The God Question: What should we believe about God, science, religion, and morality?
The God Question is an upcoming book on the big questions related to the age-old question of whether or not god exists.
- Are there good arguments for teh existence of God?
- What about the arguments against the existence of God?
- Is there a conflict between science and religion?
- Is morality or goodness possible without the existence of God?
- Is Religion responsible for violent extremism?
It is based his personal journey as monk and his studies of Indian religion, Eastern and Western philosophy and psychology.
The style of writing is easily understanding for anyone without a philosophy background yet the topics are addressed in a philosophically sophisticated way.
The questions at issue addressed in a fair and balanced way, with the goal being to discover the truth, rather than simply insults aimed at one’s ideological foes.
The books concludes with a discussion of what the future of secular progressivism ought to be and how we can best make that vision a reality
The God Question will be released fall 2017. Stay tuned for the exact dates!
In recent years the most popular books on atheism have argued for a version of atheism that is philosophically unsophisticated, naive in its understanding of religion, militaristic in its foreign policy, and fundamentalist in its worldview. The God Question argues for a politically progressive, philosophically informed, progressive and positive atheism.
The book begins with the author’s story of how he went from being born into a cult, the Hare Krishna’s, to joining the cult and spending nearly a decade as a monk in the religious tradition, and ultimately finding Atheism.
The first chapter of the book is focused on moral psychology. The main argument of this part of the book is that despite vicious rhetoric from both sides over the millennia both religious and atheists are good people and that we need to understand the basic of moral psychology if we are to have any hope of thinking objectively about topics of religion.
The second part of the book is focused on philosophical arguments, including of course arguments for and against the existence of God. But more importantly it includes a discussion of epistemology, which is really at the heart of the atheism-religion debate. Before we can begin to think about what is true we need to know how what the best method for adjudicating truth is. The best method is of course science, but it is also crucially important to understand the limits of human knowledge. Science is the final arbiter of truth but that is because truth, for us, is limited to what we can know rationally and scientifically.
The third part of the book focuses on questions in moral and political philosophy. It begins with a discussion of the nature of morality and how it is that atheism can provide the rational justification for an objective morality. It looks at the question of the meaning of life and whether it makes sense to think that an atheist’s life can have a meaning or a purpose. It attempts to answer the question of whether religion is evil, or the source of various evils in the world including terrorism. And lastly it outlines a version of atheism that is politically progressive focused on making world a better place and also spiritual, focused on making oneself a better person.
My encounter with religion begins in 1981 at a small medical clinic in rural Moundsville, West Virginia near the infamous Hare Krishna community of New Vrindavan where I was born. The Hare Krishna religion is a sect within a sect of Hinduism. It was brought to the United States in 1965 by an elderly Indian religious teacher, or swami, named Bhaktivedanta Swami, or as his followers call him A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The religion itself is in many ways very beautiful. It is centered around the worship of Krishna and his girlfriend Radha, who are described to be the embodiment of pure beauty. The aspiration of the practitioner of the religion is to go back to the “kingdom of God” or as it is called in the tradition, Goloka Vrindavana, and participate in the eternal loving pastimes or, nitya lila, of Radha and Krishna. The idea is that in the kingdom of God, Radha and Krishna engage in an eternal playful exchange of romantic love and the devotee can be a part of this exchange by being a character in the eternally reoccurring divine drama, which is supposed to bring about the highest spiritual ecstasy and fulfillment of the soul. The idea is very similar to that of the Christian tradition, however, what happens in heaven or the Kingdom of God is elaborately described in vivid imagery down to the very last detail. This description of the kingdom of god is quite enticing and mesmerizing in many ways. Many of the religion practices centered around this imagery are also exquisitely beautiful. (See here for a more detailed history of the Hare Krishna religion[ii])
It is not entirely difficult to imagine a religious tradition that uses the Radha Krishna mythology and teaches a true religion of love. However, instead the Hare Krishna religion is repressive, authoritarian, and disdaining of all attempts to find love in this world. The price one must pay for eternal divine love is giving up the love of this world, and every other pleasure. Radha and Krishna’s love for each other is said to be entirely selfless and to participate in their love we must also become entirely selfless. This means leading a life of total abnegation of all love, pleasure, and comfort, and life of complete and utter dedication to chanting the name of God, preaching about God, and avoiding anything that brings pleasure to oneself. Oh yeah, and you must surrender your mind, body, and intellect to a guru whose feet you must adore throughout every second of everyday, whose instructions you must accept, and whom you must bow down to every time you see him. By doing this one can become a pure devotee of Krishna and go back to the kingdom of God to live there eternally and find true love.
New Vrindavan, where I was born, was definitely the most cultish of all the Hare Krishna temples. In the 70s and 80s, there was rampant criminal activity there including drug trafficking, tax evasion, money laundering, polygamy child-abuse (sexual and physical) and even murder, several members of the community were murdered for criticizing the cult leader[iii]. Luckily, my family left the community before people started getting killed, and I was young enough to avoid the child abuse. We left New Vrindavan when I was five years old and relocated to a Hare Krishna temple in South Miami Beach, Florida.
Shortly after we moved to Miami it was time for me to attend a Hare Krishna school. The school my parents chose was in southern Mississippi, just a couple of hours east of New Orleans on the gulf coast. An important belief of the tradition is educating the children to be “pure devotees of Krishna.” To accomplish this, it was necessary that the children be protected from materialistic society, (i.e. anyone outside of ISKCON) and this meant boarding school. My parents understood this to be an orthodox Hindu practice, but in reality, it was quite different from anything ever done in India. Luckily for me the schools in the cult were starting to get a little better by the time I was sent to boarding school in the mid-1980s. Unlike the experiences of those who grew up in the cult in the 70s, no one ever hit me and I was never sexually abused.
For the most part, I didn’t mind going to a school that was in a different state than my parents. At five, I thought the plane rides from Florida to Mississippi by myself were pretty cool, although in retrospect that clearly wasn’t healthy for me or my family. Indeed, the argument could certainly be made that the entire system was a form of abuse. We were forced to wake up at 3:30 a.m. every day and we walked a mile or so to the temple for early morning service, which lasted five hours. Education was oriented around the tradition’s religious books like the Bhagavad-gita. I still have vivid memories of memorizing key passages from the Bhagavad-gita. We had to memorize one verse every week and I enjoyed doing so. I’ve always had a pretty good memory and apparently was always interested in religion and philosophy, so it was fun for me. Eventually, my parents moved to New Orleans, which was only a couple of hours away, and I saw them on the weekends, though not every weekend. I guess growing up in a cult will do this to you, but I never really thought about my childhood as abusive. It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I began to realize that the entirety of my early childhood was an extreme form of deprivation. Thinking about my life compared to my daughter’s life, it became so obvious that I was abused as a child. Depriving a child of their parents, making them live communally with other children, with little personal possessions, depriving them of educational opportunities and indoctrinating them into a medieval worldview while teaching them that science is wrong, is so obviously abusive. Of course, many people who are abused and have been abused for many years fail to see their abuser as abusive, so it is not entirely surprising.
In the early 1990s, much of the North American Hare Krishna population relocated to a small town outside of Gainesville, Florida. This sleepy little town had a Hare Krishna school, (though it wasn’t a boarding school as those were beginning to be phased out by the ’90s), cheap land (by this time pretty much all the first generation of converts were looking to move out of the temples and be fully independent homeowners), and a reasonable amount of job opportunities (unlike a number of Hare Krishna communities that were so remote that there was little option but for people to be financially dependent on the temple). Fortuitously, there was also a decent university and a community college nearby, which made it easy for my generation of children who grew up in Hare Krishna religion to go to college.
By this time my life was fairly normal in many ways. All my friends at this point lived in homes they owned or rented apartments, we went trick or treating on Halloween, watched movies and television, played sports and video games, and had sleepovers. There was a Hare Krishna community Thanksgiving party complete with an annual community football game. I still miss those games! Most of my friends celebrated Christmas, though my family never did. However, that was more about the dysfunction of our family than our religion. We played soccer in the local rec league, which ended up being one of the biggest factors speeding up our integration into the local community. Eventually, the majority of the local high school soccer team was Hare Krishnas, and all the best players were Hare Krishnas. A couple went on to play in college, and one of the soccer stars was also the valedictorian.
Looking back at my Hare Krishna schooling and the way I was raised, life wasn’t bad. It was much better than many people’s in America who grow up in extreme poverty and obviously much more privileged than the lives of those in extreme poverty in undeveloped countries. When I was a part of the religion, I always defended the way we were raised. In some ways, I had a much culturally richer upbringing than your average middle-class American. I got to do a lot traveling and meet people from all over the world. And I was brought up to think about important and meaningful questions rather than simply being a mindless consumer. Despite all that, I now realize that we were significantly underprivileged in terms of education and how we were being prepared for our future. In a weird sense, we were worse off than someone who was poorer, in that we had no one to give us any advice about how to approach college or even why we should go to college. Our parents either didn’t have any idea how important an education is and were completely unaware of the possibilities that education opens up, or they just didn’t value those possibilities, or maybe some combination of the two.
Our education was fairly one-dimensional. We weren’t exposed to books or information from sources outside of the religious tradition, but we did do a lot of scripture and philosophy, and even some critical thinking. Towards the end of my time in the Hare Krishna school, we got a new teacher and in his English class we read 1984 and Animal Farm, which were the only books we read in school outside of our religious scriptures. I was probably around 14 at the time. At this point, the plan for all of us was that we would transfer to the local community college as dual enrollment students to complete our last two years of high school there and earn college credit at the same time. So, by this point most of our schoolwork was studying for the college placement test we needed to pass to take college classes once we transferred.
At 15, I started attending Santa Fe College as a dual enrollment student taking all college classes.
As high school, and community college, graduation approached, I decided I should probably figure out a major so I could transfer to the University of Florida. The thought never crossed my mind to apply to any other colleges. I figured that since I had always liked religious philosophy I grew up with that maybe philosophy was a good choice. I headed over to the campus bookstore and picked up a collection of Plato’s dialogues. I loved them. If you have an affinity for Hinduism, or Christianity for that matter, you will naturally have an affinity for Plato, at least the early dialogues. The similarities with Hinduism are even more apparent than they are with Christianity. Plato’s passionate exhortations in the Apology to not pursue material things but instead to pursue knowledge and truth resonated deeply with me, as they were very similar to the religious teachings I had grown up with. Socrates’ defiance in the face of death was inspiring. I wanted to serve God the way Socrates did, fearlessly and passionately. Coming from a Hindu tradition, Socrates struck me as an enlightened sage no different from the sages I’d read about in the Hindu scriptures.
Excited to have discovered this new and inspiring source of knowledge, I bought another textbook: Classical Modern Philosophers. If you know anything about philosophy you know this book was very, very different from Plato’s Apology, which is more religious than philosophical. There seemed to be very little passion to know the truth. They talked about what was true, but they didn’t put their lives on the line in pursuit of truth like Socrates did. In my young mind, I thought they weren’t truly religious or spiritual. Now I know that is not fair as many of the classical modern philosophers like Descartes, Locke, Leibniz, Berkeley, and Kant were deeply religious. However by the time I got to monads, Leibniz’s explanation of the ultimate nature of reality, I was done with Western philosophy, at least for the time being.
Plato had sparked something in me and I decided to go back and read the spiritual books of the tradition I grew up in. I found reading Plato to be a confirmation of the truth the religious teachings I had grown up with. Although I didn’t quite realize it at the time, I was entering a period of my life that was a sort of identity crises. I was getting ready to move out, and up until that point I had postponed any sort of critical evaluation of my religious beliefs. I was definitely inclined to believe they were true. I liked religion. I always imagined that someday I would dedicate myself fully to god. Augustine’s prayer of “Dear Lord, grant me chastity and continence but just not yet” was how I always felt. I started with a collection of lectures by Bhaktivedanta Swami and in doing so I felt what I would have described at the time as “the calling to surrender to God” getting stronger and stronger.
This period of reading the religious teachings that I grew up with and wanting to surrender to God but feeling like I wasn’t ready to make that commitment probably went on for a few months. In the meantime I was still going out and partying. One night I went to a party at a friend’s house who was in high school. I sort of knew the people there, but not well. I felt alone, isolated, and like I was on the wrong path. I wanted to stop drinking and commit to practicing my religion. I should probably note that being a Hare Krishna is not like being a Protestant, Catholic, or Jew. Taking the religion seriously involves a one hundred percent commitment to loving God every second of every day. Alcohol is out of the question, as is television, sports, and anything that isn’t chanting, praying, or reading scripture. All members are supposed to get up at 3:30 every morning to attend services at the temple and meditate on beads for at least two hours a day. Of course, there are plenty of Hare Krishna’s who don’t practice quite that strictly, or who no longer practice at all. But there are some that do, and if I was going to be a Hare Krishna I was going to be serious about it. So, I was at this party feeling like I shouldn’t be there and should instead be devoting every second of my life to thinking about Krishna, and chanting Hare Krishna. I went to use the bathroom and I saw a page-a-day calendar on the counter. On that date’s page, I saw two questions:
- If you were stuck on a desert island what book would you want to read?
- Who would you want to rescue you?
I felt like God was speaking to me. The answers to the questions were obvious. I would want the Bhagavad Gita as my book, and I would want Radhanath Swami to rescue me.
Radhanath Swami is a big part of this story, as you might guess. He is the person who I would later become the disciple of and dedicate every action to pleasing Him. I first met him when I was 13 or so. He was friends with my parents when they both lived in New Vrindavan (the crazy cult temple in West Virginia). After they left New Vrindavan, Radhanath Swami moved to India and started a very successful temple and community there. He was also a rising start in the Hare Krishna movement. He was now starting to travel around the world more extensively, as is fairly customary for swamis, to preach. When swamis travel, they are hosted by someone in the community. This is a special blessing for the host as their home is blessed and purified by association with saintly people. I was quite taken by Radhanath Swami and considered him to be a truly enlightened spiritual teacher. So, from an early age my desire to surrender to God became intertwined with my desire to surrender to Radhanath Swami. The scriptures are clear that without surrendering to a guru, one cannot surrender to God. Radhanath Swami was extremely charismatic, and he was really good at wielding his charisma to influence those around him to believe that he was indeed an enlightened guru. I’m not quite cynical enough to say he did this consciously, but I think there is a phenomenon where a guru realizes that if they can influence someone to think of them as being enlightened, then they can leverage that to make a person practice the religion. So the motive is ultimately to make people practice the religion, which is a good motive within the framework of the tradition, but oftentimes that means getting someone to admire and then surrender to you. As you can imagine, this process is fraught with complications in that it leads people to misrepresent themselves in the name of doing this very important work for God. I so looked forward to his yearly visits. I would go everywhere with him. Eventually, I became his driver and would drive him around to his meetings and speaking engagements. He was so charismatic that it was addicting being around him. I interpreted this as spiritual ecstasy due to being in the presence of a “pure devotee of Krishna.”
After this party, and God speaking to me in the bathroom through a page-a-day calendar, I awoke to a large number of cars on the neighbor’s property. It seemed like something serious had happened, but I wasn’t sure. Soon I found out my neighbor had died in the middle of the night of heart failure. He was a member of the Hare Krishna community and a friend. I had to go to work, so I got dressed and headed out the door. On my way to work, I realized I had to call off because I needed some time to process what had just happened, so I headed to my favorite coffee shop to journal. I could feel something bubbling up inside, but I wasn’t sure what and I figured journaling would help. As I started to write, I started bawling. In that moment I knew that I was wasting my life pursuing material happiness, and that I needed to surrender to God, and to Radhanath Swami. With the knowledge that everything we pursue and achieve in life is ultimately meaningless due to death, I made the decision to surrender to God. I remember writing “I wish Radhanath Swami was here, I would just fall at his feet and surrender right now.”
My transformation wasn’t immediate, but I started reading more and chanting a little on the traditional prayer beads, though, I still wasn’t meditating for the full two hours every day and wasn’t getting up at 3:30. Later that summer I did meet up with Radhanath Swami. I told him of my plan to wander around Vrindavan, India, the sacred city where Krishna was born, and chant on my beads all day. He instead invited me to come to his temple in Mumbai. We made a plan for me to meet up with him in Italy and then go to India. His temple in India was amazing. The entire community of thousands of people embraced me wholeheartedly and made me feel more special than I had ever felt. Looking back it was clear I was in many ways a normal 18-year-old who was struggling to find his place in the world, and when I arrived at Radhanath Swami’s temple it felt like I had found it. I lived in the monastery for a year with the monks and decided I wanted to try being a monk as well.
The next decade of my life involved numerous trips to India, stints at various temples in India and the US. After several years of practice, I officially became a monk and took personal vows to remain celibate for the rest of my life. However, as is generally the case, I wasn’t happy. Eventually, I left the monastery, married a woman who I didn’t know, because I thought God wanted me to marry her. We had a daughter shortly after we got married and during my first semester of graduate school. I managed to complete an M.A. in philosophy from the University of Florida, and eventually, my then wife and I, along with our daughter, ended up in Athens Ohio, where she was from.
One fateful winter day in Zanesville, Ohio. I was teaching an introduction to philosophy class and was explaining the problem of evil to a small room full of half-awake kids who wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else. As I was lecturing about the problem of evil in an instant, it became crystal clear to me that I would never again believe in the existence of God. It was such a strange sensation, because in that moment I was entirely sure I would never be able to believe in God again. I knew all the arguments so well that as soon as I saw them from this new perspective I just saw everything in an entirely new light. It was like a chain of dominoes falling one after another. Suddenly it all made perfect sense. I paused for just a brief moment to soak it all in, and then continued lecturing. I made a commitment to myself to continue to think about it and not a make any rash decisions. As the days and weeks went by I never once even gave a sliver of doubt about my newfound faith. At first, my then wife didn’t actually believe that I was serious about my atheism. A couple of months later I had my appendix removed, and she asked me if I prayed before the operation. I thought about it for a second, and said, “No,” to which she replied, “I guess you really are an atheist.”
I don’t hate religion in the way that some atheists seem to. I went through a period of processing a significant amount of resentment towards my guru and the institution I was a part of, but that period didn’t last very long for me because it was obvious that he and everyone in the institution was just as much a victim as I was. As much as his influence in my life was negative, I know that he was doing what he thought was the best thing for me. The truth is that, rather than hating religion, I actually still find it alluring, beautiful, and moving. I find it to be a representation of the deepest yearnings of the heart. Or as Marx said, “the heart of a heartless world. The soul of a soulless condition.” I love religion as much as I love art and literature. I find the writings of Plato, Kant, Dostoyevsky, the Bhagavad-Gita and Bhagavad Purana, and portions of the Bible, Torah, and Koran to be incredible literary, poetic, and philosophical achievements. But religion, I believe, is a lie, despite being a beautiful one. In the movie 500 Days of Summer, there is a scene where the main character says, “The girl of my dreams would probably have a bodacious rack, maybe different hair, but you know, truthfully, Robin is better than the girl of my dreams because Robin is real,” and that is how I feel about the religious life as compared to the non-religious life. The reality of my dreams is one in which God exists and after this life, I get to live eternally with God. But the reality is that all we have is this life and we need to make the best of it in the short time that we are here –is better than the reality of my dreams, because it is real. I wish that it were true that after we die we will live eternally in a state of unending spiritual happiness. I wish it were true that justice is always rewarded and evil always punished. I wish it were true that there was a Supreme Being who I could turn to who would always hear my prayers, always know my heart, always appreciate my devotion, and always love me. But I no longer believe religion to be true. And in this book, I will share with you why.
I hope you will find in this book a fair and balanced approach to the traditional questions of whether we ought to believe in the existence of God. I believe I have accurately represented the main lines of argument that have been offered for and against the existence of God, which I believe when looked at they clearly show there is no good reason to believe in the existence of God. I’ve shared a little of my story with you in hopes that in doing so, I’ve been able to convince you that I’m not evil for being an atheist, and that my atheism is motivated by a sincere desire to know the truth. I’ve attempted to be as charitable and respectful as possible towards those that I might disagree with. And I hope that you will find this book a sincere exploration of these important questions.
As a former religious and spiritual person who had read books on atheism, it was easy to dismiss the authors as not being genuinely interested in knowing God or in seeking “the Truth.” They often come across as bitter, motivated by their hatred of religion, and biased, especially when they blame religion for things which have nothing to do with religion directly, like terrorism or violent extremism. Not to mention that if you are a religious or spiritual person you are probably not interested in reading a book by someone who seems to lack basic human decency. I certainly wasn’t. You’ll have to ask my friends whether I’m a decent person, but what I will say about myself is that I spent many years of my life searching for God. Trying to know God. Trying to become enlightened. Trying to transcend all my mental shackles and realize my true spiritual nature. I took my spiritual calling as seriously as most anyone ever has. I often prayed on my prayer beads for six or more hours a day. I stayed up all night praying and fasting. I studied deeply the religious books of my religious tradition, and other religious traditions as well. I read many books on psychology and quasi-spiritual self-help books in my quest for enlightenment. I found spiritual wisdom and inspiration in many different traditions and teachers. I was faithful to my traditions but I was anything but dogmatic. I never shied away from reading philosophy and science. I searched for spiritual wisdom and knowledge anywhere and everywhere, and strove to put into practice those teachings. A spiritual teacher who went by the name “Peace Pilgrim” said, “Live by the highest light you have, and God will give you more,” which I sincerely strove to accomplish. I wasn’t merely religious — I was truly spiritual by any reasonably objective measure of the word. I didn’t happen upon my atheism for a lack of searching. I found it after searching everywhere for any source of spiritual knowledge and wisdom could find. This book is the culmination of not only my intellectual journey, but also my spiritual and religious experience, and I hope that it offers you a unique and useful perspective on the god question
[ii] The Hare Krishna tradition is part of the broader tradition of Vaishnavism, or Visnu and Krishna worshippers. Vaishnavism is one of the three main sects of Hinduism along with Shaivism, worshippers of Shiva, and Shaktism, worshipers of the goddess, although that is quite an oversimplification. Beyond the divisions in terms of which god or goddess one worships there are divisions in terms of type of practice. Some Indian religious traditions are meditation based, some are philosophically based, and others are devotion based. The ancient Indian religion based on the original Vedas was based on animal sacrifice as the primary form of worshipping the divine. Vaishnavism is very strongly devotion based. In many ways it is very similar to Christianity, with its emphasis on “loving God with all one’s heart and soul.” There’s actually quite an interesting analogy when comparing the sacrificially based religion of the Judaism and the devotion based form of religion found in the new testament and the ancient Vedic religion and the devotional tradition of Vaishnavism.
The version of Vaishnavism that Bhaktivedanta Swami brought with him to America in 1965 was called “Gaudiya Vaishnavism,” being from Bengal or Gauda Desha. It was founded by Shri Krishna Chaitanya, a religious teacher and saint who came to be revered as an incarnation of Krishna who had come to teach the religion that would be practiced on earth for the next 10,000 years. It was predicted that this religion would spread around the world and when Swami Bhaktivedanta arrived in the US with no money and no friends, and only a trunk of books he had translated and printed into English
See Monkey on Stick for all the juicy details.