At this time with so many challenges facing humanity, it is more crucial than ever that we band together using objective means of measurement and clear thinking in identifying, understanding, and finding solutions to our shared problems. Autonomy of the individual is very important, for our freedoms allow us to be fulfilled and happy. However, the public sphere cannot and should not be populated by subjective beliefs, if we are to maintain our civilizations and quality of life. This blog is dedicated to examining the political, religious, psychological, and philosophical aspects of our modern discourse in the public sphere, endorsing that which is beneficial, and exposing that which is not.

Monday, August 23, 2010

My Conversion Experience

This was originally a post on facebook in response to some criticisms I received for being offensive to Christians. I think that it is also a good addition to this blog, for those who may not be friends on facebook.

I get the impression that my writings, my methods, and my motivations are misunderstood. So, as briefly as I can, I will attempt to explain how I moved from belief to skepticism. In the process, I hope to also clarify my motivations for writing about the subject matter I write about. I hope to show that my message is not one of offense, but one of necessity. Most of the material I will cover here has been covered in some of my other notes and articles. But, this is the first time that I have presented it together with the purpose of defending my actions and words.

Most people know that I spent my youth in the Protestant Christian Church. My father was a deacon when I was born, and a preacher by the time I was about 10 years old. We had nightly bible study every weekday, and church on Wed. and Sun., plus vacation bible schools, revivals, singings, dinners, etc. I spent much of my first two decades of life in one church or another. Toward the end of my time living with my parents, we began to get into the Charismatic Christian movement. Basically, this is all about accepting the promises of the bible in this life, as opposed to focusing on the after life. This includes healing of diseases, the gifts of the spirit, the five-fold ministry, praise and worship as power to defeat the forces of the devil, intercessory prayer warfare, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, Baptism by Fire, etc.

Shortly after I graduated from high school, my oldest brother bought me a plane ticket to stay with him and his family in southwestern Germany. He was in the Army at the time. And, he had fallen in with a really zealous set of Baptists. I had to defend my beliefs from him and the church he was attending. Understand, I wasn't very actively religious at the time. But, I was constantly bombarded with the views of he and his church, often they would gang up against me. As a result of this, I got into the bible even more than I ever had before. It was at this time that the seeds of doubt first began to bloom inside me, not only in my view of Christianity, but in the religion itself. I began to doubt because I had begun to notice not only discrepancies in the bible, but also that those who professed to believe were not necessarily the most moral. I continued to self identify as a Christian for several more years after that, though. I even actively witnessed and went to church during that time. It was all I knew in terms of world view.

In 2000, I had really made a mess of my life in various ways by various choices. I ended up moving back in with my parents for a few months. I have noticed that one of the great patterns of life is that often when someone who was a Christian has a really hard time they fall back on the religion and the god of their youth. I was no exception to this pattern at that time. I went whole hog into Christianity, my doubt from my time in Germany forgotten. I grew a long bushy beard. I wore buttons that said things like "too blessed to be stressed". I did my absolute best to take the bible literally, and to live as it said. I fasted constantly. I prayed and sang, sometimes in english, other times in tongues. I mean I was hard-core. Jesus had said that his yoke was light. But, I didn't find that to be the case. The bible said that if I sought God with all of my strength, and all of my heart, that I would find him. I renewed my mind in the word of God daily. I tried to taste God to see if he was good. You would think, based on all these promises, that I would have been experiencing the Joy of the Lord, and the other fruits of the Spirit. Not only did I not have these experiences, but I didn't even have a basic happiness. I took quite some time, several days, where I did nothing but wait on the Lord. I needed him. And, he never showed. I was crushed. Here I was giving my all, and he didn't even give me a crumb from the table. Confused and hurt, I moved on. I began to get back into society as a "normal" person, and the whole experience faded. I was still a self identifying Christian if you asked me, but you had to ask me. I didn't talk about God or my religion any more.

My main turning point that I would point to as ending my identification as a Christian was time that I spent in an internet chat room in 2003-2004 talking to people about the bible. Once again, I was trying to defend it. But, this one person got me to get my bible out, and follow along with him. He proceeded to show me, step by step, many contradictions in the text of the bible, as well as example after example of God behaving in ways that were immoral. I had read the bible extensively. Why hadn't I noticed that before? Because I was reading it with a religious slant, a bias that it was the perfect word of God. Well, after that night, seeing that the bible is demonstrably fallible, I couldn't defend being a Christian to myself anymore. I still couldn't admit to myself that I wasn't a Christian, either. That's a scary proposition for anyone who was raised to believe that this was an express one way ticket straight to hell. But, whether I could admit it to myself or not, I was no longer a Christian at that point.

It was about this time that my wife and I decided that I should quit my management job and go back to school. I took several courses in psychology, sociology, and especially philosophy that further opened my eyes. My first philosophy class was the single most enlightening, empowering, and refreshing experience of my life. It helped me to make sense of my emerging doubts. It was in my first philosophy class that I publicly identified myself as an agnostic. Subsequent classes in Comparative Religion and Elementary Logic further elucidated and progressed the conversion process that I was experiencing. I began to examine every aspect of my life and my environment with reason and logic as the basis for understanding. I began to see the importance of thinking clearly and critically. It was not a quick process. It was a long arduous journey, a journey that I am still in the process of making.

I spent a lot of time debating people at school, people on the internet, debating with myself. My usual subject matter was god, religion, science, etc. More or less what I still bring up most today. But, I started off a lot more extreme than I am now. I used to try to convince people that god didn't exist, because I was convinced that it was always best to let go of religion. I didn't have contact with most of my friends at that point. I wasn't yet on facebook. Slowly, I began to see that the question of the existence of god isn't as clear cut as I wanted it to be, as it seemed to me at that time. I won some debates, and lost others. But, I found that losing, while difficult to swallow sometimes, is also the best way to learn. Now, normally, if I make a claim, it is because I have researched it and argued it, and it has withstood the test of argument, often more than once. I try not to write posts and make claims that I can't back with a strong argument. I get caught up in arguments and claims others have posted that I'm not quite as prepared to defend my view point. But, my own are carefully considered and researched.

I learned during this time of intense debating one of the most important things I have ever learned, that is the difference between subjective beliefs and objective knowledge. If you are reading this, and aren't familiar with those terms, it would be a great idea to look them up. I learned that the only way to hope to achieve objective knowledge is by following evidence and reason to their conclusions. If there is no evidence or reason to support a claim, then it is not objective. Subjective claims cannot be argued to any satisfactory conclusion. This is the basis of my message, why I post what I post most of the time. I want to show that even though subjective belief is fine for individual persons, it is damaging and divisive to try to apply it to groups of people. I hope that you understand and believe me when I say that I am not attacking anyone's personal belief when I post about god or anything else. I am challenging subjective belief, and it's right to be in the public sphere. I don't condone or recommend belief without evidence. But, I don't condemn it either. I am showing that it is indeed subjective, and being subjective, or lacking evidence, it should not be considered any sort of universally applicable knowledge. There is no way to work out agreement among people concerning non-evidential claims.

My main motivation for seeking to get this message out is the state of the US political system, and the great divide in our nation. So many people seem to be making decisions and taking sides on public matters based on their own subjective beliefs. For example, the abortion debate, stem cell controversy, teaching creationism in science class, separation of church and state, foreign policy, civil rights for gays, and many more very important issues are being fought by opposing sides using subjective beliefs. There are evidential points to consider in each one of these issues that are being largely ignored because of these subjective beliefs. That is another reason that I am so quick to challenge beliefs. When a person is absolutely certain that they know the truth, they are closed to other possibilities. I am hoping to shake up that certainty, to encourage people to look, to pay attention. To try to figure it out in an unbiased manner. That is why I am so insistent that a person be on topic, challenge the points of the argument itself. I am hoping that we can find truth together. But, that can only happen when we are both sincerely looking. The way things are going now, tensions are escalating, people are yelling at each other. And, we can expect this to become an ever widening divide if we don't make changes to the way we talk to each other.

That is the most driving and most important motivation for my words and my actions. But, there are other motivations as well. It's not easy breaking free from two decades of what I now consider to be a form of brainwashing (see my post on this in my notes- note that I didn't accuse anyone of being brainwashed either, as I have been accused of doing). I am still open to the possibility that someone may make a point, concerning the existence of god or any other topic about which I post, that I have never considered before. I don't think I know it all. I know I don't. If I am wrong about the existence of god, I want to know. I want to know because I want to know the truth. But, honestly, I also want to know because of the potential finality of getting it wrong. Now, while I respect and appreciate another person's faith (I am not a stranger to the concept or the experience), that faith is not going to change my mind in any way. This is a secondary motivation to be sure, but it is a motivation all the same.

I've been told by more than one person that my style of writing may be a hindrance to those reading it. As one person told me, I am saying a lot in relatively few words, so it is a bit of a dense read. So, I will briefly address that in this posting as well. Everyone has different types of intelligences, according to a wonderful theory by Howard Gardener. I highly recommend reading about this theory. It really opened my eyes to the nature of intelligence. Not everyone is equally adept at all types of intelligences. We have individual strengths and weaknesses. One of my main strengths involves words, vocabulary, grammar, denotations, connotations, etc. I have been accused of reading a dictionary for fun. I love words. I love the nuance of meanings and implied meanings between similar words. I love using concise and careful language that gets across exactly what I'm trying to say. I don't like the easy misunderstandings that imprecise language produces. Also, I am already talking about controversial subjects, I don't want to use language that may offend more than the subject matter itself. I don't sit and look up words to use to try to impress or confuse people. I try to take care to write coherently and grammatically correct. But, that's as far as the planning goes. It comes out naturally the way I write it. I am trying to be a bit more conversational in this piece. Looking back I can see places where that hasn't happened. But, I am trying.

To conclude, let me reiterate that I know my subject matter is controversial. But, for the reasons given above, I feel that it is necessary to have these conversations. Because I am aware of the controversial nature of these topics, I do my best to be neutral with my tone, and to avoid accusations or recriminations. I don't think that I have made any patently offensive statements on here. You are welcome to look back through my writings to see. If you find one that you think is overtly offensive, bring it to my attention, and I will either try to explain it more thoroughly if I don't agree that it's offensive, or I will issue an apology if it is. But, it is my opinion that it is the subject matter itself that offends most. If that's the case, then I can't really say that I am sorry for that. I hope that by explaining things here, I may take away some of that offense, anyway. If there is a point that I should have covered that I haven't, let me know. I'll try to cover it. Thanks for caring and reading.