Tuesday, May 31, 2011

How and why I became an atheist, Part 6

In part 1 of this series, I look at my conservative Lutheran childhood, above all my conservative Lutheran minister father's influences.

Part 2 gets into my high school and college years.

And Part 3 gets to my trying to follow in dad's footsteps at a Lutheran seminary, or divinity school.

In Part 4, I look at my "conversion" or transition period of my last year of school there and the first year after

In Part 5, I look at further personal, philosophical, unreligious and antimetaphysical development in my life during three years of living with my dad.

It's now 1997 and I'm on my own, editing a weekly paper. Working 60-70 hours a week, moving it from the red and into the black. Getting burned out. Drinking on the job.

At the same time, I'm now exploring more in things like cognitive science/philosophy, recognizing the origins in human brain dysfunctions of visions and hallucinations, etc. In short, I'm becoming more and more of not just an atheist, but an antimetaphysician in general.

I was eventually fired, for whatever reason. I listened to someone, and some inner part of myself, and quit drinking. And looked for support.

Well, the only game I knew of at the time for that was the religious-based sobriety support program of Alcoholics Anonymous. (And, that's what it is; don't believe the canard that "it's a spiritual program.")

Well, I was in such a post-alcohol mental fog, I didn't totally recognize that at the time. And, when I did, I was in a group, surprising for a small town in Texas, with many New Agey types and little in the way of people even approaching orthodox Christians. Well, I'd had enough happen in the last few months that I actually tried some Matthew Fox reading, even A Course in Miracles.

And, some degree of New Agey "power"-ness, but not a personal deity, "stuck" for a year or so.

That said, as noted on the previous part of this installment atheists (usually the P.Z. Myers type of "Gnu Atheists" who talk about religion as a psychological crutch don't get the time of day from me. I understand the desire for its comforts, still today. I don't find that necessary for myself today, but I'm not going to mock the people who have, not for 2,000, or even 5,000, but going by things like French cave paintings and some burials, but who have for 20,000 years sought out some sort of metaphysical support to help face the vicissitudes of life.

Anyway, I eventually moved on in many ways. I found a "secular sobriety" support group; I found a great group therapy counselor, and group, for some "childhood issues," after I moved to Dallas.

And, I moved beyond "just atheism." I could call it "positive atheism," or I could use the good old phrase "secular humanism."

I continued reading in philosophy of mind, cognitive science/philosophy and related subjects.

I saw more and more of how many of the allegedly metaphysical "artifacts" of religious belief, such as various visual and auditory "visions," deja-vu type events and more, were all parts of the wonder — and the humility — of the evolutionary cobbling together of the human brain and the eventual rise of what we could call an epiphenomenon, almost — human consciousness.

I saw that that, as well as Yosemite National Park and its falls, Grand Canyon and its vistas, Beethoven and the C sharp minor quartet and more, could all be approached with wonder, even with gratitude without having to be grateful to anybody, divinities included.

As I said in an op-ed column, riffing on Shylock in Merchant of Venice: "I am an atheist. Prick us; do we not bleed?"

But, as I said, at this point in my life, whether the term I use is "atheist," "secular humanist," "philosophical naturalist," "skeptic" or something else, I feel reasonably comfortable about where I am.

How and why I became an atheist, Part 5

In part 1 of this series, I look at my conservative Lutheran childhood, above all my conservative Lutheran minister father's influences.

Part 2 gets into my high school and college years.

And Part 3 gets to my trying to follow in dad's footsteps at a Lutheran seminary, or divinity school.

In Part 4, I look at my "conversion" or transition period of my last year of school there, my first year of mixed part-time work after graduation, my moving to somewhere between Uniterianism and agnosticism, and an invitation from my dad to move back in with him.

So, it's up to Flint, Michigan.

Dad suggested that I might be able to get an adjunct teaching position at Baker College, which had an entire division called "Corporate Services," largely devoted to helping UAW workers using education benefits to get their degrees before the next automaker layoff.

He also said that that wouldn't pay a lot of money and might not offer a lot of hours. He said one of his members was the manager of a 7-Eleven and I could probably pick up a few hours there.

Well, between feeling depressed at "failing dad," feeling depressed at "having" to move back home, feeling depressed at having "fallen" to the level of 7-Eleven work, etc., I was depressed indeed. Add in the fact of feeling hypocritical by going to dad's church every Sunday and going through the motions, and that's serious depression.

So, I tried to kill myself. And nearly succeeded. I took half a bottle of over-the-counter sleeping pills while getting drunk, maybe more. And, was going to put a bag over my head to try to suffocate myself while sleeping, in the process.

Well, I didn't get the bag on tight enough. And the self-preservation powers of human physiology kicked in a few hours later, and I violently threw up the undigested portion of the sleeping pills.

As it was, I had double vision or worse 24 hours later, with very rubbery legs.

But, I'm here today.


I taught for a year, before the college said that, due to North Central Association accreditation changes, I could only teach religion classes, of which they had none open at the time. They also said that someone had filed a sexual harassment claim (unfounded) against me. And, three months after that, a 20-year-old, or so, held me up at the 7-Eleven with a 9mm automatic.

Dad was ready to get out of Michigan, so I moved with him to small-town Texas, fortunately not too far from Dallas. Meanwhile, I was becoming an ever-more-serious drinker, out of life-frustration, boredom, and PTSD (and trigger of past PTSD symptoms) over having a 9mm waved a foot in front of my nose.

All of the emotional reasons for questioning not just the existence of god, but the support value (other than purely human group support) of any metaphysically-based organization, were increasing ever more.

On the intellectual side, I had done further critical study of biblical texts plus more and more reading in comparative religion.

And, on the personal development side, probably more unconsciously than consciously, some growth was happening there.

I don't want to stereotype agnosticism, but, for many, I think it's more a halfway house than a permanent stop; a seminary acquaintance actually pushed me back then to "declare myself" as an atheist and stop hiding out in agnosticism world. For those for whom "positive agnosticism" is a valid stance, though, my hat is indeed off to you. That said, I was also reading my first books on philosophical atheism before leaving Michigan. I knew I was at least at the farther edge of agnosticism.

And, as this part and part 4 of my journey have shown, atheists (usually the P.Z. Myers type of "Gnu Atheists" who talk about religion as a psychological crutch don't get the time of day from me. I understand the desire for its comforts, still today.

Two years of living with my dad in Texas got me a start in newspaper journalism, with a boss who was (himself) an alcoholic drinker, I believe. But, I got out of there, got a job as editor of a weekly newspaper and ...

I'll tackle more in Part 6.

How and why I became an atheist, part 4

In part 1 of this series, I look at my conservative Lutheran childhood, above all my conservative Lutheran minister father's influences.

Part 2 gets into my high school and college years.

And Part 3 gets to my trying to follow in dad's footsteps at a Lutheran seminary, or divinity school, up to the point of realizing that psychologically, I didn't want to be a minister and that, at the same time, intellectually and emotionally, I had problems with what I had been raised to believe.

So, here I am after two years of classes and a year of internship similar to a medical residency (we ought to make would-be lawyers do one of those, too), back for a final, wrap-up year of classes and realizing that this is NOT where I wanted to be going. I had enough money from scholarships and part-time work at a Lutheran publishing house that I didn't have to borrow much money to finish getting the degree while trying to figure out what I did want to do. (I've not totally figured that, 19 years later.)

On the academic side, I started doing "intellectual judo" on what I had been taught to believe. We'd been taught the bare bones of historical-critical theology with the idea that, as one professor put it, when Time or U.S. News comes out with its usual Christmas or Easter story, we could explain to church parisioners in a semi-fundamentalist denomination what was wrong with the story.

Well, being near the top of my class academically, and interested in the study of the texts and their exegesis, I took to this like a duck to water. Soon enough, before the year was out, I realized the more liberal wing of Lutheranism, just like liberal mainline Protestantism in general, wasn't a viable stopping point or landing point for my spiritual development. I was going to be some type of Unitarian, or beyond.

Related to that, I was reading more about psychology of religion and related issues. With my dad a minister, my oldest brother in the same graduating class as me, my sister having married a minister from the class ahead of me and getting her own master of arts in religion degree, my dad's sister being a Lutheran parochial school teacher, there were these larger issues.

I was losing, or cutting myself away from, some existential moorings. So I had emotional and psychological issues to face.

At the same time, I was bringing emotions, and philosophy, to bear on other religious issues, religious problems not just Christian in nature.

Big-ticket problems like the "problem of evil."

And, though I knew the basics about Buddhism, already then I was realizing that it wasn't necessarily just Western religions that have problems with this issue.

(The problem of evil is this, for the three Western monotheistic religions: How can an all-powerful god also claim to be all-loving while there's still evil in the world? For theologians who blame human sin, the quickest "counter" is with "natural evil" like hurricanes, etc.

Eastern religions? With more and more years of thought, karma, as an all-powerful law of reincarnation, becomes as evil, in a sense, as an all-powerful god for this failure. And, in some sense, the Buddhism that holds to karma is to me more perverse than the Christianity/Islam/Judaism that at least attributes this to a personal deity. But, I digress.)

On the academic side, tender young mid-20s Lutheran minds of mush were apparently too sensitive to stand up to such ideas. The dean of students eventually told me, after he'd been approached by several other students, that the only way he'd let me stay in school and graduate was if I observed a gag order. No, seriously.

So, I felt more isolated. And, as a divinity school has just one objective for its graduates (and my Lutheran undergraduate college had declined due to lack of enrollment), I had other angst on my hands, increasing - employment issues and lack of support.

Well, I graduated, continued to work part time at the Lutheran publishing house for a year after that while doing other PT work, and working on figuring out whether I was a Unitarian, an agnostic or an atheist.

A year after graduation, I realized I was at least quasi-agnostic. I knew then that Unitarianism the denomination was broad enough to accept agnostics, but ... was halfway ready to abandon religion as an organization.

Anyway, this wasn't an overnight process. My apartment complex where I lived the year after graduation was next to a small suburban St. Louis city park. I would pace out there late at night, praying/talking, or "praying"/talking to Jesus, Buddha, Yahweh, Allah, the Tao and more, venting my psyche, running through emotions and more.

This is part of why atheists (usually the P.Z. Myers type of "Gnu Atheists" who talk about religion as a psychological crutch don't get the time of day from me. I understand the desire for its comforts, still today. Ditto for those who treat "conversion" to atheism as a relatively pristine, highly intellectual process.

Then, my dad offered to let me move back home ... with the hope of me teaching on an adjunct basis at a college there. Well, it was better than what I was doing ....

And, that will continue in Part 5.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Some thoughts for soul believers

As Sean Carroll notes, it is technically true (Hume and the problem of induction strike again!) that an immaterial soul exists and is outside the provability bounds, or investigation, of current science.

But, as he also notes, it's also technically true that the moon, or some part of it at least, could in fact be made of green cheese!

And, he makes the burden heavy by whipping out Dirac's electron interaction equation and then asking soul believers to explain, in the terms of that equation, or if not, by adding scientifically measurable terms to that equation, how a soul could interact with the brain.

That said, one could be an epiphenomenalist. Perhaps Adam Frank, to whom Carroll is replying, is. But, while not logically impossible, nor inductively disprovable in a narrow sense, an epiphenomenalist soul that totally mirrors brain activity while never interacting with it is even more ludicrous than a soul that does. It's not too much to claim that it's impossible for such a critter to have evolved. And a deity that made that sort of soul would be even more ... risible? ... than one who made an immaterial, but interactionist, soul.

That said, it is true that science hasn't come close to investigating everything; it's also true that logically, you can't prove the nonexistence of anything — it's the equivalent of dividing by zero.

But, realistically? ....

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Billy Graham is master of the obvious — and the clueless

Actually, he's more the master of his interpretation of the obvious, when he says people are atheists because "they want to run their own lives." Actually, the fact of the matter is an acknowledgment of running our own lives.

Other than that, he repeats all the fundamentalist-type accusations about atheism — it allegedly can't explain why we exist/where we came from (try the Big Bang, and evolutionary biology, with details of abiogenesis between the two still being worked out); it allegedly leads to despair (a Religious Right wet dream of hell on earth for atheists); it imputes everything to chance (not true, evolutionary events lead to contingencies further down the line of development and chance vs. design is a false dichotomy); atheism allegedly can't tell right from wrong (nonsense, we see a common core of morals, with some moral relativity or situational moralism at the edges — just as fundies engage in relativistic or situational moral beliefs at times), etc., etc.

Of course, Billy Graham has never, I'm sure, had an honest, open dialogue with a real, live atheist.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Tradition — New Mexico style

In dusty, high-country towns
Off the more-beaten path of northern New Mexico
Acequias still channel water from trickling streams
As they have for three hundred years.
Majordomos still oversee gates
While users maintain the precious ditches,
Along with log aqueducts
And anything else to redistribute liquid gold
In a dry, ancient land.
In the surrounding forests
Remnants of old Spanish land grants remain
With logging sections still parceled out
To descendents of 1700s settlers
Still holding on to old family rights
And old family tradition!
I could never bind myself to the land like that,
But I don’t have three hundred years
Of tradition to teach me how, and maybe even why.
I would, though, like to find a place
Where I would want to settle down
And establish a tradition, a tradition for one.

Nature is tenacious

A pinon pine on a crag above Wolf Creek Pass/My pic

Tenacious grasp
Pinon pine on mountain crag;
Solitary life.

That lone rugged tree
Lives without one remembrance,
Growing but dumbly.

A lesson for life
That roots are oft unconscious
But still need much luck,

Refuting some rich
Who social Darwinism
Gave them all their wealth.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Happy 300th, David Hume!

Think philosophy is dull? Want personal insight into Hume's claim that reason is and needs be "the slave of the passions"?

Here's a great column-essay in the New York Times which will take care of all of that.