18 April 2010

The nature of the Infidel: an introduction

[Note: This was my self-intro posting at Mad Mike's America two weeks ago. I decided to put it up here too.]

In a soci­ety where reli­gion is per­va­sive and taken for granted, we unbe­liev­ers must always be con­sid­er­ing how to deal with its influ­ence, espe­cially when “holy” days roll around (the recent Easter post Zom­bieaster is a good exam­ple on MMA). Per­sonal “decon­ver­sion” (escape from reli­gion) sto­ries are a sta­ple of the athe­ist blo­gos­phere, and some who were raised with a reli­gion but aban­doned it still find them­selves nagged by "spiritual" questions.

My his­tory is dif­fer­ent. I grew up com­pletely with­out reli­gion, and so I have a rather dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on it.

I was born in the US, but my par­ents had immi­grated here from Britain in the 1950s. It’s hard to con­vey to Amer­i­cans what a non-issue reli­gion is in main­stream soci­ety in Britain. Many (per­haps most) peo­ple would, if you asked them, self-identify as “Chris­t­ian” in some very vague way, with­out actu­ally believ­ing in any­thing much. Fer­vent reli­gious belief is (out­side the small Mus­lim minor­ity) very rare, and mis­trusted. The word “Chris­t­ian” con­tin­ues by cul­tural inertia, almost devoid of sub­stance. My par­ents, as far as I know, never self-identified as “Chris­t­ian” to even that extent, but the word was all that was left to renounce.

That’s what I grew up with. I was not taught to reject reli­gion; as far as I can recall, the sub­ject never even came up. I was given a kid’s book of Bible sto­ries (I still have it some­where), but it was just one of the many sto­ry­books I had. As a teenager I became inter­ested in his­tory, and of course that included the influ­ence of reli­gion, but that’s all it ever was to me — a fea­ture of cultural anthropology.

To me, the sto­ries of Jesus and Jeho­vah stand on exactly the same foot­ing as the sto­ries of Zeus, Thor, Aton-Ra, Vishnu, Peter Pan, or Harry Pot­ter. They are just sto­ries which have influ­enced human cul­ture in var­i­ous ways; it does not occur to me to won­der if there are “truths” in some sense to be found in them. I do not believe humans have souls; I do not believe in anything “spir­i­tual” what­so­ever; there is no “God-shaped hole”. On the question of how human free will and con­scious­ness can be rec­on­ciled with the laws of physics, I’m quite con­tent to say that we sim­ply don’t know — yet. Our under­stand­ing of the brain con­tin­ues to advance, and we will fig­ure it out in a cou­ple of decades, as we have fig­ured out so many other things our ancestors thought must be supernatural.

If it weren’t for the fact that the soci­ety I live in is full of resid­ual reli­gious influ­ences — from cre­ation­ism in the schools to molesta­tion in the con­fes­sion­als to inces­sant efforts to enact ancient sex­ual taboos into mod­ern civil law — I’m quite sure that con­cepts like God, souls, spir­i­tu­al­ity, etc. would never even have occurred to me.

What fills me with awe is not the fan­tasies of other humans who lived mil­len­nia ago, but the stagger­ing sweep of achieve­ment since then. Consider how much more we know, how much longer we live, how much more we have, how disease-free our lives are, how many super­sti­tions and taboos we have been lib­er­ated from, com­pared with our ances­tors of a thou­sand years ago — or even a hun­dred. My grand­mother was born before the flight of the Wright broth­ers, and she lived to see men walk on the Moon; what she would have thought of the device on which you are read­ing this post, I can barely imagine.

That is achieve­ment, the achieve­ment of human rea­son­ing power and hard work.

It inspires me because I know where we started from. We are not “fallen” from some ideal state and in need of redemp­tion. We are a bunch of hair­less mutant chim­panzees, try­ing to understand the uni­verse and running a high-tech post-industrial civ­i­liza­tion with brains which basically evolved to hunt ani­mals on the Serengeti. If you look at it that way, we’re not doing so badly.

14 Comments:

Blogger tnlib said...

Liked it then and like it now. I have a friend who says it's mythology just like Zeus, Zor, etc. Or, voodoo or hocus-pocus.

I still struggle, as you know - I guess it's hard to let go of something that's so ingrained in you, not so much because of parents but because of going to a boarding school run by Episcopal nuns in a setting where the other three schools in the very small university town are all Episcopal.

I no longer "practice" but there's still a loose thread that won't let go - sort of like a bad tooth that refuses to fall out and just dangles from on high.

18 April, 2010 08:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For someone who professes no need to engage in "spiritual" matters you sure write about them a lot. The fact that you know nil to nothing about Spirituality does not negate it's existence. You simply have chosen(hence, the nic infidel)to turn a blind eye to something you, apparently, consider an offense to your mind set. As a Christian, I am concerned about your present and eternal well-being but, because God does give us free-will, if you want to think you are nothing more than a "hairless chimpanzee" you are sure welcome to do just that.

Lonni

18 April, 2010 08:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

TNLib: Thanks. I've known people who grew up with religion and I know how hard it can be to make the final break. I'd encourage you to read Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and so on -- I think they'd be a great help in letting go.

Lonni: This is just a variant of the old cliché that "atheists claim not to believe in God but actually hate him". The stupid mass delusions in which I do not believe do a great deal of concrete harm, due to the fact that so many other people still do believe them. That being the case, it's natural that I write about them -- see 6th paragraph, "If it weren’t for the fact that the soci­ety I live in is full of resid­ual reli­gious influ­ences.....". Since the majority of Americans are, in fact, in the grip of religious delusions, it is sometimes appropriate to explain why I'm not -- hence this posting. Trust me, I will be very relieved when religion is extinct or reduced to a tiny minority and I no longer have any reason to deal with such horseshit at all.

18 April, 2010 09:30  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

"It inspires me because I know where we started from. We are not “fallen” from some ideal state and in need of redemp­tion. We are a bunch of hair­less mutant chim­panzees, try­ing to understand the uni­verse and running a high-tech post-industrial civ­i­liza­tion with brains which basically evolved to hunt ani­mals on the Serengeti. If you look at it that way, we’re not doing so badly."

Well put. I started out with being indoctrinated in a religious cult as a very young child because my parents believed it was the right thing to do.

I left that all behind me as a young woman and raised my children without religion, and they, in turn, are raising theirs likewise.

We are productive members of society, enjoy the beauty of nature, are in awe of its majesty, and love reading about each new scientific discovery.

We obey the civil laws and never cause our neighbors any trouble.

We believe in protecting the very young and the very old.

It does amaze me to read how distraught some believers are when they encounter people like us who very nicely manage their lives without having to buy into mythology.

Anonymous insists you're spiritual, when in fact, I would characterize your joy as the result of partaking of life's great wonders.

18 April, 2010 13:06  
Blogger Tim said...

Infidel
I think you summed it up quite well.

Lonni, There is no Santa either.
I know it's hard because faith is just that. If you really want to be enlightened, Read the History of Religion. It was just a way to control people with an invisible Sheriff. I won't change your mind but I sure would like to see the expression on your face "at the Pearly Gates" Really? Really? You don't believe in Evolution? Really?

18 April, 2010 13:22  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

SK: That's how religion keeps going -- being handed down from generation to generation. Cultural inertia. Congratulations on breaking the cycle.

My impression is that most atheists are very ethical people, however much the Goddists have convinced themselves that that's impossible.

You're exactly right -- my appreciation for the revelations of science and the achievements of technology is rooted precisely in the fact that they are not spiritual, but real and concrete, firmly in the material world.

Tim: There are actually much nastier religio-trolls than Lonni. Readers here don't see them because of the comment moderation.

If they're really so confident that they'll get the last laugh after they die, it doesn't make much sense to be so interested in pestering us atheists in the here-and-now. I think that deep down, they themselves know religion is a lie.

18 April, 2010 16:15  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Nice post, Infidel, and interesting in illuminating your perspective, which I understand, but don't share so completely.

My husband too grew up in an atheist household, far removed from any religious influences, and his thoughts on the matter are very similar, if not exact, to yours. My children, whom we raised without religion, are close to his outlook on the matter. I, needless to say, am less adamant about "purging" spirituality from our lives -- I still see its value, although withdrawn from any organized religion (god forbid -- and pun intended).

You say:

I’m quite sure that con­cepts like God, souls, spir­i­tu­al­ity, etc. would never even have occurred to me.

I wonder how much of it is a result of your specific psychological make-up (and please forgive any possibly intrusive speculations here). My husband, for example, is highly rational and does not possess emotional needs that would predispose him to spiritual longings and searches. In his mind, they are a waste of time (although he understands that I am not as convinced of it as he is). It's just not in his nature, so to speak.

Leslie mentions that "loose thread that won't let go" -- I empathize with that, since I know this feeling very well.

But part of that "loose thread," as I see it, is our fear of death, from which religion -- or spiritual faith, at least -- provides some, though very imperfect, relief. Our mortality and our fear of it is one major reason why religions endure and will not be eradicated any time soon.

(I do know your views on -- and hopes for -- scientifically engineered immortality, Infidel. :)

20 April, 2010 11:19  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Elizabeth: It's true that no one can really be sure how different someone else's psychological make-up is. I think the only reason anyone (atheists, at least) in the modern world puts any credence in "spiritual" concepts is cultural inertia -- they're surrounded by a culture that treats those things as valid. I could be wrong, of course. Dennett and others have some interesting ideas about possible evolutionary reasons for belief in the supernatural.

As for the fear of death, I know that this is a big factor in keeping religion going, but it still makes no sense to me. If I'm wrong about technolgically-engireered immortality arriving in time to save me, then I die, that's all. That would make me unhappy, but the fact that something would make me happy or unhappy has no effect on whether it's true or not.

I guess it makes religious people happy to believe there's an afterlife. It would make me happy to believe that I have a million dollars in the bank, but I would rightly be thought a fool if I were to believe I have a million dollars in the bank, and act as if it were true, despite the lack of any evidence for it -- just because it would make me happy if it were true.

20 April, 2010 12:09  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

If I'm wrong about technolgically-engireered immortality arriving in time to save me, then I die, that's all. That would make me unhappy, but the fact that something would make me happy or unhappy has no effect on whether it's true or not.

I have a big grin on reading your response, Infidel, because 1. you sound exactly like my husband, and 2. it confirms my (not so farfetched) suspicion that you are built this way, and by that I mean not susceptible to spiritual longings (for the lack of a better term).

This psychological (if that's what it is, and why not?) divide is what makes meaningful conversations between (well-meaning) believers and atheists so difficult, I think. It is a bit like having two people who perceive the world in different colors trying to explain to each other what exactly they see -- it's impossible, I think, and, more often than not, it leads to unnecessary(?) arguments.

While I'm not a believer in God, I appreciate and empathize with people's need to believe. I also appreciate the atheists' disdain for religious faith. I guess this makes me a freak. :)

20 April, 2010 12:50  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

But is there really a psychological difference here? People can grasp the difference between wishful thinking and reality in most cases -- anyone, religious or not, would see my point with the million-dollars-in-the-bank example. And if there were deep-rooted psychological differences between believers and unbelievers, I don't think Europe could have gone from 100% believers to something like 50% unbelievers in most countries in a few centuries, nor could the US have gone from 8% atheists/agnostics to 15% in ten years.

I'm convinced that our species just does not have that kind of hard-wired differences between individuals, even though the differences between cultures show us that learned differences can be enormous.

Most American-born people of, say, Chinese or African descent are completely American culturally, even though their ancestors lived in utterly different cultures and shared the traits of those cultures. If the environment can account for such differences between ancestors and descendants, it can account for the differences in mentality between believers and unbelievers. I don't see a need to postulate hard-wired psychological traits.

And I honestly can't sympathize with the "need to believe". It does too much harm.

You and your husband must both be very interesting people to talk with.....

20 April, 2010 13:40  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

Infidel, all true.

However, I'm talking, more specifically, about susceptibility (not the best word, but don't have another one handy) to mystical experiences, for example, which is not related to religious upbringing, but, as some speculate, to overactive temporal lobes* of our brain.

You have individuals with this type of a hard-wired(?) make-up in every culture. Telling them that there is no God, however understood, and their mystical experiences are the result of misfiring(?) neurons would be like telling you that red is really green -- only you, of all people, cannot see it (again, not the best analogy, but I'm between phone calls and dinner -- sorry!)

And yes, we are interesting people, you betcha. ;)

*See the God helmet.

20 April, 2010 14:27  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Yes, I figured you meant something like that (I've read a fair amount about these kinds of issues) -- that's what I was talking about. I know there are people who are more susceptible, in every culture, but I don't believe it's hard-wired. I think it's the influence of upbringing and the environment.

20 April, 2010 15:30  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I think it's the influence of upbringing and the environment.

Infidel, I'd say that temporal lobe sensitivity is not any more a result of environmental influences than synesthesia (or temporal lobe epilepsy found in so many mystics and artists). There is no evidence (that I know of) showing it is related to upbringing/environment, and plenty for the hypothesis that it's inborn. This, of course, does not close a debate on the matter.

But that's why, IMO, it's so difficult to talk to people who differ in this respect. Try telling a synesthete that sounds really do not have colors (and the other way around). These hard-wired differences shape our basic perceptions of reality, our experiences, and, in turn, our more complex feelings and thoughts, causing us to arrive at different concepts of reality and truth.

What's true for a synesthete (or mystic) would sound alien to you, and vice versa. Etc. You get my point, I'm sure.

A relevant (or not) aside: My husband thinks I'm weird (as someone prone to mystical experiences from childhood). And I think he is weird, not ever having even one mystical experience nor an inkling as to what they may be (but especially since he thinks I am weird ;). Throughout the years, we've learned to appreciate each other's weirdness and even, dare I say, benefit from it, as it tends to fill out our respective blind spots. (Which, I guess, goes to show you how weird we are. :))
End of aside.

20 April, 2010 16:24  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Yes, but synesthesia (or mystical experiences, which in practice are no different from any other type of hallucination) aren't the main issue here. It's an inability to distinguish between wishful thinking and reality in one narrowly-defined area of judgment, in people who are perfectly well able to make that distinction in other areas.

Whatever predisposes people to religious belief can't be inborn, or the incidence of atheism in a population wouldn't be able to vary so dramatically within a short space of time.

21 April, 2010 03:00  

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