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.