God and Atheism Q&A

Yesterday's post about God really lit up my email inbox. My readership is pretty diverse in terms of religious beliefs (or lack of religious beliefs), so questions/comments come from all over the map. Here are a few of the most commons ones, with corresponding answers.

There is no need for religion. Anything religion offers is available via other means. The world would be better off without religion.

There is no need for ice cream. Ice cream doesn't offer anything unique nutritionally. People who binge on ice cream become obese. The world would be better off without ice cream.

There is no need for kites. Kites don't offer anything unique recreationally. Any fun you have with a kite could be had via different means. People who fly kites all the time get fired from their jobs. Kite enthusiasts sometimes make fun of people who fly remote controlled planes. The world would be better of without kites.

There's truth in both of those statements. The world would be fine without ice cream or kites. And yet, I love ice cream–it's my favorite treat. There's something about the way the coldness of the ice cream interacts with the fats and flavors in a way that is magical. We don't make and consume ice cream out of need, we make it because we enjoy it. The same is true of kites–I've spent some incredible spring days standing in a field with my daughters, marveling at how high our kite is flying. This experience is a great opportunity to spend time together and learn how the world works.

There is no need for Twitter. Anything you can communicate on Twitter can be communicated via other means. Twitter is distracting, and limiting. Also, Twitter allows uninformed opinions and hate speech to spread freely. The bad of Twitter outweighs the little good, and the world would be better of without Twitter.

There is no need for rice. Rice doesn't offer anything unique nutritionally. Rice is mainly consumed by people in poor economies, and is inferior to the nutritional options in more developed nations. The world would be better of without rice.

Again, there is some truth to those statements. Twitter is used to spread misinformation and hate. It does distract us–it's like having a text message conversation with the whole world. Unlike ice cream or kites, people don't usually love Twitter. Yet millions of people use Twitter–even though there are other communication options. Somehow, the technical architecture of Twitter intersects with the people that use it to create a means of communicating that is interesting and compelling enough that millions of new people join Twitter every year.

Who's really passionate about rice? It's a pretty unremarkable food. Yet rice can be grown in vast quantities relatively inexpensively and without specialized farm equipment. It allows a basic human need for nutrition to be filled, even in countries that can't support other grains at scale.

Like ice cream and kites, religion brings many people joy.
Like ice cream, religion is often abused.
Like Twitter, religion can build unique and interesting communities.
Like rice, religion addresses basic human needs.

Modern humanistic atheism is a bit like sushi: a luxury belief system enjoyed by the educated and wealthy of the world. You can't have sushi without excellent sanitation and specialized chefs, and you can't have atheism without an educated populace with the time to ponder intangible things unrelated to daily survival.

Why can't people just be atheists? Why prop up religion?

They can! This series is for people who desire God. If you are a happy atheist, great. I defend your right to be an atheist, and I work against people who discriminate against you based on lack of belief.

But New Atheism and antitheism trouble me. I think critical thinking and skepticism are helpful and should be promoted–and I'm thankful for the work of skeptics in highlighting this. Yet, there are claims from these communities that are dogmatic, and poorly supported by evidence.

"Belief in God is harmful."
"We'd be better off without religion."

These two claims are dogmatic and unsupported by data every bit as much as young earth creationism--and people support them with the same righteous zeal. Belief in a loving God has been demonstrated to be beneficial to health, cognition, and behavior. Likewise, I don't see adequate evidence to support the idea that violence, discrimination, tribalism, poverty or greed would be eradicated or reduced if humanity suddenly gave up faith.

As I've written before, the true enemy of peace and progress is authoritarianism. Religious and secular authoritarian movements have been the source of incredible oppression and violence in human societies.

Can't you see that your words enable fundamentalists?

No. Fundamentalists don't care for me. In the eyes of a fundamentalist, an atheist is simply a lost person who doesn't know any better, but I've been called a false teacher, false prophet, and heretic so many times that I've lost count.

Anyone who says I enable fundamentalists must not know very many of them.

I will give you some credit though. I do acknowledge that fundamentalism also has measurable benefits–few belief systems can reform behavior so quickly, and few offer such certainty about the world. Human brains crave certainty, so an unchallenged fundamentalist enjoys tremendous peace and happiness when compared to other belief systems.

I also know and love many fundamentalists who accept me as a friend, albeit with the disclaimer that they disagree with me on almost everything.

Fundamentalists aren't unique to religion. There seem to be a growing number of secular fundamentalists. Like religious fundamentalists, they want everyone else to accept their beliefs. Like fundamentalists, they devote incredible energy into forming communities of like minded people, and then "preach to the choir."

This frustrates me to no end. Both Christianity and Humanism have incredible value. Christians follow Jesus–a man who taught that self sacrifice was essential, and that God cared for the poor and the afflicted. Humanists believe that there is no salvation for humanity other than what humanity can make for itself. This belief should drive action toward alleviating the suffering and poverty that is so pervasive in our world. This is why I often label myself a Christian Humanist.

Instead, the Church spends enormous energy and resources looking after itself. Somehow, the Great Commission is translated into constructing buildings and creating programs that serve the faithful, along with lobbying politically to protect the interests of the Church.

Atheists, humanists, and secularists often claim to be a step forward for humanity–a better way of knowing and doing. But what I see the most is atheists trying to make more atheists. Like the Church, secularist movements try to spread their beliefs and lobby for political protection. There's nothing wrong with that; atheists are genuinely discriminated against today. The problem is that the movements promoting atheism exhibit the same type of tribalism that religious movements have exhibited. That's why people keep calling atheism a religion.

We'd all be better off if Christians and Secularists stopped trying to win the verbal argument and started demonstrating why their world-views are so great by actually make the world a better place.

We're all born atheists. Religion is indoctrinated, not natural.

A massive study conducted by researchers at Oxford disagree. We are born with a predisposition toward supernatural beliefs, a bias toward purpose-based explanations, and a majority of persons–including secularists in secular societies–profess belief in some form of life after death.

We aren't born scientists or skeptics either. Humans are born with a messy, conflicting set of biological impulses. Without education and socialization, we would be clever, brutish primates.

I haven't seen any data that supports a claim that we're born atheists. I can't understand why people who profess to be skeptics accept this idea so easily–aside from the fact that one of the primary drivers of human belief is social identity.

You seem to really value science, but what about history?

Secular history is a science, but one with much less certainty than physics. All sciences are uncertain--only math offers proof. But physics is much more firm than history, which in turn is more firm that psychology.

What about Jesus?

I am a Christian. The call of my life is to follow Christ. Although God is the foundation of this series, Jesus is the crescendo. I am unapologetically a Jesus person. The conclusion of this series on doubt will be about Jesus.

But, I'm also an empiricist. I believe based on evidence. Evidence leads me to value mysticism, and in mysticism I encounter Christ. All that to say, my faith is unconventional.

What about the Bible?

I love the Bible and read it daily. I'll probably do a post or two on it, but Rob Bell's series on the Bible is better than anything I'm going to write. If you want to know how I approach scripture, Rob's writings on scripture are the closest thing I've seen to my beliefs.

What about the Church?

I will absolutely do a post on the Church in the future. I am a member of the United Methodist Church in good standing. I am under the teaching and authority of a pastor, and the accountability of a congregation...

...and I love it.

If you've got more questions, just hit me up on Twitter or drop me a line.