Advocatus Interviewus

Alert readers are aware that I recently had the privilege of being interviewed by the mighty Tristan Vick, who runs the outstanding blog Advocatus Atheist. I've now had the opportunity to pick his brain as well, and if you haven't already been reading his blog, this interview should give you a clear sense of what a lucid thinker and studied apostate Tristan really is. He not only shares many of the passions I do, but he's especially adept in intellectual domains where I feel I could use the most study. In this interview I asked Tristan to share his thoughts on science, philosophy, religion, communicating with believers, and much more.

How did science influence your de-conversion, if at all? Were there any areas of science in particular that significantly challenged your perspective?

AvA: Interesting you should say that, because my deconversion was influenced, in part, by my involvement with the popular literature of cosmology. Coincidentally I started doing some serious physics reading just two years ago, at about the same time I began to doubt my faith, and although it helped I can’t say to what degree. All I know is that I was getting real tangible answers, real explanations, for things which religion has nothing to say except—God made it. That’s a cop out if you ask me. An all knowing God who is all loving would want to share that vast knowledge with humanity. He would be willing to help give us the knowledge which would teach us to enhance our lives, whether it is dietetics, addressing climate change, or find new sources of clean energy, but alas, no such insights. It’s up to us… proving that if God is out there—he just doesn’t give a damn about us. But the more probable option is that God just doesn’t exist.

I know that like me, you have a passion for cosmology, physics and astronomy. How do these fields of science intersect with faith, and what challenges do you feel they pose for believers? They don't tend to be discussed as regularly as, say, evolution.

AvA: Actually I find that the religious animadversion toward science depends largely on the ignorance regarding a rudimentary understanding of basic science, thus being unaware of the implications and predictions of science, of scientific progress in general, and therefore not finding any value in it. On top of this, to make matters even worse, there are places like Ken Ham’s Creationist Museum which are distorting the methods of science, or rather outright perverting them, and making kids believe, ironically enough, that science supports their patently unscientific worldviews! So the challenge is the challenge to engage science head on, learn it, but learn it from the professional scientists and not just some crazy religious preacher stoked up on his own self righteousness and who can’t seem to see past his own dogmatic agenda. If we come to understand science, then we will be better informed about just how inadequate religion is, we will be alerted at how often it fails and how often science succeeds in providing us with real answers.

The challenges the religious faith with regard to science is that science keeps providing real tangible answers and valid explanations for things which religion no longer can promise the answers to (as if it ever had that capacity to begin with). Christianity, as well as Judaism and Islam, are not only losing the battle in terms of where we get our answers and where all the reliable facts are coming from, but they are outpaced by the powers of science, and this divide is only going to grow until religions explanatory powers are not just embarrassing (like they are now) but entirely obsolete.

As for cosmology, astronomy, and physics intersecting with faith, I think that basically comes down to the first cause and cosmological argument. Religion posits God created the universe, but that’s just a simple deduction: things exist, so they must have been made, but science has shown—with great accuracy—that the universe and all that exists can come about spontaneously. There’s a lot of good evidence to suggest that the universe spontaneously came to exist, that it sprung up from nothing, and that there was no intent or purpose to it—and this is counterintuitive to us, so people will often want to believe the religious creation myths are a more accurate view of reality—but this just isn’t the case. Science has posited a godless universe, and now the religious must contend with this new data. Most just go into denial and refuse to accept change, while others find new ways to maintain a belief in God while at the same time respecting the findings of science.

What do you think have been some of the most exciting discoveries in astronomy, physics or cosmology in the last few decades? How have they impacted your perspective?

AvA: The biggest find in recent memory has to be dark energy. I think this is the frontier of cosmology for many reasons, least of which is that it may be the key to unlocking all the mysteries, but that may never happen since we really have no means of studying it directly.

As for other discoveries or theories, there are just so many. In the past fifty years it seems like there has been a steady progression of new reality shattering discoveries every year. I don’t know what the most exciting has all been, I think the most exciting things for me are not probably exciting to other people. Most recently finding usable water deposits on our own moon was pretty exciting! Usable water! Most people are fascinated by black holes and Hubble space telescope photos, which I also love, but what really gets me excited are the little things such as Carl Sagan using a crystal to create the shadow of a hypercube, and then reading Lisa Randall’s explanation for how missing information, like the hypercube shadow, may be the clues which alert us to the existence of other parallel dimensions. It boggles my mind that less information would be required to prove something as complex as an alternate or parallel dimension. Other things like reading up on the Galileo Jupiter mission excites me. Galileo dropped into Jupiter’s atmosphere in 1989 and was instantly crushed into oblivion, but gave some interesting readings. Apparently the gas of Jupiter is so densely compacted by the force of gravity, so superhot, that it becomes a metallic ball of infinitely dense liquid matter. Scientists have recreated the metallic properties of gas using lasers in a controlled environment in the lab—but it just blows my mind that gas become metallic under high pressure and heat. It’s not really a huge find, but it’s very fascinating to me.

As for impacting my perspective, I guess these things give me hope that cosmology will continue to provide fascinating insights into the universe and our origins. For me personally, this is where I place my hopes and dreams, because with science it seems all our futures will be a lot brighter.

Many people de-convert and don't think much of it, but it's clearly sparked a great deal of curiosity in you regarding science and philosophy. What was the catalyst for your analytical mindset? As a corollary, how do you think we can spark believers and non-believers alike to think more critically?

AvA: Actually my analytical mindset was gained through study, and my degree in literary theory, in which analytical thinking is taught and stressed. This skill has only made it easier for me to appreciate science. The catalyst for my change of mind, and ultimately my deconversion, was the love of a woman. Surprise surprise! I’ve written about that elsewhere on my blog (you can read it by clicking here). Basically in order to get past my dogmatic bias against marrying outside of my religious group—I had to make a decision. Do I rethink things or do I devote myself to my faith and faith alone.

As it turns out, faith is not enough to live a full and happy life. Jesus was wrong, sometimes you do need some bread, some wine, and a companion to keep company with. The whole throw away your life and follow me ideology stems from an apocalyptic attitude, it’s a pessimistic and grim scenario, the world is ending—so don’t get attached to worldly things. But when I matured, and my mind matured, I realized I am part of the world. Then I went out into the world, came to Japan, and met someone who loved me as much as I loved her. At the time I found the conflict between my faith and reason too painful to bear. My faith demanded loyalty, but my heart said love was truer than anything, and so in order to love (as I thought my faith had instructed me but later realized it did not) I had to let go of certain biases and prejudices (all of them faith-based).

More importantly, I had to learn to accept someone who came from a different cultural background, who thought differently, and who held a completely different worldview. I had to accept her without wanting to change her, because like the Keri Hilson song “Change” when she sings, “Why would you wanna change me, arrange me, is that what you call love?” I knew then and there that I couldn’t expect my Buddhist raised wife to just drop her entire worldview, throw away her entire heritage and cultural upbringing, because I demanded she be “saved” so she could be with me in Heaven for all eternity after we die (which to her probably sounded as absurd as asking her to spend an eternity in Candy-Land after we die). Apart from sounding meaningless to her, it just didn’t seem right to make an ultimatum—join me or lose me, it didn’t seem at all like a loving act, expecting her to change for me was selfish. That sparked some major cognitive dissonance in my mind, because my evangelical upbringing made me a proselytizing, witnessing, soul winning warrior for Christ! It was my Christian duty to win her over to Christ. Reason won out, as I was too compassionate, too open minded, too cultured by this time to believe in that crap anymore. At the time I figured that if God was really a God of love he would understand my choice to put love above my religious convictions.

Luckily enough, and I can’t stress enough how lucky I truly was, my wife was patient with me during those first few years when I was still a raging evangelical nut job—she toughed it out—and wisely refused to talk about religion all that time. When I finally relinquish my Christianity and became atheist, she let out a big sigh, and said, “Finally.” Not in a sarcastic way—but as a sign of great relief.  I can only imagine what I put her through was difficult (to say the least).

After that awakening I hit the history books and science books hard and haven’t looked back since. Like Benjamin Franklin used to say, “Plough deep while sluggards sleep.”

How do get people to think more critically? Well, first would be to teach them the methods of critical thinking, modal logic, and other analytical forms of reasoning. I think most people take for granted that these are skills. Skills are things you need to learn, practice, and hone before you get good at them. Just like playing a musical instrument (I play the Tennor Sax) and it takes years of practice before you excel at it. Granted there are always protégées and natural born intellects out there, but all in all, it requires real diligence and effort on our behalf—that’s why I like Franklin’s concept of really digging in and hitting the books while sluggards lazily idle away their days watching football and drinking beer. For approximately five years now I’ve been reading four or five books a month—nearly all of them non-fiction, the majority of which are science related. Higher education is the quickest way to gain critical thinking skills, but also just reading others who are good critical thinkers can help immensely.

What scientific breakthroughs do you feel have been most damaging to religion?

AvA: Darwin’s theory of Evolution has devastated Christian claims of creation, proving there was no intelligent designer, along with modern cosmology explaining why we’re here and how we got here, and now neuroscience being able to provide reliable models for morality these fields of science have devastated Christianity. They have literally stripped the ability for Christians to appeal to the authority of a divine Creator—and the only way they can continue to believe in a Creator being at all is to deny science. But if denial is all they have—then well, the battle is already won. Science has prevailed where religion has failed.

You mentioned in our last discussion that you're fascinated with M-Theory. What is it about M-Theory that you find most enticing, and how do think it could impact our perspective on our place in the universe?

AvA: M-Theory is quite literally the theory of everything. It is the Grand Unified Theory everyone is hoping for. And until recently it wasn’t even testable, but some intriguing physics work has now revealed that in the near future we’ll likely be able to put string theory to the test using “Four-qubit entanglement.”

I guess what fascinates me the most is that if M-Theory is ever proved beyond a shadow of a doubt then it opens up a whole new realm of possibilities and, as a consequence, will disprove God once and for all. But I don’t think the god-concept is even a viable option as it is now, so there shouldn’t be any worry of it being disproved—the god-concept, and especially the Christian God, has already been disproved (repeatedly). Oddly enough—more often by Christian apologists than atheists (but that’s a story for another time).

As such I am currently hoping we soon figure out the wavelength of gravitational radiation using new LIGO technology. Once that’s discovered, and it is only a matter of time before it is, we will then be able to know whether or not supersymmetry is correct, even as the LHC may validate it before we discover the exact wavelength of gravitational radiation.

Philosophy, which you really have a knack for, is often a confusing place for laypersons. How can someone with a limited knowledge of philosophy sift through the complex musings of philosophers and rationally evaluate their arguments?

AvA: Wow. I’m flattered that you’d even consider me a half way decent philosopher. My goal is always clarity. I despised things that are unclear, or worse, intentionally obfuscated. The problem with philosophy is that it can get outright esoteric really fast. I try to keep my thoughts and ideas practical and avoid sophistry and I try to maintain a rule of parsimony when I talk or write. Overkill is bad—I always aim for precision—so that my points hit home with force.

The problem is that philosophy only makes sense after you’ve read enough of it to speak the language of philosophy. Philosophers, like any other specialized field, have their own unique vocabulary and way of talking about things. Although I have formal training in theory, which is similar, I am still new to analytical philosophy, but what has helped me the most is actually subscribing to Luke Muehlhauser’s Podcast series Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, as he’s interviewed just about every philosopher I can think of. Listening to their discussions have helped me immensely to learn the language of philosophy as well as gain some new insights and ideas. Also, you may be aware that Luke’s blog Common Sense Atheism is a great resource for all things philosophical.

Do feel the sometimes obscure nature of philosophy is used to deliberately mislead uninformed but inquisitive minds? Are there any examples in particular that stand out for you?

AvA: This is an area I’m well verse in—when language and ideas are used to influence, either convince or mislead you, and this area is called rhetoric. Christian apologetics consist mainly of rhetoric, most of it bad rhetoric because Christian apologists don’t know the literary science behind it. They’re basically like a bunch of monkeys trying to drive a stick shift, there’s a lot of gear grinding, horn honking, and general mayhem. However, that is not to say Christianity is without it rhetoricians. As you well know, the theologian William Lain Craig is one of the best debaters because he has a firm grasp of how to use rhetoric. Of course rhetoric is just a tool for convincing others that you’re right—it does nothing to prove you are, in point of fact, right. If you want to see an exercise in pure rhetoric read William Lane Craig’s book “Reasonable Faith.” Then go out and read something like Robert M. Price’s The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man, or The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave and you’ll understand exactly why Craig sticks to rhetoric and avoids getting his hands dirty with real authentic history.

Even so, rhetoric is a very useful tool, and one that you can’t help but use if you want to sound convincing, but what’s more, if you want others to be convinced. But there is a certain level of honesty one might wish to maintain if they are to remain credible. I think Craig has lost all credibility as a serious philosopher because he distorts things other people say to the point where he has stopped practicing rhetoric and began practicing libel—and in my book that’s the sign of a person who is obsessed with being right than actually proving their claims or supporting their arguments. And quite frankly, you can’t argue with someone like that.

If, however, you would like a crash course in rhetoric and argumentation I would highly suggest picking up the college textbook The Norton Field Guide to Writing. It contains everything you’d ever want to know on how to write, and has a whole section (four chapters) devoted to argumentation and rhetoric. The section of detecting and avoiding fallacies is worth the price alone!

I imagine you share the frustration many apostates do when conversing with believers – namely, as John Loftus has said, trying to reason them out of beliefs that they were not reasoned into to begin with. How do you think we can break down these barriers, and what approaches have you found to be the most successful?

AvA: I think the best course it to keep an active dialog going. If we keep engaging them then they won’t be able to retreat to the protective bubble of faith. Eventually reason and good argumentation will wear on them—and as science advances there will be certain discoveries which will become undeniable (and some—like Darwinian evolution already have).

Anthropologist David Eller was the first to suggest that the religious where never argued into their beliefs so arguing believers out of them is impossible. But I don’t quite see it that way. I think religion is a modular system, and I think by applying a network theory of deconversion one can address the separate component (modules) which comprise religion and faith. Reason is just one part of the whole infrastructure. But if you think of religion as a modular system, then by knocking out the pillars which support faith, you can damage the whole infrastructure and the network collapses. So we must keep using reason! It’s highly important, but at the same time, there are other areas atheists could be addressing which they’re not. For example, religious community, and familial coherence, is something religion does quite well. We wouldn’t want to attack that without attacking the actual social networking which religious institutions are good at, so the best thing we could do is devise secular models of the same which could show the person of faith that their religion isn’t necessarily the only source for community and support. Another area we need to be aware of is how we use religious-talk in everyday situations. Even saying “God does not exist” instantly invokes the image of God—and what’s more empowers the g0d-concept. It’s like saying, “Try not to think of a white bear for thirty seconds,” but even now, you’re mind has already fixated on a white bear. So we need to find ways to neutralize the religious-speak and even the playing field. But challenges like these are still ahead of us.

As for the best approach, I’m still working on it—but right now I fully support the network theory of deconversion [more info - Mike D.], but I think more development in this area of how we form beliefs and support our ideas needs to be investigated before we can truly understand how to best address religious deprogramming.

You're a resident of Japan, but you're from the U.S. What are some of the cultural contrasts you've encountered, in terms of scientific thinking and critical inquiry?

AvA: Actually, it’s funny, because Japanese students score poorly in both those areas. Science and critical thinking are not part of the cultural makeup of Japanese as both require a high level of individual initiative and self questioning. Japanese thinking is more homogeneous so to ask someone to solve a problem on their own is nearly impossible since, immediately, they will conglomerate into groups and begin discussing the best possible solutions for any given problem. What this means is that they can do lab work just fine—but when it comes to trying to think through a science question they fail almost every time. Modal logic is the same hurdle. More independent minded Japanese are good at it, but most don’t know how to apply logic. That doesn’t mean they aren’t logical. In my experience Japanese are highly rational, and they rationalize everything, but often times their rationalizations are borderline superstitious because they haven’t arrived at the conclusion by any logical processes.

A good example of this is the notion that tattoos equate to degenerate personality traits, i.e. that a person who has ink is either a gangster or a lowlife and will likely rape you and cut your head off. In Japan Yakuza (e.g., Japanese mafia) are known for their tattooing, and a whole slew of seventies gangster movies made people utterly afraid of anyone with a tattoo. In Japan tattoos are taboo, and they rationalize the bias by equating anyone with a tattoo as a gangster and immoral thug—by banning tattoos they feel society is a safer (better) place. Even as such a notion is blatantly illogical.

Like most phobias the fear is irrational. Therefore the fact that you can be banned from your local gym, or not gain admission into a spa or movie theater for simply having a tattoo is not a logical bias, but rather, one which is superstitious. For Westerners it’s beyond the pale that anyone would sponsor such irrational fears, but it’s no different than say, people who fear that letting gays marry will ruin the custom of marriage—that’s another myth that needs to be done away with. If Christians were better educated, more cultured, and perhaps more liberal they would see this. But Christianity maintains a level of ignorance which is downright embarrassing, breeds xenophobic attitudes, and limits all worldviews to only the Christian one in effect making most Christians ultraconservative. The only way to combat this is with education and further multicultural awareness. Likewise, if Japanese were better informed about the rich heritage of body art, such as that in the Maori culture, they may have less of a phobia regarding tattoos. In time they might even come to appreciate it as an art!

Coming back to your question about how we ought to enhance people’s critical thinking skills, the best way I have found is to find examples which obviously contradict their notions—by forcing cognitive dissonance you, in turn, force them to confront a paradox. If their faith is right by default, and nothing else can be right, but then they find something (contrary to what they’ve been told) is also right, then they have no choice but to question their faith. I think this works well with the gay marriage example. Most conservative Christians are against gay marriage because they’ve been told homosexuality is a sin, that it’s disgusting, and that it is evil. But the moment they are introduced to the kindest, happiest, more empathetic gay person they’ll ever meet they suddenly have to question their prejudice and ask, is it really worth denying this man his civil liberties and happiness because he’s gay? After all, doesn’t he have a right to marry whom he chooses to love? Who am I to deny him love? Would I want him to deny me the right to marry because I’m straight? What’s this double standard and why does it seem like I’m the one being an unfair bigot? These are the questions we need to force upon believers. Granted many will still be so deeply inundated, indoctrinated, with faith that they will never see reason—the idea is to sway just enough to tip the scales, and then I think we can really begin to rock the boat, so to speak.


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