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Random Thoughts at About.com

I’ve mentioned before that I try to spend time at About.com’s Agnostic/Atheist section hosted by Austin Cline. The site offers a lot of good things, not the least of which is a good atheist community forum and an often-updated blog. Recently I posted a few comments to some of the blog posts there, and thought I’d share. The site, in case anyone is interested is at the following location:

http://atheism.about.com/

In response to the post: “Myth: You’re Not Really an Atheist, You Just Want to be Contrary”

In response to another comment in the comments section:

They are projecting. You’re correct. I had a talk last night about this very thing. Religion is implanted into infants/children. Later, when they “feel god” they don’t understand that it’s an idea that has been artificially implanted. It was drilled in so early on that they think it’s as inherent as “not liking peas” or some such.

Even when they’re confronted with a realization that their “arguments” for god’s existence don’t make sense, they can’t shake that “feeling” that god is “there.” So, even if you can reason them out of all sorts of things, that last bit, the existence of god, still holds tenaciously. This is where we get statements like “I just know there is a god.” Or “I just feel it.” Or the disturbing “I know that I know that I know.” These are people who were used as children as meme depositories–used by a viral idea, spread by other infected adult minds/people.

When you say you don’t “feel” their god or acknowledge it, it’s impossible for them to believe it. (1) They “feel” it. (2) Everyone they grew up with likely told them they “feel” it–all the adults they trusted, mom/dad/sunday school teacher/preacher, perhaps even friends. And (3) they’ve been taught that feeling is implanted by god in every human heart. And that’s the explanation they hold to for how they “feel” it–and why they reject it when you say you don’t share that.

One of the most eye-opening things to me when I began to get outside the religious box was understanding atheists who were secularly raised did not have the things I’d been taught are inherent such as “feelings” a god exists or “supreme fear of death.” Many churches teach you’re born with an innate sense of “god” and later, as an evil/flawed adult you “sear” your conscience–and drive it out. But if that’s true, why work so hard to instill it into children? And why do secular kids not express this “feeling” even in their youth?

It’s a lie, but one that children are immersed in to the point it really does become the only reality they know. Breaking that spell is a task, for sure.

In response to the post: “Passive vs. Aggressive Atheism – Should Atheists Be Passive or Aggressive?”

I think a lot depends on where a person lives (how much influence religion exercises over his/her life in his/her region) as to whether a person is motivated to “engage” or be critical.

I’ve been asked a lot: “Why do you care what theists think?” Beyond 9-11, I can list a slew of crap religion is doing to impact the state in which I live, Texas. It’s not “benign” in my state. And if we didn’t constantly slap down the tentacles of religious invasion into state law, state education, and state politics, it would creep along invading every aspect of our lives here. What would stop it if not people standing up in opposition?

But I have learned as well that no small number of people refuse to reason and aren’t interested in dialoging rationally about ideas. These people won’t be reasoned with, and whether I adopt a kind or harsh approach seems to result in the same thing–that they won’t reason and they maintain their stance regardless of evidence in opposition to their beliefs.

This person, whether they’re “abused” (verbally, not physically) or treated kindly, I don’t care. Neither method will impact them any better. BUT, people listening and watching the exchange ARE impacted, and what I’ve seen is that if stupid ideas are taken to task in a harsh way, many people who are “reachable,” but who share similar views will contact us and say, “I saw the episode where you lambasted that creationist. I was raised creationist, and never questioned it until I saw how foolish that caller looked during that exchange.”

Even though this viewer shared the same ideology–he was able to watch safely from the sidelines as his perspective was criticized, and objectively consider whether it sounded reasonable. And when he saw fair mockery of the irrational nature of the idea, he felt no sting of personal attack, and assessed the content of the statements without being offput by the “meanness” of the responses.

For every person publicly attacked, I’ve begun to find (because I hear from them daily) there are MANY others who benefit from such attacks–by having the benefit of being able to view them and consider their own positions from the sidelines. One such person “made example of” can be publicly “strung up” metaphorically–as a lesson to others to be more critical of their own beliefs.

The scathing approach has a great benefit. And until I got more involved in the atheist community, I probably wouldn’t have seen or acknowledged that. I am, naturally, a fairly kind person. I am often harsh in response to abstract concepts, but far more friendly when I engage an actually human being–again, generally.

But many atheists I work with are less kind, and I have seen the responses to them, and outside of the individual who is being assaulted (again metaphorically), they _do_ have demonstrated beneficial results that I can’t deny. I can’t argue with success. And seeing people write in to say “that lashing you put on that caller really made me think harder about what _I_ believe.” That’s priceless. That helped someone.

Comments

  1. says

    I basically get that thing about "feeling" that there ist a god and how it's hard to reason with that.On the other hand, I don't get how someone can fail to unterstand that this "feeling" does not in any way indicate what is real and what is not.I myself have a very strong feeling that my consciousness is not bound to my brain and that it could not be influenced by physical changes to my brain and that it will never end, even if my physical body dies. It is just unimaginable to me that my mind will just cease to exist one day.But I would still feel more than a little bit ridiculous trying to use that feeling as an argument for an immortal soul. I accept that there is a lot of actual evidence that is contrary to my feeling and thus am convinced that my feeling is wrong and that my mind is nothing but an intruguing function of my physical brain.Feelings are obviously not an argument for anything in this context.

  2. says

    Muriel:I agree. But bear in mind they're not just indoctrinated into the feeling, but the _explanation_ of the feeling. These are _children_ when the process begins most likely, and trusted adults are telling them the feeling is god, and it's right to trust that feeling AND that explanation.Meanwhile, I don't know if you saw the episode on "ghost stories"? But it boiled down to the question: "If you see something that you know defies natural reality, do you trust your perception or what you know about reality?"Frankly, it's outside my capacity to think that I might, for example, hear disembodied voices and trust the voices are _real_. I would _hope_ I'd consider it a hallucination of some sort. And generally speaking, when people believe the voices, rather than the "mind fart," we look a bit askance at that mindset–and I think well we should.If I saw a ghost-like apparition–would I be more inclined to think "trick of light" or "trick of mind" or "ghost"?Some people use their feelings not just as personal feedback–which is all they are–but as actual causal foundations. They think that what their brain is telling them (i.e. "ghost!" isn't just their personal interpretation, but evidence it actually _is_ true they're seeing a ghost.I agree it's an error in (1) reasoning or (2) understanding of how the mind works (it's your own thought/interpretation of the event, not part of the external "evidence" of causation). But it's a difficult error for people to get past. In some ways it operates like a phobia. I can tell a person who is phobic toward snakes all day long "this snake isn't poisonous, and is friendly," but getting them to go near it will be impossible. They may process the intellectual reality that the snake can't hurt them, but they have a subconscious mental aversion to the snake–a fear that no amount of "reason" will shake (I mean, therapy with a trained pro, yes, but not an explanation by you or me to assure them the animal is harmless). They may _know_ it's harmless, but their brain still screams "RUN!!!"I'm sympathetic, but it's still frustrating to understand how much control our non-conscious brain exercises over our reason and conscious brain.

  3. says

    tracieh: Which would lead to the question if religion is a sickness of the mind like a phobia. I usually avoid implying that because it usually undermines the whole debate…But I get your point, and it fits my own experience. I was just saying, although I accept that many people think that way although they are otherwise able to behave completely normal, I'm unable to imagine myself in their frame of mind, probably much like they can't imagine mine.

  4. says

    Muriel:I agree it's hard to imagine the mindset. I've seen people at snake shows where they were so scared they couldn't speak or move. In my mind, it would be almost cruel to hand a snake to that person–even though no actual harm would come to them. Their brains cannot process the reality "this animal won't hurt you." As you say–they can't imagine not being controlled by fear–how could they since they have no frame of reference? Perhaps the only thing they could relate to would be seeing someone, for example, phobic of something else, which they are not phobic of? Such as heights?But still we have the knowledge that phobias are a part of some people's worlds, and not others. We see it demonstrated often. But the atheist part of the population is such a minority (the question "what faith are you?" is far more standard than "do you believe?") that it is easy to convince people that religious motivations are inherent to humanity.I say, stop indoctrinating children over the next 50 years, and let's see how many people are god seekers at the end of that period compared to today…?I don't think religious folks would try it, because frankly, somewhere deep down, we all understand that if you don't stick them with religion early on, religion won't stick! Even their own Bibles say this, so they cannot deny it:Proverbs 22:6"Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it."While this isn't strictly true. The reality is that most people will go through life accepting the social construct they're presented with, until/unless they encounter some reason to question it.

  5. says

    tracyh: Again, I agree in general, but as far as I know, I think your view on phobias might be a little too rational. As I understand it, a phobia does not arise from the (basically rational) expectation to be harmed but is completely without such a fundament.For example, I have a fear of spiders. I would not call it a phobia, because I can touch them and catch them if necessary to impress my girlfriend, but I have to overcome the fear for that.This is not because I have any problem in coming to term with the fact that the spider can't hurt me. Coming to think of it, it's more like disgust than fear anyway. And I remember reading that this disgust of spiders, snakes or small furry creatures is also often learned in childhood. So I guess there are some similarities,but I don't think that the comparison is completely accurate, because a phobic does not have a problem with facts, while a religious person does.Um… I hope that was understandable and that I am not too much of a bother.

  6. says

    Muriel:No bother. But the phobia is _fear_, where there is nothing to fear. Fear is a normal reaction to perceived harm. And in some cases, fear of snakes and spiders IS rational, even if the animals is not dangerous. For example, if I see a snake in my yard, but don't know what sort of snake it is, I would do well to have a healthy respect–that is partly, rationally based on fear.Fear where there is no harm is irrational. I agree. But fear itself is rational where there is harm. The Phobic person is exhibiting a response to harm, but there is nothing to harm them. Their internal feedback is screaming "HARMFUL!" while they intellectually grasp there is nothing there to harm them. FEAR is a response to perceived threat. And where the threat is real, or potentially real, fear is normal and healthy. Where there is no threat, and you are intellectually aware of that, having your brain spewing uncontrollable fear is irrational, BECAUSE there is no potential for harm.When the person can't control that subconsious response with their conscious mind, that's a phobic reaction.In religion, what I'm saying is that they may intellectually understand and accept the evidence; and still not be able to shake the "feeling" god exists–even if you show them point blank that belief is not rational.Theists OFTEN say, "I know it's not rational, that's where my faith comes in." It's not that they reject evidence (some do, but not all), it's that they can't shake a feeling, and the subconscious control overrides their conscious understanding of reality. That's where it equates to phobia.

  7. says

    Great post, and surprisingly this one is relatively short. I spent a good deal of time on atheism.about.com, I found the way it explaims atheism straightforward, simple yet very complete. About people "feeling God", theists who come with that argument fail to see or acknowledge that many atheists are former theists, sometimes former devout theists. It was my case, and on more than one occasions I "felt" God's presence… until I discovered that it was just an echo of my own mind, of my own desires distorted by my upbringing as a Catholic boy. Does that mean that the feeling I had then was less sincere than theirs? Or does that mean that God was powerless to have me turn away from him, simply when I developed critical thinking?Thinking back about my childhood and teenage, I find from experience a very important reason to be an outspoken atheist: religion kills the mind. Even though I come from a secular family, my parents while not atheists then were not religious and did not raised us as Christians, the education system was hijacked by the Catholic Church. What I had in religion classes growing up was worse than brainwash, it was downright an attempt of eradicate critical thinking and poison our mind with blind devotion. Granted, nobody taught us Creationism (and evolutionism seemed to be accepted among even the most devout of our teachers), but not much in the Bible apart from that was not regarded as factual. And, probably worst of all, moral and religious devotions were considered one and the same.

  8. Steve says

    The feeling that people who say they "feel God" get is basically the same feeling of "reality-based" magical transcendence that young kids who believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny feel. The thing is, with so much reinforcement in the belief in a god, most people who believe in one never have the chance to grow out of that belief. If there were as much reinforcement by society at-large in a belief in Santa or the Easter Bunny, the belief in those things would be just as prevalent in adults as the belief in gods is.

  9. says

    tracieh:It's really not a very important point, but I still don't think the phobia comparison is very accurate.I think it is a very decisive difference that a phobic person usually accepts the fact that the objects of his fear are not, in reality, dangerous, and he does not expect others to share his feelings, while a religious person usually asserts very passionately that god, in reality, exists, and has difficulty accepting that other people don't believe in him.

  10. says

    Some religious folks are indeed nuts, by which I mean they are clinically diagnosable psychotics. (Even CS Lewis admitted as much.)But most are not. Irrationality – non-rationality, mysticism, whatever you want to call it – is not the same thing as being literally insane.Phobics – even self-aware ones – have an actual mental illness. By assigning religious believers to that category we are coming dangerously close to pathologizing disagreement.It's one thing to think you are right. It's quite another to hold that your worldview is the benchmark of sanity itself and tell dissenters, "You're not only wrong in the factual sense – there's something wrong WITH you."

  11. says

    There is a worrying inductive reasoning at play, one might even go so far as to call it 'rational', in the minds of the religious.They claim to feel god, and they certainly feel something, as do their family, friends, teachers, pastors and everyone they respect. This means when we toddle up and say the feeling is bogus they 'know' it isn't and that we are lying or missing out on something.Imagine everyone in scientific authority was to say to you that your feeling of loss when someone dies didn't exist, you'd be outraged and given that everyone you've ever respected agreed with your opinion you'd entrench your opinion and distrust the scientific authority. I think that's what's happening when we say that people don't/can't feel god. It can easily lead to people being more interested in keeping their feeling of god than any scientific evidence so they reject science to keep their childish notions of feeling god.A worrying bit of pop-psychology…

  12. says

    George from NY:I think you have to take into account that we're talking specifically about people who feel the existence of their god, which is not just irrational but, I think, certainly a kind of cerebral malfunction. That does not necessarily make them clinically insane, but I do not recall anybody here calling them that.

  13. says

    "Phobics – even self-aware ones – have an actual mental illness. By assigning religious believers to that category we are coming dangerously close to pathologizing disagreement."Not all believers, but I suspect that some are. Some irrational beliefs naturally lead to irrational fears, which is exactly what a phobia is. For example, take the belief in witchcraft (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kseo6Fu5yG8&feature=related).So, at what point do you consider someone insane? When they believe they can fly? When they believe in witchcraft, demons, the devil, etc.? Or are these just disagreements between the natural and supernatural worldviews? On what basis do you determine who is and is not sane?

  14. Strangelove says

    If children have to be indoctrinated into a belief in god isn't that an obvious indicator that something's wrong with your religion? Why do the adherents feel the need to instill their beliefs about the ultimate nature of reality into young, impressionable and uncritical minds? To me this only shows that theists themselves (subconsciously) admit that their arguments are too weak to convince critically thinking people.I'm sure that doubts like this cross a believer's mind but it's the very perversion of this self-preserving brainwashing technique that they can brush them aside and cling to their childhood beliefs, so that the god meme can be passed on to the following generations.

  15. says

    It's one thing to think you are right. It's quite another to hold that your worldview is the benchmark of sanity itself and tell dissenters, "You're not only wrong in the factual sense – there's something wrong WITH you."Isn't this pretty much exactly what a lot of theists do, though? :-)

  16. says

    I think you have to take into account that we're talking specifically about people who feel the existence of their god, which is not just irrational but, I think, certainly a kind of cerebral malfunction.If we can prove the god in question does not exist, then yes, their sensation of contact would be pathological.Can we prove that?

  17. says

    "If we can prove the god in question does not exist, then yes, their sensation of contact would be pathological.Can we prove that?"Well, you know, of course not. I cannot prove that god does not exist, that there is no leprechaun in my garage or that there are no little flesh-eating monsters under my bed.Still, I would consider anyone who claims that he can "feel" any of those things and is therefore convinced of their existence at least a little dysfunctional.(And to provide a little more than just cheap polemics: This is the case because there are absolutely no rational arguments in favour of the existence of any of them.)

  18. says

    Have you all seen the "pray to the milk jug" video on Youtube? I don't need to demonstrate prayer to god is ineffective in order to demonstrate belief in the power of prayer is irrational. It's the stone soup problem again, also summed up by Russell's dad. If you take an aspirin and say a prayer and your headache goes away, you may believe in aspirin+prayer cures headaches. But the moment I show you that the pill works as effectively WITHOUT prayer, you have no rational basis to continue praying when you take the pill. And if you do, that's a delusion–which is clinging to an idea despite good evidence to the contrary. I don't know if that qualifies as "pathological"? But it's clearly not a healthy, functioning, rational mind at work.In the same way, there may be a god; but I don't have to show there is not one to show it's fallacious to believe one exists. The moment one's premises or reasoning is demonstrated as flawed, there is no "reason" to continue believing the conclusion. A person who does is suffering from a delusion. And to me there's something wrong with the person's mind/reasoning capacity if they are shown their reasons for believing X aren't valid, but they continue to believe it regardless. That person's mind is not working right.

  19. says

    Tracie,The moment one's premises or reasoning is demonstrated as flawed, there is no "reason" to continue believing the conclusion.I agree. But while an underlying pathology can (and often is) the reason for disordered thinking, it might not be. A person who does is suffering from a delusion. And to me there's something wrong with the person's mind/reasoning capacity if they are shown their reasons for believing X aren't valid, but they continue to believe it regardless.Ok, but I have some questions…First, are "delusions" volitional? Is the guy who says "I want/choose to believe XYZ" as a conscious, deliberate act of will properly viewed as delusional? Or is he merely wrong – or even stupid?Similarly, people engaged in wishful thinking – There has to be a God, there just has to be! – are on some level aware that they are expressing hope, not certain knowledge. As preposterous as that hope might be, they are not delusional unless we can prove that it simply is not so.I submit that we have not done that (yet) with the God Question. The prayer+aspirin thing shows that alleviating headaches does not require prayer. It does not resolve the question of whether or not there is a God to be prayed to.

  20. says

    > Is the guy who says "I want/choose to believe XYZ" as a conscious, deliberate act of will properly viewed as delusional? Or is he merely wrong – or even stupid?I haven’t actually met that person before. I’ve _heard_ people say they wouldn’t not want to believe in god, or that they are comforted by the belief, whether it’s rational or not. But I have yet to meet the person who actually _believes_ FOR that reason. Whatever convinces them X is real is not an act of will that I have ever met.> Similarly, people engaged in wishful thinking – There has to be a God, there just has to be! – are on some level aware that they are expressing hope, not certain knowledge.I don’t care what they call it. If they think X is true, then they have some underlying “reason” for that belief. It may not be logical on the surface, where they try to justify it, but in their subconscious is the logic that drives the belief. The contradictions and fallacies mask underlying “reasons” that they aren’t aware of. If they were aware of what drove their belief, an expression of that would make sense. Just as a phobia has an underlying logical cause, but the expression itself is not logical. A psychologist can know before the patient what _really_ drives the phobia.People don’t believe out of desire. They believe due to successful indoctrination or a lack of critical thinking skill. If for the later, it is curable. If the former, a cure is iffy, you have to hit the right combination in order to have impact, and that’s a hit-and-miss game.> As preposterous as that hope might be, they are not delusional unless we can prove that it simply is not so.I don’t agree. I can’t disprove fairies exist, but in the face of absolutely nothing to evidence their existence, I’m believing a pure fantasy. That’s delusional. There is no “reason” for my belief—it’s irrational on the face of it. Sure, deep in my head there is some cause of the belief, but it’s a delusional cause, because it must be based on faulty reasoning and has no grounds in reality. It doesn’t even matter if there really _are_ fairies, if I have no reason to believe they exist, it’s unreasonable to believe they exist. And holding to an unreasonable belief—in the face of a reality that demonstrates the unreasonability of that belief is a delusion.>The prayer+aspirin thing shows that alleviating headaches does not require prayer. It does not resolve the question of whether or not there is a God to be prayed to.I agree. I used it as an example to demonstrate it also did not “disprove” prayer cures headaches. And yet, holding to that idea after seeing the pill cures without the prayer would be unreasonable. And yet only a study showing that prayer alone failed to cure headaches would be sufficient to rule out the efficacy of prayer on headaches. So, while I did not disprove “prayer cures headaches” I still provided sufficient evidence to demonstrate the position is not defensible. It appears aspirin cures headaches. At that point nobody should continue to believe “prayer cures headaches”—however it would be reasonable to do a followup study to test the efficacy of prayer. But to believe it without demonstrated grounds is delusional.

  21. says

    "People don’t believe out of desire. They believe due to successful indoctrination or a lack of critical thinking skill. If for the later, it is curable. If the former, a cure is iffy, you have to hit the right combination in order to have impact, and that’s a hit-and-miss game."I actually disagree. I think people DO believe out of desire. Because the implications of non-belie are difficult to face. For example, take the case of female genital mutilation. In this ritual you have females preforming it and demanding it because they believe in it. They believe in it because to disbelieve means that THEIR parrents hurt them and mutilated them, something that is hard to reconcile. Likewise, not believing in a god means you have to reconcile that your loved ones decieved you. unintentionally, perhaps, but it means those you most trust fed you misinformation and indocrinated you. This has to trigger disonance in your head. If I disbelieve that means than those I trust mislead me…either my trust was misplaced here, or they were right. It's like facing the idea that your father was a racist. Sure he was ignorant about how insane his n**ger jokes were, but there's still a nasty revelation about someone you care for. It's like someone coming to you one day ans saying "hey, I have evidence your grandfather was in the SS back in the war". I exaggerate with hyperbole, but trying to reconcile what you know with this new information triggers the dissonance and it's easier to go into denial about the new information than doubt the high amount of personal evidence.

  22. says

    "I actually disagree. I think people DO believe out of desire. Because the implications of non-belief are difficult to face."Sorry for the late reply, but Ing totally nailed it there.For example: Imagine a world of sentient creatures not frightened by awareness of their mortality; absent the fear of death, whither the fervent desire to transcend it through gods, afterlives and whatnot?Wouldn't the religions of that world, assuming they existed, be almost unrecognizable in their doctrines?This doesn't gainsay Tracie's points about indoctrination or lack of critical thinking, but I don't see how you can leave desire (or fear) out of it.Indoctrination – and its facilitation by insufficient critical thinking – is a mechanism but not a motive. Desire and fear are the motives.

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