I'll start by saying that when I talk about philosophy, it's probably philosophy of religion and ethics. All of my studies in this area are specifically to clarify my view of the world and the way things are and the way things should be (sounds like metaphysics, but trust me, it's more epistemology and ethics). I move along relatively chronologically with the big questions that I ask myself. Always remember:
We grow neither better nor worse as we get old, but more like
--May Lamberton Becker
I don't know if I every really asked the question or if there were really any major events that led to it, I just noticed myself asking. I was raised Catholic. I had a nice church when I was very young, with a large speaker over the altar. I thought it was connected to hell and that was where all this sage wisdom was coming from; souls who had messed up and were sending warnings. Mostly though I just daydreamed. That's just a little anecdote. Anyway, as soon as I had a choice, I started seeking out new religions. Up until I was 18 or so, I bounced all over the place looking at different churches. Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Mormon, other Catholic churches. I dabbled in Wicca, and learned about the Necronomicon and the occult. I generally came to the conclusion that they were all pretty foolish. But I was still Catholic at heart, and the fires of hell kept licking at my feet, so I wondered:
My answer is that I just don't know. In short, I've never seen a totally irrefutable argument for or against God. When I say God, with a capital G, I mean the omnipotent one of Judeo-Christian and Islamic myths. I'm sorry, but I was raised Catholic, and I will forever use that as my pivot point for debate. That does not mean I do not recognize or respect all other religions, or that I do. However, before coming to any particular conclusion, I found myself asking:
It seems most people consider the end of theological debate to be, "Is there or is there not a god?" From there, one must decide which god to worship and which set of god's teachings to follow, or, conversely, they must decide what to do with their atheism. I tend to side with Kai Nielsen, among others, and say that it doesn't really matter, and I'm not going to dignify the question anyway. Rather than that, I decided to work on answering the question:
Not adhering to a certain religion requires that one decide right and wrong based on reason, rather than the Word of God -- Theists must do this as well; they just allow for great laxity in their morals when one invokes their god to justify otherwise immoral acts. One quote that applies is, "Reason is doing what is right no matter what you are told, while religion is doing what you are told no matter what is right." Having more or less sided against the theist approach, I do have an alternative approach: freethinking skepticism. That is, to critically examine all available viewpoints and choose the best as long as it stands to reason, or, and this is important, to suspend judgment when all cases fail to lead to a reasonable conclusion. And in all cases, to understand that nothing is 100% assured, and anything that is is a fake. So what I choose to believe is true, I attach upon it only that level of assuredness suitable to the sources and quality of information and logic that lead me to the conclusion.
Before I start, I consider a religion to be one's guidebook for living. It normally involves a higher power, but not always. A good way to say what I'm looking for are good methods for making people truly happy and promoting human flourishing. The basic difference between this and supernatural worldviews is that what people do in life is worth something, regardless of what happens after death. I reject the promise (or threat) of the afterlife as a reasonable motivation for earthly deeds. I'm also aware that there are other things on the Earth besides humans, like the Earth itself. Humanism, in my opinion, requires that we make concessions for the plants and the animals and the seas, etc, as much as possible. However, I still have the nagging question of:
aka Fideism, the belle of Hick and Plantinga in the struggle against scientific evidence against scripture, is the idea that one should just believe in god even without evidence. Even though I have chosen not to base my life off of any scripture, I still have the option to believe there is a God that I don't know. Many good people have believed in God and continued become better people. My feeling on this is that there's really no reason to do so. I don't have any 'God-shaped hole' so it's not really an issue.
I want the answer to be, "no." A lot of people have had religion for a long time. It would be surprising if they've all been doing something bad. The more I think about it though, religion seems like more of a detrimental thing. Religion prevents an attitude of healthy self-determination and promotes a passive fear of the real world. I see 'prayer' as promoting the idea that a kid that walks around being nice should be given anything he wants. The kid that works hard for everything he gets but doesn't follow his parents' rules will get nothing. More and more, I am of the opinion that religion is a cancerous meme in society. Seth Green (surprisingly enough) said "God is a myth created to deny the idea that we're responsible for our own actions."The more I identify the negative undercurrents of religion the more I reexamine my original question:
I've taken to asking which God a person is talking about when they present the question. Since I've grown out of asking myself the question, I have to put it in the context of the questioner. So, the "Vanilla God" of invocations, and that unnamed, indefinable god that religion has used to establish itself in government is really outside the realm of reason. This God has no specific qualities other than existence and superiority. more importantly, this God can reveal itself to whomever it pleases and deceive those it pleases, so my mortal logic can't argue. So, with respect to this God, I freely admit the limits of logic and I am an agnostic. However, with respect to the God of any scripture, like the Bible, the Torah, or the Qur'an, we have history and the ethics of scripture to examine for evidence of the truth of this God. In these cases I say confidently that that god can not exist. The contradictions of scripture with scripture and the vastly varied interpretations of their adherents invalidate the existence of their god. However, although I have developed my position, I still maintain that the question is secondary to many others.
I've recently noticed that my answer to this question, not just the answer that comes out of my mouth, but my deep, heart-felt answer to this question is NO. No, no, no. That would be horrible. Any God that values obedience over personal empowerment is a tyrant to be feared and resisted not loved and worshiped. That truly frees me to explore the question:
Basically, I believe that to make the world better, whatever better is. Focusing on doing good right now is the best way to make everything better. That seems like something simple, but many beliefs claim that they want good right now and spend their time ensuring that all good will come to them some time in the future. One should start with oneself and exert a "flourishing influence" on the world as much as possible. Because one has limited influence and because sometimes good influences conflict with one another, one must prioritize. starting with oneself, then family, other humans, animals, the environment, even enemies. This will improve everything in the end.
So, I'm getting pretty firm in my ways, and I've noticed that a lot of people agree. However, everywhere I look it seems like people are praying at me. We've got science and reason to contraindicate religion and we've got modern liberty and enlightenment to free people to speak their mind and follow their conscience. However, my suspicion is that the secular community hasn't taken off because secular culture hasn't evolved yet (circular logic of course). People just don't know what to do with themselves without praying and churchgoing and the Big Brother of organized religion to lead them on their way. So they just do it even though they don't really believe it and modern religion praises them for their faith. Supernatural myths and rituals have been fundamental defining qualities of every culture and lifestyle since the beginning of man, and now we're evolving past that, and to truly break out and become better, we make our rituals and culture fit the secular reality we know is true. (you think I don't respect anyone's beliefs? don't forget my disclaimer, or check out a real bigot.)
I hate to bring up politics as if the government or lawmakers are have any idea about ethics or the way people should act. I won't go into any great detail here, but I don't have much confidence in the ability of the US government to do anything right. For a long time, I advocated primarily libertarian views because it's best to take power away from the incompetent. However, I've recently decided that the government is in place for a reason and the government has a responsibility to its citizens. The government is incompetent, so that's a problem that needs to be solved. The first solution is to focus the government on a manageable group of responsibilities: utilities, basic education, roads, defense, international relations. The best way to manage the tradeoffs between what the government does and does not do is the budget. Although it would be nice if the government could provide everyone with everything they ever wanted, the people only fund the government with a certain amount. As the government learns to efficiently deploy the resources it has, the government may be able to assume more responsibilities and the people may be inspired to provide more funding. I guess I would call myself a "balanced-budget democrat."
I'm definitely atheist. I see no reason to fill in God wherever I stand in awe of nature, and I believe that doing so is the root of many of the problems of modern humanity. I am definitely a freethinker; that is, A person who forms opinions on the basis reason, independently of tradition, authority, or one's own established belief. Yet, I am not a subjectivist; I definitely do believe that some things are Right and some things are Wrong. Secular Humanism is my basis for questions of morality, as well as my joy in life, and many of the other things people have used religion to provide. Promoting human progress (not necessarily at the expense of other humans, animals, or the environment) is an end in itself, and the only way to act Rightly. Any view focused on the afterlife or on drawing approval from some unseen being or its writings or hearsay about what it might want is bound to lead to corruption and intolerance. I think a lot of other people see it this way too, but haven't been exposed to the secular community so they're just riding the wave of tradition to maintain their comfort level.
I spent over a year in Iraq with the 1st Armored Division. I didn't have the firefight-a-day experience of some fighters, but I faced death many times. Nothing changed except I went from atheist to atheist in a foxhole.
Peruse my other philosophy links to get a better perspective than I can give through this short writing. Please note that there are both religious and secular sites. I welcome your comments at my contact page.
Note on 'atheism'
It's a perfectly legitimate term, but it tends to be mishandled. It seems like people (like the American Atheists, great as they are,) use it to define their belief. It's like some kind of surrogate term for Secular Humanist, or Naturalist, or Nihilist, or whatever. However, the term itself expresses either a disbelief in theism, or a specifically anti-theistic stance. Either way, atheism is a reactive, negative classification. While some people try to redefine 'atheism' to fit their own beliefs, I only use the term to comment on my feelings about theism.