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Ouch. That subject is going to earn me some negative attention.

And for that, I'm sorry.

Wow, let me do my best to do damage control on that before I even launch into my essay.

I respect everyone's choices to believe what they want to believe. And I also will not get on anyone's case about what they believe. I also acknowledge that I don't know everything, and there are things I might not know or understand. I also think there's a lot of value in many religious activities, behaviors, social steps, and I don't oppose all aspects of religion.

*breathes* Okay. Let's try to dig into this.

I'm a member of the social group considered by the US population to be less liked than pedophiles, according to a recent study of opinions on atheists and other groups. I'm an atheist. But I am also an agnostic. Where the problem comes in is that I'm a bit of a militant agnostic. You might paraphrase my beliefs as "I don't know, and neither do you."

It's this problem of knowledge and where it comes from. Every religion I've ever encountered requires its adherents to believe something about reality with insufficient evidence. Many religions even seem to encourage people to believe that they have the ability to evaluate information and determine, within themselves, by their own lights, whether or not something is true.

I see this as a big problem. Knowledge is not something you can look deep within yourself to find. It's not some secret, deep truth that waits for you in the shadows. Knowledge only comes through testing and verification and experience. Even then, all you have knowledge about is your experiences and tests.

Let me explain with a more effective example. A friend of mine recently claimed to have seen an airplane flying over the freeway, enforcing speed limits through radar. When I questioned her, she claimed that she knew what she saw. But through questioning, I received the following things: 1) She saw an airplane flying near the highway. 2) Soon after, she saw a police car pulling over a speeding vehicle. From this, she derived the conclusion that it must have been monitoring speed limits. Yet she stated her conclusion in such a way as to state it definitively, as though it was absolute fact. As though there was no doubt that her conclusion was absolutely true.

This violates the separation of of what is perceived vs. what is speculated to be true. She knows there was an airplane flying near the highway around the same time that she saw some car get pulled over. But this doesn't, in and of itself, indicate that her conclusion, that she asserted was definitively true, was true.

Why is this such a big deal? Why do I have such a problem with this? Because it leads to rigid, dogmatic thinking that harms people. It leads to people accepting faulty conclusions and ad-hoc hypotheses as truth, which creates situations where people easily believe things that are blatantly false and harmful. It leads to people refusing to consider information that goes against their beliefs.

I've met racists that are convinced that most millionaires are black. Policies that require people on welfare to get tested for drugs ignore the evidence and information that show that very few people on welfare are on drugs. Climate change is ignored because "I've seen a winter this cold before," because people confuse climate and weather and don't listen to contrary information. Long defeated diseases are returning the USA because people are convinced that vaccinations cause autism or other diseases. People dramatically alter their diets to the latest fad that is supposed to be healthier, from fat-free to sugar-free to all-meat to gluten-free to FODMAP-free, etc and claim with absolute conviction that this is a healthy eating habit without regard for any evidence against their beliefs.

Human beings are incredibly prone to cognitive illusions and delusions. We are naturally prone to resist information that counters our current beliefs. We are naturally prone to believing things that people around us believe. We experience confirmation bias, emotional manipulation, and so many other effects that alter our ability to perceive and understand the world. We fill in the gaps of our memory as we yearn to construct a consistent story for our past and present. We are prone to cast ourselves as heroes and others as villains.

With so many biases, we must rely on "objective," external validation of our conclusions about reality if we want to have any hope of reaching valid and accurate conclusions. We must be constantly on the lookout for beliefs we hold without good reason. Ideas in our minds that are held because of our own cognitive biases, not because of what we truly *know* to be true.

I believe that "truth" can only be found through vigilant analysis and constant self-criticism. Constantly validating one's beliefs against reality, verifying the veracity of one's sources, etc. Learn to think critically. To evaluate sources of information. Learn the fallacies and biases that we ourselves are so easily prone to. Be open to criticism and be willing to question one's own beliefs, no matter how dearly held they may be.

We *have* to question our perceptions of reality, *constantly* if we want to avoid the sorts of dangerous traps that have harmed so many, whether that be climate change denial, anti-vaccination, etc.

I consider the belief that one holds "Truth," that a person truly *knows* some fact about themselves or the world, to be arrogant and self-assured and dangerous. While this idea is not isolated to religions (just take a look at what Richard Dawkins has to say about feminism or racism), I perceive it as being very common in religion, if not required by every religion I have ever learned about.

From personal experience, I know the dangerous, deluded ways of thinking that this sort of thinking can lead to. As a christian, I experienced God "holding my hands." I heard the voice of God as a real voice in the room. I saw ghosts. I saw magic energy flying through the sky. I saw angels. I even thought I *was* an angel for a while. I convinced myself of so many things, and used the incredible power of my imagination and mind to convince myself that I was experiencing the things I thought I was experiencing. I even went so far as to join physical protests standing outside abortion clinics and start anti-gay gaming clubs, when I was younger. This wasn't a matter of just having a different opinion. It was a matter of not being in possession of the tools to critically and accurately evaluate information, and to question and criticize my own thoughts. For this, the self-hatred I experienced, and the harm I was lead to commit against others, I blame the religion to which I belonged.

There was a recent study that showed that religious upbringing lead to a reduced ability to separate fact and fantasy. I suspect that the ubiquity of religion in the world contributes, significantly, to the propagation of this mentality, that one can *know* things without evidence. This reduction of critical thinking skills.

I have no problem with speculation and speculative thinking. Dreaming and imagining are an important part of the discovery of knowledge process. We speculate. We hypothesize. We consider. Coming up with wild theories that may make sense is a *great* way to question and evaluate one's beliefs about the world. But if we find ourselves convincing ourselves that these things are true, without any further testing, experiences, or other sources of evidence... we are doing ourselves and our world a disservice.

As I've taken this journey from religious delusion to what I hope is more structured and self-reflective thinking... the most powerful tool that I have added to my library is the ability to say "I don't know." To say that I don't know what's going on. That I don't know what's true or not. To refuse to accept both a statement and its rejection. To see two sides in a debate and choose neither. To withhold a position until I feel that I have sufficient evidence to state my position.

This whole Israel vs. Palestine thing? Up until recently, I was completely ignorant on the topic, and despite having people with VERY passionate positions on the subject, I witheld a position. When asked who I did or did not support, I simply said, "I don't know." Because I didn't have enough information to have a conclusion.

And on the issue of gods, magic, miracles, etc... It's not that I think they don't exist. I don't know if they exist or not. I don't have any reason to believe in them, any more than I have any reason to believe that Mr. Clean is standing right behind me right now, or that the easter bunny is stalking me in my sleep. I don't know about the reality of these claims, but I see no reason to consider them as part of reality.

That's not to say that religion is all bad. The idea of separating things into all bad or all good is yet another cognitive illusion that we humans are prone to. I love the "spirituality" of religion, and personally, couldn't find my way out of religion until I was able to find a "spiritual" connection to the natural world without religion. I love the way that prayer, meditation, magic, and other activities enable people to interact with their subconscious minds. I like the useful psychological effects of some elements of religion, and I appreciate the socialization there. I suspect these things to be vital elements of the human condition... Things that we need in order to be fully functional, healthy human beings.

We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bath water.

But at the same time, we need to develop critical thinking skills that enable us to go above and beyond where we are today to discover the knowledge of tomorrow.

This is not a goal. This is a journey. Knowledge isn't something we can achieve, but something we can continually work towards, refining and discovering.

I don't know what I'm talking about, but I'm learning.


Oct. 10th, 2014 08:15 pm (UTC)
*nods* My working theory is that magic and spirituality are basically the language we use for instinct, speculation, and ... "inherited tribal knowledge(?)".

Although I will say that Bayesian Reasoning actually does a pretty good job of moving "speculation" in to the realm of facts - "based on the information available to me, it is factually true that there is an 80% chance of this plan working. If the plan fails, there's a 60% chance that means there's some important information I'm missing, and I should figure that out before trying again."


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