I tried to believe, but...

Sent in by Josh

I cannot say I ever was a true Christian. I grew up fascinated by religions, and fascinated by the natural world. My family showed me Carl Sagan's Cosmos at age 5 and later The Demon Haunted World. I loved Sagan's expansive view of life, his respect and tolerance for the wisdom gained through religion, and his staunch support of empirical evidence and the scientific method. I consider myself thus a Sagan-style agnostic. Show me the evidence!

Thomas Jefferson once wrote, optimistically:
And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.

--Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

What can we do to ensure his optimism continues to shine? I believe it is up to us. We must speak a unified voice of reason louder than the voices of fundamentalism speak various voices of dogma in disarray. We cannot afford not to speak out. And, we must do it with greater patience, poise, reason, and compassion than fundamentalists, and we must reach out to moderates, the kind of people who fully accept the germ theory of disease rather than the demon spirit conjecture. They do have ears to listen. They mostly use religion as a community-building tool, and it does great things for them in that regard. Yet, none of them would trust a doctor or mechanic that advised them to simply and only pray for a severed limb or a flat tire. No fundamentalist would think this either, yet they compartmentalize their beliefs in so many other areas.

As for my background, I tried so very hard to believe in some kind of literal interpretation of the Bible. I took a 13-week Bible study course a few years ago, but I always told the class leader something like "The historicity question is what prevents me from 'accepting' Jesus as a divine being that created the universe."

I really enjoyed the "fellowship" aspect of people just coming together regularly and supporting each other as friends, and I think that this is the best thing about religion and religious communities. But, I did not like the lack of open discussion and the lack of skepticism. I just could never see any reason to believe that those events depicted were literal, physical events that took place. There is no way to distinguish those claims from the claims of Muslims or Hindus or anyone else that lived in the days before widespread acceptance of science and empirical methods. When you ask them why prayers don't heal accidental amputees, (more at http://www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com) you get indignant looks or snide comments, yet if prayer can affect cancer, then I find it a fully reasonable question to ask whether it can affect accidental amputees too. Call my reasonable, call me inquisitive, but don't call the question crazy, because the question is perfectly within reason and everyone knows it.

I worked at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for four years and learned up close how peer-review and empirical evidence is used to guard against self-deception. What could be more certain than the fact that people make mistakes? Even religions accept this fact. Thus, true science must be peer-reviewed and undergo blind and double-blind experiments. I knew people who traveled to Africa for public health projects, but still there were people there who believed that demons and curses caused illness, rather than bacteria. Reason is not easy, science is demanding on minds and hands, but as Albert Einstein wrote:
"One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike -- and yet it is the most precious thing we have."

While my immediate family is not religious, I have a large extended family that is moderately religious, and even had one very loving person try to convince me about Jesus and the accuracy of the Bible recently. She means well and I love hear dearly, but I do feel it is my right to speak my mind and not let the rising tide of fundamentalism sweep away the first amendment and other freedoms.

I don't like the growing walls between religious and non-religious people. I appreciate Hemant Mehta's approach, from http://www.FriendlyAtheist.com, in which he actually goes and speaks with churches and religious people. I want to do something similar. I love people and I love open discussion. I don't mind if strangers try to convince or convert me, so long as we have some ground rules of civility and respect. I don't hope to change anyone's belief, only to educate them about the other side of the story.

Yet, at this time I do feel a bit discouraged and down because of the trends and world events. I love life and love my family and friends, and I don't want to see our freedom swept away by fear and dogma. I can hardly believe that Thomas Jefferson's hopes of reason sweeping away superstition are not actually coming true. I've written much more about Jefferson and others on my blog .

Those who enjoy Sagan may also enjoy this essay I wrote about him.

Anyway, just another human grounded in the real world, a world full of superstition and unreason.

I'd appreciate any kind words of encouragement and support!

Thank you

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