Friday, July 24, 2015

6 Questions Christians are Always Asking Atheists

There is an invisible creature that follows me everywhere I go. It reads my mind and knows my deepest secrets. The creature loves me, but it is jealous and will punish me if I don't love it back. Since it reads my mind, the creature can even punish me for my thoughts. I must never have doubts about its complete power over me or I will be made to suffer horribly. I would do anything for the creature, even die or kill, because to do otherwise is to be doomed. The creature rewards me when I’m good. Sometimes it grants me wishes. If I am very good, when I die I will get to spend forever on my knees worshipping at the creatures feet. If you don’t believe in the creature as I do, you are a fool and you are damned for all eternity.

“If you have doubts, it means the Devil is at work. You must push those doubts out of your minds through prayer.” The Reverend Sun Myung Moon

1. “Can you prove that there is no god?”

The burden of proof is on he/she who makes the assertion. If I say I have a hundred dollar bill in my pocket and you don’t believe me, it is up to me to show you the bill. It is not your responsibility to prove I'm lying. No one can prove that there are no pixies, leprechauns, or other inventions of the human imagination and no one should have to. "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," Carl Sagan.

2. “Are you angry at god? Are you rebelling?”

Are you rebelling against Odin? Are you angry at Zeus? Do you not believe in Santa because you are angry with him?

3. “How can you see a sunset and not believe in god?”

The sunset is evidence that sunsets exist. It is not evidence for the existence of gods, devils, angels, or any other invisible creatures. How can you see a sunset and not believe in Apollo? After all, he is responsible for pulling the sun across the sky. Is it difficult for you to not believe in Apollo? Because, that is exactly how difficult it is for me to not believe in your god/goddess. The scientific explanation for sunsets seems more likely to me than the magical explanation. Absence of superstition in no way reduces the wonder and appreciation one feels when experiencing a beautiful sunset.

4. “If you experienced what I have experienced, would you believe?”

I grew up a Christian and religion was at the center of my life for many years. I experienced religious ecstasy, speaking in tongues, healing. I was born again and had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I got goose bumps and had prayers answered, just like Sufis, Muslims, Christians, Moonies, and the followers of Jim Jones. Religious ecstasy is only evidence that humans experience a wide range of cognitive and emotional states. Emotions are not evidence. I have experienced what you have. Have you ever experienced life without superstition? Have you had the courage to objectively evaluate the validity of your beliefs? Would the evidence you used to support your beliefs be different than the evidence used by any and every other religious cult (ancient stories/books, lots of other people who believe, personal spiritual experiences, the gut feeling that you are right)? Have you ever experienced the power and the uncertainty of being 100% responsible for your life?

5. “What if you are wrong? Isn't it better to be safe than sorry?”

Staying on the safe side would mean trying to appease all 4000 odd gods and goddesses that humans have loved and worshipped across history. Pleasing one deity usually means angering the others. Chances are, I only believe in one less god than you do. Put 4000 gods/goddesses in a hat and randomly pull one out (By chance, you were born into, and probably reflect, the religious tendencies of your family/culture). The odds that you picked the right god are 3999 to 1. In other words, I have 4000 gods and goddesses angry at me, but you have 3999.

What if YOU are wrong? Reality demonstrates its true nature every minute of every day. You don’t need an atheist to inform you that snakes can’t talk, death is permanent, and the physical laws of nature remain in effect regardless. Living one life as a true human adult is an incredible opportunity! Thinking, emoting, moving, changing, being are the real miracles.


6. "How can you have morality without God?"

Babies have no morality. Morality is learned behavior. Feral child research has shown that children who are not exposed to other humans do not develop a moral sense.

We begin to socialize very young children by rewarding culturally acceptable behaviors and punishing culturally unacceptable behaviors. The moral rules for a culture will come from external sources like parents, teachers, religious texts, laws, etc.

At first, children will follow the rules whenever a rule enforcer is watching, but will break the rules when they feel there will be no consequences. Adults who remain at this level of moral development are categorized as sociopaths.

Older children will internalize the rules and will self-regulate their behavior, because they wish to be a “good boy/girl.” This is the stage of moral development where much of humanity remains. After all, at this level one can easily navigate one’s social environment.

However, individuals at this level of moral development are merely reflecting the culture in which they were raised. So, an individual reared in Nazi Germany would feel perfectly moral in following the norms of that culture. In the 1800s, a rural Southerner in the US might feel perfectly moral as he/she enslaves another human being. Modern Christians might feel perfectly moral in the mistreatment of homosexuals.

People at the highest level of moral development will test the rules of their respective cultures against certain universal litmus’ like fairness, harm done, and empathy (How would I want to be treated if I were you?). People at this level morally transcend time and place and achieve a moral sense that can override cultural programming. 

The richness of the human experience is bathed in wonder. Superstition is not required to enjoy the awe and amazement of being alive. Being responsible for your own life is a heavy burden, but it defines what it means to be an adult. Developing the emotional maturity to deal with the realities of death, unanswered questions, and all of the other uncertainties of human life without resorting to magic and superstition requires courage and unyielding integrity. One must be committed to all truths regardless of how scary or difficult.

I have no issue with private, superstitious beliefs. If you believe that walking under ladders is bad luck, I think that is pretty harmless. But, when walking under ladders is made a crime, superstition becomes malevolent. When folks who avoid walking under ladders are given a tax break, then superstition causes unfairness. When monuments and texts dedicated to the avoidance of walking under ladders are displayed and sponsored by government, then superstition becomes exclusionary. When bad luck from walking under ladders is taught in public schools, then superstition becomes a force for ignorance.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

How Can Atheists Have Morality Without God?



Image by tdietmut via Flickr

All organisms demonstrate a tendency to avoid harm. Even amoeba will avoid aversive stimuli. This is one of the basic premises of behavioral psychology's operant conditioning. Behaviors that yield pleasing results tend to be repeated. Behaviors that yield aversive results tend to be avoided. Amoebas have no need for morality, only self-preservation.

Unlike amoeba, humans are social animals requiring the assistance of other humans in order to survive in the natural environment. For humans, self-preservation is interdependent with preservation of "the tribe."

Other social animals like wolves, lions, and buffalo will often behave in ways that promote the health and safety of the group over the health and safety of the individual. These animals engage in what might be considered benevolent behaviors even without the benefit of higher cognitive functioning.

To my knowledge, humans are the only species capable of higher order empathy. Empathy does not mean sympathy. Many species demonstrate sympathy. For our purposes, we will define sympathy as feeling sad when one observes the suffering of others. Sympathy is often a very natural response and requires no effort. Conversely, higher order empathy is a complex skill requiring development and practice. We will define higher order empathy as the cognitive attempt to deeply understand an issue from another's viewpoint. With huge effort, it is possible to put our collective ego aside and on some level understand the world from another person's perspective.

Babies have no morality. Morality is a learned behavior. Feral child research has shown that children who are not exposed to other humans do not develop a moral sense.[1] Research on feral children reveals that empathy is a learned behavior. Proficiency in higher order empathy demands levels of maturity, commitment, and metacognition few attempt to achieve. If humans developed and regularly employed higher order empathy skills, conflict with each other and the destruction of other species could be virtually eliminated.

We begin to socialize very young children by rewarding culturally acceptable behaviors and punishing culturally unacceptable behaviors. The moral rules for a culture will come from external sources like parents, teachers, religious texts, laws, etc.[2]

At first, children will follow the rules whenever a rule enforcer is watching, but will break the rules when they feel there will be no consequences. Adults who remain at this level of moral development are categorized as sociopaths.[3]

Older children will internalize the rules and will self-regulate their behavior, because they wish to be a “good boy/girl.” This is the stage of moral development where much of humanity remains. Christian doctrine requires adherents to progress no further. At this level one can easily navigate one’s social environment.[4] However, individuals at this level of moral development are merely reflecting the culture in which they were raised. So, an individual reared in Nazi Germany would feel perfectly moral in following the norms of that culture. In the 1800s, a rural Southerner in the US might feel perfectly moral as he/she enslaves another human being. Modern Christians might feel perfectly moral in the mistreatment of homosexuals.

People at the highest level of moral development will test the rules of their respective cultures against certain universal litmus’ such as “justice, ... reciprocity and equality of human rights, and... respect for the dignity of human beings as individual persons.”[5] [6] Religious dogma can be an obstacle to achieving the highest level of moral development, when the moral code must be accepted and never challenged. People at the highest level morally transcend time and place and achieve a moral sense that can override cultural programming. 






[1] "Feral Children and Clever Animals: Reflections on Human Nature." Choice Reviews Online 31.08 (1994): 31-4641. Web.
[2] Hoffman, Martin Leon, and Lois Norma Wladis Hoffman. Review of Child Development Research. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1964. Print
[3] https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201305/how-spot-sociopath
[4] "Kohlberg - Moral Development | Simply Psychology." Kohlberg - Moral Development | Simply Psychology. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
[5] "TheTheoryofMoralDevelopment." Docstoc.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2015.
[6] Duska, R.: and Whelan, M. Piaget- and Kohlberg. Moral Education. A Guig.e to New York: Paulist Press, 1975

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

4 Steps to Clean Thinking




1. Accept Being Wrong

In order to effectively navigate life the human mind is designed to constantly take shortcuts. The brain uses tiny bits of data, a few pieces of a given puzzle, and then compensates for the missing pieces with its “best guess.” The result is a tendency for humans to be wrong… a lot!

Optical illusions are possible, because the brain automatically fills in the spots where visual information is missing by using patterns and expectations from past experience. [1] In other words, what you think you see may not be what is actually out there!

If you blindfold someone, hold and apple under her nose, and have her bite a piece of raw potato, she will be fooled into thinking she bit a piece of apple. The brain takes a small amount of information, smell and texture, and makes a judgment, "I must have bitten an apple." [2]

This also happens when we meet new people. We know very little about the new acquaintance, but quickly judge his character, "He seems dishonest." When we get to know him, reality fills in the blanks and we find that he is extremely trustworthy.[3]

There is a direct correlation between how easily you overcome your own biases (traps that lead to being wrong) and IQ level. The smarter you are, the easier it is to overcome your biases (accepting that you are wrong).[4] 

Critical thinkers examine issues from many different angles, so the world operates more in shades of gray, than of black and white. Being wrong feels exactly like being right... until someone PROVES you are wrong.[5]

2. Beware of Cognitive Traps

There are many ways we fool ourselves into believing in things that are absolutely not true. Many cognitive traps are just side effects of how humans are wired. Because they tend to crop up in all people, these traps require diligent work on our part to overcome. 

Confirmation Bias is a trap wherein you believe that you have determined a "truth" based on rational thinking, but in actuality, you have simply dismissed all evidence disputing your pre-existing belief and accepted all information confirming said belief.

Example 1: You don't believe in global warming, so you disregard the 97% of climatologists who support global warming and accept the 3% who dispute this phenomenon. You may reason that there is a conspiracy (a catch-all explanation that is very rarely accurate).[6] 

Example 2: You think immunizations cause autism, so you disregard the avalanche of research supporting the efficacy of immunization, but believe the one flawed study linking vaccines to autism. You reason that there is a conspiracy.[7] 

Hindsight Bias is a trap based on the idea that people should be able to predict the future. Have you ever been stumped by a riddle and after hearing the solution you thought, “Wow, that was so obvious. I should have easily figured it out”? In truth, since you do not have the ability to predict the future, the solution to the riddle was certainly NOT obvious.[8] 

Empathy Bias is similar to hindsight bias, but is projected on others rather than self. If a friend is in a bad relationship, it may seem obvious to you that your friend should end the relationship. You may consider her reluctance to do so, as “stupid.” However, when you, yourself have been in bad relationships, this “obvious” solution of breaking it off was not so clear. Why was your friend’s relationship problem so easy for you to solve, and your relationship problem so difficult? When you have real empathy, you make a sincere attempt to understand things from the other person’s perspective.[9 You try to "stand in their shoes." This is especially difficult when you perceive that the other person is different from you (eg different nationality, different race, different religion, different sexual orientation, etc.).

3. Trust Evidence Over Emotion

In some ways, humans are not very different from lower animal species. We almost always operate from “gut feelings,” or emotions. After making an emotional judgment, we create rationalizations (poorly reasoned arguments) to justify why these feelings, and resulting beliefs, are accurate. 

To whatever degree possible, critical thinkers start from a neutral position and do not invest their respective egos in pre-existing beliefs. Good critical thinkers allow the evidence to determine the accuracy of a piece of information. Ego, “because it is my thought it must be true,” is by far the biggest obstacle to rational thinking. 

Overcoming the ego obstacle requires that truth, as determined by objective evidence, always take precedence over our instinctual need to be right. All it takes is a lifetime of practice.

4. Learn to Metacognate

Metacognition means, “thinking about your own thought processes.” Most of us have the tendency to allow our emotion thoughts to lead us around by the nose. Dumb animals operate in this manner. This tendency to attach our egos to the accuracy of our gut feelings is a root cause for ignorance.

If our failsafe is to assume that our thought processes are always accurate, we remain trapped in a bubble of ignorance. 

Fortunately, if we consistently apply humble skepticism, logic, and metacognition, humans can escape the intellectual prison created by blind trust gut feelings.







[2] http://www.education.com/science-fair/article/apples-and-potatoes/
[3] http://www.united-academics.org/magazine/homefeat/bias-bonanza-how-accurate-are-our-first-impressions/
[4] http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1041608007000611
[6] http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus                 
[7] http://www2.aap.org/immunization/families/faq/vaccinestudies.pdf
[8] http://www.psychologicalscience.org/index.php/news/releases/i-knew-it-all-along-didnt-i-understanding-hindsight-bias.html

[9] http://www.cbdr.cmu.edu/event.asp?eventID=268

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Atheist or Agnostic or Neither or Both?


a·the·ist - a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods. 

ag·nos·tic - a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God or of anything beyond material phenomena; a person who claims neither faith nor disbelief in God.

Atheism answers the question, “Do you believe god/s exist?” This should be distinguished from the common misconception that atheism answers the question, "Does god/s exist?" It does not. 

The evidence for the existence of all 4000 of the gods and goddesses people have worshiped from the beginning of recorded time is identical:

  1. Personal, spiritual experiences that have led to an intuitive sense or "gut feeling" that the god/s or goddess/es in question are real.
  2. Many other people within a given culture, especially respected people in positions of authority (parents, ministers, educators, political officials), share a belief in said god/s.
  3. Stories passed on through the spoken or written word stating the existence of the god/s in question.

Since Christian God, Muslim God, the Greek gods, the Roman gods, the Nordic gods, the gods from shamanistic cultures, and so on are all validated subjectively, they each have an equal likelihood of existing.

One could easily make up stories of a newly invented god and convince others to believe them. And, this would result in the same spiritual “feelings” that validate the existence of established gods (think Scientology or Moonies). Therefore, any absurdity conjured up by the human mind has the same likelihood of existing as any of the gods and goddesses worshiped by humans.

So, based on the unimaginably low probability that established or newly invented gods are real, the atheist makes the claim, “I don’t believe god/s exist.”

Agnosticism answers a different question, “Can we know if god/s exist?” Agnostic is also a term that needs some clarification. Many consider the agnostic a fence sitter who thinks that god/s' existence is as likely as not.

In a universe of infinite time and space, anything is possible. We truly cannot know for certain that god/s do not exist. We cannot know for certain that fairies, smurfs, and leprechauns do not exist. It is possible that invisible horses with Snoopy heads exist in a place called Woowoo. The probability that this scenario is true is astronomically low. However, it is the exact same likelihood that Thor and Odin exist in a place called Valhalla or that the Christian and Muslim gods exist in a place called Heaven.

So, the agnostic states that he/she cannot know if god/s exist, but does not necessarily consider the likelihood of existence equal to that of non-existence. And, the atheist states that, based on the available evidence, he/she does not believe god/s exist.

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