Living the Life of Reason

To live more rationally.

It’s not really a New Year’s Resolution, but something that has been on my mind a lot lately. What does it mean to live the life of Reason? Yea, I capitalized it, though that seems a bit archaic and, well, 18th century. I am not a woman of faith, but of reason. Truth is I never put much store by faith. I will accept something tentatively without evidence or reason for a while, but if evidence is not forthcoming I will eventually drop it and move on to something else. With a mindset like that, it is only natural that I rejected religion and am now an atheist.

I was raised to accept things by faith. It is easy. Lazy even. When I was a child I naturally believed what the authority figures told me, whether they ware teachers, parents, or the evening news. Questioning did not come naturally to me, at least not until what I was being told felt bad or contradicted what I wished to be true. What I thought should be true. I would accept things on faith. When I prayed and I felt good and felt forgiven it was proof to me that the prayer was effective and that the God I prayed to was real. But as I got older this “proof” became less and less effective, as it was not backed up by anything else that I did not recognize as my own internal state.

I still feel the influence of these teaching of faith, and I face daily the temptation to believe things based on how I feel at the moment. That can be maddening at times, since I have some crazy mood swings. There are days when I am energized and want to take on the world, and there are other days when the world is black and I wish I could just sleep and never wake up. Of course, I have never actually tried to prevent myself from waking up, because I always have Reason to tell me that I am in a depressed state and the world will look brighter tomorrow. Reason is the beam of light at the end of the tunnel.

My decision making is still largely based on how I feel in the moment. My tendency is to gather information and analyze up to a certain point, then I get overwhelmed by the information and the work and end up just deciding based on how I feel. This method has actually served me well in many decisions. It saves time and effort. In some cases though, I need more information, and more analysis. Should I change careers? Would I be happier and more satisfied doing something else? What about going back to college? I’ve found this in my professional life too…making assumptions about what feels reasonable can come back and bite you later. It HAS come back and bit me.

To me, living the life of Reason means more than merely rejecting superstition. That is now the easy part, second nature (though it was not easy at first!). It’s time to move on now, and keep applying Reason to all my other beliefs. Beliefs about myself. About politics, environmentalism, finances, everything. About morality, ethics, human rights, feminism, daily living. Assume nothing. Question everything.

So, as part of my New Year reflections, I am pondering what it means to live the Life of Reason.

What it means:

  • Pausing to think though my actions, rather than just being compelled by the feeling of the moment.
  • Riding out mood swings with a sense of sanity.
  • Being more in control of myself.
  • Pausing to question and check up on claims before believing them and sharing them on Facebook.
  • Always learning more.
  • Having the courage to scratch the surface of my core beliefs without fear of falling into a void (or going to hell, whether in the metaphorical or literal sense).

What it does not mean:

  • Requiring absolute certainty before making a decision. That way leads to paralysis.
  • Rejecting emotion. Emotion is important, and necessary for decision making. Logic is important, but without emotion and compelling reasons to act it is blind and lame.
  • Being an insufferable know-it-all.

I’ll probably think of more things that living the life of Reason means over the next few days, but this is a start.

Don’t Question Me!

“Stop questioning me!”

“What do you mean by ‘questioning’?”

“STOP IT!”

I don’t know how my times I was warned against questioning growing up. The first time I heard the word, I didn’t even know what was meant by “questioning,” so naturally I questioned further to get more information. As you can imagine, that conversation did not go well. I don’t recall any time in my upbringing where questioning was extolled as a good and positive thing, except occasionally in a movie. It seems to me that there was an unspoken assumption that to “question” someone was to impune their integrity and to imply that you don’t really trust them or their judgement.  “Questioning” was the thing that TV lawyers did to the opposing witnesses to try to extract the truth that the witness was clearly trying to hide. And if you are questioning an idea, it means you must be rejecting it.

Communication between humans is complicated, really complicated. One would think that merely transferring an idea from the head of one person into the head of another person should be a relatively simple task, but in reality is is fraught with danger. We all know this, because miscommunication happens all the time. Sometime there is noise in the area that prevents the receiver of the message from hearing clearly. Sometimes the receiver of the communication doesn’t hear the message because of noise and distractions inside their mind. Or the sender of the message might have unknowingly chosen poor words or mumbled their statement.

When it comes to questioning, problems with miscommunication occur when the receiver is not sure of, or is suspicious of, the intentions of the sender. Is the sender asking a rhetorical question, or do they really want an answer? Are they sincerely requesting information, or are they trying to catch me in ignorance and make me look the fool? Are they casting doubt on my integrity? It’s not that the receiver necessarily goes though this checklist consciously. It’s mostly happens that the questioner has brought into doubt one of the receiver’s unquestioned assumptions, and the immediate visceral response to the questioner is to take offense. How DARE they ask that!

It’s an issue with communication that all skeptics have to deal with. It is, I think, at the root of why skeptics are often branded as cold and heartless cynics. Supposedly many people’s unquestioned assumptions bring them happiness, so how dare you go and question them! But does it really lead to a happy and more fulfilled life to never have your assumptions brought into question? Maybe, if this unquestioned idea in your head has absolutely nothing at all to do with how you live your daily life. But most assumptions that people really care about are not like this.

Here are a few examples of a assumptions that all human beings have made at some point in their lives.

  • My memories are accurate and complete.
  • I know what I saw.
  • Anyone who hallucinates is insane.

If you really want to offend someone, just question their eye-witness testimony. No one in the world likes to think that the way that they remember an event might be flawed, but both experience and modern brain science tells us that our memory is not even close to a flawless recording of what we have seen and heard. Whenever we remember something, we actually reconstruct a story in our minds that emphasizes certain details, leaves others out completely, and is strongly influenced by our preexisting biases. It is unnerving and incredibly humbling to realize that maybe, just maybe, that event did not happen just the way I remember it.

Sometimes we need to question ourselves and seek out evidence that things really did happen the way I remember, or find out what  actually happened if they didn’t. And, importantly, to remember that when someone questions your story they may not actually be accusing you of lying but only trying to get at the root of what really happened.

Questioning, Offense, and Atheists

The issues of questioning and offense can be particularly vexing for atheists who would like to try to engage in dialogue with religious people. For instance, if a religious friend or family member says something like “God spoke to me this morning and confirmed that my beliefs are true” it’s usually a forgone conclusion that the person will get offended if you ask them things like “How do you know it was God?” or “What about all the people in the world of other religions report having the same experiences?” There’s just something about religious testimony that strongly discourages any sort of digging for more information. I’ve played out a scenario in my head to figure out what I would do or say if I got on an airplane and some little old lady sat in the seat beside me and asked me if I would like to hear what God has done in their life. Awkward…I could see myself asking back if they would get offended if I questioned their story. One of the things that worries me with trying to talk with religious people is that the conversation will either become one-way with them preaching to me and me just mutely nodding or with me questioning what they said and them yelling or stomping away angrily. Or they might not like my “tone.” Or they might be a level headed person who can take questioning coolly, but you never know when you first meet someone. Is it even worth the risk to try and engage the religious in conversation when they try to “witness” to you?

Skepticon 5: Science, Atheism, and Doctor Who?

This past weekend, I attended Skepticon 5 with my husband and around 1,500 fellow atheists, skeptics, and Freethinkers. This is the second time we have attended the free (yes, FREE), student organized conference in Springfield, MO, and we were not disappointed. For anyone reading who is not familiar with this conference, Skepticon is a free annual convention held each November in Springfield, MO and this was its 5th year running. It was started by the atheist student group at Missouri State University, and continues to be run by an entirely volunteer staff as a labor of love. If you would like to know more about the history and background of Skepticon, there is a full write-up on the official Skeption site.

So, when a bunch of atheistic and science loving folks get together, what do we like to talk about? If you have a picture in your mind of 1,500 people listening to presentations on 50 more reasons god doesn’t exists, then you don’t know us very well.

Topics of presentation included (not comprehensive, just the talks I got to see):

  • how to present atheism and the value of critical thinking to children (Phil Ferguson) *this is a clarification on Phil’s topic
  • the importance of community to atheists (James Croft )
  • how to be more rational in your everyday life (Julia Galef)
  • marriage and relationships from a rationalist perspective (panel on marriage and relationships),
  • the science and possible medical uses behind hallucinogenic drugs (Jennifer Oulette),
  • how to help atheist students thrive in high school and college environments (Hemant Mehta),
  • the different ways a genetic mutation can spread though a population over time (PZ Myers),
  • the common misuse of evolutionary psychology in popular media (especially how they perpetuate stereotypes about women) (Rebecca Watson),
  • the real history and causes behind werewolf and witch history in Europe (Deborah Hyde),
  • the basics of what the Higgs Boson is and why is it is so important (Sean Carrol),
  • basic historical methods that can be used to examine any claim (Richard Carrier),
  • how to be effective in debates (Matt Dillahunty),
  • getting over religious guilt and shame about sexuality (Darrel Ray),
  • the rights of atheists in the workplace (Amanda Knief),
  • and, of course, how to counter common religious arguments (JT Eberhard).

I’m not going to give a detailed description of each talk, since that has been done already on other blogs. Also, all of these videos will be made available on YouTube soon (I’ll post links when I find out they are available.)

Here is a sampling favorite learnings and memories from Skepticon 5:

  • JT Eberhard: “We have infinitely more evidence for love than we do for god,” just before he proposed to his girlfriend from the stage.
  • I learned from Sean Carrol’s talk that what we know of Quantum Field Theory essentially rules out any scientific possibility of things like telepathy, telekinesis, and life after death. There are still plenty of unknowns, but the possibility of there being undiscovered fields or particles that would result in those types of phenomena have been effectively ruled out.
  • Matt Dillahunty’s mix of card tricks and debate tactics. Seriously, I need to watch that again.
  • Once again PZ Myers exposes the dishonesty of creationists in misinterpreting scientific findings. Evolution, FTW!
  • I learned from Deborah Hyde about the medical, historical, political, and religious history behind the werewolf tales and witch trials (apparently there was overlap between werewolves and witches) in Europe. Did you know that supposed “werewolves” were once thought to have a medical condition called Lycanthropy and people have thought they were wolves on the inside though they looked normal outside? And that lycanthropy tales also played a role in the Inquisition and supposed werewolves were persecuted by the church just like supposed witches?
  • I learned from Richard Carrier the basics of how to apply historical methods to historical claims. And how this is important for any citizen to know, to prevent unscrupulous people from either making up history or misapplying history to promote their own ideologies (Christian nation, anyone?)
  • The Doctor made an appearance at Skepticon! Somehow, I always knew the Doctor was an atheist. (“Doctor Who?” you ask? Exactly. ;) ). Seriously, there were Doctor Who references all over this year’s Skepticon. Even the ring that JT Eberhard used to propose to his girlfriend had a message in it in Gallifreyan. There is a great picture of it here: Gallifreyan Engagement Ring.

Oh, and as a side note, I came out with shot glasses for the 4 Atheist Ponies of the Apocalypse. Can you tell who is who?

UPDATE: The video from Skepticon is currently available on the Skepticon LiveStream channel.

SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012, part 2

Continuing with the speaker summaries and reviews from part 1…

Brian Barnes

Brian Barnes spoke about a model for critical thinking provided by the Foundation for Critical Thinking. Most people do not closely examine their own thought processes and rather blindly adapt them from others in their social groups. A main point in his presentation is that we need to examine our own thought processes to ensure that we are not being blinded by our own biases and missing the truth. Using a model such as what is provided by the Foundation for Critical thinking can help to accomplish this goal.

Ed Hensley

Ed Hensley’s presentation was titled Evidence of Evolution for Non-Biologists and focused on pictorial evidence that points towards the common ancestry of all life on Earth. Such examples included the movement of the blowhole in fetal dolphin from the front of their face (as in other mammals) to the back of their head, humans with tails or multiple functional breasts, and the strange path of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in mammals which is explained by their commend ancestry with fish.

Why would cave fish have non-functioning eyes unless they descended from fish that could see?

Carla Bevins

Carla Bevin’s presentation was titled the Humanities’ Contribution to Skeptical Inquiry.

Skepticism normally focuses on the hard sciences crowd. Carla asks “What do the humanities have to do with skepticism? Skeptical humanities study the human experience.

Carla demonstrates how this works by examining the this statement: “Faith is like wifi–it is invisible but has the power to connect you what you need.”

Stop and examine the idea. It may sound plausible on the surface, but when you dig in deeper:

WiFi is invisible? It is invisible, yet unlike faith we have evidence for it.
Wifi is unseen but unlike faith understandable and predictable.
But faith is belief in something that is unknown. We know wifi exists.
And what does “connect us to what we need” mean?

Like that statement, often the things that resonate the most are the things that seem the most “simple” common sense but rely on a lot of untested assumptions.

We respond viscerally when a new idea either
-Fits easily in an existing schema that we are familiar with.
-Confounds us by not fitting anywhere into our existing way of thinking.

To critically engage a text or statement is to engage in the humanities.

Carla and Robert Bevins concluded the presentation with a  bonus powerband demonstration.

To be continued…

Skepticamp Kentucky 2012, Part 1

Here is the promised post from three weeks ago about SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012. I will be reviewing the speakers that I heard, though unfortunately I wasn’t feeling well that day and missed the last four talks.

First, an explanation of what a SkeptiCamp is. These are small mini-conferences put on by skeptics groups all over the country. Rather than calling in big names from out-of-town for speakers, the organizers of these conferences call on local volunteers who would like to research and present on a topic of their choosing. As a result these conferences are very low-cost to host, and attendance is typically free. For more information on SkeptiCamp, and to see if there are any in your area, visit the SkeptiCamp Wiki.

SkeptiCamp Kentucky 2012 was the second annual SkeptiCamp hosted by the Louisville Area Skeptics. Local guest speakers presented on topics including how to think clearly, global warming, parasites, and the challenges faced by atheist kids in southern Indiana schools.

Darshwood the Conjurer

The first speaker was Darshwood the Conjurer, and the topic of his speech was “Making the Impossible Possible.”In his talk, he explains how anyone can accomplish seeming impossible tasks using the MUST system: Motivation, Understanding the problem, using a system System, and having Time to prepare. He demonstrated this principle by reciting the alphabet backwards fluently, and then showing how it could be done using a story about a “Man named ZY who is an X Warrior Viking…” and so on. It went a bit too fast for me to get the whole story in my notes. Anyway, the idea is that if you could remember how the story went (and stories are always easier to remember than a string of numbers) then recalling the story in your head would allow you to recite the alphabet backwards with no mistakes.  A volunteer from the audience accepted the challenge and did succeed in using the story system to recite the alphabet backwards from the stage.

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Darshwood Handing Out Cards

Christopher Graney

Next in line was Christopher Graney, who spoke about a classroom study of climate change in Kentucky that was conducted using basic data analysis from physics to analyze climate science data.

Christopher Graney

Students checked for trends in temp and precipitation in Frankfort, Bowling Green, and Williamstown though they found no major overall changes in temperate over 120 years. The practical conclusion from this is that the average Kentuckian has no personal experience of climate change within their lifetime. Most people either accept or reject climate change based on the authority of scientists or media (mostly media).

Christopher also had a point to make about passion and data. While the experiment was in progress, both a student who is a climate change denier and one who strongly supports climate change stated that they would not change their opinions regardless of what the data says. I would understand anyone thinking that the results of this experiment would not be conclusive either in favor or not of the existence of climate change, so some skepticism of the results as expressed by these students is understandable. However, it would be hard to deny that there are political and social factors that play a huge part in whether anyone accepts or denies climate change regardless of what the scientific data actually says. This is a bias that we all need to be aware of.

Shelly Henry and Sarah Henry

Shelly and Sarah are a mother/daughter pair who gave the next presentation for the day. Their talk was on countering religious bullying in public schools.

They started off with a brief history of court cases that touch upon the question of the separation of church and state in public schools such as

  • Engel v. Vitale (1962)
  • McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)
  • Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe (2000)
  • Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001)
  • Ahlquist v. Cranston (2012)

After the brief history lesson, they came to what I found to be the most interesting and engaging part of their presentation: Sarah’s own experiences of being an atheist in a Floyd County public highschool. In one incident, Sarah got a “letter from god” in her locker which was targeted at her as a atheist. School administrators would not consider it as bullying even though such religious bullying is acknowledged in school policy. The person who did it was caught on camera, but the school administrators ignored the incident because it was not done with “malicious intent.”

The discussions of Sarah’s experiences lead to a discussion among audience members about what does and does not count as religious bullying. It was generally agreed that merely discussing religion and religious belief is not bullying. Sarah even mentioned having mutually respectful discussions about religion with Christian classmates on her track team. However it does cross the line into bullying when the offender tries to force a discussion, makes threats like “you’re going to hell,” or covertly leaves religious artifacts or letters in the atheist student’s locker. Basically, whatever leads to a chilly or threatening environment for the atheist (or other minority) student counts as bullying.

At the end of their presentation Shelly and Sarah offer advice to parents and students for dealing with religious bullying:

  1. First know the bullying policies of your school.
  2. Then make the schools comply with the bullying policies, even though religious administrators may not understand why students pushing religion on a non-believing student would be a problem.

More on SkeptiCamp Kentucky coming up in my next post!

Presupositionalism: Shackles for your reason

I listened to a Thinking Atheist podcast last week. The title of the podcast was “Proof that God Exist,” which is the title for the website of the Christian apologist who was the guest speaker, Sye ten Bruggencate. The guy is a presupositionalist  who fully expects unbelievers to not understand his arguments because unbelievers have rejected God and do not accept the authority of Christ over their reasoning. Yes, Sye, you can keep your mental handcuffs to yourself. And he says he could prove that everyone really believes in God, even atheists, because God (though Paul) said so in Romans. It’s just that atheists are suppressing the truth though their wickedness or something like that. And people accuse atheists of being arrogant? What utter bullcrap. I’m amazed how Seth and his other guest stayed so polite to this guy. They must have been fully prepared for what this guy was about to spew.

There was another interesting thing the apologist said, and that is that God is not really all loving, but he is all good. And that this god does not intend for everyone to go to heaven, because he is sovereign. This is consistent with the idea Romans Chapter 9 that is was perfectly just for God to have loved Jacob but hated Esau before they had even been born or done anything. (This passage was the source of much doubt for me when I was studying this book for Bible Quizzing. Jesus loves all the children of the world? Perhaps not so much.) And  according to Sye,  the original sin, Eve’s sin, was not eating an apple (or whatever kind of fruit would contain knowledge of good and evil) but was rather her desire to be autonomous and make her own choices rather than just blindly obeying god. So, desiring to make our one’s own choices in live is evil. The ultimate in “anti-choice” theology.

Another big whopper he said was that a real Christian cannot reason out of Christianity because they have surrendered their reason to God. Like what he clearly has done. Don’t think outside the box, don’t question the box, just believe and obey. Therefore, there are no true ex-Christians. Voilá.

If you would like to listen to the podcast itself, you can access it on the web here:://www.blogtalkradio.com/thethinkingatheist/2012/04/14/proof-that-god-exists. It is also available via iTunes. I recommend the other podcasts by The Thinking Atheist as well. It is one of my favorites podcasts ever.