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.

What does determinism determine?


There is a lot of discussion whether free will is possible in the world where all events are determined by physical laws.   Let’s stop and meditate on the word determined.  What does it mean?  It seems to mean that if we knew the current state of a system with coordinates and momenta of all atoms and molecules, we should be able to know also the state of the system in n seconds from now. There are too many ifs here, don’t you think? First of all, the system must be closed, i.e. confined to itself and isolated from external influences. This implies not only that the system cannot exchange particles with the outside world, but also energy (heat, electromagnetic radiation, or whatever other forms of energy there might be). That’s quite impossible. We might not even be aware of all forms of energy out there considering the “dark matter/dark energy” problem. We also must know the state of each and every atom in this closed system. One atom in the system or coming from outside with unknown state can throw all determinism out of the window.

Just look at the image above.   Can we practically determine the position of every ball after the cue ball hits the pyramid?  The movement of every ball is strictly determined by the Newton’s laws.  What seems to be the problem?  The problem is that we do not know the exact trajectory of the cue ball, where it hits the pyramid.  We do not know the exact alignment of the balls in the pyramid (I am not talking about any quantum principles here).  We do not know how every fiber of the table cloth and every microscopic groove in the table will affect the trajectory of every ball.  We don’t know if all balls are exactly spherical, whether their mass is equally distributed, how many scratches and imperfections they have.  We don’t know if the table is leveled or tilted to one side.  So, OK.  Trajectories of the balls are strictly determined by the Newton’s laws (if we ignore relativistic effects).  That’s what makes this game possible.  But how much is anything “determined”?

And that was a fairly idealistic environment.  Reality usually looks more like this, except the balls are in Brownian motion.

Determinists say that every event is caused by another event.  Let’s stop and meditate on the word caused. What do we mean by that?  Causality is nothing more than another mental construct.  It’s a way to describe relationship between events. In certain cases, when one event follows another event, we say that event 1 caused event 2. But it’s simply a special kind of connection between events.  Which we construct in our mind.  The relationship needs to follow certain rules outlined by Hume (e.g. event 1 must happen prior to event 2, event 2 must always follow event 1, etc. — Hume lists 8 attributes of causality) After spending the last 15 years of my career analyzing “failure root cause” of semiconductor circuits, I realized that that there is no such thing as “the root cause”.  Finding “the root cause” comes down to finding practical and reliable ways of achieving desired results.  Some ways are better than others and some results are more desirable than others.  When a car “accident” happens, we can say that it was caused by distracted driving, slippery road, poor visibility, condition of the car, the tree standing in the way, etc. All of those can be considered as causes of the accident. But there is no magic that determines “THE ROOT CAUSE”.  It’s possible to say that the tree caused the accident because if the tree were not there, the accident would not have happened.  We can even blame evolution that “caused” the tree to exist.  But it does not make any practical sense.  I know the cause of all plane crashes — gravity.  Is this the cause people look for?

car_crash_1

 

We also seem to have freedom to pick and choose the causes of events:

“It all comes,” said Pooh crossly, “of not having front doors big enough.” “It all comes,” said Rabbit sternly, “of eating too much.”

To complicate the matters, an observer is a part of the observed system and inevitably affects the system’s behavior.  Think of turning on the light to see what’s going on in the dark room.  What will you see?  You will see what’s going on in the room right after you turned on the light, not what had been going on in the dark.  In some cases observer effect can be neglected, in some cases, not.  So, the very act of inquiry into natural causes of events adds an element of free will to these events.  Some things seem to be there just because we look.  There is a Russian proverb “If I knew where I fall, I would put some straw there”.    Knowing that an event will happen can change that event.

Now, let’s stop and meditate on the words physical laws. What are they?  Aren’t they also mental constructs allowing us to describe the world and make useful predictions?  Most physical laws operate within a certain idealistic model of the world and ignore “second-order” effects.  What constitutes a “second-order” effect depends on the application.  We can ignore relativistic inaccuracies of Newton’s laws when we play billiards, but when we design a GPS system, we have to take them into account.  When we launch a satellite, we account for the mass of the Earth, perhaps, the Moon, perhaps the Sun.  How about the effects of the gravity pull coming from the billions of distant galaxies?  Probably, not so important.  But second-order effects do exist even if we choose to ignore them.  And we never know when they become too large to ignore.  We also cannot pretend that we know all physical laws.  There are a few that we happen to know.  But I’m certain that there are quite a few of them that we are not even aware of.  Determinism seems to be just another such idealistic model of the world which only makes sense for certain applications, but not others.

Anything left from determinism that has not been reduced to absurdity yet?  Good luck with determinism, Mr. Harris and Mr. Coyne.

See also:

Hitler’s Racism and Christianity


Hitler was a Christian, by his own confession. What does it imply about Christianity? Uhh… Nothing… Hitler was a German. What does this imply about Germans? Nazis used philosophy of Nietzsche (an atheist). What does this imply about Nietzsche and atheism? Hitler also wore a very peculiar mustache, forever associated with him. Why is there no connection between Hitler’s mustache and racism, but (oh!) there is deep connection between Christianity and Nazism? Can someone explain the logic involved?

Knowledge Guild

‘Eternal Nature inexorably revenges the transgressions of her laws. Therefore, I believe today that I am acting in the sense of the Almighty Creator: By warding off the Jews I am fighting for the Lord’s work.’

“Die ewige Natur rächt unerbittlich die Übertretung ihrer Gebote. So glaube ich heute im Sinne des allmächtigen Schöpfers zu handeln: In dem ich mich des Juden erwehre, kämpfe ich für das Werk des Herrn.”

Hitler. A. 1925. Mein Kampf Munich, Germany: Franz Eher Nachfolger (1939) Chapter 2

‘The least beautiful that can exist in human life is and remains the yoke of slavery. Or does this Schwabing to decadence perhaps perceive the present-day fate of the German nation as ‘aesthetic’? There is certainly no need to discuss this with the Jews, the modern inventors of this culture perfume. Their entire existence is a protest incarnate against the aesthetics of the Lord’s image.’

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My experience with religion: Part 2


Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

– Matthew 6:34

I find it to be a very practical psychological advice. Worries and fears can consume our mental energy and even cause physical health issues through stress. But how do I know that “everything will be OK”? The Bible implies that God will take care of everything. But how do I know? For this practical psychological advice to work, it seems to be necessary to believe in God.

In times of uncertainty and trouble, it is a comforting and encouraging thought that someone will take care of me. Normally, people get this emotional support from friends and family. My wife and I are first-generation immigrants in the U.S. We have 3 children. We have absolutely no relatives on this continent. Not even a distant cousin across the country. All relatives are across an ocean. We can’t “leave kids at grandma’s for weekend”, for example. Social life is minimal. There is simply very little time for it. We are so absorbed with daily routines, schools, practices, doctor’s appointments, and other mundane things that it would be very difficult to find anyone with similar interests. People in the same situation as we are would likely have equally little time for fun. It’s hard to form friendships in your fourties. There are friends from school years, but most of them are also 10,000 miles away.

This sculpture of Christ is sitting on top of a chapel next to the cathedral in my home city where my wife and I had a wedding. Carrying the burdens of this world is not easy.

The toll of stress can be high. I have a friend who died in his fourties from cancer, soon after selling his business for a few million dollars. That’s an extreme, and I do not own a business. But I have many friends and coworkers who went through divorce. One friend went through cycles of depression after divorcing his first wife. I can see why these things happen and there is no guarantee that something similar will not happen to me.

A hope or faith that I will get through difficulties despite being apparently inadequate for the challenge is quite essential. Where shall I get it? Go to a psychologist? Spend a few hundred dollars and many hours, get a report with “findings” and recommendations, to put it away in a drawer and not open it ever again? What will the psychologist tell me? Reduce stress, sleep, eat, exercise, and pay attention to my wife and family? My expectation that I would learn something I don’t already know is low. At the end, it would still come down to believing in a solution and doing it. So, practicing some good-old Biblical wisdom is, perhaps, as good as “professional help”.

I like another aspect of religion. With 3 children, life can get chaotic. These little cute creatures create all kinds of mess. Toys all over the house, drawings and boogers on the walls, food all over faces are everyday experiences. They can get sick just in time for family events planned months ahead and create all kinds of other surprises. I have noticed that participating in a Catholic mass has an interesting calming effect on me. Every move is scripted, polished, and performed for 2000 years, without changes. Catholic mass is the same in the U.S., in Ukraine, today, as it was 1000 years ago. It leaves an impression of being a part of eternity.

Many atheists use religious practices for their psychological effects. Meditation started as a religious practice. A friend of mine, an atheist, attended meditation sessions to fight depression at some Indian center. He said, he felt very positive effect. However, after a few practices, they started to introduce the “spiritual side” of meditation which was a total turn-down for my friend. It seems to me, you can’t sever a flower from its root, and enjoy it. If you want to enjoy the flower for a long time, it needs to be attached to the root. Spiritual practices will not solve spiritual problems if they are separated from their spiritual origins – religion.

So, the reasons why I choose to believe in God are purely emotional and psychological.  I am fully aware of these reasons.  I cannot call my faith unreasonable, although the reasons are irrational.   I did not accept faith blindly.   I chose faith not because I’m brainwashed or uneducated.  Actually, after I chose to believe in God, my interest and knowledge of science, philosophy, and history exploded.  I would not have read as much without taking interest in religion.  I’d like to talk about this in one of the future posts.

See also

No true “‘No true Scotsman’ fallacy” fallacy


The dialog between atheists and believers often goes this way.

Atheist: Religion causes great harm.  For centuries, Christians burnt witches and heretics at the stake, and killed Jews by the million.  Hitler’s ideology was based on centuries of Christian antisemitism.  Even to this day, they spread hatred towards homosexuals based on their beliefs not based in any reality.

Christian: But those people were not true Christians!  How can a true follower of Christ spread hatred instead of love and condemn instead of forgiving?

Atheist: You commit a common reasoning fallacy.  It even has a name.  It’s called “No True Scotsman Fallacy”.  You can read about it on Wikipedia.

Christian:  Wait a minute.  Wasn’t the carnage of the French and Russian revolutions committed by atheists?

Atheist: But how is this related to atheism?  How can lack of belief cause such things?  It only takes religion to commit such atrocities.  In fact, the Soviet regime had many attributes of religion.  Communists were not true atheists.

Christian: Aren’t you using the same ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy?

Atheist: No, this is not a true ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy.  My reasoning is completely different.

etc., etc.

Prompted by Daily Prompt: Groupthink

Inspired by “True” Christians

My experience with religion: Part 1


The road up and the road down are one and the same.

– Heraclitus

Continued from My Experience with Atheism

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.

Russian and Ukrainian presidents in church
Russian and Ukrainian presidents in church

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).

This is the photo of the cathedral where my wife and I had a wedding.  It shows the back wall where the organ is located.  The acoustic is stunning.  The whole building, very crowded during the services, was just for the two of us.
This is a photo of the cathedral where my wife and I had a wedding. It shows the back wall where the organ is located. The acoustic is stunning. The whole building, very crowded during the services, was just for the two of us.

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?”

More on my experience with religion next time.

Reason is a tool of emotion


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).

SelfAwarePatterns

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.

Without instinct, you…

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Of Physical Laws and Fictional Characters


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.

Related links:

Stories & Soliloquies

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.

In order to…

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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.