Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Conversation With My Pastor, Part 4

Here is the fourth installment in the ongoing email conversation between my former pastor and myself. 
Lance -
I am very glad you took the time to reply. I know how busy you must be, and writing something like you did is not done on a whim. It required deep thinking, and care, and both are evident in what you wrote. Please know that nothing you have said has offended me, or even approached what might be considered an insult.
I feel that I must apologize for the length of this. There are just so many ideas and things to say about them that I have a hard time being succinct. I am finding our conversation very interesting and enlightening, and hope it continues. I hope you feel the same.
 The things you said about losing purpose and ultimate meaning are things that I have often thought about, as it is something that I used to believe when I was a Christian. I must admit that I never really struggled with it in my transition from belief to non-belief, because life actually felt better after I realized I didn't believe and was truly free to explore what that meant. But because it has been fine so far doesn't mean that it won't all of the sudden hit me like a ton of bricks. So it is important to think about. Allow me to explain what I have made of all this.
About this topic you said:
I’m sad because of what you lose in this process. From my limited perspective: Although you feel tremendous freedom, you have lost purpose.  Although you have gained openness and knowledge, you have lost value. Although you have gained a form of peace, you have lost a future.”
And then later:
No matter what value you can dream up for a life without a God (or outside force from this system), it cannot have any ultimate value in my mind.  It can have limited value, i.e. Makes something more or less pleasant.  But if there is no greater scheme/theme/reality, then all is meaningless. I appreciate that there are other worldviews that give value to this world without God, I just don’t buy it. Advancement of a species isn’t compelling. Life isn’t compelling. Existence isn’t compelling, it”
One of the difficulties in discussing this topic is that of definitions. The very idea of ultimate, transcendent purpose and meaning to our life and the universe at large is intrinsically theistic. That is, it is a kind of meaning and purpose that is by definition different than subjective meaning and purpose. The ultimate type of meaning has its source in something outside ourselves, something “above” humans. What else could that be, but God? The subjective kind of meaning has its source in us, and as a result, cannot ever be the first kind. So if someone faults an godless worldview for not offering any sort of ultimate, transcendent purpose to anything, it's an awful lot like faulting a circle for not having four sides – by definition, it could not.
Of course, for many believers, this is the very thing they wish to prove (that worldviews with ultimate purpose and value are more true than worldviews without), and for them it highlights a major problem for people who don't believe in a god. I've noticed the thinking usually goes something like this:
Since the only sort of meaning and purpose an unbeliever can have in life is subjective, it cannot be as fulfilling or happy as objective meaning and purpose, and it ultimately leads to depression and nihilism.”
I think this is completely false, and I think only people who have lived on both sides can honestly and believably talk about this. Only if you have been told that this type of ultimate meaning is necessary to human happiness and well-being will you be afraid of losing it.
But why should we even expect to have a transcendent purpose in the first place? Why is it assumed that we humans are guaranteed some sort of ultimate purpose to our lives anyway? It seems to be a common presupposition among believers (especially apologists, in my experience) that having a transcendent purpose and meaning is something foundational that the universe, or God, has promised us. That makes sense to a believer because they believe in God, of course. But to me, I find that presupposition suspicious. It does have a desirable quality to it, the belief that we are destined for something, or that God has a plan for our lives. That appeals to many people and gives them meaning in their life. But if the question of God's existence is truly up for debate, then that presupposition should no longer be a presupposition, but should be something the believer aims to prove.
Let me go on a tangent real quick about how while there might be some depressing consequences of us not having an objective meaning to life, those consequences have no bearing on whether God exists or not. Even if it was true that everyone who didn't believe in God could find no meaning at all to life, or felt depressed all the time, or just plain didn't want to live anymore, it may still be the truth that there is no god. Even if thinking God wasn't real was the worst possible thing for the world, it may still be true. The consequences to holding a belief do not affect whether or not the belief is true. On the flip side, the fact that people find happiness in religion does not show that a religion is true. This life could in fact not be compelling or interesting, or have no ultimate point to it, and it could even be the most depressing existence one could possibly imagine, but would that unpleasantness change whether that was really the case or not?
You say that I have lost purpose, value, and a future. You think that I lost these things, but I disagree. I don't think the sort of purpose, value, and the future you are talking about exist in the first place. So the idea of “losing” those (what I think are) imaginary things doesn't trouble me. When I realized the implications of my lack of belief in God on ultimate meaning and value to life, I didn't feel like meaning had somehow escaped my clutch and retreated to remain just out of my reach. Instead I felt like I noticed for the first time that the ideas of ultimate meaning and purpose were never actually real in the first place.
The good news for me is that I don't think the consequences of not believing in God are bad at all! I don't think life is meaningless and bleak. I don't feel like I lost any meaning - I feel like my life has gained meaning.
But I think I understand what you mean when you say I lost those things. I think you mean in fact that in going from thinking there is an ultimate purpose to my life, and intrinsic value rooted in God, to thinking that there is no purpose to anything and everything is meaningless, that I might possibly develop a bleak outlook and live an unfulfilled life. If one takes away the idea of the ultimate Standard, Lawgiver, or Purpose-maker, then someone who once believed in this transcendent source of all purpose and meaning for the universe and its contents may feel like life just went from supremely meaningful to dark and meaningless without it. Their life may seem to not have a direction they are “supposed” to go (especially someone who works in church and who's whole life is intertwined with their faith), so they feel lost, empty, and meaningless. I can understand that.
If this is the sort of thing you mean when you say you are sad because I lost purpose, value and a future, then it seems the main concern you have is for my emotional and mental well-being. To that I say thank you, and I appreciate the concern, but I am really not suffering at all, and I feel more intellectually honest and fulfilled than I ever have in my life. The knowledge that I have only one life, and that it is short, is enough to give my life the most ultimate meaning I can possibly imagine. Please understand that in my worldview, these subjective values and purposes we strive for and care about in our lives are the most we can expect, so to realize there is nothing above that does not surprise me. If anything, it causes me to focus on those things even more and devote more time to them.
Regarding open-mindedness:
I would like to respond to something you said, and by doing so, hopefully clarify my position on the matter. You said:
In my world there is supernatural. I have walked in it. I have seen it. I have engaged with it. I have lived in it. Although my world can contain all that you believe now (natural), your world cannot contain mine (supernatural).”
I would like to point out that I am not at all closed to the possibility of there being a supernatural realm. Nothing about my worldview eliminates possibilities like that. But I am free to change my mind when presented with new information, and would do so without shame. Me not believing in the supernatural right now doesn't mean that I could never do so. My worldview is actually built upon the ideal of self-correction. I try to make the most important decisions based on the evidence. New evidence can come in and completely change what I thought about a particular topic, and I would welcome it. All this without the fear of new evidence that I used to feel when I was restricted by my faith allows me to actively pursue the evidence to wherever it leads, without fear that my world will come crashing down around me. That is the intellectual freedom I can enjoy without feeling any sort of fear of being proven wrong (other than my hurt pride).
I do find myself still connected to the world of faith, and with Christian apologetics. I find it interesting to think and talk about these sorts of things, and I doubt I'll stop anytime soon. I have a lot of objections to the idea of the Christian God, and I do continually look for convincing answers for them. Through books and the internet, I have access to a long history of Christian thought, and at my fingertips are the best arguments and answers theologians and apologists have ever come up with. I have read them, tried my best to understand them, and formerly used many of them, but I fail to find them convincing. I have heard no good reasons to believe, despite my honest trying. I mentioned before that I used to have to do “mental gymnastics” in order for me to maintain my faith in God, given the conflicting evidence I was aware of. I can, without any reservations, tell you that I don't have any of that same feeling now. I know I am being honest with myself, and with others, and I know I would change my mind if convinced.
Related to this is the idea that I am somehow restricted by and bound to atheism, or what Richard Dawkins says, or something like that. I would like to take this opportunity to dissuade you from making that error. I think for myself, and as a result, in certain things, disagree with those who I look up to and admire greatly. Again, there is no fear for me in this, as there is no rulebook or doctrine for me to follow. Nothing restricts me, or even could in theory restrict me from following my curiosity.
It is often said that many non-believers have “faith” in science, or Carl Sagan, or just in themselves. It is usually implied that this “faith” and religious faith are really the same sort, and the non-believer just won't admit it. I disagree. I do look up to many people, and I like what those people say (most of the time), and I listen to what they say, but I only believe what they are saying because of evidence (more so on the most important things). I don't believe them because I'm supposed to, or because I always have, or for some other reason like that. I do it because what they are telling us is backed up with evidence, and I find that evidence convincing. Now if I am wrong, and this “faith” I just described is the sort of faith a believer has, then I would be very happy and I would have no problem with that. That would be a good kind of faith, because it is based on evidence, and therefore rational. But people don't usually call that faith, they call it reason.
I apologize if I am talking past you, and perhaps you don't really think this way. This misconception is very common, so I thought it was important to take time and attempt to clear it up. If this does not describe your thinking accurately, then please excuse the interlude.
Let me take a breath here and reassure you that I am not irritated or insulted by what you wrote. I don't think you are being rude at all. I understand your intentions and I see it is coming from a place of love. I hope that you feel the same way about what I am writing to you. I never want to insult you, but simply discuss our difference of opinion on these things. My main goal is to hopefully clear up some possible misunderstandings that may be getting in the way.
Finally, you said:
Perhaps some of it comes down to a question of which side of the fence do I want to dwell in. If both are equally impossible to affirm, and both demand a need for faith, where do I choose to live?  You are currently on one side. I am currently on the other. Maybe that’s what makes me sad, because that has dramatic ramifications (either I’m a fool, or you are lost).”
I would agree with this and would likely still be a believer if I genuinely thought that “both sides are equally impossible to affirm, and both demand a need for faith....” While I agree with you that neither position on the question of God's existence can be proven beyond all doubt, I do not think that makes both positions equally likely. Therefore, simply “choosing” to live on one side or another doesn't make sense to me. I live on this side because that's the side I think is most likely correct. If I was provided with evidence that God actually did exist, then I would consider that evidence, and be either convinced by it or not. Whether I find it convincing or not is not really up to me.
I don't think I have a choice in any of my beliefs. The thing you believe is simply the thing that you find most convincing. When you are being convinced of something, there is no choice being made, whether to be convinced by this evidence or not to be convinced. Sure, one can choose to not listen in the first place, but that's not what we are talking about. Once the evidence is heard and processed, it is found to be convincing or not.
Many different people find many different things convincing. And many different people will vary on whether or not they find the same piece of evidence convincing. This has to do with our biases and presuppositions, which heavily inform what we believe and what we find convincing. Mine are set up in a specific configuration, and it influences how I process new information and evidence. I know these exist, and I try to allow for them, adjusting my perspective to be very generous in my interpretation of the counter-arguments, giving them the benefit of the doubt, and questioning my already held position.
Ultimately, I don't think that I have any meaningful say on whether I, Eric Burton, believe in God or not. I have no choice in what I believe about that. All I can do is make sure I am exposed to arguments and evidence on all sides. What more could anyone do? Perhaps one could look at my lack of belief in God as an unfortunate consequence of being open to other views, but I think that openness to other viewpoints is a good thing, and should be encouraged. Some may say it's actually bad, and the fault to be had (for not believing in God) is mine because I chose to believe that being open-minded is a prime directive, but I can't even control whether I think openness is a good thing or not! I have reasons to think that it's good, and evidence that ultimately did the convincing, but that's the point – it was the evidence that truly convinced me, not an act of my will.
To me, that brings up an interesting question about the justice in God's punishment of unbelievers. If I am not truly in control of what I find convincing or not, but I make sure to be as intellectually honest and open as I can be to the evidence for God, why would I be held responsible for what I believe?
Again, this turned out way longer than expected! Part of the reason for that is my respect for your intellect and honesty. I want to be as clear as possible, and sometimes it feels like certain ideas need a bit more fleshing out to more fully reveal the point I am trying to make. I truly hope that you do not feel like I have attacked you personally or insulted you. Sometimes, when responding to direct quotations by disagreeing and telling someone why you think their view is wrong, it can come off as offensive or rude. I only do so for clarity's sake, so you can know precisely what I am responding to.
Finally, I would like to reiterate that I am open to all sorts of possibilities. God may exist, it may even be the Christian God. I really doubt it, based on what I know, but it could be true. It may also be true that if God doesn't exist, life would be devoid of meaning and value, and the most depressing thing ever imagined. Now even if those were the only two options, I would still be interested in what was actually true. And of course I think it's a good thing to seek the truth.
I cannot pretend to believe God is real. I don't actually know that he's not real, and I could be convinced that he is. But in order for me to return to faith, and to believe again, I need to actually think it's true. I would never be a happy Christian if I didn't actually think it was true. I would be holding conflicting views in my head at once, trying to figure out how they can both be true. That is what largely fueled my journey away from faith. I could no longer ignore or dismiss the doubts that grew in my mind – doing so caused a lot of stress and unhappiness. I need to be intellectually honest with myself and others. I need to be convinced that it is at least probably true for me to actually believe it and thus be a happy, fulfilled believer. But that takes evidence.
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