In the process of authoring my 5 part series on rational atheism, recent experiences have led me to conclude that, as a side article in passing (not part of my main series on rational atheism), it would be useful to express some important observations I have made lately concerning atheists.

First, however, I see the need to make certain disclaimers for the sake of philosophical purists who happen to read these articles.

In my discussions and critique of human reason, I repeatedly point out how relative is the concept of what anyone can consider rational or reasonable. In doing so, and to support this view, I point out what I believe to be the clear evidence that individual persons, however equally educated or cultured they may be, are not the exact replica of each other, whether in emotional dispositions or intellectual inclinations, character or temperament, mental resources or method of thinking.

John C. Garrison, authorAs a result, and without bringing technical philosophical issues into the matter, I argue that because individual people are thus different from each other, it is not surprising to most of us humans that different opinions or beliefs will arise among individuals in the interpretation of any set of facts.

I also argue that, for the same reason of differences between individuals, what may be rational or reasonable to one person will not necessarily be rational or reasonable to another, at least not in every meticulous aspect of a given issue. There is no need to be a philosopher or to bring technical philosophical issues into this common observation because the truth of people being different in aspects I have mentioned, and consequently in their beliefs and opinions, is clear and obvious to anyone with basic commonsense.

But there are certain complicated minds who will inevitably turn my simple, commonsense description of why people reach different conclusions into complex and technical philosophical issues that most people really don’t care about or have the patience to mess with. When atheists, especially of the rationalist variety, read my commonsense descriptions of how differences in individuals makes impossible a uniform or monolithic understanding of what is rational or reasonable, good or bad, true or false, I am accused of advocating such technical philosophical views as “relativism” or “solipsism.”

Yes, in a real sense, I do believe in some form of relativism when I observe that different individuals, because of their differences, will not necessarily reach the exact same conclusions in their interpretation of any set of facts. But this is obvious or commonplace knowledge, that is, in the sense that most people are aware this is true without having to study philosophy. It is therefore only in this commonplace way that I believe in relativism. I do not, in other words, believe in the more radical brand of philosophical relativism which says that there are no absolutes whatever.

For me, there is indeed at least one absolute, an absolute that is so universally. This is the absolute which I have referred to as “the non-rational.” I would further say that this absolute is known and experienced by every human being, whether or not they recognize it for what it is. One of my important tasks in this series on rational atheism is to describe and explain the non-rational absolute, as well as to examine some of its implications that are relevant to the topic at hand.

Another misinterpretation of what I actually advocate is that of being accused of advocating a philosophical view that is called “solipsism.” In philosophical language, solipsism refers to the belief that certain philosophers have had that all anyone can know for certain is the inner “self” that each one of us is conscious of. Some have pushed this concept to the point of advocating that which in philosophy is technically referred to as “idealism.”

Philosophers who have advocated idealism hold that the world or universe that is external to our solipsistic self has no reality other than the ideas of it that form in our minds. In other words, according to idealism, we can never know the outside world in itself because our knowledge of that world in our brains is not a direct knowledge of it. Instead, it is knowledge that our brain receives indirectly through the sensations conveyed to the brain by our senses (i.e., touch, taste, sight, smell).

Stated different for the sake of clarity, you might say that to the idealist philosopher, our knowledge of the external world by our “blind” brain is not the knowledge of the world itself but only of the sensations which the external world causes in our physical senses and which then flow into our brain. In its quest for knowledge, our brain then simply takes those sensations and “interprets” in our minds what they are “saying” about the external world to which the brain has no direct access. The brains in different people may not always interpret the incoming sensations, and therefore the external world, in exactly the same way. We see this for example in the case of “color-blindness” in a few.

Now there have been some idealist philosophers who have pushed their idealism to the extreme of denying even the physical reality of the external world. They reason that since our knowledge of the external world is only knowledge of ideas of that world which form in our minds, the external world (or external reality) must therefore not be physical or materialistic. It must only be mental or spiritual. As such, it exists only in the mind. Philosophically speaking, those who oppose this extreme idealistic view are referred to as “realists.” Philosophical realists hold that the external world is physical and that it has an existence that is independent of the mind.

I want it to be known that I am not an idealist in the extreme sense of denying the real and physical existence of the world external to the mind. Instead, I am first and foremost a realist. In my thinking, the only sense in which I may be viewed correctly as an idealist is that, yes, I do believe it is true, and that this is backed by biological science, that our knowledge of external reality is the knowledge of that reality that we gather in our brains from the sensations received by our senses. This is inescapable since our brains, and consequently our minds, have no direct access to the external world. As such, our brain and minds are totally dependent on “information” gathered by our senses. It is for this reason that I can say no, I do not believe it is possible for anyone to have a “direct” knowledge of external physical reality. Our knowledge of such a reality remains always indirect, gathered by means of our senses.

But here is a peculiar twist or exception to this belief. I do believe there is one single external reality that our brains and minds have direct access to. I believe this is true because this reality has both internal and external, mental and physical aspects which can be known and is known, at least in its mental aspect, directly by our mind or brain. Again, this reality is the non-rational absolute that I have been referring to in my current series on rationalistic atheism.

Furthermore, and with the non-rational as the only exception, since I cannot see the possibility that our minds can get around their total dependency on the senses to gather knowledge of external reality, all knowledge of external reality is necessarily subjective rather than objective. Scientists, of course, seek objective knowledge of external reality, but the subjective nature of all knowledge is a challenge to this quest. Scientists try to get around this by doing such things as conducting tests and experiments on the external world, seeking observable results that can be measured. And while this may indeed yield objective knowledge of external reality that is more or less accurate at any given time, such knowledge remains always transitional, limited and qualified.

Scientific knowledge viewed as objective remains always transitional in the sense that external reality is never exhausted in the sense of being totally known. Scientific knowledge marches on, with new discoveries being achieved concerning the nature of external reality. With new discoveries, new theories are spun and old theories replaced or significantly modified. We have seen this, for example, in the revolutionary changes which took place when quantum mechanics was discovered. This discovery made it clearly evident to scientists that the Newtonian physics that ruled until then did not have the universal relevance it was presumed to have up to the time of the quantum discoveries.

Scientific knowledge viewed as objective knowledge is limited in that, as already noted, it never reaches a state of completion so as to thoroughly comprehend the nature of external reality. The more we come to know, the more we become aware of how much we don’t know. Every new discovery raises new issues and new challenges that have to be resolved.

Scientific knowledge viewed as objective knowledge is actually “qualified objective knowledge.” It is qualified, first of all, because of the fact that it is subject to change through new discoveries that calls into question, radically modify, or totally replace such previous knowledge. This is knowledge which up to the point of change was assumed to be truthful and objective with respect to explaining certain aspects of the nature of external reality. Secondly, scientific knowledge viewed as objective knowledge is actually “qualified objective knowledge” in that it remains at all times indirect knowledge of external reality gathered through our limited and imperfect human senses. Under these circumstances, external reality remains at all times enigmatic, mysterious and inscrutable in the totality of its being, as scientists are now admitting in their discovery of quantum mechanics.

The Problem For and About Atheists
I note that homosexuals may perhaps have compelling evidence which indicates that their sexual preference is the result of a natural-born or genetic-based inclination. However, while homosexuals may be natural-born that way, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “natural-born” atheists. I believe atheists become what they are by choice. In this regard, while there are surely various factors in the making of atheists, I have never run into a case where an atheist has said he or she came out of a religious environment that was enriching, liberating or uplifting (the kind of environment I personally know as a Christian. It was not always this way. I just learned how justifiably to make it so).

On the contrary, where I have seen the connection between the rise of atheism in a person and that person’s upbringing, it has invariably been the case of such a person becoming an atheist as a result of some traumatic, emotional and/or intellectual experience having to do with an unhealthy religious upbringing and/or an unhealthy growth environment and/or the ignorant behavior of some who have considered themselves religious.

Observations such as these have raised the question in my mind as to whether these people would ever have become atheists had they had the good fortune of being raised in a religious environment that was wholesome, liberating and uplifting rather than one where the religious practices were oppressive, abusive and driven by a lot of ignorance insofar as what constitutes healthy religious living or thinking.

Two examples of what I’m referring to are the atheists George H. Smith, author of the books, “Atheism: The Case Against God” and “Atheism, Ayn Rand, and other Heresies” and Sean Prophet, founder of the internet based “Black Sun Journal” ( I confess that I don’t know for certain, but after reading the autobiographical account of his upbringing, I now have good reason to believe that this Sean Prophet may well be the person hiding behind the name “Black Sun” who has posted a critique at the bottom of Part I of my 5 part series on atheism. So in an effort to understand atheists and what is their problem, let’s now examine the lives of these two atheists, based on their own accounts.

George H. Smith
We begin with the example of George H. Smith – In his book, “Atheism, Ayn Rand, and other Heresies,” George Smith devotes an entire chapter, entitled “My Path to Atheism,” to give an account of the environment he experienced in his growing and developing years and how this eventually led him to renounce religion and turn to atheism.

At the very beginning of his life, Smith relates how he had the misfortune (from a religious point of view) of being born to parents who, if not religiously dysfunctional, were at least religiously deficient and most definitely not in the religious mainstream. His father, according to Smith, did not demonstrate any “discernible religious convictions” and his mother was a “Universalist-Unitarian.” Clearly, this highly deficient (if not dysfunctional) combination of a probably quasi-religious mother and a non-religious dad became for the young Smith the first-makings of that fertile environment needed for the flowering of his eventual atheistic choice. In such an environment, Smith appeared to have the chance of an ice cube in hell that he would receive a wholesome religious upbringing.

Based on my own experience, I can say positively that a wholesome, enriching and liberating Christian religious experience will give a person the inner strength needed to face up to the many trying and perplexing encounters one has to face in life. In the face of such things, this strength in religion will prevent one from faltering or from so stumbling as to fall away completely from one’s faith. But given Smith’s deficient growth environment, a falling away from an insufficiently deepened Christian faith that he appeared to have, seemed somewhat predestined from the start. On top of this, aiding Smith on his slide toward atheism was the fact that he appeared to be a highly impressionable person from the time he was a young boy. In other words, he was highly reflective and sensitively aware, in intellectual, moral and emotional ways, of disturbing events taking place in his environment.

An event full of negative impact, for example, was that which Smith recounts of how as a young boy of 10 years, seeking to follow Christian teachings, he was confronted by a Sunday school teacher who, according to Smith’s description, was actually more of an ignorant Christian zealot than a wise teacher. In this confrontation, and according to Smith, this “teacher” told him that “only one person in ten makes it to heaven; the rest go to hell.”

For me, it has always been disturbing to hear or witness how well-meaning but ignorant Christian (or any other religious) zealots butcher their own religion through a lack of sensitivity and wisdom in what they say or do. But in spite of such disturbances, my faith survives it all. It survives these things because first of all, I know that all people of faith are not that way and it is my belief that a healthy religion does not require such things. Secondly, my faith survives these occurrences because my faith does not stand or fall on what foolish Christian or any other religious people may or may not do. Instead, my faith stands on my belief in who I believe Christ was and on what he accomplished.

In passing, it seems relevant to mention here that I am not impressed by atheistic claims that the Christian message is not unique because there were pagan religions known at the time of early Christianity which had similar claims as that of the Christian gospel. The fact remains that from its inception, Christianity, as recorded in the New Testament, was not a pagan but a Jewish religion through and through. As such, it was a religion that pinned its message in seamless continuity with Old Testament Jewish history. Christ and his message were proclaimed and documented meticulously to be a fulfillment of prophesies uttered by prophets of Israel from the ancient beginnings of the Jewish people as recorded in Old Testament history. So if you are going to “debunk” Christianity successfully, you first need to debunk the historicity of the Jewish Holy Scriptures. Try debunking that and see what the Jews have to say. That there were pagan religions in early Christianity which were in some aspects parallel to the Christian message is therefore merely coincidental and irrelevant.

Now back to Smith. With no healthy religious support at home to back him up, and through a particular set of life circumstances, Smith as a boy happened to get involved in a Protestant church Sunday School program. It was in this phase of his life that he had his first disturbing religious experience that was mentioned above. Perhaps it was the religious deficiency in his parents that made them indifferent to young Smith’s Sunday school attendance. At least they did not oppose it. Still, the fact remains that the indifference they had toward their son’s religious pursuit left the young man totally on his own to follow the religious path he did in his early years. Though he seemed at a young age to be very committed to follow Christianity, he clearly had no positive encouragement at home to do so.

In the midst of these circumstances, Smith mentions a second disturbing event that was also full of negative impact in his mind. It was an event surrounding the short life of his sister Susan. This happened while, as a military family, they were all living at an Air Force base. Following is the way Smith tells his readers of the event surrounding his little sister’s death:

Susan had died suddenly at age two. My mother, distraught with grief, was on the verge of a nervous breakdown when the base chaplain paid his expected visit. He explained that God had a mysterious purpose in taking my mother’s baby. My mother was furious. “What kind of God would kill an innocent baby?” she screamed. And why would that God put me through this torture?” She told the chaplain to leave and thereafter attributed her daughter’s death to a random, natural occurrence, without rhyme or reason.

Tragedy can strike anyone, religious or not. Yet tragedy or pain or sufferings of any kind do not necessarily lead to abandoning one’s faith in God. Christians throughout the history of their faith have experienced excruciating pain, tragedy and torturous brutality. Yet, though it all, they have endured this and their faith has grown deeper and stronger. So on the contrary, one’s faith has to be just sufficiently weak and immature and just sufficiently shallow for a falling away to take place. Given Smith’s growing environment, deficient as it was religiously speaking, it is not at all surprising to me that he faltered and eventually fell away from the extremely shallow and immature faith that he had.

As for God’s connection with suffering, I do not believe God is sadistic. I just simply believe that we suffer because we happen to live in an imperfect world where all kinds of evil and adversities take place. However, I do believe that God allows or permits these world “imperfections.” But because I do not believe this necessarily makes God sadistic or his goodness in the midst of suffering unreal, I can look beyond the suffering, keep my faith in an abiding goodness of God behind the suffering and patiently wait for his relief to come, even if this were only to mean the death of my body.

Furthermore, in my way of believing, nothing is random. All happens for a purpose, even suffering. But I am able to believe this only because of the deep faith that I have. This is something which apparently Smith never had, and which obviously he doesn’t know anything about. For atheists, this is their main problem. They talk to you as if they know all about religion or religious faith. But in fact, they only show their ignorance in doing so. That is why atheists will never succeed in overcoming religion…not even in a million years. Atheists tasted bad religion in their formative years and, based on this experience, made the error of concluding that this is all religion is or can be. How pathetic and unfortunate!

Atheists can also be compared to a man who is blind in one eye but who nonetheless tries to make himself and others believe that he can see from both sides of his face while in fact he can only see out of one and is blind-sided on the other.

So for Smith, given his poor religious upbringing, the rest of his life is predictable. He eventually left behind whatever little pieces of “Christian faith” he had. For a while he embraced the deism that was held by some of the American founding fathers. But after concluding that the god of deists was also not adequate enough to suit him, he made a full turn to atheism.

Black Sun
Now for our second atheist example, we have that of the founder and editor of the atheistic “Black Sun Journal,” Sean Prophet. According to Prophet’s autobiographical account, which he has posted on his website, we have what appears as a deja vu experience next to what we learned of George Smith, yet with its own strange peculiarities.

With Prophet, we again have another beginning as an impressionable young man cast in a bad religious environment. This time it is a religious organized cult with a strange mix of a puritanical brand of religion and a spooky, “science-fiction” type belief in what Prophet describes as “unseen beings.” According to Prophet, these beings were stern, threatening “overseers” who would protect you but, in return, expected from you a strict moral conduct. The beings were “angels, ‘cosmic beings’ from other planets, as well as ‘ascended’ historical figures from earth. Collectively, they were referred to as ‘Ascended Masters.'” Moreover, these beings were capable of taking away one’s chance of achieving immortality if you failed to obey sufficiently their puritanical moral dictates.

Concerning Prophet’s parents, they were, according to Prophet, “leaders of the organization, which they named the Summit Lighthouse, later known as Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT).” So here we go again, another young atheist in the making. In my lifetime, I have seen this happen more than once. These have been cases of young people who are forced into a legalistic mode of behavior based on religious belief and watching them fall away from faith, if not into atheism, then into the “nothing” of a nihilism where any belief, whether of god or no god, is irrelevant and meaningless.

I have personally discovered that healthy religion is not one where one is made to feel shame or fear for being moral imperfect. Instead, healthy religion is one in which one experiences a release from guilt associated with moral shortcomings. This release, in turn, gives one a strength of life that is profound, causing one’s faith to grow and be unshakeable.

In the case of Prophet, his childhood religious experience appears to have initially led him to withdraw deeply into himself. He relates how he led a life hemmed in by his parent’s beliefs: “I led a very sheltered life. I had to learn the hard way about subjectivity. I had painful encounters with peers in public elementary school who, I quickly discovered, didn’t believe any of what I’d been taught.” During these times, just barely as a young adult in his early twenties, he was elevated to positions of power in the CUT organization and there he took responsibilities that were more appropriate for older, mature adults.

So forced by circumstances to grow up faster than normal, Prophet, out of his impressionable nature, became intensely intrigued with human nature according to his account. It appears that it is at this point where one sees the slide toward atheism begin early in Prophet’s life. Prophet describes this phase in his life as follows, telling us what this eventually instilled in him:

All of this early drama has fostered my intense interest in human nature, (how could something like this have happened?) and a desire to define human experience in naturalistic terms. I needed to know what could lead human beings to imagine things that weren’t visible, and about which there was insufficient evidence. I needed to understand how someone could be so sure of these things, they would base their life on them. Finally, how could such invisible beings take positions on matters of earthly politics [said in reference to CUT’s political structure]?”

Prophet then describes how life in CUT was to him, in retrospect, as a “maelstrom” that “reeked of right-wing fundamentalism” combined with “Catholic guilt, the sacraments of communion, belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, along with near-Taliban-style restrictions on dress and human interaction.” He ends this description by saying:

It was this awareness, and the church’s [i.e. CUT’s] disastrous flirtation with millennialism and bomb shelters, that led to my decision in 1993 to finally and irrevocably break with anyone who still subscribed to that belief system.

In short, all that was characteristic of Prophet’s life in CUT led him to become so cynical about religion, he came to consider religion as deceptively dangerous. In this regard, he says, “Too bad religion doesn’t come with a parental advisory: WARNING: May be harmful to your sense of reality.”

I assume my readers do not need to be shown the fact that in both the case of George Smith and that of Sean Prophet, one begins to see a clear pattern of atheism, or rather of the makings thereof, clearly emerge. The pattern is too obvious: You get a taste of real rancid religion and somehow this awful experience is supposed to make you automatically an expert on what religion is all about. This, presumably, is supposed to lead you to conclude that all religion is bad. So as the logic goes, it follows that the only choice one has left, if you happen to be a thoughtful and reasonable person, is to embrace atheism and go around warning people of how dangerous religion is. It is this farcical atheist way of thinking that needs now to be exposed for the sham that it is.

[tags]John Garrison, atheists, god, jesus, religious discussion, black sun[/tags]