Friday, May 18, 2018

A Christian Scientist Camp Experience

Half way into high school I went to camp for the first time in my life. It was a Christian Science camp which would be a very odd choice if not for the fact that I was a Christian Scientist. The camp’s selling point to my parents was the promise to re-up my faith and to provide leadership opportunities as a Counselor-in-Training. The camp’s selling point to me was a canoeing trip in Canada and a three-day capture-the-flag tournament. That, and I just wanted to get out of the house.

I feel like a little background in Christian Science is needed here. CS is a religion that teaches the works of Jesus did could also be done by us providing that we have enough faith and live free from sin. In the Bible, the disciples healed and performed other miracles after JC’s death, the same premise applies to here. The implication is that, as Christian Scientists, material medicine should be avoided because using it diminishes our faith to heal thyself through God. If you need to see someone, CS has their own kind of doctors called “Practitioners” who basically talk the patient through the disease with prayer. The avoidance of medicine and the word “Science” in the name is why Christian Science is often confused with Scientology. This used to bother the hell out of me, but, in retrospect, I had little reason to be upset. The beliefs involved are no less crazy. Christian Science just seemed less crazy because it followed the legacy myth of Jesus rather than the start-up myth of aliens.

My first (and only) year at Camp Leelanau off the lovely coast of Lake Michigan happened to come at the transitional age between camper and counselor. Much of my days were spent in preparation of returning the following year as staff. Of course, that didn’t pan out, but all-in-all it was a better experience than I imagine it would have been as a proper camper. The camp’s official Practitioner was from my home church in Georgia. Both he and his two daughters were regulars of the camp and played no small part in my recruitment. I also noted upon arrival that the camp had a nurse on staff. Not so much a faith healing nurse as a nurse nurse. I remember thinking that was as odd addition. It turned out she was present to help with injuries during the camp’s more physical activities–broken bones, poison sumac rashes, the kind of stuff that leaves a mark. Although Christian Science teaches that God can heal anything, practically, it’s best to leave the invisible deity to the invisible ailments.

My class of CITs (counselor’s-in-training) was unusually small–five guys, myself included. This allowed for a tighter-nit fellowship and by the end I considered at least a few of them good friends. It also allowed for a more intimate adventure. We went to the middle of the Canadian wilderness where we canoed and camped all week. We never saw a trace of another human while we spotted wild moose, and had to hang our food and gear in trees nightly in case of bear (why we didn’t also sleep in trees is beyond me.) Every morning we’d hit the river, tie our canoes together and read from the bible and Christian Science’s companion book, Science & Health. I honestly didn’t mind the bible readings. Reading from a book about angels and demons made the trip seem more epic. Science & Health reads more like self-help than a holy text so it lessened that mood.

Long story slightly less long, we returned to camp and one of my new-found friends was hurt. He was cut up pretty bad while cutting wood or some such thing. I remember him rushing up the the nurse and being out of commission for almost the rest of our time in Michigan. Visits weren’t really allowed except for the Practitioner who, judging from the time my buddy was away and the very conventional stitches he returned with, did nothing in the way of faith healing. I imagine campers were discouraged to go see patients because the whole spiritual health scam would take a backseat to, “oh, hey, God isn’t doing anything for this guy.”

The camp experience was supposed to re-up my faith, but it only showed me reality. During one of our last Sunday meetings, a counselor enthusiastically testified that being a Christian Scientist was like being a Jedi; making the analogy that both we and the Star Wars heroes are small segments of the population who know how to demonstrate the power of their faith. After seeing failed demonstration after failed demonstration, I concluded that the real similarity a faith healing Christian Scientist has to a Jedi is that they are both works of fiction.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Apologists Appeal To Conditional Morality

The moral argument for God requires the existence of a moral realism that can only be sustained by a deity. To argue that moral facts exist, the apologist finds commonality between himself and the nonbeliever by highlighting mutual condemnation of certain actions. Common agreement does not prove a moral fact’s existence, it only shows a shared judgement, but thats the tactic that is most commonly used nevertheless. Commonality is usually reached with the condemnation of the act of murder.

What makes an act a murder? The act itself is killing. We could break it down further to the type of act be it stabbing or shooting or poisoning, but the method is not usually factored in. What makes a killing a murder are, at the minimum, four conditions.

1. The victim must be born human.
2. The victim has not expressed a specific desire to be killed.
3. The victim must not be posing a significant and direct threat to the acting party.
4. The acting party must have the intension to kill.

One could argue that the act being unlawful is another condition, but that could become circular in this context. One could also argue that malice is an essential aspect of the intension, but malice may be defined as “wrongful intension” which begs the question when the point of this is to determine the wrongness of the act. One could argue that a condition could take into account the guilt of the victim making capital punishment exempt from the label of murder. This last bit is perhaps a worthy condition, but I am omitting it for simplicity.

To demonstrate that the four conditions are required to reach consensus on the acts wrongfulness, here are examples that do not meet the conditions.

Example 1: An abortion does not meet condition one in that the human has not been born. Many consider abortion wrong, but very few consider it murder. 

Example 2: Assisted suicide is almost never considered murder, even if it is still illegal in some places.

Example 3: Killing in self-defense does not meet condition three and therefore is not considered murder.

Example 4: Accidentally running into a car that unexpectedly slammed the brakes is not considered murder even if someone in that car dies.

No we have an action with enough conditions built into it that the vast majority of people consider it wrong. Does commonality, or even universality, imply moral fact? No. To prove this I add one more condition.

5. The victim is oneself.

This hypothetical condition means that a killing is only a murder if you’re the one who is killed. I think we can all agree that we don’t want a world of people trying to kill us. Does this common agreement imply that the aversion of this extra specific murder is a moral fact? No. Survival instinct can account for it. Hell, becoming accustomed to life or being adverse to pain can account for it. Interestingly, this same reasonable aversion is enough even without condition five. Labeling the act of killing as something not allowed is the obvious move with just the first four conditions which make any co-habitat safer for all.

All the apologist has to point to a moral judgement being a moral fact, is the universality of it. As I’ve shown, we can get to universality (or near universality) with enough conditional baggage. Until the apologist can find some means to provide evidence for moral facts beyond appealing to the masses, their arguments for morality should never be taken seriously.

Monday, June 5, 2017


It used to be that wearing a shirt with the headline “Atheist” was considered to be the gold standard in testing public reception of the label. Most of us never wore such shirts and assumed that non-atheists would be confrontational or, at the least, expect the shirt-wearer to be confrontational. Living in the bible belt, I get it. Don’t expect to see me wearing such a shirt to a job interview. Still, Americans came close to having our first non-Christian candidate for President this year with Bernie Sanders. This suggests that at least half the population of the US is more receptive than ever. So I made shirts.

They aren’t as explicit as a shirt with the big block letters A-T-H-E-I-S-T. Think of them as part of a campaign. Each shirt displays a passage of the bible, not unlike a Christian wearing John 3:16 across their chest. The primary difference is that the passages available here are the parts of the bible Christians don’t advertise. They are about God commanding the murder of kids, approving the institution of slavery and keeping women down. They highlight why the bible is #notworthfollowing.

Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

A Personal Relationship with Atheism

Atheism isn’t a worldview. It isn’t a belief system. It’s a single belief, or as many of us phrase it, a “lack of” a single belief. It’s not a religion, it has no dogma or doctrine, and it only unites us under the same wide umbrella as the label “theism” unites the rest. Theism, as many of you know, includes categories such as polytheism, monotheism, pantheism, and dystheism as well as specific faiths like Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity–some of which are further broken down into even more specific faiths. A diverse spectrum of belief systems falls under the “theist” label. Atheists don’t have this plethora of sub-genres because each of us are ideological free-agents. For the most part, we don’t bundle opinions, opting to make a belief system unique to the individual. There have been attempts to deviate from our ironically shared nonconformity, such as the formation of the Brights, Atheism+, and “New Atheism”–but I don’t know many proud members, and I’ve come to know a lot of atheists. I consider these groups valid for what they are–the vocal minority.

I used to wonder why uniting atheists is like herding cats. I’ve concluded (correctly or not) that it’s because the disbelief of God is based on doubt while the belief in God is based on faith. Atheism is a very skeptical mindset that is a product of nurture and nature. I see it as nurture in that critical thinking is a learned skill that is more often valued in the secular communities that atheists were either raised in or happened upon during a deconversion. I see it as nature in that genes for both skepticism and gullibility are likely selected for different reasons from an evolutionary standpoint. For example, an early man who thinks twice about berry consumption will likely survive longer than one who concludes that if one berry is a good food source, they all must be equally good. Conversely, it will benefit that man’s friend to believe his theory of dangerous berries. This results in a population that has varying degrees of a trusting and a questioning instinct. I have the more skeptical variety.

Speaking of evolution, I’ve heard claims that belief in science is a part of the alleged atheist belief system. First, I’ll say that’s not necessarily true. There are those who don’t believe in God, and thereby textbook atheists, while having significant doubts about accepted scientific discoveries. For example, you’ll have a hard time finding a more outspoken atheist than Bill Maher, but he doesn’t accept germ theory and is sympathetic to the anti-vaccination community. Still, I realize that there is significant overlap between atheists and science enthusiasts. To this I’d point out that accepting observable data is only a part of a belief system in the same way that trusting our own senses is part of a belief system. Anything demonstrated to work repeatedly and consistently on reality’s terms requires no belief…but you might as well believe it. The tendency for theists to deny science is a product of their need to cling to the dogma that runs counter to the way things are, or at the very least, the way things appear.

Generalizations of atheists are no more informative than stereotypes of any other diverse group. If nothing else, this should be the takeaway from this post. We’re all unique snowflakes. That said, I’d now like to provide as much insight into me personally as I can. The following traits and tendencies all contribute to my dismissal of the God hypothesis.

I am comfortable with the unknown. I’ve often heard Christians say that divine creation makes more sense than “something from nothing”–as if that is the generally accepted atheist view. It is not. I imagine this started as an innocent straw man that captured the imaginations of apologists across the globe. I’d blame William Lane Craig, but then I always blame William Lane Craig. The most accurate model for our early universe is the Big Bang Theory, which most atheists and many theists accept. However, this model only explains the early expansion of the universe, not its ultimate origin. It can be fun to speculate…but you know what you do when you assume. Therein lies the problem with the so-call Cosmological Arguments. Like much apologetic reasoning, it relies on a gap of human knowledge and either inserts a new claim or retrofits old claims. As we advance, the gaps keep closing, but I’ll be the first to admit that many still exist. I’m simply comfortable with my lack of omniscience.

I am comfortable with chance. To quote a prolific philosopher, “s#!t happens.” God provides meaning and worth to a life that can’t possibly matter in the grand scheme of a natural reality. Regardless of how many lives you touch or how much wealth you accumulate, in a million years your only legacy will be atoms dispersed across the galaxy. I see the appeal of God, I really do, but desire doesn’t dictate reality. We used to think there was a design to life, but now we know that we are products of evolutionary trial-and-error. The most successful organisms live long enough to find similarly successful mates to pass the best genes on for future generations to build. At the most fundamental scales of matter, we see particles that can only be represented as probabilities as predicted by the uncertainty principle. Our concept of “God’s plan” has been continuously altered to conform to new information. I have to ask at what point will the goalpost be so moved that the game is no longer relevant? For me, that moment has already passed.

There are other reasons an unplanned existence is more reasonable. An unguided world allows for answers to huge theological dilemmas, most notably the Problem of Evil–which is only a problem when a divine puppeteer is held responsible. The Problem of Evil can be distilled down to a Problem of Fairness in which everything from natural disasters to drunk drivers can ruin the lives of good people. If this occurs according to God’s plan (according to all but the most deistic theists) then they are decidedly unjust by every human standard. Saying that God’s standard is higher than ours or that he works in “mysterious ways” is an admission of a problem with the only solution boiling down to turning a blind eye. When I am posed a complex moral dilemma, I weigh who is harmed against who benefits and make the most informed decision possible — knowing that there may be no objectively right answer. In my eyes it’s a more honest than artificially raising the contrast of a gray world to black and white.

I am comfortable with the possibility of nonexistence. When I tell people that I don’t think anything happens to us when we die, my audience usually perceives me as the ultimate pessimist. Somehow, this is true even when my audience thinks hell is a real option. This baffles me. I think, “how narcissistic is it to think ceasing to be is less favorable than eternal torture?” I’m aware that many theists overlook the fire and brimstone of their holy book, hoping their God relies more on a reward system for obedience. That’s fine. I honestly don’t have a problem with belief in heaven, but I, personally, don’t have it. I’m comfortable with returning to my preconception state knowing that, while I may not be happy about it, I’ll be incapable of being sad. I’m of the opinion that there is no point worrying about something I can’t control and I’m as certain as I can be that my belief in heaven isn’t going to change my prospects of the hereafter. I see no good reason to believe in an afterlife and until there is, I won’t. That’s how I form every belief. Besides, by lowering my expectations I save room to be pleasantly surprised.

I am uncomfortable with absolute authority. If there is anything we can learn from history, it’s that leaders often do horrible things when no checks or balances are in place. In fact, there is no one there to tell them what they are doing is horrible–because if anyone did, something horrible would happen to them. This is a function of relative power and authority. God, if He exists, has ultimate power and authority. The authors of the bible knew this and have depicted Yahweh and/or Jehovah accordingly. Both experience and scripture inform my aversion to absolute authority, but it doesn’t contribute to my disbelief in God. It contributes to why I wouldn’t worship Him even if He did exist.

Lastly, and I think most importantly, I am uncomfortable with the supernatural. I am skeptical of the accounts in most holy books because they come from a time before photography, video, the printing press, and widely adopted reading and writing proficiency. I’m skeptical of holy books because their authors and distributors had a vested interest in maintaining and gaining control by leveraging the power of legend. I’m skeptical of holy books because scholars have reached little or no consensus as to which books were forged, exaggerated, plagiarized, misinformed, or authentic. However, all this could be overlooked if I really wanted to believe. What I can’t overlook is the miracles. There’s the splitting of the Red Sea, walking on water, resurrections, talking snakes and donkeys and shrubbery, water turns to wine and sometimes blood, the divine duplication of seafood and baked goods — I seriously don’t see how anyone can believe this and not be just as credulous reading tales of Dracula and King Arthur? The rotation of the earth stops at some point so Joshua can have more daylight to kill Amorites. It just stops.

I don’t want to come off as insulting, but I see this as fantasy and I have a hard time understanding how other adults do not. The above applies mostly to Christianity, but only because I know my audience. Other religious texts take just as many liberties with our experience of reality. I believe everything has a rational, natural explanation free of magic and divine intervention only because it’s been true (or looks like it will be true) for everything anyone has investigated in my lifetime. If you don’t feel the same, fine, but please try to understand. This isn’t a hurdle an apologetic argument can or should overcome. It requires a childlike faith. I just don’t have it anymore. I’m glad I don’t.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Religious Semantics

Words are ultimately invented, with definitions that were chosen arbitrarily. They are meaningful today, because most of us have a common understanding of the context of each set of letters. They are meaningful because those definitions are relevant to most of us in that they correspond to something in our consensus reality or experience.

Not, I find, when talking to religious apologists. They use theological jargon under the guise of common vernacular. Morality is defined, in part, as "that which can only exist with God." I've seen reason defined as "that which can only be accessed through God." I've often thought of making a master list of words apologists frame in terms of their deity, but it would always be incomplete.

Words are invented, with definitions that were chosen arbitrarily. The apologists break no cosmic rule by creating their own language, but when they try to communicate in secular society with these identically constructed variants, they hold value. Their definitions are not relevant to me. They do not correspond to anything in reality as I observe it. They match nothing that I've ever experienced.

When I use "morality" or "reason" I am not grounding them in anything I don't believe exists. The assumption that I do is irrational. The sooner apologists understand this and accept this, the sooner we can have a mutually beneficial dialogue.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Grounding Morality in Reason

Religious apologists often overlook secular reasons to be decent to our fellow man in order to make their arguments that morality can only be grounded in God. For them, I present these ten secular incentives to ground one's morality in reason.

Points one and two can be seen as a catch all and that all following points can be seen as subsets of one and two. The truth is, by making one and two so broad was the only way to cover all the ways people can come to what we consider good behavior. The rest are just some specifics that are probably obvious to all but the most religious of apologists.

1. To avoid negative consequences.

Try to kill, rape, or steal from someone and that someone will be pissed. If the person is able to hurt you, he or she is much more likely to hurt you as a punishment of your previous action. The motivation for the retaliation could be revenge or just to put you on notice that if you try that shit again then you’ll be hurt again. If that person is unable to hurt you directly, he or she may have allies who will. Even if the person has no allies, anyone else who witnesses your transgression may make an example out of you in order to discourage such transgressions in there future against them. This is part of the foundational reasoning for enforced laws in societies.

2. To claim positive rewards.

There are a variety of incentives to act positively toward others. Some speak to other items on this list. Safety, camaraderie, freedom, and charity are just some things we can enjoy in a mutually altruistic culture. Hell, even after you do wrong, good behavior may lessen your sentence.

3. To conform.

Conformity is sometimes colored as a negative, but not here. If most people are violent, you need to conform to violence to defend yourself. However, if most people are generally peaceful except toward violent defectors, you’d do well fit in with the generally peaceful majority.

4. To collaborate.

The division of labor allows for some people to specialize in certain tasks and other people to specialize in others. The result is that each task is performed using less resources and time. Trade comes from collaboration, which is why we can barter or buy food rather than needing to grow or hunt it ourselves-an activity that would otherwise take up most of our time with less net nourishment. All this is possible only if you don’t scare or alienate your community by doing what we consider immoral-especially in excess.

5. To not be alone.

There is a reason long-term solitary confinement is among the worst treatments of prisoners. Everyone I know values some amount of socialization.  It should be obvious that one needs to ingratiate themselves to others to avoid this treatment occurring. At the very least, your actions need to not offend others, as immoral actions often will.

6. To be left alone.

Even if you want solace, you will not find any by being immoral. Act against others and they will naturally act against you. To be alone you need to be neither moral or immoral. You need to be isolated.

7. To realize a winning game theory strategy.

Cooperation may seem like a bad idea when you can cheat to achieve a short-term win, but even if you ignore the other listed reasons, you’d still know that’s a bad idea with a little experience or foresight. Game theory shows that groups that don’t screw each other profit more than groups that defect from cooperation. Caring only for yourself as an individual means gaining less in the long run.

8. To protect oneself.

One, even the strongest one, will never be able to defend himself or herself from a group. I don’t care if you’re Batman, a large enough group will prevail. Being a dick to everyone ensures you will have no allies because everyone will either actively want you to fail or passively stand by while you do. Sure, you can be a dick to some and not others. That happens. In fact, that explains most of the world. Absolute dickishness, however, is a horrible life strategy.

9. To explore emotions.

If you resist acting immorally toward people long enough, you might start to like some of them. Love and other emotions are some of the most valued aspects of life, whether you want to say they are from chemicals in the brain or deities in the sky. Either way, a deity in the sky isn’t needed to explain why we might refrain from acting a fool in order to explore these emotions.

10. To live out one’s indoctrination.

How many of the beliefs that inform our behavior are taken for granted because their source was our first authority figures: our family. You probably know someone who acts in a way different from you because of their different upbringing. To that person, the same applies to you. The things my family told me to do and not do are informed by the other items on this list, but even if they weren’t, I would have still listened, at least when I was young.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

An Inconsistent Adherence to Informed Models

I find that the best premises used in apologetic arguments for God take something that is true for the things we observe then assumes it is true for everything that we don’t observe. An example used in the cosmological argument for God is “everything that begins to exist has a cause outside itself.” We obviously haven’t observed everything’s origin of existence to confirm the premise, but it is seen as true to apologists for the things they have observed and are willing to assume those observations apply to everything everywhere.

This isn’t a great way to know objective truth, but it is a reasonable model to say something is probable based on current information. Of course, they aren’t using this in a probability model, they are using this as a justification for what they believe is objectively true. Misattributing a model for truth is a problem, but that isn’t what bothers m most.

These same apologists are presented with similar models that all observations confirm and treat them very different when they go against what they want to believe. For example, very observation shows that all people who are dead and cold do not spontaneously return to the living. All data points to the sun rising and setting at a steady rate. Animals don’t talk. Despite the perfect record of observations confirming these statements, they are not assumed to apply to everything everywhere. On the contrary, they believe that these models have already been broken.

Even if those using the arguments were consistent, they would hardly be airtight. As it is, I can’t even take them seriously.