Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I am a Cylon, and candid opinions thereof

I'm aware that I'm not a Cylon. Cylons are fictional, first of all.

But it's an excellent metaphor for how I felt when it began to dawn on me that, despite the deeply religious tenets that I formerly cultivated throughout my life, I underwent a "gradual intellectual anti-conversion" which culminated several (less than five) years ago. "Intellectual" because emotion didn't participate in the process; there was no instance of shaking my fist at clouds and also no desperate clinging to my fading assurances. "Anti-conversion" because I view the change as a reversal/erasure of specific beliefs rather than switching to a new "side" as such. Like the fictional characters who lived as humans only to arrive at the breathtaking realization that they were unmistakable examples of the hated enemy Cylons, I discovered to my surprise that my assumptions had changed sufficiently that the most accurate label for me now is "atheist".

It was "gradual" because while it was happening I sometimes noticed the mental conflicts, but I couldn't recall a definitive moment of selection or rejection. There was no single choice, but at the end there was a belated acknowledgment that some of my beliefs had simply deposed some others in the manner of a silent coup. In fact, further mental struggle had long ago become pointless since one side now occupied all the "territory". Further battles could only be as "asymmetric" as guerrilla warfare.

Before the point of mental consolidation, I considered myself "religious with doubts and reservations". My thinking seemed unsteady but regardless I continued to act the same. After the crystallization point, the prior motivations and habits were present yet ceased to exert authority; I saw through. I could select my level of compliance without compulsion, like adjusting the volume on the playback of a speech. The majestic and imposing scenery shrunk down to matte background paintings. However, my new-found godlessness didn't lead to unrestrained lawlessness or carelessness (just as not all Cylons who lived as humans chose immediately to quit behaving like humans). I suppose that as an immigrant to atheism, by default I naturally cherish the customs of the land of my previous patriotism.

Actually, this phenomenon was another jolt to my perspective. The religious are accustomed to categories such as 1) young people who rebel passionately by doing exactly what is forbidden, perhaps when they start higher education at a faraway location, 2) wishy-washy attendees who "backslide" progressively worse in their actions until they can't bear to even pretend to be devotees any longer, 3) people who deny the existence of any god and therefore act as chaotic and selfish manipulators, iconoclasts, and nihilists (I can very well envision someone commenting "Say what you like about paganism, at least it's an ethos"). My gradual intellectual anti-conversion doesn't fit into this tidy taxonomy.

For regardless of my unbelief, I'm surely not one of the bogeymen in the scary third category. Sure, some of my politics and causes are different now, but I'm not aiming to overthrow the right to religious expression and culture, presuming there's no entanglement among important social institutions that should be neutral toward such beliefs. I'm also not against religious evangelism and conversions as long as there's no abusive coercion or exploitation. Frankly, my interest in which religion dominates dropped tremendously when I self-identified as atheist, for whom afterlife and divine judgment are nonexistent consequences of incorrectness. I don't even care about convincing other people of my atheistic point of view, as much as I care that atheists not be stereotyped or persecuted in the larger society.

Furthermore, my present sentiments regarding religion go beyond a lack of competitive zeal against it. I have a lingering appreciation for it. Although not all effects of religion are good, to say the least, I know many people for whom religion is an essential pillar of the mindsets that calm their psyches and motivate them to accomplish amazing progress in themselves and their surroundings. And I think it's baldly inaccurate to accuse the religious of widespread stupidity or weakness. Religion can at times demand either courage or intelligence. Besides, evangelistic atheists should keep in mind that shaming people into following your example is not a highly effective technique anyway, especially if the goal is willing long-term commitment. That tactic certainly played no part in convincing me.

Moreover, these conceded emotional comforts of religion tempt me as well, whenever I personally contemplate death. Given that life is an exceptional configuration of matter and not a separate substance that "inhabits" it, death is many other configurations of that matter. My consciousness requires a blood flow of necessary materials to operate; when this flow stop working normally, my consciousness will also halt. Life's fragility is staggering. Without the promise of an afterlife independent of the vagaries of complex biological systems which can forestall entropy solely for a limited period, the inestimable value of healthy living should be obvious. Responding to death's finality by living dangerously is nonsensical. I should think it obvious that the saying "you only live once" doesn't imply "risk and/or waste the only life you have". To an atheist, "you" are your body.

But if every human is a body and no more, then the fact of the terrifying impermanence of one's own life comes with discomforting companions: every dead human, in all of his or her uniqueness, must be irretrievably gone. The precise configuration of bodily matter that constituted him or her shall never arise again. It's no more likely, and to the contrary far, far less, than the chance of a thorough shuffle of a pack of 52 playing cards producing the exact same order as before the shuffle. Of course biological reproduction perpetuates a lot of the mere genetic bases, but a perfect clone would still develop differently than the source. Indeed, without the clone retaining an identical set of lifelong memories, it couldn't fool any observers. This is why the question of "legacy", i.e. the lasting consequences "left behind" by a human's actions after death, is extremely pertinent to atheists. In a highly literal sense, someone's legacy is the only "part" that can justifiably be termed eternal (although "his" or "hers" separated particles of matter and energy are conserved, but that's scant consolation at the human scale).

I understand if people choose to question my unflinching claim that bodily death entails total death. How can I certainly pronounce that all of the deceased, whether family, friends, or martyrs, haven't moved on to an unexperienced "plane", since I clearly haven't gone through it? Without direct evidence, isn't it more fair and conciliatory to postpone discussion? Well, my first, curt reply is the suggestion that everybody else postpone discussion, too. If they aren't, then I won't. My second, earnest reply is the blunt admission that evidence, as commonly defined, isn't the solitary foundation of my thoughts about reality. Evidence has a strong tendency to be patchy and/or conflicting. Therefore judgment is indispensable, and based on my judgment of the overall array of evidence, including the pieces of evidence that appear to be absent, death is the end of humans. This statement is the honest reflection of my outlook, as opposed to something comparatively half-hearted like "due to lack of positive evidence, I don't know". I profess a materialistic universe; so there's simply no room for anything supernatural, much less the person-centered afterlife usually described. I readily affirm the incompleteness and uncertainty embedded in my knowledge, but I don't waver on the central axioms.

Odds are, the open mention of the role of judgment/selection provokes objections from two diverging groups: 1) from people who see themselves as pure empiricists, because they say that evidence always "speaks" for itself and any evidence that isn't perfectly unambiguous is invalid, 2) from people who subscribe to a particular revelation of a supporting supernatural realm, because they say that people who use individual and error-prone ability to define ultimate truth will instead substitute their own relative, subjective, and quick-changing preferences. But neither objection adequately captures a holistic and authentic viewpoint of actual human activity. Perception, interpretation, goals, experiences, and actions, etc., feed and affect one another. Personal desires and idiosyncratic mental processing are intermingled throughout mental events. No matter which concepts people use to anchor their thoughts, the coronation of those concepts is not passive but active. Regardless of what they say in debates, the pure empiricist decides how to categorize and evaluate his or her valuable evidence, and the devotee of a supernatural dogma decides how to extrapolate and apply it to the modern situations thrust upon him or her. And the confident atheist is no different...

Except during an interval in which transforming thoughts rise in power sneakily like an unfamiliar tune one can't shake off, and the final remaining task is to put it into words: I am a Cylon.

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