Thoughts on Atheism

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Oftentimes, when considering an important decision, I make a chart to analyze the cost and benefit of each choice. Since belief is a choice, I think it is wise to list the cost and benefits of atheism vs. Christianity on an individual basis. You can draw up a similar chart for society and thus make your decision on what kind of society you advocate.

The thing about atheism is it is really hard to define. If I were to say atheism is the belief that there is no God, atheists would retort that it is the absence of a belief in God, and not a belief that there is no God. Despite the fact that these two things are logically the same statements, let us stick to the definition atheists like to use: the lack of belief in a God.

So, the question is the following: Should I believe in no God, or should I believe in the Christian God of the Bible? I will analyze this question purely on the cost and benefit of believing either way.

On atheism’s side, there is literally no benefit. There is no cost as well, except the opportunity cost. Opportunity cost is the cost of *not* doing something. For instance, buying a stick of gum means you can’t buy a gumball with the same money. When doing cost-benefit analysis, you can ignore opportunity cost since it will show up as a benefit for the other choices you are looking. So my final analysis of atheism is it gives me nothing but it costs me nothing. It is simply nothing.

On Christianity’s side, if I choose to believe in the Christian God of the Bible, then I have severe costs. For starters, I must believe that there is a God, and that God did certain things. Among the most important things God has done is he has created this world we live in, given us our very lives, and given us a Savior. He has also given us positive and negative commandments out of love. If we choose to believe in this God, then we will feel a pressure to obey these commandments. All of the commandments can be summed up in the simple statements, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In fact, since this is the sum of all the commandments, we can ignore any commandments which we interpret such that it would contradict the first two great commandment. For instance, if we feel our church attendance would somehow deny someone love, then we can abstain until we can resolve the conflict. This is something Jesus taught by example. For instance, he threshed wheat with his hands on the Sabbath, and healed the sick on the Sabbath, and even told us to pull our oxen out of the mires on the Sabbath.

However, there are a few beliefs I must also take along with the entire package. I must believe that God is in charge and that he is defined by love and good, or rather, good and love are defined by Him. I must believe that God loves us so much he gave his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, as a sacrifice for our weakness and incompetence, so that we won’t die but that we can live forever. I must believe that the ultimate destination of this world is a heavenly realm where sickness, disease, discomfort, and evil are completely abolished and replaced with rejoicing and pure bliss. I must believe that good will always overcome evil. I must believe, especially, that people can and will change for the better.

What are the benefits of Christianity?

First, we add structure and meaning to our lives. Events are not random — they are given to us by God for a purpose. And so we can search out what purpose every event has. Tragedies are rewritten to become blessings. We find that suffering is not pointless but part of the refiner’s fire of our lives. This alone is enough to make the intolerable condition of human suffering tolerable. In short, God can swallow up our suffering.

Second, we live peaceful lives. Because the two great commandments command us to love each other live we would want to be loved, we obviously treat others the way we want to be treated. This is the foundation for the idea of natural human rights, such as the right to life, the right to speak, etc… We simply afford others something we would like to have for ourselves.

Third, many Christians report feeling their guilt and sorrow washed away as they embrace the gospel that Christ taught us. We can also obtain a similar relief to our conscience, and be an instrument in helping others find such relief.

Fourth, we find the foundation of modern science. Christianity teaches us that God is unchanging, that he governs by law, and most especially, that we can understand that law because we can become like God. In fact, Christianity teaches us to search, knock, and ask, and promises us that we will find, the way will be opened, and we will be answered. This is the foundation of modern science: an irrational hope that the universe does conform to law and that we can not only understand that law, but discover it through searching. Do I need to list the blessings and conveniences that our Christian pursuit of knowledge has given us?

Fifth, we have hope. We have hope for a better world. We have hope that we can change. We have hope that others can change. We have hope that God will perform a miracle in our lives or the lives of our friends or enemies. In the face of absolute despair, the true Christian can say, “Perhaps, perhaps, God can change things and make it better. If not today, then tomorrow.”

I think it is fairly obvious which way I choose to believe.

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4 Responses to “Thoughts on Atheism”

  1. Atheist Slut Says:

    What if you believe in the Christian god and then die and the Islam god, or the papua new guinea mud god Pikkiwoki is the real one? Then you’re kind of screwed. Whoops, picked the wrong religion.

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      I don’t see your point. I listed tangible, real benefits for simply choosing to believe, regardless of whether the belief is true or not. This is not Pascal’s wager, this is a simple economic decision with benefits obtainable here and now.

  2. Jason Gardner Says:

    I don’t understand your argument.

    It sounds to me like your argument is “it’s better to believe in Christianity because it has all these cool side benefits.”

    Example: “I think it’s better to believe in my lottery numbers are going to be correct because, wow, if they do come in that’ll be great.”

    That doesn’t make any sense to me. The benefits of an idea have absolutely no bearing on the truth of said idea. Plenty of investment money has been lost by people that couldn’t see the false veracity of that line of thinking.

    Further, lets be honest, the bible is a ridiculous and cruel record of an iron age tribe of Jews. The bible is full of manifestly stupid / worthless / cruel stories with a sprinkling of some beautiful psalms and proverbs. The word of God itself shows God as capricious, easily swayed (e.g. Exodus Chapter 32 where Moses quickly changes God’s mind), vain and cruel.

    An random example out of the hundreds I could have chosen:

    Deuteronomy 21:18-21

    18 If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them:

    19 Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place;

    20 And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.

    21 And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

    I mean, is this how you want your children to behave? Really? If they have a troublesome child you would advise them to round up the neighbors and stone your rebellious grandson? These are the values that you are teaching them?

    Philosophically, why would a just God reveal himself to me in such a bizarre book? Why would he give me the intellect to understand the world and an innate moral compass to guide me then provide a book that my intellect easily discards as patently ridiculous (E.g. Noah’s flood) and my moral compass finds repugnant. (Stoning my children.)

    If God is kind and rational then it only makes sense that He would understand that I am under no obligation to believe that which my mind (the mind that He gave me) rejects outright as a nonsense and fraud and my heart is offended by.

    That said… I agree, being an atheist is just as intellectually bankrupt as being Christian. The reality is you, nor I, nor the guy down the street knows how and why the universe was created. We simply don’t. If someone says otherwise they are lying to you or themselves.

    The beauty of not knowing about God is that the responsibility of living my life is all mine. I can attack life head on and see life on life’s terms. Of course, I can also shirk away from this responsibility and live in a fantasy land as well.

    The cost of Christianity is the cost of denying yourself the opportunity to grow morally and see the world in full glory. In other words, Christianity leads to a life of perpetual childhood. You never have to grow up. You can always wait for some supernatural being (parent figure) to help you out. You can always just patiently wait for things to get better. You always have to figure out what mood dad (Jew God) is in and how best to please his petty whims and narcissistic rage.

    For some people, that works just fine. They can’t really understand the world deeply and the simple maxim “love thy neighbor” is the best that they can do. God bless them.

    But for others, they can understand the world. I firmly believe that if you can understand the world in all of its complexity then you should. I believe that you personally have a moral obligation to add the the corpus of human knowledge and understanding. To make the world a better place as an aid to those who can’t.

    As far as labeling these beliefs, a better word is agnostic. Agnostics are people that simply assert that they just don’t know.

    Does a God exist? I dunno, maybe.

    Is the Jew God the right god? I see no evidence that the Jew God exists and see plenty of evidence to the contrary.

    Do aliens exist on a far off planet 10 billion light years from here and wear purple pants? I dunno, maybe.

    “Fifth, we have hope. We have hope for a better world. We have hope that we can change. We have hope that others can change. We have hope that God will perform a miracle in our lives or the lives of our friends or enemies. In the face of absolute despair, the true Christian can say, “Perhaps, perhaps, God can change things and make it better. If not today, then tomorrow.””

    That’s the opposite of hope. That is resignation. Again, it is simply childish to wait for some exterior force (God) to change things. For example, if I want a house I can pray to God and hope he grants me a house or I can get a shovel, a hammer and some wood and get to work.

    A child hopes. A man grabs the shovel.

    Do you really want to raise your children to sit around and pray for God to give them things or do you want to instill an ethic of making a plan and getting after it?

    I understand that agnosticism is beautifully liberating and at the same time mortally terrifying. To know that we (you, I and the guy down the street) can change the world for the better is beautiful in that we do not have to wait for anybody or anything. We can, at any time, just start to make the world a better place. That’s is unimaginably hopeful, beautiful and reassuring.

    Of course, it is terrifying to know that nobody but us is going to fix anything. We are alone and fully responsible for our fate. We could have fortune or misfortune but we are the ultimate responsibility.

    We are, in other words, freeborn men. Actual adults.

    The other reason to steer clear of religion is that if your children’s morals depend on the veracity of the bible then their moral livelihood is tenuous at best.

    There is a grave risk that one of your children might actually read the full bible and take it at face value. I know about this. It happened to me when I was a teenager. I actually read the bible and took notes. It killed any notion of Christianity that I had.

    Your children, if they read the good book, have a some probability of judging the bible as I see it, a series of tales from iron age Jews. If they do see the bible in this light, which it is possible they will, then the morals that they have learned from you will be instantly discredited. Their rightful rejection of the bible will leave them without a moral compass.

    On the other hand, if they learn morals that are completely invariant to any book, creed or religious fervor then they will have a lifetime of rock solid morals on which they can rely. You can rest assured that you have sent them off into the world with a solid foundation to build a healthy and happy life.

    I know I comment on your blog an inordinate amount. It is out of concern and love for you. You are a blood to me. You are also a father and you have actual children (also my blood) that are needing guidance from you on the adult world. Your moral obligation as a father is to have a firm grasp on the realities of the actual adult world and pass those learned realities on to your children.

    The reason? In our current society most people will fail. They will not get good jobs and lead rewarding lives. They will not be able to date, marry and keep desirable partners. For your sons, the risks are higher. They might be like most men throughout history…. Genetic dead ends.

    There has never been a higher premium on success or a more miserable punishment for failure. The world now is simply not as forgiving of failure as it was for our grandparents, parents or even for you and I.

    Your children’s future lives depend on your wisdom about the actual world. Think hard a clearly about what messages you are actually giving them and what habits they are forming. The stakes are as high as they can be.

    If you want a bible verse to ponder consider the following:

    “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

    • Jonathan Gardner Says:

      I would choose anything with good side-benefits. In the case of Christianity, there is, of course, the promise of eternal life and happiness, but there are also side-benefits to my life today. IE, I feel happy, I feel love, I am more patient and kind, etc…

      Your assessment of the Bible isn’t honest. Yes, it is a record, a record of people who were cruel and vicious. They did horrible things to each other. But guess what: At least it’s honest in that respect. Go to any society, go search their records, and you’ll see they were either really good at sugar-coating their past or they have a similar history of warfare, bloodshed, and horrific crimes against humanity.

      The thing that makes the Bible different is the beautiful parts about how we should behave and how God feels about us. That’s really important, because when you look at the history of the Israelites and the Jews and compare it with other ancient civilizations, they come out smelling like roses. Sure, they have their genocides and such, but who doesn’t? We can look at the Mongols and praise their system of government or rather non-government, their toleration of new ideas and different religions, their efforts to curb corruption through the rule of law, etc… despite the fact that they literally wiped entire nations off the face of the earth. We can do the same for the Jews and praise them and mirror the behavior that was right: Their willingness to accept proselytes, the injunction to be friendly to foreigners, the way they tried to deal with each other fairly without a hyper-legal system built on corruption and greed.

      You’ve pulled a single commandment out of a broad range of commandments, one that if you think about it, is not a terrible idea, particularly when the entire society is based on the family structure. The Romans had similar laws, except they didn’t need permission from the elders to kill their kids and their slaves and their wives. Obviously we need some sort of control to ensure that the family is paramount and the father and mother’s authority is absolute, but at the same time, we don’t want to kind of corruption that the Romans had where father was a dictator who, within the walls of his home, could execute any violator of Roman law or his household law. So they had the requirement that you have a trial. At a trial, the child could defend themselves, the elders could weight the effects of making one decision or another. I believe, in practice, there is no recorded instance of any parent ever having to kill their children this way, although some scholars could argue a lot of heartache could’ve been avoided had they done so. (See: Gideon’s children; the wicked kings of Israel.) That said, like many laws in the US which are unenforceable or simply unenforced, it still guides behavior. They certainly didn’t have a problem with children calling CPS on their parents.

      You can try to find other commandments, and we can look at history, morality, ethics, law and more to see how it compares to the world, and I think you’ll find, as I did, that when you think about all of the little commandments that Moses passed down to the children of Israel, they are a really good way of handling things. Sure, on the surface, when compared to our modern morality, they seem bad, but is that an indictment against it or an indictment against us? Why do we think filial piety and duty is not so important, when it was clearly important to pretty much everyone else in the world throughout history? Have we gone astray on this thing?

      Why does God do this? That’s a question for God, not one I can answer. I will tell you this, though. In science, it’s often the ridiculous ideas that end up being the really good ones. IE, Einstein’s theory of relativity is based on the (at the time) ridiculous idea that the speed of light is constant no matter who is doing the watching. I have often encountered in math ridiculous ideas that turn out to be extraordinarily powerful. I think the thing I am saying is: Who is the judge of what is ridiculous or not? If I see something, and I say, “Ridiculous!” it’s because it’s ridiculous to me. And if it turns out it’s a really smart thing, then the ridiculous thing was me, not the idea.

      Therefore, when we are confronted with the idea of God, we can either have everything line up exactly the way we imagine it would, or we can have everything seem ridiculous and strange. If the former, then either we are exactly like God or at least we have a complete understanding of God, and so we have nothing to learn and nothing to gain, and so the idea of God is really pointless, just as pointless as an idea that isn’t new. But if the latter, then we have something to learn and to change about ourselves, something to gain. It is thus the ridiculous God that offers us something new and something beneficial. The logical and sane God that meets all of our preconceived notions of what God is and God should be might as well not even exist. And this is the fallacy I see Atheists fall into. They say, “God is X.” And then, “X is ridiculous, so God is ridiculous” or “Y is perfectly sane, but who needs Y anyway?” They never consider the idea that perhaps, the ridiculous one is themselves.

      I learned this lesson a thousand times in a thousand ways as I lived in Korea. It was near the end of my mission that I saw myself in the mirror and thought, “Who is that weird man, and why does he look so odd?” We should all see ourselves that way.

      > The cost of Christianity is the cost of denying yourself the opportunity to grow morally and see the world in full glory. In other words, Christianity leads to a life of perpetual childhood. You never have to grow up. You can always wait for some supernatural being (parent figure) to help you out. You can always just patiently wait for things to get better. You always have to figure out what mood dad (Jew God) is in and how best to please his petty whims and narcissistic rage.

      I think this is where you misunderstand, almost completely, what Christianity is all about.

      Sure, from the outside, that’s what it looks like. But when you dive into the details, and study it for what it really is, that is the exact opposite of what Christianity teaches and what it does to a person.

      Christianity challenges your morality because it says, “Whatever you have, it’s not good enough. You can be better.”

      Christianity opens opportunity. “That thing you thought you couldn’t do and so never tried: Give it a try. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t work, get up and try something else. If it does, congratulations, now go try something else.” Christianity is the net below the tight-rope walker. It says if you fall, that’s OK. You can get back up.

      Christianity turns boys into men. The difference between a boy and a man is a boy is looking for things to make him happy. A man is looking for things to make others happy. A boy invest in himself. A man invests in others. The ultimate example of Christianity, Christ himself, is the ultimate ideal of what man can and should be.

      Christianity faces reality without fear. We don’t live in a fantasy world. We see ourselves as we really are. We see the world as it really is. We acknowledge and accept the fact that we are bad people who do bad things. We don’t try to sugarcoat that or pass responsibility off to someone or something else. We own our sins. And when we turn to the Lord to take our sins away, he shows us that in reality, we have to overcome our sins. He didn’t avoid sin, He faced sin, He accepted sin, He became sin. He took all of these things on himself, and he rose above it. Sure, at first, new Christians try to pass of their sins and they see some success, but as the Christian walks the path, they begin to realize that sin isn’t going away. It is a part of us. It is like a vital organ that we can’t live without. Our job is not to run away from sin or hide it, but to embrace it, eat it, absorb it, and overcome it. Christ gives us the power and the hope to work through this process.

      Christ is our Savior, that is true, but he doesn’t work the way we all wish he did. We think of him as a lifeguard who will jump in the water and drag us to shore and lecture us not to go swim in the ocean without proper training. That’s not what he actually does, though. He sits on the edge of the shore and tells us to keep trying. If we start to drown, he may through us a life saver, or sometimes he might even lift our faces out of the water, for a time, but he ends up being a coach, not a lifesaver. Like I said above, Christians embrace sin, they own sin, they don’t run or hide from it. They can’t.

      Christians are patient, that is true. But they are not lazy. Christians know they have to work. They have to try. They have to experiment. They fail time and again, but that’s OK as long as they keep trying again and again. Christians are not passive, they are active.

      Christians don’t see God as moody or arbitrary or vengeful. God is a father, and like any father, he wants us to grow up to be like him. He is personally invested in us, not just us, but every human on the planet. He is our cheerleader, our advocate, our coach, but he is nothing like the gods of Mount Olympus. His purpose is clear, and his plan is plain.

      > That’s the opposite of hope. That is resignation. Again, it is simply childish to wait for some exterior force (God) to change things. For example, if I want a house I can pray to God and hope he grants me a house or I can get a shovel, a hammer and some wood and get to work.

      Scenario one: You believe that someone really can’t change their spots, that there will be no future intervention or miraculous change.

      Scenario two: You believe that there will be a change but you can’t do anything about it, it’s all in God’s hands or some exterior force that you can’t control.

      Scenario three: You believe that there will be a change but it requires effort on our part.

      Which one is the healthiest? That’s the Christian perspective. God doesn’t intervene unless we ask him to, and when we ask him to, he expects us to demonstrate by our actions.

      Scenario one is the hopeless atheist or agnostic position. Why act if all is in vain?

      Scenario two is the hopeless Christian. Why act if it’s already decided? (This is the evil of the doctrine of foreordination, where God already knows what is going to happen and we aren’t truly free to choose our own fate.)

      To use your analogy, why would a man grab a shovel unless he thought digging would accomplish something? It is that faith and hope that inspires action. No other combination of mental attitude can inspire action.

      I think the problem is that in English, hope is a very poor word. It means two completely opposite things, one meaning similar to “wish contrary to expectations or reality” and the other to “a belief that action can affect the future positively”.

      > Of course, it is terrifying to know that nobody but us is going to fix anything. We are alone and fully responsible for our fate. We could have fortune or misfortune but we are the ultimate responsibility.

      I think if we are all that we have to rely on to change the future for the better, there is no hope for the future. How can we mere mortals, who are so confused in our thinking, so subjected to passion and vice, ever hope to carve out a glorious future? Since we have no concept of what that future would look like, let alone a roadmap of how to get there, why would we think we can do it? Isn’t history filled with utopian visions and the tyrannies that followed? There are mountains of skulls from murdered people paving that road.

      Human action alone isn’t enough. It needs to be directed by some sort of intelligent project manager who has a clear idea of where we can be and how to get there.

      We have this modern idea that humanism, the idea that humans can do it if we simply act well, was conceived in a vacuum, based solely on logic and reason and science. This simply isn’t true. The first humanists were devout Christians. The vision that they had was the Christian vision. Their defining trait was their determination to take action consistent with the gospel of Christ and Christianity to usher in that vision sooner rather than later. The closest comparison we have are the Jewish Zionists, who, rather than waiting for God to walk them into the Holy Land, decided to speed up God’s agenda.

      Well, the Jews are in Israel now. And humanists have accomplished a large portion of their goals. Let’s not forget what inspired these people to take action in the first place, and let’s not imagine that the operated in an intellectual vacuum.

      > We are, in other words, freeborn men. Actual adults.

      What makes us free?

      Is a man who is ignorant truly free? Is a man who is subject to his passions and vices truly free? We may start out free, that is true, but how many seconds is it before we screw that up? Or, even if we do all things the best we can, do we not end up pawns in a game played by people more powerful than us?

      The awful reality is we are not free. The natural state of man is a most miserable state. The Founding Fathers knew this. One of the questions they debated before they declared independence was whether they could do any better than the king. After all, when it comes to the condition of man, having a king that is a tyrant is preferable to many other arrangements.

      > The other reason to steer clear of religion is that if your children’s morals depend on the veracity of the bible then their moral livelihood is tenuous at best.

      Other Christian sects get this wrong all the time. The message of the Bible is not “The Bible is true!” The message of the Bible is to go connect with God.

      If my kids connect with God, and the Bible gets disproven, what will it matter to them? They faith wasn’t in the Bible, it was in God.

      If my kids never connect with God but believe the Bible, then what good is it? It has failed in its mission. Maybe they can glean some moral information or use it as really good advice, but until they connect with God, it’s moot.

      > “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”

      Trust me, the gospel I learned in primary is not the gospel I live by today. My childish thoughts are well behind me. They served their purpose. Now they are no longer useful, except perhaps to help my kids walk the path I walked. Even then, I try to spare them the things I learned later was not true and I try to disabuse them of false notions they may pick up. Alas! It seems the child’s mind is just as childish as my child mind was.

      The truth is we were always in a mortal game full of dead ends, every day any one ever lived on this earth. History is our guide.

      Your concern and love for me and my kids is accepted and welcomed. I want you to be a part of their lives because you are a genuinely good person. Even though we disagree about these matters, you have the important things right. I think we’ll find that the disagreements are minor and largely inconsequential anyway, and I hope I can show my kids that what they think is important is not really important, and what they think is not important is truly important.

      Blood and family are truly important.

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