Atheist, Not by Choice

When folks find out that I’m an atheist, some ask “How can you not believe in God?” My answer is simple.  Because I don’t have proof that there is one. And, I’m not sure which one I should believe in even if i chose the path of believing without proof.

This is kind of a cheap answer in that I don’t believe there really ever can be sufficient proof to warrant a belief in a god or gods.  Unfortunately, “faith is not a true path to truth”, as Matt Dillahunty says and, like him, I prefer to believe as many true things as possible. After all, you can believe anything on faith if you want to.  Take, for example, the belief in Hindu gods versus the Abrahamic god.  Who is to say who is right or wrong when you place all your eggs in the “faith” basket?

I’m not going to get into all of the arguments for or against believing in a god because it’s been done a million times in a million different places, so the point of this post is to just say that I am an atheist and it’s not really my choice.

Science is the only way to measure the real world and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other way that has proven to be reliable. In time, scientific theories change based on the data, but that’s real data that is observed in the known universe. Since I live in the known universe, I kinda have to go where the evidence takes me. I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know” to the answers of life’s biggest mysteries or create answers of my own where existentialism guides me. Can we ever know what happened before the Big Bang? I don’t know if we can, however, can I know the meaning of life?  Sure, I can.  It’s my life and I can ascribe whatever meaning I want to it.

What about the afterlife?  Do I have an answer for that?  Nope, I don’t. And you may, but it’s not necessarily correct. It may shock you to learn that it doesn’t matter to me, either.  After all, which afterlife is correct? Will I go to hell for being a non-believer?  If so, which one? Is it Naraka or the H-E-double hockey sticks, fire and brimstone, Christian Hell?  Or, maybe I’ll be reincarnated as he Buddhists believe?  No evidence is available for any of them, so the odds are is that someone has to get it wrong.

The other argument is that theists give me is that without a god, where do I get my morality from?  How can I be a moral human being?  Well, I am.  And, I’m not sure why, but I tend to agree with some scientists who believe our morals come from the fact that we are social animals.  We have developed social contracts, implicitly and innately, because it benefits us as a species.  Killing one of our own is counterproductive to species survival.  We simply have to get along to survive.  For the 1% of folks who are psychotic or sociopathic – well, they are an anomaly. All species have them.  That’s what accounts for albinos (not to say albinos are psychotic or bad in any way). Plus, the morality of a god can always be questioned.  The Judeo-Christian Bible has a god who does nothing to dissuade us from slavery and thinks homosexuals should be killed.  As a species, we’ve largely moved past those ideals (although, I have to acknowledge that some of us have not).

When asked about his morality, Penn Jillette – famous magician, libertarian and atheist – has said that he has raped exactly as many people as he has wanted to. None. Zero.  I can say the same and I made that decision without the need to consult a holy book to see if it is right or wrong.  I am sympathetic towards others and, more so, I am empathetic.  I can relate to their pain and suffering as well as their joy and elation.  No god has told me how to do that and it cannot be proven those one has instilled those qualities within me.

Of course, I can blindly agree to worship a god, and I can select which one I want to adore and prostrate myself before.  But, still, not making a choice is a choice in itself.  Most religious folks, and I mean “most” and not “all” don’t make the choice themselves.  Their selection is based on upbringing or geography.  I find it very rare, although possible, that a baby brought up in a Southern Baptist household in Alabama would ever choose to be a Sikh or Jain.  Likewise, I don’t see a child growing up in Calcutta choosing to be a Calvinist. For me, I don’t feel that I really need to make a decision, ultimately, so I am an atheist but not by choice.

 

 

 

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My (Obsession with) Death

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Image courtesy of EMCrit.

Some of you may have seen my recent essay I wrote titled The Mortality of Me. If you haven’t, I would ask that you give it a read.  It reflects some of my thoughts on my own mortality which, as I approach the age of AARP (50), is something that one tends to ponder every now and then.  But, what has really made me think about it is my On Death and Dying course that I’m taking as part of my Philosophy degree. Later on, I will also publish a short research paper on death anxiety, which, I think, will be an eye opener for some of you.

But, here’s the message: Do not be afraid of death.

I know you probably can’t help it.  After all, as culture anthropologist Ernest Becker has told us in his book Denial of Death, we can’t really escape our fear of death or the terror it brings us subconsciously. Without getting too far into the weeds on that one, I think Dr. Sheldon Solomon explains it a little better when he expands on Becker by explaining that we are dualistic in nature – both physical and spiritual.  Our physical self is our body and our spiritual self is our mind.  Because of this spiritual self, our minds, we are the only species on this plant that we know of that can imagine a past and future while experiencing a present.  And, because we can imagine a future and it’s possibilities, we also know that eventually our bodies will die.  Philosopher Martin Heidegger and the Buddhists both realize the truth in this statement and not only do they know it is certain, but they also know that we don’t know when it’s coming.  The Buddhists say that you are only one breath away from your last.  Poignant, if not scary for some.

The point here is that we are finite beings as far as we know.  There is no sufficient proof of reincarnation or of an afterlife, although some assert their truth valiantly.  That’s all speculation, however, it is certain and observable that we all die. All living things do and this cannot be in dispute.  So, what do you with this information?

Well, some would succumb to an existential crisis of sorts.  They will try to find meaning in and for their lives by pursuing what Becker calls an “immortality” project.  In other words, we will seek immortality in some cultural way whether it is by having children, creating works of art and literature, or, like Freud, revolutionizing a line of thought. Social scientists and philosophers love to that.  In fact, that’s pretty much their self-prescribed reason for being.  There’s nothing wrong with that at all.

Many people will say that they don’t like to think about death because it’s morbid or sad.  I can agree with that, especially if you think about losing a loved one, but I would ask for you to reconsider when thinking of yourself. Don’t be the soldier in the foxhole who is more threatened by his buddy’s demise than his own. If you think about the finitude of your life, then you will begin to think about its meaning.  Don’t look to your prayer-book or to the stars to find that meaning, either.  You won’t find it, or, if you do, it will be the meaning that someone else has ascribed to you.

Life is meaningless.  This is what Alfred Camus taught us. The universe doesn’t owe you anything, especially a reason to live. This is where you come in.  Existentialists like Camus realized that we must find our own meaning, what he calls the “revolt against the absurd”, and pursue it with an inner honesty. Be authentic to yourself and live the life you want to live.

To be fair, I am not an existentialist by any means since I don’t believe in Free Will but I do believe that our lives are determined to follow a st path that we oftentimes reject or refuse to accept. We purposely take the wrong forks in the road because someone is whispering in our ears to do so, but, eventually, hopefully, we find out way to the right path even of we have to backtrack.

 

Why the March for Our Lives was Really Important

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Image courtesy of MegaAgent.

According to The United States Election Project, voter turnout for young people aged 18-29 has not been very impressive for a very long time.  That age group has historically been the lowest to turn out to vote, topping at around 45% in 2014.  In 2016, they were around 42%, with the majority voting for Hillary Clinton.  Around 24 million votes were cast by that demographic, so doing some rough math, that left around 30 million votes that were not cast by the future of our country. That’s enough to make you shake your head in disgust at  the very least.

Since Trump got elected (by the Electoral College, not the people), I have made some comments to fellow students at the local community college that I do not regret about how they need to become more involved with our political process.  That’s advice I did not take when I was young, so I pretty much counted on it not being followed in this day and age since politics has become so much more divisive.  I mean, I really can’t blame the youth of today from being disenfranchised when, as an adult, I frequently lose hope in our system.  In my Introduction to Political Science class, I am sadly unsurprised by the fact that students have no idea about current events and frequently are at a loss to relate to history that has occurred in their lifetime.  That frustrated me, but I understood it.

But, on March 24th, I may have changed my mind.  When I watched the March for Our Lives protests on television, when I saw the photos from all around the country (and world!), when I heard the voices of young people – as young as 11 years old – promising that this would be the beginning of the revolution, I felt a swell of pride.  There was hope seeping out of my cynicism.

No matter how you feel about gun control, if you feel anything but pride for our country and our future, then you are, quite frankly, an asshole.  The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were responsible for amassing around 800,000 protestors of all ages to peacefully petition their country.  They registered voters and inspired voters to register.  They fully engaged in our political system the way it was meant to be engaged in.  These young adults are true American patriots and citizen leaders of the highest order.

I’m not going to point out the offenses that the NRA and others have perpetrated against them.  Those people/groups are interested only in their own survival and not the public good.  I hope they see that is the wrong choice because their days are indeed limited.  Maybe they don’t see it, or maybe they do and they just want to go down fighting, but they are at the end of their ropes for sure.  I can feel it.  I hope you can, too.

#MarchforOurLives #NeverAgain

 

I Can’t Decide if I have Free Will

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Image courtesy of Slate.com

For the last few weeks, I have been ironically struggling with the idea of Free Will and whether or not I actually have it.  It seems odd, at least, to be wavering on the decision that I have a decision to make, but, alas, that’s what’s been happening.

Let me break down my choices for you.

First, there is the philosophy of libertarian free will which states that I, as an agent, have complete free will.  It takes into account that there are events that may influence my choice, but, ultimately, my choices are my own.  For example, I can choose to hit a baseball with my bat, however, I did not make the choice to throw the ball.  And, the choice to hit it or not is not based on anything but my own will – there are no prior events or decisions that led me to that choice. And, this philosophy also gives you room to have made a different choice given the same situation, a fantasy we all fancy at one time or another.

Then there is the opposite, known as determinism, which states that all choices are the result of prior causes – known or unknown.  In other words, free will is an illusion. Sam Harris, a neuroscientist, is a big proponent of this, as many other scientists are across many different disciplines. You can read Sam’s book, Free Will, which is a short, but enlightening read, or you can see him speak about it here.  He essentially lays out the case that your brain is making decisions before you’re even conscious of the decision.  Here’s one example he uses – think of a famous actor.  Think of another.  Now another.  Did you choose Sylvester Stallone?  You certainly know who he is, so why was he not presented as a choice?  Surely, your brain made the decision, for some reason, to not present him to you as an option.

(What I am not including here is fatalism which is a more extreme version of determinism that basically asks why you should make any decisions since shit is just gonna happen anyway, so you may as well just ride the wave.)

Then there is a third option known as compatibilism.  Compatibilism is basically a combination of libertarian free will and determinism.  It states that, although the choice is yours, your will is not.  Your will is determined (as determinism also states) by things like genetics, culture, nature, economics, etc., but the decision to act is yours.  As an example, you had no choice but to be homosexual, but you can choose how to express it or not express it at all.

They are all interesting choices and after thinking about it, I have ruled out libertarian free will.  It is really hard to see a world where our choices are not influenced in some way and we have complete control over them.  When given a choice, we don’t always do what we should – we eat bad food even though we know we shouldn’t, we smoke cigarettes, drink too much, etc., but we also have all the years of baggage and history that have shaped our minds in such a way that our consciousness limits our choices because that is what it is trained to do.  Students sit in assigned seats because teachers make them do so.  Because of that conditioning, those students go to college and sit in the same seat every time even though they aren’t assigned.

Of course, the problem with not having free will is that it gives an excuse to people who commit heinous crimes, which is pretty much what determinism does.  It states that all actions, all decisions, are determined by previous causes.  And, you can easily see how this is possible.  How many times have we heard about a mass murderer who was abused or was bullied? In some cases, they have physiological defects or brain damage or tumors that affect inhibitions.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be punished, it just means that we should react differently.  Rather than feel anger or the need for revenge, determinism says that we should feel compassion because, if you think about it, if you switched places with that person and experienced exactly what they did, would you have made the same choices?  Determinism says, if all is equal, that you would.

Compatibilism is a cushy, yet wishy-washy choice.  I keep thinking that the reason I lean towards this philosophy is because I want to feel like I have some free will and that since I don’t know the “unknown causes” behind determinism, that I can take responsibility for some of what I do. But, this just seems like another way of defining libertarianism.

For a better explanation of Free Will vs. Determinism, see this fantastic video.
Crash Course Philosophy #24

Meditation is not Prayer

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I recently had a nice, civil conversation with a Christian friend of mine and he mentioned that he prays regularly and that he saw no difference between meditation and prayer. As a mindfulness practitioner, I felt I had to correct him, but it got me thinking how many people also believe this?

The conversation began when we were discussing the mass shootings that have plagued the US in the last few years and how I thought that “thoughts and prayers” had become more of a meme than a serious call to action. He disagreed, of course, saying that it is perfectly reasonable to pray for guidance and for the souls of those who were slain unnecessarily.  I disagreed and didn’t do so humbly.

Prayer, by my definition, is an appeal to a supernatural force to intervene.  Oftentimes, prayer is an appeal for some sort of advantage to yourself, like praying for health of a loved one or to win a sports contest.  Even the idea of “praying for strength” to cope with some hardship is a long distance call to a supernatural being from the supplicant. It’s purely a plea to something (or someone) external.

Meditation is different.  To meditate, you are not attempting to garner the attention of some mythical being in order to improve yourself or your situation.  The idea of meditation is to look inward, and to muster your own capacity for overcoming suffering by summoning compassion and equanimity. The goal of meditation is to learn how to be a part of the experiences that transpire around you and to accept that you have a role. You are really reaching deep within to find a way to handle the misfortunes of a chaotic world by being mindful.

What is mindfulness then?  It is simply being present – in the now.  The benefit of that is that you are able to assess the present through fresh eyes by ceasing ruminations of the past and eliminating any compulsion to predict the future.  Let’s face it, we simply have no control over what has happened already and what may or may not happen in the future.  The only thing we can control is what is happening now, specifically how we react to our happenstance, for better or for worse.

Whether you pray or meditate during a crisis, such as a relative or loved one becoming afflicted with a serious illness, neither method will actually cure the sickness.  I think both a pray-er and a meditator know that, although, some televangelists would likely tell you otherwise.  Prayer summons the power of a god and that god can heal all afflictions, they say, but I don’t believe this is what the majority of religious people believe.  The difference would be that there is a sort of hypocrisy about prayer that makes is shallow.  If you believe in a god, you most likely believe that god has a “plan”, that he “works in mysterious ways” and that he “only gives us what we can handle”.  If that’s so, then your god most likely gave your loved one a deadly illness that you are asking him to undo through kneeling down and showing him that you love him (and trust him).  Reversing his decision by healing your loved one would make him either fallible or a sadist. That is a problem for the pious.

Meditators accept their fates and prepare for it by living a life of compassion and understanding.  A meditator would be bedside, recounting memories, reading a book, listening to music or whatever makes their loved one comfortable in the moment.  There would be no thought or expression of pain to come. Even if the moment comes where their loved one dies, the meditator accepts the impermanence of this life and doesn’t mourn for the end of it, but, instead, celebrates the end of suffering.

I can’t think of a better way to deal with life’s twists and turns, to be honest.  I don’t want to worry about what my afterlife will bring since I don’t really have any idea that it actually exists, but I do want to effectively cope with each moment that I know that I am alive – I can see, touch, smell. taste and hear.  I can do good not my wishing for some celestial being to intercede, but by practicing a life of mindfulness, compassion and appreciation of the well-being of myself and others.

Also, when I find the strength to overcome suffering, I kinda want to take credit for it myself.

 

Are Men Really This Bad? Probably.

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Image courtesy of Christianity Today (believe it or not!)

Harvey Weinstein. Jeffrey Tambour. Roy Moore. Al Franken. Charlie Rose. Kevin Spacey. Bill Cosby. Danny Masterson. Louis CK. Donald Trump. Matt Lauer…and so on and so on.

These are but a few of the names that have recently been spotlighted as sexual predators.  We see their names in the news every day – a growing list of men who have embarrassed themselves, humiliated and abused women and have made our sex look incredibly vile. And there doesn’t seem to be many people who are surprised by this.  I feel like I have been finally been awakened but I’m really groggy.

I was going to write a post about how confused I am about this whole thing; that I wonder how these men have gotten away with these acts of perversion for so long and how they even had the gall to even do them in the first place.  I was even going to compare the acts of one perv to another to gain some personal perspective, but after I read it, I realized how much of an apologist I looked like. I hate apologists.

Then I thought about my own past and if there was ever anything I did that may have put some poor woman in a humiliating situation.  Did I take advantage of someone? Sure, I’m no Hollywood scumbag, but there are plenty of men who are normal Joes that are also guilty of these crimes, although they aren’t the headline du jour.  After reflecting for a while, I didn’t recall anything.

I then realized this was a useless exercise.  What if Louis CK thought to himself, “Hey, I asked and they said ‘yes’, so no harm, no foul, right?” Maybe Matt Lauer just thought he was being flirty?

The point is that we, as men, cannot judge our actions through our own eyes.  We cannot be trusted. Obviously. So we have to listen to the parties, the women, we have offended and we have to take their accusations seriously.  To say that they should have come forward sooner or to say that they acquiesced is to excuse our own abhorrent behavior.  The truth of the matter is that we should not have put them in that position in the first place.  Louis should have never even asked.  Roy should never have looked at a 14 year old (allegedly), Bill should have never cheated on his wife and therefore, never even have gotten in the position where he would slip women roofies.  Harvey should have kept his bathrobe in the closet and wore normal clothes and jerked off in the privacy of his own home – alone.  Just to name a few…

Are men really this bad? Perhaps we are.  Maybe we are addicted to the patriarchy.  Dr. Joseph Pleck seems to think that we can’t help ourselves from buying into it. He posits that men not only express power over women, but among each other.  We have ranks in the military for this purpose, for example.  Straight men seek to wield power over gay men by humiliating them and by trying to take away their rights.

And what do we do to encourage it, knowingly or not?  Is it as simple as painting the room blue for a baby boy and pink for a baby girl?  Does it happen as early as childhood – boys play with toy trucks and girls play with toy dolls? Or are we still so young in our evolution that we think we still need to be the Alpha Male, spear the largest buffalo, and assume power over our tribe?

I am hopeful that this is a watershed moment for our society.  I am hopeful that we are humble enough to reflect on ourselves as a sex as a whole and not just blame a “few bad apples”.  This time in our history has exposed us (no pun intended) as the insecure sex, not the stronger sex.  We need to let this happen to ourselves and be open to the changes that are coming. We need to evolve socially if we aren’t going to do it biologically.

Modern Day Milgram

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In 1961, Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, developed an experiment to test how people would react to authority.  In his test, he set up a device that simulated an electric shock that was delivered to people (“learner”) who incorrectly answered questions that were asked by a “teacher”.  The “teacher” was actually the test subject and the person being shocked was an actor who suffered no damage because there was no actual shock.

As the “learner” answered each question incorrectly, the “teacher”would increase the power of the shock.  At 150 volts, the “learner” began to cry out that he had a heart problem and he wasn’t feeling well.  At that point, the test subject had a choice to continue despite the increasing complaints or to stop despite incessant urging from the person leading the experiment who sat right next to them.

An entire 45 minute documentary can be found here. To save you a little time, I’ll tell you that 65% of the “teachers” (26 of 40) went all the way to 450 volts despite the cries of the “learner”.  So, they continued to inflict pain on another human being for the sole reason that an authority figure told them to do so.

Of course, there were a lot of questions about the ethics of this experiment and that the all of the test subjects were white men, but, hey, that was the 1960’s for you. But it does make one ponder the impact of authority over a person and whether or not they will give up their morality, their sense of right and wrong, if they are told to do so.  Obvious connections to Nazi soldiers were made in this experiment which was actually the point to begin with.

In this day and age, are we subject to the same drive – to please an authority figure to the degree that we would shun responsibility for hurting another human being?

In 2006, there was the famous Mount Washington Strip Search scam where a prank caller called a fast food restaurant posing as a police office and convinced a pair of adults to strip search a teenager and then engage in sexual molestation. The adults never even saw the actual person giving them instructions to demean and abuse this underage girl, yet they did it anyway.

Now, expand that a thousand-fold and think to yourself how similar distasteful and potentially illegal acts could be performed by unwilling people if they were commanded by a President or other elected official.  How about if someone like the Pope or some other high-ranking religious official told you to do something you would normally find abhorrent?  Would you toss away your own personal morals and ethics to please that authority figure?

Would you?