Wednesday, October 31, 2007

I'll Take That Bet, Blaise

Perhaps you were raised Christian, but are starting to doubt the truth of what you've been taught to believe. If you're honest enough to admit that to yourself, you've already gone farther than many of your coreligionists. Still, Christianity might be true, and if you reject it and you're wrong, endless torment awaits in hell after you die. Better to play it safe and remain a believer, just in case.

This line of reasoning is known as Pascal's wager, named after French mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), who apparently was the first person of any prominence to write it down. I suspect that it is actually nearly as old as Christianity itself, as thoughts along the lines of Pascal's wager are inevitable in anyone who has been exposed to the idea of hell as a punishment for nonbelief. Indeed, many wavering Christians, most of whom would not know Pascal from a pastel, remain at least nominally in the fold due to the threat of hell. In high school, a friend once told me that although he did not believe in God, he considered himself a Christian and continued to go to church as "fire insurance".

Viewed from the outside, Pascal's wager is absurd. Christians seem to lose little sleep over whether they are in danger of ending up in hell for their unbelief in Islam, or over whether they will be reincarnated as something undesireable for their unbelief in Hinduism or Buddhism. Furthermore, as an atheist, I cannot will myself to believe in God. I could attend a Christian church, go through the motions, and profess belief, but an omniscient God would not be fooled. Would he not prefer honest disbelief to disingenuous bet-hedging? At any rate, why should we accept the idea that God regards belief as paramount? Is he a megalomaniac? Perhaps there is a God, but he only rewards those who have the intellectual courage to be atheists, given the paucity of evidence.

Pascal's wager is nevertheless effective because it is usually viewed from the inside, not the outside. Most people are indoctrinated into religion as children, and thus they are believers by the time they are old enough to subject their faith to critical examination. When doubts start to surface, believers do not immediately abandon their religion; rather, they enter the vast continuum that exists between complete belief and complete nonbelief. It is in this region that Pascal's wager is effective. If the concept of hell seems at least plausible, then the threat of hell can be truly terrifying.

Some Christian clergy may protest that they would never stoop so low as to maintain their congregations through the threat of hell, or any other threat. Some do not even believe in a literal hell, while others do believe but never bring it up. It makes very little difference. Anyone growing up in the United States (or any country where Christianity or Islam is common) cannot reasonably be expected to be sheltered from the idea of hell. If he/she does not learn of it from church, it might instead be from family, friends, media, literature, etc. Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to refer to an idea that is prevalent in a society and spreads from person to person like a virus. The meme of hell is simply unavoidable. Some clergy may be loathe to admit it, but that meme does much of their dirty work. Without it, their congregations would be much smaller.

Ultimately, Pascal's wager is an example of the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad baculum (argument with a cudgel) in that it is not a logical argument at all, but rather a threat masquerading as one. Raise your consciousness to what hell really is -- a morally bankrupt attempt to intimidate into submission.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

An Honest Conversation

When is the last time you had a truly honest conversation about religion, in which no topic was off limits and the existence of God was not regarded as axiomatic? For most Americans, the only truthful answer that can be given is "never". Politics and religion are the two things we are not to discuss in polite company, and we are much more likely to relax that "rule" with politics than with religion. Our discourse on religion tends to range from nonexistent to highly stunted, and for this we are paying an unacceptable price. We have unwittingly given rise to the conditions under which fundamentalism thrives, and a healthy dose of consciousness raising is in order.

For the most part, the adverse effects of religion, which I touched on in my Introduction, are the result of fundamentalism. Most moderate (and liberal) believers would agree that fundamentalism is a bad thing, but by failing to discus religion in an open and honest way, moderates shelter fundamentalists from any serious intellectual challenge and give them relatively free reign. This is not surprising, as moderate believers have already acquiesced to the foundational pillars of fundamentalism -- in the case of fundamentalist Christianity, that there is a singular God, the Bible is his word, and faith in God is a virtue1. Once those ideas are accepted, the only additional element that fundamentalism requires is the belief that the Bible means what it says. Moderate Christianity is an intellectually bankrupt position that cannot survive contact with the first few pages of the Bible2. This gives rise to deep (though probably subconscious) insecurities; thus moderates don't want to talk about their beliefs, lest their insecurities be exposed. Moreover, moderates hold a weak hand with which to challenge any religious claim to which they do not subscribe, as those who live in glass houses ought not throw stones. Their way out is to discourage skeptical inquiry, promulgate the idea that it is uncivil to challenge religious beliefs, and console themselves with wishful thinking about fundamentalism being rare and impotent3.

I understand that honest conversations about religion are difficult. In many circles, to broach the subject is to break a taboo. Thus I suggest starting by having the conversation with yourself. If you are a believer, raise your consciousness to the real reasons why your identify with your particular religion. If you are an agnostic, raise your consciousness to the reasons why you continue to hedge your bets. Chances are, they have little to do with truth.

I have already touched on two reasons why we believe, profess to believe, or at least fail to fully disbelieve. First, most of us are taught, from as soon as we are old enough to understand the concept, that God is a fact, and many of us never closely examine that alleged fact. Second, we fear the possible adverse consequences of rejecting our religion. We may fear the loss or weakening of family ties and friendships, social ostracization, loss of self-esteem, and a crisis of identity. We may be reluctant to give up the comforting feeling that a higher power is looking out for us. We may not want to face the fact that a deceased loved one is really gone forever, nor want to come to terms with our own mortality. We may fear that without religion, society would collapse into chaos. It should go without saying that whether or not these fears are well-founded, they do not give the slightest reason to believe that any religion is true.

1Similarly, agnostics contribute to the problem by dignifying those positions as reasonable, even if they do not personally hold them.

2Here, I am assuming a moderate who believes in the scientific story of the development of the universe (beginning with the Big Bang and segueing into evolutionary biology) but believes that God was ultimately behind it all. I am aware that apologists have put forth various attempts to square the circle with the highly discrepant account given in the Book of Genesis. They amount to nothing more than pathetic rationalizations, as I explore in The Senseless Center.

3Polls tend to show that about half of American Christians are fundamentalists, or about 40% of the overall population. For example, a 2001 Barna Research Group poll reported that "41% of adults strongly agree that the Bible is totally accurate in all that it teaches", which meets my definition of fundamentalism. See

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

I Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

When I was in 9th grade, I was asked in social studies class to name the person whom I most admire. That's a simple task on its face, but I found it exceedingly difficult. I have the same difficulty when asked to name my favorite movie. It's not that I can't find a person or movie that I like, but rather that I am not the sort of person who ranks things.

A few months ago, when I participated in something called the American Values Survey, I was again asked the most admired person question, but this time I had no trouble coming up with a name. Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has done more than any other person to promote and energize atheism in recent memory, and atheists in the United States are more confident and more vocal then ever before as a result. His recent book The God Delusion not only solidified my nascent atheism, but also inspired me to take a greater interest in the subject, ultimately leading to this blog. Superbly reasoned and elegantly witty, The God Delusion makes an unapologetically devastating (from a theists point of view) intellectual and moral case for atheism. I recommend the book to everyone. Dawkins' web site,, is also an excellent resource for a wide array of topics related to both religion and evolution. Dawkins is a top tier scientist and author who rose to prominence by proposing, in The Selfish Gene, the now widely accepted idea that the gene is the principal unit upon which evolution acts. His success in advancing the cause of atheism is in no small part due to the gravitas his name carries. It is a measure of how far atheism has to go that most Americans have nevertheless never heard of him.

My favorite atheist writer is actually not Richard Dawkins but American neuroscientist Sam Harris. His books The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation are unparalleled, as are many of his other writings and speeches available at his web site, The best introduction to atheism available on the web (that I am aware of) is his essay An Atheist Manifesto. If you can get past the title -- it has a unfortunate tendency to evoke A Communist Manifesto, or a deranged anarchist writing an antigovernment rant in a remote cabin -- it is an excellent, and fairly quick, read.

Physicist Victor Stenger's God: The Failed Hypothesis and journalist Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great are also excellent and highly recommended books. Author and journalist Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, ostensibly about Mormonism, is a fascinating case study of how religion begins, and how it can spiral out of control and spawn abuse and violence. Others that I have not yet read but come highly recommended by others include Daniel Dennet's Breaking the Spell, Dan Barker's Losing Faith in Faith, and Ayan Hirsi Ali's Infidel. Although I have only so far read small parts of their works, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the freethinkers of yesteryear such a Bertrand Russell and Robert Ingersoll. Lest I forget, the greatest argument for atheism ever written (or the most ironic, at least) is the book I am currently reading, the Bible.

For those of you with the time to listen to podcasts, I can recommend Point of Inquiry, Freethought Radio, The Non-Prophets, The Atheist Experience, and The Way of Reason. Some of these podcasts are better than others, but all are worth listening to. Excellent web resources include the aforementioned Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris web sites, PZ Meyers' Pharyngula blog, The Secular Web, TalkOrigins, and the Iron Chariots Wiki.

Although I believe I have some novel ideas to add to the debate, I gratefully acknowledge that I draw heavily from the aforementioned sources, among others. I truly stand on the shoulders of giants.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Just One More Definition

It occurs to me that I also need to define the term religion. My definition is "a system of beliefs involving worship of or reverence for the supernatural, divine, or sacred." Religion also encompasses the institutions, doctrines, scriptures, and practices associated with those beliefs.

Terminology tends to be a dry subject, and I do not wish to dwell on minutiae. However, terminology is important for establishing a common framework for discussion and avoiding misunderstandings. In arriving at my definitions, I have applied 3 principal criteria:
  1. A definition should be defensible based on word etymology and definitions given in major dictionaries.
  2. A definition should be in common usage.
  3. A definition should be useful, in that it serves to draw distinctions important to the discussion.

I sometimes come across people using the word religion to mean any activity pursued with zeal or devotion. For example, devoted fans may be said to watch football "religiously" on Sundays. People who use this definition tend to describe me as religious for being passionate about my atheism. I could object to this definition on the basis of all 3 of my criteria, but I object mainly on the basis of the third. If religion encompasses everything from football fans to fundamentalist Christians, it is a nearly useless term. Yes, I share passion and conviction with fundamentalist Christians, but there is also a world of difference between us, and it is that very difference that I wish to highlight and explore. Calling atheism (or at least passionate atheism) a religion is an exercise in conflation and obfuscation. Atheism is no more a religion than baldness is a hair color.

I have particularly little patience for people who engage in word games, casually tossing around loaded terms in ways that violate my criteria without acknowledging this. Indeed, word gamers tend to keep definitions vague, so that they can be shifted when convenient -- a subtle form of a logical fallacy known as equivocation, whereby a word changes definition in the course of an argument. For example, a word gamer might say "God is love. Don't you believe in love?"; or "God is in those deep and profound mysteries of the universe. Surely you agree that there are things we don't understand?"; or "God can be thought of as a metaphor for the meaning of life. Surely you don't think that life is a meaningless, pointless waste?" If the responder agrees that yes, love exists; yes, there are things we don't understand; or yes, life has meaning; the questioner shifts the definition of God and takes the response as vindication for the God of the Bible. The ontological argument for the existence of God is a word game, relying on a vague and shifting definition of "perfection" (or "greatness", "existence", etc., depending on the version used).

Thursday, August 16, 2007

First, a Few Definitions

Before getting into the heart of my arguments, it is important to define the terms that I will use going forward. While this material is necessarily dry, I will do my best to make it entertaining.

First up is the tricky matter of defining God. There are almost as many concepts of God as there are believers in God, so I use a definition broad enough to encompass most: God is an omniscient, omnipotent, supernatural intelligence that created the universe and everything it contains (including humans) deliberately. Those who claim a belief in God yet do not subscribe to this definition are, in my opinion, usually closet atheists or agnostics who cannot bring themselves to admit their lack of belief. I will have more to say about them in a later post; for now, I will utilize the definition as stated.

A theist, then, is a person who believes in a God who interacts with the universe, and with humanity in particular. This God (or gods, in the case of polytheism) at least occasionally intervenes in human affairs, and is appropriate to worship (whether or not God is worthy of worship is another matter). In many versions of theism, God provides for some form of an afterlife for at least some humans. Christianity is a theistic religion, as are Judaism and Islam.

A deist is a person who believes in a God who does not interact with the universe. Many central figures in the American revolution, such a Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, and James Madison, where probably deists. In those days, deism was the rough equivalent of atheism today, as it represents a rejection of theism. Atheism was less tenable back then (although a strong case could still have been made), because the sciences of cosmology and evolutionary biology did not yet exist to explain the development of the universe and life on earth, respectively. Today, deism is much less popular, and mainly exists as a compromise position between theism and atheism. I will have little more to say about deism, other than to point out that it is functionally equivalent to atheism (there is no reason to worship a deist God, or organize one's life around such a God), and that my many of the arguments in the posts to come will refute deism as well as theism.

The etymologicaly correct definition of an atheist is a person who lacks a belief in God, while the etymologicaly correct definition of an agnostic is a person who believes the existence of God cannot be proven or disproven. I listen to, and recommend, two podcasts from the Atheist Community of Austin (ACA) -- The Atheist Experience and The Non-Prophets -- and they routinely insist, correctly, on these definitions. By these definitions, a fence-sitter who takes no position on the existence of God is an atheist, while the term agnostic applies to nearly everyone.

With apologies to the ACA, I nevertheless prefer the more common definitions of an atheist as a person who believes there is no God, and an agnostic as a fence-sitter. In addition to being common, these definitions are more useful because they define atheism more specifically, and give some utility to the term agnostic. These are the definitions that I will use going forward.

It is important to point out that an atheist is not someone who knows with absolute certainty that God does not exist. Atheism is defined by belief only, and no atheist I know of claims absolute certainty. While I'm sure that, were you to search high and low, you could find such an irresponsible person, it is far more common for theists to claim absolute certainty. Ironically, it is often these same theists who will praise themselves for their humility while accusing atheists of arrogance.

Finally, a fundamentalist is a person who believes in the inerrancy of whatever religious scriptures he or she takes as authoritative -- the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, in the case of a fundamentalist Christian. Religious people who do not believe in scriptural inerrancy are usually referred to as religious moderates or liberals (the difference depending on just how much scripture they are willing to ignore, downplay, or rationalize away). Passionate atheists like me are sometimes pejoratively labeled atheist fundamentalists, but this is just meaningless wordplay, since atheists have no scripture.

Thursday, August 9, 2007


I am starting this blog because I feel I must. Religion has poisoned the well from which humanity drinks for millenia, and while I long ago ceased believing in any sort of God, I have for years simply watched from the sidelines. I will do so no more. All religion is false, and most religion is dangerous and potentially violent. To see this, one need only to read today's news, or most any day's news. Religion creates wholly unnecessary divisions in largely nonnegotiable and unchanging terms. Every day in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, the pious create hideous displays of carnage in the name of God. The greatest long term threat to humanity might well be the seemingly inevitable (though not imminent) marriage of frightening destructive weaponry with the religious convictions of someone like Osama bin Laden. I do not yet have children, but I expect to in a few years, and I worry about the world that the present generations will bequeath to them.

Here in the United States, demonizing gay people, impeding stem cell research, outlawing other people's abortions, and elbowing religion into the public square rank higher on the agenda of millions than truly important issues like global warming. As the next presidential election swings into gear, candidates are falling over each other to pander to religious ignorance and bigotry, and no one in the mainstream media will stand up to challenge the nonsense emanating from their mouths. Religion impedes the progress of nearly everything it touches. The situation that we find ourselves in would be comical if it weren't also so dangerous.

It is time to stand up, to say that we've had enough. In the coming posts, I will challenge the foundations upon which religion rests. I will focus mostly on Christianity, the largest religion in the U.S. and the one with which I am most familiar, but I will bring in other religions when I can. Moreover, my larger points will apply to all religions, and indeed the very irrationality and superstition that religion represents. I recognize that my potential impact is limited. Religion will not leave us any time soon, but if I can convince a single atheist to stand up and be counted as I am, a single self-described agnostic to get off the fence, or a single vaguely or casually religious person to critically examine the faith that he or she identifies with, it will have been worth it. I draw my inspiration from the brilliant quote from Edmund Burke at the top of my blog.

Although it should now be obvious, it is worth saying that I am not just nonreligious, I am antireligious. I believe that the path to wisdom is paved only by the shining light of truth. I am a freethinker, a skeptic, a humanist, and an atheist. And I'm proud of it.