Thursday, November 21, 2019

Some Thoughts On Religion

Memento Mori

"Remember death."

A Latin phrase. It is meant to encourage us to be aware of our mortality. Death is the one truly democratic characteristic of all living things: We all die. Someday, somewhere, inevitably, I and you reading this, will be dead. Knowledge of this fact is a uniquely human burden. The trick is to not let it inspire panic or despair, but rather mindfulness and gratitude.

As I get older I am surrounded more and more by death and tragedy. My parents seem to be going to funerals every week. A beloved uncle died a few months ago. A close friend took his own life a couple years ago. One of my greatest teachers and mentors also passed not long ago.

I had two intimate experiences with death this year - my own, and a family member.

The former was due to a health issue and humbled me beyond measure. The medications, the surgery, the anesthesia, the pain, the scars, the strange dreams, the lost time - it connected me with the ethereal and indescribable aspects of existence - the Lovecraftian if you will.

The latter experience, because of my responsibility in what happened, filled me with a vast unending despair and a guilt that I will carry for the rest of my life. Someone I loved more than myself is gone and I must accept it is partly my fault. My heart is broken and I fear it will never properly heal. I wish to say no more about it at this time.

I took some time off of the internet and social media to reflect about my life and God. I haven't written much about religion here so I feel now I may as well. I have been quietly practicing my faith for about the last year. It is not something I have always had; rather it is the culmination of a journey I have been on for some time.

I feel sort of like I have gone on the same journey as Rust from True Detective. I had much of his pessimistic attitude in my 20's:

Now in my 30's, after the experiences I have been through I relate to how he ends up at the end of the show:

Personal Journey

I actually started off strong in my faith. I went to church every Sunday with my parents as a child. I went to Sunday school, learned the stories of the Bible, and prayed every day. As I got older I drifted away from faith as western culture is wont to encourage people to do. The secular world offered much cooler stuff it seemed. Furthermore I had seen religion warp the behavior of some members of my family.

I come from a bloodline of mad geniuses. My immediate family is made up of successful doctors, lawyers, businessmen, and professors, all blessed with high IQ's and cursed with a variety of mental health issues exacerbated by religion in some cases. Knowing my own sketchy history with mental illness and self-destructive tendencies I figured it best as an adult to stay away from all that God business.

I went through an edgy libertarian phase when I was in college. I read Ayn Rand, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens - all very smart thinkers who made compelling arguments against religion. For years I confidently identified as an atheist. Effortlessly I could dismantle the arguments of Bible thumpers and moralists while enjoying my 'free' lifestyle of endless license. Materially I was better off as my career advanced however there was an emptiness that never went away. I developed some bad compulsions. The song "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk," comes to mind. I shan't get into specifics but suffice to say I had (and still struggle with) some very dark habits.

Human beings demand that their experiences have meaning. I was having a lot of experiences. I traveled the world, made gobs of money as a consultant, enjoyed my share of female company. Yet it felt meaningless. I tried in vain to put together some sort of rationalist world view that would center my life and help me make sense of things. I never could. Slowly I started to consider religious perspectives, eventually coming to identify as an agnostic. Then in 2015 I joined Mensa.

I was humbled by the people I met. I observed that very high IQ people tended to be either agnostic or strongly religious, their intelligence seeming to fuel their faith. Intractable atheism, I feel, is more a feature of 70th percentiles - people smarter than average with a chip on their shoulder. I made friends with literal geniuses who were devout in their faith and their experiences were compelling to me.

I began studying computer simulation, AI, biology, and physics, and eventually I moved from agnosticism to theism/deism. I concluded that the existence of some sort of creator was more probable than not. With theism as a base I began studying religion more generally and came to understand its evolutionary advantages. Religion allows for high social trust societies of individuals that police themselves. It binds a community across time and space connecting people thousands of miles away and generations apart temporally. There simply is no comparable phenomena in the secular world, hence why I think religion and belief in God are core aspects of our humanity thanks to evolution. Until we stop being human (transhumanism perhaps) religion, or something like it, I think is necessary for us to function optimally.

Humans are not meant to be perfectly rational. We are often at our strongest when we abandon reason - or transcend it if you will. Consider this scene from the movie Gravity:

What Sandra Bullock's character does here is NOT rational. Strictly speaking it is a paranoid delusion. Yet it empowers her. It unlocks her unconscious creativity and problem solving ability. She couldn't find a way home until she abandoned her conscious rational mind. Faith is similar. Myriad studies on the health benefits of prayer attest to this. Faith allows us to tap into latent capacities not accessible by other means. It's a kind of intuition - a separate stat if you will, like how in RPG's INT and FTH are separate values. Characters strong in both are especially dangerous. It isn't a coincidence that all of the greatest art and music is inspired by religion. It isn't chance that the greatest scientists and thinkers were predominantly religious.

Thus armed with a belief in God and appreciation for religion and faith, I resolved to give Christianity a second chance.

A Second Chance

A lot of time passed before I actually went to church again. I confess I was quite nervous.

I spent a few years just reading and studying. Because of my family's history and concerns about my own mental health I had misgivings about diving in too quickly. It occurred to me that my discomfort with religion was precisely one of the things that made me want to give it serious chance. It was because it made squeamish, because I wanted to dismiss it in spite of knowing so little and never really giving it a chance - that is what made me want to explore. It is perhaps similar to my exploration of far-right extremist politics. To understand racism (and fight it) you need to talk to racists. Religion is not different though I did not intend to fight it.

Instead I decided to take a Gonzo journalism approach. I decided I would immerse myself for a year. I decided it was time to stop arguing about religion on Twitter and blog posts and actually go interact with believers in the real world. That worked wonders. Their sincerity was addicting. I began to pray every day and formally converted. What I found is that faith is sort of like a flame. It can be put out but once lit you have to work to make it grow. I still have a lot of skepticism about the Bible and church dogma, but what's nice is that my particular denomination encourages questioning of faith. The idea is that faith isn't about blind agreement but rather gradual exercise and study. I believe in the core themes of the Gospels as well as Jesus' divinity, but I still have a lot of studying to do. I need to talk with more people and keep my mind open. For this reason I have chosen also to generally be public about my faith as well.

It is still very much a work in progress but overall, the results have been good. I genuinely feel more content with life. Prayer I find helps me focus, cultivate gratitude, and generally reduce stress. Studying the Bible has been a great motivator for learning more history, philosophy, theology, and foreign languages and it is nice to be able to speak about it with some authority. My health has improved, I'm sleeping better, I enjoy my hobbies more, I have more control over my compulsions, I am more patient with people and I am way more productive.

From experience I know that many of these positive consequences can be achieved with secular mental exercises / breathing / yoga, however the effect is not even remotely as strong as with faith and prayer. I conjecture two reasons for this: 1. The supernatural component amplifies the psychological impact. There is no secular analog to God - He is simply the most powerful cognitive tool humans can conceive. 2. With secular exercises there is an ever-present selfish intent. You are doing it to serve yourself. With faith, if you're serious about it at least, the faith comes first and the demands come second. You don't believe in Christ because he pays your student loans. You believe because the grace of faith inspires you to understand that Christ really was the son of God, and that  empowers you (to be able to do things like pay your student loans) way more than any breathing exercises ever can.

As an aside, this is why I am skeptical of right-wingers who say we need to return to Christianity to save civilizations. Faith as a means to fix society is not genuine. It is subordinating God to the worldly. What you are actually worshiping is this world - your country, society, particular political ideas, etc. Faith and God must be ends in themselves. We shouldn't become Christian to fix society; we should fix society in order to be Christians. I say this realizing that Christianity has become something of a counter-culture in western countries. It is attracting a variety of people disaffected with modern society - hipsters and traditionalists alike. This is not a bad thing however I think sincere Christians are not content to be contrarians in a subculture; they want to be the culture - they want to live in a society that reflects their values.

This brings me to another motive for converting: A desire for community. Indeed, I wanted to try to relate to that 97.5% of my fellow humans that do believe in something they cannot see. I was tired of always being the smarmy nitpicking wallflower - always too smart and cool to join anything. Through the church it feels nice to have a wider sense of community and family. I have been a man without a country for many years - alienated politically, racially, and socially. I feel that I have a home now.

I also don't feel like I have had to sacrifice any of my reason or independence of mind. I think humans need some kind of psychological anchor to orient their mental and emotional processing. Sort of like how barriers paradoxically make us more free. Give someone a blank page and they can't write. Give them a prompt and their creativity flourishes. Religion is sort of like a programming language for navigating the ineffable mystical aspects of existence. The constraints provide a framework that helps you appreciate the intangible and mysterious. Christianity perhaps is like Java. It's old and big and powerful and complex and everyone complains about it but it still just works for a lot of stuff.

I don't know where I'll be twenty years from now. Perhaps my experiences will lead me back to atheism, or agnosticism, or Scientology - who knows? I reserve the right to re-evaluate and change my mind. For now I am just trying to appreciate the journey and keep learning. It is the big scary choices with unpredictable endpoints that I regret LEAST in my life. This is yet another.

So long story short, I'm Catholic now.