Sunday, December 15, 2013

Are my emotional barriers to belief in supernatural religions in error?

I write this letter in the year of 2013 as an ordinary human being, with no claim to special knowledge about the how or why the universe came to be, and no special arguments to criticize people who believe that they actually do have those answers.

I write with a curiosity born out of observation and a lifetime of asking questions for which I have not yet heard any satisfying answers.

Most religious people are sincere, kind-hearted, and just want to make a difference

It's clear to me that the world's many religions are a source of great comfort, community, and celebration for billions of people. I believe that religious believers are generally sincere and kind-hearted people. They believe they are doing the right thing. I have experienced the benefits of religious community myself, though only in a congregation that neither requires, nor forbids, any congregant to hold to supernatural beliefs.

I think it's important that people who do not have the same beliefs learn to discuss their similarities and differences meaningfully, for it leads to better understanding and compassion all around.

Why I don't hold supernatural religious beliefs

I've come to realize I have some "emotional barriers" toward religious beliefs based in
supernatural explanations, at least toward the traditional supernatural explanations found in mainstream religions that describe a personal, intervening god who favors believers and punishes unbelievers for all eternity. Though I find them interesting, I do not have the intellectual powers to contend with ideas like Einstein's religious views or Spinoza's views.

Yes, I could be wrong. Could you?

There is a chance, I recognize, that I am wrong. It could very well be that emotions have nothing to do with the reality of the universe, and that one of the world's religious traditions is correct, and I should become a believer of that religion.

I'm open to the possibility, and that requires that I describe my current beliefs:

My journey so far

I grew up with friends claiming the truth of many different religions, including: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and maybe more. I was not part of any of these communities. I read about all of them and tried to understand them. I also read and studied science. My wonder and awe at the world were inspired by being in and interacting with the natural world and viewing science documentaries, particularly Carl Sagan's Cosmos series. Wonderfully, a sequel by Neil deGrasse Tyson is coming soon to FOX.

In 2002 and 2003, I spent a lot of time attending a Christian congregation and evaluating whether I was wrong about Christianity. Until that time, I believed that Christianity was a lot like the other religions: formed by people who sincerely believed what they believed, and used to build powerful communities, traditions, rituals, and celebrations. But, ultimately, I came to feel that there was too much violence in the Bible for me to believe that it was literally inspired by an all powerful, loving, and compassionate creator of the universe, and I could not cause myself to believe that the miracles of the Bible stories were any more plausible than the miracle stories attributed to other religions.

Emotional barriers

Emotionally, the barriers I faced then, and still do are these:
  1. First, I found it deeply troubling that the creator of the universe was telling Old Testament leaders, like Joshua, to murder other people, people that the creator created in the first place. Murdering one's own children or asking other people to murder them is against my values of right and wrong. I believe the same thing about Abraham being instructed to sacrifice Isaac. Why should I believe the Bible describes these events as literal, actual commands from the creator of the universe?
  2. Second, I could not see a reason why the creator of the universe would resort to blood sacrifice, in the form of Jesus Christ, in order to save his own creations from his own punishment. Blood sacrifice was common thousands of years ago. I do not see how another,  but final blood sacrifice should be viewed as spiritual innovation. Why should I believe that the creator of the universe literally did this?
Intellectual barriers

Those are my two primary emotionally-based barriers to belief. In addition, I have other barriers that are primarily intellectual:
  1. When it came to viewing the Bible as "without error", I had extreme difficulty viewing passages like Matthew 27:52-53 as "literal, historical events". Interestingly, I recently learned that Mike Licona, a famed Christian thinker and defender of the resurrection as an historical event, faced a lot of criticism over his own skepticism toward those two verses. For me, it just seemed like there would have been lots of other historians writing about the event. If you're not familiar with it, it says that many holy saints who had died came back to life and walked around Jerusalem, and were seen by many other people. To me, this account seemed more spectacular than the resurrection of a single person, for this was the resurrection of many people. As such, I figured it would have had more independent attestation.
  2. I otherwise do not believe in supernatural beings like demons or angels, yet many characters in the Bible, including Jesus Christ, do believe in demons. And, so do a majority of American as of 2013. I believe they are psychological imaginings or hallucinations, and I am thankful to the science of modern psychiatry that helps many people control the chemical processes in their brain to prevent painful, debilitating hallucinations.
  3. The universe is roughly 13.8 billion years old, a view widely held by astrophysicists and astronomers. This view is often disputed by certain Christians.
  4. Complex, multi-cellular life has been around for at least 600 million years, and possibly 2.1 billion years.
  5. Human beings evolved from other primates, as evidenced by genetic analysis and other scientific fields, like paleontology. Many Christians dispute evolution appealing to a movement called intelligent design instead. Not all of them do this. Some of them, like Kenneth Miller, are strong proponents of evolution.
Perplexatory barriers
  1. Personally, I find it exceedingly difficult to devise a reliable way to differentiate the veracity of truth claims that conflict with each other in different religions. Example: Muslims believe that Jesus Christ was a prophet, not a god incarnate, while Christians believe that Jesus Christ is god incarnate, and co-equal as the creator of the universe.
  2. When examining the history of religious movements, there are lots of stories about gods, miracles, saviors, and other supernatural beings. What made people believe all these different things in the past, but largely abandon thousands upon thousands of them now?
Evaluating the professional debates

In 2004, I bought and watched the Mike Licona vs. Richard Carrier UCLA debate about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I found Carrier's arguments more plausible. This week, I've watched more recent debates between Mike Licona and Richard Carrier, and Mike Licona and Bart Ehrman. Again, I found Carrier's arguments most persuasive, especially when he discusses how legends and miracle stories rose up very quickly around other figures, like Sainte Genevieve. Likewise, Ehrman's proposition that by definition, a miracle is the least probable explanation for any event, was more convincing to me than Licona's arguments about how miracles can and still do happen in modern times.

What do you think?

I imagine that, if you are a believing Christian, you can come up with all kinds of reasons why the things I just said are full of error. That's great! I welcome your perspective. That doesn't mean I am going to just immediately agree with you. But, I will try my best to take on your perspective in my thoughts and try to see it from your angle. I hope you will do the same from my perspective.

Similarly, if you are a Muslim, then I imagine that your belief that Jesus was a prophet, but could not have been an incarnate God, is well-founded within the teachings of the Quaran and within your own metaphysical ideas regarding the nature of God.

As I said above, I am not a scholar of religion or ancient history like Mike Licona, Richard Carrier, or Bart Ehrman. Instead, I am just a normal person evaluating what these scholars and others before them have contributed to our human attempts to fathom this universe we inhabit!

My barriers to belief in supernatural religions are largely emotional, based on the violence depicted in their holy texts, attributed to the creator of the universe, and the violence depicted in the visions of the afterlife for those who disbelieve in a given religion.

Due to those primary emotional barriers and due secondarily to my intellectual barriers toward belief in miracles, and the perplexatory barriers, I do not see why I should believe in supernatural religions.

Friendly discussion!

Could I be wrong? Absolutely! Could you be wrong? Well, I don't know. But, if you want to engage in this discussion, all I ask is that we engage politely and all be open to being wrong and correcting our own views.