Saturday, June 23, 2012

Religious Benefits, Santa, and Agnosticism

Religion, for all of its flaws, does have some beneficial side effects. I won’t deny that, as that would be extremely hypocritical of me since my entire motivation here is to advance truth and reality, and there really are some good things that can be derived from religion. It provides comfort in the face of death if you believe you’ll go to heaven (and it allows those left behind a measure of peace if they think you went to heaven). It can make you feel special if you think a supernatural being is listening to your prayers and watching over you. Churches provide a sense of community and belonging, and serve as a weekly excuse for a social gathering. Religion can also be used as a means of getting children to behave--if you can get your kids to believe that there is an invisible man watching their every move, and then get them to believe that he gets mad when they do “bad” things and might go so far as to send them to Hell for eternity if they misbehave too seems like that should do a reasonable job of convincing them to be good kids.

However, none of these are legitimate reasons to continue being religious. Believing that people go to heaven after they die doesn’t mean that they do, regardless of how much comfort that provides. It would make me happier if I believed that I was going to win the lottery or marry Mila Kunis, but that doesn’t change the fact that neither of those things are actually going to happen. Just as believing I was going to win the lottery would have a detrimental effect on my career as I would likely stop caring about my job, believing in heaven can cause people to take their earthly lives less seriously (which, obviously, would be a terrible mistake). Believing in the power of prayer to change your life is just as bad, as relying on mythical beings to fix your problems instead of doing it yourself has a terrible track record. Inspiration is all well and good; reliance is not.

What about the “benefits” that don’t have negative side effects? There’s nothing wrong with feeling connected to other members of a church and sharing experiences with them and making friends. In fact, I think this is one of the reasons that religion still exists as it’s one of the few tangible benefits people get from believing in a god: the fellowship of other believers. If you’re afraid of losing that sense of community if you lose your religion, why not find a different community to be a part of that isn’t based on irrational belief and behavior? Join a book club. Join a sports league. Have a weekly movie night with friends. Go to and find literally anything that interests you. Even if you decide that you want to join a Twilight fan club, at least you’ll be conscious of the fact that what you read is fictional. Plus, you still get to lionize a mythical character with some cool powers. Just call him Edward instead of Allah.

What about raising kids as Christians to gain the behavioral benefits? I humbly submit a secular solution to that, too. Many adults wholeheartedly believe in God, which leads to some confusion about whether or not kids should believe in God when they get older. Plus, using God requires wasting countless Sunday mornings if you’re going to throw yourself into the whole religion thing (not to mention all the pesky praying and tithing and guilt). What if we could all use a previously agreed-upon fictional character that watches over kids with the same punishment/reward system for behavior? Why not use Santa instead of God?

Santa Claus is really just a nicer version of God. We imagine them both to be nice old men with flowing white beards. People care about them the most during December, and even go so far as to sing special songs for them. Both have supernatural powers, like causing worldwide floods or eating millions of cookies in a single evening. They both promise to reward us if we’re good. As such, the consequences of ticking them off are used by parents in an attempt to get kids to behave. We learn about them both from our parents rather than in school. Those of us who operate logically grow up and figure out that, even though our parents told us they were real, we should stop believing in them and letting them determine our actions because they do not exist.

Some people figure out sooner than others that Santa doesn't exist, just like some people figure out sooner than others that God doesn't exist. OK, so technically I don't know that God doesn't exist...but I don't know that Santa doesn't exist, either. There is no incontrovertible evidence that Santa is a myth. I can stay up all night by the Christmas tree and confirm that a jolly fat man never leaves any presents there. I could set up a hidden camera to film my living room every night of the year while I sleep just to make sure that I have no surprise visitors from the chimney. This would not prove that he hadn’t visited other houses overnight; maybe he neglected mine because I was on the naughty list. Or maybe he retired because there’s too damn many people on this planet for him to deal with. I don’t know for sure, although at this point it seems safe to say, with greater than 99% confidence, that there does not exist a jolly old fat man with a long white beard who dresses in red velvet and flies around in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer at supersonic speeds once a year to deposit presents and fill stockings and eat cookies that may have been left lying around for him with an uncanny ability to determine the desires of each person he bestows presents upon. But again, he could just be retired.

So do I have proof that he does not exist? No, I don’t, just like I don’t have proof that God does not exist. Although at this point it seems safe to say, with greater than 99% confidence, that there does not exist a kind old man with a long white beard who lives in the heavens (but also has an invisible branch of Himself that is omnipresent on Earth) who created the Earth yet refuses to prove it and designed men and women and all creatures on Earth (including the extinct creatures who roamed the Earth far longer than 6,000 years ago even though that's when He created it) and got mad at all the people He created and so decided to kill all the ones who did not build a giant boat and allowed the one guy who did to live for 900 years and proceeded to have a love/hate, on-again-off-again relationship with all of humanity for a few thousand years before he got tired of being a vengeful God and decided to have supernatural sex with a random broad so she could bear His son whom He would summarily kill about 30 years later to atone for all of the sins that had ever occurred or would occur by invoking the law of the universe that states “if you’re a deity you can wipe out all the misdeeds of an entire race by killing your own son as long as you proceed to resurrect him three days later.” Also, He seems to like to put people who fuck little kids in positions of high esteem within His church. And I think he let a guy live inside a fish for a few days for some reason.

So, no, I can’t prove that this supernatural being doesn’t exist (although it is equally impossible for anyone but Him to prove that he does (which He oh so conveniently refuses to do)), so that is what atheists mean when they say that they’re technically agnostics. I don’t believe that God exists anymore than I believe that Santa exists, but since there is no proof of His non-existence that technically makes me agnostic.

Getting back to Santa, the world would be a much better place if he just replaced God entirely. Kids are naturally prone to misbehave, but they respond to rewards and punishment. That’s one of the few benefits that God provides. If we just had a secular Christmas every other month or so, we could do away with all this religion nonsense. Santa doesn’t require you to worship him or his reindeer, he just requires you to be well-behaved. Santa doesn’t encroach on your weekends (or any of your free time, for that matter). His only restrictions for what you can and cannot do is how it affects other people; as long as you’re not having a detrimental effect on others, you can do whatever the hell you want as far as Santa is concerned. You can masturbate and have sex whenever and however and with whoever you please, given that you don’t harm anyone else in the process. He’ll even let you be gay if you want.

The best thing about Santa? No one ever thought he wanted them to kill anyone. No one ever started a war because they favored Santa over the Easter Bunny. No one has ever committed jihad in order to punish those that don’t believe in Santa. No one has ever killed others for living on a piece of the North Pole that Santa promised them. You know what people do in the name of Santa? Nice things. If we’re going to believe in a fictional character to influence our behavior, let’s at least pick a good one. I nominate Santa for the office of God.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

At Least Pascal was Good at Math

Pascal’s Wager is one of the most convincing arguments in favor of religion that I know of, and it was one of the primary reasons that I hung onto Christianity throughout high school and college. It essentially states the following:

OK, so we can all agree that there may or may not be a God, and this whole Christianity thing may or may not be correct. At the end of your life, there are four possible states:
You Believed in God
You Did NOT Believe in God
God is Real1. Congratulations! You get to go to Heaven! Eternal bliss! Hooray!2. You are going to Hell. This is bad. You are going to deeply regret this. Sucks to be you.
God is Imaginary3. Well, that’s too bad, huh?  I guess you were wrong, but at least you’ll never know that you were wrong due to that whole “lack of sentience” thing. On the bright side, by living a good Christian life, chances are you made the world a better place by adhering to the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, so at least there’s that.4. Uh...congrats? I guess? You can now say “I told you so” to all those weenies who spent their Sunday mornings in church, and you get the satisfaction of being right. Except for the fact that you’re dead, of course. So you can’t actually rub it in anyone’s face, and you’ll never even get the confirmation that you’re right because that would require still having some kind of sentience, but you’re dead and now there’s nothing. Again, congrats. I’m sure you made your parents proud.

States 1 and 2 make really really really really strong cases for being a Christian. We are, after all, talking about eternity. State 3 makes the argument that even if you’re wrong for being a Christian, there’s very minimal downside (as opposed to the massive downside of state 2). State 4 provides you with next to no tangible benefit (especially compared to the benefit of state 1). Given that you have a choice between believing and not believing...WHY ON EARTH WOULD ANY RATIONAL PERSON EVER CHOOSE DISBELIEF???  Choosing Christianity wins the risk/reward battle in a landslide. And here you were considering whether or not you should believe. What an idiot.

Oh, if only life was that simple--we could all just agree that it makes sense to believe in God and move on with our lives, and I could go play video games. Instead, here I am spending hours writing about all the aspects of religion that are patently absurd. So why can’t I just take Pascal’s Wager at face value and get back to shooting aliens?

The most important reason is that it’s an oversimplification of life. In order to go to Heaven, I would have to believe in a god. On top of that, I would have to believe in the right god, the right prophets, the right book, and the right directives of how to spend my life on Earth. In other words, I would have to look through all the available religions and figure out which one of them really had it all figured out (or take a page from Joseph Smith and start up my own religion). That alone is hard enough to do, but that alone is not enough. Once I’ve picked a religion, I must then truly believe in it and live my life by it in order to make it to Heaven. Therein lies the problem: believing.

While I can choose to practice whatever religion I like and choose to make all my life decisions based on that religion (i.e. going to church every week, tithing, reading the Bible every day, praying every night, not coveting my neighbor’s possessions, etc.), I don’t really get to choose what I believe. My beliefs are determined by my experiences, knowledge, and cognition (which I am using here to mean “the thought process used to process information”). This is not to say that no choices or free will are involved in the process of forming beliefs--if I didn’t choose to acquire more knowledge about religion and spend a lot of time thinking about it, I wouldn’t have come to believe that there is no god. However, I am saying that I cannot simply “choose” to believe that there is a god. I also can’t choose to believe that the Easter Bunny exists or that the Cleveland Browns are a good football team. In order to believe those things, I would have to be convinced through some kind of evidence. It could come in the form of a personal observation (watching the Browns actually play well), information from a source that I have deemed worthwhile (Peter King writing about how much they’ve improved), or pure data (win-loss record, offensive and defensive ranks). I would then have to mentally weigh this evidence against my previously held belief (the Browns suck) and determine if that evidence is enough to change what I believe. At no point do I get to choose whether or not I believe that the Browns are good. I can choose to say that I think they’re good, just like I can choose to say that I believe in God, but that doesn’t make it true.

And thus, Pascal’s Wager becomes a moot point. Believing in God is not a choice. If I want to believe in God, there are things I can do to push myself in that direction. I can go to church, read CS Lewis books, listen to Christian music, hang out with Christian friends, and join a Bible study (although I would argue that actually “studying the Bible” would cause one to drift further away from God, so be careful with that one if you would prefer to remain strong in your faith. As I covered previously, that book is ridiculous). However, wanting to believe in something has absolutely no effect on whether or not it’s a valid belief. I might want to believe in God because I want to go to Heaven rather than Hell in case He exists; this would not make believing in God any more legitimate. My desires do not affect reality. It might make me happy to believe that the Browns are a good football team, but I would only be fooling myself. Believing that they are good does not change the fact that Pat Shurmur enjoys calling plays to gain 5 yards on 3rd-and-7, or the fact that they scored more than 20 points a total of one time last year. Sometimes the truth hurts. That doesn’t make it any less true.

Pretending to believe doesn’t help, either. If I were to buy into the idea that God is omniscient, then I should behave as though He knows what I really think. Again, while believing in God might be the prudent thing to do, there is no benefit to be gained if I only pretend to believe, and that’s the best that I can do at the moment. Logic simply precludes me from believing in a higher power. I don’t believe in any gods, and no matter how often I go to church or how much time I spend praying, I’m not going to fool anyone who is omniscient. Pascal’s Wager ultimately comes down to what I believe, not what I want or what I choose. This makes it entirely meaningless as an argument for believing in God.

However, this does not stop many people from “choosing” to believe in God because it’s the prudent thing to do. It’s incredible how much of an effect the reasoning behind Pascal’s Wager has on people, as I would argue that a large portion of people who call themselves Christian aren’t really Christians. They will claim to believe (especially if you ask them), but when it comes down to whether they want to do things like spend an hour every week in church (which consequently interferes with Saturday night plans and/or sleep schedules), reading the Bible every day, tithing, praying every night, etc....there’s a fair number of “Christians” who won’t really put the effort in. They do want to go to Heaven, and they don’t want to go to Hell, so they will consciously claim that Jesus is their homeboy...but religion is not a driving force in their lives. In reality, they care more about going out and getting drunk (or watching movies or playing video games or whatever their vice of choice is) on Saturday night than they do about getting up early on Sunday to go sing some songs about how great God is and listen to someone spend 20 minutes on the “true meaning” of some verses in Galatians. I certainly can’t blame them--I would much rather stay up late and drink than get up early and pretend to pay attention to someone who claims to understand an omniscient being. Furthermore, many of the people who do bother to show up will be thinking about whether or not they set their fantasy football lineup for that day (or simply fidgeting in their seat in an effort to stay awake) while their pastor is droning on. But, hey, they’ll get credit for attendance, right?

The fact is, God (or the idea of God) does not have a strong effect on the lives of many people who identify as Christians. Eternity is a long long long long long long time. It is unimaginably long. It is even longer than the title drought in Cleveland, if you can believe that (although there’s a good chance that drought will never end, so perhaps that’s a good metaphor for eternity). Regardless of whether or not we’re living in an age of immediate gratification and short attention spans, if people truly, truly believed that the fate of their eternal soul was determined by their adherence to the edicts of God, they would carve out the time to praise him on a regular basis. They wouldn’t take God’s name in vain on a regular basis. They wouldn’t worship other things before God (work, significant others, video games, etc.). They would spread the word of God. In short, they would live their lives by the Bible.

I have an uncle who can be counted on to complain about two things every time our family gets together: the eternal inability of Cleveland sports teams to win (regardless of whether or not they do things like put up the best record in the league two years in a row or not), and the length of church services. If a service lasts longer than 60 minutes, he will unfailingly complain about it. In his mind, church should last one hour. Period. One would think that if the fate of his eternal soul was at stake, he could spare an extra 10 or 15 minutes a week for the Big Guy, but that’s apparently too much to ask.

To be fair, I know a number of people who do take their religion very seriously. While I vehemently disagree with their beliefs, I respect the fact that they’re serious about them. They’re not just covering their asses in case God happens to be real; they actually believe that their eternal salvation is tied to their actions on Earth and they live their lives accordingly. I still think these people are delusional, and I still think all religions are completely ridiculous, but if you’re going to be on the side that has a 99% chance of being wrong you might as well make sure you reap the benefits on the 1% chance that you happen to be right (although 1% is a pretty generous figure). As my dad would say, “Shit or get off the pot.”  Some people choose shit. I got off the pot.