Friday, November 21, 2008

Sometimes I miss belief

This morning, Runtu posted a link to this video. If you're a believing Mormon, you'll probably enjoy it. If you're not, you may find it strange, confusing, boring, or creepy. I actually kind of liked it.

joseph-smith-translatingAs I watched the video, I found myself strangely emotional. Kind of in a good way, but not really. It was more of a sadness, a longing or a yearning for the days when I actually believed all this stuff. I can imagine my former bishop saying that this feeling is the Holy Ghost trying to tell me that the gospel is true. That's what he said to me about a year and a half ago, when my wife and I were first telling him about my unbelief, and I admitted that this is a painful process. But it's always painful when you find that the world isn't the way you thought it was. The pain itself is not evidence that changing your beliefs is good or bad, right or wrong.

It was nice to have a narrative in which the world could neatly fit. God loved me, Jesus was our Savior, and Joseph Smith restored the gospel so that we could all live eternally with God and our families if we had faith and lived right. It was a simple, encouraging story, and it came with an entire life framework. It had its quirks, but it was relatively straightforward. Follow the prophet and you'll be all right. I made my checklist of daily, weekly, or monthly tasks, and completing the checklist felt good, dammit. Like I'm getting something worthwhile done here! We're on the path to celestial happiness!

joseph-smith-translatingNo matter how good it felt, watching this video reminded me why I just can't be a believer. I couldn't watch Joseph Smith kneeling in prayer in the Sacred Grove without remembering his many different versions of the story, each more grand and detailed than the last, and each coming at a time when he needed to bolster people's faith in him as a prophet. I couldn't watch him finding the golden plates without remembering his stories about a huge cave inside the Hill Cumorah, filled with books and treasures. I couldn't watch him translating the golden plates without remembering that he did so via a seer stone, with his face buried in a hat, often without the plates even being in the same room. I couldn't watch him receiving the priesthood from resurrected beings without remembering that he never mentioned this alleged event until years later. I couldn't watch him rocking babies with Emma without remembering that he married 33 other women, some of them teenagers, most of them secretly, and many of them already married to other men. And so on.

I actually knew all of this (and more - there's so much more) before I joined the church. But I found the feelings and the narrative so compelling that I shelved the cognitive dissonance and got baptized anyway. Apparently through sheer force of will, I got myself to a point where none of the discrepancies bothered me anymore. And why should they? I was happily married with kids, had a good job and a nice house, and church activity fit right into our happy little life. Everything was nice and simple, and we were filled with certainty. Until I met Carl Sagan and the shelf started to buckle. The weight of the evidence demanded my attention. Fortunately, we still have a happy little life, but of course it's not the same as it used to be.

shut-eyesI think that's what I miss most. Certainty. These days I am learning to be comfortable with ambiguity, probability, uncertainty, and unanswered questions. It's difficult for me to be uncertain, but in light of the evidence I have seen over my lifetime, I must admit that I am. As Carl Sagan correctly asserted, "It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." I wouldn't trade where I am today for where I was then. My eyes are wide open, and shutting them doesn't make the world go away. But I still miss it.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Why we can't imagine death

I would love to believe that when I die I will live again, that some thinking, feeling, remembering part of me will continue. But much as I want to believe that, and despite the ancient and worldwide cultural traditions that assert an afterlife, I know of nothing to suggest that it is more than wishful thinking. The world is so exquisite with so much love and moral depth, that there is no reason to deceive ourselves with pretty stories for which there's little good evidence. Far better it seems to me, in our vulnerability, is to look death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.
— Carl Sagan, "In the Valley of the Shadow," Parade, March 10, 1996

gravestoneI think about death almost every day. I remember once as a small child, I asked my grandmother why they buried people in the ground after they died. "If you're under the ground," I asked, "how do you breathe?" She told me that people no longer breathe after they die, and I was dumbfounded. The idea just made no sense. I'd never experienced not breathing. How would it be possible to not breathe, forever? If dead people stopped breathing, they would... well, die! It seemed absurd to me then, and it seems absurd to me now. And yet it is literally the most natural thing in the world. Death is something that happens to all of us, yet it is completely outside our experience. What a paradox!

I came across this Scientific American article a little while ago, and it really articulated this phenomenon well, complete with scientific studies to support the idea that all of us tend to perceive our own consciousness as persisting beyond death, even if we believe otherwise. The article is well worth reading.

There were two specific ideas that particularly resonated with me. The first is that our own immortality is unfalsifiable from a first-person perspective. In other words, if I believe myself to be immortal, no experience of mine will ever disprove this to me. I'm reminded of the wise words of Stephen Wright, who said, "I intend to live forever. So far, so good." I cannot experience my own non-existence. It's simply not possible. And yet, as Shaun Nichols is quoted in the article, "When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there's an obstacle!"

The second thing that struck me was the idea that even those who do not believe in an afterlife tend to instinctively think of consciousness as persisting after death. I know I do it. To pick a random example, I know that Carl Sagan died over ten years ago, and his body is presently... shall we say, not in working order. And yet, when I wished him a happy birthday last week, it felt like I was really talking to someone who could perceive my words. Like a mystical Carl is floating around somewhere in the cosmos. Intellectually, I know that makes no sense. And yet, the idea seems so intuitively hardwired that it's very difficult to shake.

I had a similar experience last year after my grandfather died, fairly soon after I had begun coming to terms with my skepticism. At the viewing, everyone was milling about, talking with each other, exchanging stories, laughing, and catching up on each others' lives. It was so surreal, like everyone was at a social party, but no one seemed to notice or mention the fact that there was a dead guy at the front of the room. Not that there's anything wrong with that; different people and different cultures deal with death in different ways, and this is how we do it where I'm from. I heard several family members say something like "it's not really him in there" or "he's in a better place now". Obviously, this may help us feel better, to imagine that the person we love is not truly dead and gone, and that someday we will see him again. I would love to see my grandfather again. He was a hard-working, honest man who loved his family and made the world a better place. He was a good person. But I have to accept that it really was him in the casket, and I will never see him again.

earth-and-moonThis is why I think about death. Not because I find it fun or satisfying to consciously ponder unconsciousness or to imagine my own non-existence (although I admit, that can sort of be fun). Not because I have no imagination or no compassion or no desire for eternal life. I would love to be surprised by an afterlife. Seriously, that would be wicked cool. But as Dr. Sagan pointed out in the quote above, there does not seem to be any evidence that it is more than wishful thinking. I think about death because life is precious, and I know how short it is. We find ourselves in an amazing, almost impossibly improbable situation, alive and aware, floating through space on a chunk of rock with only each other to hang onto. It may not make sense to us. It may in fact be the height of absurdity. But we need to make the most of life while we have it, because this is the only one we get.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Lori Lipman Brown at Skeptrak

lori-brownThe latest episode of Skepticality (episode #89) has a fantastic talk by Lori Lipman Brown of the Secular Coalition for America, entitled Pastafarian, Zoroastrian, Atheist — Can't We All Just Get Along?. She talks about the secular vote, and what we can do to advance secularism in America. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes from the talk.

A bit about "psychology of privilege", starting about about 23:49:
I have noticed along the way... How many of you have heard people talk about how oppressed Christians are in society today? How many of you have heard how oppressed white people are? How oppressed heterosexuals are? You know, other people want "special rights".

I know there is at least one psychologist sitting in the audience who can tell me if this is an official thing, but just anecdotally I've noticed that if someone is in a privileged majority, they don't usually notice the perks they're getting. For example, if I walk into a store and buy a box of Band-Aids, if it's called skin tone, it's my skin tone. Never really thought about that before.

But they don't notice, and they're just used to having it all, society is all around them. So if a Christian is used to everything being about their religion, as soon as people who are not Christian, whether they be pagans or Buddhists or atheists or humanists, suddenly it's not, "Oh, these people also want to be acknowledged and be part of the fabric of society." It's like, "You're taking away our rights! Because we always had Christian prayer in our school!" And they didn't realize that's not actual equality, that's just a privilege they'd been getting for years and years and years.

A slight move toward any inclusion of a minority feels like an attack. I don't think these people are making this up when they say they feel oppressed. It's a ridiculous feeling. I even asked one person who said that, "What are you talking about?" And she said, "Well, I keep trying to talk to my co-workers about Jesus, and they don't want to listen!" And it's like, "Well, I guess they don't feel like talking about that." You know, it's like, "How dare they? They're attacking my Christianity by not letting me try to give them the Good Word." I mean, that's what they see as oppression. It's like, "Okay, try saying you're an atheist and see how you're treated."

And a bit about the sexuality double standard, starting about about 35:20:
Expose the double standard. When people were talking about LGBT people "flaunting their sexuality and their gender", I stopped keeping a picture of my partner on my desk at school, and I stopped wearing my wedding ring, and I stopped referring to him with any kind of gender specific information. And when people would get confused by that, especially when they would find out who my partner was, they would say, "Why didn't you tell me he was your husband? I thought maybe you were a lesbian." I'd say, "Well, I didn't want to flaunt my sexuality."

The double standard is big-time because my gay and lesbian friends, if they even talked about going on a date, "oh, you're flaunting your sexuality". But all these heteros could talk about anything they were doing with their dates or partners or whatever.

Same thing with "special rights". I got over 1,000 special rights 22 years ago, and I still have them. But people don't think of them as special when I get them, because my partner happens to have the right genitalia for their rules.

I especially love the bit about "flaunting your sexuality". That is so totally right on.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Happy birthday, Carl

carl-sagan-ucToday, November 9, 2008, would have been Carl Sagan's 74th birthday. Sadly, he passed away in 1996, but not before leaving the world a great legacy of scientific inquiry and compassion for all humanity. I think about him often, and I am sad that I never met him. This week's quote is one I think of nearly every day, and it even comes with an accompanying video. Dr. Sagan's words taught me to put the earth in perspective, and not a day goes by when I don't visualize the earth from a distance outside the moon's orbit, outside the solar system, outside the galaxy, or across the universe. Thanks, Carl. You made the world a better place.

Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.
– Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, 1994

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Thousands in downtown SLC protest the LDS church's Prop 8 involvement

temple-gay-flagThis is just excellent. Apparently thousands of people swarmed downtown Salt Lake City last night, to protest the Mormon church's involvement in passing Proposition 8 in California. I really wanted to be there, but I needed to spend some time with my family, and that's more important. Gee, it's nice for me to be able to spend time with my legally wedded spouse and our children, don't you think? I wish everyone were able to enjoy the same privilege.

Shockingly, the church finds the protest "disturbing" and objects to being "singled out" for exercising its right to free speech. Well, here's a news flash. When you, a large tax-exempt religious institution, claim that your leaders speak for God and then mobilize your membership by telling them that they need to vote in a certain way on a particular political proposition regarding the civil issue of same-sex marriage... you're going to get singled out.

You can't have it both ways. On the one hand, you call this issue your "Gettysburg", read letters about Prop 8 from the pulpit, call for donations and volunteers, organize call chains, and generally make it felt that every member of your religious organization in the state of California is expected to sacrifice for the cause of taking away others' right to marry. On the other hand, you act surprised and hurt when those whose rights have been stripped become angry, members of your own church actively voice their disapproval, and thousands of protesters show up at your doorstep to protest your coordination of this exercise in codifying discrimination into law. Pardon my candor, but what the hell did you expect?

In the comments to the Salt Lake Tribune article linked above, a commenter named slgb8 condemned the protesters, saying that the church has its own right to free speech and the protesters were trying to take that away. He said:

Don’t take rights away from others that you would not want to have taken from you. I think we should be careful not to take away others rights to free speech even when we don’t agree with them. We could start the country on a road the end with none of us having basic rights.

I agree with that completely, but Prop 8 is not a free speech issue. It's an issue of marriage. Let's substitute the phrase "free speech" with the word "marriage", shall we?

Don’t take rights away from others that you would not want to have taken from you. I think we should be careful not to take away others rights to marriage even when we don’t agree with them. We could start the country on a road the end with none of us having basic rights.

Much more relevant. It's the correct idea, but this particular commenter had the wrong idea about who is attempting to take away rights from whom. In fact, who has succeeded in doing so.

I seriously am about as close to resigning my membership as I ever have been. This has been an emotional election season, and I am emotional as I type this, but I think that even with a clear head and a calm spirit, I do not want to be part of an organization that so confidently proclaims its willingness to take away others' rights. That is the exact opposite of what I hope to stand for.

Monday, November 3, 2008