What’s the Harm in Belief?

Sometimes I get mail and the other day I got a Facebook message asking me about this post. Now first of all I have to say YAY I LOVE HEARING FROM YOU PLEASE TALK TO ME AND ASK ME THINGS.

But second I wanted to respond to this message because it asked some great questions and was wonderfully thought-provoking. If you’ll recall, that post in particular was about the fact that I find philosophical questions deeply important and that they are driving forces in my life, therefore I would appreciate it if others would not mock or deride people who care about those questions.

So here are the questions that were posed to me.

1. How is it that I have managed to care so deeply about philosophical questions and not fall into religion/supernatural/spiritual answers? Many other people who deeply explore the world and who are driven to find certainty and understanding look to god. Why didn’t I?

2. Would there be anything wrong with choosing to believe in the supernatural if it made me/a hypothetical person with the same intellectual drive as me feel better?

The first one of these is obviously personal so I’ll only touch on it briefly, but I think the second one is something that creates a fairly large rift between the religious and the non-religious. Many atheists have a lot of bitterness towards religion and sometimes that rubs off on their feelings towards any belief in the supernatural. Many people who do believe in the supernatural don’t think they’re hurting anyone and don’t get why anyone would want them to change if they get comfort from their beliefs. These are both valid points of view, but there are a few other elements that I’ll touch on.

So, question one.

There have been some times in my life where I wished I could just believe in a god because it would make everything so much simpler. I was raised in a Catholic school and for some time I thought that it was the right thing to do to believe in God, but I just really wasn’t convinced. I never felt any presence like other people talked about, and when I became old enough to dissect the logical arguments none of the reasons for God’s existence made any sense for me. I might have felt a yearning, but it seemed clear to me when I looked at the evidence that God didn’t exist.

I suppose I could liken it to daemons. In the Golden Compass series, everyone has a little animal companion who acts something like their conscience. When I first read the series I desperately and deeply wanted daemons to be real. I wished I could have one. It seriously caused me some loneliness because I so vividly imagined what it would be like while reading the book that it felt like someone had ripped my daemon away from me and left me empty and alone. But no matter how much I wished that daemons might be real, I knew they weren’t. God was exactly the same for me. I saw no evidence that he existed, no signs of his presence, no reason to believe he was there. I didn’t even want God as much as I wanted a daemon, I really just wanted some sort of certainty so I sought it out in logic, philosophy, and science instead.

I deeply want truth and in my mind I have already examined the hypothesis of God and found it wanting. Therefore it’s not truth and not what I want. That’s the best way I can explain my atheism and why spirituality didn’t do much for me.

So question 2: what might be wrong with choosing to believe in God if you think it would make you happier? I think this is a really good question. Some people believe that truth and accuracy is the most important value in the world. I disagree. I’ve mentioned before that I think truth is an instrumental value: there’s nothing about accurate perception in and of itself that’s really super great but truth and accuracy are extremely important when it comes to creating a happy life, to being healthy, to having good relationships, to being safe and secure…really any other value you can think of you can only achieve if you have an accurate perception of the relevant parts of the world.

So because I don’t value truth for itself, I do think that there might be some times and places where it’s ok to let yourself believe something that’s not true or to do something that goes against the facts you know, but generally under controlled circumstances wherein you’re fairly in control of the situation.

The problem with making yourself believe in God seems to me to be twofold. First, I don’t think it’s really possible to choose to believe in God in this way. It’s like trying to convince yourself that unicorns exist because it would be really a nice thing. You could surround yourself with unicorn believers and read unicorn scripture and avoid anything that questions unicorn existence and spend a lot of time trying to feel the unicorn presence each day. But when you get right down to it, there will probably be a part of you that never believes, that sees the evidence against unicorns, that is just waiting for someone to mention anti-unicorn arguments so that it can pull down your carefully built facade.

And that would suck. Losing belief is often a painful process. If you force yourself into belief it seems pretty likely someone could force you out again, and then you’ve lost your worldview and possibly a community and you have to start fresh, now with a loss of certainty just behind you. That hurts and it’s confusing and it’s frustrating. It also means you’ve spent a lot of wasted time arguing with yourself, trying to convince yourself of something you don’t believe, and trying to silence a part of yourself. Rarely if ever does telling a part of your mind to shut the fuck up make you feel happier.

But the second problem is that you’ve built your whole life around a lie. I’m not even going to touch on some of the moral problems of organized religion, so let’s assume for now that you don’t join an organized church. But let’s just think about creating a whole set of morals, values, beliefs, and knowledge around something you don’t actually think exists. This seems like it would be pretty ineffective and would probably collapse at some point. Trying to incorporate one premise into an already created worldview also seems like it would require some mental gymnastics.

As an example, I’m pretty much a materialist. I suspect that there’s probably a physical and scientific reason for just about everything, and I’ve built most of my life around that viewpoint. Imagine trying to stuff a god into that. How would it function? What would it do? The paradigm would probably have lots of inconsistencies and would require me to change other things that I hold as true or else hold a lot of cognitive dissonance. And if I changed things, that would lead to other problems, like the fact that I was now acting based on lies I tell myself in order to support my believe in God.

Particularly when it comes to moral questions, I would hope that everyone in the world attempts to be as truthful as possible with themselves when it comes to creating their moral system. Generally a god comes with a morality built in or affects your morality in some way, as metaphysics and ethics are pretty closely linked. If there’s an afterlife it will change how you act in this life, if everyone is interconnected in some way, it will affect how you act in this life, if things are supposed to be the way they are, it will affect how you act in this life. That means god affects morality. If you’ve lied your way into a god, then you’ve built a lie into your morality. This seems deeply bad to me.

This is not to say that every religious moral system is deeply bad because it includes god, but rather that if you don’t actually believe the foundation of a moral system it seems that it would be vulnerable to adjustments that are not actually very moral and that it would likely not actually be the most moral system available.

In addition, I think there would also be a lot of cognitive dissonance. If you had come to the conclusion that God doesn’t exist in your life already, there would probably be reminders of that everywhere, things that don’t fit into a religious worldview for you, evidence in your mind of the materialistic nature of the world.

The person who posed this question included gods like Poseidon as a fanciful example of something that might make you feel more comfortable to believe. I’m going to go along with that theme and look at Zeus. So imagine convincing yourself of the existence of Zeus, the all powerful god and creator of lightning and stuff, and then going out in a thunderstorm. You look up and see lightning. “Evidence of Zeus!” you exclaim, but in the back of your mind you can’t help but think of the fact that you know scientifically how lightning works and that it is not in fact caused by Zeus. Imagine all the time and energy you’d spend fighting with yourself and trying to convince yourself and probably feeling kind of crappy that you can’t actually make yourself believe. Cognitive dissonance is a horrible feeling. It’s confusing and frustrating. It’s almost maddening. I would not want to make choices that increase my cognitive dissonance.

I would also worry that it would make you more likely to accept other falsehoods, perhaps more dangerous ones, in the future. This is a bit of a slippery slope argument and on its own I don’t think it would be enough to discourage people, but in conjunction with some of the frustration of the other reasons, I would suggest it would lead to a decrease in good behavior and in happiness. Think about the process of constantly reteaching your brain to believe something that you think isn’t actually true. This is a skill, and the more you do it, the better you become at it. Think about making a choice to believe a lie in order to feel good. These two things combined seem like they might get a little bit engrained and would lead you to keep convincing yourself that your comfort and happiness is more important than external reality. This might be an extreme portrayal and I doubt anyone would just abandon all morality, but I wouldn’t want to set the precedent of choosing lies.

Now it’s possible that some people manage to convince themselves to believe in God and not have any of these problems, never experience any cognitive dissonance, have a really sound and fantabulous moral system, and never let themselves believe anything else that they actually know not to be true. It’s possible that there would never be those stabs of doubt that make you really miserable, or a moment that it all falls down and leaves you feeling even worse than if you had never believed in the first place. It’s possible you wouldn’t waste any time retraining your brain. If that is the case I can’t really see anything wrong with choosing to believe in a God you don’t actually think exists in order to satiate a deep desire for certainty and understanding. I just suspect that practically speaking it wouldn’t work and would really leave you feeling more confused and frustrated than you started out.

Ask An Atheist Answers!

So I got a couple of questions from people, but if you still have anything you want to ask go right ahead! My first two questions are from John 🙂

What aspects of a religious community do you most miss, if any?

So this is an interesting question for me because although I grew up in a Catholic school, I don’t know if I would say I ever felt like part of a religious community. My family was never part of a church, and my parents never participated in church functions, so I’m not sure if I got the full benefits of being in a “church community”. I didn’t do Sunday school, I didn’t have church friends, none of that. That being said, there are elements of church that I miss. I miss singing. A lot. I miss there being songs that all my friends knew and hated or loved, and all could sing that weren’t whatever pop music we obviously didn’t have the vocal talent to reproduce. I miss being in churches. As much as I don’t necessarily like the waste of creating gigantic buildings for the sake of a being that doesn’t exist, I do think that there is an art in beautiful buildings, in large, majestic buildings that try to capture space and grandeur without being overly ostentatious. I think that art is largely lost right now, or at least it isn’t held up a whole lot. I love the feeling of being small in a church. I love the feeling of breathing more air. So I miss the buildings, even though I could just go back and sit in a church and reflect if I felt like it now, I miss being in them on a regular basis.

Do you think humanity would lose an important part of its identity if faith, as a concept, were ever to disappear? If so, what aspects of faith are important?

I’m going to divide this question up a bit, because I don’t think faith has to be relegated to religion. Many atheists really hate the concept of faith and think that it’s making a value out of trusting things you don’t know. In many cases I agree with that. However I believe that we also have faith in many other things, things that we don’t necessarily have empirical evidence or certainty of, but which we need to trust anyway: I have faith that my boyfriend loves me. I’m trying to have faith in my therapists when they tell me that my life will be more worth living if I do the things they ask me to do (they don’t have empirical evidence that it will work). I have faith that the system of government I live in will live up to my expectations of it (which I have SOME evidence for, but not a whole lot). So there are a whole lot of places in which we use an element of faith to move from inadequate evidence to what we hope are good and positive actions. Religion absolutely does not have a monopoly on that. I don’t think those aspects of faith should disappear and I don’t think they ever will disappear because we simply need some of them to continue to function (without some element of faith it’s nearly impossible to have relationships).

I think faith is important when interacting with other people, because you will never entirely know what they think or feel. I think faith that takes us from some limited amount of information to necessary action is good (trusting that we’re acting in the best possible way without KNOWING). But there’s a really big difference between these kinds of faith and religious faith, which asks us to believe WITHOUT or with CONTRARY evidence. I see faith as an extra bump to action when you just don’t have the knowledge.

Now if the question is whether I think we will lose out on something if we lose our religious faith, I would say no. I think that all of the things that religion provides can be found in other places, plus MORE can be provided. I think that humanists need to work to create ethical communities that give support and philosophical discussion, and care, and psychological counseling if necessary, that help to support their members in the same ways that churches do without faith. But that can also provide things like sex-positive teachings, or actual licensed therapists, or advocacy for good medicine and healthcare, things that churches don’t currently provide. I think that science and poetry and art, and all the other human pursuits can give us just as much wonder and joy as religion. There may be a sense of comfort and safety that religious faith gives us that we can’t find anywhere else: I’m not totally sure. But at the same time, I think that a false sense of comfort and safety isn’t worth much and doesn’t allow us to move forward in our lives and as a species. I think that when we rely on each other, on our minds, and on our skills in a way that is in synch with reality and as much truth as we can get at, the certainty and safety we get is a lot better.

And my third question is from my dear from Barrett: Question! Preceded by a long ramble. I, as you know, grew up in a fairly similar situation to yourself, as far as religion/religious education goes. I have memories of praying as a very young child, but since probably the age of twelve or thirteen, I have been fairly ‘meh’ about the whole thing. *Religions* I have opinions on, sometimes vociferous ones, and find theology fascinating, but in terms of having any kind of personal faith, I simply don’t find it to be… necessary, I guess, to me. There’s no gap in my life that I need faith to fill. I don’t really have much of on opinion on the existence, or not, of a higher power(s). If I had to stick a label on it, I suppose I’d go with apathetically agnostic.

So, my question is, how did you find your way to firm, outspoken atheism, as opposed to my ‘meh’? At what point did you go, There is no god, and this fact is *important* to me?

This is a FANTASTIC question and one that I’m not entirely certain I have a concrete answer for. Part of the reason that atheism has become important to me is because I do feel a deep yearning for something solid in my life. I NEVER believed in a God, and I always felt a bit ostracized for it or at least a little odd or like something was wrong with me because of it. Only as I got older did I begin to realize that it really wasn’t a problem with ME it was an intolerance on the part of others. So in part it became a way of identifying myself against others from a young age. It was a way of bonding with certain peers in high school. And I ABSOLUTELY hated having religion shoved down my throat in high school and was definitely bothered by the expectation that I should participate even though I was only at the school for the education, not the religion. It was a reaction of frustration. For a long time in high school I was an angry atheist and I felt some amount of contempt for the people who acted like they knew so much better than I did.

When I get to college I very much turned to a “meh” attitude. No one was bothering me about it anymore, so it didn’t seem to matter. In the back of my mind I still identified as atheist, and I was still incredibly interested in questions of religion because I didn’t understand it and I HATE not understanding things. So it always gnawed at the back of my mind, and the fact that I felt very depressed and uncertain about my life also gnawed at the back of my mind and made me wonder if religion could have helped.

Like you, I have always been against particular actions of religions, and have never really felt that religious institutions are very helpful. But I wasn’t vehemently atheist. I’m still not sure I’d say I am. But I think the tipping point for me was that sort of on a whim I went to a student atheist/nonreligious group, and got kind of interested in what they were doing, and started reading a variety of atheist blogs. The more I read, the more I realized that what I had experienced when I was younger wasn’t just individuals being frustrating and condescending, but it was actually a societal attitude of prejudice against atheists. I realized that atheists are one of the least trusted groups in America. I realized that huge numbers of public schools are still forcing prayer on their students. I realized that religious opinions hugely affect politics in a way that I consider negative. And I realized that atheists are a largely invisible minority. And so it became important for me to openly and loudly identify as atheist because I wanted others to know ‘this is what an atheist looks like and I’m not crazy and horrible’.

The longer I’ve been part of the movement, the more I realize how patriarchy and racism and a lot of other negative things in our society are wrapped up in religion, and the more I realize that the logic that brought me to atheism is the exact same logic that requires me to reject stupid bigoted beliefs. And I thought that the intersectionality of all of that is SO important. And as someone with a mental illness, religion is one of the sources of the most stigma against me and science and atheism and logic are my best sources of hope and care. And so it became more and more important for me to do advocacy for skepticism and logical thinking. So while I still identify vocally as an atheist because I do think it’s important for me to show that atheists can be great awesome people, and that religious freedom includes freedom FROM religion, and that religious organizations are not inherently great and neither is faith, but my focus as an atheist has shifted more to skepticism. I want most to be an advocate of rational and logical thinking. And for me that involves atheism, but it also involves feminism and mental health advocacy, and intersectionality, and GLBT advocacy…I’m still deciding whether atheism is the arena in which I want to put my efforts, but I think the atheist community is primarily one of people with lots of privilege, who have a fair amount of influence in academia, and I’d love to bring some of the other concerns that I listed to that community.

And then in addition to all of this, I found an AMAZING group of friends through the atheist community. I mean seriously, I have never spontaneously loved a huge group of people more than the atheists. All the people I write with on teenskepchick are like a little family to me, and they are SUPER supportive if people start getting bitchy and harassy. I have met some incredibly intelligent people who I see as role models and have been given some amazing opportunities because it’s a small, internet driven community that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. So I do think that Atheism has filled a void that was somewhat created because of my atheism: I got the equivalent of a church community in many ways, with career benefits and personal benefits and political benefits.

So WOW that was a long answer. Short answer: I never MEANT to make atheism a part of my identity but it happened through anger, then through frustration, then through community, then through intellect.

Ask An Atheist Day

I am sick as balls. So I am going to let you guys do my blog work for me: It is ask an atheist day today. ASK ME THINGS!! Here, on facebook, on twitter, any ol’ where. I’ll try to compile them by this afternoon and get them up in one nice big post. Otherwise it will go up tomorrow. Ask me about why I lost my religion, how I get through my days, what’s my purpose, my social security number (haha, not), who my favorite actor is…ANYTHING. I will try to answer EVERY question you ask.


Libby Anne and Dan Fincke at Patheos have a pretty fantastic series going that stresses engagement and civic thinking. They’re both part of the atheist/skeptical community (as am I), and have been putting out biweekly prompts that ask other bloggers to consider ethical and civic questions of importance.

This week’s prompt is about pride, the value of pride and the nature of pride.

I have a peculiar relationship to pride. I live in Minnesota, and here in the great Midwest, we don’t really do pride. Bragging is anathema. The humble brag rules, and being too proud is definitely considered weird. In general, I have fairly negative feelings towards pride, although I don’t view it as a sin or vice in the same way that I was raised to view it (in a Catholic school). In my mind, pride always has the ring of bragging or being overly self-involved. I realize that this is not the dictionary definition of pride, but it is always how I have considered pride. Being proud of someone else is completely acceptable, but being proud of yourself seems immodest.

I do think that something like positive pride is hugely important, but I would prefer to call it self-respect. This is the personal sense that you have done something well, and feel good about yourself. You can recognize your positives and accomplishments. That is great. That is something we need to cultivate more of, since the culture that I live in is one of “never good enough”. Pride involves showing it to others in my mind. And sometimes that’s ok. Sometimes you want to share, sometimes it’s healthy and wonderful to share. But the important kernel is the internal self-respect that says you acknowledge yourself as good.

In general, I think that some measure of modesty is great. It’s quite easy to put others down by bragging about your own accomplishments, it often makes you look foolish, and recognizing where you can improve is great. I think that modesty is 100% compatible with self-respect, because self-respect is internal, and modesty is about how you broadcast things to the outside world. But as always, there needs to be a balance between these two extremes. Modesty helps you to respect and care about others. It greases social wheels. It makes you more approachable. But self-respect (even sometimes branching into pride) helps you care for yourself by letting you acknowledge and honor the things that you have done, by allowing you to rest at times, and by giving you an emotional reward when you do well.

Sometimes pride does serve a social purpose, like pride in someone else or your group. Generally, I believe being proud of ‘your team’ or ‘your country’ is a little silly, since you have no actual ownership of whatever they have done. Being proud of someone else usually means to me that you respect them for it, that you feel they’ve done well. It’s more of a congratulations than anything else, but on a deep level, a level that says you feel happy to be associated with them. I wish that there was a word for this other than pride, because it seems to have a distinctly different flavor to it than personal pride. Where personal pride is about feeling good about yourself or telling others about what you’ve done, pride for someone else is about recognition of what they have done.

There is also group pride, particularly for marginalized groups. I really can’t speak to racial or ethnic pride, because I am not part of a marginalized racial group, but as a woman and as someone with mental illness I can’t understand feeling pride over those identities. Again, pride to me holds an element of boastfulness. There is nothing to boast about with these things. I cannot understand being proud of anything you have not achieved yourself. I do feel compassion, respect, care, and community for the other people in these groups and for my role in these groups. I feel that for many of these people I’m proud of them for surviving. But I am not proud of my status as a member of these groups, because for me pride is reserved for actions, and it is to be earned. However where an emotion plays a positive role in helping someone to deal with their marginalization, I certainly can’t speak against it. For other marginalized individuals, pride might be very important, and I have absolutely no right to take that away from them.

In general, I wish we had more words for pride, to distinguish the emotions that it contains. There are very valuable elements to pride; recognizing oneself, giving oneself permission to rest or recuperate after an accomplishment, feeling good about oneself, respecting oneself, or recognizing a good thing another person has done. In general, I feel that all of these things can be subsumed under respect, because I don’t see what in addition to respect there is about “positive pride”. The prideful element that seems to be added is the boastful, bragging, or raising yourself over others. I’ve never understood the importance of tooting our own horns. Whenever I see patriotism touted as positive, or ethnic pride, I’m simply left wondering what for? Can’t we illustrate our goodness through our actions instead of obsessively patting ourselves on the back? There’s got to be a way to feel good about yourself without throwing a parade.