Atheists and Agnostics Need to Consider Downstream Consequences

I have spent a great deal of time, the vast majority, in fact, participating in organized religion. I was raised in the Methodist church, a church in Kansas City, Missouri. I did not sing in the choir and did not participate in our youth group. For health reasons – I had very severe allergies and asthma throughout my childhood – I did not venture to travel on any mission trip. I did perform in most church plays, holiday festivals, and when I was in my mid-teens I led a few sermons. I played the coveted role of Jesus for a performance. My sister and I would run our own church service for a set of grandparents when they became too old to attend their First Christian Church regularly. We would use old hymnals and create our own program. We did not create our own sermon; my grandmother was quite partial to Billy Graham, Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts, Jerry Falwell, and Jimmy Swaggart so we would be the warm-up until one of shows Grandma liked came on to take over for us.

My family would attend a Presbyterian church when we visited my mother’s family. I had friends who were Catholic and would attend a Mass once in while. Later in life, I taught a few Sunday school classes, worked many of the dinner events, assisted with fund-raisers, and tithed regularly.

I vividly remember forgetting my lines and having to ad-lib based on memory of the scene. In our play, we were re-enacting the event of Jesus being called among the Pharisees. The Pharisees were engaged in one of their numerous attempts to get Jesus to betray himself and say something against Herod or, even worse, something against Caesar. We can read about this interaction in Matthew 22:15-22, where Jesus is noted for stating, “then give back to Caesar what is his, and give to God what belongs to him.” The church was standing-room only, sanctuary was warm from all the people and I became a little distracted by the size of the audience. In the biblical version, Jesus takes a coin presented to him by a Pharisee and studies the image pressed into the metal. I did this, too, channeling my inner Jesus. Except I was trying to remember my lines and decided I couldn’t remember them well enough. I could not just stand on stage and gape at the audience. The pressure of needing to continue pushed sweat from my pores and the lighting was not helping. I could remember the scene in my mind, though, having read this particular passage numerous times. As the actor, then, I have to decide what my character would do and act accordingly.

“Whose face is on this coin?” I, as Jesus, asked.

“Why, you know it is Caesar’s face!” a Pharisee uttered.

“Then, give back to Caesar what his; and give to God what he is owed,” was my reply.

The precise wording of the lines are not really that important. So many versions of the Bible exist one of them is bound to have something close to what I spoke. Afterwards, people told me I would be either “a minister or a lawyer” due to my delivery. Making eye contact with the audience was important, I knew. During my ad-lib I paced, and when I finally had my shit together, I spoke to the audience. Looking back on it, I’m sure they were simply being nice. But, I did end up in the classroom, talking to strangers on a regular basis; a sort of “performance art.”

And yet, I consider myself an Atheist. I always had doubts about Christianity, beginning in my pre-teens. The stories seemed too fabulous to a child who read copiously, both fiction and non-fiction. I simply saw most of the Bible not as a historical account but more as a collection of stories, events representing a mélange of both real circumstances and geography, and fiction. But, when young and naive, being a rebel about religion is not advisable. When everyone around you seems comfortable and devout, more or less, you sort of keep doing that thing until you can find the opportunity to break from the pack.

After my divorce – my father-in-law was a Baptist preacher – I dove head-long into science reading. I have an extensive reading list I may post to those interested in reading some good cosmology and physics books for laypeople. I’ve had a life-long interest in science so my recent reading does not reflect a new-found appreciation for science, simply a continuation of the pursuit of knowledge. I thought I would be an engineer, an aerospace engineer, after high school. I had plans to attend The School of Mines in Rolla, Missouri (now: Missouri University of Science and Technology) but gave up pursuing the degree; I never found the balance between working to pay for school and thermodynamics.

I eventually reached a stage where I decided God needed a universe to exist to justify his existence far more than the universe needed a god to justify its existence. In other words, the universe does not care whether a god exists or not – the universe just is. Now, why it is we do not know, but that simply means we have not discovered the solution, yet. Humankind is not as advanced as we think we are. We may not have even graduated the Universe-equivalent of 1st Grade compared to other civilizations. God, however, needs a universe to exist, as well as beings (“minions”) to sustain the god’s ego. But, that is my own philosophy, adopted from reading numerous books, listening to and watching numerous podcasts and lectures.

I don’t hang around other Atheists. I don’t go to “Freethinkers” club meetings nor do I attend most of their events. I do follow several on Twitter, Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins, Neil Tyson (though he claims to be Agnostic) to drop a few names. I believe the entire panel of Skeptics Guide to the Universe are Atheistic or Agnostic. A great podcast, by the way.

Another nice podcast is supported by Wired magazine. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (GGG) features today’s preeminent thinkers, writers, and do-ers. This is a long-form interview podcast featuring guests ranging from Neil Tyson, Michael Chabon, Paul Krugman, to Simon Pegg and Ursula K. Le Guin. Over the Thanksgiving 2014 holiday break I downloaded a few to try on my 8-hr drive to visit family. I elected to listen to an interview with Lawrence Krauss, a fairly famous physicist whose visage often graces many popular science shows, such as “The Universe” and “How the Universe Works.” He is also an ardent Atheist, and along with Richard Dawkins, they sometimes work as a pair discussing science and religion at venues around the world.

Dr. Krauss’ podcast interview on GGG was fairly mundane, all told. He has a documentary, “The Unbelievers” he was publicizing, footage of he and Dr. Dawkins discussing science and religion at various places around the world. Lawrence does make several interesting comments about science versus religion. I do not take offense to his philosophy, his system of beliefs, but I can see how both he and Richard Dawkins get labeled as “strident.” I, too, might have come across as strident in arguing science versus religion. A thought occurred to me a few months ago which has forced me to temper my attitude.

“I said, “You know what? You have to listen to me but I don’t have to listen to you.” What I meant by that is that to be a — I don’t know if this phrase is an oxymoron — but to be a sensible theologian or at least one who has pretense of being scholarly, you at least have to have some vague idea of what’s going on in science. How old the universe is, etc., etc. But to do science, you don’t have to know anything about theology, anything that theologians and to some extent philosophers do. Scientists don’t read theology, they don’t read philosophy. It doesn’t make any difference to what they’re doing. It may not be a value judgment, but it’s true.”

[Lawrence Krauss, via Wired GGG. Transcript]

Upon hearing his comments, I thought, Wow, Lawrence is going to get a bunch of freaking hate-mail (from Christians, oddly enough) and perhaps even some death threats (again, by both Christians and Muslims, oddly.)

To me, though, this is where Atheists and Agnostic miss the point. Much of the argument, debate, whatever terms suits you, is directed by Atheists at the pious, critical for holding a system of beliefs for which no proof of a higher plane or higher order spiritual entity exists. That is not the true debate, not the true question, and perhaps not the tact Atheist should consider.

Debates typically have two sides, a “For/Pro” side and “Against/Con” side. What we often fail to consider not the “not doing” of some action, but rather what effect the complete absence might have on a given event or circumstance.

One day, I was thinking along these lines. I may have had a recent conversation with someone to spur my contemplation of the universe and religion. Maybe something along the lines of, “How can people be so silly as to think the Earth is a mere 6,400 years old when Science clearly has proven this age is impossible?” And, then I carried this forward to what I thought was a reasonable conclusion: “Religion should simply not exist. It should just go away. Too many people have too many divergent views, many views are not compatible, and incompatibility leads to strife, warfare, and death. Better if people simply did away with religion.”

And then I thought: “What if religion did simply go away? What if we awoke one day and for one reason or another everyone realized the Torah, the Bible, the Qur’an were essentially works of fiction? What would happen to people, to society, to the global social order?”

The realization dawned on me some people, perhaps millions of people, no doubt, need religion. I mean, they need religion; they need the notion of an Almighty God / Allah, they require the notion of Sin, of Good and Evil, they must have access to Heaven and must fear a Hell. These elements of religion are essential to millions of people. They need this framework in order to build their lives just like a wasp needs some mud to build a nest. Without religion, I have the idea our current social order would simply collapse, and dissolve into anarchy and chaos.

Millions of people derive their sense of Right and Wrong from religion, either direct or indirect exposure to religion. I’m not simply speaking of Americans, but Middle Easterners and inhabitants of South Asia, from Pakistan to Bangladesh. While secularism exists in almost all regions and realms, the ability to lead a secular life varies depending on local tolerance and local religiosity. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, pass down their cultural traits to the next generation. Part of this transmission is values and morals, values and morals stemming from religious teachings and religious indoctrination. Remove all of these supports and I have the uncomfortable sensation the world would rush towards a human tragedy of Biblical proportions not seen since the Great Flood.

I am not a neuroscientist, to be clear. Many research articles detail the neuroscience of the human brain’s reaction to various forms of stimuli. One of the forms of stimuli is spiritual beliefs and religion. Science still has a long way to go to investigate why the brain as an organ behaves the way it does, the roots of consciousness, and the physiologic responses to thoughts, dreams, and beliefs. We do know the brain releases chemicals in response to stimuli, the brain builds pathways and neural networks, strengthening some, weakening others. We also know not every brain reacts in precisely identical ways. However, science is pretty confident some brains lean towards spirituality, some brains lean towards fear, some brains favor conservative perspectives while some brains tend to align more towards liberal viewpoints. (Wikipedia)

I’m not sure humans, in general, at least right now at our current state of evolution, are quite ready for abolition of religion. I think many people require the structure and mental support, i.e. crutch, religion provides. People feel good, feel safe, and feel assured even if something bad were to happen to them, to a family member, or simply succumb to the fate of death we all must face there is a place beyond this existence where all things are better. Our souls go to Heaven and we live happily ever after forever and always.

Furthermore, I suspect more than a few people need the moral compass religion provides. I firmly believe an Atheist can be moral and ethical, contrary to what some Conservative Christians might contend. The fallacy of their argument is they base their contention, usually, on Presuppositional Apologetics (PA). The basic premise of PA is all debate must first be based on the acceptance of the truth of the Bible. If two people cannot accept the basic premise the Bible is the Truth, then no substantive debate can occur. The underlying fallacy here is the arrogance of the PA premise ignores all non-Christian faiths which predate Christianity, such as Hinduism, and completely ignores the morality and ethics of Confucianism. Confucianism is a true philosophy, not a religion, which arose in China about 500 years before Jesus. Confucianism provides a very substantive basis for the argument people can be moral and ethical without adherence to a system of beliefs based on a supernatural Prime Mover and its ad hoc reward / punishment system.

I think Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins in their exuberance to argue religion is a fanciful and pointless pursuit fail to recognize millions of people literally need religion simply to bring meaning and hope to their lives. For these people, knowing they are “star stuff” is not enough. Being “star stuff” is not a personal experience. As Lawrence Krauss states in a 2009 lecture, “a star died so you can be here today,” [16:50-17:23] is not enough for most people.

I have listened to a few of Richard Dawkins lectures online, follow his Twitter feed, and have read some of his essays. Definitely, he is strident, an unapologetic Atheist. Krauss may be less strident, but he comes off as aloof and haughty which is essentially his confidence in his own beliefs and the lack of confidence he has in the pious. This is called, “hubris.” I cannot fault either Dawkins or Krauss for their beliefs; to do so undermines an essential quality of our society. I do find some fault in their somewhat callous and arrogant attitude towards the pious and the bulk of humanity for whom religion plays a vital role, be it good or bad. I think if either Krauss or Dawkins were to really think their argument through they would have to reach the same conclusion as I, that the world and its inhabitants are not ready to divest themselves of religious beliefs. Humankind is not ready, not mature enough, not developed enough to walk on our own without support. Not yet. A few people are, mainly the Chinese, some people in Europe, and a few people in the United States might be comfortable enough to handle life without religion.

I’ve come to the conclusion that while I don’t need religion in my life to be fulfilled, I’m not in favor of telling my friends or family they are being ridiculous for holding religious or spiritual beliefs. If people need religion to be self-actualized people, so be it. My only request is keep your religion out of our public schools and out of our local, state, and federal politics. The United States is not a theocracy.

Whether you agree with me or not, I still thank you for reading my posts. There are pages of brilliant content on the Internet and I thank you for reading mine.

PAX

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