Life

A New Experience

The other day I got a chance to check out the local Unitarian Universalist church in my area. For those who are not familiar, Unitarian Universalist churches are pretty much open to people of all beliefs. It’s a very Humanist-esque philosophy of embracing religious and nonreligious alike, without discrimination or dogma. I’ve always been heavily involved in evangelical Christian churches, and since my deconversion, have missed the community and social value of church. I figured that if I could meet even one or two people with similar thoughts on life, I would be better off than the state of social semi-isolation (at least from anyone who thinks like me) I had been in prior.

I was unsure of what to expect, but wanted to keep an open mind. I couldn’t help but think it would be an odd experience. After all, these are the type of people Sunday School teachers warn you of. You know, social liberals who seek to unite people of varying cultural backgrounds for the purpose of promoting shared values, such as love and compassion, must necessarily be the Devil’s henchmen (or so the fundamentalist logic goes.) I had forgot to bring a prayer shawl to defend me against the demons, so I knew I was going in for battle a bit unprepared.

As I expected, it was a very small congregation; maybe fifteen people. More of a small group than a church. The building itself was small, yet inviting, with a traditional church appearance on the inside. There were pews and hymnals, and a room with tables set up for snacks and conversation afterward. Most of the members seemed to be over forty if I had to guess. There was a couple who were probably in their thirties with a young child. I was the second youngest there, next to the child from my estimate.

Before the service began, I was greeted by a pleasant lady with a wonderful British accent. She asked a few typical questions, including how I found out about the church. She mentioned to me that they often have people speak, but they mix it up some weeks. This week, they were planning on playing two TED talks, and discussing them afterward. Now, in all my years of going to church I’ve never seen a TED talk on a Sunday morning. I thought that was pretty cool. A church that likes science and research . . . I could get used to this!

The service began with a man on a piano playing traditional hymns and singing. The songs had no explicit spiritual meaning that would lend itself to a specific religion, although the hymnbooks contained some Christian songs. I enjoyed the group singing, and found it refreshing, although I do enjoy a good worship band. There was something nice about the simplicity. The person playing and singing had a pleasant demeanor and was moderately skilled.

Between songs a few rituals were observed, which I found interesting. I appreciate the church’s use of ritual, as it is one underestimated aspect of religion that can serve to bond people together. Community singing and recitation can be powerful psychological tools. They also have certain traditions, such as the lighting of a chalice, and a recitation that goes along with that, which affirms positive, universal values.

After a couple of songs, the lady with the British accent introduced the video, which was played via the young couple’s laptop hooked up to a projection screen. The first talk was about our misconceptions about stress and how they might be doing more harm than stress itself (!) It was very interesting, and entertaining. The lady who gave the talk was not only a engaging speaker, but very attractive as well (being cute never hurts.) Here it is, if you have time to watch it:

After the video, we discussed the topic as a group (one of the advantages of being a small church.) Even though it was my first time, I felt comfortable enough to share my thoughts here and there. The discussion was interesting, and I enjoyed the participatory nature of it, as opposed to the usual disconnect I am accustomed to at the much larger churches.

After the short discussion of the first video, we watched the second. Now what is so interesting about this one is that it is given by the twin sister of the lady who gave the first talk. But they didn’t tell us until halfway through, so it was a surprise for sure. The second sister is a video game developer, and she talked about the benefits of gaming. While some of the benefits may be overemphasized, I think the main point is certainly valid, that gaming can be a very positive aspect of our lives. I’d imagine moderation is the key. Here’s that video:

The first sister (the one who talked about stress), from what I was told, has suffered from constant migraines her entire life. But what is crazy is that the second sister suffered a concussion/brain injury a few years ago that gave her constant migraines as well for a period of time. What a rough turn of events!

During the video, I might mention as well, there were certain things the speaker asked us to do, such as shake hands with someone for six seconds, or count backwards from one hundred, etc. That made it fun and light hearted, in addition to the fact that the talk was about games.

After that talk, we again discussed the topic of the video. We shared thoughts on gaming, most not being gamers, but a few mentioning certain phone app games they got sucked into. I personally have been somewhat of a gamer in the past, but never a serious one. I haven’t played video games in probably six months, and should probably dust off my PS3 sometime.

After service, I had a nice, short discussion with the lady with the British accent and another lady. They were very pleasant to talk to. It was quite an odd experience talking openly about my atheism/Humanism in a church. But it felt very natural, as all of us had equal respect for belief and nonbelief. I think many of the members are Deists or Christian Universalists, but they told me that there are several professing atheists in the group, so nonbelief is not a problem. The lady with the British accent said that her husband is what she calls a “Christian Atheist”, that is, he enjoys Christian religion but doesn’t believe. I found that fascinating and cool.

We all went into the room with tables and snacks, and I sat down at a table with three other men. I had some great conversation with them, as we discussed our religious pasts, current beliefs and philosophies, etc. We shared a good deal in common, although we each had our own particular thoughts on whether there was some sort of God (basic Deism) and what that meant, or the nature of reality as a whole. It was nice to have that type of open, respectful dialogue that could never work at an Evangelical church. We hit several topics that never come up at church: atheism, a critical view of theodicy, and a positive appreciation for Eastern religious thought (something I always find fascinating.)

I really enjoyed my experience there, and plan on going again next week. I could see this being a good place for me. Who would’ve guessed? If there is a similar church in your area, I’d encourage you to keep an open mind, and check it out at least once. You never know until you try.


Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Philosophy

Finding Common Ground – My Changing Thoughts on Informal Dialectics

I’ve been doing a lot of philosophical soul searching lately, and am in the process of reevaluating my approach to writing and conversation. It has been noted that when someone leaves their religion, they often become bitter; at least for a season. For some this season can last for months, for others it can take years, and for some the negative outlook may never be replaced.

Since I left Christianity, sometime between mid-October and early November last year, I have dealt with my share of bitterness and angst. Most of this has not been directed against people, but can be seen in my negative, deconstructionist approach to writing. I don’t insult Christians (at least intentionally) or try to mock them, nor have I tried to take anyone away from the faith; but I have engaged in what could be construed as intellectual warfare against my former belief system. My purpose has never been to attack Christianity, but there is not much of a practical difference between running a blog devoted almost exclusively to criticizing a belief system and the former. I’m sure this deconstructionist attitude serves a psychological purpose (such as increasing confidence in one’s new worldview), but I am not convinced it is a healthy or beneficial outlook to have for sustained periods of time.

I feel like I am heading in the right direction. And I attribute this to several factors, including the positive influence of non-dogmatic Christian and non-Christian friends both online and in person. They have reminded me that most of us hold core values in common, even if we differ with regard to approach or beliefs. I would also credit a conscious decision of mine to shift from negative to positive studies. This includes increased study of subjects such as humanism, philosophy, psychology, etc. as opposed to my previous areas of study such as biblical criticism and religious philosophy. The old native american proverb comes to mind: “Inside of me there are two dogs. One is mean and evil and the other is good and they fight each other all the time. When asked which one wins I answer, the one I feed the most.”

Lately I’ve been reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. His thoughts on humility and non-dogmatism are insightful and inspiring to me, I will quote him at length here.

My list of virtues contained at first but twelve ; but a
Quaker friend having kindly informed me that I was
generally thought proud ; that my pride showed itself fre-
quently in conversation ; that I was not content with being
in the right when discussing any point, but was overbear-
ing, and rather insolent, of which he convinced me by
mentioning several instances ; I determined to endeavour
to cure myself, if I could, of this vice or folly among the
rest ; and I added Humility to my list, giving an extensive
meaning to the word.

I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of
this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the
appearance of it. I made it a rule to forbear all direct
contradiction to the sentiments of others, and all p0sitive
assertion of my own. I even forbid myself, agreeably to

the old laws of our Jiinto, the use of every word or expres-
sion in the language that imported a fixed opinion ; such as
certainly, undoubtedly, &c., and I adopted instead of them,
I conceive, I apprehend, or I imagine, a thing to be so or so ;
or it so appears to me at present. When another asserted
something that I thought an error, I denied myself the
pleasure of contradicting him abruptly, and of showing
immediately some absurdity in his proposition ; and in
answering I began by observing, that, in certain cases or
circumstances, his opinion would be right, but in the
present case there appeared or seemed to me some difference,
&c. I soon found the advantage of this change in my
manners ; the conversations I engaged in went on more
pleasantly. The modest way in which I proposed my
opinions, procured them a readier reception and less con-
tradiction ; I had less mortification, when I was found to be
in the wrong ; and I more easily prevailed with others to
give lip their mistakes and join with me, when I happened
to be in the right.

And this mode, which I at first put on with some violence
to natural inclination, became at length easy, and so
habitual to me, that perhaps for the last fifty years no one
has ever heard a dogmatical expression escape me. And to
this habit (after my character of integrity) I think it prin-
cipally owing that I had early so much weight with my
fellow-citizens, when I proposed new institutions or altera-
tions in the old ; and so much influence in public councils,
when I became a member ; for I was but a bad speaker,
never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of
words, hardly correct in language, and yet I generally
carried my point.

(The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, p. 102-103)

His words definitely resonated with me, as I have long been in the habit of dogmatically asserting my opinions. I am also prone, as he was, to pride and arrogance. This post is my first attempt at reversing that trend since I left Christianity. I have in the past been better at avoiding dogmatic expressions, but have found that there has been a correlation between increased devotion to my studies and lack of patience with those who hold contrary opinions.

When a dispute arises, or someone expresses a contrary belief to our own, we generally look for objective justification of our opinions. What I mean is that, in order to bolster our arguments, we appeal to things which seem to carry universal epistemological weight. For instance, if I disagree with a Christian, I will usually appeal to the rules of logic in an attempt at making a reductio ad absurdum argument (reducing an opponent’s view to absurdity).

While this is a totally acceptable and honest approach to argumentation, it will not likely endear the other person to me. I think there is a time and place for such argumentation, but it may be true that we generally overestimate it’s beneficiality in informal discourse. Rather than trying to beat someone over the head with logic or science, maybe we should not be worried about the other person’s opinion at all. Maybe, a more pragmatic approach is worth considering.

Instead of trying to prove or disprove my or another’s opinion by appealing to objective justification, I find it tempting to approach conversation by primarily appealing to common values and opinions. What I mean is that finding commonality may have more pragmatic value than focusing on contrary opinions. If someone wishes to discuss a topic with me, in which we do not have an opinion in common, it may be better to know at the outset what the purpose or goal of discussing the topic is. If the goal is to learn more about the opposing perspective, or to solve some problem, then I think the topic is worth engaging respectfully. However, if the person initiating the conversation is not sincerely interested in the contrary opinion, and there is no problem to be solved, then it is probably not worth engaging in.

I don’t think both sides must be sincerely interested in the opposing viewpoint, but I do think there needs to be mutual respect and an absence of dogmatic statements if the conversation is to avoid dissolving into dispute. I think the burden is especially on the initiator to have proper motives. I imagine myself being on the receiving end of questions on a sensitive topic. In the ideal scenario I would state clearly that I do not wish to debate, but would be willing to share my perspective respectfully if the other person was sincerely interested in what I have to say. On the other hand, if I were the initiator, I would only bring up a sensitive topic if I were sincerely interested in the other person’s perspective and willing to refrain from directly contradicting the person or acting in an otherwise provocative manner. I would also not speak openly about a controversial topic unless I knew the audience held similar opinions or is interested in mine.

This applies to writing as well. There is more liberty when writing an article or blog post to a non-specific audience than there is in conversation. After all, I am not compelling anyone to read what I write, and those who do are most likely interested in the topic. There is a greater freedom in writing to address controversial subjects. But when this is done, there are still reasons to presume that tact is important.

Firstly, insulting or accusing another person in writing is arguably worse than doing so in conversation. This is because the person is not present to respond.

Secondly, mocking or insulting groups of people or their view is likely to agitate and cause unnecessary stress both for the writer and the respective group.

Thirdly, a dogmatic or condescending approach is likely to antagonize those who are prone to dispute. It is likely to make people feel as if their intelligence is being called into question or that the writer is arrogant or prideful.

The fourth vice of writing would be a negative preoccupation with the flaws in opposing viewpoints. This can lead those of contrary opinion to feel attacked and can lead to defensive reactions.

All of these things seem, upon reflection, to be hindrances to the development of an intellectually open society. I am most guilty of dogma, condescension and preoccupation with the flaws of opposing viewpoints. Knowing this, I hope to improve the tone of my writing and conversation by avoiding these vices. I hope that I can continue to learn from others and be less concerned with ‘winning’ arguments (a futile endeavor) and more concerned with valuing the thoughts and opinions of everyone and respectfully contributing to public discourse.


Thank you for considering my perspective. Your opinion matters to me, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Philosophy

Is Christianity Self-Evident? – Refuting Presuppositional Apologetics

There are some facts that are so obvious no one will likely question them (e.g. ‘the sun produces heat’); but most need to be proven true before they are accepted as such. Even a prima facie truth (one that appears true at first sight) can and should be scrutinized and rejected if found false; although the burden of proof lies on those who are skeptical.

Most theories become facts only after gaining nearly universal acceptance, at least within the field of study they belong to. This requires proof. We expect evidence to be presented for claims when less than an overwhelming majority of people hold them. This does not mean beliefs with less support are false (or that the majority is always correct), but they need to be supported by a convincing argument before people will rely on them. If we weren’t so picky we would believe everything, no questions asked, and accept all theories on everything (ALIENS! BIGFOOT!)

It seems that many Christians, especially presuppositionalists, present Christian beliefs as self-evident truth. They assume that the burden of proof is on those who don’t believe; despite the fact that there is no empirical evidence of God. The hypothesis of God’s existence is unfalsifiable, as Christians are often quick to point out (e.g. the argument made in the popular movie God’s Not Dead). Because of this, the burden of proof should be on those who present it as factIf we did not require proof for unfalsifiable claims, we would be forced to accept all religions as true, since their beliefs in the supernatural are likewise unfalsifiable. Presuppositionalists should be consistent and acknowledge that their epistemology (theory of knowledge) necessarily leads to subjectivism.

Beyond the foundational question of God’s existence, Christianity (at least in the way it is most represented) is a complicated and comprehensive belief system; not just simple belief in a deity. If you believe the wrong thing about God (i.e. God doesn’t want people to stop sinning) you would likely not fit in at any church. So the question of self-evidence is not whether most people believe in a deity, but whether the entire belief system of biblical Christianity is prima facie truth.

Examining the Prevalence of Christianity

As mentioned before, the most important gauge of self-evident truth is whether an overwhelming majority of people accept it. If Christianity truly were self-evident, it would naturally follow that the majority of people in the world would be Christians. But this is not the case. In a 2012 study, Pew Research Center found that 31.5% of people in the world identify as Christians (keep in mind that Catholics, Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc. all fall under the umbrella of ‘Christianity’). Christians represent less than 5% of the populations of 38 countries, and they represent less than 0.5% of the populations of Morocco, Somalia, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Tunisia, Western Sahara, Yemen, Mauritania, Cambodia, Maldives, Turkey, Bhutan, Comoros, and Nepal. If the “truth” of Christianity is prima facie, one would have to assume that roughly 99.5% of people in the countries listed above are rejecting an obvious, self-evident truth.

The study goes on to say that “nearly nine-in-ten Christians (87%) are found in the world’s 157 Christian-majority countries.” Is God more self-evident in Christianized countries? Here’s a novel thought: religious people generally hold their beliefs because they are a part of their culture, not because the truth of their religion is self-evident. Christianity is not a part of Morocco’s culture; therefore it is not surprising that less than 0.1% of people in Morocco are Christians. It would seem that evangelism of these countries would not be needed if Christianity were self-evident. Wouldn’t it just be stating the obvious? If everyone has knowledge of God in their hearts, why do many act woefully ignorant of the fact and need to hear the gospel before they can be saved?

02_majority

In response many Christians will say that people reject God because they are either blinded, depraved, selfish, sinful, arrogant, or all of the above. The assumption is that non-Christians do not reject Christianity out of sincere ignorance, but rather make a conscious decision knowing full well that what they are rejecting is the truth. Of course, not all Christians believe this, and many sympathize with skeptics. But the presuppositional apologist cannot see things that way, as it would undermine his epistemology.

The Doctrine of Biblical Infallibility and Presuppositionalism

This belief in the self-evidence of the Christian God originated in the writings of Paul; specifically passages like Romans 1:18-23. The presuppositionalist takes the view that, regarding those who do not believe: “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them . . . So they are without excuse.” This is the basis of presuppositional apologetics. It is rooted in the belief in biblical infallibility (a doctrine I argued against here). If the Bible was not assumed by some to be infallible, this claim would not be taken seriously by anyone. The apostle Paul couldn’t objectively prove his unfalsifiable hypothesis of universal knowledge of God in the first place, and neither can the presuppositionalist.

But where exactly does this belief in biblical infallibility come from? We would never assume any writing to be beyond dispute unless there were some motive to do so. This belief is again unfalsifiable, and no one can prove that the Bible is absolutely true in all matters. The motive is obvious: without an infallible Bible, Christianity would have to fight battles over the reliability of texts that contain discrepancies, or are historically dubious. There would be no authority in Protestantism without the doctrine of biblical infallibility. The Catholic church has their belief in church infallibility, and rejects a strict doctrine of biblical infallibility/inerrancy. That allows them to have authority. Religion has always been, and always will be about establishing unquestionable authority. If you get enough people to believe in the authority of a religious text or institution, you can set clear dividing lines between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ based solely on obedience and conformity to the established authority.

Are All Beliefs Equally Subjective?

The presuppositionalist tries to make the case that everyone has presuppositions that inform their worldview, and the ones that are held by Christians are no less subjective or unjustified than the ones held by atheists. While it is certainly true that everyone operates on presuppositions, this does not mean that all presuppositions are equally justified.

If I presuppose for example, that science is more reliable than the Bible, am I committing a subjective fallacy? I think not. Science has rigorous methodologies and theories undergo intense scrutiny. The results of scientific development are plain to see. If we abandoned it, civilization would quickly start to regress. I doubt many people would be willing to ignore all scientific findings, choosing instead to rely on the Bible as their only information about the world. If we reversed this, and civilization abandoned the Bible, would we regress to the same degree as if we abandoned science? I think not. I would suggest that humanity would not be significantly worse off if the Bible was no longer read.

I would encourage presuppositionalists who think their beliefs could never possibly be proved wrong by science to put their money where their mouth is and not appeal to science for anything. I personally, along with most atheists have chosen not to live according to the Bible, and so I don’t appeal to the Bible in my daily life. Presuppositionalists will still appeal to science in other areas of their lives, yet treat it as untrustworthy when it conflicts with the Bible.

Even more damning to this view is the fact that the Bible has been proven to be incorrect in many instances. Whether it be the mistaken authorship of the Book of Enoch, or many other well-documented internal and historical discrepancies and contradictions. The Bible cannot be inerrant or infallible given the sheer amount of evidence to the contrary, so the question becomes whether we can know if the Bible is reliable in the important details. And the truth is that we can’t know. The Bible may have some truth or it may not, but Christians have no objective methodologies for developing their doctrines. If they did, mainstream denominations would be creating updated Bibles which remove the unreliable information. Of course they don’t because that would undermine certain church doctrines, and open theology up to the possibility of new interpretations and doctrines. The average pastor will never admit that there is unreliable information in the Bible because it would undermine the authority of the church.

In my opinion, an atheistic worldview that is based on scientific truths is a justified presupposition. While a Christian worldview based on the Bible is an unjustified presupposition which ignores evidence. People are entitled to hold that view, but to claim that atheistic presuppositions about scientific methodologies and Christian presuppositions about the Bible are equally subjective is incredibly tendentious.

The Holy Spirit Factor

Presuppositional apologetics was born out of Calvinist theology (the belief that God chooses who will be saved and blinds everyone else). What makes it so difficult to reason with a Calvinist is that they believe they have access to a hypothetical entity (the Holy Spirit) which enables them to believe, while everyone else is just blinded by sin and depravity. This exempts Christians from the burden of proving their claims; after all, no one can be convinced unless God opens their eyes.

The belief in this entity (the Holy Spirit) is based on teachings found in the Bible. The belief in the Bible can only come through the work of the Holy Spirit, say Calvinists. The reasoning is entirely circular. Calvinists cannot present any evidence for the existence of the Holy Spirit, so it is clear that they learned about it because it is taught in the Bible.

Belief in the Bible > belief in the Holy Spirit > belief in the Bible

Conclusion

Despite the claims of presuppositional apologists, Christian beliefs are not self-evident, and this means that they should not be accepted as fact unless they are proven true. I do not think they have been, so it seems to me that Christianity is more appropriately understood as a belief, or a faith, than indisputable truth that is beyond scrutiny.


Image by dhester via Morguefile.com. Used under Morguefile License.

Thank you for reading. I’d love to hear from you in the comments.