restrict investigation, deny contradiction, and denounce skepticism.

It’s been successful.  We have been programmed to avoid intellectual conflict.  Never talk about politics or religion.  By default I would add money to that list.  But these are the core, substantive issues affecting the quality of life on earth.  What better to talk about than money, politics, and religion?  Or should billions suffer and starve so no one has to admit they may be mistaken?

When we are wrong–which is inevitable–failing (or refusing) to re-examine what we hold to be true diminishes our potential.  We deny possibilities for no reason outside our own minds.  It limits our ability to understand, even to question.

Thus faith has become the albatross around the neck of human thought.

We absolutely must free ourselves from the yoke of this superstition.  We must define truth as beliefs justified by–and better, arising out of–evidence and always subject to greater truth.  Only skeptical reason, tempered by compassion, can elevate society beyond unfounded belief and into the realm of knowledge in the noble quest to understand.

Free thought.


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What I Believe

I have a love/hate relationship with labels.  The clarity is great but the rigidity sucks.

When I noted that I am a spiritual atheist, some people ascribed to me their stigma of atheism.  Others considered spiritual atheism paradoxical.

I am a human being who does not believe in deities nor any connections or derivations thereof (divine books, origins of birth, miracles, etc.).  I do not deny the existence of any god, I just don’t subscribe to it.  I don’t know what happens after we die (of course, what I don’t know is infinite).

However, I am a believer and proponent of the connection I share with other people–all people, in fact, all living things–the earth, and the universe.  We are cosmic beings, made of celestial material; we come from the universe and to it we will ultimately return.

And we are alive.  I know of no other comparable fortune.  What’s more, we are aware of this gift and can enjoy it for the blessing that it is.

Plus, we are the inheritors of 200,000 years of human history.  I am the beneficiary of the sacrifices and accomplishments of all those who came before me from families, merchants, soldiers, kings, scholars, and philosophers to theologians, artists, inventors, and masons, even bakers and cobblers.  Their achievements have made our lives possible.  They have progressed us–technologically, scientifically, and morally–to our highest point in recorded history.  I believe we have a responsibility to continue their work and leave an even better world than we inherited.  They are examples, not the pinnacle, of how high we can go.  We honor them by striving to exceed them as they exceeded those who came before.  I believe it is our duty, our obligation, to do so (We have a LOT of work to do).

I believe in a world without suffering, where we are each free to pursue our own happiness, so long as it does not infringe on the happiness of others or abandon our sense of responsibility to one another.

Some will call it a pipe dream, an impossible quest for a perfect world; but I respond (echoing Vince Lombardi), perfection may be impossible, but in striving to achieve it, excellence may be attained.

And that’s what I believe.

The Non-believer’s Guide To Prayer

The title is a bit misleading (Guess I just liked the sound of it).

This post is really for the non-religious.  Being skeptical of a theistic, intervening deity–which I am–is not the same as being cynical of any greater power whatsoever–which I am not.

I was never much of the “praying type”.  It  always seemed kind of selfish to me.  Even when I prayed for other people, I was doing so because I wanted good things for them.  I suppose there are worse things you could do with your time.  But I always like the concept of praying, putting good vibes out there.

A key aspect of myriad religions and philosophies, prayer covers a wide range  topics and there are innumerable methods and purposes.  In general, I consider prayer as a kind of active, focused, positive thought.

I posted a blog recently discussing my rejection of religion.  It sparked several wonderful conversations with friends,  family, and fellow internet geeks on both sides of the issue, and has helped me more clearly define my own beliefs while being introduced to new ideas and perspectives.  I can already tell this is just the beginning of my exploration of the subject.

However, I’ve already come to the startling and identity-smashing realization that I am an Atheist. I have likewise become entrenched in my rejection of religion and furthermore believe that religion is in desperate need of a new reformation–as happened with Christ, Mohammed, the Great Schism, and the Protestant Reformation.  Religion is the bridge between a people and their deity.  As such, religion must reflect both sides to be relevant, which most of today’s Western religions do with plummeting effectiveness. Civilization is in peril because modern technological capability is being governed by iron-age theosophy and agrarian morality.  (But more on that another time.)

This is not a rejection of faith or even God.

Epistemologically speaking, “God” as the Creator, exists.  The proof is existence itself.  I exalt that “trinity” of creation, destruction, and recreation.  My limited and casual understanding of the sciences suggests to me that these forces are at least interwoven if not one.  While violent and terrifying from our subjective view these dynamics are, in reality, nothing more than the restructuring of particle groups and the principles that drive it.   I believe, by the intricate flawlessness of these organizing principles, that some kind of intelligence drives them or comprises them or perhaps originated them.

I won’t speculate as to  what kind of intelligence that might be or how it works.  Nor would I hazard a guess as to sentience, especially not sentience as I know it.  This, to me, is one of the places where reasonable people can, for the time being, come to their own conclusions.

For me, the  staggering actuality that I–a collection of individually lifeless molecules, inexplicably arranged into sentience–am able to experience even this infinitesimal speck of all that is, has been, and will be, is more than miracle enough to compel my continual, embarrassed, and humble gratitude.

The question is, how exactly do I show that gratitude?

Again, I am an atheist, theologically speaking.  Yet there are “higher” concepts that I do believe in:  Salvation, enlightenment, even bliss.  These ideas still hold profound meaning for me.  To my mind they are all modes of thought, or more accurately, modes of thought procession. From perception and understanding to joy, forgiveness, and guilt, thought is how we experience existence.

This means that thought has power–unequaled power from the human perspective.  So logically, I must therefore believe in the power of positive–and negative–thinking.

What I mean when I say positive is anything that drives us toward the combined states of individual contentment, environmental equilibrium, and social exceptionalism.  In other words, I’m talking about states of happiness, balance, and growth as individuals and as a species.

  • I define happiness as the cessation of need, the tempering of desire through both achievement and self-control, and the unfettered pursuit of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual interests.
  • I define balance as maintaining a respectful, pragmatic equilibrium between the utilization and replenishment of our natural and cultural resources.
  • I define growth as progressive improvement in the quality of life and equality of opportunity for all people.

Experientially, these are modes of travel not destinations (to steal a motivational poster slogan).  Salvation, enlightenment, and bliss are the ultimate forms of these modes.  Our belief systems are how we achieve such modes which serve as the highest material functions of belief.  In plain terms, faith can help make us better people.

Prayer then, along with reflection, meditation, and study, have their place as ways of attuning and refining thought positively, regardless of belief.  You can pray to God, Allah, Yahweh, Mormon, or Buddha; you can pray to Oblivion; you can pray to the Blind Luck of the Universe if you want.  The purpose is to give profound thanks for the opportunity to experience Life and to seek, within yourself or from God, the capacity to endure, overcome, and achieve.

I find something very reassuring about that.

And if praying is not your deal, then don’t do it.  There are people of even devout faith who rarely pray.

Besides, if you’re doing it right, no one should know the difference.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

-Matthew 6:5

( Praying hands: http://www.prospectorjewelers.com/About_Us/Praying_Hands.htm.  Kohlberg’s stages of moral development: http://klooste-mycave.blogspot.com/2010/10/gender-typing-are-there-flavors-as-well_22.html.  Buddha statue:  http://blogs.babble.com/famecrawler/2010/10/18/what-is-aqua-buddha-rand-pauls-campaign-is-getting-a-little-crazy-watch-the-ad/)

Losing My Religion?! I Lost It!

Note:  I’m talking about faith and religion here.  Just a warning in case the topic is not your thing.

To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.

-Benjamin Franklin

I come from a Church-going family.  We didn’t go every Sunday, but most Sundays for the majority of my childhood.  When I got older my mother allowed me to choose whether or not I wanted to attend.   Predictably, I stopped going–although more from a lack of interest than a lack of belief.  In fact, quite the opposite.

Still, over time Sunday became more synonymous with football than church.

A good decade after I’d last set foot in a church, I got a job as a custodian for the Park Village Elementary School (I know, lofty ambitions).  It included an overtime gig opening up the gymnasium for a Nondenominational Christian church group on Sunday mornings.  I did it from time-to-time.

The church was called the Vineyard and they were some of the best people I have ever met.  They were friendly, jovial, courteous, and kind.  And more than that, they seemed genuinely happy.  They were able to actively enjoy each others’ company and each moment as it came.  The key was their faith.

I grew curious.  The pastor readily made time to talk to me about life and belief and whatever else.  Those conversations were amazing.  They helped define the 2nd half of my intellectual–and spiritual–life.

It started me on a journey to rediscover my own faith.

Only problem was, try as I might, I couldn’t find it.

I am a student of history and philosophy.  And in studying those fields, I learned things that irreparably damaged my road back to religion.

I have a much more objective understanding of the Bible’s historical context. I see syllogism and allegory in the Christian Bible.  I do see truth, but what I don’t see is even remotely believable literality. I know how the Bible came to be.  I know where many of the stories come from.  I know how the meaning of certain biblical terms has changed over time. I see how the various denominations pick and choose what they want to believe.

Besides, time exalts and mysticizes history.  People freely believe that phenomena considered impossible now was somehow possible a thousand years ago.  I understand why they believe it and why they would want to.  I just can’t believe the same.

When I try to look at Christianity objectively–which is virtually impossible since Christianity is the foundation of my values, morality, and culture–I see the same holes and inconsistencies that I do with, say, Islam or Mormonism.

However, I also understand the very human desire to continue, to not end once this life is over.  I share that desire vehemently.  I likewise share the desire to have a greater purpose for my life.  I’ve felt the comfort of believing there is a God who loves us–me as much as anyone–and wants the best for us all.  I, too, can see the beauty of a world without suffering.

Those hopes are indescribably powerful.  I think they’re essential to the human composition.  It drives our social and moral evolution.  It’s why I find logic in Pascal’s Wager.  It’s also why I find Atheism lacking even though I find it logical.

But these are issues of faith, not religion.

Religion is the rulebook.  And I admit, part of me wants that rulebook.  Part of me wants the religion of Jesus Christ to be true, for cruel and evil people to suffer while the virtuous are blessed for eternity.

But the rest of me looks at some of those rules (eating shellfish being an abomination, stoning disobedient children, the submission of woman) and not only do I NOT accept it, I don’t see Providence in it.  All I see human judgmentalism in those rules.  I only see inequity.

And I don’t buy the whole “His ways are mysterious” bit.  Strange, he made it possible to understand astrophysics yet made an enigma-hidden-in-a-riddle-lost-in-a-mystery out of why eating lobster is a sin.

I find the idea that someone must burn in hell with rapists and murderers–simply because they are gay, and despite any other qualities they might possess–not only offensive, but ludicrous.

What’s more, I don’t believe in evil.  I think people learn and continue cycles of abuse and neglect.  People have chemical imbalances and structural deficiencies in their brains.  People get indoctrinated into belief systems that embrace fear and anger and hatred–and they have mental and emotional compositions that make them susceptible to that kind of messaging.

Not only could an omnipotent God see those potentially insurmountable flaws within us, It would have CREATED them.  Damning or saving us based on a rulebook, inattentive of  those shortcomings, is cruel and unfair.  It’s like condemning someone for being blind.  What “loving” God, ruled by nothing but Its own Will, would choose to be cruel and unfair?

However, from a human perspective, punishing those that hurt others can be appealing.  The thought of Adolf Hitler burning in hell makes me all warm and fuzzy.  And I don’t possess the magnanimity to wish him anything better, but that only reflects the cruelty within me.

So, for the above reasons (and enough more to fill a book), I came to the conclusion that I reject religion.  It’s a personal conclusion, of course.  That decision is profoundly individual.  And it’s trans-rational.  Echoing the sentiments of St. Paul, it has to make sense and it has to feel right.

I consider myself a spiritual atheist.  I could perhaps call the force of creation in the universe, God.  The fact that everything, from the most insubstantial subatomic particle to the most enlightened abstract thought drives instinctively and unstoppably toward organization suggests, to my mind, a possible kind of intelligence.  However, the nature of that intelligence is factually unknown and unknowable thus far.  Will Durant expressed it best:

We are moments in eternity and fragments in infinity.  For such forked atoms to describe the universe, or the Supreme Being, must make the planets tremble with mirth.

As for what happens when we die, I can’t say, and I don’t think that’s the point.  I hope there is some kind of eternal me (and you!) that lives on.  I continue to hope, but it’s not my focus.

Some might find such a perspective restricting.  I find it liberating.  I search for what affirms and optimizes existence.  It’s things like life and love, compassion, kindness, honesty, sincerity, truth, friends and family, faith and philosophy, music and story.  They all profoundly enrich the experience of being.

I can’t imagine that any wise and loving God would wish for us anything else.

I don’t.

(Angel image from: http://samscotti.blogspot.com/.  Atheism image from: http://chan4chan.com/archive/tags/arrogant)