Caller Kris from Episode 21:20 – Further Thoughts

I have often wondered to myself what I might have said to my younger, theist self, if I had that opportunity now, and whether anything I could have said would have made any difference to me then. The idea for me was, knowing so well how I thought, could I have, with my current understanding, have altered my views? The most honest answer I have given myself is “not really.” I honestly do not think there is anything I could go back and say to prior self that would have made any impact at the time I was a staunch believer.

When caller Kris came on the phone and began to testify, I was stunned how much she related that reminded me of myself back when. She initially called to say she wanted to share some of her experiences, and I asked her what her goal was—mainly to be clear that she wasn’t expecting to be allowed to testify unchallenged. When she said she was hoping to show us why she believes what she believes, we let her proceed. I even stated just a short time later, before she began to clarify, “What you’re saying is that to the best of your knowledge, what you’re about to relay is your accurate account of the events as you remember them.” And she confirmed. Sight unseen, with no knowledge of anything about Kris or what she was about to convey, I expressed our acceptance of her good faith effort to be honest in her statement.

She said she “came to faith” because she was at a point where she wasn’t sure, and she was searching for “truth”—she was searching online by watching videos about “experiences that people had of god.” Part of me wishes I would have inquired why this was an area of interest for Kris, as she stated that she had no religious upbringing. She then relayed she watched one testimony that convinced her to the point she actually believed. And that night she prayed. And here, I wish I would have asked Kris, if she had found the answer—and concluded a god exists, what was the point of further testing? Why pray to god to reveal itself, if you already have your answer?

She then says her prayer was answered a couple weeks later. Someone later at dinner joked she should have ordered through God Prime—so she wouldn’t have to wait weeks for the answer. But the interesting thing about receiving a revelation from the god of the universe showing you itself, was that apparently it’s not as impressive as you might think, because it took her some time to finally decide that the event actually was a demonstration of the god of the universe showing itself. Later, when she realized god had revealed itself, she was amazed—but somehow at the time it occurred, it wasn’t all that impressive or evident. In fact, the event was that a nonreligious event happened to be scheduled in a church, as a venue, and a relative was going to attend, and invited her to come along. This mundane episode is what Kris took as the almighty creator of the universe revealing itself to her. In fact, we often hold the annual ACA Bat Cruise lecture at a local church because it’s a convenient venue. Is this an annual revelation from the creator of the universe to the atheist Bat Cruise/Lecture attendees, that we’re all missing?

I asked if her prayer was specific. It was not. This is a Christian tactic. First you convince the person there is something valuable riding on the answer to the question “does god exist?” Then you tell them to go and ask for a sign or revelation—but nothing specific (not that even a specific answer would be confirmation—but at least it narrows the field a bit). Then you tell them they’ll know it when they see it—and as Kris demonstrates, even if you don’t know it when you see it, you can always go back and reinterpret past events to make them fit the bill. Kris even said, regarding god’s revelation that “he can do it in whatever way he chooses.” Literally, anything can be god revealing itself to you. She followed up with “you just know”—completely missing the point. But that first step is investment: If you can’t get someone to feel invested in the answer to that question—then they won’t care if there is or is not a god. I very much wish I’d have asked Kris what her investment was—as someone with no religious history. My own history was being raised in fundamentalism, so, like a later caller, fear of potential hell was a strong motivation. In fact, I prayed for approximately two years straight for evidence of god before my family’s preacher invited me to a class about evidence for faith. If that class had not happened—is there much doubt that going down the path I was on—praying for years, every night—something would eventually have happened that could be interpreted as “a sign” from god—especially with a fear of hell, and being separated from my family for eternity, looming over my head? But with Kris—never being taught she had any dog in the fight—what difference did it make to her, one way or the other, if there is/is not a god?

The fact that Kris was motivated to find an answer showed some investment—she wasn’t just mildly curious. She was “searching” for this answer—spending time watching others explain their experiences—why? I don’t doubt Kris was not raised religiously, but I do have to say this smacks of religious influence. Someone convinced Kris the answer to this question had some bearing on her—enough that finding the answer was important. She had, at this point, accepted some level of buy-in to some religious doctrine, sufficient to convince her of this.

Additionally, she had bought-in to special pleading. Imagine you lost your watch and couldn’t find it. You desperately want to know where it is—to know the truth of where you left it, so that you could find it again. Would you go into your bedroom and think hard to the cosmos, asking the location of the watch be revealed to you? If you wanted to know if the stories about Big Foot represented a real species of large ape in North America—would you mentally ask Big Foot to reveal itself to you in some nonspecific way? This is not how you discover the truth about the reality you live in. It’s not how you learn about things outside your own mind. What else do we apply this sort of “searching” to? I suppose to some degree, things like remote viewing might qualify? But in the end, most folks realize this is not the way to discover truth. If a scientist published a conclusion with his evidence being “I asked the cosmos to reveal the truth to me, and I really feel this is right,” it would be ludicrous. If an investigating law enforcement officer said he had made an arrest and identified the perpetrator of a crime by asking the cosmos to reveal it to him—again, I would seriously hope we would not consider that sound investigative technique.

An honest search for truth is not handled in this way—except if the thing you’re searching for is god. And you only know this if someone with a religious background has convinced you to use this form of special pleading for god. Just trash everything you know about how truth is discovered—and use this technique that you’d consider ridiculous in any other context. I accepted this when I was younger, because of years of conditioning. It’s a bit odd to me that someone who was not raised with this ideology would buy in so readily to it. Again, I’m not saying Kris was raised in a religious home—but it’s clear that someone was exerting Christian religious influence on her—because these methods and ideas about god and how to find truth regarding god—are not learned from life experience, but from indoctrination.

When Kris went into the church she says she found a text for a prayer that explained how you could give your life to god. Again—if your question is “does god exist?,” and you’ve answered it—what exactly are you doing here? She says she really didn’t even know what “giving your life to god” entailed, but she decided to go with the prayer, anyway. Why? What makes you think, that if a god exists, there’s a need to “give your life” over to that god? What convinced you a god wants your life devoted to it? Again, evidence someone was influencing her religiously. She doesn’t explain this beyond watching some videos, but it seems clear to me that religious influence is affecting Kris’ decisions and thinking here. These are not ideas you’d come to on your own, without someone telling you these things work in this way and these assumptions should be made.

In sum, Kris’ assumptions don’t make any sense if you’re not already presupposing things about a god’s nature and intentions. And what a coincidence that her assumptions happen to perfectly align with pre-existing Christian doctrine about god?

She went on to say she’s experienced a lot of “amazing” things since. But “amazing” is relative, in the same way “I went to an event that was held in a church” is relative as a revelation of the existence of the creator of the universe. She additionally has experienced a unique form of joy. I will never stop explaining to people that emotions are self-informing and self-generated. There is a ton of current evidence showing that emotions are feedback generated by our own brains in response to our own interpretations of events—whether those interpretations are accurate or not. Confronted by something that cannot harm you, a person can still experience unwarranted fear. It’s a response to their personal interpretation of the external reality. And it simply informs them they feel this way about that external reality. There is no evidence to date that emotional experience and feedback is the result of gods manipulating our brains or thoughts or feelings. Zero. Why this idea that emotional responses are convincing evidence of god persists, in light of today’s understanding of human emotional responses, is baffling. There are people whose brains don’t work normally who experience problems with emotional response, and we have clearly tied this to brain chemistry. You can even manually manipulate emotional response using chemicals or electrodes—further showing it’s your brain, not god/s, that determines your emotional states. There should be no question about this. “Joy” is as much evidence of god as a headache or being hungry.

Eventually I asked Kris what she was referring to when she used the label “god.” This was what my 10-year search culminated in. When I finally realized I had no meaningful definition of god, the phrase “I believe a god exists” was no more meaningful than “I believe ? exists.” I wasn’t expressing a belief, because I can’t believe in something I have no definition for—that has no meaning even to me. What am I saying is true? If I don’t know—then I’m not saying anything meaningful. I’m expressing nonsense. And so, I wondered what Kris’ response would be to this question. She gave several very flailing attempts to explain. At one point when I asked her to explain what god is, she actually responded “I’m not sure I understand the question.”

At this point, in response to me saying I’d wasted ten years of my life on this and was frustrated by the thought of her potentially wasting her own life, she replied, “I’m not wasting my life believing something I know is the truth.” This is a segue, but I wanted to note that at the end of the call, she denied having said this, and Matt called her out for lying. What she said was inaccurate. But let me say that I know what Kris was experiencing here. When someone begins asking you questions you aren’t prepared for in defense of your religious beliefs, you start saying anything to defend—no matter how far down the hole of absurdity you have to go. You flail and begin making nonsensical statements, and even contradicting yourself. It’s actually quite possible that Kris didn’t even know, at the time she said she wasn’t claiming truth, that she cognitively realized how many times she’d actually referred to her beliefs in the call as true/truth. After the show, in talking to Chris Johnson about how much Kris reminded me of my past self, he asked something like “But would you have said ‘God is love’ and all that other ridiculous stuff?” My answer was “yes. Absolutely I would have been saying ridiculous things—and probably thinking I was making complete sense.” The ability to self-contradict and not realize it is part and parcel of indoctrination, and how you defend these beliefs at any cost. It’s completely common. Take a religious person off script—and no one knows, not even them, what you’re going to get.

When Matt asked how she can know her views are true, he asked what if someone had a pair of lucky socks they “just know are lucky.” And at that point, she reverted again into special pleading. She refused to compare her belief that it’s true a god exists with someone else’s belief it’s true their team wins games when they wear their lucky socks. There is no reason to refuse to use both examples to determine the difference between your knowledge of the truth about X, and their knowledge of the truth about Y. Just explain how your knowledge is different. It’s not hard. But it is if there is actually no difference. So, rather than address the structure of the justification for how she knows—she simply dismissed it based on the fact that her god is deserving of unique categorization that is not ever comparable to anything else: Special pleading.

She then reverted to the apologetic expression: “God is love.” She even reached to say that it’s a unique use of the term “love” to mean “something positive.” But this helps not at all. Of course I believe things happen that we can interpret at positive. Of course I accept the existence of the emotion “love”—even as subjective as it is. But she began to say fire and park benches are synonymous with love. It was the point where her apologetics were beginning to unravel—in view of the audience. I don’t mean to imply that she actually viewed her responses as going off the rails. But I think at this point other viewers were able to see things quickly disintegrating as far as her credibility as a reasonable person willing to honestly converse.

At this point, Matt referenced the call log to say she had woken up with “Matt’s name in your spirit.” And she explained that she felt the fact she remembered his last name was another revelation from god. And again, it’s a testament to how literally anything can be communication from the almighty creator of the universe.

Going back through the call, I feel that I did give a good attempt to deconstruct her testimony based on the experience I’ve had since my own deconversion. I don’t think there is much else I could have added. I’m not saying there weren’t other paths to pursue. Potentially a discussion on Bible origins may have been useful? But outside of that I walked her through most of what impacted my views on belief in god.

Perhaps the worst part of that call, however, was her dismissal of my past experience and Matt’s, when she used the tired and dishonest stereotype that anyone who really believes a god exists could never stop believing. This was offensive on many levels, but the worst for me was possibly that I started the call by telling her we would take her at her word in good faith—when it came to her explaining her own experiences. Many times I told her I believed she believed and was wholly dedicated—because I understood that experience myself. My past belief and devotion didn’t diminish her own, in fact, it validated it. We only called her beliefs into question when she wasn’t able to explain what she believed to be true, and when she outright contradicted her constant claim she had knowledge of the truth, by saying she’d never said that. Up to the point she began to stop making sense, and to contradict herself, we never attempted to invalidate her version of the events leading to her interpretations. We may have challenged the interpretations, but not her experiences. Her response to us, to say that we didn’t believe what we claimed to believe—that we were sitting there lying—was an affront to every atheist deconvert, but most especially those who were most dedicated and spent the most time devoted to religious ideologies—some of whom, I wouldn’t mind comparing to her own devotion to see how she stacks up.

The call frustrated me. And I’m glad, going back to see that I didn’t seem as hostile as I feared I might have. I don’t think my interaction with her altered her view in any way. But I’m hoping that some others who were watching may have gained something from it—which is most often how the show impacts people. Who knows?

Open Thread for Episode 20.43: Russell and Tracie

Today I want to share two stories that were told to me by different people about their personal experiences and conclusions they drew from those experiences. Interestingly, although they are different stories, they are, in fact, the same story.

STORY 1:

An acquaintance of mine once told me she could tell when bad things were going to happen. She said when she was dating her current partner, they went out to dinner at a restaurant. She soon felt a sense of foreboding, and insisted they had to leave, as something bad was going to happen. And so they left.
“So, then what happened?” I asked, expecting to hear that the building collapsed that night, or several people who ate there were soon hospitalized with food poisoning, or there’d been an armed robbery on the premises an hour after they’d walked out.

“I don’t know. We just left–because I knew something bad was going to happen.”

STORY 2:

An acquaintance of mine once told me she learned she was an empath when she was walking one day and began to feel a sudden and overwhelming onset of negative emotions for no apparent reason. She realized she had just passed a man walking in the other direction and knew that she’d picked up on his emotional angst.

“So, what was he upset about?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I didn’t actually talk to him.”

I could spend time writing about what is wrong with the reasoning here, and on what level these two stories are “the same,” but I won’t insult the reader by explaining the obvious.

Viewer Mail: On Personal Experience

Letter from R:

I was raised as a protestant christian. All my life I was told that there is a god and that he loves us all. Yet all through my life,from as early as I can remember, a single question plagued me: “Why did god create a world based on suffering?” The natural world of which we are a part, is a constant struggle to eat or avoid being eaten. Metaphorically the same is still true for humans today. If I share my food among the starving, I starve. If I stand alone against an army of murderers in defense of an innocent, I will be killed.

Combined with this childish intuitive critique of god’s creation I also possess a university scientific education. I acknowledge the total irrationality of the supernatural. Whilst at university some years ago I realized that I could not continue to believe in god without continuing to grow in contempt for him. My contempt became rage, and my rage soon quickened to hatred. I literally tore my soul apart trying to find a way to reconcile my belief with my hatred. I had to make a decision. Allow hatred to twist and embitter me, or deny god once and for all. I still struggle with the decision.

Cognitively I am an atheist. I know no god. Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny the evidence of personal experience when the experience is your own. It causes me to fear the words “I deny god”. Ashamedly I shed tears at the knowledge that my cognitive faculties are at the mercy of my old brain, those structures that we share with all vertebrates.

I type this message as a plea. I do not believe in the soul yet I fear that mine may drive me insane. Please, if anyone among you has struggled with these feelings and overcome them, tell me how. I cannot continue to live in dissonance.

My response:

Hello R:

Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny theevidence of personal experience when the experience is your own.

This is going to sound flip, but there is a point: “Have you taken any antacid for your god?”

Feelings are products of minds, which are products of brains. I have a degree that includes communication studies, and one thing they drilled into us (using quite a lot of research to show it’s true) was that our feelings are produced internally by our own brains. The brain interprets data and offers emotional and physical responses to that data. But we own those responses.

Example: I am walking down a dark, narrow, lonely street alone at night. I see a moving shadow behind a trash can and I feel myself getting anxious. I need to walk by the bin to get to where my car is parked. My breathing becomes quick and shallow and I feel adrenaline beginning to flow and make my head tingle, I see the shadow move again and I pause. Do I go back or keep moving ahead. I fear there is someone hiding there—a mugger or a rapist…and nobody is around if I end up in trouble…

There is NO doubt that my personal experience of fear is totally real. But does that mean that the shadow is a rapist waiting to do me harm?

It turns out it’s a cat.

You don’t have to deny your personal experience. Just don’t assume the experience is evidence of any particular cause when you have no evidence or insufficient evidence. Yes, you “feel something.” But there is no reason for believing it has anything to do with gods.

-th