My experience with religion: Part 3

As I described earlier, I grew up as an atheist, I described my early experiences with religion, and why I finally chose to believe in God.  I’d like to reflect on some interesting side-effects.

Shortly after I chose to believe in God, I came across the Atheist Experience video podcast.  I have been an atheist for the most of my life.  It wasn’t a big deal for me.  I did not have to “break the spell”, break relationships with my family or face judgment from my friends for being an atheist.  I did not realize that people could be very passionate about their atheism and even confrontational with believers.  That was an interesting discovery for me.

To be honest, I did not like the tone of the show.  The hosts of the show ridiculed religion, religious beliefs, and religious callers.  There was a general overtone of arrogance and superiority.  I visited a few atheist forums.  What I saw there was even more shocking.  Once I identified myself as a believer, I was treated with scorn and contempt.  For some reason, people in these forums were prepared to refute my “stupid claims” even though I did not make any.  I was assumed to be a right-wing conservative who rejects evolution and supports YEC.  Now I realize that this, perhaps, was the kind of believers these people were used to deal with.  But I found it a bit narrow-minded for people who claimed to be “rational” to treat all believers according to their own stereotype.   I was bombarded with dogmatic cliche statements which sounded rational on their face, but did not stand a simple analysis.  For instance,

  • “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” (Hitchens)
  • Burden of proof principle (even though I did not make any statements)
  • “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.” (“Clifford’s Credo”)

I thought about these statements.  I read Clifford’s essay “Ethics of Belief” and William James’s response “The Will to Believe”.  I have a notebook full of notes on these essays which I hope to share some time later.  I read about epistemology, empiricism, solipsism, rationalism.  I read about cognitive dissonance.  I read Karl Popper to understand scientific method.  I thought I may be making a huge mistake believing in God.  But I concluded that there are as many reasons to believe in God as reasons not to believe in God.   The question of God’s existence is not scientific because it is unfalsifiable.  People who know how science works, know this.  People who are confused about science, try to present “evidence” for God or claim that science “proves” that God does not exist.  Some people know that existence of God is not a scientific question, but deliberately require “evidence” from naive believers just to get them entangled in their own arguments.  It was a good experience.  Most notably, I learned what not to say in online discussions.  I tried to understand why we believe, how we make decisions in uncertain situations.  I concluded that all people have unjustified beliefs.  So, the lack of evidence for God is not a sufficient reason to reject belief in God.  After a lot of thought, I did not find any epistemological reasons to reject belief in God.

Another hard claim I was confronted with was the claim that “religion causes harm”.  I was presented with countless historical facts of religious wars, crusades, witch-burning, Inquisition, antisemitism, Holocaust, honor killings, acts of terrorism, allegedly caused by religious beliefs.  In other words, I was confronted with moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, being skeptical about my prior beliefs is a good habit.  But for me, it has a different meaning than for most atheists in those forums: I have to be skeptical about atheism, not religion.  That religion is “opium for the masses”, I know quite well from my Soviet schooling.  After reading about causality, I have concluded that religion is not the cause of the atrocities associated with it.  So, there are no sufficient moral reasons to reject belief in God.  I think, religion is very powerful.  And, as any power, it has many dangers.  But these dangers can be avoided and are not sufficient to disregard the power of religion which exists independently of what we think of it.   I’m going to write about it soon.

I was told that science tells us where morality comes from and that it can help us answer moral questions.  At that time, I have not heard of Sam Harris, but a short internet search lead me to this pivotal TED talk where Harris tried to suggest that science can help us solve moral issues.  Essentially, it was a promotion of Harris’s book “The Moral Landscape” which was going to be published at that time.  It was the first TED talk I watched.  Something did not sound right in this talk.  I smelled too much agenda.  It lead me to discover Sean Carroll’s response to Sam Harris which lead me to read Hume on the topics of beliefs, empiricism, “ought vs. is”, etc.  Watching TED videos and participating in TED online discussions opened a new chapter in my learning.  TED folks are a lot more diverse and open-minded than folks from atheist forums.  I found a lot more understanding there.  A lot of topics discussed are thought-provoking. I spent a lot of time participating in TED discussions.  These days however,  I find too many Utopian ideas discussed in TED conversations and too many idealistic discussions.

In atheist forums, I was also confronted with scientific theories of the origins of the universe and with claims that the universe started from “nothing”, according to the laws of physics.  And that the whole thing was started by a random fluctuation (of what?).  There is so much nonsense in this belief that it may take a few posts to cover them.  I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang).  That was a quote from an atheist forum that I thought is worth remembering.  I won’t go too far here as Sean Carroll has done a fairly good job already.  By Lawernce Krauss’s own admission, the title of his book “A Universe from Nothing” is only intended to stir up a controversy and get people thinking and talking about it.  It’s the same tactics Sam Harris employs with his claims regarding science and morality, free will, etc. which deliberately contradict centuries of philosophical thought on these issues.  This tactic may stimulate thought on these topics, but I find it a bit cheap and self-promoting.  It sells well, but it’s alike the cheap “popularity” gained by Internet forum trolls and Miley Cyrus antics.

So, science fanatics, sorry.  Science does not tell us how the universe came about and does not help much to answer moral questions.  Which, again, leaves me with freedom to believe what I want to believe.  The result of this investigation was reading a few books by Stephen Hawkins and Roger Penrose, articles by Andrei Linde and Alex Vilenkin, lectures on cosmology and vacuum physics which was a fun refreshment of my college education in physics.

All in all, my experience with religion is very positive.  I learned a lot about myself, science, politics, and philosophy with its many branches — epistemology, ethics, etc.   It’s been an interesting journey which I hope to continue.

22 thoughts on “My experience with religion: Part 3

  1. Wow. My background is very different but the story sounds so familiar. I found no more reason to believe in God than not. My final disbelief came with a shrug rather than a ‘eureka’. Since then, I’ve found some of the classic descriptions of God incoherent (God is a mind. Pretty sure there’s no way to make that work with the other qualities typically ascribed to God and our notion of minds), once I had the leeway to examine those descriptions from a different perspective. But my conclusion is finally a parsimonious one – regarding something like ‘ultimate teleology’, panentheism, occaisionalism, etc. – and nothing more, and in a situation where the sample size does not justify parsimony. If you find the time, I’d be interested in your thoughts on two posts of mine, ‘Inverse Apologetics’ and ‘Believe It or Not’. Don’t worry, I’m not selling anything.
    On another note, so much of the furor about basic belief lies along the empiricist/rationalist divide, and once a person engages on the front in that dispute, they’ve already made a commitment. The result is sound and fury signifying nothing. I think people continue to do it for political reasons, and for the same reason doctors fight about treatments with level C (expert opinion) and not level A (evidence from multiple RCT’s) recommendations. Standing alone in the dark, we all get a little irritable.

  2. Just grabbing one small bit:

    I even have heard that “there was time when there was no time” (regarding the “time” prior to the big bang).

    The measurement of time requires mass, so if there was a before the big bang, and there was no mass, then there was a time in which time could not be measured.

    • Well, yes. Without mass, there is no space and no time. Without space, there is no vacuum. And without time, there are no fluctuations, random or otherwise. And without mass, space, and time, there are no physical laws that “make everything appear”. It was not “nothing”, it was not “something”, it was absolute uncertainty.

  3. I have enjoyed reading your posts, and I would simply like to comment on a couple of things.

    Broadly defined “Religion” is a set of beliefs that influence our lives, form our daily rituals, and help us come to an understanding of the world around us. By this broad definition Atheism, Scientism, and so on all fall into categories of ‘religion’ which makes it silly for them to refute the religious.

    Secondly, one thing I find very funny is the self-referentially incoherent attributes of their short arguments. “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” I for one, would like to see the evidence for that statement. The same thing with Clifford’s essay.(If we take Hume and other skeptics seriously, we cannot believe anything, for sufficient evidence is not-forthcoming.)

    It is also surprising the lack of categorical training I find on most Atheist forums. I never identify as a Theist on those forums, at least, not right away, choosing instead to try to narrow in on definitions and explain arguments.

    For example, they don’t seem to have a categorical understanding of the difference between ‘physics’ and ‘metaphysics’. Which is why they use the term ‘nothing’ in an equivocal state in their physics texts. They use ‘nothing’ in the sense of ’empty space’ or vacuum energy. Theists and meta-physicians use the term ‘nothing’ to mean ‘non-being’, the lack of anything. And so that’s the problem with the something out of nothing bit.

    Anyways, I largely agree with your experience with internet atheists and such. But internet religious types are just as bad oftentimes.

    • I completely agree with your definition of religion. I also agree that those cliche buzz-phrases are self-refuting. I’d like to reflect on them separately. I’ve noticed that these dogmas are not open for discussion and skepticism. I also have noticed a tendency of lumping metaphysics along with the rest of philosophy into one bundle with religion and labeling it as “nonsense”. Unfortunately, this tendency is seen among scientists as well as pointed out by Sean Carroll, Massimo Puglicci, and others.

      I’d like to avoid stereotyping anyone. All this applies only to my experience in 2 specific atheist forums. In these forums, there is a handful of fairly aggressive “regulars” who take most of the bandwidth and create a false impression of the whole community. It works the same way with religious folks as well when a whole very diverse community is judged by a few most vocal extremists who make the headlines.

      • Of course we need to avoid stereotypes. I have met some very philosophically sophisticated atheist and agnostics on these forums as well. So I mean, they come in all stripes, just as religious people do.

        My intention was to describe a trend I see in literature and on forums as well. My bad.

        And I don’t understand why philosophy is nonsense. If logic is a branch of philosophy.(it is.) And you say that philosophy is not logical(just like religion) you are saying “Logic is not logical.” and that’s incoherent.

        • “Logic is logical” and “reason is reasonable” are self-refuting statements. Self-refuting ideas can be either self-consistent (tautology) or self-contradictory. The statement that “logic is logical” is self-consistent, but, still, it is using circular reasoning and cannot be proved true or false using logic. Does it make sense? (probably, not :-))

          • Yes. I think that at some point there are ‘basic beliefs’ (in the vein of Thomas Reid) that we are not irrational for accepting. (ex. Other minds, that I exist, there is an external world, the reality of the past, etc.)

            But at some point we all get back to faith claims.

  4. Agrudzinski, I’m not here to make apologies for my fellow atheists – by your description, you were shabbily treated, of that I have no doubt. But the one thing I WOULD like to impress upon you, is that’s the way we atheists are generally treated by theists every day of our lives.

    I’m extremely impressed with how well-read you are. The one thing with which I would take exception, is that when atheists research something, such as the origin of the universe, we’re OK with saying, “I don’t know,” and continuing to research in the hope that we will finally uncover the answer, but all too many theists will simply say, “God did it,” and cease searching for answers – in fact, in such a situation, theists may well believe that continuing to search is a demonstration of lack of faith, which brings the accumulation of knowledge to a screeching halt.

    • No apology needed. I have said before that I know enough atheists to say that what I saw in those forums is, perhaps, exception rather than a norm. I have also said that I understand that in some areas of the U.S. believers are also different from what I’m used to see in Oregon. People here drive with bumper stickers “Keep Portland weird” and there are churches with female pastors openly welcoming homosexuals. What I learned from the Bible is that there is no need to impose the suffering we go through onto other people. Especially, people who have nothing to do with it.

      I didn’t mean to boast with being “well-read” or assume any superiority to anyone. I’m, certainly, not as well-read as I would like to be. I simply meant to say that my interest in religion, instead of dumbing me down, has, actually, boosted my level of interest in these subjects.

      “God did it” does not mean that it’s a sin to find out how he did it and a good reason not to search for answers. Doubting my own opinion and understanding does not mean doubting God. The arrogant attitude that you speak of comes from being sure that my own opinion is the opinion of God. I think, it’s the exact opposite of humility and what is meant by the proverb “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding;”

      There is always more than one way to look at things.

      • Believe it or not, in the 60’s, in the American South, during the Viet Nam era, I have seen bumper stickers that read, “Kill a Commie for Christ!

        • Johnathan Haidt points out how wars bring out the feelings of “higher cause” and tend to unite a nation — feelings very similar to those invoked by religion. I think, “God bless America” bumper stickers after 9/11, “Got mit uns” on Nazi buckles, and “Kill a Commie for Christ” are not accidental. This does not imply, however, that religion causes wars.

          • Certainly none of those examples would indicate that it does – the Crusades, however, is a different story.

          • The Crusades were definitely fought with religious motivations at least partly in mind for many who went. But then people tended to think of themselves as being part of Christendom as much as part of a political nation. Muslims invaded Christendom and the Emperor in Constantinople (now Istanbul due to Muslim invasion) requested help in fighting them off.

            I am not sure this is any worse than going to war due to one nation invading another.

  5. There are allot of atheists who like to rant and rave. Some seem very angry at the God they do not believe in.

    I suppose there are plenty of theists who are irrational and rant and rave as well. I tend to leave the two for each other.

    But others are more rational, educated and most importantly genuinely interested in discussing sharing ideas rather than just shouting others down.

    • Rationality is in the eye of the beholder.

      To generalize is to be an idiot. To particularize is the alone distinction of merit. General knowledge are those knowledge that idiots possess.

      — William Blake

      But let’s not generalize the merits of particularization. 🙂

  6. Excellent article. As someone who has settled into a comfortable, minimalist deism, I often find the “debate” between believers and anti believers odd. The ideas are so derived, so much more than they have to be.

    As for epistemology, I would argue that we KNOW that empiricism cannot explain our origins or, even, several phenomena we can observe on earth.

    Socrates was right, we don’t know jack.

  7. I have come to your blog from a generous (and altogether too rare) ‘like’ you left on my own site. Thank you for that, because it has allowed me to discover the high calibre content you’ve put here.
    An atheist myself, I’ve experienced many heated arguments with many people but the best and most painful were with my wife. She is extremely brilliant and has an invisive wit which is nearly impossible to contend with! But aside from having become a very delicate subject to broach nowadays, it has born fruit: it has made me grow up. I see now that I was in my atheistic adolescence so to speak. I was the disgruntled teen who knew everything and was always right and who shuddered in a mock nausea (insolent rebelion) at the slightest hint of the word ‘god’.
    What used to get my hackles up was the smug superiority I witnessed from ‘believers’ and the execrable condescension I was subjected to when told “I pity you, your world must be so gray and you’re missing out on such a richer world when you let god into your life” (or something along those lines).
    However, after discussing at length with my wife (only she had the patience to expend many hours and many weeks at the same arguments) I came to the realisation that I had never properly looked at WHAT my worldview was. I had been a chest-thumping atheist but never knew where the line was between what I’d been told and accepted as true, and what I’d come to believe as true through my own intellectual work. And that set me off on a quest to determine my own worldview, without blindly accepting the pre-formed conclusions that have been handed to me through school and my own information bubble.
    Nowadays I am a more peaceful atheist, and indeed I appreciate your perpective on the psychological benefits of religion (Alain de Botton’s “Religion for Atheists” has a simular outlook), but I now consciously choose the atheistic path because I believe it to be morally important to live life without the notion that there is some sentient supreme being watching your every move. Doing the right thing when no one is watching is a good example of moral integrity, and is impossible if you have a god watching you even while you poop. I’ve developed the idea here:
    But Buddhism is atheistic, so is Taoism (somewhat, it depends which flavour) so atheists can have a religion too… Today I’m more ‘Taoist-cum-Religious Naturalist’ I suppose. Thanks again for your blog, will continue to visit, definitely 🙂

    • Thanks for reading and commenting. You are right. There is a lot of this “adolescent rebellion” among atheists. And, interestingly, the tendency to accept dogmas without critical thinking among atheists is very much the same as among the believers. You are right about the “air of condescending superiority” among some believers. Probably, it depends on the geography and the church. But, again, too many atheists seem to have the same attitude. Christians, at least, can read the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in the New Testament and repent as they are supposed to, but for atheists, the path to such “spiritual growth” seems to be less clear.

      I think, all humans need some sort of spiritual guidance. By “spiritual guidance” I mean a set of principles to live by. Principles that provide reasons to do or not to do something. They can be based on belief in God or not, but humans need them. That’s what religion provides and that’s what attracts people to it. Some people may not call it religion, but, in my opinion, it’s just a matter of words.

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