Laying down the homeschooling burden

Today is the second anniversary of my move to FTB. Being offered a blog on here would have been great news under any circumstances, but, as it happened, was a particular light in the darkness at the time, because life right then was very, very stressful. My son was in his final year of what had been an extremely turbulent time at primary school, and, although he was finally settling down at the excellent school we’d managed to get him into that year, his history meant that no local mainstream school felt able to take him. The local available options for autism specialist education were not particularly good, and, in particular, not good options for Jamie. This meant that my husband and I were in the midst of a lengthy struggle with the local council as to the best course of action for his secondary education.

To cut a very long story short (which is something I wish I could have done with the reality) we eventually reached an uneasy compromise whereby I would homeschool Jamie for the next year with the help of a budget from the council which we could use to hire tutors. This had its advantages, but it was also a massive and stressful job. With an interested and involved child, homeschooling can work very well. With my son, it was a constant uphill struggle that absorbed endless hours of my time and energy in trying to come up with lessons he would do. This school year, we’ve been trying to arrange his return to mainstream education, and it has not been easy.

Finally, the struggle is over. On my second blogging anniversary, it gives me enormous pleasure to announce that we have a confirmed and funded place for my son at a specialist school for autism about a forty-minute drive away with an excellent reputation, and he will be starting at the beginning of next term. While our lives aren’t going to be plain sailing from now on by any means, one huge source of worry has just been lifted.

Having fulfilled what seems to be an unintentional yearly tradition to type up my anniversary posts in a mad rush while about to be late for dinner, I’d better go. Happy blogging anniversary to all those bloggers who started at the same time as me, and I hope all of you are having similarly good things in your lives to celebrate.

The problem with C. S. Lewis’s moral argument – Part 1

When I was in my early twenties, a few years after becoming agnostic, I read C. S. Lewis’s ‘Mere Christianity’ for the first time. More accurately, I read part of it; I got bogged down somewhere in Book 2 and never finished it. However, the part I read contained Lewis’s famous moral argument for God, which, as far as I could remember, I’d never previously come across. I have no idea why that was the case – it’s a very famous argument and I’d spent the past several years reading everything I could find in several major libraries on the ‘Why you should/shouldn’t believe in God’ question, so it seems unlikely that I’d managed to miss it completely. Maybe I’d read a poorly-written summary and forgotten it. In any case, there I was, several years into my search for answers on the God question, finally looking at a completely new approach to the subject.

What’s more, it seemed to be the best argument I’d seen so far. With hindsight I think this was not so much a tribute to the power of the argument as an indictment of every other argument I’d ever read on the subject; for the first time that I could remember, my reaction to a pro-theism argument wasn’t “Hold on, surely [obvious objection]?” but “Wow. There’s something to this. I need to think about it.” So I did. I really wanted to know whether Lewis did indeed have something there; whether this actually was the elusive proof of God’s existence for which I’d been searching for so long.

Since I’m here on an atheist blogging platform today, it will probably not be too much of a spoiler if I tell you that it wasn’t. As it’s an important apologetic argument, it seems worth writing about why it wasn’t; as it’s going to be raised in the next chapter of CCCFK, I thought it would be worth doing that now. This (in two parts, because it ended up being longer than I’d anticipated) is my response to Lewis’s moral argument.

First, a quick summary of the argument itself, for anyone who hasn’t heard it. While Lewis put it better than I will, it boils down to this:

  1. We all share and agree on, to at least some extent, a moral code (i.e., a sense of certain actions being right or wrong) and a tacit understanding that other people with whom we interact in normal life are going to share that code with us. (Hence, statements like “You can’t do that, it’s not fair” are appeals to that code; we anticipate that the person we talk to will understand what we mean by ‘fairness’ even if they disagree with our assessment of their action according to that ‘fairness’ standard).
  2. This innate shared understanding is over and above what societal customs could account for (while some of it does vary with society, it’s normally accepted that rules like not killing people or taking their stuff are an actual moral code and not just some kind of weird societal convention).
  3. The only way that humans could have this kind of innate universal understanding would be if it came from some kind of external being who cares about our behaviour and designed us with this innate moral code.

I was impressed. Not only was this an intriguing new line of argument that was challenging me and making me think, but it also made a really nice change for an apologist to be arguing from the premise that unbelievers such as myself did know right from wrong, rather than the erroneous belief that we didn’t. Hah! Take that, all you apologists who’ve tried to tell me I can’t possibly have any idea about morality.

So, food for thought there. Was Lewis right in his belief that only a deity of some kind could have given us this universally shared moral code?

There was, I realised, a big problem with that hypothesis; our shared moral code isn’t arbitrary. It isn’t a list of weird incomprehensible rules with no explanation. Our moral code (at least, the parts of it that we could fairly describe as universal) is, in fact, based on something very obvious; the understanding that other people feel pain and pleasure just as we ourselves do, and that these feelings are important to other people just as they are to us.

We know what it’s like to want to avoid pain, to want to be treated fairly, to want to have the option of pursuing those things that give us happiness and satisfaction in life. We extrapolate from these desires plus our ability to understand that others share these feelings. From this, we grasp that it’s good to avoid inflicting pain on others, to treat all people fairly, to make sure that other people have the option of pursuing happiness and satisfaction in their lives. We understand that it’s wrong to kill or steal or harm people or judge people unjustly, because we get that these things hurt other people just as they would hurt us.

(Having realised this, I also realised that one of the huge flaws in this underlying ability was our tendency to apply this understanding only to those we considered to be part of our in-group. Tribe, country, race, religion, gender, sexuality… throughout history, the natural human tendency has been to divide others mentally into Us and Them, and to apply this do-as-you-would-be-done-by principle only to the Us group. The history of improvements in morality, I realised, effectively consisted of pushes for increasing broadening of the group of people included in the Us group, and increasing realisation that that really ought to include all humans everywhere. I’d never thought of it in quite this way before; I was quite intrigued by the concept.)

This all seemed like an excellent working hypothesis to explain the universal moral code that Lewis believed could only be explained by the existence of some kind of deity. I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the term ‘working hypothesis’ at the time, but I did understand that my idea was something I needed to examine carefully for flaws before reaching any final conclusion as to whether Lewis or I was right about this one.

To be continued…

Nephew

Sorry – I meant to post the obvious needed follow-up to my last post on the same day, but held off to check I had the middle name spelling correct and then completely forgot to hit ‘Post’.

My sister gave birth to my third nephew, Abraham Wolf Levine, on the 17th of December. Mother, child, father, and both older brothers doing well. Hello and welcome, Abe! My sister and her family were thrilled to have one more for the Christmas celebrations this year.

Nephew incoming

Just had a call. My third nephew is shortly to arrive slightly sooner than anticipated (36 weeks 4 days). My sister lives in the USA so I can’t be there, but so excited and just waiting to hear more. Ruth, we’re thinking of you and glued to the phones.

From agnosticism to atheism

In my last post, I wrote of how – as the culmination of much reading and thought on the issue – I became an agnostic. I’m now going to jump forward twelve years from that decision and explain how I eventually moved on to atheism.

I was somewhere around seventeen (I can’t remember exactly) when I became an agnostic. It was a decision I was happy with, but never something I regarded as a ‘that’s it, case closed’ moment in life – I retained my keen interest in the whole topic and continued to read and think a lot about it, open to new arguments I hadn’t come across before. While I did in fact find one – C.S. Lewis’s moral argument – and found it quite intriguing, that one didn’t stand up under examination either (another topic I need to post about!) and I remained agnostic.

That was fine by me, but I’d also have been happy to find a convincing reason to believe in God (as long as it wasn’t the tyrant version of God that supposedly sent people of the wrong beliefs to eternal torture). I didn’t, however, think seriously about becoming an atheist, because that always seemed fairly silly to me. Sure, we couldn’t prove that God existed, but how could anyone prove that he didn’t? Surely agnosticism was a far more sensible option?

Fast-forward….

I was twenty-nine, and I was chatting to the boyfriend with whom I’d recently got together. (Who would, in fact, go on to become my husband, but that’s also a different story.) He was (and still is, for that matter) an atheist. Curious, I asked him why. How could he be an atheist when he couldn’t be sure that God didn’t exist?

And he asked me “Well, do you believe in fairies?”

Lightbulb moment. As silly as it sounds now, this way of looking at things had honestly, at the time, never occurred to me. No, of course I didn’t believe in fairies. Or ghosts, or vampires, or werewolves, or…. well, name your mythological being, really. And for none of those things did I feel the need to hedge my disbelief with disclaimers about how of course they might exist, since we couldn’t really know for sure that they didn’t and surely it was important to keep an open mind… No-one would expect me to. There was no good evidence for the existence of fairies, so my response to that was not to believe in them. Simple as, end of.

When I clung to my agnosticism about God, when I tried to tell myself I was right to be open-minded about the matter… I was actually cutting the notion of a deity a level of slack that I wouldn’t have cut for any other theoretical creature.

I rapidly realised two things:

  1. Logically, I really should be an atheist.
  2. While my commitment to open-mindedness and fairness was quite genuine… it hadn’t actually been my only reason for wanting to remain an agnostic, rather than an atheist.

Being an agnostic, you see, also allowed me to continue with the hope that maybe – just maybe – there was a God of the non-horrible type out there. (The kind of God traditionally believed in by Christians was a rather different matter, but that is yet another whole other issue for yet another of the increasing number of blog posts I totally mean to get round to writing sometime.) I liked the idea that, at the end of the day, the universe might be in charge of someone wise and kind and powerful who would a) make sure that nothing went too disastrously wrong for humanity and b) give us some kind of afterlife in which some kind of justice was done.

(That, I can see, may be misinterpreted. There seems to be a widespread belief among Christians – and among other religions too, for all I know, but Christianity is where I’ve encountered it – that we unbelievers all lead meaningless lives without God and just don’t want to admit it. My life has never felt meaningless in the slightest; I’ve been very happy and fulfilled in the here-and-now without belief. My discomfort came from the feeling of being without a safety net if things went wrong.)

However, the facts remained. Despite years of searching, I had been able to find absolutely no good reason to believe such a being existed. And I’d always striven to be as honest as I could about where my exploration of the issue led me. So… it wasn’t the kind of rapid shift that my shift to agnosticism had been, and took some months of gradually coming round to the idea, but I did eventually identify as an atheist. And, eighteen years on, I still do.

The Don’t-Have-To-Do List

I made it. As I wrote in my last post, the school holidays (six weeks) and my chunk of booked annual leave (one week) both start today. Time, finally, to catch up on the vast amount of things in my life I’ve been letting slide.

Books on organising would probably advise me to write out a To-Do List at this point, but they can get stuffed, since the mere thought of putting everything I have to do into a visible list sends me into AAAAAARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH NOOOOOOOO mode. Things will just get done when they get done; that’s all. What I did find myself writing out this morning, however, was a Don’t-Have-To-Do List – a list of the things from which I get a reprieve.

Here is the list of things that, over the next nine days (in many cases longer, but minimum of nine days), I will not have to do.

  • Think of lessons for my homeschooled son to do
  • Listen to him complaining about having to do those lessons
  • Wrestle and negotiate with my daughter about her homework
  • Make any packed lunches for anybody
  • Be anywhere by a specific time
  • Rush round in a frenzy as I face the stress of knowing that I’m not going to manage getting to the place I’m supposed to be at a specific time
  • Worry about whether my son’s taxi transport to his tuition centre will turn up on time
  • Figure out what to do about anyone’s medical problems
  • Figure out what to do about anyone’s blood results
  • Write referral letters for anyone

Even knowing how much I do still have to do, it’s truly amazing how much mental space and energy it frees up knowing that I have a break from doing all of that stuff.

Anyone else enjoying a Don’t-Have-To-Do List?

Light at the end of the tunnel

Tomorrow is the last day of the current school year, and hoo boy, you can bet your socks I’ll be glad to see it end. It’s not the end of homeschooling for me, unfortunately, as my son’s school situation is as yet unresolved; we’re hoping to get him back into school at some point in the next school year, but everything’s up in the air at the moment and the one thing that is definite is that it won’t be sorted out by the time September rolls round. But at least I’ll get a few weeks off from the soul-draining pressure of having to come up with vaguely adequate lessons and get my son to do them. It’ll be good to be done with this year for my daughter as well; she did not get on well with her teacher this year at all, and I’ve had to do what I could to deal with the struggles and fallout from that. I will wave this one goodbye with great joy.

As a bonus, I’ve actually got the week off work next week as well. Sheer chance – I had some annual leave to use up, asked my practice manager which days would be least inconvenient to have me missing, and ended up with this week – but it’s exactly what I need right now.

So, I’ll have some time to catch up on the other aspects of my life, and I’m hoping to use at least some of that to get some blogging done. I realise I don’t have a brilliant track record on that count lately, and that I have a heck of a lot of other stuff to catch up on, but at least I can try.

Off now to juggle getting dinner cooked, the laundry done, and logging into work remotely so that I can catch up on as much stuff as possible before my week off. Hope you’re all enjoying some form of relaxing summer and that those of you who are struggling with life can see the light at the end of whatever your personal tunnel right now is.

Why I’m not a believer – what about prayers and personal experience?

This is the fourth in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

I don’t know whether anyone’s been following this mini-series of posts (probably not, given how long it’s taken me to write it), but anyone who has read through the post series to date may well be wondering why there was even a question in my mind at this point about becoming a non-believer. So far, I’ve written three posts about different arguments for the existence of a god that I came across in my reading, and the overarching theme of all three seems to have been me looking blankly at the argument wondering why on earth this was meant to be even remotely convincing. Why did it take me so long to get to the point of officially declaring myself an atheist, or at least an agnostic?
Well, part of it was the difficulty of proving a negative; I couldn’t prove God didn’t exist, and hadn’t yet realised that that wasn’t in itself an automatic reason for having to take the possibility of his existence seriously without positive evidence for same. And a lot of it was an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ effect; so many people seemed so convinced that God existed that I didn’t feel able to dismiss the possibility just like that. Surely, if I kept reading and looking, I would find a more convincing argument one way or the other? Around the next corner? In the next book on the shelf on the religious section in one of the local libraries? But on top of that, there was still one category of evidence that… well, that still wasn’t conclusive, but that did seem to have more to it than the various ineffective arguments I was reading. This was the fact that so many people reported personal experiences of psychologically encountering God, often in compelling and life-changing ways.
As I said, I didn’t find this conclusive. There seemed to be other plausible explanations; after all, if someone really believed God was speaking to them or that God loved them, surely that could lead to the kinds of experiences of bliss and comfort and changed lives that I was reading about. Still, could this be enough to account for the experiences I was reading about? (This wasn’t a rhetorical question; I genuinely wanted to know the answer.)
I tried praying myself, since it seemed the obvious thing to try; if God did exist, this would give him the best chance to let me know directly. Not frenzied wordy prayers, just time in which I did my best to focus my mind on God and open myself to whatever He might be trying to tell me. And, when I did, I certainly noticed something – an inner sense of mental quiet, an awareness of my obligations. I figured that could indeed be God taking the first steps to commune with me. The trouble was, it also seemed the kind of effect that might plausibly be caused by me calming my mind and thinking I was communing with the divine. So which was it? And did the fact that I was even thinking that mean that I was overanalysing it and talking myself out of a genuine relationship with God like the dwarves in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle? Or did it just mean that I was exercising appropriate caution? After all, surely there was a risk that if I was too ready to believe I might talk myself into believing I was communing with God when I wasn’t, in much the same way as I’d managed to convince myself at the age of twelve that our house was probably haunted because I thought I could feel a presence there when I thought about it.
I simply didn’t know. This was such an important subject; surely it was incumbent on me to work out what the answer was! But I only found myself getting more confused. One thing was for sure; it all seemed a lot less clear-cut than the authors I was reading on the subject seemed to think.

And so my teenage years went on…

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But without God we wouldn’t have any morals!’ argument

This is the third in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

This one is probably self-explanatory, but can be briefly summarised thus: ‘Without God to tell us what to do, we’d all be scratching our heads trying to figure out what right and wrong are, since there is obviously no way anybody could work this out for him/herself without some sort of Supreme Arbiter defining it for us. And you obviously don’t want that to be the case, do you? So better believe in God.’ *

I have to say that this argument, when I read it as a teenager, did send me to particular levels of facepalming “Are they serious?!” In the first place, as you’ve probably noticed, this argument is subject to exactly the same flaws as the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument that I discussed in my last post; it falls apart logically (to be technical, it has the form of logic flaw known as an argument/appeal from consequences), and it isn’t even factually correct, since, despite not being a believer, I found myself perfectly well able to make the sort of basic distinctions between right and wrong that the authors using this argument were insisting I couldn’t possibly make. But this argument also has an extra flaw over and above the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument; namely, that the very fact that someone is using it indicates that they don’t actually believe it.

After all, apologists surely use only arguments that they at least think have a chance of being effective? The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument, despite its flaws, at least has a chance of convincing someone; a person who does feel their life is meaningless is going to want it to be meaningful, so that argument has a potential audience. But a person who doesn’t care about morals… doesn’t care that they don’t care about morals. If we unbelievers genuinely were all indifferent to right and wrong, then we wouldn’t care when someone pointed that deficiency out to us. It would be as meaningless to us as the fact that we don’t keep to kosher dietary laws. The very fact that apologists use the no-morals-without-God argument as an attempt to convert non-believers shows that – at least on some level – they know perfectly well that morals matter to non-believers.

I was quite intrigued by the twisting of logic that must be required to use an argument that could only be used if you didn’t believe it was true. Surely there has to be a name for that particular logic flaw? Maybe not; I can’t think of any other examples of it that I’ve heard. If anyone knows what that logic flaw would be called, do please tell me!

*Note that CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, used a different type of pro-theism moral argument which effectively contradicts this one; the argument that precisely because we all have innate knowledge of right and wrong, we can conclude that God must exist, on the basis that the only way such innate knowledge could exist within us would be if a deity had caused us all to be born with this type of instinctive knowledge. While I don’t agree with that form of the argument either, I do find it rather better than this form. However, I’m writing this as the story of what arguments I looked at when originally deciding whether I should believe in God or not, and this particular argument was one I didn’t run across until some years later; therefore, in the interest of vaguely chronological accuracy, I’ll leave it to a later post.

Why I’m not a believer – the ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument

This is the second in a short series of posts I’m writing about the subject of why, after investigating reasons for theism, I ultimately became a non-believer.

For background: These investigations were in my childhood/teenage years. I grew up in a non-religious household, but was intensely interested in the whole subject from an early age. I regarded the whole question of whether or not there was a God, and, if so, what religion he wanted us to follow, as being an extremely important one; so I put a lot of time into reading and thinking seriously about the subject. These are, as best as I can remember after a thirty-year gap, my reactions at the time to the arguments I found in my reading.

The ‘But your life is meaningless without God!’ argument almost got left out of this list, as it was such a poor argument I’d actually forgotten about it; however, I was reading John Blanchard’s ‘Does God Believe In Atheists?’, which spends a lot of time on it, and I thought ‘Oh, yes… now I come to think of it, I do recall coming across this when I was researching the whole God subject’. So here it is.

This argument consists of telling the reader or hearer, in impassioned terms, about… well, obviously, about how meaningless lives are without God, with the implication that we should therefore believe in God. Or, to put it another way, ‘We should believe in God because we really want [our version of] Him to exist’.

This is what is technically known as an argument from consequences (or, if you want to get fancy about it, an argumentum ad consequentiam) – the claim that a particular viewpoint is true because the consequences of it being false would be bad. (Or, conversely, that a particular viewpoint is false because the consequences of it being true would be bad.) It’s the logic flaw that’s the downfall of the cancer sufferer who ignored that lump or worrying symptom for too long because they didn’t want it to turn out to be cancerous, the gamblers who convinced themselves that that long shot just had to pay off because they so much wanted it to.

It can work if used as an appeal to emotion, but it’s an argument too flawed to stand up in the light of day. Which is why you will probably never see anyone spell it out quite as blatantly as I did a couple of paragraphs above – if anyone attempting this argument ever did explicitly state ‘And because it feels so awful not to believe in God, God must therefore exist’ then the crashing failure of logic would (hopefully) be far too obvious to take seriously.

(Ironically, if this type of argument actually had worked well in converting me, it would have backfired on any Christian apologist who tried it, since I always found the idea behind Christianity quite horrifying. The idea of God existing – a wise, kind, all-knowing being in charge of the universe and steering its ultimate destiny – sounded lovely to me, and I always hoped my studies would lead me to theism as a conclusion. But the idea that this being had set things up so that people would burn in hell forever simply for having the wrong beliefs? It appalled me. If I hadn’t recognised the fallacy behind this sort of believe-what-you-want-to-believe argument, I’d have rejected Christianity in a heartbeat without further thought, simply because I so much didn’t want it to be true.*)

A more important problem I had with this argument as a teenager, however, was that the premise was so obviously false. Plain and simple, my life did have meaning without God. Plenty of meaning. I loved being alive, I loved enjoying life’s pleasures, I loved looking forward to everything life had to bring. Sure, I liked the idea of a God existing (as long as it was a nice one, not the horrible variety of god that I was hearing about from Christian sources), but I was in no way dependent on God’s existence for finding meaning in my life.

So all of these arguments about how meaningless life was without God got a rather blank look from me. I was sorry for the people who felt that way, who obviously needed very much to hold on to their beliefs and who seemed to struggle inexplicably with enjoying life for its own sake; but their attempts to persuade me that I felt the same way simply fell flat.

 

*Obviously, I ended up rejecting Christianity anyway. But I did so only after spending a lot of time, over many years, reading and thinking about the various arguments and holding myself to strict standards in terms of whether I felt any particular argument actually disproved the belief system or not. It was not just a case of ‘I don’t want to believe it so I’ll assume it’s not true.’ (All of which will make for another post series which I do hope eventually to get round to writing.)