Archive for the ‘Religion, Philosophy, and Spirituality’ Category
The fundamental conflict between Science and Religion July 10, 2014 | 05:29 pm

First off, an apology for my long silence on this blog. Life intervened (and I don’t even have the excuse Robert has, not having spawned a subprocess). But I’d like to take the opportunity to address a topic that’s been bothering me for a while.

There is a widespread belief, especially among the more liberal theists, that religion and science can somehow be reconciled. Simplifying to the point of near-insult, this belief holds that science only applies to sciency things, like gravity or sucrose consumption by the mitocrondria, or things like that. While religion only applies to religousy things, like the meaning of life or whose outies get to go in whose innies, and so on. Or, to use bigger words, that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria, and thus are not in conflict (unless one or the other is stepping out of bounds).

Or, to put it another way, theologians are demanding rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.

The problem I have is just this: religion’s right to define what the meaning of life is, and whose outies go into whose innies, is predicated on having a communications to channel to the creator of all. And the existance of this communication channel is itself subject to scientific proof- or disproof. And the evidence says that the communication channel doesn’t exist.

Before I go on, two comments I’m going to need to make. First of all, there is no proof so strong, so irrefutable, that someone can’t go “nuh uh!” The existence of people who disbelieve in evolution, or global warming, or even the round earth, proves this. So simply because you refuse to accept the proof doesn’t mean the proof isn’t valid.

Second, yes, abscence of evidence doesn’t qualify as evidence of absence. But evidence of absence *does*. There is a difference between not having looked for something (absence of evidence), and having looked for it and not found it (evidence of absence). There are accepted scientific proofs tha something doesn’t exist. A classic example of this is the luninous ether. Basic logic said it had to exist- water waves don’t exist without water, and sound waves don’t exist without air, so if light was a wave, then it had to be a wave in something. Unfortunately, the Michaelson-Morley experiments (which were repeated multiple times in differing circumstances) failed to find any evidence for the ether. Conclusion: it didn’t exist. We had evidence of absence.

So, with those points in mind, I present my argument. Let’s engage in a thought experiment. Lets us assume I suddenly announce that I am in contact with an alien species. For long, irrelevent reasons, I can only communicate with this species, I’m not in physical contact (so I can’t pocket a alien artifact, as Neil deGrasse Tyson advises). And they won’t communicate with you, only with me. And let us furthr assume you’re willing to at least entertain the possibility that I’m telling the truth and not just a crank- it’s a thought experiment, work with me here.

Even under those constraints, it is still possible to determine, with a very high degree of certainity, whether I’m telling the truth or not- whether my aliens are real, or just a figure of my imagination. You could ask for an explanation of how to reconcile relativity and quantum mechanics, say, or a proof of the Goldbach conjecture, or whether P=NP (and a proof of whichever), and so on. These are things we humans are likely to figure out ourselves in the next century or two- any alien civilization advanced enough to be comunicating with other start systems is almost certainly will have the answer to those questions.

So, if you ask me to ask my alien friends these questions, and I come back later with pages of mathematics that cause the experts in those fields to get all exicited, that counts as pretty strong evidence that the aliens are real. On the other hand, if I come back with mealy-mouthed excuses (“those are problems humans are supposed to solve for themselves”), that’s pretty strong evidence that the aliens are simply figments of my imagination. I may still enthusiastically insist that my aliens are really real, but it’s hard for any rational person to take my claim seriously.

And something to note: my aliens are every bit as mortal, every bit as limited, every bit as physical, as humans are. They’re just in sixth grade while humans are still in first grade. They’re just a little bit more knowledgable, a little bit more technologically advanced, than we humans are. They don’t violate the fundamental laws of physics (well, except possibly relativity’s ban on information travelling faster than light, but even that I can get around by positing worm holes). They don’t cause logical paradoxes. Given the approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000
stars in the visible universe, even hardened skeptics would be surprised if aliens didn’t exist- the only surprising thing is my claim that I’m in contact with them. It is just insane to hold religions to a lower standad of evidence than we hold my aliens to.

This is, at the end, just a thought experiment (no, I’m not really in contact with aliens). But it demonstates the fundamental problem religion has, and why it runs into fundamental conflict with religion.

Science has shown us huge things. Provable things. Things the all-knowing creator of all *has* to know. Why didn’t God say something? “Dude- it’s *round*. I know it doesn’t look like it to you, but trust me! From up here, you can’t mistake it’s round. Yep. A sphere. OK, oblate spheroid, if you want to get technical. Anyways, here’s how you prevent smallpox, and save billions of lives over the next couple of millenia…” In fact, there’s no religious book I know of that contains demonstable information that wasn’t known to well read people at the time they are written.

Yes, I know that God doesn’t work that way. God requires faith for reasons. Just like my hypothetical aliens who didn’t provide a proof of Goldbach’s conjecture, God acts in ways that are mysteriously indistinguishable from being a fiction.

Note that this is a challenge that still holds. Next time God communicates with you, I’ve got some questions to ask him. This is the challenge that science poses for religion. Not (just) that we have figured things out since holy scripture was written, but that we are still, today, finding new things out. Things God could have communicated, but strangely didn’t.

And without this pipeline to he is who is, religion loses all claim to it’s magisteria. No, science can’t speak to whether gay marriage is moral or not- but neither can religion. Religion can not be used as a basis for morality- because it’s basis for morality (communication with the supreme being) doesn’t exist. Science may not be able to disprove god- but it can (and has) disproven your god, a god who communicates.

A religion which does not want to confront this dilemna has no basis to influence anything. They are not unlike Emperor Norton, who declared himself Emperor of United States and Protector of Mexico. Just because you claim dominion, doesn’t mean you have dominion.

If anything, the biblical literalists, the fundamentalists, are more honest in their faith. Their position is that God did tell the biblical writers the real truth, in plain language and with no mealy mouthed excuses about poetry and limited understanding, and it’s science who has it wrong. Of course, their problem is that the science refuses to go away (evolution isn’t science any more, it’s technology).

They’re wrong, but no more wrong than those who hold that science and religion are not in unavoidable conflict.

“The devil has always quoted scriptures.” — Gandhi October 10, 2012 | 08:02 pm

Untouchability is not a sanction of religion, it is a device of Satan. The devil has always quoted scriptures. But scriptures cannot transcend reason and truth. They are intended to purify reason and illuminate truth.

From Young India, Jan 19th, 1921, as cited in Hindu Dharma.

Morality and Probability September 30, 2012 | 08:33 pm

I’ve been noodling around with a response to Robert about god-less morality for a while now, and I’ve come to the conclusion that a large part of my problem is that the subject is so large, that condensing the whole thing down into a single blog post is impossible. So I’ve decided to start splitting it up into multiple blog posts (as the muse moves me), each dealing with a small corner. And I’ve decided to tackle the “gotcha” question for utilitarian morality: whether you would kill someone if you knew that you’d make $1 doing so, and that there were no other consequences of said action.

The idea here is that, to make a choice like this, you’d draw up a little diagram like this:




Result
Perform actionB1 – C1
Don’t perform actionB2 – C2

Where here, “perform action” means “kill this person”, and Bn is the benefit of performing (or not) said action, and Cn is the cost. Simplistic utilitarian philosophy says that if B1 – C1 > B2 – C2, you should perform the action. The trick question has us set B1 – C1 = +1 dollar, and B2 – C2 = 0, and thus show that those with utilitarian morality are evil people who’d kill someone for a single lousy buck.

The first thing I’d like to point out is religious moralists are also utilitarian moralists, they just have some additional potiential costs and benefits added to the equation, based on the reactions of their deity, that atheistic utilitarian moralists don’t have. The argument is that no earthly reward can compensate for an eternity of punishment, so $1, $1 million dollars, $1 trillion dollars, it doesn’t matter what the reward is, it’s not worth it.

But deist-based costs can change as well. One can fairly ask the religious people if they would kill someone for $1, if they knew that God wouldn’t punish them for doing so? That’s the equivalent to the question first posed in this post. Indeed, you can go much further along this spectrum, and ask if they would kill someone, even if the face of extreme corporial cost, if they knew God would reward them for doing so? What earthly, temporary, punishment isn’t worth suffering for eternal reward? Abraham proved his faith by being willing to kill even his own son for eternal reward. And, more recently, this is exactly the logic that suicidal terrorists use. If God wanted you to blow yourself up in a crowded market place, and would reward you for all eternity, would you do it?

Of course, there’s a key word, and all it implies, I’ve been throwing around with impunity, which is “know”. We’ve been assuming that the benifits and the consequences of both committing and not committing the action are known with absolute certainity. Once we open up the possibility that we might be wrong, the situation becomes a little more complex. Our table above now becomes:




We’re rightWe’re wrong
Perform actionB1 – C1B3 – C3
Don’t perform actionB2 – C2B4 – C4

And if the probability that we’re right is P (as a fraction), and thus the probability that we’re wrong is (1-P), the equation to determine if we should perform the action becomes: P*(B1 – C1) + (1-P)*(B3 – C3) > P*(B2 – C2) + (1-P)*(B4 – C4). We’ve been implicitly assuming that P = 1, and that thus (1-P) = 0, in which case this equation simplifies to the one above. But once we accept the possibility that P can be less than 1, that there is a possibility that we’re wrong, the equation literally changes.

So let’s take a look at the gotcha question a second time, using the full equation with the assumption that we could be wrong. Now, if we’re right, things remain the same- so B1 – C1 = 1 dollar, and B2 – C2 = 0. Furthermore, we assume that B4 – C4 = 0 as well, that if I pass on killing the person, and I’m wrong, there are still no consequences. Now, lets consider B3 – C3, the result if I kill the person and am wrong about there being no repercussions. In this case, even absent any divine retribution, I’m looking at serious negative consequences- a trial for certain, followed probably by either a lengthy and unpleasant prison stay, or possibly even the death penalty. B3 – C3 is a very large negative number.

So it all comes down to P. If P is close enough to 1, if I have enough confidence that I’m right, then the utilitarian argument is in favor of committing murder. Note that I would argue that it is impossible for P to be equal to 1. You can’t know for certain that, over my future life expectency, that we won’t suddenly develop remote time viewing technology, and that once the historians and paparrazi have had their field days, the cops don’t decide to go through their backlog of unsolved crimes and disappearances to determine what actually happened, and suddenly I’m up for murder one again. Current physics says such a capability is impossible, but current physics doesn’t have a workable theory of quantum gravity, and has aboslutely no idea what 96% of the universe is made of (the dark matter and dark energy). So neither you nor anyone else can rule out such a possibility. And such technological leaps are happening- there has been a spate of rape and murder convinctions recently of very old cases, based on recently discovered DNA evidence. Evidence that, at the time the crime was committed, wasn’t known to exist. So people who had thought they had literally gotten away with murder are now discovering that they were mistaken.

The next thing to understand is that we humans suck at probability. We suck badly enough in abstract, more or less purely mathematical situations where P can be calculated quite accurately- ask any serious poker player about how often suckers draw to an inside straight. But we suck even worse in amorphous, real world situations where P can not be calculated exactly. Like what the probability is that we won’t leave any incriminating evidence at the scene of the crime. We wildly over to underestimate probabilities all the time. This is because the heuristics are brains use to calculate probabilities, which served us well on the Serengeti, fail spectacularly in the modern world. Witness how many people are terrified of flying, when it’s much more likely you’ll be killed driving to the airport.

Given that P can not be mathematically deduced, and given that our intuitions are probability are prone to wild inaccuracies, the only logical course of action is to assume that P, the probability that we’re right, is much lower than we think. This will tend to drive our decisions towards choices that avoid catastrophic downsides if we’re wrong, even to the point of missing potential opportunities. To pass up the opportunity to make a quick buck, to avoid the possibility of being hauled up on murder charges. A rule of thumb might be that any P value greater than about 0.85 (5/6th) should be assumed to be 5/6th. That you can’t be 99% sure about anything. At which point, the gotcha question has a simple, obvious answer- the downside to being wrong is greater than $6, so it’s not worth the risk of being wrong.

This does raise the issue of why crimes happen, given that it’s not rational, given then logic I just gave. And the answer is that people are often irrational. And we not only suck at probability, we suck at math in general (especially when our emotions are involved).

This allows me to raise another point. I have, in other debates, called Communism a religion. Part of this is that it shares the trappings of religion- it has it’s own ten commandments, it hates all other religions (“You shall not make for yourself any carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God”), you go to a special building or room every weekend where you listen to specially elected person who reads passages from the special books and gives a lecture on their meaning, interspersed with chants and songs, and so on.

But the key commonality between Communism and religion is just this: the illusion of certainity. Communism’s illusion of certainity came from a misunderstanding or deliberate perversion of both the theory and practice of science. Religion’s illusion of certainity comes from the claimed communication with the omnipitent omnipresent omnipotent creator of all, who (by definition) can not be wrong. And this is the great danger in both religion and communism- all of the great crimes, all of them, throughout history, all the wars and genocides, were committed by people who firmly believed that it was inconceivable that they were wrong. Inconceivable, I say!

In this sense, the current atheist/skeptic philosophy is diameterically opposite of both communism and religion. It’s response is literally “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Not only is it conceivable, history has shown time and again that we humans are never more likely to be wrong than when we are certain we are right. As Oliver Cromwell said, “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”

What My Pacifism is NOT September 29, 2012 | 09:48 pm

There are a lot of people out there who want to tell you what pacifism is. This is a noble and constructive project, but it’s not the one that I need most often. Most often, I need a good explanation of what pacifism is not, because most of the reaction that people have towards my pacifist claims are reactions to positions that I do not hold. So let me be very clear about what I do not believe.

  • My pacifism is not passive-ism. Although there are purportedly some out there who believe in the utter non-resistence to evil, I am not one of them, and I don’t recall ever actually encountering a person like that. Often, however, well-intentioned but misguided anti-war rhetoric comes off attempting to portray the world as less bad than it is, or as though we should not act to oppose things that are genuinely evil. This is not my belief. I believe in the active resistence of evil. I’m simply unimpressed with the track record of violence and hatred on solving the problem of evil, and so I look to alternative approaches.
  • My pacifism is not the denial of violence. If anything, pacifism takes more seriously the reality of violence. In every war we have ever fought, our military has killed innocent people. People who had no reason to die ended up killed by our troops. This will happen in every war we fight in the future. That is a violent reality which my pacifism takes seriously, but which is intentionally overlooked when the war drums start beating, and then gets brushed under the rug as “collateral damage”. Yet the reality is that before we deploy any troops, we need to ask ourselves: “How many innocent people is it worth slaughtering to accomplish our goal?” We know innocent people will die when we go to war. We are certain this will happen. We know we will do this, and we will bear sole responsibility. So how many innocent lives is it worth cutting down for our cause? I will not ignore this violence.
  • My pacifism is not the denial of interpersonal violence. I simply prefer risking the possibility of violence happening towards me in the hope that the violence can be avoided completely. Pacifism is not ignorance about violence, but instead the embracing of vulnerability and the faith that human vulnerability has its own amazing power to ensure safety. This sounds backwards and crazy, but it actually works. The vulnerable assertion of dignity—both of yourself and the would-be perpetrator violence—is surprisingly effective in avoiding situations that would otherwise escalate to violence.
  • My pacifism does not reject violence as a solution in some situations. There are times when a doctor has to break bones for healing. This is the “madman with a sword” scenario that Gandhi presented, and even he granted that violence may be a solution in that scenario. If I came across a situation where violence was occurring and violence was truly the only way I had to stop it, I would use violence. To this end, training in martial arts and even martial weaponry can be viewed as in line with pacifism, because they are both learning to minimize the application of violence in the unfortunate situation where it is necessary. (The threat, of course, is that familiarity and availability with methods of violence will entice their use in scenarios where other solutions may be better.) The difference is that pacifism recognizes that my violence is a sign of my own failing (why didn’t I have other options?), as well as a failing of the situation (what was broken that allowed the situation to reach violence in the first place?). The violence is something to mourn, to recover from, and to work to repair. The violence is just the beginning of addressing the problem, and it is definitely not something to be lauded, valorized, and romanticized. It’s certainly not something to joke about or take lightly or treat as though it will actually resolve issues.
  • My pacifism is not an individual claim. My pacifism is not simply something I believe. My pacifism is an underlying reality that demands a response, but which we spend huge amounts of time and effort trying to obscure, because the response is scary, threatening, and counter-cultural. It is, however, also demanded by truth.

Christianity’s Pharisee Problem September 10, 2012 | 09:34 pm

Fellow Christians, we need to talk. We have a Pharisee problem, and we need to do something about it.

The problem starts in the gospels. The driving plot within the gospels—becoming more prominent as you approach the passion—is Jesus’s conflict with the religious authorities of the day. This, combined with Paul’s efforts to make sense of his people’s rejection of Jesus, results in a popular idea that Jesus was somehow against “the Jews”. There was a mass of people—”the Jews”—for whom Jesus’s message of love was incomprehensible. This mass of people were represented by the Pharisees and the Scribes, who confronted Jesus with legalisms and tricky intellectual puzzles and traps.

This way of thinking is only reinforced by the popular division of the Old Testament and the New Testament into two stories about two separate Gods. There’s the Old Testament God who is wrathful and evil and metes out merciless justice. Then there’s the New Testament God who is mercy and sparkles and lights and loves you just the way you are. There are three problems with this idea.

  1. This statement immediately implies that contemporary Judaism worships a wrathful and evil God who metes out merciless justice. Somehow, thousands of years of Judaism hasn’t ever recognized their God that way, so you’re forced to argue that contemporary and historical Judaism either A) does not know, or B) does not take seriously, their own scriptures and their own God. These are both blatantly anti-semitic claims (not to mention obviously false), and I seriously doubt most people making the Old Testament/New Testament division would care to make either of them.
  2. The New Testament God, including Jesus, has just as strong a concept of justice and is just as damning to the unjust. Jesus rejects and condemns people throughout the gospels—select targets include those who neglect the suffering, those who are evil, those who reject or ignore his message, and those who claim to follow him in word but fail to live into it in deed. Revelation is equally as unhappy with the unfaithful. And of course you see it in Paul and the other epistles.
  3. Jesus and the texts we have closest to Jesus’ own time all affirm the continuity between the Children of Israel and the followers of Jesus. If you think there is a new God in the New Testament versus the Old Testament, you are at odds with Jesus and the New Testament itself.

Beyond these issues, there’s a problem with this conception of “the Jews” because throughout all four gospels, it’s not the crowds who fail to understand and accept Jesus’s message: it’s the disciples. The crowds flock to Jesus and lay down palm leaves and cry “Hosannah!” The people that Jesus calls the most faithful are not the disciples, but the people he stumbles across along the way: the centurion, the woman at the well, the lepers who call him “King”, the bleeding woman, the woman he calls a dog. These people approach Jesus with faith and with a hope of transformation. It’s the disciples that spend all their time trying to figure Jesus out and try to get Jesus to explain himself, and thereby miss the point entirely.

The biggest issue, however, is that “the Jews” that we are reading out of scripture don’t exist. Although it is popular and common (and even arguably useful) for Christian theologians to talk about “the culture” Jesus was speaking to, the reality is that there was no homogenous mass of people that Jesus preached to. There was no “the culture”. Jesus served people, and those people were each individuals with complex histories and motivations and understandings. The more we learn about the time of Jesus, the more diversity we find, and we have even found quite a few critiques and teachings from other contemporary Judeans that sound a lot like Jesus. Thanks to our historical research, we now know that even the Scribes and the Pharisees as portrayed in the scriptures are satires and convenient fictions.

In fact, if you want to find Pharisees and Scribes and hard-hearted nationalists who reject Jesus’s message, you’re better off looking away from the 1st century Middle East and towards 21st century American Christianity.

You want Pharisees? Ask Hugh Hollowell, the Mennonite minister who runs Love Wins Ministries and serves those on the fringes of Raleigh’s social structures. Ask him about those who need to know his doctrine of the resurrection to decide if he’s a Christian. He is guiding a community that is literally feeding the hungry, befriending the lonely, and caring for the neglected sick. He does this all while proclaiming himself proudly as a follower of Christ, but people still need to know how his theology accounts for this or that passage of the Bible to know if he’s a Christian. If his theology is wrong on that point or on any other myriad number of points, then their church couldn’t possibly support him. Those are Pharisees. Every damning word Jesus said about the Pharisees and every derogatory portrayal of the Pharisees in the scriptures apply directly to them.

You want Scribes? Look to divinity schools and seminaries, where master’s students debate denominational affiliations and solve all the world’s problems over lunch tables, and where famous tenured theologians write about vulnerability and taking up the cross. I know we are the Scribes, because I was one. We aid and abet the Pharisees in their task, all the while thinking we have been gifted special and secret knowledge of God, sanctified by study and therefore able to judge our brothers and sisters.

You want hard-hearted nationalists who reject Jesus’s message? Look to every member of the Christian church who rejects Jesus’s calling in order to retain their American exceptionalism, their proud militarism, or their comfortable lifestyle. Any self-righteous indignation here should be checked, though, because that mass of people certainly includes your present author and almost certainly the reader.

Fellow Christians, we are the Pharisee problem. When John the Baptist is confronted with those who sought him out for ritual cleansing, he calls them a “brood of vipers”. He calls us a brood of vipers, because we follow any popular movement and seek out any charismatic figure who might have a quick fix for our problems. When Jesus talks about those who reject him, those who are blind, those who do not have eyes to see or ears to hear, those who have fail to have faith, then he is talking to us. He isn’t talking to some other group separated from us by time, space, or tradition. He is talking about us.

As far as I can tell, the only way to solve this Pharisee problem is for us—Christians—to change our whole way of following Jesus. And this means that we must first and foremost love people. Don’t try to love people. Don’t strive to love people. Don’t pray that some day you might be gifted with the grace enabling you to love people. Love people. Loving people may mean that things will suck sometimes. However, the few times that I have truly felt love for God, it was because I was loving people. And those people in my life who most resemble Christ are those who love others deeply and are compelled by that love. These people also have another strange commonality: they don’t have much time for abstract theology, and absolutely no time for systematic theology and creedal litmus tests. As far as I can tell, if we want to be more like Christ, then we should follow their lead, let that stuff slide, and focus our energies on more important things.

Back Again to There: A Nontheistic Statement of Faithiness January 20, 2012 | 10:47 am

[Editor’s Note: This is a follow-up to There and Back Again. If you haven’t read that post, start there (including the comments) and then come back.]

I finally figured out what was bothering me. While driving to the Science Online 2012 open mic night and listening to Jon Watts’ Lifted Up, I suddenly had an epiphany. Suddenly, things made sense. And it all came back to a mathematical formalism.

The formalism is the disproof by contradiction. That formalism can be colloquially expressed this way: if assuming X leads to a conclusion of not-X, then not-X is true. In this case, the specific expression is as follows: assuming rationality forms the foundation of lifestyle and morality, I have found rationality cannot form the foundation of lifestyle and morality. Therefore, rationality cannot form the foundation of lifestyle and morality.

This is a radical transformation. It is much more radical than anything else I have encountered, because it dislodges and renders impotent any question about why an action should take. This is fundamentally different than the ethical/lifestyle systems proposed to me, and it is easy to see why once you spell them out.

  • Enlightened hedonism, for instance, might claim that they are acting on this philosophy, because they are optimizing the phenomenologically self-justifying good of pleasure. Humanism or utilitarianism, insofar as they might justify themselves through enlightened hedonism, are also founded on this argument. Yet the self-justifying good of pleasure is a course that has to be maximized, and therefore there are better and worse ways of being in the world, and rationality is presumed to be critical in determining which ways are better and which ways are worse.
  • My position is actually more skeptical than the skeptics. The skeptics presume that one should live based on rational claims and oppose non-rational claims. Yet rationality itself is self-defeating, and so does not stand up to the skeptic’s own standards. (Skeptics refusing to apply their own standards to themselves is a recurring problem I have with skepticism as a community, BTW: a case in point.)
  • I don’t know much about Buddhism, but my understanding is that its core teaching is that attachment is the source of suffering, and so the goal is to not be attached to outcomes. If that’s true, than in a way, I’m more Buddhist than the Buddhists, because I’m also not attached to not being attached. (And I must admit, I do feel like I have reached a sense of Enlightenment.)

My new standpoint is the ultimate “Fuck it, let’s go bowling.” philosophy, and so I have adopted the Dude’s answer as a hyper-absurdist effort to counteract the rationalist trap. As soon as you engage a rational argument, you’re playing that ultimately self-defeating game again. Yet what is true or not true does not matter, not because of any statement about the value of truth or nihilism, but because fuck it, let’s go bowling. Why I believe something or act a certain way is not a question I have to answer, because fuck it, let’s go bowling. I’m not optimizing my happiness. I’m not striving towards an ethical life. I’m not playing into a grand narrative. I’m fuck it, let’s go bowling.

When I realized this — when I realized that my nagging issue with rationality leading to irrationality was that it proved rationality was false, and when I really realized how deep the denial of rationality went, then suddenly I was free. I saw the world differently in a moment. It was astounding.

Now, some of you may be saying, “Took you long enough.” There are a lot of people out there who have criticized me for thinking too much. I couldn’t just let stuff go, however, as long as there seemed to be compelling ethical mandates—or even the promise of compelling ethical mandates just under the next book cover. But that effort has not only yielded nothing, but actually outright self-destructed. Now I’m free of the mandate; that’s what it would take, and it finally go there: rationality is self-defeating.

(BTW, I should note that “Fuck it, let’s go bowling” is actually Walter’s line, not the Dude’s, but it so perfectly sums up the philosophy that I’m sticking to it. And besides, fuck it, let’s go bowling.)

(Also BTW, if you’d like to prove to me that rationality can form the foundation of lifestyle and morality, you’re welcome to try in the comments. Start by listing off all your presumptions. I’ll even give you Cogito, ergo sum for free, although you have to presume or argue any nouns you’d like to drive from those verbs. Also, please keep in mind that Hume pretty well destroyed inductive reasoning, so arguments from science are first going to have to undo Hume.)

There and Back Again: A Journey Into and Out of Faith January 15, 2012 | 02:00 pm

The gods forgot that they made me
So I forget them, too
I dance among their shadows
I play among their graves

(David Bowie, “Seven”)

Science tells us we are merely beasts, but we don’t feel like that. We feel like angels trapped inside the bodies of beasts, forever craving transcendence.
(VS Ramachandran, cognitive neuroscientist)

For the last few years, I have been a seminary student. Although hardly “evangelical”, I entered seminary with a strong faith in a benevolent God that I attached to Christianity. During my time in seminary, my experience with the Society of Friends (Quakers) and my (notably extracurricular) reading of Leo Tolstoy’s presentation of Christianity strengthened my faith quite a bit. I believed that an incarnated God had laid out a proper mode of life and that the right focus for life was transformation into the unsullied image of that incarnated God. It was a standpoint that I was very comfortable with and very excited by, and it shaped how I made decisions and where I placed value. For more on those beliefs, see my other blog and my Ask a Quaker guest post on Rachel Held Evans’ blog.

At the end of last semester, however, that all collapsed, and I am left as a kind of weak atheist. The post mortem of my faith is a complicated narrative: there is no simple cause of death. Many people who leave seminary as weak atheists (including Bart Ehrman, who teaches at The Other School), entered as evangelicals or fundamentalists. When their self-authorizing and monolithic interpretation of the Bible is pummeled to dust and the faux-rational Christianity is revealed to be a mess of paradox, their faith becomes shaken and they end up leaving seminary as atheist-materialists, often with the same evangelical zeal for atheist materialism that they had for Christianity. Although that’s a common story, it’s not mine.

My Christianity has not been fundamentalist or evangelical: instead, it has been an on-again/off-again relationship. I became an ardent atheist as a teenager, even self-identifying as a LaVeyan Satanist at times. This came from recognizing only two kinds of Christianity as a child: a kind of weak Protestant liberalism on the one hand, and a kind of overbearing Protestant fundamentalism on the other. The first did not seem to actually require anything distinctly Christian, and the latter did not seem to actually engage reality. Yet even in my most atheistic of moments, I had a sense of spirituality—a sense that the modern narrative of the utterly isolated individual was somehow wrong, and that the union of individuals was holistic and synergistic. In college, I encountered a moderate liberal Christianity in the “neo-orthodox” vein. Its arguments convinced me: Christianity taught a proper ordering of the individual, which is truly to be in a properly ordered community.

Despite neo-orthodox teachings, though, simply going to church and doing the nonproductive repetition of the liturgy didn’t seem to satisfy that spiritual aspect. I joined Freemasonry (eventually becoming 32nd degree in the Scottish Rite) and continued to study esoterica, including the (publicly accessible) teachings of the A∴A∴. At this point, my Christianity began to wane into a kind of Calvinist-flavored deism. That’s when things suddenly changed.

Up to this point, I never had a real sense of relationship with God. Prayer had never established a “relationship” with God, except in the kind of one-sided relationship that I have with my favorite TV or book characters. (Sarah Howell has an excellent blog post called “Prayer Doesn’t Work“, and it sounds exactly like my thoughts on the matter…but with more apparent faith remaining.) For some reason, however, I suddenly had a sense of “calling”. This was not the kind of “calling” that comes from careful reasoned thought and the recommendations of others: this was a strong sense that something beyond me was calling me into seminary. It was a profound and constant pull, and it did not seem to originate from within me nor did it seem to be under my control. The feeling was amazing and profound, and after some time I had no choice but to relent to the calling—it was that powerful.

I moved to Durham and started attending seminary. While there, my faith was transformed but did not weaken. Without a doubt, however, I was challenged. There were a number of things I had taken on faith because it was where “all scholars agreed”. These points, however, were rapidly removed as I discovered just how little agreement there is among scholars, and how artificial the points of agreement are: in theology, there are certain axiomatic claims that are required in order to be a part of the conversation (e.g. get published in a particular journal), and these axiomatic claims then become the points of seeming universal agreement. Similarly, I discovered just how contextual and utterly Western the creeds are, which reduced my respect for them down to effectively nil. That wasn’t the hardest blow, though.

Most damaging, however, was discovering just how interested the church was (and is!) in reifying and reinforcing boundaries between people-groups—a horror especially when contrasted with the church’s relative disinterest in helping the poor and actually behaving like Jesus taught. This was a major problem for me, because the core assertion of neo-orthodoxy is that the church somehow contained and embodied the right interpretation of Jesus’s teachings. Yet the practices of the church (both historically and presently) and the places where the church spends its time are so utterly different from the model of Jesus that I could no longer trust in the tradition of the church. In the history of the church, the truly holy—even those obviously aspiring to be truly holy—seemed to be the rare and precious exception, not the norm. How could I trust that institution to teach and transform me into holiness if it consistently failed to do so for everyone else?

At the same time as I encountered these struggles, I encountered the tradition that I draw from Gandhi’s Christian followers (e.g. J.C. Kumarappa), Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy (esp. What I Believe), Christian agrarianism, and the early Quakers. These people had an alternative take on Christianity focused on the Sermon on the Mount. It was a spiritually and socially conscious Christianity, and it seemed to be the true tradition of Jesus. This became the Christianity that I identified with, although I eventually quietly dropped the active use of the “Christian” label because of flak from Christians who thought I didn’t meet the minimum requirements for it. That fight rapidly became exhausting, and the benefits of keeping the label were rapidly offset by the annoyingly constant challenges.

The end of my faith, however, came through the study of cognitive science, and especially the cognitive science of religion. Through all of this, my faith was backed up by that sense of calling. No matter what else happened, no matter how else I made sense of reality, I had to account for this experience of being moved by something beyond myself. However, through studying cognitive science, I discovered an entirely reasonable explanation. From David Eagleman’s Incognito (and reinforced by VS Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain), I learned that the mind can experience an emergent subconscious as being an utterly alien presence.

The clincher, however, came when I read Harvey Whitehouse’s Modes of Religiosity. In there, Whitehouse lays out (with strong empirical evidence) how the ideas contained within repetitious and ritualized practices become “sleeper agents” in the brain, surfacing to make sense of strange or disquieting experience. This expression of the practices’ ideas are experienced/interpreted as spontaneous expressions of divine presence or ordering.

This was, in short, exactly what I experienced. My only experience of the divine now had an entirely this-worldly explanation. Without that support column, my faith rapidly crumbled. My Tolstoy-Quaker religiosity was all stipulated on the existence of God, and I no longer have any basis to believe in the Christian God. Although some are more than happy to be a part of a religious community that affirms something they don’t actually believe in, I am not. I am still processing my relationship to Quakerism, but in terms of my relationship to Christianity, I’m out.

Now, at this point in atheist conversion narratives, people sometimes start to talk about how free they felt and how great it is that they were no longer shackled by the expectations of their faith community. This is definitely not my experience. At the end of the day, I am a child of the Enlightenment: I have a commitment to rationality and to living my life in a rational way. All systems of rationality, however, need their axioms. Nietzsche and the existentialists showed that there is no intrinsic value in the world, but Christianity was a counter to this nihilism, providing a set of axioms and a guiding methodology for life. Without Christianity, I am back to the world of nihilism. Rationality no longer has a foothold by which to guide life.

Asking around, the only advice I find from atheists is to “do what you want”, but what should I want? Like all humans, my desires are utterly mutable—the very existence of marketing and psychotherapy is because of this fact. (Not to mention operant conditioning! I’m reminded of The Big Bang Theory on this point.) If I don’t take control of my desires’ mutations, I am simply submitting yourself to the vicissitudes of corporate marketing departments and political spin-meisters. Like the Machines in The Matrix, politics and capitalism are constantly consuming humanity and feeding us illusions. Evidence suggests that playing into their illusion is a path to a life of quiet despair, yet with no values, there is no guide about what desires actually are good or bad to pursue. Satisfaction and reward are both stipulated on accomplishment, which itself presumes a set of values.

Worst of all, though, this idea that you should “do what you want” seems like it is an utterly un-rational punchline to an extensive pro-rational argument. Be rational and doubt everything. Be rational and be a skeptic. Be rational and seek the truth. But once you do all of that, forget being rational, because it can’t help you anymore. I was happier and more satisfied as a Christian: it was a sick trick to lure me out of that joyful place with rationality, just to drop me in a place of nihilistic disillusionment and then tell me I should abandon rationality and seek a joyful place.

This frustration is compounded by the fact that I have little in common with evangelical atheism and its promissory materialism. I find most self-proclaimed skeptics to be annoyingly un-skeptical, but instead committed to their own particular materialist dogmas (e.g. Michael Shermer, as I discuss in this book review). The problem of qualia still prevents me from buying that the only thing that exists is the “physical world” as science constitutes it, or from taking the only philosophically defensible materialist stance—namely, that subjectivity doesn’t exist (e.g. Daniel Dennett, as I discuss in this book review). I am inclined towards John Searle’s “biological naturalism” conception of consciousness, but it’d be nice if we had any idea how physical material could produce whatever it is that qualia are. The question of “the mind’s eye” (which some people don’t have!) might be an interesting angle of attack, since it puts the question in sharp focus…

Since subjectivity exists, I still have space for a kind of hollow “spirituality”. Surprisingly, little has changed on that front: God is now absent, but God was never particularly present before, despite my earnest desires. Since the Bible drops out with Christianity, my interpretation and expression of spirituality is now more purely phenomenological rather than theological. The existence of mirror neurons and the human ability to have a theory of mind means that I am still able to have an intersubjective spirituality, as well. This has actually sharpened my interest in the spirituality of sexuality, which has been a long-running interest of mine.

Right now, I am struggling to re-situate myself. I am haunted by Camus’ question: “In a world without God, why not commit suicide?” (For his answer, see here.) I am reconsidering all of the projects, dreams, and relationships that I used to have, trying to see if they can still retain some kind of joy and impetus in the face of my epic disillusionment. I have continued on with the projects which are hold-overs from before the disillusionment, trying to retain some kind of momentum. But ultimately, I now live in a world which feels flat, and I am living a life without direction. Thanks a lot, Rationality.

[Editor’s Note: This post has a follow-up at Back Again to There.]