A Thought on Proselytizers Who Threaten Damnation
It makes one wonder why so much evangelism is done at the point of a metaphorical sword.
First Principle: Evidence is the best, most reliable way for humans to approximate truth as we interrogate the world of experience.
As a former Christian who lives in a country in which that faith dominates—and as an ex-believer who is now a lonely atheist in a large extended family teeming with (admittedly Catholic-flavored) Christians—it can be difficult to step entirely out of Christian thought, even when, intellectually, I remain wholly unpersuaded by the supposed evidence meant to support Jesus as savior. I have had family members tell me that they pray for me, imploring god, I suppose, to show me the light and guide me from my infidelic ways; others have told me that, from their perspective, my life must be in some way bankrupt, what with the lack of something in which to believe, such as a benevolent divinity or the mythology of the United States as John Wayne-esque hero nation. To them, awe of science is a poor substitute for spiritual fulfillment, which it, perhaps, is, although I have little appetite for superficially palatable falsehood. And, to them, one’s satisfaction with his supposed acquisition of knowledge seems rather hollow when compared to an eternity of damnation.
I departed from the Christian faith about a decade ago, right around the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks, although my apostasy had tremendously more to do with my studies during that period at Hofstra University than with any moral outrage at the acts religion can inspire. As I took courses in anthropology, biology, philosophy and even literature, I came to realize that the compartmentalization of my mind, which I had already begun to implement, was untenable: I could not be a believing Christian, who accepted the bible as basically true, in one compartment while amassing my knowledge of the species and the cosmos in another one. With surprising haste, the soul was exorcised from the corpus, god was removed from human evolution, fine-tuning slinked away into the dustbin of bad ideas and I, in a real sense, was liberated from nearly two decades of carefully inculcated delusion.
Still, though, being an ex-Christian is not the same as never having been Christian in the first place. My feelings toward Christianity and, indeed, my susceptibility to Christian ideas are qualitatively different from those feelings and that susceptibility with respect to Islam, Hinduism, Judaism or any other faith among the countless multitudes. I recall Christopher Hitchens, writing in Vanity Fair last October while in the midst of battling cancer, admitting, “As a terrified, half-aware imbecile, I might even scream for a priest at the close of business,” although he quickly added, “though I hereby state while I am still lucid that the entity thus humiliating itself would not in fact be ‘me.’” And that is the thing: Even a staunch atheist such as me—one who, as an evidentialist, has tried to look at the evidence objectively and, in so doing, has had his non-belief repeatedly reaffirmed—is not immune to occasional frightful thoughts of being consigned to an eternity of agonizing punishment in hellfire.
Christian writers of decades and centuries past have seemed to take an almost perversely sadistic glee in describing the various tortures, torments, agonies and excruciations of hell; gospel descriptions about weeping and gnashing of teeth seem the very picture of restraint compared to, say, the fetishistic torture-porn that is Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” When one was formerly a Christian believer—and, again, remains ensnared in a Jesus-saturated culture and possesses a family that regularly discusses dead loved ones’ reunion with other deceased relatives in heaven—this has power. When others warn one about the dark fate sure to befall his sinful soul, it is hard not to harbor a bit of fright and even, in those most pathetic moments, fear that can be quite acute.
In earthly life, it is perfectly natural to fear having a cavity filled by the dentist due to the few moments of pain it might involve. And, it is standard practice to avoid relatively minor pains by taking protective action, such as by wearing oven mitts so as not to burn one’s fingertips. I know that, speaking personally, I avoid pain at all costs, sometimes depriving myself of things that might be enjoyable or exciting simply because the cost-benefit analysis contains too high a risk of pain occurring. This is to say, I anticipate the possibility (not even necessarily the probability) of pain and, as a result, modify my behavior to bring that possibility down to effectively zero. But, were hell actually to exist, and were it, in the slightest, to resemble Jonathan Edwards’ horrific imaginings, the pain in store for the sinning hordes would shrink every torment with which we are familiar to nothingness. Surely, then, it would make sense for me—if not now, then before I expire—to return to Christianity and repent my atheistic agitation, yes?
No, no, a thousand times no. I am an evidentialist not because I idolize this scientist or that philosopher…not because others easily lead me and I fall under influence…but, rather, because I truly believe the evidentialist principle is the best way to approximate truth. And, no matter what my relatives believe or what a large majority of Americans hold as true, I do not believe the Christian revelation; the evidence, where sought, is often nonexistent and, where actually found, is ultimately insufficient. I do not believe the Old Testament recounts actual events, nor do I believe in Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, nor do I believe that humans have souls, much less that these immaterial souls go to an immaterial place following corporeal death. This leaves me, then, with but a single motivating factor to reconvert to Christianity: fear of terrible punishment for failing to have done so.
I do not believe in any gods, but I especially do not believe—indeed, would consider it insulting to believe—in a god who looks favorably upon a person whose sole motivating factor in following the deity is craven, pathetic, self-serving fear of punishment. I find it inconceivable that a supposed glorified creator of the universe—a being who, if existent, would be the author of all creation and separator of the righteous from the wicked—would be pleased with a throng of followers who do not love him or revere him or, indeed, even really believe in him, but only choose to prostrate themselves before him because of their pusillanimous terror. I cannot guarantee that, moments before my death, I will not repent of my atheism and turn skyward desperately, but, as Hitchens observed, such would be a humiliation: both for me and for any supposed god.
1. The universe is far older and unspeakably more enormous than the average person realizes. The universe was born 13.75 billion years ago, and Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago. The Milky Way is but one galaxy, among hundreds of billions of others, and the Sun is but one star in our galaxy; individual galaxies can contain hundreds of billions of—if not a trillion or more—stars, many of which are considerably more massive than our Sun is. Our solar system is an unimaginably tiny—completely insignificant—part of the Milky Way, which, itself, is just as infinitesimal, and insignificant, a part of the universe as a whole. Our planet is minor, and the star it orbits is ordinary.
2. The insignificance of our galaxy, our solar system and our planet in the scope of the larger universe is mirrored by the triviality of human beings in the context of Earth's ever-branching Tree of Life. As noted, Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, with life's initial emergence on this planet having been pegged at approximately 3.8 billion years ago. However, mammals have only walked the planet for 220 million years; the genus Homo made its first appearance only 2.35 million years ago; and hominids bearing close resemblance to humans of today have only been around 200,000 years or so. This, of course, means that hominids bearing resemblance to modern humans have treaded the Earth for less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history.
3. In light of facts one and two, we can say with sufficient certitude that humankind, as a whole, is completely and comprehensively insignificant in the context of the cosmos. Our galaxy is of no importance in the broader universe; our solar system is of no importance in our broader galaxy; Earth is but a minor planet in its larger solar system; and humankind—in the context of the broader Tree of Life that has been growing for 3.8 billion years—has just emerged on the scene this instant. Human beings happen to have evolved: Evolutionary forces were not “building toward” us; nor was our evolution a goal, pinnacle or conclusion; nor does our momentary perch atop the animal kingdom confer onto us unique specialness, value or intrinsic worth.
4. Given the comprehensive insignificance—of the Milky Way, of our solar system, of our planet and of humankind as part of the Tree of Life—discussed above, we can go one step further. If the Milky Way galaxy were to disappear tomorrow—sucked into a black hole the size of which no astronomer has yet imagined—the universe would look, well, pretty much exactly as it does now; the Milky Way's presence would not be missed. If the Sun experienced violent star death tomorrow, and its death throes obliterated the entirety of our solar system—including, of course, the Earth—the Milky Way would look more or less identical to the way it looks today; the destruction of our solar system would go unnoticed in our galaxy. And if human beings, in an inexplicable mass extinction, all dropped dead tomorrow, Earth, life and evolution would continue on in our absence. Earth is critical to us because it is our home; we, however, are far from critical to Earth.
5. Humanity is to the universe as a single grain of sand on a beach is to Earth; the entire species could go extinct in a nuclear blast tomorrow, and the universe would not take the slightest notice, or miss our kind. If humanity as a whole is of no cosmic significance, then it follows that no individual human possesses cosmic significance, either. And if no individual human possesses cosmic significance, then it certainly follows that no human action—whether it be deemed virtuous or wicked by those who would judge it—is ultimately significant, either. The Milky Way's formation was not a significant moment in the universe's development; the Sun's birth was not a moment of importance in the Milky Way's history; humankind is not a significant branch on the Darwinian Tree of Life. Importance we assign to ourselves and to our actions is subjective and comes from ourselves, not from objectively grounded cosmic significance that actually exists as a matter of fact.
Humankind's pronounced predisposition to self-importance, bordering on haughty arrogance, leaves me with some combination of bafflement at our childlike taste for palatable delusion, frustration with our seeming inability to reason beyond it and weary resignation to our current solipsistic (in the sense of being characterized by extreme egocentrism) stance. Certainly, almost every successive discovery that is won through diligent scientific effort bespeaks the wondrousness of the world as we know it and the humbling majesty of the small planet on which we live. One need only consult the exciting developments emerging in disciplines ranging from biology to cosmology, chemistry to astrophysics, and paleontology to geophysics. However, our compounding and expanding scientific understanding only serves to testify to a universe far larger and grander than we will ever experience, and one in which we play such an infinitesimal role that we charitably could be said to have essentially no significance.
As a regular reader of my writing might expect, I believe the institution of religion is the principal cause of the delusive idea that humans, either as individuals or as a species, hold some special significance. And, for clarity, I speak not only of significance exceeding that of other animals but, in fact, of any cosmic-scale significance whatsoever. From extremely early childhood, those of us raised with religious inculcation are told that we are children of god, created in his glorious image, and cared for and loved by him. Moreover, we are told that god is deeply concerned with our thoughts and actions, down to the trivial and the mundane, and that he is comprehensively aware of what we, as individuals, do. If the intellectual cancer of creationism is grafted onto, or simply replaces, our scientific education, we might well be led to believe that the universe, our planet in it and we on that planet were literally and supernaturally created, making us, by extension, godly objects.
All of this is to say that, in youth, our intellectual development is so minimal that we have no defense against attractive delusion that is presented as fact by those whom we trust. If, in childhood, the fangs of religious indoctrination are plunged deeply into our bodies, pumping their unique brand of sweet-smelling toxin, we are likely to grow to be adults whose brains are hopelessly addled by nonsense. Recognizing religion as the robust, well-adapted phenomenon that it is, one cannot help but to approach it in Darwinian fashion in an attempt to understand why it is so pervasive. That religion, in general, promises an afterlife following earthly death certainly contributes to its appeal, inasmuch as the prospect of nonexistence seems to frighten and disturb most of us. In religion, many people also find not only solace and comfort but meaning and inspiration, too. For these people, god and religion, to some extent, provide life with an overarching purpose, without which, presumably, they would feel adrift. Religion also feeds into our innate egocentrism, inasmuch as many of us like to feel loved (especially by a supreme being!) and to believe that our actions, for better or worse, reverberate beyond our minuscule little sphere.
Although religion might well be the vehicle through which human self-importance most frequently reveals itself, and I certainly would contend that it exacerbates and magnifies whatever predisposition toward egocentrism people might have, it definitely is not the only way in which this mental distortion becomes manifest. And I would be dishonest to say that I, myself, do not fall victim frequently to variants of this selfsame delusion. I suffer from an extreme susceptibility to the rose-colored visions of pure, undying romance that have permeated cinema for decades and that are so frequently echoed in sappy love songs, causing me to be sucked into ideas such as "soul mates." By that, I mean two people who, among the nearly 7 billion who populate this planet, are romantically meant for each other to the exclusion of all other possible couplings. The problem with such ideas is the unanswered, and seemingly unanswerable, question: "Meant for each other" by whom? And even granting the possibility that there were an individual, among the billions of people on our planet, for whom you were personally meant, it seems rather silly to think that you would find that individual.
And let us not neglect to mention those old canards that it is sometimes just a person's "time to go" or that, if something happens, "it was meant to." One sometimes hears things similar to the former when a tragedy befalls somebody, such as, for instance, when a plane crash kills a happy young couple. Perhaps more to the point, somebody might say it was a young daredevil's "time to go" if he were to plunge to his death while mountain climbing. The apparent implication of this is that, if the daredevil were to have stayed home and watched television that day, some other accident would have offed him. Turning to the latter phrase, "it was meant to happen," I view it largely as a mental illusion one conjures to absolve oneself of blame and emancipate oneself from regret over an unwelcome development in one's life. That is, it involves believing that something was preordained, thereby allowing one to embrace the comforting notion that, no matter what choices had been made, the outcome would have been the same. The problems here are identical to the one previously identified: If one has a "time to go," by whom is it determined? If something "was meant to happen," to whom can we credit the planning?
These generally secular forms of self-importance might seem meaningfully different from those characterizing religious practice. For instance, freethinkers recognize that prayer is a useless exercise that is undertaken by those who, in a fit of childish delusion, believe they can effect change in the real world by falling to their knees and murmuring to themselves, all the while thinking they are communicating with the creator of the universe. However, whether secular or religious, all variants tie together inasmuch as they are part of a fallacious-idea web wherein humans are significant, subjects of a plan, qualitatively different from other life forms and imbued with a nebulous "special something." It seems that there is insufficiently abundant comfort, purpose, meaning, ego stroking and reassurance in the harsh light of science, leading many to crawl back to the cool, dark territory of unreason, like bugs beneath a stone.
From what, exactly, does the majority seek comfort? I argue that the answer is our proper place in a vast universe. The age of the universe--of which our solar system (as well as our entire galaxy) is the tiniest sliver--is 13.75 billion years, with an uncertainty of 0.17 billion years. The age of the Earth is 4.54 billion years, with an uncertainty of one percent. Modern forms of Homo sapiens first emerged on the scene about 195,000 years ago. Looking at these dates in context, we can say that humanlike creatures have been around less than one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's natural history. With a clearheaded comprehension of Darwinian evolution by natural selection, we understand that human beings happen to have evolved. We certainly were not bound to evolve, nor is evolution an efficacious stepladder that was designed to reach the heights of humankind, nor is humankind the "final product" toward which everything has been building. Furthermore, Darwinian evolution knows of only one Tree of Life, and we exist as part of, rather than standing apart from, that multiply branched tree.
Finally, we also know that that which lives eventually will die and, despite a great deal of wishful thinking of both an explicitly religious and vaguely spiritual nature, there is literally no persuasive evidence to support the contention of an afterlife. The evidence, it turns out, is to the contrary. In God: The Failed Hypothesis--How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist, Victor Stenger writes, "We have seen that neurological and medical evidence strongly indicates that our memories, emotions, thoughts and, indeed, our very personalities reside in the physical particles of the brain or, more precisely, in the ways those particles interact. So this would seem to say that when our brains die, we die." Perhaps it is upsetting to accept, but the simple fact remains that each of us will die. There will come a day, whether distant or close at hand, when each of us will be but a cold, lifeless body, lying in a morgue or funeral parlor, or on a medical examiner's slab. Makeup and powder will be applied to our faces, our best clothes will be draped on our corpses and we will be injected with chemicals to forestall the process through which each of us will decompose...until we become nothing at all.
If one adheres to Christian dogma, quite a bit of the preceding discussion might be questioned or flatly denied. I recognize that, if one is a bible-believing Christian, one is fully entitled, if not outright obligated, to believe in the intrinsic specialness of humankind and our species' cosmic, enduring importance. That one's false superstition compels such beliefs, though, does not prevent me from pointing out that Christianity amplifies, distorts and exacerbates delusive self-importance, a condition that is well recognized if only partially understood. I see no particular reason to relitigate all the issues that I, and many others, have already discussed, such as the ludicrousness of prayer, the many frailties of Christianity and the profound weakness of the design hypothesis, but I do think it is worthwhile to reiterate the principal reason why I am not, and intellectually cannot be, a Christian. Quite simply, to subscribe to Christianity, one must believe that a god who, in barbarous and ignorant times, was eminently clear, present and active suddenly, upon the emergence of a scientific understanding of the natural order, became a silent, inert sluggard whose presence can only be discerned in the most obscure, skepticism-baiting ways. The Israelites had precious little need for abstruse philosophical prestidigitation like the Transcendental Argument.
Whether it is the seemingly endless succession of people predicting the end of the world in their puny, insignificant lifetimes, the thoroughly irrational masses who are convinced that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead sometime before they, themselves, would die off, or the people who foolishly pretend that Earth holds a place of significance in an observable universe that is estimated to measure 93 billion light-years in diameter, humans habitually betray a breathtaking ego that is completely unwarranted by the evidence. If one wishes to think and, as a result, behave in accordance with truth (as best as it has been currently ascertained), one should recognize that, qualitatively, we are no different from any other evolved creature, our current perch atop the animal kingdom notwithstanding. And if one requires meaning of some kind to persist in life, one must invent such meaning for oneself.
Because just as surely as there is no objective, prescriptive moral code weaved into the fabric of the cosmos, nor any god above, below or anywhere else to love, supervise, create or punish, there is no purpose to life, to humans, or to you or to me apart from whichever one we invent. And as much as we might like to believe we are a grand, towering thing of a sort that only a deity could assemble, the truth is contrary: We are the accidental product, among millions and millions of others, of a Darwinian trial-and-error process. Most importantly, the universe did not notice our arrival and does not notice our persistence; it will not notice our eventual, inevitable extinction and shall not remember our follies.