Friday, November 29, 2019

10 Hot Takes on Religion

1. Atheism

I have never met a humble atheist.

I think it is something inherent in the position. Reason it out logically. If we understand the term “God” correctly, then it follows that this must refer to an entity capable of creating a universe wherein His presence is not detectable. Thus atheism demands one put themselves in a position of having a God's level of awareness about the state of the universe. You make a God of yourself. Hence the lack of humility. It explains why the skeptic community is full of such insufferable jackasses. If you can name a single atheist thinker who consistently demonstrates intellectual and personal humility, shoot me an email. (I say this as a Dawkins fan btw. The Selfish Gene is a must-read)

2. Agnosticism

I have experienced and seen many people evolve from an atheist position to a agnostic one, and generally it is not a very interesting transition. A bit of humility does the trick. As a programmer it seems even more obvious because I can imagine creating a simulated reality using software. From the frame of the people in that simulation, I would be their God – their creator. In some simulations I might choose to never reveal myself. In others I might reveal myself to a few beings of higher intelligence. I might decide to reward the ones that “believe in me” and try to be good people and not sin as an expression of their love of me. There are myriad reasons I might take either approach. Ultimately the question is “If God does exist, WHY did he create the universe?” I would answer, for the same reason an artist creates a painting, or symphony, or the same reason a programmer creates a simulated world.

3. Theism/Deism

The transition from agnosticism to theism/deism is more interesting than the transition from atheism to agnosticism. This transition takes more deliberate analysis. People arrive here many different ways. For me personally it was the study of computer science (It is probable we live in a simulation of some kind) as well as reading a lot of philosophy and physics. The materialist explanations for a creator-free origin of the universe were unsatisfying and again, none categorically eliminated the possibility of a creator. A prime causation – an un-caused cause – still is either absolutely necessary or cannot be ruled out. Thus the probability of God existing seems high enough to meet the threshold of belief in God. That is, the probability is higher than my belief that the sun will rise tomorrow, and I confidently believe in that, hence I believe in God. This was my reasoning anyhow.

4. Belief in a Religion

More interesting still, is the journey from deism to religion. Now you've got some skin in the game. Now you're really putting yourself out there. It's one thing to say you think the existence of God is likely. It is another to say that Islam or Mormonism or Hinduism, is true. Unless you are born into a faith I doubt most people start by deducing which faith is right. More likely their life journey attracts them to a particular belief system and initially their faith is motivated by specific desires – community, peace of mind, beauty, moral guidance, etc. That was certainly the case for me along with an understanding of the profound social benefits of religion for our species. We evolved both for and because of religion.

5. Self-serving Faith

Faith is a curious thing. I think as adult converts most of us come to it for self-serving reasons. There is something lacking in our lives and we feel that faith can fill the gap. I think this is natural and appropriate. However I also think there is a threshold we all have to decide whether or not to cross – it is the gap from “I want to believe” to “I believe.” I don't think it is something that happens all at once: some people may spend many years crossing that threshold. Some never do.

Ultimately I think genuine faith must come before worldly ends. If you see faith purely as a means to some end – self-improvement, fixing society, etc. - then the thing you really worship is not God but that worldly goal. Resolving to worship Jesus if he helps you get rich and elect a politician you like is not really worshiping Jesus; it is worshiping money and that politician. This is an inversion of how faith ought to work. God is highest and should come first. As I wrote in my blog we shouldn't seek to become Christians to fix society; we should fix society that we might become Christians.

6. Enjoying Religion

I think it is fine, however, to simply enjoy religion. The ritual, the routine, the silence, the aesthetics, the community, the gratitude, the music, the devotion – it's just pleasant. I know many nonbelievers who regularly attend religious services just because they find it peaceful and enjoyable. It gives them time to think. This is why as believers we must continue to be patient with those who have not crossed the threshold of faith and why we must continue to create beauty. There is a reason our ancestors created so many beautiful cathedrals, symphonies, and paintings. Religion is A E S T H E T I C as f***. I mean, just check this out: Let me know when secular materialists start creating art this beautiful.

7. Explicit Religion vs Implicit

Explicit religious practice I think is necessary for optimal human functioning.  I think when people do not have an explicit religion, they end up creating an implicit one, which is really bad. Look at the history of the 20th century. Look at totalitarianism today or modern SJW's. They have made a god of their agenda. They have their devotions, apologetics, excommunications, etc. It is a religion in all but name. This is why it is so hard to have civil conversations with them. To them, disagreement is blasphemy. Human beings, for a number of reasons, ever seek something to submit to – to worship as their God. Better to just explicitly worship God.

From my own personal experience I know that explicit religious devotion has been good for me mentally. I hit a wall as an atheist; I had a number of weaknesses and compulsions I could never beat. Once I had something other than myself to be accountable to – an external all-powerful all-knowing judge of sorts – I found I could tap into new avenues of motivation and creativity. I improved my diet, I did better at my job, I had less anxiety – just across the board better mental health and productivity. I found that the psychological anchor of the metaphysical concept of God freed up my rational faculty and stabilized my moods in an unexpected way. Other people's mileage may vary of course.

8. Benefits of Prayer
I did not derive benefits from faith and religious practice immediately. It was very awkward at first. You feel uncomfortable in church. You are self-conscious the first few times you pray. Your thoughts get in the way.  Faith is a lot like music. You have to practice it. With enough practice, prayer is simply wonderful for silencing that nagging ego thing in the back of our ear – that thing that won't ever shut up with, “I'M RIGHT! I'M SMART! I WANT THIS! I'M ENTITLED TO THAT!” - prayer just shuts it up beautifully. It centers you, keeps you focused, changes your frame, cultivates gratitude, reduces stress, and reminds you of your values. As I have said, all of this is do-able in a secular way if you really want, but the supernatural component catalyzes it 1000x over. That has been my experience at least.

9. Faith as a Sense

Explaining faith to non-believers is sort of like explaining sight to someone who has been blind their whole life. It is akin to Plato's Allegory of the Cave. The person who cannot see and has never seen will be incredulous at your descriptions. They might think you are ridiculous. They might even see being blind as superior as they have better hearing. However if you can ever give them sight – pull them out of the dark cave so to speak – they will bask in the light and be brought to tears. One thing of which I am absolutely certain is this: There is more to this universe than what can be perceived by human senses and deduced by human reason / science. Faith, I think, is our intuitive connection with these cryptic and arcane aspects of reality.

What exactly is faith anyway? I have wondered if strong religious faith is not akin to a kind of self-hypnosis. Would you hypnotize yourself if you knew it would make you a better person? Or would you not want to lose the “real” you? What even is the “real” you anyway? Humans are constantly changing. If self-hypnosis is wrong, how about taking a pill to improve yourself? How about brain surgery? Or diet and exercise? What sort of self-alteration is okay in your view? With respect to religion specifically, it is possible to detect religious faith through brain scans. Would it be moral to induce it in people chemically if we knew it would make them better people? Would we think of their faith as genuine? Would God?

10. Statement of Faith

I want to end by making a clear statement of my faith. I find the study of religion fascinating. I read a great deal about theology, history, physical sciences, and anthropology. I am a very self-aware Christian. I recognize the practical arguments, the historical baggage, the corrupted institutions – all the varying tradeoffs. Writing candidly I may come across as a “Cultural Christian” in the mode of Jordan Peterson, a man who clearly understands the benefits but cannot bring himself to actually believe.

I am not a zealot. I have read the Bible and I know enough about Jesus' historical era to weigh the evidence regarding the facts of his life. It is quite compelling yet still I have a great deal of doubt and a great deal to learn. I am still crossing the threshold, so to speak. Perhaps in another essay I will go into detail about all that motivates my specifically Catholic Christian faith. For now I shall just make my beliefs clear:

I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of Heaven and Earth, and I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilot, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell and on the third day, He rose again from the dead. He ascended into Heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will return to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.