Saturday, November 17, 2007

Musings of a Lifelong Atheist

I’ve been thinking that these pages can be used as a means for members of our group to tell their own stories. How you came to be a skeptic, agnostic, atheist or whatever it is you like to call yourself. You can also use your post to describe your personal belief system. Just e-mail it to me for posting or ask for posting rights so you can do-it-yourself. I’ll take the lead with my own musings.

I’ve been an atheist my entire life. One of my earliest and fondest memories is proudly proclaiming to a peer (i.e. another 5 year old) that I did not believe in god and thought the concept made absolutely no sense.

Theists are peculiarly self-righteous, thinking that the human condition makes no sense and the universe is meaningless if not for the existence of their god. My own personal experience however runs counter to their sanctimonious insistence that a godless world is devoid of meaning and morality. I am sensitive to the feelings of others and experience empathy towards the plight of those in pain and suffering. I give to charitable causes and lead what I consider to be a relatively moral life. In other words, I’m no different than most people with whom I associate.

As a scientist I accept naturalistic explanations for worldly phenomena. Call me a “materialist” if you will. I intuitively feel for others and care for them and their well-being. Rather than ascribe these feelings to adherence to some religious scripture, I am convinced that there is a naturalistic explanation (i.e. sociobiological, evolutionary or psychological ) for my and most of humanity’s similar personality traits. Moreover, I do not believe in emotional or behavioral creationism, i.e. the belief that feelings and emotions are unique to our species. I believe that other species possess consciousness and have emotional lives, including the ability to be empathetic. To my way of thinking this is a perspective that is morally superior to the anthropocentric morality of most religionists. What evidence do I have in support of my belief system? Much more than any born again fundamentalist has about the resurrection. There is large body of comparative scientific research on primates and other animals that attest to their possession of empathy, feelings of inequality, and the giving of deferred rewards and punishments to members of the group they belong to. That is all those aspects of morality that have been thought to be the special preserve of us people. So when I'm asked, as an atheistic materialist why I care if people live or die; and if matter is all there is, why does it "matter" to me if I live or die, my only response is to not suffer the fool. I care because I was born to care as a member of a social order of mammals that has been evolving for millions upon millions of years to function within a nexus of complex cooperative cum competitive social relationships.

Now tell me. I’ve always wondered, why does the god of the Jews, Christians and Islamists (JCIs) behave so badly? I’m a father. I have three sons. Good kids. Never given me any trouble. Sometimes they do clueless things and I get angry. You can say they’ve sinned against me (at times being disrespectful, not acknowledging the sacrifices I’ve made to ensure their well-being, not believing what I tell them, etc.). Should I therefore disinherit them and condemn them to eternal damnation? Why does the god of the bible act in such strange and mysterious ways, setting up this obtuse situation where he creates people who are flawed (i.e. they sin) and then creating this theater of the absurd where you have this ridiculous trinity and crucifixion and all the other nonsense and mumbo-jumbo that Christianity preaches? As a father I do not want my sons to bow down to me and wipe my feet. I don’t want then to cower in fear of me. I love them unconditionally. Isn’t that the way Christians describe their god’s love for humanity? If so, why all this business about being saved? Look, if one of my sons committed a heinous crime I’d want him to be punished, perhaps put away for life, basically to protect others from the harm he may commit in the future. But I’m against the death penalty and believe in rehabilitation. Why is the spiritual “father” of JCIs so vengeful and mean-spirited? Of course, it has to do with the historical development of Hebraic religions based on tribal patriarchy in which fathers actually did want their sons to kiss their feet, etc. Are JCI’s so clueless not to recognize this? Hebraic religion is a crock, full of outmoded, outrageous ideas that should be studied in the same fashion that the beliefs of animists are studied.

Well, if a belief in the JCI god, or any god for that matter, is not a prerequisite for empathetic, moral behavior and if the behavior of their god is abominable to say the least, why the need for adherence to such an antiquated and unnecessary belief system? In my discussions with Christian apologists philosophically, at least, the whole question of “god” devolves to the question of first cause. Theists insist that there is a cause for every effect except for god itself. God is exempted because it exists in a supernatural eternal realm beyond human experience. Thus its postulated that only god can constitute the first cause that initiated the phenomenal universe. The existence of god is inferred as a logical necessity to explain the creation event per se. But what is this creation event? In actuality, it is an attempt to confront the fundamental question of existence itself. It is the question of existence that needs explaining, not the question of god. In fact, god can be conceptualized as a personification of existence. Existence has all the attributes of god. If we accept the premise that something cannot come from nothing, existence has no beginning or end. For proponents of the Big Bang, even nothing is something, as virtual particles are constantly popping into existence out of the quantum vacuum. Existence is therefore eternal, it has neither a beginning nor end. Existence encompasses all that is, has been or will be, it is thus both omnipresent and omniscient. Since existence produces all phenomena, it is thus omnipotent. All the above qualities of the abstract notion of existence have been rarefied and attributed to god. The only difference between the two concepts is that existence is impersonal and part and parcel of the phenomenal world, while god is personal and placed beyond the phenomenal world in a separate supernatural realm. For a materialist, god as a first cause is therefore totally superfluous. Just as the theist sees god as a cause unto itself, for the atheist so is the universe (i.e. the realm of objective reality).

What is most pathetic however is the overwhelming hubris of many (not all) theists, particularly the most ignorant amongst them. They live in a hermetically sealed, self-referenced world stuck in a medieval mind-set, their appreciation of the wonders of the real, material universe is circumscribed by the limited vision of bronze age tribal shepherds. The nearly infinite beauty of the cosmos, the vastness of time and space, the innumerable permutations of the natural world, and the profound unity of all creation escapes them completely. Rather than the awe-inspiring grandeur of organic evolution with its “endless forms most beautiful” responding by the seat of their pants to ever changing environmental fluctuations, they are left with a Geppettan tinkerer fumbling around cobbling together a hodge-podge of trilobites, dinosaurs and mammoths for no apparent rhyme or reason other than to satisfy their god's whimsical fancy. Give me the real thing any time, not some pale, uninspired, insipid imitation. Revel in the mysteries of existence. We know but a fraction of what there is to know. If we continue to advance our scientific knowledge of the material world what wonders of nature will we comprehend in a hundred years or a thousand years hence? The religionists among us would have us groping about like the proverbial six blind men feeling an elephant.

Finally, we come to the great fear of death and its aftermath. But the nature of things long ago determined that there is no life without death. We would still be archaean prokaryotic bacteria if not for death. Every life, both human and non-human, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has an impact on the lives that follow. Think of yourself as a quantum burst of consciousness lighting up your little corner of the world in a crescendo of sentience that will eventually engulf the universe. Or perhaps we are but a flicker, a wisp of cognizance that will be blown out never to be realized again, a unique confluence of matter and energy at a particular juncture in space-time. However one views their place in nature make the most of the limited time we have, within our limited abilities, to move our beautifully sublime spinning globe one step closer to the unity and harmony which should be our offspring’s birthright.

It is only by humbling ourselves before the fount of wisdom that nature provides that we can come to grips with both our insignificance and our transcendence.

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