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Apr 06 2012

Why I am an atheist – Se Habla Espol

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.

Se Habla Espol

22 comments

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  1. 1
    'Tis Himself

    I will be good. I won’t comment on Randian philosophy.

  2. 2
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    I will be good too. I won’t comment on the idea that untreated psychiatric illness, especially a condition as dangerous as paranoid schizophrenia, is “just another form of being” and nobody should be especially concerned about it.

  3. 3
    Nick Gotts

    I will be good. I won’t comment on Randian philosophy. – ‘Tis

    I won’t. Randian “philosophy” is both vile and stupid, as is anyone past the age of 20 who takes it seriously.

  4. 4
    Cipher

    Er. I’ll try not to comment on the fact that this person apparently read Ayn Rand’s fiction and nonfiction without noticing at any point the completely pervasive use of “selfishness” as humanity’s main virtue. Or her pervasive misogyny. Or her antiscientific bullshit about free will.

  5. 5
    cactusren

    I won’t comment on the idea that untreated psychiatric illness

    .

    Nowhere does it say the condition was untreated, and in fact, the author mentions the mother’s psychiatrist. So I think the assumption that her schizophrenia was untreated is incorrect. The author simply remained unaware of his/her mother’s condition until much later in life. To me, that is another strong indication that the mother’s schizophrenia was fairly well controlled.

  6. 6
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, General Manager for the Cleveland Steamers

    Cactusren: Fair enough that the mother was likely being treated. However, the essay most definitely smacks of the sort of nonsense about “neurodivergence” that celebrates any sort of pathology as a “valid difference.”

  7. 7
    Dabu

    One dangerous, irrational worldview down, and at least one more to go.

  8. 8
    beergoggles

    @ #4

    To be fair, selfishness is an effective survival mechanism especially when dealing with non-familial entities of limited intelligence and memory.

  9. 9
    beergoggles

    @ #4

    argh I need an edit function…

    Anyway, continuing where the blockquote left off:

    To be fair, selfishness is an effective survival mechanism especially when dealing with non-familial entities of limited intelligence and memory.

  10. 10
    Cipher

    To be fair, selfishness is an effective survival mechanism especially when dealing with non-familial entities of limited intelligence and memory.

    Relevance?

  11. 11
    beergoggles

    @ #10

    Well, I couldn’t let u completely diss selfishness as a trait :)

  12. 12
    beergoggles

    @ #10

    You know there’s a part of you that agrees with the Butterfinger ads.

  13. 13
    Cipher

    So none, then?

  14. 14
    beergoggles

    #13

    Selfishness is a virtue – to some, sometimes. I’m just not going to agree with some Randian basis for it though.

  15. 15
    Cipher

    “A virtue” and “a survival mechanism that works sometimes” are not the same thing. First of all. Second, what you’re saying has no fucking relevance to what I said. The original poster claims to have read Ayn Rand’s fiction and nonfiction and in that reading somehow failed to notice that her writing is absolutely rife with the concept of greed as a virtue. Selfishness is the main value she promotes, and how anybody came away from her writing without noticing that is absolutely beyond me. Now you can go ahead and stop babbling about irrelevancies.

  16. 16
    beergoggles

    A virtue to some may not be a virtue to another. I would very much classify something a virtue if it were effective as a survival mechanism and in that regard I think selfishness would meet that threshold.

    The relevance was that you were questioning whether selfishness was a virtue in your reply.

    I have stayed awake long enough to read 2 books by Rand and I think it’s self-interest that is being promoted, not blind selfishness (despite her inability to write well or concisely). Obviously there are practical issues with how far self-interest can be taken and I have been flabbergasted at how she never considered civilization as being in a person’s self-interest.

    Also, greed (in moderation) could be a virtue as well.

  17. 17
    Cipher

    The relevance was that you were questioning whether selfishness was a virtue in your reply.

    No, I wasn’t. (It isn’t. I don’t ask questions I already know the answers to.) I was questioning how the fuck the original poster read Rand’s work without noticing it, which is a claim made in the original post. If you’re not willing to read for comprehension, you can fuck off.

  18. 18
    beergoggles

    It is quite possible to read it as self-interest or self-preservation and even if it is selfishness, it doesn’t always have to be “A Bad Thing(tm)”.

  19. 19
    Cipher

    It is quite possible to skip what is written explicitly and repeatedly throughout her books and read what is absolutely not written at all. Noted.

  20. 20
    se habla espol

    schizophrenia:
    In fact, it was a relatively mild case. She was never a danger to herself or to anyone else.
    In the 1940′s, when I was a kid, there was no useful treatment. The options were (a) accept the situation, and do your best with it, or (b) warehouse in an institution. Obviously, option (a) was chosen.
    At that time, too, any mention of a mental issue was unthinkable: none in the family ever mentioned it, although the survivors later admitted to me that it was well known in the family.
    Ms. Daisy Cutter, Gynofascist in a Spiffy Hugo Boss Uniform
    6 April 2012 at 5:13 pm:

    Cactusren: Fair enough that the mother was likely being treated. However, the essay most definitely smacks of the sort of nonsense about “neurodivergence” that celebrates any sort of pathology as a “valid difference.”

    What the situation smacks of is a childhood — starting at birth — in which maternal schizophrenia was defined, by my situation, as ‘normal’. As I pointed out, though, I soon learned that what I had been taught as ‘normal’ was, in fact, pathological. When I became aware of the difference between reality and my mother’s ‘normal’, I realized that accepting it as my ‘normal’ would not be conducive to my survival. Whether it was a ‘valid difference’ was never the question: in reality, at that time, validity didn’t matter, since treatment was not an option. My mother’s condition was not terribly healthy for her own survival, although she lived to 84 yo.
    Other views of the lesson it taught me include: don’t judge from a position of ignorance; evaluate ideas separately from persons; question Authority: Authority in one area (e. g., parental) does not imply competence (much less authority) in any particular other area; credible (independent, etc.) evidence is needed to distinguish reality from fantasy.
    Rand
    My reading of Rand, and citing her work as significant in my atheism, must be understood in light of the last paragraph above. I never treated Rand as my authority: each of her utterances are evaluated on their own merits, not accepted blindly as if she were my Authority.
    It should be noted, especially by PZ, that I fully intend to ignore any discussion on possible merits or lack thereof, concerning Rand’s ideas. PZ has firmly ruled such discussion out of bounds. I will limit myself to the topic of the article, “Why I am an Atheist”, and the subtopic of how Rand’s ideas, as I understand them and have understood them, influenced my atheism.
    It’s been over 40 years since I read any Rand: I gave away my copies of her writings about 35 years ago. What I can discuss is what remains in my memory. It should be obvious that confirmation bias may be a factor both in my initial understandings and in my current recall: that’s obviously true for everyone, to some extent. I readily cop to selective recall: if it’s never been relevant to my understanding, I may well not recall it.
    Cassandra Caligaria (Cipher), OM
    6 April 2012 at 10:36 am

    Er. I’ll try not to comment on the fact that this person apparently read Ayn Rand’s fiction and nonfiction without noticing at any point the completely pervasive use of “selfishness” as humanity’s main virtue.

    Cassandra Caligaria (Cipher), OM
    6 April 2012 at 8:26 pm

    The original poster claims to have read Ayn Rand’s fiction and nonfiction and in that reading somehow failed to notice that her writing is absolutely rife with the concept of greed as a virtue. Selfishness is the main value she promotes, and how anybody came away from her writing without noticing that is absolutely beyond me.

    As “this person,” being “[t]he original poster,” I would point out that ‘greed’ and ‘selfishness’ have quite different denotations in Rand’s works (as I read them). ‘Greed’ denotes what religions do: demanding sacrifice — payment in goods and/or services of value, to the religion’s representative, with no perceivable value in return (“in the sweet bye and bye” renders anything imperceptible). It also denotes what tyrants and other extortionists do: demanding sacrifice for avoidance of pain, punishment, or death.
    ‘Selfishness’ denotes a counterpoint to sacrifice: refusal to accept the illusory promises as having real value. Randian selfishness, as I read it, boils down to retaining your authority over your own life (your self), so that you can properly discharge your responsibilities to yourself (and, by extension, to anyone else for whom you have accepted responsibility, by whatever mechanism, like love, contract, or compensation). (That last parenthetical should be read with the understanding that it’s late and tired out.)
    Cassandra Caligaria (Cipher), OM
    6 April 2012 at 10:36 am

    Or her pervasive misogyny.

    The only misogyny I can recall, in any of her work, is the rape scene, early in The Fountainhead. That scene always bothered me, since it seemed disjoint from and contradictory to the rest of the book. On that basis, it forms no part of “Why I Am an Atheist.” What did I miss? If I did miss it, is calling it out any more than an ad hom attack on her other ideas, and on me, for having been influenced by ideas that I didn’t miss?

  21. 21
    'Tis Himself

    Randian selfishness, as I read it, boils down to retaining your authority over your own life (your self), so that you can properly discharge your responsibilities to yourself (and, by extension, to anyone else for whom you have accepted responsibility, by whatever mechanism, like love, contract, or compensation).

    It’s obvious that your understanding of Rand has changed over the years. Here’s what Rand said about altruism:

    The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.
    -Ayn Rand, “Faith and Force: The Destroyers of the Modern World” Philosophy: Who Needs It, p 61.

    In other words, Rand starts with a strawman definition of altruism and then argues against it. Altruism does not require denial of working for one’s own self-interest, as Rand pretends. If Rand was arguing from a reasonable premise then maybe her arguments might be worth-while. But if she’s arguing against a false premise, then she can be dismissed as a nut.

  22. 22
    Lou Jost

    Se Habla Espanol, in spite of what some of these commenters have said, I found your story touching. Childhood experiences are so important in determining our directions in life, and it was interesting to hear what had an impact on you. Best wishes to you and thanks for sharing.

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