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“…and lo, I looked, and the Pale Horseman did pick up a few bucks on the side…”

Okay, I’m going to go a bit off-script here, and throw out a rant. A rant that, despite truly heroic efforts on the part of my inhibitory circuits, I simply cannot withhold. I normally like my posts to be more polished than this, but what the hey. Consider this a brief follow up to my earlier post about how to handle Facebook. A personal aside, if you will.

One of my relatives just posted this link on their FB page, that showed up in my newsfeed:

It shows a scene from the recent unrest in Egypt in which, due to either a lens-flare or Photoshop prankster — and really, who the hell cares which, the ghostly image (well, kinda sorta, if you squint real hard) of a horse and rider appears to move through the crowd.

Needless to say, the people posting this and commenting on it are getting “goose bumps” and “chills” declaring for all to know that “God is REAL!!” It is, they are quite sure, one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse. These are very nice people, and they are not kidding.

Oh, dear me. …

Continue Reading February 10, 2011 at 12:11 am 20 comments

On Certainty, part II: Behind Good and Evil

That certainty is a function of psychology is also the conclusion of Dr. Robert Burton, a neurologist has written an entire book on this phenomenon (On Being Certain). His suggestion, to summarize briefly, is that the feeling of certainty, what he calls the feeling of knowing, is simply a mental state, a kind of unconscious mental self-assessment. We don’t really have a good word for what this is, but it’s more like an emotion than anything else. The closest analog would be the feeling of familiarity, the mental sensation of recognition that we have all the time but only become aware of when it misfires: déjà vu. Déjà vu is a feeling that something (like a situation) is familiar when, in fact, we know it is not. He suggests the brain creates these sensations as a kind of self-assessment, to help guide behavior. The feeling of knowing – certainty – is the mind’s unconscious assessment of its confidence in its conclusions. It is something like the way some search engines give you a list of results with a percentage estimate of how close it calculates the match to be (yet, of course, can often fail to turn up what you’re looking for, despite a high-probability assessment). Certainty, then, is a feeling. It is not, somehow, some epistemological guarantor of truth.

Burton has a lot more to say about this, including the neurochemical basis for this sensation. He suggests that similar to the way some people are more prone than others to getting a mental “high” from gambling that makes it, for them, very rewarding/reinforcing (and for some, even addicting), perhaps some people are just wired to be more rewarded by, or even addicted to, this feeling. Maybe some people are just wired to “need” the feeling of certainty more, or at least, to find it more irresistible. It’s a fascinating idea, and I think the core of his explanation here is excellent. …

Continue Reading January 17, 2011 at 1:53 am 13 comments

Are You Sure You’re Sure?

Ask any former fundamentalist Christian what was the hardest thing about giving up the faith, and many of them are likely to tell you that at least part of it was the loss of certainty: a fundamentalist knows, not believes, but knows, beyond all possibility of doubt or error, what the Truth is. Those who have never been tempted by fundamentalism are often mystified by this aspect of it, for nowhere else in human experience is this degree of certainty thought possible or even necessary. For them, this way of thinking is probably so alien as to be unable to be taken seriously as an option. We can all be wrong, about anything. Everybody knows that.

But not everybody. Certainty is near to the heart of most if not all fundamentalisms, and it’s intuitive appeal is not hard to see. To know for sure what is true about the world and where it is headed, and moreover, where oneself is headed, to know for sure one’s purpose in life, and to know with perfect knowledge that one is loved and adored and will be protected in perfect bliss forever – all this needs no apologist to make it appealing.

For those of us who leave fundamentalism, learning to deal with doubt and uncertainty – which suddenly and in a most unwelcome way take up permanent residence in our psyches – can be wrenching indeed. …

Continue Reading January 12, 2011 at 12:47 am 11 comments

Peace or the Sword?

“Dear Abby”

I want to take a moment to put before our community here an issue that has come up for me recently. It’s a small question, but I think ties into something bigger. I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

I just recently entered the 21st century, and joined Facebook. The last filaments of my SNL (Social Networking Luddite) resistance eroded away as I decided that, [huffily] okay fine, it really is a pretty good way to keep up with friends and family whom I would otherwise rarely see.

So, now I’m on Facebook. My family, too, is on Facebook. My saved, Bible-believing, churchgoing, Christian-rock-listenin’, Sarah-Palin-lovin’, Obama-can’t-standin’, fundamentalist family. And you can be sure of that, because their profile (not to mention “status” updates) say so.

Me…. well, now, not so much. Now, my FB profile could – could – if written for full disclosure, accurately say something like (one could mix and match here, so take your pick): secular, atheist-leaning agnostic, humanist, religious naturalist, and liberal/progressive, existentialist, militant agnostic (“I don’t know and neither do you”), and, of course, Arrested Development fan. …

Continue Reading January 7, 2011 at 10:31 pm 41 comments

What Would Yoda Do?

Some time ago I wrote an article for this blog discussing my take on the issue of who, “really”, is a Christian. This comes up when you are told, as we all have been at one time or another, that you never really were a Christian in the first place – because if you de-convert, it somehow proves the alleged falseness or insincerity of your prior belief.

My basic argument was that there is no answer to the question. The reason is that “Christian” is an arbitrary human group designation that is used with different (implicit) definitions by different groups. Since none of those groups has accepted authority to establish a (or the) correct definition, and since “Christian” does not (as we used to believe) refer to anything divine or supernatural, it follows that there can be no final, ultimate, “correct” definition. There is no right answer to whether “I was a Christian” is true or not, independent of context and a pre-chosen definition.

I still think my answer is substantially correct. But its not exactly punchy. It takes a bit of explaining, and that won’t always do in the heat of an argument. When faced with confrontation and criticism from friends, former friends, and others who challenge us, it helps to have an answer at the ready that doesn’t depend on delving into philosophical issues of “natural kinds” vs “nominal kinds”. I wanted something more memorable – compact & colorful, more visual and less abstract.

So after continuing to chew on this, I think I’ve come up with one. So, let me share it here and you all can tell me what you think.

Here’s the setting: you are telling a friend, coworker, or stranger on the web that you used to be a Christian, but you deconverted. She scoffingly replies that that means you never were one in the first place; true Christians remain faithful and never leave. (Or, as a variant, as was said to me once, that you cannot lose your salvation, so you are still a Christian whether you think you are or not.)

I think I will call this Kenobi’s Fallacy...

Continue Reading March 12, 2010 at 9:14 am 355 comments

Agnostic, Atheist… or Bullsh*t?

Much ink has been spilled in the skeptical community over the issue of labels. What should we call ourselves: atheists, or agnostics? Which term is more “justified”? Here, I toss my own hat into the ring on this question… and then I will argue that this issue is unimportant, distracting, and, potentially, divisive.

There is at least a small upside to this issue, which is why I’m including my own reasoning. The only potentially serious function it has, in my view, is that it provides a convenient arena in which to explore some epistemology. “Epistemology” is that branch of philosophy that deals with knowledge – how do we know what we know? Hashing out the atheist vs. agnostic question can be an entry way into how we approach questions of knowledge. We can sharpen our critical thinking skills and learn some philosophy to boot. To the degree that they serve that purpose, such debates can be informative, maybe even useful. There’s a serious downside, though, but I’ll save that for the end. So, for what intellectual exercise it’s worth, here’s my take on this question:

I start by defining terms: theism, of course, refers to belief in god(s). Atheism, then, obviously refers to a lack of belief in god(s). Agnosticism is the assertion that it is not possible to know the answer, and thus a refusal to opine (with any confidence) on the existence of god(s).

Now, some atheists define atheism broadly. They suggest it can mean one who asserts, “there is no god”, but also one who simply lacks (by choice or happenstance) any belief in god. This is a rather fine distinction, but real enough, I think. The former position is sometimes called “hard” atheism, the latter, “soft” atheism. However, since a “soft” atheist (a) does not assert “there is no god”, and also (b) does not assert “there is a god”, for my part I do not see any difference between this position, and agnosticism. So, for my usage of these terms below, I will restrict the word “atheism” to the “hard” variety: an atheist is one who asserts “there is no god.”…

Continue Reading September 3, 2009 at 10:55 pm 27 comments

How can the nontheist be thankful on Thanksgiving?

To many in the fundamentalist world, Thanksgiving is an especially difficult day to be a nonbeliever. It lays bare, they believe, the clear hypocrisy of a belief system they regard as one giant exercise in willful denial. It brings out with rather embarrassing clarity, they cluck, the God-shaped hole they presume sits at the core of our worldview. After all, we don’t believe in their god, so by our own rebellious logic, we have no one to thank. So why don’t we just sit around and mope on Thanksgiving Day?

So: either celebrate the holiday and admit you’re a hypocrite, or have the courage of your convictions to do nothing this Thursday, admitting that thankfulness without the fundamentalist God is irrational. Gotcha!

As always, these sorts of facile, black-and-white polarities obscure a whole lot of thoughtfulness and real human nuance. But today, let’s thank them for spurring us to think it through, and answer their challenge: why does it make sense to be thankful, if you don’t believe in a providential god?

I will even grant – because I think it’s entirely true – that gratitude is a salutary emotion. And I think this is true (mostly) for the reasons fundamentalists themselves lay out: it impels us to “count our blessings.” Gratitude makes us attend to, and hence appreciate, what we have. That’s a good thing…

Continue Reading November 25, 2008 at 6:26 pm 15 comments

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Today’s Featured Link

Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

de-conversion wager

Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.



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