Thursday, June 13, 2013


One of the things I think about a lot since leaving the mormon church and becoming an atheist is how devoted to the religion I once was.  The driving force of that devotion was always faith. Faith was the most important part of the church's message. I was taught from a young age that you have to have faith.  God rewards those who have faith.  In fact, only those who have perfect faith can get into the highest level of heaven and live with their families forever.

Faith is the keystone of religion and is the singular object that keeps people from opening their minds to other possible truths besides the teachings of their church.  Faith is what keeps people rooted to their beliefs despite a sea of conflicting, often incontrovertible evidence. I went to church, performed my calling and served a mission, all to prove that I had faith.  I want to talk a bit about the reasons why faith is key to religious groups and how it manipulates people into radical behavior.

Growing up in the Mormon church, I learned many primary songs in Sunday School and would like to share a verse from one that I memorized as a kid.  It is called "Faith".

Faith is knowing the sun will rise,
Lighting each new day.
Faith is knowing the Lord will hear
My prayers each time I pray.
Faith is like a little seed,
If planted it will grow.
Faith is a swelling within my heart
When I do right I know.

I never really liked this particular song as a child, but I think that was mostly due to not liking the lady who led the music in primary at the time.  As an adult I find this song offensive and completely misguiding, the epitome of what religious groups do to young members to indoctrinate them.  The first four lines of this song were constructed the way they are to confuse and convince children that faith is the only answer to all of life's mysteries.

Lets break it down for those who don't see the awfulness of this simple tune. The first two lines take something that is completely known and understood scientifically, but being a difficult topic for kids to understand, manipulates it to make them believe that without Faith it would not happen.  That well known subject is the rising of the sun every day.  We completely understand why this happens.  The earth spins, pointing our particular continent towards the Sun every 24 hours.  Nothing mystical or otherworldly is occurring other than that, but young children often don't understand why the Sun rises and sets. It's not simple to understand as we do not feel the earth moving.  For years people believed it was that Sun that moved, as that is how it appears. The song directly ignores any facts about why the Sun rises.  Simply stating that if you believe it will, you have faith.

The next two lines of the song root into the child's mind the fact that Faith is what makes the Sun rise, by creating a direct correlation between the Sun rising and prayers being heard. This innocent little children's song is manipulating children into a false understanding of the world around them.  What is faith? Oh, well faith is knowing that the sun will rise in the morning.  Well, I definitely believe that will happen.  So that is what faith is, its believing in things that really happen.  Oh, faith is also knowing that God is going to hear my prayers too.  Well, since I believe the Sun will rise because I have faith, that means God will hear my prayers too.  It's the same thing!

We know that the Sun is going to rise every day. The Earth is just spinning away and will not stop just because we stop believing it will.  But a prayer being heard and answered by a loving God has no such assurances.  You may feel like someone is listening when you kneel down and discuss your feelings and fears, but it is in no way the same thing as the Sun rising.  By making that correlation in children's minds the church is directly trying to deceive children into believing that faith is the same as knowledge, when faith is the exact opposite of knowledge.

In fact, I'm positive that faith is the opposite of knowledge.  Faith is defined in Webster's dictionary as: firm belief in something of which there is no proof. There is a big difference in the Sun rising and a prayer being answered.  One of these things does in fact require faith.  There is no proof that God is listening to you when you pray.  There is plenty of proof that the Sun will rise each day.  This is directly misleading children about what faith really is in order to make them become more solid believers.

The final lines of the song just solidify the manipulations further. If you continue to have faith it will grow, and faith is the feeling you get when you do right.  So, by believing in things you can't prove, you will continue to believe in other things that you have no proof of and disregard any discovery or new knowledge of a subject that directly conflicts with your current understanding. 

Faithful people do this all the time.  Lets look at evolution as an example.  Evolution is a completely understood and confirmed scientific principle that is acknowledged as fact by every scientific entity in the world.  But, here in the U.S. especially, it is refuted constantly by people of faith.  There are schools that are required to teach alternatives to evolution, not because there is evidence to the contrary, but because the parents of the students were raised believing in a young Earth and they're are unwilling to accept scientific principles that conflict with that idea.  Their faith requires them to refute the evidence, directly influencing the classroom because they refuse to put their faith aside.

The other reaction of people who find their faith conflicts with new evidence is excuse making.  They bend their faith just slightly, or chalk it up to some unknown, as if that is any better.  They make excuses as to why the evidence conflicts with their beliefs, often claiming God behaves in a way that is observable as natural processes.  Yes, we did evolve, but God was the driving force of that evolution.  By allowing their faith to bend around new knowledge, they can avoid direct contradictions.  That's the thing about faith, it's a belief in things of which there is no proof.  So when proof about something is found, faith can easily discover a way around that knowledge, or to incorporate that knowledge.

That last thing the song does is misleading kids to believing the feelings that they get when they do good are a reward from God for having faith.  When you are kind or helpful to someone you feel good.  This happens to people who have faith and those who do not.  But, if you have faith, you will recognize those feelings as coming from God.  Kids like to feel good, and this just allows them to believe that God is also happy with them, which again we have no direct proof for, as even those who do not believe feel good about helping others.

Faith's true power goes even deeper that this small tune.  Faith is the most essential piece to the religious puzzle.  It is the foundation, the keystone of religion.  Faith is knowing things that you cannot prove.  But more than that, God is testing us to make sure we believe him, not by knowledge, but by faith.  God put us here to test us, to see if we would believe in him, even without observable evidence.  Faith is the only way we can prove to God that we really are devoted followers of his gospel.  In fact, God rewards only those who have faith.  This "fact" discourages members from asking questions about things that don't make sense, or conflict with their beliefs.  It often turns them into an army of passionate believers who will stand up and fight any idea that conflicts with their beliefs. They do this because God will reward them if they stay firm and ignore direct evidence.  Because even if the evidence turns out to be true and acceptable, God will not reward you for believing due to evidence.  God wants you to believe without evidence.

This is the damning truth about faith.  Faith is the most sacred part of religion because it is the only way to show God you truly believe.  Rather than accepting new truths that have direct evidence, many faithful people fight or avoid the knowledge, simply to show God that their faith is greater than any knowledge that man can discover on his own.  Faith impedes progress and closes minds, rewarding blind devotion by making it the key to proving your devotion to God.  God doesn't want to you know things, he wants you to believe them unquestionably. 

These faithful zealots will scoff at knowledge that scientists discover and even refute direct evidence in order to prove their faithfulness. That's how they show their devotion. That is faith. You have faith in God, faith in the bible, faith in your religious leaders, and if you question any of those things you are showing God that faith is insufficient.  You are losing blessings and moving further from God, even damning yourself by learning and discovering.

To me the most important things we can do in this life is to discover the wonders of universe around us. This means opening our minds to all possibilities. We need to question everything. Nothing is sacred, nothing is beyond scrutiny. Churches are telling people it is not okay to question, to discover or to learn, you just need to have faith. Faith binds people to the teachings of their church, disallowing anything that would conflict with those teachings.

I want to share a few quotes.  The first is from one of my favorite shows of all time, The Magic School Bus. Miss Frizzle, the eccentric science teacher, has a phrase she says in almost every episode. She encourages the kids to do something we could all benefit from.  She tells them to "Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!" A similar sentiment is given by Dr. Scott the Paleontologist in PBS's Dinosaur Train.  Every episode he gives kids this healthy advice, "Don't forget to go outside, get into nature and make your own discoveries."

How vital these sentiments are. By exploring, questioning and discovering we can grow as a species and as individuals and open our minds to the mysteries of the universe. Faith will only impede us, making a world of unquestioning, uneducated zealots who are blind to who we are and what we can become.

I also want to share a quote by Sam Harris:

"Pretending to know things that you do not know is a profound liability in science. You get punished for this rather quickly. But pretending to know things that you do not know is the lifeblood of faith-based religion."

If I said I knew there was an asteroid headed our way and that we were all going to die, you would ask how I knew. If I couldn't provide direct evidence, you wouldn't believe me. I may reference books showing asteroids hitting the Earth in the past. I may have a picture of an asteroid that was a near miss that was recorded recently, but you would probably still balk. But as soon as someone says that if you have no faith you will burn in hell, or be punished, with references from an old book that has dozens of different translations and versions, suddenly people begin to believe.

It's not love of God or truth that makes people faithful. It's fear. Fear drives people to believe whatever their religious leaders say. We are going to die, and nobody knows what happens when we do. But these people say that it will be good if I believe in these things. Not only that, they say that if I don't believe these things unconditionally there won't just be a lack of reward, there will be punishment. I will show God that I deserve reward. I don't want to risk it.

Death is frightening. It is scary to think that one day I will no longer exist. Many deal with this fear by moving to faith. Religions tell us what will happen next. They have a list of rewards and punishments ready for all to see. All that is acquired from other people, just like us. How do they know these things? From an old book written by other unknown men? From a voice from the sky or in their minds? Why are their beliefs so widely accepted, when its obvious that nobody can truly know what happens after we die because nobody here is dead!  Its because science has no clue what happens. There is only death. We end. We cease to exist, and that is terrifying. People will believe a comforting lie over the truth just for a small hope at eternal existence. If I have faith there is a chance that I will live forever and be happy doing so. The alternative is an unknown, and that is frightening.

Rather than putting our minds to discovering who we are and what we can become, we rely on faith. We put our fears aside, hide our curiosity and believe. Because that's what God wants. And who are we to argue?

Faith is bullshit. It stops human progression and advancement and limits our potential through fear and manipulation of our lack of knowledge about our existence. Faith gives people hope through ignorance. It disallows and discourages learning and growth.

We are on the verge of some amazing discoveries about our world, our universe and our existence. I can only hope that those with the potential to make those discoveries will be willing to question what we know. If they are bogged down by faith, we may lose out on knowledge that could advance us to a clearer understanding of our vast and mysterious universe.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

My journey from Mormon to Atheist

I used to be a Mormon. I went to church, young mens meetings and I prayed. I would read the scriptures and study them. I graduated from Seminary and attended Institute classes and sang hymns in the choir. When I did these things I felt the "spirit" as many others do. I deny none of these things. When I sang hymns, when I prayed and when I shared my beliefs I felt good.

I remember when a friend of mine passed away tragically I stayed up all night in tears pouring my heart out to my Heavenly Father. I remember feeling reassured that I would see my friend again. I actually felt I had received direct support from God in helping me get through that difficult time. This feeling was a deep motivating force that solidified my testimony and motivated me to go on a mission. I shared that experience again and again to investigators and church members throughout my mission and as a Sunday School teacher in college afterwards. It felt great to share that experience and help others know that they could feel the same.

I do not deny that any of this happened. I experienced those feelings, felt that guidance and support and shared it with others and I am not ashamed of it.

Now, I know what you are thinking. If I believe those feelings were real, if I prayed and felt reassured, if I had felt comfort and love after praying with my whole heart, how could I turn my back on those feelings and deny God? I must be blinded by Satan himself to be able to shrug my shoulders and say that I no longer believe in anything spiritual or in an afterlife. But this isn't so. I don't deny they happened. They did. I do however have an alternative explanation for where those feelings came from, one that Occam's Razor would describe as the most likely of explanations.

Occam's Razor is a principle often used in science to determine the more likely truth in competing ideas.  Occam's Razor states that the hypotheses that makes the least amount of assumptions should be selected.  This means that looking at two different ideas about a subject, the one that is based more in physical evidence and doesn't assume solutions is the one that is likely correct.

This principle was first introduced to me at a very young age in the movie Contact.  In the film, Occam's Razor is mentioned in a scene where a scientist is discussing her disbelief with a preacher.  She asks him, "What is more likely, an all -powerful, mysterious God created the universe and decided not to give any proof of his existence, or, that he simply doesn't exist at all and we created him so we wouldn't feel so small?"  This didn't really sink in when I was a kid.  I loved science but also believed in God, and who cares?  I can do both.  I really believed I could understand the principles of science and still believe in God.  There was no conflict in my mind.  Science had answers, some of which seemed to contradict what was taught at church, but science didn't have all the answers and my religion seemed to fill the gaps.

I do recall one instance in my youth when I got really upset at my religion for contradicting what I learned in science.  I was in fifth grade and we had just had a class about Pangea.  My science teacher had handed out maps of Pangea and we had colored it in and learned about the shifting of continental plates and how the world has changed throughout time.  I remember being fascinated by this.  Once, all the continents were one continent, but now they are many. I went home thrilled and told my mom what I had learned and how exciting it was.  My moms reaction was not what I had anticipated though.  She said, "That's neat, but we don't believe in Pangea." That was it.  I remember asking why, but I don't really remember the answer she gave.  I remember being so angry at my science teacher at first for getting me excited about something that was fake.  But then, I remember how much I loved learning it and how much fun it was.  Even though I was just a kid, I decided that I didn't believe what my mother believed.  I didn't believe what my church taught, in that one thing. I didn't hate the church, nor my mom for not agreeing with science, I simply decided that I did believe it.  I continued on my way with that thought and carried it throughout school.  It wasn't until years later that those initial thoughts that the church might be wrong crept back into my mind.

I have always loved science.  It has always been my favorite subject. I forgot about that in high school.  I got distracted by other things.  I got really interested in creative writing, was involved in marching band, jazz band, wind ensemble and also very distracted by girls.  My love of science got put on the shelf as I approached other subjects that at the time fascinated me.  It wasn't until I went to college that I recalled how much I loved the sciences. I started college as a journalism major and was excited by the ability to write and have my words read by others.  I abandoned the major after my third semester however, as I decided I didn't enjoy the high stress and pressure required in journalism.  I dabbled in other majors, most of them involving writing, but was never grabbed by the potential that they had for me.  I remembered then that I really had a love for science.  I took an Earthquakes and Volcanoes class for a necessary general education credit and was enraptured by how cool our world is.  It refreshed the passion that had laid dormant since middle school. 

I love our universe.  I love learning about how it works, the physical mechanisms and properties that we can observe and the unfathomable vastness of it all.  I began reading scientific journals, not for classes, but on my own time.  I was constantly on the internet viewing articles on Popular Science, Scientific American and I began to realize how much of a passion I have for Astronomy and Planetary Science.  So, I changed my major.  Originally I thought I would major in Science and become an astronomer or astrophysicist.  I took astronomy, planetary science and geology courses almost exclusively.  However, I soon got myself over my head with work and started to fail other courses.  I also realized that my waning attention in High School had affected my math skills, leaving me behind where I should have been mathematically to completely understand the science.

I realized then that I struggle with math and that I would really have to focus to catch up to the level of sciences that I didn't already know everything about. I also decided at that point that my passion was not necessarily in the discovery of new ideas, but in discussing them.  I realized that I loved sharing science, not really performing scientific work.  My love of journalism was a desire to share, and it could not be ignored.  I realized that my true desire was to teach science.  To share that knowledge and discoveries that I am researching with others, not to perform the algorithms that made them possible.

As I delved into the sciences in this fashion, questions began to arise again that were in conflict with what I had learned in church.  I began to see gaps, holes and outright contradictions in the doctrine to what I was discovering in my studies.  While this was going on in my head, my wife Amber was intensely studying anthropology and archaeology.  She was also starting to get questions that she couldn't answer or justify either.  The main idea that really got to us both was evolution.  The church had no direct stance on the matter, but the scriptures clearly stated that man and woman were created by God roughly 6000 years ago in the garden of Eden.  Our studies of science said something vastly different.  Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years or more and the world is much older than that, stretching back nearly 4 billion years!  4 billion vs. 6000.  The difference is staggering.  Amber was learning about early proto-humans from many thousands of years before the Earth should have existed and I was learning about natural processes that helped form the Earth and even the universe itself nearly 14 billion years ago!

This increased knowledge from multiple sources began to pile up in our minds.  How could we deny the things we were learning when they were coming from completely different sources and were hard, undeniable facts that have been scrutinized and reconfirmed multiple times?  Our beliefs had been with us our whole lives, and we couldn't just deny them.  At first, we made excuses.  The scriptures aren't literal.  They are stories to teach us lessons.  God didn't create the world in seven days, what's a day to God?  Days are just periods of time is all.  Well what about the fossils of early humans?  Well, they seem to be as old as they appear, but maybe God didn't create man instantly, maybe he did it by natural processes and when they had evolved to a state that they could support our spirits he took two of them, put them in the garden and gave them their spirits.
We started to make more and more excuses for the contradictions until we realized that we didn't really even have a proper explanation for our own beliefs.  Science had cold hard facts as answers to almost any question.  We began to see these questions and look for answers in a different way. Those answers began to require more than just blind faith.  We needed facts to truly understand.  How do we know the earth is that old?  Well, here are 75 independent studies and their results that were retested and confirmed multiple times by different people of different backgrounds, races and beliefs over many different time periods and they all say the same thing.  But, this one scripture says otherwise and it is apparently what God himself has to say. And I have to believe God, right? 

Well, no.  I don't.  But what about those feelings I had.  I have prayed!  I have listened to talks, given lessons, born my testimony and even sworn to devote my life, time and energy to God and his cause.  How can I turn my back on those things?  Well, what did I feel when I prayed?  I felt comforted.  Ok, what comforted me?  The spirit, right?  What was I doing that made me feel good?  I was talking about my problem, going over it in my head, begging for help and dealing with it in my mind. Could I have achieved the same result by just focusing on the issue in the first place and instead of praying to God for help, simply deciding I had the strength and ability to deal with this on my own? Well, yes. I think I could.  So, what did I actually feel?  I felt reassured that I would be okay, and I came to that conclusion not from outside blessings or knowledge, but by confronting the problem and being strong enough to take the time to acknowledge the problem and be active in overcoming it.

Well, what about when I feel the spirit in hymns?!  Surely that is a gift from God to feel that power in music.  Well, do I ever get that feeling with other songs?  Well, yes.  Is that music also from God? Maybe.  Do I ever get those feelings from music that is completely unrelated to religion or even music that is in direct conflict with religious teachings?  Well...yes!  So, is God in charge of all music, or is this just a physical reaction to the power of the human voice and how I react to hearing it in positive, stimulating tones?

By applying my scientific reasoning to religion in this manner I began to pick apart the beliefs that I had grown up with.  I began to see the contradictions and instead of brushing them off or looking to my religious institution for an answer, I began to look to science and its repeated testing and results.  I began to see that religion offered answers, but required you to blindly believe them.  Science offered answers, but those answers were subject to the scrutiny of everyone and would only become facts once there was enough evidence and enough tests that were conclusively pointing to the proper solution.  And more, once that solution was discovered it could be completely disproved by future evidence and discoveries.  Religion offered answers from one source that was incontrovertible.  God says it is this way and so you need to believe it.  Don't question God.

But wait, who says that God truly said this?  Well, the Bible is the word of God.  The Book of Mormon was translated by Joseph Smith and is the word of God. The prophet has also confirmed this.  Okay, so we have three sources here.  The Bible, which was written by men, none of whom are proven to be the men they say they are or known to have truly done the things written.  It was also put together by many groups of religious men debating which things were truly from God and which were not.  The Book of Mormon, which is a translations from a form of Egyptian by a man from New York who let very few people see the plates and even if he did truly find them has no idea if the people who wrote in them even had a clue what they were talking about. The prophet, who is a man who was raised to believe these things and then being so good at repeating them beautifully that we cannot deny that God himself is inspiring him to say them so we will make him the prophet. Because a person would never lie about talking to God after being raised up to the highest power in a group of religious zealots and being the literal mouthpiece to a giant megachurch that brings in billions of dollars in revenue each year from its members.

This brings me back to Occam's Razor.  Which is more likely?  Everything said in the scriptures and said by prophets is true. The claims made by these sources are completely inspired by an all-knowing, all-powerful being who has the power to create worlds, life and punish you eternally for sins. All evidence that is in conflict with these limited and obscure teachings are there to test our faith and prove to God that we will believe in him no matter what so that he can reward that blind faith. Or, these physical, tangible, testable discoveries of science are real and describe a world that has no divine creator, no exact purpose and is completely at the mercy of the physical nature of the universe. Physics, chemistry, geology and many other properties of the natural universe, unguided, frightening and wonderful.

Once I asked the questions and began to look for answers beyond the approved sources the whole charade ended.  I had seen behind the curtain and realized that there was no great and powerful wizard, just a man terrified of being exposed.

Well, that's my story. I will be focusing my next post on a similar line as this, discussing faith and how faith is the keystone to religion.

I'll end again with a quote and a comic:

"It's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong." - Richard Feynman

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Labeling myself

Our society is obsessed with labels.  While they are often crude, stereotypical and used to divide individuals from a group, they are integral in our society.  The nice things about labels, however, is that we decide what they mean.  We can choose how to label ourselves to include ourselves in a group of like-minded people. Outsiders to that group may not like the label, and may even disagree on what the label actually means, but what really matter is what members of that group consider to be their values.

I have made some changes in my life that have made me rethink the groups I am associated with and helped me define the kinds of labels that should define me.  I made these decisions a couple of years ago, but was closed about it in public because I was unsure of my personal beliefs.  I have had time to decide what it is that I do believe and with which groups and labels I wish to associate myself.  Now that I know what I believe and how I want to be known I am coming out and labeling myself publicly for the first time.

There are three labels that I have decided to associate myself with.  I will list the labels that I have chosen, the reasons I have chosen them and most importantly, what that label means to me.  As I said before, others outside these groups may consider these labels differently, so I will explain what that means from my perspective.

Firstly, I am an atheist.  As an atheist I do not believe in a God or Gods.  I do not believe in Zeus, Thor, Apollo, Ra, Jesus or God the Father.  I do not believe that there is a being who is watching over me, blessing me or judging my behavior.  I also do not believe that the universe was created by a consciousness. That is all that being an atheist means.  It doesn’t mean that I am a devil worshiper.  It doesn’t mean that I immoral.  It doesn’t mean that I eat babies.  All it means is that I do not believe in any form of a God or Gods.

Second, I am a materialist. A materialist sees reality as the physical matter of which is it composed. Thought, feelings and will can all be defined in terms of matter and physical phenomena. I am a collection of the nerve impulses and synapses in my brain responding to physical stimuli.  I do not believe in a soul, a spirit or a part of myself that is not my physical body.  I am my body and when I die my brain will no longer send those impulses and I will cease to be.

Third, I am a humanist. A humanist is someone who believes that life is fragile and that it matters. That each individual who is lucky enough to have one has the rights to have a good one. It is amazing that we exist at all and we should go out of our way to help those in need, because this is the only life that we get.  Everyone who has one has a fundamental right to have the opportunity of a pleasant one.  Those who have enough to survive, or who have excess, should give and donate to those who do not, so that they may experience the basic rights and necessities of life to survive and be happy.

This is who I am and how I choose to define myself.  I was not raised with these ideals, but developed them over time after years of observation and thought.  I used to be religious. I enjoyed spending time with like-minded individuals who supported my beliefs, but I have left that behind me and found a new identity.  One that I love and that makes me happier than I was before.

My goal with this blog is to share my journey from being a Mormon to becoming an atheist, why I changed my ways of thinking and how I feel now.  I will be sharing a lot of scientific principles and discoveries that helped me to make my decisions, along with future discoveries that reinforce those beliefs and expand my knowledge of this fascinating universe that we live in.

I will be talking a lot about how atheists are perceived in the U.S. and how I have lost friends because of my decisions. I will criticize religion.  I will post anti-religious ideas and images.  I do this not to anger those who have those beliefs or to persecute them, but because being critical is part of life and especially science.  Any group that says not to doubt, not to seek other sources or think about alternative views is destructive to the human experience.  Religion gives answers and says not to doubt them. Science asks questions and doubts the answers until the evidence can be tested, retested, verified and upheld, and can even then be refuted and tossed out when further discoveries are made.

As will become the norm, I will end these blogs with a quote or a comic.  I will do both for my first.

“I am not an atheist because I am mad at your god. I am not an atheist because I love sin. I am not an atheist because I don’t want to answer to authority. I am an atheist because I sought the truth about reality. I have accepted nature and my place in the universe. I will live and I will die. I wish to leave this world knowing that I did my best. I hope our descendants inherit a world that can sustain them.” – Mike Autrey

I had to add a second quote to fit in with my last point.

“Truth does not ask to be believed. It asks to be tested. Scientists do not join hands every Saturday or Sunday and sing, ‘Yes. Gravity is real! I know gravity is real! I will have faith! I will be strong! I believe in my heart that what goes up, up, up must come down, down, down. Amen!’ If they did, we would think they were pretty insecure about the concept.” – Dan Barker

Finally, a comic.

Thanks for reading! I hope you are all well.