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“…and lo, I looked, and the Pale Horseman did pick up a few bucks on the side…”

Okay, I’m going to go a bit off-script here, and throw out a rant.  A rant that, despite truly heroic efforts on the part of my inhibitory circuits, I simply cannot withhold.  I normally like my posts to be more polished than this, but what the hey.  Consider this a brief follow up to my earlier post about how to handle Facebook.  A personal aside, if you will.

One of my relatives just posted this link on their FB page, that showed up in my newsfeed:

It shows a scene from the recent unrest in Egypt in which, due to either a lens-flare or Photoshop prankster — and really, who the hell cares which, the ghostly image (well, kinda sorta, if you squint real hard) of a horse and rider appears to move through the crowd.

Needless to say, the people posting this and commenting on it are getting “goose bumps” and “chills” declaring for all to know that “God is REAL!!”  It is, they are quite sure, one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.  These are very nice people, and they are not kidding.

Oh, dear me.

All I can say is that its striking, unsettling, and not a little scary just how credulous people can be.  I’ve been a skeptic so long I tend to forget that. I tend to hang around atheists and agnostics, or at least fairly nonreligious people.  I read nonreligious books and blogs.  It’s easy to loose touch with how almost indescribably, painfully eager some people are to believe.  I mean criminy — even from within the framework of an evangelical Christian worldview, there is nothing whatsoever that requires one to believe that this video is real.  It’s a Horseman of the Apocalypse?  Seriously?  Is that really the best explanation here — even if you are a Christian, does that even make sense?  Wouldn’t one expect a Horseman of the Apocalypse to be more, well, apocalyptic than that?  What, is he the Horseman of Crowd Control? Conquest, War, Famine, and uh, Teargas? Are they moonlighting, maybe?

(For the record, I did not myself comment on this FB thread.  That would be an unpleasant experience for all, shall we say.)

It is times like these that I am very grateful for online communities such as this one.  It can be very lonely out there.  Skeptics are still, despite everything, a rare breed.  More than that, critical thinking itself is a rare skill.  Their interpretation of this video is nonsensical even from within their worldview.  It just packs an emotional punch, so it must be true. It’s kind of amazing our species has made it this long.

Okay, <whew>  I feel better. Thanks for indulging! I can wipe the spittle off my computer now!

– Richard

February 10, 2011 at 12:11 am 20 comments

On Certainty, part II: Behind Good and Evil

That certainty is a function of psychology is also the conclusion of Dr. Robert Burton, a neurologist has written an entire book on this phenomenon (On Being Certain). His suggestion, to summarize briefly, is that the feeling of certainty, what he calls the feeling of knowing, is simply a mental state, a kind of unconscious mental self-assessment.  We don’t really have a good word for what this is, but it’s more like an emotion than anything else. The closest analog would be the feeling of familiarity, the mental sensation of recognition that we have all the time but only become aware of when it misfires: déjà vu. Déjà vu is a feeling that something (like a situation) is familiar when, in fact, we know it is not. He suggests the brain creates these sensations as a kind of self-assessment, to help guide behavior.  The feeling of knowing – certainty – is the mind’s unconscious assessment of its confidence in its conclusions.  It is something like the way some search engines give you a list of results with a percentage estimate of how close it calculates the match to be (yet, of course, can often fail to turn up what you’re looking for, despite a high-probability assessment). Certainty, then, is a feeling. It is not, somehow, some epistemological guarantor of truth. 

Burton has a lot more to say about this, including the neurochemical basis for this sensation.  He suggests that similar to the way some people are more prone than others to getting a mental “high” from gambling that makes it, for them, very rewarding/reinforcing (and for some, even addicting), perhaps some people are just wired to be more rewarded by, or even addicted to, this feeling.  Maybe some people are just wired to “need” the feeling of certainty more, or at least, to find it more irresistible. It’s a fascinating idea, and I think the core of his explanation here is excellent.

To me, though, it does leave some important connections unexplored.  I can’t help but notice that certainty seems to come part-and-parcel with strong ideologies, like religion, or “purist” political movements.  I don’t think this is accidental. So I will here add my own suggestion to account for this and then let the matter alone.  In the next article, the third of three, I want to talk about practical issues involved in dealing with uncertainty, which is more straightforward and more directly germane to de-conversion.  Learning how to manage uncertainty anxiety does not directly depend on understanding where such certainty came from in the first place.  But for what food for thought it might provide, here is my suggestion about the origin of this striking phenomenon of certainty within fundamentalism:

Many observers have noted the phenomenon known as splitting, or (in cognitive psychology) dichotomous thinking that seems pervasive in fundamentalism: the division of the world, and the self, into good parts and bad parts.  In fundamentalism, such divisions are rampant.  The world is a battleground between Good and Evil, there are clear good guys and bad guys, there are clear moral Absolutes, and “spiritual warfare” is often taken quite seriously.  And importantly, one’s own self is understood in pre-conversion and post-conversion terms.  Before conversion, corruption, sin and death were rampant. Post-conversion, the self is purified, regenerate, and redeemed.  The contrast is sharp and clear.

(Notably, this is not unique to fundamentalism or even religion. Those on the extreme right or left, those that have been part of political ideologies such as Marxism, or Nazism, and those that partake of conspiracy theories all “split” every bit as much.)

The organization of experience by drawing stark good/bad distinctions is common, and it seems to be built into our psyche, at least to a degree.  Young children almost universally do this, and it is only gradually that they come to realize – and, importantly, be able to tolerate – the idea that the world is more complex and nuanced than that. It has been suggested that beneath even our “primary” emotions (love, fear, anger, etc), are two even more basic ones: good/bad, and important/unimportant. 

Nuance, complexity, and ambiguity create anxiety.  They are thus difficult to tolerate. It is difficult to be faced with a complex moral issue about which there is no good, clear, unambiguous answer, only a set of tradeoffs and gray areas.  Without a world full of good guys and bad guys it is hard to know who to trust. Without moral absolutes it is hard to know what is right.  It means that one has no choice but to fall back on one’s own resources, to think it through as best one can, and make an imperfect decision, fully aware that it may turn out to be wrong. It is frightening, and not to mention very sad, to realize that all we have is a world full of struggling, imperfect people, not larger-than-life Heroes.

Splitting (which is, obviously, unconscious) alleviates all this confusion and anxiety.  It means that even if you are faced with mixed, contradictory, confusing, or complicated information, if you can just figure out who to trust – or, as works equally well, who not to trust – you can proceed with confidence.  It means you never have to be unsure about whether there is a morally right answer or not. Even if your decision turns out to have undesirable consequences, at least you can rest assured you did the right thing.

Splitting/dichotomous thinking is thus a way to quickly sort out two of the most fundamental questions in living: (1) What is true?  (2) What is good?  It is thus a way to make sense of a complex and uncertain world. It is in part, however, that very uncertainty that is in the world – knowing what is true, or what is right – that is the problem.  Retreating to this more primitive (developmentally) way of experiencing the world is an extremely effective solution to this problem.  Splitting eliminates doubt, fear, confusion, and the need to autonomous decision making (also a source of anxiety) – and thus creates, or at least allows, feelings of certainty: the world makes sense again.

A corollary to this idea is that splitting thus explains the way ideologues view their opponents.  Think of the way Pat Robertson sees secular humanists, or the way Rush Limbaugh sees liberals.  They do not see them as reasonable, conscientious, well-informed people with whom they happen to disagree.  They see them, instead, as at best stupid, more likely actively malicious.  Haters of the Good.

This is no accident.  If the world has been rendered stark and clear, then there must be some reason why not everyone agrees with you.  It can’t be because the issues are complex and there is room for rational and moral disagreement, because there isn’t; that’s the point.  It can’t be because reasonable people differ.  To see someone else disagree with your most passionate beliefs, and conclude that this person must have reasonable cause to do so, implies that your passionate belief is not as clear and certain as you want it to be, as you are trying to make it be, as you need it to be. Splitting thus involves an inability to truly step inside the worldview of another and see what might be valid reasons for their conclusions.  You cannot see other’s complexity, because, simply, it makes the whole world too threatening.  This explains the cartoon quality that characterizes the worldviews of religious extremists – their worlds are filled with Heroes and Villains – Villains who must be defeated, because they are enemies of the Good. Someone who has, with certainty, banished all complexity from the Cosmic Order can see the world no other way.

Thus, my stab at the certainty question is to suggest that certainty is the intellectual and cognitive concomitant to the splitting that is basic to the way fundamentalism deals with the anxieties of being human. Fundamentalists must deal somehow with the anxiety that is due to being frail, limited human beings in a world we cannot control, and they do so by dividing the world into good and bad – or, more accurately, Good and Bad.  To be uncertain is to feel vulnerable and potentially guilty of wrongdoing or morally directionless.  To split the world into a Manichean battleground, and then to align oneself with the forces of Good, is to no longer feel vulnerable or fear violating group norms.  And hence, is to be certain.

So much for armchair models.  That an $4.95 will get you a Venti iced vanilla mocha at Starbuck’s. Now, let’s look at what someone in the midst of deconversion can actually do to start making her or his peace with this grayness and uncertainty that is, despite our sometime best efforts, an inescapable part of human life.

January 17, 2011 at 1:53 am 13 comments

Are You Sure You’re Sure?

Ask any former fundamentalist Christian what was the hardest thing about giving up the faith, and many of them are likely to tell you that at least part of it was the loss of certainty: a fundamentalist knows, not believes, but knows, beyond all possibility of doubt or error, what the Truth is.  Those who have never been tempted by fundamentalism are often mystified by this aspect of it, for nowhere else in human experience is this degree of certainty thought possible or even necessary.  For them, this way of thinking is probably so alien as to be unable to be taken seriously as an option.  We can all be wrong, about anything.  Everybody knows that.

 But not everybody.  Certainty is near to the heart of most if not all fundamentalisms, and it’s intuitive appeal is not hard to see.  To know for sure what is true about the world and where it is headed, and moreover, where oneself is headed, to know for sure one’s purpose in life, and to know with perfect knowledge that one is loved and adored and will be protected in perfect bliss forever – all this needs no apologist to make it appealing. 

For those of us who leave fundamentalism, learning to deal with doubt and uncertainty – which suddenly and in a most unwelcome way take up permanent residence in our psyches – can be wrenching indeed.  It is a much harder way to live.  Why is it harder?  Well, for one, it is not exactly galvanizing to raise up ones fist with a crusader’s fervency and chant: “We’re Not Sure!”  But there is an even better answer, I think.  Certainty is, I suggest, at the center of the fundamentalist psyche because it serves to ward off the primal dread, helplessness – the gut sense of human limitation and vulnerability that is our biological heritage as physically weak and therefore interdependent social primates. This anxiety, basic to life, is both ordinary and terrifying. We are frail creatures, really.  Each of us knows this.  What better way to prop up our flagging courage than telling ourselves extraordinary stories of Specialness and Rescue?  And what good are the stories if they are mere stories, or, just as bad, if they are merely probable?  When one is alone in the dark, the prospect of probable rescue doesn’t steel the nerve much.  Only certainty can do that.

 So how does one learn live with uncertainty about life?  How do we make our peace with our vast limitations, individually and collectively, in what we can know, predict, accomplish, or ward off?  How do we accept the horrifying and everpresent possibility of being wrong, even and especially about things that are important – our ethics, our meanings, our ultimate fate?  These are the questions I want to explore here.

 I have my own proposal for why certainty exists in fundamentalism.  It has to do with the basic psychology that I think drives the fundamentalist psyche.  This model is my own construction, though it is drawn together from various other (perhaps more reputable…) psychological sources.  From what I can tell, no one really knows why such rigid and weird certainty is claimed by so many adherents of so many different religious fundamentalisms.

 Its not epistemological, that much is clear.  Certainty exists very infrequently within most accounts of knowledge.  Generally speaking, it occurs only within what is formally known as deductive logic, the kind of logical reasoning wherein the conclusion is in a sense “contained” within the premises.  For instance, consider the classic syllogism: “Socrates is a man, all men are mortal, therefore Socrates is mortal.”  If the first two statements are true, you know that the third, the conclusion, must be true.  It is certain because it is essentially just a rearrangement of the premises.

 The overwhelming majority of everyday and scientific reasoning is not like that.  Most of the time we employ what is known as inductive reasoning, where the conclusion is supported by the premises, but not guaranteed by it. “The early bird usually gets the worm, here is an early bird, therefore he is likely to be well-fed” would be a (somewhat silly) example. The conclusions follows, but only probabilistically – not certainly – from the premises. Perhaps there have been no worms available recently.                                             

 Again, it is important to emphasize that virtually all scientific and historical theories overwhelmingly use inductive reasoning.  Few scientific theories could ever be properly said to be certain, no matter how much evidence accrues in their support. Not even Newton’s Laws are certain – any honest scientist will tell you they are open to empirical revision if such data comes in. 

 Moreover, certainty has been claimed by many religious and ideological adherents, as well as every conspiracy theorist on the planet.  Logically, they can’t all be right.  Logically, in fact, it must be the case that the majority of people who claim perfect certainty in their conclusions, are in fact wrong, and their feeling of being certain must be just that – a feeling.  A feeling, that does not feel like a feeling; that feels, rather, like an accurate assessment of the world.

 So, it is not epistemological, it is a psychological.  Believers have something going on inside their emotional and psychic lives that makes them feel so strikingly sure.  But whatever it is, its not rational.  In the next installment of this three part series, I’ll look at some possible explanations for this psychological curiosity.


January 12, 2011 at 12:47 am 11 comments

Peace or the Sword?

“Dear Abby”

I want to take a moment to put before our community here an issue that has come up for me recently.  It’s a small question, but I think ties into something bigger.  I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

I just recently entered the 21st century, and joined Facebook.  The last filaments of my SNL (Social Networking Luddite) resistance eroded away as I decided that, [huffily] okay fine, it really is a pretty good way to keep up with friends and family whom I would otherwise rarely see. 

 So, now I’m on Facebook. My family, too, is on Facebook.  My saved, Bible-believing, churchgoing, Christian-rock-listenin’, Sarah-Palin-lovin’, Obama-can’t-standin’, fundamentalist family.   And you can be sure of that, because their profile (not to mention “status” updates) say so.

 Me…. well, now, not so much. Now, my FB profile could – could – if written for full disclosure, accurately say something like (one could mix and match here, so take your pick): secular, atheist-leaning agnostic, humanist, religious naturalist, and liberal/progressive, existentialist, militant agnostic (“I don’t know and neither do you”), and, of course, Arrested Development fan.

 There are more contrasts to be had, too, when you get to the likes and dislikes sections.  I do not have a favorite book of devotionals or apologetics. I do not watch Fox.  Ever. I do not write “Happy Birthday Jesus” on Christmas day. I dislike C. S. Lewis and have no favorite scripture.   Instead, my favorite quote (or one of them) would be from Nietzsche:

But I am one who can bless and say Yes, if only you are about me, pure and light, you abyss of light; then I carry the blessings of my Yes into all abysses.  I have become one who blesses and says Yes; and I fought long for that and was a fighter that I might one day get my hands free to bless.  But this is my blessing: to stand over every single thing as its own heaven, as its round roof, its azure bell, and eternal security; and blessed is he who blesses thus.

 My profile could say these things.  But it does not.  Nor do I put up posts and updates about something exciting I just read from Carl Sagan or Richard Dawkins, or something interesting I learned from Bart Ehrman or Robert Price. I deliberately stay away from anything strongly religious or political.  I do not link to anything I write on this blog.  I know that, essentially, when on FB you are in mixed company.  Many people will see what you write.  Given the intensity of their views, and, frankly, the prickliness of their views, many of my family and friends would be very upset indeed at the sort of things I have to say. So I restrain myself.  I try to keep it light, try not to offend.  Even if it means downplaying who I am and what I really think.  I hold back.

But they don’t.  My family and extended family put up religious (and political – strongly conservative) posts all the time.  They make not the slightest pretense of holding back.

 Now, it doesn’t bother me so much what their views are.  It’s not the content, in other words.  I know what they believe and I expect lots of Jesus-this and Jesus-that.  The rub for me is that it does not seem even to occur to them to refrain, as I do, for the sake of not ruffling feathers.  They know, broadly at least, what I think and what my opinions are, and in person we have an unspoken agreement to simply not talk about sensitive matters. But on FB, it’s damn the torpedoes, full creed ahead.

 So my question is simply this: they do not make any effort to downplay or even tone down their views for my sake.   Should I?  So far, I am of two minds about this.  One the one hand, part of me feels I shouldn’t tone down, anything, at all, beyond what one might normally do in a public forum.  Just be me and write whatever I think, whether it’s religious, anti-religious, political, gallows humor, or none of the above. It may cause friction, and if so we’ll either work that out or we won’t, but regardless, being a secular humanist, atheist/agnostic, or whatever is nothing to be ashamed of and I should not treat it as such.

On the other hand, just who am I trying to model myself after here?  Why should I aim deliberately to mimic this wear-one’s-ideology-on-one’s –sleeve mentality that I, frankly, can’t stand?  Being an atheist is not the most important thing about me.  It is the absence of theistic belief, not an organizing theme for a life. Besides, I kind of suspect that those who feel the need to publically, and over and over, affirm their beliefs are too wrapped up in (and insecure about) their own identity.  Why go around declaring yourself to be this or that?  That’s insecurity, and it’s off-putting to others, and it’s kind of pointless.   It’s like saying, “Don’t forget – I’m a Christian!! Don’t forget!!”  And moreover, I do think it’s kind of incumbent upon liberals – valuing tolerance and pluralism as we do – to be more sensitive to these matters and to make a greater effort to avoid pointless, arbitrary divisiveness and tribalism.

Now, I know that FB is not such a big deal.  It doesn’t really matter whether I put a Nietzsche quote in my profile or not.  But it does have to do, I think, with how we present ourselves, as atheists, agnostics, and humanists, as nonbelievers, as deconverts, to our families and to the world.  If we hold back for the sake of peace, are we confident and mature, with a healthy dose of perspective, or merely lacking in resolve?  Conversely, if we let it all hang out, are we simply being true to ourselves and claiming our rightful place in this pluralistic society, or are we being somewhat self-centered jerks, more interested in spouting off about me, me, me, than we are in our lives and our relationships and the things that really matter?

I don’t know the answer.  What say you?


“Perplexed About His Profile”

January 7, 2011 at 10:31 pm 41 comments

What Would Yoda Do?

Some time ago I wrote an article for this blog discussing my take on the issue of who, “really”, is a Christian. This comes up when you are told, as we all have been at one time or another, that you never really were a Christian in the first place – because if you de-convert, it somehow proves the alleged falseness or insincerity of your prior belief.

My basic argument was that there is no answer to the question. The reason is that “Christian” is an arbitrary human group designation that is used with different (implicit) definitions by different groups. Since none of those groups has accepted authority to establish a (or the) correct definition, and since “Christian” does not (as we used to believe) refer to anything divine or supernatural, it follows that there can be no final, ultimate, “correct” definition. There is no right answer to whether “I was a Christian” is true or not, independent of context and a pre-chosen definition.

I still think my answer is substantially correct. But its not exactly punchy. It takes a bit of explaining, and that won’t always do in the heat of an argument. When faced with confrontation and criticism from friends, former friends, and others who challenge us, it helps to have an answer at the ready that doesn’t depend on delving into philosophical issues of “natural kinds” vs “nominal kinds”. I wanted something more memorable – compact & colorful, more visual and less abstract.

So after continuing to chew on this, I think I’ve come up with one. So, let me share it here and you all can tell me what you think.

Here’s the setting: you are telling a friend, coworker, or stranger on the web that you used to be a Christian, but you deconverted. She scoffingly replies that that means you never were one in the first place; true Christians remain faithful and never leave. (Or, as a variant, as was said to me once, that you cannot lose your salvation, so you are still a Christian whether you think you are or not.)

I think I will call this Kenobi’s Fallacy...

Continue Reading March 12, 2010 at 9:14 am 357 comments

Agnostic, Atheist… or Bullsh*t?

Much ink has been spilled in the skeptical community over the issue of labels. What should we call ourselves: atheists, or agnostics? Which term is more “justified”? Here, I toss my own hat into the ring on this question… and then I will argue that this issue is unimportant, distracting, and, potentially, divisive.

There is at least a small upside to this issue, which is why I’m including my own reasoning. The only potentially serious function it has, in my view, is that it provides a convenient arena in which to explore some epistemology. “Epistemology” is that branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge – how do we know what we know? Hashing out the atheist vs. agnostic question can be an entry way into how we approach questions of knowledge. We can sharpen our critical thinking skills and learn some philosophy to boot. To the degree that they serve that purpose, such debates can be informative, maybe even useful. There’s a serious downside, though, but I’ll save that for the end. So, for what intellectual exercise it’s worth, here’s my take on this question:

I start by defining terms: theism, of course, refers to belief in god(s). Atheism, then, obviously refers to a lack of belief in god(s). Agnosticism is the assertion that it is not possible to know the answer, and thus a refusal to opine (with any confidence) on the existence of god(s).

Now, some atheists define atheism broadly. They suggest it can mean one who asserts, “there is no god”, but also one who simply lacks (by choice or happenstance) any belief in god. This is a rather fine distinction, but real enough, I think. The former position is sometimes called “hard” atheism, the latter, “soft” atheism. However, since a “soft” atheist (a) does not assert “there is no god”, and also (b) does not assert “there is a god”, for my part I do not see any difference between this position, and agnosticism. So, for my usage of these terms below, I will restrict the word “atheism” to the “hard” variety: an atheist is one who asserts “there is no god.”…

Continue Reading September 3, 2009 at 10:55 pm 27 comments

How can the nontheist be thankful on Thanksgiving?

To many in the fundamentalist world, Thanksgiving is an especially difficult day to be a nonbeliever. It lays bare, they believe, the clear hypocrisy of a belief system they regard as one giant exercise in willful denial. It brings out with rather embarrassing clarity, they cluck, the God-shaped hole they presume sits at the core of our worldview. After all, we don’t believe in their god, so by our own rebellious logic, we have no one to thank. So why don’t we just sit around and mope on Thanksgiving Day?

So: either celebrate the holiday and admit you’re a hypocrite, or have the courage of your convictions to do nothing this Thursday, admitting that thankfulness without the fundamentalist God is irrational. Gotcha!

As always, these sorts of facile, black-and-white polarities obscure a whole lot of thoughtfulness and real human nuance. But today, let’s thank them for spurring us to think it through, and answer their challenge: why does it make sense to be thankful, if you don’t believe in a providential god?

I will even grant – because I think it’s entirely true – that gratitude is a salutary emotion. And I think this is true (mostly) for the reasons fundamentalists themselves lay out: it impels us to “count our blessings.” Gratitude makes us attend to, and hence appreciate, what we have. That’s a good thing…

Continue Reading November 25, 2008 at 6:26 pm 15 comments

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.



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