Monday, 25 July 2011

Confirmation Bias

Looking back, I realize one of the reasons I felt so energized, during this period, was because of, what teachers affectionately call, "the joy of learning". Here I was, in my 30's, thinking in new ways about some of the deeper questions of life; questions I had always been keenly interested in. Intellectually speaking, this was both satisfying and scary, and in nearly equal measures. Besides, as a Christian, weren't these things I had already figured out? Why did it no longer feel that way?

Growing up, my father had always taught me to be careful about what I read, lest the devil gain a "foothold", inside my mind, and lead me astray. It wasn't just something he said, it was something I saw him live out. I often remember my Dad (a Christian minister) with a book in hand, but never once can I recall him reading from someone who held a perspective much different from his own. I actually pointed this out to him, not long ago, and, rather than admitting to the bias, he mentioned some tiny difference he had (with the author he was currently reading) on an incredibly minor point of Christian theology. Suffice it to say, this only served to confirm my previous suspicions about him in this respect.

So, was my Dad right? Is it truly dangerous to expose yourself to new ideas? Might you be "led astray" by doing so? Well, in a manner of speaking, yes. But is this a bad thing? I no longer believe it is. In fact, to the contrary, I now think that we should (all of us) make an active effort to read from people on the "other side" of a given issue. We need to do this because of something called confirmation bias, a concept I was only starting to become familiar with at this stage of my de-conversion journey.

Wikipedia describes confirmation bias as, "a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses regardless of whether the information is true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall from memeory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way." (Bolding mine) In other words, we pay more attention to information we already agree with, even going so far as to seek it out, and we additionally find ways to ignore (or rationalize) the stuff that doesn't jive well with our current opinions. A double whammy. The important thing to understand here, is that we ALL do it, and we do it a lot. Every day, day in and day out, year after year after year. This is a great way to avoid information overload, which is a legitimate concern, especially in today's society, but it is a terrible method for getting at the truth.

So, what does all of this have to do with my personal journey to atheism? Well, it explains why I felt so guitly, especially at the beginning, about reading (even learning!) from "secular" sources. It also marked a significant shift in my thinking...away from fear (the devil might lead me astray) and toward a broader understanding of issues that were closely tied to Christianity's truth claims (for example, the findings of scholars who study the Bible using the historical-critical method).

Also, from a spiritual standpoint, I found myself (privately) asking questions like, "Well, if Chrisitianity really is true, than shouldn't it be able to withstand being challenged? Doesn't the truth win out, in the end, when you seek it with an honest heart? Could God possibly not want me to learn new things? What sort of God would this even be? An anti-intellectual God? Or was He just trying to protect me from things that us humans aren't capable of understanding? Was He in fact more powerful than Satan, or not? Than why was I so afraid of new information?" After all, I had, at this point, been a Christian for more than 25 years, so it's not like I was naiive or a "baby" in the faith.

These are the sorts of things I was thinking (and praying fervently) about and, although I was unaware of it, the stage was being set for an even greater challenge to my faith. I'll write about that in my next post...

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Even More Questions

In addition to the book reading frenzy, discussed in my last post, I also spent large chunks of time on the internet, during this period of hyper-intense searching.  But rather than finding the answers I was seeking (and expecting) what I found, to my complete surprise, were more unanswered (and unanswerable?) questions.  I remember stumbling into a website, early on, with an intriguing title, Why Won't God Heal Amputees?  Eventually I watched all of their videos, but the first one I saw (and the one that sticks with me most, to this day) was on the subject of prayer... 

Growing up, my mother had indeed often told me that God answers prayers with "yes, no and wait".  At the time, it made sense.  After all, God can't just say "yes", to everything we ask him for, right?  (Even though the Bible seems to suggest otherwise.)  If He did, than how would we "grow in Christ"?  Instead, we need to trust that He knows what's best for us.  In other words, if what you ask for doesn't happen, just keep trusting!  Surprisingly, it never occured to me, at the time, that "yes, no and wait" are the only three possible, in effect, this is a completely meaningless (and, more importantly, unfalsifiable) statement. 

My questions were deepening, and, dare I say it, tinges of doubt were beginning to creep into my thinking.

Oh, and why won't God heal amputees?


Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Re-Thinking "Spiritual" Experiences

After I decided to pursue my questions, about Christianity, I embarked on what could only be described as a reading frenzy.  Never before had I experienced this sort of, nearly insatiable, hunger for increased learning.  For the next two years I read, read, and read some more...I read every waking moment, in fact, except for when I was eating, sleeping or working. (I still read quite heavily today but, thankfully, I have since backed off a little.)

For this post I'd like to focus on just one of those (very early) books, namely "Fingerprints Of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality", by Barbara Bradely Hagerty. While it wouldn't be accurate to say this book shook my faith, in any profound way (although I would read a few books, later, that would) it did cause me to make two observations, both of which only deepened my appetite for satisfactory answers.  Those observations, in short, were as follows: a) all people, of all religions (or no religion at all), have similar sounding "spiritual" experiences, and b) the mechanics of these "spiritual" experiences are becoming inreasingly understood by scientists.

Regarding the second point, listen to Alicia's story (from p. 67)...

"It was payday, and he had already spent all the money on drugs. We had loaded the bag and we were in line and he told me, 'You know, we can't pay for these.' And I looked at him. And we had to leave the whole basket of groceries there. We came home and I remember the dishes were piled up in the sink. I just remember laying my head on the side of the sink and feeling the coldness of the sink right on my forehead... ...And then all of a sudden something literally went through my back and my inside. This alignment took place inside. And it started down low, like in my stomach and in the lower back, and it was just like my spine was being straightened out. It's like when a cat gets scruffed by its mama on the back of the neck and they get kind of lifted up. And all of a sudden, I knew I was just done. That was it. I took the kids to my mom's, and came back, and told Luke I was going to get clean and sober, and he had to go. And I was in rehab a couple of weeks later."

So, did Alicia, ultimately, become a Christian?  No, she turned, instead, to Sufi mysticism. But, if the Christian God is unique (and the "only road that leads to salvation") than shouldn't the "spiritual" experiences of Christians be special, at least in some way? Was the devil, perhaps, trying to mislead Alicia, by mimmicking the sort of "real" "spiritual" experiences that Christians have?  (You know, the ones that are actually from the true Christian God?) Or, maybe, there was a purely natural explanation?

Listen to what Barbara says, a few pages later (p. 76) (the bolding is my own)...

"...the prelude to this transformative moment is not just emotional. One's body plays a part as well. Something is happening in the mind and in the body, in the psyche and in the physiology, at an emotional and at a cellular level. And at some point these two states, interacting, bring the person to a tipping point. 'There's a whole series of stress hormones, so when the mind interprets a set of events as negative, the stress hormones get released,' McNamara explained. 'And they function to recruit all kinds of chemicals to meet a threat. In the short term, these chemicals make you stronger and sharper and more vigilant. But in the long term, when the vigilant state becomes chronic, this leads to tissue damage and prolonged activation of the epinephrine system, which activates all of the parts of the body that are meant to meet a threat--the brain, the muscles--the hair, even. If you stay in vigilant state for too long, you'll collapse sooner or later.' When a person reaches 'bottom'--if she is lucky--certain things begin to happen. The body may 'up-regulate.' On the basis of meditation studies, some scientists speculate that when people 'let go', as Alicia did when she rested her head on the cool kitchen sink, that can set off a chain of events. The anxiety dissipates, leading to lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol. The person feels less pain and fear, her breathing slows, and she experiences a sense of release and joy. This is associated with endorphins (natural opiates that the body produces), which are best known for the rush of good feeling called 'runner's high'. The sensation of happiness and euphoria is enhanced by an overall elevation of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the brain. (Prozac, for example, works in the serotonin system to raise the bottom of depression.) Emotional release can also lead to a surge in a feel-good chemical called dopamine."

Now, I understand that, as it is sometimes said, "explaining something doesn't (necessarily) 'explain it away'".  Perhaps. But it certainly does cause one to wonder...if science can come to understand what is happening, inside the body, during our most treasured "spiritual" experiences, than where, exactly, does God come into play? And how do we know, for sure, that God is involved in these "spiritual" experiences at all (much less the Christian God, specifically)?  It seemed to me these were valid questions.

Ok, well, this post is already my longest yet (and I promised, last time, to try and keep each post both brief and to the point).  I'll pick my de-conversion story up again, right here, next time.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Nagging Questions

In the last post I wrote about how my journey, to atheism, started on a Bible reading challenge.  Attempting to read the Bible, in its entirety, stirred up questions, within me, and these questions, once investigated, turned into doubts.  The doubts, once fully pursued, turned into disbelief.

But the truth is there were always things that had bothered me about the Christian faith.  Questions I had pushed aside, for many years, since these things were uncomfortable to talk (or even think) about.  In this post I'd like to talk, briefly, about just on just one of those questions.  For me, in fact, this was the biggie...

If God is "all loving" than why does He send so many sincere people to Hell, for all eternity, simply because they are mistaken?

Now, most Christians will tend to answer this with something along the lines of "well, you see, God is perfect so, naturally, He cannot tolerate the presence of sin in Heaven.  But since God loves us SO much He provided a way out, and that's why he sent his son, Jesus, to be the punishment for our sins.  If we will only accept this free gift, of salvation, than God will 'forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness'.  How awesome is that?!!".  What Christians really mean, by "accept this free gift", btw, is "provide inetellectual assent to the accuracy of the particular the parts about who Jesus was, and what he said and did".  Anything less is not sufficent for "salvation".

I accepted this party line, totally, for a very, very long time.  But, every once in a while, I would experience some congnitive dissonance, on the concept of an eternal Hell, since the idea of punishing people for all eternity is, admittedly, a tough one to come fully to terms with.  Michael W. Smith, one of my favourite musical artists growing up, captures this tension well (as it is felt by Christians) in his song "Calling Heaven"...

Calling heaven
Seeking mercy
Tell me there's a place for these

What of the children who have never felt a love
Tender as the morning
Nursing the bruises
And the scars that never seem to go away

What of the babies who have never left the womb
Breathing in the lifeline
Angels in waiting
Gone before they could be given wings to fly


What of the noble who are searching for the truth
With truest of intentions
And yet they're jaded by
Hypocrisies behind cathedral walls

What of the humble and the meek that knew despair
And never got their moment
But sacrificed a life of comfort
So that others knew no pain


What of the ones who call you Lord
But play the field
with faithless indecision
Forgive us father for we truly
Do not know what we have done


I have a lot more to say on the issue of Hell but, in the interest of keeping each of my posts brief, and additonally focused on a single point, I'm going to leave it here, for now.  Suffice it to say that, even as a Christian, I had lingering questions.  I think this is the case for most Christians, but when faith is seen as the ulitmate virtue, and doubt as the ultimate "sin", these questions get shoved down, deep into your psyche, over and over and over again (until, hopefully, they just go away). 

After all, questions are dangersous, since they can lead to doubt.  I'm living proof of that.

Friday, 8 July 2011

How It All Started

I thought it might be appropriate to begin my blogging experience by telling my de-conversion story.  I've never written about it before so, frankly, I have no idea how many posts this will take (the de-conversion itself took about two years).  I'll do my best to cover all of the salient points in my journey and, hey, I'll be done when I'm done...

It all started in 2008 when I made a decision, together with a group of fellow Christians, to read the Bible from cover to cover (quite literally...beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation).  Having just come out of a dry spell, aka a "lukewarm" period, in my faith, I was feeling a renewed sense of passion to dig deeper into (what I thought at the time was) my walk with God.  Simply put, I was pretty excited about the challenge.

Now, don't get me wrong, I knew full well there was some weird stuff in the Bible.  Also, I had read much of the Old (and New) Testament before, but, for an assortment of reasons, that I won't take the time to analyze now, this time around it hit me in a totally different way.  Yes, of course, I knew the Old Testament was the "old covenant", and that Jesus (supposedly) abolished all of these weird laws and restrictions, with the "new covenant", but, still, it WAS supposed to be the same God...wasn't it?

Well, if so, than this God is way more petty (which isn't to mention cruel, barbaric...) than I had ever imagined Him to be.  (And isn't God supposed to be the same "yesterday, today, and forever"?)

For example, what spiritual lesson was I supposed to be gleaning from verses like Leviticus 19:19?  "Ye shall keep my statutes. Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind: thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed: neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee."  Mixing fabrics used to be sinful in God's eyes?  Was I missing something here?

I could give many many many more examples (so please don't waste your time on trying to justify and/or explain this single verse) but, for the purposes of my initial (de-conversion themed) post, I simply want to make the point that it was the Bible itself that first stirred up doubts in me (but really they were more like questions, at this stage of my journey, since I was still convinced there were satisfactory answers to be found...if I looked hard enough).

Well, over the next two years, I looked.  And looked and looked and looked again.  And the more I did, the deeper my questions (soon to be doubts) became. 

I'll pick up this story, again, in my next post.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Who I Am

I guess I should begin my new/first blog by explaining a little about who I am.  Although I won't be revealing my name on this blog, for reasons that will become obvious, I will mention, straight away, that I am a 30 something male.  These scant detals are all I feel comfortable in revealing about myself, at least for the time being.

Until fairly recently I was a self described evangelical Christian (of the born again know, a "real" Christian :)).  Today, I am a non-believer, but still very much living in the (atheist) closet.  I've started this blog, essentially, as a place to tell my story and express my newfound, constantly evolving, belief system.  My goal, in doing so, is not to gain a "following" on the internet.  Instead, I am simply trying to retain my sanity, at root, by getting some of these thoughts and feelings out of my system.

Why have I decided to stay anonymous?  Well, the answer is pretty straightforward, albeit embarrassing. 

I still work for a Christian organization. 

As of yet, I have not been able to figure my way out of this, admitedly awkward, personal situation.  Perhaps you have heard of philosopher Daniel Dennett's research on pastor's (still pastoring) who have lost their faith.  Well, I am not a pastor, but, I can relate.  I too have invested all of my time and energy into building a (successful) "Christian" career...never dreaming, of course, that I would completely lose my Christian faith someday.

Anyway, that's who I am, and why I've started this blog.  More to come, I'm sure.  I don't know what is to come, frankly, and I don't even know how often something will come (I have no master plan)...but as I feel the need to write, I will write, and let's see what becomes of the "Respectful Atheist". 

I'm still getting used to that moniker.


PS--This will not be a blog about my finding a new career path btw...but I felt it best to start out on this (brutally honest) note.  My hope is to write on religion, namely Christianity, how I came to reject it (and subsequently embrace atheism).