Saturday, November 9, 2013

ADMISSIONS OF A SECULAR EVANGELIST

For almost 30 years my license plate has read “SKEPTC,” but that’s only because when I first applied for it I was limited to six letters and so left out the “I.”  I have a photography blog that I’ve named Skeptic Photo, and of course I have this Skeptic Reflections blog.  But worse, one of my good friends, who happens to be Catholic, told me that I am one of the most evangelical of all his friends, not in a religious sense, of course, but in a “freedom from religion” sense, if you will.  Further, I confess that I have done more than simply admit my secularism; I have done it with the hope that others might agree with my point of view.  In short, I confess to being a secular evangelist.  But why?



A number of the atheists I know have remained in the closet.  They have been reluctant to admit to their family and friends that they have abandoned their faith for the secularist life.  I can understand the concern, particularly as it relates to family members.  I recall keeping the news from my mother in particular because I knew that she would be distraught to find out that I was no longer a Seventh-day Adventist, and I wanted to spare her the heartache.  She might have suspected something when I continued to flout the strict rules of conduct that Adventists were supposed to follow, but I think she felt that I was simply being casual in my rule-keeping.  When in my early 20s I finally did confess my atheism to her, she was in fact devastated.  She got over that in time, though, and probably believed to the end that I would come back to the faith.

I think I have been fortunate that my friends, whether religious or secular, have been willing to accept me for who I am, warts and all, including how I feel about religion.  So I have always felt comfortable in admitting to my point of view to my friends.  Having said that, I will confess that before I retired I was occasionally uncomfortable about revealing my personal views to those of my clients who had strong religious beliefs and who might have formed a different opinion of me if they knew about my personal views.  It would have created some complexities, and I just didn’t want our differences to get in the way of our professional relationship.  And to my knowledge it was never a major issue.

So, why do I evangelize?  I think there are a number of reasons.  First, I’m sure that my fundamentalist upbringing has played a significant role.  At this point it is impossible to identify how important that influence has been.  I can only say that those of my friends who grew up in a more mainstream religious environment have generally kept some semblance of their faith.  I, on the other hand, was reared in a religion that required acceptance of beliefs that simply couldn’t hold up under scientific or, in some cases, simple logical scrutiny.  So what I experienced was a strong reaction, an intellectual revolt, rather than a gradual accommodation.  I would like to think that I would have wound up in the same place philosophically even so.

Second, I have great confidence in the approach I take in trying to understand the world.  Why should reliance on the scientific method and the application of reason be favored over reliance on accepted authority, such as scripture?  Because the scientific approach works; relying on “revealed” authority does not.  Indeed, over time advances in knowledge through use of the scientific method have continued to supplant explanations stemming from authority.  These run from an understanding of such things as lightning and thunder to the heliocentric solar system to evolution to medical advances.  

Ah, but there is a difference, you say, between science and secularism.  One can fully embrace the scientific method and still maintain a religious faith.  I don’t agree.  This is a larger subject to be dealt with in another or perhaps several other essays.  But suffice it to say here that in my opinion belief in God, or at least in a personal God, is incompatible with a scientific approach to an understanding of the world.

Third, as I may have stated elsewhere, for me the search for truth trumps everything else.  I realize that we will never know truth (outside of mathematical truth), but we continue to get closer to it.  And, for whatever reason, in crucial ways that is more important to me than, say, pleasure, comfort, or security.  Moreover, I want to share what I believe with others.  Intellectually, I realize that not everyone is obsessed with discovering the truth about our existence.  Most people are simply content to be comfortable and secure.  They don’t want to, or refuse to, open the Pandora’s box of belief.  There’s too much risk involved.  But emotionally, I feel that everyone should know as much as possible and I would like to do my bit to help.

Finally, my beliefs have a major impact on my aspirations, on my general attitude toward life, on how I conduct that life, on how I relate to others.  More specifically, my belief that this is our one and only life and not just a preparation for a future existence (or not) has an enormous effect on how I live this life.  What could be more important?



© 2013 John M. Phillips

3 comments:

  1. Your last paragraph is exactly the way I feel with my complete dependence on my Heavenly Father. Jesus Christ has changed my life and how I relate to others and how I live my life. Faith is nothing to do with being a good person. I am just a trusting in Christ for this life and the life after life. Thanks John, So well written.

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  2. Science, application of reason and one more should be added...experience. I think we need all three. You can tell someone with ice cream looks like, feels like, how it's made, which kind is the best, the many ways it can be eaten, etc. But until you experience it, your understanding will be flawed. You will not know the truth about ice cream. The same is true about God. You will never know the truth until you experience relationship with Him. That's like seeing a picture of a women and writing to her and deciding to marry her, and you do this long distance and never meet or talk. How would you know if she was real? The mail order bride that never arrives! Or a baby in a womb...how can you convince this baby that there is only a quarter inch of tissue between the baby and another world completely different and with so many possibilities and so many to love? What if this is true of humanity...we just don't have the ability to discern the world beyond?

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    1. Lisa,

      Your comment is an interesting one. You state, “You will never know the truth until you experience relationship with Him (God).” I think that literally what you are saying is that it is not appropriate for me not to believe something unless I have “experienced” it. But that cannot be the case. Is it inappropriate, for example, for me not to believe in, say, UFOs or astrology or psychic auras or water divining rods unless I have “experienced” them? I think it is perfectly appropriate to come to the conclusion that something does not exist (or more precisely that there is no evidence to support its existence), say, telekinesis, on the basis of scientific experimentation, without having somehow to have “experienced” the phenomenon. Simply having an experience or believing something doesn’t necessarily make it real. Just because someone has an out-of-body experience doesn’t make that experience real in the sense that the person actually traveled outside of his body. It’s simply an internal sensation. I might also point out that I did in fact believe in God until I was 16. Was my experience flawed somehow?

      I agree with you that our perception and understanding of the world are imperfect and there may be (and probably are) all sorts of things that we simply don’t know about and can’t imagine. But we are getting better--through science and technology. We now have tools that we simply didn’t have before and those tools have broadened enormously our knowledge of the world. And at each step our reliance on supernatural explanations has shrunk. There is no reason to think that that progress will not continue. What has worked has not been to rely on established authority but rather to use our reason as best we can, speculate, make testable hypotheses, conduct tests, and draw conclusions. We are so fortunate to have hit upon this system for expanding our knowledge of the world.

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