—A real basis for hope

Do you believe in the supernatural? Why or why not?

This course provides an opportunity to explore theist beliefs and the nature of reality.

If you are content with your present religious beliefs, then there is nothing for you here. Please move on and enjoy the comfort, serenity, and certainty those beliefs provide you.

However, if you are perplexed or skeptical, and have begun to question the beliefs and teachings of the religion you learned earlier in life, this course may help you discover a helpful alternative. Please only proceed with this course if you are open to examining your own religious beliefs. Discontinue the course immediately if it is causing you unwelcomed distress or undue discomfort.

Course Objectives: edit

The objectives of this course are to:

  • Examine and explore the assumptions of theism,
  • Increase your tolerance and openness to experience,
  • Provide a basis for belief that corresponds with reality,
  • Provide a firm basis for moral guidance,
  • Provide a firm basis for hope,
  • Help you think beyond doctrine,
  • Seek real good,
  • Encourage you to explore the nature of reality, and discover new insights, and
  • Help you better understand how you decide what to believe.

There are no specific prerequisites to this course, however you may benefit from completing the course Knowing How You Know.

  Completion status: this resource is considered to be complete.
  Attribution: User lbeaumont created this resource and is actively using it. Please coordinate future development with this user if possible.

The course contains many hyperlinks to further information. Use your judgment and these link following guidelines to decide when to follow a link, and when to skip over it.

This course is part of the Applied Wisdom curriculum.

If you wish to contact the instructor, please click here to send me an email.

Tolerance and Compassion edit

Begin by understanding the extent and limits of tolerance. Become open to the opinions of others and tolerant of their own beliefs, while insisting on clear thinking, logical consistency, and correspondence with reality.

Assignment: edit

Read the Charter for Compassion. Put it into practice in your own life.

Practice compassion by treating others as you wish to be treated. Do no harm.

Read the essay Transcending Dogma.

Study the virtue of tolerance by studying the Tolerance module of the Wikiversity Virtues course.

Complete the assignment in that module.

Evaluate your faith community based who it welcomes and includes rather than by who it excludes.

Origin Stories edit

Many religions provide specific origin stories, describing in great detail how the earth was formed and how life began.

Assignment: edit

Read this list of creation myths.

Choose the one that most appeals to you.

Describe how you chose that particular story from among all those listed.

When you do not know the answer to a question, do you: 1) deflect the question, 2) answer a different question, 3) make up an answer, or 4) simply say that you do not know the answer? Why? Give examples.

Scientist have long explored the universe, examined evidence, and continued to refine an evidence-based description of the origins of the universe. The big bang theory is the prevailing cosmological model of the early development of the universe. Although the theory still leaves several questions unanswered—notably what preceded the big bang, what caused it, and exactly what “banged”—the theory is based on a multitude of real world evidence. Compare the basis, credibility, consistency, and unanswered questions of a scientific cosmogony such as the big bang theory to the origin story you selected above.

Origin stories typically begin somewhere and at some time, often with an originator—someone or some thing that starts the origination process. Describe what preceded the originator in the origin story you have chosen. Describe the origin of that originator.

Study the scientific descriptions of the origins of life.

Compare and contrast the scientific explanation of the origins of life to your chosen origin story. Which description better corresponds to reality? Which is based on more extensive explorations? Which is more evidence based? Which is a result of more openness to growth and discovery? Which is more credible? Describe why.

Optional Assignment edit

View this video: We Need A Modern Origin Story: A Big History, A conversation with David Christian

Describe how your chosen origin story is coherent with the origin story outlined in the video.

In what ways, if any, do you think differently about your origin story to increase its coherence with the story outlined in the video?

Moral Guidance edit

Most religions provide moral guidance to their followers. While much of this guidance is helpful and well intentioned, much of it is archaic, arbitrary, sectarian, divisive, and inconsistent.

More universal elements of moral reasoning include:

Assignment: edit

Complete the Wikiversity course on Virtues.

Compare and contrast the moral guidance provided by your chosen religion to that provided by the Virtues course.

Which source provides a more consistent and rigorous foundation for your moral decisions? Why?

  • Does a deep understanding of the golden rule combined with accurate empathy provide a firmer and more consistent basis for moral decision making than theist-based moral codes?

Complete the Wikiversity course on Moral Reasoning.

Optional Assignment 2:

The Euthyphro dilemma poses the question: “Is what is morally good commanded by God because it is morally good, or is it morally good because it is commanded by God?” How do you answer this question? Why? Compare your answer to those given by philosophers over the centuries.

Care of the Soul edit

Many religions promise to protect and preserve the soul.

Assignment: edit

Based on your current religious beliefs, describe what is meant by the “soul”.

Describe exactly what is meant by the “soul”? Is it something apart from your body and brain? If so, what is it? Is the soul biologically based or based on something non-biological? What evidence is there for the existence such a “soul”?

Describe specifically how the religious concept of soul differs from secular concepts of:

Some theists believe in the existence of a detachable soul[1]. This immaterial entity is believed to be the seat of awareness, conscience, and experience and is capable of persisting after the body has died and decayed. If you hold this belief, describe the features and functions of this detachable soul in detail. What functions of the mind such as memory, conciseness, awareness, etc., are provided by this detachable soul rather than by the brain? How do you explain why this detachable soul does not seem able to sustain memories in Alzheimer patients and others with dementia?

If you are concerned you will lose your self unless you believe in a detachable soul, consider completing the course Unmasking the True Self.

Afterlife edit

Many religions provide detailed descriptions of the afterlife.

Assignment: edit

Light a short candle and watch the flame burn.

Notice carefully to where the flame goes when the candle burns to the end.

Describe how your concept of an afterlife is similar to and different from the afterlife of the flame you observed above.

What empirical evidence is there for the existence of an afterlife?

Recognize that life is a verb, not a noun. When you stop running the run simply ends, the run does not go anywhere. Similarly upon death our lives simply stop.

Theists often defend their belief in an afterlife by challenging skeptics to prove them wrong. What, if any, falsifiable claims are made by the description of afterlife you believe in?

When a theist challenges a skeptic to prove theist beliefs wrong, they are assigning the burden of proof to the skeptic. When a theist makes a non-falsifiable claim, where do you believe the burden of proof belongs? Why?

A Certain Afterlife edit

Although there is no evidence for the existence of a detachable soul[2], or for a supernatural heaven, there is overwhelming evidence of an afterlife consisting of the enduring memories, influences, reputation, progeny, and information you create. Aristotle, William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton, and Beethoven are remembered fondly today for the many remarkable and enduring gifts they have provided humanity.

“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave behind.” ~ Dakota Indian Proverb

Ensure the tracks you leave are real good.

Hope and Optimism edit

Religious belief provides hope, optimism, and comfort to many believers. Alternatively, you can hope for a better world here on earth, and take steps to make it happen.

Assignment: edit

Part 1:

If you wish for peace on earth, good will toward all, describe the steps you are taking to make that happen.

  • Complete the Wikiversity course on Envisioning Our Future.
  • Describe your vision of life on earth as you would like to see it.
  • Describe the steps you are taking to make that happen.

Part 2:

How do you define hope?

How do you define faith?

Check the dictionary definitions of these two words.

Are they synonyms? If not, how do they differ?

Prayer edit

Many religions advocate the use of prayer as a way to appeal to a deity for guidance, demonstrate humility, or to ask for some favored outcome. Introspection and reflection can provide guidance without requiring an appeal to the supernatural.

Assignment edit

If you need guidance in solving a problem, reflect on the problem, consult the material in the moral reasoning course or the virtues course, or ask a trusted adviser for advice. Make a wise decision.

If you want help in preventing or solving a problem, reflect on the problem, seek expert guidance, do your best, and then ask for help from people who can provide the help. Consider completing the course on solving problems.

If you seek solitude or introspection, sit quietly. Consider practicing some form of meditation, or guided introspection.

Consider completing the Wikiversity course Quiet Mind.

Community and Companionship edit

People often enjoy a sense of community and companionship they get from attending religious services or other religion-affiliated activities. There are many ways to enjoy community and companionship while working together to do good.

Assignment edit

Find an organization in your community that is dedicated to solving real problems in your community. This may be a food bank, a clothing drive, a child-care service, an elder-care service, environmental action, or some other pro-social charitable function.

Join and participate.

If no such organization exists, then discover what the most important problems are and gather a group of community members to solve those problems. Alternatively, donate to GiveWell.

Consider joining an existing secularist organization.

Optional Assignment 2:

Complete the Wikiversity course on Doing Good.

Faith edit

We often use the word faith to explain or justify our beliefs or actions. It is important to recognize, however, that we may be using the single word faith with several related, but distinct meanings. In particular, we may use the word “faith” in these three ways:

  • Faith as an extrapolation of evidence—Statements such as “I have faith the train will arrive on time” are typically based on relevant past experience with the arrival of similar trains. It is essentially an application of inductive reasoning to the question “will the train arrive on time?” Similarly, you may express your faith in another person. A statement such as “I have faith in John, I’m sure he will do the right thing” is based on your assessment of John’s character as a result of knowing, based on your experience of his actions, how he has reacted and handled similar situations in the past. Here the word faith is being used as a synonym for the word "forecast".
  • Faith in the absence of evidence—Statements such as “I have faith I passed the test” or “I hope (have faith) this boring meeting ends soon” express you optimistic speculation for a particular outcome. Such statements are based on little or no evidence, but do express your preferred outcome. Here the word faith is being used as a synonym for hope.
  • Faith despite evidenceTruth claims, such as “There is an afterlife”, “Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary”, “God will punish you for this”, “The bible is the word of God”, “Ours is the one true prophet” and other claims of fact based on faith, especially despite countervailing evidence, are unreliable. It is important to distinguish between claims of belief and claims of fact when appealing to faith. While it is valid to justify a belief based on faith, it is invalid to base a factual claim based on faith. Faith is an unreliable epistemology. Faith is an unreliable way of knowing.

Because the word faith has these several related but distinct meanings, dialogues between theists and non-theists often degenerate into fallacies of equivocation. For example, a statement such as “You have faith the train will arrive on time, so I am justified in having faith that ours is the true prophet” are invalid argument because the single word “faith” is used in this argument with two different meanings.

Avoid the fallacy of equivocation when using the word "faith". Avoid using faith alone to justify truth claims, especially in the presence of countervailing evidence. Choose the more exact synonym, such as: hope, confidence, belief, estimation, projection, extrapolation, forecast, prediction, or wish instead of faith to more clearly express your meaning.

Assignment edit

  1. Complete the Wikiversity course on Seeking True Beliefs.
  2. Seek true beliefs.
  3. Read the essay advance no falsehoods.
  4. Advance no falsehoods.
  5. Attend some religious service.
    1. Listen closely to the doctrine, rituals, sermons, proclamations, readings, and creeds that are delivered or proclaimed.
    2. Identify the falsehoods, if any, advanced by those communications.

Role Models edit

It may be helpful to become familiar with exemplary role models of secular people.

Assignment edit

  1. Scan this list of famous secular humanists.
  2. Identify people from this list who can provide you with valuable role models.
  3. View this video on the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza. Perhaps you will now find it safe to practice the philosophy he advocated.

Knowing how you know edit

Many of the assignments in this course are designed to challenge your beliefs. This may have left you feeling a bit uncomfortable or disoriented. To reestablish a firm foundation for understanding and believing, it is helpful to know how you know.

“Theology, like all fields of knowing, is obligated to an openness to growth and discovery that is fundamental to being human and to earnest concern for the ever deepening knowledge of reality.” Michael Polanyi tells us, “Theology cannot be true to the nature of tacit knowing without a dynamic growth in its own field.”[3]

Assignment edit

Complete the Wikiversity course Facing Facts.

Complete the Wikiversity course Knowing How You Know.

Describe your current beliefs regarding:

  • The origins of the universe,
  • The origins of life,
  • Your basis for moral guidance,
  • The soul,
  • Afterlife,
  • Hope and optimism, and
  • Prayer.

What is your basis for each belief? Where do you have doubts?

Is faith a reliable epistemology? Why or why not?

Think beyond the doctrine. Continue your exploration. Seek real good.

Non-Theism is the Null Hypothesis edit

Everyday people see birds and bees and flowers and trees. We see the sun rise and set each day, the phases of the moon cycle each month, and seasons come and go each year. It is natural to be curious about the origins of these wonders of the universe. We can propose various explanations for what we see, including their perpetual existence, spontaneous creation, emergence from the laws of physics, or the creations of some pre-existing omnipotent agent. Each of these speculations suggest some hypothesis about the origins of what we see around us. How can we best choose among these various hypotheses? Carefully examining representative evidence is the most reliable way to choose among alternative hypothesis. Each proponent of a hypothesis bears the burden of proving reliable evidence supports their hypothesis more strongly than any competing hypothesis. Said more simply, those who make the claim that God exists bear the burden of proving that claim above alternative explanations. Non-theism is the null hypothesis—the simplest assumption. Non-theism is the parsimonious worldview. Theists bear the burden of proving their claims. Theists have not met their burden of proof; physicists and other scientists are meeting theirs.

Philosopher Bertrand Russell used the analogy of Russell's teapot to illustrate this point.

When a theist challenges “You can’t prove god does not exist” he is using a clever manipulation to misplace the burden of proof. Because the theist is claiming the existence of god, it is the theist who bears the burden of proving the existence of god. The non-theist is making no such claim, and therefore holds no reasonable obligation to disprove a claim he is not making.

Supernatural claims are unfounded. Supernatural beliefs are unfounded. Stories based on supernatural beliefs are fantasies. Seek true beliefs. Seek real good.

Non-Theism is the intellectually honest worldview.

Theism is only a story; reality is our common ground. Find common ground.

Assignment edit

Do you believe the Loch Ness Monster exists? Why or why not? How do you know?

Because evidence for the existence of the Loch Ness Monster is sparse, indirect, inconsistent, and not reproduced, we will choose “No Loch Ness Monster” as the null hypothesis.

  1. Where does the burden of proof lie? Why?
  2. Research the evidence that supports the existence of the Loch Ness Monster.
  3. Research the evidence supporting the null hypothesis, that the Loch Ness Monster does not exist.
  4. Based on your review of the evidence, do you believe the Loch Ness Monster exists? Why or why not?
  5. Has the null hypothesis been disproved?
  6. Repeat this exercise replacing “Loch Ness Monster” with “God”.

Proving a negative edit

Is there a rhinoceros in the room? How do you know?

Although we often hear that you cannot prove a negative (provide conclusive evidence of absence), a simple example shows that we can.

Assignment edit

  1. Scan the room you are currently occupying.
  2. Answer the question “Is there a rhinoceros in the room?”.
  3. If you can confirm there is no rhinoceros present, how were you able to do so?
    1. Hint, the sensory devices you used to scan the area were sensitive enough to detect a rhinoceros if one was present. You did not see one, hear one, nor smell one so you can confidently conclude that no rhinoceros is present.

What there is edit

Physicists have made remarkable progress in identifying the building blocks of our universe. Rigorous investigations have confirmed the existence of the particles and forces constituting the standard model. Gravity is well known. Despite the most exhaustive searches, there is no evidence of anything that could cause or explain supernatural phenomena. There is no reliable evidence of supernatural phenomena. Those who claim the existence of supernatural phenomenon bear the burden of providing evidence to prove their claims.

Assignment edit

  1. Read the essay What there is.
  2. If you continue to believe in the existence of supernatural phenomenon, gather the evidence and present your case. Take care to gather enough evidence to demonstrate the existence of some particle or force unknown to science.

Recognize Loyalty Signals edit

Signaling loyalty to the faith is very important to many theists. Loyalty symbols include distinctive headgear, clothing, grooming styles, ornamentation, iconic displays, arduous rituals, and especially a professed belief in readily contradicted dogma.

Learn to recognize when group members are signaling team loyalty. Read this essay on Resolving a Vital Paradox and notice when people are signaling their team loyalty rather than adopting a global perspective. Reflect on the value of team loyalty compared to a global perspective. When do you choose team loyalty over a global perspective? Why do you make that choice?

Consider Coming Out edit

If this course has changed your thinking, if you are now inclined to question or reject theist beliefs, if you have begun to think of yourself as a non-theist, then perhaps you want to tell others of your current thinking.

If you have long relied on faith, religious beliefs derived from that faith, and social structures supporting those beliefs, you may feel lost as you begin thinking more clearly and critically. This can be a difficult adjustment period. Several resources that can help as you make this transition are listed here.

“Inquiry and wonder must replace dogmatism and certainty.” — Peter Boghossian

You can obtain guidance and support for your decision to share your secular beliefs with others at the openly secular website.

Other resources that may help you move on are listed here:

  • The Out Campaign is a public awareness initiative for freethought and atheism in the US.
  • Recovering from Religion is an international non-profit organization, that helps people who have left or are in the process of leaving religion to deal with any impacts of leaving their faith by creating support groups, providing a telephone hotline for "people in their most urgent time of need", as well as offering a range of online tools and practical resources.
  • The RationalWiki article "Atheism FAQ for the Newly Deconverted", may help you find your way out of darkness and confusion and into a place where you can be happy making reality-based, open-minded decisions on your own. It is by no means comprehensive, as no single document ever can be, but instead hopes to answer your most pressing questions.
  • In the article "Advice to people who leave the fold", John Loftus shares his answer to a typical email he has received from a person transitioning out of her faith-based belief system.

Real Good Religion edit

Having advanced beyond theism, it is likely you are ready to practice a Real Good Religion.

Assignment edit

Study the Wikiversity course Real Good Religion.

Quotations edit

  • "Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities." ~ Voltaire
  • "There is nothing divine about morality; it is a purely human affair." ~ Albert Einstein
  • "There is a fundamental kinship between the wonder and awe of worship and the dialogue of science with the realities of the universe." ~ Richard Gelwick paraphrasing Michael Polanyi[4]

References edit

  1. Musolino, Julien (January 6, 2015). The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. Prometheus Books. pp. 287. ISBN 978-1616149628. 
  2. Musolino, Julien (January 6, 2015). The Soul Fallacy: What Science Shows We Gain from Letting Go of Our Soul Beliefs. Prometheus Books. pp. 287. ISBN 978-1616149628. 
  3. Gelwick, Richard (May 12, 2004). The Way of Discovery, an introduction to the thought of Michael Polanyi. Wipf & Stock. pp. 200. ISBN 978-1592446872.  Page 132
  4. Gelwick, Richard (May 12, 2004). The Way of Discovery, an introduction to the thought of Michael Polanyi. Wipf & Stock. pp. 200. ISBN 978-1592446872.  Page 135

Further Reading edit

Students interested in exploring theism and possibilities beyond theism may wish to study the following materials:

I have not yet read the following books, but they seem interesting and relevant. They are listed here to invite further research.

  • Religion for Atheists
  • The book series Building your own theology
  • Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship By Robert W. Fuller
  • Religion without God by Ronald Dworkin
  • Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris
  • Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible by Jerry A. Coyne
  • Mom, Dad, I'm an Atheist: The Guide to Coming Out as a Non-believer by David G McAfee
  • Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World by David Silverman and Cara Santa Maria
  • If God Is Love, Don't Be a Jerk: Finding a Faith That Makes Us Better Humans by John Pavlovitz
  • Unfollow: A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church, by Megan Phelps-Roper