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?

Comments

  1. Wiggle Puppy says

    Yes, this call reminded me of a Southern Baptist Bible study group I attended in high school. Every week, a group of us would get together to share how God was working in our lives. Perhaps one person’s parent had recently lost a job and was looking for a new one, so we prayed that this come to pass. After the parent submitted resumes and had interviews and eventually found a new job (this was pre-2008, so it didn’t usually take too long), it was obvious that God had answered the prayer. Perhaps another person had recently lost a loved one and asked the group for prayers and comfort. If we gave our support and made them feel better, then obviously God had intervened and answered the prayers. The group continued week after week like this, with all of us constantly affirming everyone else’s sense that God was powerfully working in our respective lives. It just seemed blatantly obvious that God was there working, because all of these people in my life were continually reaffirming his presence, and the visible results were there to plainly see. I went into AOL chat rooms (this was in the early 2000s) to testify to the power of God’s ability if people would only repent and accept it. I was absolutely sure that I was right. I would almost certainly not have listened to skepticism, because this is a fallen world polluted by foolishness, right? I think you’re correct, Tracie, to suggest that some religious teacher is whispering platitudes in the caller’s ear, because the phrases and excuses she was using were very familiar. Someone has told her that her experience at the church was definitely a sign from God and reaffirmed her nascent feelings; that kind of certainty doesn’t come out of nowhere. And with respect to her parting comment, we were told authoritatively that so-called “nonbelievers” were just being rebellious against God’s will and therefore did not need to be taken seriously. The only interaction permitted was to preach at them and demand that they obey.
    It was not until I got to college that I noticed that people of all different backgrounds and faiths were seeing the presence of their respective deities – deities completely different from mine – in their lives. I eventually realized that “God’ was the label that people were putting on the care and support they received from other people in their lives. It took me a while to unwind the sense of agenticity through which I viewed the world, but it eventually happened. Hopefully it will for this caller as well.

  2. Net says

    ” 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? ”

    I must admit that when I was kid, I have lost my keys. More than once actually, however this one time I have lost them in my room, so I knew they are not just anywhere, they had to be in the room. And after searching through my room twice (it was not that big, but it took some time anyway) I still was unable to locate them. And then I prayed to God to help me find them (I am not sure about your youth, but I was kind of tought that we should not bother God with small prayers, but according to my kid edition of Bible, God seemed to be nice and helpful chap), and believe it or not, as I prayed I looked directly upon them as they were on my table. I know my memory is not perfect, but I am still reasonably sure I have looked on the table before several times and could not find them. Then I prayed and suddenly they were there.

    I know it is not really proof of God, but to me it is the proof of the prayer (or meditation). Sometimes when you take a deep breath and calm down, things look more clearly than when you are in stress trying to search ten different locations at once.

  3. Monocle Smile says

    @Net
    You’re correct about meditation. It’s extremely frustrating that an extremely beneficial and studied phenomenon often has a truckload of woo strapped to it.

  4. Peggy Clancy says

    There was something about her high-pitched babydoll voice that was troubling as well. It’s a voice I associate with ultra-fundamentalist women like Michelle Duggar. Maybe she wasn’t raised in a “Christian” home–but in a lukewarm sort of religiosity that the ultra right would not call Christian.

  5. Monocle Smile says

    @heicart
    You get all the props for how you handled that call. Log that one under “AXP’s Greatest Hits.” Your message and Kris’ revealing responses are exactly what a theist audience needs to hear.

    I was similarly baffled by Kris’ apparent investment and gullibility, as I mentioned in the show thread. There’s something else going on with her; some information we’re missing from her story. It doesn’t surprise me, as conversion stories never contain all the relevant facts, but this is kind of the linchpin of the whole thing.

    The “fire and park benches are love” was the end of it for me. When someone is willing to dive headfirst into intellectual nihilism, there’s no point in having a discussion. I call this “scorched Earth apologetics” and at some point I’ll call in about it (I’ll keep it short). Usually an apologist backed into a corner implies something horrific rather than merely absurd, like “slavery is moral” or “that little girl deserved to be raped,” but the motivation is the same: their beliefs are more valuable to them than anything else.

  6. says

    >I know my memory is not perfect, but I am still reasonably sure I have looked on the table before several times and could not find them. Then I prayed and suddenly they were there.

    I do this now–but not with the prayer. I joke to myself I have a personal poltergeist. I did think about this when writing the post, but I felt it represented, again, a special pleading in regard to the idea that it still related to god–that god can work this way. But I get what you’re saying. Once someone buys-in–they will use this form of “searching.”

  7. Net says

    @Monocle Smile
    “their beliefs are more valuable to them than anything else” it reminds me of those Jehovah’s Witnesses videos* (linked below, one is about the kid getting wizard toy from his friend, the other about girl learning about her schoolmate having lesbian parents). It is important to understand that these people believe in eternal hell (and paradise), so even slavery compared to eternal suffering in hell is good (or not that bad). Even with the worst master possible it is just few decades of some suffering (and not that bad if it does not kil lthe slave), it is nothing compared to eternal afterlife in hell.

    *The original videos are not available, but I found some reuploads.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q_FonfihgCg

  8. says

    >There was something about her high-pitched babydoll voice that was troubling as well.

    The link below is about the idea that voice inflection can be impacted by early childhood trauma. It is clear that there is not research done to check this, but it’s been brought up as something some counselors claim they notice. I’d be interested to see some research done in this regard just to check it.

    http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2002/apr/30/20020430-042342-4180r/

  9. says

    >The “fire and park benches are love” was the end of it for me. When someone is willing to dive headfirst into intellectual nihilism, there’s no point in having a discussion. I call this “scorched Earth apologetics” and at some point I’ll call in about it (I’ll keep it short). Usually an apologist backed into a corner implies something horrific rather than merely absurd, like “slavery is moral” or “that little girl deserved to be raped,” but the motivation is the same: their beliefs are more valuable to them than anything else.

    Yes, this is exactly what I was describing. Once you get the person off script, with questions they’ve never been asked before, there is generally some hesitation and stammering–and then they jump into total absurdity–with seemingly no awareness of how wild they sound to other people. It’s an “I will say whatever I have to say to defend myself–even if it’s nonsensical” (or as you note, atrocious). They have these scripts they’re taught, that are limited and usually based on strawmen. Once you get them off the map, they don’t tread with caution, as you’d expect from someone recognizing they’re in alien territory–they actually just go feral and start flitting all over the place–which usually ends with them running off a cliff, metaphorically.

  10. Net says

    @heicart
    Yeah, and at least I do remember the one case when the prayer worked instantaneously (had to look up proper spelling:)). I do not remember the hundreds of times when it did not work. And I have prayed for silly things like not being bothered at night by evil spirits. They never bothered me, but they never bothered anyone else, so not sure what it says about the effectivity of prayer.

  11. Wiggle Puppy says

    “Yes, this is exactly what I was describing. Once you get the person off script, with questions they’ve never been asked before, there is generally some hesitation and stammering–and then they jump into total absurdity–with seemingly no awareness of how wild they sound to other people.”

    Yes, if you had asked me 15 years ago why I believed in God, I almost certainly would have said something about feeling the power of the Holy Spirit while singing praise songs at a church summer camp. If you had then asked me what I was defining as “God,” I probably wouldn’t have made much sense, because “God” for me meant the emotional response created by being in an intense group setting surrounded by people I trusted and knew well. If you had asked me how I knew I was right, I probably wouldn’t have said much more than “I just do.” It wouldn’t have held up well.

    On Youtube, Anticitizenx has a good series on the top failures of Christian apologists, and the #1 failure identified is the total lack of recognition of one’s own possible fallibility. This caller was the perfect example of what happens when someone completely convinced of their rightness starts getting asked probing questions: namely, nonsense follows. Christians are taught to claim that they simply cannot be wrong – and the sentence “I don’t know” is anathema to their entire worldview – so rather than admit that they could be incorrect or mistaken, they start making up ad hoc answers on the fly. It doesn’t turn out well.

  12. says

    well said, wiggle puppy @ 1:

    “God’ was the label that people were putting on the care and support they received from other people in their lives.

    which is yet another illustration of the pervasive and insidious way god belief robs human beings of credit and control of their own lives. it’s a point that’s not pounded on nearly enough and it’s the key to the answer to the popular theist question “how do atheists deal with crisis without faith?”

    the answer is that atheists deal with crisis exactly the same way theists do — using the same networks of family and friends and professionals available to everyone — with the exception that atheists give credit where credit is rightfully due, not to quasi-benevolent invisible entities or vague metaphysical forces.

  13. says

    >and the sentence “I don’t know” is anathema to their entire worldview – so rather than admit that they could be incorrect or mistaken, they start making up ad hoc answers on the fly. It doesn’t turn out well.

    Exactly. So, “why would you use this odd method of *searching* for god, that you would think was absurd if a researcher or law enforcement officer used it to determine conclusive truth–to get god to reveal itself to you?” Instead of “I don’t know” it’s “Because god doesn’t conform to other things–god is totally different.” And you know this how? Oh yeah, because god revealed it to you.

  14. purpledog says

    Thanks for always being so thorough, Tracie. Both on the show and in text, you paint a very wide picture, giving people the benefit of the doubt, and knowing good questions to ask. I have some thoughts on this caller, Kris. Early on in the call when she mentioned that she was searching for truth by watching videos of people that had experiences of god – could have been addressed. Ultimately apologetics come down to truth. I’m not convinced she was every looking for the truth.

    In fact, she sounded elated at the possibility of god showing himself to her. I think it’s clear that she find it to be a ‘good’ thing to be a believer in a god. Likewise at the end by mentioning Matt’s name was in her spirit (I think she meant consciousness) – I think that she’s convinced being spiritual, holding god beliefs, praying – these are righteous things that good people do, and is a position of integrity and honesty, and is the only way to ‘know the truth’.

    Her call reminds us that people lack critical thinking skills, the ability to be skeptic, and the ability to investigate. Again it comes down to honesty. I think her ego was refusing to weigh any alternative possibilities. Believing in a god to some people is like wanting to be enlightened to the next level, yet without doing any reading, researching, thinking, meditating, or accomplishing any goals.

    It was a great move to ask her the definition of god. She said love, and thus you can subtract the god and just stick with love. That’s honestly a better answer than saying – a being who is timeless, eternal, and can exist supernaturally. Meanwhile we have nothing timeless, eternal, or supernatural to compare it to.

    I grew up Christian and went to Christian elementary school up to 7th grade. What was interesting is that many of the school children did not believe in a god, and their parents didn’t either. Their parents wanted their children to be educated well, so they send them to Christian school (which I can vouch for, taught at a higher level than nearby public schools, about 2-3 grade levels ahead, bigger vocabulary, better spelling, better math). And when I transitioned to public school, now I was dealing with school children that weren’t use to other children that had a personal god.

    And I was mocked and insulted for claiming a personal god. This was in the 8th grade, so I was 13 years old, and these public school children taught me that gods weren’t real, and that the bible wasn’t real. I didn’t defend my god position at all. I went home, and asked my brother and sister if god was real, and the bible was real, and to my surprise, they both told me that ‘everyone’ knew god wasn’t real and the bible wasn’t real.

    My parents explained that our religious was based off faith alone, and I was no longer a theist that day. Although, growing up, I never had experiences with ‘god’, I was only told about other people’s experiences with god. And very memorable to me is my mother having frequent conversations with god, and she claimed she spoke to him every night. And I knew I had never spoken to god.

    I think this demonstrates that people who are theists aren’t all the same. There are people who are convinced there’s a god, there are people who are looking for a god. If you are looking for a god, you’ve probably led a more honest life up to this point, whereas if you’re already convinced there’s a god, you’ve lost all integrity and honesty, and thus the transition back to sanity is more difficult.

    One last point on the ego. I was at a bible study I was invited to one day when attending high school, and after the bible study, we went around the room with people stating what they wanted to pray for, and many of these people were under the age of 20, and they were asking for A’s on their test, and personal success. Why would you bother the god of everything with your petty school test? How is it not blasphemy? How is not egotism? How is every prayer ever uttered not just some wish, like rubbing a lamp, and asking a magical genie to do things for you?

  15. RationalismRules says

    @aarrgghh #12

    the answer is that atheists deal with crisis exactly the same way theists do — using the same networks of family and friends and professionals available to everyone

    I think there is one aspect of crisis where believers already have a tool that atheists need to find via a different path – the ability to accept that we do not have control in these situations.

    I do understand how prayer can bring peace to a believer. If they truly believe that a powerful benevolent deity ‘has their back’, offloading their troubles through prayer must have the cathartic effect of a child entrusting their problems into the hands of their parent.

  16. says

    RationalismRules @ 14:

    … believers already have a tool that atheists need to find via a different path – the ability to accept that we do not have control in these situations.

    i can only speak for myself as someone who’s completely written off my never-particularly-strong childhood beliefs and who’s been an admitted atheist since ninth grade (while attending a religious school for five years!). i’ve never actually needed prayer. acknowledging one’s limited control over events seems to me the inevitable result of rationally dispensing with gods and “higher forces”.

    granting an illusory control to a deity sounds like another fear-based strategem of theists to validate their continued belief, a solution to a problem created by theism itself. “how do you maintain control without an invisible friend?” they ask. the answer is, of course, you never had control to begin with.

    i’d be interested in hearing from others who may have had to wrestle with issues of control or lack thereof …

  17. RationalismRules says

    @aarrgghh

    granting an illusory control to a deity sounds like another fear-based strategem of theists to validate their continued belief, a solution to a problem created by theism itself. “how do you maintain control without an invisible friend?” they ask. the answer is, of course, you never had control to begin with.

    I have no idea whether theists feel their god is what gives them control over their lives – it’s certainly not a point-of-view that I’ve ever heard before. If anything, I would have thought that believers tend to regard themselves as less in control over their own lives than non-believers do. Regardless, it doesn’t really have anything to do with the point I was making.

    Most adults have a large degree of autonomy in our lives, which leads to a perception of control. This has nothing to do with theistic belief, it’s universal, although obviously different people experience it to different degrees (eg. prisoners presumably feel far less ‘in control’ of their own lives).
    When we find ourselves in situations where that perception is removed – crisis situations – we tend to be subject to negative emotions of anxiety, stress, fear etc. We need psychological tools to deal with those emotions in order to not become overwhelmed in those situations.

    Whether or not there is a real god really looking after its followers, their belief that it does can bring them actual tangible relief in times of crisis. Again, I’m not talking about stress/anxiety/fear related to theism (threats of hell etc.), but those caused by real-world events in their life.

    I’m not saying it’s a good thing, or a bad thing, just that it is a thing. We atheists don’t have the option to tell ourselves “I’m not in control, but sky-daddy is, so everything will turn out ok.” Instead we need some other tool – eg. being able to let go of the expectation of control (Buddhism anyone?)

  18. says

    This point about control is interesting. As a theist I actually wanted no control over my own life. I was doing all I could to learn to recognize god’s will for me, so I could only ever be doing things in line with what God wanted for me in my life. Additionally, although I knew that god’s plan might include me dying a horrible death, this bothered me not at all, because my belief was that it was all part of a higher purpose, and ultimately this life was an irrelevancy compared to the ultimate eternity with God in heaven.

    As an atheist, I have slowly learned to take back that responsibility for myself and my life. And once it sank in there is no God, and it all falls on me to control what I can of my own destiny, I have worked hard toward my own goals in life to create a situation where I feel as happy and secure as I can.

    So, a while back someone wrote to ask us how we would react to a dire situation where our death was certain. Wouldn’t we pray then? It was hard for them to believe that the answer was “no.” But I remember who I was then, and know who i am now. And there would be no prayer, just as I probably would not think of attempting to cross my fingers to bring good luck in a deadly situation. It just is now such a foreign idea for me to pray for help, it wouldn’t occur to me.

    So, what would I do? When my then-husband had cancer, I was able to find out. And this was early in my life as a nonbeliever. I had trouble sleeping, because I was constantly awake and online doing research about his illness, and consulting with oncologists, radiologists, and surgeons. I could not get enough information about the situation, with the goal of expanding my circle of influence over the situation. Stephen Covey calls this a mismatch between a circle of influence and a circle of concern. When you have more influence than concern, you are allowing others to control things you could control, and the question is why you would relinquish control of things you can influence? It’s a decision we have to make at various points I our lives, but in general, it’s a good idea to control as much as you can if you value control over your own life. In my case, the circle of influence was smaller than the circle of concern. My options were to be less concerned, or to seek ways to expand my influence. My behavior showed a tireless effort to find ways to gain influence or control.

    As a result, I knew all about his treatment before we ever got going on it. I was able to talk to the doctors in an informed way. I was able to help my spouse make good decisions about options. Later, the treatment failed. And I asked what the next step was. And I was told there is no next step. So, I went online and found a research trial that matched our situation exactly. At our next oncology appointment, I asked about research trials. Our doctor said our situation was so unique there probably wouldn’t be one suited to our situation–someone who had received treatment, and had another follow up surgery, so that even though he had had a recurrence, he was technically cancer free at the moment, with a high probability of another recurrence and no options for treatment once that occurred. I told her I had found one study that was exactly for us, and showed her the print out. They were testing to see if they could reduce recurrence rates for folks in our situation. She said she’d look into it. The study was closed, but she found another one like it. We tried to enroll in Dallas, but it was full. So, ep we had to enroll in Virginia. We had no way to get him there for the many trips that would be required. I researched and found a group of volunteer pilots, ironically called Angel Flights, who accepted us, if we could get him closer to Virginia. His brother lived in the Florida panhandle, and agreed to let him come stay there during the treatment.

    Ten years later my husband was still alive and the cancer vaccine model has gained more mainstream acceptance as a viable treatment.

    We’re we lucky? No. I took every bit of control I could find and worked it as hard as I could to achieve the best outcome. Could I have done all that and he died anyway? Yes. But I’d be able to go on knowing I left no stone unturned and did everything I could to save him. In the end, the “mechanism” for me, is a refusal to accept “no control.” I said in response to the emailer who asked if we’d pray, that I would most likely die working to find a way out of the situation. If I did give up, it would be because I felt I’d done everything there was to try. And I would have to be at peace with that knowledge.

  19. RationalismRules says

    @heicart
    Thanks for sharing your story so openly. It seems your ex perhaps owes his life to your deconversion – had you still been a believer, it seems like you might have taken a different approach, and while prayer might have brought you serenity it surely wouldn’t have got your husband the treatment he needed.

    I agree with your refusal to accept “no control”. I think focusing on what remains within our control is a key tool for avoiding becoming overwhelmed in out-of-control situations. The difficult part for me is the gap that remains between what you can do to influence the outcome, and how the outcome ultimately turns out. ‘Resilience’ is a term that I seem to hear a lot at the moment, and it makes a lot of sense to me – the capacity to bounce back when things don’t go as expected, and the ability to recognize that capacity in ourselves. In some ways I think building resilience and letting go of expectations may be two sides of the same coin. There is a lot of resilience in your story.

    Thanks for your detailed thoughts on Kris’s call. The thing I find most frustrating about people like Kris is that they go ‘searching’ for a god, and then think it’s deeply significant when they find exactly what they’re looking for. It’s so obvious to me that anyone who wants to believe, who prays to god to reveal himself to them, is going to find something they can interpret to fit that narrative. It’s the old “open your heart to god and he will reveal himself to you”, which to me translates as “if you believe in god, you will believe in god”.

  20. says

    >the capacity to bounce back when things don’t go as expected

    My Ex used to ask “Are you doing everything that you can to get to your goal?” If the answer is yes, then worry is useless.

    While emotions aren’t always controlled by reason, on some level, understanding when I go to bed that I’ve done all I can, and now it’s going to pan out however it pans out–let’s me sleep well. Again, it’s that circle of concern versus the circle of influence. If you have more concern than influence–you really have only two options: Gain influence or be less concerned. Being concerned with things I can’t influence is simply stressing for no reason.

    Again, telling someone this won’t instantly stop the stress. But I think coming to gain a real understanding of it, doe ultimately help people eventually let go of stress once they’re used up all their influence.

  21. says

    “If you have more concern than influence–you really have only two options: Gain influence or be less concerned. Being concerned with things I can’t influence is simply stressing for no reason.”

    Thanks for sharing, that’s really useful!

    It reminds me of something that apparently Shimon Peres said. “If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact – not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”

  22. says

    @ RationalismRules & heicart:

    thank you both for the extended and revealing replies; you’ve put a lot to digest on the table. i’ll try to concentrate on the pith; i’m always in danger of indulging in all the lurking side dishes since i have a tendency to digress in every direction at once. in high school and college i learned that papers over twenty pages were always easier to write than papers under five pages because the short ones only allow room for the strongest (and not necessarily the most fascinating) points and the shortest (and not necessarily the most entertaining) path to my conclusion. what ends up in the final cut is usually just a tenth of what went into it. ah, but i digress …

    @ RationalismRules:

    “We atheists don’t have the option to tell ourselves “I’m not in control, but sky-daddy is, so everything will turn out ok.” Instead we need some other tool – eg. being able to let go of the expectation of control (Buddhism anyone?)”

    for me, this was never a deep question. my “tool” was simply reason itself, as a consequence of logical necessity; once you’ve reached the conclusion that gods don’t exist, who else is in control of your life? (or at least the parts still actually within your control, if you’re not some sort of prisoner of state authority like a convict or a prisoner of personal obligation like a soldier, for example.)

    “The difficult part for me is the gap that remains between what you can do to influence the outcome, and how the outcome ultimately turns out.”

    this sounds essentially like a fear of failure, which is of course a real fear. as i say at the end of my response to heicart, successfully managing it depends on realistically assessing whether you can deal with the consequences of your choices or not.

    @ heicart:

    “As a theist I actually wanted no control over my own life. I was doing all I could to learn to recognize god’s will for me, so I could only ever be doing things in line with what God wanted for me in my life.”

    isn’t learning god’s plan a means of gaining control over your life, even if you never saw it that way? you believed that a roadmap existed, and you needed to discover it because you didn’t want to be steering blind, especially with the threat of hell looming on either shoulder.

    regarding your ex-husband’s diagnosis and treatment (and congratulations for successfully combatting it), how might your younger self have dealt with it as a believer? would heicart the theist have diverged from the path that heicart the atheist ultimately chose? or, as i argue in my earlier posts, would she have done the same homework and availed herself of the same options, but, having prayed for divine intervention, would she ultimately have assigned credit for a successful outcome not to herself and her doctors’ hard work, but to her invisible friend? and judged herself wanting in the eyes of that “friend” as the reason for a failed outcome?

    i myself have successfully (so far, cthulhu willing) battled with cancer, but my approach was a bit less intense. knowing that there was no way that google university could supplant a collegiate foundation in biology and decades of training and experience, and certainly not within the time available to make a decision, i satisfied myself with enough research to understand enough about the disease and my options to converse knowledgeably with my doctors. my focus was post-treatment quality of life vs. statistical probabilities of success. i abandoned early the advice of well-meaning friends and anyone not a physician, saving myself from an incipient avalanche of pseudoscience, anecdotes, woo, old wives’ tales and whatnot. it’s saddening seeing so many around me buying into nonsense.

    ironically it was simple luck that made the decision for me. (i tend to assign chance a larger role in events than most people, but dispense with the woo.) though my doctors had recommended surgery, i was scheduled for conventional radiation (i was already taking hormones and chemo) when with my pain manager’s assistant mentioned in an unrelated discussion seeing a relatively new program for hi-intensity radiation.

    fate reduced what would have been nine weeks of torment to just one. (all told, my complete treatment regimen lasted a year.) the only caveat is an increased risk of later cancers, as a relatively younger patient. (older patients usually die of other causes before that risk materializes.) my sympathies go out to anyone forced to endure years of treatment.

    “My options were to be less concerned, or to seek ways to expand my influence.”

    ultimately my approach to crises isn’t much different than that: deal with it or move on. don’t move on if you’re not willing to deal with the consequences of not dealing with it. if you choose to move on, deal with the consequences of not dealing with it … or keep moving on. (making life a series of turtles all the way down …)

  23. says

    aaargh:

    >regarding your ex-husband’s diagnosis and treatment (and congratulations for successfully combatting it), how might your younger self have dealt with it as a believer? would heicart the theist have diverged from the path that heicart the atheist ultimately chose? or, as i argue in my earlier posts, would she have done the same homework and availed herself of the same options, but, having prayed for divine intervention, would she ultimately have assigned credit for a successful outcome not to herself and her doctors’ hard work, but to her invisible friend? and judged herself wanting in the eyes of that “friend” as the reason for a failed outcome?

    I was not nearly the researcher as a theist I became as an atheist, or even a deist after I left the church. I didn’t really understand the idea of taking control of my life. I’d have spent hours praying for god to help–and I’m not sure how much research I’d have applied myself to. But i know it was not uncommon for me to toss a hat in the ring, and then let god decide where it should land. That is, “follow up” wasn’t a big thing with me back then. If something included any sort of resistance, I interpreted that as god’s gentle nudge–not a challenge, but a sign that was not the way. As an atheist, the goal is more important to me than the process. If it’s something I want, and there is resistance, I don’t think “Maybe god doesn’t want me to do this.” I think “maybe I’m doing this the hard way?” And I am more inclined to seek a better, more efficient solution.

    It reminds me of my conversations with Rob Poole–some of which were broadcast on the show and on Godless Bitches. He battled the suggestion by some of his colleagues for using prayer in psychiatric therapy in the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the UK. One of his concerns was that if the psychiatrist treating someone–let’s say for addiction–agrees to support prayer in the treatment — not outside prayer that suits the patient, but prayer right there in the office, with the psychiatrist potentially participating — that if the patient’s treatment fails, the patient won’t just feel their psychiatrist hasn’t come through, but that for some reason god has not deemed them worthy of help or healing. He said that in his professional opinion, this could drive a patient into deeper darker spaces that if the practitioner alone failed to help. You can always try another treatment or get another therapist–but when your creator god tells you you’re not worth helping–that isn’t encouraging, but discouraging to the goal of defeating the problem.

  24. RationalismRules says

    @heicart #23
    There is just soooo much wrong with a professional organization in a science-based field accepting scientifically unsupported practices as a valid part of their SOP. I’m pretty sure those advocating prayer as therapy would not have had any difficulty understanding that crystal therapy should not be accepted as valid psychiatric practice simply because some patients feel it works ‘for them’, yet they fail to consider the potential negative consequences of appealing for help to an imaginary parent-figure, which should be entirely within their purview.
     

    if the patient’s treatment fails, the patient won’t just feel their psychiatrist hasn’t come through, but that for some reason god has not deemed them worthy of help or healing.

    This has got to be a factor in 12 step programs as well. The repeated relapses of addiction are demoralizing enough when regarded as failing yourself/your family/your sponsor etc. Adding ‘failing god’ on top of that can only add to that demoralization, I would think.

  25. says

    @ heicart:

    “if the patient’s treatment fails, the patient won’t just feel their psychiatrist hasn’t come through, but that for some reason god has not deemed them worthy of help or healing. … this could drive a patient into deeper darker spaces that if the practitioner alone failed to help.”

    @ RationalismRules:

    “This has got to be a factor in 12 step programs as well. The repeated relapses of addiction are demoralizing enough when regarded as failing yourself/your family/your sponsor etc. Adding ‘failing god’ on top of that can only add to that demoralization, I would think.”

    the problem is the treacherous effect of building up false expectations, hopes and dreams, wherein all the credit for any real or imagined movement toward the dream gets attributed to whatever magic’s involved in fulfilling it, and all the blame for any setbacks or failure is saddled onto the dreamer. anyone who engages in magical thinking — believers in gods, pseudoscience, voodoo, nigerian scams, etc — gets lured into this trap. one’s ability to evade the trap becomes inversely proportional to one’s investment in the imagined outcome. i was weakly religious, if i could be called religious at all, which i don’t since i was a child and i don’t think children are capable of more than a “santa claus” understanding of religion. with nothing invested in belief, i lost nothing in abandoning it.

    but generally we’re saturated by a ubiquitous campaign of reinforcing calls to deeply invest combined with dire threats against divestiture, where abandoning what’s basically a mass delusion is now saddled with a high social cost.

  26. legion2016 says

    As always, thanks for the show – this was clearly a charged topic for the hosts.

    I thought the hosts were needlessly aggressive, not very nice, and overly emotional handling this call.

    I agree with their points and conclusions, but I’d challenge the hosts to re-listen to this segment and see if they really think they are representing rationalism and atheism the best they can here.

    Assuming this caller wasn’t a troll, I think you could have planted some seeds of doubt better with a softer touch.

  27. Monocle Smile says

    @legion
    Stop Straw Vulcaning.
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StrawVulcan

    Matt and especially Tracie did an excellent job standing their ground with this indoctrinated woman and being assertive. If you want a “softer touch,” listen to Dogma Debate and experience creationists dropping weapons-grade idiocy with zero response. See how well that comes across.

  28. legion2016 says

    @Monocle – I’m not Straw Vulcaning.

    I have no problem with emotion and passion in discussion.

    In my opinion the hosts became OVERLY emotional, and were responding in ways that were not helpful to the caller, or to the listener on the fence.

    It would be nice if you and I could disagree without you asserting that I’m engaging in some kind of fallacy or name calling.

    Have a great day!