Thursday, December 23, 2010


I have noticed, as I've slowly adapted to the idea that I don't believe in god, that my dreams have changed a bit.

For some background, I'm on some medication that gives me vivid, unpleasant dreams sometimes.  At first, I had nightmares every night and woke up upset and disturbed, but after a while it calmed down to what it is now: most nights I have at least one vivid dream about something I'm anxious about.  This includes grades, social slip-ups, etc.  I wake up sweating and nervous, but get over it almost immediately.

One interesting aspect of this side-effect is that it very clearly reveals my anxieties on an almost daily basis.
One of the major themes?  Bieng outed as the godless atheist that I am.
I've dreamed about being called in to the bishop.  Crap!  I might lose my endorsement at BYU!
I've worried about being rejected by my brother, who is my best buddy, but who is currently Mr. SuperMissionary and comes home in 5 months.
I think my parents have even been in there, even though they have an inkling of how "misled" I am.

I don't want my professors to know, because it could affect my letters of recommendation when it comes time to apply for grad programs.  I'd prefer to keep it from most of my friends, and all of my ward members (ugh, can you imagine the unwanted attention in the form of efforts to "fellowship" me?).

Maybe someday I can be more open.  Definitely when I'm out of BYU my academic future will no longer ride so much on my religious beliefs.  In grad school I'll probably not be expected to believe a certain thing by everyone around me.  But for now it makes me a little uptight.

My mom talked about my brother-in-law Rob the other day, and warned me that I should probably avoid his blog because it "doesn't have a good spirit about it."  This, of course, is Mormon for "it does not support the church wholeheartedly or reject doubt outright."
It made me want to laugh, actually.  Seriously?  Good thing you don't know about my blog, Mom.  Rob's is pretty benign compared to mine; he's very civil and measured in his writing.  I, on the other hand, rant and rave and blaspheme on a regular basis.  This is where I vent when I don't want to try to argue with people.

I wonder if my parents will ever happen upon this blog.  It's not impossible by any means; there are a number of ways they might find it.  If they do, it might be trouble.  They may have an inkling of my atheism, but they probably don't know how rabid and antagonistic toward god and religion I can be sometimes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Blasphemous Blogging?

So none of this that I'm about to write is really very kosher by any Christian's view, I'd imagine, but if there's a hell I'm probably on the way there in any case, so I thought I'd vent a little.

What would Jesus do?  We're supposed to ask ourselves that, right?
Well... based on what we know abou the guy, my guess is he'd utter a lot of platitudes, intentionally confuse people, piss off basically everybody, and then die.

But honestly, what would he do in most situations?  Would he pirate MP3s?  Would he drive 5 mph hour the speed limit?  Would he make pizza sauce himself or buy it canned?
Basically, all I can say is, I have no friggin' clue, and as far as I can tell, neither do you.
The guy has been dead now for a couple millenia, and all we have are inconsistent accounts of dubious authorship that were written, as near as we can tell, about a century after the purported events took place.

Okay, so I know it's supposed to be "Christ lives," right?  But does he really?  I mean, how many people that died 2000 years ago are alive now?  There are exactly zero documented cases.

In church, someone talked on Sunday about how meek and kind and forgiving and understanding Jesus is.  Right?  Well, except for him killing random fig trees out of spite (it was symbolic, right?  Oh, wait, then why kill the poor tree instead of giving another cryptic parable about a tree?).  And being really, really mean to most of the people around him.  Saying downright mean and dissmissive things to his mom, family and friends.  How about racism?

Like seriously.  Jesus said some things that are salve for the soul or wise or cool, but he also said a bunch of inconsistent, unkind, and nonsensical things.  If, that is, we trust the record at all.

So, clearly, I'm the worst blasphemer ever, but I just don't get it.  I don't even know why I'd need a savior... not that I don't make mistakes, but I can't understand how god can be such a wacko that he can't figure out a way to forgive people without throwing his son out to die at the hands of "his" people.  And great job, by the waty, on those people.  Seems like nothing you told them made any difference, god.

Maybe there's a god.  Maybe there's a Christ.  Maybe I'm going to rot in hell, and all the evangelicals out there will happily dance upon my grave just before being raptured up to paradise.
But in that case, god is insane.  He makes no sense at all.  Have fun in heaven with your psychotic overlord.

A few days ago, the Provo Tabernacle burned to the ground.  Except for the severely-damaged outside walls, the thing is just gone.  But, there's a painting inside where everything except the picture of Jesus in the middle is burned.
"A Miracle!" they call it.  Clearly, all pictures of Jesus are fireproof.  We should just build all our houses out of pictures of him, then fire would never be a problem!
So... what I'm thinking is, if god was intent on performing a miracle that night, couldn't he have just put out the fire?  It would have saved the church a bundle, Provo a lot of hassle, and would have prevented the destruction of a beautiful historic building. 

Seriously, do people really believe it when they say every single slightly-good thing is a tender mercy of god, and every horrible thing is, of course, god's will?  Thanks god, for the mostly-burnt painting.  Maybe next you can work on saving the starving orphans of the world, or maybe the polar bears.  I'd trade the damn painting for the polar bears.

I got terrible grades this semester.  I'm sure some would attribute it to my utter rejection on god, recently.  But you know, if prayer really worked, you'd expect the devoutly religious to have consistently higher test scores.  Plently of failing students at BYU are perfect Mormons, and plently of straight-A students everywhere find the idea of a personal god laughable.
Anecdotes are not data.  Your friend may have prayed and gotten her wish of a smooth day at work on the same day that many, many people prayed for a dying loved one, and the loved one died.

Game over.  Thanks for playing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Morning Number Fun

I had an entertaining time running some (admittedly extremely rough) numbers this morning.
I was reflecting on how the LDS church is very proud of its exponential growth curve, and started thinking that it might be interesting to plot the percent of the world that is LDS over time, rather than the straight-up population.

Here's what I found:

So, it seems the church can still boast a nice exponential growth in terms of the portion of the world they can call their own.  The fit, by the way, is (% of world)=0.001*exp(0.03*(year-1830)).

Now, a few comments before I go further.  Obviously, you can't go above 100%, so this can't be a straight-up exponential, it'd have to reach an inflection point up to some point.  That being said, up until about half the maximum value the church will reach, the fit should be reasonable.  So we have to make some assumptions about the church's maximum size (in proportion to the world) to know how far we can set any kind of store whatsoever by this fit.

In addition, world population may reach an inflection point at any time, and further screw with our model.  However, as I said, for the time being, hopefully we can trust the fit for a few years.

Finally, there is an obvious anomaly in the data right at the end where the growth rate seems to drastically drop, which might be an indication that the inflection point has already been crossed.  However, for the sake of fun, I'm going to give the church the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to noisy data.

So with that stuff out of the way, we can have a bit of fun.

One of my favorite elder's quorum discussions is "when do you brethren think the second coming will be?"
We always get the mandatory 2012 (the current favorite end-of-the-world for any crackpot theorist), and there are a lot of guesses between 10-30 years in the future.  It is universally assumed that it will happen in our lifetime, or at the very latest our kids'.

I believe it is generally held in the church that a significant fraction of the world must be LDS before Jesus decides to show.  I'm sure some would insist on 50% or something like that, but let's assume a smaller fraction is sufficient.  Say... 10%?

Given the (idiotically optimistic) fit I've found for the church's growth rate, the church should reach 10% of the world's population at around 2130.  We probably won't be around anymore.  Our kids probably won't either... but maybe our grandkids.  Maybe.

Anyway, like I said, the numbers pretty much explode after this, and we'd have to come up with a much better model if we want to predict any further out.  In any case, if the church needs even 10% of the world before Jesus comes a-knockin, we've got a little while to wait.

Basically, the point of all this is, I can't wait for the next time someone brings this up in elder's quorum.  I want to see the looks of discomfort when I tell people it seems unlikely that Jesus will be around any time in the next century, give the church's historical growth and generally-held teachings.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Don't Use Unfair Arguments!

I talked to my mom yesterday, and she brought up the subject of faith.  She wasn't too confrontational, but definitely was trying, again, to convince me that I ought to stay active in the church.

She talked about some people she knows (disapprovingly) who have left the church, and how it was not fair to their spouses because it was understood at the beginning of the marriages that the church would be part of their marriage and family.
I don't completely object to this line of reasoning, because I've thought that maybe I should attend church socially for my wife's sake.  It wouldn't be so bad, after I was out of BYU and no longer obligated to keep secret my disbelieve in god, accept callings, etc.

What I object to is the injustice of this argument when used by my mother, who very openly applauds a former Catholic minister who joined the church in her ward despite the concern that it has caused his wife.  If my mom is going to use the above argument, she'd damn-well better make sure she's okay with it working against her beloved church.

The same goes for another thing she tried to tell me last night: she was telling me that religious experiences are very subtle, but that you had to learn to trust them.  I indicated that some people don't really have very convincing experiences, and she said something like "but what about family and friends who have had those experiences?"  I told her that that doesn't help, because there are people all over the world having religious experiences confirming the truth of vastly different worldviews.  She seemed shocked and asked "what about your family and people who really care about you, though?"
I think it's only fair for her to say this if she is willing to disapprove just as strongly of people coming from other faiths into the LDS church despite their family's devotion to another faith.

She talked about another person who'd left the church because he'd tried hard and eventually given up, as if he'd done it on a whim and altogether too quickly.  The idea, I believe, is that if you don't believe in the church, keep trying to until you do, or until you die.  If she is willing to argue this way, she'd better be ready to accept the argument that other faiths should never convert to Mormonism, but keep plugging away trying to make their own faith work for them.

There are many other arguments of this nature thrown around all over the place.  The LDS church teaches its members to avoid anything critical of the church like the plague, like it'd smut or a pack of vicious lies and authored by the devil himself.  Yet the church openly and smilingly criticizes the doctrines, practices, and historical actions of other churches regularly.  It's part of the missionary lessons.
Why exactly shouldn't I read anything critical about the church?  Can't I make my own decisions about the validity of its claims?  Getting only one narrow side of the story never seems like a good idea.
Is it thoughtcrime?  Am I committing treason by even considering that the church might be based on a bunch of fiction?  And yet the church and its membership are moved to tears of joy by the stories of people having doubts about their own faiths and then joining up with the LDS church when it better fit how they felt the world should operate.
If I am a traitor, then every freaking religious person who has ever joined the church is a traitor.

  I understand why these arguments propagate so well in the church; they are persuasive arguments in their own ways and the church circulates ideas that are best-suited to preserve itself.  It's not necessarily deliberate, it's the mind-virus adapting to its host.  Among religions, blindness to your own implicit exempt status from your own arguments seems to be a particularly common symptom.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Mind Virus

I believe Richard Dawkins coined this term.  That makes sense, given that he is an evolutionary biologist.

The idea is something like this:
Human beings are prone to superstition, the invention of myth and legend based on over exaggeration of real past events, and unwavering belief in anything asserted by parent figures.
Humans are also pretty rational beings, so they tend to integrate all of theses myths, superstitions, and traditions into what might be called a worldview.  This worldview tends to explain the origin of humanity and the world it inhabits, prescribe proper behavior of individuals toward one-another (as well as toward the ubiquitous imagined anthropomorphic forces controlling the world), and address the terrifying concept of the inevitability of death.

However, despite the human tendencies mentioned above, these worldviews and their constituent parts are not invulnerable.  Humans are clever, and very good at pattern-recognition.  When the patterns of the worldview become inconsistent with the observed patterns in the world, humans will often reject all or part of the worldview.  For example, do you believe that spilling salt is bad luck, or saying "Bloody Mary" repeatedly in a darkened room with a mirror will bring forth some unholy being to torment you?  If not, why don't you?
When a young child, I tested the Bloody Mary one.  My friends insisted it was true, but I was skeptical.  However, I was terrified, because I'm human and I tend to accept these superstitions naturally, on some level.  Still, I was not afraid enough that I did not go into the bathroom (half-petrified) and test it thoroughly.  Once experience had failed to confirm the purported truth of Bloody Mary, I came to assume the falsehood of this particular myth.

The idea of a mind-virus is that these ideas, these myths and superstitions, are passed from person to person easy.  However, the human mind has defenses against false ideas (skepticism, rational approach to reality).  The ideas resilient to these defenses tend not to be widely abandoned, but passed on further.  The ideas mutate and grow over time, and the mutations most favorable to the survival of the idea are passed on, where the other ones are quickly abandoned.  This, as I'm sure you've seen, is the source of the term "mind-virus," and I find that the behavior of these ideas are actually very analogous to the evolution of an actual contagious virus.
After all, a virus is just RNA in a protein shell, and is little more than information.  This is hauntingly close to what an idea consists of.  Virii do not reproduce like cellular organisms, they simply deliver the information, which has evolved through selection to hijack existing cells for the reproduction and distribution of the virus.

So, I have been musing over the potential dangers to a mind-virus posed by a human being, and the possible defenses the virus might evolve.

Human Defense: 
Experimental refutation of an idea.  The mind, as I said, can go out and test ideas, and will usually abandon them when they have been thoroughly tested without significant matching results.

Viral Reactions: 
-If the idea cannot be tested, it cannot be experimentally disproved.
-If the idea includes anecdotal accounts of strong evidence for its veracity, it may weaken refutation by apparent (but unverified) counterexample.
-If the idea is tied strongly to another idea which is accepted, the accepted idea can anchor the attached idea by way of the unwillingness to accept the falsehood of the accepted idea (which in many cases would indeed be shown to be false if the connected idea were disproved.)

Human Defense:
Rational inconsistency of parts of an idea or worldview.  Human beings are adept at finding the incongruities of two or more assertions, and will often abandon at least one idea in order to escape from the illogic.

Viral Reactions:
-If an appeal to cognitive dissonance is packaged with the idea, a person might well rationalize away or ignore the obvious inconsistencies.  Often this takes the form of "At least do/try it for 's sake."
-If an appeal to human ignorance is made, a person might accept inconsistent assertions, pending further data.  This is actually the virus commandeering the person's skepticism; it is very true that knowledge gained later might clarify the apparent inconsistency.  A strengthening factor often included is a hint or assertion that such knowledge is had somewhere, and may well be on its way.

Human Defense: 
Experience and a realistic world-view.  Human begin to expect the world to act as observed once they have gained enough experience.  Skepticism is the natural reaction to claims inconsistent with that pattern.

Viral Reactions:
-If the virus comes packaged with some rationalization that seems logical, the inconsistency can be made to seem trivial.  Jonathan Swift's satirical A Modest Proposal is an demonstration of how preposterous ideas can be cast in a light making them seem perfectly reasonable.
-If a virus appeals to deep-seating anxieties common to human beings, the strong desire to escape to safety from these anxieties might cause a person to strongly accept an idea immediately, making skeptical investigation less likely.  Unemployment, disease, death, loneliness, etc, can cause people to go so far as to buy spring water from Tibet and to vote for sketchy candidates making sweeping promises.

Human Defense: 
An understanding of uncertainty, probability, and statistics.  This is related to the experienced, realistic world-view, but is more rational than intuitive.  The unlikelihood of the truth of an assertion compared to alternatives is extremely damaging to an idea.  If you flip a coin and heads comes up twice, there is little reason to assume a biased coin.  If you flip a coin 1000 times in a row and get heads, to suspect the coin is the logical reaction.  It is not that the alternative is impossible, but it is much less likely.

Viral Reaction:
-If an idea comes with an argument containing bad math or unverified statistics, it still creates some apparent credibility of the idea.  "Most Americans prefer green" is far less believable than "60% of Americans prefer green," because the quantitative assumption seems authoritative and precise.

Now, I ask, what types of worldviews and ideas are most resilient?  Things that turn out correct, for one thing.  But also, religions (the ones that last) tend to have almost every beneficial mind-virus characteristic, and so they become prolific and resilient.

Religions make claims on subjects that cannot or cannot yet be experimentally examined.
    -eg The existence of god.
Religions perpetuate unverifiable anecdotes.
    -eg The resurrection of Jesus.
Religions tie ideas together firmly to anchor less-secure ideas.
    -eg If you have faith, you can believe.
Religions tend to make appeals to emotions in order to promote cognitive dissonance.
    -eg Just try it for a while, for (family member)'s sake.
Religion regularly implies higher intelligence and a grand scheme beyond human comprehension.
    -eg We cannot understand (inconsistent doctrine) in this life, but all will be made clear in heaven.

Religions employ flowery rhetoric which seems sound, but actually contains assumptions and fallacies.
    -eg All things have a beginning, so nothing could exist unless there was something (god) to start it.Religions constantly appeal to almost-universal human anxieties.
    -eg Answers addressing "Where did I come from, why am I here, where am I going?"
Religions quote false or unverified statistics and use bad math constantly.
    -eg The watchmaker argument.

You'll notice that these are in the same order as the bullet points I listed above enumerating the various viral survival mechanisms.  Religion nearly universally contains many, many, of each of these mechanisms.
But this makes sense: religions only survive when they are resilient to skepticism and disproof.  Religion has existed most likely since the dawn of human culture, and has evolved over the millennia to be what it is now: very well-suited to the human mind.  Modern religion is a nearly perfect mind-virus.
Any person will agree, I think, that most religions make many false claims (because clearly not many more than one can possibly be correct).  The fact that these religions remain prolific, and their followers faithful, indicates the human vulnerability to viral (and sometimes virulent) ideas.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

God's Appendix

Man is supposed to be created in god's image, right?

In Mormon theology, this is interpreted quite literally as meaning that god has a body, normal human size, male, just "exalted."  Exalted means that it is immortal and has no blood for some reason?  But in every way it is supposed to be analogous to our bodies, just without blemish or fallibility.
I am aware that in other Christian traditions, this bit of doctrine is interpreted much more loosely... god is somehow ehtereal and everywhere at once, so he doesn't have a body per se, but he's like us in some sense.  I guess we can regard god as fundamentally human, in this case, except "higher" in some way.

I was just thinking about what the implications of this idea, that god is like a man, are.  I was of course thinking in the Mormon context because that's how I grew up, so I was imagining a physical god with a body like a human's.

It occured to me:  does god have an appendix?  How about tonsils?  Adenoids?  How about all of our junk DNA, most of which has absolutely no effect in our makeup and development?  If so, why does god have useless organs and parts?  He can hardly be called "perfect" in that case.
How about pores?  Does god sweat?  Can he sneeze?  Does he have to clear his divine ears of heavenly earwax?  It all seems like a pretty funny way to think of deity.

But for that matter, if god can get things done just by speaking or willing, why does he even need arms and legs and fingers, and in short, a physical body at all?

If we take the tack that god is not physical, but sort of an incorporeal-but-human being, we come up with some additional concerns:  Exactly how is man in god's image?
I can think of several possibilities, of course.  Our minds, our moral intuition, our imaginations, etc, are all modeled after god's.  We are sentient, modeled after god's sentience.
This is fine as a concept.  However, it collides with some other doctrines that I've considered:

For example, that "God's ways are not our ways."  I've been told this over and over when I have been questioning god's actions, given the world as it is.  Don't try to justify god, his thoughts and ways are so much higher than ours that we can't hope to ever follow them.
I can understand where this is coming from, but it seems inconsistent with the above-mentioned doctrine.  If we are made in god's image but he is not physical, how are his ways not our ways?  Our behaviors are presumably based on his ways.  Maybe it is that we are like children, not quite up to his level of abstraction.  But I really wonder how; adult human beings are capable of extremely high levels of abstraction.  Non-euclidian geometries, for example, represent a very thouroughly-studied field that is purely abstract; it has absolutely no relation to our experiences except the very exceptional case of the geometry which is the one of our experience.  If it is imaginable, we can think about it and study it.  If we can't make any headway in metaphysics, it is logically impossible as Kant demonstrated.  If god has tools we do not, then he is not necessarily more capable than we are, any more than a physics student today is more capable than Isaac Newton.  Just lucky.

So, if god has no body and does not think anything like us, in what way exactly are we made in god's image? 
Is it not more likely that god is made in our image?
He sure tends to conform to the prevailing philosophy of a given people at a given time, but only in that time to those people.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I wish I could believe in god

It would be great if the truth-claims of religion were true.  It would be awesome if the LDS church were true, the promised results from living a faithful life are pretty darn good.

But I just can't believe god exists.  At least not the god I've been taught about.  The world is not like the world that religions say it is.  It is not like the world one would expect to have been created by a powerful, benevolent being.  The evidence seems completely contrary.  For every person god supposedly helps, dozens of people are left to die by way of disease, violence, starvation, and other unimaginably terrible deaths.
I have been told over and over that god allows evil in the world for free will's sake.  However, this explanation seems weak to me.  If god is so powerful, he might come up with some other way.  I don't think the "best of all possible worlds," as Leibniz concluded the world must be if created by a benevolent god, is one where the prayers of a kid looking for his teddy bear or a woman for her car to start so she can make it to work are answered even as innocent children burn or starve to death elsewhere.  If god exists and is well-meaning, he really, really needs to rethink his priorities.

I've read many times that it takes more faith to be atheist than theist.  While I admit that someone who believes that there is no god and could never be convinced otherwise is probably dogmatically clinging to faith of a kind, I don't think that that's how it is for me.  Presented with the right evidence, I would believe in god.  But it seems more likely than not that there is no personal god, to me, because the world I find myself in is inconsistent with that idea.  So how am I clinging to faith more than a theist, if I interpret things in the most realistic way possible while being prepared to change my beliefs based on new data?

I'm sure there are those who would accuse me of not giving god a chance.  This is bull.  I served a full-time mission working every waking hour, seven days a week, for two years.  I rode a bike through the hail and in 110 degree 90% humidity, being rejected from dawn to dusk in a language I had to learn as I went.  I have always given 1/10 of my income to the church.  I have spent my life saying constant daily prayers, reading the scriptures, participating in church service, and forever ignoring any doubts that came my way.
I would say that 20+ years seems long enough.  If god were going to throw me a bone, I'd think maybe he would have done it by this time.  After all, I've probably lived more than a quarter of my life, and some of my most important decision-making years at that, in his service.

Even if there turned out to be a god who was even slightly interested in human affairs and the lives of individuals, I very much doubt that I was raised in his correct religion.  What are the odds?  Not good.  Ignoring the church's inconsistencies in teachings throughout the last couple of centuries, it occurs to me that maybe god would do a better job promoting the church that he supposedly endorses.

Maybe there is some kind of "first cause" or "creator" of the universe, but there is nothing to indicate this thing's characteristics.  Even its sentience is a completely baseless assumption.  This "god" could very well regard the universe as a toy, maybe it hasn't even noticed humanity in all of the vastness of space.  Or maybe it has, is malevolent, and brings suffering into the world for its own pleasure.  So the entire basis of a rational path to theism is groundless... if you have been personally convinced of god's existence, fine, but you can't use that to convince me, your conversion experience is not even consistent with the conversions of others!

Now I'm ranting, so I'd better stop.  But people say some dumb things about the way I think, and sometimes it irks me.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Making Watches with Faith

I heard a story fairly recently about two sister missionaries.  They were driving out in the middle of nowhere when their car ran out of gas.  Not immediately knowing what to do, they consulted.  It occurred to one of them that they had some drinking water in bottles in the car.  Why don't they pray that the water be turned to gasoline, and pour it into the gas tank?  They fervently prayed, and emptied the bottles into the fuel port.  Full of faith, they entered the car and attempted to start it.  The water was pulled into the engine, where it caused ruinous damage.  The car, needless to say, did not run.

Everyone laughed at the silly sisters.  Then I said, to test them, "we all know that prayers for real things don't get answered.  Only imaginary things."  The group awkwardly ignored my statement, a little shocked at the suggestion.  But isn't this the case?  Pray for help on your test, and you suddenly remember something you had studied.   Pray for comfort on a hard day, and a friend comes calling.  See?  Prayer works!  But pray for something that probably would not  have happened anyway... you silly person!  That's absurd!
It is postulated that prayers are only answered when they are in accordance with the will of god.  But why would he make his will dependent on prayers of antlike mortals?
"Okay, this is what I want to do.  But I won't do it unless someone prays for it.  Okay... so now how do I do this?  Maybe prompt someone to pray for it?  *prompt prompt*  It worked!"
So god does things only after he gets someone to ask for it.  Doesn't he have better things to do?  That's the same as your friend who says "I had a crazy dream last night."  and looks up at you hopefully, and then further prompts "Man, it was such a crazy dream!" and again pauses.  You throw up your hands and say "I've been listening!  If you want to tell the dream just do it already!"

On an entirely unrelated note.  I despise the Watchmaker Argument.  It goes like this:
You walk up a tall, remote mountain and find a beautiful gold watch, still running, on the ground.
Do you assume that it formed there spontaneously?  No!  You just  know someone made it!
The [universe/humans/earth/etc] is the same way!  You can't tell me someone made it, it's too complex!

Okay, may I please point out how this is a ridiculous straw-man?  Put down with a little less sugary rhetoric:
1. Object X exists.
2. Object X is complex.
3. There exists at least one intelligent being who makes object X.
4. It is very unlikely that object X could exist spontaneously. (from 2)
5. Object X was most likely made by an intelligent being. (from 4,3)
6. An intelligent creator of object X most likely exists.  (from 1,5)

Lovely, isn't it.  But wait?  Looking at the steps of this proof, we notice that one of the assumptions (step 3) is exactly the same as the conclusion (step 6), which depends on step 3!
This is what we call FREAKING CIRCULAR!

I'll throw in an extra two bits for good measure. This argument implies that the existence of a watch spontaneously by chance is unlikely because of its complexity and perfection.  Same with us, right?  But wait, isn't god the most ultimately perfect and complex being in existence?  Hmm.  So while it is unlikely that the watch would exist spontaneously, it is less likely that a creator of watches spontaneously exists!  And it is further unlikely that someone who could design and build the creator would exist spontaneously, without being made.  So if you're going to appeal to probability, you'd better know that while yes, the spontaneous existence of intelligent life like ours is unlikely, you are not getting better odds by assuming a creator.

Monday, November 1, 2010


I was just noticing that I have never felt something so close to conviction, fervor, and zeal as I have recently.  I always had an uneasiness in the back of my mind when participating in and even promoting the church my parents raised me in.  Vague awareness of the cognitive dissonance.  But now, I feel so liberated.  It just feels right to admit to myself that I think that this religion is false, as all others probably are.  Just accepting the fact that I think Joseph Smith was a charlatan is so amazing compared to always pushing back the sinking doubts about his weird stories and dubious character (even back when I avoided anything not published by the LDS church about Smith, regarding it, like a good Mormon, as diseased lies from the devil).
If I were ever to admit this to my parents or church leaders, they would chastise me, I'm sure.  I guess I can't blame them, that's what they're supposed to do based on their convictions.

But being at a religious university, surrounded by Mormon professors and Mormon classmates in a predominantly Mormon area, there is no one with which to share this joy I feel in my freedom to think.  It's damned lonely.
I thought Satan was supposed to use peer pressure and loneliness to encourage me to apostatize.

The Law of Gravity

...The Mormon church seems obsessed with gravity.
The recent talk by Elder Packer that has gained so much attention by way of its blatant homophobia included one of these weird references.  In fact, I wasn't even phased, to be honest, by the anti-gay sentiments; it's what I expect.  But when he talked about "a law against nature would be possible to enforce," I immediately thought, "That is the worst metaphor I've heard in a while."
What is there to enforce in a law that permits something?  And if people want to marry people of the same gender, how is that in any way impossible?  The nullification of gravity is impossible (so far as we know), but it seems like the comparison doesn't hold at all when it is held up next to a law allowing people to do something that is completely defined by words and contracts and other arbitrary things.

So, I was reading in Mormon Doctrine the other day (I still read my daily scriptures in case anyone finds out I am a closet atheist, because then they have nothing to berate me with).  Elder McConkie states in the section on "Law" that,

Once a law has been ordained, it thereafter operates automatically; that is, whenever there is compliance with its terms and conditions, the promised results accrue.  The law of gravitation is an obvious example.  Similarly, compliance with the law of faith always brings the gifts of the spirit.

Now, as much as I love this passage solely for the selection of the word "accrue," I couldn't help but notice that the monstrous bad-gravity-metaphor has once again reared its ugly head.  Are you telling me that when I comply with the conditions of gravity, the promised results accrue?  I didn't even know I had a choice!
Okay, so maybe he was going for something like "if you walk off a cliff, the promised results accrue. *SPLAT*"  But it sure doesn't allude to this effect very directly.  I would think something like, I don't know, a vending machine or maybe a light switch or something that has an obvious options->choice->results relationship might better convey his meaning.  Gravity is pretty much G*m1*m2/r^2, no matter what you decide.

Anyway, I decided to go to and investigate: are there more of these references to gravity used to attempt to convince us not to sin?

Here is one that wants to convince you that faith is like believing in gravity through experience as a little child.  You can't see it, but it's there!  Just like the spirit!  (Why do people keep using this same silly argument?)

And here we read that, "The law of gravity is an absolute truth. It never varies. Greater laws can overcome lesser ones, but that does not change their undeniable truth."  So gravity is a good example of a law that can't be violated, except of course whenever some "greater" law overcomes it.  Apparently this "absolute" law is subject to every whim and caprice of god, so what is the point of mentioning it as an example in the first place?

In this one, we are admonished to understand the importance of law.  After all, imagine what would happen if the law of gravity were suspended!  We would all die!  I guess I can't argue with that, although I might point out that in a universe where such suspension occasionally occurred, any intelligent species might likely find itself well-adapted to survive such upsets.  Once again, over-extended as an analogy, but this time it at least makes some sense.

Here we read that "Physical laws, such as the law of gravity, never change; but we change our definitions of them as the scientific community learns more about their operation. Spiritual laws also never change, and we orchestrate our lives according to where we are in our understanding of those truths."  One might wonder why god chooses to let us sporadically work out the truth on some fronts (like gravity) but insists that whatever is said by religion has always been taught.  (Despite the fact that the things said by even a single religion change with great rapidity, resulting in a terribly high incidence of retcon.)
I digress, but again I ask: why the hell use gravity for your metaphor when you have to take such pains to make it fit?

And last but not least, we have an article by Elder Packer written some 18 years ago where he apparently originally used the whole "do you think a vote to repeal the law of gravity would do any good?"  My first reaction was that I see, here is a doddering old man who reused a well-written metaphor from years ago, but not so nimbly this time.  I was ready to give him this particular benefit of the doubt until I started reading what he wrote in the article.  It is just the same thing, trying to use a physical law to justify his declaration of his particular moral beliefs are irrevocable for all eternity.  The article even slightly contradicts itself in giving examples of sure, we could pass a law that does this, but we can't make it right.  So... we can pass these "laws against nature," as well as enforce them, except that we can never redefine morality?  Okay, I guess, but I haven't really been convinced of anything, here.  The acceptance of this doctrine is dependent on the reader already accepting eternal, universal, divinely-inspired law of the packerlicious flavor.

So.  The law of gravity has been gratuitously co-opted by the Mormons to poorly demonstrate the importance of the particular "god's eternal immutable laws" of the time.  One wonders why they leave out the strong and weak nuclear forces, and for that matter the electromagnetic force?  There are literally infinite terrible metaphors that can be constructed by appeal to the physical laws, and I see a lot of unexploited territory here, Elder Packer.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Willingness to Believe

A Christian Rock song came on the radio while I was listening today, and it basically just repeated "nothing you can do can make me leave this life" and "nothing you can say will sway my belief."

Now, I respect a lot of religious individuals, and if they feel that their beliefs are true, I have no objection.  I don't know everything (or maybe anything, for that matter).  Any one of these religions could be true, and if someone could rigorously demonstrate this to me, I would practice that religion!

So, I call myself an atheist, but I'm probably more of an atheist agnostic, because I find it less likely that there is a god than not.  But given new data, I would gladly change my stance.

This sentiment that "nothing you can do/say can shake me" seems destructive to me.  Not all religious people believe this, by any means.  But if you could find Jesus' remains and verify within a small a small margin of error that they were authentic, or maybe demonstrate that the Hare Krishna are absolutely right, some religious individuals would staunchly ignore these facts and declare even more loudly that they believe.  This does not seem like a very good way to find the truth.

I imagine there are some of the religiously inclined who would accuse me of being stubborn and failing to investigate the evidence thoroughly.  I'm unwilling to try faith, unwilling to believe anything, or something along those lines.
I maintain a belief that maybe one of the many religions in the world is true, but I doubt it because I have never been able to find any convincing evidence for any of them.  I am willing to believe, but I can't practically be expected to try out every religion.  If god guides me to a correct religion, I'll join up!
Seems to me the most unwilling to believe anything are the most staunchly religious.  There are millions of things I would be willing to believe if presented with convincing data that these people would reject without consideration.

So.  I respect the religious.  They may even be right.  But I am a little peeved when I'm dismissed as closed-minded and unwilling to believe things.  My flirtations with nihilism have proved to be absolutely pointless and fruitless, so I'm going to take a more existential, pragmatic approach to truth and rely on my experiences.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

There are No Answers

We can't agree on anything as a species as to our purpose, morality, metaphysics, etc.
It appears to me that there are no clear answers anywhere, and we can only do what seems the most right.  In any other situation, I would look up the answer on Wikipedia, but for some reason, when you type in "does god exist," or "what is the meaning of life," Wikipedia brings up a summary of various viewpoints.

I don't find it likely that any religion I have encountered is correct, because they claim things that can't be backed up, and in fact their promises of a sure path to truth turn out to be wrong, which further damages their credibility with me.
After all, if any religion had a surefire path to what is obviously truth, wouldn't everyone make their way to it?

 I'm obviously not a very spiritual person, but I can't really bring myself to set much store by the claims of those who are.  If the spiritually in-tune who devote their lives to seeking the truth are adherents to every major religious sect in the world, all of which disagree in major ways, then spirituality did very little for those individuals.

Ultimately, I have never felt anything conclusive from prayer or anything else that is proclaimed as a spiritual opportunity.  I never liked going to the temple, it's just weird to me.  I never liked church, it's repetitive and uninspiring.  I have tried very hard to like both.  I have felt pretty good after prayer sometimes, but honest introspection seems to have that effect.  Likely, meditation would yield the same result.  No discernible answer to a question has ever come to me via prayer.  I have tried and tried and spent so much of my life trying to justify something that never seemed to make any sense.  I doubted in high school and on my mission, but I always just dismissed the doubts because what else could I do?

So.  Nobody has answers.  That doesn't apply to religion alone, I've been reading philosophy and humanist literature for about a year now, and nothing is conclusive on that front, either.  The human desire for purpose and understanding is only the invitation to a doomed quest for a holy grail which cannot be obtained, and which we can't really know exists anyway.
We are born, we struggle against a completely uncaring universe for a few short years, and then we die, leaving behind a "legacy" that probably won't even last a significant portion of the remaining time before humanity meets with extinction, which all species quickly do on a geologic time-scale.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Old Scratch

I have often heard church leaders poke fun at the idea that "the devil made me do it!"
 They say that this is a false idea; the devil has no power over any person's decisions.

Okay, I get what they are going for.  They don't want people justifying bad actions with the excuse of the devil's involvement.

If you asked any person of the LDS faith, and probably almost any other Christian faith, I am firmly under the influence of Satan himself.  I am being deceived, he has planted false doubts in my mind.
Sometimes I'm a little miffed at this dissmissal of my thoughts.  First of all, if this devil guy is so good at convincing people of falsehood, how are you sure that you aren't his dupe, too?  God told you you're okay?  Maybe that was the devil acting like he was god.
If I am to just thrust any doubtful thought out of my mind and completely ignore logical inconsistencies unquestioningly... wouldn't that make me particularly succeptible to the devil's lies?

But that was a little off the thought I was going to write about.  So okay, whatever, I'm totally screwed because this demonic being has convinced me that things that don't seem to be true to me on any level are in fact not true.  Fine.

It seems to me that the devil really is a cop-out for the religious.  Okay, so he can't have power over your actions, but he can suggest violence, lust, greed, jealousy, pride, etc. to your mind.  And by golly, those sudden urges you get to punch your boss in the nose or run that jerk in the Pontiac off the road or whatever are all his fault. That tricky devil, giving us all of our evil urges...
What is this beyond an unwillingness to admit that maybe our desires to do bad things are just a part of our nature!  We are not perfectly moral in society's or our own eyes, and so we invent this dude who invents sins and then tries to get us to do them in our weakest moments, because he's not that happy with god's policies.

I might as well admit now that officially, yes, satan must currently be whispering in my ear "I am no devil, for there is none."  Oldest trick in the book, right?  Kind of a reverse Freddy Krueger, the less frightened I am the more danger I am in.  Because I have no capability to doubt his existence by myself.

Blessed Insignificance

I am aware that to many, the idea of one's own insignificance is disturbing and depressing.  Staring into the sky, being aware of the incredible vastness of the universe... finding how small the number 1 is compared to the number 6 billion... knowing that one's own influence drops off unimaginably rapidly with distance.

These ideas are so prevalent that religious systems have clung to dogma throughout history designed to make us each feel special in some way.  The heliocentric model of the solar system was a big problem partially for the fact that it removed mankind from the apparent center of the universe to the outskirts.  Evolution is rejected as heretical because it places mankind on the same level, in some ways, with every bit of fungus on the planet.  And the list goes on... human beings love to be children of god, to be the center, the spotlight, the apex of creation, the final, crowning gem of the earth.  Even within secular circles, there is this odd recognition of humans being the ultimate good.

I think it is unusual for me to revel in my own insignificance.  I do, though.  There is no more comforting thought than the lack of effect my own failures and mistakes will ultimately have.  This is no recent thing for me, when I was being raised devoutly religious I thought the same.
I think it reveals a lot about my character to know that I wish for nothing but for my mistakes and failures to be forgotten forever.

Depressing?  Maybe.  But guilt is one of my most powerfully-felt emotions, and there is nothing so appealing as the end of all feelings of failure and regret.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Choosing Priorities

I have been told that a great justification for religion is that it makes people happy.  I won't dispute that plenty of people are happier with religion.  I have been fairly happy with religion, myself, although not consistently.

When expressing my doubts to my father, he appealed to my love for my wife, and basically told me that if I want to be with her forever, just think about that and I'll know what the truth is.

The best I can boil his argument down to is "if you want something bad enough, it must be true."

Now, don't get me wrong, I'd do anything to be able to remain with my wife, she is my one joy.  But I just can't believe that wishing hard enough is every going to make something true.

I once told my wife that I would rather be right than happy.  By this, I mean that I would rather search after the truth than ignore the question because denial would make me happier.  I don't think most people would say the same, based on the unwillingness of many to question their beliefs.  I can't fault them for this; happiness is certainly nice, and there is no rational reason for me to be obsessed with the reality of things.

However, I also contend that there is no particularly rational reason to prefer happiness, either.  When others tell me that it is worth believing in god in order to be happy, I just can't accept it.  For them, sure, great, but not for me.  I want to know things.  I don't think I can be happy while in denial of the fact that I am ignoring possible damning arguments against my beliefs and possible routes to truth.

When I present this argument to my theistic friends, I am often told (in an annoyed voice), "well, if you are unwilling to have faith, you can't know anything for sure."  And I always agree wholeheartedly!  But how could I ever be satisfied with just guessing what the truth is?  And what do we have except reason besides an arbitrary guess?

What surprises me is the complete willingness for theists to voluntarily admit to epistemological nihilism.  I guess it is just that they value happiness above truth, which, like I said, is fine.
There is a surprising honesty in this, actually.  When pressed, most of my theist friends will admit to not being able to know, but express their choice to make happiness a priority, and not necessarily logic.

I don't need to convince anyone of the falsehood of their beliefs, and indeed, that is not the purpose of this blog (which no one reads anyway).  I just want to be allowed my own priorities, which happen to tend toward a rational search for truth.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Organized Religion

Ah, General Conference.  That is the twice-a-year televised meeting that replaces church (except it lasts the entire weekend) in which the apostles and first presidency of the church speak to the entire membership.

Elder Oaks, one of the apostles (there are 12), spoke firmly on the need for organized religion.  His arguments were that every person has two links to god: a personal link of direct communication with god, and a priesthood link through duly ordained church leaders.
He spoke at length about the absolute necessity of both channels.  Notably, the governing of the church cannot be given through personal revelation, but through the predetermined priesthood channels.

I see at least one glaring problem with this that I hadn't noticed before.  Apparently, the purpose of organized religion is to provide an official channel through which the correct workings of organized religion are revealed.  If we didn't have organized religion, how would we know how to run our organized religion?

I don't think I need to expound on the fairly ridiculous nature of this argument.  However, I anticipate certain objections, to which I will preemptively respond:

1) Organized religion provides opportunities for service that individuals would not be able to.
   -While I concede this point, I do not think that well-meaning individuals are incapable of organizing themselves into service groups.  Also, if god wanted things done his way, why not just tell everyone individually what to do, when to show up, what to bring?  I don't think it is necessary to demand something in between these where god tells us how to organize things and sort of prompts some of our leaders where to focus, and THEN we organize ourselves logistically.  Wouldn't it be more error-free if god just took over?  And if error isn't a big deal, why not just let us do our best without halfheartedly meddling?

2) Organized religion helps the believing to strengthen eachother.
  -Once again, I can't entirely refute this point, but as above, why doesn't god just do the supporting?  Aren't we supposed to be ambivalent to the opinions of our fellow man?  Also, doesn't this mindset actually hurt some people, who don't feel like they believe as much but feel pressure to lie about it?  (I have been there)  Is god such a bully that he is fine with peer-pressure, if it will get him his way?

3)  Organized religion keeps religion pure, so we can all agree on doctrine.
  -I again contend that we only need to agree because we are organized into churches.  It seems a bit circular.  The other problem with this is that if god is such a great personal being, why in heaven's name isn't he clear enough to everyone in his instruction that we can all agree?  It seems to refute the idea of a personal god, to assume that agreement is impossible without some kind of hierarchy.

So, I conclude that while the necessity to god of organized religion is possible, the entire idea points to god as being less of a personal father-figure, and more of a godfather (of the gang-lord variety) who can't be bothered to communicate with each of us more than the minimum amount.  He has his capos do his dirty work in preaching, condemning, collecting cash to build his various mansions, and generally telling everyone what to do.  Is that the god anyone wants to believe in?

Friday, October 1, 2010

What Am I Missing?

Despite my long period of questioning and relatively recent leaning toward complete atheism, I remain active in my church.  I kind of have to, at BYU.

I even go so far as to read the scriptures and other church material every day.  At first I was hoping to revive my faith, now I simply do it so I can tell others that I do, and then they won't be able to lecture me about being too hasty to abandon my faith.

Anyway, I have been noticing recently that leaders of the church tend to use language like "to the unenlightened, it may seem that blah, but to those who are familiar with god's plan, it is clear that blahdie-blah."
But when I think about it, usually this "enlightened knowledge" involves a lot of religious keywords, like faith, and grace.  So we get things like:
"God created the world by faith"
"It is by grace we are saved"
Then, when you look up the definition for any of these terms, you get this odd explanation, like "faith is a principle of power.  faith is belief without knowledge.  nothing can be done without faith."
And I think: "And...?  Are you going to explain what you are talking about?"

So we end up with arguments like "to the unenlightened, it may seem that biological evolution explains the origin of human life, but to those who are familiar with god's plan, it is clear that god created man in his own image, by faith and the power of his word.  Man is therefore divine, and is privileged through the grace of god to be quickened at the last day and exulted to a more perfect body, the blood having been replaced with spirit."

...   ...   What?!
 What could that even mean?  How does that explain anything about the way humanity is formed?
Pretty much all this is saying is "god created man, not evolution, end of argument. If you believe this, you can be immortal and have all your blood removed for reasons that will never be clearly explained."

It's supposed to be some great eternal truth that god created everything by faith... and what does this tell us, exactly?  That faith is awesome?  It is never clear how god created the world with faith, what the role of faith is in this whole business.  So what is the point of telling us things that are no better than nonsense to us?
That's like saying that earth formed through the actions of "vibrant spirits, who through their happiness, liberalism, and various other abstract concepts, managed to create the world out of nothing, and no more need be said."

Okay, so maybe I'm being a little harsh.  Science and religion have different goals, ostensibly.
But why, then, are religions all over the world insistent that people reject well-documented and evidence-supported scientific theories because said theories compete with these vague, mostly nonsensical statements for description of how the world works.

What is this majestic, beautiful, simple truth everyone is talking about?  I just don't see it, I see a lot of convoluted definitions twisting through every possible verse of scripture, trying to tell us these crazy things about god and the world that seem to be just a mixed bag of various combination of "faith," "eternal," "infinite," "divine," "grace," "wrath," "holy," "ancient," "revelation," etc.

EDIT:  I thought I would include a few excepts from the bible dictionary:

Faith is a principle of action and of power, and by it one can command the elements and/or heal the sick, or influence any number of circumstances when occasion warrants (Jacob 4: 4-7). Even more important, by faith one obtains a remission of sins and eventually can stand in the presence of God.
All true faith must be based upon correct knowledge or it cannot produce the desired results. Faith in Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel and is more than belief, since true faith always moves its possessor to some kind of physical and mental action; it carries an assurance of the fulfillment of the things hoped for. A lack of faith leads one to despair, which comes because of iniquity. 
It is through the grace of the Lord Jesus, made possible by his atoning sacrifice, that mankind will be raised in immortality, every person receiving his body from the grave in a condition of everlasting life. It is likewise through the grace of the Lord that individuals, through faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ and repentance of their sins, receive strength and assistance to do good works that they otherwise would not be able to maintain if left to their own means. This grace is an enabling power that allows men and women to lay hold on eternal life and exaltation after they have expended their own best efforts.
So... These make a little bit of sense, I guess, but not much.  Each of them tends to throw in all the buzzwords and then look the other way.  I know that the bible dictionary is not the ultimate source of all things doctrinal, but it worries me that all these gospel terms are interrelated and entirely dependent on eachother's definitions.  Seem like the same bunch of words over and over again, and none of these is satisfactorily defined outside of dependence on this same group of words.

Will Free Will Free Anyone?

What is free will?  It is basically the justification given for anything nasty that god chooses not to stop.
Why does god let the evil murder the innocent?  Free will.  How can evil exist at all?  Free will.

So what exactly is free will?  It is supposedly the independent power of an individual  to choose his or her own actions independently, not even god can change these choices.

But what determines, then, how we choose?  Is it simply random?  That isn't very satisfying, and it calls into question the justice of god in punishing anyone for their choices.
Is it deterministic?  In that case, is not god responsible for the actions of anyone that he created?  Or, if god is not, is it just arbitrary how the deterministic algorithms are first made?  Now we're back to random.

The problem is, there are only 2 logical possibilities behind any choice:
1) The choice is made after consideration of a set of criteria, in other words, algorithmically.
2) The choice is not made algorithmically, cannot be determined in any way, and therefore is random.

Here we have "determined" and "not determined," and neither is much like the free will that we'd like to use to defend god and make ourselves something special.
I admit, of course, that choices can be quite complex, but I submit that even  the most complicated choices are made up of dozens of minute little decisions that ultimately must fall into the two categories outlined above.

So in every case, our actions are a concatenation of random whims and logical execution of preexisting algorithms.  How are we ever truly responsibly for our own actions in this case?  Algorithms that are controlled by someone (ie god) are ultimately that person's (god's) fault.  Algorithms that are formed by random sequences of events NOT under any being's control, as well as truly random decisions, are the fault of no one.

Can you make a choice without randomly selecting OR appealing to some preexisting line of reasoning?  If so, by what method do you make said choice?  If you figure out a way, please let me know.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Holy Guacamole!

An earth-like planet has been found in a solar system 20 light years away.  It's right smack-dab in the goldilocks zone (meaning it could easily have liquid water), is massive enough to hold an atmosphere, and is about 50-80% the size of the earth.

This is amazing!  There could be life there!  Or we could colonize it!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Trouble with God's Laws

I have some major objections to the constant appeals to god that I encounter.

God is the only source of morality/value?
I am frequently told that without god, there is no objective morality or purpose in life.  I myself found that upon seriously doubting god's existence, I was floating without a compass, morally.  What is there, without god's "eternal law" or something equivalent, besides arbitrary values with no true rational basis?

However, upon further thought, I realize that I could no longer be satisfied even if I were convinced of god's existence once again.  I list a few possibilities:

1) God creates the law and all values through his divine will.  In this case, what he tells us to do is no less arbitrary than if we were to select our values on intuition, or at random.  If there is no possible rational justification for any system of ethics, what does god have to make his system any better?

2) God conveys and reinforces already existent eternal laws defining what is of value.  So god is the divine police constable, essentially, serving some higher master.  But what of this master?  A list of eternal laws that god subjects himself to is just god's god, is it not?  Why mess around with god in the first place, if he is a middle man?  And returning to the previous point, what justifies this greater force of law as anything other than arbitrary?

3) God is not concerned with morals so much as accomplishing some personal goals through our actions.  In this case, we are no better than slaves or an ant farm to god, to be used and abused as he sees fit.  He certainly lies when he expresses concern for our happiness or salvation if this is the case, just to get us to do what we want.
3a) "God can't lie?" you say?  Who told you?  God?  Let's review a few possibilities:
       -God must lie.  Then god will tell you "I cannot lie."
       -God can lie.  There is nothing stopping god from telling you either "I can" or "I cannot."
       -God cannot lie.  Then god will tell you "I cannot lie."
Is it not disturbing that "I cannot lie" is a possible response for any scenario, and a necessary one for most?  In addition, if god is incapable of lying, what of lies of omission?  If I shout to the sky "Hey, god, remain silent if you approve of my theft of this Ferrari," why is he not constrained to explicitly speak his will?  Anyone experienced with lies knows that the very best lies involve no explicitly untrue statements, but calculated omissions and strategic nonverbal cues.  Finally, if god cannot lie and we can, in what way exactly is he superior to us?  I thought omnipotence was arguably a fairly important trait of god's...

4) God is concerned only with our good and happiness, and tries to direct us toward such.  This is a subtler argument that nevertheless runs into my points discussed in possibilities 1 and 2.  Why does god value our happiness?  Is it an arbitrary whim, or some higher law?  And if some higher law, again I ask how this can possibly set our worries to rest, as we wonder the exact same things about this "meta-god."  Who is god to create us and give us the possibility of unhappiness, or a world in which unhappiness is possible?  And if anyone thinks "free will," just wait until my next post, when I will explain my objections to that questionable concept.

So, even if there really is a god who cares in the least about our actions, why do we care about this?  Fear of punishment?  Wow, real nice... We're rats subject to electric shocks.  My reaction if this is the case is that true courage would be to stand up to god's tyranny and assert my own individuality!  I'm no one's slave, and god can't make me be anything through any degree of carrot-and-stick, and if he wants his way, he'll have to persuade me like a reasonable person of the merits of his views.  If god is some cosmic terrorist, sending hurricanes, lightning, disease, and wrath upon those who don't do what he wants, he could at least be a little clearer on what his demands are, to the point where there wasn't so much confusion over morality in the world, even among his self-proclaimed "followers."

So, to anyone who would tell me that belief in god is the only way to have a firm moral grounding, I challenge you to explain to me precisely how god solves anything on the ethical front.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Few of the Typical Arguments

I was taught about "God," with a capital G.  He has various fatherly attributes, and we violate all standard rules of written and spoken English when we talk about Him (note the unorthodox capitalization of the pronoun), like referring to Him as "thee" and "thou," though these archaic pronouns were actually the informal versions of "you."  The justification for this is to show respect for God by using language like that found in the King James translation of the Bible, namely antiquated English.  The apparent inconsistency of this doctrine is ignored, as is the apparent lack of required unorthodox grammar in conjunction with the reference to God in many other languages.

I was taught about God, but when I write about a "creator" or "supreme being" or "first cause" as a concept, I will use the orthodox English capitalization to refer to "god."  I wonder why I do this; I believe it is out of a rebellious feeling toward the religion of my childhood and a desire to reject apparently arbitrary rules of worship with no justification beyond tradition.  It might, however, be out of some fear of God, the God of my childhood who I still superstitiously cower before in my subconcious mind.  To refer to god, the lower-case, version, is intellectual and not a direct attack on the vindictive being at whose wrath I may still feel irrational terror.

I have thought at some length on the arguments posited by religious (particularly Christian) apologists.  I thought I would post some thoughts I had typed up a few weeks ago about a few of these.

Argument from complexity:
This line of reasoning argues the extreme improbability of the spontaneous existence of life, which is inarguably complex.  Many appeals to currently-accepted chemistry are made, and much abuse of the laws of thermodynamics takes place.  The existence of life is held up as proof of the extreme likelyhood of the existence of god.
The first problem with this argument is that it solves no problems.  However unlikely the existence of life, god and his tools would have to be at least as complex as life itself in order to "intelligently design" such a complex system from the top down.  To assume the spontaneous existence of god flies in the face of probability as much as the assumption that life spontaneosly came to be through the unlikely development of complexity.
Another problem with this argument is our lack of understanding of the universe; after all, the accepted age of the universe has been modified multiple times in the last century alone.  Some models of the universe assume the existence of a universe that collapsed before the Big Bang, and this could extend back indefinitely.  Given a potentially infinite (for all practical purposes) span of time, the probability of any possible event occuring approaches 100%.  Therefore, there are conceivable models of the universe in which the existence of life is inevitable.

Argument from beauty:
This is an argument that appeals to the aesthetic beauty of the universe.  The stars, the planets, the trees and flowers, etcetra, all point to a divine artist, an intelligence who shares our love of beauty.
This argument appeals to very little that is logical; "beauty" is not a measurable quality, and is subjective.  There might well be perfectly rational people who see so beauty whatsoever in the universe; the argument would have absolutely no effect on even the most open-minded of these individuals.  Unless the human race can come to a concensus on what is beautiful and why, there in no need for further argument.

Argument from desire;
The is one of C.S. Lewis' pet philosophies; we desire to know god, and therefore it is logical to assume that he exists, much as food exists in conjunction with our desire known as hunger, and water exists to satisfy thirst.  This is often referred to as the "god-shaped hole" in our hearts, our lives, etc.
While somewhat compelling, this argument holds no proverbial water.  Many evolutionary psychologists have devised hypotheses to explain the human tendency to seek after gods that are at least as satisfactory as the above theory.  Other desires are almost universal to humanity, for example the desire to use supernatural powers for personal gain.  Most cultures have some sort of magic or belief in psychic powers, yet science has repeatedly discredited the various purported powers of psychics, magicians, witch doctors, and the like.

Religious experience:
Religious experiences are personal, often euphoric exteriences that convince an individual that a particular religion, along with its stance on god, is true.  The take many forms, including apparent answers to prayer, various forms of babbling in "tongues," shaking and lurching, feelings of peace, and the coincidence of religious practice with fortuitous events.
The first problem with this argument is that anyone who has failed to have a convincing experience is expected to completely rely on the accounts of others who have had these experienced.  The expectation is that every person must spend their life, if necessary, trying to have this experience. In any other situation, all sane individuals would agree that multiple fruitless attempts at the same goal by the same method would indicate that a new course of action would be advisable.  With religious experiences, however, individuals are expected to try the same things over and over until they die.
Another major problem with religious experiences is the existence of many mutually-exclusive religions.  Any given religion teaches, either directly or indirectly, that most (if not all) other religions are mistaken.  Even a religion that purports to accept "multiple roads to truth" is in this very point of doctrine at odds with most of the world's religions, and therefore cannot be true without most others being false.  In having a religious experience that convinces one to adhere to a particular religion as "correct," an individual is effectively denying the validity of a majority of other religious experiences (since no religious sect constitutes a majority of religious people).  However, if one is so willing to dissmiss most of the religious experiences of others, what lends validity or credibility to one's own religious experience?
These arguments do not invalidate all religious experiences, but do encourage the earnest seeker of truth to approach such experiences with a degree of skepticism.  It is up to the individual to test this particular phenomenon for his or her self.

Unexplainable occurences are often used to justify the existence of god.  Notable to me are the miracles of Jesus, who according to the New Testament changed water to wine, healed the chronically ill, produced food from nothing, raised the dead, and finally conquered death himself.  Often, the existence of multiple accounts (like the four canonical gospels) is used to lend credibility to these miracles.
The very same people who accept ancient miracles, however, might be very skeptical of newer miracles.  If four formerly obscure journalists, followers of a recently murdered religous reformer named Chris, suddenly started publishing accounts of how "Chris lives!" and how they and others (unavailable for comment) had seen him in various private appearances, how many would believe?  Some, undoubtedly, including the typical cult fanatics.  But how likely would you consider it that these four friends did not collude to write their stories together consistently, conspire to secretly exhume the body of their leader to lend tenuous credibility to their incredible stories, and retroactively invent Chris' miracles?  The traditional martyrdom of any of these dubious witnesses is not particularly helpful, cult suicides happen even today, as well as martyrdoms, in religions that afterwards fizzle out (or are all dead because everyone drank poisoned kool-aid).

This list is in no way meant to be exhaustive, of course, and I have not been logically rigorous to the point of ending all possibility of debate, but I think my reasoning seems sound in regard to each of these points...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Small World

I like to read blogs and stories of other LDS individuals who have questioned or lost their faith.  I feel a bit less alone and I like to know a little bit of what to expect in the next couple of years while I decide what to do in relation to my church activity.

Tonight, I was reading
I felt like I really understood a lot of what he was talking about.  Here is a man who is honest with himself, a family man who wants the best for his wife and kids, but still wants to live how he believes.  I thought I'd like to talk to a guy like this, as I am concerned about how my lack of faith will affect my wife and any children we have.
Anyway, as I read, things got more and more familiar.  The schooling, the dates, his mention of his children...
It couldn't be Rob...  I looked at the name in his profile.  Rob.

He's my sister's husband.
I knew he'd had doubts and stopped attending church (gossip spreads fast in big mormon families, no doubt my extended family has heard about my apostate thoughts, as I've mentioned them to my parents and sister.  I'm sure they pray fervently for my return to the light).

I've been meaning to call him up and talk to him sometime, and tomorrow I think I will.  It's nice to hear his side of the story, because when I heard about it from family members it was as if it was this huge calamity, and even though they didn't say it, there was an unspoken feeling of "what could have gone wrong?"
And Rob, if you ever read this, know that everyone still speaks of you with the highest regard, so don't take that the wrong way.  I'm sure you know what I'm talking about, though, because I myself am already occasionally subject to patronizing lectures from my parents.  I know it is all out of love, concern, etc..

Calming Down

For a while, I was convinced that I couldn't stand going to church for another year in order to stay in school.  I'm a member of the LDS church, living in Utah, at BYU.  Not the best place to be an agnostic or atheist.

However, lately I've calmed down some.  I don't like church, it feels uncomfortable to me.  I still read my scriptures and pray every single day, but all I seem to do is analyze what I read and feel and conclude more and more that everything I was brought up to believe is just not that likely.

Still, I'm feeling better.  My wife is wonderful and accepting of me, and I know she'll stay with me even if I don't end up in the church.  My mother told me recently while I chatted with her on the phone that she thinks I am being prideful, and that I want god to be and do things my way.  I thought she might be right...
That week, we had Stake Conference, which in this case was a televised broadcast of leaders of the church speaking specifically to members in and around Utah Valley.  My attitude was not great, and my wife was at work.  Eventually, during the last talk, I decided I was getting nowhere by listening skeptically to a mostly-harmless old man tell boring stories.  I left early and determined to climb up a mountain and try to talk to god, or whatever might be listening.
I went home and changed and then drove up to Squaw Peak.  I had to hike a ways to get away from the Sunday afternoon frolickers who were thickly packed into the few hundred yards nearest the parking lot.  I found a spot in the woods a ways from the trail that looks over the valley (pretty, if a little smoggy).  I sat down and thought and just started talking to god, or whoever.
I talked and talked and really talked a lot about my life.  Taking inventory of my feelings occasionally, I never got the impression I was actually being listened to, answered, or was anything but alone.  However, the experience was not entirely negative; I felt better after the hour or so I spent up there just discussing my life with myself, if no one else.  I guess it is good for my peace of mind and emotional stability to occasionally take time to take a detailed, humble inventory of my life and thoughts.

So... I still don't really believe in god, but I guess I have some sort of "spiritual" side that needs attention.  Not that I really believe in any immaterial component to myself... but I have recently admitted that emotions and irrational needs are never something I can escape from or completely suppress.

Also, recently, I have been more open about my thoughts and feelings with my cohorts at school, and I am surprised at how accepted I have felt.  Not that I attack the faith of my friends, I think they are free to believe whatever seems best to them, but I can talk about little concerns I have, little philosophical quandaries I encounter, etc.  I still get answers like "Well, Joseph Smith said...,"  but I think I can handle it.  As long as I can talk a little bit about what I think, I'm not so frustratingly alone all the time.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Abyss

I often experience irrational urges to kill myself.  It seems that I want to escape.  Life may well have no meaning or purpose, after all.
I don't, and there are several reasons:

1: My wife.  I don't want to cause her the distress and grief.   I love her.  Despite my efforts to absolutely release all irrational thoughts, my feelings toward my wife are something I'll never let go.
2: Fear of death.  Also irrational, but the abyss is a terrifying concept to my human mind.  What lies beyond?  Well, it might well be nothing.  But I've never been dead.  And even the idea of an end to my self is terribly scary; I've never ceased to exist before.
3: Hope for something.  I don't currently accept any inherent meaning in life and existence, but I sure wish there was some kind of purpose.  Another irrational desire.
There is a good reason it took so long for me to admit my serious doubts about my religion; I desperately, irrationally need meaning.  I assume others experience similar feelings, and I assume this is where the sentiments arise that "life is not meaningless just because there is no universally-defined purpose to it" among atheist commentators and authors.

Of course, suicide is as irrational as any course of action.  There is no real reason to decide to do anything.
I think the suicidal ideation, however, is a coping mechanism when I feel particularly uncomfortable.  I know I will never go through with it, however much I toy with the idea and dream up methods; I just want to imagine a fool-proof escape from everything I feel pressured to do and be.

I recognize that everything I do is irrational and does not fit with my view of the world.  In fact, to everyone but one or two people, I appear to be a devout Christian, faithful husband, A-student, Eagle Scout on the fast track to eventually receive a PhD in Physics.  And in fact, I guess I am those things in all of my actions, but I don't think like the idealized person I pretend to be.
I practice religion for appearances, out of habit, and to support my wife.  I do well in school and have chosen a challenging and intellectual career-path because that is how I was brought up.
I will always be faithful to my wife.  She is my strongest true tie to the world of the human experience and the preoccupation with all things human.  She makes me feel and hope.
I guess what I regard as my considerable intellect is conquered by my love for my wife.

I hope beyond all rational conclusion that my current take on existence is a temporary step that will eventually lead to some kind of feeling of meaning, purpose, and peace.
I won't pretend that I'm not miserable, but I don't know what to do about it.  My reaction is simply that of a human being unprepared to accept a harsh, meaningless reality.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

This blog exists.

Any value judgments might be misguided.

I need somewhere to write down my thoughts.  This will serve.  I have another blog, but it is connected with my identity.  Despite the irrationality of it all, I intend to enjoy my anonymity here by writing what I think without worrying about the judgments of friends and family.

I have read many things.  I was raised in a devoutly religious family, and was devoutly religious myself until quite recently.  My doubts and disillusionment have led me to the very door of atheism, at which point I wish to ponder the implications of the loss of my former beliefs.

I have read many a defense of atheism: that it does not preclude the existence of objective morality, that atheists can be as happy as believers, that atheism can be a viable, happy world-view.
--I don't think I buy it.

When I read the stuff that Richard Dawkins and his ilk write, I find inherent flaws; they attack religion for its lack of morality in many situations, and try to convince that it is wrong to do such things as raise children to believe in a religion before they can make a decision themselves.
Dawkins is compelling, but he makes value judgement left and right.  These appeal to some sense of universal morality in the reader.  However, I don't think he names a source for said morality.  If he does, it is likely a "secular humanist" type of reason, and I've always detected the faint odor of intellectual dishonesty about that kind of stuff.

In my mind, if there is no god (or God, whichever you like), no supernatural power deciding on the meaning of life and existence, then there is no universal meaning.  The meaning each of us has in our lives is simply a contrived reaction to our circumstances, a foolish belief that we can make the world in our own image based on what we happen to believe.
Therefore, I can't bring myself to accept such anti-religion sentiments as I have read.  If a religion commits genocide, I feel a negative reaction, but I can only think that this reaction is based on my upbringing and biological disposition.

I also don't particularly believe that religion is not beneficial to the mental health of the average person.  I have been much happier and more motivated than I am now, in my religious life.
Admittedly, my youth was peppered with depression, exacerbated by guilt and feelings of inadequacy originating the stringent standards of my religious upbringing.  However, I took great comfort at times in the promises of my religion.
I have a sinking feeling that consistent happiness is impossible to me without religion.  However, I feel unwilling to give up rationality, and at this point no religion seems to promise anything believable.

I am even active in the church of my upbringing at the moment.  I definitely can't leave until I graduate from the university I attend, as it is an institution owned by the church.  There is probably a way to be an atheist here, but it likely involved a lot of paperwork and an increase in tuition.
Plus I like to be supportive of my wife.  She is the only one who knows how I feel about all this, but is supportive of me.  I want to help her feel comfortable and keep my family together, so I may just keep attending.
However, it is not comforting to go.  I dislike it.  I get depressed at church.  Maybe because I'm playing a part, and can't reasonably talk about what I really think without drawing unwanted attention.  My church has hours of meetings, in many of which members are expected to participate.

So, the life of a closet atheist continues.

My conclusion thus far is that atheism leads to nihilism, and goals or values I adopt are irrational.  Not that it is bad to be irrational, because there may well be no such thing as an objective "bad."