Once upon a time, I was a child (believe it or not). My mother taught me to read very early, at about two or three, by reading to me and showing me what it was that she was reading. She tested me, by reciting from a different page: I caught her. She taught me to read for imagination and entertainment, and for information and education. I learned to love to read, for all purposes. In addition to the old standbys, like the Alice in Wonderland books, we had Uncle Remus and The Little Engine that Could (teaching acceptance of race and gender), the Golden Encyclopedia. National Geographic (the magazines and the maps), someone’s textbook of anatomy and physiology, and anything else that looked interesting.
Mom taught me something else of vital import to this subject. She had told me, many times, of seeing people and events that on-one else saw: the universe she lived in differed from mine, but no-one in the family seemed to find it remarkable. Since no mention was ever made that her condition was not abnormal, I accepted that it was what everyone did. Among the lessons were:
I had to find my own universe, by reading, listening, observing, and synthesizing some coherent (to me) place to live and think;
I need to accept people as they are, rather than imposing my arbitrary ‘should be’ on them;
any statement (in memory or in discourse) of information must always be accompanied by source and reliability identification.
I was in my fifties before anyone –her psychiatrist, in this case — mentioned ‘paranoid schizophrenia’ as a description of Mom’s reality.
We would spend the summers on her father’s farm, to escape the city heat, she said. Dad joined us when he could. Grampaw was a tenant farmer on forty acres of reasonably good dirt; he was also a deacon, and sometime preacher, at a local Southern Baptist church. Thus, he imposed on me the rule that only material ever worth reading was his bible. The farming magazines in the sitting room were pretty skimpy. It was either too hot and stinky, or too dark and stinky, to read the Sears catalog in the outhouse. So I read his bible: the whole thing. It was terrible, containing nothing of interest (no reality, no reliability, no entertainment, nothing worth imagining). It must have impressed Grampaw that his 6-year-old grandkid could read that well; he let me read his magazines after that.
I had learned, independently, that doing some things would result in a feeling of severe unpleasantness; I later learned that this feeling was called ‘guilt’, and the only remedy is to fix whatever my actions had broken. The actions that caused such guilt were characterized as ‘bad’. My problem was that my attempts to predict whether a given action would be ‘bad’ or not were not very reliable: there were to many false negatives. Later in my childhood, someone told me that these predictions were called ‘morality’, and that ‘morality’ was what churches were all about. So, with Mom (and sometimes, Dad, a Mason), I investigated.
We examined the teaching of many different christianities, like Disciples of Christ, Episcopalianism, Methodism, Lutheranism and Baptism. None of them could give me any guidance on improving my moral understanding: I still had to learn by doing, and suffering the consequences. None of them were of assistance towards my goal. Each of them, however, taught a conflicting story: “We go by the bible; we’re right and everybody else (that goes by the same bible) is wrong.” My lesson there was: ok, ignore the christianities, in their arrogance, and go straight to the putative source. Although I had read the bible, years earlier, I realized that I had grown some over those years. Maybe, says I, I was too young to catch any meaning in the work. I read it again, more than once: still no coherent, morally useful content, other than a few obvious things that were not at all original.
I gave it up, and called myself an agnostic for the next few years. In college, I encountered Ayn Rand, both her fiction and her non-fiction. The fiction works are ambiguous, so that some people find there ideas that I have never seen (greed, mostly), and they fail to see the ideas that I find useful (empathy, honesty, cooperation). Her non-fiction is more concrete and (shall we say) objective, particularly her works on epistemology.
From that, I learned this lesson: the arrogance of faith never works; the humility of the scientific method does. That taught me, in turn, to call myself an agnostic atheist: I don’t know whether any gods exist (or an specific god exists); without such knowledge, necessarily based on scientific processes, I cannot profess any belief in such a crittter.
From early Libertarianism (more Randish than now), I finally got the ‘moral compass’ that none of the christianities offered: Do not initiate force or exercise fraud on anyone.
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