Friday, November 22, 2013

Are Atheists Soulless?

Of course they are. I’m not going to beat around the bush: atheists have no souls. I don’t see this as a problem, though, since nobody else does either.

Actually, that’s too strong a statement. It would be more true to say that I, and many other atheists, do not believe that there is such a thing as a soul. We can’t say conclusively that there isn’t; it’s just that we haven’t seen convincing evidence for it yet, so we don’t believe it.

Incidentally, there are atheists who do believe in souls. The concept, after all, is not inextricably tied to belief in or worship of a god. It’s just that I’m not one of those atheists, so please don't think that I'm speaking for them in this post.

Now, when I say a soul, I’m talking about a magical, immaterial and potentially immortal component of consciousness/personality that can survive independently of a living brain and body. That’s the thing that I don’t believe exists.

The problem is that the word “soul” has acquired a lot of cultural baggage, and a lot of other definitions. Many, for example, regard the soul as being the seat of all positive emotions (such as love, nobility, wonder, etc.), with the physical body driving only negative emotions. Or others regard the soul as being the seat of emotion altogether, with the physical being incapable of such things. To people with this kind of dualistic outlook, to not have a soul is to be capable only of evil and selfishness in the first case, or merely an automaton – a thing rather than a person – in the second.

So when an atheist says something like “I don’t believe in souls,” many people don’t hear “I don’t believe in an immaterial component of consciousness that survives outside a living body.” They hear “I don’t believe in positive emotions, only selfishness and evil.” Or they hear “I don’t believe in behaving like I or anyone else is a person.” A lot of these people, though, would probably say that atheists have souls, but are just mistaken about it.

Some even go a step further than that. Either out of desire to demonize atheists, or simply an inability to comprehend that it’s possible for people not to believe in souls, they will twist the simple statement “I don’t believe in souls,” into something like “I want to destroy the soul so that everyone can be purely selfish and/or automatons.” These people are a lot more likely to say atheists have no souls (or that the “atheist ideal” is a “human form without soul,” as I recently read in an incredibly ignorant article about how us atheists would all love to be vampires), because what they mean by that is that atheists are bad people. This is especially true for those looking to demonize us, since to them and their target constituencies, the accusation of soullessness brings to mind images of dead-eyed, leering monsters in human form setting out to debauch themselves and harm everyone else in the process.

But when an atheist like me says that he doesn’t believe in the existence of a soul, he’s not saying that he doesn’t believe in the impulses to love, or empathize, or create, or wonder, or any of the other positive emotions and impulses commonly ascribed to souls. There is, after all, nothing that logically requires those impulses to be bound to an immaterial immortal consciousness. Our lived experience is still a human experience just like everyone else’s and doesn’t become qualitatively different just because we don’t credit that experience to the same source.

We just happen to think that all of those impulses – the good and the bad (and justifying the use of “good” and “bad” is probably a whole series of posts on its own) – are all rooted in our material bodies. It’s all inseparably human.

It would be nice to think that we have a “true” self that is upright and good and will someday be free to live forever without being dragged down by all the bad parts of ourselves when we leave our bodies behind. But the reason I don’t believe in souls is not because I think it would be great cease existing, or because I really want to cling to the bad in me. It is, quite simply, because I’m not convinced that that souls exist.

So this is me, all of me, here in this world being soulless and human just like anybody else.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Isn’t Evolution Racist?

This will probably open a real can of worms, but…

I was listening to a program the other day on which atheist hosts were fielding questions from callers. One such caller was quite insistent that if you believe in evolution, then you must be a racist because you believe white people are more evolved than black people.

I wish I could say that this was the only time I had ever heard that statement, but it’s really only the most recent. And it betrays so much ignorance on so many levels that it’s hard to decide where to start.

I guess first I’ll start by saying, because I don’t think this can be repeated enough, that evolution is not a system of morals. It is a framework for explaining observed facts about how living things change over successive generations. That is all. It doesn’t tell you anything about what you should believe or how you should behave, it merely explains why organisms are the way they are.

That means, by the way, that accepting evolution is not a moral stance. It is an evaluation of evidence about how things are. In that sense, it’s no different than accepting gravitational theory of attraction, or the atomic theory of matter, or the germ theory of disease. So even if evolution somehow showed that one race was demonstrably inferior in every way to another, that would have absolutely nothing to do with whether it is true or not.

But happily, evolution says no such thing.

You see, the thing to realize is that there is no such thing as “more evolved.” In this sense, we don’t do ourselves any favors when we make jokes about people needing to evolve more, because it kind of gives the impression that that’s a real thing.

But the reality is that evolution is not a scale. There is no perfect end goal that evolution is striving for, and therefore no one organism can be said to be further along toward that goal than any other. There is only degree of successful adaptation to the environment – and since environments can change, what constitutes a successful adaptation is in constant flux. The whole idea of “more evolved” is actually kind of nonsense in that respect.

In our “is evolution racist?’ milieu, the translation of that is that “whiteness” is nothing more than an adaptation to a climate with less sun exposure than the relatively sun-drenched African environment where humanity originated. In no sense can it be considered “more evolved,” it’s just adapted to a different set of conditions.

Furthermore, organisms and populations are constantly evolving. In fact, literally everything that has ever lived was part of a transitional species. Just as the various hominid species were transitions between the great apes and us, we are transitions between the hominids and whatever our descendants will become in the future. Humanity is not an end product, it is merely another step. We are evolving right now.

What does this mean in terms of the racism question? It means that black people didn’t stop evolving just because the descendants of a subset of the human species became white people (or Asian people, or Native American people, or whatever distinction you want to throw on the pile). Plenty of studies show that there is tremendous genetic variation in African populations, which suggests that the evolutionary mechanism of genetic variance is quite alive and well among them. It’s just that the forms it has taken have largely been in areas other than the highly visible (yet essentially trivial) realm of skin pigmentation. Evolution is still ongoing among black people, just like it is among white people, Asian people, or whatever other people you care to name.

But these differences only really start to become significant when one part of the population is evolving in isolation from the others. African and Caucasian populations acquired differences in genetic variation because they were living in relative isolation from each other. But it was such a short timeframe (in evolutionary terms) that neither group became fundamentally different from the other (or any of the other racial types). Which means that in an era of increasing global crossover between populations, those variations become potentially part of everyone’s shared genetic legacy. And that is arguably a very good thing, because it means our descendants will have a greater wealth of genetic information to draw on to fuel adaptation to changing conditions.

Have some people used ideas about evolution to fuel racist dogma? Yes, absolutely. But in almost all cases those ideas have been based on very flawed understandings of what evolution actually says. And all such cases have been the result of tacking some other ideology onto the findings of evolutionary science. Evolution itself is not ideological. It provides facts and explanations. It tells you something about how the world operates; it does not tell you what to do about it.

So I hope that my layman’s explanation has helped to show that in no sense can any race be considered to be “more evolved” than any other. In fact, to say so is to be pretty much speaking nonsense in terms of the actual theory of evolution.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

But What If You’re Wrong?

I don’t know. You tell me.

I’m not being a smartass here. This is one of the most common questions we atheists get asked when discussing our lack of belief in gods, and it’s always asked as if it’s just assumed that there’s one answer and we’re supposed to know it. But even among Christians, there are many different conceptions about what the consequences of nonbelief are. Some seem to believe that as long as we’re good people we go to heaven when we die whether we’re Christian or not. On the other hand, we have those who believe we’re going to hell (although there are many different conceptions of what hell is) where we’ll suffer unimaginable torment for all eternity simply because we don’t believe.

Then you start looking outside Christianity, and you see many other conceptions of afterlives, and the consequences for those who do or don’t believe, or those who do or don’t act in certain ways with regards to the various pantheons.

So, in all seriousness, I don’t know. Tell me what you believe will happen to me, and we can go from there.

I will say, though, that most of the time (at least in America) this question comes from Christians who believe that we’re risking the eternal torment version of hell for the crime of not believing their god exists. The more aggressive ones phrase the question in terms of “What will you say to God when you die and have to face His judgment?” As if it were possible to threaten us into believing that for which we haven’t seen good evidence.

Of course, the first and easiest answer is that I have no more concern for that scenario than I imagine any Christian has for what they will say to Allah, or Thoth, or Hades, or the Valkyries (who, for the record, I also don’t believe exist). It’s hard to get worked up when a being you don’t believe exists threatens to send you to a place you don’t believe exists because you don’t believe it.

But then, I’ve been an atheist for a long time. I’m comfortable with it.

The thing that gets me about the question, though, is that it’s a dishonest tactic. It’s not about finding the truth; it’s intended to make you scared, so that the questioner can use that as leverage to open you up to the idea that they have the answers that will alleviate your fear. It’s creating a symptom so that you can claim to have the cure.

Though I’d have to believe that an all-powerful being would have more effective means than threats to get me to believe in it, and any being I’d respect enough to worship would be above making them.

So, what if I’m wrong? I don’t really know. Nobody actually does, and it’s not a question that can really be speculated on until someone can demonstrate that an actual consequence exists.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Why Am I an Atheist?

            Because I don’t believe in gods.

            Well, that was a quick and easy post. See you next time!

            Huh? Oh, you were hoping for something a little more in-depth? Alright, I suppose I can get a little deeper into it if you really want me to. But glib as it may sound, that first response really is kind of the crux of the matter.

            So let me explain a little more about my religious background. I was raised in a military, Southern Baptist family. As an army brat, I moved every couple years (more or less) throughout my childhood, but one thing fairly constant is that at pretty much every station we attended church regularly. Early on, I would attend Sunday school or do children’s choir (though I’m a terrible singer) while my parents were at the grownup service, but as I got older I’d spend more and more time in the regular service. Sunday school was pleasant enough, since it was mostly like light schoolwork (which I was good at), listening to and reading fantasy stories (always been a sci fi and fantasy fan), and singing songs (I may not have been a good singer, but I love music). Though I hated getting dragged out of bed on Sunday mornings. Regular services were some of the most tedious hours of my later childhood, and I remember feeling vaguely uncomfortable with how much my mind would wander since there was supposed to be this God guy that could read my thoughts.

            I’d go through phases where I would kneel by my bed and say prayers before going to sleep. Around the age of thirteen, I walked down the aisle at the call to service, and was subsequently baptized. The pastor’s wife at that church was my piano teacher.

            But the thing is… I never really believed it.

            There was no big deconversion moment, because I never really had a belief to deconvert from. There was no traumatic experience with the church – the worst they ever inflicted on me was some mind-numbing tedium for an hour out of my week, and most of the people I met were plenty nice enough. There was no traumatic life event that made me angry with God – the biggest upset of my young life was the death of my maternal grandmother when I was twelve, and even that happened while we were stationed in Germany so I was kind of shielded from the immediacy of that grief.

            I just… didn’t believe in it. I prayed, but I never felt like anyone listened or answered. I went to church, but I never felt anything like what people describe as the “presence of God.” I’ve never had any kind of miraculous experience, or witnessed anything seemingly supernatural. All of that stuff was just ritual, stuff I did because it pleased my parents (I was also a little goody-two-shoes, and pleasing my parents was kind of a big deal to me), and it pleased the nice people they took me to spend time with.

            But over time, since I didn’t have any belief in what the rituals were supposed to connect to, the rituals themselves started to seem kind of silly. It was just playing pretend, and I got tired of that sort of pretending.

            By the time I was sixteen, I really didn’t care anymore. I went to church when my parents made me, I spoke respectfully because that’s just the way I am, but it was just an inconvenience. I didn’t pray anymore, or even bother pretending that I did. I didn’t think of religion in terms of being atheist or not – most of the time I didn’t think about it at all.

            Then I got to college. I moved out of my parents’ house, and my time was mine to do with as I pleased. And since then, other than the occasional holiday service when I visit my parents, wedding attendance, or meeting hall rental, I haven’t been back to any church. My Freshman year was the first time I met anyone who openly professed to being an atheist. And from the first exposure to the term, my reaction was “Oh, yeah, that’s what I am too.” But by then, it wasn’t even much of a revelation. I hadn’t believed before, and now I just had a word to call myself.

            I’m thirty-nine now. I’ve been married for sixteen years, and I’m the father of three beautiful children whom I love so much it almost hurts at times. I’m not rich, but I’m not poor. I’ve lost some friends, lost some family, and gained some new of both. There is plenty in my life to be grateful for, but no sense that there’s an invisible all-powerful being to be grateful to. In all this time, I’ve been exposed to many arguments for the existence of many different gods, and found none of them convincing. Most aren’t even very interesting.

            It’s been twenty-one years since I started calling myself an atheist. But in a sense, I’ve always been one.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Why an Atheist Blog?

So yeah… I’m starting an atheist blog.

Why should I do such a thing? Aside from the fact that I’m an atheist. I mean, really, I’m a lot of other things as well. I’m a man, a father, an engineer, an American, a gaming enthusiast, a science fiction and fantasy fan… why not blog about those things? Why choose atheism as my theme?

Mostly, I think, because I haven’t ever been accused of being a blight on society based on any of those other things (or when I have, the accusation has usually been rooted in religion anyway). I don’t see Facebook posts from purported friends claiming that fathers are responsible for all that’s wrong with our country, or that gaming enthusiasts are merely looking for an excuse to behave immorally. Nobody has ever attempted to write laws that require science fiction fans must pronounce daily affirmations that mystery novels are the true literary form of America, or to prevent engineers from running for office or testifying in court.

Also, in part, I want a space where I can talk about these things without necessarily having to throw them in people’s faces. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that don’t necessarily share my views on religion. And I don’t want to start arguments with them, or force them to have to see my latest rant whenever they’re scrolling down their FB news feed. Nor do I want to respond to their religious posts directly, since I just don’t see a way that a direct response to many of them could not come off as an attack.
And lastly, I just feel like a lot of people don't understand where a lot of atheists are coming from. I can't claim to speak for all of us - one of the funny things about atheists is they tend not to agree on much. But I can speak for myself, and maybe a few others will feel like I do, and perhaps that can help others to understand a little about an atheist mindset.

Plus, it’s kind of a companion to my Bible reading blog , though I expect this one to be a little more irregular. Btw... don't read that one if you're easily offended.

So this will be my own little space where I talk about what’s on my mind as relates to atheist issues. Mostly it will be a way for me to get things off my chest and work things out through writing about them. I’ll let my friends know when I’ve posted something new, but obviously it will be up to them whether they choose to check it out. Anyone who stumbles across this is welcome to read and comment as well.

At present, I have no real intention to moderate comments. Obviously, by putting this into the public sphere I expect to receive some criticism. I’d ask that people refrain from personal attacks against either myself or any other commenters, and hopefully I won't have to rethink that policy later on.
If you're here... thanks for reading, and hope you stick around! maybe we can all learn something together.