An Open Letter to Theists: The Truth is Out There

I understand that the tone of my rhetoric can often sound like exhorting, and sometimes it is, but usually I have valid reasons for the claims I am making. 

As I shared with you before (here and in my writing elsewhere), I believe systems must demonstrate their claims. If a claim is not demonstrated, then in all likelihood, it is a false claim. Or more problematic, unfounded, and therefore baseless. I find most religious claims and beliefs to be completely, and utterly, baseless.

If you feel that I am belittling you by saying so, I am sorry, that is not my intent. My criticism of what you [the theist] believe is not necessarily a criticism of you personally. It is a critique of why I find the belief itself [and the belief of other theists] inadequate when it comes to demonstrating its claims. That is to say, I have a hard time believing in things that do not hold up well to scrutiny.

My wording should not be confused for denigration of vilification, but rather as an admonition. The reason for the admonition is that, when I have investigated religious claims, upon finding they are largely unfounded, the only remaining explanations for the persistence of a specious belief are justifiably because of things like delusion and/or ignorance.

I do not intend to insult religious people by claiming that they are all ignorant and/or delusional, because I know that is not very likely considering the mass numbers of religious adherents found around the world. But in my research, I have found that the reason religious belief often persists, in every culture where it arises: whether in tribal religions, mass cults, or world wide religions, is because ignorance and delusions are usually involved. It is well known that many Muslims are illiterate and can't even read their holy book. Moreover, many more Christians, who can read, have never taken the time to read theirs. Many more feel they do not have to as long as they have religious demagogues telling them how to behave and handing out edicts on how they ought to live their lives.

Furthermore, I should remind my readers, that I don't say this as an elitist criticizing the people's tendency to relinquish their thinking minds for the call of pious unthinking dogmatism, which is bad enough, but I say it as an objection to the conviction that the theist's religion is at all valid, especially knowing their religious beliefs are largely based on nothing more than groundless appeals to authority.

How strange of a world would it be if everything just so happened to be true because we referred to someone else who believed it too? Luckily, this is not the sort of world we live in. Although, to my dismay, many seem not to be aware of it.

If the truth didn't matter, then people would be free to believe what they will. I for one, however, believe truth substantially matters. Not only for numerous logical reasons, but also because I believe putting one's faith in the truth over one's propensity to believe a lie is always beneficial to society. If we dedicated ourselves to finding the truth over believing in falsehoods, then we would be better off--for how could we not? It may be a utilitarian sentiment not all share, but I believe it is a rationally justifiable one.

I agree with you that our choice to believe is a separate issue from what we believe, but I must disagree that we are entitled our beliefs simply because we believe them. Adolf Hitler felt killing all the Jews and hence committing genocide was a worthy belief--yet I would not expect anyone to claim he was free to believe what he chose to simply because I am obliged the same privilege. No, I would not go that far. Some beliefs, as it turns out, are categorically wrong.

Acting on false information can often cause us to act poorly--make mistakes--and potentially cause harm. This is the inherent danger we find in not checking our beliefs against the evidence and seeing whether or not they are justifiable in the light of better reason. Granted not all beliefs are so easy to determine one way or the other--there is a lot of gray making it difficult to know definitively the verisimilitude of any given belief--but it's the principle of questioning our beliefs and holding them up to scrutiny--not merely trying to prove them right or wrong--which I wish to instill as vital to our progress and development. 

I think beliefs matter when they are justifiable, that is to say, when the system demonstrates the claim. When the belief is demonstrably false, it should be rejected and abandoned. What purpose does believing in a lie serve? If I am mistaken, I want to know about it! Then I would want nothing more than to correct myself. Why should religious belief be held to any other standard than this?

Maybe there are good counter arguments which can be made for holding a false belief. Perhaps the person does not know it is false because they are under the impression it is true (contrary to the evidence). This is delusion, plain and simple. But maybe they intuitively understand something is the matter, that something doesn't quite make sense, and doubt is stirred up precisely because of the problematic nature of their belief, but instead of investigating it they continue to take it on faith.

Perhaps their willingness to take it on faith is because they are a product of their environment, everyone else believes it, so how could they possibly be mistaken? Perhaps their belief helps them cope with the world around them, or with life in general, and comforts them in some way. So they continue to take it on faith in lieu of their underlying concerns. They wash away the doubt with the feel good euphoria of their cherished beliefs--and for them ignorance is bliss. But if we can prove--and confirm--that many of the beliefs they hold are really a form of delusion, or that the person is genuinely mistaken, then the claim to have faith in such a belief is proved false.

But sometimes having your beliefs falsified forces you to grow. We should not fear being wrong. What we should fear is always being right--because then there would be nothing left to know--nothing left to investigate. What a boring existence we would be fated to have! I find such a thought intolerable. I welcome the chance of being proved wrong--perchance to learn and grow.

As I have said before, and I will say it again, I would rather have a belief proved false and readjust my beliefs accordingly, than continue to believe in a lie simply because I was too afraid of what the truth might hold.

In other words, I am willing to keep an open mind. I am willing to question my beliefs. I am willing to examine my experiences, instead of merely taking them for granted as so many people inevitably do.

I don't doubt that your religious experiences are real experiences. Of course they are! What I doubt, however, is whether these experiences are all what they are claimed to be. Off the top of my head I can raise several worthy objections to the majority of metaphysical or spiritual experiences of the supernatural kind. I can offer valid natural explanations which readily explain the very same types of experiences--and what's more, I can offer scientific support to demonstrate my claim that what you most likely experienced as a person of faith was not metaphysical in nature, but visceral, physiological, psychological, and plain old mundane. This places the burden of proof squarely on your shoulders to offer convincing evidence that your experience was something otherworldly and not just worldly. If you have such evidence, I for one, would gladly like to know about it.

If the question of asking you to support a claim offends you in some way, then I am sorry. However, I do not think we can just take people's words for it. Testimony and personal conviction all fall into the same category of anecdotal hearsay. Nothing to write home about, as they say, since anecdotes are very hardly ever reliable. So much so that they are classified as an informal fallacy. Of course, that doesn't mean all anecdotes are invalid--it just means that they can't be trusted--at least not without extra sources of confirmation, such as a general consensus, which can confirm the claims made within the anecdote.

Ubiquity, however, must not be mistaken for biology. Like beliefs must not be mistaken for universal truths. The fact that many religious people experience the same type of experience(s) doesn't, I'm sorry to inform, prove these experiences are in any way true. It may be observed that all share a mass delusion. Such cases are well documented in cult behavior as well as mass traumata, from nuns to nutters. Therefore, we must realize, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence--and if it can be claimed without evidence, it can be dismissed without evidence.

Being demanded to respect someone's beliefs simply because they believe something, it seems to me, is like being asked to accept something without evidence. I find no reason to readily relinquish my skepticism for such a lackadaisical mindset. As Bertrand Russel once quipped, "Most people would rather die than think; and most of them do."

Without our minds we are nothing. All the things that you and I cherish: love, loyalty, honor, justness, goodness, decency, and all the rest are because we have minds enough to appreciate the profundity of these ideals and to know when our words or actions needlessly cause others undue pain and suffering.

We have the power to prevent ills, and like Thomas Paine if I had any religion it would be to do good. To make the world a little better place for my children, and their children, and children's children--in the hope that they would do the same for theirs. Hopefully, they will be able to discover unknown truths that we cannot even begin to fathom, and thereby improving their knowledge move ever closer to the best imaginable truth possible.

Stuck in the quagmire of superstition, seems to me, a waste of one's cognitive gifts. Religion is not as mysterious as some would have us believe. Certainly its not as sophisticated as the theologians like to remind us--as they busily work to buttress their faith like industrious worker ants furiously trying to fortify a house built of sand.

Just because a superstition is more awe inspiring and fantastic, does not mean we must continue to allow ourselves to be force-fed lie after lie after it is revealed that our superstitions are all but repudiated. May we, in our steady progress toward enlightenment, close our gaping mouths and open our eyes to the truth? 

Dismantling one's worldview is never easy. It's hard, traumatic, and often a laborious task to have to start over and think everything anew. For some people it is a downright daunting prospect. Others will be thrown into disarray as their belief system crumbles around them. There is always a risk of being wrong when truth is involved. But without the truth being revealed, we would risk forever remaining in perpetual darkness, forever subjugated by our ignorance and the delusions which hold power over us. Personally, I fear this more than I fear being wrong.

So you see, we need our minds, our rational component, to question everything. Where there is doubt, investigate! Where there is skepticism, question! I am afraid many make the mistake of waiting for the truth to reveal itself--as if the divine hand of God would simply reach down out of the sky and pull back the curtain for you, revealing all the mysterious wonders of the universe. I'm afraid it's not that easy.

We must uncover the truth ourselves. If what we find helps to validate our beliefs, then great! However, if what we discover proves our beliefs false--or unjustified--then I see no purpose in persisting in one's beliefs. Without our capacity to validate our beliefs and demonstrate the claims, the truth is meaningless. It places the lie on equal footing with the truth--and this is why faith based belief troubles me. So often religious faith attempts to reshape itself, and maintain the lie, each and every time the truth pervades. When one religious belief is disproved, such as prayer, excuses are made, rationalizations are formed, and apologetical tactics employed to fit the religious claim to the truth--to make the belief right with the world.

Here's the problem though, we can only make our beliefs retroactively conform to the evidence, we cannot force the evidence to conform to our beliefs. (Which, I might add, is why religious apologetics is a failed enterprise.) Once we understand this, that our beliefs must conform to the evidence, then we can go about testing our beliefs, analyzing our experiences, and hope they are compatible with the truth the way it reveals itself through the natural order and through science.

Science, as far as I know, is the only way of testing truth claims, as well as testing the objections, and either falsifying or proving them. Science is the only method we have in adequately investigating these issues--which is why I find it highly important to inform myself of the most up to date science and scientific theories. Admittedly, this is different than practicing science. I am not a scientist, however, I find it highly valuable to familiarize myself with the methodology behind science--because if we hope to get at the truth--this is our best, perhaps only, means of doing so.

I hope, by asking you to always ask questions and ponder these things, I do not sound like I am preaching at you that you must do so, although I sincerely hope that you would. I cannot pretend to tell you what to believe, instead all I can do is point out that some of what you believe requires further explanation, and hope that you will not take your beliefs and experiences for granted, as I once did.


The Advocatus Atheist


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