I have seen a few blogs where people describe their way from faith to atheism. Questioning one’s own beliefs is the only way to find truth. As I mentioned before, I grew up as an atheist, in an atheistic country (Soviet Union), in a family of atheists, with lots of atheist friends. For me, questioning my own beliefs means something quite opposite. I’d like to share my story of discovering religion for myself.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, attitude towards religion in the former Soviet republics changed. Religion became a symbol of national identity to Ukrainians and Russians and a symbol of “spiritual revival”. Religion became fashionable. Russian and Ukrainian presidents consider it politically necessary to be seen in church on Christmas and Easter.
I did not hold the Bible in my hands until I was about 20 years old. Bibles were not sold in Soviet book stores. I got one when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate and there were lots of missionaries distributing Bibles for free.
When I opened the Bible for the first time, I turned a few pages and my attention was caught by the book of Proverbs (it’s almost in the middle of the book). I would say, reading the book of Proverbs had an emotional impact on me. There was a feeling of reading timeless wisdom. The language is live and strong – very brief and to the point. It occurred to me that communists, perhaps, made a huge mistake discounting religion. They could make it work to their advantage big time, considering that religion already had a huge influence on the minds of Russian people.
Reading the Bible did not make me a believer. A few years before I married my wife, she had accepted Catholicism, driven by an emotional impulse. A few months after we got our marriage license from civil authorities, my wife went to confession. The priest told her that she lived in sin because she did not have a wedding. So, her relationship with me was still considered “extramarital” by the church. She told me her concerns. It wasn’t a huge deal for me, so we decided to have a church wedding. It turned out that I needed to be baptized before I could have a church wedding. OK. A few drops of water on my head wouldn’t hurt, I thought. Before I could be baptized and before we could have a wedding, we had to take classes regarding the meaning of those rituals. The premarital classes also had a few useful medical tips on detecting ovulation to use them whichever way we needed.
I don’t recall the baptism to be “a turning point in my life”. The wedding was more impressive. It took place in the central gothic cathedral of the city built in 13th century. The civil marriage ceremony left us both tired, annoyed, and disappointed. So, we decided to keep the church ceremony to ourselves. There were just us, the priest, the two witnesses, and God. They even had someone play Bach on the organ (the real one, with pipes under the ceiling).
Having children made me understand how unpredictable life is. When things don’t go the way we like, it’s easy to be disappointed and frustrated. When people don’t behave the way we expect them to behave, it’s easy to get angry. It’s difficult to accept things and people as they are. Uncertainty can lead to fear and anxiety. Professionally, my job is to resolve quality issues of semiconductor circuits. I deal with consequences of design flaws, human errors, process defects, lack of due diligence, unrealistic promises resulting in unrealistic schedules resulting in cutting corners. Earlier in my professional and personal life, things were more difficult than I was prepared to handle. I noticed myself to become bitter, unhappy and blaming others for these difficulties.
Then I decided to give religion a try – in a practical way. I decided to change the way I think and treat people and circumstances. Instead of getting angry and frustrated at people, I started to think that I love them and think of the ways I could help them instead of feeling contempt. I made a conscious effort to avoid judging others and avoid worry and anxiety about things I cannot control. Results were interesting. First of all, I noticed a change in other people’s attitude towards me. They seemed to like me better, at home and at work. Second, I believe I became happier although, there was no objective change in any situation. Perhaps, the change of my attitude made people more likely to listen to me which, in turn, lead to change in their attitude towards matters of quality.
I don’t see anything supernatural in my experience. An interesting conclusion that faith does not work without practice. “Loving your neighbor” needs to show itself in practical actions and words rather than an abstract declarations. Still, “not worrying about tomorrow” needs some more work. It implies that “God will take care of tomorrow”. This is an interesting belief which can be interpreted as carelessness. Things are known to go sometimes very badly. There are all kinds of evils and disasters in the world. Which leads to a bigger question: “is it reasonable to believe in God?”
Thanks, SelfAwarePatterns, for posting this.
Why am I reblogging this? Because I agree with it. And why do I agree with it? Because I find it reasonable. And why do I find it reasonable? Because I agree with it. OK. Time to stop… The whole rationale comes down to “because I like it” (an emotional statement).
A lot of people believe these days that we need a reason to believe something. But I don’t understand the reason for such belief. For example, Steven Pinker in this video, tries to demonstrate how unreasonable was human sacrifice in ancient societies by providing possible reasons for such practices, which, he believes, are wrong reasons. But he cannot say that this behavior was “unreasonable” because he himself has just provided reasons for it. He believes human sacrifice was unreasonable, likely, because, human sacrifices cause negative emotions in people and not because human sacrifice lacked any reasons behind it.
One of the criteria for truth is coherence — lack of self-contradiction. A good way to check for coherence in logic and hypocrisy in morality is to apply the statement to itself. I find this Hume’s idea coherent. It does not lead to self-contradiction, unlike the belief that all beliefs need reason which contradicts itself. Hume’s thesis is also coherent with my fundamental belief that fundamental beliefs do not need reason or evidence.
And I like it because it’s a liberating thought. I can believe whatever I like to believe! (Within reasonable limits, of course).
Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them. David Hume
Reason, logic, is a tool. It is a means to an end. It is never an end unto itself, never the goal. It is the journey, not the destination. When we use reason, we use it in pursuit of some goal. That goal may be truth, it may be self aggrandizement, or it may be rationalizing an intuitively held opinion.
Our goals come from our instincts, our intuitions, our emotions, from the base programming that evolution has given us. First you feel the motivation, then (maybe) you deploy reason in pursuit of the motivated goal. Reason may have informed your instincts. It might have played a role in the formation of the urge, but it didn’t itself create it.
This is an awesome post. I had exactly the same thoughts, but this is put into words very well.
Although, this post is not about religion, but, of course, this has implication on “reality” of God. I believe, that it’s completely acceptable to think of Jesus as “fictional” and “real” at the same time. Barack Obama is conceived in my mind from texts and images, much the same way Jesus is. I have not touched or spoke to both of them personally. So, I can regard both of them as fictional characters… or “real” characters for that matter.
But when you read about a fictional character, you read about something. There is something in your mind that causes you to feel and to think. Fictional characters can say things that change your perspective – they have an existence in your mind and can cause real consequences. Fictional characters can inspire people, shape expectations, fulfill our wishes, transport us to faraway places, and model behaviors. They tell can tell us things about ourselves we didn’t know, teach us how to cope, and make us feel grief and despair. Really feel them.
In the same way, I believe, it does not matter whether the Bible describes historic events or not. It still has powerful and real effect on life of humans.
This is the final installment of a series on the tie between language and metaphysics, mathematics, and magic.
Most people are pretty clear that the laws of physics are real, and that fictional characters are not. But I’m not so sure the distinction is as easy as that.
When people, even people who are students of philosophy, hear the word “metaphysics”, they typically think of ghosts, gods, and souls. This list isn’t wrong, exactly, but it is terribly limited. Using this list as their guide, people reject metaphysics as anti-empirical, and affirm without a trace of irony that “reason” tells them to reject anything not empirically validated. But there’s a lot more to metaphysics than the supernatural – reason itself is a metaphysical construct, a grammar for thinking that has no physical form. Ideas and concepts are metaphysical. Descriptive categories are metaphysical. Mathematical abstraction is metaphysical.
Perhaps, to clarify my views on religion and atheism, it would be useful to describe my personal experience with them. When people do not know each other’s background, a lot of time can be wasted to explain and argue about things both sides already know and understand.
I grew up in Soviet Ukraine. If I was indoctrinated in any ideology, it was Marxism-Leninism. Every classroom in every school had a portrait of Lenin above the blackboard. Most children’s books were required to have an ideologically slanted story about Lenin, Communist Party or a hint about class struggle. As a child, I was extremely happy to be born in the Soviet Union – a country that builds “bright future” for the working people. I was terrified at the thought that the “evil” Western imperialists were escalating the nuclear arms race aiming to destroy my country which promoted friendship between nations and solidarity of the working people.
In elementary school, all children in my class were accepted in a youth “organization” called “Oktiabriata” (something like “children of October” – the word “Red October” often meant “the Great October Socialist Revolution” – the Bolshevik putsch of 1917). Children did not do much as members of this “organization”, there were no leadership or formal activities, but wearing a red star with the portrait of “young Lenin” imposed “duty” to behave properly lest you be found “unworthy” to wear the token.
In middle school, all children were accepted into the “Pioneer Organization”. The ceremony of “initiation” was solemn and pompous. It was held at the Lenin Museum – an institution present in any large city dedicated to the life of the leader of the world proletariat and to the history of the Communist Party. There were flags and solemn oaths pronounced in unison like the Creed or Pledge of Allegiance. Everyone was “accepted”. To be “excluded”, a child would need to do something really horrible. The word “pioneer” did not have the same meaning as in the America. It meant “the first” in terms of “example to others”. Pioneer organization was modeled after Boy Scouts. Pioneers wore red neckerchiefs meant to symbolize a piece of the Red Flag (red, of course, meant blood of the “freedom fighters”). Pioneer motto was “be prepared” – just like the one of the Boy Scouts. However, “be prepared” meant “to fight for the cause of the Communist Party”. On the upside, there were summer camps and the fun Boy Scout stuff.
When I was 16, I became a member of the “Young Communist League” (Comsomol) – an organization for youth 16 – 28 years old. The organization was modeled after the Communist Party. It had Statute, formal structure, formal meetings, “elected” leadership. In colleges, Comsomol took charge of social life – organized activities, events, parties, performances, celebrations. Of course, all “under the watch” of the Party members who made sure that all of that was “ideologically appropriate”.
It was considered that only the most “worthy” could be accepted. And, indeed, the first students accepted to Comsomol were the “A” students, with exemplary record. It was considered a “special honor” and they had to take an exam on the knowledge of the Statute, the history, etc. However, the next year, everyone else was accepted as well, in a general meeting, by the dozen, “pioneer-style”. I had a friend who refused to join. Everyone looked down on him, criticized, and tried to “convert”. When asked, why, he said “Why should I? What’s the point?” “But, c’mon! Don’t you want to join ‘the front rows of the Soviet youth?” At that he scoffed which somewhat antagonized people. He was not a popular guy.
Religion was openly discouraged and ridiculed. Clergy were caricatured as corrupt and stupid, collecting tithes and offerings for their own benefit. Religious superstitions were ridiculed. Religion had a stigma of being backwards, believing in nonsense, and “not belonging” to the “front rows of the Communism builders”. Marx’s “Religion is the opium for the people” was a very familiar buzz-phrase. This is why the New Atheist attitude painfully “rings the bell” and, in the minds of people who lived under such regimes, the association between New Atheism and Stalinism pops up immediately. On the other hand, my parents, my family, my friends, and I were all atheists – happy, enthusiastic, with reasonable ethics. So, I do not have the nonsensical stereotype that atheists are gloomy and immoral.
I did not witness any physical persecutions against believers (Stalin’s era ended long before I was born). Religion did exist, but was formally separated from the state. At my school, I recall one year when during Easter, most “worthy” Pioneers were “asked” by the school staff to take “vigils” near the churches to watch if any of the students attended the service and snitch to the school administration. Such students would then undergo some scolding. There are rumors that KGB controlled Russian Orthodox Church and used priests as informants. I guess, those who did not want to cooperate, have been eliminated. Many churches have been closed down, turned into concert halls (excellent acoustic), dance clubs, or vegetable warehouses (in rural areas) or simply destroyed.
In the Soviet Union, education was fairly good. It was free – up to the highest degrees. Students received a small allowance. “A” students received double. Science was funded well. Especially, military research projects (much like in the U.S.) However, intellectuals were not “trusted” by the Party. The role of “hegemon” was reserved to “proletariat”. (I feel that I overuse the quotation marks, but there was so much bigotry that these words were not used according to their dictionary definitions.) Still, Soviet science made huge advances. As you may know, the Soviet Union developed a nuclear bomb almost simultaneously with the U.S. (there are rumors that it was not “independent” and there was much spying involved, but nevertheless). The hydrogen bomb is credited to Saharov. The first orbiting satellite “Sputnik” was launched by Russians, the first man in the orbit, Yuri Gagarin, was Russian, the first woman as well. But the U.S. did “beat” Russians sending the first man to the moon. Kudos. The space stuff was, mostly, a political show-off. Many Russian scientists emigrated to the West after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As for me, I earned a 5-year bachelor’s degree in physics, completed a graduate degree with major in solid state physics. Emigrated to the U.S., and earned M.S. in electrical engineering specializing in semiconductor device physics and semiconductor processing. Сurriculum at my alma mater in Ukraine was extensive. I took full courses of classical mechanics, thermodynamics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, optics, calculus, differential equations, analytical geometry, higher algebra, group theory, solid state physics, cosmology, astronomy, etc. I am writing this not to show off, but, again, to explain my background. Despite the high level of education and science in the Soviet Union, genetics was banned by Stalin as contradicting the principles of dialectic materialism.
As I may have shown, Soviet people have been deeply “indoctrinated” and had a lot of stereotypes and unjustified beliefs. There were lots of Soviet “myths”. Lenin was, virtually, sanctified. There was a long line always waiting to see his body in the tomb on the Red Square (I think, it’s still there). Soviet people believed in a lot of nonsense. Yet, note the level of education and science. It’s worth noting also that Newton was deeply religious, Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk, and Georges Lemaître who created the big bang theory was a Catholic priest. These facts make me believe that the claim of New Atheists that indoctrination with religion or other ideology stands in the way of scientific critical thinking and understanding science is simply untrue. Such statements seem to come from a huge confirmation bias. One needs to deliberately ignore a lot of facts to make such statements. I cannot call people who make them “critical independent thinkers”.
I will describe my experience with religion in a future post.
Some Soviet anti-religious propaganda posters
I know, many would say “but this is not atheism. This is communism.” I would address this in some other post.