Friday, February 27, 2009

An Atheist Defense of Salt

An Atheist Defense of Salt
When speaking to His disciples and followers, Jesus said “you are the salt of the earth” in Matthew 5:13. At that point in time, salt was an essential preservative for meats as well as being a very popular food seasoning. One interpretation of this metaphor is that Jesus was telling His followers that their faith was important and essential to preserving and enhancing life on earth.

Undeniably, there are certain positive aspects about Christianity, and these aspects continue to add their salty seasoning to world. I do not posses God-like omniscience to know if the world would have been better off if Christianity was never born, given the heinous atrocities which have been committed in the name of God throughout history. However, I can understand and appreciate the present-day values of the faith. Here are some of the halite gems associated with Christianity:

Many Christian charities have been established to help the poor, the starving, the homeless, the sick, the orphans, the widows, and other people in great need.

Christianity has been a boon to the art world. The church, particularly during the European Middle Ages and the Renaissance, often spent its considerable wealth commissioning the very best artists in painting, music, craftsmanship, and design. Unlike the palaces of kings, awe-inspiring cathedrals were made accessible to the most base farmhand. Christian themes permeate to add enticing dimensions to stories, from Shakespeare's “Hamlet” to Brown's “The Da Vinci Code”.

A self-evident truth is that no man is “created” equally. Each person uniquely has different levels of skills and abilities. The majority of people are average performers by definition. When doing your best only yields mediocre results, it can destroy motivation. Yet the often-cited 1 Corinthians 10:31 verse challenges Christians to keep doing their best regardless: “whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” This is an excellent work ethic.

As we continue to learn more about the ways the mind plays a role in health and healing, I believe that it's a distinct possibility that a person's faith can promote better overall health and can aid in the healing process of some people. Positive attitudes have been shown to have a positive impact on health and healing. So if someone feels blessed by God, or if someone honestly believes that God will heal them, such a belief would likely be beneficial to their health and healing.

God can be a life-extending companion. When an elderly man dies, it is not uncommon for his widow to die in a relatively short amount of time thereafter. While some of this may be attributed to simply the loss of a needed helper at that age, the effect of the loss of a loving companion can sap the will to live and promote the deterioration of life-sustaining functions. Love and companionship are so beneficial that even just having a pet can extend your life. Extrapolating that truth: if some people honestly believe that God is with them, communicating to them, and loving them, it seems reasonable that they could enjoy the same longevity benefits.

Church provides an excellent opportunity for fellowship and friendship, and to build relationships that last a lifetime.

Christianity provides mostly practical and abundantly available support and counseling. With its girth of episodes, the Bible contains a wealth of stories that can be related to circumstances which occur in our lives today. During regular church services, on television, on the radio, on the internet, or in church groups, these stories are presented in ways that people can identify with, and they help to inspire as well as help people to persevere through their struggles.

Associated with counseling, but also a topic of its own, Christianity promotes some good, Bible-based morals. It is true that sometimes the presented morals are “Bible-based” in the way a multi-gigahertz, dual-processor laptop computer is “based” on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine, or in the way a rainbow is “based” on sunlight refracted off of a life-threatening, flood-yielding downpour. (Quite often, that loosely-based connection is a good thing! Take Bible-promoted slavery, for example.) Nonetheless, the Bible provides a starting point and an impetus to teach morals. The psychological factors with the Bible being a “third party” providing the basis for this teaching as well as being an authoritative source (even if that is self-described) helps to encourage adherence to these moral standards.

A common human performance tool which is used in many industries is called peer checking. Peer checking has someone besides yourself inspect what you have done or what you are about to do for errors. For those with a belief that God is watching them, they have an internal version of the peer check when they consider What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)? This is extra incentive to follow a morally correct path. (I personally use this mental tool often quite often, although, as opposed to asking WWJD, I just consider what my actions would appear like to a third person or headlining on the evening news.)

Finally, Christian groups sometimes provide a dissenting voice against science and philosophy when it's needed. Although it can be a bit of a two-edged sword, this stance of opposition helps to ensure that results, findings, and theories advanced by either science or philosophy are free of bias and actually do withstand the scientific method of scrutiny and any other appropriate due diligence.

Salt Is Good, in Moderation...
I feel that salt is actually an excellent metaphor for faith. Salt is made up of two dangerous elements: sodium, which reacts violently with water, and chlorine, which is poisonous. When combined in an ionic bond, these two elements form a chemical that can be benevolent and essential to mankind.

Faith, to some extent, is likewise made up of two dangerous elements; blind devotion, which abandons nature and logic when necessary, and dogmatic adhesion, clinging to the words written in an epoch of time long since past and believing them to be relevant today. When combined in moral and rational individuals, these two elements actually can form an attitude that is benevolent and enriching to mankind.

However, just like too much salt can kill you, too much faith can lead to disastrous consequences; crusades, inquisitions, 9/11, etc. The world is not, and may never be, ready to abandon faith. It is then the mission of the skeptic to help prevent people from getting too salty in their faith, to seed enough doubt that individual rationality helps to keep these disastrous tendencies in check, while preserving the more palatable and enriching benefits of that faith. As I see it, seeding this level of doubt is the greatest gift that skeptics can provide to the world within this generation.

The biggest challenge to this skeptical mission is presented by nations where the freedom of speech is restricted. Besides China, the majority of people living in places where speech (and in turn skepticism) is restricted are under Islamic dominion. Without the skeptic's voice of dilution, the briny solution of their faith can boil down to dangerous concentrations of sodium chloride; and we know all too well the result.

So, my fellow skeptics, I plead that we should join hands with our reasonably-salty, Christian neighbors on the international front in promoting world-wide freedom of religion, which fosters and necessitates the freedom of speech. When that door is opened, we will have the ability to make the world a better place; albeit ironically through the power of doubt. I don't have delusions of grandeur that such skeptical doubt will eliminate all extremist threats, but it should help to dilute the salt of faith to make toxic concentrations much less likely to occur.


  1. Hi,

    Got here through Sabio's triangulations.

    Great little write-up here. Especially like the part "albeit ironically through the power of doubt".

    Doubt may yet prove to be the highest of virtues :-)

  2. Hi Andrew, and welcome!

    Thanks for the kind words! I would have to agree with that sentiment that doubt is one of the highest virtues.

    I like your blog too! (I just checked it out now.) Nice style. You will be on the blog roll at my other blog, Speaking in Foolish Tounges. :-)

  3. This is a good analogy. We keep telling our parents that we still have the same morals and values but we've grown. We now embrace the doubt, questions, and shades of grey or other spices that the salt previously drowned out. Life is more tasty :)

    ps: I like Cool Whip, I just don't call it whipped cream. I'm a word snob, not a food snob.

  4. Thanks prarienymph! It seems hard for several Christians to grasp that you can lose the faith but keep the morality, but we have grown, and matured in our values. I find my life to be tastier now as well, especially with a dollop of Cool Whip. ;-)