Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Do You Think I'm Going to Hell?

Many religions seem to have this concept of hell, a place where "bad people" go after they die where they will spend their afterlife suffering torments for the bad stuff they did in life. Both Christianity and Islam (or versions of them) portray this hell as the eternal destination of the souls of unbelievers, where they will literally burn for all time. And in both of these religions, one of the top qualifiers for going there is rejecting a belief in their god. Even worse is leaving the religion, and worse still is leading (or trying to lead) others to reject it as well.

And here I am: a Christian apostate writing a blog about living without a belief in gods. And I would be lying if I said I don't hope that something I write might help someone else see their way clear of superstitions as well. So for at least those two religions, I am a very bad person.

So... do you think I'm going to hell?

Now, I'll point out a few things to think about while you're coming up with an answer. Firstly, hell is portrayed as eternal, meaning that anyone sent there is going to be there forever. It is torture of infinite duration. I'm going to be alive for, what, seventy-five years? Maybe a hundred if I'm lucky? Or maybe I die on the drive home from work tomorrow. 

Do you suppose that anything I might do in such a tiny span of time could possibly warrant infinite torture?

I mean, I know I'm not perfect. Not even close. I'm more than a little lazy. I'm fairly selfish and irresponsible. I fall well short of my own expectations on many occasions, to say nothing of the much stricter (I would not classify them as higher) expectations put forth in many a holy book. I do behave in ways, at times, for which I rightly ought to be sanctioned.

But infinite torture? Really? Do you think that's just?

But that's just me. I'm fairly ordinary. Who's the worst person you can think of? Joseph Stalin? Adolph Hitler? Saddam Hussein? Jeffrey Dahmer? Think of every person whose name is synonymous with evil in your mind. As awful as they may have been, every one of them was finite in the harm they did.

Infinite torture? Really?

Or let's make this more personal. After all, some of you may not know me personally. Or Stalin or Hitler or whoever. Out fate's may seem impersonal and abstract, so maybe you can write off our eternal torment without connecting to it. So think of the people you love most in the world. Maybe your children, if you have any. Your spouse... Your parents... Your siblings. Think about them burning. Forever. Screaming in infinite agony for all eternity.

Can you imagine that there's anything, anything at all, that they could possibly do that would convince you that they deserve that?

Heaven, by contrast, is supposed to be a place of infinite happiness. But suppose you were in heaven and your children (or your parents, or spouse) in hell. Could you imagine feeling infinitely happy while your children burn? Could you feel like that? What would it take for that to happen? Would you have to be deceived about your loved ones' fate in order to feel infinite joy while they suffered infinite pain? Or do you suppose the joy you'd feel would drown out those screams of agony to the point where they just don't seem important anymore? Do you want that?

And while you're thinking about it, consider this: there's no real purpose to it. Most of the time, we at least like to pretend that the purpose of punishment is to correct a harmful behavior. But the nature of hell is such that this purpose cannot ever be achieved. You don't learn to choose the good over the bad because all opportunity to do so is gone; you're simply imprisoned and suffering. You can't even serve as an example to deter the living from making the same mistakes, because nobody living ever actually witnesses the punishments of hell. An eternal hell would be, and by its very nature can only ever be, a tool of pure sadistic cruelty.

Atheists frequently (and, I think, rightly) make an issue of the atrocities of the Old Testament, and are almost as often countered by the argument that the New Testament is goodness and love and justice. But here's the thing: the concept of hell is a New Testament idea. And as bad as the genocides, slavery, misogyny, and arbitrary cruelty if the Old Testament may be, they pale next to the idea of infinite punishment for finite crimes. It is, bar none, the most unjust concept in the Bible.

Or the Koran, for that matter.

Now, obviously, I don't believe any of this is going to happen. But it's a pretty frequent scare tactic that gets thrown at us atheists. "You better believe, or you're going to burn!" It's not very scary, as it should be perfectly obvious that if we don't believe the punisher exists we aren't going to be afraid of his punishment.

But it tells us a lot about the person saying it. It tells us that they believe we deserve infinite torture. After all, they worship the being they believe decreed it, and willingly use the threat of it as a club to try and batter us into belief. Some versions of the religions espousing this belief teach that everyone, even the believers, deserve infinite torture simply by virtue of being human (it's just that the adherents are spared).

Of course, many variants of these religions don't place a lot of emphasis on the hell thing. It's kind of there in the background, but the focus of devotion seems to be more on the loving aspects of those religions. I suspect the members of those denominations just don't give the nature of hell a lot of thought, and of course many of them are either uncomfortable with the idea or espouse a belief in a final destination for nonbelievers that is somewhat less harsh than the one I've described here. Those people, however, seem to be much less likely to try and use it as an argument to sway those of us who don't believe. If you're one of those, the criticisms of this article are not really aimed at you. I hope you don't take them personally.

But if you're ever tempted to try and use "You'd better believe or you're going to hell," as an argument to convince an atheist, I just want you to understand the message you're sending us. You may think you're telling us "Here's a reason you should believe," but what we're hearing is "I'm cruel and/or broken, and to join me you would have to become equally cruel and/or broken." It's not effective, it doesn't come off as the least bit loving, and you really shouldn't ever say it.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Do Atheists Hate God?

I often hear that atheists hate God. Or, as sometimes happens when I or a fellow atheist says something critical of God, I will get a response along the lines of “How can you hate a God that you don’t believe exists,” (which is really kind of a variation on the theme of “you really do believe, you just reject Him.”). And, of course, atheist characters in such presentations as the movie “God is not Dead,” are presented as just such a caricature of someone who rejects God out of personal hatred rather than an actual disbelief in his existence. Of course, reality is a little more complicated than such questions and accusations seem to imply.

In one sense, many atheists could be said to hate God. If you read this blog much, or my other one, you have probably seen me say some pretty unkind things about the Christian god that border on, if not actually crossing over into, hateful. And I will be the first to admit that I have a pretty active dislike for the character.

On the surface, that may seem a little silly. Really… how can we hate somebody we don’t think exists? But if you think about it… how do you feel about Voldemort from Harry Potter? What about Emperor Palpatine from Star Wars, or Cruella Deville from 101 Dalmations, Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange, or Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest? I bet one or more of them raise some pretty unpleasant emotions in most of you, and we all know they’re made up. I know there are fundamentalist religious people who hate Harry Potter, in spite of the fact that he is both fictional and portrayed as the protagonist of his stories (kind of like God). That’s kind of the signature feature of compelling fiction: the ability to engage you emotionally even though it’s not real. And whatever else you can say about the various mythologies of most religions, you can’t deny that they make compelling stories.

Of course, outside the most fevered of fan sites, you don’t see many people writing emotional diatribes explaining that Emperor Palpatine and Voldemort are racist, totalitarian, physically and emotionally abusive mass murderers. But you do see atheists saying those sorts of things about the Abrahamic god (or gods, depending how much credence you give to which interpretations of his identity). Why do you suppose that is? Is it really because atheists know he exists and just hate him in some special sense that people don’t exhibit for genuinely fictional characters?

Well, no. Not even remotely.

There are a couple of reasons for the difference between how we react to God and how we react to Voldemort, and they have nothing at all to do with believing either exists.

The first reason has to do with the vast gulf between what the book(s) describing these characters say about them and what people profess to believe about them. Nobody has to write screeds about how evil Voldemort is because people who read the Harry Potter books (in general) freely acknowledge that he’s not a pleasant fellow. He, like the god described in the Bible, murders people (including innocent children) both in person and through minions, openly promotes racism and ethnic cleansing, and leads campaigns of violent warfare to enforce his will on those who will not obey his dictates. Everyone who reads the Harry Potter books can plainly acknowledge these as facts about Voldemort. Yet for some reason, many people who claim the Bible is the perfectly true and accurate account of their god deny that he does these things despite the actions being very clearly described therein.

Try going to a Harry Potter fan site and arguing that Voldemort is the very embodiment of love and goodness, and pretend that the books never describe him killing or oppressing anyone. I suspect you will find at least some of the responses rival the worst things any atheist has ever said about the god of the Bible. You’ll have a hard time believing that these people recognize that you’re talking about a fictional character. It’s really just that it kind of pisses people off to see what is evidently true outright denied, even if it’s only “true” about a fictional character.

The other reason we react differently to stories of Voldemort versus stories about God is because nobody seriously expects to run society on the basis of Voldemort’s orders to his Death Eaters. Whereas vast swaths of humanity seem to seriously expect the rest of us to arrange our lives after the orders of their god. There are no active movements to enact laws of draconian punishment and broad discrimination based on Voldemort’s odd sexual peccadilloes, nor to deny the findings of science based on Voldemort’s magic-centric view of power, nor to force our children to recite oaths of loyalty to Voldemort, nor coopt taxpayer funding for the purpose of teaching other people’s children that Voldemort is their true lord and master. But all of these and more exist among the followers of the Biblical god.

Quite simply, there is a firm limit on how much we can hate Voldemort that is established by the fact that, once we put his book down, he can’t affect our lives. And the same thing would be true of the Yahweh character, except that there are people trying to push his outlook on us all the time.

And when we point things out that we hate about this God character, it’s very often to counter claims that this character is the source of all goodness, and only of goodness. A realistic reading of the source material doesn’t really support that view. But it’s potentially poisonous, in that such a belief leads many to conclude that perfect goodness can include such notions as racial cleansing, slavery, misogyny, genocide, torture, and human sacrifice just to point out the tip of the iceberg.

Ultimately, atheists don’t hate God in any personal sense. We really, seriously, in the actually I-am-not-kidding sense, don’t believe he exists. But what many of us do hate is some of the actions and ideas that belief in (and worship of) such a character introduce into society that are pretty indefensible in any other light. We also love some of the ideas (such as compassion and charity) that are supported by those beliefs, but those ideas are supportable without belief in the character who espouses them. The key thing is the ideas themselves. We see the character of God as just a construct made by people, a personification of those ideas that serves to artificially tie the bad ones to the good ones. And that’s what we rail against: the construct. Because we think it’s a construct we can do without.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

What is a Kind?

So I was listening to a sort of informal debate the other day between a creationist and a couple of atheists, in which the creationist refused to engage in discussion of species and instead insisted on speaking of “kinds.” The argument he was making was basically that he believes “microevolution,” which he defines as changes within a “kind,” does occur, but “macroevolution,” which he defines as changing from one “kind” into another, does not. This resulted in the two sides talking past each other for a bit, since the atheists were taking him to mean “species,” when he was adamant that he was talking about “kinds,” but couldn’t or wouldn’t define what he meant.

Now I’m sort of assuming that what he intended it to mean is this thing creationists often talk about as Biblical kinds, referring to how Genesis talks of God’s creation of animals “each producing offspring after their own kind.” Of course, that would seem to fit rather neatly into the common definition of “species” (a group of organisms capable of mating together to produce fertile offspring). But it has been unequivocally demonstrated that it is possible to derive populations of organisms incapable to mating to produce offspring with their ancestor species, but able to do so amongst themselves, by purely natural means (i.e. the evolution of new species does occur). Thus, creationists have taken to insisting that a species is not what they’re talking about when referring to “kinds,” but rather some broader classification. The debater I mentioned above, while unable to provide a definition of a kind, tried to illustrate by example: he said cats are a kind, and dogs are a kind.

It took some further discussion to clarify that what he meant by “cats” was all felines (domestic cats, lions, tigers, cheetahs, pumas, lynxes, etc.) and by “dogs” he meant all canines (domestic dogs, wolves, coyotes, foxes, dingoes, jackals, etc.). This brought us back to his macroevolution point, which was to say that he didn’t believe any organism could evolve into a different “kind.” And he phrased it in terms of the question “How long does a dog need to evolve before it becomes not-a-dog?”

Now, the atheists in this particular debate never really got past the difference between “kind” as the creationist was using it, and “species.” This owes in part to the lack of a clear definition of “kind,” – personally, I suspect the definition of “kind” as creationists use it is “whatever level of classification is necessary to support the user’s incredulity that the members of one could be related to the members of another.” But the other problem is that the creationists’ question doesn’t actually make a lot of sense in the evolutionary perspective.

Let’s start by taking his examples of what a kind is (cats being one, dogs being another). He didn’t explicitly say it, but I think we can reasonably extrapolate that he’d consider bears (including brown bears, grizzly bears, polar bears, etc.) to be a kind, and horses (including horses, zebras, donkeys, etc.) yet another. And hopefully, by way of these illustrations, we can consider that we have a reasonable grasp of the concept he was getting at even if he was unable to define it.

But here’s the thing: those broad categories are, to an extent, arbitrary. Functionally, they really just sort of mean “these animals are similar enough to each other that we feel pretty comfortable lumping them together.” Most of the time, those similarities occur because the species in question are closely related to each other. For example, the reason all felines species share all those similarities is because in the relatively recent past their ancestors were all the same species. I think even the creationist who was making this argument would agree with that, given that he acknowledged that animals of the same “kind” could branch into different species.

Of course, when I say “relatively recent past,” I’m talking about anything between a few hundred thousand to a handful of millions of years.

Now, you may be thinking at this point “If you claim that all cats are related by ancestry, how can you say that grouping them together is arbitrary?” And the answer to that is because our perspective is limited by time.

You see, that last common ancestor shared by all cats that I just mentioned lived several million years before modern humans. By the time humans started recording this kind of stuff, virtually all of the modern cat species already existed. They had changed enough from that common ancestor in enough different directions that we could readily differentiate the species from each other, but were still closely related enough that they still shared a vast array of characteristics in common – what we might refer to as “feline features.” That’s the array of cats that we see today, and have seen throughout human history.

But suppose for a moment that we could go back in time to live when that common ancestor lived. None of the modern cats we see around us today would yet exist. Yet that “first cat” would have still have had relatives running around – other species to which it was closely related that shared a lot of features in common with it. Had we lived back then, with no knowledge of the coming evolution of “cats,” we would have likely referred to that group of closely related species as a “kind.” Let’s call that kind “feliforms.” And here we run into a handy example: the hyena.

Hyenas look a lot like dogs. Most people think they are. But genetically, they are far more closely related to cats, and there are a good number of feline physical and behavioral features in them that corroborate the relationship. Their distant ancestor living at the same time as our “first cat” would also have been part of the “feliform kind.” Hyenas, like cats and dogs, can be further divided into several separate but closely related species – if the definition of “kind” is to have any consistency, hyenas qualify as their own “kind.”

So we have two modern “kinds” (hyenas and cats) who are both descended from the feliform “kind.” So when did feliforms become not-feliforms?

The answer is “they never did.” Hyenas and cats remain feliforms to this day.

The only reason we think of cats as one kind and hyenas as another is that they had already evolved significant differences from each other before we started classifying and recording things (before, even, our ancient ancestors had even developed the capabilities to do so). If we could somehow have been around to observe the whole process from then to now, we’d just think of them as different species of feliforms – there would be no such words as “cat,” and “hyena” because they would be blended together in our thinking. The dividing line is arbitrary, based solely on our perspective in time.
Similarly, the ancient common ancestor of all feliform species would have been part of another “kind” which we’ll call carnivora, from which are descended all large carnivorous placental mammals. Here you would find the common ancestors of feliforms, caniforms (the common ancestors of dogs), ursiforms (the common ancestors of bears). Back then, they all would have been close enough to each other in appearance that we’d have called them a “kind” had we lived in that time. They were just as closely related to each other, at that point in time, as all cats are to each other today. And all of those animals’ descendants remain of the “carnivora kind” to this day. Cats are still feliforms, which in their time were still carnivora. Dogs are still caniforms, which in their day were still carnivora. Bears are still ursiforms, which were still carnivora as well. And if you go back even further, you find a common ancestor for all these “kinds.” According to fossils found in France fairly recently, he probably looked something like this:

All modern carnivorous placental mammals (cats, bears, hyenas, dogs, weasels, etc.) are believed to be descended from something like that. He belongs to a “kind” called carnivoraforms, which were the class of placental mammals that were adapting to a primarily carnivorous diet that lived roughly 55 million years ago. And every single one of those modern species is still a carnivoraform as you read this.

In a very real sense, no species ever becomes a different “kind.” We draw dividing lines between categories based on similarities and differences, which themselves are based on how recently in time those species were related. These “kinds” are just labels we apply to those categories.

So how long will it take a dog evolve to be not-a-dog? About as long as it took carnivoraforms to evolve into not-a-carnivoraform. Which is to say: in one sense, never, and in another sense, roughly until they’ve changed enough from what we traditionally consider to be dogs that we arbitrarily decide to call them something else.

An image began to form in my mind as I was trying to put this post together that may help illustrate the point. Imagine standing on a plain dotted with bushes. Let’s pretend that each bush represents a “kind,” with each branch representing a single species. Each branch clearly belongs to its own bush, and you know it can’t ever grow to be part of one of the other bushes. The ground here represents the point at which people started making recorded observations.

Now let’s say you start digging at the base of one of the bushes to see what the roots look like. You go down a few feet and discover that there’s another branch off of the trunk hidden under the dirt. So you dig out around that branch and discover that it actually is the trunk of the bush right next to the one you started at. Those two bushes that looked so distinct from each other above ground turn out to be part of the same plant!

You dig a little further, and continue to find branches. Some of them peter out before reaching the surface, but others turn out to be the trunks of all the bushes in your immediate area. Every one of them, for all that they looked from the surface like distinct individual bushes, turn out to be the same thing, and the only real difference between them is what direction they branched and how deeply under the earth (i.e., in the past) they happened to branch off.

Of course, the bushes continue to grow. And soil continues to build up on the plain. Maybe one day, the soil reaches high enough to cover the branch point on one of the bushes – at which point we might call those things two different bushes. But, knowing the truth about how they are related now, maybe we won’t. It will be our decision.

An evolutionist is someone who looks into the hole and recognizes what he is observing. A creationist is someone who stands on the plain, refuses to look into the hole, and continues to pretend that the bushes are separate things.