Monday, April 30, 2007

Thoughts on Atheism and Faith

I can speak, you know. I just choose not to.
-- The Rabbit

I have often heard the claim that someone who is atheist or anti-theist is essentially committing the same error as a religionist, akin to the recent assertion of a good friend of mine, from a quasi-religious viewpoint of his own informed by a sort of postmodern skepticism, that atheism is "just another kind of faith" -- the belief in something that cannot be proved.

At first, he had me at a loss to explain the difference. After all, one can't prove a negative, and therefore to believe there is no God (or god, or god-figure, or Shiva, or Athena, or Pan, or what-have-you) is to believe in a proposition that cannot be proved. But surely one cannot consign the principled skepticism of atheism to the dustbin of presumptuous faith-based belief, can we? (And, I might add, to the solipsistic skepticism of postmodern thought.)

I thought about it for the next few days, and I came to what I believe is the answer, or, more accurately, a decent answer that gets at the root of the issue.

I believe that the key to the riddle is patterns.

The nature of all learning comes from the fact that we perceive patterns in life. Everything we "know" is based on patterns taken either from the assertions of others (hearsay) or our own observation. For example, we don't know exactly what causes gravitation, but we all can see that gravity exists as a pattern of matter being attracted to the earth, and, in space, to other matter based upon relative mass. From our observation of the physical effects of it, we can believe that it, and similar phenomena, are at least reasonable and believable suppositions. Indeed, we would be hard-pressed, indeed backed into the corner of irrational fantasy, to attempt to disbelieve it.

But that's too dull. Let's take a more, well, exciting example. It is perhaps obvious, but I shall name it anyway: talking rabbits.

You see, I not only do not believe in rabbits that can speak Swahili, or any of various pre-revolutionary French dialects, but I affirmatively believe that they do not exist. That is something of a leap. How can I be sure? How can I be so arrogant?

The problem is that we are not at liberty to responsibly believe everything. Everything we accept as real must somehow suggest itself in some sort of pattern. No evidence exists, nor has any ever been recorded or even alluded to, that rabbits have spoken. Indeed, none exists of any non-human animal ever having picked up on a human language. There just is simply no recorded pattern whatever in existence of non-human animals speaking human language, despite the fact that people have been rather inclined to induce and record such things.

On the other hand, there are plainly measurable and consistent patterned reasons why they cannot -- lack of sufficient brain development and lack of vocal apparatus being chief among these. Indeed, researchers have spent years trying to teach the most intellectually-capable species of monkeys and dolphins language, without success. Even where basic concepts are taught (e.g., "hungry," "food," and "come here"), complex ideational linguistic development is well beyond their reach. (Although, from what I understand, dolphins have come closest, and are just simply amazing creatures who have their own rather complex form of aural communication that allows them to coordinate complex aerobatic maneuvers and to cooperatively herd large schools of fish with great precision and timing. But, even if they do have the intellectual capability to understand language in some form, one won't say, 'allo there!, to you. They are just not physically capable.)

Thus, there does not exist a pattern of any non-human animal speaking human language, other than rote-memorized repetitions of small phrases without true comprehension (parrots) or sub-linguistic communications (dolphins, monkeys).

But, you say, my child just told me that Dog spoke to him, as a man speaks to a man! And, indeed, there have been numerous animated films starring talking rabbits. Here is evidence!

Okay. Let's rephrase this. No evidence from reliable witnesses that ought to be taken as evidence of the occurrence of real phenomena. The human imagination is amazing, and can mix existing, real patterns into new imagined patterns that have no counterpart in what we call reality. Thus, this very second, I am envisioning rabbits with a species-specific form of gravity that makes any two rabbits coming within 20 feet of each other slide toward each other and stick together like two little fuzzy magnets. I'll call it, say, Rabbitation.

And note that, in my mind, those rabbits are chatting quite amiably with each other over tea as it happens.

As I noted, however, human imaginings are noteworthy in this ability to synthesize new, impossible patterns from perceived existing patterns. I might be able to submit my Theory of Rabbitation to the nearest university physics department, but your average first-year student will see right through it, and indeed might find my submission of the theory to constitute evidence of propositions quite different from those I've asserted. For example, my lack of sanity, or at least my lack of sincerity.

So, to rein this back in, human imaginings are not valid evidence constituting "patterns" upon which belief ought to be formed. When we speak of "reality," we speak of observable patterns beyond the realms of our own fancy. I understand that post-Modernist modes of thought currently fashionable posit no distinction between the inner and outer world, between perception and reality, but I disagree rather strongly, and think they've disappeared down the rabbit-hole of solipsistic contemplation. (To be fair, not all are so bold, but there are some that boldly follow themselves to that logical conclusion.) I invite any of them who imagine no distinction between physical reality and perspective to abandon food and just imagine they do not need it anymore.

Of course, is it truly physically impossible for a French-speaking, tea-drinking rabbit to be born tomorrow somewhere in Marseilles? No, not strictly so. There could be a series of simultaneous, viable mutations that spontaneously do what millions of years of evolution took with the hominids, producing a rabbit with human-approximate intelligence, motivations and vocal characteristics, that happens to be born in the right place and time to be noticed for what it is and appropriately educated in the French countryside. However, given that the probability of even two or three minor simultaneous mutations to be both viable and improvement-bearing is almost impossibly remote, and given the overwhelming likeliness that any given mutation will be nonviable, we can handily classify this rabbiteering possibility as "impossible" in the same way that we may so conclude with Douglas Adams's postulate that a million monkeys banging on a million typewriters will eventually reproduce the collected works of Shakespeare.

Thus, coming back to the god conundrum, how do I "know" that there is no god?

Well, it's not strictly, technically impossible that some sort of metaphysical uber-being approximate to the forms envisioned by the self-ordained prophets of the world could in reality exist somewhere, somehow. But we might assign it the same probability as our simian Hamlet. Tielhard de Chardin be damned.

The idea of deity as envisioned by the creators of human religions throughout the preceding millenia matches no existing observable patterns. It's not just that we can't see these guys; it's that there is no fact, no evidence, no phenomenon, nothing, that even suggests that such patterns exist. Indeed, most such superstition has had its starting points in wonder, ignorance and fear; why did a big mountain explode out of the earth and pour fire on the neighboring village? They must have pissed off someone.

On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence to support the conclusion that, for every religious utterance; for every assertion of divinity or communication with divinity; for every sighting of a ghost, a god, a demon, or the sudden collision of two teacups shattering and spilling their contents as the rabbits holding them were violently thrust together by an unknown force; for every assertion of human superstitious imaginings, there is a far more simple, consistent and reasonable explanation, producing far less inconsistency. Or, in other words, we can cut them all with Occam's Razor.

Of course, enumerating these is beyond the scope of my argument here, but I imagine anyone who would care to read this probably needs little enlargement upon this proposition.

But what is more damning to assertions of the existence of deity is a third factor: the countless examples supporting a pattern of the invention of deities, demons and other metaphysical bugaboos for reasons psychological and sociological. Indeed, there is a rather strong and consistent pattern of certain groups of humans, who we'll collectively call "the priests," using religion as a tool to control those beneath them and to "consume the grass belonging to their flock," to roughly quote the recorded statement of a victim of the Catholic Inquisition. We have much evidence of patterns of self-serving motivations and creative ignorance behind the creation of many of these people's gods, of which Mormonism is but one excellent case study. In law, we call it conflict of interest.

To render it in terms familiar to the Western courtroom, we have ample evidence of these declarants being unreliable, self-interested witnesses whose answer to questioning is hostility, derision and condemnation, rather than honest answers. Would you believe a witness whose only answer was to damn opposing counsel to eternal flames, or to the depths of Hades, or to "outer darkness"?

To conclude: given the utter absence of supporting evidence for, or patterns suggestive of, the possibility of deity (outside the rather anything-goes realm of human imaginings), combined with the utter banality of self-serving or ignorant-superstition-induced creation of spiritual or deific beings, we can safely conclude that these assertions of gods and demons are indeed the self-serving imaginings that what evidence does exist shows them to be. Kinda like our fuzzy pink talking rabbits, and like any of the sundry tribal gods and demons our modern religionists themselves facilely dismiss as ignorant, superstitious paganism (even as they assert their own invisible gods and demons) in their selective critical inquiry.

Yes, I imagine it's not outside the realms of possibility and probability so aptly explored in Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, but I'm rather comfortable sticking to observable patterns and probabilities and therefore actively disbelieving in gods, demons, spirits, and little, pink, unusually-adhesive bunnies chatting with each other over broken dishware. To do otherwise is to disappear down that rabbit-hole of subjectivity and remain in the darkness of superstition, confusing imaginings with reality.

(For the record, I understand that gravity is not adhesion, per se, but I claim poetic license.)

Does this mean that I, and others who likewise so disbelieve in things without example in reliably observable reality, are closed-minded and assume we have seen all patterns in existence? No. But neither are we gullible, taking the self-interested word of suspect individuals or groups without scrutiny. Furthermore, religion is a special case, because of the massive evidence against every instance of it, the total lack of any supporting patterns elsewhere, and the emotion-based nature of such faith. Indeed, I am far more apt to be open to the possibility that rabbitologists and rabbosophers might be able to show my rabbit example wrong. I am open to new patterns and to the possibility that patterns in which I had believed were incorrect (or incorrectly perceived). But show me evidence and do not try to persuade me through emotion and histrionics.

Note: By the way, I had not read of "Russell's Teapot" or the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" when I wrote this. But, except for the "patterns" bit, it is the same sort of approach. In other words, take away the special dignity given to one's religion of choice, and apply the same standard to all propositions, and the absurdity becomes manifest. In the end, it's just institutionally-backed special pleading. Not all propositions are equal.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Of Sinners and "Saints"

As those of us who have painfully crawled, or been dragged kicking and screaming, out of the proverbial cave into the painful light of day all know, the Mormon church (and Christianity in general, in most cases) has very damaging and repressive effects upon the psyche, all of which last well beyond the escape of the damaging religious social system.

I am not very much into "self-help" books myself, given that I object to what I see as the solipsistic subjectivism of much of New Age thought. [1] However, some time ago I happened upon and found interesting a book by one of my favored authors, Bertrand Russell [2], called "The Conquest of Happiness," and bought the book for LB. Reading it myself, I find it to be excellent and quite relevant to current circumstances.

[1] The denial or minimization of objective reality, instead positing that subjectivity is the only lens that matters, that the self is the only provable truth, and that the highest calling of the enlightened human being is to focus on the self and be at peace with the rest of the world, no matter what its state.

[2] Russell is, of course, is, like me, an objectivist/realist -- one who believes in the independent existence and verifiability of the world outside the self, and in the ideal of human interconnectedness and cooperation in finding universal truth, rather than individual searches for individual subjective truth.

More particularly, in his introductory chapter, "What Makes One Unhappy," Russell touches on a major source of deep, abiding unhappiness that is, to be sure, endemic to humanity in general, but that is exacerbated and brought to crushing heights within puritanical Christianity, and even more so within its more manipulative and suppressive forms (such as, of course, Mormonism): self-absorption.

One of the foremost goals of Christianity in general to inculcate in people a sense of real inadequacy, sin and need for redemption. The psychological fallout from this is broad in scope and deep in effect, and the sense of preoccupation with self, combined with the lack of a sense of personal identity, is among the worst and most difficult-to-repair damage.

So, for those of us who have imbibed an excessive self-consciousness from within this kind of religion, I thought I would reproduce, with minimal editing, a small section from Russell's first chapter that I find to be insightful. His paragraphs are a bit long, and this is, overall, not the shortest passage in the blogosphere, but I highly recommend reading it, as it gives a big-picture view of a phenomenon of which many of us are accustomed to thinking in terms highly-tailored to our own life and religious experience. Also note that the book was written in 1930 Britain, and it is evident. Footnotes are my commentary.

. . . I was not born happy. As a child, my favorite hymn was: "Weary of earth and laden with sin." At the age of five, I reflected that, if I should live to be seventy, I had only endured, so far, a fourteenth part of my whole life, and I felt the long-spread-out boredom ahead of me to be almost unendurable. In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. [3] Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more. This is due partly to having discovered what were the things that I most desired, and having gradually acquired many of these things. Partly it is due to having successfully dismissed certain objects of desire--such as the acquisition of indubitable knowledge about something or other--as essentially unobtainable. But very largely it is due to a diminishing preoccupation with myself. Like others who had a Puritan education, I had the habit of meditating on my sins, follies and shortcomings. I seemed to myself--no doubt justly--a miserable specimen. Gradually I learned to be indifferent to myself and my deficiencies; I came to center my attention increasingly upon external objects: the state of the world, various branches of knowledge, individuals for whom I felt affection. External interests, it is true, bring each its own possibility of pain: the world may be plunged in war, knowledge in some direction may be hard to achieve, friends may die. But pains of these kinds do not destroy the essential quality of life, as do those that spring from disgust with self. And every external interest inspires some activity which, so long as the interest remains alive, is a complete preventative of ennui. Interest in oneself, on the contrary, leads to no activity of a progressive kind. It may lead to the keeping of a diary, to getting psychoanalyzed, or perhaps to becoming a monk. But the monk will not be happy until the routine of the monastery has made him forget his own soul. The happiness which he attributes to religion he could have obtained from becoming a crossing-sweeper, provided he were compelled to remain one. External discipline is the only road to happiness for those unfortunates whose self-absorption is too profound to be cured in any other way.

[3] Math??

Self-absorption is of various kinds. We may take the sinner, the narcissist, and the megalomaniac as three very common types.

When I speak of "the sinner," I do not mean the man who commits sins: sins are committed by every one or no one, according to our definition of the word. I mean the man who is absorbed in the consciousness of sin.

This man is perpetually incurring his own disapproval, which, if he is religious, he interprets as the disapproval of God. He has an image of himself as he thinks he ought to be, which is in continual conflict with his knowledge of himself as he is. If, in his conscious thought, he has long since discarded the maxims that he was taught at his mother's knee, his sense of sin may be buried deep in his unconscious, and only emerge when he is drunk or asleep. Nevertheless, it may suffice to take the savor out of everything. At bottom he still accepts all the prohibitions he was taught in infancy. Swearing is wicked; drinking is wicked; ordinary business shrewdness is wicked; above all, sex is wicked. He does not, of course, abstain from any of these pleasures, but they are all poisoned for him by the feeling that they degrade him. The one pleasure that he desires with his whole soul is that of being approvingly caressed by his mother, which he can remember having experienced in childhood. [4] This pleasure being no longer open to him, he feels that nothing matters; since he must sin, he decides to sin deeply. When he falls in love, he looks for maternal tenderness, but cannot accept it, because owing to the mother-image, he feels no respect for any woman with whom he has sexual relations. Then, in his disappointment, he becomes cruel, repents of his cruelty, and starts afresh on the dreary round of imagined sin and real remorse. [5] This is the psychology of very many apparently hard-boiled reprobates. What drives them astray is devotion to an unattainable object (mother or mother-substitute) together with the inculcation, in early years, of a ridiculous ethical code. Liberation from the tyranny of early beliefs and affections is the first step towards happiness for these victims of maternal "virtue."

[4] Or, perhaps, from authority figures within one's community or church -- any early-life source that offered beaming, seemingly-unconditional approval at an early age before that approval became conditional.

[5] I have studied violence against women and domestic abuse in general, and this brings to mind the "cycle of abuse" that abused couples go through. According to one researcher, conservative religious affiliation is "one of the greatest predictors of child abuse, more so than age, gender, social class, or size of residence." This quote comes from Kimberly Baker, "God's Warrior Twins," Toward Freedom, Fall 2003. See the studies cited therein for more information.

Narcissism is, in a sense, the converse of an habitual sense of sin; it consists in the habit of admiring oneself and wishing to be admired. Up to a point it is, of course, normal, and not to be deplored; it is only in its excess that it becomes a grave evil. In many women, especially rich society women, the capacity for feeling love is completely dried up, and is replaced by a powerful desire that all men should love them. When a woman of this kind is sure that a man loves her, she has no further use for him. The same thing occurs, though less frequently, with men: the classic example is the hero of that remarkable novel "Liaisons Dangereuses," which describes the love affairs of French aristocrats just before the Revolution. When vanity is carried to this height, there is no genuine interest in any other person, and therefore no real satisfaction to be obtained from love. Other interests fail even more disastrously. A narcissist, for example, inspired by the homage paid to great painters, may become an art student; but, as painting is for him a mere means to an end, the technique never becomes interesting, and no subject can be seen except in relation to self. The result is failure and disappointment, with ridicule instead of the expected adulation. The same thing applies to those novelists whose novels always have themselves idealized as heroines. All serious success in work depends upon some genuine interest in the material with which the work is concerned. The tragedy of one successful politician after another is the gradual substitution of narcissism for an interest in the community and the measures for which he stands. The man who is only interested in himself is not admirable, and is not felt to be so. Consequently the man whose sole concern with the world is that it shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object. But even if he does, he will not be completely happy, since human instinct is never completely self-centered, and the narcissist is limiting himself artificially just as truly as is the man dominated by a sense of sin. The primitive man might be proud of being a good hunter, but he also enjoyed the activity of the chase. Vanity, when it passes beyond a point, kills pleasure in every activity for its own sake, and thus leads inevitably to listlessness and boredom. Often its source is diffidence, and its cure lies in the growth of self-respect. But this is only to be gained by successful activity inspired by objective interests.

The megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men in history. Love of power, like vanity, is a strong element in normal human nature, and as such is to be accepted; it becomes deplorable only when it is excessive or associated with an insufficient sense of reality. Where this occurs, it makes a man unhappy or foolish, if not both. The lunatic who thinks he is a crowned head may be, in a sense, happy, but his happiness is not of a kind that any sane person would envy. Alexander the Great was psychologically of the same type as the lunatic, though he possessed the talent to achieve the lunatic's dream. He could not, however, achieve his own dream, which enlarged its scope as his achievement grew. When it became clear that he was the greatest conqueror known to fame, he decided that he was a god. Was he a happy man? His drunkenness, his furious rages, his indifference to women, and his claim to divinity, suggest that he was not. There is no ultimate satisfaction in the cultivation of one element of human nature at the expense of all the others, nor in viewing all the world as raw material for the magnificence of one's own ego. Usually the megalomaniac, whether insane or nominally sane, is the product of some excessive humiliation. Napoleon suffered at school from inferiority to his schoolfellows, who were rich aristocrats, while he was a penurious scholarship boy. When he allowed the return of the émigrés, he had the satisfaction of seeing his former schoolfellows bowing down before him. What bliss! Yet it led to the wish to obtain a similar satisfaction at the expense of the Czar, and this led to Saint Helena. Since no man can be omnipotent, a life dominated wholly by love of power can hardly fail, sooner or later, to meet with obstacles that cannot be overcome. The knowledge that this is so can be prevented from obtruding on consciousness only by some form of lunacy, though if a man is sufficiently great he can imprison or execute those who point this out to him. Repressions in the political and in the psychoanalytic senses thus go hand in hand. And whenever psychoanalytic repression in any marked form takes place, there is no genuine happiness. Power kept within its proper bounds may add greatly to happiness, but as the sole end of life it leads to disaster, inwardly if not outwardly.

The psychological causes of unhappiness, it is clear, are many and various. But all have something in common. The typical unhappy man is one who, having been deprived in youth of some normal satisfaction, has come to value this kind of satisfaction more than any other, and has therefore given to his life a one-sided direction, together with a quite undue emphasis upon the achievement as opposed to the activities connected with it. There is, however, a further development which is very common in the present day. A man may feel so completely thwarted that he seeks no form of satisfaction, but only distraction and oblivion. He then becomes a devotee of "pleasure." That is to say, he seeks to make life bearable by becoming less active. Drunkenness, for example, is temporary suicide: the happiness that it brings is merely negative, a momentary cessation of unhappiness.

The narcissist and the megalomaniac believe that happiness is possible, though they may adopt mistaken means of achieving it; but the man who seeks intoxication, in whatever form, has given up hope except in oblivion. In his case, the first thing to be done is to persuade him that happiness is desirable. Men who are unhappy, like men who sleep badly, are always proud of the fact. Perhaps their pride is like that of the fox who had lost his tail; if so, the way to cure it is to point out to them how they can grow a new tail. . . .
And thus ends my lengthy quotation.

As a side curiosity, it's interesting to note the difference between deceitful hedonist, Joseph Smith, and his successor, the iron-handed powermonger, Brigham Young. It is plainly clear to me, from my reading of history, that Smith was a charismatic narcissist whose love of himself could only grow as he gained adulating followers. It is also plainly clear, on the other hand, that Brigham Young was not. He was a megalomaniac. Fuck love, you sentimental assholes; give me power, do what I fucking say, and enjoy your proximity to my power. (Indeed, he explicitly said as much several times in Journal of Discourses, though not so bluntly.)

I do think there is a relationship here, in this context, between these megalomaniacs and the sinners who follow them. The American beauty rose rises to heights of beauty and size usually unmatched by other similar plants, but it does so by greedily grabbing nearby nutrients and sunlight for itself, stunting the growth of nearby plants. So it is with those who wish to fulfill their dreams of self-elevation. After all, if you desperately need people to give all their attention to you, your interests and your thoughts, it will naturally require that they stunt their own growth and selves, and will require various methodologies to get them to accept their own de-emphasis as autonomous, equally-valid human beings.

If you have read through all of this, I'm impressed and appreciative. Again, I apologize for the length (particularly of Russell's paragraphs -- he writes 'em long). I'd love to hear any thoughts on this, in either direction. Who knows? Maybe Russell's full of shit.