Ignorance is Dying

Yesterday, while I was procrastinating on Facebook a news article crossed my feed about a mother in Tennessee. This mother is upset that her 7th Grade child is learning about Islam (she doesn’t appear to be upset that her child is learning about Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism as well) and decided to voice her concerns to the local school board. She feels that her child’s “personal religious beliefs were violated” by being provided an education about different spiritual beliefs and they are proud of the zeroes received on the corresponding tests.

It is easy to get angry or stereotype Tennessee as a backwards place, but there is actually one line in the article that makes me incredibly optimistic.

“Edmisten was the only parent to speak about the issue.”

One parent. We are at the point where this type of craziness in a conservative state is down to one person who is outraged enough to cause a fuss. This woman clearly does not represent most of the school district. It is angry people who take the time out of their day to scream at bureaucrats and elected officials, and most of the people in this town aren’t angry about the school curriculum, and it appears the school board is going to kind of brush this woman off (as they probably should).

In some ways, I grew up in an “ignorance is a virtue” form of Christianity. I was taught explicitly anti-science things and my house were filled almost solely with books and music by Christian authors. I even remember writing a long paragraph protesting that my science class in seventh grade had a question about evolution on it and how it was “only a theory*”. That upbringing was self-defeating, though. Science easily won out when ignorance was encouraged and I was only given a strawman defense against scientific theories. For example, I heard many times “if humans evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?”. This seemed like an airtight argument until I actually learned about evolution. When I found out that scientists don’t say that at all, what they say is that humans and monkey share a common ancestor (just like my siblings and I share a common ancestor) it shattered my beliefs on the subject and encouraged me to re-evaluate everything that I’d been told.

In addition, my “God of the gaps” (if humans don’t know the answer then the answer must be God) got smaller and smaller as those gaps were filled by scientific inquiry. Quickly I came to the conclusion that if a God exists then his followers should be focusing solely on the spiritual and not the physical. The study of “earthly things” like history, science, and economics should not be viewed through a theological lens because religion doesn’t have the tools to adequately study them. When Christian “science” and secular science conflict only one will be left standing because only one actually relies on logic and inquiry and is self-correcting.

This parent is doing her children a disservice and someday they may come to see it as brainwashing, and possibly resent her for it even if she is doing what she thinks is right. In today’s connected age you can’t fight information unless you go to dictatorial extremes. Kim Jong Un and Vladimir Putin may be able to shut off information to their citizens, but parents in the United States cannot. If people really want their children to grow up as healthy adults they need to be open and honest about the world and not try to isolate them from dissenting opinions. If your views can’t survive exposed to light and the marketplace of ideas, then your views should probably die.

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Burden of Proof

Last week Isaac and T.K. had one of the best podcast episodes that I’ve listened to in quite a while. In the final half hour or so they started discussing the burden of proof for our own beliefs, particularly what it would take to convince you to change your mind. I think this is a really valuable exercise. Too often we get bogged down in our own beliefs and become resistant to change, even though we haven’t really articulated what those beliefs are grounded in. Sadly, I think a lot of beliefs aren’t grounded in anything more than “that’s how I was raised” or “that’s how it has always been done”. I’m just as guilty of that as anyone.

We all have a hodge-podge of beliefs and identities that color our perception of the world. Some of these can be  pretty damn important to us, like our thoughts on god and government. Some fundamentally alter the way we live our lives, like our thoughts on veganism or drug use. Others are relatively minor, like which way the toilet paper roll goes or whether throw pillows should exist.

To me, the most troubling ones are those that are based solely on how or where we were raised. If you feel hatred towards someone because they support Alabama football or were born in Europe, that can pose serious problems. If you are a Christian simply because you were raised Christian and never really got to know (and love) people from other religions, then I think that is shortsighted and can be a sign of spiritual weakness. One of the most important things we can do is challenge our own assumptions and come up with a proof that would convince us to change our minds, and then maybe go out there and find someone to challenge us. Steel sharpens steel. Minds sharpen minds. It is intellectually lazy to just say “well I just know” or “nothing could change my mind”.

I don’t think this is just a rhetorical thought experiment. I think it is actually important to write down some beliefs and think about what would make you change your mind. Here are some of my beliefs (all of which have a bundle of assumptions tied into them), and I plan on challenging them in the future.

  • A world where animals don’t die for human pleasure is better than a word where they do die, which is why I’m a vegan.
  • Spiritual belief correlates strongly with birthplace, which means that either there is no supernatural deity or that supernatural deity actually speaks to us through multiple (all?) religions and no belief system has a monopoly on the truth.
  • The use of force against peaceful people is morally wrong, the government is defined by the use of force against unconsenting peaceful people, therefore the government is immoral. This is why I am a philosophical anarchist.
  • More often than not, the government reduces the happiness and prosperity of the people and minimizing government will improve the lives of most people in the short term and all people in the long term. This is why I am an incremental pragmatic anarchist.
  • Happiness primarily comes from experiences, and not from possessions. This is why I am a minimalist.
  • Work is not objectively good and humans will be better off when we don’t need to work in order to meet our basic needs like food, water, and shelter. The arts and sciences will thrive when all humans are able to explore their passions without worrying about survival. This is why I am a supporter of the Basic Income Guarantee and advancing technology to eliminate need scarcity.
  • Technology will eventually advance to the point where humans can live forever. This is why I am a transhumanist.
  • Sex is not solely an emotional or spiritual act and I believe that having multiple, new experiences with a variety of partners can increase happiness and life satisfaction.
  • The use of psychedelics and similar drugs have an overwhelmingly positive impact on society and individuals, and we should support responsible use of them.
  • Sexual orientation is a fluid spectrum that is grounded in biology but there is social pressure to restrict it. If humans lacked social pressure we would likely all be somewhat bisexual, and if we eliminated the taboo around same-sex contact (particularly for men) people would be more comfortable with experimentation and less repressed.
  • Electoral politics is the least effective and laziest way to enact social change, particularly at the federal level. Most people’s time would be better-spent volunteering in their communities, pursuing their passions, and working with local institutions instead of caring or supporting a Presidential candidate.
  • I believe mental health and physical health are related for many people, and eating a healthy, plant-based diet, getting regular exercise, meditating, and seeing a therapist regularly can be a huge benefit to individuals, as well as society.
  • We should be less supportive of people who choose to have children but don’t have the economic or social resources to raise them. Instead of subsidizing childbirth we should be increasing access to contraceptives and sex education. Also, it is more ethical to adopt a child than to have one of your own in the US where there are half a million children who need a stable place to live.
  • If there wasn’t social pressure towards monogamy we would see a lot more “alternative” family arrangements that would provide more options for diverse humans to find happiness and prosperity.

 

Those are just some of my beliefs off the top of my head. They are mostly grounded in a philosophical foundation or pragmatic assumptions, which means they are open to being challenged. I may be wrong about some of my beliefs… hell, I may be wrong about all of my beliefs, but that’s okay. I don’t want unprovable beliefs, I want to keep my mind open to growing and being challenged by my experiences and the experiences of others. Life is too beautifully diverse and long to stay in a bubble being stagnant.

That Old Time Religion

I saw a man walking across the country carrying a cross yesterday.

Well, he wasn’t exactly carrying it, it was attached to a trailer with wheels, I guess he was technically dragging it. I am sure it was heavy though. I didn’t stop and talk to him, that type of overt religiosity makes me uncomfortable, but in some ways it makes me nostalgic as well.

I was raised in a really conservative, non-denominational Protestant, “god and country” home. The only music allowed in our house was Christian and country. In fact, I still listen to dc Talk occasionally (“Jesus Freak” still gets my feet moving and I sing along out loud). They also make me nostalgic, it reminds me of a time when my life was simpler and truth seemed clear. My ignorance didn’t survive two combat deployments and college. Overall, I am glad it didn’t survive, but it was still a time in my life that I can look fondly upon, even if the results of that time are less than ideal. The depression and loneliness I felt because of my sexuality and interests, the feeling of shame and understanding that I was going to be tortured for eternity, these were not pleasant outcomes for a belief system that is supposed to be about love and forgiveness.

I am open to religion, but the bar is really high. Any religion that I investigate needs to fill the gaps that my past Christianity couldn’t fill… primarily answering questions. In my upbringing, questions were often answered with “just have faith” or “the Lord works in mysterious ways”. These clichés were able to satisfy me as a child but couldn’t hold my attention as an adult. Also, when a religion views only one piece of literature as the only legitimate source for answers it forces them to twist the words to mean things that don’t make sense, or to rely on the above clichés when people question the authenticity. Why should I believe the miracles of the Old Testament in the Bible really happened but not the story of Beowulf or The Iliad?

Also, my upbringing put religion in places it didn’t belong. It tried to explain biology, geology, history, astronomy, physics, and every other field of study solely through the lens of the Bible. When you are faced with a Biblical interpretation of life on earth (it all fit on the ark and magically reproduced to its current levels of population and diversity in 5,000 years) and compare it to the scientific explanations it takes blind faith to believe the former. Instead of the church I grew up in admitting that some of the stories may be symbolic, I was told to just “have faith” or that there was a grand conspiracy of scientists led by Satan that were trying to trick everyone. It was ridiculous.

My religion couldn’t last, at least not in the form it started in. I’m still open to it, but I need to have answers and intellectual discussions encouraged. I don’t need a religion to have all the answers, but I do need it to be open and honest when questioned.

On The Spirit

Dealings of spirituality and religion are a bit difficult to me. I grew up in a Christian home but at some point along the way found it lacking. It isn’t necessarily the teachings of Christ that I found disagreeable, it is more the Church did not reflect what I saw in Christ. In addition, my upbringing denied scientific theories like evolution but did not provide any real counter-theory. I was told to just have faith, I was told “God works in mysterious ways”, I was told that evolution was “just a theory”… things that both insult the human capacity for logic and shows a complete ignorance to what a scientific theory is. They were straw men and when I was presented with evidence, logic, and the scientific method the straw men burnt easily, but the words of Galileo rang true “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

I certainly consider myself a skeptic, and by that I mean I place greater weight in objectivity and science than subjective experiences and faith. But science at this time cannot explain everything and the places where measuring objectivity is not possible (yet?) we must compile subjective experiences, look for patterns, and attempt to formulate measurable hypothesis. Still, we humans lack the ability to objectively measure spiritual experiences, and it may be that we can never measure them. No matter how much we can look into the mind it is difficult, or maybe impossible, to determine the source of spiritual experiences. They may be created and executed completely in the brain or the brain may act as a conduit for experiences coming from another dimension.

I use the term dimension in a semi-scientific way. I admit my knowledge of physics is pretty laymen but it seems it is possible that a dimension may exist in a way that it can interact with ours under certain circumstances. Meditation, psychedelic drugs, near-death, spiritual revelations, and maybe even dreams may act as gateways to another dimension. I don’t know this for a fact, but that is the point. We lack the scientific knowledge to measure and compare subjective spiritual experiences. It is possible our brains are like a water cooler where all the mechanics of dispensing water are controlled in one body, or our brains may be like a water faucet where the mechanics move outside our homes into an area that we don’t currently have access to (at least not without professional help).

The truth is, I don’t know what the spirit is or what spiritual experiences are. I think there is some truth in the spiritual practices that have woven itself within humankind. I feel (admittedly a subjective response) the spirit exists and that we can access enlightening experiences through various means. In some ways whether spiritual experiences truly exist or are simply misfiring neurons in our brain seems of little relevance if they help us live a more fulfilling and happier life. I think the mind, body, and spirit is a triad that encompasses the human experience, and each section must be exercised for complete health. I may be wrong, but in the end it really doesn’t matter to me, this balance of belief and evidence about reality helps me live a life of peace, love, and personal growth, and if there is a meaning to life that seems like a good one to me.