Skepticism

Needs

There’s a little church I drive past on my way into the city; one of those non-churchy looking evangelical churches that’s more of a cross between a house and an office building, where the only thing identifying it as a church is its sign: a small, backlit, letterboard, upon which are spelled out messages intended to uplift, amuse, inspire, or guilt people to salvation.

This week, the sign asks, in small, condescending, black letters, “Are your needs too big for God?” I reflexively yelled back at the sign, driving by the other day, that yes, actually they are, irritated at being patronized by this small collaboration of plastic, electricity, and judgment so lovingly and cleverly arranged by a well meaning pastor.

Some may call me arrogant; accuse me of thinking too much; tell me I need to surrender my pride to the mystery they call god. But I have needs…

I need to be responsible for my actions, good and bad; no devil to take the blame, no god to take the credit. True goodness arises from the desire to do good for its own sake, not from the fear of an angry god’s vengeance, or the hope of his eternal reward.

I need to be in control of my life, and to know that the things beyond my control happen due to chance, not because I somehow deserve them; good or ill. There’s peace and fairness in that idea; the freedom not to have to believe that a child somehow deserves cancer, or that natural disasters are punishment from god; or that an all knowing, all loving god could consciously set up a system in which such suffering was possible.

I need to think for myself, whatever the cost.

I need to live in a world that makes sense to me; that I can understand through observation and experience; to revel in life’s mysteries not because they are unknowable, but in the anticipation of uncovering their secrets and unwrapping new questions; to glory in the fact that I exist at all; to marvel at the incredible sequence of events over the billions of years leading up to this moment, sitting here, pondering, writing; wondering at the fact that I can understand at all; one configuration among billions of possibilities in a molecular struggle for survival that accidentally created consciousness.

I need more than “God did it.”

I need the freedom to change my mind in the face of new information; to maintain intellectual honesty and an open mind; to be humbled by the notion that everything I think I know could be wrong; and out of this uncertainty, to endeavor to treat those who do not share my worldview with respect.

I need to decide for myself what my life means, and how best to spend it.

I haven’t yet come across a god big enough to meet my needs, and I’m certainly not about to settle for the god of preachy roadside church signs.

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45 Comments

  1. Wow. Holy shit–I’m a convert. I’ve never read anything that expressed my own theology as well as this. I got as far as “you can’t put God in a box” but this expresses it elegantly and brilliantly.

  2. You are more charitable than I, for anyone who tells me, even implicitly, that I “think too much” is sure to burst into flame from the sheer force of my scorn.

    No topic is untouched by Church Letterboards, which are to advertising as an out-of-tune carnival organ is to a Mozart opera. I guess there’s just so many churches anymore (dozens in the small town I grew up in) that the cleverness is spread too thin. ;)

  3. We must both drive by the same little church. One day the billboard said, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.” If they were trying to uplift me, it worked, because I laughed my ass off!

    Must’ve been the mental picture of God leaning into the fridge, reaching for a can of Lone Star beer, and maybe the can of spray cheese.

    Your post neatly sums up my own thoughts on religion. Thanks.

  4. Currently the church I drive past on my way to work has the following message:

    “What if god is waiting for a sign from you?”

    To which my responses range from:

    I’ve given him several bloody signs already! how many more does he need for fucks sake?

    to

    Well if that’s the case maybe he should let me know? Am I going to burn in hell because the lord-god-all-fucking-mighty has a problem communicating?!

    @Reverend Kel : Personally I think god drinks Duff beer.

  5. The church by my house, known for such gems as “Defenstrate Everything”. This week is sporting, “Avoid Churches: Matthew x:xx” I can’t quite remember the number.

    I love driving by to see what they’ve come up with but I’m still not going to church…

  6. Carrie: This post is so great! You expressed my feelings about this condescending roadside preaching perfectly. What really infuriates me is they think it ISN’T arrogant to say these things to us non-believers. Damn it, now I’m pissed! *sigh*

    “True goodness arises from the desire to do good for its own sake, not from the fear of an angry god’s vengeance, or the hope of his eternal reward.”

    Logic and reason FTW! :-)

  7. There’s a church here in Portland that had on their sign around Christmas “Benevolent Religions Fail.” I wasn’t sure what message they were trying to get across there…..

    Very well-written piece. Thank you!

  8. @Reverend Kel:

    I am picturing a redneck god with that can of Lone Star and some cheese whiz covered nachos shaking his head “When are the rest of my dumbfuck creations going to get it the way Carrie has. I give them free will, I don’t meddle in their damn universe, I leave clues to my laws right under their noses, and they still come up with all kinds of lame ass crazy shit that they attribute to me. Like I care if two guys decide to play ‘hide the sausage’ with each other. I mean if you are not into that people, then why are you so obsessed with it? Me personally I could care less. Sober House is coming on TV in a few and I want to see if Heidi Fleiss punches out Tom Sizemore. Now that is interesting, and since they have free will, even I don’t know how it is going to turn out, although I do have my money on Heidi’s left hook.

    Hey Mohammed, quit flirting with the virgins and pass me another Lone Star, otherwise I am going to have Shiva give you an ass whoopin”.

    /BCT

  9. You know I don’t believe in your message of “doing good for its own sake”, and it’s been quite some time since a zealot evoked any sort of emotion from me. Devout people are, to me, smaller than small potatoes. Utterly inconsequential. But that being said…man this was an eloquent piece. Coming from a place of true inspiration. It almost made me remember the days when religion could get my goad.

    I would point out two things:

    1) This piece, as eloquent as it is…you seem to be on the defensive here. As if the burden of proof for disbelief lies on you. You seem to be pushing up against the oppression of endless parochial generations instead of pushing down on those with sluggish wits and a lack of rationality, i.e. instead of pushing down from a place of pure conviction.

    2) You seem to view life with a reverence that’s borderline sacrosanct anyway. I can’t square that idea in my mind; if you believe in a big fat nothing after death, i.e. if you believe we go out like sparks, why would life hold any worth to you? And not just any worth; you seem to cherish life and view it as an incredibly precious commodity. Why? Why care about it now when you won’t care about it once you’re dead?

  10. I usually try to avoid antireligious polemics, but sometimes I feel the need to express my unbelief frankly. I believe that the atheist view of suffering, that “shit happens,” is much more satisfying than the belief that there is a God who allowed it all, that somehow this God is benevolent, and that suffering, as distinguished from one’s reaction to suffering, is somehow positive. Frankly, after that little stund he pulled in Haiti, I don’t know how anyone could have any respect for God. And as for my needs, I need to live a full life with real friends, not an imaginary friend.

  11. @sethmanapio:
    “God does drink Lone Star Beer, but He does not eat cheese whiz. ”

    Of course he does; aerosol cheese is one of his true miracles!

    He also eats Miracle Whip© by the spoonful, right out of the jar. That’s actually kind of gross, but it is not for us to understand God’s ways.

  12. @Christ: not sure it needs to be said, but this is merely a description and expression of my personal worldview. it is not a sermon. i do not expect others to follow it. i wanted to share.

    as a person who comes from a devoutly religious family, and who still feels pressure from them to conform in order to be fully accepted, yes, i do feel defensive. no matter how convicted i am, at the end of the day, i still feel that pressure from my family; that no matter what i accomplish in my life, they will never be fully proud of me because they believe i am going to hell.

    as for my “reverence” for life, well, i’m a human being, and just because i’ve left religion behind doesn’t mean that i’ve become a robot. i’ve always felt things very deeply, and i have a profound appreciation for beauty.

    for me, these feelings have more meaning in my current worldview than they ever did when i was religious. how can beauty mean anything if it lasts forever? for me, beauty is all about the rare and the fleeting. it’s the desire to hold onto little moments precisely because they do not last.

    i value my life because it is limited. to me, it means i feel driven to make the most of every second, because i know this is all i have. i don’t understand how believing in an afterlife makes this life more precious. it seems to me that the opposite should be true.

    simply put, i think life matters because we are alive. whatever philosophy we choose to attach to it to satisfy our own particular tastes is up to us as individuals.

  13. @carr2d2: If it were possible, I’d say this is even more eloquent than your original post. I too feel pressure from my family. For every accomplishment I achieve, my parents are proud but there’s always a tinge of sadness along with the pride because I’m going to hell. Like, “think of how many more lives you could touch as a doctor if you let God into your life.” Really? I get defensive in the same way- I just feel like I’m constantly justifying my life choices.

  14. @rasmur: RE: haiti

    After hearing the “mysterious ways” excuse a few times, it got me thinking: if your god moves so mysteriously (killing the righteous, not punishing the wicked, killing the innocent, etc in this situation and countless others) such as to approach randomness, how can one even suggest that one has any clue as to his intentions?

    Oh, he wrote a book? Well, would it be outside of the realm of posibility for the god who placed beautifully stratified fossils in the crust of the earth to trick people into believing evolution to write a book that tells people to do the opposite of what he wants? Doesn’t seem like it’s safe to bet on either side there, and better to treat it as if it was randomness and not intention.

  15. Hmmmmm.. For some time now I’ve been staying out of discussions like this one but I would like to address a specific assumption that seems to run through all the post in this thread.

    First, I agree with everything carr2d2 says about ‘goodness’, and ‘freedom’, and etc… I also agree with the general sentiment that the dominant voice of Christianity in the US, (fundamentalist and charismatics… mostly because of shear volume as opposed to theological accuracy within the context of their claimed religions but for better or worse theirs is the voice most people hear), is shrill, anti-scientific, patronizing, and generally simple minded. However, generalizing that to the assumption that all theist are fools, or that somehow the clear stupidity of the loud somehow invalidates everything they are associated with, is childish at best and socially dangerous at worst.

    Of course, that all said, some of those bill-boards set me raving against them, (and by extension the church who supports the message on them), too.

  16. @MoltenHotMagma: maybe this is a blind spot on my part, but i don’t see any of that in what i’ve written. i’m curious to know what i said to make you respond this way, because that was not my intention.

    you’re right in your assessment that i was responding to that specific sign and the particular brand of christian thought associated with such things.

    my statements of my own beliefs should be taken as just that, and not as any proclamation on how i believe others should interpret the world around them.

    i harbor no disrespect for believers who have carefully thought out their positions and don’t attempt to impose those positions onto others, nor do i think theism is by definition unreasonable.

    personally, my world makes more sense viewed through an atheist lens. for some, including a couple of my close friends, the world makes more sense with a god.

  17. I like you carr2d2. There doesn’t seem to be any needless debate in you. Normally I hate that because I have endless debate in me, and I typically have no respect for people that can’t stay fixated on a point till the cows come home. But I think I like your brand of honesty.

    I feel you on the “devoutly religious family”, though it’s not something that’s been an issue in my own life for quite some time. This dichotomy, this hating religion and at the same time needing acceptance from your family…it has to birth new viewpoints and ideologies. It must. Because there’s no reasonable way to reconcile those two issues. You said your family “will never be fully proud of you because they believe you are going to hell.” If that’s true, then it means exactly what it says. That your family will never be proud of you. And yet you still need acceptance from them. It’s an eternal mind-fuck, and so what will you do? Gnash your teeth in frustration till the end of days? That’s one option, but if you want to pursue any kind of an actual productive option…it requires you to forcibly (and perhaps unpleasantly) change yourself. Because if I’m understanding your description of your family, they are never gonna change; that’s for damn sure.

    But anyways, I admire your honesty. My first instinct is always to give a FUCK you before ever admitting even a hint of weakness; I typically don’t respect open dialogue like this. But one thing I always admire is inspiration. I hope you can not only stay honest but stay sharp as well, so that when you’re faced with a conundrum you can figure out what you need to do, and then have the moxie to do it.

  18. @carr2d2: You are right, I misspoke. In my post, I said ‘all post in this thread’. I should have limited myself to ‘many’. Additionally, the extreme position I am addressing is not one you even implied.

    Re-reading the entire thread, most post do not have such a clear, unthinking, and extreme bias against theist built into them, (there is a bias in that direction in many cases, but it seems to be one that is generally much softer). The specific post that pushed it across the line for me was by Christ: where he said, “Devout people are, to me, smaller than small potatoes. Utterly inconsequential.” I shouldn’t have let my response to Christ merge with the more general statement I was trying to make to others.

    In that, I apologize for not being clear in my address to Christ as opposed to my response to the more subdued bias that I feel is more prevalent in the thread.

    That aside, in addressing my perception of a general bias towards the more extreme position I can’t point to a single statement. It seems more to be an idea that the statements made assume to be true.

    It is entirely possible that this is some oversensitivity on my part. The reality is that most skeptics are atheist or agnostics and those of us who are theist of any sort often seem to find ourselves having to defend our claim to skepticism, (admittedly I can only speak for myself on this, but I’m sick and tired of the atheist activist attempting to co-opt skepticism for their own ends; especially when they tell me that since I’m a ‘believer’ I’m incapable of actual logic and not worth consideration as either a skeptic or otherwise. I do not attribute this activity to all atheist skeptics, but I encounter it often enough that I have come to find it repugnant). Because of this, I can’t rule out a personal bias towards seeing offense where it isn’t intended. Where that is the case, I can only apologize. My only goal is to try and keep skepticism separate from pure religious considerations.

    Whatever the case, my sense when reading both your original post, and several other post in this thread is that all believers are lumped in together in the minds of the posters. Oh sure, when challenged almost everyone will say that, “Not ALL believers are like that, I even have some friends who are believers”, but to me it often rings the same way as when a bigot is saying he doesn’t have a problem with black people because, after all, some of his best ‘friends’ are black.

    I fully accept that in the case of your original post, this was not the intended tone and it certainly would not represent your true position, (I’ve read enough of your post in general to know that you don’t seem to think like that), but in my mind that makes it even more important to keep the distinction clear.

    How to do that while still writing entertaining, funny, appropriately scathing commentary on the ones who deserve it I’m not entirely sure.

    To be clear though, whatever anti-theist bias is there, (or not), in your post; it wasn’t enough to cause me upset. It was really only when I felt that it was a theme quietly carrying through the thread, punctuated by a much more extreme statement, (that seemed to meet with at least tacit acceptance), that I felt it worth my saying something.

  19. @MoltenHotMagma: i can understand where you’re coming from, and i appreciate your thoughtful response. it’s an interesting problem. in a way, i find myself in a similar position with respect to more extreme, anti-theist atheists as you probably find yourself in with respect to fundamentalist christians: simply by defining yourself as a believer, some people will lump you in with the extreme believers, just as some might lump me in with more extreme atheists. it’s sort of the inherent problem with labels. people love to put things into categories, and reduce them down to the most simplistic understanding possible. we’re lazy that way.

    my point is, at the end of the day, what makes a difference is for us to look at each other as individuals, attempt to get beyond the labels, and respect each other as capable, intelligent human beings.

    and i think that’s exactly what we’re doing here.

    as far as mentioning my theist friends, well, maybe that is tacky, i don’t know…you make an interesting point, but my intent is not to hold them up as a display or a justification for anything i say or do, but as evidence that i mean it when i say that belief/nonbelief is not a factor in choosing my friends, and also to say that i do understand that it’s difficult to be a theistic skeptic, because i’ve seen what my friends have to deal with, from both sides. it’s awful, and there’s no excuse for it.

    and, to be honest with you, i still haven’t figured out where christ is coming from, but he seems to have softened his position a bit :D

  20. @carr2d2: “my point is, at the end of the day, what makes a difference is for us to look at each other as individuals, attempt to get beyond the labels, and respect each other as capable, intelligent human beings.”

    I agree with you completely, and thanks for understanding.

    *grins* and at least we can all agree that, “God did it.” Is a bullshit answer to pretty much any question and that, “the god of preachy roadside church signs.” Is a real ass-hat.

    Though I must say that I do think that Reverend Kel has put us onto something profound in consideration of gods refrigerator. ;) Speaking of which, I’m pretty sure god drinks VB.

  21. @MoltenHotMagma: “those of us who are theist of any sort often seem to find ourselves having to defend our claim to skepticism”
    ———————
    But if you apply the same standards of evidence and critical thought to your theistic beliefs as you do your other beliefs, why should this be a problem? If you believe that you have solid, skeptical reasons to believe that there is some sort of God, shouldn’t the rest of us hear about them?

    And on the flip side, if you don’t have solid, skeptical reasons to believe in this theity, why do you want to consider yourself a skeptic? I don’t think there’s any rule that states that you have to be a skeptic to be involved with skeptics, or to participate in skeptical activism, or to have skeptical friends, or even to think critically. A skeptic is just someone for whom evidence is the basis of all belief.

    Why do you think that it is bigoted or prejudiced to refuse to apply this label to a person who does not believe that evidence is the basis of belief? Do you believe that skeptics cannot interact rationally or reasonably with a person who is not a skeptic?

  22. @sethmanapio:There are a series of assumptions here that do deserve addressing. So, question by question breakdown:

    Q) “But if you apply the same standards of evidence and critical thought to your theistic beliefs as you do your other beliefs, why should this be a problem?”

    A) It wouldn’t be if I felt like having the exact same arguments over and over again. However, my experience with this is that the type of atheist who insist that the only conclusion a ‘True Skeptic’ can reach regarding religion is to be an atheist; is also the type of atheist who uses the exact same debate techniques and goal-post moving that creationist use. My experience is that, like creationist or any other fundamentalist, these persons aren’t interested in finding the truth or hearing why I believe what I do; every one of them that I have found myself dealing with seems to be only interested in pushing their own position and attempting to discredit me in any way possible. I have enough shit in my life that I just don’t feel like dealing with it anymore. I’m tired of arguing with fundamentalist of any sort. You might say I just don’t feel like ramming my head into brick walls any more. It’s not fun and I don’t find it productive.

    Q) “If you believe that you have solid, skeptical reasons to believe that there is some sort of God, shouldn’t the rest of us hear about them?”

    A) Honestly, I am conflicted on this. On the one hand, yes – especially since my particular brand of theism is Christian flavored, I would like to tell everyone and I would like everyone to believe. On the other hand… *sigh* Well, there are lots of ‘other hands’.
    There are so many ‘christian’ fundamentalist and hellfire/brimstone charismatic’s out there aggressively misrepresenting what the scriptures say that I don’t want to risk looking like one of them, (fundamentalist and etc…), by accidentally being to pushy. Past that, I don’t tell God what to do – so there is no repeatability to any of the events/interactions that lead me to my belief. I am also deeply aware of my own fallibility and the fallibility of my own memories. This means that I must acknowledge that I cannot reasonably expect other skeptics to be persuaded by my reporting of my experiences, even experiences which have led me to my belief. Sharing my experiences with you or anyone else is something I’m happy to do, however from a scientific perspective all they are is anecdotal evidence of nothing.
    In the end, my belief is a personal choice based upon years of personal consideration, (I was not always a believer), matched with my own life experiences. For me, the evidence and my experiences in life have led me to a belief in God. But that is just it, this is a conclusion I have reached based upon my life experiences and I cannot honestly expect others to just accept my conclusions on faith. The path to God, (or away from God), is always a personal one.
    For all these reasons, and others, I choose not to come here to try and convince anyone about my correctness about the existence of God. I think such an exercise is futile by its very nature, (and filled with ass-hattery). Besides, I am a skeptic. Just because I believe doesn’t mean I’ve stopped questioning and ultimately I cannot absolutely know I am right until I’m dead, (assuming that there is an ‘after’ for me to know about. Otherwise knowing will stop for me with my death).
    What I do ask, is what I have asked in this thread – that I be given the consideration that I may have good reason for my belief and that my belief does not conflict with my skepticism. I don’t think that is much to ask from other critical thinkers.

    Q) “…Why do you think that it is bigoted or prejudiced to refuse to apply this label to a person who does not believe that evidence is the basis of belief?”

    A) You have assumed my answers to questions and ascribed to me a position that I do not hold. Last I checked, that’s a straw man. As your final question followed from this one I will not waste time with it either.

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