Skepticism and Seeking …

Skepticism and Seeking …

I’m finding myself getting less hard-core skeptical than I used to be. On Monday, I’m helping a friend practice her tarot reading skills by getting her to do a reading for me (she asked for volunteers on Facebook.) Am I worried because it’s woo and has no basis in scientific fact? I used to be afraid of anything ‘woo’ but now I am honestly convinced it is fine as long as you remember that it is not scientific fact. The problems happen when people think woo can replace science, or that it is science. That’s when you have people dying of things like treatable cancers because they were bamboozled into some bullshit ‘natural’ remedy.

But things that are recognized correctly as metaphor and symbolism and ritual? I am up for that. I think.

After I realized that the church of my parents was unacceptable to me, I went searching for other churches. I visited a few Catholic services, Baptist, and a church of unnamed denomination near my home where they spoke in tongues. I slipped out during the opening prayer because I was freaked out, and never went back. I went to a Buddhist meditation circle on Sunday mornings for a while, though by that point I identified solely as an atheist. I enjoyed that and learned a lot and gained new perspectives, but after a while that was not for me either. I had doubts about it after I went to a New Year’s meditation retreat that I found though that group. While I enjoyed the still and quiet and reflection, I did not enjoy trying to sit still in a cross-legged position for an hour or so at a time. One of the organizers read a teaching that was something about a man who was tempted by a prostitute. It ended up saying that he should visualize her body as it would end up eventually — as a rotting corpse — and that seriously bothered me. It was a morbid denial of pleasure — a denial of everything physical or temporary really. And that seems very odd because the style of Buddhism I was used to emphasizes living in the present. I even read books on how one could practice secular Buddhism, but after a relatively brief period of being sure I had found THE WAY I decided it was not for me.

I’ve written previously in my blog about my experiences with yoga as well.

I also tried out the Unitarian church in downtown Louisville for a couple of years. At the time I went there, I was mostly looking for a community where I could own my atheism without being judged or preached at. There were one or two people who, when I told them I was an atheist, felt the need to explain to me what they believed and why. I hung out with the pagan group that meets at the church for a while, but after a while the talk about things like astrology clashed too strongly with my scientific skeptical mind. There was just too much of superstition and claims that clashed with scientific fact for me to stomach.

As my post opener implies, I am rethinking some of my previous attitudes. Can there be a place for things like astrology and tarot as long as one recognizes the difference between scientific fact and symbolism and imagery? I’m putting the “seeker” hat back on for a time to see what I can find out. I’ll be looking back into the Unitarian Universalist church to see if it may be a better fit for this point in my life.

It helps that they have childcare too.

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Sunday Blasphemy: Questionable Life Lessons from my Christian Upbringing

Sunday Blasphemy: Questionable Life Lessons from my Christian Upbringing

I don’t know that these are applicable to Christians in general, but here are some questionable life lessons I learned as a kid that were reinforced by my family’s religious beliefs. I’m sure others from Evangelical Christian backgrounds in particular will recognize these. They are teachings of Christianity that I assumed would apply to other areas of life — before I learned about special pleading — because no one told me otherwise. I eventually figured out why they were questionable on my own through trial and error, observation, and reasoning.

 

Life Priorities

Nothing in life is more important than your relationship with Jesus Christ. Family, relationships, school, career, reputation — all of these should be given up if one feels that is what Jesus wants. To a secular person it’s pretty clear what the problem is here. Even to Christians, the difficulty in really confirming if an idea is really from Jesus or from their own mind is vexing.

 

Other People

The most important thing about a person is their relationship with Jesus Christ. (I remember this one verbatim.) This is certain to lead to religious bigotry at worst and an irritating lack of full acceptance of non-Christians at the least.

 

Forgiveness from God

Guilt over actual wrongdoing can be resolved by asking God for forgiveness in prayer. No talking to an actual person is required. It’s very convenient but the effectiveness is questionable.

 

Prayer

Praying counts as talking to a person — and downplays the need for real human contact. No worries if you don’t have a real person to confide in, because you always have God! :-/

 

Unworthiness

Normal human mistakes and imperfections prove that you are unworthy of “God’s glory.” By default, being human makes you defective.

 

Right and Wrong

Right and wrong depends on what God says, especially in the Bible — not on consequences for people. A quick study of the horrible things people have done throughout history in the name of God shows the problems with this.

 

God's Availability

The biggest and most powerful being in the universe will listen to you at any time with no notice — though this is never true for human leaders and authority figures. God is just a bit too … imaginary.

 

Emotional Commitment Decisions

Huge, life-changing commitments (like committing your life to God at an altar at the front of a church after a religious service) can be made in moments of emotion. This is a very bad idea for making life-changing commitments in general. Fortunately the religious commitments are not really binding — presuming one lives in a society with religious freedom.

 

Learning

Learning new things that challenge your beliefs can be a very bad thing. The prime examples are the big bang theory of the universe and the biological theory evolution and how they challenge beliefs about God creating the universe and making human being special.

 

Compulsory Forgiveness

You must forgive anyone who wrong you — even when the offense has not been resolved and your psychological wounds have not healed. Otherwise they say God will not forgive you — and that is a very serious problem for a Christian.

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Any other questionable life lessons from Christian upbring that I have not listed? What are you experiences?

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Questioning our Stories

I’ve always been a tester as long as I remember. When someone tells me something out of the ordinary … well, it’s not that I don’t trust your judgement or anything but I would like to know if there are facts to back that up. Even though I must admit that at first I would only look for confirming evidence (before I knew about confirmation bias), but if I could not find it I would get suspicious. Even if someone is honestly telling you what they believe, they can still be wrong. That’s how I’ve always felt about a family claim of Cherokee ancestry — especially since the details seemed lost to time. Not a name, not even a certain spot on the family tree. Grandpa’s grandma … or great grandma … or maybe great-great grandma? In search of evidence, I got a DNA test with one of the commercial providers which showed that there is negligible trace of Native American DNA in my genome, and even that is speculative.

It’s not just me being skeptical. I’ve always thought it was fun to tease out the details of a claim and see what I can find. Even finding out for sure something is not really true is a discovery. I forget sometimes that not everyone feels this way. I showed my results to some family members, and they seemed put out by the result — even digging in their heels. I felt a little bit guilty about that. I’d heard it so much from my family, not just my parents but from aunts and uncles too, that it feels a bit like I am smearing my family’s narrative about its history.

It reminds of the way that humans — ever since language was invented, apparently — have made up stories to not just entertain themselves but to bolster ideas like national identity and family claims. Even much of the things we are taught about our national histories fit into a narrative. What I learned as American history in school turned out to be not lies, really, but often selected truths and perspectives. The narrative supported by the powerful — what they wanted children to know. (This applied to both the public school and homeschool history.) Textbooks talked about Pilgrims and Indians getting along as equals, the overriding importance of religious freedom (though there seems to have been little of that early on), and about something called ‘manifest destiny’ in spreading across the continent. Today I have books on history that show different perspectives — perspectives of ordinary people, of workers, of the underclasses — and the idealistic narrative of American exceptionalism crumbles. I still respect the “Founding Fathers” but I no longer idolize them. They used elegant rhetoric about how “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” while still using slave labor to build America and ignoring the voice of anyone who was not a white male property owner. It was pretty rhetoric but it was never reality.

It’s not just the past, but current events too. Some news stations are known to slant towards a liberal or a conservative bias. I think what that really means is that they are both pushing their own particular narrative. Not outright lies (at least I HOPE not) but selected truths and assumed half-truths and never the whole story. That’s why I no longer trust the corporate-owned media. There is always someone behind the scenes determining what should be published or not based on reasons other than whether or not it is true and whether or not the public should know. There is an audience to cater to, and advertisers and shareholders to please. They tell the stories they want us to hear.

And, of course it makes me think of the myths of the Bible. Those old stories that were passed down by oral tradition over the generations before they were ever written down. The details of the actual events — if they happened at all — are lost to time never to be subject to fact-checking. They were ancient stories intended to bolster the national identity of Israel and to encourage devotion to a national god. In that context, claims that the Bible is ‘historical’ make sense — but as nationalistic mythmaking, not as an unbiased record of what happened.

People’s whole lives and realities are built around stories. It’s never really considered polite or patriotic to call nationalistic, family, or religious narratives into question. I think it’s important to question those stories to make sure they are true. Our questioning can at least help us bring our beliefs into better alignment with reality. On the national scale a willingness to listen to competing narratives could even stop wars.

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Living the Life of Reason

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.

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Don’t Question Me!

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?

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Skepticon 5: Science, Atheism, and Doctor Who?

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.

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