The Moderate Pathway to Deconversion (Part 2)

I was reading comments on a Youtube video yesterday, and I saw a mini-squabble between two people – one talking about about immorality espoused by the bible, and the other who didn’t care, because their primary concern was to follow Jesus Christ’s teachings.

There’s a real challenge for people who choose to debate against Christians, because Christianity has, built into it, a persecution complex; after all, Christians’ lord-and-savior was persecuted his whole life, and then killed by crucifixion.  The bible also teaches that Christians are sure to be persecuted (Second Timothy 3:12), and this is reinforced in sermons and on Sunday School posters.  And of course, no persecution paradigm is complete without leveraging the movie “God’s Not Dead”, which stews in this persecution complex by claiming that it is so institutionalized, college students are forced by asshole philosophy professors to renounce their faith, lest they want to fail the course.  This is a dubious projection indeed, since the only examples we can actually cite of forced religious pledges are in Christian colleges.  But I guess that asshole professor got what he deserved in the end, eh comrades?  Pandering still works.

Is it any wonder with all this certainty about their own persecution, the largest religion in America constantly claims that we secular heathens are removing Christ from Christmas, and all the other nonsense that is so appealing to people who genuinely feel persecuted, despite all evidence is to the contrary?

I don’t know what the key argument is to force people to reexamine their own beliefs more skeptically, nor do I feel particularly inclined to proactively deconvert people (but if people try to re-convert me, I’ll damn sure push back).  For me, it was a collection of things, including biblical inconsistency and immorality, dubious logical claims, a valid and reasonable concern that Jesus Christ didn’t even exist, the persecution complex coupled with all evidence to the contrary, and the undeniable correlation I observed between level of religious indoctrination and overall worldview incorrectness.

I stumbled upon Deism one day, and it was appealing to me.  My skepticism led me to conclude that Christianity was ridiculous, but the God idea was less so.  I didn’t feel that I needed a formalized collection of rules as described in the bible.  Evolution, social conventions, the human brain, and hormones seemed like a good enough explanation for why humans can manage to not murder each other en masse, or at least why we would have been able to abstain from murder frequently enough to reproduce and maintain a diverse population.  In other words, to quote Christopher Hitchens, “Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it”.  So, I considered myself a Deist for several years.

I think it’s hard to simultaneously argue against theism and the underlying deism.  The two are logically separate; not mutually exclusive, but logically speaking, God can exist without one particular religion being correct.  So, to me, it gets messy to try to make one claim that there is not enough evidence for God AND that there is not enough evidence that Jesus Christ was God’s son; in fact, there are logical pitfalls in trying to hold these two positions in the same argument.

I think that decoupling deism and theism is a pathway to deconversion.  The God concept, without all of Christianity’s baggage, makes for a clearer investigation.  Similarly, Christianity isolated from the technical argument for God allows for a more honest assessment of what Christianity is truly advocating, without reducing it to cherry-picked warm and fuzzies.

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The Moderate Pathway to Deconversion

It doesn’t take long, when you live in America, to realize there are groups of ultra-religious assholes who justify their assholishness by referencing the bible and its impossible standards for humanity, and cherry-picking it to shame or otherwise hold contempt for a group of people other than themselves.  I recognized this group (the Jerry Fallwell genre) when I was in high school in the 1990s.

Growing up attending an ELCA Lutheran church, it was pretty easy to distinguish those religious zealots from my own group, because as Christians go, mid-western, Scandinavian Lutherans are pretty moderate.  Sure, there’s the occasional lunatic, but they are the minority.

My defacto stance on the matter was that one can be a non-zealous Christian, be moral, and still end up in heaven.

I remember learning, maybe by my freshman year in college, that December 25 was almost certainly not the date Jesus Christ could have been born, according to the birth story in the bible; March or April seemed a more accurate time.  When I shared this discovery with my mom, about the Pagan rituals Christianity adopted, she half-heartedly accused me of blasphemy…in the gentle sort of way that loving, Lutheran, midwestern mothers do.  I wasn’t persecuted or commanded to go to church, but it was clear that she would rather not hear about revelations like that, and she assured me that ignorance is bliss in these matters.

Fast forward a couple years.  In a college freshman biology class, the professor pointed out the absurdity of the claim that the Earth is younger than 7000 years old.  He talked about James Hutton and Charles Lyell and that they demonstrated how the Earth must be older than their contemporaries claimed, given the slow nature of geographic formations.  At the time, I took that to mean that the Earth, and all living organisms on it, could not have been formed in 6 days.  That seemed fairly intuitive to me, anyway, and I had already assumed the Earth was quite old, but never gave the precise age of it much thought.

My Christianity was still in tact by the year 2000, but it didn’t escape my attention that the most holy times of the year (Christmas and Easter) were grossly commercialized to the benefit of corporations.  I had grown up in a Reagan-Democrat household, and I had conservative leanings at the time, probably even more conservative than my parents, who were (and still are) middle-of-the road (although the GWB administration, and its outrageous folly, pushed them to the left a bit).  So even though I saw a commercialized Christmas as sinful, or at least tacky, as a pro-freedom wannabe-capitalist, I was friendlier to the modern American corporation and its behaviors than I am today.

Somewhere along the way, I took an anthropology class, and I learned about Neanderthals, homo Erectus, homo Ergaster, Autrailapithicus, and lots of other species that predated humanity, while becoming more human over time.  At this point, the religious implications of human evolution didn’t occur to me; in fact, I’d never given evolution much thought, and the grandeur of the process, and its implications, had never crossed my mind.  No one, up to that point, had ever pointed out a paradox between original sin, salvation, creation, and the kink that evolution introduces.

In 2001, there was 9/11, which more or less solidified the “us versus them” mentality for many Americans.  Though I was a bit more progressive by this point, I took it as a reasonable proposition that extreme religious views were consistently correlated with terrorism.  I didn’t feel really attached to my religion at this point, or inclined to defend its merits juxtaposed against Islam.  For moderate midwestern Lutherans, moderation is itself a justification for its correctness.

From 2003 to 2010, the notion that science can disprove or shed light on religion’s suspicious claims became clearer to me, but I was focused on my career and family, and I was in no hurry to disprove anything.  I’m a pragmatist, and it was enough for me to slowly gather facts about the natural world and universe, and what our role is in it.  For pragmatists, formulating an opinion too quickly can be harmful and lock us into a faulty viewpoint.  Of course, the fact that I had 2 young kids during this time may have influenced the amount of time it took for me to formulate a revised opinion on the life, the universe, and everything.

Since 2010, my interest in science has greatly increased.  I started to understand cellular metabolism, and that led to an increased curiosity about the cell, and its inner workings.  I began to understand the symbiosis between the cell’s nucleus and its mitochondria, and how genes play a role in protein formation.  This tied in with my interest in evolution, and the relationships between all living species, which can be described genetically.

But the missing part of the bridge between where I was in 2010 and now is the matter of how life could have gone from such a simple state to such a complex one as we have now.  The universe certainly seems to be guided by immutable principles, and the fact that humans are lucky enough to exist now seems unlikely, given the chaos of the earlier universe.

These conclusions led me to call myself a Deist for quite a while – my thoughts were that God doesn’t appear to intervene in the universe, and the bible’s major claims are almost certainly untrue, and written by primitive liars and schizophrenics, but it seemed fairly likely that there must have been a creator of this big machine.  In hindsight, this view might have been closer to Spinoza’s pantheism than it is to Deism, but I’m not (nor was I) concerned about semantics like that.  Pragmatism is (or ought to be) more concerned with practices and outcomes.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I realized I was committing a logical fallacy:  God of the gaps, where God is used as justification for incomplete knowledge.  Somewhere between then and now, I realized what a dishonest proposition it is to commit this error, and that I was as guilty as my ancestors of rationalizing my ignorance, and pointing to God as a solution for something.  Up until about 400 years ago, it would have been very tempting to blame disease or poor harvests or natural disasters on our human failings and lack of reverence to God.  Of course, that’s crazy.  Those things aren’t caused by God; rather, they’re caused by now well-understood natural phenomena.

The problem with God of the gaps, and indeed the rationale for God, is that it makes God arbitrary.  God could easily be replaced with all-knowing unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters, and the argument would be just as sound, and have an equal amount of evidence.  This arbitrary nature seems to highlight the fact that God, in terms of how we’ve defined him, is a device to hedge our ignorance.

Another problem I saw with God of the gaps is that it gives people license to practice blind certainty.  Being convinced of something can be a dangerous proposition, especially when you don’t have proof for it.  Investigation, and willingness to say “I don’t know” is a more honest position.  We don’t know a lot of things, and blind certainty stops us in our tracks, and that is altogether bad for humans.  There is a lot left to discover, and saying “God did it” is neither honest nor wise, and it neglects the burden of proof we bear when making a claim that something exists.  It also pretends to know something that we just don’t, no matter how much we’d like it.

There are a lot of ancillary examples of what added to my skepticism, such as examples in the bible or more existential questions, like the problem of evil.  But Christianity’s appeal began to wane for me somewhere between 2003 and 2006.  It just wasn’t sound enough for me, because I have high standards for what I accept as evidence, and I was aware of the special pleading fallacy before that.  Of course, it took me a while to form an articulate thought around this concept, but I think that anyone who has to take responsibility for themselves in this world understands that failure to have high standards for evidence results in really bad outcomes, and gullibility is a liability.

Logical Fallacies Part 2

There are so many logical fallacies, I didn’t think the 1100 words I gave in the first post were enough to describe the wide array of errors people commit on an almost-constant basis.  So I thought I would give some more examples.

False Dilemma
A false dilemma fallacy occurs when only 2 options are put forward to explain potential outcomes, when in fact, there are many more possibilities.  For example:

John:  “Either the screeching we heard last night was bigfoot, or I’m a monkey’s uncle”
Jack:  “Couldn’t the screeching have been something other than bigfoot?”
John:  “Nope…”

Causal Reductionism
This is very similar to ignoring a common cause.  The difference is that in Causal Reductionism, a collection of interrelated events led to an outcome.  For example:

John:  “I prayed, and that made my cancer go away”
Jack:  “You don’t think it had anything to do with medicine and chemotherapy?”
John:  “No, it was the prayer”

Red Herring
Red herring might be the most commonly invoked logical fallacy, and often, it’s hard to spot.  The example often used to describe red herring is the story of a hunting dog that is tracking a wounded bird.  Someone brings a dead fish (red herring) to draw the dog off the bird’s scent.  So, red herring is simply the use of a non-related topic to draw people off the current topic.  For example:

Jack:  “Claims about bigfoot are not reasonable”
John:  “Do you realize how many claims are unreasonable?  Think about all the people who claim they were abducted by aliens”
Jack:  “What do aliens have to do with bigfoot?”

In the above conversation, aliens are irrelevant to the point Jack was trying to make.  Had Jack not been so astute about John’s logical fallacy, he might have gotten drawn into a debate about alien abductions, and the topic of bigfoot would have gotten missed altogether.

Special Pleading
A special pleading occurs when a person attempts claims that their specific claim is special and different than most other claims of a similar nature.  For example:

John:  “Obviously alien abductions, the abominable snowman, and the Loch Ness monster are ridiculous on their surface.  But I’m not talking about them.  I’m talking about the North American Bigfoot!”
Jack:  “How is that different?”
John:  “Bigfoot is completely different!”

Sometimes it is a challenge to respond to logical fallacies a person commits, because their fallacy does not necessarily mean they’re wrong.  It just means that the argument is poorly formed, and the evidence put forward does not agree with the conclusions of the claim.

I think that watching out for logical fallacies, even when that’s directed towards people who might have similar opinions to ourselves, is an honest way to approach the world, and the best way to avoid making bad decisions when determining how to understand reality, and it is one of the best methods we have to separate fact from fiction.

Merry Little Mythmas

Jaclyn Glenn posted a fun parody of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” a few days ago, and it’s definitely worth watching.  The video delivers insight into the breadth of Ms. Glenn’s talent.

Reading the comments on the video, a lot of people talk about how Christmas was created in order to hijack Pagan rituals.  A lot of atheists also mention how themes in Christmas borrow from earlier historical figures, such as Horus, Dionysus, Krishna, Mercury, Romulus, Perseus, Buddha, Attis, Mithra, etc.

Apologists reply…umm….the way apologists reply.

Certainly Christianity hijacked earlier Pagan rituals.  Christ’s birthday (if he existed as a single person) could not have been on December 25, given the imagery and events described in the bible.

Likewise, Christianity borrowed from much earlier historical memes (the virgin mother, the crucifixion, turning water into wine, son of god, and rising from the dead).

Christmas also enjoys a tremendous commercialization, and the downstream impact is that it is virtually a lifesaver for the retail industry.  Many people, even Christians, find this abhorrent.

Although I see all these things as evidence leading to an undeniable conclusion that Christianity is untrue, I don’t think these arguments would do much to convince a moderate Christian.  Certainly they’re part of the suite of arguments, but I think that they’re the equivalent of playground monkey bars to a person who has already conditioned themselves to do the sort of intellectual gymnastics required for belief.

Logical Fallacies

There are a lot of logical fallacies that people commit on a fairly regular basis.  Look at any response thread on a news article or Youtube video, and you’ll see a cornucopia of faulty logic used to support claims.

As a computer programmer, I find that understanding logic is critical to my job, but I also find it useful to understand what logical fallacies are, because it’s very easy to invoke a logical fallacy to pull the wool over our eyes.  Further, it’s quite easy to commit a logical fallacy when you’re not a student of logic, and sometimes, even when you are.

I define a logical fallacy to be an argument that fails to create a sturdy bridge between claims and conclusions.  There are better definitions than that, but for my purposes, I find this definition to be abstract enough to cover most logical fallacies I see.

Deductive Errors
There are lots of ways to create a faulty bridge between claims and conclusions.  For example, consider the following:

1.  All Americans are blue
2.  John is an American
3.  Therefore, John is blue

The deductive logic in the above logical argument is perfectly good, but the bridge is still “broken” because #1 in the claim is factually inaccurate.

Inductive Errors
Here’s another logical error, this time, an inductive one:

1.  When I walked into Jack’s house, the living room had green carpet
2.  When I opened the closet, it also had green carpet
3.  Therefore, all the rooms in Jack’s house have green carpet

Where the first claim about blue Americans was a deductive error, the claim about Jack’s carpet is an inductive error.  There simply is not enough evidence to conclude that all the rooms in Jack’s house have green carpet.

Notice I’m not making any assertions about actual truth values within a claim.  It could very well be that John is blue or that all the rooms in Jack’s house have green carpet; however, support for the claims put forth in both of the above statements are not good enough to build a sturdy bridge between the evidence and the conclusion.  Therefore, the claim that John is blue, or that Jack’s house is full of green carpeted rooms is a matter of faith, not sound logic.

Multiple logical errors
Here’s another version of a common logical error:

1.  The sun rose today and yesterday
2.  Therefore, the sun will rise tomorrow

There are actually a couple errors the above claim commits.  The first is a factual error.  The sun didn’t rise.  The Earth spun in its orbital pattern, which made it appear that the sun rose.  But it didn’t rise.

The second error the argument commits is another inductive one, just like Jack’s green carpet.  There is indeed a possibility that what we call “the sun rising” will not occur tomorrow.  Again, Earth will almost certainly continue in its orbital pattern around the sun, and we will see the sun tomorrow; however, evidence of previous activity is not evidence for future activity, and this claim puts forward no compelling evidence regarding the Earth’s orbital pattern or other factors in the solar system.

Burden of Proof
Another common logic error is the matter of burden of proof, where the burden of proof is put on the wrong side of the equation, or where a claim is simply not justified with any meaningful evidence or logical consistency.  For instance, person A makes a claim that something exists without providing evidence:

John “Bigfoot is real.”
Jack: “What proof do you have?”
John: “No one has proven bigfoot is not real.  Let’s go squatching!”

In the above conversation, the burden of proof was indeed on John, mostly because he made the claim.  But consider an alternative to the above conversation:

Jack: “Bigfoot is a hoax, there’s just no way…”
John  “Bigfoot is real, dammit!”
Jack: “Show me a dead body, dwellings, DNA, and give me an evolutionary and migratory model”
John: “I don’t have to.  I saw one once on the side of the highway as I was driving.”

I think it’s reasonable to say that John still owns the burden of proof because Jack is asking for reasonable evidence that would provide compelling evidence that bigfoot exists.  In this case, Jack is helping to lead John to build a sound argument for his claim.  The only evidence John presents is his own eye-witness testimony, which Jack is right to be skeptical of – eyewitness testimony is often unreliable.

Straw Man
One of the most common logical fallacies I see is the Straw Man fallacy.  Straw man goes something like this:  Person A takes position X.  Person B says that Person A holds position Y.  Person B attacks position Y.  Here’s an example:

Jack:  “It’s not useful to make claims about bigfoot because there is no good physical evidence”
John:  “Why don’t you care about protecting animal habitats?  Bigfoots need a lot of habitat, as do other local animals, in order to survive.  Do you want all local animals to go extinct?”
Jack:  “WTF?”

John is trying to make the case that rejecting bigfoot gives one license to not care about other animals’ habitats, and that Jack’s disbelief in bigfoot is his method for disregarding overall habitat.  Of course, John’s claim is absurd.  Jack made no statement or implication about overall habitat.

Questionable Cause
Another common logical error is Questionable cause, or ignoring a common cause.  This happens when event A and event B often occur together.  The error comes when a person makes a claim that A causes B (or B causes A).  Correllation is not the same as causation.  Here’s an example:

John:  “Every time it snows, ice forms on the lake.”
Jack:  “Your point?”
John:  “Snow causes ice to form on the lake”.

Of course, we know this is an error; specifically, it ignores a common cause.  Temperature, along with dynamics in the atmosphere can effect ice formation and snow.

Begging The Question
Then there’s begging the question.  This is an error that is a result of circular reasoning, and specifically, is caused by making assumptions that are not well-supported.  For example:

John:  “I know bigfoot is real”
Jack:  “How?
John:  “The book written by Jane says so, and she’s the authority on Bigfoot”

In the above conversation, John assumes that Jane’s book is evidence enough to support the claim that bigfoot exists.  John also commits the error of appealing to authority, which is its own logical fallacy.

Appeal To Popularity
Ad Populum (Appeal to Popularity) is also very commonly committed.  In this logical error, evidence is put forward that a lot of people believe something, and therefore, that is evidence for the belief:

John:  “Do you realize how many people believe in bigfoot?  Look at all the TV shows and websites!”
Jack:  “I don’t know, John”
John:  “What is it going to take for you to believe the truth?!?”

There are a lot more logical fallacies, but these are the ones I see the most.  For more information on logical fallacies, see the below websites:

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

Why I’m Not A Christian

If religion were not such an irrational collection of mumbo-jumbo, I’d probably still be a practicing Christian. It is appealing, you’ve got to admit, especially when you’re only told about the good parts as a kid. Christianity and heaven are built into your psyche from a very young age, and those delusions remain there long after it occurs to you that the whole damned thing is a collection of fairy tales concocted by primitive, small, mean-spirited, vindictive, sociopathic, schizophrenic assholes who were so narcissistic and concerned with human control, that they invented a God whose vengeful attributes perfectly mirrored their own. These stories were invented long before human beings understood how the cell works, or that the Earth revolved around the sun, or that they were descendants of ape-like creatures who emerged out of Africa hundreds of thousands of years earlier. These authors continue to enjoy perpetual reverence well-beyond that which they deserve, and their hallucinations were leveraged by land-hungry kings, exploited by a power-hungry church, and maintained through the millenia by celibate monks who lacked the intellectual honesty to toss those immoral texts in the trash where they belonged.

If there was even a sliver of reasonability in Christianity’s claims, I probably wouldn’t have rejected it; however, once you start investigating its claims with a skeptical mind, it’s pretty hard to take any of it seriously; moreover, with an investigative mind, it gets easier to understand why human beings are so inclined to such imaginative non-sense when you consider their default conditions and state of ignorance. It’s a scary proposition that we’re alone and this life is the only reward we get; it’s much more comfortable to imagine that the unending pain, suffering, and loss we must endure during life will be rewarded with perpetual infantilization, where our only responsibility would be to praise the lord, which is something most early Christians did during their lives, anyway.  Religion was indeed the perfect coping mechanism for an earlier age of humans

Christianity continues to inflict harm – from its discouragement of condom use to its brutalization of homosexuals to its radical attempts in government intervention throughout the world, Christianity’s fairy tales are continuously invoked to rationalize the pain and suffering it is so eager to inflict in the name of Jesus Christ.  That’s why I’m not a Christian.

No Atheists In Foxholes?

There’s a saying that you don’t find any atheists in a foxhole.  I find statements like this glib because they attempt to do multiple things at once – this particular statement attempts to make a factual claim AND ridicule atheism as a pointless intellectual exercise that has no practical value…when the going gets tough, the tough find faith…or something along those lines.

I think it’s incorrect that atheists tend to reject their disbelief when they’re near death.  But even if it was the case that every single atheist renounced their skepticism on their death bed, it still proves nothing, except the fact that humans are weak, and need comfort and reassurance, regardless of the absurdity that comfort and reassurance entails.  Exploiting the death process to convert non-believers is a mean spirited thing to do, and it’s the height of dishonesty to claim proselytization by “converting” a person in that condition.

There is a reason why religion is pervasive, and exists independently across nearly all societies.  It gives people a sense of togetherness, belonging, and purpose in a cruel, unrewarding, and inhospitable world.  But there is a practical reason why religion must be taught to young children, as opposed to delaying introduction until young people can comprehend deductive logic.  Children are impressionable, and they internalize information their parents and elders tell them.  This internalization turns fairy tales into facts in childrens’ minds, and it’s precisely why the most zealous fundamentalists are so persistent in their rejection of facts and reason, and why there is such a doggedly anti-intellectual spirit across so many religious communities.

It’s a challenging exercise to let go of religion as an adult, especially when you internalized so many of religion’s teachings at a young and impressionable age.  This speaks to how difficult it is to truly change as a human being, which is why people will fight wars and kill others who would disrespect or disagree with their illogical beliefs.

So is it any wonder that some atheists renounce their disbelief at their moment of greatest pain and suffering?  I don’t think that proves anything except that brainwashing children is much more effective than anyone could have ever imagined.