Sunday, December 22, 2013

my four guides

Approximately three years ago, I felt newly adrift. I had finally discarded all of my remaining "faith-beliefs" (beliefs based primarily on faith) altogether, because I was ultimately convinced that those beliefs had become meaningless to me.

But it took a while to reach that moment three years ago. Prior to then I had lived through several years of experience and contemplation, as an independent adult, in a world packed with conflicting ideas. During that time, I'd responded by slowly adopting a pivotal yet deceptively straightforward rule: the only certain meaning of any belief is its verified implications, i.e. its eventual impacts on real actions or thoughts ("What do you mean?"  "Let me show you."). I needed to untangle some convoluted philosophical details before I could apply it consistently, but thereafter I couldn't imagine any reasonable and necessary exceptions to it.

And that was the problem! Whenever I began to apply this rule to each of my former faith-beliefs, I consistently concluded that the belief was less and less meaningful. How was it certainly meaningful to propose that I have an immaterial soul, when every indication is much more supportive of a completely physical substrate for consciousness? How was it certainly meaningful to propose that my faith's god was good, when in general every indication of benevolent "supernatural" intervention easily falls into either the category of fortunate natural coincidences and/or the category of actions taken by caring humans? How was it certainly meaningful to propose that the many diverse believers of my faith were all communicating with the same logically self-consistent god, when every indication of divine communication often entailed logical contradictions with other indications of divine communication?

In essence, for a lengthy time period I still identified myself as a believer, but I was persistently irritated by the flaws I started noticing in everyone else's faith-based statements. I wasn't convinced that all my faith-beliefs were certainly false, but I was also unconvinced that all my faith-beliefs were certainly true. By the extreme end of the process (I hesitate to name it an "existential crisis" due to its gentleness), I was willing to apply the rule once again—to myself. How was it certainly meaningful to propose that I was a "believer", when every indication was that I strongly distrusted faith-beliefs which under close examination were entirely unconfirmed, irrelevant, and inexplicable?

So, as I said, I felt newly adrift at that time. I didn't plan to reach that point. It didn't fit my lifelong comfortable level of lukewarm commitment to my family's faith. The inner shift wasn't triggered by a disruptive event such as other believers rejecting me, or an overwhelming desire to do something forbidden by my faith, or abrupt collegiate exposure to modernism. I wasn't angry. I didn't view religion, "organized" or otherwise, to be a poison or virus. Indeed, without my faith-beliefs to fall back on for justifications/rationalizations, I was genuinely unsure about exactly what I should be thinking or feeling about any topic. I still had a few intellectual questions about atheism itself, but really my foremost concern was how to reconstruct my identity. I wasn't looking for negativity. I wanted a sympathetic guide to aid in organizing my thoughts, reassuring me, and modelling this form of upheaval. I didn't wish to read arguments about how hateful/insane/stupid religious believers if I ever had such a low opinion of most of my family and friends, and my past self.

I was in the peculiar position of fully accepting atheism (viz. materialistic naturalism), and simultaneously lacking interest in the statements and activism of all the atheists I'd ever heard of. Of course I barely knew of any atheists other than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; I'd heard of them in the culture of my upbringing purely because they filled the highly useful motivational role of culture-war boogeymen, through writing books entitled The God Delusion and God Is Not Great. Therefore I frankly wasn't enthused to take the time to read their books while I still clung to my faith-beliefs, and I saw no need to do so once I was already an atheist who had abundant personal experience of religion's benefits and detriments. At least not directly, the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism" didn't affect me before my switch to atheism—neither did YouTube or atheistic websites/blogs.

I couldn't relate to the Four Horsemen. Nevertheless, I wasn't that unique among atheists. Upon further searching I was pleased to discover that contemporary atheism is much broader than I was told.  All across the U.S., others have discarded their faith-beliefs before me and then published their stories. For example, the following four are greatly-appreciated guides who helped me adjust to an atheistic perspective and life.
  • The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths (Michael Shermer).....This book boosted my confidence in the necessity of rigorous proof, and it suggested why faith-beliefs are false and popular at the same time. I was surprised and grateful that it included the full story of the author's own religious phase. 
  • Letting go of god (Julia Sweeney)......Sweeney's honest, heartfelt narration of her personal journey was a cathartic relief for me. It reminded me that there's nothing wrong with having strong feelings about discarding faith. Naturally, Sweeney's sharp humor is therapeutic for someone who's facing the loss of psychological support provided by faith-beliefs.      
  • Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists (Dan Barker)......This book infused me with a lot of clarity about what atheism is and how it differs. It covers the author's life, and it covers the weaknesses of a huge range of the frequent/traditional statements advanced by actual Christians, especially related to their Bible. That's to be expected, considering the author is a zealous participant in innumerable debates. For me, a particular strength of this book was its effective ethical reasoning: it underlined that atheists can be conscientious, friendly, compassionate, and happy. Other than some of the abstract argumentation, I enjoyed reading most of this book.  
  • Deconverted: A Journey from Religion to Reason (Seth Andrews)......This book was intriguing to me because the author was somewhat involved with the rise of Contemporary Christian Music ("CCM"), which was more or less the only kind of music my parents bought or played. I can empathize with the author's written reaction to the jarring effect of Rich Mullins' accidental death (in another generation, it was Keith Green who had a similar effect). Like the author, I've been embedded in a religious culture all my life, only to reject its fundamental underpinnings after becoming an adult. In addition to his book, his podcast was a positive encouragement.