Rethinking Justice

I’ve been neglecting my Hypotopia page because it’s purely theoretical in nature, and I don’t feel comfortable sharing how distracted my mind really gets with random stuff that pops into it. These are things that I sometimes think about while mowing the lawn or going on my circuit around the block. Instead of feeling ashamed of random hypothetical nonsense, I figure like my other thoughts “out is better than keeping it in.”

Recently I’ve had a few conversations and experiences with the idea of classism and justice. I’ll explain how they relate to each other in a bit. Justice was a word that got thrown around a lot in law school, and rightly so. Judges writing opinions are obsessive about the concept, except that it isn’t really defined all that much. This puts justice in the same category of treatment as obscenity: one knows it when one sees it.

What justice has to do with the law.
At its core, justice is used most often in public as being synonymous with fairness, finality, and rightness. Justice is fair because society demands that all people are treated fairly (regardless of the philosophical underpinnings); another way of putting it is that the law treats everyone equally. Justice is also final because it ends conflict between people rather than allowing a dispute to exist into perpetuity. Last, justice is righteous because it is grounded in the idea that government and society will promote that which is good and upstanding over what is bad and petty.

Practically, though, expressions of justice in common law countries have centered around punishing wrongdoing. When the government punishes people directly, it’s (most often) the result of a crime. A crime is some sort of wrong act that must be punished by society as a whole rather than just between private individuals. It’s why the state takes over handling these cases rather than just leaving the victim to sue on his or her own behalf. What’s interesting is that this idea has been in legal existence since 1066.

That’s right: we’re operating on fundamental legal principles in place for almost 1000 years.

Early on, punishment was quite different than today. Although the article I linked to does have problems, it does accurately point out that felonies (murder, arson, burglary, robbery, rape, kidnapping, theft, and battery, if memory serves) used to all be punishable by death. Over time, these punishments were relaxed. Nowadays, punishment generally has to do with four things: incarceration, deterrence, revenge, and rehabilitation. Somewhere these values get expressed in sentences, depending upon the circumstances and what sentencing guidelines will allow judges to get away with.

This is what we’ve equated justice to, in the long run. While we might think of it as an improvement over killing people by default, the same concepts that undergird such executions also support our current framework of thinking. A thousand years later, we’re trying to stop peasants from killing the King’s deer.

A note about classism.
Technically, classism has no place in the law. The Fourteenth Amendment specifically prohibits it. What I found in law school, and is only hinted at cynically in popular media, is that poor people are severely unable to get access to justice. This is because lawyers go into massive amounts of debt for legal education, and eventually they have to eat. So, they must get money in order to do what they do, and the best lawyers charge a lot so everyone isn’t knocking down their door.

This isn’t the kind of classism that we Americans were promised would never exist in our free land. Instead, it’s an institutional variety that functions because of how we operate rather than some intent. Poor people, therefore, must make do with low-quality legal work. Often they get public defenders who are overworked and underpaid. They can’t afford to take each case like it was on retainer; they must deal in volume. The net result is that poor people get punished more often than their well-to-do counterparts.

Is this really what we want justice to be?
I’m illustrating just two fundamental problems with thinking about justice. We look at it and think about fairness above all else, and our system rarely meets that expectation. Yet, because we’ve been doing it for so long, we persist. Sometimes people luck out and a bad person gets caught and punished for wrongdoing. Even then, notice how we de-humanized the person once he or she gets caught.

This was my thought, then: do we have to think about justice other than just punishing people? Why do I even want the law to hurt people? I would much rather have people who have been victimized overcome the trauma that they’ve suffered. If these were private actors, we’d demand that the victims be “made whole,” or put in the same position they would have been in before the crime was committed.

There also needs to be emphasis on getting people who commit crimes the support they need to not do it again. I don’t want to call it rehabilitation because oftentimes there isn’t anything to rehabilitate. If a crime was committed to obtain drug money, breaking the addiction ends the problem.

These are just a couple ways to look at justice differently. Justice doesn’t have to be about hurting those we convict or ignoring the victims of crime. I think a thousand years of running after serfs should end. We can do better.

On Shellfish and Salvation

Image taken from here.

Image taken from here.

I’ve been avoiding writing a different couple posts lately, mostly because they involve the really dark parts of me mentally being able to break myself of faith. They’re important to get out there, mostly to share with people who might be wanting to leave their faith but still feel shame at that desire. Still, they involve some really personal introspection, and my natural tendency is to avoid that if possible.

In the meantime, I wanted to kind of share some thoughts about an idea that did help me question my faith. While it didn’t keep me from believing, I think it’s only because I didn’t realize it until after I’d already started making excuses for my beliefs. So, by the time it would have helped, it did me no good.

The idea is that the Bible is really specific about shellfish, but hopelessly vague on salvation.
The deity promoted in the Bible is quite specific on a good many things, especially in the older parts of it. Yahweh knew what it wanted sacrificed, how it was to be sacrificed, and when it was to be sacrificed. Specific prohibitions were aplenty, right down to not being able to enjoy lobster and bacon.

On the other hand, I had all sorts of vague statements about salvation. Works didn’t save someone from Hell because it’s impossible to keep all of the deity’s laws, so one had to ask Jesus for help. This meant accepting Jesus as one’s savior. What does that really mean? How does one know if it’s been successfully accomplished? There are a whole host of verses and thoughts on this, but nothing seems to get beyond an abiding sense of “you know it when you feel it.”

Salvation, though, is the ultimate goal of Christianity. It’s more important than not eating bacon. Jesus can forgive the latter. I was left with looking at a deity that seemed to care more about allowing slavery to exist than to giving clearer instructions at ending human misery on Earth. Here was this deity’s instructions, and I couldn’t justify the notion that the more important concepts were woefully shorthanded in their explanations.

Eventually, I settled on an answer.
My own personal way of wriggling out of my self-inflicted conundrum was to explain that my deity must have done this for an unfathomable reason. Perhaps it was so that way TRUE CHRISTIANS(TM) could be led by the Holy Spirit to identify the right way of doing things. Nonetheless, it was something I had to just leave to my deity’s capable hands. Looking back on it, this is shorthand for giving up on thinking.

The answer sated my curiosity whenever the questions would pop up again. These questions especially would come around every time I felt I needed to explain how my deity could be loving. That love is a mystery, sometimes not intended to ever be fully discovered. Such thoughts are terribly impoverished consolation for those that needed it. And all it did for me was to keep me running around in mental circles.

What the answer is now.
If I had to settle on an explanation, it would be that things don’t match up because these ideas were written by different authors over a long time span. Scholars interjected their own thoughts into the mix, further muddying the waters. Such an explanation is consistent with human ideas trying to claim divine inspiration rather than the other way around.

For careful readers, I hadn’t even touched on the issue of whether or not one’s deity even exists.

I think that’s important, because in my earlier trappings of faith I would dismiss the non-existence of a deity right out of hand. Not only that, I attached my thinking about the Bible to that concept. So, believing the Bible to be an inspired word of a deity was automatically insulated from a more obvious assault. In other words, what I’m getting at is another way of expressing the complete inaccuracy and hopeless ineffectual nature of the Bible itself.

It’s a bad thing to take completely literally as many toxic Christian sects would have one do. That it can be specific about one thing and then ignore the more important instructions is a glaring flaw. Ignoring it can and does allow for real permanent damage to people. Trying to follow its Byzantine ways has resulted in apologies for original sin, slavery, racial discrimination, and killing of non-Christians.

Reigning in the hyperbole.
I know I also have a tendency to get to broad sweeping brush strokes, although I do think that the above reasoning tends to support the broader conclusions. Here is one other example of the vagueness of the Bible that I’d like to reflect on to make my point. Take a look at Exodus 20:3. That’s the First Commandment. It says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

In plain English, this translation is similar across many other versions (except the Good News Translation; that one is just repeatedly weird). This deity is telling its followers that they shall not have any other deities before it. As long as Yahweh is ranked number 1, the commandment is kept. Does this mean that Christians are allowed to worship other deities in addition? Or does it mean that there only is one deity and that one deity must be worshiped?

An Open and Obvious Danger

This one isn't poisonous. Image courtesy of Stockvault.

This one isn’t poisonous.
Image courtesy of Stockvault.

With the recent death of a snake handler in Bell County, Kentucky, there has been much discussion about taking the Bible literally (here is another article about the incident, and here is one good article on the literalism side of snake handling over at “Godless Cranium”). For those who might not be familiar with Holiness churches that practice snake handling, it comes from a verse in Mark 16:15-18(NIV):

“15 He said to them, [‘]Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.[‘]”

See here for the text in the KJV; and here for the New Revised Standard Version. But see here for the Good News Translation.

The idea is that picking up snakes and not dying is a sign that a person has salvation. Added to this idea is that it came directly from Jesus’s mouth. People read these verses and built a faith around making sure they were being saved. If they couldn’t drink poison, cast out demons, or speak in new tongues, snakes were pretty much the only other canary in the spiritual mine.

Snake handling churches are near where I live.
I had friends that attended snake handling churches. We never knew exactly where these churches were, and it’s hard to tell in an area where there is a church on every other street and country road. It made for interesting conversations at school, but eventually nobody remained convinced to change one’s religious stance. Even as children, some of us were quite aware that snake handling was dangerous.

It’s easy to ridicule these beliefs as an open and obvious danger, something that is quite easily identifiable as hazardous to one’s health. That it’s dangerous is something that is relied upon. Whenever I hear about a snake handler dying, I think about the couple friends I had who said they attended those churches. Whether they were completely truthful or not is something I don’t know, but statistically I lived in an area where someone I knew went to a church that did this practice.

Apparently snake handling isn’t the only thing these churches do in Alabama (source here). Some people speak in tongues, they practice faith healing, and they drink strychnine. While snake handling is illegal, it’s quite difficult to find out which churches do it. Another added hurdle in Kentucky is that most cases found there are thrown out due to First Amendment considerations (see the first link).

Are these churches taking the Bible literally?
Reading the passage from different versions, I can’t rightly say. It talks about picking up snakes but not about getting bitten by them. Of course, there’s a strong inference that Jesus is saying it’s okay to do this. Nothing could possibly go wrong if one believes and is baptized. Interestingly enough, growing up I never really heard too much about these verses. That Jesus says it’s okay speaks volumes.

From these peoples’ perspectives, they’re wanting to make sure their souls will get eternal life. The belief that Jesus is their savior is already firmly entrenched in their minds. If all this other stuff is true, then why pick and choose to believe in what Jesus says? There are plenty of gray areas in the Bible. Mark’s promises are pretty straightforward. Pick up a snake, and nothing bad will happen if you believe and are baptized.

Why take other verses literally, but these get a pass?
The easy answer is that handling snakes is dangerous and potentially lethal. Common sense overrides the idea that Jesus is the infallible son of a deity. Caution is heeded, and some people are not curious enough about their salvation to intentionally hold onto a deadly snake.

I hope people see what happens when this selective enforcement begins to go on. Jesus isn’t inherently believable. Plenty of Christians can and readily do ignore these verses. Some Christians go their entire lives without casting out demons or speaking in tongues. Surviving an accidental poisoning can be seen as a sign from one’s deity that one has salvation. Why aren’t these things more proudly proclaimed?

I’m not trying to make light of a tragic state of affairs for people. For some, faith is so important that it overrides one’s sense of self-preservation. Sure, some Christians may feel that these snake handlers are doing it wrong, but they’re trying to follow the Bible just like others are. They follow it and put so much into it that they can’t tell if something is unsafe.

Something to chew on.
What I’m asking is where the danger begins. I no longer share the beliefs of snake handlers or their less adventurous brothers and sisters in Christ, so I am more willing to acknowledge that the belief in Jesus is the first necessary leap of logic one must undergo in order to pick up venomous snakes. While it’s not the only one, it does play a necessary part here.

And it’s because of that necessary link that causes concern over religious teachings that aren’t tempered by common sense. It’s why anti-theists can lay blame on religious thinking for people who have died from snake bites. Indeed, it’s even why some people eventually might get out of believing.

For snake handlers, the line between fact and desired outcomes is blurred so completely that someone has just died from it. To many, this is an open and obvious danger. What other dangers are hidden out there in one’s belief structure?

Blind Luck

This actually isn't what my garden looks like.  In fact, this doesn't look anything like the back yard where I live.   Image courtesy of Stockvault.

This actually isn’t what my garden looks like. In fact, this doesn’t look anything like the back yard where I live.
Image courtesy of Stockvault.

I still don’t have pictures of the stuff I’m growing out in the back yard (read: empty acre of lawn that laid bare for 20+years). However, I’ve been spending a lot of time back there, and I find my time spent trying to grow things valuable. Right now I’m growing 4 rhubarb plants, 4 hazelnut trees, 2 almond trees, 6 raspberry plants, 4 blueberry bushes, 2 fig trees, about 8 sunflowers, 2 pear trees, 3 apple trees, about 10 strawberry plants, and 4 Natchez blackberry plants. All of them have been installed periodically since this past March, and only two people were involved in the planting (except once when my sister wanted to help mix up the soil for the hazelnut trees).

So far, only the sunflowers are dead. They were planted in late April, bloomed in June, and were quickly raided by birds and other critters. Everything else is alive and well, including the rhubarb (although it’s now dormant and won’t grow anything until winter rolls around). I’ve never tried to grow anything in my entire life, so I can say that either YouTube has made an awesome horticulturist out of me, or I’m guilty of amazingly blind luck. Either way, I’m writing about it today so I can keep a little track of what silliness I’m doing back there. Maybe some seasoned gardeners/horticulturists/agriculturists can get a laugh out of it.

How to H20?
Either way, right now my biggest worry is watering them. I water them every other day, except when it rains. They seem to be doing okay, but I can’t really tell. The hazelnut and almond trees were planted from bare root stock, and they grew leaves pretty quickly. However, sometimes the hazelnut tree leaves get a little droopy and maybe a little greenish-yellow. While I researched blueberries to find out that it was a bad thing, I haven’t found much in the way of hazelnut watering parameters. So I just shower a little less water, and hope for the best.

Maybe I should keep a garden diary or something. It might be the only way for me to accurately water these plants. Otherwise, the raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, and figs don’t really care how much water I throw on them. Except the figs are growing like weeds. I thought one had died when a cold snap hit, and it’s sprung back with a vengeance.

Ants are getting everywhere. And they don’t bother to eat weeds.
I see ants pillaging one of the pear trees and the other apple trees. We’ve had plenty of spiders take root around the plants, but they don’t seem to be too keen on catching ants. It’s a shame, because I might have to spread ant killer around to keep their populations down. I would have preferred natural predators taking over, but I can’t seem to find any ant predators.

Or at least I wish I could train them to break up weeds and use them for sustenance. Crab grass is the bane of my existence, and all I do is see ants going by to raid what I want to grow instead of carting off what I pull up by the root. In fact, now that I think about it, I’m more annoyed at the weeds than the ants. At least the ants are helping with composting. But if I could talk to ants, I’d ask them politely to attack the crab grass.

One day, I’ll take pictures. But right now the plants are not presentable.
Here is probably where my lack of experience comes in. I wasn’t fully expecting the lawn to fight back after I tore it up planting the trees and other berries. Crab grass here moves in quickly, spreading like green veins across the brown, loamy dirt. In particular, it likes wrapping itself around the roots of my strawberries. While I’m not a fan of strawberries, I object strongly to these miscreant plants trying to kill off their new neighbors. So far I’m winning, but not by much.

Eventually I’ll get all the weeds pulled and have plants to show you instead of things from Stockvault. The trees are re-mulched to discourage weed growth and encourage earthworms. But the berries are attracting weeds like nobody’s business, and the weed eater I normally use for trimming around them (not too close, though!) is busted. On the plus side, I’m getting my cardio whenever I get out there.

Secular Humanism and You

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Telling someone, “I’m an Atheist,” doesn’t really say much – except perhaps that one is a member of a disliked group of people in the United States. Worldwide, Atheists make up about thirteen percent of the human population. That’s one in ten humans, but admittedly most of them are in China and Western Europe. We’re not even half the people in the above picture.

At any rate, atheism answers one question about whether or not a person believes in deities. Suppose I asked someone, “Who are you?” That person probably wouldn’t define one’s identity solely by favorite food. It works the exact same way for Atheists. While the discussion of whether or not there are deities does seem to take up a lot of time and energy, like other people Atheists sometimes think about other things.

Sometimes we’re guilty of thinking about how best to help the communities we live in.
Just because I’ve eschewed Sunday worship doesn’t mean that I spend time coming up with evil plots to take over the world. Quite frankly, the one plan I do have involves a secret island, a villa hideaway, lasers, a petting zoo, and fifteen different kinds of ice cream in the villa’s freezer. I’m taking suggestions for the ice cream flavors, but mint chocolate chip and rocky road definitely are going to have to be there.

Back to my point (I promise, I started writing this post with one in mind): people have many different views. I have many different views. And although I changed my religious outlook from “sure” to “no, thanks,” I didn’t stop feeling like I should be nice to people or not randomly lick people (true story: don’t ever do that). Especially since I’ve been having to curb my natural pessimistic tendencies with not-pessimism, I realize that adding to the glass will make more people think it’s half full.

That’s where secular humanism comes in.
What is secular humanism? Here is a good answer by the American Humanist Association. Was that page not enough? Here is a list of more definitions of secular humanism. At its core, secular humanism is about doing what I can do to promote my overall well-being and the well-being of humanity in general. It involves looking for ways to minimize harm, promote the agency of others, and doing it in a way that isn’t inherently self-destructive or reliant on forces outside of myself.

Of course, this is a very huge set of thoughts, and it’s not 100% concrete. Many specific questions are unanswered, and the definitions could lead to even more questions. That’s a good thing, because it means that people are actively discussing what Secular Humanism is and just not saying, “Flowers. Unicorns. Sign me up!”

What secular humanism isn’t.
It is NOT a religion. There is no worship of any thing or ideals. Religious humanists still have their faith, but even they recognize that humanism can coincide with but not replace Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and other religious tenets. Even if one uses the broadest definition of religion, secular humanism doesn’t really apply (unless one would want to define business practices as religion, political parties to be considered religion, or even an informal family agreement to be a religion).

Additionally, it is not about the eradication of supernatural thoughts, ideas, or the people that hold them. Remember, the goal is to promote the well-being of everyone, not just people who adhere to my personal litmus test of how they should act. Although humanists will promote ideas that do not involve resorting to thinking about deities, there is no requirement to adopt these thoughts or be excluded from humanist communion every other week.

In a nutshell, humanism means giving someone food instead of praying for that person. It involves teaching that person how to get food as a better way of helping people than just handing out food. Yes, it does involve ignoring divine considerations when figuring out how to treat people. But any friction it causes is a result of the individual’s faith and not of an effort to punish people for having unorthodox thoughts.

This is why I’d be more likely to describe myself as a Humanist first rather than just an Atheist.
And no, it’s not just to avoid immediate hostility. Humanism describes more of what I think about than just one particular subject. Life is more than just thinking about whether there’s a deity out there. Yes, I focus on that a lot here (because leaving religion does involve changing views on this stuff), but outside this blog I worry about plenty of other stuff.

Taking that full disclosure into account, I’d probably best introduce myself as a professional worrier first, then a Humanist, and then an Atheist. Or maybe I should start with human first, then ice cream aficionado, then professional worrier, then law nerd, then Humanist, then Atheist.

I’ll sort it out eventually.

Saying It With Feelings

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

I understand that talking about buoyant emotions (or really any amount of pathos) coupled with atheism can be treated with a bit of skepticism. Some Christian messages rely on assertions that positive emotions are the responsibility of a deity, and what this sometimes translates into is a measured cynical response on the part of non-Christians. After being told that one can’t be happy without a deity, a natural response is to question happiness itself. I wanted to explore why this isn’t a necessary response, and indeed why I think secular thinking needs to relate more on an emotional level.

It’s not just about being able to prove the complete underpinnings of human thought.
I don’t know about every person’s experience with Christianity, but I do know that mine was spent being trained to fear my emotions. Negative emotions were seen as the product of a sinful nature, while desirable emotions were seen as a gift from my deity. What this roughly translates into is a structure where I become ashamed of “bad” feelings and learn to depend upon my hypothetical invisible friend for emotional support in all things.

What this also does is create an awareness of emotion that isn’t grounded in rational thought. Using my post last week as an example, I talked about hope. Under my religious mindset, “hope” was something that was always to be desired, powerful in small doses, but ultimately never to be realized. My sense of hope was actually wanting something I couldn’t have and pretending that it was with me the entire time. Furthermore, the bad feelings I had were always around due to my blossoming undiagnosed depression, and I was taught to simply be afraid of these feelings without questioning them.

When someone has a mental illness, the bad feelings can’t be helped. However, it completely skews the faith structure into some kind of feverish need to rely upon religion in order to get through the day. That religious structure can and did fail me frequently, but I didn’t have the knowledge at the time to realize that I could just ditch it and try to go for a different route of support.

Being afraid of emotion is part of the control structure.
I can’t stress this enough: certain faith systems in Christianity use emotions against people. For a person with depression, the thought that I could never be happy without God kept me pretty close to the idea, even long after I didn’t attend church regularly. That crutch was necessary for me to ward away wanting to kill myself. On a very personal level, it was a matter of life and death for me.

This isn’t to say that personal insecurities aren’t also preyed upon. I’ve known plenty of people who were too afraid to leave their faith because they couldn’t control what they felt. Prayer and imagining a deity present were the only trained responses to this lack of control, so it’s only natural that they kept these responses despite clear evidence it wasn’t doing them any other favors. Their own beliefs were used to keep them dwelling upon their personal deities.

How can emotionally hijacking people be opposed?
Most of this thinking on my part, though, comes from secular Humanism rather than atheism (because the latter is just an answer to a question about deities). People who are emotionally hijacked for no other reason than to support a faith structure does nothing to increase the agency and ability of the human race. Emotional ignorance isn’t just something that can be ignored, either. It can mean life and death.

One idea that can be contested is the above notion of emotions that are useless by default. Hope in and of itself does nobody any good, and indeed can prolong suffering (as Nietzsche pointed out). Rather, hope is a beautiful thing when it is conjoined with actually doing something about it. Why just sit and hope that the world will be a better place? Find out ways to make it a reality. Don’t accept that someone’s claim of supernatural hope renders all other hope inferior.

Quite often, Christians will predominantly interact with faithless people in a discussion or even a debate environment. Frequently this is the result of a conversion attempt. One doesn’t really talk much about quality of life when one is being bombarded with questions and having to identify and refute any illogical arguments being offered. The claim that one’s life is empty then gets thrown in there without much scrutiny.

Therefore, I think that secular people talking about how they are able to feel any range of beneficial things can do wonders to show that faith doesn’t have a monopoly on happy. It seems like a very basic thing that shouldn’t need to be said, but happy Atheists are frequently hidden from Christians. When one isn’t around, that’s when the whispers about how Atheists can only fake happy come out (yes, it’s a thing). So, saying it with feelings actually does have some use to it.

It’s a useful reminder that people without faith are people too.

America Trusts Satan

Don't worry.  Satan's not in any pain.  He's just hangin' out. Image found here.

Don’t worry. Satan’s not in any pain. He’s just hangin’ out.
Image found here.

Today is a quick post for a few reasons, but today I wanted to write some quick notes about the saying, “In God We Trust.” It’s the United States’s national motto, in place since 1956. Lately, it’s been plastered on all kinds of things, including one of two default license plates that Alabama offers. Some people argue that it violates the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, since it references “God” with a capital “G” instead of a little “g” god.

To stir the pot even more, some governmental entities are putting the motto on government property. This latest stunt by a Missouri sheriff’s department (reported here by Mr. Syms) involves putting the slogan on sheriff’s vehicles. In response to views that maybe it isn’t wise to pretend to single out one religion in an area which has people of different faiths, the sheriff noted that the slogan is just a patriotic thing and not a religious thing.

I’m sure that means a world of difference to non-Christians getting arrested
In other words, don’t feel excluded because it refers to a “God” on the back of the vehicle. Or, better still, maybe if one protests the motto one is being un-American and un-Patriotic. You don’t love this country if you don’t love the motto. I’m sure George Washington or Thomas Jefferson would agree that people should just shut up and let the majority flaunt what it wants over others.

Questions of patriotism aside, the main justification that I’ve seen for the motto being okay is that it doesn’t, in fact, specify a particular deity which the U.S. trusts. People are free to substitute “God” for whatever deity one worships. Muslims can think of their version of “God,” Zoroastrians can think of a “God,” Hindus are going to be limited to just one “God,” and nature worshipers can probably substitute “God” with an analogous higher power.

It also means that people can substitute “God” with “Satan,” if that’s the higher power they wish to worship.
That’s right. The motto can mean that we trust Satan. Unlike other deities, Satan hasn’t made any promises it hasn’t kept. Satan just wants us to be happy and do what we want. This horned goat-being governs where all the cool people go when they die, so naturally it’s only misunderstood. It’s good to know that our country is so inclusive that it is willing to incorporate every venerated being, including ones that people might not agree on. Good job, Satan.

So, whenever you see “In God We Trust” plastered on something, remember that one can put whatever deity one wants into that saying. If Satan isn’t hardcore enough, try out deities that require human sacrifice and other unsavory practices. It doesn’t matter that people driving around with this motto on their vehicle are probably supporting monstrous acts of animal slaughter in ancient religious worship.

Because, you know, it’s about loving America and trusting all kinds of things people can imagine.

The “Real” Experience

There are a ton of Christian resources out there claiming to be correct interpretations of the Bible, their deity’s plan, or some generic teaching of Jesus. Sometimes it’s because the writer is lamenting how people leave the faith because of a wrong belief. Other times, it’s to illustrate how other Christians are getting their own interpretations of religious materials wrong. Regardless of the reason behind it, there’s a fundamental claim that the beliefs of the writer expresses a superior or more accurate view of Christianity.

These claims remind me of Dr. Weird’s corn:

How real are these views?
One recent example comes from that research I did for the guest post (it’s finished, so hopefully it will be up soon). A Christian writer accurately noted that the Bible leaves no ability for marital rape to occur. Women belong to their husbands, and their husbands make decisions about sex. The author even provided plenty of Bible verses to back up his claim.

Contrary to this view, here is a link to a resource that condemns the above belief. Both are claiming the Bible as the ultimate source of authority, yet both have come to opposite conclusions. So here we have two diametrically opposite expressions of an important Christian view on marriage, and no clear authority on how to arbitrate between them.

This is what I see now whenever I observe a claim based solely on religious reasoning.
Subjective views and personal whims inform these thoughts to the point where they belie the objective promise they contain. That promise, to be clear, is that this time the opinion is an objective fact. I’m not talking about people of faith who recognize that their subjective experience informs their beliefs; I’m getting at the people who stridently insist that their view is right while everyone else’s is wrong.

This promise of having the right view of things, arbitrarily inflated by personal wishes, is a pain to behold. For an apostate like me, I’m reminded of how I once thought of things in such ways. Towards the end of my belief in the supernatural, even I had to have the intellectual integrity to recognize that my views began and ended with myself.

What does it say about those who try to claim otherwise?
A lot of Christian principles encourage the imposition of objective truth on their claims. There’s an afterlife, for example, where people will go. Also, there’s a deity out there calling the shots. Everyone is governed by a sin construct of some sorts. Failure to comply with the entire framework will result in eternal whatever.

Right now, agreeing on doing things about problems rather than disagreeing about a particular meaning of a particular word in a particular book works better for people. The first humans to hang out in a cave rather than in the tall grass lived longer. Building cities gave farmers a refuge to hide from bandits in return for a share of what they grew. Nowadays, we can share ideas as fast as the speed of light; we don’t even need the sound of our voice to carry our thoughts across the wind.

Whether there’s a deity out there making decisions about things doesn’t change the dangers and trials we face today. Arguing about them was a pointless endeavor, especially when I agreed that certain things should be avoided – like murder and talking in movie theaters. At any rate, I’m pretty skeptical when it comes to meeting people who have finally figured out the really real way to worship their deity. Great for them, but to me they might as well be playing with their ding-a-ling.

Finding Hope Without God

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

One of the frequent charges laid at the feet of the faithless is this notion that there are deficiencies in hope, humility, and awe. If the natural world is all there is and ever will be, then people like myself are somehow disqualified from ever marveling at the sheer splendor of the cosmos and everything in it. The idea smacks of denying who and what I really am – a human being just like everyone else.

Hearing and reading Christian testimonies about conversion to that faith from an atheistic worldview, one finds reinforcement in the idea. So many people had abandoned hope and then found it in whatever particular flavor of Christianity they found. Life was empty, dull, and meaningless to people who didn’t believe in a personal savior. The change, to them at least, was necessary. When I was a Christian, this was a real worry of mine – that there was no hope to be found outside of faith.

I was wrong back then. There is so much hope one can find without God.
To deny myself the capacity to hope is to deny my humanity. I didn’t stop being human when I switched my Christian hat for an Atheist hat. Indeed, having the courage to admit my apostasy also gave me the strength to get my mental health issues out in the open. For the first time in I don’t even remember how long, I had hope that I can actually deal with my personal demons.

Even when contemplating natural phenomena, I am truly humbled by how nature works. While tending to trees and other plants in the backyard, I noticed how an entire ecosystem formed around the new plants. Birds perched near them, ants began foraging for nutrients near them, spiders began hunting insects, and the wasps which had so diligently infested the shed for two decades finally left to be closer to the prey. When plucking weeds out from the strawberries, I realize that I’m tending to these plants like I tend to other pets. It makes me wonder if humanity’s capacity to adopt things is one of its primary evolutionary motivators.

As storms roll in, I am humbled by the power that sunlight, water, and air have over our daily lives. Despite trading caves for houses, walking for riding in cars, and mystery for rational evaluation of the world around us, water falling from the sky still instinctively reminds me that I can’t control everything. Put it in a bottle, and I can drink it. Sprinkle it from thousands of feet in the air, and I run for cover.

I work hard not to lose that sense of perspective borne from empathizing with things outside me.
That is where I think hope, awe, humility, and other virtues spring from. Regardless of whether it comes from believing a deity put me here, or whether I recognize how difficult it is for my existence to have happened in the first place due to natural forces, extraneous beliefs about the divine have no bearing on one’s capacity to observe. The only thing I need to marvel at existence is an open mind to take it all in.

My point, then, is that I will not begrudge someone their capacity to find hope in the unlikely. Losing faith, however, does not require that I lose hope. These two things are not inextricably linked. One can separate them both and still find a world of inspiration out there.