I'm a Believer!
There is a pervasive and somewhat lopsided tendency in our society to separate fellow humans into the categories of being either "believers" or "nonbelievers." The not-so-subtle implication is usually that there is something wrong with you if you are a "nonbeliever."
Let's play a little game; I'll take the position that there really is something wrong with nonbelievers. But first, let's swap the traditional idea of who is a believer and who is a nonbeliever.
For example, if I have a ball in my hand and I hold my arm straight out from my body and I drop the ball, I believe that the ball will always fall "down"—towards the ground. In our game, nonbelievers are the people who will say that god can make the ball go up, or sideways, or turn into a flying cheeseburger and flap its wings at the moon.
If we get all the nonbelievers on Earth to PRAY really hard, and ask god to make the ball go "up" when I let go of it, I still believe it will go down.
If you ask a believer why the ball will go down instead of up, the typical explanation you will get is that "gravity is a force that attracts two objects proportional to their mass." In general, the answers that believers give you will have something to do with gravity, and the answers will be relatively consistent on average. Without some external physical force (a blast of air, or someone swatting it with a tennis racket for example), believers will say that the ball will drop "down" even if you conduct the experiment hundreds of billions of times, as long as the Earth and the ball have mass.
However, if you ask all the nonbelievers why praying to god doesn't ever change the fact that the ball goes down when dropped, you will get a bunch of different, inconsistent, and largely contradictory answers.
One of the answers you might get is that "god doesn't work that way." I love that answer, I hear it all the time. I keep asking all the nonbelievers how god does work, and no one really seems to know. The fallback response, however, is this: "you have to have faith."
Ok, I'll accept that. I am a person of absolute unwavering faith, and I will gladly put the full conviction of my faith up against any nonbeliever any day.
For example, take the often-used and abused scenario of a bus full of girls from a Catholic school coming home after an event at an out of town church. Before the bus left for home, everyone in the church prayed for them to have a safe journey. However, as they go down the mountain road on their way home... the brakes on the bus go out. Let's stop this picture in our minds just inches before the bus runs off the road and over a cliff. I believe that the laws of physics dictate that the momentum of the bus will carry it forward causing it to crash.
Nonbelievers might form a different picture in their heads. They may imagine that since the church prayed for the safe return of the girls, and as they are all baptized Christians, the hand of god will surely reach out and change the trajectory of the bus.
However, if given the choice, would you stay on the bus... or get off as it's careening towards the edge of the cliff? I have faith in the laws of physics, so I would get off. I suspect that—given the choice—most nonbelievers would get off as well. Nonbelievers lack faith.
Believers will say that god cannot change the laws of physics. nonbelievers have very mixed opinions on this issue.
Some nonbelievers will try to argue that the two views are not necessarily incompatible. I've heard every possible crackpot explanation as to how god can interact with the physical world without breaking the laws of physics; some of them are truly bizarre.
To save all these poor, frightened little girls from going over a cliff requires overcoming the momentum of the bus. Momentum is calculated as the weight of the bus times its speed, which is a substantial amount of energy. The energy required to overcome that momentum needs to come from somewhere; can raw energy be "conjured up" by god, as many nonbelievers without faith would argue?
As a true and unwavering believer, I will firmly state my faith in the fact that ANY interaction between "god" and the physical world would break the laws of physics. I'm not talking just about the bus—I'm saying that even changing the path of one solitary, insignificant photon is not possible. In the entire life of our universe, it has not happened and it will never happen. I am a believer in the truest sense of the word.
Speaking of photons, many nonbelievers also claim that god sees everything and hears everything. Let's explore that a little bit.
If I look up in the sky at night and see a star, I'm seeing the photons that were emitted from that star at some time in the past (depending on how far away the star is). Let's take Lalande 21185 as an example, the sixth closest star to us here on Earth (some 8.3 light years away). Lalande 21185 is emitting photons in every direction. An indescribably small, teeny tiny minute fraction of a percentage of those photons hit planet earth. And of all the photons that reach planet Earth, a very small percent of the photons will hit my body if I'm standing outside on a clear night. And then a lucky few photons might actually go into my retina and be converted into electrochemical signals that my optic nerve transmits to my brain. Thus, I can "see" Lalande 21185. The rest of the photons that hit planet Earth are either reflected (bounced off in another direction) or absorbed (converted into minute amounts of heat energy).
If some of these photons hit my neighbor's eye when he looks at the same star, those photons then get converted into electrochemical signals in his optic nerve... so although we both see the same thing, we do not share the exact same photons. If photons go into my neighbor's eye, they are not available to go into my eye.
This is "seeing," in the physical sense. If god was to see everything here on Earth, then what happens to all those photons?
Nonbelievers will be incensed at the ridiculousness of that question of course. They would say "no, no, no... god doesn't actually see things in a physical sense; he is "god almighty" and he lives in the spiritual world and can see without disturbing the path of the photons! He can even hear the thoughts inside your head!"
Now there's a delusional idea. It's no wonder so many nonbelievers are paranoid!
Logically, we would be as invisible to any god that exists in some undefined "spiritual" dimension as he is to us. Does this god lie awake at night wondering if there are humans?
Here's a recap of a conversation I had a few years ago with a nonbeliever friend of mine, who was going off about the fact that god is "absolutely perfect." I asked him if human beings are perfect and I got the expected response.
"Of course not!" he replied indignantly."Humans have many flaws! God is the only perfection that there is."
I then asked this fervent nonbeliever if everything that god does is perfect (You can probably see where this is going) and I got a three minute dissertation about how everything that god does is perfect.
"So, " I finally asked when he came up for air, "who made humans? If everything god does is perfect, and everything that god creates is perfect; the only thing he could create is other gods. In fact, according to your own explanation, god would be incapable of creating something imperfect like humans."
"Well, " this nonbeliever stammered, "God doesn't work like that."
I love that answer!
Other nonbelievers claim that humans are made in god's own image. To them, god is a physical being who belches and farts and makes bad decisions as well as good ones. He goes into fits of rage and destroys entire countries, randomly judges people for their sins, and is then sorry for his insolent actions and reminds us that he loves us. This version of "god" reminds me more of the stories of Zeus, full of emotion and doubt.
So on one extreme, we have the invisible "perfect" god that knows all and sees all—past, present and future. The future is predetermined and known to god, so we are just puppets playing a part in a play with absolutely no free will. On the other extreme is the god that looks and acts human and makes mistakes, and although he has a physical form we still can't ever see him for some reason.
Don't worry if you're confused; none of it makes any sense to me either.
And why the big game of "hide and seek"? It seems to me that if there were a god, he/she/it would be very interactive in our daily lives. We would KNOW what was expected of us, rather than having everyone guessing what god is and what he wants. It makes no sense.
True believers can bask in the comfort of knowing that we live in a universe that actually makes sense. Nonbelievers promote the rather disconcerting idea that god will occasionally reappear after a long absence and then pull the rug out from under us and change the rules, just to show us who's boss.
Strangely, many nonbelievers have decided that god really does want to be this kind of a boss, and they are actually willing to bow down and worship god. Why is that? The desire to be worshipped is strictly a HUMAN emotion, no "god" would ever need or want to be worshipped, that is a completely absurd idea. What would worship from some lowly humans do for a god except stroke his ego? Why would god have an ego? If some god ever showed up on planet Earth and people bowed down and started to pray, I'm sure that god would slap them across the face and say, "Stand up you little twit and have some self-respect! Stop wasting time, we have work to do!"
True believers take delight in observing our universe and exploring and learning all we can about the nature of our physical environment. We love the challenge of finding something we don't understand and figuring out how it works. Nonbelievers will oftentimes say "god made it that way" and stop asking further questions. If we listened to these people, we'd still think the Earth was flat and was the center of the universe. True believers are explorers and we want to know the truth. We want to know what's honest, and real. We want to have something worth believing in.
Oftentimes, however, that exploration does require a "leap of faith" to come to a logical conclusion.
For example... believers, such as myself, have faith in our understanding that certain elements decay from one state to another in a very stable manner known as the "half-life" of the element. By looking at the ratio of the original element to the amount of the element that's in the decayed state, we can make that leap of faith required to determine approximately how old something is. All of the data we have suggests that dinosaurs went extinct some 65 million years ago; we can believe that number with a high degree of confidence, even though humans weren't around to get first-hand view of the events that took place.
Nonbelievers lack faith, and instead will try to find answers in ancient texts written by men who were most likely under the influence of the finest mind-altering pharmaceutical substances of their day. Nonbelievers will look for hidden messages in stories that were never intended to be anything more than fairy tales. They will read books like the Bible and then tell you that dinosaurs roamed the earth 4,000 years ago. (What is really ironic is that many of the stories in the Bible that are attributed to "Jesus" were plagiarized from other stories that are more than 4,000 years old now!)
Nonbelievers come to conclusions that are—in the very finest use of the word—unbelievable.
However, both believers and nonbelievers alike will see the potential paradox here, which I think is the crux of the entire debate. Everything we know as "fact" is based on our observations of evidence we have discovered—and the conclusions we have come to are based on our analysis of that evidence. But the evidence we have is often incomplete, and our analysis is often flawed, which can—and often doeslead to incorrect conclusions.
So I am not saying that every conclusion that we have come to is true. What I am saying that there is a "truth" to the universe, and we are—bit by bit—learning what that truth is.
The important point is that everything we have ever observed and every logical analysis leads to one primary conclusion, which is the basis of the nature of our universe. That primary conclusion is this: our universe is governed by immutable physical interactions between matter, energy, space, and time... and although we don't yet understand all of those interactions, they are absolutely consistent, unbendable, and (we hope) ultimately measurable and describable.
To me, this is the ONLY absolute "black or white" philosophical question that there is. If there has ever been a single molecule of matter in the history of the entire universe that has acted in a way that breaks the laws of physics, then we can throw all the laws of physics out the window and stop believing in them. Once we go down that path, we can accept that any random thing can happen anywhere at any time and the universe stops making sense. That's why I'm not an agnostic. I really am a true believer in the most fervent sense that you can imagine.
Once you lose your faith and stop believing, you start living in fear. You will be consumed with doubt. If the laws of physics can be broken, then there must be a god. Why is that? Because humans certainly can't bend the physical properties of the universe—and if it can be done but we can't do it, then it must be a god that can do it. And if there is a god, then you start asking yourself silly questions like "Will god decide to strike me down at some random time? What should I do to make sure god is happy with me? Am I supposed to eat fish on Friday or avoid lobster on Saturday? Do I pray facing east or south? Are my undergarments on too tight? Should I join forces with the Galactic Confederacy?"
And once you decide that you need to do certain things to ensure that god is happy with you, you will come to the conclusion that other people need to do these SAME things or god won't be happy with them. Those other people will, of course, come to different conclusions. Arguments begin. Wars are waged. Humanity gets divided into religious factions that hate each other, and we lose all sense of ethics and morality. Hmm, doesn't this sound remarkably like the path of humanity over the past few thousand years?
"But wait a minute!" Nonbelievers will say at this point "Religion is the only moral guidance we have!"
Nonsense. Religion is based on the idea that you need to use fear as the primary tool to control and manipulate people into doing what you want. That's not morality, its coercion.
Morality is the choices that we make which promote a better life for our society, our planet, and our future generations. Frankly, our choices have been pretty poor lately—and many of those poor choices are based on religion.
Animals can make choices too, it's not just humans who have that ability. My dog can choose whether to go out in the back yard and chase rabbits or just sit on the porch and watch them if she's too tired. But humans have evolved to the point where we are able to create machines and computers and guns and weapons of mass destruction. The choices we make have much wider consequences than at any time before in the history of the world. We can CHOOSE whether to live peaceful, ethical, and moral lives or go out and destroy each other in the name of god.
Will people 500 years in the future look back at us and say that our society was a moral failure because we didn't save every premature baby, or will they say that our society failed because we let our population spiral out of control, we stripped every last usable resource from planet Earth, polluted our environment, and drove thousands of other species into extinction? Religions have their priorities all wrong.
Morality is not black and white. It is not belief or disbelief. It requires making very difficult choices. But if we focus on "what is best for our society, our planet, and our future generations" then we can start making some better choices.
Here's another line that nonbelievers use which always makes me laugh. They will say to me "you can't prove that god doesn't exist."
If you tell me there is a flying cheeseburger that can flap it's wings and fly to the moon, it's not up to me prove that it doesn't exist... it's up to you to prove that it DOES.
Humanity has been searching diligently for any indication that god exists and so far we have not found any evidence at all that supports this theory. None. Nada. Zip. We have never observed a single molecule of matter, an exchange of a microjoule of energy, or a single step in the evolution of life on our planet that breaks the laws of physics.
Without any proof at all that something exists, or at least a reasonable hypothesis as to how it could exist, we HAVE to take the stance that it doesn't. Otherwise we will also believe in every ghost and goblin and fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster and any random crazy idea that people come up with. Thinking that something exists when it clearly doesn't is not belief, it's just an abuse of an overactive imagination which distracts from belief in the truth. It's nonbelief.
Trying to convince others that something exists when it clearly doesn't isn't belief either, it's just a game to play with their heads. If you personally can get someone else to believe in some "god," then it's pretty easy to get them to think that you have a personal connection with this god and you can act as a conduit for communications. Now you have control over them... and congratulations! You've just started your very own religion! It's time to kick back and start raking in those donations.
Seriously though, religions are based on one primary principle: taking advantage of people's fear. And the biggest fear that most people have is the fear of death. The fear of death is very natural and is shared among all animals on the planet—it's one of the fundamental forces driving our evolution; those that avoid death as long as possible survive to propagate their species. Humans, however, with our advanced powers of imagination, think about death even when we're not in mortal danger.
René Descartes proposed the term Cogito ergo sum—"I think, therefore I am." People know there will be a time when "I will stop thinking, therefore I will cease to be"... and that's a pretty scary proposition for anyone to consider. Religions present you with an alternative: you can be with god after you die, but only if you do what we tell you to do. Some will add the additional twist to make it even more scary—if you don't do what we tell you to do, you will go live with the devil after you die!
It's the ultimate lever there is to control people. There's absolutely no truth to any of it of course, but people appear to be more than willing to stop believing in the truth when presented with such an offer. Every religion, of course, has its own unique set of rules to follow in order to attain that heavenly position next to god. But there is a common theme: if you don't follow OUR rules, you might not get into heaven. When it comes to the subject of death, nonbelievers are easily manipulated.
It's amusing to compare the different manipulation techniques used by the Jews, Baptists, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Scientologists, Methodists, Lutherans, Bahia's, Hare Krishna, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc, etc, etc, etc. And remember that the majority of them come in traditional orthodox and reformed flavors, just to make it interesting. When you look at it objectively, it's pretty obvious that they are all equally crazy. Unless, of course, you associate with one of these organizations—then only the REST of them are all equally crazy.
There are a couple of themes that are shared amongst most religions, like "Thou Shalt Not Murder," and "Thou Shalt Not Steal," and so forth. These are just common-sense, and at their core they do meet my definition of morality (in that these acts are detrimental to our society).
But many religions take these basic concepts and push them to such extremes that following their own rules are detrimental to society!
A pack of wolves might leave an injured member behind if it can't keep up with the rest of the pack. That's a very difficult, but moral choice. It's a moral choice because it's what's best for their society. Documentary film makers have caught this very act on camera, and it's clear from their actions that it is a difficult choice for the rest of the pack. But interesting enough, they act more like adults than many adult humans do, and they make the choice when necessary.
In contrast to a common scenario in the modern human world, an elderly human who has suffered a stroke can live an extra six months in a near-vegetative state if we give her intensive medical care that will eventually cost our society upwards of $500,000. Our resources are not unlimited, and that money could be used in other ways for much greater benefit to our society. Those six months of intensive care for one person who is going to die soon anyway costs the same as a year's salary for TEN elementary school teachers. It's not a matter of whether the person is insured or whether we have socialized medical care, the total cost to our society is the same either way.
There is no "right" answer and it is a difficult choice to make—but the view that religious people often promote (all life is sacred and must be preserved at any cost) and the "moral" view that we need to do what's best for society are very different things. How come wolves can make that choice, but we can't?
This view that "all life must be preserved at any cost" is particularly troubling to me. Throughout the evolution of life on this planet, the propagation of every species has been based on statistical chance, and very few reproductive cells germinate and mature to adulthood. Only a tiny fraction of a percent of pollen spores actually land on another flower and go on to produce a new bloom. Herds of Sea Turtles will lay hundreds of thousands of eggs on a beach, and although a great many of them actually hatch, only one hundredth of one percent make it to the water without getting eaten by predators. Even within humans, some 30-50% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage—the body realizes that something is malformed or not growing right and the fetus is aborted. For the past tens of thousands of years, a premature baby would die, no matter what we did, yet our species has thrived and propagated.
This is the natural way of things, yet I am amazed how some people get so emotionally tied up in knots about it and insist that it's wrong. It is, and always has been, a numbers game of percentages. Some survive and some don't. Yes, it's sad—very sad at times. But we need to learn to do our grieving and get on with life.
We have become so obsessed with "saving" everyone that an inordinate amount of our resources are diverted to this obsession to the point that it reduces the quality of life for humanity as a whole. We are so concerned with every individual's "right" to have as many kids as they want that we've lost sight of the fact that we are truly killing the planet. In a previous article I've stated that "having more than two children is environmentally irresponsible"—I still think that's an idea worth spreading around the world.
In nature, things tend to balance out. The availability of food nearby and the number of predators will usually keep any species from reaching an "overpopulated" state. But modern humans can transport food from far away and we have overpowered all our natural predators—so our population spirals out of control. Are you concerned about poverty? Healthcare? Clean water? The economy? The ecology? Most of these issues would be much easier to solve if we could substantially reduce our population.
Morality is the choices we make which promote a better life for our society, our planet, and our future generations. Would you rather have a human population of 10 billion with everyone starving and in abject misery, or a population of 5 billion with still barely sufficient resources to go around? We've just passed 7 billion and we are raping the planet, cutting down the Amazon rain forest at an astounding rate, and dumping billions of tons of pollutants into our oceans. We are rapidly heading towards a global population of 10 billion, and the projections of what our quality of life will be like ain't pretty. It's downright dismal.
Birth control is critical to our survival, no matter what the religious leaders tell you. Murder of someone in the prime of their life is obviously bad, but what about execution of a murderer? This requires a difficult judgment call and weighing the damage the person inflicted on society. Letting someone die gracefully at the end of a long and productive life—or even helping someone die more quickly to ease their suffering in cases of terminal illness—shows compassion; that is not murder.
It is up to society to decide what is moral and what is not, and there will always be controversy in whatever decisions we make—but if we maintain our personal ethics, we can focus on "What is best for our society, our planet, and our future generations." Not only can we do this without religion, I feel we can only do it without religion. It will require education, long term planning, resource management, and a commitment to enact changes on a global scale—but we can do it.
We just have to believe, and we have to have faith.
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