Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Non-Belief, Pt. 7: Conversion

[I haven't written one of these for awhile, but if you're interested, the whole series is here.]

Since childhood, I've been fascinated by the mindset of Christians - and of religious believers in general. How could they think like that? Why were we so different?

As I described previously, I remember believing in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, but there seemed to be evidence of them. I never saw any evidence - not even poor evidence - of a god. But everyone I knew believed.

I'm sure I must have believed what I was told at some point, when I was very young, though I don't remember it. Well, our memories aren't exactly reliable, are they? Likewise, I don't remember discussing this with anyone else, not until I was in high school. Maybe I did, but I don't remember it.

I do remember bull sessions in high school, where I tried to understand the religious mindset. Why did they believe in any god, and the Christian God in particular?

"It says so in the Bible." But, come on! It says something different in the Koran, so why don't you believe that? You're not a Christian because you believe what's written in the Bible. You believe what's written in the Bible because you're a Christian.

"Where did everything come from if God didn't create the universe?" But the correct answer to unknowns is "I don't know," not "God must have done it." And if something really can't come from nothing, then where did God come from?

"God," as an answer, really doesn't answer anything. Furthermore, don't you need actual, positive evidence of a god, not just "what else could it be?" I don't know what else it could be, but that doesn't imply anything about what it actually is.

In fact, science has long been chipping away at these questions, showing time and time again that a question has a perfectly natural explanation. And thereafter, "God" has had to retreat,... but only from that particular question and only very, very reluctantly.

But doesn't the fact that believers were wrong about the sun being a god driving a golden chariot across the sky, and that they were wrong about disease being caused by demons sent from Satan, and that they've been wrong about everything we've determined, so far, to have a natural explanation - and that not one single time have we seen the reverse, a natural explanation that turned out to have a supernatural one, instead - doesn't that imply that you're wrong in how you believe in the first place?

I'm not talking so much about what you believe as in how you believe it. Just as even a stopped clock is right twice a day, you might well stumble across a correct answer by accident. But should you count on that? Believing by faith is the wrong way to believe. It's simply believing what you've been told and believing what you want to believe. If you really want the truth, you need to used evidence-based thinking.

As I say, I've never understood the religious mindset, and I certainly don't now. And so, religion fascinates me. The religious mindset fascinates me. I've never understood how people can think this way. How can you believe by faith, rather than through evidence? It's so alien to me that it's absolutely fascinating.

In our high school bull sessions, I never convinced anyone to my point of view. But some people do change their minds. Most atheists and agnostics, in fact, were once religious believers - usually Christians, at least here in America.

I see lots of that on YouTube. The first speaker at the Oklahoma Freethought Convention, Dr. William Morgan, was actually one of the founding faculty at Oral Roberts University. Matt Dillahunty, on The Atheist Experience, was a believer into his late 30s, I believe. Most of the atheists I encounter here in America come from a Christian background (as I do), but grew up actually believing it.

And that fascinates me, too, because that experience is so different from my own. Oh, sure, I must have believed in God at some age, I suppose. But if so, it wasn't for very long. Really, that never made any sense to me. So I didn't have any kind of traumatic struggle, as these former-believers must have had, to change my mind.

How difficult must it be to finally decide that you've been wrong, that what you've believed your entire life - because you were taught from infancy to believe it - was not actually true? OK, this might not be too difficult in adolescence, but many atheists were fully adult before they stopped believing in God. By then, for most people, you tend to be pretty well fixed in your basic mindset.

It's not just an internal struggle, either. Almost invariably, these people had Christian family members - parents, grandparents, spouse - who would be deeply upset by such a change. And most of them socialized within their church, too, so their friends tended to be believers. How do you find the courage to upset all that? It can't be easy.

And why do you do it? Why not try to pretend you still believe? Why not just hide your doubts? Indeed, why recognize your doubts at all? Human beings are social animals. We want to fit in. And it's usually even easier to fool yourself than to fool other people. So why not just do that?

As I say, this fascinates me. I didn't have to go through this, so I don't know what it's like for other people. But it can't be easy. It must take a lot of courage. And so I'm fascinated with the stories of those who've thrown off their early conditioning and embraced reality (as I see it, of course).

(Note: There used to be a YouTube series by "LovingDoubt" which described this painful journey in detail. Sadly, she never finished it, leaving YouTube and removing all of the videos.)

So how does this happen? Why does it happen? I've been fascinated by this since the internet gave me the opportunity to hear such things. (Even today, I tend not to meet many other atheists in Nebraska, not face to face.) That wasn't my experience, but on YouTube and in blogs, I can learn about your experiences. So what's the common factor in them?

As far as I can tell, it's a sincere respect for the truth. The truth matters to these people. It might be more comforting to believe something else, but they're not willing to do that. Many of these converts to atheism began by trying to refute atheists. They educated themselves specifically to do battle for their God and their church. After all, they were sure they were right, so why should they fear the truth?

Many of them studied the Bible - really studied it. Of course, many believers do that, but mostly through "God Goggles." For most people, it's easy to dismiss or explain away anything that's awkward, while picking out those details that back up what you already believe. And many believers already think that the Bible is mostly metaphor, or that the Old Testament is myth, and only Jesus really matters.

Many of them watched debates on YouTube, or read Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - just to refute them, of course - and otherwise got exposed to thinking they'd never heard before. But lots of people do that. Only some of them take what they've learned and really think about it. Only some of them pursue the truth no matter where it leads.

As I say, it's really easy to believe what you want to believe. (We skeptics must regularly remind ourselves of that, because we're only human, ourselves.) So I have to say that it takes an exceptional person to pursue the truth in a situation like this. You must really have to value the truth to choose it over peace of mind, over peace in your family, over fitting in. I think that's quite admirable.

And it always fascinates me. The religious mindset fascinates me because it's so different from my own. This conversion from believer to atheist fascinates me because I admire it so much. I can see  how difficult it must be, how much courage it must take to pursue the truth even as it goes where you really don't want to go,... and I really, really admire that. To me, it's fascinating that some people can actually do that, or maybe that they will actually do that.

I never had to worry about that. Religious belief just never made any sense to me. So I had it easy. Most people aren't so lucky.

Note: The rest of this series is here.


Tony Williams said...

I did go through a brief religious phase when I was in my mid-teens, but it only lasted a year or so - more in the way of an experiment, to try things out and see how they fitted. That one didn't.

I had to smile the other day, when I read a comment on the introduction of rifled barrels to spin bullets and thereby achieve much better long-range accuracy compared with smoothbored muskets. At first, people didn't know the reason for the improved accuracy, so it was theorised that the little demons who normally sat on bullets to make them miss their targets couldn't hold on to bullets from rifles, because they were spinning too fast!

This is, of course, absolute nonsense, as I discovered years ago when shooting target rifles - those little demons were hanging on with no trouble at all! ;)

WCG said...

Heh, heh. Yeah, I suppose those little demons aren't so easily dislodged, Tony.

Hmm,... and that reminds me a bit of H. Beam Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen. If I remember correctly, the priests of Styphon invented a similar explanation for why they needed to keep their gunpowder monopoly. They were the only ones, you see, who could disperse, afterwards, the little demons who made the gunpowder explode.