The Last Five Years

Five years ago this month, I don’t recall the precise day, I shed the delusion of the Christian religion and stepped into the bright glaring light of reality.

Well, as best I could anyway.

As a person, I’ve always been very enamored of dates and anniversaries. Their arbitrary nature doesn’t move me at all. I become very reflective on my birthday, New Year’s day, and other benchmarks in time.

Such as this one.

I don’t write this to pat myself on the back. Why brag about taking a few minutes to check your assumptions, examine the evidence, and come to a reasonable conclusion? That should be the default. Yet we know it’s not. It certainly was not for me for many years.

But now having crossed the threshold, having exited Plato’s Cave and seen in the brightness of the sun all the colors of the world, where have I come? What have I learned? What is different than I thought it would be? What has turned out just as I guessed?

In a broader sense, my wife and I have laid claim to our lives as our own again. We were not bought with a price by anyone. We have no owners. We make our choices and live our lives in the present moment, all we have. We are not forsaking the pleasures of today for the promised riches of tomorrow, because they’re fool’s gold, they’re vapor, not worth the onion-skin paper they are written upon.

We have recently moved from our inland town to a town on the coast, 5 minutes from the beach. We are happier here than we have ever been, though it brings its own stretches. Soon we will go to our first official Atheists United get-together as members of the community.

But there is one specific thing I see as I look back, and it makes me think of one thing I wish to do going forward.

When I first awakened, as I like to term it, I still had the freshest memory of what it was like to be so deeply indoctrinated that I knew the truth of Jesus Christ and the gospel. Atheists on Facebook and in other public forums like to make the (usually snide) comment that “faith is pretending to know something you don’t.” But it isn’t like that at all. There is not a bit of pretending. You know. As well as you know the sun is coming up in the morning, you know that Jesus rose bodily from the dead. You know the Holy Spirit lives inside you and guides you. You know His Spirit is giving you the ability to understand the scriptures in a way unbelievers cannot. You know that those scriptures are the very words of God and that even on their own they have within them the very power of God.

And you know that He is coming back, and that He is coming back very, very soon.

And when you doubt a little bit, when you wonder a little bit, well, you are constantly reminded that everyone around you totally knows, and that you just need to stick with it till the doubt goes away and you simply know again.

Knowing all that (see what I did there?) I purposed to be compassionate and patient with believers. I would avoid the snark as much as possible and engage with believers on an equal, if rational, basis.

Yeah, that didn’t go so well.

First problem is I’m competitive, combative, and confrontational by nature. One of my favorite high school activities was my time on the debate and mock trial teams. So I have a tendency to go into an adversarial conversation with the desire to win rather than understand. I had made a discovery, and now everyone was going to learn the truth of it and immediately capitulate to my power of reason despite the decades it took me to figure it out.

The second problem was that I quickly grew to resent repeating the same shit over and over again, having to address the same very basic arguments over and over again. I think I had the unreasonable expectation that the conversation would continually progress to different points, different levels, different targets. But what really happened was that at the first sign of opposition, theist number one would tire of the opposition and depart, and the next white knight would ride in and try to convert as all again. It wasn’t that we kept going back to square one. The truth of the matter is we never got to square two.

The real issue here, of course, is that I had an unreasonable expectation that somehow I would have the opportunity to address the same theist individual continually to the very end of the discussion. But in the same way that I spent most of my Christian life unwilling to honestly pursue a discussion to its logical end, so were most, or almost all, of the theists I engaged with unwilling to pursue the question to the point where they had to admit to being willfully dishonest or abandon their faith.

And why should that have surprised me? It shouldn’t have, truthfully. And to that point, each theist who enters deserves a reasonable response to their questions or assertions. It’s not like they’ve been there for all of the previous discussions. Most of this is usually brand new to them. I don’t know why some of them show up. Some, I’m positive, have doubts to the point that they do want to poke around and see if there’s anything to those doubts. Others, like one person who found me on Twitter a few years ago, genuinely think they’ve found the right approach to win the hardest, most lost souls around.

It’s been much easier than I hoped to depersonalize the Christians I interface with and let the conversation devolve into argument and insult, at which point nobody is helped.

Having had the opportunity to interface with believers in a positive, sharing environment recently, and seeing how up front personal dialogue tends to diffuse the confrontational nature of the online interface, I’ve resolved to approach these conversations differently – on the blog, on social media, and in real life. I think the approach of the folks at Street Epistemology is much more productive as a means of dialogue, and I’ve been studying their materials. They strive for a more humble approach, where I tend to act like I already know everything there ever was to know.

Hopefully you’ll see that sort of change here on the blog and in my other interactions.

I’m looking forward to another five years and more of clarity and learning, of living in the present reality with my family, of all the ups and downs that make up this things we call life.

 

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13 thoughts on “The Last Five Years

  1. Great post, Anthony. In 2014, I commented at Bob Seidensticker’s site(who author’s the great blog at Cross Examined), and he asked me if I had any thoughts regarding why it’s so hard for us former believers to let it all go. And it was a huge struggle for me. At that time (and as a fairly new deconvert), I didn’t have a good answer and that question has stuck with me since. I’m not a student of cognitive sciences but I think the answer does lie there. Anchoring bias; choice-supportive bias; confirmation bias, and conservatism bias are likely several of the reasons. Then toss in hyper-fear of hell/death, and maybe we should be surprised (as flawed as we are), that many of us who were indoctrinated at young ages ever make it out.

    • Clay – thanks for your kind words.

      **Then toss in hyper-fear of hell/death, and maybe we should be surprised (as flawed as we are), that many of us who were indoctrinated at young ages ever make it out.**

      It must be a miracle! 🙂

  2. Bon Anniversaire !

    “…taking a few minutes to check your assumptions, examine the evidence, and come to a reasonable conclusion?”

    Lolz – Almost had me with that one !

  3. Interesting. I hope you find the next five years at least as productive.

    I had a look at the Street Epistomology site last night and liked what they have to say about the Socratic method and the encouragement of critical thinking. So I have been wondering what it is about their approach that doesn’t quite resonate with me. I think it has something to do with their emphasis on evidence.

    Let me explain. I have a medical condition that was largely dismissed by the medical profession until very recently. In many circles it still is. Psychiatrists in the UK did a lot of research showing that ‘illness beliefs’ perpetuated this condition – a conclusion they drew from the correlation of ‘illness beliefs’ with a slower or non-existent recovery from ‘chronic fatigue’. Despite the repeated testimony of those suffering with said illness, the concept that this correlation might actually work the other way around – that people believed they were physically ill because they actually were – did not seem to enter the heads of these psychiatrists.

    This debate was still going on when I got the illness. However, right from the start, I *knew* that the symptoms I suffered had a physical cause. In fact, I was so ill that the idea that anyone, sane or insane, could invent or desire such torture for themselves seemed utterly ridiculous. Now, finally, research is showing that this belief had some merit. I have seen research that appears to explain why my vision is blurred sometimes. I have seen research that appears to indicate that ‘exertion’ produces an unusually prolonged immune response. I have seen research that suggests that the dizziness I experience has something to do with an inability of the autonomic nervous system to stabilise itself. And so it goes on. Still no answers as to why these things happen, but increasing amounts of evidence that something physical and observable is going on.

    There is no doubt that such ‘outside evidence’ is wonderful stuff. It vindicates my belief that there is something wrong with me. But for years people like me were dismissed because the belief that the illness had no physical cause had the scientific community in thrall and no self-respecting medical institution was prepared to investigate it. ‘We can’t explain it, so it isn’t real.’ Meanwhile, the psychiatrists were given a free pass to try and convince sufferers and their families that they weren’t physically ill, causing immense amounts of harm in the process.

    What am I saying? I think it’s something to do with not allowing a ‘lack of evidence’ to limit our curiosity and powers of investigation. If scientists can blind themselves to a medical condition in this way, is it not also possible that they could blind themselves to the existence of something like telepathy, for which most of the evidence is also subjective?

    • Some very interesting thoughts, and I can see where you’re coming from. I have a couple thoughts on this:

      – Regarding SE: I’m not saying that they have all the answers, but they do take a winsome approach to inquiry and dialogue, something I’d like to foster in myself.
      – In all honesty, I take a very rationalist approach myself. I need evidence to believe a thing is true, and it has to be evidence that would convince any reasonable person that something was true to the same degree. That said, it seems your troubles with doctors was less a problem with believing something in absence of evidence than it was a serious misinterpretation or lack of inquiry into the evidence that was there because it didn’t fit into the usual boxes. A greater level of inquiry was needed to figure out where the evidence led. Telepathy, OTOH, has literally zero evidence that it is real, despite myriad claims to the contrary. If someone had compelling evidence that was difficult to understand and took much inquiry, that would be one thing, but ESP related phenomenon have not shown any sort of the resiliency that your illness has, and I would not personally group those two inquiries together in anyway. But maybe that’s just me 🙂

      Cheers.

      • I agree that the SE approach to dialogue makes for a more satisfying discussion than perhaps is typical between rationalists and theists and hence is one well worth fostering.

        I’m less convinced by this:

        ‘Telepathy, OTOH, has literally zero evidence that it is real, despite myriad claims to the contrary.’

        To what extent have you examined the ‘myriad claims’? What, for you, would be ‘compelling evidence’?

      • When I was younger, the idea of ESP related abilities seemed very real to me, to the point that I, of course, tried to cultivate such abilities in myself. Not being able to do so, I still read and watched whatever I could on the subject. As a Christian I also believed in many of those types of abilities, but viewed them (as fundies are wont to do) as powers granted by demonic powers set on keeping people separated from God however they could.

        Now, however, it’s only reasonable to view such things with the same skepticism I view any supernatural claim.

        The fact is that claims of telepathy and other ESP abilities are without exception anecdotal and unverfiable. They are usually promoted by individuals who have a vested interest in being believed. And yet every attempt to simply observe those powers in action in a controlled environment, where they could be verified through a falsifiable process, has failed miserably. Most practitioners who claim to be able to control such powers are wholly reluctant to have their abilities tested in a controlled environment, making many excuses, but in the end clearly to avoid being exposed as fraudulent.

        Compelling evidence would include measurable use of such powers in a controlled environment that prevented alternate, natural means of producing the same effect. The test would have to be duplicatable and falsifiable.

        That would be compelling. In the absence of any sort of confirmed results, it’s safe and reasonable to reject the assertions of such powers until such time as someone is able to prove that they have such abilities.

      • Until very recently, I would have agreed with you that, ‘every attempt to simply observe those powers in action in a controlled environment, where they could be verified through a falsifiable process, has failed miserably.’ However, I would also have argued that the approach of both the researchers and those who seek to make money out of ESP has been inappropriate to the ‘normal’ functioning of ESP as I experience it. Firstly, it doesn’t address the essentially ‘random’ nature of what happens – the sense that it’s not under conscious control. Secondly, it doesn’t address the personal element – that most of the people with whom I have experienced a ‘telepathic’ connection have been people I know. Thirdly, it doesn’t – and can’t – address the prediction of disasters. Whilst I have long accepted that these factors might make what is happening difficult to verify, the lack of credible research has frustrated me because I have wanted to understand what is happening and no ‘rational’ explanations have ever fully matched with my experience.

        Then, just recently, I came across some research conducted by Rupert Sheldrake. His site is here: http://www.sheldrake.org/

        His findings intrigue me for two reasons. Firstly, he started out as a sceptic. Secondly, having become interested, he decided to try and research the most common claims relating to telepathy, rather than the more ‘sensational’ ones from which people attempt to make money. So, for example, he has researched the common claim that people know who is on the other end of the phone before they pick it up. Also, the claim that pets know when members of their household are about to come home.

        So what did he discover? Well, as far as I can make out, his results have been at least as good as those required for a ‘positive’ in any other form of scientific enquiry. What’s more, I haven’t been able to find any evidence of a serious debunking.

        Meanwhile, there is a debate here: http://www.sheldrake.org/reactions/the-telepathy-debate-prof-lewis-wolpert-vs-dr-rupert-sheldrake that I find quite fascinating. In particular, Prof Wolpert’s comment near the end that, ‘I want to see telepathy do something interesting, not tell me who is about to phone me.’ I can’t help feeling that this is part of the problem with the whole thing. People want ESP for the power. You more-or-less admitted that yourself! So, if it hasn’t got any that people think they can use, they are not interested.

        For myself, I have often felt that ESP is over-rated – both by those who experience it and those who don’t. It’s like a fatal attraction. Some of those who know they have the power want more. Those who don’t can be scared by it and will often seek to deny it, with the result that the rest of us have learned to keep quiet! The reality, at least for me, is that life would be a lot easier sometimes without it, but I would concur with Sheldrake that the kind of telepathy that he describes and that I experience would be a big bonus in more primitive societies. That’s not something I had considered before, but it makes sense to me.

        Anyway, I have waffled on long enough. My apologies. Suffice it to say that there IS evidence that is more than anecdotal. It needs repeating and it needs a lot more investigation before we get any closer to the ‘how’. But it is sufficient to satisfy me that my beliefs about what I experience are not totally irrational 😉

  4. The first part of this spoke to me. Yes, we knew. We really did. And now we know exactly what they think of us now. I think that’s what causes my own frustration and anger because no matter how much they think it’s not so, we are lesser in their eyes. No one likes feeling lesser, and especially not by those one was once so close to.

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