Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Heartache of Loss

In my 25 years of life, rarely have I had the displeasure of looking death in the face. Unfortunately, that is the situation with which I currently must contend. My maternal grandfather, who has been sick with cancer for about a year, has been given a terminal prognosis. Although we are not sure how long he has—it could be weeks or months—everybody’s emotions are welling up as we prepare for the inevitable.

Although I never would presume to think my grief is comparable to that of my mother and her numerous siblings, it is a rather strange period in the life of an atheist, as well as a reflective one. I have some relatives who have put their faith in prayer as a method by which to help my grandfather, and who, at the very least, take substantial comfort from the notion that he, after death, will bask in the warm glow of Heaven. It is my judgment that prayer is ineffectual and the afterlife does not exist but, even armed with my scientific knowledge and a dogma-free mind, I cannot help but sympathize with the grief that motivates such behavior and ideas, among both my relatives and all families enduring the heartache of loss.

This clearly is not the appropriate venue to “disprove” prayer’s efficacy or the existence of an eternal soul. [Anybody wishing to know my stances on those can read "Last Refuge for the Desperate" and "Soul Searching," respectively.] However, I believe I have something to add to the discussion with respect to why people respond with unreason when faced with impending tragedy.

First, I will address prayer. In my judgment, people pray in order to create the illusion of power when, in reality, they actually are powerless. When a loved one is dying of cancer, or trapped on a mountain after an avalanche, or lying in a hospital bed after suffering a terrible accident, one is not satisfied simply to invest one’s hopes in the doctors, or the mountain climber’s skills and training, or the accident victim’s ability to fight back from grievous injury. People, on an instinctual level, actually want to help their endangered loved one. When all accepted methods of support are either unavailable or exhausted, people pray for divine intervention. Although it has been proved that intercessory prayer does not actually do anything, it gives the praying person comfort, and a soothing illusion of renewed power in the face of prior powerlessness.

If this illusion makes people feel better in their time of greatest need, then I can endorse it. Comfort, even when it is attributable to a complete fabrication, is not something against which to fight.

The second issue—that of the afterlife—is even more emotional for me, as an atheist. When my grandfather dies, I recognize that I never will see him again. The day on which I die shall bring no heavenly reunion. Indeed, since one’s memory, personality and character reside in one’s brain—and cease to be when one’s brain dies—all the wonderful characteristics that are my grandfather will vanish entirely when his long struggle ceases. This is a reality from which I get no pleasure, to be sure. On this day, I certainly am not the brash atheist happily tearing down theistic constructions.

It is quite easy to see why people cling to ideas such as the afterlife, Heaven and an immaterial essence that survives corporeal death. It has been said that, without the fiction of an afterlife to which to look forward, big-brained animals such as we would live in a depression, endlessly wasting our lives thinking about the end of them. The illusion of Heaven is a way to avoid having to say the final goodbye to somebody to whom one does not want to bid farewell. In a moment of grief, of course, this bit of self-trickery is wholly understandable. I only hope that, among those preoccupied with an afterlife that does not exist, memories of happy times during earthly life are not forgotten.

On that sad final day, I know I will be left only with my memories. But those, luckily, are countless.

I vividly recall school events to which he gladly accompanied me. I remember family barbeques, innumerable birthday parties and holiday celebrations, and quiet times just chatting with him about my life, the family, politics or sports. For a very brief period of time, I actually lived with my maternal grandparents, and I recall that he always would be proud of me when I brought home a good test score or shared some knowledge I was fortunate enough to gain that day. At night, we would watch Married…With Children together, both appreciating the ability of good comedy to cross generational gaps and bring people closer together. I always shall remember his smile, his chuckle and his ability to warm the hearts of the many people he loved.

Although I know I will miss him terribly when he no longer is here, I take comfort in the reliable continuity of it all. Every living thing—plant or animal—is born, lives and, eventually, dies. The sad irony of life is that, at the moment of birth, one begins one’s trek on the long, winding path to death. But, to borrow a phrase, the “circle of life,” birth and death among all living things, unites us in a profound way with Mother Nature and the small blue planet on which we live. From this planet’s soil—the soil from which we sprang—came Einstein, the Tyrannosaurus rex and all manner of other wondrous creatures. This simple truth, wholly lacking in the supernatural or the metaphysical, is beautiful and ought to be admired.

When my grandfather dies, it will be a tough road, but, I am sure that with the help of my family, I will be able to move on, taking great comfort in the memories he has given me and the joys I have shared with him. For now, my family and I will focus on making him happy, comfortable and secure. And, of course, building more memories with which to keep warm.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Debating Christians: A Notable Exchange

Recently, I had a rather interesting exchange with a Christian member of a popular atheist message board. What follows is his response to my essay “Modern Man, Primitive Beliefs,” followed by my reply, his response and, finally, my reply. I hope you find it worthwhile reading. Note that the Christian’s spelling, grammar and syntax have not been altered by me in any way.

Christian: Your stated "explanation" is apparently childhood indoctrination. This ignores converts, especially athiest converts. Incidentally, this particular Christian never really "got" Christianity and went agnostic for at least a decade. After that, a deist. Only recently has this Christian really become a Christian, and it is most certainly after long speculation and doubt.

Nihilist: Even so, Christianity was not introduced to you—for the very first time—when you were, say, a sophisticated and well-educated 25-year-old. As a child, Christian ideas, stories and myths were given time to soak into your mind. Thus, Christianity is infinitely more familiar to you than, say, the delusional beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon. Familiarity breeds comfort, even with the strangest, most nonscientific of concepts.

Introduce a 25-year-old Harvard graduate to Christianity—for the very first time—and you will find somebody perplexed by its popularity as a belief system in the post-Enlightenment world.

Christian: The initlal spread of Christianity was almost exclusively to people who had never heard of it, most of whom were raised pagan. This seems a necessary assumption. Either it is a made-up cult (in which case only a handful could reasonably be instigators), or it is as Biblically accounted (in which case, the initial revelation was only to a bit more than five hundred). I suppose other options are possible, but I can't imagine them off-hand.

On education, there's an extremely clear case: Paul of Tarsus. I am assuming, on the combined evidence of his physical letters and the results of work attributed to him (both by others and claimed in said letters) founding the church corroborated in said letters, that Paul is at least not considered fictitious.

Could he have made it all up? Considering he got his start killing Christians, that's unlikely. Could his conversion story on the road to Damascus be false? Sure, but by what motive? He stood to gain nothing, and as a devout Jew he actually stood to lose respect, authority, security, and many other things we crave instinctively.

Nihilist: In ancient times of widespread credulousness and scientific ignorance, it surely was much easier to spread religious ideas around. People did not know about evolution, which effectively explains the question of how humans came to be. People did not know about many human physiological properties, such as brain death being irreversible. People did not know that, rather than Heaven being above, there actually are other planets, other solar systems, other galaxies and galaxy clusters, and, quite possibly, other universes. Around the time of Jesus, the Middle East and surrounding areas were crowded with "savior" figures, for example Apollonius of Tyana. Of course, Apollonius was not divine at all; but yet, he was a formidable "savior" before the rise of the Jesus craze.

My point is this: When you have a mass of ignorant, scientifically illiterate people, it is quite easy to perpetrate an enticing metaphysical fraud, whether deliberately or not. Jesus could have claimed divinity, sold his followers on this, and they, in good faith, could have disseminated that falsehood. I do not mean to imply that Christianity spread as a deliberate fiction meant to harm or swindle people. Rather, I think it could have been passed around innocently by the unsophisticated and the credulous. [Similar to how people inadvertently spread cold germs by not washing their hands.]

Of course, I give no credence at all to any "divine visions" leading to spiritual discoveries. Nowadays, when people have visions, we rightfully label them crazy. All those people who see UFOs, ghosts, demons, Big Foot, “Nessie,” etcetera are either delusional, liars, honestly mistaken or some combination thereof. It is not possible for Paul truly to have seen the risen Jesus, because Jesus had died and suffered brain death, which is irreversible. Dead corpses do not walk around now, and they did not do so two thousand years ago.

So, if Paul's account has any relationship to reality whatsoever, he either made the whole story up or had some sort of vivid delusion. Those are the only scientifically sound answers to be found, given, once again, the non-negotiability of brain death. I do not want to speculate on Paul's motives for lying, if he indeed was not simply delusional. Rather, I will say that lies, delusions or honest mistakes are much, much more probable than rotted corpses traipsing around like some George A. Romero picture.

This world operates according to natural principles. Rotting, lifeless carcasses do not wander. Virgin women (especially before modern science’s amazing advances) do not become impregnated and give birth. Snakes and donkeys do not speak in human tongues. Human beings do not live to be 900 (or more!) years old. People do not ascend bodily into outer space. [What the primitives falsely believed was Heaven.] The post-delusion writings of a scientifically illiterate individual cannot convince me to abandon my well-evidenced scientific grounding. I much sooner would attribute Paul of Tarsus’ life's work (or what is alleged of it) to hallucination, lies or time-period-attributable ignorance to natural phenomena.

Sunday, January 7, 2007

With Whom Shall You Side?

Is there an intellectual elite that, in sharp contrast to “Kansas values,” rejects the supernatural, religion and even God himself? Do high levels of education result in a loss of piety? Are believers putting their faith at risk by attending a prestigious American university? In fact, the answer to all those questions seems to be yes. Reading "The God Delusion," by Dr. Richard Dawkins, I was amazed by the statistical evidence indicating that education and intelligence have an inverse relationship with religiosity. In study after study, the most distinguished, renowned minds rejected religion and embraced atheistic naturalism. As you read the following quotations and selections, remember that this doesn’t actually prove the veracity of atheism. However, it raises an interesting question: Do you want to be on the side of eminent intelligentsia, or on the other?

Let us commence with Nobel laureates. Dr. Dawkins writes that a “…systematic study by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi ‘found that among Nobel Prize laureates in the sciences, as well as those in literature, there was a remarkable degree of irreligiosity, as compared to the populations they came from’.” Surely, the prevalent atheism among Nobel laureates must mean something, given atheism’s infrequency among the general public. Could education, knowledge and intelligence lead one toward a faithless worldview?

Dr. Dawkins continues, “A study in the leading journal Nature by Larson and Witham in 1998 showed that of those American scientists considered eminent enough by their peers to have been elected to the National Academy of Sciences (equivalent to being a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain) only about 7 per cent believe in a personal God. This overwhelming preponderance of atheists is almost the exact opposite of the profile of the American population at large, of whom more than 90 per cent are believers in some sort of supernatural being.” Again, I feel compelled to highlight this incredible discrepancy. Is it possible that these eminent scientists have a stronger grasp on reality—on what is possible—than the average person off the street, who might or might not have a solid education in science?

I have mentioned the Larson and Witham study in earlier writings. I think it is significant because of the NAS scientists’ outright disbelief in the divine; we’re not talking about wishy-washy agnostics here. Indeed, of the respondents to that survey, 72.2% expressed outright atheism, as compared to 20.8% agnosticism.

Dr. Dawkins’ next case in point is equally dramatic. He refers to research in progress from R. Elisabeth Cornwell and Michael Stirrat, which studies religiosity among the Fellows of the Royal Society. Dr. Dawkins again:

“All 1,074 Fellows of the Royal Society (FRS) who possess an email address (the great majority) were polled, and about 23 per cent responded (a good figure for this kind of study). They were offered various propositions, for example: ‘I believe in a personal God, that is one who takes an interest in individuals, hears and answers prayers, is concerned with sin and transgressions, and passes judgement.’ For each such proposition, they were invited to choose a number from 1 (strong disagreement) to 7 (strong agreement). It is a little hard to compare the results directly with the Larson and Witham study, because Larson and Witham offered their academicians only a three-point scale, not a seven-point scale, but the overall trend is the same. The overwhelming majority of FRS, like the overwhelming majority of US Academicians, are atheists. Only 3.3 per cent of the Fellows agreed strongly with the statement that a personal god exists (i.e. chose 7 on the scale), while 78.8 per cent strongly disagreed (i.e. chose 1 on the scale). If you define ‘believers’ as those who chose 6 or 7, and if you define ‘unbelievers’ as those who chose 1 or 2, there were a massive 213 unbelievers and a mere 12 believers.”

Dr. Dawkins hastened to add that there was, “…a small but significant tendency for biological scientists to be even more atheistic than physical scientists.” Apparently, those scientists who deal with life and its natural processes—the individuals most likely to find God’s fingerprints—haven’t yet discovered them.

Now, Dr. Dawkins turns to Dr. Michael Shermer, a distinguished defender of science whom I have quoted on several occasions. Dr. Dawkins writes, “Michael Shermer, in How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, describes a large survey of randomly chosen Americans that he and his colleague Frank Sulloway carried out. Among their many interesting results was the discovery that religiosity is indeed negatively correlated with education (more highly educated people are less likely to be religious). Religiosity is also negatively correlated with interest in science and (strongly) with political liberalism.” Once again, our emerging trend is unmistakable.

However, let us not immediately discount the possibility that the (several) studies which Dr. Dawkins cites in his book are anomalous. Perhaps for every one survey that finds an inverse relationship between intelligence and religiousness, there are three that chart a direct relationship; maybe Dr. Dawkins is “counting the hits and ignoring the misses.” Alas, this emphatically is not the case. Dr. Dawkins once more:

“On the subject of religion and IQ, the only meta-analysis known to me was published by Paul Bell in Mensa Magazine in 2002 (Mensa is the society of individuals with a high IQ, and their journal not surprisingly includes articles on the one thing that draws them together). Bell concluded: ‘Of 43 studies carried out since 1927 on the relationship between religious belief and one’s intelligence and/or educational level, all but four found an inverse connection. That is, the higher one’s intelligence or education level, the less one is likely to be religious or hold “beliefs” of any kind’.”

Staying on the subject of Mensa for a moment but reverting back to this article’s statistical roots, let us look at the relationship between the general public’s religiosity and that of Mensans. An American study (the reliability of which I cannot guarantee) upon which I stumbled laid out the following religious belief figures:

Non-Mensans: 83%

Mensans: 56%

Those reported results, while not as dramatic, represent a continuation of our unmistakable pattern.

This information, largely culled from Dr. Dawkins’ wonderful tome “The God Delusion,” which I give my very highest recommendation, probably comes as a shock to some. But it shouldn’t. Consider some of the absurdities contained within the popular religions of today. Let us use Christianity as an example. I will cite just a handful of glaring absurdities.

* A speaking serpent.

* Adam dying at the age of 930.

* Lazarus overcoming brain death in order to return to life.

* Jesus overcoming brain death in order to be resurrected.

* The very notion that we—a single species of animal, on one planet, which is part of a single solar system, which is part of one galaxy, which itself is part of a single galaxy cluster in the universe, which itself might be part of a multiverse—can speak with the creator of the cosmos.

Surely, it is only natural that the most educated, the most intelligent and the most knowledgeable among us would reject such silliness in favor of scientific naturalism. Atheism and intelligence seem to have a direct relationship so, to conclude, I again must ask: Do you want to be on the side of eminent intelligentsia...or on the other?