Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Our next writing prompt: Talk to me about religion/spirituality.

I'm an atheist. I was raised as a mainline Protestant Christian (United Methodist, specifically), and I believed up until my mid-teens, at which point I considered myself agnostic until about 19 years old. Though religion did contribute a lot of guilt to me, and I found church pretty boring, that wasn't really what drove me away from it -- it was simply a slow, progressive realization that all of the statements it made about the supernatural were either objectively false or empirically unverifiable. Eventually I had stopped believing in enough of the facts that following their conclusions stopped making sense to me. Even "converting" from agnostic to atheist wasn't really a change in beliefs, only in terminology -- I realized (via reading Ayn Rand's nonfiction, actually) that if I were "uncertain" about anything else in the same way I was "uncertain" about the existence of God, I'd say I didn't believe in it, so why should religion get special dispensation that nothing else does? I was agnostic to God in the same sense that I was agnostic to elves or unicorns -- there is no evidence they exist, and the fact that I can't somehow magically prove they don't doesn't mean I have to say I'm "unsure" if there are elves or unicorns; there aren't.

I find a lot of Christianity emotionally appealing -- I like the sense of community, I like the encouragement of charity, generosity, and compassion, and as someone who doesn't want to die, I would certainly like to believe that there is life after death. I love the Christmas season, its messages as well as its trappings (the songs, decorations, etc., and giving gifts to people I love.) There's plenty I don't like about Christianity, too -- like all religions, it has a long history of being used by people in power to justify the oppression of those not in power, and over time it simply changes to oppress whoever the disfavored group is at the moment. This isn't a unique fault of Christianity, though -- any belief system, religious or secular, gets manipulated this way. But in any case, when it comes to my beliefs, I find all of the above to be irrelevant -- to my very rationalist and empirical way of thinking, what I want be true and what I feel to be true have absolutely no bearing on what is true. For me to believe in a religion, I don't need to be told why it would benefit me to believe -- I need to be shown the evidence, and apply to it the same epistemological principles as I apply to everything else.

People talk a lot about "spirituality," and I honestly don't know what that means. I gather from context that it's a combination of a generalized belief in the supernatural ("there must be something more than the world we observe") and a sort of vague mysticism (gaining knowledge from feelings.) In this case, I am not a spiritual person at all. Mysticism seems like intellectual laziness -- emotions are not tools of cognition. Emotions can tell you about yourself, but they can't tell you anything about the world.

And as for the supernatural, I have never found even a definition of "supernatural" that doesn't outright mean "not real." If you verified a supernatural phenomenon to be real, then it would cease to be supernatural -- it would simply become part of nature. If magic exists, then there must be a mechanism of action. If God exists, God has to be made of something, act in some manner, and come from somewhere. Certainly we don't fully understand all the mechanisms of action in nature, but that doesn't mean that those mechanisms don't exist, merely that we haven't figured them out. If there's a "higher plane of existence" beyond the universe, and we proved it to exist, it would then cease to be beyond the universe -- it would be an accepted part of the universe and we would begin puzzling out how it works. It's only supernatural as long as it's not real.

This is in some way just a semantic argument over definitions, but I think it's also indicative of how I think -- that everything fits into systems, and when it doesn't, it just means that we don't understand the system. Perhaps we'll never understand the system, but it's there.

It's interesting to ponder naturalist creation stories -- e.g. directed panspermia (humanity was created by aliens and "seeded" here on Earth) or the simulation hypothesis (the entire universe is a computer simulation being run in a higher-dimensioned universe.) I find them emotionally more plausible, for the simple reason that rather than asserting a systemless "supernatural" they just propose higher-order systems that we cannot yet observe or understand. However, they run into the same problem as religions for me. I can't disprove or even offer a convincing argument against the idea that "since one real universe can build computers to simulate many, many simulated universes, statistically speaking we are much more likely to be in a simulated universe than a real one," but I'd never say I believe that the universe is a simulation, because we have no evidence pointing to the fact that it is. We have no other universes to compare it to, so making statistical statements about the nature and behavior of other universes is just making stuff up.

It would be nice if the universe were created with a benevolent order in which the laws of nature favor the good and conscious beings live forever. However, as far as I can tell, the only way we get a benevolent universe is to make it that way.

This entry was originally posted at Please comment there using OpenID.

  • 1
Emotions can tell you about yourself, but they can't tell you anything about the world.

Wooooow. I have been stuck on this sentence, pondering it, ever since I read it earlier today. Emotions can be so powerful, they SEEM like they ought to be telling us something about the world, but they're not. And I get frustrated by people who don't understand that.

I think that if people feel that there is a God, then I'm fine with them extrapolating that however it pertains to them personally. I like the idea of feeling that someone's looking after me, guiding me, wanting what's best for me. It's only when people try to tell other people what to do based on that feeling that it starts to not work for me.

I think people assume that because emotions are (rightfully) important to us that it implies they have some cosmic importance or uniqueness.

They're important to us because we are what we are -- we're human beings, our consciousness is a process carried out by brains, and brains are evolved organs which have benefited from emotions for millions of years. To be happy, to have a fulfilled life, we have to respect them.

But they're not special, not really. They give us no information -- they're not stimuli, they're responses. I think this is where all the arguments about "do dogs & cats really love us, or is it just a response to stimuli?" come from -- the idea that love, being super-important to us, must be a "higher" function unique to humans.

This is silly; of course dogs and cats love us. They treat us the same way they treat their mates and children, what else is love? It's reason and theory of mind and higher-order cognition that are unique to humanity -- all mammals can love, most animals can feel gratitude and reciprocity, even lizards and fish can fear. Emotion is a commonplace characteristic of anything with a brain.

I think that people feel there's a bifurcation -- that they must choose between "emotions are cosmically important and unique to humanity" or "emotions are specious and we should ignore them." But neither is the case; they can be the source of our values and even the goal of our lives without having some sort of external existence.

I recognize that you are not saying this -- though one could infer it from what you are saying -- but I'd like to point out that not everyone who holds religious beliefs does so for emotional reasons, and especially not because they are comforting.

Life after death is not necessarily a comfort when the very first thing you face there is some sort of divine judgment, which is a teaching of most religions. Even heaven is not necessarily a comfort if the process of being made fit for it means giving up every ounce of self-will and personal sovereignty. Nor is following the path of religion in this world necessarily easy and comfortable. I think there are as many people who reject religion, as accept it, for emotional reasons -- especially nowadays, when rejecting religion carries little if any social cost.

Read some mystics if you don't understand mysticism. Generally it is not a mere fever pitch of emotion. It is giving oneself over to direct experience of the divine or supernatural. Generally it is something that happens to the mystic without them seeking it. If you were to approach it from a naturalist, empiricist point of view, you would dismiss the experiences of the mystics not as enthusiastic fervor, but as hallucinations -- although much more coherent, noble, and sometimes prescient, than you would expect from imagination or psychosis.

Oh, I don't think that everyone holds religious beliefs for emotional reasons. However, atheists are frequently asked why we are "angry at God" or "rejecting God," when I'm no more angry at God than I am at Santa Claus. Likewise, I've had people try to convince me to accept their religion based on how great believing in it is, or how happy it makes them, while for me these things are beside the point -- whether or not it would make me feel good has nothing to do with whether or not it's true, and since I'm unable to believe something merely because I want to, convincing me that it would make me happy to believe isn't very useful.

The trouble with mystical experiences is that they're non-transferable; I understand why they convince the mystics themselves, and I can't even rule out the idea that I myself would be convinced were I to have one, but being told of someone else's isn't very convincing, especially not when I know the many ways our brains & senses can fool us. At the same time, I don't think they're generally trying to convert anyone with their accounts anyway, but simply to share what they have experienced.

I think your definition of "supernatural" is a little flawed, mainly because you're using the wrong definition of "natural". Nature is assumed to be mechanical and lawful, meaning that there are "laws of nature" that can be assumed to be consistent and always in force, not just whatever we understand about the universe. Supernatural would be anything that contradicts/violates (or appears to) those laws. So while some things would move from supernatural to natural if we figured how they operated, if they operated in a logical, mechanical, and consistent manner, others would not. For example, God would always be supernatural as He would always be outside the universe (required in order to create it) and not bound by the laws of the universe.

Edited at 2014-07-16 11:26 pm (UTC)

  • 1

Log in