Monthly Archives: September 2012

Meaning in Life Without God

It is common for religious people to be skeptical about whether achieving meaning in life is possible without God. Because they look to God in every aspect of their lives and find consistent emotional fulfillment in doing so, life often seems empty and purposeless without his presence. This post is dedicated to explaining how I attain meaning without any regard for the divine. 

First of all, I think it is important to note that we can learn something about what generally satisfies human life by examining how humans have constructed God as a figure of such immense purpose. Aside from being a moral judge, he serves as a figure of hope and love in an existence thats mysteries are unsolvable. God is humankind’s way of filling in the gaps in which we are susceptible to feeling helpless and hopeless. He fills the void of the unknown by serving as a permanent, concrete answer to life’s deepest questions – questions, which I believe are essential for one to leave unanswered if attempting seek the most subtle truths of existence.

See, the absolute mysteriousness of the unknown is what truly induces an encompassing sense of awe into the human spirit. For religious people, God is their way of doing this – but I believe that when we identify the answers to questions that we cannot possibly know, we learn to settle with this answer and cease progression in spiritual growth. Of course, religious people will argue that their relationship with God grows every day and the fulfillment is infinite. However, when we construct a definitive entity as the goal of all spiritual journeys, we limit ourselves by devising an answer to a question that we have not yet sought out to solve. 

I am not saying that religious people do not search for truth and meaning – but I am saying that God presents an immediate obstacle to finding such truth by deliberately directing one’s path and implanting a subliminal fear of punishment, that if one does not find him in such a spiritual journey, he/she will suffer consequences. However, if one allows his/her own sense of reason and self-guidance to shape his/her perception of truth, one will likely find him/herself with a greater sense of self, a firmer grip on one’s passions, and a moral compass that is shaped by the values that prove most survivable and beneficial for one’s own happiness and the happiness of others. And all of this comes with the liberation of not living under constant fear and stress of pleasing an omnipotent force.

The argument I have just presented will almost certainly mean nothing to religious people who derive their strength and purpose from God. The power of spiritual connection is immense. However, I believe that if one opens him/herself to a broader objective in life rather than finding and pleasing God, life will burst open with new possibilities. The mere strain of believing – truly believing – that God sent a savior in Jesus Christ to be born of a virgin, die for our sins, and rise from the dead, severely hampers one’s outlook on life. Everything one experiences must not transcend the rigid bounds of the Bible. Judging Christianity from an outsider’s point of view can be a disturbing experience. If one believed in such events as Christians do in the Bible that are not supported by millions of followers, he/she would be outcasted as insane. We live in a society where proof and evidence are essential, and yet we have the most powerful people in our world believing that there was once a man 2000 years ago that literally walked on water, turned water into wine, healed the sick, and was, despite his appearance, only half-human. These are events that millions, if not billions, of people will attest to believing. And yet when cast upon the backdrop of modern reason, they seem wildly foolish and absurd. 

So what is the effect of believing these things? Well, it provides an extremely narrow framework from which to experience the world. People are discouraged from thinking in ways that contradict their faiths and are essentially brainwashed into arriving at conclusions that correspond to their beliefs. Since they live under the umbrella of an all-knowing, all-powerful God, their capacity to explore intellectually and emotionally is molded to these limited viewpoints.

I may be repeating myself, but I was eager to get the point across that I think religion serves as a blindfold to the spiritually vulnerable. From my own experience, I feel that the deepest truths in life can be discovered through the arts and from nature itself. Arguably the most insightful truths we have have been derived from losing oneself in the in the connection to our natural surroundings. By human-produced means such as poetry and music, we can access a deeper sense of awe and satisfaction that is more beneficial to shaping our lives than is religious dogma, as it requires obedience to no entity and allows the self to be completely free in its search for gratification. The unknown, the sheer mystery of the universe’s origin, the awe of comprehending our mere existence and its development, the joy in realizing one’s smallness relative to the grandness of the universe and being able to lose oneself in such magnificent grandness – all of this can be reached with self-reflection, an appreciation of nature, and the connection to nature accessible through the mind-boggling capabilities of our brains. Furthermore, each of us possesses unique talents and passions that make us who we are. Fostering these passions with the greatest care possible, along with tending to our human relationships, are what make life meaningful, in my view. The God factor in these treasures only hinders their specialness, as we are unable to embrace them wholly for what they really are, and are forced to direct them towards an omnipotent ruler. 

The final point I will make is the inherent lack of meaning for this life that Christianity and most all other religions demand. Essentially, the religious person’s perspective on this life is that it is merely a tryout – if we fail to meet the criteria of God, then we are sent to Hell. If we succeed, we are awarded paradise. This inherently decreases the value of this life, rendering religious people more likely to bypass the joys and sorrows that make life meaningful with eyes fixed on an imaginary future. The entire meaning for life is predicated on achieving the reward of paradise after death. Despite the fact that we have nothing to found these beliefs on besides imagination, people ardently center their lives around this purpose and sacrifice enjoyment in this life in hopes of bliss in the next. Subsequently, people are cheating themselves of meaning in the current life. Doesn’t it make sense to cherish the life we have for all it is worth rather than allow fear to bully us into obedience to a god we have never seen? Essentially, my point is that it is far more satisfying and fulfilling to engage with our surroundings for all they are worth and to acknowledge the unknown with an awe-struck contentment and acceptance for that which is beyond our power to understand.

A Deeper Look at the Historical Legitimacy of Jesus Christ

In light of my last post, I want to clarify why I do not accept Jesus Christ as a legitimate historical figure. In doing so, I find it necessary to identify what qualifies as historical truth.

Pinpointing historical people or events as true is difficult. First of all, it requires eye-witnesses. If there are no eye-witnesses to an event or if there is no contemporary evidence of a historical person (i.e. one’s own writings, letters, or involvement in confirmed historical events), it is inappropriate to deem them legitimate. Needless to say, the difficulty of identifying truth in history becomes increasingly more difficult as we move back in time. For something to be solidified as a near historical fact, it must be supported by separate eye-witnesses, all of which must represent contrasting biases. Of course, nothing in history can be confirmed as absolutely 100% true, as all of it relies on the perceptions and records of humans, leaving them vulnerable to fabrication and bias. However, given a rational evaluation of the evidence at hand, a historical person or event can be widely accepted as true if it adheres to certain criteria.

Given this basic framework, I will try to explain why I do not see any good reason to believe in the existence of Jesus. Let us first look at which ancient historians were around during the alleged time of Jesus’s life. The most prominent was Philo (approx. 20 B.C.E. – 50 C.E.). Rare among ancient historians, his writings are largely preserved. Conveniently for the purposes of analyzing the legitimacy of Jesus, Philo wrote an extensive narration of Jewish life during the time of Jesus and even chastised Pontius Pilate, the man who famously “washed his hands” of the execution of Christ in the Gospels. Despite having the ideal opportunity to mention the man who supposedly transformed Jewish life by acting as a great moral teacher and, more newsworthy, was a miracle-worker, he suspiciously did not make any mention of him at all. Another well regarded historian who fails to write about Jesus is Seneca (5 B.C.E. – 64 C.E.), whose documents Christians felt the need to blatantly intrude on in an effort to include Jesus, but such forgeries were later exposed. There are others, such as Damis and Justus, who shared this suspicious exclusion of Jesus, but the point is that opportunity and motive were both present – and still, we find no potential eye-witnesses who can vouch for the life of Jesus.

Despite the striking absence of Jesus in the writings of contemporary ancient historians, most scholars do acknowledge the likely existence of some rabbi who garnered a small following that fits the description of Jesus. There are several minor details, that I will not burden you with in this post, that contribute to this assumption. However, there is a difference between someone’s existence being vaguely probable and someone being considered a legitimate historical figure. There are certain tidbits of information that we can pick out of the Gospels (I say tidbits because the Gospels in their entirety cannot be deemed as reliable historical documents) and later historical documents that point to Jesus’ possible presence on earth. However, this in no way qualifies Jesus as a man in history. The absence of eye-witness testimony essentially eliminates him from that category right off the bat. But, is the general consensus correct? Was there probably an arguably delusional moral teacher walking the streets of Jerusalem? Well, it depends who you ask.

Christian apologists who ardently vouch for validity of Jesus’s existence like to point to two historians in particular that support Jesus. The first, and possibly most well known, is Josephus. Josephus does, in fact, mention Jesus in the following passage of his book The Antiquities of the Jews:

“Now, there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man, for he was a doer of wonderful works; a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was [the] Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him; for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”

Okay, right off the bat, it is imperative to note that the viability of this passage is largely in dispute. While Christian apologists stand by its authenticity, many historians deem it either a complete forgery or a mix of forgery and Christian interpolation. But you do not have to be a historian to make your own interpretation of this passage. Its language seems highly suspicious to be coming form the mouth of a reliable historian who most certainly did not live in the period when Jesus is said to have lived. In fact, it seems polluted by Christian intrusion. Josephus would not simply make the casual claim that he “rose on the third day” or question if it was “lawful to call him a man” without witnessing first hand these outrageously impactful deeds performed by Jesus. He was too big of a skeptic for that. Furthermore, this passage is basically the only one he dedicates to Jesus. Josephus was known to be almost painstakingly thorough. Briefly and casually mentioning a man who walked on water and rose from the dead seems glaringly out of character. Thirdly, even if he did write this himself, it is certain, given that he was born several years after the alleged death of Jesus, that he was relying on the stories of orators. So, at very best, Josephus was a second hand source to Jesus’s existence, and a rather weak one at that.

Another major writer given credibility by Christian apologists is Tacitus, who was also born several years after the purported death of Jesus. There are several details in Tacitus’s text on Jesus that prove to be suspicious when accounting for forgery, such as certain factual mistakes he is unlikely to have made and certain phrases he is unlikely to have used. The largest piece of evidence against Tacitus in my mind, however, is the fact that his documentation was not quoted in any text until the fifteenth century; not even by the Roman Bishop Eusebius, who attempted to dig through every piece of available textual evidence to support the reality of Christianity. And again, to stress the significance of primary sources, Tacitus, if he did in fact write this himself, would have had to rely on others for his testimony.

Admittedly, I am no expert in medieval history. However, my keen interest in this topic has lead me to compile some valuable research that has convinced me that I cannot trust the legitimacy of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, there is no way to know for sure. I am in no way ruling out his existence completely or saying that other evidence could not sway me in one direction or the other. However, given the evidence I have laid out in this post, I remain firm in my rejection of the solidity of Jesus as a historical figure. My central objection is regarding the absence of primary sources that document Jesus. There was opportunity and motive for his life to be recorded, but it simply was not. With that, I rest my case.

Jesus: The Man, The Myth, The Misconception

If you are a Christian, you believe in the divinity of Jesus Christ. You believe he was the Messiah sent by the God of Abraham, miraculously born from a virgin, who eventually was crucified on a cross in an act that somehow symbolized  eternal exoneration from all human sins. In the duration of his 33 years on earth, he performed several miracles, such as healing the sick and turning water to wine, and taught values of unprecedented moral significance. The belief in these things is required of all Christians, as the precept of the entire religion is founded on the divinity of a real-life man named Jesus. If you do not believe these things, you cannot  be considered a Christian, even if you try to twist your allegiance to God by saying you believe in the “idea” or “spirit” of Jesus, but not necessarily his divinity. I think that the divinity of Jesus is one criterion that Christians cannot back away from if they identify themselves with the religion.

Now, Jesus can absolutely not be considered a definite historical figure, as the likes of someone like Caesar can. There is simply not enough documental evidence of his existence. The identities of the four Gospel writers are unconfirmed and, to our knowledge, have not written anything besides the Gospels, so they cannot be considered reliable sources anyway. On top of this, the oldest of the four Christian Gospels is believed to be the Gospel of Mark, which scholars believe was drafted in 70 C.E., 37 years after the supposed death of Jesus. Hmm… well, right off the bat, we know that the four Gospel writers were not eye-witnesses of Jesus. Given all this information, their credibility looks meager at best. But is there anyone who can testify to the existence of such a renowned figure? Well, no. There are several reliable historians from that period and area who would have certainly wanted to account for such a major person. Ironically enough, none of them did. Many Christians like pointing out Josephus, a famous historian from Judea, as a significant early scholar who testified to Jesus’ existence. However, Josephus was born in 37 C.E., scratching him from the list of possible eye-witnesses. On top of this, the section on Jesus, as miniature and relatively insignificant as it is, reeks of Christian forgery. The passage itself can be dated back to the fourth century during the rule of the Emperor Constantine. Interestingly enough, Constantine was the man who essentially Christianized the dying Roman Empire. And who chronicled Constantine’s life? The Bishop Eusebius, who is known to have okayed bluffing for the sake of reaching the kingdom of Heaven, and was instrumental in teaching Constantine the basics of Christianity and assisting him in spreading it across the empire. Suddenly, Jesus does not seem so real after all.

Despite the fact that the very historicity of Jesus is extremely tenuous, I am willing to, for the Christian’s sake, accept his existence. So, for the purposes of this post, let’s ignore the evidence (or lack there of) and assume that Jesus was a real person. In fact, let’s accept all of it. The miracles, the virgin birth, the crucification, the resurrection, everything. So this man named Jesus comes along; he walks on water; he gives vision to the blind; he claims to be the Son of God; he is even willing to die so that we do not have to spend eternity in Hell. Wow. What a nice guy. Seriously. But let’s take it a step further. What are his demands for reaching the kingdom of Heaven? Well, it is simple: believe in him. When asked what they think will happen to people who do not believe in Jesus but have lived good lives, many Christians like to say, well, that’s for God to judge, not me, and no one can truly know God’s intentions. But I think this is one thing God made pretty clear: believe in him, or go to Hell. When you really think about this, your perception of Jesus as such a nice guy might change just a little.

This, in my mind, is the most fundamental flaw of the Jesus character: he requires nothing of us but to believe in him. I think religious people tend not to question this aspect of faith because it seems so natural to worship a god. But think about it. Would an all-loving, all-merciful God demand that you believe in him in order to live happily for eternity? However you want to put it, this is selfish. Simply selfish. And yet it is so elementarily selfish that most of us overlook it. It seems to me that a more productive criterion for paradise would have been good deeds, and although Jesus encourages good deeds, this does not make his list of requirements. Think about if all religions merely emphasized the doing of good deeds, rather than the promotion their gods. The problem here is obvious. God is the poison that makes religion violent and dangerous. Once you believe in an all-powerful ruler, you are liable to do anything you interpret as a demand from such a ruler. Even if it includes killing. Frankly, if a god is unjust enough to let me spend eternity – eternity – in Hell for simply not accepting his existence, I would not choose to spend time with him anyway.

The point I am trying to make is that belief in a divine being is simply not necessary in modern society. Why believe in the divinity of Jesus or any other god but to ease the fear of death? Rather than focusing our intentions on pleasing a god, let’s use our energy on things that will make this life meaningful – not the one that follows it. We can do this simply by thinking rationally and making decisions that cater to the greater happiness of all human beings. No society in human history has ever gone awry by trying to think more rationally. So let’s stop trying to create lives outside of this one, and let’s start cherishing the one that is right here in front of us. No Jesus required for that.

Spirituality and Religion: Do they have to co-exist?

Through my personal observations, I have come to the conclusion that most religious moderates rely on spirituality as the backbone or implicit justification for their beliefs. In our modern world, it would be difficult to accept any scripture as divine truth unless supported by the believer’s emotional connection with what he/she believes to be a god. Through meditative activities such as prayer, people are able to form a relationship with this invisible spirit that bolsters their faith and boosts their confidence in scripture. It is my belief that the comfort of this supportive spiritual friend (God) is what sustains people’s faiths and encourages them to keep believing.

Many people believe that the atheist view on spirituality is that it simply does not exist – there is no spirit realm so how can we participate in activities such as meditation and prayer? The intention of this post is to identify and debunk the link between religion and spirituality.

Scientific studies have showed us that prayer and meditation initiate heightened or reduced activity in specific areas of the brain. One particularly interesting discovery is in the brain region that contributes to our sense of self, or our identity. This part is largely inactive in tests performed on spiritual gurus, indicating a rather obvious but important point: during prayer, the believer tends to lose his/her sense of self, surrendering it to a greater sense of unity with the universe. This euphoric sensation is, among monotheists, associated with God. Surrendering oneself to God, allowing him to take charge of one’s life, entrusting him with the events of one’s life, allowing him to “take the wheel” (to steal from a Carrie Underwood song), – all of these attitudes and dispositions of a person in prayer contribute to one’s sense of reduced self-awareness and oneness with a higher power.

In response to this observation, a religious person might be inclined to argue that just because we can now trace alterations of brain activity in moments of deep meditation does not disprove God or that these people in prayer are actually connecting with a higher power. And, of course, this is true. As many intellectuals have noted over the years, it is impossible to disprove that which cannot be proven in the first place. However, I think the scientific background on spirituality is still incredibly important. Why? Let’s look at this rationally. What is a more intellectually honest interoperation of people’s spiritual experiences? Taking them to be actual modes of communication with the supernatural? Or our brain’s way of achieving a heightened level of happiness that we instinctively link with God and religion? I’ll take the latter.

It is my sincere belief that one does not need the attachment of religious dogma to lead a life that involves productive meditation and a greater sense of happiness. I think it is time that we detach the two and interpret spirituality for what it really is and how it can improve the human experience. The legitimacy of spiritual experience is not in doubt. But our scientific capabilities have made it possible to explore new modes by which to reach such forms of emotional comfort and psychological peace, and have brought to light the notion that the source of such experiences does not have to be God. Rather, it is the predisposition that God is the intended target of prayer that leads one to express a connection or relationship with God.

I believe spirituality to be the backbone of religion. Without it, it would not survive. Of course, I could be wrong. But I believe it is this emotional relationship with God that keeps religious moderates faithful. And once we abandon the notion that God is the necessary vehicle for reaching spirituality, we can begin to make an honest, intellectual attack on the violence that religion ignites around the world and a true assessment of religion’s value and place in society.

The Importance of Knowing What You Stand For

As a kick-off post, I thought I would start off explaining why I think religion is such a dangerous force in the world and why it’s so important to know what you stand for when you commit yourself to a religion.

All we have to do in order to see religion’s poisonous effect on society is to look at what is going on around the globe. Everyone is probably familiar with the recent events that took place at American embassies in the Middle East. Now, while it is true that the vengeful murders of several Americans by Muslim protestors was a product of religion in its most extreme form, this does nothing to help us rebuke the actions themselves, or shed moral reasoning on their wrongness. In fact, any honest religious person should find him/herself in a major moral dilemma if he/she is trying to denounce such acts. Any religious moderate you come across will condemn the murders in the Middle East, purporting that they were the result of “misguided” faith or radical religion, but that they in no way taint the sanctity of religion in its purest form.

This is where the problem of “faith” arises. Claiming that someone else’s faith is merely “misguided” is contradictory and intellectually dishonest. Let’s look at the Merriam-Webster definition of faith: “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” With that definition in mind, let me pose a question: How can the religious moderates, or any person who attaches him/herself to a particular religious faith, criticize these people for defending their faith? Just like moderates, these extremists are, to borrow a common Christian cliche, “walking by faith, rather than by sight.” The difference is that religious moderates have adjusted their faiths in order to fit within the spectrum of what is reasonable. The extremists, holding true to their scriptures, will not allow the boundaries of secular society to stop them from behaving in accordance with their respective scriptures. In an obedience to scripture that moderates could not honestly claim to, the extremists will not hesitate to resort to violence and murder in order to carry out their missions. Just as a moderate credits their faith on certain deeds, whether they be good or bad, extremists justify their heinous actions with the exact same ideal: faith. In this way, a religious moderate, who, ostensibly does nothing to harm the world, cannot berate the faithful extremists who merely carry out their faiths with more obedience to their scriptures and less conformity to what the value of reason has taught the rest of the world.

Given everything I’ve articulated above, I believe it is imperative, especially with the ongoing international unrest among religions, that people know exactly what they stand for. In America today, it is easy for people to disregard the violence in the Middle East that religion kindles, as the mainstream Christian faith has become more and more liberal. People go to church, say their prayers, and develop an identity behind their faiths. However, no matter how harmless one’s faith might seem, it is the idea that continues to poison our world – the idea that it is acceptable for church and state to intertwine and therefore be embraced in the public sphere as an essential freedom for all of humanity. That freedom, however, is killing innocent American citizens and will continue to be a platform for hatred and bigotry if people do not start thinking independently and making an honest evaluation of the viability of their faith.

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