My experience with atheism


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've seen many of these portraits in school classrooms above the blackboard.  I remember staring at this portrait while bored in class and thinking that Lenin's ear looks somewhat weird here.  It's not in the right place.
I’ve seen many of these portraits in school classrooms above the blackboard. I remember staring at this portrait while bored in class and thinking that Lenin’s ear looks somewhat weird here. It’s not in the right place.

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.

A pin worn by "Oktiabriata" in Soviet elementary schools.  Young Lenin reminds me of baby Jesus, for some reason.
A pin worn by “Oktiabriata” in Soviet elementary schools. Young Lenin reminds me of baby Jesus, for some reason.

Pioneers member pin.  The motto says "Always prepared" -- the response to the "Be prepared!" cue.
Pioneers member pin. The motto says “Always prepared” — the response to the “Be prepared!” cue.

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.

Comsomol member pin.
Comsomol member pin.

Comsomol membership card.  Students paid 2 cents in membership dues which were collected with diligence.
Comsomol membership card. Students paid 2 cents in membership dues which were collected with diligence.

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.

Line of people to Lenin's mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.
Line of people to Lenin’s mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.

"Lenin at Subbotnik"  Subbotnik was an unpaid workday on a Saturday, mostly used for clean-ups.  This is an iconic picture showing Lenin carrying a log.  It's one of the "myths" told by communists to portray Lenin as a person "close to working people".  This art genre was called "socialist realism".
“Lenin at Subbotnik” Subbotnik was an unpaid workday on a Saturday, mostly used for clean-ups. This is an iconic picture showing Lenin carrying a log. It’s one of the “myths” told by communists to portray Lenin as a person “close to working people”. This art genre was called “socialist realism”.

The picture (and its multiple variants), perhaps, originates, from this photo.  It's hard to say if the person here is Lenin and, judging by the postures and smiles, the people deliberately pose for the photo.
The picture (and its multiple variants), perhaps, originates, from this photo. It’s hard to say if the person here is Lenin and, judging by the postures and smiles, the people deliberately pose for the photo.

A post-Soviet caricature of the "Lenin at subbotnik" theme.
A post-Soviet caricature of the “Lenin at subbotnik” theme.

Monuments to Lenin showing "the bright future".  Each city had one.
Monuments to Lenin showing “the bright future”. Each city had one.  The bottom-left was blown up recently in St. Petersburg.  I think this powerful blast from Lenin’s bottom is a good allegory for the Great October Socialist Revolution.

Some Soviet anti-religious propaganda posters

Struggle against religion is strugle for socialism.  As usual, religion "stands in the way of progress" -- familiar theme.
Struggle against religion is strugle for socialism. As usual, religion “stands in the way of progress” — familiar theme.

Clergy help capital and stand in the way of the working man.  Some sort of apocaliptic theme.  Devilish characters on one side and red ground, as if soaked in blood, on the other side.  "Blood washing away sin" comes to mind.
Clergy help capital and stand in the way of the working man. Some sort of apocaliptic theme. Devilish characters on one side and red ground, as if soaked in blood, on the other side. “Blood washing away sin” comes to mind.

"Religion is poison.  Save the children!"  The girl reaching for the school -- a sky-high building with an angel-like pioneer figure trumpeting the horn while her witch-like grandmother drags her by the hair to a church falling apart in decay, with crows circling around.  Demonizing "class enemies" was fairly common for Soviet propaganda.
“Religion is poison. Save the children!” The girl reaching for the school — a sky-high building with a pioneer figure trumpeting the bugle looking like Angel Moroni while her witch-like grandmother drags her by the hair to a church falling apart in decay, with crows circling around. Demonizing “class enemies” was fairly common for Soviet propaganda.

"The voice of the Lord serves the purposes of the 'masters'".  The stereotypical capitalist with a whip in his hand pointing to the Bible saying "tolerate".
“The voice of the Lord serves the purposes of the ‘masters'”. The stereotypical capitalist with a whip in his hand pointing to the Bible saying “tolerate”.

"Enemies of the five-year plan".  Another example of demonizing "class enemies".  This is how people critical of the Soviets were portrayed.
“Enemies of the five-year plan”. Another example of demonizing “class enemies”. This is how people critical of the Soviets were portrayed.

And this is an example of counter-revolutionary propaganda.  Lenin (in red) is portrayed as a high priest, Trotsky in bloody apron, with a bloody knife in his hand, ready to sacrifice Russia laid on the altar of the "International".  Everyone worshiping the idol of Karl Marx.  Soldiers of the Red Army sneering with ugly orc-lice smiles with rotten teeth.  Propaganda can go both ways, you know.  This is why I am not particularly fond of the mockery coming from the New Atheists.
And this is an example of counter-revolutionary propaganda. Lenin (in red) is portrayed as a high priest, Trotsky in bloody apron, with a bloody knife in his hand, ready to sacrifice Russia laid on the altar of the “International”. Everyone worshiping the idol of Karl Marx. Soldiers of the Red Army sneering with ugly orc-like smiles with rotten teeth. Propaganda can go both ways, you know. This is why I am not particularly fond of the mockery coming from the New Atheists.

I know, many would say “but this is not atheism. This is communism.” I would address this in some other post.

Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris


Search your mind, or pay attention to the conversations you have with other people, and you will discover that there are no real boundaries between science and philosophy—or between those disciplines and any other that attempts to make valid claims about the world on the basis of evidence and logic. When such claims and their methods of verification admit of experiment and/or mathematical description, we tend to say that our concerns are “scientific”; when they relate to matters more abstract, or to the consistency of our thinking itself, we often say that we are being “philosophical”; when we merely want to know how people behaved in the past, we dub our interests “historical” or “journalistic”; and when a person’s commitment to evidence and logic grows dangerously thin or simply snaps under the burden of fear, wishful thinking, tribalism, or ecstasy, we recognize that he is being “religious.”

via Our Narrow Definition of “Science” : My Response to the 2014 Edge Question : : Sam Harris.

Harris seems to rant that people interpret science too narrowly.   While at it, he reduces religion to a mere lack of commitment to evidence and logic, wishful thinking, tribalism, extacy, and inability to think coherently under fear.  But these are not defining attributes of religiosity.  Many people exhibit these attributes, religious or not (as we will see below).  Mr. Harris seems to attack a “straw man”.  It’s very unlikely that Harris is unfamiliar with this common fallacy implying that he uses it deliberately.  Twisting definitions to conform to one’s beliefs seems to be the very practice Sam Harris appears to criticize.

Confusion on this point has spawned many strange ideas about the nature of human knowledge and the limits of “science.” People who fear the encroachment of the scientific attitude—especially those who insist upon the dignity of believing in one or another Iron Age god—will often make derogatory use of words such as materialism, neo-Darwinism, and reductionism, as if those doctrines had some necessary connection to science itself.
This is the first time I hear that “materialism”, “neo-Darwinism”, and “reductionism” are “derogatory terms”.  Why does anybody need to be insulted when things are called what they are?
I, personally, do fear the encroachment of science into politics and morality, but not for religious reasons.  I am fairly convinced that moral rules cannot be established by scientific experiment, in principle.  Such view would be in gross contradiction with Harris’ own views.  If we admit that there are absolute, objective, undeniable, universal moral values, then we must admit that the physical universe has a purpose and can impose moral judgement on humans.  Essentially, such belief is belief in a weird “scientific” version of God and give scientists the status of high priests to declare moral values as “scientific truths proven with evidence”.
If we allow morality to be established by scientific experiment, we can easily demonstrate that killing sick and elderly eliminates the need and expenses for healthcare and social benefits, thus making society much healthier and wealthier (of course, if we agree that health and wealth constitute “wellbeing”, otherwise we will need to find scientific evidence that they do).
What’s the evidence for “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…”?  It’s an obvious falsity.  The evidence shows that some men are tall and some are short, some are black  and some are white, some are wise and some believe that science can prove moral values.
Regarding reductionism:
If there were evidence that complex systems produced phenomena that cannot be understood in terms of their constituent parts, it would be possible to be a neo-Darwinist without being a reductionist. For all practical purposes, that is where most scientists find themselves, because every branch of science beyond physics must resort to concepts that cannot be understood merely in terms of particles and fields. Many of us have had “philosophical” debates about what to make of this explanatory impasse. Does the fact that we cannot predict the behavior of chickens or fledgling democracies on the basis of quantum mechanics mean that those higher-level phenomena are something other than their underlying physics? I would vote “no” here, but that doesn’t mean I envision a time when we will use only the nouns and verbs of physics to describe the world.

Perhaps, trying and failing to explain large systems based on properties of constituents can be construed as evidence that reductionism is not all-powerful.  It may be useful in some cases, but not in others.  Why not expand scientific method beyond reductionism instead of trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

Can quantum mechanics predict processes in society?  May be, having some facts and examples would be beneficial to establish a belief that quantum mechanics can predict fledging democracies lest we engage in “wishful thinking” and show “lack of commitment to evidence”.  A person adhering to “the highest standards of logic and evidence” might also avoid using arguments from ignorance in his reasoning.

The remedy for all this confusion is simple: We must abandon the idea that science is distinct from the rest of human rationality.
In other words, we need to abandon the  definition of science and opt for some fuzzy “highest standards of logic and reasoning” whatever it might mean.  One can use logic to explain something other than logic.  Using logic to explain logic and define the “highest standards of logic” seems to include circular reasoning and is, therefore, unreasonable.  There is a similar problem with being conscious of one’s own consciousness and thinking about one’s own thoughts.  But it’s a fine philosophical point which seems to escape the grasp of Mr. Harris’s titanic intellect.
It occurs to me that “highest standards” would require some definition.  Otherwise, it’s hard to “adhere” to them.  Usually, standards benefit from being specific.  “Highest standards” are, usually, “strict standards”, i.e. narrowly defined.
When you are adhering to the highest standards of logic and evidence, you are thinking scientifically. And when you’re not, you’re not.