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Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Infidels Have Dreams, Too.

Sometimes I wish I had a deconversion story. There are lots of them collected on Ebon Musings, a whole row of atheist stories side by side. Many of them relate one of the most traumatic and liberating experiences that the author has been through. But I have always been an atheist or agnostic of some sort. Oh, I was baptized, but my parents were never particularly religious. I remember a brief stint in Sunday School when I was four, after we'd moved back to my mother's home town, and before my mother, spurred on by the philosophy classes she was taking at the university, decided to tell her mother that no, actually, our family wasn't going to go to church.

I have always been susceptible to moral rules, and the existence in many people's minds of a moral rule demanding belief in God did not go unnoticed by me. I used to feel terribly guilty. "Sorry -- if you exist," I'd tell God. "Sorry I don't believe." But according to Christian doctrine as interpreted by the child me, not believing is the one sin God doesn't forgive. That never seemed very fair to me, since not believing is obviously not the sort of thing that could ever be done with malice aforethought.

I can't remember if I ever seriously considered converting as a way of expiating the guilt I felt. Probably not; I'm sure I would have been aware that I'd have felt guilty about converting, too. And I didn't always feel guilty. I remember my blithe agnosticism when I was eleven or twelve or so. I'd been fascinated by Descartes' starting off by doubting everything, and, since I was entirely unconvinced by his later arguments involving a powerful being -- God -- who could guarantee the reality of our sensory experience, I was left with the notion that the existence of the experienced world was very much open to doubt. In everyday life, there is no standard way to express this residual doubt. When it came to the existence of God, though, there was a nice word allowing me to leave room for the small possibility that God might exist. Agnosticism! Super! Now, if only explaining ones painstaking allowance for the possibility that we're all brains in vats was that easy.

It was, I think, two years ago last Southern summer that I became very good friends with a committed Christian. We were taking a summer course at the same university (both in maths), and he took to me quite quickly. I suppose I must have taken to him, too, because most of the time I didn't mind his company, and there was a lot of it. He had a particular fondness for the Fibonacci sequence, or more particularly for the golden ratio; I used to try to needle him by referring to the latter as "one point six-whatever". Mathematically speaking, there were times when we were positively symbiotic, pulling out surprisingly elegant solutions from his eye for detail, my sloppy but sometimes insightful attempts at pattern-finding, and our differing mathematical intuitions based on different fields of interest. It helped that we trusted each other. We both had our share of mathematical pride, covering our embarrassment at mistakes with the dictum that mistakes are always the fault of the other person "for not noticing". Within a few weeks I think we had probably lost the need for that safety net but we continued the joke anyway. It was as much a part of us as my newly created tendency for carrying a pen in my hair just in case the conversation turned to mathematics. Paper can be scrounged from table napkins and the like, you see; pens are less easy.

The subject of God had to come up. Faith wasn't necessary, he opined. You could find good reasons for believing in God without that. He was fond of the fine-tuning argument. That link goes to a version of the argument which is, I think, perhaps less strong than some. However, it's the version my friend emailed to me one afternoon, leaving me irritatedly trying to defend my worldview in reply rather than doing the work I was supposed to be doing. Leaving off the dubious response to the 'many universes' hypothesis, which sounds like it's saying "We can keep asking 'why' forever, therefore God exists, because we've declared by fiat that you can't ask 'Why God?'", it took some refuting.

I have to confess, it was nothing short of scary debating someone who was willing to leave off all reference to the 'F' word. For an atheist with doubts, an opponent who refers to faith all the time is -- well -- not exactly a Godsend, but you get the idea. Faith is such a nonargument that it's easy to reassure yourself that if that's the best argument anyone has, it doesn't really matter if you don't want to look.

Most of the time we left off talk of religion. It was a fractious subject, and there were plenty of other things to talk about. When we couldn't think of anything else, we fell back on maths. When we got tired of maths, we talked philosophy of maths. If we were out walking, we took a particular joy in being interested in every detail, taking down a Braille message on the side of building to translate later or classifying the local wildlife. Inevitably we joked about 'random walks'. I used to agonise over whether I liked him. Not whether I loved him -- I knew the answer to that! But was I attracted to him? Could I ever be?

It was very late one evening, a week before we were due to leave; a quiet moment at a Saturday evening party, when I came to a decision and leaned my head on his shoulder. There is only so far that liking can go before friendship can't hold it any more, and so I simply let it overflow, stopped loving him like a friend and started loving him like everything.

I couldn't really tell how he felt about my head on his shoulder. Was his head against mine because he wanted it there or because I was leaning in too much? Quietly, I took his hand.

His words didn’t fly from the heart. They were consciously formed, in duty to conscience, slow and steady.

“We need to talk about this,” he said. "Last time we talked, you said that even if God existed you wouldn't like Him all that much."

Yeah, I had said that. He'd been bringing up the possibility of asking God to influence events, which really rubbed me up the wrong way, for three reasons: I hate asking for help, I think physics is just beautiful the way it is, thanks, and, finally, at that time any discussion of God used to make me uncomfortable, full stop.

"[Lynet], that's the worst thing you can do! You're saying to God I don't want to know you."

He paused.

"I can't become -- involved -- with someone who won't accept God," he continued. "I have to ask you: Will you become willing to believe? Because, if you're willing to believe, God will give you evidence. That's all you have to do."

What was I to say? Could I say with honesty that I was willing? Would he believe me if I did? Would he accept anything less than conversion? I thought not.

Ultimatum. How dare he? Could he really think I'd say yes?

I lifted my head from his shoulder. I felt him tense slightly. Let him be tense. Let him know the meaning of his own decision.

Just go, I thought. Just get up and leave.

I took my hand from his. I didn't rise from my seat.

After a long time, I said. "We should do one of two things. We should head off to bed, or we should find somewhere quieter where we can actually hear each other talk."

"I'm happy to talk," he said. It was the wrong answer but I went along with it. We talked for a couple of hours, and if we got anywhere I don't remember it. I was glad to get to bed.

The next day, a girl who'd been a friend from the first because we shared a name asked me, as I was heading up the stairs to my room, if he and I had hooked up the previous night. I cried on her shoulder for a while. I was glad to speak to her; she was Christian herself, and I wasn't ready to hear condemnation of my darling love from anyone else who might simply dismiss his religion as so much silliness. Her God was definitely nicer, though. Not particularly believable, but a lot more accepting and warm. She was, I know, surprised somewhat by the inflexibility of not becoming involved with a nonbeliever, though she didn't voice her opinion bluntly.

Still, the final thing she said to me was "You don't have to take this suggestion. In fact, I think you might not like it. But, maybe you should pray."

I already knew I was going to do that.

I went upstairs and knelt by my bed; I needed the traditional pose to be sure of what I felt I was doing. I prayed through my tears. "Dear God, if you exist, please forgive me for not believing in you. I can't help it. It's the way I am - if all they say is true, it's the way you made me! I simply have to care about the truth of things...
"...God, please forgive me. And please... if you can... please love me, even so."
I know my voice cracked on that last bit. I meant it, every word, with all the anguish of a heart that felt tainted in the light of the disapproval of one whose approval had always felt so warm to me. I didn't think I could bear it if God existed but didn't love me, especially not just then.

Still, I didn't believe.

Parting at the end of the summer, travelling back to our respective universities in different cities, was a new sort of damage. I shall not say pain; it wasn't painful. I was kind of too crippled to feel properly. I could barely think. All my thoughts were impulses spilling out into the air where he wasn't and fizzling out, lacking the expected feedback. Naturally, we set up an email correspondence pretty quickly.

"Thanks for replying so fast," he wrote early on. "Returning home to familiar surroundings, I was starting to wonder if the summer was nothing more than a dream. If so, it was a remarkably pleasant one."

I knew things were basically done, between us. Did he know that? Believing in miracles as he did, I don't think the answer was nearly so clear-cut, for him.

Heck, it was only clear-cut for me in one part of my mind. I didn't actually want to live without him. And if the ultimatum meant the end of us, well, even then, it couldn't be the end of the ultimatum. He'd challenged me, challenged my objectivity, and I couldn't dismiss it.

I knew that the state I was in was anything but objective. But I also knew that sometimes it takes a personal crisis to make you change something deep about yourself, and if I refused to consider changing now, would I have the courage to challenge myself properly at a time when I was less emotionally involved? I honestly didn't think I would. So I had to make the investigation now.

I knew, too, that the "God will give you evidence if you are willing to believe" line had the potential to be pernicious. Perhaps I was a fool to take it seriously at all. But at the time I did take it -- tentatively. I knew full well, of course, that if you want to believe something it doesn't take much for your mind to start manufacturing evidence. 'Want to believe'/'willing to believe' -- is there even a meaningful distinction there? More like a continuum. No, I was suspicious, but I didn't reject it entirely.

I knew that things were basically done, between us, but of course I also knew that if I did convert, I wouldn't have to disentangle myself from him and stand alone all over again. It was hard. As a counterbalance, I knew that if desire to be with him caused me to betray my conscience by accepting ideas I didn't really have good reason to believe, on some level I'd know it, and I'd never forgive him.

Thus I began my research.

It was obvious that none of the standard arguments for the existence of God would take me very far. 'Fine tuning' doesn't actually tell you anything about God. For all we know, God simply has, as J. B. S. Haldane once joked, "an inordinate fondness for beetles". Humans could easily be a byproduct of a universe fine tuned for other purposes. No, the only possible evidence I can see for Christianity is if you find the New Testament to be credible historical evidence.

The internet abounds with commentary on the Bible. You can find writers who baldly state things like "All serious scholars believe that 2 Peter is a pseudepigraph", and others who maintain that the similarities between the synoptics constitute evidence that they were each inspired by the same being (rather than evidence that they copied from the same sources and from each other). I found myself wishing I had some sort of experience with other documentary sources from the same time. Surely you wouldn't just accept them straight up. Well, maybe some of them, but you'd be alert to bias, right? And there is no bias like religious bias. But was that fair?

I found a book in the university library that argued for Jesus' existence. I didn't want to read outright apologetics; nor did I necessarily want to read atheist commentaries on the Bible, but that one looked quite good -- scholarly -- on a topic it hadn't even occurred to me existed, so it might be a way to get a feel for the landscape. I learned approximate dates for the writing of the various gospels. I learned there were probably many collections of 'sayings of Jesus' around at the time, too. I learned that Matthew and Luke almost certainly copied from Mark (but if they did, let's face it, they altered some stuff!) and also from a hypothetical source Q. I learned that John was the last of the four to be written.

I hate John. Can I just say that straight up? Reading through the gospels, it's the one that sounds least believeable. "Most favoured disciple"? Dream on, buddy! And as for blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed -- never. Never in a million years. Under torture in Hell, the moment I agreed to that statement would be the moment that I myself would have ceased to exist and become only a thing-that-responds-to-pain.

The synoptics are more factual-sounding. Still, if they are (as they very well may be) recordings of an oral tradition, then they aren't as reliable as we might hope.

Emails with my friend soon started to include chat about bits of the Bible I'd just read. Mostly I have to confess I picked bits that looked interesting. I wasn't very impressed with the bit in 1 Samuel where Saul loses his position as king because he left -- was it the enemy king and some of the livestock? -- alive. God really meant it about that genocide, huh? My friend suggested a feeble excuse to do with God not wanting the Israelites to covet the plunder they got from the war. Is that any reason to kill babies?

When I pressed, I found that my friend placed as much value on the evidence of his everyday experience as he did on anything else. If it rained hard during a dramatic part of a sermon, that was God joining in. "Confirmation bias", I told him. "Do you count all the times the weather isn't in sync with the sermon?"

"Well," he said, "it's not that I take the event itself as evidence, alone. It's that I fit it into a pattern that I'm already aware of."

"When you decided that pattern existed," I pushed, "exactly how critical were you?"

The first time he spontaneously prayed, he told me, he was two and his sister had just fallen over and hurt herself. Did I really expect him to be properly scientific at that age?

"In that case, it seems to be entirely possible that your attribution of events to God rests on a previous pattern that rests on a previous pattern that eventually rests on the blind faith of a child."

I found myself wondering -- as I scrupulously put in as much news and chat as argument over religion into my emails -- what it would have been like if I had been brought up in a deeply religious household. On the one hand, I care deeply about the truth of things -- but then, so does he! I'd like to think that compassion for those eternally damned might have started me questioning, but I honestly don't know for sure. And it's a simple truth that I'm both respectful of authority and highly suggestible. Would I have made it into the light? Maybe not!

I found myself trying to push against my natural judgement. Was I just skeptical because I didn't want to change my worldview? It was too true that I didn't want the gospels to be reliable, but that wasn't an argument for the opposing position! Maybe I didn't want to accept them as truth because it's a very big thing to believe and it's really not that certain? It wasn't fair for me to just accept that excuse, surely! I pushed and I pushed.

Then I had the dream.

A bunch of kids found this object. It was very cool. I think it could teleport you places. It was also very secret. The adults knew of its existence -- not that the children had it, just that it existed -- and mentioned it in passing as being dangerous, but they couldn't remember why.

The object/creature grew, half organic, half machine. It was being chased by assassins in black. I was with it as it ran, its child companion, but when the assassins caught up they weren't black assassins but purple spirit people, and the object trapped them and ate them, all but the Queen who escaped in a puff of smoke.

Then the creature sent the children secret instructions, and they followed them, and built it large and square, with big teeth, and there was a conveyor belt in front of its rectangular mouth, and people of all sizes lined up to lie acquiescingly on the conveyor belt and were carried to the monster's mouth to be crushed and eaten while I stood by as part of the monster's team of children.

I know it sounds crazy but this is the first time while writing that I've had actual tears in my eyes. The dream still has power, years on.

I half-awoke just as the first person was about to be eaten. I was tense and tangled in my blankets and my subconscious was holding me hostage. I knew, in the way that you can just know things in dreams, that I wouldn't be allowed to properly wake up until I had figured out what the dream meant. So I lay there, playing with ideas, trying to understand. I thought perhaps I'd understand the horror better if I let myself be eaten, but I couldn't do it. Every time I tried to imagine it, the picture just went white. So I had a go, for the sake of hypothetical argument, at imagining it as a message that God was sending me, and suddenly the idea flipped on its head and I knew. Then I could wake up.

The machine is religion. Don't argue, that's what it is, according to my subconscious, for which I am not responsible. And I don't want to be eaten, but more than anything, I don't want to cause others to be eaten.

That's not the scariest thing. The scariest thing about that dream was knowing that if it had gone the other way, I'd probably have converted! I've never had a dream so strong before or since. I thought tales of portentious dreams were exaggerated. Calpurnia before the Ides of March never had such a dream as I had! If it had gone the other way, I'd have called it unprecedented, a miracle. I thought I could accept the possibility of evidence given directly by God, protecting myself by not accepting the sort of subjective evidence I knew my mind was capable of producing. Fool that I was! I didn't know what my mind was capable of!

Oh, do not believe because of a dream you had! Do not believe because you get an incredible feeling when you stand in a church or look at the sky. Believe this: everyone, of every religion, gets that sort of subjective 'feedback'. And if that's not enough for you, remember that infidels have dreams, too.

That wasn't the end, of course. It wasn't even the end of my interest in Christianity. I remained open, I think; I hope, anyway. All that happened was that I stopped pushing myself -- and I stopped believing there could be any worth in a form of evidence that is only perceptible to one person, and never independently corroborated.

How many endings does a doomed but deeply loving relationship have? Many. Uncountably many, perhaps, a continuum of endings grating across your mind. In the months that followed, if I was passing through the Square and the cathedral was open, I'd step inside and stare up at the vaulted ceiling. There, for a few moments, I'd feel my regret, and I'd pray: "Dear God, if you exist, don't let me lose my dearest darling love out of love for the truth if the truth that I'm holding to isn't actually true."

Just in case God couldn't figure out for Himself that I wouldn't want that.

One thing did happen, though. I discovered, almost by accident, as related here, that when I was discussing God with a believer who wasn't the man I loved who had handed me such a painful ultimatum, it could actually be comparatively pleasant. It's no trouble to listen; no trouble to see if people actually have good answers. I wouldn't like it if God existed, but I'd probably get used to it and see the bright side. What I really wouldn't like is believing without solid reason.

I've known what it's like to be truly and deeply in love. Unfortunately, that knowledge is almost indelibly associated with incredible pain, and I'd probably shrink from it if it came at me again from an angle that was too similar in even superficial ways.

On the other hand, I'm a lot happier in my religious position, and I can listen to others, and discuss things respectfully.

It isn't worth it.


It might seem strange that having an extremely anti-religious dream -- or losing a good relationship to religion -- would make it easier for me to tolerate religious discussions. Musing over that, I have come to the conclusion that it's because, when you've finally convinced yourself, completely, that subjective 'evidence' is rubbish, you don't have to have the Inner Promptings Wars any more. Having Inner Promptings that lean towards belief in God is no longer an issue. Instead, I could leave the Inner Promptings that felt guilty for not believing and the Inner Promptings that wanted to believe whatever my mother believed and the Inner Promptings that wanted to be with the man I was in love with and the Inner Promptings that were absolutely furious with the man I was in love with where they belonged: in the 'possible bias' box. The 'evidence' box is reserved for sterner stuff. Turmoil solved.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Humanist Symposium #6

The sixth Humanist Symposium is up at A Load of Bright, and includes my post on doubt.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

More on satire and free speech in New Zealand.

After writing my last blog post, I knew I'd been neglecting my duty as a citizen by not writing letters about the ban on using parliamentary footage for satirical purposes. So I sat down to write an email. But who to write to? My local MP? I hate Gerry Brownlee. Well, all right, not hate hate, but I don't really think of him as representing my views and writing to him as if I cared about the finer points of what he thinks felt a bit dishonest; I'd never vote for him. Helen Clark as head of the Labour government? Ha! Fat chance. I have considerable respect for Helen Clark, but she's a pragmatic politician and I can't imagine any argument I might make counting for much beyond a chalk mark in one direction or the other. In this I may or may not be being unfair.

So I wrote to Jim Anderton, leader of the Progressive Party with its single seat in government, closely aligned with Labour and holding a seat in cabinet, not in Labour because he split with the party in the 1980s when they weren't being particularly Labour-ish, and in, it has been noted, his 'fourth political incarnation' (the other two changes of party allegiance being a merger and, more recently, yet another split).

Notwithstanding his occasional apparent difficulties with strict party allegiance, Anderton's a good politician. Someone asked Helen Clark, when she was elected for her second term and Jim Anderton had just been demoted somewhat, becoming the leader of a much smaller party than the one he's previously been leader of, if she'd still keep him in cabinet and she said something to the effect that she'd be silly not to use a person like that, given that the talent was available. She meant it.

My letter went as follows:

Dear Mr. Anderton,

I'm not quite in your electorate -- wrong side of Riccarton Road. But yours is one of the parties I'd consider giving my party vote to, so I figure you have reason to listen to me. I was sorry to read that the Green Party was the only party with sufficient conscience to vote against banning satirical use of footage of parliamentary debates. I confess I might have expected better of you. Did you really have to fall in line on this one?

It's a free speech issue, and it's not just a technicality. When I look at the current state of American politics, there's a lot to despair about in the behaviour of George W. Bush's administration, and it's easy to get frustrated with the media coverage, straight-facedly reporting politically-motivated firings, illegal wiretapping and all the rest of it, with no easy way to express the enormity of the accusations. Enter satire in the form of Jon Stewart and The Daily Show. The former Deputy Attorney General reports to Congress on an incident that basically involved coercion of the then Attorney General when he was groggy after an operation, and a member of Congress says (with typical political cautiousness) "Hearing your testimony, I almost gulped". It's really important that the Daily Show was able to air that clip of a parliamentary session, air it and follow it with "You ALMOST gulped? What -- do they have to sodomize the Declaration of Independence in front of you?" Vulgar, perhaps, but I'd say it's a necessary way of conveying disgust and outrage. Sometimes satire is the only sufficiently powerful way to say something really important.

You have disappointed me.

Yours sincerely,

Recently I received the following reply:

Dear [Lynet]

Thank you for your message of 30 July objecting to the prohibition of the use
of vidoe footage of parliament's proceeding for satirical purposes. I share
your views on the importance of free speech as being central to the operation
of any democracy. It is for this reason that I am opposed, for
example, to what
is termed 'anti-hate' legislation banning material which denigrates groups in
general such as homosexuals or ethnic minorities. Problems of tolerance are
best resolved by open and robust debate. Why then, as you rightly ask, would
I support such legislation as that to which you object? Let me make three

The first is that the right to free speech is not an absolute right in all
circumstances. As the US Chief Justice Holmes once sagely remarked it does
not, for example, include the right to cry 'fire' in a crowded theatre. Sometimes
there can be other considerations to be taken into account.

The second, flowing from that, is that in this case the ban is on the use of
recorded material for 'satire, ridicule or denigration' of the House. As you
may know, historically parliament in England from which we inherit our
pariamentary traditions, has always been very jealous of its dignity, as
well it might be as what is essentially the highest court in the land and the
fount of all laws. Insisting on that dignity as a crucial element in its
independence is also one of the key bases of parliamentary democracy, and
has been since the seventeenth century when its independence was fought
for and established. And so, in banning satire, ridicule and denigration,
the House is also protecting parliamentary democracy and that must be
balanced against the right to absolute free speech. It is a mootpoint
whether or not the word 'satire' is necessary in that context; it might be that
the other two words suffice. But this parliamentary standing order is for
this session only and will be reviewed at its end. That leaves open the
prospect that a change will be made to a more suitable form of words (as
some would see it). That remains to be seen. In the mean time it needs to
be borne in mind that the full standing order opens up the options for
citizens to view parliament at work much more widely than at present and
actually contributes to, rather than subtracts from, freedom of reportage.

The third point is merely to remark that I would be more impressed by the high
moral tone adopted by some of ther media towards this provision if they were
taking full advantage of their freedoms to report as they stand now. Largely
all we get of parliament on television in particular is Question Time when a
conflict occurs. Very good copy I have no doubt. But Question Time is
deliberately set up as an adversary situation to dramatise the issues of the day
and no-one should be surprised if it gets a bit lively from time to time. However,
it also occupies a mere fraction of what happens in parliament, most of which is
conducted on a largely bi-partisan basis i.e. parliamentarians do actually spend
most of their time now 'getting on with running the country' as many of our
critics so loudly demand we should.. The purpose of broadcasting parliament is
to better inform citizens of what is happening in government - an objective I
thoroughly endorse - but it is a bit hard to see how insisting that showing
pictures of MPs yawning or reading the paper advances that object, or should
be given precedence over the reporting of e.g. Select Committee
proceedings, which is allowed under the rules but which rarely makes it into
the news.

I should finally comment that it is not my practise to take political positions
solely on the basis that people will vote for me or the Progressive Party. I
hope that they will, but I prefer that should happen on the basis of our policies
overall rather than our stance on this issue or that of the day.

I trust that covers your concerns but please feel free to write to me further if
you continue to have concerns.

With best wishes

Yours sincerely
Jim Anderton
MP for Wigram and Leader of the Progressive Party

Damn, he's good. I'm still not sure
about the idea of
safeguarding parliament's dignity -- the dignity of
parliament most definitely stands or falls on the integrity of
its members (it wasn't until I read Michael King's history
of New Zealand that I realised that the deep scorn and
distrust of politicians that I was aware of as a small kid
probably has some of its roots in Ruth Richardson's 'mother
of all budgets' that left many destitute, and the less than
benevolent Labour government that preceded it). Still, he
argues well, doesn't he?