Dear Richard Dawkins,
A New Atheist:
My path from fundamentalism to atheism
It was not a straight path from fundamentalism to atheism, rather a slow, two steps forward, one and a half step back path. My parents are far right, Fundamental Evangelical Christians-capital letters-. They take the Bible to be the literal Word of God, inherent and the source of all morality. As a child, they also held it up as a scientific book. I grew up thinking the earth was 6,000 years old. On Sundays, I was taught that Noah had loaded all of the animals of the world onto the Arc, and that God had flooded the earth. I honestly thought that Moses had parted the Red Sea, and that Joshua’s screams were the cause of Jericho’s demise.
It was not until the fourth grade that I first began to change my attitude about using the Bible as a science book. An astronomer, Hugh Ross-himself a Christian-, presented evidence that clearly demonstrated the age of the earth to be around 4.5 billion years. One would think that this would be in conflict with the “Word of God”. Yet with some delicate foot work, it is easy point out the miss-translation of the Bible from the original languages to the new language. There was a small nagging voice in my head that asked “why would God allow his Bible to be mistranslated?”, But , I firmly ignored it and chalked this up to faith. So instead of weakening my faith, the new revelation strengthened it. You see Hugh Ross is a member of the intelligent design movement. He presented seemingly convincing evidence for the idea of intelligent design-at least the evidence was convincing for a 4th grader.
My faith strengthened, I proceeded down an even more fundamentalist path; I had what appeared to be scientific evidence of the footprints of God. My faith was not blind, but logical. I became zealous; I explained the unscientific parts of the Bible away with mistranslation and allegory. I clung even tighter to the notion that God existed, and that he cared about me. Please allow me to go into depth on this point.
In my mind, Gods existence was evident through intelligent design. What uncertainty I had on the matter was bridged by faith, the Cosmological Argument -unfortunately the product of reading William Lain Craig-, and a firm grounding in Christian apologetics. I became certain that what the Bible taught about morals must be correct. Christians would go to heaven, sinners to hell. Homosexuality was a sin, and God was justified in his Old Testament actions. Why? Because he was God, look how he created the universe? Look how advanced he is? Who are we to hold him up to our earthly moral standard? In essence, God claimed to be the authority on such matters, and we are not supposed to question the authority of God-a masterpiece of closed reasoning I know.
The first cracks in my faith did not appear until years later. I left home and joined the military, but kept to my faith. I left the military-after a year in Iraq-, but kept my faith. Not until I first traveled to a country not dominated by an Abrahamic, Japan, did I first begin to question my deeply held beliefs. You see all of the evidence for intelligent design does not point to a specific god. In fact the only thing it points to is the possibility of someone or something starting the Universe at the big bang, setting up the laws of physics to be congenial to life, and then taking a step back. Yet having grown up in America, and having been insulated from the reality that Christianity is not the only major world view, I had never considered how others might behave under different preconceptions.
Japan is a deeply unreligious country; it adheres to Buddhism and the Shinto religion much in the same way that Peru adheres to Catholicism. The saying about Japan is that you are born a Buddhist, marry as a Christian -western style weddings are popular- and die a Shinto. Japanese borrow from convenient religions, they pick and choose the nice bits to fit their needs, and reject the rest. Yet Japanese can still be an incredibly civil and moral people. The recent tsunami is evidence of that. Despite the clear opportunity, or seeming necessity, there was no rioting, no looting. Even the Yakuza Japan's notorious criminals, helped provide relief for the suffering. The bravery of the Fukushima 50 was inspiring. The way in which school children carried on amidst the tragedy was heartbreaking. In fact, that disaster brought out the absolute best that humans everywhere should strive to be. The moral character of the Japanese clearly did not come from the Bible. How could it? Most have never read it. This realization was the first crack in the egg of my religious logic.
I realized that when the entirety of human history is taken into account, only a fraction of humanity has even heard of Yahweh or Jesus. In a greater fraction grew up Buddhist, or hindu. When you compare the two civilizations of Europe and Asia, the Abrahamic religions were backwater cults, suitable only for barbarians squabbling over little fiefdoms. So how is it that the God of the universe only reached out to a fraction of the human population, condemning the rest to eternal damnation? If God is the source of morality, why did he not reach out to the rest of humanity and teach them morality?
The simplest answer for someone who believes in a god is that Christianity is not the only way in which this god spoke to humans. God must have reached out in other ways to other cultures. So it must be that Christianity is not the only religion, and that a god can manifest him/her/it/self in any form necessary. Surprisingly this still did not lead me to reject religion.
You see, a key piece of my logic, up until now, was the cosmological argument. This same argument could be transplanted to morality-again enter William Lain Craig-. If you look at all of the great moral philosophers: Jesus, Socrates, Siddhartha Gautama, you arrive at a startling conclusion. All of them had the same, basic moral lesson: love your neighbor as yourself (and God). To me this was a definite sign that our morality was handed down by some external force. Since we have only inaccurate accounts of much of their writings, I assumed any imperfections about, say Jesus, to be evidence of the cultural baggage of the humans writing about these teachers not the teachers themselves. Any distortion in the pure message of love your neighbor as yourself, comes from our failings as humans. Still, the strain of maintaining my belief was starting to show.
My questions continued to grow. Was the current Bible really just a poor translation? Why would God allow such a thing? If God existed, surely, he would be powerful enough to stop people from printing lies about him. Either that or he is just as evil as the Holy Book tells us. Perhaps he is too week, or to busy. The more likely answer is that he did not write the Bible, humans did. If that is the case, then what evidence is there that god exists at all?
In school, reason continued its assault on religion, and the questions began to flood in. In biopsychology I studied the physical and chemical reasons behind sexual preference. How is it that God could condemn people whom he designed -or at least claimed to have designed- for acting according to that design? How it is that God could order the slaying of an entire city: men, women, children? Yahweh did not fit well with, “love your neighbor as yourself.” A small part of me whispered, “God was dealing with people at that time, and in their culture.” But shouldn’t the golden rule transcend time and culture? Shouldn’t God, the giver of morality be unchanging? The arguments for the morality of the Christian god rang false. It is much more likely that “God told us to do it” was a good justification for stealing land and cities from others. My faith had been slowly backed into a corner by reason and evidence.
The final push came from four directions: science fiction, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, and Economics. I am an avid science fiction and fantasy fan. One of my favorite novels is “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov. In it, Asimov paints a fascinating outlook on human evolution and introduces us to the character of Hari Seldon. The first time I read the book, I was also studying econometrics and statistics as an undergraduate. The idea of “psychohistory” resonated strongly with me. Of course much of this is science fiction, but, even today, we can predict how a large group of people will likely behave, given certain preconditions. God never enters the equation (unless you account for people’s belief in a god, which is entirely different). Elegant mathematical equations and complex models have been developed tested and refined to more efficiently capture how a group of humans is likely to react. These prediction techniques are used by supermarkets for product placement and pricing, by hospitals for planning, by financiers to predict markets (with questionable success). I use them in my work as a economic research assistant.
At work, we never even consider intervention by a god as a possible variable in our equations; human behavior is reduced to primitives: rational decision making, past actions, population characteristics, and information asymmetry. I work with over 90 million data points on a daily basis; I am forced to approach this data carefully. Everything I do needs to be done with structure, and every step needs to be verified; I have to be skeptical about every equation; I must test and retest my conclusions; I must attempt to poke holes in my logic, and I work hard to try and disproving my results. Even with this, I don't go so far as to say some conclusion is true, but instead test wether the opposite of my question is most likely false. Only then can I make careful statements about what the findings might mean.
Once I am satisfied, I hand my results to a colleague who will try to replicate and disprove them. This is the scientific method. Yet my parents still send me emails like: “what God has to say about Economics”, or “why Christians should be free market capitalists”. To me, nothing could be more of a waste of time then considering the ancient scribbling by some tribe in Africa on the proper method to set up an economy, or equitably distribute healthcare. It is exasperating to discuss my findings with my family. I bring up the results of a study on corruption and economic efficiency (surprising actually). And my parents would bring up God. I would point out that free market capitalism does not always work due to externalities, and they would quote me some obscure Bible verse to prove to me that free market capitalism has no externalities Next they would point out that it is unchristian to say otherwise. I did not argue from a position of authority. I argued based on evidence, based on replicable experiments, carefully constructed mathematical models, and careful observation of past events. Yet my parents would continue to argue from a position of delusional authority. I had officially become annoyed at religion, not quite a fence sitter, but right next to the fence.
As you can imagine I grew up in a home that was not congenial to Carl Sagan or his groundbreaking series, “Cosmos”. One day, on youtube, I saw a video someone had posted. The video was entitled “Unofficial NASA Commercial”. Audio clips of Carl Sagan reading from his book, “The Pale Blue Dot”, where put together in a wonderful and moving monologue. The beautiful video, a poignant reinforcement of Carl Sagan's points, flowed beneath the siring audio. The video took an introspective look at who we are as a species, and where we might be headed. I began to search, and found another clip of Sagan reciting from “The Pale Blue Dot”. Here the viewer is asked to take a moment to consider the earth as seen from beyond Jupiter. Looking at that speck of dust floating in the emptiness of space, I began to considering the vastness of the cosmos. “How is it that God would create all of this for insignificant us”? Carl Sagan asks. My mind grew dark from the hollow answers offered by religion. The Bible, I knew, had no answers. No religion has an answer to this question. I was now firmly on the fence.
Finally I watched a video of Richard Dawkins at Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg Virginia. His readings from his book, “The God Delusion” and his Q&A time were the push to get me off the fence. The arguments from students and “professors” from Liberty “University” (arguments which I had grown up believing) rang false. His description of the Hebrew god were perfectly accurate; his attack on the morals of the Bible in answered my previous questions. His illuminating description of human evolution compelling. I was forced to admit something that I think most of us know already; Religion is not a force for good in the world, it is a divisive force. It has been an obstacle to understanding and scientific discovery since its inception, and continues to be today. When flying to Iraq, I would ask myself, “why is it that I have to fly halfway around the world, to put my life at risk because of an illiterate, hateful, Islamic extremist?” The answer is simple, Religion distorts, and causes otherwise good people to do evil things.
Scientific discovery has so much more to offer me then religion. From the origins of complex molecules, to depths of space and time, or from the complexity of the human brain, to the intricate patterns of society. I can’t imagine that religion has anything worthwhile to say on these subjects. Our preconceptions must be cast aside, As Carl Sagan so eloquently puts it in the Pale Blue Dot, “our preferences don’t count,..., we do not live in a privileged reference frame”. Our answers to the questions of life, human behavior, and the mysteries of the universe, are guided by the scientific method, evidence and curiosity. Arguments from authority are meaningless. I feel as if I have been underwater for the first 25 years of my life and have finally emerged into the brilliance of the Cosmos.
I just want to thank Richard Dawkins for his tireless effort, I wish Carl Sagan were still alive, as I would like to thank him as well.