Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Letting Go of Religious Derangement

It seems that every theist-turned-atheist, at one point or another, shares his or her deconversion story. Now, it is my turn. At present, I am a 20-something atheist, formerly a Roman Catholic. I became an atheist somewhere around my junior year of college, and that view has been reinforced strongly during the following years. Primarily, I came to atheism through science, which I consider a viable route to irreligiousness, although some might disagree. That bit of introduction out of the way, I shall paint a more complete picture.

I was born into a 100% Roman Catholic family, although, admittedly, not a particularly religious one. Nevertheless, I was baptized, had first communion and was confirmed. I was subjected to religious inculcation classes regularly throughout my childhood. I attended church services every Sunday when I was very young, but that ended somewhere around 3rd or 4th grade. I vividly remember how much I hated going to church when I was a child; this was not because I objected to the message, of course, but rather because I found it deadly dull. The same went for religious education, which I am sure I tried to weasel my way out of on numerous occasions.

As a young adult, beginning to form political and social views, I always leaned liberal. Throughout high school, I consistently had pro-choice, pro-gay values. I recognized the Pope was the earthly leader of my religion, but nevertheless ignored his “position suggestions” when he talked about issues of the day. I prayed only a handful of times during those four years, so infrequently, in fact, that I cannot particularly recall anything for which I might have prayed. I did not attend church, even on holidays. Nevertheless, I considered myself a Catholic. I accepted the divinity of Jesus, the existence of God, and the existence of Heaven and Hell. But these were issues with which I never dealt; I never tried to reconcile my beliefs with the way in which I lived my life, or my political views.

I attended a four-year university on Long Island, New York. Though my classes leaned primarily toward English, journalism, writing and literature, I also found time to explore new subjects. In one semester, I took classes in both biology and anthropology. Luckily for me, both courses covered Darwin’s Theory of Evolution exhaustively. While the biology course spoke about the processes by which evolution works, the anthropology course took me up-close-and-personal with the long chain [admittedly a chain with many twists, turns and dead ends] of ancestors that separates modern Homo sapiens sapiens from the common ancestor we share with modern chimps. I absorbed vast quantities of information about Australopithecus afarensis, Homo habilis, Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis, to name just a few. Seeing my “family tree” laid out before me dramatically changed the way I saw the world.

My worldview was beginning to change, but it needed some more prodding. I read a book, "The Blank Slate," by Dr. Steven Pinker, that opened my eyes wider than they had ever been. The book reinforced basic evolutionary concepts, and contrasted them to the narrative presented in the Bible. But, I found its most valuable passages to be those dedicated to debunking “The Ghost in the Machine,” or the soul. He went into much more technical detail about the processes by which the brain works than I have room for here, but I will share the anecdote that did the most to convince me there is no ghostly soul animating my flesh.

Here is a concise version of the Phineas Gage story:

Phineas Gage is probably the most famous patient to have survived severe damage to the brain. He is also the first patient from whom we learned something about the relation between personality and the function of the front parts of the brain.

As the first newspaper account of the accident, that appearing in the Free Soil Union (Ludlow, Vermont) the day after the accident, and here reproduced as it appeared in the Boston Post, reported, Phineas Gage was the foreman of a railway construction gang working for the contractors preparing the bed for the Rutland and Burlington Rail Road near Cavendish, Vermont. On 13th. September 1848, an accidental explosion of a charge he had set blew his tamping iron through his head.

The tamping iron was 3 feet 7 inches long and weighed 13 1/2 pounds. It was 1 1/4 inches in diameter at one end (not circumference as in the newspaper report) and tapered over a distance of about 1-foot to a diameter of 1/4 inch at the other. The tamping iron went in point first under his left cheek bone and completely out through the top of his head, landing about 25 to 30 yards behind him. Phineas was knocked over but may not have lost consciousness even though most of the front part of the left side of his brain was destroyed. Dr. John Martyn Harlow, the young physician of Cavendish, treated him with such success that he returned home to Lebanon, New Hampshire 10 weeks later.

Some months after the accident, probably in about the middle of 1849, Phineas felt strong enough to resume work. But because his personality had changed so much, the contractors who had employed him would not give him his place again. Before the accident he had been their most capable and efficient foreman, one with a well-balanced mind, and who was looked on as a shrewd smart business man. He was now fitful, irreverent, and grossly profane, showing little deference for his fellows. He was also impatient and obstinate, yet capricious and vacillating, unable to settle on any of the plans he devised for future action. His friends said he was "No longer Gage."

As far as we know Phineas never worked at the level of a foreman again. According to Dr. Harlow, Phineas appeared at Barnum's Museum in New York, worked in the livery stable of the Dartmouth Inn (Hanover, NH), and drove coaches and cared for horses in Chile. In about 1859, after his health began to fail he went to San Francisco to live with his mother. After he regained his health he worked on a farm south of San Francisco. In February 1860, he began to have epileptic seizures and, as we know from the Funeral Director's and cemetery interment records, he died on 21st. May 1860 (not in 1861 as Harlow reported).

Source: Here

OK, let us take a momentary break here for a recap, which will provide a glimpse into my mind at that moment in time. Via my biology and anthropology classes, I was totally convinced of evolution’s veracity. Indeed, I discovered that, among relevant scientists, evolution is as widely accepted a theory as the theory that Earth spins on its axis while revolving around the sun. To quantify things more precisely, a poll indicated that, again, among relevant scientists, only 0.15% were creationists. That is probably proportionally similar to the number of historians who are Holocaust-deniers. Evolution’s truth means the Bible’s account of special creation is false. Immediately, the Bible’s alleged infallibility was disproved to me.

Referring back to the Gage story, I found it to be extremely convincing evidence that the “soul” doesn’t exist. Anybody familiar with amnesia already knows that the brain is where our memories are stored. And now, anybody familiar with the story of Phineas Gage also knows that the brain is where our personality is stored. If the brain holds all the answers to memory and personality, what possible function could a soul have? Moreover, if evolution is true, as it is, from what did the soul evolve? If it did not evolve, then does all life have souls? What about bacteria? What about tumors?

The Pinker text also raised another question I never had considered previously: How, precisely, would an immaterial soul interact with a material body? Is there any precedent for the immaterial interacting with the material? Hell, is there any evidence that “the immaterial” even exists? Basically, the notion of a soul is an assumption for which there is no positive evidence. Moreover, the notion itself is extremely suspect because it’s based upon a hypothetical interaction between material entities and immaterial entities, which themselves have no supporting evidence. Now, deep seeds of doubt were sewed in my mind about the soul, another key tenet of Christianity.

As these doubts began to take root, I began decompartmentalizing my knowledge. I took my “religious knowledge,” which had already proven suspect, and began to compare it to my science knowledge in a very broad way. I looked at my “knowledge” of Jesus’ resurrection after 62 hours as a corpse [assuming a Thursday crucifixion]. Upon basic study of human decomposition patterns (especially with respect to brain death), I quickly realized such was wholly impossible. I compared the Noah’s Ark story to basic logic, and soon realized it, too, was beyond the realm of possibility.

I briefly considered the “It was a miracle” explanation, and found it to be bankrupt. For, the notion of a “miracle” also is suspect, as I have yet to see a truly credible claim for one. There are many, many hoaxes and frauds, but no convincing, documented miracles. Dr. Carl Sagan has said that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As I looked at extraordinary claims such as Jesus’ resurrection, I saw that Christianity was in fact supporting extraordinary claims with yet more extraordinary claims (i.e., supporting the resurrection with the fatuous claim of “miracles”). I became increasingly convinced that natural laws are absolute. If something is, according to the laws of nature, impossible—it is flat out impossible. The laws of nature do not cease to be in order to wave through the occasional miracle.

Speaking a moment ago about extraordinary claims, my inquisitive mind now arrived at the most extraordinary assertion of them all: God. Looking at things from my newfound rational, scientific perspective, I asked myself if I had ever seen any positive evidence for the Christian God. I quickly realized I had not. I then asked myself if I had ever seen any positive evidence for any God. I, again, realized very quickly I had not. I then considered the logical plausibility of the God with whom I had grown up. I considered God’s defining characteristics: omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence. Then I thought about Ted Bundy. If God were omniscient, he knew Ted Bundy would become a serial killer. If God were omnipotent, he could create Ted Bundy any way he wanted. If God were omnibenevolent, he would create Ted Bundy as a decent human, since no omnibenevolent entity would damn his own creation to Hell. For, such would be analogous to a toymaker knowingly making a faulty toy and then blaming the toy for being faulty.

All these swirling thoughts were pushing me awfully close to atheism. But still, the word had a negative connotation in my mind. I wondered, weren’t most intelligent people believers? Surely, intelligent folks must have some very good reasons to accept a claim as extraordinary as God. As I studied the reasons for belief, I came across one quite a few times: the beauty of nature. The following is a quote from "Atheist Universe," by David Mills:

During John Glenn’s second trip into space—aboard the Space Shuttle—he looked down at the Earth and said that the beauty he witnessed proved God’s existence. ‘There must truly be a Creator,’ said Glenn, as he gazed out the window at the blue, cloud-covered planet below.


But I also recall vividly that, at the very moment Glenn uttered his oft-repeated words about a Creator, the Shuttle was flying over Central America, where Hurricane Mitch had just destroyed the infrastructures of five entire nations. Thousands of people had just been killed and hundreds of thousands left homeless. Government officials calculated that it would take 30 years to rebuild.

I thought about natural disasters, famine, disease, genocide, prejudice, hatred, violence and crime. I wondered if this world, occasionally beautiful and occasionally infested with evil, really could be considered evidence for the Christian God. I asked myself if these results truly could be credited to an entity that is all-knowing, all-powerful and all-good. I answered, “No.” I wondered if any other deity, from Zeus on down, was any more likely. Once again, lacking a shred of positive evidence for any, I answered, “No.” I came to conclude that accepting any evidence-lacking religion over any other evidence-lacking religion was an exercise in silliness. On the contrary, instead of accepting one and rejecting all others, I decided to reject them all.

And I found myself in good company. Just as one example, a survey of National Academy of Science scientists revealed that only 7% believe in a personal God. While 20.8% are agnostic, a full 72.2% are outright atheists. It should be noted that NAS is the most prestigious scientific organization in the United States.

Subsequent classes in philosophy and science hardened my stance, transforming me into the strong atheist I am today.

Before wrapping this discussion up, I just want to touch on how becoming an atheist has changed my life, and my future. I have discarded most of the material remnants of my Christianity. The crucifix that used to hang above my bed and the communion/confirmation trinkets that used to adorn my desk have been thrown away. I kept a cross necklace I received as a gift, but certainly it never will hang upon my neck again. My family knows of my deconversion and, while I would not say they are giddy over it, they abide peaceably.

I deplore religion as a pernicious influence on my species, and so have decided that I only could have a successful long-term relationship with a fellow atheist. A large part of that has to do with my views on marriage and child rearing. I absolutely refuse to be married in a church setting. For, doing so would be a betrayal of my philosophical objection to fictional-character worship. I refuse to raise my hypothetical children as Christians, and so will refuse to have them baptized, attend CCD, or have communion or confirmation. Certainly, I will allow them to become Christian if they so choose, but I never would be willing to start them on that road to nowhere.

So, that is my deconversion story. Perhaps, if I am fortunate, this story will sew the seeds of doubt into a mind or two.

Readers, please ask yourselves: Based upon what hard, scientific evidence do I accept God?

Then ask yourselves: Is my belief rational?

Do not be afraid of the answer.