25 July 2010

A deeply spiritual non-believer

You may have noticed I haven't posted anything in a while. More likely, you didn't notice because you were busy eating goldfish crackers and going to raves. My excuse is that my computer is not working right now, so I've been relegated to surfing the interwebs with my phone, which makes blogging kind of difficult. Actually it makes a lot of things difficult, like, I dunno, paying my bills. Anygay, I'm typing this on a friend's computer, but updates will be sporadic until my computer is fixed and assing kick.

Where was I? Ah yes. Spirituality. Since I can't watch anything involving Flash on my phone (which lamely includes Netflix, which I'd just signed up for mainly to use the streaming player), I've been watching a lot of TED Talks on Youtube... or rather listening, since I'm usually doing technical exercises on my guitar while the talks are playing. I listened to a particularly interesting one on love by Helen Fisher (whom I've never heard of, but she's a smart cookie). It got me thinking about the "spiritual" nature of love and the way faith-oriented people sometimes like to challenge blasphemous apostates like yours truly with inane queries like, "How can you explain love?"

I realize that I still have some pretty poignant traces of my spiritual sociocultural upbringing. And really, being an atheist doesn't change my innate desire to experience self-transcendence or nebulously quantified things like love. The last time I was in love, I couldn't help but think of her as my "soulmate". I loathe the term for its quasi-spiritual implications, but it aptly described the bond that I felt. And when I'm engrossed in my guitar playing, listening to music or watching a sunset, I can't help but describe these things in spiritual ways.

The late Leo Buscaglia is one of my favorite authors. He literally wrote the book on love - called, creatively, Love. In it, he tries to encapsulate the importance of love, its innumerable varieties, its centrality to our experiences, and how we ought to approach it. His writing has been powerfully influential to my own thinking, in terms of how I approach relationships (and friendships) and deal with heartbreak. But he never quite gets around to quantifying what exactly love is, which is what Helen Fisher is interested in doing.

So in the spirit of every alien in every episode ever of the original Star Trek series, what is this "love"? What the are all these things we describe as spiritual experiences? Is our inability to rigidly quantify these emotions an indication that there is something truly transcendent of our universe? I don't think so. I think of "love" as a word that can have such a broad scope of meanings that without context, it's a nearly useless term. Most of us have been in a relationship where, in its final throes, we would say (or be told) "I love you" - but it was dry, routine, and passionless. We've likely also been in relationships where saying (or being told) "I love you" was equally vacuous, but the other way - it was infatuous, steeped in excitement and sexual passion, but lacking a more substantive emotional connection. The former relationships tend to wither piece by piece; the latter crash and burn as fitfully as they started. But sometimes, when you say "I love you", it's a sense of a deep connection, a sense of a strong friendship out of which passion springs forth rather than quivering perilously underneath. It's an expression of a range of emotions - of trust, of hope, of affection, of forgiveness, of patience.

This is usually the point at which I would launch into some detached methodological explanation of the biological chemistry that controls our emotions, just to stick it to all the gurus and theologians who can't fathom these mysteries as anything but evidence of the supernatural. But that's not really my point, and frankly unless someone has an aversion to using Google, there's no excuse for claiming these emotions to be metaphysical while being ignorant of the research done that does reduce our emotional states to our tortuously evolved biological hard-wiring. The question is, I suppose, whether our steadily improving ability to successfully quantify these things in any way reduces them. Does the fact that I attribute my emotional experiences to my biology, rather than some sort of quasi-spiritual mystery, in any way reduce their depth or salience to me? Of course not. In fact, it's really the opposite.

I read a great (and famous) book a couple of years ago called The Naked Ape, by the zoologist Desmond Morris. There's a whole chapter dedicated to sex. He describes, in a remarkably mechanistic fashion, the entire process of sexual arousal and intercourse. He later goes on to link these experiences to our culture at large (which is fascinating), which is why the descriptiveness is so important, but his dry exposition doesn't pop in my head when I'm actually having sex. When I'm touching a woman, I don't think, "Hmm, her skin temperature appears to be rising, indicating that she is becoming aroused..." Understanding the process in no way diminishes the experience; on the contrary, it's made me more keen on the subtle details that enhance it.

Similarly, I don't think that we ought to be afraid of using science to acquire a better understanding the emotional processes we've traditionally attribute to spirituality. Nor do I think that as an atheist, I have any reason to attempt to purge my vocabulary of the quasi-supernatural terminology. Spirituality is still, for me, a very important thing. Transcendence and love are still very important things. But I can still understand these experiences in a rational context. And I believe that by doing so, by understanding what they really are and how they really work, I can learn to experience them in even deeper and more powerful ways.

16 July 2010

Network theory of deconversion part 2: Why aren't there more nonbelievers?

The population of nonbelievers - atheists, agnostics, "nonreligious", etc. - has doubled in the United States in the last decade, but we still make up a very small percentage of the population. We are in fact the fastest growing "religious" group in the U.S., which I take as a very encouraging sign. The internet has allowed religious people to break free from an insular existence and be exposed to more counter-arguments, and judging by the numbers, it's clear who's winning on the intellectual battlefield.

Yet the overwhelming majority of U.S. citizens still claim as their own some set of religious beliefs, which tend to be overwhelmingly Christian. We're home to small pockets of Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, and (ugh) Scientologists, but for the most part the U.S. is a predominately Christian nation.

In conversations with fellow apostates, we've always had one thing in common: we all were, at one time, very devout. We were heavily involved in the church, and to one degree or another studied theology, philosophy, and had seemingly supernatural experiences.

But the reality is that such devout believers make up a similarly small portion of the faithful. Most people, even those who regularly attend church, simply do not know that much about Christian theology. They haven't studied Christian apologists like C.S. Lewis or William Lane Craig, and they certainly haven't given much mind to the philosophical counter-arguments. They haven't learned about how the Bible was put together - copies of copies of copies, filled with errors and contradictions. They haven't studied much if any mainstream science, or given much thought to the theological implications of evolution or cosmology. Most of them haven't even read the Bible, save for the pockets of feel-good scriptures that make for inspiring sermons or placating devotionals. Few are even aware of the divinely commanded genocide, misogyny, slavery, and brutality of the biblical God.

Considering how few believers even ponder such things, and acknowledging that losing one's faith is not a matter of a single issue but a network of outlooks that must be challenged and dismantled, it's no wonder that religion is still thriving. In fact given all that, it's actually pretty remarkable how much ground secular ideology has gained in the last decade. It's for that reason that I think we have to make our voices heard. The coercive, dangerous and divisive influence of irrational thinking will never be eroded into insignificance unless those of us who reject it refuse to shy away from speaking boldly, from challenging religious claims to truth, and from mocking dangerous and ridiculous behavior done in the name of a non-existent god. Organize in your community. Start a group on Facebook to connect with other freethinkers, and post links to secular and scientific articles on your personal page.  Engage believers in friendly but vigorous dialogue when you are given the chance. Educate yourself, and direct your believer friends to those resources. We can make this world a better place if we're diligent and patient.

12 July 2010

The network theory of deconversion

Something that's frustrated and surprised me as an atheist is how resilient some theists can be, even when they're consistently on the losing side of an argument. In a discussion with my parents once upon a time, I posed this logical dilemma for them:
God is – according to Christianity at least – omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, and all-loving. Because he is omniscient and not bound by the laws of space and time, he knows the future. This means, necessarily, that he would have known mankind would rebel against him; he would have known that many would not be redeemed, and end up spending eternity in hell. He would have known that certain people would inflict great suffering upon others. So if God is all-loving, why would he create someone knowing they would make others suffer (like Hitler), or create anyone whom he knew would ultimately reject him and spend eternity in hell?
My parents pulled out the old "free will" argument, but that doesn't work here because God (being omniscient) would necessarily know the path each of us will choose. I've seen similar queries posed to Christians on several occasions and have never heard a competent response. This very well illustrates the illogical nature of the Christian god.

Now, you'd think that something like this would create some serious cognitive dissonance. And maybe, to some extent, it did. But my dad's response was to argue that just because this kind of problem comes up doesn't mean we should stop believing. And after learning about "network theory", I can understand why he felt that way.

Network theory

I can't take credit for this; I saw this in an excellent video series on Youtube about one young person's deconversion from evangelical protestantism to atheism. He's a computer programmer, so the use of "network theory" made for a good analogy.

The idea here is that if a network is attacked by hackers, parts of the network can be disrupted but the network as a whole will remain intact and functional. Similarly, a believer's concept of God is not based on one discreet domain of knowledge, but a network of knowledge and experiences. These may include things like:

- Philosophical arguments for the existence of God
- The support and conviction of fellow Christians
- The Bible
- Personal feelings about a relationship with God
- Seemingly supernatural events one has experienced or observed
- The perception of answered prayer

In the course of my blog, I've tackled all of these subjects at one time or another. But while I'm confident my blogs may be able to create some cognitive dissonance in one of these "nodes", the "network" itself will remain intact as long as enough of the other nodes are in place.

The number of nodes that need to be disrupted will vary greatly depending on the individual. It's a pretty small minority of Christians, for example, who have spent much time studying guys like C.S. Lewis or modern apologists like William Craig and Alister McGrath. It's even less likely that their faith hinges upon a mastery of those arguments. Certain things, like supernatural events, will vary greatly from one denomination to the next. A Catholic or mainstream Protestant probably won't think much of the psychological arguments against claims of experiencing the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues, or casting demons out of people. If someone is heavily involved in the church, they'll also find reassurance in the conviction of their fellow believers by assuming that even if they do not know how to answer a perplexing question, surely a fellow parishioner or pastor does.

It's been so long since I've been a Christian, or even a "theistic agnostic" that I tend to overlook what a long, difficult and emotional process my de-conversion was. Christianity crumbled piece by piece for me – the Bible was full of logical conundrums and blatant contradictions, and Christian theology didn't make any sense; the philosophical arguments of C.S. Lewis and other apologists were far too easy to deconstruct, and even in my teens the holes in their arguments were glaring; I had to re-consider my experiences with speaking in tongues, witnessing miracles and experiencing the holy spirit and ask myself if perhaps there was a rational explanation to account for these experiences; I had to rely only on my own critical thinking, because I realized that most Christians I encountered did the same thing I had done – when they hit a wall they couldn't pass in their own thinking, they simply pushed it in the back of their minds and assumed that someone more learned probably has the answer.

Deconversion is nothing like conversion. The God concept is implanted in our minds at a very young age, and we only need a little groupthink and confirmation bias to steer us into all kinds of irrational thinking and behavior. Deconversion, however, is a long and mostly intellectual process of critically examining our own thoughts, biases and experiences. It often involves a profoundly emotional separation from friends and family, and almost all of us have experienced ostracization to one degree or another. Above all, unlike conversion – which is centered on acquiescence to groupthink and confirmation bias – deconversion relies solely on the individual's capacity for skeptical inquiry. Perhaps our best asset when engaging a believer in a dialogue, then, is patience.

11 July 2010

Atheists can be so insensitive!

PZ Myers has a great post up today over at Pharyngula where he reminds us that it's okay to mock religion, because it's fucking ridiculous:
Religion has at least two weaknesses. One is that it is empirically false, and all of its specific claims are either pointless and unverifiable, or have been falsified. Another, though, that we neglect at a cost of diminished effectiveness, is that it's hilarious. It's a prime target for exposure of religious folly; it's the soft, ticklish underbelly of faith and we need more people to exploit it.
PZ is one of those "attack dog" style of atheists, alongside others like Christopher Hitchens and Jerry Coyne. I can relate, as I enjoy a good laugh, and I've been chastised by theists for not being sensitive enough to their lunacy. Although I think it's important to have substantive conversations about faith and religion from time to time, I've never been one to shy away from mocking the absurdity of it all either. And why should we be? A common thread among apostates like myself is that we're baffled at the ridiculousness of the things we once said, did, and believed.

And PZ has a great point. Why should we be sensitive to people's desire to cling to irrational beliefs? The comedian Tim Minchin said it best in his beat poem "Storm":  
Science adjusts its views based on what's observed; faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved
What theists fail to understand is that "faith" is not a valid means by which to attain knowledge. Reason is all we have. What has religion added to our knowledge of... well, anything? I challenge any theist to name a single insight into our nature or existence that could not have been made by a secular philosopher, or to name a single natural phenomenon for which the best explanation used to be scientific, but is now religious. Religion is, as Sam Harris has said, a failed science. There's a place for serious discussion, since religious belief does have some serious implications; but we shouldn't hesitate to remind the faithful that their beliefs, and indeed their entire basis for understanding the world, are ridiculous.

10 July 2010

Ka-Boom!

Dan Barker is a former protestant preacher turned atheist, now the head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I stumbled onto this clip from YouTube, where he purportedly admits to an "intelligent designer".



Phil Fernandes is supposedly debating the validity of the Big Bang by querying how an "explosion" can produce order. Dan Barker totally took the bait, which is a shame because the question is a red herring, and a perfect example of the stupidity of creationists. The Big Bang was not an explosion at all; it was the expansion of the fabric of space-time from a quantum vacuum. Stephen Hawking demonstrated mathematically 30 years ago how the universe could have arisen from a quantum field of virtual particles (the closest thing to "nothing" that there is).

Secondly, explosions can, in a roundabout sense, produce order. Here's something to ponder: every time a star explodes in a supernova, it seeds the galaxy with the heavy elements required to form life. Neil DeGrasse Tyson puts it best, even poetically, at 2:15 in this video:

  

Creationists are always looking for a way to undermine scientific inquiry with fallacious rhetoric. Don't fall for it.

Watch this movie!

Alert readers may have noticed I took a bit of a hiatus from the blogging. Well, I was kidnapped by international terrorists and had only my Navy SEAL training to free myself, kill all the terrorists with my bare hands, save the hostages and get the girl. Suffice to say that I've had my deadly but tender hands full lately, but there is some new bloggery on the way.

So first, an announcement. Watch this movie. Do it. It's Creation, a bio about Charles Darwin and the tension his theory creates with his religious wife, and it's available on DVD/On Demand/iTunes right now. Hmm... I wonder how that whole evolution vs. religion thing panned out...

03 July 2010

Happy atheists: a thorn for believers

I saw this comment on a rather insipid blog in which the author suggested that God gave Christopher Hitchens cancer to humble him into conversion:

"The very existence of functional, happy atheists flies in the face of your beliefs, so you must convince yourselves that we must not be genuine. Either we are not functional, not happy, or we are not truly atheists. Unlike your god, however, there is substantial evidence for our existence."

This got me thinking. I recently saw an ad for a church in which the pastor said things like (paraphrasing), "Do you feel hopeless? Things not working out in life? Are your relationships struggling? Come and let Jesus into your heart..." etc. etc.

Debates about whether God exists aside, I think there's a much more interesting question: whether God's existence matters. I mean sure, it may be a mildly interesting philosophical conversation to discuss the existence of a deistic god, but would anyone really give a hoot whether a deistic god exists?

With that in mind, I don't think Bible-thumping Christians can escape a central concept of their theology, which is that life is better when you're "saved". Actual degree and precise area of betterness varies from one denomination to the next, but it's always there. Depending on to whom you're listening, becoming a born-again Christian will lead to, among other things....

- A sense of purpose
- A deepened sense of morality
- Better relationships
- A stronger marriage
- Financial and/or professional and material success (the infamous "gospel of prosperity" that is so popular these days)
- Better health and/or faster recovery from illness
- Relief from depression
- A steady supply of grape juice and crackers

Now, some Christians might try to weasel out of this one and say that it's just about saving souls for eternity, but that's simply not representative of the overwhelming majority of Christians. It would appear that for most people, the whole idea of death and eternity, while somewhere in the back of their minds, does not preoccupy them in their daily lives enough to scare them into going to church on a regular basis. Christians, by and large, want to view their faith as pragmatic. This is reflected in a lot of the comments and questions I've received from Christians over the years, like these:

- You weren't really saved, because nobody could ever leave the faith after a genuine salvation experience
- Did something happen in your life that made you angry at God?
- Are you an atheist because there is a sin you want to commit, or because you don't want to be morally accountable for your behavior?
- Did you have a bad experience at your church? Perhaps their teachings weren't Biblical.

All of these have one thing in common: I can't be a happy, functional apostate. Maybe I was never really Christian to begin with. Maybe I'm a hedonist, and looking in all the wrong places for meaning. Maybe it's not that I don't believe that God exists, but that I'm just saying that because I'm secretly angry at him.

This isn't some rare issue. I can't throw a rock a theological discussion without hearing this line of thought sooner or later. Because here's the reality: I don't believe there is a god of any kind. It's not because I had any bad experiences, but because I critically studied Christian theology and theistic philosophy and found them to be logically untenable. I live a normal, well-adjusted life. I have healthy relationships with my friends, family, and the women I date. I don't suffer from depression or anxiety, and I'm in good physical health. In fact, I'm far happier as a non-believer than I ever was as a believer – my sense of morality and responsibility to others has deepened, and I feel intellectually liberated.

In a previous post, I discussed the fact that there is simply no evidence that being a believer makes your life better. You are not statistically any more likely to be financially secure, mentally stable, physically healthy,  stable in your marriage, or simply happier by being a believer, regardless of your chosen faith. Now, there is some evidence that Christians might be more likely to give to charity, which is like sort of like saying that Jainists might be less violent than non-Jainists. But surely we can be kind to others without having to affirm all kinds of convoluted religious dogma.

And that's really the big sticking point. Why do we need religion? It doesn't make your life better. It doesn't make you happy. It won't make you healthier or less likely to experience tragedy. It might make you more likely to cut a check to Live Aid, but then again, it might also compel you to oppress the human and civil rights of others, devalue women, or commit acts of violence. The existence of functional, happy non-believers is a thorn in the side of the devout, because it shows their religion is pragmatically vacuous. There's only one thing worse than a god who probably doesn't exist, and that's a god who might as well not exist.