Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Emails with an Atheist - Part II

Well, this should be interesting!

First of all, I don't disagree with anything you've said so far. I especially like that you don't want either of us to answer an argument by asking for the other person to read something. That sounds like a great start. Indeed, if we have an argument to make, we ought to simply make it ourselves. I hope you won't mind if I throw out a book name or an article or an author to consider on the off-chance that you've read it. It's not required reading, but could help you understand where I'm coming from on some particular point.

Also, I like where you've started: how we should value truth. You're absolutely correct that I became an atheist not because it was convenient (it decidedly wasn't), but rather because that's where the evidence led me. In fact, lately I've done a great deal of thinking about truth and how humanity can come to know truth. So, that seems like a great place to start.

First, I think it should be mentioned that naturally, human beings are not particularly well-equipped to form accurate beliefs about the world. We naturally see only that which confirms what we already thought was true (cognitive bias), and we tend to irrationally reject evidence when it doesn't conform to our beliefs (Semmelweis reflex). The untrained mind also tends to blindly believe what our family, society, or community believes without objectively considering the reasons for those beliefs (bandwagon effect). And for some, it's the opposite: they reject what their society believes for no reason other than they perceive it as a constraint on their freedom (Reactance).

And so on, and so on. The point is: humans are bad at coming to know things. Our biases cloud our judgment. Thousands of studies have been conducted that explore the uncountable ways our untrained brains form opinions by everything but an objective assessment of the evidence.

Of course, this is why the scientific method exists at all. This is why rational skepticism exists. The point of things like peer review and double-blind trials and experimentation is to circumvent our biases and arrive at an opinion that's a little closer to truth. That's why Carl Sagan titled his great skeptical masterpiece: "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" -- A scientific mind illuminates a world made dark by our own erroneous suppositions and superstitions and biases.

My argument is that religion and religion-mindedness is not only untrue -- it's dreadfully harmful. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that the persistence of an unscientific worldview generally is our greatest challenge as a species. In the midst of grave threats to our planet and species and nation -- and given the fact that we live in a political system that gives a voice to the common person -- the fact that most human beings are unaware of their biases and are, on the whole, uncritical and unskeptical terrifies me. How can we address climate change if we're unwilling or unable to objectively look at the evidence? How can we have an effective public policy conversation if we get distracted by conspiracy theories, or a representative's sex life, or an unwillingness to engage in critical thinking? And so on.

Our churches -- including and especially the Roman Catholic Church -- do humanity a terrible disservice by telling them that they should value "faith" instead of evidence and reason. It's an evil thing that most churches claim that there are demons lurking in the dark, around every corner, just waiting to snatch people up if they ever disbelieve. It's a crime and an injustice to claim that their pastor or their imam or their pope is infallible and not to be challenged. And it's an embarrassment and a shame that they threaten apostates or heretics with eternal torment, or separation from the community or worse if they ever go astray.

I would rather live in a world where no man claims to be infallible. I would rather live in a society where the common man is not afraid of hell, and does not mistake his own doubts as the results of demonic influence. I would much rather be part of a humanity that universally values a scientific worldview; that values skepticism and rationalism and evidence above all other considerations.

As it happens, your church stands in the way of that reality. And for my part, I shall do what I can, one mind at a time, to dismember it.

There you have it, my opening salvo!

A bit more about me: I was an active, committed Catholic from around age 15 through 20. I used to be involved in Catholic youth ministry and devoted something like 4,000 hours to that cause. Also, I lived in a discernment house for a time, but eventually figured out that the life of a priest or religious wasn't for me. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from St. Edward's University. I'm just about 25 now. I'm openly gay, and I stereotypically live in Austin, TX. I do things with computers for a living.


Dear Adam,

I only just glanced at your email, but I've seen at least that we agree on the ground rules, so I'm game.

I would like to publish the correspondence on my blog, as perhaps you might be doing on yours. If so, let me know if things such as your final paragraph, which contains your personal background and current status, should or should not be published.

I will read your "opening salvo" and will "return fire" as soon as I can.



I think publishing this debate on your blog sounds like a great idea. And, so far as I know, I don't actually have a blog. I might make one just for this opportunity, however.

You may indeed include those personal details, and anything else in our correspondence.

I look forward to your response!


Dear Adam,

I readily admit that we humans have trouble getting our beliefs to square with reality. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean we can't come close, correct? I mean, you became an atheist because you believed that belief in no god was a truer belief than belief in a god, right? We may never really know the truth fully (it's pretty obvious we're too limited to do that), but what we both want is to get as close to the truth as we can. Kind of like horse-shoes. That's the reason for this discussion, to try to get closer and closer to the truth, despite our limitations.

I also readily agree that critical thinking skills are sorely lacking in society today and that the scientific method can work wonders when dealing with the material universe.

But you're wrong about the Catholic Church and its position on reason. Blessed John Paul II wrote a famous encyclical, "Faith and Reason", making the case that faith is not and should not be unreasonable. I will even say that if in fact God does not exist, then we should burn down every last church and rid the world of this insipid illusion. I have faith because I have evidence and reason to back it up.

For example: part of what I do in my business is sales. I know that if I call 100 people, I will sell at least one show. We have a close rate that never goes below 1%, on average, over the long haul. It's usually much more than that. Now, there are days when everyone is telling me no on the phones and I just want to give up. But I realize that if I call 100 people this week and make no sales, I might get two or three sales next week. This is a form of faith. It's persistence of will when you have a ground of evidence to know what is true.

Likewise, I know my wife loves me. I have had much evidence over 30 years to that effect. Some days if she's in a bad mood, or I'm traveling and away from her, or depressed or tired, I might have a fleeting doubt - "Does she really love me?" But this doubt is absurd because I know the truth, and when I'm not suffering from a bad mood or passing fancy, I have faith in what is true.

That is the proper exercise of faith, wouldn't you agree? I mean secular, everyday faith - persistence of will regarding that which we are fairly certain is true.

You also mischaracterize the Church's position on infallibility and damnation. The Catholic Church is, if anything, rather soft on "sinners" and I haven't heard the word "damnation" or "hell" from the pulpit but perhaps once in my 11 years as a Catholic. It's true that doubt is not encouraged - but only after one becomes certain enough to profess faith. Now, granted, we are never 100% certain about anything. I am not 100% certain that you exist, for instance. But we live our lives putting our everyday faith in things that are most likely true. Faith in God is similar.

As to your rhetorical flourish at the end of your email, I know of no common man who is afraid of hell. Sad to say. The pope does not claim to be personally infallible. Doubt is a good thing unless it leads you away from the truth.

As to the scientific worldview, bravo. Science is a tremendous tool for discovering and measuring truth.

But let me ask you this, do you believe in "love"? Seriously. Do you believe that one person can love another even to the point of self-sacrifice or death? Do you believe in art or in music and the beauty they convey? Is it reasonable to believe in love or to value art and music? I say yes, it is reasonable because Reason deals with more than logic or the scientific method. It is broader than that. It includes the emotions and the aesthetic sense. These things can also lead to the truth.

Science can measure how you physiologically respond when you're around someone you love; science can measure the pixels in a beautiful picture; science can explain harmony in music, but science can not deal with the wisdom that Reason finds in love, in art, in music. A poem is not scientific, but it is not therefore untrue.

Now, God may or may not exist, but before we even go there we should deal with this: can limited human Reason include an artistic sense, an emotional sense, an intuitive sense? If yes, then science, good as it is, is a fine tool, but a limited one.


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