We all have unwarranted certainty about innumerable things. Critical thinking can help reduce ignorance, and make us less certain, but even learning and pondering can lead us to replace one ideology with another.
This is what happened to me. I was raised as a Christian, and made an unwitting participant in that cult. I accepted this worldview until I was a teenager, particularly because my parents were ministers.
Their parents had more conservative interpretations of their religion. My grandfather on my mom’s side of the family was a minister as well, as was his father. So the strong religious history of my family goes back at least three generations. My parents’ religious views got more moderate, throughout the course of them being practising preachers. Their interpretations of the bible gradually moved from moderately liberal, to radically progressive. This is best demonstrated by the fact that my dad performed a wedding for a lesbian couple. The decision was fully supported by my mom. It happened at the request of a member of their congregation, before same sex marriage was legal here in Canada. This resulted in so much outrage that my parents resigned. I was too young to fully understand the ramifications of this, at the age of around 10, and I was far from questioning religious beliefs.
For most of my childhood, I thought that being Christian was normal. I believed that everyone was that way. I didn’t know that people followed different religions. When I discovered this, I wasn’t reflective enough to ask why this was the case. A long time passed before I thought about why people believe in different gods and holy books. I remember that one time in school, another kid asked me if I was Christian in front of a bunch of others. I had an impulse to not be sure, but I succumbed to peer pressure, and said yes. Another time, one other kid told my brother and I that people who don’t believe in Jesus go to Hell. We had been raised to believe than no one goes there, so we were confused. I think that my brother, even though he was only around 8 years old, asked something like, “What about all the people in other religions, who don’t believe in Jesus? Why are they going to Hell?” We told my parents about this when we got home from school that day. I think that my mom told us to not listen to him, and explained why some people have this opinion.
My parents stopped pursuing their passion because there weren’t other ministry jobs in town, and we didn’t want to move away from all our friends. My mom had also become disabled due to a doctor’s surgery fuck-up, and had to work less and less until she went on permanent disability leave. My dad had to get a handful of shitty jobs that were way beneath his intellectual ability to support his struggling family. He still has to work in a job that has nothing to do with his interests, even though he went to school for 8 years to pursue his passion.
I think that I only liked going to church when I was a kid, and I kept getting dragged there for years after my parents were no longer ministers. I didn’t have any philosophical objections. I just didn’t like getting up early on Sundays, and I was always bored at church, so my mom let me bring books to read during sermons.
I ironically first heard the term, “agnostic” from a pastor. My parents were ministers at the United Church, and after they stopped working there, we started going to the Presbyterian one. My mom still preached sometimes, but she did it for free. The priest at the Presbyterian church, named Irwin, used the word, “agnostic” in a sermon, and I didn’t know what it meant. I asked my mom, and she said that an agnostic is someone who isn’t sure whether god exists or not. My pre-teen brain was dumbfounded by this. “That’s an option?” I thought. At this point, I barely understood that there were religions other than Christianity. I had no idea that not everyone believes in God.
I didn’t think about this much, but I probably gradually became agnostic when I was going to high school. I might have been one before then, without realizing it. This was around the time when my parents stopped making my brother and I go to church. It was helped by the fact that my dad stopped going too, other than on holidays.
I was never a very good student in school, and I was diagnosed with A.D.D., and O.C.D. character traits when I was a child. So I developed a hatred for learning. However, a year or two after high school, when I grew tired of partying, I started learning more than I ever had before. My hatred for knowledge slowly morphed into profound passion. I consider it an addiction of mine today. So without intending to do so, I gradually shifted my emotional context for learning.
This got me interested in atheism, which is in some ways, a logical step after moving from Christian, to philosophically lazy agnostic. Without realizing it, I began replacing one ideology for another, in spite of being smarter than I was before. Atheists make a lot of excellent arguments, particularly the so-called New Atheists, who I was exposed to more than anyone else. I was already an atheist when I began reading their books and watching their debates. I loved how they decimated religious arguments at every turn. Disillusioned by my experience with religion, (even though many people have had exponentially worse experiences than me), I collected arguments that showed religion’s deception and evil. No one claimed that it is 100% bad. However, people like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens convinced me that religion is inherently malicious, and that it causes a hell of a lot more harm than good.
So I became a militant atheist, angrily preaching from my soapbox about the evils and stupidity of fairy tales. I stayed this way until very recently. It took several more years of learning, thinking, and questioning before I considered the possibility that my actions were wrong.
Learning about politics helped lay the ground work for this change. As happens with almost every subject I learn about, doing so with this one made my views more moderate and nuanced. I began rejecting some of my parents’ progressive principles. I was a liberal for a long time when I was completely ignorant about politics. But learning about it from every place on the political spectrum made me see that every political team has merit. I agreed with some conservative and libertarian values, and realized that the problem with any political view is extremism. I now am just as annoyed by the far right as I am by the far left, and extremist libertarians too.
Finding more political nuance helped me see the merit in religious values, as well as libertarian ones such as freedom of speech. This, combined with learning about history, helped me understand that religion might have had a large role in constructing Western societies.
The clincher for changing my opinions further was hearing about the inexorable link between rationality and emotion. Until Bryan Callen and Hunter Maats discussed it on the Mixed Mental Arts podcast, I had no idea that scientists like Jonathan Haidt and David Sloan Wilson had been researching the subject for many years. I learned that for the most part, when we think we are rational, we actually had an intuition first, and reasoned forward from that intuition. I was flabbergasted by this! We might think we’re being super reasonable, but we’re just rationalizing our emotional impulses.
This created cognitive dissonance for me because the New Atheists advocate for overpowering our damaging emotions with strong rationality. They view reason as a holy value, which should always be obeyed more than intuition. I realized that militant atheists replace the Christian god with the god of rationality. They don’t seem to notice or acknowledge that they’re not necessarily more reasonable than fundamentalists. They might just be way better at articulating and rationalizing their intuitions. The militant atheists are extremists too!
This all made me think a lot, and it’s been aided tremendously by extremely smart religious people like Jordan Peterson, the clinical psychologist, and psychology professor at the University of Toronto. He talks at great length about religious archetypes, in the tradition of people like Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell. I don’t agree with all of his conclusions because he seems to value the narratives of Christianity more than other religions. But I always enjoy seeing and hearing him talk about the subject because his views are so fascinating and admirable. He’s a brilliant speaker. To me, his interpretation of Christianity is similar to Buddhism or Stoicism, valuing enlightenment, mindfulness, and the free expression of the individual. This helps bring order to the inevitable chaos and suffering in life.
My thinking on religion has changed drastically throughout my life. I’ve gone from Christian, to agnostic, to atheist, to militant atheist, and back to just an atheist. I don’t think I’m ever going to stop being an atheist, but I’m more open to being proven wrong than I was before. I also try to be more accepting of people, regardless of their beliefs. I don’t need to be militant about my atheism because people disagreeing with me doesn’t make them evil or ignorant. Religion sometimes helps people too. Also, my belief that God doesn’t exist cannot be proven or disproven, so what’s the point in shoving that view down people’s throats? In my opinion, If I am still a fundamentalist in any way now, I only am in terms of nuance and uncertainty. I think that everyone, including me, is both right and wrong about something, no matter who they are, and that anyone could turn out to be completely incorrect. Even the smartest people in the world are probably only right half of the time, and ludicrous claims can always end up being true. I moved from one delusional mindset to another. I think I’m less delusional now. But I always try to remember that I could eventually discover that I’m wrong about half of my opinions. No one has the authority on absolute truth.