Riker's Mailbox

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


Started 11/3/06, completed 8/8/07


I read an interesting theory about life, in which it is hypothetically supposed that humans are not so much a lifeform, but a byproduct of a lifeform... that DNA itself is the real animal, the defined living being. The means by which it found the solution to its survival is clumping together in a massive swarm that spends a period of time advancing through stages which ultimately allow it to combine with another swarm of DNA which will allow the new generation to propagate...

Life itself is, when conceptually condensed for the sake of the argument, simply the persistence of information: the significant pattern arranged in a (relatively or even arbitrarily) meaningful way. In the case of humans, it is their DNA and all its associated emergent attributes.

When viewing a homologous sample population of a particular sect of any organized religion, the same type of pattern is identifiable in the higher-order philosophical arguments and belief systems... to that end, some have called religion a 'virus of the mind'.

In recent years, I found myself coming to that realization on my own. Seeing religion itself as a 3rd order sociological lifeform: Self-sustaining, reproducing, and adaptive; whereas humans are constructed in a tangible medium of molecules... religion is a swarm entity literally made of the intangible stuff of mob mentality, cemented together by vestigial fight-or-flight instincts. Fear. Anger. What's especially interesting to me is that this 3rd order lifeform exhibits evolutionary footprints itself. It conforms to the broad definition of life, and even follows rules out of the same playbook we do. A virus of the mind. There is a pointedness to that description... not many viruses are known to benefit their hosts.

A Roman Catholic born and raised, I believed in what I was taught from the beginning. I didn't always have the presence of mind, however, to be aware that I never felt the presence of God. Eventually, I grew more self-aware, and noticed at least in the background, that I never felt this thing I believed in. But time passes, and experience hones the ability to process data like these. Inevitably my Catholicism fell by the wayside. If you asked me about religion, I'd likely reply, "I'm not into organized religion, but I'm one of the most spiritual people you'll ever meet." And yet, I wasn't done with organized religion. I was compelled to study it. Not just Christianity, either. I had developed a ravenous appetite for theological materials. I would study it and get into deep conversations about it. Something in me wouldn't let me leave religion alone.

For a long time, I studied it. For a long time, I exhausted myself trying to define my place along the spectrum of faith. For a long time I firmly planted myself within the boundary of agnosticism, but something still wasn't right. Agnostic. It really worked well publicly, but it didn't describe me. There was something truer than that, but it was a scary word indeed. It was another A-word. Luckily, a matter of semantics reconcile an inadequacy of a definition...

The religious and the agnostics draw a circle, within which is the natural and explainable, outside of which lies the supernatural. The religious populate this external region with God. The agnostics don't populate it with anything, but they make sure the space is reserved in case anything does occupy it. The problem with this is that they've fixed the proportions. I draw my circle, and if something comes into my experience that falls outside that circle, I have the liberty of drawing a larger circle to accommodate it. The religious drew their circle and it has a fixed area. More accurately, someone drew the circle for them, in a time when there was not much known about the universe. The circle was very small indeed. They managed to cram most of our modern knowledge into that fixed space, which only makes it easier for them to imagine the 'rest of it/the undiscovered' in the supernatural space outside the circle. The circle to them is a point-of-no-further-investigation. But I can just keep drawing my circle bigger and bigger. There is no limit to the canvas of a scientific mind.

Something new became apparent to me here. Not only am I not religious, I am not agnostic. The larger and larger my circle gets, the more magnificent the entire universe becomes to me. The larger circle has no stigma attached, no dogma applied, no means to induce fear or doubt. The larger circle is that of an atheist. My current assessment then, is that the term 'atheism' accounts for this sense of wonderment quite adequately.

More concisely: if something is proven/explained that was previously regarded in terms of the supernatural, then by the fact of its discovery it is obviously a part of this universe, and is therefore part of nature. This is consistent through all of recorded history. Thus, something as of yet unexplained is likely to be a part of nature that we haven't yet mastered... but a part of nature nonetheless.

I'd take this perspective so far as to say if the anthropomorphic God of ethical monotheism walked out of a cloud and announced his existence irrefutably to the world, then the only logical conclusion I could make is that there is this 'god aspect' of nature heretofore undiscovered, with its own fundamental properties. There'd be a whole new category of physics to learn about: God physics. How he reads minds and can be everywhere at once and how he exists on his (or apart from all) timescales. Those would be exciting times for scientists!

Going back to my 'circle' analogy, it seems rather arbitrary and unnecessary to draw the circle once we realize that there are things yet to be discovered in the natural universe. Why then do we feel that we need to draw a line that separates the unknown of the natural universe and the 'supernatural'? What value is a border if the things on either side of it are identical? That's all we're doing: going into the already unknown (which is obviously the worst place to start concocting firm assertations) and draw a line, saying, "...and past this line is the more unknown." If it's even more unknown than the unknown, how can we possibly know enough about it to conclude that it is definitely unknowable? In truth, the only responsible position is to avail oneself to the idea that time is a powerful tool and say, "it is not yet understood." No deadlines, no goals. Just the humility to admit that we cannot understand it, but someday, somebody better might come along.

It's a paradox, or perhaps is ironic, to consider that the hardiest argument for god is the "incalculable complexity" of the world we live in. They look at what science has presented and call it too cumbersome to be taken seriously. They say that it's foolish to try to explain it with intricate theories. They say the simplest answer is usually the correct answer. In that statement, I agree with them completely. To shake a leaf out of their own tree for a moment: You know what's the most complex thing in the universe? God. Their 'simple answer', by their own definition, is in fact something so complex as to be considered unknowable.

Whereas evolution is about simple beginnings that lead to more developed ends, looking back from the religious perspective means you end up looking at something more complicated than what you're struggling to justify here and now. What makes more logical sense: tracing back from today's complexity to ever simpler iterations the further back you go, or tracing back to something that gets more complicated the further back you look, all the way to the conceptual limits of an infinitely complex god who's been around an infinitely long time? And let's say that the latter strikes you, for some reason, as the more logical of the two. Then I shall ask a better question. Which of those two scenarios does a better job of addressing the actual question: how do I explain the complexity around us now? If your answer is "it was more complex in the past", then you've shot yourself in the foot with a rather large bullet. Because if it was worth it to you to ask about the universe's complexity, wouldn't it be more worth it to ask about God's greater complexity? That's only a rhetorical question because the religious would never dare to ask that. In the meantime, Remember that simple beginnings are easy to explain. Unfathomable complexity, on the other hand, should have no part in any sentence with the word 'answer' in it. The complexity of the world around us was slightly simpler yesterday. It was simpler still the day before. And you know what? There are enough yesterdays to follow that progression back to the very beginning. And a trillion or so to spare.

But the faithful want to save me. They say, "All you have to do is obey God's rules and you will be rewarded with entrance into heaven." So, you want me to take part in an experiment that will occupy me for the REST OF MY LIFE, and it turns out that I'm right, I won't know until I'm dead, which is another way of saying I'll never get to know. Those are awfully high stakes to play with. Awfully high stakes for a pretty peculiar reward: my sincere difficulty with this is that their intentions are based upon the notion that there is the magnificent gift of heaven ahead of us all. But that argument would only seem to hold water if there wasn't this massively rewarding life I'm living right here and now. Even to tally up all the joy I've experienced in my relatively short 26 years of life is a tremendous amount of evidence for this life being rewarding enough - that they fail to notice this is what astounds me. Their tunnel vision is incomparable; it's something akin to using a microscope to view the room you're sitting in.

This also brings about stunning implications: I spoke of the apparent invalidity of the heavenly-reward concept as evidenced by how rewarding life on earth was. That sentence may have sounded to you as subjective and terribly shortsighted. I could have worded my statement more precisely, instead saying that there were examples of how rewarding life on earth could be. I admit that I have had a fortunate life, and I therefore represent a painfully small fraction of the human population. There are hundreds of millions (and I sadly suspect more than a billion) of people alive today who will not be alive for long. Their short lives will have consisted of only hardship, suffering, and despair. While I was, in a way, 'for' the end of religion as we know it, I had previously decided that I would not be militantly so. I understood that there are people out there (like those I described above), a great many, in fact, for whom religious belief is a wholly positive influence on their lives; a refuge from a life of physical and emotional starvation. But it's simply not good enough to let them have their faith at the cost of letting them die tragic deaths for lack of intervention. As such I now realize that I am militantly 'for' the end of organized religion. I say so without remorse because I acknowledge a very real problem that invalidates the "But what about all the good things the Church does for people?" argument. No church spends all their money for good works. They may spend a large portion, but there is ALWAYS a portion that is spent on sustaining itself and on gaining new members. That money spent harvesting believers represents a significant opportunity cost. With equal funding, a nonreligious organization will always have the capacity to care for and to improve the lives of more people than the religious one whose true intent is to make people religious before making them well. If we reach the understanding that this life is indeed the only one we are privileged enough to experience, and we also see that not all of us (and in fact most of us) desperately need more help than even the most dedicated and capable can provide, then there is only one conclusion: it is in our hands; we must decide to make this Earth into our collective heaven or let it be hell for them. We have to stop wasting money on organizations that cannibalize our good will.

Consider that. The pyramids were, with the obvious exception of their geometry, pointless. How many hours, how much raw material, how many lives were consumed in the building of these religious monuments? They serve well as a poignant example of the resource-sapping by the religious that occurs even today, though to a thankfully less drastic extent.

For the record, I used the term 'militantly' tongue-in-cheek. I don't want to firebomb a church or support the violent overthrow of any religious organization. I could never advocate sacrificing them for the benefit of the rest of mankind, even if there would be a morbid symmetry to the whole thing. I suppose the more accurate term would be 'vigorously'. That's it.

I am vigorously advocating the end of organized religion as we know it.

So that leaves me with few options. The best one I can fathom is to be a part of the grassroots effort to show a public and unafraid face to the world. There are more atheists out there than have been counted, and the best thing for them to see is that it's getting easier to admit it. The only way to topple the tower is to weaken the foundation, and that means that we have to spread the word bottom-up. Don't think that I don't realize that I'm describing a Mission. It pains me that we have to play that same game with the same people. Spiritual ping pong. But it's the only tool we have and if we're serious about wanting to change the world for the better, it's a tool we must use.

Why am I so confident that theism is incorrect? Because I can satisfactorily explain why 95% of the world's population can be wrong about their belief.

Yahweh, for example, was a small and petty tribal god. In his ten commandments (of which there are more like 20-30, most of which are grotesque, unethical, or just plain obtuse), he identifies himself as 'the one true god', which is not to say that he is the only supernatural being in the universe. Rather, it serves to validate the idea that other gods did exist, but Yahweh's own people would get into some serious trouble if they were to take any time to worship them. He says, 'do not honor other gods than me'... now why would he say that unless there were other gods vying for their reverence? He should've said 'there are no other gods than me'.

...but I digress.

So what was the value in a tribe believing in their tribal god? Survival value. Small tribes get into wars with other small tribes. Survival then was a luxury, not a right as it is becoming in present times. You'd better believe there was a value to a tribal warrior about to go into battle, knowing that there was a power greater than his own who was going into battle with him. Who is the more effective warrior, the one who knows only of his own muscle and agility, or the one who has a divine protection? Which one is more aggressive? Which one, statistically speaking, is more likely to deal a crippling blow to an adversary? Which of the two, at the end of the day, is more likely not just to have survived, but to have survived as a member of the victorious tribe, the one to whom all the land is now bestowed? Those who found a resourcefulness in supernatural belief survived and populated the planet.

One thing I want to address: I've been reading some books lately by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, and have been scouring countless atheist web pages... but nobody "taught" me atheism. It was a conclusion I came to along the way while growing up. But that is not to say that there was a defining moment in which a switch was flipped and I said, "okay, I'm atheist now." It's a description that I gradually came closer and closer to resembling as I matured and resolved my ideologies with greater and greater precision. The closest I could come to pointing out the defining moment was the reconciled definition I spoke of earlier in this essay. Not a single thing about who I was or what I believed changed in the slightest. Only the language I used to describe it was eschewed in lieu of something more accurate, and if I may go so far as to say, more 'confident'.

People claim to use the god concept to answer fundamental questions. But there is a difference between answers and excuses. Especially considering that it's always only one excuse. "This thing we don't understand? Well, it's because of God." Pardon me for preferring answers. I don't need to know everything right now. Is that the only reason we need a be-all-end-all answer? Because we're not comfy unless we can account for everything? Is that why people need God so much? To be a shortcut to the comfort of having everything accounted for? I promise that I will get to know much, much more, by pacing myself... by accepting that I don't need to have an answer for everything right now... the answers will come as soon as we become 'enough' to be capable of understanding them. Meanwhile, I'm not sweating. I'm just busy learning more. And I could not be more fulfilled.

This essay is my public affirmation of rationality. I am atheist. Society isn't content to let that go by so quietly the way they would if I were to say "I am left-handed". They want it to be my title, like it defines me as opposed to defining one of my attributes. They label me an atheist.

Fine. If you give me a badge, then I'm going to wear it. I am an atheist. I'm joining the ranks of those who will speak out in defense of those who are misunderstood and persecuted for their lack of religious beliefs. I am just about finished with the word 'supernatural'.

For me, from now on, the word supernatural will only have one purpose. It will define an empty-set. It is a reminder to me that, according to my rules, nothing shall ever occupy that space. It's a rather dualistic thing in itself, really. It is the hard-line boundary I have set to the universe, and it is by being so, the thing that enables the borders of the 'natural' to expand indefinitely so long as we find new things to put there. It reminds me that there is not a single shred of evidence uncovered in the collective history of mankind that would suggest that we cannot eventually understand a mysterious thing we've encountered. There is no reason to think any less of ourselves.

Thanks for bearing with me on that; I know that was a long read.

And, thus begins the new incarnation of Prose Justice. While there will still appear the occasional 'personal journal' entry, the primary purpose of this blog will be to share my thoughts on the atheists' uphill battle to carve out a safe space to exist in the United States and on the internet. My dream is to help make that place a place from which we may concert our efforts toward making the world a safer and better place for all humankind. There is a lot more to come.

This essay was, believe it or not, much longer at one point. A byproduct of the fact that I spent eight months writing it was that the piece jumped around from topic to topic. Before publishing it, I pruned it down until it focused mainly on my deconversion and my justification of atheism. The rest of the chunks have been kept as individually-packaged snippets, and will be published here at a rate of one every couple days or so. At present there are about thirty of these posts waiting in the wings. I am continuing to write new ones on a pretty regular basis as well. So, this blog will become much more active than it has ever been.
I will also point out, tongue in cheek, that I made good on my promise to stop using a one-word post-titling scheme in order to make it easier for readers to find articles of interest to them. I am now using (for all atheism-related posts) a two-word titling scheme, the first word always being 'BLASPHEMY'.

I crack myself up.

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