When I was thirteen I decided to get baptized. I was masturbating all the time and feeling very guilty about it, and I thought the only way for a dirty sinner such as myself to get into heaven was through the clear waters of the baptismal tank. My parents arranged a meeting with our church deacons, and at the meeting the deacons asked me why I wanted to get baptized. I replied, honestly, that I wanted to go to heaven. To my surprise, the deacons were not satisfied with my answer. The lead deacon replied that I should only get baptized if I wanted to live like Jesus Christ for the rest of my life. That concept was way too big to fit inside my thirteen-year-old-brain, but I pretended I understood and got baptized anyway. Little did the deacon know, he had just laid bare the truth that would drive me away from Christianity.
The reward of heaven and the threat of hell permeates Christianity, but followers are told that those rewards and punishments shouldn't be the motivating factor behind their decision to follow Jesus. For example, let us suppose Hannibal Lecter found out that God is real and heaven and hell are real. Lecter is cunning — he thinks, I'll behave myself in this finite existence, I won't act out my murderous impulses, and then I'll enjoy heaven for all eternity! Does Dr. Lecter get through the Pearly Gates? The answer, unfortunately for the dinner conversations of heaven, is no. With God, the thought counts just as much as the deed, and unless Hannibal Lecter also wants the same things as Jesus, and thinks like Jesus, he will never be saved. The apostle John writes that “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” Unless Lecter worships God in spirit and truth, he's bound for eternal destruction. But just as deeds without faith are not enough, so to faith without deeds is worthless. As the apostle James writes, even the Devil believes in God, and trembles.
You can't follow both Jesus and your dreams.
The cost of truly following Jesus is immense. In the book of Matthew, a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to enter the kingdom of heaven. Jesus asks him if he has followed the Ten Commandments; the man replies that he has always followed them. Then, seeing that the man is very wealthy, Jesus tells him to sell all his possessions, give all the money to the poor, and follow Jesus as a disciple. The man is very sad when he hears this, and he leaves. Jesus says to his disciples, “I say unto you: it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.” I recall this parable every time I drive past a Canadian church and see its parking lot full of gleaming vehicles.
I reflected and I reflected, and I could never escape the conclusion that I truly did not want to be a Christian. And, given that going through the motions was apparently a waste of time, I had to be honest with myself: I didn't want to devote my life to following Jesus, I wanted to devote my life to me. Sunday school teaches you to follow Jesus; normal school teaches you to follow your dreams. Jesus himself says, “No man can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” You can't follow both Jesus and your dreams.
We use reasoning to determine the causes of pleasure and pain so that we might go to or avoid them, but reason is never the cause of action.
When I abandoned religion, I realized that my whole understanding of morality was now groundless. Without God, was everything permitted, as Dostoevsky wrote? Could reason alone provide grounding for objective morality? Or, counter-intuitively, could it be that morality has no basis in reason at all?
Scottish philosopher David Hume swept the legs out from under ethical philosophy with The Treatise on Human Nature, in which he argued that “Reason is the slave of the passions, and can pretend to no other office than to serve and obey them.” Hume’s argument is complex, but starts with the fact that humans are naturally attracted and repelled by only pleasure and pain (including complex pleasures like winning a gold medal). We use reasoning to determine the causes of pleasure and pain so that we might go to or avoid them, but reason is never the cause of action.
For example, suppose you get a drink of water. Reason tells you that without water you will die. However, this fact alone does not cause you to get a drink; only your desire to live will cause you to get a drink of water. But even if you didn’t know you would die without water, the pain of thirst would cause you to drink. Hume concludes that the passions cause our actions, and reason serves the passions.
What are the ramifications of Hume’s theory? Will society descend into the chaos of moral relativism? I expect Hume would say things will carry on just as they always have.
For Hume, only the passions can cause us to act. So, if moral beliefs move us to act, then moral beliefs must be passions. The belief that murder is wrong can cause us to act to prevent murder, so for Hume it is a passion. He extends this to all moral beliefs.
What are the ramifications of Hume’s theory? Will society descend into the chaos of moral relativism? I expect Hume would say things will carry on just as they always have. Perhaps we are far more creatures of instinct and gut reactions than we would like to admit. For better or for worse, we cannot choose our passions.
The last relic of religion to fall was my belief in the soul. Consciousness is one of the last frontiers of human science, and it is the least understood aspect of the brain. Some Christians seem to believe that if God is hiding anywhere, He is hiding in consciousness. At first glance, consciousness seems like an intractable problem. Not a single neuron in the brain is conscious, and yet, when all of them are arranged in a certain way and supplied with blood and oxygen, they become conscious — how?
The temptation is to say that if science can't explain it, it must be God.
Suppose you ate a strawberry while monitored by the finest scientific instruments, such that every physical fact about your brain is recorded while you eat the strawberry. Suppose further that the scientist monitoring you has never tasted a strawberry, nor any other fruit. As you are eating the strawberry the scientist can see all the data about your brain. By merely studying and analyzing the data, will the scientist learn what the strawberry tastes like? Many people will say no, the only way to learn is to eat the strawberry. But if the answer is no, then there is something missing that the scientific instruments haven't detected. And if the taste of a strawberry is undetectable by science, then consciousness is beyond science too. The temptation is to say that if science can't explain it, it must be God.
The above argument is an example of what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “an intuition pump.” Intuition is a valuable tool, but only when our concepts are complete. For example, Lionel Messi has almost perfect intuition about soccer. His knowledge of the game and his experience are so complete that he can trust his instincts. However, Messi's intuitions about quantum mechanics are probably not so accurate. Like most of us, when Messi first learned about the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and Schrodinger's cat, he probably scratched his head, because quantum mechanics is counter-intuitive. Even Nobel laureate and coiner of the term quantum electrodynamics, Richard Feynman, said, “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics.”
Life is a temporary experience; when it's over it's over, so enjoy it while it lasts.
To return to the strawberry, our intuition can’t see how the taste of a strawberry could be reduced to scientific data without losing the qualia of experience. However, as Dennett argues, our intuitions are not calibrated for advanced neuroscience. We understand almost nothing about consciousness — we shouldn't rely on intuition before our concepts are complete.
Even if science explains everything, if God is not real, then the universe is just a cold dark place where ultimately nothing matters. What does it matter if everything is explained but life has no purpose? It turns out this is the easiest question of all for the atheist to answer. The contemporary philosophy of YOLO replies: Who cares if there’s no purpose? Life is a temporary experience; when it's over it's over, so enjoy it while it lasts.