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.

Read More

“Tell them true stories”

I was told a whopper as a child. I was taught that there was a great being who created the entire universe, all the stars and planets and galaxies in the infinite reaches of space. Then I was told that this being had created me for a purpose that he had in mind, and that he would always be with me (yes, oddly enough, this being was always described as “he”). And I had to believe it, as a real and objective truth, and reject anything I found that contradicted it. As I grew up I realised that these claims had as flimsy of a backing as the stories of the jolly elf that brings presents each Christmas, but somehow there must be something to it because all the adults I knew believed it. Any of these adults, naturally, would easily tell me that Santa Claus was only a fairy story. But God and Jesus? Totally true.

Now I see the only difference between the two stories is that the one about God and Jesus happens to have a whole religious establishment dedicated to holding it up and shielding it from the truth. But that somehow didn’t stop me from finding out.

Finding out was rough in that it involved having my whole worldview turned upon its head, shaken and disordered, and left me sitting in the rubble trying to sort everything out. Which, while it was difficult, was a good thing since it allowed me to discover my own opinions and views rather than continuing the parrot those of someone else. But there are some assumptions that go deep, having been imprinted since earliest childhood, that are hardest to shake and hardest to figure out after the upheaval. What do I do about meaning and purpose? What do I have to keep myself going when the days are bleak, I feel depressed, and when all seems to be going wrong?

The myths in a religion may not be literally true, even to (many) followers of the religion, but what they do is provide a framework for thinking about who we are and why we are here and why we should carry on when things are tough. There is something just a bit flimsy about deriving your ideas of purpose from stories that you really don’t quite believe are true. Regardless, myths are a good way to communicate rather abstract ideas and ways of thinking that an individual person may never come up with on their own. Myths can be true stories in a sense, if they give good lessons and good guidance for life situations. Taking a look at the characters in fictional stories and seeing what they do, and why they do it, and what the outcomes are can help guide our thinking when we are faced with real-life dilemmas. The power of myth is the power of imagination: we can work out scenarios in our heads and think about the likely outcomes before taking real action.

For an example of a modern myth, I love Philip Pullman’s idea of the “republic of Heaven.” This idea is built and elaborated on in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy (best known for The Golden Compass), particularly in the final book The Amber Spyglass. This idea is analogous to the idea of the “Kingdom of Heaven” in Christianity, except that rather than being servants and subjects we are free citizens. And, of course, there is no king. How much better this sort of myth is for a modern world of democracy and individual liberty!

A great example of the difference between the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the “republic of Heaven” is shown by a passage from C.S. Lewis’s “Chronicles of Narnia.” Having grown up loving CS Lewis’s fiction, this is particularly meaningful to me. I was always a bit sad and confused about Susan in the end of the series, and I think Pullman’s analysis makes perfect sense.

Here is a nonrepublican view of stockings from C. S. Lewis. Near the end of The Last Battle, the final book in the Narnia series, Susan is refused entry to the stable, which represents salvation, because, as Peter says, “My sister . . . is no longer a friend of Narnia.” “Oh Susan!” says Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.” In other words, normal human development, which includes a growing awareness of your body and its effect on the opposite sex, is something from which Lewis’s narrative, and what he would like us to think is the Kingdom of Heaven, turns with horror.

[from The Republic of Heaven by Philip Pullman. Bold is mine]

How is this different from the attitudes of the Magisterium toward children in The Golden Compass? That growing up is a bad thing? Let’s all stay childlike and pliable and humble and subject to authority. Cut away those daemons! (If this makes no sense to you, you need to read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy.)

We desperately need new myths, and true stories. Stories suitable for free a people, with free minds.

(Oh, and be sure to read the rest of Philip Pullman’s article The Republic of Heaven. It goes in much more depth than what I have represented here.)

Read More

Faith and Evidence in Avatar

I saw Avatar a few days ago, and thought it was a wonderful movie and a thrilling fantasy story. Just after watching, I described it as a kind of mash-up of The Matrix (in the sense of being able to plug into a machine and enter a different reality), a book by Issac Asimov called Nemesis, and Fern Gully.

I liked the objective, evidence-based view of the scientists, especially that of the main scientist Dr. Grace Augustine. I also noticed the way that she came to believe in the mystical environmentalist religion of the Na’vi. And I’d have to say that if I observed the things that she observed that I would have believed too.

Read More

Yoga and Skepticism

I’ve said in a previous post that there is some tension present in being an atheist and a yogi. I think it’s more to the point to say there is tension between being a skeptic and a yogi. While in general the teachers whose classes I frequent usually stick with pretty non-controversial claims about the benefits of yoga, every now and then I hear things that make me smirk and squirm a little inside. Stuff like this (not exact quotes):

  • We’re going to have a relaxed class today because it’s near the new moon. Our energy levels are lowest during the new moon.
  • Anything about chakras.
  • Anything about Kundalini.
  • Anything about Ayurveda.
  • Claims that any of the above must be real and good because it’s been practiced for 1000’s of years.

I’ve tolerated this stuff for the most part, and have even gone along with it for the sake of experimentation. I have found that, in general, these things have not been core to the classes. The chakra talk I can deal with as being symbolic for different areas and characteristics of the body. No problem. Same with Kundalini. The alternative medicine stuff does set me a bit on edge though. Especially when I read about things like this: http://whatstheharm.net/ayurvedicmedicine.html. Maybe I’ll ask my teacher about that. Were all these people just doing it wrong?

I’m into the holistic aspect of yoga, and this is why it’s been the only exercise program I’ve stuck with regularly going on two years now. I’m not in it “just for the workout,” it’s also about the mental and emotional benefit as well. I’m all for the non-rational–I don’t have to reason everything out and understand how everything works in order to accept it. What I can’t accept is the irrational.  What if some of these things being practiced as part of yoga can actually be harmful?

Read More

New Chapters in Life

Normally I’ve been writing a new post every weekend. However, last week I was on my honeymoon so I skipped the blog. Yep, I’m a married woman now, to a wonderful atheist man 🙂

I remember a previous huge step in my life was in University, where I learned things I’d never dreamt of before, and found my view on life to be entirely different than when I went in. The most striking thing I found to be changed in this period of time were my views on religion. I had a discussion not long ago with a Christian family member about the influence of professors on my views. I think it is just par for the course for professors to challange their students to see the world from a perspective they have never considered before.

Read More