The Atheist’s Thumb

January 29, 2011 § 49 Comments

I want to tell a joke about an atheist. Hopefully, no one will take offense—my goal is not to mock atheists, but to ask whether or not there’s any grain of truth behind the story. It’s not really even that great of a joke, but for what it’s worth, here it is:

An atheist and his friend are doing a woodworking project at the atheist’s house, and the atheist accidentally bangs his thumb with a hammer. After a few choice words of immediate response, the atheist says, “Hey, now I can do my ‘homework.’ I’m taking part in a study of pain relievers, and I’ve got a bottle of pills upstairs.” So he takes the pill and sure enough, within minutes the pain in his thumb is gone. Following the instructions on the bottle, he waits 30 minutes, then calls the research lab, and reports his results. After a short conversation, he returns to his friend, picks up his hammer, and very deliberately hits the same thumb (and repeats the same choice words as before).

“What did you do that for?” asks his friend.

“The lab told me the pill was a placebo,” replies the atheist, “and I know placebos don’t really do anything, so my thumb is supposed to still be hurting.”

Ok, like I said, Leno’s career is in no danger from me. But I still want to ask the question. Do you think there’s any grain of truth in the story? The mental context of the joke is the oft-repeated question believers ask: “If there is no God, what’s the harm in believing that there is?” Can religion play a useful role as a kind of experiential relief, even if it’s only a placebo effect? Are atheists going too far in rejecting what they know to be false, and thus depriving themselves of beneficial effects? Can you know a thing is a placebo, and still appreciate the fact that the pain is no longer afflicting you?


About Alethianism

January 16, 2011 § 5 Comments

Ok, let’s get started. I already have some ideas about what the Alethian religion ought to look like. Obviously, I can’t do this all by myself, so I’m open to suggestions and discussion. But on the other hand, if we’re going to have a discussion, we need something to talk about, so let me describe my vision.

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January 2, 2011 § 29 Comments

Welcome to Changing Religions!

My name is Deacon Duncan, and I’ve been running a blog called Evangelical Realism for a few years now. The focus at ER has largely been on debunking the gullible and superstitious claims of the older, more primitive religions, particularly the various flavors of Christianity. Over the course of writing this blog, I’ve learned that this approach is like attacking the ocean with a sword: it’s disappointingly trivial to hit your target, and afterwards, no matter how devastating your blow, the tide rolls on.

There’s a very good reason for this, as I’ve discussed in my post on Getting Religion: people do not believe because of the apologetics, they use the apologetics because they believe.  Attacking their beliefs may cause them personal distress and/or offense, but does not in any way impact the actual, fundamental reasons why they believe.

This blog, Changing Religions, has a new goal: to start a discussion about finding ways to build a new religious fellowship, a specifically post-Christian fellowship, to “sell” to believers as a superior alternative to the religion they subscribe to currently. I expect to lose some or all of my current subscribers, who will quite rightly be suspicious of any attempt to, as they see it, compound the problem by inventing a new religion. But I do have one or two points to raise in my own defense.

Is it really wise to start a new religion? Yes, because religion is about community, and most people will not abandon their old community unless they have a better one to move to. To defeat the narrow, gullible and superstitious religions of the past, we have to compete with them, and to compete we have to have a product in the same market. Christianity cannot be defeated, it can only be replaced.

Is it honest to start a new religion? I think it is, because I’m not going to invent any fictitious gods. My religion is actually centered around a very old God: Reality itself. In other words, this religion will be pantheism, but it’s pantheism with a very human twist. Most forms of pantheism fail to attract much in the way of followers because, however wonderful it may be to worship nature in all its glory, there’s a distinct lack of personality there, and thus a lack of personal appeal. My religion addresses Reality in personal terms, giving Her the name of Alethea.

This is the point where I will lose some people and (hopefully) gain others. Is it right to address Reality as a person, knowing that it is not? The hard-core atheist will say no, it is dishonest, but I disagree. I say that seeing Alethea (Reality) as a person is a spiritual perspective—an intuitive way of experiencing reality that exposes a different kind of truth about it, or rather, about how we, as human beings, engage it.

My favorite example is the phenomenon we call sunrise. Does the sun really rise in the morning, move across the sky, and then fall again in the evening? The analytical truth is that it does not: the earth rotates, and causes an apparent motion of the sun across the sky. Yet in practical terms, what sunrise means to us in terms of our experience, is a lot more than can be simply expressed using only the analytical truth. Sunrise is the earth turning to face the sun, but it’s also a change in our ability to see, an end to the hidden dangers of the night, a metaphor for discovery and the beginning of a new era.

Our “metaphoric” experience of reality is an added dimension of experience, above and beyond the scientific analysis. The dimension that is added is “interconnectedness”—a sense of the relationship between things, and the meaning of those relationships. This is the value that religion brings to the individual, and that the religions of the past have, however badly and perversely, attempted to provide. We need to provide the same thing, and we can.

I think that I’ve covered the atheists’ objection (to my own satisfaction, at least). Believers might have a similar objection, expressed as, “But Alethea isn’t really a god!” My answer to this is that perhaps we’re the ones who have been using a poor definition of “god.” If you met a real space alien, would you say, “He can’t be a real alien because he doesn’t look like a Klingon”? Men have historically imagined gods in their own image, but it’s not all that far-fetched to suggest that such fictions fail to describe a real god accurately.

For my part, I’ve tried practicing Alethianism the same way I used to practice Christianity, and have been mildly surprised (though not entirely) to find that it works pretty much the same as my old faith did, but without the confusion and disappointments. That’s part of the reason I’m slightly optimistic about starting a new religion: I’ve taken it for a test run, and it did as well as the competition, without the disadvantages.

And that’s because Alethea really is the essence of what we’re groping for when we try to perceive and understand God: the power greater than ourselves whose complex dealings with us reflect certain moods and preferences that we need to take into account in order to do well in this world. The die-hard atheist may object that these moods and preferences are not the analytical truth about what’s happening in the real world, but from a spiritual, layman’s perspective, there’s no significant difference. We experience them as moods and preferences, and they act as moods and preferences, and our community will benefit from understanding them and reacting accordingly.

The big advantage of worshiping and obeying Alethea is that we can be the one religious community that has no fear of atheists or scientists. Atheists see the same Reality (our God) as we do, and scientists can help us to know Her even better, because our theology uniquely overlaps all other branches of science. Also, because our faith is based on reality rather than on gullibly believing whatever certain people say, we have no fear that our religion will ever prove false. If we ever find that we have been wrong, that just means that we now know our God even better!

That’s my dream, my vision. If you’d like to join me, or if you have some ideas that might help, let me hear from you. I have no idea whether or not anything will come of this, but I’m going to give it a shot, in the spirit of lighting a single candle. Perhaps, with God’s blessing, some good may come of it in any case.