Hello everyone, Dave here. I know I said I would post a review of Guy Harrison’s book today, but I’m feeling retrospective, and wanted to write about something else that’s on my mind. If you’re not in the mood for a personal entry, feel free to skip this one!
The last 24 hours have been an interesting day for me, for a couple of reasons. First of all, I lacerated my forearm pretty badly and had to get that cleaned up and closed up… not cool, but it looks like it will heal without complications aside from a scar, so that’s good. Secondly, my fiancée, whom I have known since 6th grade, and I called it quits. This has been coming for quite awhile now. She is leaving in a couple of weeks for Peace Corps service in Africa, where she will be teaching high school math for 2.5 years. We were kind of just waiting until she left, so we could play it off publicly as though her Peace Corps service was the reason we ended things. In actuality, though, she privately called off the engagement itself a good eight months ago for an unrelated reason.
Because she was going to be leaving, and because we still did care about each other even though we weren’t going to get married, we have been more-or-less playing house and talking on good terms since then, and she maintained that she wanted me to be her friend. However, we have been fighting more and more, until tonight it got to the point where I have chosen not to take it anymore, and I said that I can’t be a real friend to her until I’ve gotten over her romantically, which is not going to happen this fast – I am just still too bitter about our engagement. I said that I know she only has a few more weeks before she leaves, but I am just not able to forgive her for this. She said that she thought this was unfair to her. I said that I’m sorry she felt that. She said that she would never do this to me. I said, “You already did.” Those were my last words to her before I walked out.
Thirdly, today happens to be one of the most important days of the year for me. Today is the birthday of another friend of mine, who is very special to me. Eleven years ago, on Saturday, August 5, 2000, I came within inches of my life. I would certainly have died that day if this person hadn’t done what she did. I owe everything I am today to her. I hate that my fiancée and I happened to end things on today of all days – this is a day that I try to set aside every year for reflection and gratitude, so to speak – but I don’t think it could be avoided. I got her what I think is a great birthday present – a signed first-edition of the same book that she gave to me when she came to see me in the hospital while I was recovering – and I just hope that she doesn’t read this blog entry before she gets it, haha.
Why am I writing all of this? Because these are the sorts of things that happen to people in life, and I’ve been asking a lot of questions lately about the meaning of it all. I understand that objectively, life has no “supply-side” meaning, but what do you do when you have trouble making your own meaning in life? I admit that I actually thought about going to my old church tomorrow. I have no doubt in my skepticism; that’s not what I mean at all. But I miss having that kind of community, that kind of closeness, where it’s okay to talk about these sorts of things. SASHA has been wonderful for me as far as place to get intellectual stimulation and learn, but it’s very different from what churches offer. There is a time and place for being open about personal things, and as much as I love SASHA meetings, they don’t fit into that mold. I think this is something that many people lose out on when they become atheists and stop attending their churches. In my opinion, the reason religions continue to flourish in the 21st century to the degree that they do, despite being clearly, demonstrably wrong about so many claims, is that religions really offer two different things: They offer explanations for unanswered questions, e.g. the origin of the universe, the meaning of life, etc. But that’s not all: They also promote social cohesion. There is a social benefit to being part of a community like that. I think this is why a lot of people go to churches in the first place – to see their friends, to connect with other people – not necessarily with gods. It’s certainly why I continued going for some time after I became an atheist, before I was “out of the closet” about it. I didn’t want to lose my friends and that sense of community.
In Buddhism, there are four basic principles, called the Four Noble Truths. They say that life is suffering, and that the origin of suffering is attachment. They claim that it is possible to cease from suffering, and that this cessation is possible through the Eightfold Path. In a sentence, the Eightfold Path is a system of living wisely, ethically, and with good mental development. It is claimed that by following the Eightfold Path, one can achieve “unattachment” and thus cease to suffer and become enlightened. I don’t know if there’s good reason to believe these things axiomatically, but I do have to say that minimizing suffering in general is also a key part of utilitarianism, the secular system on which I base my own ethics. I think it’s interesting that Buddhism, the fourth-largest religion in the world by population after Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, is atheistic. It’s not ideal in a rational sense in that it holds certain beliefs axiomatically which aren’t justified to my satisfaction (the Four Noble Truths, for example), but I still think it’s interesting.
The need for community is hardwired. I recently bought a book (which I haven’t started yet) called Why We Love: The Nature & Chemistry of Romantic Love by anthropologist Helen Fisher. I will reserve getting into much more detail until I can post a full review, but the basis is that although love is chemical, it is programmed by evolution and, to paraphrase the back cover, as necessary to our well-being as food. According to Fisher, there are three kinds of love, which she calls “Lust,” “Attraction,” and “Attachment.” Love is chemical, and it is an adaptation: protohumans who were better at producing the neurochemistry necessary for lust grew to outnumber those who didn’t because they bred more; those who were better at producing the neurochemistry necessary for attachment looked after their offspring more and thus had more surviving offspring, etc. Okay, so now that we understand this… does that take the mystery away? I think it is fair to say Yes. Does it take the necessity away? Nope, or at least, not from our perspective. Humans are social animals because natural selection has guided us toward cooperation and reciprocity. This aspect of churches, I have no problem with at all. I think we, as atheists, should encourage this type of community-building, especially when groups of groups can work together to break down cultural barriers and see past differences in order to work together. When we all get along, we all benefit, even just from an economic-efficiency point of view. Specialization and gains-from-trade is better than war, empirically. I would like to see atheists making more of an effort to reach out to people and form these types of bonds. It is much of the reason religions continue to captivate, and it is therefore an obstacle to the spread of rationality.
As an aside, there is an interesting Facebook thread going on my wall, which I thought would be nice to post on the SASHA blog, so I’m going to include it in this post:
My original status update, which started the conversation:
“I have a real, personal relationship with a telepathic giant with superhuman powers, who made the universe in a week and tortures people who don’t worship him. His name is Norman and he’s a talking pink squirrel. The last sentence is the only one they locked me up for.”
Response by “M”:
I like it, but this is the kind of statement that reinforces stereotypes of SASHA’s as smart-alecy know it alls.
But M… we *are* smart-alecky know-it-alls 😛
Response by “J”:
Dave, I’m wondering, what is your purpose in making remarks like this? Is it for constructive criticism? Are you just trying to elicit a good laugh among your MU SASHA friends? What if I made a remark, “I make up my own meaning for my life. But we can’t be totally sure what the meaning of meaning is. We’re not even sure if meaning exists. But it has to, because I make up my own meaning for life…but we can’t really be sure….wait a minute, is there even such a thing as ‘I’?”
You would no doubt dismiss my remark as rhetorical nonsense, wouldn’t you? This is how any intelligent person would view your remark as well. It is words without substance, empty rhetoric. You would argue, “but my remark is true with regards to Christianity”. Well, my remark is certainly true with regards to agnostic atheists. My point is, it doesn’t take any intellectual exertion to level rhetorical nonsense like these statements against a position. Like I’ve said before, you are more intelligent than that.
Actually, your remark is true with regard to existentialists, not necessarily agnostic atheists 😉 and I would definitely not dismiss your remark as rhetorical nonsense – we have serious philosophical discussions at SASHA meetings that sound pretty much indistinguishable from what you just said. That is what philosophical discussions sound like, more or less. Asking questions like “is there even such a thing as ‘I’?” and “Does meaning exist?” etc are the first step toward finding answers to those questions. I would certainly not dismiss someone for asking those questions; I in fact encourage it.
My purpose in posting remarks like this could be viewed as constructive criticism. Although, I think a better word for it is satire. The purpose of satire is, via ridicule, to shame society into improvement. It is a subcategory of constructive criticism. Mocking is a powerful tool in human psychology. It developed through natural selection as a conformity enforcer. The reason someone feels offended when his/her beliefs are ridiculed is simply because there is a level of insecurity about his beliefs. As I’ve said before, if you called me a no-good German, I wouldn’t be offended at all; I would simply say with surprise, “But that doesn’t even make sense. I have no German ancestry.” I wouldn’t be upset, just confused why you even said it. Now, if you called me a no-good Italian, I might say, “Hey now. Italians aren’t worthless. Italians are responsible for much of the Western world’s music, architecture, and art. Why, the term ‘romantic’ comes directly from the Romans. We have a lot to be proud of,” etc. The only reason anyone would be offended about this satirical remark is because the truth hurts.
Similarly, the only reason anyone would find a satirical remark funny is if it’s rooted in truth. If it wasn’t rooted in truth, it wouldn’t not only be inoffensive, but nonsensical, like if you called me a no-good German. Believing it is possible to have a personal relationship with a telepathic, invisible giant who made the universe in a week, tortures people etc DOES fit the definition of a delusion. It’s funny (to atheists) *because* it’s true. It’s offensive (to Christians) *because* it’s true. And if it makes Christians ashamed that they believe something delusional, then the satire has served its intended purpose.
J, please don’t take this the wrong way, but I used to believe what you do. I now recognize that I was mistaken and deluded. The things I claimed as true are, quite simply, demonstrably false. I just refused to look at the evidence and follow that evidence to its logical conclusion, because I didn’t want to give up my beliefs, even after they had been shown to be explicitly false. This is what people do, and they do it subconsciously: Our brains are trying to protect us from cognitive dissonance, because cognitive dissonance makes us uncomfortable. Eventually I realized my mistake, once I had opened my mind to the possibility that I could be wrong. Once I did that, I realized that I was laughably delusional in the face of the conclusions obtained by being willing to follow the evidence wherever it may lead. I can say this because I’ve been there.
The human brain is fallible and prone to error. Science has shown this to be true beyond a shadow of a doubt. People believe false things every day. Many of them are harmless, for example psychologists have demonstrated empirically that everyone is delusional about certain minor things. People have a tendency to over-rate their ability in certain skilled areas, e.g. driving – although by definition, 50% of drivers have below-average ability, nearly everyone, when asked, rates his ability as a driver as above-average. Interestingly, the less competent people are in a specific skill, the more they tend to overrate their ability. Most people overestimate their IQs by huge margins – again, 1 out of 2 people has an IQ below 100, the normalized center of the scale. For every person with an IQ of 120, there is someone with an IQ of 80, but no one likes to think he might be the one with an IQ of 80. Attractiveness is another common delusion – men tend to over-rate their attractiveness compared to the average score given by neutral third parties, and women tend to under-rate their attractiveness compared to the average score given by neutral third parties. Other examples abound – millions of people believe in psychics, astrology, the healing power of crystals, etc, even though the evidence is overwhelming that it’s all a scam. The same is true with religion. We have natural, perfectly sufficient explanations for where life came from, where the universe came from, where humans came from, where rain comes from, etc. Even more importantly, we have abundant evidence that the Bible’s explanations are flat-out incorrect. We know exactly where Christianity came from and why people believe in gods. It has to do with what’s called hyperactive agency detection in evolutionary psychology. All gods are human inventions; we know how, when, and why they were invented. The evidence is there and it’s overwhelming, once you decide to open your mind to the possibility.
J, I know this will not win me any popularity contests, but you are wrong. Your beliefs are wrong. I make no apologies for saying this. If you look at the historical evidence, if you learn about the tricks our minds play on us as the fields of cognitive science and psychology have discovered, if you learn about the history of the books of the Old & New Testaments, if you do this with your mind open to the possibility that you may be incorrect about your beliefs and if you are willing to follow the evidence to whatever conclusion it leads you to, rather than starting with your conclusion and only looking for evidence to back it up, you will see that what you claim as true is actually false, as I did. The evidence is there. What you believe is counter to evidence, illogical, bizarre, implausible, and held with incorrigible conviction. That is the definition of a delusion. That doesn’t mean we can’t be friends – I still consider you a friend and see no reason to ever stop seeing you that way – but because I’m your friend, that means I respect you enough to be honest with you, even if that makes me unpopular. I’m honest with you because I care about you. I once swallowed these beliefs as you do, and I don’t want you to be deluded, if there is anything I can do to rescue you from that. All I can do is offer to show you the evidence that you are wrong, and explain why your reasoning, based on the evidence, is flawed and thus your conclusions incorrect. If that makes me the bad guy, I’m sorry, but the truth is more important, and I want you to ask these questions and see where you are wrong, because I care.
I hope this helps answer your questions.
It’s about 4 in the morning, and I should probably get some sleep. I hope you have enjoyed my post today, and that it wasn’t too personal/soap-operaish. I will leave you with a song I heard yesterday, which has been stuck in my head ever since: