Random Thoughts on
and the Existence of God
My "spiritual" evolution.
Memory is a tricky thing - especially when one is attempting to remember back to early childhood. But this is my best attempt to describe how I have viewed theism and religion throughout my life.
I grew up in a fairly religious household. When I was young, I went to Sunday School at a Presbyterian church, my parents helped me say my prayers every night, and hanging on my bedroom was were a picture of Jesus and a banner with the "now I lay me down to sleep . . ." prayer on it. There was nothing traumatic or even upsetting about my early experiences with religion that turned me against it. It's just that I was never able to convince myself that it was true.
As far as I can recall, I have always been skeptical about the existence of a god and other supernatural phenomena. My earliest memory in this regard is from when I must have been about 5 years old - since I still had to take afternoon naps. I remember laying on my bed, unable to fall asleep, contemplating the existence of Santa Claus. I had been questioning the existence of Santa for some time - pointing out to my mom that Santa's handwriting was the same as hers, questioning the logistics of visiting every house in the world in a single night and carrying that many presents in a single trip, etc. But I had finally found the proof that I had sought. Earlier that day, I overheard a question being asked on a TV game show, which was something like: "at what age did you stop believing in Santa?" A-ha! So there I was, and I specifically remember thinking that if Santa doesn't exist, that in all likelihood, other "magical" beings that I had been told about, but never shown any direct evidence of, also don't exist. Into that category, along with Santa, I placed the Easter bunny, the tooth ferry, and god. But while I felt I could safely reject the Easter bunny and the tooth ferry, I stopped short of completely rejecting god, because the purported consequences of doing so (i.e. eternal damnation) were enough to frighten a small child into conformity.
As I got a little older, I continued to periodically question the existence of god. I remember thinking at one point, probably around the age of 10 or 11, that there seemed to be a contradiction between what I was being taught in church, and what I was being taught in school. The Christian bible describes the creation of the first humans, in a way that shows "Adam" and "Eve" and their immediate descendants being very aware of this god, with god sometimes speaking directly to them. Thus, it would make sense that the ideas that these first humans had about god would be the most accurate. However, I was learning in school that early humans had very different religious belief systems. That seemed to suggest that Christianity, a relatively "new" religion compared to all of human history, is most likely a later fabrication. Whether any of the earlier belief systems were any more valid, or whether they were also invented superstitions, remained an open question.
Before I got towards the teen years, the kids I knew didn't talk much about religion. But about age 12 or 13, there started to be an increasing amount of peer pressure to conform to the majority belief system. As a result, I found myself very much wanting to believe, and I went back and forth for a few years, at several points nearly convincing myself that god exists. I professed belief to a girlfriend who was very religious, I participated in the Young Life group at my high school. At one point early in this period, I even gave a bible to a friend as a Christmas present. But there was always a lingering doubt, and I never fully bought into it.
It wasn't until I was about 17 or 18 that I finally accepted and was comfortable with my atheism. Although I still I still eschewed the word "atheist" in favor of terms like "secular humanist" or "agnostic" to describe myself, since those seemed to be more socially acceptable. At least "secular humanist" was an accurate description of a broader belief system I held (and still do, to a large degree). Calling myself "agnostic" was just a cop-out used to avoid or moderate potential confrontations.
Life after death
Consciousness resides in, and is defined by, the physical structure of the brain. There is absolutely no evidence that suggests otherwise. When a brain suffers a traumatic injury, memories can be irretrievably lost and personalities can be irrevocably altered. Thus, it follows that when my brain dies, my consciousness, my memories, and my personality all die with it. I cease to exist. There is nothing left of me that could possibly survive into some kind of "afterlife." The notion that it could is nothing more than pure fantasy.
Darwinist evolution of religious thought
Religion has evolved among human societies in much the same way that species evolve in nature. Those religions that are the most successful at attracting followers will survive, while less "successful" religions and religious ideas will eventually die out within mainstream thought. Moreover, religions themselves are not static - they continue to evolve to accommodate changing sensibilities and to attract new converts. Religions have repeatedly modified their doctrines in light of irrefutable contrary scientific evidence (usually, however, after a century or more of attempting to discredit the scientific explanation and persecuting the scientists that promote it).
Is religion a good thing, a harmless diversion, or a destructive belief system?
The ideas that there is a god or an afterlife seem pretty far-fetched to me. So it's no surprise that I think that religions that teach that there is a god and/or an afterlife are spreading false information, and that those who believe in such things are mistaken. The question therefore arises, are religion and religious belief simply harmless deceptions that make it easier for some folks to cope with the difficulties of life? Does the existence of religion actually result in a greater good? I think the answers to these questions is quite clearly that religion causes more harm than good, and that the world would be a far better place without religious belief.
Having a religious belief is often described as taking a leap of faith. But that seems to me to be very dangerous. Skepticism is a good thing. Demanding proof before you accept the truth of a proposition is a necessary prerequisite for critical thinking and rational decision making. If you can take a leap of faith regarding a religious doctrine, what is to stop you from taking a leap of faith regarding public policy issues? Religious thinking is the same kind of thinking that leads to blind patriotism. If you don't question religious leaders, why question governmental leaders?
Moreover, once a person has been convinced of the truth of a religious doctrine, they are far more susceptible to other irrational beliefs. This is evident in light of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The religious beliefs of the terrorists provided a basis for the further brainwashing that convinced them not only to kill themselves but also kill thousands of innocent victims.
One of the things that some people may find attractive about religion is that it seems to provide answers to some difficult questions. But that clearly does not make it true or valuable. The search for knowledge is one of the most important endeavors of humanity. But while there are many questions that can currently be answered through the rigorous application of the scientific method, there are many other questions that must await answers. Having unanswered questions is not a bad thing - indeed, it is one of the things that keeps us searching for the truth and expanding our understanding of the universe. The metaphysical "quick fix" that religion provides can dull the motivation to search for verifiable answers and true knowledge.
A sad truth is that some religious people rely so much on the promise of a blissful afterlife, that they simply give up on their lives. They fail to put a high value on living their lives to the fullest because the mistakenly believe that their lives are just a small part of a greater eternal existence. If you don't think that your consciousness exists only for a finite period of time, there is no imperative to make the absolute most of this life. If you believe that you will live for eternity, it might seem perfectly acceptable to just go though the motions for a while. Worse yet, you might decide to completely focus your life on making sure that you obtain this blissful afterlife. Religious people sometimes use the "what if you're wrong" argument for a belief in god (as if the threat of eternal damnation is going to inspire my devotion to the would-be persecutor). But the converse of that argument is also true - what if you live your life based on a desire or expectation of some kind of "heaven," and it turns out that you're wrong. You can't get that time back.
Finally, I reject the notion that religion is necessary to keep people in line and to encourage them to live moral lives. Religious folks are not necessary more moral than non-believers. In fact, I would argue that if good behavior is inspired merely by the promise of future rewards or the threat of future punishment, then the behavior is more a result of pure self-interest than of any kind of morality.
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22 July 2005