Friday, January 3, 2014

What can skepticism and freethought offer a person?

I wrote about a month ago how I wanted to start advocating for skepticism and free-thought rather than atheism. It's my belief that those two modes of thinking naturally lead to atheism, so I figure that it's best to put the horse before the cart. After all, advocating a non-belief is telling people that you want to take something away from them rather than offering them something good.

I suppose I should note that while I'd love it if people of all types read my blog, I think that this one is directly addressing the fence-sitters - the people who just aren't sure what they believe. Perhaps you're somebody who believes in God, but there are a lot of doubts that are gnawing away at you. One way or the other, the issue is important to you, and you want to make the right choice. With that said, let me tell you why I think that looking at the world through a skeptical, naturalist, freethinking point of view is best.

For starters, let's get out of the way what WON'T happen to you if taking this path causes you to reject belief in the supernatural in general, and God in particular. Here are a few things you won't have to worry about:

  1. You won't fall into despair thinking that the world has no purpose. We human beings are generally pretty resilient animals. Even though you might no longer see purpose the way you used to see it, that doesn't mean that you still can't create purpose - one that's as satisfying or potentially more satisfying than the one you had before.
  2. You won't lose any sense of awe or wonder about the world, despite what Oprah might tell you. The universe is an amazing place, and it doesn't suddenly stop being amazing when you no longer accept supernatural claims.
  3. You can still believe in love. It's an emotion that you feel. Sure, it's not tangible, but realizing that it's brought about by the natural phenomena of millions of years of evolution among a cooperative species doesn't suddenly make it less real to you. If anything, that's one more thing at which to marvel.
  4. You won't become a drug-abusing murderer who no longer has to answer to a higher power. Even if religious faith "saved" you from drug abuse, abandoning it won't make you revert to your old ways. I don't say this from personal experience so much as from people whom I have personally known. Also, if you weren't a murderer before, it won't suddenly seem like an appealing thing to do. Even if I knew that I could get away with killing a random person, I wouldn't do it. Even if you paid me to do it, I wouldn't do it. Why? Because empathy, that's why. Where'd I get that? From my ancestors who developed it to help them survive in groups when they didn't have fancy things like sharp claws and wings.
Okay, so those are things that won't happen to you. Is that all it is? Just a break-even if you completely alter your approach to the world? How about some advantages? Well, I can name a few:
  1. You can trust your doubt. It's a good thing, and while I hear religious people say that they embrace their doubt all the time, I just don't see that as being a genuine sentiment coming from them. After all, what do they tell their fellow believers when it comes to doubt? Pray about it. In other words, it's okay to doubt so long as you realize that you're wrong for doing so and you eventually have to come back to your original position. With free-thought, you can fully embrace your doubts. Your doubts might even be pulling you in the CORRECT direction. Listen to them, consider them, and then make your decisions accordingly.
  2. You won't be troubled by so much cognitive dissonance. One thing that really troubles a lot of people of faith, Christians in particular, is the issue of how to treat gay people. On one extreme, you have complete intolerance. A bit better than that is "hate the sin, love the sinner" which still puts gay people as doing something wrong for simply being who they are. Recently a friend of mine posted this article from the Huffington Post, where the author abandons that particular phrase, but at the end of it all, he's still left with the thing that homosexuality is a sin; in other words, it's wrong. I see so many Christians struggle with this because on one hand, they don't see how gay people are doing anything wrong, yet they still have to think that it is because The Bible says so. Well, here's a possibility you get to have if you approach things from a skeptical point of view: The Bible might be wrong. This gets to be a very real option, and when you embrace it, you find yourself struggling a whole lot less.
  3. The world becomes less scary. I realize that this one will hold more appeal for some people than others, but I know that before I embraced skepticism, I was troubled by demons. I also know of people who have scary instances in their lives where they feel some sort of presence that makes the hairs on their arm stand on end. The world seems to be full of all kinds of hidden terrors that aren't detectable through conventional means. However, when I hear strange noises or get random chills nowadays, I don't pay them a second thought, and I'm able to move on with my life. You can read more about those experiences and why I abandoned them here and here.
  4. There's no need to fear death. Sure, dying might be scary, but as far as we can tell, our awareness is in the brain, and when the brain ceases to function, there's no reason to believe that it continues on. As it's been said before, there's no reason to think that it will feel any different than how it felt before you were born.
That's just for starters. If that sounds good to you, then what's the next step? What does it mean to be a freethinker and a skeptic? You start with Carl Sagan's maxim: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." From there, determine what counts as evidence, as that's a word that's thrown around quite a bit. But if you want to truly be a skeptic, have your definition be consistent. In other words, don't consider something to be evidence for what you want to believe that you would reject for another claim. (You know,t things like personal experiences. If you can reject it as a likely hallucination in somebody else, then you can't use a different yardstick when you evaluate your own beliefs.)

There are a lot of great books out there by the likes of Michael Shermer, James Randi, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, etc. to help you to continue this journey if you're ready for it. The best part is that you get to go wherever the truth takes you - you're not bound by anybody's dogma - even your own. You won't have all the answers, and you'll have to get used to using the phrase, "I don't know" but you'll be living as honest a life as you possibly can, and there's a great deal of satisfaction in that.


Brian J Hoskins said...

Regarding point 2 of your "what WON'T happen" list, I think you're right to say that a person won't lose their sense of wonder about the universe if they remove the (artificial) supernatural/omnipotent creator element from it. But I'd go further than your statement I think. For me, and I would suppose most others, the Universe is all the more wondrous as a result of the realisation that it almost certainly was not designed or created by any being(s). The truth that is to be found in the discovery of the Universe is far more appealing and fascinating than the simple assertion that "God did it".

Regarding point 4 of the same list, I would go further here as well.
Consider, for the moment, that somehow (perhaps as a result of prior unhelpful experiences in life or some other influence), you felt a desire to commit some wrongful act against another person. If you were to say to yourself that you overcame those desires and stayed on the "path of righteousness" because you feared God, then you would be simultaneously admitting that you'd quite probably have committed the act (or at least felt more able to do it) if not for the fear of being watched and judged by an omnipotent being. That is not a path of righteousness as most rational people would define it. Righteousness is when, in the face of 'evil' compulsion or desire, you restrict yourself from committing the act regardless of the fact that you could undoubtedly get away with it simply because you recognise that it's wrong, you empathise with the other person, and you decide that you don't want to be the kind of person that does that kind of thing.
The true path of righteousness can only be walked by someone who does it for themselves. If you do it for someone or some thing else, then you're not really being righteous - you're just being restricted from acts that you would otherwise engage in at will.

I think there is far more self peace to be earned from walking a righteous path by your own judgement, rather than that of an omnipotent being.

I enjoyed your article :)

Lance Johnson said...

Nicely stated. Regarding the first point, I was tempted to write it that way, but "sense of wonder" is such a subjective thing that I didn't want to over-sell it.