Let he who is without dumb beliefs be the first to laugh at Xenu

Watched HBO’s Going Clear last night. A powerful and infuriating documentary.

But here’s the thing: At several points in the movie, we shift from being told about the horrors of the organization’s practices to the silliness of many of its beliefs. Particularly the scene where Paul Haggis learns about Xenu and the interstellar DC-8s. I mean, it’s crazy, right? Who could believe such nutty stuff?

I want to urge caution when giggling at the odd Scientology creation myth and other related weirdness. While the organization does awful things, the content of its beliefs is really no more silly than the stuff present in pretty much every major religion. Rising from the dead? Water into wine? Devils controlling our minds? A trip from Mecca to Jerusalem on a flying horse? Talking bushes?

The only difference with Scientology, the only thing that makes it so okay to laugh at, is its lack of distance. Hubbard invented this stuff just decades ago, instead of centuries or millennia. Thus it’s very clear that it was invented. But so was all the rest of it. We just don’t have records of it.

So if you’re religious, chances are you believe things just as silly to the non-believer as the stuff in Going Clear. (And even if you’re non-religious, chances are you have all sorts of unfounded, silly beliefs. We all do. They’re just of a different category.)

Which is all just a long way of saying, “Be nice.” Or, at least, be a little self-aware when poking fun.

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Why Religious Arguments Don’t Have a Place in Politics

Religion has no place in policy debates. Because of the special nature of faith-based beliefs and values, religious arguments cannot bring anything valuable to the table when discussing the best political solutions to societal issues. When it comes to debating policy, then, we should simply ignore claims that draw exclusively upon religious faith and demand that the faithful provide other arguments — or exit the conversation.

The Elements of Policy Debate

Political arguments — that is, debates about what policy to enact — are generally about two things: pragmatic concerns (will it work? will the policy do what we want it to?) and values. If we’re arguing, say, about whether to expand charter schools in our state, we have both a value question (is educating children good or bad and should society provide it?) and a pragmatic one (will charter schools improve education for children?).

It’s clear that on both the value claim and the pragmatic one, people can differ, thus leading to debate. I may value educating children. You may say that education is overrated, and it’s real world experience that counts. I may claim that, from a practical perspective, public schools, run by the local government, offer the highest, most uniform quality. You could retort that charter schools, spurred by compeition, will produce better results. If the goal of our debate is to create policy (legislation allowing more charter schools or banning them, or perhaps a bond issue providing more funding to public education), then resolution must take the form of either compromise (both of us change our values or pragmatic perspectives a little) or one of us “winning” (i.e., the other admits he is wrong about his values or pragmatic claims).

The Trouble with Religious Arguments

So far, so good. But what happens when one or both parties in the debate ground their arguments in religious faith? What if careful textual analysis leads me to conclude that the Bible says charter schools are better than public? What if your imam instructs you to fight for public schools because that’s what Muhammad would have done?

What happens is the debate stops. There is simply no meaningful way for to proceed. Remember, for progress to be made, both parties must change their position partially, or one party must change completely. But when the parties ground their arguments in religious faith, such change is, in any real sense, impossible.

Furthermore, to convince someone that you’re right and he’s wrong, you need to demonstrate two things: the truth of your premises and the validity of your reasoning from them. But the truth of religious premises is off limits. You may assert that Jesus is the son of God and you may be right. Or you may be wrong. But how are we to know? If you have evidence of the kind that can be used to convince people, then you don’t need the faith that so often props up religious claims. If you lack that evidence and only have faith, then you can’t expect anyone who doesn’t share that faith to take your premise seriously.

In logic speak, while it’s possible to show that a faith-based argument is valid, it’s impossible (outside of revelation) to show that it’s sound.

Excluding Religion

Religion can — and, for many, does — inform values. And those values carry political weight. But when values conflict, and when that conflict is present within political debates, appealing to the religious faith underlying them simply isn’t helpful. No matter what your particular religion, the majority of people, to some degree or another, think you’re wrong. To say that those people should take your religious arguments seriously is to say that they should set aside their own faith — or lack of it — and see the world through yours.

That method of arguing is a form of that standard Washington catchphrase, “Let’s set aside our differences, move beyond politics, and do what’s right for America.” Translated, it means, “Will all of you stop disagreeing with me, recognize that my proposals are correct, and just get on with enacting them?” Religion is a special instance of that broader argumentative category, however. With religion, the truth of the “facts” underlying the proposals is off limits.

And that makes religion useless in political debates.


Obama’s Prayer and the Problem of Religious Leaders

The act of prying Obama’s written prayer from the Western Wall in Jerusalem and handing it off to an Israeli journalist was unquestionably an invasion of privacy. Forget the condemnation of the act as sacrilegious and as an affront to the relationship between a man and his god. Those criticisms only make sense, of course, if that god exists and the religious claims about him are true. In the event that Yahweh is fictitious, the piece of paper pulled from the Western Wall is nothing more than Barack Obama’s internal mutterings to an expansive fantasy. But they were his own and the privacy of the words ought to have been respected.

That said, their content is troubling. Obama wrote,

Lord — Protect my family and me. Forgive me my sins, and help me guard against pride and despair. Give me the wisdom to do what is right and just. And make me an instrument of your will.

I’ve added the emphasis because the mainstream press hasn’t. There are two explanations for Obama’s words. The first is the cynic’s take. He knew the prayer would be leaked to the press and used it as an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his faith to religious voters. Obama was raised without belief and so must make every effort to convince the nation’s faithful that he shares their reverence for things unseen. An expressed lack of such faith would mean the immediate failure of his campaign. But what if he’s not playing politics? What if he genuinely believes what he wrote? This second explanation, then, is that he was using the holiness of the Western Wall as other pilgrims do, to send a personal plea to the universe’s sovereign.

The possibility should deeply disturb all rational people. It ought, in fact, to make Obama’s more thoughtful supporters reconsider their November votes. To demonstrate why, we need only play a brief thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that the god Obama hopes to be an instrument of doesn’t exist. This would mean that any guidance he thinks he’s receiving from that deity in fact is a product of his own mind. That, in and of itself, is fine. We want our leaders to act on their own thoughts. That’s why we elect one President over another. But if Obama is acting through his own volition but believes he’s acting on the will of his god, then no amount of evidence and argumentation will sway him from his path. What is evidence in the face of omniscience? What is argumentation in the face of omnibenevolence? This is a terrifying prospect. And it’s one we’ve already rejected when the instrument of divine will is George W. Bush. Why should we give Obama a theological free pass when his professed belief is just as dangerous? Let us not forget that we are currently in a war, justified or not, with fanatics who themselves act in accordance with the will of their god.


What Atheism Offers: Life’s Mysteries

One of the profound and fundamental misunderstandings theists have of atheists is the belief that the latter lead a cold and narrow existence, unconcerned with the mysteries of the universe. Anything that can’t be immediately, rationally known must be rejected. Wonder is sapped from life. What’s happening when this view is articulated, however, is an unfortunate assumption about the very idea of mystery. The theist defines mystery as “the unknown filled by unfounded imagination.” The atheist sees it differently.

Analogies often best illustrate distinctions, so imagine a mystery novel constructed from the theist’s perspective. A body is found in an alley, shot through the heart. The detective called in clears away the uniformed officers, squats next to the deceased, and inspects the wound. He gathers details — short range, low caliber — and announces, “This is clearly the work of a goblin, armed with a wand, and angry with the victim because he failed to perform the proper appeasement ritual.” With that, the detective stands up, gets in his car, and heads home to perform the ritual himself, so as not to suffer the same fate.

Besides being awfully short, this would make for a rather frustrating novel. Yes, the story the detective has told can be made to fit the facts — though there are some inconsistencies — and a large mythology exists going back countless generations about goblins, magical deaths, and mystic rites designed to prevent them. In short, we can’t entirely rule out the detective’s explanation. But does that make it valid? Does it warrant a satisfying “The End” and a year long wait for the next book in the series? Of course not.

Why, then, should we reject the detective’s theory? Why shouldn’t we afford it the same respect we’d give to one that included a .22 pistol, an unhappy wife, and an overheard fight the night before? Because, when examining theories about the world, we naturally demand evidence. The goblin story isn’t good enough because it has a strong air of simply being made up. While no facts immediately dismiss it, no facts can be found to explicitly support it, either. And we’d hardly claim that the detective who won’t accept goblins doesn’t appreciate mysteries, is cynical, or is intellectually arrogant.

The atheist is no different from the modern detective. Rather than investigating corpses, though, he examines the awesome beauty and wonder of the universe itself. How did this all come into being? Why am I here? What should I do now that I am? What is right, what is wrong? This are huge questions and ones we may never answer. Yet this doesn’t mean they should be approached from a religious standpoint or seen as gaps in knowledge that can only be filled by unfounded imagination.

For theists, the answers are easy. How did the universe get here? God did it. How did life come into being? God. How are we to live? The son of god told us twenty centuries ago. The believer can spend a fulfilling lifetime trying to understand god but that doesn’t make his answers anything more than made up gap filling. He’s posited goblins with wands and accuses anyone who rejects these little monsters of being elitist and intellectually overreaching.

The theist rejects the atheist’s stance, saying that the only honest position is agnosticism, because we can’t know the absolute truth of god’s non-existence. Here, again, we are presented with a misunderstanding of terminology. An atheist rarely makes the flat out claim “There is no god.” Rather, he says, “I don’t believe in god.” An agnostic, on the other hand, says, “I’m not sure whether I believe in god. I could go either way.” Therefore, far from being an intellectually arrogant argument, the atheist is merely saying “Nobody has a good reason for believing in god and, without reasons, we shouldn’t believe things about the nature of reality.” This has been the claim of scientists and philosophers since these fields arose from the sea of human ignorance in distant antiquity. The theist soundly rejects this tradition. His argument, when stripped of its theological veneer, becomes nothing more than “Because we can’t know everything, I can believe anything.”

And that’s not an acknowledgment of mystery. It’s only muddy logic.

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What Atheism Offers: Justifying a Life’s Purpose

There exists a need among theists to justify life’s purpose. Far from being content with self made goals, with personal achievements set by the individual for his own existential benefit, they desire an authority handing down purpose, telling them this is how they ought to live or this is the proper role they are to play. For the atheist, the mere facts that he is here, existing, and that his existence is finite are purpose enough indeed. With one life, the drive becomes to make the most of it we are capable. Thus, the non-believer can answer history’s most asked question by saying, “The purpose of life is to live the best life each and every one of us can.”

Why should god be included in this consideration? Why can’t the question end there, with each human defining for himself what the best life looks like and taking whatever steps he is willing to get there? For the theist, however, this solution is not freedom but nihilism. A self generated purpose is no purpose at all. It is emptiness and, with it, despair. If nobody made me, why am I here? If nobody wants me to follow a given path, why should I follow any at all?

This is the same argument from consequences so often hurled at evolution: if we’re all just the product of random chance, what’s the point? If the universe is without a creator, then, for theist, we are all horribly, cripplingly alone. Yet, as an atheist, I am not alone. I have a wife I love and close friends and family I can share my successes and failures with. I’m on a planet with billions like me: humans living out their own tiny blinks of time in the same universe both awesome and mysterious. Making right by that world and the people in it is my purpose, one I can feel the profound weight of and the grand and breezy freedom it allows me to define exactly what “right” means for me. While I may be the result of the very non-random process of natural selection acting upon an arbitrary base of matter and mutation, the joy I feel when I’m with people I love and the sense of accomplishment I get when I fulfill my goals are far from random.

What role can god even play in any of this? Let us say there exists a supreme being who planted in my head the notion that I ought to live the best life I know how. Does he tell me what that means? If he does, it’s in contradictory forms, for what is best within a Catholic world view is very different from best for a buddhist or best for a Wahhabi muslim. Without definite selection criteria between the faiths, criteria that can themselves be verified without appeal to one of those faiths, how am I ever to know what is the best life? Because the specifics of the world’s religions are, therefore, of little use, I’m left only with what feels right to me. I can seek the advice of others — and I would be prudent to do so — but even they are in same boat as myself, advocating rightness to them as they understand it. Thus the existence of god, so far as purpose goes, is of pitifully little value, with the experience of man carries incredible weight.


Abandoning Superstition: Why I Don’t Believe In God

If you take a look at the history of ideas from the Enlightenment onward, an unmistakable trend is the steady abandonment of superstition. Weather patterns aren’t caused by raucous spirits. Diseases aren’t the work of angry spouses and their witch doctor friends. We break it to children in sympathetic voices that Santa Claus doesn’t wiggle down chimneys and the Tooth Fairy doesn’t break into bedrooms at night. Few of us care if a black cat meanders across the sidewalk in front of us or if the big exam falls on Friday the 13th. On the whole, then, we’re a reasonable bunch. So why do so many of us persist in believing in what the biologist, Richard Dawkins, has called “an imaginary friend who listens to your thoughts, listens to your prayers, comforts you, consoles you, gives you life after death, [and] can give you advice?”

It’s that sort of god I’m talking about. The personal one, the big guy who hangs out in heaven, watches everything you do, and adds spice to your life when you need it. This is the god the muscled man at the gym was talking about last week when I overheard him explaining to a woman about how his life had been so terrible lately. The thing was, he said, he knew he was going to get through it because “the good Lord never gives you more than you can handle.” So not only do Americans believe in this all powerful imaginary friend, but they’re also convinced he’s the one making their spouses leave, their backs give out, and their children use drugs. That god, the omniscient player of the Sims, is the concept I have so much trouble believing.

It’s important, before going too much further, to lay out rather exactly the point I’m trying to make. Namely, I want to claim that I don’t believe in God, and neither should you. This is quite different from asserting the non-existence of God. To say “there is no God” is a fool’s utterance. How would we know? If God can do everything people say he can, I bet he’d be pretty good at hiding, too. We can’t look everywhere for him and there’s a good chance we wouldn’t even know if we’d found him. In this sense, God is like a ghost. I don’t believe in ghosts but I can’t say with total certainty that they don’t exist.

The reason I don’t believe in God is because I’ve never found a convincing reason to do so. Every argument made to me has fallen prey to counter examples, alternate constructions, and problems of logic. What I’m going to do in this essay is run through one of the more frequent positive arguments for God I’ve heard and show why it shouldn’t convince anybody that he’s up there watching over us.

That most common of arguments goes like this: “I don’t need evidence for the existence of God. I have faith.” That’s a terrible reason for believing anything and I’m going to explain why, but let me first take a couple of steps back and introduce the topic of Phenomenal Conservatism. See, for philosophers, knowledge is a sticky concept. If you don’t believe me, grab an introduction to epistemology textbook and prepare the have your simplest assumptions thoroughly rocked. The issue Phenomenal Conservatism want to solve is the problem of justified belief. When are we justified in believing something? Justified means roughly that it is acceptable to believe it. So if I’m standing in front of a table with a cougar sitting in the middle of it and I turn to you and say, “I believe there’s a bullfrog on that table,” you could rightly question my justification for that belief. The trouble is most knowledge stems from our senses and those can be deceived. The most recognizable form of this argument is the brain in a vat thought experiment, which was the basis of the central conceit of the Matrix movies.

Phenomenal Conservatism jumps into this fray by providing the following basis for justification.

  1. If it seems to me that P
  2. and there are no defeaters for P
  3. then I am justified in believing P

What I want to argue is that the faith argument is a specific form of Phenomenal Conservatism and, therefore, collapses when facing the arguments traditionally used against its parent.

So what’s wrong with Phenomenal Conservatism? Well, think about it for a moment. If you follow through on the logic, you’ll see that it can be used to justify belief in pretty much anything. For sample, let’s say I believe in unicorns. Am I justified in do so? It does seem to me that unicorns exist. And there clearly aren’t any defeaters for this position. After all, nobody has conclusively disproved the wonderful tales of brilliant and beautiful horses frolicking in the woods, somehow managing not to get the the narwhal tusks sticking out of their heads caught on every low branch.

And there lies the problem. Phenomenal Conservatism, as a criteria for justification, is way too powerful. It’s the reverse scorched earth approach to epistemology. Don’t want to risk throwing out beliefs that are justified? Then just go out and justify everything. This sort of thinking isn’t only sloppy–it can be quite dangerous.

For example, consider the following situation proposed by the philosopher, Michael Tooley. Let’s say I believe there is a supreme being who has the power to put me up in a nice loft in downtown Paradise after I die. He’ll give me wine and women and all the sitcoms on TV won’t have laugh tracks. Sounds like a good deal, right? There’s a catch, of course. You see, to land this righteous, posthumous pad, I have to go out and kill people who don’t believe in my omnipotent patron. If I don’t slaughter at least twenty heathens by the time I kick the bucket, I’m going to some place far worse than Paradise.

It certainly could seem to someone that the above is the case. And there aren’t any defeaters. How could there be? This makes the above belief justified according to Phenomenal Conservatism. But we don’t want that. We’ve had enough people killed by lunatics who hold fast to similar beliefs to make it more than worth our time to show how they are in fact not justified in flying planes into buildings and chopping the heads off of Wall Street Journal reporters.

So Phenomenal Conservatism isn’t good enough. It’s too easy to justify even the most erroneous and idiotic beliefs. Now think about the argument from faith for a moment. Isn’t it more or less the same thing? I have faith in God which means it seems to me that God exists. Furthermore, nobody has disproved the existence of God. Therefore I’m justified in believing in God. End of debate. Let’s all send our money to the 700 Club.

Wanting to believe something isn’t a good enough reason for actually believing it. I want to believe I will win the Powerball lottery next week without even having to buy a ticket. Maybe such a belief is fine because it’s rather innocuous. The trouble starts when I act upon that belief. I throw away all my existing furniture because, you know, I’ll have way better stuff next week. Who needs a Sears bought sofa when you’ll be able to afford the entire Ethan Allen store in seven days?

Or maybe I believe that good Christians can cure their cancer through prayer. I tell all the men in my congregation who are being slowly killed by tumors in their prostates to stop writing checks to doctors and, instead, write them to the 700 Club. And all you women with breast cancer? You ought to do the same. After all, Jesus healed those lepers. And, dammit, I’ve got faith he’ll do the same for you.

Belief in God is a big deal. It makes people radically change the way they live. It informs their sense of morality, for better or, just as often, for worse. And when faith in involved, there isn’t any way to question the justification for hatred of gays, the slaughter of non-Muslims, or terrible gospel rock.

I don’t believe in God because I don’t have a reason to. I understand how life can evolve without divine guidance. I don’t feel a need to hold fast to the idea that my consciousness will continue after I die. I have a firm grasp of the secular grounding of morals. I don’t need Dawkins’ imaginary friend.

In short, I don’t believe in the supernatural because it all strikes me as more than a little made up. Without hard evidence to the contrary, I don’t see how any reasonable person can think that this last weekend celebrated the birth of a guy who literally raised the dead, turned water to wine, magically healed the sick, and, if he’d had half a mind to, probably could’ve shriveled penises with the best of those crazy African witch doctors we’re always reading about in the international editions.

I mean, if you believe that, you’ll believe anything.