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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.

Question with Boldness: Thoughts on Belief

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear.”
— Thomas Jefferson

What do I believe? I find it a bit odd when people say that atheists believe in nothing. To be human is to hold beliefs, for better or worse.  I am giving some thought to the things that I believe. I can’t say that I know that all of these things are true, or that I can prove them to be true, but they seem true to me.

  • I believe that people are basically good. That when they are freed from fear, want, and desperation people will usually do the right thing.
  • I believe that the natural word provides enough mystery and wonder to make the notion of supernatural miracles just seem silly and wrong.
  • I believe that the best guides to the truth are science and philosophy working in cooperation with one another. Science provides the facts, and philosophy makes the facts meaningful.
  • I believe that the best guide to morality is reason guided by empathy.
  • I believe that all gods in all religions were invented by human minds, and that the supernatural claims of all religions are false.

When I was a Christian teenager, when my doubts about the religious tenants that I had been taught would rise to the surface, I would try to beat them down again by declaring my belief (even if only to myself) and insisting that I really did believe. The problem with that is clear to me now. I had been told that there were certain things that I must believe, no matter what, or my soul was in danger of eternal damnation. Or even worse, that if I disbelieved in the story of Christianity my remaining years on earth would become empty and meaningless. To tell the truth, I was pleasantly surprised when I found out that this last statement was a complete and utter lie. Life actually becomes more meaningful when you are not trying to force yourself to believe in things that don’t quite make sense.

Beliefs

Beliefs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Actually, I’d say it’s not so much that I didn’t believe the doctrines, but rather that I didn’t know that not believing them was a viable option. It’s hard enough to question your beliefs even without the threat of punishment if you should change your mind. This is the difference between this enumeration of beliefs that I am doing now and what I did as a Christian teenager. Now I am actually pondering my own mind and behavior and trying to pull to the surface what I really believe, rather than making a declaration of the things I think I ought to believe.

Everyone has beliefs. In fact it would be impossible to function as human beings without beliefs, because we are always acting in the face of incomplete knowledge. I find myself in a bit of a dilemma when trying to enumerate the things that I believe because I have the strong suspicion that a large number of things I believe are lurking below the surface of my consciousness…the assumptions that I hold without knowing that I am holding them until the truth comes up and slaps me in the face.

This is a point of humility for this atheist. Sure, you can make a lot of the fact that I boldly questioned the religious beliefs of my upbringing and found them to be utterly unsupported. It is a big deal. I had a lot of help–such as a friend who questioned me and asked “how do you know?” and books and professors that teachers who showed me that there are other ways to look at the world. The sort of beliefs that worry me the most now are those that are so engrained in our culture that we may rarely if ever be exposed to other points of view. What other irrational and unsupported beliefs might I be holding now?

The red flag that I might be holding one of these false beliefs is if I get angry or offended at someone else’s words. Why would someone else’s expressed opinions ever have that effect on me?  The key is to keep learning and keep searching and keep questioning. Any opportunity to adjust my belief to be more in tune with reality is an opportunity that should not be missed.

So go ahead, offend me.

Richard Dawkins is good for the Reason Rally

I have noticed something in the attitudes of atheists and other freethinkers toward religion, that it is strongly influenced by the experiences that person has had with religion in the past. Those with a fundamentalist or evangelical background have experienced the suppression of thought and fear of external ideas that goes with fundamentalist indoctrination, and may have seen families, possibly even their own, torn apart by religious differences. They are more likely to be strongly anti-religious, even if they self-censor at times to keep the peace. In fact, the perceived need for self-censorship leads to a great deal of resentment towards the very thought of religion. Religion as they have experienced it is thought-suppressing, guilt-inducing, fanaticism filled bunk. And they rage against it. Understandably.

On the other hand, those from a more liberal and open religious background seem to not quite understand what these former fundamentalists are all worked up about. Or those who have never been religious, but have had lots of experience with reasonable, accepting religious people who you can tell you are an atheist without them making faces at you like they are going to be sick or faint or go berserk on you. Lucky for them.

Somehow, I get the idea that Barbara J. King is likely to fall into the later description, even though I’m not sure what her background is. She is the author of a recent article on the NPR blog titled “Will Richard Dawkins Drive A Stake Through The Heart Of The ‘Reason Rally’?

She seems to think that Richard Dawkins’s outspoken criticism of religion is going to somehow work against the goals of the Reason Rally to combat negative stereotypes of atheists. I, probably the same as Richard Dawkins, does not think that the way for us to combat negative ideas of atheism is for the atheists to make ourselves quieter on the subject of religion, as if it were actually superior to be a religionist (of whatever kind) than to be an atheist as so many apparently assume.

From the article:

In a 2006 interview with Steve Paulson at Salon (during his tenure as professor of public understanding of science), Dawkins suggested that greater intelligence is correlated with atheism. He also said that when it encourages belief in the absence of evidence, “there’s something very evil about faith.”

Slam. That noise you hear is the sound of thousands of minds closing down and turning away from anything that Dawkins might go on to say about science.

By choosing words hurtful and harsh, Dawkins closes off a potential channel of communication about science with people who hold faith dear in their lives.

What does she think Dawkins means by faith, I wonder? She makes clear elsewhere in the article that she is a science-minded person herself and just as frustrated as anyone by the antics of the creationists to sell pseudoscientific crap to children. (My words, not hers.) Surely she does not consider it virtuous to believe claims that have not been proven, or that have been shown to be out of step with modern knowledge of the world? Once again, I think, the problem comes down to “tone.” Saying things like “faith is evil” is going to turn off religious people who have a very rosy view of the virtue of believing unquestioningly in things that one has not seen (see John 20:29). Nevermind that the belief in the virtue of such “faith” is exactly what is at the heart of the harm done in the world in the name of religion, from suicide bombers to Catholic parents who believe the word of the religious authority over that of their hurt child. This is the sort of thing that leads Dawkins and others like him to make such “hurtful and harsh” statements about faith. The hurt that has been perpetuated in the name of faith has been much worse.

I think I know where she is coming from. Sure, there are plenty of people out there who consider themselves believers in a religious tradition but are at the same time pro-science, pro-reason people. At the same time, these are the people who use their reason and learning to reject or reinterpret portions of their religious tradition to make it compatible with a rational life in the modern world. Their traditions have been influenced by secular thought in the direction of progress. Surely we should not isolate ourselves from those who follow the nicer parts of religious tradition and still hold common cause with us secular people.

On the other hand, we are not going to improve the cause of secularism and acceptance of atheists by muzzling the atheist’s criticism of religion. That does not lead to any progress at all, in fact, that just keeps us where we are right now. We will never have an equal place for atheists in society until we get rid of the fear of blasphemy and offense of the religious and lay out all these ideas on the table for open discussion.

Richard Dawkins has given the secular community a great boost, being the first (as far as I know) to stick out his neck and publish a book about atheism with a major publishing company. He’s not going to damage our cause by speaking his mind at the Reason Rally.

Me at a book signing with Dawkins on his tour for The Greatest Show on Earth.