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Tag: skepticism

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

The Most Awesome Man in the World

Who is the most awesome man in the world?

The Most Interesting Man in the World

I said “Awesome,” not “Interesting.” (source)

No, no, this is a guy who has it ALL.

Carlos Slim

I don’t mean the “Richest Guy in the World,” either. (source)

 

The man I’m talking about is a kick-ass guy who’s really got it going on.

Chuck Norris

The Boogeyman checks under the bed for Chuck Norris. (source)

But, no, he’s not the toughest man in the world.

 

Let me give you some hints.

He’s got a day job. He’s enormously intelligent. He spent time at Columbia University in New York. He has a great sense of humor. He gets hate mail along with fan mail. He weighs in on matters pertaining to NASA missions. He’s participated in Reddit’s AMA (Ask Me Anything).  He’s on television a lot, even though he’s not an actor. He can hold his own with the likes of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. And, oh yeah, he’s black.

 

Barack Obama

Good guess, but not the guy I’m talking about. (source)

There’s a guy who’s more awesome than Barack Obama, something many people have no trouble agreeing with, although, of course,  47% of us are all about Obama. Really.

There’s just one problem: the Most Awesome Man in the World demoted Pluto, and he steadfastly refuses to apologize for it.

Pluto, a planet with five moons

Pluto has five – count ’em: FIVE – moons. Earth is so wimpy it only has one moon. Do non-planets have moons? I think NOT. (source)

 

But does that make him less than the Most Awesome Man in the World?

In spite of his slander against Pluto, I say no. Neil deGrasse Tyson IS the Most Awesome Man in the World.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Dr. Tyson poses with a big gun. Sexy! (source)

 

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, is an engaging, interesting speaker and science educator. He bases his views on evidence and proofs. He was already so cool by the age of 15 that he was presenting astronomy research to professionals. Carl Freaking Sagan himself tried – unsuccessfully – to recruit the college-bound Neil Tyson to his astronomy department at Cornell. (Tyson went to Harvard instead, then graduate school in Texas and at Columbia.) He has eloquently explained the God of the Gaps. He has schooled a prosecutor who wanted him, as a juror, to rely on eyewitness testimony, and inquired of a judge why the defendant was accused of possessing 1,700 milligrams of cocaine, rather than 1.7 grams – less than the weight of a dime. His stories of his experience with jury duty underscore something that I’ve often said is wrong with the legal system – it’s set up to discourage critical thinking.

He was asked what he believed to be the most astounding fact about the universe. He responded eloquently:

The most astounding fact is the knowledge that the atoms that comprise life on earth, the atoms that make up the human body, are traceable to the crucibles that cooked light elements into heavy elements in their core under extreme temperatures and pressures. These stars, the high-mass ones among them, went unstable in their later years. They collapsed and then exploded, scattering their enriched guts across the galaxy – guts made of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and all the fundamental ingredients of life itself. These ingredients become part of gas clouds that condense, collapse, form the next generation of solar systems, stars with orbiting planets, and those planets now have the ingredients for life itself. So that when I look up at the night sky, and I know that, yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts, is that the universe is in us.

When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small, because they’re small and the universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life. You want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant, you want to feel like you’re a participant in the goings-on and activities around you. That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive.

I follow Dr. Tyson on Twitter. Twitter is an insipid thing, parsing the world into 144 characters or less. I only use my account to promote this blog, but I have this Twitter feed on my browser’s homepage that shows me interesting things that other people have to say. It’s one way of keeping up with who just posted what where. I see in my Twitter feed when Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist, posts news about religion in the public world, when Dante Shepherd posts new webcomics on his blackboard, when Adam Savage of Mythbusters fame finds a cool article. I follow political commentary on Twitter: The Tea Party Cat makes wonderfully pithy comments. Indecision is Comedy Central’s hub for all things political, and – oh! – Wonkette.  The snarky Wonkette site may be my favorite political news anywhere.

I follow the thoughts of people, too. Among my favorites are Andy Borowitz and Ricky Gervais. Those guys are funny. Some people – and I am not among them – can really make those 144 characters work hard.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is one such tweeter. His insights are worth repeating. And despite his obvious astrophysical prowess, his tweets don’t focus on the universe so much as they focus on, well, the world. For example:

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Bulletproof Vests

 and

Neil deGrasse Tyson on the TSA

and

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Success and Encouragement

Those Tweets were collected on a single site, which I was glad to see, because I know I’m not the only one who thinks just about everything Neil deGrasse Tyson says is worth hearing. I admire the heck out of the man. His values (“If aliens did visit us, I’d be embarrassed to tell them we still dig fossil fuels from the ground as a source of energy”), his wisdom (“Just to settle it once and for all: Which came first the Chicken or the Egg? The Egg — laid by a bird that was not a Chicken”), his pride in his offspring (“More evidence my 14yr old daughter is a Geek: after prompting me to ask if she knew any jokes about sodium, she replied, ‘Na'”), his knowledge (“According to the song, Rudolph’s nose is shiny, which means it reflects rather than emits light. Useless for navigating fog”), and his insights (“I’ve come to conclude that Fettucini Alfredo is just Mac-and-Cheese for food snobs”) entertain, illuminate, and educate.

What’s not to like about him?  Other than the Pluto thing, I mean. Let’s disregard that for the moment.

Set aside some time and listen to his “Brain Droppings” keynote speech from TAM 6. I’ve listened to it more than once, and I don’t get tired of it. He proves, yet again, that he is the sexiest astrophysicist alive.

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