After hearing my thoughts on cultural appropriation and modern courtship, people have been clamoring for me to take on more heavy subjects. One thing I often get asked is “Darkness, why, after having such a religion-infused upbringing, did you become atheist?”
I guess part of the question itself is one of the major points of my answer: the upbringing. I had been studying cultures and religions around the world for a long time, and I came across a very significant similarity in a lot of religions, the practitioners, especially those born into it, all are 100% convinced that they factually know that their particular religion is the correct one, and that all others are at best misled or confused, and at worst entirely wrong.
I always think “isn’t it extremely convenient, that out of the thousands of religions and variations in the world, you happened to be born into the exact perfect one? Isn’t it strange how almost every member of almost every other religion feels the exact same way about their own? Most of all, isn’t it funny how the way you describe these people as ‘confused’ is the exact same way these people describe you?”
I guess in short, the reason I don’t believe in your particular religion, is the exact same reason why you don’t believe in your neighbor’s.
Sometimes people tell me I’m too cynical, that if I’ve already made my mind that prayer is useless, it will be useless. I would argue that one could say the exact same thing about a placebo. If you know it’s a placebo, it will have no effect, but if you believe it is not, it could have a psychological effect, but not a tangible one. A non-placebo works whether you believe it is a placebo or not.
I’ve been told that I have to “want to believe” in order to truly start believing. To me that just seems counter-logical. I surely want to believe that I’m the most handsome man on the planet, but my desire to believe it has absolute zero effect on me actually believing it.
I’d long wrestled about whether it is right or wrong to eat meat. Does a lion commit an evil act when it eats an antelope? It’s hard to imagine that a lion would have any concept of good and evil. A lion just does it because that’s what lions do. So if it’s a neutral act for animals, can it be a neutral act for humans? Some animals, such as certain snakes, eat their own species, would this make cannibalism a neutral act as well?
Signs point to the human being designed (evolved) with an omnivorous diet in mind. We have teeth designed for it, and benefit greatly from meat, but we could certainly live without it. Is it our obligation, now that we have the ability, to survive without harming animals?
I decide that it is not an evil act. We did not choose to be designed the way we are, we only deal with it. But following this line of logic, could one also argue that we did not choose to be designed to be a violent species, and therefore war and murder are not evil acts? Every act that the majority of our society describes as evil has some precedent in nature. Big predators prey on weaker animals, parasites survive on the efforts of others like thieves, ducks commit rape.
Who gets to decide what’s right and what’s wrong? I thought back to what it must have been like when we as a species were first deciding. If two farmers have plots next to each other, it might be beneficial for one if he stole his neighbor’s crop, or killed his neighbor and annexed his farm. His neighbor, however, might look at his farm as the same opportunity. To negate this, both farmers would have to spend a portion of their time guarding against each other, time that they could have spent tending to their respective farms. In this case, both farmers have reduced utility. If, for some reason, however, they both were able to be confident that neither would attempt to detriment the other for personal gain, they could each utilize that previous time spent guarding as farming time, and both would have increased utility. In this example, to label thievery and murder as evil acts and to agree not to do them increases total utility. So our definitions of good and evil could have their roots in a utilitarian design. Good and evil are cosmic givens that automatically exist, nor bestowed by a higher power, but are defined by society as things that increase and decrease total societal utility respectively.
If I assume that there is no inherent good and evil, it’s not a stretch to assume that there is no meaning of life either. Some have told me that this is a bleak outlook, but I argue that it does not have to be. I believe that there is no reason for life to exist. In simple, we are because we happen to be. The absence of a meaning of life does not mean that life has to be meaningless. I believe that we get to decide our purpose. A particularly noble purpose that one may choose, (and that I am fond of), is the advancement of human knowledge. There may not be a “why” to existence, but there can certainly be a “how”. The quest to find out how the universe works, and how life comes to be is as close to the divine as one can get in my opinion.
Some people express disdain at my way of thought; I think that everyone should be more like me. I’ve heard that once one starts thinking like a machine, life loses its magic. I still see the magic, I just want to know how it really works, what its really made of, instead of making up an explanation that relates to my own experience. To say “lightning exists because God pounds on the cloud with a hammer” eliminates the need to actually travel up to the sky and find the answer.
I have heard the argument that religion may not be exactly true, but it is useful. It teaches people to help one another, which improves society and ultimately benefits humanity; that some people need to believe that a cosmic being is commanding them to do right in order to do it.
I think that point is valid, but it’s a double-edged sword that’s not actually worth it. First, it is extremely easy to twist and subvert this for one’s personal gain. The same way that politicians can insert things into bills for their own benefit, religious leaders can interpret the doctrine of their particular religion to fit the way they think the world should be run.
A politician could say “I’m introducing a new bill, it will make murder and rape illegal, and make sure I get five bucks every Tuesday. Anyone who opposes this must really want to murder and rape some people.”
In the same way, a religious leader could say “God has written that we should not lie, steal, or kill, and that being gay is bad.”
A person would think “well I certainly know killing is bad, this guy must know what he’s talking about, so the other things he says must be true as well.”
I always find it funny when people go on social media and see those posts where someone says something along the lines of “share this if you support God, ignore if you support the Devil, God saw you open this.”
The funny part is not the post itself, but how oblivious and self-congratulatory people who see through the post are while falling for the same tactic offline. “This is obviously just some guy trying to get famous by playing on people’s superstition and guilt,” they say, “God would certainly not spread his message through a post on some social media site, shame on anyone who believes this.”
Then Sunday rolls around and they go to church, and see the donation basket coming. “Remember, if you ignore Jesus now, he will ignore you in the after life- God knows if you’re really giving all you can!” And they fall for the same superstition and guilt tactic that they had previously criticized, because now it is more well hidden.
A big reason why I see a large religious following to be more detrimental than good is that it can set a dangerous precedent in many ways. If we had a society where no one was religious or superstitious in any way, and one person started hearing voices, they would conclude that there must be something wrong with their self. However, someone raised in a society where everyone prays to God, and will attest that God responds to their prayers will have a different outcome. The person would easily conclude that they voice they are hearing must be God talking to them, and since God is the very definition of right, they must follow whatever it says.
We’ve seen some of the worst atrocities in history, like the Holocaust for example, committed by people who believed that they were “just following orders.” During the Holocaust, a few Nazis, out of their own conscience, went against orders.
Imagine if someone believed that they were just following orders issued by a being that was literally impossible to be wrong. When it comes to God, one’s own conscience is literally supposed to be overruled. We’ve seen this before in sayings like “no deed done in service to God can ever be wrong.” If someone were to believe this, then a person who they believed was speaking for God could have a control over them so deep, that they would obey even against their own conscience.
Even if it never came to that, just the status of millions or billions of people subscribing to an ideology can be an easy board for one’s own intentions to spring off of. If someone is told all their life “group X is immoral and wrong in the eyes of God, God would be happier if they didn’t exist,” they may take it upon themselves to rid the world of that group. Even if they are told that to assault or kill anyone is wrong, it’s just one step away from violence; It would be easy for the violent person to normalize the behavior to themselves, thinking, “a billion people want group X to disappear, I’m just the one whom God chose to do it,” or they may see themselves as a sort of martyr, putting blood on their own hands so they can make the world a better place by getting rid of group X, so that their fellows do not have to partake in violence themselves.
In my opinion, mass religion tends to normalize fringe religion. Fundamentalist Mormons or Islamist Extremists may see a sort of verification in how big their parent religions are. A random cult somewhere in the world with a scripture that few have heard of cannot pose much of a threat or garner many followers, because it is easily dismissed. But something that uses mass religion as a springboard is harder for the population at large to dismiss, and is more attractive. They can say “we are just a sect of religion x, which has a billion followers, we x share 99% of our beliefs. Can a billion people be wrong?”
That’s why I believe that even if a religious person only does good, only follows teachings that help their fellow man, and subscribes to some peaceful mainstream religion, they are still being detrimental in some way because they make it easier for a charismatic person to say something like “look how many people believe in God, that’s how you know he must exist, but others interpret what he says slightly wrong, let me tell you what he really means…” for selfish purposes.
I want to touch on Pascal’s Wager a bit. The wager states that it is in one’s best interest to assume that God exists, because if one does, and God does exist, you get heaven, and if he doesn’t, you get nothing; whereas if you assume that God doesn’t exist and he does, you get hell, and if he doesn’t you get nothing.
I want to argue that it is actually safer to assume that God does not exist, because I contest the “nothing” part. I argue that if one assumes God exists, it takes responsibility away from the individual. They don’t seek to take justice as much against those who have wronged or subjugated them, because they assume that evil individuals will get their just deserts after death, as will they themselves. They don’t seek worldly pleasures, because they will have all the pleasure a person could ever want after death. They don’t as strongly seek to advance the knowledge of humanity, because all of life’s mysteries will be revealed to them after death.
If one believes in God and he exists, they get heaven, yes, but if he doesn’t, it’s not just “nothing,” it is a wasted potential. It is a life spent in hard labor to make one’s master’s life better. It is a loss for humanity of what one could have accomplished with the time they spent learning lore and praying.
If one does not believe in God and he does exist, they may get hell, but regardless of whether they do or not, they do get a full and fulfilling life, a great potential fully used, and a just reward for one’s own work in the form of life’s pleasures.
On God himself, I believe that if God were to exist, and he held the skepticism of people like me as damning, even considering the actions and words of religious leaders today, who seem to always interpret God’s vision for the world as parallel to their own personal preferences, then he would have not been a God worth following in the first place. That’s why to me, there is no wager, there is no risk, I automatically made the right choice no matter whether God exists or not.
The last thing I’ve been thinking about is not exactly a moral issue but a utilitarian one about the way a person should live their life if they want to get the maximum value from it. I’ve heard arguments from both camps on this issue.
I’ve seen people argue that a person should throw off their societal shackles, have new experiences, travel the world, take chances, start a new life every day. With ideologies similar to the movie Fight Club or the phrase YOLO, they will tell you to quit your monotonous job, eat dessert first, go couch surfing, or throw a dart at a map and go wherever it lands.
The ironic thing about this ideology is that it relies upon the assumption that only a small minority will follow it. In order for someone to go couch surfing around the world, there must be someone in each city to make the couches, make the houses to couches are in, grow the food, put out the fires, etc. If everyone in the world was persuaded by this ideology to throw off their responsibilities, and travel the world looking for new experiences, there’d be no experiences to be had for anyone, because the people who maintain the societies and cultures that exiting experiences emerge from would be somewhere off in the world looking for experiences of their own.
The second hindrance is that, perhaps in the past it was different, but in modern society I find it hard to believe that one would be able to sustain themselves on this free-spirited adventure. One certainly cannot just reliably roll into a town and preform odd-jobs in exchange for a bed and food, there are so many labor laws getting in the way of this idea; it takes days or weeks of time to get one’s self situated in a new city. This leads me to conclude that in order to pursue a free-spirited “YOLO” life, one must first have lots of money to spare, which to great irony, would most likely have been acquired through working a monotonous job for a lengthy period of time.
Due to these two reasons, I find this to be a self-defeating ideology.
In the opposite camp, I’ve heard people suggest that one should aspire to act like they will live forever. They will argue that all great things are achieved through patience and hard work; that one should work their hardest in their education, giving up weekends of leisure in favor of study, so they may get a career and that they may then work their hardest in that as well. They say that the awards and treats that one earns this way defines their quality as a human.
They will argue a life devoid of “wasted time,” arguing that one should always be learning, practicing, and working. They will say that you should never eat “junk food” for pleasure, only foods that will help you become as healthy as you can be.
This long-term approach seems to have merit at first glance, but I find one problem with it: One could theoretically abstain from drugs and alcohol, live a healthy life, advance high in their field of employment, and gather lots of wealth, only to reach old age after a life of hard work and no pleasure to find that they have outlived their peers, and now have absolutely no way to enjoy the fruits of their own labor. They will be the healthiest 70-year-old alive, but a 70-year-old can only be so healthy. They will have a large pool of wealth, but they will be too frail to have the experiences that they can now easily afford.
Even worse, a person could be following this path, maintaining a hard-working low-pleasure life, with the intent to cash it in and enjoy the fruits of their hard work before they are too old, but of sheer chance, they could be the fatal victim of some accident or act of nature, and all their hard work will have been for nothing. They will have sacrificed their free time to improve themselves, and abstained from the worldly pleasures that some of their peers are participating in, and have absolutely nothing to show for it. They would have lived a life or short term pain for long term pleasure, only to die before they reach the long term.
This means that to not gamble in one’s life, to choose the safest, healthiest, most long term strategy is actually a gamble in itself.
But what is one actually supposed to do? If one were to assume that they could easily be struck by lightning and die any day, they could live purely short term: quit their job, party every night, engorge themselves on luxury food, spend all their money, have lots of unprotected sex, and try every drug there is. The risk of this is that the money runs out, and the person realizes that they were not scheduled to be struck by lighting this week, so they are left with a plethora of diseases, poor health, no job, and no home. Then they either die, or live in this miserable state until they are 80, in which case they traded in a full life of minor pleasure which would have aggregated into a greater total pleasure than the few nights of intense short term pleasure they experienced. On the flip side, if just as the money runs out and the party ends, the person dies from a genetic terminal disease that they didn’t know they were born with, (meaning they would have died right then regardless of how they were living), then they have actually succeeded in extracting the fullest pleasure out of life that they could have.
So in this comparison, I conclude that in order to make the best choice of free-spiritedness vs long hours and hard work, one must know exactly how long they will live. While some people will be able to estimate better than others, (like the elderly or those expecting death in the near future from incurable diseases), most people will have absolutely no idea. Each person must try to find their appropriate middle-ground between “life is short, eat dessert first,” and “Today I will do what others won’t, so tomorrow I can accomplish what others can‘t.”