Beyond Theism

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—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.

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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.

Assignment:[edit]

Complete the Wikiversity course on Virtues.

Compare and contrast the moral guidance provided by your chosen religion to that provide 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?

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?

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, 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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

  • 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.

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: