October 13, 2011
Trigger Warning: In the course of this article I will be making an analogy to sexual assault.
All belief in supernatural things, by definition, boils down to faith. There is no evidence for supernatural beings, in fact there can’t be any (evidence, by definition, exists only in the natural realm). Supernatural entities are by definition postulatory, since they live or exist outside of our experience. Their existence, by definition, is not parsimonious, and must be preceded by the word “alleged.”
If we want to be intellectually honest, it’s fine to speculate about things for which we have no solid evidence, and in fact this is required in order to begin the search for evidence. You have to come up with a hypothesis and hold it in your mind, as if it were true, in order to apply the scientific method to it – that is, in order to begin looking for evidence that would disprove your hypothesis.
It is the mark of an educated mind, to be able to entertain a thought, without accepting it. – Aristotle
I want to make something very clear, because I’ve run into this a few times in the last few days from different people, and it’s something that I think skeptic-minded people sometimes take for granted. Not everyone is comfortable working in a scientific mindset, or in my experience, seems to understand the process of science. I’ll let Richard Carrier explain it:
What makes the scientific method contrary to common sense is that instead of looking FOR evidence for a belief, we actually design a test or something that’s designed to find evidence AGAINST our belief, if there is any. And that’s why science works so well; it works against the way we were evolved to think.
Humans are terribly susceptible to confirmation bias and all sorts of other fallacies. We don’t just look for information that agrees with what we already believe, but we subconsciously ignore information that shows we’re wrong. I’ve written before on this blog about confirmation bias and how easily it affects skeptics as well – we’re people, too! The key is to be alert for it. Question everything, and when someone offers you a bit of information, the most important question you can ask is, “How do you know that?“
When faced with a tough question, it’s perfectly fine to say, “I don’t know.” In fact, we should prefer to say “I don’t know” than be wrong, at least in the context of a philosophical discussion. And here is the crux of the disagreement between faith and empiricism. Skeptics are fine, comfortable even, with saying “I don’t know.”
We don’t just leave it there, of course: We do love mysteries, but even more, we love the process of solving them. We are not satisfied with having AN answer; we want the RIGHT answer.
In April of this year, I publicly debated Brother Jed Smock, and the central point of his argument was that Christianity offers the best, most-coherent answer to The Big Questions (see Ravi Zacharias’ 1997 book “Deliver Us From Evil,” Appendix B, “The Inextinguishable Light,” page 219), and therefore, the claims it makes about Life, the Universe, and Everything are factually true.
My response was, firstly, that that’s his opinion, and secondly, that virtually every religion offers answers to “the big questions,” but that doesn’t mean any particular set of answers are objectively the right ones. Simply having AN answer doesn’t do you much good if you place a high priority on knowledge. We want more than appeasement of curiosity. We want to be sure. Or at the least, as sure as possible, given the data we have available. And if we can’t be sure, we must be honest enough to admit that we do not know, while continuing to seek answers.
“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.” – Winston Smith in ’1984′
In the 1950s, Solomon Asch of Swarthmore College published a series of studies about conformity. Student volunteers were told they were participating in a vision test. In reality, Asch was testing how easily individuals would abandon what they know is correct under passive pressure to conform to a group consensus. In the studies, a group of students in a circle passed around cards with 1 “test” line and several other different-length comparison lines drawn on them. The students were supposed to say whether or not the test line appeared to be the same length as one of the comparison lines. In reality, only one of the students in each group was actually a subject of the experiment. The rest of the students were confederates – decoys – who intentionally gave incorrect answers, but in agreement with each other, to see if the one real subject student would give the same incorrect answer, in order to avoid standing out from the crowd.
We all like to think that if we were asked, “Which line on the second card — A, B, or C — most closely resembles the line in the first card?” we would, of course, answer “C.” They are, in fact, the same length. I’d venture a guess that, barring any vision problems, 100% of us would answer C if asked one-on-one. But what Asch found was that, over and over again, in a group setting, when the rest of the group (who were actually in on the study) gave the wrong (but consistently wrong) answer, 75% of the test subjects conformed to the wrong answer at least once, and 5% conformed to the wrong answer every time. Only 25% of the test subjects never conformed, standing by what their eyes told them and insisting that all of the rest of the group must be wrong. It takes guts to stand up to a crowd, even when the evidence is literally right in front of you in black & white.
There are good evolutionary reasons for this. I have written on this blog before about mocking as a conformity-enforcer, and its evolutionary value. From the perspective of the gene – the only perspective nature ever “cares” about – sometimes it makes sense to conform, even when what you’re conforming to is clearly incorrect factually.
We’re all familiar with the Hans Christian Andersen classic story, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Two (scamming) weavers promise the Emperor a new (and expensive) suit of beautiful clothes with a catch: They are invisible to those either unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent. Though the Emperor himself can’t see the clothes either, he dare not mention it, for the same reason his attendants don’t, either. When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new “clothes,” a child, too young to understand conformity, cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”
Five years ago, I was a professional worship musician, and I considered myself very much a Christian. Between youth and adult worship services and conferences, I was playing around 150 gigs a year, for a couple of thousand people every week. I had decided at the time that, if I wanted to be serious about doing this as a life-long career, I should probably learn as much about my faith as I could. I had never read the Bible before, so I read the NIV cover-to-cover, since that’s what my church used. I found it absolutely fascinating; these were God’s very own words, and I wanted to tell everyone about it (and not just because of Matthew 28). I had a long talk with my friend Daniel, who was very much a father-figure to me, and told him that I knew that this was my calling, and asked for advice. He encouraged me in my studies and was thrilled for me, that God was using me through music to spread His Word. Another friend of mine told me that the King James Version was “more authoritative,” and so I read that, too. Then it occurred to me that this was probably not the best approach, since both were English translations, and there were dozens and dozens more besides these. I got some Greek and Latin study books and hired a tutor, with whom I met 2-3 times/week for several years, in order to learn to read as authentically as possible.
But something started to happen. The more I studied, the more I realized that it wasn’t so simple as just learning to read “The Original Greek Manuscripts.” I found out that we don’t have the original Greek manuscripts. We don’t even have the first copies of the original Greek manuscripts. Finding out about Rylands Library Papyrus P52 for the first time was a phenomenon for me, one that I will never forget. Around the same time, my mother (a deist and cultural Jew) gave me a copy of Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, not really knowing what it was about, which started to put a wedge in my “faith.” Then, in March of 2009, Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted came out. I don’t remember where or from whom I first heard about it, but the day I got my copy, I stayed up all night reading the whole thing.
I was meeting with my pastor pretty regularly then; we’d have coffee about once a week. I remember talking to him about all these things I was reading, and asking for advice. I wanted desperately to believe, and he told me something for which I am very grateful. He said (paraphrasing Harvard theology professor James Luther Adams), “God doesn’t want unexamined faith. Step into the doubt.”
That was what I really needed to hear, even though I didn’t quite realize it at the time. Up until that point, I didn’t feel like I had “permission” to doubt these things. I thought of my reading as “studying” and becoming a better Christian. I knew deep down that I had doubts, but I couldn’t consciously bring myself to call them that word. More like “questions.” My pastor recognized what that meant, and encouraged me to explore it. It didn’t take long for me to put 2 + 2 together. Within the space of about a year, I went from devoted, studious Christian to closeted atheist.
I was still working as a worship musician at that time, but I remained silent, continuing to perform and lead others in worship, continuing to take communion, travel, record, etc, because I did not want to lose my job, my friends, and give up everything I had worked for. I’m sure this feeling is familiar to many of you.
One Sunday during a service, we had a guest speaker, a local doctor who had a two-year-old daughter, and he was speaking about his experience raising her. He told a story that shook me to my core. It was, by the account of everyone else there (about 1500 people), a lovely story. He recounted how he had told his two-year-old daughter, “N,” that Jesus is going to come back someday – and not just someday, but soon. He recounted the story told in Revelation – the tribulations, the rainbow throne with the twenty-four thrones surrounding it, the four creatures, the book of Seven Seals, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, on to the resurrection of the saints, the thousand-year reign, the judgment…
He recounted how his two-year-old daughter, hearing him tell this story, looked up at him and asked:
Daddy, is it true?
And the next words out of his mouth broke my heart. He said, “I told her, ‘Yes. It’s all true.’” And as he told us that, I started crying. I think the rest of the band thought I was crying because of how touching the story was, but that wasn’t it at all. I was so angry at him, for taking advantage of her trust, for abusing her wiring in that way. We are genetically programmed to obey our parents; there is a strong fitness advantage to this. Indeed, the entirety of submission to authority as a theme in religion takes its power from hijacking our intrinsic instinct to obey our elders, for our own safety. In our troglodyte days, we didn’t have the leisure of reflecting on warnings from our parents that a saber-tooth cat would eat us if we wandered too far from the safety of the group. In those days, it wasn’t necessary to stone a disobedient child; nature would — and did — weed out disobedient children on her own. But while the threat of wild animal attacks is no longer pressing, our built-in drive to believe whatever we’re told lingers. And in that moment, I realized just how immoral my job was. I wasn’t playing music; I was actively brainwashing children, and programming them to be afraid.
That’s when I knew I had to stop. I couldn’t take it anymore. She was right there with her mother, in the front row. I remember thinking, I should say something. I remember thinking, I have a microphone, right here. I could say, “No, don’t listen to him. This is bullshit; it’s all bullshit. Just because he’s your dad, just because he’s a doctor, doesn’t mean that he knows any more about the end of the world than me or anyone else. Don’t listen to him!”
But I didn’t. I regret to say that I not only finished that service, but played the second service after it, too. I set up an appointment with my pastor for later in the week, and we went out for coffee. I told him my questions were more than questions, in fact more than doubts. I poured out everything I had learned, about the history of the texts, about the contradictions, the mistranslations, the obvious interpolations, the forgeries, the historical mismatches, the works. I’m guessing I went on for about a half-hour. Then I asked him, as sincerely and genuinely as I have ever asked anyone anything, “How can I believe?”
His answer hit me like a ton of bricks. No, more like a slap in the face. I was stunned. I was speechless. I wish I had it on tape.
He said, “You just have to have faith.”
Those six stupid little words. I didn’t even know what to say.
I am going to take some serious flack for this, but I am being truly honest in how I feel, so deal with it. I mentioned above an analogy with sexual assault. Here it is: I do not have first-hand experience with this, but as I understand from talking with people who have, it’s not uncommon for victims of sexual assault to escape into a certain mental place and just take it. By that I mean, you recognize that this is not about sex, but about control, and you know that you are powerless in this circumstance. You can fight it, fail, and get hurt in the process, or you can pretend – just in your head – that this is okay with you. Not just okay with you, but something you deserve, or even want. Even if that’s false, if you just tell yourself, like a mantra, “This is not happening,” or “I deserve this,” or even, “Maybe I secretly want this,” you won’t feel so violated. Like I said, get offended if you want, but in the purest emotional sense, “violated” is the single most accurate word I can come up with to describe the feeling I had when my pastor said that. I trusted him; I trusted all of them. I felt like, deep down, there just had to be some good reason all of these smart, educated people believed this! It just couldn’t possibly be that they were all that blind. I don’t know what I expected him to tell me when I asked, but I definitely expected some kind of actual reason. Some kind of rebuttal. Some kind of reassurance that I hadn’t been crazy to believe this crap. But he didn’t have anything. All he had was, in so many words, “You’re right. It’s not true. But that doesn’t really matter. Just stop struggling; just lie back and take it. Then the dissonance will go away, and you won’t feel a thing.”
I left that meeting feeling angry, and used. I honestly don’t remember how things wrapped up, although I remember him being nice to me, and his saying that we should stay in touch, and that he would take care of talking to the music director for me about my schedule. I remember sitting in my car for quite awhile, just trying to figure out what the hell happened.
Is this what faith is? As Mark Twain said, “Believing what you know ain’t so”? How do people do it? How can they not see that faith is a totally bullshit reason for believing anything at all? Faith fails as an argument because it is not exclusive. You can make anything “true” if faith is your yardstick. If faith is your yardstick, the Qur’an is just as true as the Bible, which is just as true as the Book of Mormon, which is just as true as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
When I came out as an atheist, I was scared shitless, but as it turned out, my world didn’t come crashing down. Far from it. My family has been very supportive, and although I lost more than a few friends, I’ve made even more new ones – people from our campus skeptics’ group, other people just like me from CFI, SSA, and American Atheists, and they are people who are real, and who admire science, reason, rationality, and critical thinking as much as I do. I no longer worry about people going to hell. I no longer have this nagging worry in the back of my mind that I’m spreading bullshit, because I’m comfortable saying “I don’t know” now if I don’t have a better answer. I’m in school, studying something that really fascinates me (the evolution of morality in cooperative species, using the tools of economics & game theory) and that is not only useful to science and the advancement of human knowledge, but is not rooted in bullshit. It’s a wonderful feeling.
When I think of atheism now, the word that comes to mind is “Freedom.” I feel like dancing. I feel honest, because I now have good reasons to believe that my understanding of the universe at large is actually true. I think science is beautiful. Lawrence Krauss says it better than I can:
In the words of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, “That makes me want to grab people in the street and say, ‘Have you heard this?’”
To N: You are five years old now. I doubt you will ever see this, and I’ll probably never see you again either, but you are the reason I am an atheist activist. I am so sorry that I didn’t speak up when I had the chance. I am sorry to all the other people I deluded. I thought I was doing the right thing at the time. I hope that one day, you will see that asking questions is good. That knowledge is good, and in the words of Krauss, that the real world, as it actually is, is not evil: It’s remarkable. And the way to understand the universe is through science.
I hope that one day, you will be brave enough, and curious enough, to see through all this, and come out on the other side, like I did. Come on and join us; the sun is shining, and the water’s warm.
Take care, kid.
This post originally appeared on the MU SASHA blog.
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About the Author: Dave Muscato
Dave Muscato is Vice President of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics (MU SASHA). He has appeared in Rolling Stone, People, Time, The New York Times, SPIN, and Entertainment Weekly, and on MTV News, VH1, NPR, MSNBC, ABC, and Howard Stern. Muscato is a junior at the University of Missouri majoring in economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin. Muscato posts updates to the Official SASHA Blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday. His website is DaveMuscato.com and he can be reached at mail@DaveMuscato.com.