Religions / Atheism / Agnosticism

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Q: Does God exist?

I spent most of my teenage years trying to answer this question, so this answer has probably hundreds of hours' worth of thinking behind it: For better or for worse, I'm pretty certain that the God of the Bible doesn't actually exist.

I believed in God when I was young, and didn't choose to stop; I just 1) couldn't completely trust adults after dealing with the Santa Claus and Easter Bunny myths (which I also believed), and 2) couldn't reconcile certain aspects of the world with some of the major ideas in religion (e.g. reconciling the idea of Heaven and Hell with the fact that a lot of people do bad things because of circumstances outside their control, like being born into a violent environment). I also wasn't raised in a very religious environment (we didn't go to church and I didn't attend CCD). Nevertheless, I agree with Sam Walton that church can be an important part of society, and I might attend the local church if I was living in an area where it was very important and I wanted to socialize with the people around me. I get the impression that a lot of people operate the way I do but unconsciously or without talking about it.

Q: If God doesn't really exist, why do people seem to think he does? Where did this belief come from?

Well, first of all, I've gotten the impression that a lot of people who claim to think God exists don't really believe he exists. i get the impression that most college-educated people nowadays are intellectually atheists but may be socially religious. religion is weird because it's a package of lots of different things that you're supposed to accept all together; even if one part of the package doesn't appeal to you, you might still stick with the package if you're better off with it than without it. so, for example, if you like spending time with the people you know from church (or your religious family members), and you like the values that the church extols, but don't honestly think there's consciousness after death, you might still say you believe it because denying it would jeopardize those other benefits you get from your religious affiliation. it's a lot like marriage in this way. from an anthropological standpoint, religion seems to be an evolutionarily-successful behavior; it seems to have helped groups of people work together for their mutual gain in the past.

As for people who genuinely do believe:

I think these people can be broken into different sub-groups depending on the extent to which they believe. For example, I think one group consists of people who believe that God exists in the same way that I believe that Kazakhstan exists: people have said it exists, and I see it on the map, and so I just go "OK" and don't think about it much more than that. To bring the analogy back: I think people in this group accept God's existence because the people around them have said he exists, but they don't think about it any more than that.

I think another group is made up of people who not only believe he exists, but are also concerned about the effect his existence has on the way they should be behaving. To use an analogy: these are the kids that don't just think about Santa around Christmastime, but also worry throughout the year about the way they're behaving because they think Santa is watching. I would guess that this is a smaller group than the former. I was in this group when I was younger.

As for where the belief came from:

My guess is that it was an evolutionary process, with the driving force being a combination of human curiosity, superstition, fear of death, and probably other human needs. The oldest religions seem to be the most crude and simplistic, and over time they became more and more complicated until you have the very-sophisticated/complicated modern religions.

For example, a lot of religions have certain rituals that they perform. The oldest rituals I'm aware of in old religions seem to be situations where you do something like look at the bones of chickens to get answers to questions. This kind of behavior may be the same kind of illusion of control you see in gamblers who have wild superstitions about how certain articles of clothing are lucky and certain behaviors are unlucky; it's just a natural tendency that humans have (I got this idea from Nassim Taleb's Fooled By Randomness).

Q: So what should I do?

I think it depends on your situation; if you grew up in a religious environment and intend to stay in that environment, then it seems like you may be best off if you just go along with the crowd. Or, for example, if a world-wide religious war suddenly broke out between Christians and Muslims and people trying to stay on the sidelines were being severely punished, it would seem smart to just pick a side; I've gotten the impression that that's what's happened a lot in the past. Just a few hundred years ago I could probably have been executed for what I'm writing here; in that situation, the smart thing to do would be to keep your mouth shut. On the other hand, we live in very different times now than in the past; religions don't seem to be as necessary at the moment to hold wealthy western societies together, because we have such strong institutions (eg we have a relatively effective justice system and people in the US are relatively wealthy and so don't have as much of an incentive to break the law as in the past).

Other topics

- pat tillman had a lot of people upset at him when they found out he and his family were atheists. and there are atheists who get really upset at christians for believing. i've spent some time thinking about why some people care so much about others' religions, and the tentative conclusion i've come to is this: it's all instinctual, tribal, and about power/safety. i've gotten the impression that whether or not you share a person's religion is unconsciously used as a heuristic for whether you are likely to conform to their way of doing things. by saying you don't share their religious beliefs, you're basically telling some people "i'm not going to always conform to you", which means that those other people have less power/safety than if you WERE doing things their way. this makes it seem more understandable (to me, anyway) for people to not be happy about it. again, i don't think people are consciously making these calculations; i think it's all instinct.

- a lot of what science says about how the universe works seems just as ridiculous as certain things said in religious texts; atm I think the main reason most people accept what scientists say is that the field of science can back up their weird claims with unrelated-but-still-impressive "miracles" (like helicopters and spaceships and the Internet). Even in the Bible Jesus performed miracles to prove to people he was God; the problem religions have nowadays is that they're asking people to believe stuff without being able to use believable miracles to win over people. It would be like a scientist being sent back in time to the Middle Ages without any gadgets/inventions and then trying to convince people that time slows down when you approach the speed of light. It would be very hard to do in those circumstances.


yet again john t reed has already said much of what i think:
[i don't agree with him about EVERYTHING he says, but i do think he says a LOT of things that most people don't talk about; e.g. I think he's way too hard / cynical about Obama, but I'm convinced Obama's intellectually an atheist.]

Books about religion

Life of Pi
I read this novel as part of a class in high school. Its basic argument is that you should be spiritual/religious because it makes for a more pleasant story than being an atheist. I agree to a point, but the problem is that inaccurate beliefs about the nature of the world can lead to other problems in a person's life. For example, many people say they leave their fate in God's hands, which can be a bad idea. Or if a person accepts that the Bible is the Word of God, they may feel torn about how to approach certain issues in life where the Bible's proposed solution is a bit too draconian; for example, I once sat through an awkward church service in which the pastor attempted to explain why Christian men no longer need to get circumcisions as they are explicitly ordered to in the Old Testament.

Are religions bad?

  • Bill Maher debating Ross Douthat
    • Ross makes some points that I have also come to:
      • It isn't clear that religions are a net negative.
      • Humans are believing creatures.
  • 2016.06.14 - Quillette - The Josiah Effect: How Moderate Religion Fuels Fundamentalism
    • I thought this was a very interesting article.
    • The MI is that moderate religion "primes" young people to accept the Bible / Koran as actually being the word of God, and so when those young people start to take control of their own lives (at around age 18) and actually read through those books themselves for words of guidance, they are inclined to take the books literally. And the books advocate the kind of extreme (violent) behavior you see in Jihadists and radical Christians.
    • "Josiah" is an example of this happening that is actually described in the Bible: King Josiah is given a copy of Leviticus and it deeply affects him, and he starts following its instructions to the letter (which involves killing a lot of people).


Different religions / belief systems


Lindybeige - B.C./A.D. or C.E./B.C.E.? A perfect solution!

  • He argues BC/AD isn't offensive (I agree).
  • He says CE and BCE sound too similar and 'BCE' is longer.
  • He also argues that 'CE' is still referring to the same thing, so it's not really changing it.
  • His suggested solution is to just change what the letters 'BC' and 'AD' stand for:
    • 'Backward Chronology'
    • 'Ascending Dates'
  • He makes the good point that many of the months are named after Roman gods.
  • And 'Easter' is named after a pagan goddess.


Lindybeige - Lloyd doubts belief itself

  • He tells a funny story at the beginning
  • He uses an interesting analogy: if you owned a company and announced a policy where anyone who "accidentally" breaks their tool gets the rest of the day off, it wouldn't be surprising to see an increase in the number of "accidental" breakages. Similarly, if religious people genuinely believed it when their religions say that Heaven is guaranteed for believers and Heaven is great, you'd expect to see an increase in the number of "accidental" suicides.
    • Suicide bombers might be a counter-argument. But lindy dismisses anyone in the video who actually believes religion as insane.

The New Religion

  • I don't think I have an opinion of religion one way or the other. I see it as an institution for organizing large groups of people, just like the government.
  • I think of religions as proposing for their members a set of behaviors and beliefs.
  • The members adopt those behaviors and beliefs without spending much time digging into the rationale underlying them.
  • The behaviors and beliefs are more-often enforced by social stigma instead of by threat of violence (as it is with the government).