Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Viewer Mail: On Personal Experience

Letter from R:

I was raised as a protestant christian. All my life I was told that there is a god and that he loves us all. Yet all through my life,from as early as I can remember, a single question plagued me: "Why did god create a world based on suffering?" The natural world of which we are a part, is a constant struggle to eat or avoid being eaten. Metaphorically the same is still true for humans today. If I share my food among the starving, I starve. If I stand alone against an army of murderers in defense of an innocent, I will be killed.

Combined with this childish intuitive critique of god's creation I also possess a university scientific education. I acknowledge the total irrationality of the supernatural. Whilst at university some years ago I realized that I could not continue to believe in god without continuing to grow in contempt for him. My contempt became rage, and my rage soon quickened to hatred. I literally tore my soul apart trying to find a way to reconcile my belief with my hatred. I had to make a decision. Allow hatred to twist and embitter me, or deny god once and for all. I still struggle with the decision.

Cognitively I am an atheist. I know no god. Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny the evidence of personal experience when the experience is your own. It causes me to fear the words "I deny god". Ashamedly I shed tears at the knowledge that my cognitive faculties are at the mercy of my old brain, those structures that we share with all vertebrates.

I type this message as a plea. I do not believe in the soul yet I fear that mine may drive me insane. Please, if anyone among you has struggled with these feelings and overcome them, tell me how. I cannot continue to live in dissonance.

My response:

Hello R:

Yet still I feel him in the pit of my guts like a bout of acid reflux. It is hard to deny theevidence of personal experience when the experience is your own.

This is going to sound flip, but there is a point: "Have you taken any antacid for your god?"

Feelings are products of minds, which are products of brains. I have a degree that includes communication studies, and one thing they drilled into us (using quite a lot of research to show it's true) was that our feelings are produced internally by our own brains. The brain interprets data and offers emotional and physical responses to that data. But we own those responses.

Example: I am walking down a dark, narrow, lonely street alone at night. I see a moving shadow behind a trash can and I feel myself getting anxious. I need to walk by the bin to get to where my car is parked. My breathing becomes quick and shallow and I feel adrenaline beginning to flow and make my head tingle, I see the shadow move again and I pause. Do I go back or keep moving ahead. I fear there is someone hiding there—a mugger or a rapist...and nobody is around if I end up in trouble...

There is NO doubt that my personal experience of fear is totally real. But does that mean that the shadow is a rapist waiting to do me harm?

It turns out it's a cat.

You don't have to deny your personal experience. Just don't assume the experience is evidence of any particular cause when you have no evidence or insufficient evidence. Yes, you "feel something." But there is no reason for believing it has anything to do with gods.



  1. It's sort of related to the concept that worrying about hell is some kind of concession that there's some truth to it.

    The fact is, we're imaginative creatures and our minds wander. Up next after contemplating hell or god, is contemplating the idea of winning the lottery, and what i'd do with the money, and throw in a fantasy about meeting aliens for the first time.

    The question is how does one differentiate between reality and something just being all in your head?

  2. There has been a lot of research lately in the neurology of belief and spirituality. Experiences that take place solely within our skulls can indeed seem "real" to us and to come from outside of our skulls. One extreme of this would be an hallucination. The other side might be something like meditation.

    There may have been some advantage to believing that someone or something was looking over our shoulders - watching for our misbehavior and yet also watching out for our well-being. I consider it something akin to object permanence, but instead of a toddler *knowing* that the ball is in the toybox after being put there, we transfer our parental objects into a spiritual toybox.

    Congratulations on your growth. Deconversion is a long process that involves maturing in the ways that religion had held us back. It took me over ten years to realize the Eucharist was cannibalistic!

  3. I bring up the lottery specifically because I used to play. In fact, I was so into it that I formed an active belief that I was somehow destined to win it. It's like I formed another kind of religious belief, despite being an atheist.

    So I have to actively combat these kinds of delusions still, as my mind is still prone to them.

  4. Tracie, study krav maga! It's a reality -based martial arts/self-defense program designed in part to allay that fear of the alleyway rapist, so that one may "walk in peace."

    Also, there's no chi or religious bullshit in it!

  5. It's a natural response to generations of learned behavior by our ancestors, where drawing worst-case conclusions often saved your hide from being eaten. We can conclude from experience that the rustling in the tall grass is probably just a harmless mole, but our instinct will always wonder to some degree if it's a Bengal tiger.

  6. People can acknowledge the irrationality of the supernatural while still actually believing in its existence. Is it possible to choose to not believe in a god, as R is attempting? Maybe it is, but I wouldn’t be able to just choose whether to believe or not. My advice would be to stop trying so hard to not believe, and focus on getting over the anger, both at God for being a horrible monster, and the anger R is directing at him/her -self for still having a residual belief in God. Anger can be a powerful tool as a catalyst to taking action against injustices, but when it turns to rage it just feeds on itself and causes unnecessary stress.

    Putting aside the irrationality of faith for a minute and going with R’s gut feeling that the Christian God exists, as enraged as R may get at him and as justified as the anger is, it will not bring about any change in God’s behavior - that God is an asshole who does what he wants to do, and he definitely wouldn’t give a flying fuck what R would think about it. Forget for a little while about trying not to believe, and focus on being justified in dumping the abusive jerk already, he’s got it coming.

    Also, yes, krav maga is great. It’s nice to know how to make a proper fist, throw quick punches, and repeatedly knee attackers in the groin. Hasn’t stopped me from avoiding shadowy areas when I’m alone at night though.

  7. Just to clarify, my "example" wasn't self-referential. It was just an example that I thought could be easily related to by most people--where someone is scared of something and it turns out to be nothing. I could be "something"--but the point is, you don't have sufficient information to know what is causing the shadow. And the feeling it's something dangerous does not mean it _is_, in fact, dangerous.

  8. I can sympathize with R's dilemma. I see myself as more of a failed conversion than a deconvert. I was raised in a secular environment until I was in the fifth grade when my mother resumed attending church. She enrolled me in CCD classes (Catholic Sunday School) at that time, I was too young to effectively protest but I was not persuaded by this kind of religious instruction. Still, I felt bad about it because it was so important to my mom.

    I would recommend that R spend some of his free time learning about other religious traditions and worldviews. The more different from modern monotheism the better. Just to come to the realization that one evil god is not the only possible conclusion that people have come up with to explain the hostile world around us. This is what ultimately helped me to overcome "fear of damnation" or "skeptics guilt".

  9. Brilliant response, Tracie. The "personal experience" dialogue is one that I've often had difficulty responding to (in myself and in others), and your example here is so concise and helpful. Thank you!

  10. There's a pretty common psychological phenomenon among many people, especially people who are deeply religious or believe firmly in the supernatural, that greatly downplay the role of the human brain in things like strong feelings, hallucinations and delusions.

    For some reason they have a very strong conviction that if someone has a very strong feeling (for example the strongly feel the presence of a supernatural spirit), that feeling must come from outside the body, that it's not their brain that is generating the feeling on its own.

    The same goes with hallucinations: They may have the strong conviction that only mentally sick people have hallucinations (that it's a sign of mental illness) and that normal healthy people don't, and thus if they have a hallucination, it must be something real, something from outside, definitely not something produced solely by their brain. (They do not know, or refuse to acknowledge, that hallucinations, especially when falling asleep or waking up, are completely normal and most healthy people have them from time to time, others more frequently than others. It's just a side-effect of how the brain works, and there's nothing strange or wrong about it.)

    Once you start to understand the role the brain has in strong feelings, hallucinations and delusions, that's a step towards understanding how the world really works.

  11. Oh, and another thing: Many religious people also extremely easily fall into the fallacy of "something supernatural happened, hence God must exist". One should understand that even if (and that's a big if) something supernatural is indeed going on, that still isn't proof that a deity exists. It would only be proof that supernatural things happen, nothing more. This fallacy is incredibly common.

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  13. @Warp

    Do you mean the "something unexplained happened, therefore God" trap? I don't think anyone could be accused of using the "something supernatural happened, therefore God" argument, since there's no evidence that something supernatural has ever happened. Maybe the "I *think* something supernatural happened, blah blah...?"

    I don't know how one would ever know if something supernatural is going on, since it woulnd't manifest in the natural world by definition.

    Yes, it's somewhat pedantic, but the distinction is important, I think

  14. @Warp

    You said
    "They may have the strong conviction that only mentally sick people have hallucinations (that it's a sign of mental illness) and that normal healthy people don't, and thus if they have a hallucination, it must be something real, something from outside, definitely not something produced solely by their brain."

    I agree with this. It's a common prejudice in the general populace that if you hallucinate - you're mad.

    However, on another note. I don't hallucinate (well maybe once, but not sure - could have been dreaming). Is there something wrong with me? :)

  15. R-

    This is the sort of thing that I have struggled with until just a few years ago. I grew up Catholic. Even then, I had some doubts that I never shared with anyone..."Is that really God and Jesus up there in that tabernacle? Did anyone even bother to ask me if I wanted to be confirmed?" I know that I made a very hard and honest effort to believe that it all was true but it never felt right after a certain point and I ended up "partly playing along" until I left home, was married in the church and then divorced about 9 years later. Sometime after that, I became rather disillusioned with the church community (it never seemed to live up to all the hype that was dumped on us!) and it actually became depressing to be there on Sundays. I think it was due to a feeling of betrayal resulting in the anger that you mentioned earlier. The only 2 things keeping me from fully disowning the idea of a personal god was the ingrained notion of mortal sin as the road to hellfire and the lack of a convincing source of rationality to counter it. It was at that point that I decided, "I'm not sure about god, but I know I certainly don't need religion!"

    The sort of indoctrination that we received as children tends to leave the very deep scars of guilt and fear even after we begin to embrace reality. It lasts a while, I'm sorry to say, but it does seem to dissipate over time.

    It wasn't until I read Bertrand Russell's, 'Why I Am Not A Christian', that things began to fall into place and make sense. Looking back, it appears to be a rather slow but stepwise process. First, you take a few steps back and look at the theistic mess you were left with, you go and build some handles to put on "it", you attach them and then you drag "it" to the dumpster.

    I'm not a therapist but have you perhaps been to seen a qualified non-believing therapist about the anger you're experiencing?

    He or she might have a good explanation of why you're experiencing anger now, since it may have been suppressed as a child. My church school was good at that. "God's children don't get angry...you throw a fit and I'll take you to the priest!"

    All I know is that it was the gut feeling of fear of hell that stuck with me the longest and kept me from discovering alternative sources of reason. I think it's quite true when they say, "first the church gives you the ailment, then they give you the cure". Only it's really not a cure.

    Just know that the Jesus reflux thing will eventually go away with repeated doses of rationality and exposure to others who have been through the same thing. You might try looking at "Convert's Corner at RichardDawkins.net. A lot of people with similar stories that you might relate to.

    It'll get better.


  16. We are taught all our lives that this stuff is real. Many of us really want to believe there is a greater power out there looking out for us in some way. It is hard to deny the combination of these two powerful motivators. That is why we have to rely on what we can prove. We must remember that however shaky scientific explanations might seem (without a real, in-depth understanding of some of them), there is NO proof for any god. That wrenching in your gut is the result of brainwashing, that I find is always eased by reading rational arguments against the idiocy of the bible. It reminds me that it is foolish to continue to believe and how much better off I am without the lie.

  17. I feel pretty lucky in this respect (though I know my experiences are pretty common). The first part of my religious upbringing to go (age 14) was belief in immaterial souls and the afterlife. I still had occasional "what if it's true?"-type pangs for a few years afterwards, but they gradually lost their power and immediacy.

    It's funny, but the hardest part of Christianity for me to get over was a notion that, while Christianity was probably not true, it was at least more plausible and well-thought-out than any other religion. I laugh at my younger self for thinking this, but I also recognize it as the product of indoctrination.

    As for R's email, what if there's a god that's indifferent to human suffering or powerless to do much about it? A god like this might not be something to get so enraged about, and maybe adding ideas like these into the mix can dilute that gut feeling a little. Just a thought.

  18. I went through this as well. Even when I stopped believing in the bible I still couldn't shake the feeling that I had personally experienced god.

    I don't really remember how I got over this, only that it took several years until the feeling went away. It was the product of fear and indoctrination mostly. To a theist, losing your religion is like being told that breathing is a lie and you can live without it. It's not something you're eager to try.

    Maybe for some people losing faith is simple but for most it's a scary process that requires keeping the truth in front of you and refusing to stop questioning.

  19. If R should read this, I wanted to let him/her know I had a similar experience. After having spent my childhood wondering if it was real or not, because all my family said it was but I saw no evidence for it, I came to the realisation that it wasn't. However it took years after that with me struggling with myself, my family etc before I came to some sort of peace with it.

    The crucial turning point was that while I had recognised the non-existence of the supernatural for a very long time in an intellectual capacity, I hadn't mourned the loss on an emotional level. Growing up in a particularly religion, one that your family line identifies with, means its not simply a matter of faith that you're brought up in, but also identity. There was a part of my 'self' that identified itself as Catholic. Letting go of that part of my self required me not just to recognise the absurdity intellectually, but to also allow myself to grieve for that loss in my identity.

    Once I recognised that grief and allowed my emotional side to mourn, I was able to let go of a lot of the hurt that I'd been keeping inside.

    I still find it frustrating, the idiotic beliefs that people can hold (and I include myself in that), but that frustration no longer feels so personal, so close to the bone.

    I hope this perspective helps.

  20. I don't know if R is still listening, but one avenue I can suggest that might help is to study the origin and history of early Christianity. It could be that looking behind the curtain to see how the monstrosity was put together will drive home how much of a sham the whole thing really is. Science convinces you that God isn't needed. History will convince you that your childhood God was created by men.


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