Sunday, March 7, 2010

on religion. Becoming an atheist.

The following was an article that was published in the April 1st, 2009, edition of the Vermilion--my campus newspaper at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

After reading Elise’s recent articles on the Universalist movement (which I’m calling Pan-Universalist since Universalist implies a theology whereas Pan-Universalist could include secular and religious folk), I started noticing comparisons to the way I felt about the world when I first really realized that I was an atheist.

First, allow me to tell my story. I always considered myself a Christian growing up, at one point vehemently so—church-going, speaking in tongues, reading the entire Bible, etc. I was raised evangelical and as a result was very critical of other faiths (Christian or not), mostly echoing the views of my parents. As I grew older and experienced the world, I met many people who had different viewpoints, and I started asking some of the tougher questions that Christianity didn’t seem to have answers for. Starting my education at ULL was a big shift since I’d been homeschooled or in Christian private schools for all my life.

Contrary to popular belief, no professor ever directly influenced my religious belief; I was mostly in science or music classes. What affected me was simply meeting such a diverse group of people, but realizing that we are all very similar even across religious boundaries. I began to consider myself more of an agnostic though still called myself Christian, since I considered that I lived by Biblical moral principles (Christ’s teachings). I was very accepting across the board of different faiths as long as they had a good moral code to live by.

A second big shift came for me when I started studying biomathematics and population dynamics, which interestingly enough marked a change in thinking for Charles Darwin as well. Typically, animal populations grow until they reach equilibrium, where the death rate equals the birth rate. But what causes equilibrium? Why don’t we just grow exponentially like bacteria? In a word—resources. As the population grows, resources become scarcer, and competition becomes fiercer, which means a higher death rate. All animals are subject to this, even humans.

Humans, however, have the advantage of agriculture that allows us to grow our population beyond its natural limits. Keeping our population checked are generally war, disease, and birth control. The lyrics “one of these things is not like the other” comes to mind. Condoms and preemptive or morning-after birth control pills are painless, no-risk ways of maintaining a population at equilibrium, yet church groups seem to fight these tooth and nail.

The thought came to mind, “The Bible wasn’t really written for the 21st century.”

How could it have been? I guess I’d always thought that God knew the future so he would have put stuff in his book for the people of the future, but it didn’t seem to fit. Our perceptions of God and morality have changed by leaps and bounds since the Bible was written. But then I couldn’t help but think, “If the Bible was just written by people trying to do the right thing, then they probably didn’t have it completely right,” and that means that it’s up to us to figure out the next step—the right thing to do.

I read Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, on the recommendation of a friend, and the book applied everything I was thinking to our modern society. I was blown away. (The sequel My Ishmael is equally amazing.)

At this point, I knew I really didn’t believe in God at all anymore, but I wasn’t comfortable saying it. A friend gave me Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, to read, and I even felt naughty accepting it and then reading the first few pages (no doubt a triggered emotional response left-over from childhood indoctrination). As I read, I not only realized some of the major problems with religions and some of the philosophical problems with the conceptions of God but also the unnecessary evils that religion can do. As the great Nobel laureate in physics Steven Weinberg said, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion."

The end result of reading Dawkins’ book was that I no longer felt like I needed to stay in the closet about what I’d discovered. But what I’d discovered wasn’t just atheism—it was a connection. I discovered that I felt really and truly connected to the Earth and to every other creature. I’m made up of the same stuff that makes up a gorilla or a tarantula. I felt so incredibly lucky to be in the human species, in the country I was born, at a time when I can actually really know and appreciate all the complexity of life and the immenseness of the universe. I get to live and breathe, talk to my friends, and to understand that none of us is particularly special but that all of us working together is an incredible thing.

Perhaps it is us that made God in our image and not the other way around. All of the characteristics we put in God can in some way be found in our society. The massive amount of scientific and medical knowledge is so large and well-documented that it borders on omniscience. The power that we have as a society to heal the sick, comfort people, feed people, and just do good is amazing. Putting all one’s faith in a god makes you focus on the supernatural instead of what’s really there. But when we put our faith in our fellow man, the world suddenly becomes an amazing place, not stricken by a curse, but flourishing with possibility. Goodness doesn’t come from a god; goodness is realized by us, and it’s our responsibility if it isn’t.

Humanism, ethics, and moral philosophy help us to discover the moral laws. Biblical authors took a stab at it, but we can and are doing better. It’s time that we break from the human tradition of the past 10,000+ years and stop looking to the sky, supposed sacred texts, or pieces of toast for guidance and meaning. It’s time we started really seeing each other, hearing the countless untold stories and understanding the mutual respect it brings. We should live to awaken possibility in others, and be less quick to judge others for race, religion, or orientation because we realize that we’re all in this together. So for one man, the movement begins.


  1. Jared...right on.

    Keep up the good work, my friend. I feel that you and I share the same beliefs, but you seem to be able to express them in a more eloquent and focused way that I've ever been able to.

    I look forward to your future posts.

    Ryan Jude

  2. yeah...I'm compulsive enough to repost a corrected version. Hahahaha. I hate typos.

    Jared...right on.

    Keep up the good work, my friend. I feel that you and I share a lot of the same beliefs [about this topic, at least], but you seem to be able to express them in a more eloquent and focused way than I've ever been able to.

    I look forward to your future posts.

    Ryan Jude

  3. I find the quote that religion is "an insult to human dignity" quite hurtful. I don't feel like I have any less dignity because I believe in a higher power, a Christian higher power. And yes I have trouble justifying my beliefs with what the Bible says, but the Bible was written by men, and I mean men in the feminist sense and in the sense that they were not divine. It's God's word through a human vessel. Human vessels are fallible (no matter how good they are) and therefore the Bible is fallible as a human creation. So I find that quote insulting. I could be wrong, there very well could be no God, but my heart tells me there is. Maybe that makes me irrational, but if it does I'm okay with that. I don't feel like it makes me any less dignified or intelligent.

  4. Hi Jared, I found your post on Facebook. I'm not an atheist myself, but I think that you do a great job of describing those qualities of level-headedness and an appreciation for the "here and the now" that atheism is so good at promoting. My only complaint against atheism is that is that the idea seems to be so arrogant to claim to *know* that there is no higher power, and rejects any possibility of one.

    While there are many downfalls to traditional religions, I think if you look at the purpose that they were originally designed for, you would probably appreciate it so much more. Consider 2-3 thousand years ago when people *did* lay out under the stars and wonder about the complexity of the universe, when civilization and science were less prominent, but the sense of wonder and imagination were much stronger. Of course there were occurrences of spiritual experiences, that were so powerful could only be called "divine." It was only natural that these people try to make stories to explain what they perceived.

    I think there is an important distinction that should be made between the story and the experience itself behind the story.

    Carl Jung said "Religion is a defense against the experience of God". Here's an excellent quote from the "Life of Pi" that I reference all the time, I think it's fantastic to explain how we humans try to "command" the divine by referencing it under our own limited means, and then how the divine seems to suddenly vanish... "But we should not cling! A plague upon fundamentalists and literalists! I am reminded of a story of Lord Krishna when he was a cowherd. Every night he invites the milkmaids to dance with him in the forest. They come and they dance. The night is dark, the fire in their midst roars and crackles, the beat of the music gets ever faster—the girls dance and dance and dance with their sweet lord, who has made himself so abundant as to be in the arms of each and every girl. But the moment the girls become possessive, the moment each one imagines that Krishna is her partner alone, he vanishes. So it is that we should not be jealous with God." Taoism also does a great job at explaining the perception of something eternal but yet impossible to grasp.

    But that's enough out of me. I hope you don't mind me lurching over your blog, I just eat this religion and morality stuff up ;D.

  5. Julia I think you misunderstood the quote. It's more saying that religion is an insult to our sense of right and wrong, that a person of dignity should be insulted by the notion of religion. Read it in the context of what comes after (and it really makes sense when you look at cases from our current events and history). For otherwise good people, people of character, people with dignity, for those people to do something evil (and feel righteous in it), that takes religion.

  6. I don't know, I still believe in the rule "Garbage in, Garbage out." You get out of things what you put in them. So those people who do evil things in the name of religion, in my opinion may not have been good to begin with. A good person recognized evil under any circumstance.