Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Why I don't discuss my atheism

I generally don't discuss religion on this blog because I don't consider it to be intrinsically political, despite the frequent interaction of religion and politics. Furthermore, I rarely discuss religious beliefs in face-to-face conversations; but there are different reasons for my silence in those situations. Part of the reason that I don't engage in personal religious conversations is that I don't know what to say, so I'm going to use this blog as a format for getting my thoughts straight, even though this topic is tangential to the focus of this blog.

The first reason that I don't engage in discussions of religious beliefs is that I don't see any benefit in it. I don't expect to learn anything, and I don't expect my opinions to be persuasive to my conversation partner (more on that later), so I just don't have any motivation to participate. To make it worse, I doubt that it matters whether I believe in God or not.

The second reason that I avoid these conversations is that there is always a risk that the other person will be upset by what I say, either getting insulted, or defensive, or possibly even having their faith shaken. It's hard to politely tell someone that they appear to have built their life on wishful thinking, and that I have no interest in joining them in their delusions.

Still, this is one of those topics that is often worth broaching just as a "get to know you" type of thing, so I should figure out how to talk about it... and I'm gonna have to review how I got to where I am.

I used to be interested in religion. I grew up nominally Christian, though mainly I was a fairly passive theist. Really, all I wanted from God was some signs as to what I should do with my life. When I realized that I wasn't going to get these signs (around age 16) I had my major break with theism. I continued to explore theism for several years, with books and friends, but by my mid-twenties was pretty much done with it.

Discussions of theism often get started with a sort of "natural theology". Of course, this is the most logical entry point for a discussion when a theist is talking with someone whose beliefs they don't understand. I regularly encounter a few basic theist arguments -- what we might call "first mover", "intelligent design", and "magnificent universe" -- that I find completely unconvincing. It's kinda hard to produce anything but a blank stare when someone dishes me these lines. It seems that I can either arrogantly point out their logical error (e.g. assuming that a powerful intelligence is behind anything of interest) or just play stupid and say "I don't understand what you mean" until they give up in frustration. Neither is appealing.

The times that I have tried to engage with the above ideas, I have completely failed to connect with the monotheists whom I am speaking with. When I follow those lines of thoughts, I end up at some sort of pantheism, and with an exasperated conversation partner. The other problem is that I have only encountered one phenomenon that suggested intelligent design, and that is the interaction of the human brain with the compounds within psilocybin mushrooms. There are a variety of reasons that I refrain from bringing up that experience, depending on whom I'm speaking with.

If we get out of natural theology and deal instead with revelations, then I am forced to confront the credibility of whatever religious tradition inspires my partner. This is just asking for trouble. Once I get around the general problems with revelation, then we have to deal with the well documented history of lies and threats that separates us from the supposed revelation. I really don't want to go there.

The final problem that I have when discussing religion is that I don't have a nice label for my beliefs, and I don't belong to any organized school of thought. Others are content to identify as a "Christian" or a "Jew", despite the great variety of beliefs that fall under those labels. I could point to a variety of philosophical traditions, of which I only have passing knowledge. So I could say that I've liked what I've read about Epicurus' philosophy. I like Zen Buddhism, if you drop the mythology. I like the ideas of Christian Unitarianism and Universalism, but that's more about aesthetics than conviction. If we get into philosophy, I find myself to be really the odd-man out, and without any champion that I can defer to. I'm a solipsist of sorts, though I'm told that no serious philosopher is a solipsist (maybe we're using different definitions). The term "subjective idealist" seems to fit my ideas, but I don't think that I'd agree with George Berkeley.

So here I am, left without much to say when my friends talk about their deepest thoughts. Oh well.


rulingclass said...

are we living in a simulation?

Not easily dismissed...

The obvious thing to me is that one's religious beliefs is pretty much a function of (i) when and where one is born (ii) one's parent's religious beliefs

I, myself, lean towards existentialism

b-psycho said...

I grew up vaguely christian as well. Came to question religion initially because of the atrocious things people did and continue to do in its name, but also saw something of a metaphysical contradiction in the concept: for any deity or higher power to be above ones existence implies to me that attempts to define (and thus, figure out rules it wants you to follow, if any) are doomed to fail.

Effectively the range of possible True Faiths is infinite in this view. I considered "what if everyone is wrong, then what?", considered the even-worse-than-the-lottery odds of following the "right" one, and decided following one at all was pointless. For anyone else, if it gets them through the day and doesn't lead to them being an asshole, fine, but that's the extent of it.

Ricketson said...

RC: the fact that one's community has such a strong influence on religious beliefs indicates that most people are not developing their beliefs based on any objective evidence -- just regurgitating their indoctrination.

BP:Your logic is pretty close to the reason that I reject Pascal's wager. Not only does it seem that we need to be infinitely lucky to guess the truth, but it's not even clear that God cares if we guess the truth. In fact, if there is a god, it may actually prefer that not spend our time worrying about it. If it wanted us/me to know it, it could demonstrate its presence quite easily.