26 May 2012

The Gospel Challenge

All the recent hullabaloo over the historical Jesus (or Jesus McGee, as I like to call him) got me thinking about some of my past arguments regarding the historical reliability of the Bible. Oddly enough, the Bible's historicity or lack thereof wasn't really a factor in my deconversion 13 years ago; it was more spurred by what I perceived as the inanity of the theology (I've often said that reading the book of Hebrews did more to deconvert me than anything else). But the generally lousy reliability of the Bible as a collection of historical documents has certainly bolstered my confidence in my deconversion over the years.

I'm talking specifically about the New Testament (and more specifically, the gospels), although the OT is cannon fodder as well. What's interesting, though, is that Christians actually tend to agree on a lot of the basic facts. We generally agree that:
  • The gospels were written, at the earliest, several decades after Jesus purportedly lived, in a language different from the one in which the story purportedly originated
  • We do not have the original gospel manuscripts, but rather copies of copies of copies ad nauseum
  • The manuscripts we have are full of copy errors, omissions, additions, and often contradict each other
Lest you think that last point is controversial, I would challenge you to watch Lee Strobel's movie The Case for Christ, which I reviewed in a 3-part series some time back (at the time of this posting, the film can be viewed on Netflix's streaming service).  A relevant quote, with emphasis added:
John the Baptist helping drunk Jesus to his car
[The] gospels contradict each other in countless places, and omit information altogether in others. These are often not trivial factual contradictions either. If eyewitness accounts and oral tradition are as reliable as Strobel and company claim, why do the contradictions exist at all, much less in such abundance?

Strobel and company attempt to quell the issue not by denying the presence of these errors (no intellectually honesty critique of the Bible can do so), but by suggesting that a certain amount of disagreement is not only to be expected, but even desirable (Strobel's words: "That's okay, you want that."). If the stories disagree too much, we would dismiss them; Strobel suggests that if they agreed too much, we might also dismiss them out of suspicion that the authors colluded. What is the right amount of disagreement? Their reasoning is circular: Why, the amount in the gospels, of course! It begs the question: what is the criteria for determining an acceptable amount of disagreement? This is a clear-cut case of confirmation bias

To hammer the point home, I'm going to yank out a list of ten factual contradictions among the gospels:
1. Was Jesus executed before or after the Passover? John says before, Mark says after. And did he die in the morning, as Mark says, or in the afternoon, as John says?
2. Did Jesus carry his cross the whole way (John), or did Simon of Cyrene carry it part of the way (Matthew, Luke, Mark)?
3. Did both robbers mock Jesus (Mark and Matthew), or did one mock him and the other defend him (Luke)?
4. Did the temple curtain rip in half before (Luke) or after (Mark, Matthew) Jesus died?
5. Did Mary go to the tomb alone (John) or with other women (Matthew, Mark, Luke)? If the latter, who? Each gospel gives a conflicting account.
6. Was the stone rolled away when they got to the tomb (Mark, Luke, John) or not (Matthew)?
7. At the tomb, did they see one man (Mark), two men (Luke), or an angel (Matthew)?
8. Did the women tell the disciples to stay in Jerusalem (Luke) or to go to Galilee (Matthew, Mark)
9. Did the women keep what they saw a secret (John) or did they tell people (Luke, Matthew, Mark)?
10. Did the disciples stay in Jerusalem (Luke), or did they go immediately to Galilee (Matthew)?

The Gospel Challenge

Let's take a second to remember that the Bible is not supposed to be some mundane historical document, but the inspired words of the one true God who is the Lord and Creator of the universe. We all agree on the basic facts. Occam's Razor tells us not to multiply assumptions beyond necessity, and I think the internal factual errors, unsubstantiated supernatural claims and dubious historical origins of the gospels constitute overwhelming evidence that they are best explained as merely the works of delusional human beings. So my challenge to Christians is this: given the basic facts, I challenge you to demonstrate either logically and/or empirically that the only plausible explanation for the gospels is that they are the inspired words of Godthat no reasonable person could conclude, based on the facts, that the gospels are nothing more than the works of ordinary, delusional human beings.

Again, quoting from my review of The Case for Christ:
 Let's imagine, though, that I'm completely wrong about all this. Imagine all this stuff really happened, and Christianity is just as true and just as important as Strobel and friends make it out to be. Why did God do such a lousy job? This is supposed to be the one book that an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly loving God wanted his people to have. And what do we have? A book of dubious historical origins filled with unsubstantiated supernatural claims and riddled with internal contradictions. Is this really the best God could do? If God is so deeply concerned for my soul, why did Lee Strobel even have to make this movie?

25 May 2012

7 Myths About New Atheists: Myth #3 – Atheists judge all believers by the worst of them

I recently watched the discussion/debate between Christopher Hitchens and Tim Rutton, and if there was anything that Hutton kept hammering on it's that he agreed with a lot of what Hitchens said about the perversity of many religious practitioners. But the point he hammered back with is that the extremists, the fundamentalists, the evolution deniers, the war mongers, the gay and women haters, the privilege seekers, etc, are not representative of all believers.

I've mentioned my brother before, and it's appropriate here to mention him again. He's a devout evangelical Christian, and a blue-blooded liberal. I won't try to guess his stance on various political issues, but he certainly sees himself as pro-science. He's a big fan of guys like Francis Collins and Ken Miller, devout Christians who also happen to be prominent biologists who speak out against the folly of creationism. It was Miller, after all, who helped expose Intelligent Design for the pseudoscience it is – in no small part by exposing its most prominent advocates' ignorance – in the famous Dover trial.

I'm not sure how to quantify what Christian charities have done for the world, but it's undoubtedly no small contribution. And while atheists are quick to point out the abject idiocy of the Pope preaching the sinfulness of condom use to AIDS-ravaged Africans, Catholic charities are some of the most efficacious and prominent on the continent. Meanwhile, believers are quick to point out the "atheist regimes" of Stalin and Mao, and the millions who died under their rule (Hitler is often wrongly tossed in there, but he was a Christian).

Unfortunately, it's all beside the point.

Atheists point out the atrocities committed by religious people and in the name of religion (there's a difference) to show that religion often is and often has been not a source of charity and love, but of tyranny and cruelty. History is mired with blood spilled in the name of spreading religion: the Saxon wars, the Crusades, the Inquisition, Encomienda. The pro-slavery South of the 19th Century was overwhelmingly Christian (the whole Atlantic slave trade was masterminded by the Christian West), as was the pro-segregation South of the 20th. The primary opposition to the equality of woman and homosexuals both here and abroad comes from religion – overwhelmingly so, in fact. Even today, in the US, while Christians don't advocate the burqas and dehumanization of women as some Arab nations do, a visit to Christian conservative website will find a plethora of arguments regarding women as submissive to the authority of their husbands – not equal partners. I'm also unable to find any sort of secular opposition to gay rights, particularly since the scientific verdict has been in for quite some time.

And there's more. There's no opposition to the forward march of science outside of religious circles. While Intelligent Design advocates attempted to cast a veneer of scientific respectability over their pseudoscientific nonsense, the infamous Wedge Document revealed them for what they are – Christian fundamentalists hellbent on subverting science education. Christian hucksters exploit millions under the frauds of "prosperity preaching" which encourages people to give thousands to already-wealthy churches with the promise that God will magically bless them financially as a reward for their sacrifice, and millions are duped into giving money and forsaking medical care for the dangerous fraud of faith healing. And all this doesn't even touch the modern extremes of terrorism and war advocated in the name of religion.

No one is arguing that all believers are like this, or that religion inevitably leads to such things. Rather, the argument is that faith is the problem. We believe that the core of the problem is the idea that it is not only acceptable, but even virtuous to believe things about reality based on faith. We new atheists are empiricists, and we think that the only justified believes are those based solely upon evidence.

Liberal and moderate believers believe that faith is fully justified, and that the conservatives, fundamentalists and extremists are just doing it wrong. They're reading the wrong holy book, or reading the right one but interpreting it wrong. They might claim God speaks to them, but they're wrong because, well, God spoke to those moderates and said something different. The problem is that this is an argument from consequences. The problems are many:
  • There is no objective, independently verifiable criteria for the proper interpretation of any holy book
  • There is no way to independently verify claims that God spoke to anyone, or to ascertain what God's intentions are
  • Research already indicates that people simply impose their own sociocultural biases on their theology, molding the latter to conform to the former, which clearly undermines the validity of religion as any sort of moral compass.
In other words, new atheists think the problem isn't religion per se, but a faith-based epistemology. There's simply no way to independently verify any faith based claims about reality. The result is the kind of extremism that Richard Dawkins is concerned about in his interview with a Muslim from the DVD Root of all Evil?: that people with equally fervent but opposing views will be unable to reason with one another, because their faith-based views are not amenable to evidence.

Myth #2
Myth #4

21 May 2012

7 Myths About New Atheists: Myth #2 – atheists think believers are stupid

I think this stemmed partly from the deliberately provocative title of the hugely popular polemic The God Delusion. Perhaps it's research that correlates liberalism and non-belief with IQ. But whatever the root of it, believers seem to think atheists view them as unsophisticated, unintelligent, and uneducated.

Really, I don't get this one. Surely we don't think the problem with the eminent biologist Francis Collins, who helped found the human genome project, is that he's just not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Surely we don't think that devout Christian Kenneth Miller, the evolutionary biologist at Brown who publicly humiliated advocates of Intelligent Design in the infamous Dover trial, that he just needs to go back to college. These guys are obviously highly intelligent, and they're Christians.

But here's the rub: just because someone is intelligent doesn't make them immune from adhering to irrational, even delusional beliefs. intelligent people can be wrong. Like, completely and totally wrong. There's Isaac Newton, who contributed more to modern science than nearly anyone else ever, then spent the rest of his life as an alchemist. There's professional crackpot Frank Tipler, a physicist who wrote the book The Physics of Christianity, in which he claimed that God literally is the cosmic singularity, that God manipulated the carbon in the Shroud of Turin, and that the resurrection of our earthly bodies spoken of in the book of Revelation means that our consciousnesses with be uploaded into the bodies of spacefaring robots (I swear I am not making this up) – and this guy is a professor of physics at Tulane!

Many highly intelligent scientists and philosophers are and have been Christians. Unfortunately, that doesn't make them right. Just as with creationists, conspiracy theorists, global warming deniers, etc, there is often a sort of compartmentalization of ideas, in which certain beliefs are not held to the same standards of skeptical inquiry as most others. The problem with most believers isn't that they're dumb – it's that they're smart enough to know better.

Myth #1
Myth #3

20 May 2012

New atheists and 'unsophisticated' philosophy

One of the criticisms that the William Lane Craigs, Alister McGraths and Alvin Plantingas have of some of the new atheist tomes, like The God Delusion is that they are very 'unsophisticated' in their treatment of philosophy. Presumably, someone with a doctorate in philosophy (like Craig) ought to be better than, say, a neuroscientist or a biologist at identifying a logically fallacious argument.

But here's the catch. There's a difference between a valid argument and sound argument. This is a valid argument:
  • If penguins capable of flying exist, then it is likely that some penguins have flown
  • Penguins capable of flying exist
  • Therefor it is likely that some penguins have flown
This is a valid argument because if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows (for the nitpicky nerds, we can ignore the inductive vs. deductive forms for now). But you might say, Hey! Wait a second! There's no evidence that flying penguins exist! And you'd be right. The argument is valid because it follows correct form. But it's unsound because it's based on false information.

And that's where guys like Craig and Plantinga screw up. They're great at constructing arguments that follow proper form, but a lot of their arguments depend on information that, being philosophers by trade, they're not exactly experts on. Let's take the old Kalam Cosmological Argument:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  • The universe began to exist
  • Ergo the universe has a cause
This is a valid argument, because if the premises are true then indeed the conclusion follows. But it's unsound because the premises are mired in equivocation and outright falsehood. The notion that the universe had to have had a beginning ex nihilo is an idea that the overwhelming majority of cosmologists would dismiss. As the physicist Sean Carroll said,
There is no reason, within anything we currently understand about the ultimate structure of reality, to think of the existence and persistence and regularity of the universe as things that require external explanation.  Indeed, for most scientists, adding on another layer of metaphysical structure in order to purportedly explain these nomological facts is an unnecessary complication.
Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism is similarly unsound, because it relies on an erroneous description of evolution. It might be valid by following proper form, but it's still a completely bogus argument.

I was on a forum once, and pointed out that William Lane Craig's writing on physics (which are popularly bandied across the interwebs by would-be apologists), were published for an online-only, unaccredited evangelical degree mill. They weren't vetted by any actual physicists. Stephen Hawking, who Craig's made a habit of criticizing, held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge for 30 years. Golly, I wonder who knows more about physics?

"But you see," those would-be apologies would reply, "Craig isn't arguing about physics. He's arguing about the philosophical implications of physics." Problem is, before you can wax on about the implications of physics, you have to get your physics right. So when you do something like dismiss the use of imaginary numbers, you're showing that you don't really understand how physics works. Conclusions that you subsequently draw are bound to be fallacious.

To be a good philosopher, you have to yield to experts in a variety of other fields. You can't just toss out information you don't like and formulate arguments based on erroneous premises. That's why Daniel Dennett is really good at philosophy, and guys like Plantinga and Craig suck at it. The good ones, like Dennett, learn from other disciplines and know their limits.

18 May 2012

Real life: why 'pro-life' policies are bullshit

There's a trend among some arch conservatives to advocate the total outlaw abortion in all cases, and that sort of nutbaggery is fringe and shocking enough for its sheer audacious stupidity that it usually makes headlines. But a far more common idea among the pro-life movement is that abortion should be outlawed except in cases of rape, incest, or (the big one) a threat to the health of the mother or a child with a terminal birth defect.

Now, being pro-choice doesn't mean being pro-abortion. In principle, I don't want abortion done casually either. It's a serious decision to made between a woman and her doctor. But I heard a story today that really hits home as to why even the idea that abortion should only be permissible in certain circumstances cannot possibly work as a policy.

Anencephaly is a birth defect in which the fetus' skull and major portions of its brain do not develop. The brain either doesn't form, or is totally unprotected. Upon birth (assuming it is not stillborn), the baby will die within hours. I recently learned, through a friend who works in the health insurance industry, of a woman who was recently given this tragic diagnosis. Not once. Not twice. Four doctors gave her ultrasounds, and all four agreed that the child's condition is fatal and that the pregnancy should be terminated.

But this woman is in an insurance network of Catholic hospitals, and they will not approve an abortion unless it first goes to an "ethics committee". So after being given this devastating diagnosis, confirmed by four doctors, this poor woman had to sit around patiently for a week while this committee debated whether to cover her termination of the pregnancy.

Their verdict? Her coverage was denied.

The ethics committee said that because it was early in the pregnancy, there was still a chance that the skull might develop. I immediately wondered: on what facts was this "chance" based? Because it was in writing, from four doctors, that the condition is indeed terminal. Now the woman has two choices: either prolong her suffering by delaying the inevitable (which of course will require another appeal to the ethics committee) or seek an abortion elsewhere, paid for out of pocket. Based on what my friend has told me, the woman and her husband, who already have two kids they need to take care of, are likely to seek the latter option. Of course, in Oklahoma, an abortion is no small feat. But it can be done.

This whole situation illustrates the problem with the idea that an abortion should only be permissible in certain circumstances: who decides what constitutes an acceptable circumstance? Would all abortions be decided upon by some "ethics committee" that can, as this group did, ignore the recommendation of four doctors because of religious principles? Abortion, in this case, is not only safer (abortion carries a tenth of the risk to the mother as birth), but the most merciful option for the mother and family. Why prolong her suffering, particularly when she's already a mother of two and must be strong, both physically and emotionally, for their sakes?

Abortion need only be between a woman and her doctor. Period. Not a woman and the government, not a woman and an ethics committee. This example of a real-life tragedy demonstrates why the religious ideologues on the political right are so sorely misguided in their attempts to limit access to this procedure.

17 May 2012

7 Myths About New Atheists: Myth #1 – Atheists Are Angry

During my hiatus I watched plenty of old and new debates and discussions between atheists and believers. Time and time again, I see the same misguided platitudes repeated by the critics of the so-called "new atheism", and they only serve to stymie the discussion. I suppose I could be pigeonholed as part of this new atheist movement, so I've compiled a list of 7 myths that believers (and occasionally, fellow atheists) have about what Jerry Coyne refers to as "gnu atheism".

Myth #1: Atheists are angry 

Atheists are not, in general, angry people. Hemant Mehta's blog is called The Friendly Atheist for a reason: he's trying to show people that you can hold an unpopular view or critique ideas that are often shielded from skeptical inquiry, and that doesn't make you an asshole. I'm not saying there aren't some really angry atheists out there, who are just angry all the time at everyone who isn't like them – but they're not representative of most atheists any more than raving fundies like the Westboro Baptist Church are representative of most believers.

I often hear that atheists are angry at religion, angry at believers, angry at the church, or whatever. When I discussed The God Delusion with a local pastor, his first words were that there was "a lot of anger" in the book. But it's a half-truth, one designed to ignore the substance of our concerns by focusing on the perceived "tone". 

Being angry isn't necessarily a bad thing. And indeed, new atheists are angry about some very specific things – things we perceive to be injustices. Things like:
  • Conservatives and fundamentalists trying to (and sometimes succeeding) trample on the civil rights of women and homosexuals in the name of their religion
  • Catholic missionaries (and even the Pope!) telling people in AIDS-raved Africa that condom use is sinful
  • The incessant assault on science, including the frequent attempts to alter science curricula in public schools, by religious creationists
  • People of faith trying to rewrite the laws of the nation to give their particular beliefs special status or privilege
  • The discrimination and marginalization of non-believers and/or religious minorities by the religious majority
  • The use of war, terrorism and coercion in the name of religion
I could go on, but the here's the point: if you're not angry about these sorts of injustices, you're probably part of the problem. Believers who don't think the above issues are injustices would never tolerate these kinds of things from other religions. Case in point: the Muslim community center in New York. Local Muslims, who had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attack, were ostracized by angry Christians when they tried to build a community center a few blocks from Ground Zero. Christians were so busy conflating all Muslims with the miniscule number of them who are suicidal jihadists that they wanted to deny them their constitution right to build a community center that was fully compliant with all of New York's zoning laws. And yet if we dare protest the erection of the 10 Commandments in front of a court house, or protest the leading of public schoolchildren in prayer, or want young gay couples to be able to attend prom together, or want atheists in the military to have the same privileges as believers... you can expect nothing less than a full-on shitstorm of outrage from Christian conservatives.

We're angry about certain injustices perpetrated in the name of religion, but we're still as nice and normal as anyone else that you'll meet day to day. And unlike religious liberals who agree with us on those injustices, we see religion itself – or, more specifically, the erroneous idea that one can attain knowledge through faith – as being the root of the problem. Nobody likes to hear their cherished beliefs criticized. But we believe that the free and open criticism of ideas – all ideas – is integral to a productive public discourse. That doesn't make us angry – it makes us thinkers.

The obligatory related video from NonStampCollector:

06 May 2012

I'm taking time off

I'm going to take an indefinite hiatus from The A-Unicornist. I need the break.

I have a lot of things I want to do, day to day. At the top of my list of things to cut way back on is what I fondly call "dicking around on the internet". I have a lengthy list of bookmarked blogs, and writing can be a fairly time-consuming endeavor – especially factoring in the time I spend commenting on other blogs.

Truth be told I'm just a little sick of it all. Arguing with theists is usually a waste of time – people need an inquisitive mindset, not a defensive one, before changing their mind becomes a possibility. And yet, despite knowing this, I sometimes just can't help myself when I see something that in my estimation is an affront to reason. But that's something I need to let go. I'm just a little sick of religion being on my brain. I'm an atheist, after all. I just want to go about my life and do my own thing.

It's time I spend more of my energy on my music, on reading the many books I bought and never finished or even never started (including my magazine subscriptions), on my expanding responsibilities at work, and with friends and family.

I'm going to keep the Facebook page going, posting stuff from the archives and relevant news. I'm also gonna be trimming my regular blog reading list to the handful I like best, so I won't be nearly as active on other people's blogs either.  I'm really trying to cut down on this whole internet usage thing.

If you're a regular, thanks for reading. I hope that you'll take some time to peruse my archives. I've written a lot of stuff I'm really proud of, and unfortunately that gets kind of lost in a blog feed. Feel free to write me if you want. I'll jump back in the game sooner or later; for now though, I just need some time for me.

- Mike

p.s. – If you're new here, in addition to the "New to The A-Unicornist" tab, I've stuck an "FAQ" tab up as well.

Christianity isn't an oppressed minority

"Christianity isn't an oppressed minority; Christianity is an ideology which has been behind every unjust tradition and power structure that this nation has ever experienced. Christianity doesn't need to be pandered to, it needs to be challenged, questioned, stood up to, and even mocked at times. Christians who don't get that are still part of the problem because they still think that their religion merits special deference and privileges."
– Austin Cline at about.atheism.com

Related: Christian privilege

Yes, Richard Carrier exists

The extant Richard Carrier
Master sophist Glenn Peoples has a post up over at his blog that attempts to cleverly mock Richard Carrier's skepticism about a historical Jesus by asking, Does Richard Carrier Exist? Now, Glenn didn't actually write this (someone named Tim McGrew did), but he thinks it's clever. It's posted under "humor", but the message is a serious one: that it's silly of Carrier to question Jesus' existence, and that supposedly similar logic can be used to question Carrier's own existence (in this case, oft-abused Bayesian probability).

I've detailed the reasons why the New Testament is not historically reliable in previous posts, like this one, so I'm not going to rehash all that here. Suffice to say that there is absolutely no reason at all to believe that Jesus, as he is described in the Bible, is anything but a myth. Might the myth have been based on a real person? Plausibly, but it's conjectural and irrelevant.

But let's think for two seconds (two seconds longer than the guy who wrote the piece) about what we'd have to fake to fabricate Richard Carrier's existence:
  • Birth records
  • Medical records
  • Testimony from contemporaneous peers (there is no testimony of Jesus from his contemporaries)
  • Thousands of photographs, and quite a few videos
  • Academic records from preschool all the way through his doctoral education
  • Published research
  • Public writings
  • Marital records
  • Tax records
  • Eventually, certificates of his death and records of his burial
Any single one of those constitutes more evidence than we have for the existence of the Biblical Jesus. Posts like Peoples' just show how much common sense apologists are willing to ignore in the name of sophistry, and how artfully they can butcher probability theorems.

04 May 2012

The Heartland Institute uses the Unabomber to assail global warming

I hadn't heard of the Heartland Institute before today. It's an anti-science conservative libertarian think tank specializing in, among other dubious things, climate change denial. It's bad enough that they tout the widely discredited non-scandal "Climategate" as evidence of global warming being a fraud, but most befitting of their ideology is the logic behind this billboard (I swear I am not making this up):

Then, after 24 hours, they pulled it and apologized... but not before declaring it a success and bashing scientists.

If you think this is dumb, you're right. Let's see what happens when we apply similar logic to some other famous people:

02 May 2012

Faith and doubt

A telling commonality between myself and other apostates I've encountered over the years is just how much we wrestled with doubt when we were believers. Even more revealing, though, is finding through many conversations with believers, sermons from my old pastors, and confidential letters sent to me from old church friends, that doubt is not just the gateway drug for apostasy but a salient obstacle for believers which must constantly be warded off.

Sometimes, doubt is assuaged simply with the assumption that someone else probably has it figured out – the person next to you in the pew, the pastor, the deacons... someone can make sense of this stuff... right? Many times, it's safety in numbers or appeals to authority – surely all these people couldn't be wrong, could they? And so-and-so is a highly educated scientist, and he still believes! Other times, it assuaged through convoluted rationalizations bordering on self-deception – from esoteric apologetics to the colloquially ubiquitous dead-end, "The Lord works in mysterious ways".

Religious ideas are unique in that believers often have a vested interest in preserving them; their familial relationships, social relationships, careers, and personal identities are often powerfully interwoven with religion. When Daniel Dennett performed his study of atheists in the clergy a few years ago, it was revealing that several of them didn't want to "come out" as atheists because the repercussions would be too much to bear – "What would I say to my wife? My kids? My friends? My colleagues? What do I do for a living with an M.Div?"

This means that for a believer, it can be exceedingly difficult to view one's own beliefs as fair game for uncompromising self-criticism. The need for preservation created by those vested interests means that no matter how much we don't understand, no matter how much we find ourselves conjuring up one rationalization after another, belief must be preserved at all costs:

It's okay to doubt; just don't give up on your faith.

I think that a little critical thinking reveals just how poorly reasoned this idea really is. Self-criticism, or the rational examination of beliefs that we may hold very dear, requires us to accept that we may be completely and utterly wrong. It requires us to separate ourselves from our "vested interests" in maintaining our beliefs, almost in a sense of role-playing – that we imagine ourselves as outsiders, free of assumptions or wishful thinking.

I received a letter once from a friend of mine from my churchgoing days. She said that she had doubts about a lot of things, but that she didn't feel like there was anyone she could talk to. That's not unusual; it's a consequence of the attitude toward doubt in the church. A good skeptic embraces doubt. Doubt is healthy. Finding that we're wrong doesn't bring our world crashing down – it's a crucial step in our intellectual and personal maturity.

But for the faithful, doubt remains something to be feared, to be overcome, to be squashed out so that belief can be preserved. Perhaps that's why, without exception, every apostate I've known has described their deconversion as liberating. It's a beautiful thing to be guided by curiosity rather than fear – and, rather than swallowing our cognitive dissonance or drowning in our own convoluted rationalizations because we cannot accept our ignorance, to feel like there's a universe out there waiting to be discovered.