Meditation on Heaven

While there are many paradoxical claims regarding life after death, Heaven—the unrivaled, elite country club of the cosmos—offers the most glaring contradiction of them all: eternal happiness.

The faithful can’t arrive at a consensus on what constitutes a heavenly reward. However, when pressed, conjuring a guess as to what the criteria of bliss would involve isn’t a difficult task. Is your eternal existence filled with epicurean delights, mounds of the most delicious cuisine that arrives on silver platters? Maybe knowledge is the foundation of your happiness. Imagine the pleasure of walking through the Pearly Gates only to discover that Heaven is a celestial library that could encourage any erudite heart to skip a beat. What if your requirement for merriment is much simpler than the first two?   What if you need only family and friends to find happiness?   Well, despite the straightforwardness of this request, the tenets of Christianity make this the hardest desire to satiate.

The road to Heaven can be neither bought nor bartered. Instead, the afterlife is contingent on the non-evidentiary belief in an invisible and benevolent being—a being so benevolent that he will not bat one all-seeing eye as he sentences you to an eternity of anguish if you so much as use the curiosity he saw fit to gift humankind. With a large portion of the world’s population going to Hell, the challenge writes itself—can we obtain true eternal happiness with the knowledge that our loved ones are miserable? No, I would say not.

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Meditation on Death

We are all going to die.

One needs to meditate on these few words for only a moment to realize the terminable existence we live. Death has been the foundation of my anxiety for years, undergirding a sense of existential dread that has burrowed itself deep into my psyche, plucking away in a relentless fashion until my thoughts swelter in a symphony of dissonance.   My mind, in an act of desperate autonomy, makes a plea to the metaphysical and attempts a rationalization of our seemingly dualistic nature—is my consciousness separate of my corporeal being?

When the idea of consciousness is allowed time for rumination, my sensibilities—in a rather odd set of impressions—transcend the physicality of the known world, leaving only the essential components of what makes me a unique creature: thought and emotion. I focus on my breathing. In, out. In, out. Each limb is sinking lower and lower until I disappear completely in an act of ghostly transparency. I can feel only my residual weight.  Electricity surges through, and my nerves wriggle and tingle and dance under my skin, washing my body with the strange negotiations between the speculative and the known. I open my eyes.

We are all going to die, and the pleas of a celestial hoax simply cannot bring comfort. Every moment awake is a new miracle, bathing our consciousness in the sublimity of the ordinary; and in our final breath, we can say we lived.

Mormons and Morality

Keeping a finger on the collective pulse of the religious community, I subscribe to a number of theist YouTube channels. One of the newest additions is the 3 Mormons, a weekly talk show dedicated to everything LDS. This includes in-depth discussions about the Mormon doctrine, evidences for the faith, and even feminism in the Church. A few weeks ago, they released an episode titled “Mormons Respond to Atheism.” I was eager to hear their perspectives on disbelief and was hoping for a stimulating conversation that provoked a healthy discussion of Latter-Day apologetics. However, I was disheartened to find an ill-prepared dialogue regarding morality, as well as a blatant misrepresentation of comments from prominent biologist and atheist Richard Dawkins.

However, before addressing my points of contention, I would like to note—as I’ve done in another post—that atheism should not be viewed as a monolithic community. Short of a disbelief in gods, we do not have shared convictions.

With that being said, I want examine their summary of the claim to knowledge. The 3 Mormons make a statement that the religious spectrum is divided into three parts: theist, agnostic, and atheist. We know that a theist is an individual who believes in a personal god, and an atheist is an individual who has not found sufficient evidence for any god. Agnosticism is a little trickier than the two former labels. The general definition is that agnosticism is the middle-of-the-road, apathetically inclined choice—agnostics do not know what side to choose, nor do many care. However, I argue that agnosticism is not a beneficial term when discussing the possibility of a god. The reason for this is neither the religious nor the non-religious can claim absolute certainty. Simply put, we do not know if a god exists and any statement otherwise is disingenuous. Because, however, we are creatures of logic, we weigh the probability of the debate and operate under the assumption we have chosen correctly. Despite the inability to have full confidence in our position, an educated opinion is a better path to truth than blind faith. It is true that one can side on the weak end or strong end of their perspective, but a neutral position does not exist.

Semantics aside, let’s dive into the video.

Goodness Without Gods

Morality can be a frustrating apologetic to combat, and the video’s description is a perfect example why: “through living the commandments, we refrain from hurting others, from hurting ourselves, and from living in ways that take away our agency.”   The unsettling premise of this statement is that a person’s goodwill is dependent on the existence of a god. Subtracting a lawgiver, the 3 Mormons argue that an individual would be free from moral restraints, reducing acts such as rape, murder, and theft to simple daily choices with no admonishments. As repeated a few times by the hosts, if humans are nothing more than chemicals whose existence is equal parts chance and natural selection, how did our sense of morality develop? In the eyes of the Christian, the moral compass of humanity would be missing its true north without divine intervention.

The 3 Mormons emphasize that God wrote the moral code on our hearts, which is why everyone—including atheists—knows right from wrong. However, when we attribute the origin of morality to a divinely perfect being, the unavoidable question of the nature of goodness must be answered. A disconnection exists between the God of the faithful and the God of the Bible. When believers are pressed about the essential qualities of the Heavenly Father, a generic answer is given: either God is love or God is good. However, the word of God makes building a case for either of these answers quite difficult. Leviticus 20:13 calls for the death of homosexuals, Deuteronomy 22:28-29 shows rape is forgiven through monetary repentance and forced marriage, and Isaiah 45:7 shows that God is the catalyst for all evil.   Not exactly an irreproachable picture of an all-caring father, right? I doubt that I could find one believer that finds these three verses to be an illustration of objective goodness, which means the Christian’s moral spectrum is independent of their god. If Christians can cherry-pick the Bible in order to create their own moral platter, why do we need God?

The answer to this is simple: we don’t. Because most living things have an intrinsic drive to survive and reproduce, morality acts as an intellectual exercise in determining how to achieve maximum well-being. Years of social evolution have taught us to bury the apish behaviors of our ancestors in favor of a new system of reason. When faced with a moral dilemma, we employ one of our most powerful tools—empathy. The ability to understand and share the feelings of another is the cornerstone of morality because it forces us to hold a mirror up to our actions and examine the fairness of the outcome. If we run the hypothetical in our mind and the consequences maximize our well-being while also minimizing harm to others, we label the decision as a “good” choice. If the opposite is true, we realize that the decision might not be the most ethical.

What Should Be Allowed As Evidence?

When dealing with the supernatural, the hosts state we need to allow a certain measure of faith into the conversation. God works in the metaphysical, so we cannot expect tangible evidence. Latter-Day Saints often refer to D&C 9:8-9, a passage that reveals God’s way of affirming questions of faith. According to the verse, we will feel a “burning in our bosom” when the Heavenly Father is guiding us to the truth. However, this method of revelation is not limited to the Mormon Church. Growing up as a Southern Baptist, we were taught something similar, and I—strangely enough—once used this method to conclude that Mormonism was a false doctrine. So if all that is required to substantiate a claim of faith is anecdotal evidence, how is Claim A more valuable than Claim B?   It isn’t. Without some type of objective verification, neither assertion stands up to critical examination. Faith does not equate evidence. And when blind conviction loses its footing, the conversation inevitably leads to Intelligent Design.

Intelligent Design is a bit of a misnomer. There are multiple illustrations of naturally occurring traits that fall short of conscious design. For example, any creator who so poorly routes the recurrent laryngeal nerve in mammals doesn’t deserve the attribute of intelligence. While the topic of design is best suited for a separate post, I do want to address the claim that Richard Dawkins promoted the theory of Directed Panspermia. In 2008, Dawkins sat down with Ben Stein to discuss creationism for Stein’s movie, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. During the interview, Dawkins entertained Stein’s question regarding design and answered with Directed Panspermia, a hypothetical process by which our existence is contingent on intelligent beings from another planet. Much like the existence of God, the idea of life beginning through extraterrestrial creators is not impossible—albeit highly improbable. This was the only point made by Dawkins. He also reaffirmed this by saying that design could never be the ultimate explanation. The beings themselves would have needed evolution. To state that Dawkins was offering Directed Panspermia as a contending hypothesis for our existence is insincere at best.

In the end, the 3 Mormons addressed their interest in opening a civil dialogue regarding religion and disbelief, which I agree is something of great importance. However, genuine conversation is difficult when one side speculates on the opposing view. This can lead to misrepresentation, regardless of the original intent. Our hosts’ attempt at defining morality without god was heavy-handed and frustrating at times. While I hope they tackle the subject of atheism again, I encourage them to invite a nonbeliever on the show to ensure an honest dialectic.

Pascal’s Gamble

Fear has become something of a commodity in the modern age of consumerism. We’ve been overwhelmed with ads that appeal to our deepest, most irrational thoughts, and—like the creatures of habitual worry we are—we throw money at whatever product will provide ostensible relief. Religion profits off of a similar business model.   It is an exploitation of humanity’s biggest fear—death. No one wants to die. The idea of not existing is frightening and confronts us with the dwindling biological clock. Each tick reminds us that purpose in life is dependent on our individual desires. Nevertheless, this can lead to more existential dread if we do not find our niche. It was through these fits of anxiety that religion was born.   Man invented an eternal remedy in the idea of an afterlife. However, few things are without stipulation and religion is no exception. At the very least, belief is required.

Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century mathematician turned theologian. He first introduced the wager in his posthumously published work Pensées, which was a collection of Pascal’s thoughts on theology and philosophy. While there are endless variations of his idea, the original argument likens belief in God to a gamble. And as with any bet, an individual should assess the probabilities and the risk involved.

Pascal’s argument can be condensed into the following: either God exists or he does not; either a person believes or they do not.   If God exists, the believer will receive infinite reward with eternal bliss in Heaven. The nonbeliever, on the other hand, will receive infinite punishment with eternal suffering in Hell. However, in the chance that God does not exist, then the individual—regardless of belief or disbelief—neither gains nor loses anything. While the exact odds of God’s existence are not known, Pascal’s Wager argues that the risk/reward scheme favors the believer. As a former pastor of mine would say, the wager provides “fire insurance.” However, there are a few key criticisms.

Pascal’s argument presupposes the existence of the Christian god, presenting the gambler with a false dichotomy. While an interesting case for deism is possible, an enormous leap of faith is required to accept Christianity as truth. In assuming the existence of his personal god, Pascal downplays the risk of the Christian. What of the other 4,200 theistic flavors?   Most religions require more than a belief in a higher power.   The road to an afterlife is paved with rules and regulations specific to the faith being practiced. It’s in this sense that Pascal falsely paints his gamble as a dilemma. Rather, it’s more akin to a game of spiritual roulette, where the player blindly places all of his chips on a single deity and hopes lady luck will find him favorable. While the ball might stop on the god of Abraham when the game is over, countless other endings are possible.

In addition to a staggering amount of potential deities, Pascal fails to account for the inherent risks of belief itself. As noted earlier, practicing a religion not only requires faith in a higher power, but also a change in ideology. One must adhere to a mixed bag of rules and moral teachings, most of which seem to hold little weight in the modern age. The principles of a religion shape the believer’s view on the world and every bit of information consumed is filtered through a religious lens. With this in mind, can a person reason soundly if the foundation of their intellectual integrity is based on blind faith? No, I would say not. Perhaps a life wasted on false ideology is the biggest gamble for the believer in Pascal’s Wager.

The shortcomings of Pascal’s argument raise an important question about the nature of God—what is the worth of the gift of the human mind if our eternal reward rests on credulity? Suspending disbelief for a moment, if I accepted the standard idea of a perfect deity, I would have to assume that God favors logic and reason over unquestioning belief. In his infinite wisdom, God would know that belief is not a choice. To illustrate this point, let’s look at a well-known conspiracy theory. Championed by David Icke, there is an idea that the world’s leaders are actually inter-dimensional reptilians whose only desire is to enslave humanity. Despite being an amusing thought, the theory is dubious at best. Would you believe in reptoids without a mountain of evidence? Assuming the reader doesn’t find Alex Jones as a credible news source, the answer is “no.” This is the critical failing of Pascal’s Wager—the assumption that an individual can manipulate their beliefs through sheer will. And if God truly were an omnipotent being, a half-hearted profession of faith wouldn’t pull the wool over his eyes. Quite the opposite, I’m afraid. God has little fondness for liars, so any untrue statements of belief would swiftly end a chance at eternal joy.

Pascal’s wager may appear to offer the greatest reward for the least amount of risk; however, we have seen that looks can be—and, in this case, most certainly are—deceiving. The wager is an exploitative tactic that makes an unreasonable request for a suspension of rationality. All the while, the argument ignores the possibility that Christianity could be little more than a set of myths. Until Christianity offers definitive proof of its validity, Pascal’s wager does not provide much in terms of apologetics.

Ask An Atheist #1

The label of atheist is one that garners quite a bit of stigma. One mention of disbelief in modern mythology conjures a picture of devilish hedonism in the mind of a theist. From immoral savages to agents of Satan himself, I have heard it all. Since misconceptions afflict both the atheist and theist communities, I have found nothing more important than keeping an open dialogue and dissolving misunderstandings with the faithful. And because this is the first of many “Ask An Atheist,” posts, I want to caution the reader: atheism is not a monolith. Short of a disbelief in gods, atheism doesn’t have universal principles.

The first question is one that I see at the top of most theistic lists: if God doesn’t exist, why do atheists care?

This is a great question, and growing up a Southern Baptist, it’s one that I wrestled with on many occasions. After all, isn’t Christianity a religion of love and acceptance? I remember discussing this in youth group one Sunday morning. Our youth leader directed us to 2 Timothy 3:12. She explained that everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ would face persecution.  The opposition from the secular world would grow only stronger as we fortified our relationship with God, and we were here to be obedient servants and spread the message of His love. While this ostensibly strengthened the faith of my fellow teens, the answer planted the seed of doubt in my mind. The dye on the wool began fading.

To people of privilege, equality is discerned as intolerance. However, the persecution narrative is as false as it is old. Atheists care about a belief in God because those tenets filter the believer’s worldview. The road to Heaven is paid for in proselytism and there is no flexibility in the pursuit of eternal life. Consequently, the rhetoric and mythos of religion have tainted every facet of our culture. Instead of adopting modernity, religious doctrine has remained steadfast in its prejudices.

If religion were saved for Sundays, most atheists would adopt a live-and-let-live philosophy. Unfortunately, the faithful can’t let sleeping dogmatism lie.

 

If you have any questions for future editions of “Ask An Atheist,” leave them in the comments below.

The Turek Test

Christian apologetics is a branch of theology in which the existence of God is defended through philosophy, history, and science. Requiring an abundant amount of mental gymnastics, the defense of the faith jeopardizes the intellectual sincerity that has undergirded mankind’s pursuit of truth. One particularly avid apologist is Frank Turek, a popular Christian author and speaker.   When engaging with a non-believer, Turek asks one question of the skeptic: if Christianity were true, would you become a Christian? He says that if an individual is truly in pursuit of knowledge, they will have no issue responding “yes.” However, the question is a bit too black and white.

Rather than opening a dialogue, the question is a poor attempt at spoiling the attribute of rationality most skeptics hold. Turek’s question turns a blind eye to the legitimate objections of the moral argument. The issue is even if Christianity were proven to be the one, true faith, God isn’t worthy of worship. While Christianity sees him as the origin of goodness, I see a flawed, jealousy-ridden toddler who tries to bully his way into the consciousness of man. Turek often points to Romans 2:12-14 to show that morality is written on our hearts. And yet, we’ve surpassed God’s ethical laws on every front: unlike God, we know that the wrongdoings of our relatives should bear no reflection on us as a person; unlike God, we know that rape is never justified; unlike God, we (well, most of us) know that love—no matter the gender or sex—is not wrong.

One of the major flaws with the idea of a prescribed and internal ethical code is deviation in morality. Not only do we find differing moral customs in each culture, we also find differing values between individual Christians. If we truly have a divine, moral compass as part of our hardware, how is it that I can sit down two Christians of the same denomination and receive conflicting perspectives on issues such as homosexuality? Regardless of personal opinion, each Christian should be able to reach a firm consensus and feel guilt for any deviation from God’s will.

As a debate junkie, I can hear Turek’s counterpoint loud and clear. If morality is a social construct, then reason is impossible because our mental processes are nothing more than chemical reactions. Chemicals don’t reason; they react. As Turek points out, if our decisions are reactionary at best, how can we trust them? Through the years of social evolution, we’ve decided as a species that survival is “good.” This is based on the internal drive to live. Frank Zindler, former president of American Atheists, points to two ways an individual can attempt survival, unenlightened self-interest and enlightened self-interest. The first is a great illustration of Turek’s idea of chemical reactions: seeing something that would help our individual probability of survival and seizing it without considering the consequences it may have on the group.   We have labeled this “bad” because living an egocentric life and indulging every self-gratifying whim wouldn’t be beneficial. We are, by nature, social creatures. Thinking of only myself would make me a cultural pariah.

Enlightened self-interest, on the other hand, is a beneficial compromise. This is a strategy where one maximizes the pleasure of personal gratification while simultaneously cooperating with others to achieve a greater good. Zindler demonstrates this by looking at our ancestors. In the past, one individual could not kill a buffalo for dinner. However, as a group, they could take down the creature, divide up the meat, and flourish as a civilization.

As empathetic beings, we’re also able to place ourselves in the shoes of others with ease. One of the best examples of this is John Rawls’ thought experiment the Veil of Ignorance. Imagine yourself positioned behind a veil that erases any privileges or circumstances that currently shape your life. You know nothing of your gender, your race, or your class status. Before passing through the veil, you’re confronted with a moral dilemma—slavery. If slavery becomes a societal convention, there is a 50% chance you will be one of the captives. What would you choose? Most of us grew up with the Golden Rule and can hear the maxim clearly: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. The law of reciprocity is likely the closest to objective morality as we can get.

In the end, Christians will state that something is good because God wills it. If this were true, God’s mood—which we know is fickle at best—would dictate what the moral flavor of the week is. If morality exists simply because God’s will supersedes all others, Christianity boils down to little more than the clichéd parental comeback of “because I said so.” Instead of expecting a confession of faith, the more appropriate question would be this: faced with undeniable evidence of a creator, would you believe in a god?” A fair, logical answer would be “yes.”

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