Wednesday, May 30, 2012

My Deconversion, In Brief

Well it's been a journey, to say the least. Like many, I grew up in an intensely religious household and the concerted effects of every single major authority figure I looked up to, my social environment and the highly regulated information environment I grew up in led to me trying very hard to be a good Christian. Because it was what good people did. Because it would give me peace and love and joy and solid relationships. Because it was true.

And I'll admit, I always found it difficult.

I was actually a Missionary Kid, which meant that my parents went to a foreign culture in order to spread the gospel and convert the locals. In defense of my parents, however, I have to say that this was done in as appropriate a manner as possible. While I disagree with their goals, they were good people and their only responsibilities as missionaries were to help out with the local church and be involved with the community. The idea was that community involvement would give Christ’s light an opportunity to shine, and the good news will be spread only as a result of curiosity and natural interest. So my Dad managed a community center, played on sports teams and just hung out with the locals. Which I guess I’ve always justified as quite a bit more respectable than going door to door, handing out pamphlets and so on.

So all in all, things were going well. In the absence of critical thinking (It was discouraged insofar as it challenged the faith) and protected by the simplicity of middle class life, I found it all quite palatable.

This is particularly the case with the boarding school that I attended. It was incredibly tight knit - probably because it was comprised of only a few hundred students and was situated in a rural portion of a non-english speaking country. And though the time I spent there was supportive and enjoyable for me, I will always lament the narrow mindedness that permeated the place.

Despite being comprised of students whose parents work in something like sixty different countries, everything was suspiciously unanimous. All my inherited views - things like politics, healthcare, abortion, wars, education, science and slight doctrinal differences notwithstanding, religion - they never encountered a dissenting view. And so my confidence in them was great.

So much so that I specifically remember the first time that I realized I could be wrong. Because I was shocked. Now I had always fancied myself as a well-reasoned individual and with this unearned confidence I entered a discussion with one of my newly acquired liberal friends (of course, I only came across these once I enrolled in University) about something political. I believe it was something along the lines of abortion.

Now as I’m sure you can guess, the conventional wisdom on this topic I had grew up with was that it was murder. Period. And anyone that said otherwise was heartless, immoral and misled. This notion was supported by a small dose of talking points, but in my confidence I had never taken the time to verify veracity or understand the complexity.

Needless to say, I was schooled. And I knew it.

I’d like to say that that was it. That that was the moment I swore to re-examine all of my beliefs systematically and adhere to reason above all. It was far more gradual than that. But I did learn never to be so sure of myself.

Political views are less integral to  the Christian faith than are other notions of truth and it took a couple more years of open minded searching and some advanced biochemistry to topple my faith completely. It should be said that these years were difficult for me. I felt very lost.

But I wouldn’t trade them in for anything.

This brief summary doesn’t do it justice. Starting in those years, I learned to embrace the limits of my understanding but continually strive to break them down. I learned how to approach life with a minimum of preconceived notions and expand their numbers based solely on merit. I learned the value of discussion and debate.

I guess that's another reason why I started this blog. I hope that it will give me access to a wider range of ideas. They will either teach me something new or test the accuracy of those I have. 

And who knows, maybe I'll help someone along in their journey. I know these sorts of blogs certainly helped me in mine. In a sense, I suppose my motivations are somewhat similar to those of my missionary parents.

I relish the irony.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Wordplay - Why Christianity is a Religion

Christianity is, indeed, a religion. I know, I know, this seems to be a rather obvious statement, but I am continuously amazed by the amount of denial Christians will embrace in order to support their position.

This is something that irks me, if nothing else because I absolutely can’t stand it when there are concerted efforts to define terms according to convenience or as a strategic position, rather than according to actual consensus on the matter.

It is an argument that has come up time and time again, as if it somehow makes Christianity a more palatable proposition: “Christianity is not religion, it’s a relationship with God!” It seems to be a necessary component of a Christians argument for their faith. I’ve heard it from street preachers, from my parents, from religious friends I get in debates with, it’s everywhere.

And if you doubt the popularity of this notion, just look at the view count on this video.

Yes, a poem going on at length about a demonstrably false proposition has garnered over 20,000,000 views and hundreds of thousands of likes. Sure, it’s point is bolstered by production value, colorful language, and pensive music that builds as the poem drudges on but real question is whether or not there is any substance behind it’s claim.

So let’s examine it, shall we? Here is how my response plays out in my head:

To start, I find it prudent to look to what I hope we can all agree is the authority on the matter: dictionaries. Here are a few definitions of religion that were found on common online dictionaries:

Now let’s say for a moment that I grant your proposition. OK, Christianity is not a religion, but are you really wanting to accept the implications of that?

Now words are defined as much as what they are by what they are not. This one of the way we ascribe meaning to them. Every time we describe something with an adjective or associate it with a noun, we do so with the intention of narrowing the range of possible options down to a selection that is specific enough to be of utility to us. Furthermore, this tendency is only useful insofar as other people have a similar understanding of the term being used.

Take for example, a chair. When I say chair, I intend to exclude things like beds, tables, stools and so on from our range of options. Unlike beds, chairs are too small to lay on and are generally only large enough for your hindquarters. Unlike Tables, chairs are generally smaller and an appropriate height for sitting. And unlike stools, chairs have a back. And so on.

So looking to our example of religion, it seems that the term religion connotes things like an allegiance to a particular divine explanation for the order of things, the worship of a divine being and the adherence to a defined set of religious practices and moral codes.

So what then? When you tell me that Christianity is not a religion, are you trying to tell me that you don’t believe in a particular divine explanation for the world? Is this to say that you don’t worship a divine being? It seems that you must not adhere to a defined set of religious practices and moral codes.

Clearly, this is not the case. But in any world where we value the utility of words as tools to describe things accurately, this is what you are insinuating by claiming that Christianity is not a religion.

Now it is fairly obvious that the motivation behind this denial of Christianity’s religious aspects is simply an attempt to distance your beliefs from all of the negative things we associate religion with. The institutional abuse, the wasteful spending, the wars, ect...

This makes about as much sense as me saying that I am not American because I did not participate in any of America’s rich history of international cronyism and frivolous wars. I am American, and I think that most clear minded individuals understand that that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am supportive of our policies as they are now, let alone how they have been carried out over the past 226 years.

I take a similar attitude towards your religion.

I do not assert that your religion is necessarily bloated, rife with institutional abuse, wasteful spending and so on. I do not think that the actions of the Catholic Church or Billy Grahm necessarily reflect your personal values. And I definitely appreciate the fact that you seem to find all of that as repulsive as I do, so much so that you involve yourself in pedantic attempts to redefine language.

However since yous seem to be religious, what I do think is that you have an unrelenting allegiance to a particular supernatural understanding of the world. I do think that you tend strongly towards a particular set of beliefs and practices and moral standards based on ancient writings.

And that, is the religion that I have a problem with.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Where I See Religion Headed

I just came across this post over at the AtheistEthicist. 

Atheist Ethicist: The Ethical Atheist Politican and Atheist Political Impotentcy

While I agree with most of what is said here, I just want to shine a glimmer of hope on the matter and talk about where I think religion is headed, at least in Western countries.

From AtheistEthicist:
"Faced with a message since childhood that not trusting in God and not supporting a nation under God makes one an unwelcome member of society, children learn to view atheism as a mark of shame to be hidden. In contrast, those who grow up to be theists learn the attitude that they have a natural superiority over atheists that will tend to make them socially and politically assertive."
Of course this is prevalent and it is certainly a problem. But I would like to add my thoughts on this phenomena by saying that it takes an immense amount of effort for parents and society to create this sort of attitude in children. It is not a child's default setting, and being curious creatures that we are, I see a strong tendency towards acceptance of a non-theistic understanding of the world. A tendency that must be overcome with constant, intentional indoctrination from a very young age in order to create such beliefs.

This is to say that such beliefs are not particularly strong in the minds of children that come from moderate Christian households, in my experience. And this is important and heartening.

Recent surveys on religiosity in the United States ( indicate that though religion is extremely prevalent, it is extremely fluid. In fact when one includes all the different flavours of Protestantism in their analysis, it turns out that up to 44% of adults have either switched their religious belief since childhood, become religious since childhood or become non-religious since childhood.

Moreover, the amount of people who profess no religion as adults is double that of when they were children, and the non-religious crowd is strongly weighted towards younger ages.

So this tells me two things. First, it indicates an obvious declining trend for religion that will only quicken when the more religious, elderly cohorts lose their influence. But it also shows how dynamic and uncommitted the face of religion is in the United States today. And I believe that this lack of commitment and dynamism will create a generation that is far more receptive towards alternative beliefs - in our case, non-belief.

I see this all around myself today. Liberal teachings on homosexuality are being increasingly accepted, contrary to what the bible says; Scientific understanding of the world is increasingly regarded as accurate, contrary to what the bible says; etc...

And then when it comes to Atheism, I get a sense from my theistic friends when they relate to me that they regard my atheism as a sort of interesting novelty and that I am simply missing out on some important truths. The strongest words I've ever heard used is that it is unfortunate. It's hard to make any concrete statements about this, but it just seems to be a much softer stance than what is common to older generations. I think this is reflected in the fluid statistics about religion and I think it is a symptom of a general shift away from extremism in younger generations.

So one might ask, then, where will we be in another generation. How will this generation's comparative apathy and non-committal attitude reflect in the religiosity of their children. I suspect it will be diminished.

They're giving up ground, people, and the next generation will give up even more.

Teaching Personal Spirituality in Public Schools

I think this is a particularly good handling of the subject. There was very little editorialising and it does a good job at allowing all those involved speak their mind with the respect due them. I am not by any means sympathetic to the history teacher's cause, but I do feel that he had an opportunity to come across as a well intentioned, albeit mistaken individual who is only acting according to his values.

Given the nature of the subject, however, being exposed the freely spoken minds of those involved only serves to elucidate what the problem is and how common it can be. The problem here, is the false value and respect people accord on religious beliefs and it's prevalence scares me.

A Beginning, an Explanation and an Invitation

I’m going to show you all a series of quotes and writings that I came across recently, and I’d like you to guess what they all have in common. You don't necessarily need to read them all, just skim enough to get a sense of what they are saying.

"Our need of Christ does not cease with our believing; nor does the nature of our relation to Him or to God through Him ever alter, no matter what our attainments in Christian graces or our achievements in Christian behavior may be. It is always on His "blood and righteousness" alone that we can rest." - B.B. Warfield
"I admire King David from ancient Israel because he made it a special point to comission thousands of people and pay them to write worship songs and lead the people in the praise and worship of the one and only Living God. I think with eager expectation of the scene that will unfold before our eyes after this world has passed away. I think frequently of John's vision of saints and angels worshiping God day and night, and I remember how the meetings we have as the body of Christ are miniature tastes of this full worship of God. According to Hughes, we come together to worship as a discipline and as we worship are quickly filled with pleasant emotions as we do what we were created to do."
"Putting this and John 15:16 together I was starting to think that maybe God chose certain people not to be Christians but to do certain jobs which we have been called to do. During the whole time I was thinking about this I have realized that we all have ways of serving others in our own ways and all we need to do is make the choice to obey God and reach out and serve others on a daily basis. God made us with the ability to make our own choices including the choice to follow him and accept Christ as our savior."
"If salvation is already done, finished, why do the Apostles put so much emphasis on "holding on until the end", "finishing the race", "staying faithful", and "keeping up the good works?" Why does Jesus Christ teach that salvation is only for those who enter the narrow gate? This all looks like God's love is perfectly "conditional," which it is, in reality."

So what do these quotes all have in common?

Yes, they do all deal with Christianity on some level, but that’s the obvious answer.

What struck me about these words is that they are all vaguely academic, evidently reasoned and are the products of some considerable mental investment - either to comprehend or produce. And this is problematic because they were picked from the Facebook walls of some of the more motivated and intelligent graduates of my high-school.

As a missionary kid growing up, I spent my high school days attending a christian boarding school in a foreign country. As I look back on my time there, there are a great many positives I can attribute to the place. It was an immensely supportive environment, with numerous volunteer staff members and teachers that had an honest intention to do good by us, the students. Since boarding schools in foreign countries tend to be extremely tight knit communities where participants spend an immense amount of time together, it was also a place where intense friendships grew. And yes, I would even say that even though the curriculum taught young-earth creationism as the authoritative theory in its science classes, the education - as a whole - was solid.

Despite the factual errors and absolute, unquestioning allegiance to outdated and unjustified teachings, the school did a great deal to teach me general skills such as effective study habits, the ability to process information presented to me and there was a certain limited degree of critical thinking at least laid the foundation for future understanding and reasoning.

So it was not terrible, it was not a waste of time, and it certainly isn’t the worst way of doing things. But it is not the best, and the real problem here is that it isn’t even trying to be.

They strove for stagnation. The ultimate authority was a book written millennia ago. I’ve heard some anti-theists argue that such direct religious involvement in education will be the downfall of human society, and with the experiences I’ve had, I’m not convinced that the outcome is will be so drastic by any realistic mechanism. However I do assert such theological ruminations on the subjects of worship, the dissemination of God’s love, and moral reliance on ancient sacrifices, does very little to further mankind. And that is a shame, because as I mentioned before my fellow classmates who are wasting their time on these fantasies were among the brightest and most motivated. I submit to you that their capabilities are better spent elsewhere.

Perhaps I’m a bit utilitarian when I say this, but as I contemplate the sheer amount of study, thought, and raw man-hours that has gone into the contemporary christian theological industry, I can’t help but mourn such a vast amount of wasted potential.

Here are a couple of concrete examples that come to mind:

I have a friend who was led by his relationship with Jesus to turn down an enviable opportunity to study life-sciences at Harvard and attend Wheaton college instead - a university that professes the ultimate, inerrant authority of scripture as the ultimate litmus test for truth.

I have another friend who I always remember as being an incredibly gifted public speaker and organizer who had the ability to portray ideas with incredible clarity and motivation, and furthermore incite others to action. I recall that at one point he was contemplating pursuing either pursuing an education in non-profit administration or theological seminary. He is currently a successful discipleship coordinator - whatever that is.

My high school fostered and continues to foster an educational and social environment that places an incredible amount of pressure on young children to achieve excellence in an imaginary field that does nothing for reality. I remember feeling envious of the leadership positions that were lavished on those who exhibited talent for ministry involvement and biblical understanding. I remember feeling inadequate when I did not exhibit the external signs of faith such as public prayer, singing and peer support in our walk of Christ. It is inevitable for us to exert such pressures on our developing youth, but why might it be considered revolutionary to suggest that fostering more productive pressures is more ideal?

I have yet to come across an adequate example of someone who contributed to society in a way that cannot dispense of faith. Sure, this is through the eyes of a non-believer, but the more I examine history I realize that all the great figures of times past achieve their influence on what humanity has become not thanks to religion, but despite religion.

It is true that Martin Luther King and other civil rights greats may have been ministers who alluded to religious principles in their rhetoric, but under the influence of the same texts there were many that held a diametrically opposed view. It is true that there are numerous prolific scientists who, to varying degrees, hold a belief in God - but I defy you to find one example where a scientist used religious techniques to discover anything reliable about our world.

On the other hand I can list numerous ambitious individuals who have wasted a life in accord with thoughts put forth on paper millennia ago. Even most adherents to religion can see this point. I know there are exceptions, but as a general rule Christians view Buddhist monks or Muslim Imams as individuals who have been deceived by false teachings and are spending their life in pursuit of false truths. The same sort of thinking is in fact inherent to any other monotheistic religion. The falsity of other metaphysical truths is implied by the very term.

So with the same vein of thought I deem all religious pursuits a waste of time. And what makes it worse is the sheer scope of it. Of course from this perspective, the priest, the imam or the theologian are evidently lost, but they are statistically minor and are not the crux of what I am trying to get at.

Life is short and limited whether you believe otherwise or not. Some see this as despair worthy, but I see it as liberating. It makes every moment precious; something to savor. So keeping this in mind, consider how many of us have opted to pray for someone’s ills instead of vote for a candidate that is sympathetic to stem cell research. Consider how many of us have been told our whole lives that a spousal relationship is doomed from the start unless it is based on religious principles. Consider how many of us have avoided rigorous academia for fear of entering into a secular den of wolves, only to be indoctrinated by “dangerous ideas.” Consider how many of us have spent our weekends indoors, reciting and emotionalizing - when the day outside is splendid. I have seen all of this and so much more.

So this motivates me. This is part of the thought process that will inform the diverse ramblings I expect to post on here. I have no specific direction at the moment, I can’t tell you whether I will tend towards vitriol or compromise. I can’t tell you how much I will emphasize religion, I can’t tell you which religions I will emphasize - though, rest assured, I hold similar views about all. I am just informed about some more than others. What I do know is that my writing is a way to hash out ideas and test them against the minds of others. I hope you’ll indulge me.

Thank you,