Thursday, July 31, 2008

"The language you use is a little stong - the religious people aren't going to like it"

I was just talking today with one of my co-workers, who I have encouraged to have a look at this blog. Her opinions are similar to mine on a lot of things, but I was still very interested in what she would say. She hasn't seen the past few posts yet, just up to "What I think". She liked my thoughts a lot, but she said something I wasn't expecting. She said the language might be too strong for religious people. By which she meant I was too blunt about the idea of a man in the sky who answers prayers (among other ideas) seeming kind of silly to me.

If I had to choose between "Religious" and "Atheist" to describe myself, I would choose "Atheist", just because my views are so far from what most people think of as being religious (with some exceptions, of course, including the person by the screen name Darwin who has posted a few comments here). And I suppose that comes through in my writing - I don't have a lot of room for arguments such as "Well, I can't explain it, I don't understand God, I just feel this is true" or "You think too much, that's why this doesn't make sense to you". I may feel certain things are true, but I feel also that it's my responsibility as a rational, thinking human being to get to the bottom of why something is true, and put it into words so I can explain its truth to others. So be prepared for me to keep asking why until I get an answer, 'cause I do that :) And the basic premise of this entire site is that thinking is a good thing. If anyone who comes on here would like to argue that point, feel free to give it your best shot, but I don't like your chances.

So yeah, I take a hard-to-swallow line on certain things. But as I pointed out to my friend, I'm not trying to come up with something everyone will like, I'm trying to come up with something everyone will agree with. Eventually, probably after some argument. Something they will see the truth in. Something both religious people and atheists can see makes sense. And if I pander to one side or the other, not only do I compromise my integrity (as what I write here is what I genuinely believe) but I just push myself away from others who see me trying to be a people-pleaser. Ya know what? I'd love it if Heaven was true. It would be just super if all of my mistakes could be forgiven by praying to someone or something. Being immortal would be awesome. It would also be great if we had the answer from science, and could say with certainty why everything was. But my ideas aren't about what I would like to be true, they're about what I think is true. Many religious people aren't going to like it. Many Atheists aren't either. I'm pretty sure some of the guys over on Why God Won't Heal Amputees would kill my idea if they could. But, after several days of trying, they can't, at least not so far.

I'm writing here because I believe there are certain elemental truths that transcend any religion, and are even true for people who aren't religious. There are certain things in life we can all agree on, and if we're all willing to take a good hard look at ourselves and our beliefs, we'll be able to come together around those truths, instead of fighting with each other about beliefs that don't make sense. After looking at things for many years, I think I have a good idea what many of those truths might be. And I think it's important to state them as clearly as I can, even though I might state them alone.

So I'm not asking anyone to like what they read here. I'm just asking everyone to take an honest look at it and see if it's true. If you really want it to be false, that's great. Look at it really hard, then. And if you find something wrong with what I believe to be true or find something important I've missed, I'll be willing to change, even though it might not be easy. But I expect the same willingness from everybody else.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Lack of divine intervention

This post is for evidence that the claims of various religions are not true. Studies showing that prayer doesn't work, things of that nature. And if you disagree with something posted here and have evidence a particular study might not be valid, feel free to dispute its claims here. For example, it's legitimate to say that a study has a small sample size, or hasn't been reproduced, or that something posted here doesn't apply to a particular situation for some logical reason.

Also, let's keep in mind that "The claims of the bible" are not the same as "The claims of the Christians on this site". Lots of people disagree on what exactly large parts of the bible mean. So let's confine ourselves to a claim made on this site, or maybe something from the bible you think is nearly universal (although you'll be surprised how often the response you get will be "Well we don't believe in that", or "That story isn't meant to be taken literally").

Miracles / Divine Intervention

This post is for people who look at my stance that God doesn't defy the laws of physics and go "Yes He DOES!" If you have actual evidence, feel free to post it here. I'll have a look at it, and so will others, and we'll comment on it. This is a reasonableness-based blog, so you may get people disagreeing with you about the authenticity (and if any atheists come on here, you probably will get some disagreement, and I'll be perfectly willing to point out anything that seems unlikely myself). But at least that gives you a place to dispute my claim that God doesn't muck with physics if you want to.

"Miracles" of the coincidental variety are not what we're looking for here - I've already suggested a way of accounting for almost astronomically improbable coincidences, and any atheists are just going to go "Coincidences can actually be coincidences sometimes, you know!" But if you have something truly unbelievable, feel free to say so.

Clarifying my position on millitancy

I'm a middle-ground kind of guy. So when I see people in attack mode, my first response is to say "Now let's just calm down" or something similar. It doesn't make sense to me for people to be angry or frustrated with one another. I think generally it's my responsibility as an adult to exercise some self-control, rather than taking things out on other people. And I think if you put up with a little bit of flak from other people when they're frustrated, and respond calmly, you're a lot more likely to get listened to.

So the fact that I immediately had people go on the offensive on the Why Won't God Heal Amputees site put me off. I didn't get it. If you're trying to make a case for something, why immediately put the person you're talking to on the defensive? Why not assume they're a human being, like you, and accept that reasonable people can reach different conclusions legitimately? It seemed to me that not doing so was silly. It just didn't make sense.

But here's the thing - usually, when you can put yourself in other people's shoes, and see the world as they see it, their behaviour becomes a lot more understandable. I didn't see how it was possible that what I was reading could at first. But if you've already tried to talk to the people around you, and been told you're going to hell for thinking what you think, and if that's consistently happened for a while, from most or all of the people you talk to, then talking reasonably starts to make less sense.

Myself, I've lost a good friend because he decided that since I didn't believe in God the way he did, he couldn't be around me any more (although he would give up his "violent" Spider-Man comic books "when he had the strength"). Because he wanted to deepen his faith, he cut me off. And so, since I believe it's always important to try to put yourself in the other person's shoes, I thought about what it would be like if it wasn't just one good friend, but my family, and my community that I got cut off from. And if most of the people around me believed some really extreme form of religion, like I only see on TV, so instead of just being cut off from people I cared about I was also genuinely scared of how they might react. And if at first (because many of these people had been Christians at one point) I had believed the same things as those around me, so when I gave up that I didn't know what else there was to believe. When I looked at it that way, the way they were acting made sense. Objecting to using analogies and insisting on perfect rationality doesn't really make sense most times. But when you see even a little bit of irrationality as the start of a slippery slope and you've seen first-hand exactly what's at the bottom of that slope, because you've lived in it, well, then it makes sense to object to an analogy that might seem harmless to me.

So no, I don't approve of militancy, on either side of any debate. I still think it's not an effective approach, and I will insist that all discussion on this site be respectful and open. But I think someone in a different situation might say to me "Well, that's all very nice of you to say where everything is sunshine and roses, but in the real world, in my world, your approach doesn't work, I've tried it." Which makes me feel lucky to be where I am.

Last night I just had a "Wow" moment, where another perspective I didn't understand became clear to me, that's all. And although I don't agree with the viewpoint, understanding where it comes from helps me to talk to people who hold it, and that's a good thing.

And I understand too that it can go both ways. I guess being a person of faith can make you feel cut off from people who don't believe the same. But I've got to say it doesn't make the same kind of sense to me (yet). People moving away from others who don't share their beliefs makes me a little scared, because it cuts off dialog, which seems like a step in the wrong direction. So I hope nobody takes me saying what I think as an indication that they're not welcome to think differently. All you have to do is be willing and able to explain to me how your position makes sense.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Second Response - From Why Won't God Heal


Earlier I said that I didn't get a response from the website Why Won't God Heal Amputees, where I also posted my idea. Until this morning, the only objection anyone on that site had been willing to post was "First prove God made the universe and exists outside of time. Hell, just prove he exists. And also, shorten your paragraphs, they're too long."

Not the most promising introduction. "Wow", I thought, after reading some of the other threads. "These people seem really bitter, and angry. Why not just let people be? I mean, sure, there are fundamentalists out there, and it does seem like there are a large number of religious-to-the-point-of-clinical-insanity people on this site, but it's the Internet. When you get to make up your name and not show your face, many people's sanity goes out the window (which is the reason comments on this blog are moderated, and anonymous comments are disabled). Why is it such a big deal to convince someone who believes in God that they're wrong?"

I have since gotten several intelligent critiques, and a much better appreciation for truly millitant atheism.

One of the critiques was as follows:

I'm just going to focus on this one little point. Yes you are correct in saying that the analogy over simplifies things, and most analogies it turns out are traps (unless they are mathematical analogies). Most analogies used in apologetics like C.S. Lewis's are obfuscation, smoke and mirrors, sleight of hand (but not necessarily maliciously so). The problem with this analogy is that book is at least two different things, a physical object and a collection of ideas. Both things however exist in the same universe and are composed of the same "material" as the author.

Which is an entirely valid criticism, the analogy isn't literally accurate, and doesn't accurately represent the relationship between God and the universe because they're fundamentally different things. And it will strengthen my work if I make sure this is 100% clear. I assumed people would get that it was just an analogy, and I said something to the effect of "Excellent point about the analogy not being accurate. But I think that analogies can be effectively used to convey complex ideas so long as people understand the difference between an analogy and an actual situation."

And then I continued to lurk on the WWGHA forum, just getting the style of the debates that were going on there. I started to read one particular thread, where the person who started the thread asked what people got out of debating here. Seemed a reasonable question, because as I said, some of them seemed really bitter, and I don't think they were making a lot of progress with the fundamentalist Christians who were the main representatives of the Christian religion on this forum. And the person who asked the question said they got initially marked as a Troll by a moderator (meaning the moderator thought their question wasn't genuine, but was just posted to start a fight). So the original poster had gone into more detail, to explain that he actually was honestly interested in the answer, and he was an atheist himself. And still two people out of the first few said they thought he might be lying, and might actually be a Christian.

But this is where giving people the benefit of the doubt comes in. Because I kept reading, and once people figured out that the question was genuine, they started giving genuine answers. And some people, quite a few of them, said they were from the Bible Belt, and in the place where they lived, you had to be religious. If you weren't, you were shunned, and told you were going to hell. And as an atheist, you couldn't get away from being blessed all the time. There were "five or six churches within sight of your house". If you didn't believe, you kept quiet because you didn't know what else to do, until you saw this forum and that other people had been able to get out. Religion just surrounded you, and a surprising number of the people there said they had no non-religious friends to turn to in their local communities. No social support, and they were just looking for like-minded people to talk to.

I learned an important lesson about how lucky I am to live where I do, where thinking for yourself is encouraged, and it's perfectly OK if you don't go to church on Sunday. It's OK if you do, too, and lots of people do, but you have the choice. And so when the person who posted that critique came back and said

The problem with that is that many people accept the analogy, and stop thinking any further. Those who seek to confuse, influence or control others will relentlessly exploit this regardless of whether the analogy itself is malicious or benign.
This is why most people on this forum favour precise, well defined explanations, and why I personally regard analogies with enormous suspicion. Anyone who is seriously discussing these topics should avoid using them when possible.

I understood, and just said "Fair enough, no more analogies." Because in certain situations, millitant atheism, I mean really millitant atheism (but still trying to make a statement with words alone, and on your own forum) is fair. If you're a religious moderate, thinking "rational people can be religious, I don't get why Atheists don't understand that sometimes", I'd reccommend going to the forum and asking one.

UPDATE (August 1st): The more I think about it, the less of a good idea it seems for religious people to ask questions on that forum. I just recently posted "No good or clarity will come from there - they aren't interested in finding answers, only taking yours away" on a Christian's blog. And that's about accurate. But if you live in a place where fundamentalism is rare, and you'd like to see its effects, that's where you'd go.

That's it for me for tonight.

Monday, July 28, 2008

On suffering, nobility, and candy canes

OK, I really wasn't planning to write anything more tonight. But... well, this girl Amy who liked my idea seems like she's having a down day (from her blog post), not believing in heaven and reflecting on the suffering of the world, and that sucks. That's one thing I don't like about my idea - it questions things like free will and prayer and heaven, which bring a lot of comfort to a lot of people. Having any part in taking that comfort away is hard, and I hate to do it. (Of course, I'm probably egotistical and have nothing to do with this particular post, but still I feel bad even so...)

So here's what I do, when I think about all of the suffering in the world.

1. I remember how little control I have. It sounds like that's exactly the wrong thing to do when you're thinking of the problems of the world, but here's how it works. You have to remember that nobody can expect you to fix the world. All you can be expected to do, and all you can reasonably expect of yourself, is to do your part. And doing that, particularly when you don't feel like it, is almost noble. Absorbing the negativity of the world and putting out some positivity in its place really is an important thing to do. Kind of like a little gift to the world.

2. I think about how much of a difference I can make. Sure, I can't cure poverty or cancer, or even get people to be nice to each other most times. But if you're not expecting it, you'd be surprised how much of a difference a small friendly gesture can make. And honestly, one ten cent candy cane one down day around Christmas, from a classmate I barely knew, turned my whole view of generosity around. It's something I'll never forget. So when I'm feeling powerless and small and sad, I try to go out and do something for someone, that they might not be expecting. And then I think about how that little bit of goodness spreads out from its source. I find that helps.

First response

Ok, so... Now that I've got this up, I e-mailed the site to a few people I know, just to see what they'd think. One of them, an extremely religious person, basically told me it's wrong because it contradicts the bible, end of story. The fact that I didn't even get a "that's interesting, I don't agree, but at least you've put some thought into it" is... just indescribable. This person is relatively nice, too, just absolutely unwilling to permit the idea that someone might hold different beliefs with some level of legitimacy. It's such a contrast with the wonderful open conversation I was able to have on "Et Tu?". That gave me hope. This... doesn't.

But, such is life. You talk to the people who will talk with you, and cross your fingers and hope something good comes from it, I guess.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

What I think

Ok, here you go. This is a summary of what I think about who we are, why we are, what we should be doing, issues of free will, whether prayer makes sense, how God (if He exists) sees the world, how notions of good and evil fit in... the answer to life, the universe and everything isn't 42. At least for me, it's this. Oh, and when I say God I mean God/The Gods/some elemental forces that created the universe for some reason, and appear to have a sense of style involving a concept of goodness. That's too much typing, so I'll just say "God", but you'll know what I mean. Ok, then, moving on.

First off, I think it's fairly obvious the universe isn't random. There's an order to it, laws of physics and whatnot. Does that mean it's created, that it can't possibly have arisen spontaneously? Hm. Probably, and so I'm going to go with "Yes", but if anyone disagrees with me I’ll go “you could be right”.

Secondly, related to the consistency of the laws of physics, it doesn't seem to me that if there is a God, he's busy mucking about with things here on Earth. Direct, obvious divine intervention in our lives that defies the laws of physics in response to prayer, worship, virgin sacrifice, placing your furniture correctly, or whatever, appears to me to be out.

So what about "God has to hide his work, because if he didn't... " followed by some explanation? Maybe, but I think probably not. Not that I'm a god, but if I was, and I had the power to create the entire universe, and the genius required to make it actually a relatively workable system, I think I could figure a way to reward people for believing in me, and prove my existence to those who didn't believe at first. As I understand it that's what's written in the bible. If those stories are even approximately true, then God's presence was fairly obvious to people back then, because he started fires, parted oceans, etc.

So, divine intervention, hidden or otherwise: out. Stories in the bible being true: out for the old testament, open to serious questioning in the new testament. Prayer/attending church because it’s looked on favorably by God: not helpful (more on this later). Transcendental moral truths being told through stories in the bible or other religious holy books? Sure, that could happen, and in fact probably has happened. Summary: the stories and practices of religion appear to be less than credible, but the universe has some order, and was probably created by someone, something, or perhaps a community of beings or elemental forces.

So what might the creator(s) look like? "Way, way, way beyond anything you can imagine"? ... well, yeah, possibly. But let's do a thought experiment and see what we might be able to say about the matter.

Before we even start speculating, we can say one thing with reasonable certainty: God, if he exists, has to be outside of time. Why? Because He made it, along with the rest of the universe. We've proven that space and time are linked (Thank you, Einstein plus supersonic jets taking atomic clocks around the world a few times to see that time slowed down at high velocities) and are really one thing, rather than two separate things. So you can't argue that God made the space we live in, but not time as well. And God made space-time, so it didn’t exist before Him, so he's outside of it. C. S. Lewis drew the analogy of how an author can create a book, yet be outside of it, and that works but over simplifies things so that his audience's heads wouldn't hurt. Follow me now, and try not to get a headache.

What would someone who exists outside of our four dimensions (length, width, height and time) see the universe as? Well, we can easily see and understand three dimensions, so let's use the difference between a two dimensional view of the world and a three dimensional view of the world as an analogue to the difference between seeing the world in three dimensions plus a moment-to-moment view of time, as we do, and seeing the world in four dimensions as God must do.

Let's take a simple three dimensional object as our example. Picture an ice cream cone without the ice cream, lying on its side on your kitchen counter. Now, your two dimensional view of that cone would be a cross-section. Picture a laser beam slicing through the cone in a vertical plane, and the infinitely small width of that laser beam is what you get to see from moment to moment. The movement of the laser beam is like our movement through time. If we were two-dimensional beings seeing this, we would see a circle that grows or shrinks from moment to moment, not a cone. For more complicated three-dimensional shapes, we would see more complicated two-dimensional patterns. And if you'd seen a cone before, you could go "hey, I know what's going to happen next, the circle's going to get bigger/smaller." That's sort of like cause and effect - given a past/present state, and a motion through time, our two dimensional beings could predict, to a degree, what the future holds.

The difference between seeing a bunch of moving patterns and a cone whose shape doesn't change at all is kind of like the difference between our view of the universe and a god's eye view. Instead of seeing a bunch of moments in a timeline, he just sees a four dimensional object. No confusing three dimensional events which seem to make some kind of patterns sometimes, just a cone sitting on the counter. We move through time and try to figure things out, but God can just see the big picture. From the first moment in time, through to the last moment in time, across all of the billions of light years of space, the millions of galaxies that are out there, it's all there for Him to look at at his leisure, like C. S. Lewis's God-novel. And to someone or something with an intellect capable of creating a universe, maybe it really is as simple as an ice cream cone.

Right now, some of you are probably thinking something containing the words "free will". In a static four-dimensional universe, does it exist? My answer: From our limited perspective, for all intents and purposes, it does. This is important, because we do get to choose what we do, and without the motivation of knowing your contribution counts a lot of people might not choose as carefully. But from God's perspective, he knows what we will choose, he can have a look and see. "Will choose", from his perspective, has no meaning, because there is no difference between "I will choose" and "I have chosen", they’re both just what happened at a slightly different point in space-time.

His viewpoint is also how the omniscience thing is done. Being outside of time is how God could be everywhere at once, if he wanted, listen to or look at or know the universe from every angle at every moment of its existence. Because "moment" is a concept he's just a little bit beyond.

Now I ask you, do you find it likely that a being like that would find it worthwhile to stick his finger into the universe and change something to answer your prayers? I say no, for two reasons. First, we are so, so, so, so insignificant when you look at all the vastness of the universe. I find it almost funny that religion preaches humility, while at the same time telling you that the human race is the reason creation was created. That we have dominion over all things here, that we were made in God's image, and that he cares about each of his little ones individually and will listen whenever they have a problem. I know people really like that idea, but it doesn't seem to be true. Which leads me to my second reason why he doesn’t interfere mid-way through the universe’s development: he doesn’t have to. Let's not forget, God chose the laws of physics. Instead of giving you what you prayed for, he could just tweak the laws of physics slightly so that either you don't ask for it, or you get what you asked for. So the idea of "God made that car stop at just the right moment" ... well, true maybe in a sense, but not in the sense most people see it.

"Sure it is", you say "You just said God makes sure our prayers are answered!" Not exactly. Not in the sense of "I ask for something and God gives it to me, but if I didn't pray I wouldn't have got it." Your mind is stuck in time, which makes this hard to grasp. God’s is not. But it still might seem as if he does answer prayers, from your perspective.

Consider this: if God could tweak the laws of physics however he wanted, to get whatever he wanted, if he could see exactly what any changes he made to physics would mean for everything in the universe, from beginning to end, and the concept of a limited amount of time didn't exist for him, so he could think and play with physics to get just exactly what he wanted, what would he make the universe be like?

"I have no idea / I can't say for sure I'm not God" comes to mind. And it's true, this is all speculation. But it seems, to me at least, that the idea of the greatest good for the greatest number is one element of his style. We certainly seem to have it ingrained in us, to the point where many people who deny the existence of god still adopt that as their guiding principle and say "See, I have morals!" And it's amazing how often ecosystems are finely balanced so that there is no waste, everything is incredibly efficient so that life can get the most benefit out of every bit of energy and nutrients available.

So assuming the greatest good for the greatest number is something God likes, wouldn't he set up the laws of physics so that good things happened to as many people as possible? So some of your prayers get answered, sometimes in ways you don't expect, and my not praying still gets me what I want about as often as you get what you want. As a result, atheists go “Prayers don’t work, look at the stats”, and theists go “but look at this amazing coincidence, it can’t really be coincidence, this proves God exists!” But that doesn't mean your prayers affected the outcome, it just means God wants people to be happy as much as possible, and has the power to make it so, by fiddling with physics. Away goes the “Why is God hiding?” argument. And the answer to "why does God let people suffer so, in that case?" might be "Maybe that's the best that could be". And my answer to the idea that God has a plan is "Well, if you think it involves everyone getting into heaven unless we use our free will to deviate from the plan because the Devil convinced us of an evil lie, I'd have to say that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and seems rather superstitious. But in the sense of God knowing what's going to happen to you and making it as good as he could figure out how to do, which might make things happen that you wouldn’t quite expect, you might just be right. On the other hand, a plan implies a desired future state, so that idea doesn't quite 'get it'".

And if you're a cynical atheist going "You're an idiot, the universe is f#@#ed up!", well, there's no reason to say God created the best of all possible worlds this time around. If he can make one universe, he can probably make more than one. Or maybe this is a work in progress, an intermediary state, and he'll tweak physics a bit and make a better one. Unfortunately we wouldn't be around to see it, because we arose under a given set of physical laws, and if they change we no longer exist. But I happen to think the universe we live in is pretty neat, even though there's an awful lot of pain and suffering in it too. And regardless of the possible relativity of the goodness of this universe, we can still understand that there’s something called “good” that makes sense to pretty much all of us, so I vote we go with that concept. Anyone vote Evil?

And the answer to anyone who doesn't like any of my answers is "I can't say they're true for sure, they might not be, but they fit what I've seen of the world better than any other story I've heard, particularly a biblical one. Tell me a story that’s Occams-razor simple and fits the facts better than mine and you win. Go! :)"

And there's one more big question, which just boils down to "But why?" If God could do basically anything, why bother to create the universe in the first place? What does it all mean? Is it meaningless? In this story we're just physics-driven groups of molecules, there’s no heaven to go to and God doesn’t really care much more about me than He does about the rest of the universe. But it doesn't feel meaningless, so... What's the point of it all?

Think again of the ice cream cone, as an analogy for our universe. Except now it's something more complex. A sculpture, or a building, or a painting. We create things all the time, just because we like making things of beauty. An artist doesn't ask why he should create a sculpture, he just does it because he gets some intrinsic satisfaction from doing so, and then maybe goes "see, isn't this neat?" If we can take drives we feel ourselves as any guide to God's "style", then maybe an intrinsic motivation to create beauty is why God created the universe. If there is more than one god, maybe the one(s) that made this universe made it to show to others and go "see, isn't this neat?"

And when you think about it, it is neat. And that's a point that I think religion misses, sort of. Religion is so focused on us as human beings. In the religious story, we're the center of God's attention, and the center of his creation, and we're more intrinsically valuable than every other kind of life, and God gave his only son so we could get into heaven (if you're Christian), and we're "in this world but not of this world", this world is not really where we belong, there's something better waiting.

People cling to that story to the point where they say schools should teach that Evolution and Creationism are equally scientifically valid. Isn't it possible, they say, that the earth was created by God substantially as it is now, instead of having to go through billions of years of lifeless darkness? Couldn't God do that, too? And doesn't the complexity of the life we see around us rule out the possibility that it wasn't designed? Well, technically speaking, if God has a sense of timing, I suppose he could have created it yesterday, and I just think last week happened because he decided that’s what I should think. But I don’t think that’s it. Besides which, again, if I and C. S. Lewis are right and God is outside of time, the universe didn’t come into existence at a particular moment, it came into existence all at once, as it is, evolution and multi-billion-year-period-of-lifeless-darkness and all.

I'm a computer programmer. I build things too, that require thought, and planning. And they're complicated enough that wrapping your head around how a program works is often tricky. And when I see a program that does a lot of work in a few lines of code, that takes something simple and builds it into something complex (like, say, a fractal, which we see often in nature) I look at that and think it's elegant. In a way, the logic demonstrated by a really well written program is almost beautiful. And when I look at the simple programs that I try to write, and I think about the universe by comparison, it just seems beyond words. The fact, the mere idea that you could take a few elemental laws (clearly very, very carefully chosen), and a single point of pre-molecular energy, and let it run for a few billion years, and you get stars and planets and self-reproducing life, and you let it run for a few billion more and you get us, who can appreciate beauty... that idea is so mind-bogglingly elegant, so totally beyond my ability to comprehend how it was done, that it seems to me like an idea a God could come up with. It fits. It makes sense. Compared to that idea, the religious stories I've heard seem like trying to fit the meaning of the universe into a little metaphorical box, which in turn will fit neatly into as many people's minds as possible. It seems to me that the more we find out about the universe, the more amazing and elegant it will become. And telling ourselves we have most or all of the answers, and they're mostly or completely on our scale, as religion attempts to do, just seems wrong, and not humble at all. Thinking we have the answers stops us from asking questions which would lead to a greater appreciation of the universe's order and beauty (I think Galileo would agree with me on this one, just as one example). It forces us to suggest that all there is is to live for a while on a small dot created to give us a chance to learn to be good people, and then go somewhere better if we succeed with the goodness bit, gold star and eternal life for us. That idea just seems so... small.

From the first single-celled life on earth to here is 4.5 billion years or so. Consider that the universe could have many billions of years yet to run. Our sun is only about half way through its life, so even if we don't find a way to leave this solar system, we've still got billions of years to grow. Just imagine, assuming we don't destroy ourselves, what the result of that could be like. I can't, really. But by contrast, I can imagine heaven, which tells me it’s not on god-scale, which means it’s probably not true. I think the future that lies in store for life in this universe will be amazing beyond anything we can understand, and that is a far more compelling vision than anything proposed by any religion I've ever heard of. Why should you try to be good? Not because God will reward you. Not even because you believe you can change the future (although if that makes you happy go ahead and think it, from our perspective it might as well be true). But really, just to have your small part in making the amazing beauty that the future will be.

And by the way, I don’t fault religion for telling stories that don’t make sense, because until very recently we didn’t know what we know now about how the world works. But in that light, I think we need some new stories. And as our knowledge grows, I think we need to be willing to change those stories again, without shame.

The conversation that started it all

I've had the ideas I'm going to talk about on this blog for years, but just last week was the first time I'd expressed them as a whole to a group of people. If you want some "historical context", the blog post and resulting conversation can be found here.

"Et tu?": Love and atheism - The diary of a former atheist.

I want to take the time to thank Jennifer F again for providing space for this to happen, and eo_nomine, Bender, jackied, amy, bps, and marian for their thoughts.


Hi everyone!

Recently, I've had some thought provoking conversation over on, this blog I discovered last week. It's by someone who converted from lifelong atheism (and a scoffing-at-religion type of atheism, too) to Catholicism. I expressed my ideas there, to a mix of atheists and religious folk. I've read almost no philosophy, but I think about things. And I thought by wading into a discussion forum full of people who had read a whole bunch of stuff, and invested a lot of thought into their various positions, I'd probably get creamed. But I didn't. Instead, I got a few questions, someone said my views made sense and articulated what she didn't like about religion (she was a practicing Christian, but having difficulty with it). But beyond that, nothing. No "hey, you completely missed this" or "here's an example of how your flawed logic leads a small child to walk in front of a bus". Nothing. And I posted my ideas yesterday on the pro-atheist forum Again, nobody claimed I was a complete idiot, or pointed out anything I'd missed. So I think maybe my ideas do in fact stand on their own. So this blog is to open them up for discussion, in the hope they can be improved.

I'm not the scoffing type, and I'd like the discussion on this blog to reflect that. People are often just fundamentally trying to 1. do good things with their lives and 2. find some meaning, purpose, or reason to do those good things. But as a result they start to believe in things that don't make sense (adopting religious rituals, or atheistic "one highest principle" godless ethics). I've pondered why we do this, and I think it will be the topic of a whole other post. I think it has to do with our western rational mindset, where something must either be true or false, with little way of mentally handling the things we don't yet fully understand.

Anyway, that's all well and good, except often going either true or false on god you end up thinking that people who don't believe as you do are stupid ignorant, unenlightened, downright evil... I could go on, but the best summary was a discussion thread an atheist started up recently on whywon'tgodhealamputees asking whether people who believed in God ought to be hated because they're doing so much damage, or pitied because they're stupid or delusional. I'm aiming for something a little more constructive here :).

And yes, to you religious folks, atheists believe in things. They just don't believe in god. Everyone has to choose some belief system as a means to guide their behaviour, otherwise you can't get anything done.

What I want this blog to do is express my ideas about if there is a god, what he/she/it/they might be like, and if not if there are still some basic principles theists and non-theists can all agree on. And then I'll open my ideas up to criticism. Anyone who wants can come in and fire questions at me, or at each other. Anyone who has read something that might further flesh out my ideas can suggest improvements. We've got this great tool where people from all over the world can talk to each other, so let's use it to build some consensus, and understand each other better! Plus, it means I don't have to read every philosophy book ever written to get every great idea that has ever been thought - you can just give me the ideas you've got from what you've read, and then everyone will have them :).

Sound like fun? Ok then! Let's get going.

Oh, and you may be wondering where the url for this blog came from. Near the very end of the very deep conversation I had over on conversiondiary, someone explained how our impetus towards good can be explained by evolutionary imperatives, and ended by saying:

But I don't believe that God, however you want to describe that, has anything to do with it. (Unless of course you call the mysterious life force that drives evolution "God")

Thing is, what if I do?

UPDATE (August 1st): On this blog, I talk about what I think is true. Neither atheists nor theists are really going to like it, because it doesn't always fit their "standard models" of how things work. If you're a really strong believer either way, you may want to read this post before you start.