Help Me In My Unbelief

An unbeliever's first steps into a faithless world

Why the Secular Therapist Project matters: An anecdote

Despite my advice on how to live in a mixed marriage, I cannot lie and say that I have everything figured out. I think my advice was sound, but I should note that none of it is a panacea, as my own marriage shows. My wife and I have struggled for a while, and it finally got to the point again where we both felt like we were at the end of our individual ropes. So we decided to go seek out a marriage counselor again, two and a half years after seeing one before my deconversion.

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One thing I’ve learned (a Twitter rant, extended)

This piece is an expansion of a serial rant I made on Twitter last night, made in part in the context of the Ron Lindsay remarks at Women in Secularism 2 a few weeks back and the subsequent furor among the standard factions of the atheist/skeptical movement (see here and here for opposing perspectives). Links have been embedded to the original tweets and relevant context.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my experiences as an individual, it’s this: Stop being so presumptuous about experiences you haven’t had.1 Trying to imagine other people’s perspectives – to “climb into someone else’s skin and walk around in it,” to use Atticus Finch’s metaphor in To Kill a Mockingbird – is a good thing, but there is a limit to the kinds of perspectives that you can imagine accurately.

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Credo hoc: Meaning

This is the third in my ongoing series on things I now believe as an atheist and freethinker. See previous posts here and here.

One of the times I can recall really interacting with an atheist before I deconverted was actually during my education program in college, when I was doing a brief internship in a middle school language arts class. When I was actually doing some teaching – the experience was part hands-on teaching, part observation – I ran into a student who had a history of sparring with the regular classroom teacher, who was the wife of a minister, about religion. This student also had a propensity for challenging authority in order to avoid doing any work (and not because of a lack of ability or intelligence, either), and his anti-religious attitude became sort of a tool to that end.

So at one point, I had students doing some writing, and when I came around to check on this student (who wasn’t working), I asked the reason for the lack of effort. To my surprise – and it should be noted, this was a seventh grader – the student said, “If there’s no ultimate meaning in the universe, why should I do this?” I was slightly taken aback, since the notion of no ultimate meaning wasn’t a thought I even entertained at that time, but I was actually being observed by my university instructor, so I reacted quickly and said, “Well, even if so, there’s still meaning for you right here, right now, so get to work.”

That was my first practical experience with the idea of meaning in a secular outlook, although I had been exposed to existentialist ideas when I attended a Christian college briefly. Of course, the attempt of a seventh grader to avoid work by appealing to a common but misleading stereotype is not at all reflective of a more nuanced approach to meaning from a secular perspective.

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Credo hoc: Origins

This is the second in my ongoing series on things I now believe as an atheist and freethinker. See the first post here.

One of the issues that is perhaps the most interesting – and perhaps most arcane and detached from daily life – to consider as an atheist is the issue of origins. Insofar as having some idea of this is useful (a question I’ll return further on), theists generally have an account that is somehow satisfying – in fact, too satisfying, as this just-so story really is too good to be true. Like morality, it is also one of those situations where theists claim to have a better way of accounting for the existence of the universe and of life than atheists, or, perversely, that atheists can’t adequately explain the origin of either. Neither is the case, in my opinion – although this problem doesn’t have an easy answer.

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Credo hoc: Morality

This is the first in what will hopefully become a series about what I currently believe as a freethinker and atheist. The series title is Latin for “This I believe,” after the name of Edward R. Murrow’s classic radio program and a well-known collection of essays.

One of the issues that frequently comes up in discussions about religion and theism is the issue of morality. (Actually, Matt Dillahunty talked at Skepticon 5 how his debates almost inevitably become about morality, and from watching a few such debates recently, I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s not hyperbole.) It’s not difficult to see why it’s a point of contention: Morality is a practical concern for both individuals and societies, locally and globally. Having a way to discern moral actions from immoral ones is something that people need to be able to do in order to coexist meaningfully in groups, and while the common wisdom for quite a while has been that religion is necessary for that, a lot of ink and pixels have been spilled trying to point out how secular ethics can be derived. While I’m not an ethicist or metaethicist, here’s my attempt to address some of my own concerns about the matter.

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Debates, technique, and bad analogies

I don’t often get a chance to watch recordings of debates, but I happened to watch a recent debate between Christian apologist Frank Turek and American Atheists president (and meme) David Silverman, which you can see here.

One of the reasons I don’t like watching these debates is that I so often see intelligent people with the right position utterly fail to make their position convincingly. Even the late Christopher Hitchens, a remarkable wit in his own right, did a disappointing job when he debated William Lane Craig, in part because Craig managed to set the terms of the debate, rhetorically speaking. (These debates also generally happen with atheists on the defensive, both in terms of the debate setup and the venue: the Craig/Hitchens debate was held at Biola University, a prominent Christian college; the Turek/Silverman debate was held in a Baptist church in Louisiana.)

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Evening the score

Recently, I mentioned my son’s interest in a book of Bible stories. It’s still not a big deal, but we were out again at a local Barnes & Noble, and he went in talking about Legos. So when I saw this, it was too good to pass up:

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Here’s to hoping that I can properly teach him what these stories are, when the time comes.

Is religion a mental illness?

Confession: I love playing devil’s advocate. I do it with students all the time (and sometimes I just pretend I’m playing devil’s advocate even though I’m arguing from a position I agree with), and it’s good mental exercise. It sharpens my mental acuity and keeps me more reasonable by virtue of trying to see the merits of an opposing position.

What I don’t like, however, is having to defend an idea, institution, or way of thinking from unreasonable attacks, especially from “my side” of the aisle. I do it because I value the truth, but it irritates me to no end when people who should have such a regard for skepticism and rationality seem perfectly willing to discard them for a convenient conclusion.

Take, for instance, a post on Hemant Mehta’s blog about Rick Warren’s son Matthew committing suicide. The post itself is excellent, pointing out the ways in which the Warrens could use this experience to bring better awareness to mental illness within Christianity, something that is desperately, desperately needed, as I can attest from my experiences in conservative Baptist churches where people talked openly about how people who are depressed just don’t have enough faith or must have done something wrong (statements which my mother, who has suffered from clinical depression for almost two decades, wouldn’t let go unchallenged).

So when I saw this comment from “Bubba Tarandfeathered,” I couldn’t resist posting in what turned into a bit of a flame war:
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A test of principle

When I first deconverted and started to think about parenting as an unbeliever, I decided that I wanted to allow my children to make their own decisions about religion. It’s essentially the same approach that I’ve taken as a teacher, where I focus on values rather than outcomes. This isn’t always easy, as it is much less frustrating to take this process-based approach as opposed to teaching my own conclusions about reality (and it would be a bit early to do so, anyway, since my kids are still young), and the people around me – my wife, mother, etc. – really don’t have such compunctions.

Anyway, I was out with my family this evening, and my oldest son wanted a specific Thomas the Tank Engine train that he’s been looking for on several occasions. We happened to find the particular one he wanted, but later on when we were looking at books, he got interested in a “My First Bible Stories” (or somesuch) book and wanted it instead. When I heard him say, “Bible,” I have to admit that I cringed. When I asked him which one he wanted, trying as hard as possible not to bias his response, only to hear him still say, “Bible,” I was even more irritated. But I resisted the urge to pressure him away from the Bible toward the train, and we ended up leaving the store with the Bible stories book in hand.

I’ve been trying to tell myself the whole time since then that this isn’t a big deal. He’s reading Bible stories, but that shouldn’t be any different than reading Greek or Norse myths without the direct instruction about God (I think). I read lots of Bible stories as a child – and I still remember a lot of the stuff I learned in those years – and I ended up being an atheist, as have many, many other former Christians (even pastors!), so reading the Bible doesn’t necessarily end in an undesirable outcome. And trying to shelter my kids from the Bible itself is a futile task and probably counterproductive, since that will make them think that there’s a reason to read it if I want to hide it from them, which they might then endeavor to find.

The problem is that this method is inherently one where you surrender power. As a parent, you get so used to helping construct your child’s behavior and ethics that it becomes very tricky to let your child have the ability to draw their own conclusions about the world. That doesn’t mean you don’t get a say, but you prevent yourself from having the final say in the matter.

As simple as it seems, this is the kind of moment that tests one’s principles. I could have told my son no; I could have chosen for him; I could have set the example that the Bible is not worth reading; but ultimately, that would have been a matter of sacrificing my principles for a temporary expediency. If I can handle a minor situation like this, I hope I can handle the bigger stuff.

The genie’s not going back in the bottle

When I first deconverted, I essentially did so because I couldn’t even satisfy my own desire for a rationale to believe. I had reached escape velocity, and the lack of actual reasons to believe eventually made it impossible for me to hang onto the belief in God. That’s what I told people when I came out, including my mother and wife, both of whom made it clear that they weren’t giving up hope that I might believe again. And I suppose this was fine, not just in terms of their own peace of mind but also because lacking any solid belief doesn’t mean that I’d closed my mind to the idea – it just meant that no one had ever presented good reasons. (They still haven’t, incidentally.)

But as I consider what has happened in the time since I deconverted, I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that my intellectual journey after faith has put me in a very different place than when I first discarded theistic belief.

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