Every night t I tell my son a bedtime story. Usually he wants me to make one up. So for a while I would make up nature stories; about squirrels flying in airplanes, or beavers making friends with a deer family, etc. After the nature stories, I started telling him stories from my past. I had a good time telling him about some of the silly, fun, ridiculous, and even dangerous events of my life. After that I moved to some of the standard fairy tales. Then one night I was having a tough time thinking of a story. I was tired, my creativity was low, and I felt like I had exhausted every genre of bedtime story. Then I thought of bible stories. I always liked bible stories growing up. But I was trying to raise my son without religion. Should I even tell him a bible story? I quickly reasoned that most of the stories in the bible were probably fictitious anyway. Telling him a bible story would be like telling him a fairy tale. And it would probably be good for him to hear a bible story in that light. Besides, it is inevitable that he will be exposed to religion, and I might as well be the first to expose him to it.
One of my favorite stories in the bible is the story of Joseph, so I settled with that story. I told Taylor about Jacob’s 12 sons, the rainbow coat, Joseph’s dreams, his trip to Egypt, the dreams of Pharaoh, the seven years of plenty, the years of famine, the whole gamut. Taylor laid there absolutely rivetted by the story. It really is a pretty nice tale. I then tucked him in to bed and turned out the lights.
The next night Taylor asked me to tell him another story from “that same book.” He wanted another bible story. I racked my brain trying to find another bible story that would be good for him. I thought of the old testament. I thought of the new testament. And I kept on thinking. Then it came to me: I literally couldn’t think of another story that I felt was appropriate for a six year old. What was I supposed to tell him? The story of Lazarus? My son does not believe in magic, and the story is kind of creepy. The story of a bear killing 40 children because they made fun of Elisha? How about the story of God killing Uzzah for steadying the ark? I found myself at a loss. Finally I told him the story of Jonah, but edited it a bit to make God not look like a total jerk. The next night Taylor wanted another bible story. Finally I just told him that god was something or somebody who was not real, who was in the sky, and who wasn’t very nice. I told him he was like Santa Claus except he wasn’t as nice as Santa. He seemed to understand that. And by the way my son doesn’t believe in Santa Clause either. I told him I didn’t want to tell him any more bible stories because they were all about god being mean to people. He seamed OK with that. I know he will probably learn more of the bible stories as he gets older, but I want him to wait until he is more mature. Kind of like a parent waits to show their child a PG-13 movie.
I find it sad that children all over this country are introduced to a fictitious character in the sky whose temper kills millions of people in the bible, and whose temper will turn on them with the hottest of flames if they don’t have a relationship with a ghost. This was the world I was raised in. These are the stories that traumatized me, and these are the stories I’m not going tell my son during his formative years.
The next night I told him a story about a gopher family who made friends with a blue jay. He liked it. I liked it. And it was wholesome. We’re going to keep it that way for a while.]]>
So what’s wrong with the idea of an afterlife anyway? If it can encourage or bring hope to humans, then what’s the harm in it? Even if we assume it is all wishful thinking, can’t the idea of an afterlife be permitted or even encouraged if it gives cultures or communities a sense of peace as death approaches? I am going to argue an unequivocal “no.” Although an afterlife may seem like a harmless idea on the surface, I believe there are plenty reasons why the concept of an afterlife is not helpful, and can actually be downright harmful.
Reason #1: An afterlife concept eventually becomes nothing more than a threat.
Imagine the concept of an afterlife in which everybody makes it. Everybody’s in! I could almost get on board with this version of an afterlife. But almost no religion preaches this type of an afterlife. In most religions the afterlife has been divided into various types, degrees, or categories. Heaven, hell, purgatory, celestial, etc. Even reincarnation argues that some people come back as something great, while others come back as worms. Once you’ve set up dreadful and wonderful versions of the afterlife, you have everything you need to threaten people with the dreadful version. Pay your tithe or else… Accept Jesus or else… Go to Mecca or else… Even positive actions come with a threat. Give to the needy or else… While most religions may not emphasize such black and white threats (although plenty do), the fear of punishment is often lingering just below the surface of a believer’s psyche, reminding them that each of their everyday actions could have eternal consequences. Also, once a threat has been properly instilled into the mind of a believer, it becomes way too easy to abuse the power of that threat. Threats in my mind simply aren’t nice. So if an afterlife is used to threaten and coerce, it’s a bad idea in the first place.
Reason #2: Believing in an afterlife causes us to NOT live in the moment.
Let me paint two possible scenarios for you about the nature of our existence.
1. This life on earth is short and temporary. Upon your death, your eternal life will begin. Your eternal life will either be wonderful or dreadful depending on how well you followed the tenants of your religion on earth. In either case, your first life (the life on planet earth) will ultimately be insignificant compared to the eternity you will spend in your afterlife.
2. This life on earth is short and temporary. Upon your death, you will be dead. Gone. Done.
The belief in which of these two scenarios will ultimately lead you to live a fuller life here on earth? If one believes that death really means death, that there is no coming back or moving on to an afterlife, I believe there is more motivation to soak up as many beautiful moments as one can while we are still alive. The knowledge that life is temporary causes us to appreciate every moment. The belief in an eternal afterlife, and that that afterlife must be earned, can cause individuals to put forth unneeded effort into earning their way into that afterlife. Devout believers often give up the pleasures of this world (as they are often encouraged to do) in order to gain their ticket to eternal life. This is the opposite of living in the moment.
Reason #3: There is no evidence of an afterlife.
This, of course, is the best reason to not believe in an afterlife. There simply is no evidence of life after death. Believers often quote near-death experiences or out-of-body experiences as evidence of an afterlife. While out-of-body experiences (the sensation of being out of your body) certainly do exist, controlled experiments have failed to show that anybody actually leaves their body during these episodes. Basically they are nothing more hallucinations. Scientists have, for example, placed a card on top of a bookshelf in the room where someone claims to leave their body. So far no one has been able to identify the card. Scientists are also discovering that conscious thought and experience is very much tied to our brain. If the brain dies, it is very likely that our experiences die with it. Until evidence is discovered in favor of an afterlife, the basic assumption (null hypothesis) is that no afterlife exists.
What if I’m wrong?
Imagine I’m wrong. Suppose I wake up after colliding with a Mack truck to find myself in heavenly bliss (no, I don’t assume that atheists will automatically go to hell). At that point I would accept the existence of an afterlife because I would have good EVIDENCE for it. Until then, I’m living this life like it’s the only one I have!
I chose the name “considerate” because I wanted to approach people who are still in faith communities in a calm and collected manner. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about de-converting people. I’m all about destroying faith. I’m an evangelical anti-theist. But I want to be nice about it.
There are many beliefs and ideologies inside religion that cause societal problems. Hatred of Gays; Doctrine of Hell; Belief that Jesus is literally coming back in the clouds to rescue us someday (and hence we shouldn’t worry about the state of this planet); The doctrine of original sin – that we are evil at our core; Rejection of scientific method of reasoning. I could go on.
But there is one thing found in all religions that is even worse than all the errors I just mentioned. It’s the Big Daddy blemish that makes the rest of the problems look like child’s play. It’s not an official doctrine, and you won’t find it on the list of any church’s fundamental beliefs. The trait that I am speaking of is the better-than-thou attitude that almost inevitably comes with the belief that you have found the “one and only truth.” It’s the in-your-face sense of I’m-right-and-you’re-wrong-and-I’m-so-much-better-than-you feeling of superiority. In group vs. out group. Tribalism.
I am not the only person raising a stink about this. Religious people sense it too. John Shore recently wrote a book called I’m OK – You’re Not: The Message We’re Sending Nonbelievers, and Why We Should Stop. Sounds intriguing. Other writers and bloggers such as Michael Spencer and Donald Miller have been taking their swings (albeit soft ones) at Christianity, trying to encourage the faithful to use a gentler approach, to acknowledge that the approach of saving “the lost” has problematic implications.
It was actually this issue, more than any other, that brought me out of faith. I was always involved in religion because I thought it could bring people together. I was inspired by the words of Jesus when he told us to not judge each other – to remove the beam in our own eye before attempting to remove the moat in our brother’s eye. I kept clinging to the words of love and compassion in the bible because I knew that these words could bring an end to wars, bigotry, and hate (and I still believe they can). But the more I was involved with faith communities (I have worked for 7 different denominations), the more I saw how much focus was spent on lifting up the in-group and demonizing the out-group. Most of the distinctions between these groups lay in theological differences, of course. At one point I remember thinking, “If only we could realize that we don’t know all the answers. If we just realized that it’s impossible to know anything about theology in general, we wouldn’t have these lines in the sand, and we could all get along together.” That is when I realized I was an agnostic. I also realized that claiming to not know anything about God would bring humanity together.
I stayed an agnostic for a full year while I still worked for the church. I found a way to leave, and before too long I realized that I was an atheist. I discovered there were atheist conferences, leaders, and blogs. Imagine my excitement at the thought of finally being part of a community that didn’t claim to be superior than others; a group of people who didn’t have in-group vs. out-group tendencies. I would finally be a part of a group of people who realized that lines in the sand were unnecessary and we could finally get around to living in a global community of humans. Was I in for a disappointment? Of course I was, and I’m still trying to get over that disappointment. While I do believe that atheists have the potential of setting the stage for a global inclusive community, we are not there yet. Atheists still cling to labels, name-calling, and in-group mentality just as much (and sometimes more severely) than Christians. It seems the trappings of tribalism are hard to break.
Imagine a world where we judge someone based on their character on not upon their religious or non-religious culture? Imagine trying to find the good in others before you point out their flaws? I’m not talking about tolerance, for I don’t think religious ideas should be tolerated. I’m talking about inclusiveness, where we welcome all people as our fellow human relatives, honor the good that is within them, and seek friendship above all else. Once a connection is made with a fellow human being, there is a natural tendency to learn from and adopt their positive values, even if this means questioning our own dogma. This is how religion will finally fall. When we finally learn that friendship and love is more powerful than dogma or faithfulness to a group.
And so I have this to say to all atheists and Christians: Stop yelling at each other. Stop calling each other names. Take a moment to build a relationship with someone outside your belief system. Tearing down the walls that divide us will always work better then building them up.]]>
Why do Americans still dislike atheists?