Fear, ‘The Unknown’, and Disability: why I think militant atheism sucks.

I’ll admit I used to be a staunch supporter of Richard Dawkins’ particular style of militant atheism. Like many people, I read the God Delusion, and the Selfish Gene, and if I’m being totally transparent, I bought every bigoted, elite word offered. After chewing on the gristle of Dawkins doctrine,  I upgraded to Sam Harris, and found the same whitewashed arguments presented with less elegance.

I would watch hours of debates featuring Hitchens or Krauss, Dawkins or Harris. But eventually (thankfully) the spell wore off and I became aware of a new troubling set of questions .

I’m not religious. I am probably an atheist (I don’t like the term, but it best describes my worldview, in respect to the divine). But I don’t think it’s justified, or logical, or defensible to say that religion is useless and everyone who believes its many forms is denying their rational mind and ultimately hurting the species (“in certain situations it’s tolerable”, but even still the subtext reads “here lies an idiot”.)

It took losing everything for me to lose that arrogance. It took losing a family that was never there for me, losing my mobility, my health, my friends, my entire world. It took extreme suffering for me to see how absolutely childish and absurd these Atheists are. They have a philosophy by the elite for the elite. They’ve never known the kind of pain that strips you down and leaves you in existential terror. I’m not trying to subtly reduce theology to ‘fear-driven fantasy-creation’. In fact, those simple, incomplete arguments are precisely what I’m trying to say is wrong.

Being disabled has afforded me some fantastic opportunities to look behind all the smoke and mirrors. But those are insights that are not rightfully guaranteed to all who suffer disability. I’ve had a unique life, and thus some unique insights presented themselves to me. What we are all (the disabled) guaranteed to experience/ learn is humility. Being disabled is a humbling experience. Imagine everyday being told by society that you’re pitiful –  if not actually outright, then through social isolation, exclusion, and non-verbal gestures and cues (which show more pity and disdain than someone screaming ‘you’re worthless’ ever could). The corollary of this is that we feel no real authority to tell you that you should believe the ideology and doctrines that we believe.

As I see it, ( as broken as I am) telling someone they can’t believe in God because doing so makes them intellectually weak and shameful is probably one of the most common and morally reprehensible things these great Atheists -‘on the vanguard of humanism‘- do. And unfortunately, their  attitude has seeded and created a culture around shaming anyone who doesn’t only accept hard science (it’s like we’ve gone back in time three hundred or so years).

Religion doesn’t shun the disabled or the sick. Fundamentally, liberation theology affirms the lives of the disadvantaged. Religion gives people hope and safety and lets them feel self-worth. These people often live the hardest lives. And it frustrates me almost as much as it saddens me that these great Atheists not only get away with hurting (in their own words, far from mine) ‘the disadvantaged’, but they feel such fundamental moral authority from start to finish – no matter how many casualties.

These Atheists, who deny the authority of art and music and philosophy because ‘hard science’ knows all. I’m a science major, as well as a philosophy major. My great-uncle revolutionized film and founded Kodak. I get the practical value and the historical legacy of science, but these Atheist scientists have created a new religion. One that tells you how to think, shames you for being different, and says anything which isn’t science is a unique curiosity at best, and a useless waste of time at worst. It isn’t the class of belief that makes them religious, it is the approach: that substantiating their method means everything else is wrong ( even things which they know little about but deny because of personal bias (like the creationist denying evolution who thinks not being able to sexually reproduce with monkeys disproves evolution). Most importantly though, they brazenly trivialize the only thing powerful enough to imbue hope and meaning in the lives of people truly suffering (often the disabled – specifically the chronically ill).

As a chronically ill, disabled person, I do not feel like the culture of science is serving my needs. I am more grateful than I can express to medicine, medical advances, and the scientists who are working to cure my disease, and many others like it. But if this new movement towards a science centered society is for the betterment of society, you would think that it should first help those people who feel most left behind. Being really sick, and suffering to an extreme degree, for a long period of time, allows you to deconstruct what you thought were ‘the truths of life’. When you lose everything that usually brings you joy, and when you are separated from culture and society long enough to lose those conventions too, you quickly learn what matters most by what fundamentally helps you the most. Religion in itself doesn’t help me personally, but the freedom to be religious, without persecution (from other religious people who may have a different take, or from atheists) does; valuing human dignity more than thought tokens and belief systems. Relationships, love, and moral duty make me feel more safe and more happy than the joys of getting drunk, partying, eating junk food or even the rigors of scientific research ever, ever could. Those things don’t help me: getting drunk, partying, eating junk food, researching and experimentation, don’t make me feel better. Knowing that everyone is equal, by virtue of our shared existence, knowing that to be smart means to be humble does make me feel better.

I have a very Nietzschean view of suffering, so I personally don’t think that being in pain is inherently bad. What I do think is intolerable wrong, if not ‘the opposite of good’ as well, is telling people what to think and why. Lawrence Krauss never studied philosophy, and yet he claims to know that Philosophy doesn’t really help anyone and isn’t all that necessary. How can someone not know something, yet know that it’s not helpful or important? How can someone so inherently ignorant, as all humans (past and present) are, with omniscience tell us that although the seas ahead are unknown, this is the direction we obviously have travel. And how can he, a man who knows relatively little about the raw experience of substantial persistent suffering, know what’s best for me without consulting people like me?

The rhetorical overtones are obvious: he can’t. But this is the way these men operate. The claim often lauded by atheists is that theism is a belief system requiring faith in place of actual evidence. Of all the unknowns, knowing what a person thinks and knows is the atomic clock to unknown. The empirical evidence, the facts science produces, are only part of what informs  what a person thinks and knows. The sweeping evidence-objection generally appears to them as though it is consistently accurate – it produces predictive results. The inaccuracies, however, are created when that data is interpreted; which is often on the fly, with limited attention, and rarely in an emotionless atmosphere. Religion is more than fear-driven fantasy-creation; the fear-driven part is only a part of its origin. Without sparking a new divergent conversation about the history of theology, it’s enough to say that the value of religion, as I see it (as an atheist), is in the expression of the values we all should stand for – and which most do. Respecting someone’s beliefs not because you agree with the evidence or theory, but because you respect a persons rights and freedoms, and you recognize the complexity of their experience as an unknown variable.

Neo-Atheists like Dawkins and Krauss are as ignorant as we all are. Yet unlike most of us, they have this overwhelming sense of power, given to them by a culture which defies science and anyone who studies it. That subjective experience of power deludes them into thinking they’re wholly qualified for leadership, and they shape the public consciousness to match their ideologies all the way to the top.

Sorry if this rant was a little disconnected. I’ve just been really struggling with making sense of these feelings for a while. And I thought perhaps my disabled compatriots would get what I’m trying to say most.

Are you afraid of being afraid?

The property which causes that sudden feeling of dread when confronted with a painful or stressful situation is anticipation. We are very symbolic beings. Our neocortex alone dedicates millions upon millions of neurons to the task of recognizing patterns; and almost double that number are redundancy neurons which are tasked with recognizing patterns of patterns. When we experience a stressful or painful event, our minds work to symbolize that event, and encode context specific patterns. Any stimulus involved in that event is further associated into that symbolism. As a result, we don’t just experience one stressful and fearful event. We experience thousands of different versions of that very same event. Over time, we begin to consciously recognize this confluence: dread sets in.

We match up this event consciously with representative standards in order to solve the pressing problem stress is meant to create: can we overcome, or do we have to adapt? As a result, if the event (which is now more of a state) in question becomes a stable state of existence, and that state is grossly disproportionate to societal standards, we begin to mourn.

The initial assessment and span of time required to encode and regulate redundancies and consciously digest all the necessary information just simply must be endured. Yes it’s going to suck and it most definately will have a negative impact on your quality of life. All things being equal, I would hope that this wouldn’t happen to anyone. But all things aren’t equal, and so this stuff does happen, and it happens at an alarming rate – for some, at such an alarming rate they cannot find the ability to cope and instead take their lives. You cannot change the fact that it does happen, and you should not change the fact that you become familiar with it. Most people will catastrophize and admit defeat; they believe they are destined for a life of misery and pain. But the only way they can really ‘know’ what misery and pain entail is by matching what they’re experiencing with generic standards. They mourn based upon the difference between the two.

Let’s say it was the norm for a people of a certain society to be blind. In our world, we view blindness as a disability, but in this particular society, it is the norm. If a sighted person became blind in our society, but was informed of another society where it was the norm, is it possible his coping skills would improve? You can obviously make the claim that objectively having sight is better than not having sight, always. Healthy people living in our world with no visual disabilities are absolutely happy and content. Why? Well, because as far as they know, they are at the apex of what we call the ‘generic standards’. Lets imagine some time in the distant future we gain the ability to communicate telepathically, to see and think on a quantum level, and never die. A person living now at the height of his health is relatively satisfied. Lets further suggest even that this person knows he will probably live forever (life extension therapies are available which will ensure his foreseeable lifespan). We can all probably agree this is an ideal scenario and probably accurately guess at this persons sense of well-being. Lets take this person and place them in the future. In the future, remember, people can think telepathically, have incredibly advanced IQ’s, never die, have none of the pratfalls of human biology, and can think at a quantum level. Would that man be happy living there, and then? I doubt it. I think he would be as miserable as the man living in our world without eyesight, or the woman who cannot move anything below the waist.

What I’m playing at is an existential interpretation of illness and disability, rather than a cultural and societal one based upon norms and averages. When we are ill and afraid our minds conjure horribly unbearable emotions and force us into the darkest corners of the most depressing scenarios. The causes of these phenomena are varied and impossibly complex. But for once that complexity does not hint at a mindless fatalism. We think in averages and problem solve with patterns. We are symbolic and allegorical creatures with a knack for intuition and emotional reasoning, but we kind of stink at calculating the cold hard facts. We label realists as unemotional robots (a title I have been affably given, many times…) and praise idealists with their deep insight. The answer isn’t a ‘balance of the two’ – which seems to have become the catch-all category for people who don’t really want to think too hard about the problem. Offering a banal ying-yang response to a complex question fundamentally presupposes that the two poles in question are the only two poles… and further that they are also the correct poles. That’s not always the case, and particularly in this situation it is definitely not the case. In this situation, dealing with fear and with expectations and mourning, the answer comes in the form of a question: why is standard upon which your fears are based the only possibly and necessary situation? Is it really the only possible state of existence? Is it possible things could have evolved differently? Is it possible we could experience pain way differently than we currently do? And death? And why does the thought of death ‘objectively qualify’ feelings of absolute terror – possibly the most aversive feeling in the world. The answer is that it one hundred percent does not. Death is the zenith of symbolic thought. We have absolutely no clue, subjectively, what death entails. And so since we don’t have even a marginally accurate redundancy for death, our patterns will be based solely upon weak metaphor and general symbolism. When we think of death thoughts like darkness and night-time and space, and cold come to mind, accompanied by feelings like ‘where’s mommy’ and ‘someone save me’.

Death is further qualified by the notion that it is inherently bad. But how is it? If it weren’t for death, there would literally be no new life, or any life at all. You are hear reading this only because trillions of ‘things’ died so that you could be here, at this particular moment of terrestrial time. There’s a certain feeling of endowed responsibility and pride in that thought, isn’t there? Further, what is greater in our universe, life or non-life? Non-living things, to be sure. There are more atoms and molecules and mass collections of ‘stuff’ out there than there are complex life forms. There is also more ‘darkness’ than there is ‘light’ – which is another great example of our weak symbolism and metaphor. Darkness is not inherently scary. That being said, place the bravest man in a dark room with loud haunting, staccatto noises and he will surely experience fear.

The point is simple: you qualify your feelings of fear by searching for standards with which to compare your situation to. The problem is in the limited number of standards we can come up with and find, and the definition of standards itself. Human emotion plays us and convinces us that the proof is in the feeling. Next time you’re feeling afraid, think of how that situation may be not a bad situation, or may be a different situation. If you can think of a way in which the painful or stresful situation, in some possible thought experiment, could be good, or at least not as bad, than I assure you your fear will lose a tremendous amount of its potency.

At the end of the day, death is still bad and pain still sucks. We will all face those two things at one point in our lives or another. You do not have to give in to them and they are not the only states of existence out there. You have a choice to change the way you experience them, existentially and phenomenologically  by altering the way you go about thinking about them. Unfortunately society and religion have come together to define what good states of existence are and what negative states of existence are. To Christians, having a healthy body is good, and having an unhealthy one is bad – and usually implies some evil or past transgression. Let me tell you right now that that is fucking bull-shit. It’s a consequence of poor thought and an irrational attachment to cultural tradition. The standards society forces on us can have an unconscious  and profound effect on how you cope with just shitty situations. If you are courageous and strong, and you can bear out the initial stages, you will find a way to adapt. If you think about what I have written for a little bit each time you are faced with a shitty situation, you’ll find yourself adapting to different patterns and experiencing a higher level of peace and satisfaction.

Religious pomposity and scientific falsifiability: a brief overview

As an introduction to a series of blogs I am currently writing, I hope to achieve two things here: (1) spell out the problem as I see it, and highlight concepts which will be the topic of a future blog in this blog series – in which the subject will be explained in far greater detail. Most importantly, though, (2) to show how all of these concepts come together in the greater problem which we have all encountered in each of our lives, today. That is, the problem of science vs nonscience, or pseudoscience. The problems associated with religions, and the problems, generally, people seem programmed to have. So all I ask of you is to you bear with me; although I may appear to be fumbling around with some messy, disparately connected stuff, it will only get better! 

Religious pomposity is an arrogance like no other. The long arc of religious influence still controls some of the most important decisions facing our world today – or at least demonstrates tremendous influence. Religion has been around since time immemorial, and as a result, it is ingrained into our lives, and our very way of thinking. You can receive degrees in religion, careers in religious studies or pastorship. Mere affiliation with a particular religion in many areas of the world determines whether you live or you die. Although the religious (specifically Christians) try very hard to demonstrate ways in which religion and science converge towards a shared goal, or are at least not at intellectual war, religion is best contrasted with science. Science in its most basic form is a way of gaining knowledge and information about causality. Religion in its most basic form is an answer to many of the biggest causal questions we humans seek to answer.

As humans, we have an innate predilection to anthropomorphize, and to hierarchically abstract things. As a result of that reflex, science is spoken of as if it were a living, breathing organism; an entity (what will science teach us; science does not have all the answers). Well, it isn’t. It is a method. A method employed by inquisitive and intelligent people who require a way of understanding the world that they live in, and life itself. A thousand years ago this was called ‘philosophy’. In ancient Greece, philosophers saw unlimited intellectual jurisdiction. The impulse which established philosophy, through philosophy,  established religion. At the time, positing a god, or gods, made logical sense. Philosophers sought the truth, and proposed some theories which then caught on. But the tools they used to do this had not yet been refined by time.

Religion is an addictive substance, powerfully coercive and endlessly harmful. For the sake of brevity, let’s just say it stuck. Philosophy, however, continued to expand and grow. Eventually birthing science, and a much more sophisticated tool-set – which itself has continued to grow (and as long as there are rational, intelligent minds at work, will continue to do so). The most important quality of any rational inquiry is conviction and falsifiability; if a new theory grows out of, and overtakes an older one, follow the new theory. Don’t reject it simply because you’ve grown very attached to the older one.

And that’s precisely where we find the conflict between religion and science. Philosophy as a vector for truth, had a major part in the creation of religion. Religion posits an explanation; a qualitative explanation for the major existential and metaphysical questions facing us today. Science has proven many religious claims completely and undeniably false (claims such as the world is only six thousand years old, or that dinosaurs never existed, or that God created two men and women six thousand years ago, or that a man seeking refuge from a world-wide flood  built an ark in the Mediterranean loaded with every animal on earth which wiped out the entire human race, which he repopulated). The truths religions did hold onto were roughly carved, using ancient hardware; science is strip mining. Religion once occupied a continent, now it finds itself adrift, clinging to a life-raft built of denial and tautology.

Remember, science is a discipline defined by the urge to discover and uncover truth. When you discover a theory of everything (TOE), a theory which explains every problem and answers every question, you don’t really need to keep looking (at least for the average person). Religions propose a TOE, and so feel like they have somehow weaned themselves off the vein of truth. As a result, any new fact or novel information which disproves some religious principle is not taken seriously.

There are many subsystems within the genus ‘science’; mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, physiology, psychology etc… So too are there many specialized practical professions which derive meaning from information gained through science; business, economics, education, politics etc… If we want to run with this ‘living entity’ metaphor, than truth is the air science breathes, objectivity the lungs, and experimentation and falsifiability are science’s leukocytes; its immune system.

Much like an athletes talent grows with practice, the scientific method is constantly evolving. We do not define truth as this abstract entity; truth ad infinitum. For scientists, true means that which, as of yet, cannot be proven false. Truth is relentlessly and rigorously put to the test.

Science only exists because we have not yet found every missing piece to every puzzle. If there’s one truth which has stood the test of time, though, it’s this: do not fit facts to suit theories, fit theories to suit facts. Changing facts and picking and choosing truths to suit the respective theory is by definition an unscientific process. On the academic and professional landscape, this is precisely where religion stands alone. Science makes the claim that truth is not totally relative, it is quantitative; that there is some answer out there. And the only way to study that is through a process of falsifiability, experimentation and observation. In science, personal preference and ignorance do not count as valid vectors of intellectual inquiry.

overview_scientific_method2

In the scientific community, an uneducated teenager cannot lecture a biologists on signal transduction with authority. In science, personal preference loses total power in the face of cold-hard fact. That’s because science has something called ‘the scientific method’; a system in which subjectivity loses out to factual objectivity, always. Religion has no such system to speak of. Sure there are catechisms and doctrine; theologians working tirelessly through the hand of god. But the amount of free, unclaimed territory on the religions plane is a vast, ever-expanding veld of personal preference and blissful ignorance. If a scientist wants a theory to be taken seriously, he has to prove its falsifiability.

Merely showing that you can logically falsify your theory is not enough to make waves in the scientific community. Sometimes in order to prove your theory, you must overturn hundreds of years of landmark work done by some of the most brilliant minds in history. You have to completely give yourself to your studies. You become as much a part of your theory as your theory becomes a part of your discipline. And this is ultimately the big problem I have with religion. Every Christian (I’m going to pick on Christians in particular because I was raised and educated in the christian school system) has a set of beliefs which they each hold to be ultimately true – humility is not a strong suit. And each and every christian has a rightful claim to do just that. The other day I was talking with a friend. We came upon the topic of illness. He suffers from bi-polar disorder (type 1), and I have a genetic disease. We were talking about  friendship, and my place in our group of friends. For a while now I have noticed that we have all drifted; or at least that I have drifted from them. They don’t really make an effort to spend time with me, or talk with me. And I’ve noticed how cold and distant they have become; like they don’t really like me that much anymore. I told my friend I think a lot of it has to do with being ill. He says that everyone thinks I’m just too negative, and they just cannot understand why I don’t come out with them as much anymore. I told him about my disease, and he reassured me that I have no reason to be insecure,  that I should have just tell them all. My friends are members of the dutch reformed christian community. A particular virulent strain of Christianity which prides itself in its bigotry, racism, misogyny  homophobia and emphasis on the importance of manual labor. I have two gay brothers, my father is disabled – as am I, to a degree – and I am unable to work at all for the time being. I posed this question to him: I said, imagine if your bi-polar disorder weren’t so well managed, and you were having attacks of mania and depression on a very regular basis. So much so that It affected your ability to work. to have a family and to maintain regular relationships like you used to. Now, do you think that everyone would jump to spend time with you? Or do you think they would slip away and slowly drift? Now imagine watching that happen and then trying to talk to everyone about how sorry your life is, and about how hard your troubles are? It may be important to share these things with your friends, but it may be nearly impossible to do so if your friends drift away before you get the chance’. Now here’s his reply: he told me that the only reason his illness was managed so well was because of God. That he prayed to god and asked forgiveness for his sins and in return god rewarded him with a manageable illness…

I replied with some trite banal stuff about ‘if god were true, don’t you think it would make more sense if some people suffered on earth to gain insight and wisdom for the afterlife’. He responded with some of the most childish, religious bull-shit I have ever heard. Only, to him, that stuff about Jesus dying, that veggie tales level epistemology was the holy grail. I offered my opinion, and he told me flat out ‘No, that’s ur beliefs. I hope one day you can come to believe mine’…

Frustrated doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt. I forgot about this aspect of Christianity. I have been sheltered from this crazy shit for a little over a year. And honestly, if you read back in my blogs, I began questioning the purpose and ethics of militant atheism. I thought ‘why not just let Christians believe what they want; they aren’t hurting anyone’… definitely see the flaw in that thinking now.

My point is this: there seem to be no rules Christians have to follow when it comes to making factual claims. Everything’s up for grabs because they know if they’re questioned, they have the ultimate inductive proposition to back them up: ‘God’s mysterious and he spoke to me’… or something along the lines of that (I was inspired by the holy spirit; we can’t know God’s plan now, but we will one day’).

In the coming blogs I’d like to show precisely what’s wrong with this approach to truth, and this line of thinking. I will explain some of the key concepts in the philosophy of science and how that applies to the thinking, specifically, of my religious friend, and of religion generally. Hopefully by the end of it I will have armed myself, and those of you who choose to read, with both and understanding and a defense against the crazy lunacy that is a radical Christian apologetic and religion in general.