My mom’s murder wasn’t ‘for a reason’

The Golden State Killer (aka the Original Night Stalker) murdered my mom when I was 14. He murdered 11 other people and committed 50 rapes.

That is all gratuitous suffering. There is no ‘greater good’ that these acts of violence achieved. The direct and indirect victims are worse off, period. The world is worse off, period. It did not happen ‘for a reason’ — at least not, as the phrase always implies, for a reason that could be considered good.

If, against all evidence and logic, there happened to be an all-powerful and all-knowing god who foresaw the crimes of the GSK and was able to prevent them but just opted not to, that god would be as evil as the GSK himself; he would definitely not be worthy of worship or gratitude.

There is no point trying to reconcile the suffering caused by the GSK, or any of the other gratuitous suffering in the world, with belief in a ‘good’ god. What the GSK did is the product of bad genes and maybe bad influences. His actions were not a component of a beautiful divine plan. There is no divine plan. The universe is indifferent. Some people, and apparently some animals, have consciences and strive to do good, but that’s it.

Accepting this reality has been much more comforting for me (no way it could be less comforting!) than believing in a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and very cruel but less cruel than he could have been.

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Three words that inhibit communication

Here are three words, used often in reference to religion, that are so ambiguous that they inhibit meaningful conversations. When one of these words comes up in conversation and the meaning is not clear, we should press for more precise language.

“Good” — does it mean “beneficial” or “approved”? When someone says “Everything God does is good,” they probably don’t mean that everything their god does is beneficial to everyone; they probably mean that their god approves all of his own actions. But when someone is pleased with something that has happened and they say “God is good!” they mean that their god did something that was beneficial to someone. Press for a specific meaning.

“Believe” — does it mean “consider likely,” “consider true,” or “know to be true”?  When someone says “I believe life begins at conception, so it’s my duty to stop people from getting morning-after pills,” they are taking a claim that they can only consider likely or true and treating it as if they know it to be true — to the point that they feel justified in interfering with other people’s pregnancies. Press for a specific meaning.

“Faith” — does it mean “religious affiliation” or “set of assertions considered true, independent of evidence”? When someone says “My faith tells me that marriage is between one man and one woman,” they could mean “My religious affiliation tells me … ” or “My assumptions in spite of the evidence tell me … .” Neither of these is a defensible reason to believe something, but it would still be helpful to know which reason is being invoked. Press for a specific meaning.

Epistemology first

There is no point in our arguing over what is moral If we disagree about what is true regarding gods, souls, or an afterlife. And there is no point in our arguing over what is true if we disagree on how we can know if something is true. Epistemology is the first thing to get straight.

I embrace a humanist definition of morality. To be moral is to promote the well-being of conscious creatures in this (temporal, natural) world. I can use this definition because to me:

  • There is no god whose sensibilities have to be appeased. 
  • There is no soul — no ‘person’ or ‘will’ independent of the organism. 
  • There is no afterlife in which a soul could be happy or miserable.

To someone who believes in a god, or in a soul, or in an afterlife, morality can be much more complicated. Such a person’s moral code can contain rules and principles that have nothing to do with the well-being of conscious creatures in this world, or that even detract from it. Appeasing the god, nurturing the soul, and helping oneself and others attain a pleasant afterlife might all be seen as more important or urgent than practicing the more tangible morality of humanism.

That is why i consider it futile to argue about what is moral with someone who disagrees with me fundamentally about what is true. 

And if their epistemological approach is different from mine — e.g., if “scripture” and spiritual experiences are treated as automatically trumping other forms of evidence — it’s futile even to argue with them about what is true. 

Stop saying “Faith”!

Theists generally use the word “faith” to refer to their beliefs about God, without regard to how well those beliefs are supported by evidence and reason.

The American Heritage Dictionary actually treats this as the predominant meaning. Fair enough. Over centuries of use, “faith” has come to be used as shorthand for “god-belief” in some contexts. But that is not what the word “faith” really means.

“Faith” speaks to the basis and the reliability of a belief, not the topic of it.

To paraphrase Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is treating something as definitely true because one hopes it is true, even though one has not seen any material evidence for it.”

Any given knowledge claim is based on some combination of evidence, logic, and assumptions. The more it relies on assumptions, the more it is a statement of faith.

That is why, when pressed for evidence for a truth claim, a believer will often say “I just have to have faith that it is true.”

And that is why it is nonsensical to say, “The evidence supports my faith.” Once a belief has adequate evidence to support it, it is no longer a matter of faith.

I know this is a lot to ask, but I’d like to see the word “faith” abandoned and replaced, in each context, with more precise terms. If you mean “beliefs about God,” say that. If you mean “belief despite a lack of evidence,” say that.

God’s benevolence: like no other

If you’re a classical theist, you believe in a god who is maximally powerful, knowledgeable, and “good.”

The meanings of “powerful” and “knowledgeable” are pretty straightforward. The more things a being is able to do, the more powerful it is. And the more information a being possesses in its mind, the more knowledgeable it is.

The meaning of “good” should also be straightforward. As Sam Harris puts it, to be morally good is to seek and promote “the well-being of conscious creatures.” Theists and non-theists should agree on this; their only disagreement should be on what constitutes well-being.

  • To a theist (one kind of supernaturalist), a person’s well-being comprises the well-being of the organism and of the soul. Most theists believe humans have souls that can be damned to eternal torture (and maybe also suffer other harms in this life), and that the well-being of the soul is more important than the well-being of the organism.
  • To a naturalist (one kind of non-theist), a person’s well-being equates to the well-being of the organism. There are no supernatural considerations — notably, no soul to protect from damnation.

Even given the disparity between these two perspectives, it should be possible to objectively assess the goodness of a being by observing to what extent it promotes the well-being of people’s bodies and/or souls. One instance of gratuitous suffering is all it takes to invalidate the god of classical theism. A maximally powerful, knowledgeable, and “good” god cannot exist in a world where there is any gratuitous suffering at all.

So to make it appear possible that this kind of god exists, theists must waffle on the meaning of “good.” They must define “good” as “whatever God does or allows” — though they do this only when necessary to excuse God for causing or allowing gratuitous suffering.

So let’s start again at the beginning:

If you’re a classical theist, you believe in a god who:

  • Is maximally powerful.
  • Is maximally knowledgeable.

and

  • Does whatever he opts to do. 

Call him good. Call him evil. Call him fickle or capricious. Doesn’t matter, because ‘whatever he does, he does.’

Too easy

Why can’t we have free will and also be free from suffering? 

That would be too easy.

Why doesn’t God simply reveal himself to everyone in an obvious way?

That would be too easy.

Why doesn’t God consistently reward good behavior and punish bad behavior?

That would be too easy.

What would a loving god have against making things easy?

What do you say to a grieving atheist?

I went to my first Meetup with the Atheist Community of San Jose last night (what a hip group!). The guest speaker was Rebecca Hensler, founder of a project called Grief Beyond Belief.

gbb

Rebecca has founded a “faith-free” online community for people who are grieving over the deaths of people they love. It seems fairly obvious that ‘reassurances’ about God, angels, and heaven cannot give comfort to people who don’t believe in such things. But as Rebecca shared her experiences and insights, it became clear that such expressions can be worse than unhelpful — they can compound a grieving person’s trauma.

Her talk contained a few examples of things that believers had said to ‘comfort’ her about the loss of her son Jude, who had lived only three months. These utterances ranged from lame apologetics (e.g., Jude’s death was God’s way of prompting Rebecca to start a grief support organization) to absurd speculation (e.g., “[My adult daughter who died] is holding Jude in her arms right now.”)

She also identified some expressions that are hurtful to anyone who is grieving — chief among them, “I understand how you feel” (especially when followed by “because my cat died”!).

It was especially valuable to hear anecdotes from her life and from online conversations she had moderated, illustrating how deep and debilitating grief can be. This made it even clearer why religious or superstitious ‘comfort’ affects nonbelievers the way it does.

During Q&A, I asked Rebecca for her thoughts on “gracious and constructive” ways for a secular person to respond to well-intended faith-based statements, such as “She’s in a better place” or “You’ll see him again in heaven.” Her response was enlightening. I will paraphrase:

  • A person dealing with the death of a loved one may feel little compulsion to be gracious, and this is understandable.
  • An important function of Grief Beyond Belief is to keep its members out of situations where that kind of graciousness is necessary.

As Rebecca’s answer sank in, I realized I had been viewing these hypothetical believer-nonbeliever conversations from the perspective of an activist or evangelist. It’s true that any conversation with a person of faith is an opportunity to help him or her on the path to a more reliable epistemology, but who says we have to leap at every opportunity, regardless of our feelings, needs, abilities, and circumstances? Expecting fellow nonbelievers to be perpetual ambassadors, always on duty, at the expense of their own well-being — well, that’s the kind of irrational values system that drove so many of us out of religion in the first place!

One more take-away: In her talk, Rebecca said that people tend to open up when they are asked to give details about the person they lost. That is not surprising, and it helps illuminate why statements — particularly fantasy-based statements, but really any kind — are so unhelpful for people experiencing grief: They are conversation stoppers. “She’s in a better place [and that’s that].” “You’ll see him again in heaven [so stop being sad].” Giving a bereaved person the floor — to talk, to cry, to be silent — seems much more compassionate than delivering a tired sound bite.

I admire Rebecca for starting and running Grief Beyond Belief, and I’m grateful for what I learned from her talk.

Impractical Christianity – Jesus can’t mean *that*

Several years ago, I was at a couples Bible study that my wife and I regularly attended. We were studying Matthew 5:38-42, part of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (NIV)

The question we were pondering was: ‘Does Jesus really expect us to act this way?’ Taken literally, the passage is a mandate to lay oneself open to as much abuse as another person is willing to dispense.

I offered this insight: “Jesus can’t be saying that we have to act this way toward everyone. It would be impractical. We would run out of shirts! I think he’s saying that we have to be willing to yield to another person this way if God asks us to.”

No one challenged me, but someone should have, because my interpretation of the passage rendered it meaningless. I mean, you could replace “yield to another person this way” with any action and it would be equally true for a Christian: “We have to be willing to eat glass fragments and wash them down with sulfuric acid if God asks us to.”

Unfortunately, that kind of watering-down is necessary (but not sufficient!) to reconcile such a passage with common sense. These alleged words of Jesus cannot be followed verbatim. That’s why no one does.

Stuff I used to believe, part 1: Wisdom and how to get it

As a Christian in my 30s, I heard my pastor preach one Sunday on how to receive wisdom.

He quoted James 1:5:

But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. (NASB)

This is the understanding that I took away with me that day:

  • Wisdom means sound judgment and an ability to make good decisions.
  • If I ask God for wisdom, he’ll make me wise. If I don’t ask, I’ll remain unwise.
  • I won’t be able to make myself wise by learning from experience or developing my critical thinking skills. Only God has the power to make me wise.

Imagine my relief at not having to put any work into it. And image how wise I became once I started praying instead of learning.

We are tiny – in space and time

By this guy‘s calculation, if the known universe were the size of Earth, then Earth would be 1/180 the size of an atom.

Imagine creating an environment the size and complexity of earth and then concentrating all your ‘love energy’ on a little fragment of a single atom on (or in) that planet.

Humanity is also dwarfed by the universe in terms of duration.

The oldest Old Testament scriptures are approximately 2,700 years old, but if we conservatively say 3,000 years, that still means God’s relationship (of whatever nature) with humans occupies:

  • Less than one-seventh of human history (so far).
  • Less than one part in 700,000 of the age of the earth.
  • Less than one part in 2.1 million of the age of the known universe.

Suppose you were to compress the history of the universe into a movie 80 hours and 6 minutes long, and screen it nonstop from 8 a.m. Monday through 4:06 p.m. Thursday. In that movie, the earth would form around 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, the human species would appear in the last minute of the film, and God’s first alleged interaction with man would occur in the last second of the film.