Skepticism….Sooo much Skepticism

I just got done listening to the program, Equal Time For Free Thoughts, on Peace and Justice Radio 99.5 F.M. in which they were interviewing the founder and head of Black Atheists of America, Ayanna Watson, as well as Leighann Lord, comedian and poster person for African-Americans for Humanism National Outreach advertising campaign.  I would highly recommend listening to the podcast on this link in order to better understand the context of this post.  If you do choose to listen, start at around the six minute mark.

In the interview, the host asks a very interesting question that I think highlights the very core misunderstandings and misconceptions about religion that form the foundation of atheistic thought.  He asks “If people were persuaded to let go of their faith-based thinking, how then is it liberating to become a free thinker and even more specifically in terms of a naturalistic approach to understanding ourselves and others is there real wisdom that this naturalistic approach offers that you are not getting if you’re going to Church?” This promulgation of this notion that being a free thinker is totally antithetical to being a faith-based thinker scares me, because it is patently untrue.  I want to argue that it may often seem, on the surface, that faith-based thinking is inherently constrictive in its thought processes and it is this surface that atheists will cite when they make this argument.  Leighann Lord’s answer to the question is a perfect illustration of my point.  She begins by saying that there are benefits to letting go of what she calls “fuzzy thinking” and goes on to say that “if you are not depending on some mystical force or being to do things for you than you are leaving it to yourself.”  She goes on to talk about “rolling up your sleeves and putting in the effort and not just sitting around and praying about it or believing that if it happens it was meant to be.”  Now there is a big implication in these statements that seems to be based on the notion that if you are you are a member of the Church and believe in God that you are giving up your life to a higher power and not taking responsibility for driving your life path.  This is not what Christianity teaches, and this is not what belief in God represents to people of faith.  It is a commonly used and largely unfounded argument for Atheism used by Atheists to justify their faith…..the faith of not believing in God.  Before dispelling these notions, I believe it is important to recognize the reasons why they pervade the community of ardent nonbelievers.  But before even I do that I want to say that arguments of this nature are often very polarizing and play to people’s emotions, whichever side you are on.  My goal is only to present rational arguments and not to insult anyone or make anyone angry.  We must be willing to listen, but not listen blindly and always think through things rationally and this is what I will try to do here.

In my last post, I made the argument that atheism is born out of the specific opposition to religious radicalism, not religion itself.  I also argued that religious radicalism is as anti-religious as atheism.  Now how can that be?  The statement, “Religious radicalism is anti-religious” seems to contradict itself.  But one has to take a look at the effect of religious extremism on the world at large to truly understand why it is not only so anti-religious but also why it has fostered this counter cultural movement called atheism.  I would prefer to tackle the latter question first.  Now this is a subject that is very close to my heart, because, as I said in my last post, I used to be a staunch atheist until I realized that most of my arguments were largely based on misconceptions and misunderstandings about religion which I had developed not only through media influence but also from listening to my dad speak about his dislike of religion.  My dad emigrated to America from Pakistan in 1980, and one of the main reasons he came here was his strong aversion to the Islamic conservatism of Pakistani society.  Whenever he talked to me about his dislike of religion, he would make the same arguments that atheists today will make against Christianity…or in general…a belief in god.  Here are a few, “Religion is just a way to control people and exert power”, “I can’t believe what I can not see”…”Look at the destruction that religion causes in this world in terms of places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, so wouldn’t we be better off without it.”  Now  I believed all these arguments because ya know he’s my dad and I saw my father as a very good and moral man, but also, and more importantly, I had no perspective and no true knowledge about religion to be able to make my own judgements that were solely mine based on my own reasoning and research and value judgment.  I also was too young to care that much, and I never took the initiative to learn more until very recently.  Consequently my dad’s preconceptions were my only lens into religion….well that and September 11th and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism…as well as learning about Puritanism and all the European religious wars from way back which really validated my dad’s arguments….so the point is my insight into religion was narrow, negative, and shaped by bias.  And the big problem was that I didn’t really know anything about religion: the teachings, the holy books, the traditions, the origin of the belief in God.  So, in retrospect, it was irresponsible of me to make a blanket, negative judgment about religion, without actually studying it for myself.  But this is what we are so quick to do in today’s world.  We become followers.  It is too easy to be a follower.  We must take the initiative to get the whole picture before we make a value judgment, because too often we are being influenced by forces we don’t even realize.  I came to appreciate Christianity and what it has to offer not by blind faith but by logic and reason.  Before that my conception of religion, was driven by blind faith….faith that my father’s words were true….faith that Osama Bin Laden was a follower of real Islam…faith that because Islamic countries were notorious for their maltreatment of women that must be what the Quran told them to do… that science and Christianity are diametrically opposed to one another……faith that Christianity teachings rejected evolution and the big bang theory and believed the earth was thousands of years old rather than billions… that the Bible was supposed to be read literally… many misconceptions I could go on and on and on.  In this respect, religion was like a human being.  People are so complex, and unless you really get to know a person, it is wrong to make blanket judgments and often there are misconceptions you have initially, that are often proven wrong by further getting to know them.  You are constantly peeling back and peeling back to get to the how and the why.  And often these revelations about a person surprise you, as I was very surprised in my discoveries about Christianity.  In his book, The Reason for GodBelief in an Age of Skepticism, Timothy Keller addresses the prevailing culture of doubt in our society,

The only way to doubt Christianity rightly and fairly is to discern the alternate belief under each of your doubts and then to ask yourself what reasons you have for believing it.  How do you know your belief is true?  It would be inconsistent to require more justification for Christian belief than you do for your own, but that is frequently what happens.  In fairness, you must doubt your doubts.  My thesis is that if you come to recognize the beliefs in which your doubts about Christianity are based, and if you seek as much proof for those beliefs as you seek from Christians for theirs–you will discover that your doubts are not as solid as they first appeared.

I commend two process to my readers.  I urge skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined “blind faith” on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them.  I also urge believers to wrestle with their personal and culture’s objections to the faith.  At the end of each process, even if you remain the skeptic or believer you have been, you will hold your own position with both greater clarity and greater humility.  Then there will be an understanding, sympathy and respect for the other side that did not exist before.  Believers and nonbelievers will rise to the level of disagreement rather than simply denouncing one another.

Now that I have addressed the general skepticism within the non religious community, I would like to get back to Leighann Lord’s specific comment regarding the Christian belief in God.  She contends that people who believe in and pray to God are leaving their fate up to “mystical forces” consequently failing to take responsibility for their actions  and supposedly having no motivation to better themselves.  This assertion basically implies that that, to take a phrase from Keller, “Christianity is a Straitjacket” in it teaches that all human existence is up to the whimsy of an all mighty God.  As a result, Leighann Lord is painting the picture of religion as, to take my own phrase, a  “dictatorship over human minds and actions”.  On the contrary, Christianity is the only set of beliefs I have encountered, non religious or religious, that  holds human beings most accountable and responsible for their own actions.  Let us examine this notion.

For just over a year the ruler of Syria, Bashar al-Assad has been waging a terrible campaign of indiscriminate killing against his own civilian population.  His family has ruled with an iron fist for many years, and the people of Syria are fed up with dictatorship.  The Syrian army has committed unspeakable atrocities including sending in tanks to shell whole neighborhoods, torturing approximately 800 children, and ordering snipers to fire on civilians in the streets of many major cities.  The U.N. estimates that upwards of 8000 people have been killed in the vicious crackdown.

Now you ask anyone, believer or non-believer, if what Assad is doing is wrong, they will say yes.  If you ask why, both will give an answer akin to “Humans have rights and it is wrong to violate those rights”.  But just look at this statement.  It is a view of human rights that has largely developed in the Western world.  There are persons in this world and throughout history, one obviously being Bashar al-Assad, who have no qualms about violating human rights and yet we have this inner sense that what they are doing is wrong.  So how can the nonbeliever explain this inner sense of right and wrong?  How can the nonbeliever justify this sense of transcendent moral obligation?  Where does the idea that every human individual has dignity come from?  Timothy Keller argues,

If there is no God, then there is no way to say one action is “moral” and another “immoral” but only “I like this.”  If that is the case who gets the right to put their subjective, arbitrary moral feelings into law?  You might say “the majority has the right to make the law,” but do you mean the majority has the right to vote to exterminate a minority?  If you say “No that is wrong,” then you are back to square one.  “Who sez” that the majority has moral obligation not to kill the minority?  Why should your moral convictions be obligatory?  Why should your view prevail over the will of the majority?  The fact is, says Leff, if there is no God, then all moral statements are arbitrary, all moral valuations are subjective and internal, and there can be no moral standard by which a person’s feelings and values are judged.

Now I ask you, when the international community decides to denounce what Bashar al-Assad is doing to his people, are they not judging his actions by an objective and external moral standard?  Human rights are real.  They are not subjective and they are not arbitrary and they do not derive from individual human beings.  If they did, then the international community would have no right to denounce Assad.  They derive externally from a force outside ourselves and that force is God.

Now I will ask you, is this “fuzzy thinking” as Leighann Lord puts it?  Is is blind faith?  No.  It is logical thinking.  It is just one of the many logical reasons for God’s existence.  It may not be empirical or derived from the scientific method, but nonetheless it is logical.  This is part of the why that I spoke of in one of my previous posts.  Science can never explain why something is the way it is.  It can only explain how.  This does not mean science and religion are at odds.  It means that they are two separate realms and that they deserve respect from one another.

Works Cited

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York: Penguin Group USA Inc, 2008. Print.


10 thoughts on “Skepticism….Sooo much Skepticism

  1. I do not find either Keller’s or your argument persuasive for a couple of reasons.

    1. Morality based on logic, reason and data does evolve over time as we add to our knowledge as a race, standing on principles that do not derive from a deity. This does not make them any less strongly held or any less varied over individuals than our religious counterparts. To claim that a principle that comes from logic, reason and data must by definition be less strongly held than one of religious conviction is simply making an arbitrary decision that religion is better than not religion, nothing more.

    2. From my perspective religion can make no claim to being less subjective, because all religious texts are subject to interpretation. Every individual has their own interpretation, and when you have, for example, a book as long as the Bible that is a collection of stories and not organized to be a comprehensive treatise on morality you are going to derive as many moral codes as there are believers.

    Take, for example, “Thou shalt not kill.” First, what language are you going to use to derive its meaning? Some people thing the KJV was divinely interpreted and so would not necessarily look to earlier texts. Some people will say the word “kill” should be “murder”, not “kill”. Is the death penalty murder? You’ll find plenty of Christians who say yes, and others who say no. This commandment, so absolutely written, taken fully and solely at face value could be interpreted to require one to be a full-on pacifist even to the death . . . I mean, if after death one would go to Heaven anyway then maybe you shouldn’t even exercise self defense. What about the atom bomb? Sure, it was a World War but it was also responsible for obliterating the most defenseless totally indiscriminately–babies, the old and infirm, civilians who objected to their government’s war, but you will find plenty of Christians who will defend that action and others who condemn it.

    Now, some people will say that other parts of the Bible inform how to interpret that commandment. But which stories? How do those stories amend one’s interpretation of the text? Again, with so much material to read you can find a variety of passages that lean one way, or another. And over all of these opinions you will find people saying their interpretation is right and others are wrong.

    And this is just *one* line in *one* religious book. Muslims claim their “objective” morality. Christians claim their “objective” morality. Jews, Hindus . . . just start making a list and don’t stop until you’ve named every religion you can think of, present or historical in all their different denominations and variations.

    3. Even taken in isolation, Christian morality itself has evolved over time. With all of the communication the religious have with God, how is it that His message has changed so much over time? I mean, if God is unchanging then how can the same God that endorsed hideous tests for witchcraft and wizardry make a negative judgement on someone like Assad who would probably tell you with all the conviction in his heart that he is following God’s will?

    4. If you ask an atheist to justify a moral position, they are going to have to bring their reason, logic and data to the table. And yes, those things are all subject to challenge. But how can one challenge God? I mean, if morality really does come from God and God defines what is good and what is not so that by definition what He says must be good then that is a position impervious to reason, logic or data. Honestly I would rather have the former conversation with someone than the latter.

    • If Assad was claiming God’s will as his excuse than it would just be a misinterpretation and misrepresentation of God from any religion. No religion tells you to kill your own people. Differentiating between the people who will misuse rreligion and claim God’s will for their own selfish purposes and the actual religion is very important. Christianity even addresses these kinds of people in their encyclicals, and denounces them cause, in the end, they are acting on sinful motivations and often these are the people that atheists will denounce, for example that preacher who is overzealous and seems more manipulative then religious. Christianity even criticizes them. I have found out that they are very good at self-criticism, because in the end, even church leaders are human and therefore capable of committing sin and using their faith for sinful and selfish purposes and there documents show that they are able to recognize this.

      And there are certain moral tenets that span all major religions.

      I am confused with your second paragraph. I said that religious conviction is logical and derives from reason about the human condition cause that is ultimately what all religion is about. Its more about defining our race than anything else, but it takes from experience. It was not just derived out of thin air. I never said one was stronger than the other. I said they can be equated. Discounting extremism which is irrational and destructive and ultimately anti-religious and manipulative in nature, religious conviction is very logical I have found out

      And Christianity in itself would not defend the atom bomb or killing of defenseless civilians. Individual Christians may, but who says they are using their religion in their justification. Furthermore they are distancing themselves from their faith, if they support the dropping of the atom bomb.

      I feel it is more wise to not take my views on religion from what individual followers may do, but look at the texts and the documents and the moral teachings, because inevitably people take their own biases and feelings that may not derive from their religion but more from their culture or other aspects of their life. Rick Santorum does it all the time, I have realized. But no doubt there are people within religion, who will distort it for their own purposes and then to outsiders this will create a negative perception. That’s why I choose to read the encyclicals and the documents on Catholic social teaching which, by the way, have some great insights into political and social issues.

      THanks for the comment.

      • “Differentiating between the people who will misuse rreligion and claim God’s will for their own selfish purposes and the actual religion is very important.”

        It’s also very subjective, for reasons I previously elaborated on.

      • but in reality do we really consider morality to be subjective to different cultures? morality is about violating human dignity. Chrisitianity says that anything that violates human dignity is immoral. and it will explain what these things are that’s a pretty human concept. a practice like female genital mutilation is immoral no matter what even though it is widely practiced in certain cultures. a lot of interpretations are not subjective, but they are just plain wrong. i’ve written papers about how patiarchal muslim societies like Saudi Arabia will purposely wrongly interpret the Quran to give them justification for subjugating their women like refusing to allow them to drive cars. that subjugation derives more from a patriarchal culture than the Islamic religion. that’s not subjective. that’s just manipulating something for a power grab and calling it culture. just like we consider Stalin communist? but was he a true communist according to Karl Marx. did he empower the working class like communism says that government is supposed to try to do Not really. he was just crrazy and obsessed with power. he ruled and killed under the guise of communism.

      • “morality is about violating human dignity.”

        What about that principle requires a deity? Not violating human dignity is a strongly held position of a large majority of atheists. You should ask Dawkins next time you run into him. If you’re even passingly familiar with him you’d know he rather despises religion but I’ve never known him to take a position that is ambiguous about human dignity.

        “a lot of interpretations are not subjective, but they are just plain wrong.”

        Many out there both inside and outside of Christianity would call positions you take just plain wrong. You say they are misinterpreting the text, you say they are misinterpreting the text. And everyone claims God is on their side (great Dylan song, if you’ve never heard it). Do you just each hold your breath until one person passes out? Is that how you determine which side is the side of objective morality imposed by an external power?

      • No I don’t hold my breath. Christianity bases its teachings on learning about the human being. For example in Christianity God is defined as love. The reason for this is because it observes that human beings are at their best in relationships of love and is this not true? That’s the reason for the divine Trinity.

        The question is why do we believe some things to be good and others to be bad. Kellers says that “For many, there moral intuitions are free-floating in mid -air” They have it. But they don’t know why they have it. It is true that we have moral standards that exists outside of us, but why do we think theyy exist? The question is how can rights just be created? They are certainly not created by a majority because what use are they? The majority could just trample over the minority. Where do we get the concept of dignity? This is the question, and it is what a belief in God tries to answer. What is the justification for human rights if there is no God? Where do we derive this idea from? There has to be something outside ourselves. Atheists take moral judgments for granted. Even though they may be moral, you also always have to be asking why. And this is the purpose of all religion. We certainly don’t derive morality just from ourselves. There is no consensus among all humans about human rights and yet we know they exist. We know it is inherently wrong to kill. Because it violates dignity. If there is no God then all moral statements are arbitrary. But we know this not to be true. But we are afraid to admit it. This is why there has to be something outside of us, and this is God. Contrary to popular belief, Christianity does not say that he is some deity up in the sky unleashing judgment upon us. It’s much more complex and reasonable than that

      • It is all good, I do not mind the back and forth.

        “It is true that we have moral standards that exists outside of us, but why do we think theyy exist?”

        Atheists do not grant the first assumption as true, not do I think you have presented evidence of such truth. Morality has never been the same between different cultures or over different time periods. It is always evolving in every form it takes, both geographically and over time. Claiming Christian morality is objective means that prior Christian interpretations of morality were wrong, and means that future Christian moralists will look back to our time and say our time’s Christianity was wrong. And please, please, please don’t claim that Christian morality is the same today as it was in 1800 as it was in 1500 as it was in 1300, etc. That would just be on its face a fabrication, a complete historical re-write, but to acknowledge that Christian morality has evolved over time would mean that you can’t be sure that the morality you think you read in the Bible now is the right one or not because in the future it will change. Not to speak of, even among Christian leadership, all the various denominations (even just limiting ourselves to Christianity alone).

        Saying that morality does not come from an externally-enforced deity does not make moral statements arbitrary, unless you are ready to say that any statement based on reason, logic and data is arbitrary. When you use your faculties to come to the best available answer given your current knowledge, that is not an arbitrary result unless you are using an unusual definition of the word arbitrary. Saying that arbitrary is anything not God-derived would be a terrible semantic crime.

        Suppose that morality as we know it is the cumulative result of mankind’s group struggle for survival? It existed in very rudimentary form early in our history and has evolved over the centuries, taking on more and more refined positions as we add to our body of knowledge–all races are equal, women are deserving of equality, torture is a moral wrong. This is to me a much less complicated idea than that God produced a lengthy and complex book of stories from which mankind must draw a static set of objective moral principles that, for some strange reason, no two large denominations of Christians have been able to agree on between geographies or time periods.

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