Death and the Meaning of Life

Photo Credit: yuzu via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: yuzu via Compfight cc

I still remember finding her that morning: cold, still, and lifeless. Her eyes were open and her belly bloated. My dad said she probably died trying to give birth. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. Fluffy, whom I loved with all my 9-year old heart, was gone.

I went to school in a daze. I couldn’t focus. I thought of how she would come dashing towards me the moment I stepped out of the house and called her name; how she would scratch my pants and jump at me when I came home from school; how I would invent imaginary conversations between the two of us as we played and rolled on the floor, until my parents or one of my sisters spoiled the fun by telling me to go take a bath because I smelled like a dog already.

I went home from school and the reality of her absence hit me when there were no joyful barks to greet me. I went to my room and cried. I had crying spells for the entire week. I asked my dad if I would see her again in heaven but he said that animals don’t have souls and they don’t go to either heaven or hell. That made me very sad because I very much wanted to see Fluffy again. I scoured my Bible looking for a hint that perhaps there were animals in heaven after all, but I found none.

Nevertheless, I still believed that she was there waiting for me. One night, I dreamed of her floating amidst the clouds and I was there as well, and we were floating, playing, and chasing each other in white paradise. I woke up and felt content, sure that this was God’s way of telling me that despite what other people say, Fluffy was indeed in heaven and I would see her again someday. That calmed me and took away some of the grief, and I slept better after that.

Today I believe in neither heaven nor hell, but that experience of extreme sorrow gave me a glimpse of why people since time immemorial have invented different tales of the afterlife. Knowing that a loved one still exists somewhere, and is at peace and happy, has a soothing effect and takes away some of the sting of loss.

I have been to few funerals the past year and in all of them, the phrase “at least, he/she is now in a better place” inevitably crops up. That is how the faithful comfort each other and give each other hope to go on and continue living.

The unbeliever has no such source of comfort. At worst, death is the end, the cessation of chemical reactions in the brain that gives rise to one’s consciousness and self. At best, death is a mystery and if anything at all happens beyond it, we still have to find good evidence for it.

Some people have ventured to me that it is because of this hope in the afterlife that they cling to their faith, because the alternative is unpalatable. They think life is meaningless if it simply ends. I think that is mainly why people tenaciously cling to some belief in life after death — whether it be some sort of paradise, reincarnation, nirvana, and so on.

However, I cannot bring myself to think that just because of this uncertainty, then I must necessarily cling to a story that has no conclusive proof. Even the numerous testimonies of near death experiences have scientific explanations and usually involve images that reflect the religious traditions the person has been exposed to. In short, they are most likely hallucinations or dream-like visions created by the person’s own brain (but hey, don’t take my word for it — do go and do your own research on the matter).

We go back to the question of meaning. What is the meaning of life it simply ends?

I have come to look at it this way — that life has meaning precisely because it ends. Every good story has an ending. Can you imagine watching a movie that just goes on and on and on? That would be a meaningless story. And in the end, we are all stories whose meaning is intertwined with all those whom we share a connection.

Maybe we have grown so self-centered that we think our lives mean something only for ourselves. But no, our lives have meaning beyond ourselves, and when we are gone, it is the others who are still alive who step back and look at what we have accomplished, how we have touched them and made their own more beautiful. That their lives or the meaning we have created for them is temporary does not make it any less meaningful. Whoever said that meaning has to be eternal for it to be meaningful?

Death may be the next grand adventure — or it may not be. Whatever the case, it doesn’t matter for me. I have a family to love, friends to cherish and a weekly column to write. I have too much to do in this life to be worrying about the next one, if there is one at all.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is currently busy playing in the clouds with Fluffy. You may leave a message at andy@freethinking.me.

When Faith Becomes Fatal

Photo Credit: fabiogis50 +2000k Thank you!!!! via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: fabiogis50 +2000k Thank you!!!! via Compfight cc

Last week, I wrote about why faith is not a virtue and that generated some interesting discussions from people I know, both online and offline. Aside from the usual threats of hellfire and damnation (which is getting boring, really), I got some objections that I defined or understood “faith” wrongly, that life is basically uncertain and that we still need faith in some circumstances.

A certain Alfred Fajardo posted a comment on my blog and said:

Mr. Andy, I’ve been reading your blog for a long time, and I often find good insights and new questions to ponder on from it. But for tonight, I hope you won’t mind a little dissonance as it hopefully will provide a new kind of resonance.

How about interpreting Jesus’ words of providing for us not as literal protection from natural and man made phenomena like failing a test or germs getting to us but rather as pointers to the natural, as figurative language? When he says he provides for the birds and trees, I see it as him talking about how they don’t “worry” the way humans do. How all these organisms, as they live and die, form the biogeochemical cycle which will sustain the earth until the earth itself is destroyed.

As a whole, perhaps faith is something transcendent beyond our daily worries, not faith in certainties, but faith in uncertainty, that at the end of it all, we’ll become a better race.

Thanks Alfred, I don’t mind dissonance (I seem to be creating a lot of it anyway). Yes, we can reinterpret the word “faith” as you suggested, just as people reinterpret the word “God” in different ways. However, I think you would agree with me that most people do not think that way. The common usage of the word “faith” in the Philippine context is not figurative but literal, just as the word “God” is synonymous to “Jesus” for around 80% of Filipinos. For brevity and quick comprehension, I chose to use those words in the way they are most commonly understood.

Like you, I am all for humanity becoming a better race. However, I would suggest a better word to express your desire — not “faith” in uncertainty, but “hope” that things will be better in the future.

Faith is not the same as hope although a lot of people tend to confuse the two. Faith is a false sense of certainty of something you have no idea about. Hope allows for uncertainty but wishes for the best. Faith makes people do irrational acts. Hope allows for more rationality, second-guessing, and planning for the worst even while expecting the best.

For the faithful who are unconvinced of how I define faith, let me point out how the Bible talks about it. Hebrews 11 is well-known as the Bible’s Who’s Who of faith. The chapter begins with the grandiose statement: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.”

A popular Christian song echoes this sentiment with the lines, “to hear with my heart, to see with my soul; to be guided by a hand I cannot hold; to trust in a way that I cannot see, that’s what faith must be.”

Hebrews 11 then proceeds to commend certain individuals who “lived by faith” such as Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses and other Israelite heroes.Their stories involve hearing a command or receiving a vision from God, and acting on it even without proof or evidence of its reality, even if the act is absurd (building a huge boat on dry land) or downright abominable (killing one’s own son).

Those are not figurative but literal and concrete acts that seem to defy reason and the Bible upholds these actions as commendable and these characters as worthy examples to be emulated. How does that translate to modern times?

How about the story of Madeline Kara Neumann, age 11 (reported in ABC News last March 27, 2008)? When Madeline became severely sick, her parents didn’t take her to the doctor because they had faith that God would heal her through their prayers. She died soon thereafter and the parents were eventually convicted of reckless homicide. But these were not evil parents. I believe they loved their daughter with all their hearts and wanted her to get well. They were just following what their preacher preached: “We are not commanded in scripture to send people to the doctor but to meet their needs through prayer and faith.”

Or how about the story of Mark Randall Wolford, a pastor from West Virginia (reported in NBC News last May 30, 2012), who believed that in order to prove their faith, Christians should handle snakes, and he didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the talk as well and handled snakes himself. He died, unsurprisingly, from a snake bite. What is surprising is that he persisted in this belief even when as a teenager, he himself saw his father, also a pastor with the same snake-handling belief, die of a snake bite. But they were not insane, they were holding on, by faith, to what was proclaimed in Mark 16:17-18: “And these signs will follow those who believe: in My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”

These are not isolated incidents. There are many similar stories such as these. The Huffington Post reports that “At least 303 children have died since 1975 after medical care was withheld on religious grounds.” That’s only the reported cases in the United States. How about those that go on in other countries?

However, whatever else you may say about these people, you cannot argue that they did not have faith. They did. In fact, they had more faith than most people. They had conviction to follow through on their beliefs. They were willing to put their lives and the lives of those they loved on the line, very much like Abraham or Noah. But their faith went unrewarded and proved both fatal and tragic in the end.

That is why I do not believe that faith is a valid way to look at or interpret truth or reality. Faith is pretense and false assurance. Nothing more.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

This article also appears in Filipino Freethinkers.

Andy Uyboco is the Meetup Director of Filipino Freethinkers Davao Chapter and is inviting Davao residents to join their next meetup on January 25, 2014 (Saturday) at 7:30 PM Cafe Demitasse, F. Torres St., Davao City. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me.

Why Faith Is Not A Virtue

Brick-Trinity

This article is for those who think that faith is a virtue. I would like to propose that it is not.

Over the centuries, the religious have extolled faith as a virtue, as a valid method of seeing reality, and that idea has taken such a deep root in our culture. Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life declares that faith is “trusting God in spite of unanswered questions and unresolved doubts” and this sounds so deep and comforting but it’s really just a another way of saying, “I don’t understand anything that’s happening and I can’t do anything about it but I’m hoping for the best.” What does “trusting God” even mean when people can’t even agree what “God” means?

Peter Boghossian, author of A Manual for Creating Atheists, defines faith as “pretending to know things you don’t know” and that seems like a very flippant way to put it. But if you happen to be a person of faith and are offended by that, my request is that you forgive the offense for a couple of minutes (forgiveness is also a virtue) and think about it.

In all those instances that you claim faith, isn’t it true that those are instances that you don’t really know but instead simply choose to believe? Because if there were proof and evidence in the first place, then you wouldn’t need to invoke faith. You simply point to the evidence. Take gravity, for example. It would be absurd to talk about having faith in gravity because there is overwhelming evidence for it. In other words we know gravity.

However, when we talk about something like Noah’s Ark and the global flood story – even amidst all the evidence and experts’ opinions pointing out its improbability – a sizeable number of people still choose “by faith” to believe that it’s true, even if they don’t really know whether it happened or not. In fact, they refuse to know. They rarely have the drive to do research and read contrary opinions – perhaps they are afraid that their faith may be shaken and they will no longer be on the list of “good and faithful servants” who never gave up their beliefs, who were foolish enough to test their faith. After all, didn’t God say, “Do not put the Lord God to the test (Leviticus 6:16)?”

So think of all the things you accept “by faith” (like the doctrine of the Holy Trinity) and honestly see if it isn’t true that you are simply pretending to know things you don’t really know.

Faith is not a very good way to live. It kills wonder, inquiry and research. It is not a virtue. And nobody really lives by faith all the time in all aspects of life.

Think about this:

If faith is so commendable, why don’t you simply have faith and pray when you get sick? Why do you go to the doctor? Why do you take medicine?

Why do you work hard to earn money to survive and feed your family? Why not have faith that God will provide? Didn’t Jesus say that all you have to do is to “seek his kingdom” and he will provide food, drink and clothing just as he provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field (Matthew 6:25-33)?

For students, why do you study hard for exams? Why not have enough faith that God will provide the right answers at the right time?

Why do you wash your hands before you eat? Or brush your teeth before you sleep? Why not have faith that God will kill those pesky germs and protect you from disease?

Now, I’m sure you have rational and sensible answers for each of these questions and that’s just the point. If you apply reason and rationality to these aspects of your life, doesn’t it make sense to apply it to ALL aspects of your life?

Why do you use reason for practical living yet cling to faith for aspects of your life that are unsure and unknown? If faith were such a virtue, then you would apply it to every facet of your life, not just as a stopgap to fill in the holes in your knowledge and understanding, which is exactly what primitive people did. When they encountered something they did not understand, they would attribute it to either a god or goddess, spirits, angels or demons.

But it is now the 21st century. Reason, science, and logic have been proven to work time and again. When you build an airplane based on scientific principles, it flies. When you use mathematics to put a satellite in orbit, it stays there. When you put medicine through double-blind placebo-controlled tests, you have better assurance that it will cure what it needs to cure.

Now I will admit that there are still many things we do not understand and many things we do not know – but the proven and tested way to gain more knowledge and understanding is not faith, but by applying reason, science and logic.

That is my Holy Trinity.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

This article also appears in Filipino Freethinkers.

Andy Uyboco is the Meetup Director of Filipino Freethinkers Davao Chapter and is inviting Davao residents to join their next meetup on January 25, 2014 (Saturday) at 7:30 PM Cafe Demitasse, F. Torres St., Davao City. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Photo Credit: 'PixelPlacebo' via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: ‘PixelPlacebo’ via Compfight cc

My wife asked me, how about the message of love? Isn’t that the central message that Jesus preached?

Well, I have no arguments against love. It is what makes life worth living for me. Yet the concept of love was not unique to Jesus as it can also be found in other texts, some of them older than Jesus, like those of the Buddha or the Tao Te Ching.

However, it is the very concept of love that makes me reject the central doctrine of Christianity – that unless one believes in Jesus, he will be condemned and punished for all eternity. That doesn’t sound like love at all. That sounds more like blackmail.

People make such a fuss about Jesus willingly going through suffering, pain and death because of his love for us. However, what is a few hours worth of pain and suffering for an eternal God when he already knows that he is going to live again anyway? There was no real threat, danger or loss so was it really that great a sacrifice? In fact, if God were indeed the all-powerful creator, then all of this seems to be just an elaborate drama he created to amuse himself.

“Oh but he is perfectly just. He can’t just forgive sins.”

Really? He can’t? Who’s going to stop him?

“But justice demands payment or punishment. God can’t go against his nature of being perfectly just.”

Again, really? Are you telling me that God cannot do what humans can do with relative ease — to go against our own nature, to forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones, water under the bridge and all that?

Probably the most quoted passage in the Bible is John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (NIV)

You know what that sounds like? Imagine yourself trapped on a roof in the middle of a storm. The water is rising fast. Out of nowhere you see a man in a lifeboat approaching. Then the man shouts and says, “Hey, the town mayor knows your situation. He loves you, that’s why he sent me to tell you that you can get on this boat and be saved but you can only do that if you also profess to love the mayor and promise to vote for him during the next election. So what will it be?”

If you think that’s ridiculous, well, I agree. Now think about John 3:16 again.

In fact, this passage only seems to about love but it is really about fear and guilt.

If it were really about love, then there would be no need for the artificial guilt created by trying to convince us that we are somehow to blame for the suffering and death of God’s son because our great-great-great-great-great grandparents decided to disobey a silly command not to eat a fruit that was so conveniently placed in the middle of the garden where they lived. It’s almost like placing a loaded gun on your child’s bed and telling him not to touch it.

If it were really about love, there would be no need for the threat of eternal punishment for those who don’t believe at face value, for those who question and ask for evidence, and who actually care about establishing truth in as logical and scientific manner as possible, knowing that there are many charlatans going about, and not only charlatans but people who are sincere, but wrong nonetheless.

A deity who possesses perfect love would have no need to use fear. Love would be the only language that deity would ever need. Sadly, that is not the Christian message — at least not the traditional one.

Perhaps those so fond of preaching hellfire and brimstone should reflect on yet another verse in the Bible that says, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18 NIV).

If you think about it, the most logical way that we can truly thrive and be happy on this planet is (cliche though it may sound) by truly caring for and loving our fellow humans, and also other beings, and our environment.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear. That is perhaps the only message we need to hear.

Originally published in Sunstar Davao.

Andy Uyboco is a businessman by profession and an educator by obsession. You may email him at andy@freethinking.me. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.

 

Making Religion Accountable

I just read this on the status update of Seth Andrews, host of The Thinking Atheist Radio Podcast and I thought it was worth reblogging (with his permission, of course):

I get these kind of messages from theists quite often:
__

Now lets just say for a moment you are right.THERE IS NO GOD. This world somehow created itself ,there is no meaning to this life,we are born,shuffle around for a few years and then cease to exist. Fair enough,good luck to you if you really believe that. BUT.If you believe all of us Christians and believers of God in other faiths are delusional why not be happy for us that we have found a delusion that makes us happyand more caring and gives us meaning.
__

And again, my response:

The world didn’t create itself, but was instead the result of a singularity 13.7 billion years ago, its cause not yet known, but also not lending itself to the Magic Man in the Sky theories. In this regard, gods are no better explanations than fairies and pixie dust.

We aren’t preaching as much as responding. Religion, by design, ripples outward. It has a Great Commission to “go ye into all the world and preach.” It indoctrinates children, often with a fear of Hell. It infects political systems. It contaminates science books with pseudoscience. It posits false history. And in the Age of Information, it is crumbling as a reputable source for facts, purpose and morality.

If religion wasn’t on the offense, pounding on our doors and seeking to make converts worldwide, if it only stayed blissfully and innocuously inside the happy-clappy hearts of the believers, the need for a response wouldn’t be so great.

Photo Credit: Simone Lovati via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: Simone Lovati via Compfight cc

But religion doesn’t stay locked up. It not only seeks to spread, but it also claims the high ground, spewing nonsense from a mountain of superstition. It must be addressed, countered and ultimately run through the gauntlet of science, reason and the evidence.

“Happy” is certainly something we should all strive for. But “Happy” isn’t our measuring stick for determining truth. We’d rather know an uncomfortable fact than embrace a happy falsehood. And in our lives of evidence-based discovery, we have plenty of joy, purpose, meaning and love.

Face it. Religion is simply upset because, finally, somebody’s holding up a hand of skepticism about its wild claims and requiring the pastors, preachers and pundits to substantiate those claims. This doesn’t make religion a victim. It makes religion accountable.

And it’s about time.

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