Atheism, Counter-apologetics, Ethics, Personal statements, Philosophy, Seventh-day Adventism, Theology

Good Without God, Better Without God




For whatever reason (I’m not sure I’m willing to guess), in the few years since I’ve come out atheist, I have experienced a motivation to behave ethically and morally far beyond that which two and a half decades of Christianity ever provided.

My denomination was the Seventh-day Adventist Church. I was not your average pew-warmer, either. Within 18 months of my baptism at the tender age of 20, I had embarked on a year-long foreign missionary teaching assignment, been ordained a local elder in that mission-field’s church (at the ordination ceremony, when the pastor read to his church the biblical requirements of an elder, he literally skipped over the verse in 1 Timothy 3 which states that the elder must not be a recent convert; I swallowed hard and kept smiling), and had preached sermons and taught lessons more than many elderly members who had been Seventh-day Adventists all their lives.

Within five years of my baptism, I had married a pastor’s daughter, was the father of my own daughter, and had entered my religion degree program at the church’s most conservative college (then called simply Southern College, now called Southern Adventist University). Three years later, I was continuing my teaching career, standing before classrooms full of youth in an official church ministry capacity: Bible teacher, licensed to teach grades 7-12. My life had a trajectory; my role in the church gave me unlimited opportunities to model good citizenship, and the character qualities of a member in good and regular standing. Mine was a Purpose-Driven Life.

In the Bible, in Ellen White’s writings, and in fellowship with like-minded fellow Adventists including especially the most Christian-like people I’ve ever met– my wife and her adoptive parents– I actively sought moral motivation. I wanted to be a better person, just like most of my fellow Christians were actively seeking to be. It’s one of the things Christians do.

However, I remember that I always received from all my spiritual sources something mixed in with the motivation, something that perhaps tainted it. I know that I always believed that my sinfulness was real, was permanent (until God would remove it at my resurrection), and that it was part of me– I believed in that Bible doctrine of the sinful nature.

I was damaged goods. I was broken. Yes, I was redeemable, and sometimes I actually managed to believe I was redeemed. But mostly, confirmation bias of my sinfulness created a feedback loop in my mind, so that every idle moment, every stray temptation, every minor cruelty or neglect or mistake or stumble always reminded me that I was never going to be good enough for the most important One in my life, my God. I had to have a substitute who was better than me, a mediator who would step between me and judgment, a Holy Spirit guide for my decisions and choices– because I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t good. I could never be good by nature until some future time. Maybe I’m guessing now at why I couldn’t be truly good by nature while I was a Christian: it would have contradicted the teachings of the Book I’d wrapped myself in as a career and personal compass, the Bible.

Eventually, I stepped away from that high Christian post, came down from a life as a watchman on the walls of Zion, and became just another family guy in Orlando, Florida. I also joined a small but growing group of Americans who identify as “none” when it comes to religion, and the even smaller group who class themselves as non-religious, non-spiritual, non-believer in all gods. In other words, atheist. Which to me restates a negative: ‘no god’. I also became an official, dues-paying member of another organization whose positive, life-affirming and hopeful principles I could whole-heartedly support, the American Humanist Association.

Humanists have a little motto: Good Without God. I like that, and it describes my current ethical motivations. But as I started to say at the beginning of this, I now experience a more powerful and consistent motivation to be good, now that I’m without God (as it were). Now that I’m no longer deluded into believing that all my attempts at goodness are “filthy rags,” (Isaiah 64:6), I feel that morals and ethical values are more important to me than ever before. I read books about the topic, I listen to podcasts about it, scour philosophical writings for clues, discuss it with my ever-patient wife, and through it all, I am coming to the conclusion that like the Humanist motto, ‘Good Without God,’ it’s quite true that a secular, atheist, humanist person can perhaps even be Better Without God.
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UPDATE: The Facebook friends I have occasionally comment on my posts. The following was posted by Larry Hallock, and is reproduced here with his permission; I thought it extended nicely the theme in this post:

Larry Hallock: Excellent blog post, Jim. That first paragraph says it all… I mean, I have had the same experience, and from what I’ve read, many others have said the same thing—life becomes so much richer, so much more meaningful and rewarding… the pieces of the puzzle finally fit… without the baggage, life just seems brighter. And it’s enormously better emotionally when you’re not constantly fretting, consciously or subconsciously, over whether or not you’ll get the promised supernatural help, or why it’s not there, or why you can’t understand, or whether you’re accurately reading the mental impressions from your god (any given thought could be a deceiving counterfeit from the bad god, Satan, so an enormous amount of resources, especially time, is required for constantly praying for the good god to come and fight off the bad god for you), and whether you’re pleasing the god by interpreting its “will” correctly and then carrying out whatever it is you think it wants, according to the minimum standards required for you to be brought back to life in order to go to the great fantasy land in the sky rather than being brought back to life in order to be killed again, only this time by torture. Life was never truly joyful for me, not in a deep, abiding sense, when I lived by all of that, compared to just living by what is good, loving, positive, constructive, kind, …the Golden Rule. It is invigorating to live according to your own skills, ingenuity and creativity (being your own boss!) rather than always living every waking moment solely to please others, to say nothing of solely to please just one guy who makes enormous demands with deadly consequences if you don’t make the cut—and, all the while, he refuses discuss any of it or talk to you, just sorta leaves you to guess at what’s wanted. Sorry, but at this point I’ve started chuckling out loud, so I need to stop typing. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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Counter-apologetics, Personal statements, Philosophy

Credulity

Religion is a gateway drug. Well, drug, in the metaphorical sense, as in an anesthetic for critical, rational, logical, skeptical thinking. But it is a gateway also, in the sense that when you assent to the claims of a religion, you thereby make it much easier to assent to other dubious claims. Claims against which, if you hadn’t tied up your critical thinking and thrown it down in the basement, you would have had some defenses.

This is a conclusion I’m beginning to form as I join skeptical Facebook groups and investigate their perspective on those things I used to believe, those dubious claims and conspiracy theories. As I listen to skeptical podcasts and read skeptical blogs and websites, and follow skeptic Twitter feeds, and read books by skeptics, I’ve had several cherished conspiracy theories and pseudoscience claims dissolve before my newly revived rationality. It’s not always been a pleasant sensation, but I can’t help feeling that it’s for the best. If I hadn’t accepted membership in the Seventh-day Adventist denomination (a Christian church) at the age of twenty, I’m fairly certain I would have had a much easier time detecting the BS in the following (all of which I not only accepted as fact in my believer days, but did as all bloggers do, promoted their causes through my internet activities):

  • Trutherism. The popular legend that 9/11 was a vast government conspiracy
  • Anti-GMO due to pseudoscience about its dangers
  • Anti-vaccination due to pseudoscience about autism causes
  • Anti-fluoride due to one-sided conspiracy writings about water fluoridation
  • Magical cancer cures, such as Burzynski’s
  • Alternative medicine in general (there is medical science, and then there’s pseudoscience)
  • That the following were cults and/or religions: Darwinism, evolution, secularism, humanism
  • That the following were trustworthy authorities: Rush Limbaugh (I was young, and conservative, okay? so shoot me), Ron Paul, Alex Jones (hard to admit, that one)
  • That “Jesus was all about free will” (actual blog post title from my now-defunct jimblog.net)
  • That academic accreditation doesn’t have any positive impact on educational institutions (wait; I think I came up with that one all by myself)
  • I thought so highly of Ben Stein’s film, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed,” I had many of my classes watch it and take notes. I cringe now at how successfully it demonized Richard Dawkins, at least in my own mind. (I have now done the grown-up thing, read Dawkins for myself, and all the ‘demonness’ of Dawkins has fallen away)

This list may grow. I remain dedicated to the process by which I am untying all the critical thinking tools I had managed to tie up in the metaphorical basement of my brain, and letting them do their proper job, maintaining a healthy skepticism of any and all claims. There’s one born every minute, you know!

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Atheism, Counter-apologetics, Philosophy

You Got Your Religion in my Humanism

This article (call it “Opening” http://www.strangenotions.com/the-opening-of-the-scientific-mind) is a comment on this article (call it “Closing” http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/the-closing-of-the-scientific-mind). The “Opening” article was recently recommended to me by my cousin and facebook debating partner, Tom. For a wider audience, I here present my thoughts on both articles.

The “Closing” article expresses a Christian anti-science viewpoint. It creates a straw man by conflating the views of computationalists with all scientists of the mind, as if there was consensus in the scientific community around Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the coming Singularity (which there isn’t). It asserts a kinship between unlike categories (humanist and subjectivist/individualist): “A world that is intimidated by science and bored sick with cynical, empty ‘postmodernism’ desperately needs a new subjectivist, humanist, individualist worldview.” It commits this category error more than once (connecting science and ‘spiritual life’): “We need science and scholarship and art and spiritual life to be fully human.”

Humanists can balance subjective and objective views of reality just fine without any help from theists, as the Werner article quoted below demonstrates. And we see what the author of the “Closing” article did there, attempting to put faith and religious beliefs on an equal footing with science and art, so that he can suggest that those who eschew a spiritual life are not “fully human.” Later, he equates fads like Google glass (“computer glasses that superimpose messages on poor naked nature”) with the Stockholm syndrome. With approaches like these, the author of “Closing of the Scientific Mind” fails to convince us that science is in need of spirituality (i.e. the kind perhaps represented by the religious authorities to which he appeals, namely the Judeo-Christian texts) in order to somehow become more “fully human.” This is how Christian apologists attempt to give their ancient argument credibility by dressing it up in the language of science and secular humanism.

The author of the “Opening” article agrees, and extends that unconvincing argument. She asserts that materialism is to blame, that it has been “grafted onto science.” This promotes the myth that science owes its existence and future to faith, which has been debunked many times (for example, herehere, and here, and in Richard Carrier’s chapter “Christianity Was Not Responsible for Modern Science” in Loftus, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails). It also ignores centuries of dark struggle during which Judeo-Christian authorities fought against the scientific revelations being produced within their own communities. When a community of science apart from belief was ultimately created, what Werner (quoted below) calls “the greatest democratic communal enterprise” exploded the amount of knowledge available to human beings, but again only while fighting the ever-dwindling influence of pseudoscience, faith, and myth constantly promoted from the religious world.

Philosophy is the latest tool to be grasped and wielded against science by religious apologists who must be desperate by now, watching their influence fade into inevitable extinction (see Pew Studies on the religiously unaffiliated). It seems as if religion, particularly the monotheistic, Abrahamic faiths, take to heart the adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em;” science broke free of religion, and so religion attempted to reattach science to itself by way of pseudoscience such as intelligent design and creationism. Science also distances itself from academic philosophy, inasmuch as it pursues metaphysical questions in parallel, and is gaining traction (see The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris, and Thinking: The New Science of Decision-Making edited by Brockman); and while the two disciplines of philosophy and science seem content to pursue truth in parallel, religion (at least that represented by the “Opening” and “Closing” articles above) has latched onto philosophy, retroactively claimed credit for it, and now utilizes its tools and lexicon in its desperation to remain afloat in the modern debate between science and religion, between rationality and faith, between reason and belief.

The following article expresses an important humanist view (which I happen to share) on these topics of spirituality, subjective vs objective philosophical views, and science:http://thehumanist.org/january-february-2014/the-church-of-the-greater-solipsism.

This insight appears near the end of it:

“The word ‘spirituality’ does have deep, naturalistic meanings even for many humanists, but the word sells well to an American audience because it becomes a Rorschach test for everyone’s view of what is emotionally important to them. However, in the end it neither informs nor communicates, and most importantly, it skews religion toward a God of everlasting inwardness. Humanism, in contrast, honors individual conscience and inner evocative experience, but imbeds and tests those meanings and purposes in the greatest democratic communal enterprise: science. We know that our ability to delude ourselves must be checked by reason and open-minded critical thinking. We know that our own ability to delude ourselves requires that we listen to the voices of others in the spirit of free inquiry and courageously change our views when they are proven wrong. To look deeply means some might have to give up a giddy self-referentialism. Most Americans give in, either to theocratic control or listening exclusively to their inner voice, both of which are faith-based, ultimately lazy ways of thinking. Humanists, in contrast, seek progressive truth in union and solidarity with others. The path of humanism is a tougher one, but a truer one buoyed by the joy of joining hands with others in the ongoing search for truth and meaning.”

To conclude this little blog post of mine touching on philosophy, I first point you to my other recent posts called Philosophy and Theology WAR! What Is It Good For? and “Atheists Don’t Get God” Claims Arrogant Thomist, both of which discuss philosophy from slightly different angles. And then, to Richard Carrier, a PhD in the history of science, and his blog at freethoughtblogs.com, and specifically his recent presentation entitled “Is Philosophy Stupid?”, especially the ancillary materials linked there.

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jimblog.net, Personal statements, Philosophy, Theology

Philosophy and Theology WAR! What Is It Good For?

Absolutely NOTHING! Say it again…



Sam Harris in Moral Landscape said:

“Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy. There are two reasons why I haven’t done this: First, while I have read a fair amount of this literature, I did not arrive at my position on the relationship between human values and the rest of human knowledge by reading the work of moral philosophers; I came to it by considering the logical implications of our making continued progress in the sciences of mind. Second, I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal, both in speaking at conferences like TED and in writing this book, is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.” (Note 1, Chapter 1; emphasis mine)

I stood up and applauded when I read that. Well, mentally, anyway; I read most of the book in the break rooms at my job while I ate lunch, which means a literal standing ovation-of-one would’ve been awkward.

If I may repeat the gem here, in paraphrase: 
Academic philosophy “directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” That’s a fact!

The boredom property of philosophy impacts it’s relative value to human well-being, since that which bores gets ignored. That’s another fact. I’m sure that professional philosophers must highly value their work, and who am I to judge them unworthy of their pay, since no one is forced to pay them (except undergrads required to take Philosophy 101)?

But my twenty-year teaching career left me with the impression that if you want your lessons to be remembered (and thus impact your students and through them the world) then your first priority must always be to NOT. BORE. THEM.

And haven’t most of us had to endure a boring teacher? Or two? What positive or empowering impact did they have on us? Couldn’t we all agree that the time we spent ignoring boring teachers was time wasted?


It’s common sense, perhaps, that what is boring gets ignored, and certainly the advertising and visual mass media and video game industries have learned this lesson. Knowledge transmission to unmotivated learners is a thorny problem every teacher faces (excepting perhaps human sexuality teachers and military ordnance instructors; humans are pathologically obsessed with sex and weapons).
When I was a Christian, I was taught one doctrine more consistently than all others: God’s #1 priority is saving sinners, and He wants you to share His priorities.

While teaching Christian doctrine for twenty years, I wrestled with that thorny problem mentioned above. I studied theology with the intent of communicating Bible teachings to distractible, often religion-averse teens. My conclusions: say it fast, say it simply, and repeat it often. Otherwise, you might as well not bother saying it.


When I wasn’t teaching Christian beliefs I was teaching history classes– another area to which the average teen comes prepared to be bored by yet another worthless (to them) subject. And the majority of tools available to high school history teachers make no attempt to capture the ever-dwindling attention spans of social media saturated teens. The poor teacher is left with the task of creating their own tools for transmitting critical knowledge to his or her students.


Having to face that task week after week, in four or five different subjects, and in my tiny school often having the same students in two or more classes– pressuring the teacher to change up their strategies for every single class– this is often simply a physical impossibility.


The biggest single sense of relief I’ve ever experienced was when I finally got off that maddening treadmill, and no longer had to personally feel responsible for the knowledge, and moreover the eternal salvation, of each new batch of students sitting in my classroom. Quitting teaching was the best thing I ever did for my own sanity.


The problem with theology and philosophy is that boredom thing Sam Harris so eloquently stated above. The first post in the first blog I ever made (jimblog.net, which I maintained between 2005 and 2010) was titled “Theology is Worthless.” I was still a sold-out Christian, deep in the delusion, when I wrote it. Most of it appears below, for your reading pleasure (please remember, what follows is my former Christian believer self talking, and as such does not reflect my current atheist perspective):


Teaching high school kids is what I do. My job is to get across to them ideas about God and about history… Not an easy task.

Attention deficit is a disorder they all have. Some more than others. Without real energy and creativity put into a lesson, it simply will bounce around the room and never enter their minds. It’s gotta be practical, it’s got to have some usefulness that THEY can perceive to their immediate future. And why shouldn’t they demand that?

Mission work is something else that I have done. And occasionally still do. There, too, is an attention problem, but rooted in the weaknesses of translation. If it can’t be put into a simple form, they can’t get it, because the translator cannot take it from your language and put it into theirs.

Between mission work and teaching high school I have learned this: if you can’t say it simply, it isn’t worth saying. Which calls into question much of higher learning and theological studies. I’m not talking about science or math, here; just the humanities, especially my areas, history and religion. Most particularly, religion.

I believe that the highest priority of God for human beings is that they be saved. I think their eternal lives are the number one priority for Him, and should be for those who take His name in connecting to a religion.

… The high school in which I strive to teach teenagers is owned and operated by the SDA church. And in the twenty years I’ve been called a member of this denomination, I think many of my fellow members see this high priority of God the same way I do.

So, if the first priority is saving people for eternity, and the message must be simple enough to communicate to teenagers and to translate across all languages, then someone needs to explain to me why we waste so much time dissecting Biblical theology. When Jesus came, He quoted often from the Bible, but He didn’t say things that I can’t grasp. But many Bible teachers, preachers, and especially theology professors, speak in terms that I can’t fathom. I was taught the terminology, and research methods, and even a little Biblical Greek, but it never figured into my work with teens or in the mission field.

Many in my church pride themselves in being amateur theologians. I think they would even balk at being labelled amateurs, but I only use that term to distinguish them from the ones who get paid… There’s no shortage of amateur publishers and bloggers and preachers and teachers out there, investing enormous sums of money and hours and days cranking out material that never really saves a single soul.

What a tragedy, I think… meanwhile, the world is getting more and more crass and perverted and hard-to-reach. And what are the theologians busy doing? Wasting time, wasting money, diverting energy and funds from the number one priority, and often confusing people.

So this question remains, and weighs heavy on my mind: If you took Ockham’s razor and applied it to the academic disciplines of philosophy and theology, would anything remain? If the most salvific (what a stupid made-up theological term, eh?) way to express the Gospel and the most impressive and meaningful way to answer philosophical questions is the SIMPLEST way, then why bother with most of the pompous, technical, boring output of these twin disciplines? Wouldn’t Ockham’s razor cut away 99% of what philosophers and theologians have produced?

If there is a heaven, and any human is lucky enough to make it there, I wonder how many of its citizens will give testimonials of gratitude for the theologians and philosophers who helped them get there?


Sorry if I bored you.

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