Category Archives: Scepticism

The religious pulse of the planet

I’ve just finished watching an excellent documentary series on TV called Around the World in 80 Faiths. Anglican minister Peter Owen Jones took a year off from his parish to travel around the world and to, as he puts is, “Take the religious pulse of the planet.”

If I were still a Christian, I would have been shocked by his willingness to participate in some of the rituals. He did everything from drinking ayahuasca in a Brazilian rainforest to joining in naked at an urban witchcraft ceremony. As an ex-Christian, I have no judgement whatsoever to make on the man. In fact, his willingness to participate made it all the more fascinating.

The documentary looked at the major religions: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, various branches of these, cults, and other little known faiths.

I came away from the series with the realisation that you could end up as anything, depending on nothing more than where you were lucky or unlucky enough to be born. I finally started to appreciate what people mean when they dismiss Christianity with words like “Everybody has their own beliefs.” When you have an appreciation of the sheer diversity of religions on Earth, and the sheer commitment that all these people have to their own way being the true way, you start to see how incredibly tiny your own religious experience is in comparison to the experiences of others.

I feel a sense of sadness that the world is in this state of diversity, because if the idea of objective truth has any validity, then something somewhere is true. Of course, as soon as I say that, all of those religions are raising their hands claiming, “It’s us!”

Sadly, religions seem happy to survive and advance by presenting only a single version of reality to the young (indoctrination) and encouraging the herd mentality in all (social conditioning). Some also back that up with terror tactics – viewing life in an alternative way results in immediate damnation. Rarely does the subject of evidence come up.

If I’ve learned one thing from the mammoth task of finding the real truth in the haystack of religion, it’s the sheer improbability of finding it. And that, for me, means that I simply cannot take religion seriously.

You pick your religion (although usually it’s picked for you) and you bet your life on it. You hope that your way is the true way, and that your faith will see you safely through the mystery of death into the arms of God (or to your next life, or whatever).

I refuse to be indoctrinated and conditioned. I refuse to assume that the religion of my birthplace is the one true way. I cannot take seriously any threats of judgement without some serious weight of evidence to back it up.

The cure for religious indoctrination and conditioning is to reclaim your right to think your own thoughts – to always ask the question “Why?” when you don’t understand or don’t agree, and to never let yourself be guided by so-called “truths” dictated by nothing more than strength of numbers. Only then will your thoughts and decisions be your own, and only then will you have a hope in hell of discovering any genuine truth.

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Why I spoke against Christianity

Seven or eight months ago, I abandoned Christianity, after being a Christian for many years. It was a decision that cost me dearly. Four close friends have exiled me from their lives, and two others can no longer see me due to their family’s intolerance. This all happened, not quite because I abandoned Christianity, but because I chose to speak out publicly about my reasons for doing so. Let’s not mince words: I expressed opinions that were anti-Christian.

Looking back, having learned a lot since my decision, I not only stand by it, but my stance has been greatly reinforced. There is not a single thing that lures me back to Christianity except the slight nagging fear of having made the wrong decision. I am fully aware that I am literally betting my life and soul that I’ve made the right choice. I take it very seriously, and only a fool wouldn’t.

In choosing to speak against Christianity, I caused great offense to some people, and it occurs to me now that I don’t think I ever made it clear why I was compelled to say the things I said. It could appear that I am full of venom, but that’s not the case.

When the teachings of Christianity tell me that I am going to hell, that provokes a response from me. I can either accept the Christian claim or reject it, and that rejection can take one of two forms:

1. I shrug my shoulders, walk away, and hope that hell doesn’t really exist.

2. I investigate the claim (with as little bias as possible) to be sure that I’ve made the right decision.

Response 1 would drive me mad, as I would end up constantly living in fear of being wrong. I would have to know for sure, just to put my mind at ease – or equally to lead me to embrace Christianity, should evidence present itself.

So I’ve done my homework. In fact, I’ve done twenty years of it; my relationship with Christianity goes way back. And now I don’t think Christianity is true. I don’t think there is such a place as hell. I don’t think people are damned until they discover “the way.” And I’m betting my life on it. What choice do I have? The choice between doing what I think it right, or giving in to an unjustified threat.

In saying such things, I realise I’m being very anti-Christian, but the thing I need to throw back at the Christians is this: you provoked it. I’m not trying to shift responsibility. What I’m saying is, you can’t threaten somebody and expect them to have no reaction to your threat. You can’t ask me to play Response 1, and simply say, “Gee, I hope what you’re saying isn’t true,” and nothing more.

Okay, maybe you won’t deny me the right to think what I choose to think, as long as I keep it to myself and don’t cause offense. That’s unfair for two very clear reasons.

Firstly, you’re saying you would prefer to relate to a false version of me, a politically correct projection that suits you but is nothing more than an illusion. What kind of a relationship is that? Wouldn’t you prefer me to be honest? Wouldn’t you prefer to know what I really think?

Secondly, you are expressing hypocritical double standards. How can you deny someone the right to say what they think is true (even when it offends), when you give yourself the right to express what you think is true (even when it offends)? If you’ve got the balls to say, “Buddy, you’re going to hell,” then I’ve got the balls to say, “No I’m not, and here’s why.” How can you be intolerant to criticism when you claim the right to criticise everyone else?

I don’t want to tar all Christians with the same brush. Some of my friends are Christians, and they’re still my friends, and we still have intelligent discussions without getting angry. My experience of losing friends has made me see that Christians are divided into two camps. I’m not sure what to call these groups, but I’ll wager the words “moderate” and “fundamentalist” are close labels. They are groups of mind and not of location, although I would say that certain churches fuel the fundamentalist mindset, whereas others fuel the moderate mindset.

I think the driving force behind the fundamentalist mindset is the ideal “I want to do God’s will. Whatever God says, I will do, and it doesn’t matter what you think or even what I think, only what God says.” This is rooted in an understanding of the supremacy of God and the perfection of the religious teachings. It sounds fine on the surface, until you try to put it into practice in a world full of differing beliefs. You give yourself permission to slam everyone else’s beliefs and you get angry at them for slamming your beliefs, but you still think that’s fair because you’re the one’s who’s on God’s side. The trouble is, often the opposition believes the same thing about themselves. This, I think, is the root cause of religious conflict, whether that conflict is as insignificant as an abandoned friendship or as devastating as a war.

The moderate Christian realises that when he gives himself permission to criticise someone else’s beliefs he must allow them to criticise his. This is nothing more than basic fair play, the understanding that we’re all equal. We don’t all start out with the same beliefs, so how can we live life with the constant expectation that everyone will see things the same way, accept as sacred the same things that we hold sacred? Ultimately, it is as simple as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This principle is recognised by athiest and Christian alike as the most beneficial way to relate to people, and the very fact that it is in the Bible should give the fundamentalist Christians pause to reconsider their tyrannical stance on the world around them.

I have my own imperfections and personal failures to deal with, too. I’ve been known to get a little upset at times – like when a fundamentalist makes snide remarks at me, or calls me stupid, or insinuates that I have some malevolent agenda. I don’t react well to character assassination. Understandable, you might think, but I should learn to simply accept the criticism without complaint. If that’s how a person feels about me, then I would rather have that raw honesty come out than have the experience of polite dishonesty or hidden fury. Let me have the truth, even if it stings. Mind you, the same fundamentalist will be completely mystified why I don’t feel any attraction to the sort of spirituality that leads him to express himself the way he does.

To the Christians who have stood by me, I’m glad of your continued friendship. I know you think I’m going to hell. That doesn’t bother me, because you have every right to believe what you want to believe. To those who are too offended by me to remain friends, I wish it wasn’t so, and I hope this essay helps you to understand why I’ve gone about things the way I have.

Bottom line: you can’t threaten somebody and expect them to take it lying down.

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The “cold reading” technique of fake psychics

derekacorahI’ve typed up the following transcript from a DVD called The Psychic World of Derek Acorah. Acorah is a famous medium in the UK, who hosts sell-out stage shows and is involved in a TV show Most Haunted. This is a short scene from one of his stage shows. Derek is apparently relaying information from the spirits of dead relatives to a woman in the audience, regarding her teenage son.

Derek Acorah: He has the potential of being a real bright spark, but he has lazy spasms.

Woman in audience: Yes.

Derek: That’s what she [the spirit] said. They’re not my words. But his potential is there. You need to, just slightly, keep him at a task, in a nice motherly, fatherly, gentle way, and you know, he will do things. There’s going to be big improvement with his concentration! D’you understand this?

Woman: Definitely.

DA: Good. Because they’re all coming behind him, because they want him to do well! And they’ll all put their little bit of spiritual penny’s worth in all together collectively, and make sure that placed into his thoughts is this motivation, okay? And everything will be okay. [Derek makes typing gestures] Does he love the computer, eh?

Woman: Yes.

DA: Because they watch, standing behind him when he’s on the computer. And he’s a dab-hand at it, isn’t he? Oh, and he loves it, oh, internet, eh?!

Woman: No.

DA: He wants it.

Woman: He’s not getting it. [Audience laughs]

DA: Okay. Well … [Derek shrugs, and the DVD cuts to the next clip.]

I am six minutes thirty seconds into watching the DVD and already I know I’ve rented a stinker. This is a classic example of a technique called “cold reading” that fake psychics use. Acorah appears to be saying very specific things to the woman in the audience, things he couldn’t possibly know. But here’s the thing you need to remember: what mother doesn’t see greater potential in her son? What teenager isn’t lazy at times and lacking in concentration and motivation? What teenager isn’t into computers? Those traits are so common in today’s youth. Now, read the transcript again with that in mind and Acorah seems far less impressive.

So, Acorah scores a number of hits, because the stats are heavily weighed in his favour, but he doesn’t get 100%. He thought it was a safe bet that the boy would have internet access, but he was dead wrong. And what the transcript doesn’t quite convey is the enthusiasm that Acorah pours into the sentence about the internet. This falls flat on its face when the woman says, “No.” Acorah deftly dodges this miss by quickly adding, “He wants it.” He diverts the audience’s attention away so quickly and expertly that nobody has time to think, “Hey, Derek, no fair! You got it wrong!”

After a thouroughly uninspiring twenty-six minutes, Derek is talking to people on the streets of Liverpool city centre. He has an interesting chat with three teenage girls (italics mine):

DA: Which one of you knows Steve … or Stephen? [Let’s pick one of the most common names. Surely, in the collective social circle of three people there’s a Steve.]

Girl with hooded jacket: Stephen?

DA: Is it you?

Hoodie: Stephen?

DA: Yeah. Not in spirit. Living, physical?

Hoodie: Yeah?

DA: You know him, don’t you?

Hoodie: Stephen … who, though?

DA: Well, it’s someone … I feel it is you, okay? Don’t be overly trusting of someone called Stephen, okay? Whatever he tells you.

[Well, that was impressive.]

[cut]

DA: Do you know Anne? [Yet another common name.]

Brunette: Yeah.

DA: How close?

Brunette: Emm … I go to college with her.

DA: You’re gonna be helping her very shortly. I see a slight upset, and she’s gonna be confiding in you. [I see where you’re going with this, Derek. What popular young teenage girl’s life isn’t consumed with drama?]

Brunette: Yeah. She has, as well. [Very clever, Derek. You play the future angle, hoping your target will throw you a bone here and there, and it looks like you knew all along – except we don’t see the bones that never get thrown, eh?]

DA: Has she done it recently?

Brunette: Yeah.

DA: And that confiding in you, it’s because she feels hurt by someone? [Top guess, but of course the dice were heavily weighed in your favour. After all, what does the drama of most beautiful teenage girls revolve around? Boys.]

Brunette: Yeah. [smiles] My God, that’s weird, that. [The girl doesn’t realise that Derek phrased his last sentence as a question. He was asking her if Anne feels hurt, but the Brunette heard it like a statement and was well impressed.]

DA: Right, that hurt, okay … is a male, okay? [Like I didn’t see that one coming.]

Brunette: [hands over mouth] Oh my God!

DA: And he’s told her lies. He’s told her fibs. He’s also playing hard to get. [Common teenage behaviour.]

Brunette: Oh my God!

DA: And he’s trying to, you know, make her feel – aw, bless her – trying to make her feel jealous with something. You know, the jealousy is just all around here. Do you understand that?

Brunette: Oh my God, that’s mad! [This girl has absolutely no idea how common and typical every aspect of her friend Anne’s troubles are.]

DA: And, so you tell her from me, okay, and Sam [Acorah’s spirit guide], she can do better than him. Tell her to, just tell him to eff off. She’s too good for him.

Brunette: [nodding profusely] Okay.

Sorry, Derek, but I’m totally unimpressed. And I’m actually a little disgusted. Not only is this guy obviously deceiving people, but he’s actually giving them directions for their lives. He goes as far as advising the girl to tell Anne to dump her boyfriend, whilst knowing nothing about the relationship beyond a few stereotypical observations.

One hour into the DVD, during another stage show, Acorah gives a much more in-depth and detailed communication to a man, involving a brother who died as a baby and the man’s relationship to “Alan,” a close friend with whom he had become estranged. This session goes way beyond cold reading, but given Acorah’s earlier antics in the programme, he has already lost all credibility with me as a genuine psychic. So how did he do it? Firstly, the body language of the man in the audience told me that he wasn’t in on it. So, assuming that tickets were purchased prior to the show, my guess is that some members of the audience were investigated, possibly by getting close to the lives of some of their friends and relatives, or by paying sums of money to such to reveal secrets. It could even be as simple as listening in on conversations at their local bar. The avenues for investigation are many and varied. Derren Brown has performed equally amazing feats of insight whilst denying he has any psychic ability whatsoever. The key to it is that the audience can’t realistically conceive that the host would go to such lengths. Therefore, the host exploits this very thing. I have no doubt this is exactly how Brown goes about it, and we’re seeing the same thing here with Acorah. I am unimpressed. The man gives a short personal interview afterwards, talking about how he now feels happier than he has felt in a long time, and has plans to break the silence between himself and Alan. Very noble, but at what cost? He’s now a “true believer” in a charlatan. I’m all for believing in life after death, and I’m all for forgiveness and reconciliation, but you can’t justify manipulating someone just because there’s a positive outcome.

The cherry on the cake was one of the extras on the DVD, a scene from Most Haunted, where Acorah visits apparently haunted locations and receives communications from spirits. After walking around a house in the dark with a couple of companions (are spirits afraid of electric lights?), Derek walks into a particular bedroom. The thing you’re not supposed to notice is that the camera operator isn’t following Derek; he’s already in there, with his camera facing across the room, at a suitably creepy angle by the bed. Derek opens the door and says and says, “Okay, I’ll go in first, shall I?” to his nervous companions. But you already made the cameraman go in on his own! Once in the room, Derek experiences a fresh reading from a spirit. My question is, how did the cameraman know this room was going to be significant? Ah, of course – the cameraman is psychic, too! It couldn’t be that the whole thing is merely staged, could it? Gasp! Obviously.

The only thing good about The Psychic World of Derek Acorah is the Eve of the War music (from Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds) that Derek likes to play at the beginning of his stage shows.

I am open to the possibility of genuine psychic abilities, including mediumship, but unlike so many believers I also have a healthy flow of scepticism running through my veins. Derek Acorah, you are exposed.

More importantly, it’s vital for us lesser mortals to learn the ways that our perceptions can trick us into believing a lie, so that we can stop the manipulation that infects our lives from so many sources.

Bible (mis)interpretation and personal agenda

[Appended 4 July 2008: Since writing the article below, I have changed my thinking on certain aspects of it. Please read the associated comments for a fuller picture.]

I used to believe in the six-day creation account, in the Garden of Eden, in Adam and Eve, the serpent, the eating of fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Having read the Bible carefully, I was pretty sure that the original writer of Genesis intended the work to understood in a literal, historical fashion. That much is clear by the manner in which it’s written. Genesis is, after all, the history of man, and it starts with the first man, Adam, who I’m clearly supposed to believe was a real person. This view is further supported by the fact that the rest of the Bible puts on display several genealogies that go right back to Adam.

But I had a problem. And that problem was the pressure of scientific thought. The Bible says man wasn’t subject to death until after the Fall. Can you imagine what would have happened if man hadn’t fallen. Can you imagine man, an immortal being, making babies (who make further babies) ad infinitum, in the confined space of the Earth? And that’s just problem 1. The concept of death hasn’t been invented, but you have physical beings dependent on air to breathe, so what happens if you hold your head under the lake? Why does a lion have such big claws, if not to tear up his prey? Why does a hedgehog possess the ability to curl into a ball and project protective spines? Why does a sporpion have a sting? What would happen if a scorpion stung an immortal human? Christian scientists have made attempts to marry the first chapters of Genesis with what we know to be true from science, but the results aren’t convincing.

So, as a Christian, what did I do? I compromised. I said, “I know it couldn’t really have happened like this, so I’ll say it’s some kind of allegory. Something (I don’t know exactly what) happened. Mankind fell from grace. Death and sin resulted. The world is the way it is today because of that.” At the time, this seemed like an honest reasoning process. But is it? No! It’s a prime example of exactly the kind of attitude that I’ve been arguing against in all my recent posts.

Here’s the underlying truth of what really went on in my mind: I read the creation account and I interpreted it in a way that seemed correct (that I was reading historical narrative). I then came to a scientific understanding of the matter, and I found the two “realities” to be incongruous. I then said, “The literal interpretation must be wrong, so I’ll change it to allegory.”

Do you see what I did? I did exactly what I cautioned myself against doing in the previous post (regarding the interpretation of the “sons of God”). I applied a rigid set of existing beliefs (scientific ones this time) to the interpretation of Genesis and I allowed those beliefs to change the meaning of something that was perfectly clear and plain. I’m only now starting to see the intellectual dishonesty of this kind of thinking.

We all have beliefs of one kind or another. And when we encounter new information that conflicts with those beliefs, the solution is not to twist the new information into submission. The solution is to examine both the new information and the existing beliefs and determine which needs to change. The big problem arises when a belief becomes more than a belief – when it becomes an unshakeable treasured possession that must never be tampered with. This is especially true of religious thinking (what with the importance of dogma), but is also true of the scientifically motivated (as has been evidenced by recent comments).

I now have a new-found respect for those Christians who doggedly hang onto the literal creation account, despite the pressure of scientific evidence. At least they’ve chosen their side. What I’m losing my respect for is the mentality (in myself) that is prepared to hang on to some watered-down version that tries to join two sides of an argument into an ill-fitting monstrosity. It’s like saying Frankenstein was handsome.

Now that I’m refusing to come at things with a personal agenda, I can see the matter more clearly. Genesis 1-3 says one thing, science is saying another, and ne’re the twain shall meet. Answer: Pick the one you think is true.

Now that leaves me in one hell of a predicament. Easier said than done. Because I do have a rigid belief system. And the side of the argument that is calling out to me is the side that threatens to put a major crack right up through the centre of those beliefs. This is where I reveal a little of the cowardice of “Reaction 2” from the previous post: “Maybe something’s missing from the way I’m looking at this. Why don’t I just shelve it for now. Good idea. Whew!” One thing’s for sure: a decision will not be put off indefinitely.

I’ve seen many example of personal agenda being brought to bear on Bible interpretation. More than I can remember. The one example that sticks out in my mind is when I heard someone preach on Genesis 1:16. In context:

[14] Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night, and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years;
[15] and let them be for lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth”; and it was so.
[16] God made the two great lights, the greater light to govern the day, and the lesser light to govern the night; He made the stars also.

I’ve heard the words “He made the stars also” interpreted to mean that the creation of the whole universe beyond Earth was like a mere afterthought in the mind of God. The intent is for us to marvel that God would do something so big and complex as a mere afterthought. But an additional side-effect of this interpretation is that we create the mindset that those 200 billion stars in each of those 200 billion galaxies are unimportant and irrelevant. A convenient way to unwittingly encourage the view of reality that says there is no life out there. When, oh when, will preachers stop inventing their own flowery interpretations of Scripture and actually start communicating what the Bible is saying instead of what they want it to say. Look out for this tendency to over-interpret next time you’re in church, because it’s everywhere. And it’s one of the main reasons I can’t stomach church anymore. It’s the subtle difference between “Look what I can make it say” and “Here is what it says.”

In your own quest for truth, learn to drop your personal agendas and let a thing say what it’s trying to say.

The dark side of Christianity

In the last few “Spirituality” posts, I asserted that we’re all being conditioned, by science, religion, media, culture, education. Science was the category that really came under the spotlight. So, in fairness, and to prove I’m as open-minded as I claim to be, this Christian is going to put his religion under the spotlight.

The first really bad piece of religious conditioning I encountered was an unfair attitude to sex. There I was, a horny seventeen-year-old, sitting in church, listening to a guest preacher say, “Young men, when you see an attractive girl walking down the street, and your eyes linger … turn your eyes away!” If I heard that from a pulpit today, I would stand up and walk out in defiance. It’s the worst example of an attitude that is taught by the church, to one degree or another. And what’s worse is, it’s not even in the Bible. It’s based on a misinterpretation of something spoken by Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-29)

What should be painfully obvious from the above passage is that Jesus is referring to married men who indulge in desire for other women. Notice it said “adultery,” not “fornication.” This is not applicable to boys and girls discovering their sexuality, nor is it applicable to any single person of any age. In a perfect world, what’s supposed to happen? We get our first ever erection on our marriage night? “Eek! What’s happening to me?” The idea is absurd. And yet ignorant preachers will carry on the age-old mission of driving this “sexuality is sinful” message home to the young. We end up with guilt-ridden teenagers who think they’re stuck with a horrible vice. It took a long time for me to realise I could look at a hot chick and think, “Phwoarrr!” without having to feel guilty.

Another issue: One of my pastor’s hobby-horses was the idea of “feelings orientation,” as he called it. When church life became uninspiring for me, and my attendance wavered, I would be accused of being “feelings oriented,” i.e. doing what I wanted to do instead of doing what I knew was right. So, believing myself to be “feelings oriented,” I would feel guilty about that and fix the immediate problem by being disciplined, i.e. attending church once again. It sounds like the problem is solved. But what you’re left with is an unhappy person, going through the motions of a spiritual life out of militaristic duty. And no one ever asks the really important underlying question: “Why is church no longer inspiring?” So the real problem gets neither noticed, addressed, nor fixed.

I should have perceived long before I did that this idea of “feelings orientation” is just some pop psychology that my pastor liked. I imbibed the idea that the “feelings” are not important. All that matters is duty. But then you end up feeling inadequate because you know you’re supposed to be joyful. And you can apply this accusation of “feelings orientation” to any problem that causes a church member to falter; you can make the problem instantly go away and turn them into obedient, guilt-driven robots once again. Cure any emotional problem by denying the importance of emotions. So, you can be a mess on the inside, but that’s apparently okay, as long as you’re going through the motions on the outside.

In more recent years, as someone who had now studied the Bible deeply, I grew sick of hearing error from the pulpit. One example: About a year ago, the pastor preached on the subject of the Sabbath, and it was terrible, conveying the idea that it was wrong to let your child play football on a Sunday. Only not just saying it outright – hinting at it in a subtle, manupulative way. Later, I heard another sermon by a younger member of the church about how “God is our friend.” When it was over, I realised I couldn’t take anything definitive away from it. It was an exercise in pretentiousness.

I was also disappointed by the distance between people in the church, or possibly the distance between them and me. Maybe it’s because I don’t belong to the shirt-and-tie brigade. Maybe it’s because I once turned agnostic, and when I came back they were never sure about me any longer. I can only guess. Maybe it’s just because I feel aloof from them because I see the poison under the surface of what’s being said and they don’t. All I know is, I don’t fit.

You might say, “Go find another church.” Been there, done that. I once wrote an article called “The Christian Book Minefield,” where I addressed the view that I think most Christian books are best avoided, because on a grand scale all those books together are a minefield of opposing and contradictory beliefs. Well, what is true of authors is surely true of preachers. We do, after all, have our Baptists, Reformed Baptists, Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, Free Presbyterians, Methodists, Independent Methodists, Pentecostals, etc, etc. If only it were as trivial as choosing ice cream!

I know what my friend Chris would say. “Become a Roman Catholic.” 🙂 I’m not convinced about that, but I won’t close my mind to it, either. The anti-Catholic attitude possessed by Protestants is yet another example of closed-minded conditioned thinking. It’s only in recent years that I’ve been able to see things a little more clearly, and it’s actually pretty simple, if you’re prepared to step away from your rigid belief system and be open-minded. Think about this: Protestantism was founded sometime in the 1500s. But “The Church” has been around since the first century. And what does history tell us that Church was? Uh-oh. It was the Roman Catholic Church. So what are we Protestants saying – that God was without a true Church for over a millennium? Think about it the next time you feel the words “Roman Catholics aren’t true Christians” coming to your lips. Conditioning! Conditioning! Conditioning! Somebody wake me up!

I’m sure there are some reading this now who are thinking, “Gee, Darryl, if you believe all that, why are you still a Christian?” Because of the Bible. Because I have undeniably learned more insight about life from it than from anything else. So I’m a Christian, but I have abandoned organised religion. And I’ve decided, as of now, to stop feeling guilty about that.

If you are a Christian and you’re feeling a bit angry that I’ve got the audacity to speak out against aspects of our religion, then you need to wake up. Go watch Jesus Camp, then tell me that our religion can’t be hijacked and used as a tool for brainwashing of the young. I refuse to be afraid to wake up to reality, regardless of how much ammo I might be handing to the athiest opposition. If they want to look out from their rigid belief system and add this to their list of reasons not to believe in God, that’s up to them. They’ve got their own conditioning to wake up from, too.

My mind was recently opened up to how much I’ve been conditioned, by a certain writer who isn’t even a Christian. In fact, he is quite opposed to Christianity, and every religion, seeing them all as exercises in control of the many by the few. Nevertheless, what he’s saying in principle is right. We pretend we’re open-minded when we’re really thinking from inside a prison cell in our minds, seeking only to defend a rigid belief system and knock down an opposing argument, instead of being open to all possibility. I have actually been more inspired by this book than by any Christian literature I’ve read, period.

Who is this author? Well, he’s a famous British personality that 99% of the population once thought was completely off his rocker (and many still do). Have a listen. Are these the words of a madman? …

Extraterrestrial life versus the burden of proof

In the last two posts, a heated debate emerged about whether it’s right to believe in an afterlife. And the opposition to that belief kept coming back to one thing: “Prove it! Show me it’s real!” The demand for empirical evidence, if you like, which on the surface seems reasonable. But it isn’t.

Consider the ET question. Is there life on other planets? Many of us believe there is. This belief is based on the knowledge that there are between 200 billion and 400 billion stars in our own galaxy. Not only that, but we can look through a powerful telescope and discover there are an estimated 200 hundred billion entire galaxies out there beyond the boundary of our own. In all of that, surely there must be more than one Earth-like planet able to sustain life?

But if you apply the rigid principle that some people in the last debate applied to the question of the afterlife (the principle that the burden of proof is the be-all and-end-all of rational thought), it works like this: I’ve never seen an alien, therefore I choose not to believe. “But the universe is so big! What about the likelihood of …” Oh, ho, ho! Hold on a minute, there, buddy. I didn’t know we were allowed to consider likelihoods, or weigh up possibilities. Surely you mustn’t contemplate how probable or improbable alien life is. Your only standard is the burden of proof. And without proof, you are required by law to choose the negative – to deny what may or may not be reality. I certainly wasn’t allowed to contemplate the ultimate futility of the human race. Likewise, if you are consistent, you should not allow yourself to contemplate the absurdity of this universe being 100% devoid of life save humanity. It’s an open and shut case: no empirical evidence = no permission to believe and no further rational thought allowed to weigh in.

How much better it is to abandon a rigid belief system and be open to possibility! Not only better, but how much more rational. To consider possibilities and probabilities, to look deeply into the implications of things, to theorise based on imagination. Ultimately, to have permission to believe in something, not on the burden of proof, but because it makes sense. Not so long ago, I used to say things like, “I don’t believe in extraterrestrial life, because the Bible says that man is unique and made in the image of God, and that doesn’t leave room for ET.” I ignored the sheer volume of the universe, and allowed my rigid belief system to dictate what is painfully apparent by reason of staggering probability: We are not alone. I looked out at everything through a closed mind, through a view of reality that I had already set in stone, shut off from possibility. See, I’m as guilty as anyone.

But just recently a light has switched on in my head, exposing subtle ways that my mind has been conditioned all my life. My thinking has now become both sharpened and opened up to possibility. Everything is possible, and nothing is exempt from being called into question – not the athiesm of others, not my own belief in God, nor my belief in Christianity. And it’s not sacriligious to suggest such a thing. Whatever is true should have no fear of scrutiny. I refuse to look at the universe from inside a mental prison, whether that prison is the narrow path of modern science or religious doctrine. This revelation in my thinking has made me feel more excited and inspired than I’ve felt in a long time.

We have all been conditioned

My previous post provoked an excellent debate. What I want to do now is amplify something I mentioned as little more than a closing remark in the post, because it’s really this remark that lies at the heart of the matter of why I’m so convinced there’s life after death and why athiests are so convinced there isn’t.

It’s the issue of conditioning. We have all been conditioned. Sometimes it’s as overt and obvious as those kids on the Jesus Camp documentary, indoctrinated by their teachers to believe the craziest ideas. And sometimes it’s so subtle that you carry it from the moment you learn it till the moment you die, without ever realising you were imprisoned by it. And the way to escape from it is to question everything, especially why you believe what you believe. Conditioning happens through every means the world throws at us to learn something, be it the media, education, religion, etc. These things are not evil in and of themselves, but we are conditioned every time we take in information and fail to question that information. Every time we get lazy in our thinking.

I’ve been waking up gradually in recent years, and I’m probably nowhere near fully woken up. A while back I wrote a post called “A Christian perspective on Jericho” (the TV series, not the Biblical city), which is an example of how I had started, at that time, to question the idea of Capitalism, something that we in the West are entrenched in. I never questioned Capitalism before, because we’re all Capitalists – so it must be the right way to live, right? Rubbish! That’s like living in 1940s Germany and saying, “The Nazis must be right, because everyone around me is one.” Capitalism is all about the ownership of things and the accumulation of wealth to the detriment of all else, including the welfare of the planet. School is shaped around the idea that the greatest course of action is for a student to stay in education as long as possible, so he can be as qualified as possible, so he can get the best possible job, and make the most money. We are encouraged to spend our lives pursuing the vacuuous quest of the accumulation of wealth. Nine years ago, I was faced with a crossroads. On the one hand there was a low-income job that I knew I would enjoy greatly, and on the other was a more stressful and problematic job that offered more money and status. Thank goodness I chose the former, but the choice was not easy, because I had been conditioned to think that the latter was what I was supposed to pursue and that not choosing it would have been some kind of personal failure. Conditioning! It’s bloody everywhere, and it’s tricky stuff to see!

Now, I’m going to bring into sharp focus what I think is one of the most subtle forms of conditioning. Science has taught us to think like this: “If you want me to believe something, show me verifiable proof. Without proof, I will not believe.” It sounds correct, doesn’t it? Deny it and you might as well start believing in flying pigs, eh? Oh, if only it were that simple, but it’s not, as I will demonstrate …

A man starts off by contemplating his death. He says, “There’s no evidence of an afterlife, so I won’t believe it. Death is the end.” So far, we are agreed. Then he considers the implications of his belief. He realises, ultimately, that his life will be robbed of meaning by his death. It will be as if he never lived, all his memories and experiences lost. He takes it further, and realises that one day, billions of years in the future, the same fate will befall the sun, and it will be as if the human race never existed, all our great achievements and knowledge forgotten. So what does he do? He shrugs and says, “That must be the way it is. Wishing otherwise doesn’t make it so.” Maybe he tries again, and asks himself, “Is there life after death?” And he answers, “There is no evidence, so I cannot believe it. No.”

Here’s where I differ. I give my mind permission to see the absurdity of the idea that the human race is meaningless, to contemplate the mockery this makes of our every achievement. And I allow this new information become a factor in the question. So, I ask it a second time: “Is there life after death?” Yes! When the alternative turns the human race into the greatest cosmic joke of all time, of course there must be life after death. The alternative is absurd beyond imaginging.

We have been conditioned not to allow the full range of our rationality to determine our view of reality. This is the inadequacy of the scientific method. It says that while a thing may be true, the human being has no right to believe it unless he arrives at that belief through an examination of observable evidence.

If you think the only road to truth is through observable evidence, you are thinking from inside a prison of your own making. Learn to see the wider picture of human rationality and break free. Don’t blind yourself with the idea that it’s evidence versus flying pigs, when there’s a hell of a lot more that goes into good clear-headed thinking.

The lie of the joyful atheist

This post was prompted by an essay on athiesm. Please read or listen to “There Is No God” by Penn Jillette, before continuing.

What I want to draw attention to is the joyful manner in which he describes the most spiritually empty and depressing belief. He argues that it is unnecessary for the athiest to disprove the existence of God, and his logic is sound, but once he grasps this belief in nothingness and hangs on to it, he then gives the impression that it is the most joyful and liberating philosophy of life. This simply is not true.

I can’t quote you the findings of research, but what I can do is speak from experience. My initial experience of athiesm (or to be fair, athiesm’s close cousin agnosticism, which, for all practical purposes is the same thing) was one of liberation. I was escaping the clutches of a form of Christianity that didn’t work for me, a legalistic way of living that twisted my mind and consumed me with guilt. Naturally, I felt liberated. But the feeling was shortlived. I had to face the reality that death was the end, that every experience I ever had was insignificant, every achievement meaningless, and that after my death it would be as if I had never been born. This, folks, is seriously depressing news.

I’ve heard athiests try to wrangle their way out of this reality; I’ve even tried to wrangle my way out of it myself. I defined the meaning in my life from the good I was able to do for others, my loving deeds touching lives in ways that would remain, even after my own death. This is a wonderful way to live, no doubt, but still reality comes crashing in, as you face the fact that even the lives you have touched are doomed to non-existence. Jump billions of years into the future and the human race is gone due to the death of our planet’s sun. The sum total of mankind’s knowledge, and our every achievement since the dawn of human history, is obliterated. It will be as if the human race never existed. Not even the memory of it will remain, because there isn’t a mind left to house it.

This is the athiest’s reality. Face it. But someone will say something like (and I’ve said it to myself), “It doesn’t matter. We humans have an inflated view of our own importance in the universe. Mortal is what we are, what we’re supposed to be, and all we’ll ever be. And mortality is enough.” But is it enough? Why then do I find my most pleasurable experiences tainted with sorrow. When I go out on my bicycle and enjoy the beauty of the Irish countryside, why is there always a feeling of emptiness nagging at me? It’s because I’ve faced reality. None of my experiences means a damn thing; all of life is just an expression of futility.

I’ve heard it argued that it’s our very mortality that gives meaning to our actions. I’ve tried to see some kind of sense in that idea, but I can’t. If someone can explain it to me, please do, because it just reads like a pretentious, vacuuous notion to me. What I know is that I possess a hunger for significance. It is not enough to die and cease to exist. There must be something more. This life has to matter, and to matter it has to go on. Athiesm does not lead to joy. It is the philosophy of no hope. It says that human life means nothing, degrading what it means to be human (ever wonder why the general consensus of athiests are for abortion while Christians are against?). It promotes feelings of worthlessness (because you are ultimately without value). Who knows how many people have spiralled down the road to suicide because they held this belief. Oh, I’m not talking about some intellectual athiest who’s got it all worked out. I’m talking about the average joe who has unwittingly imbibed the athiest way of thinking through culture and media and education. I would even dare to say that an athiest who commits suicide is making a perfectly reasonable choice, in light of his own view of his place in the universe.

Am I allowing my heart to rule my head here? Well, here’s some food for thought. Let’s assume that athiesm truly is the enlightened view. By implication, then, the enlightened man is the depressed man. Does it seem rational that man, in his most enlightened state, should be depressed by his own existence? Is it not more likely that these feelings of depression are pointing to the notion: “Hey, maybe we’re thinking about this all wrong!” In this vibrant world (and universe) teeming with life and vitality, were we really supposed to spend our days battling sorrow over our mortality? I think not.

I have great respect for science, but what I just can’t stand is the way we’ve all been conditioned to disbelieve in anything that cannot be measured and quantified, no matter what the cost to ourselves. Travel back in time and talk to a fifteenth century scientist about radio waves beaming messages across the planet, and he won’t believe you, nor can he create and measure such things with his primitive equipment. That doesn’t mean that radio waves don’t exist.

It alarms me the amount of my life I wasted with an agnostic mindset, never at peace with myself, and unable to see the preconceptions that held me to such an irrational and depressing belief. But that’s the conditioning of this messed up society at work. It can be very hard to see the claws that are embedded in your mind.

The particular claw I’m talking about here is the scientific idea that you must have proof before you allow yourself to believe a thing. How on earth did science ever lose its imagination in this way? And how did we end up giving it permission to define our entire sense of ourselves, without regard for what it may not be able to detect about reality?

Bottom line: Don’t confuse what doesn’t exist with what is merely undiscovered. I expect to discover plenty right after I die, and I’m living my life now with that anticipation.

(And the simple pleasure of riding my bike through the countryside is now a truly joyful experience.)

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