Monday, July 11, 2016

Try to understand their perspective

Hello everyone,

Sorry I have been away for so long. I'm not planning on giving up blogging entirely, but I likely won't be writing regularly for at least another year. I do plan on writing the occasional post like today's.

Although I have not had very much time to write in the last couple of years I still try to keep up with things by listening to podcasts. My goal is to listen to both atheist and Christian podcast in order to keep my finger on the pulse of the other perspective. I must admit I listen to more atheist podcast than Christian ones so if anybody knows a good Christian podcast that they would recommend I would very much appreciate it.

Back when I was writing regularly one of the things that always concerned me was that I might be accidentally strawmanning the other side. I always did my best to try to correctly describe the Christian perspective but looking back there are definitely a few times that come to mind where I think I did a poor job. When something strikes me as incorrect it is easy to want to just jump in and start ripping it apart. However I think the more important thing to do is first really try to understand the other person's perspective and try to understand why they think this thing that I see is incorrect. It does nobody any good if I'm proving wrong some idea that nobody actually thinks in reality. For my own blog when I get back to looking at the Bible what I would like to do is try to seek out answers to my objections. Now I tried this before with mixed results but ithink I can do better. In particular there are a few things from Genesis that have really stuck in the back of my brain for the last couple of years that I would like to revisit. If I can find some Christian who has addressed it I think it would be much more valuable than me simply trying to imagine what I would have thought when I was a Christian. I think this is especially important since I was a Christian when I was a child and teenager and even if I'm being accurate about how I would have approached it I might be giving a poor answer simply because I was a Christian when I was young and fairly uninformed.

I think we would have a much better dialogue between the two camps if each side was constantly trying to really understand the other side. Although I thought about this kind of thing many times in the past what got me on this line of thinking today is a Christian podcast I was listening to. They were addressing several atheist lines of thinking and then turning them down from their side but their description of the atheist perspective was terrible. As I mentioned above I listen to quite a few atheist podcast and I have never seen a single time them having the particular perspective that this podcast was using. Now they weren't super far off on a surface level but there were key details that completely changed the form of the arguments.

For instance they were constantly trying to claim that we as atheist worship various things. I think the reason they were doing this is that they worship God and they can't help but view our perspective from their own lens. As a result most of the things that they were refuting were not really my position or the position of any other atheists. They would highly benefit from trying to go the extra mile to really see things the way we see things rather than taking our position on a surface level and understanding it from their own instincts. Doing it right is of course extremely difficult but I think it is the only way to get valuable dialogue between two disagreeing sides. When I do eventually start blogging on a regular basis this is going to be something that I focus on a lot. It does no good for Christians to put out content that says that we atheist worship science or the universe or ourselves. Any atheist that comes across these arguments is not going to be moved. Instead they will probably just dismiss it out of hand. no worthwhile dialogue will be had. On the same token it does no good for atheists to come out and say that all Christians are bigots. Is does nothing but shut down the conversation before it gets started. If we can really try to see things the way the other side we can perhaps get through to each other.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Just Believe

My oldest son is now 2 and a half. This is the first Christmas where he has had some idea of what is going on. He understands what presents are, he can enjoy some of the food, and he loves having rarely seen family members travel out to see us. Watching him experience this stuff is great, probably my best Christmas ever.

It's also the first Christmas he had watched any Christmas movies. I haven't paid any attention to Christmas movies in years, but all of the ones we watched had a theme of one character doubting and being encouraged to just believe.

When he's older I like the idea of using Santa as a critical thinking exercise, but for now I wish he wouldn't be exposed to this way of thinking. Why even bring up the idea of someone not believing?

It got me thinking about how this would look from a Christian perspective though. Repeatedly send the message that their kids should believe in Santa, portray that as a virtue, and yet ultimately they will stop believing in Santa some day. They will eventually see the belief they were encouraged so hard to believe is false. You would think they would be afraid that their religious beliefs would be next in line for questioning.

I know for myself growing up, questioning my religious beliefs even a little was not tolerated, why was stuff like this allowed? My best guess is that since Santa isn't real it was seem by my parents as completely different from Jesus, but I definitely find the whole thing curious.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Bible is a Masterpiece

This is something that I hear Christians say a lot, and Atheists will say it a lot as well. They will say that the bible is this amazing book, Christians will urge you to just read it and you will believe, atheists will often say that while it isn't true or anything, they will often concede that it is a great book.

This is so often repeated, I just assumed it was true for years. When I was a Christian I was still a kid and I hated reading in general, so I obviously hated reading the bible. I would read a verse here and there for sunday school, but I never read through the book. I would hear how wonderful it was and just took it for granted. I assumed it was true for years, and I even remember having a touch of trepidation when I started this blog and my bible reading project. I "knew" that the bible was this amazing book and I was afraid that I wouldn't have much to say about it. I really didn't want to just skip over the good bits and harp on the bad. I really wanted to highlight both the good and bad and just see how things stack up. But what if there is hardly any bad to write about?

This fear was allayed pretty much immediately. I very quickly found myself worried that I was being too negative and I was having trouble finding much good stuff to talk about. I wanted to be fair, but I could barely find anything good to talk about. Even the things that people usually found as a good thing, I had something bad to say about it. A lot of the things that I recall being praised when I was in church were based on the idea that we should be obedient and faithful, both of which I consider a negative rather than a positive.

For a while, I figured that most people who talk about the virtues of this book are like I used to be, they take for granted that it is good because everyone tells them it is, but they haven't read it themselves. This makes sense for your average Christian, at least for the Christians I have known in my life, very few of them ever actually read their bibles (beyond a few verses here or there). But there are obviously some people who have studied the book intensely and still find it an amazing book. What is the deal with them?

Ever since I started reading Genesis this thought has been in the back of my mind. I know that this book has been studied and revered for thousands of years, and yet I find it to be really terrible. I try to look at it from every angle I can think of, but I really find it awful. I really have trouble understanding how anyone can actually read this thing and find anything redeeming about it, let along call it a masterpiece. But I know people do, so I would like to get in their head and see how they see the book and how they can possibly see it as a good thing.

So I was very happy recently to see an episode of atheistically speaking on my podcast app where Thomas is talking to a Christian about biblical interpretation. They spent some time talking about how the bible is a "literary masterpiece". I was very excited when they started talking about it, and yet I thought the Christian's arguments fell completely flat. It really seemed like he had decided it was a great book ahead of time because he is a Christian and then he was trying to justify it. He even said that he didn't think he expressed himself very well and did an episode of his own podcast to clarify, but I still didn't think his argument was very good.

I still really do want to find a good explanation as to how someone can see this book as good. I have so far failed to find something that I really find acceptable. Don't get me wrong, I doubt I will agree in the end, but I have a hard time even seeing how someone else can even think that. I'd be happier if I could say "I see your point but I disagree" rather than what I have now which is just confusion. To be fair, I have been very busy with work and family for a while so this whole project is on the back burner and I haven't done a proper look for various justifications, but I have definitely been on the lookout.

Hopefully once I have some time to get back into this stuff, I can find some interesting arguments.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Desperation, Prayer, and the Lottery

I was recently listening to a podcast about the power of prayer (It was geeks without god if I recall correctly). One of the things they said that stuck in my brain is that a lot of people pray as an act of desperation. They feel like they have no other options and praying at least feels like they are doing something. Perhaps they are stuck in a situation that they don't like and they don't see a way out of it, so they pray that things will get better.

source: wikimedia
Often when I see atheists talk about this kind of thing they will say things like "why waste your time praying, why not do something useful instead?" While I agree with this sentiment at times, there are also times when I don't think it is appropriate. Let's say for example someone is working a lot of hours and still just barely getting by. They are trying to get themselves out of the situation, but they are just treading water. If they do a little praying before they go to bed, or while they are commuting, or whatever, I don't see the harm in that. And it could give them a little hope to get them through the day. As long as they are also trying to get things better as well, why not? (If they are instead "leaving it up to God" and just sitting back waiting for things to get better I see it as destructive, but let's assume this is someone not in that situation)

I was thinking about my own current situation, I am currently working a ridiculous number of hours. I work most nights after my son goes to bed until about midnight, and I am pretty sure I haven't had a single day where I didn't work at all in about 6 weeks. I'm probably hovering at about 80 hours a week with no end in sight. If I'm being honest with myself, it will probably pretty similar to this until June. (next year will be better as I can reuse a lot of my teaching materials, but this year I'm building 2 classes from scratch on my own and another with a team of 3 others). I really love my job, but this workload is fucking nuts.

Sometimes I feel pretty pushed to the limit and it can be a bit depressing. As a mathematician, I feel somewhat embarrassed about this, but I will occasionally buy a lottery ticket. I have calculated the odds, I know I am not going to win, but it is fun to think "what if?" As I said, I love my job I'm just overworked. I would love to work half-time, so I could still do it but I could do other things that I enjoy as well. The point is, I see a parallel with the prayer, it really is a fantasy I am allowing myself to have as an act of desperation. In the case of prayer, they are imagining that God is going to make things better, he is going to help them into a better situation. In my case, I'm just imagining being able to buy myself into a better situation. I think the parallel is interesting.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Feeling the Holy Spirit

As I mentioned in last week's my post from 2 weeks ago, I currently work at a high school and school has just started up again. The week before school starts we have to spend a lot of time in various meetings, which include meeting the new hires, a lot of random administrative stuff, pep talks, whatever new initiative the higher ups in the district want to roll out this year, and if there is any time left we can actually plan our lessons.

from wikimedia
To kick off the week, all of the teachers in the whole district got together in a local church (have I mentioned that I'm really glad I decided to use a pseudonym for this blog?). The event started with a musical number. I was expecting it to be okay at best, but to my surprise it was absolutely fantastic. The whole crowd was getting into it, there was a real energy in the room. One of my former students was even playing the drums, so that got me more excited about the whole thing, one more connection to it. It was very enjoyable, and actually quite an emotional experience.

Given that we were in a church (and that I recently started writing this blog again), my mind wandered to the idea of feeling the holy spirit inside of you. I'm sure that weekly there are many people get that feeling in the same building I was in (sometimes probably that exact seat). I'm have no doubt that they see it as evidence of God. If they were confronted with the fact that I, an atheist, felt the same thing, I wonder how they would react. I have come up with 2 guesses.

1. God lets me feel the holy spirit even though I'm an atheist in the hopes of showing me what it is like to worship him. Thereby ultimately converting me to his religion.

2. Denial that we are feeling similar things. We might use some of the same words to describe the sensations, but qualitatively there is really no comparison.

I of course would argue that this is evidence that this is not a supernatural experience, but instead just our brain chemistry at work. We are social and emotional creatures. Music really strikes an emotional nerve, and when it is good and you are surrounded by other people who enjoy it as well it just enhances the experience. And like I said, one of the performers was a former student of mine which made me proud of him that he was doing so well, and happy that he was being successful in what he's doing. Just more positive emotions to enhance the whole thing. The point being, there is no reason to bring the supernatural into it.

An old amazon review of mine, I'm currently reading book 4 in the series: Koban [5 star]

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Should We Credit God or Simply Change Our Perspective?

Parkside High School 3
Parkside High School
(I don't work here, it's just a nice picture of a high school)
I work at a high school, and school is about to start up again so we are doing our in-service days leading up to next week when the kids return. Part of the first day of this is meeting the new teachers, hearing their stories and telling them ours. One of the new teachers was telling the story about how she got her job. Basically, a series of very unlikely events led to her meeting the superintendent of our district and he encouraged her to apply for the job and she ultimately got it.

She then was telling us she had several potential career paths in front of her and she was having trouble deciding which way she should go and before that fateful meeting she had asked God to open whatever doors he wanted her to follow and close any others. As it turned out, interviewers for 2 other jobs had left messages on her phone asking her to follow up on their application process, somehow she had missed those calls and didn't see those messages until after she had accepted this job.

I've left out any identifying details so the story has lost most of its impact, but it was quite emotional and impressive the way she told it. I can totally see how a religious person would hear this story and think that it is amazing that God has worked in this woman's life to lead her to where she needs to be. There are 2 problems I can see with this point of view though, one is that it is jumping from a coincidence to God, and the other is that she would have attributed any outcome to God.

One thing that is interesting about probably is that really rare things happen all the time. I've written about this kind of thing before, but basically if you have enough people doing stuff some of those things will look extremely unlikely on their own. Hell, people win the lottery all the time. A powerball ticket has about 1 in 175,000,000 chance of winning, so if you buy a ticket you shouldn't expect to win. But if we know that 200,000,000 people are playing, you shouldn't be surprised if someone wins.

So what about this woman? How unlikely was this meeting really? It certain seems like a bit of a long shot. But what about from the perspective of the superintendent? He's a pretty outgoing guy, I bet he talks to people out in public quite often when he is out and about. He was also aware of the unfilled position and it was on his mind, it doesn't seem too unlikely that he would bring it up in a conversation. If he hadn't met her he could very well have run into someone else, or maybe in another week they would have gotten some applications just from it being posted online. From this perspective it doesn't seem too unlikely that he would run into some qualified person and encourage them to apply.

The other thing I was thinking about was that no matter what happened to her, she would have attributed it to God. The fact that he was so impressed with her shows that she's well qualified and would likely have landed another job if she hadn't met the superintendent. She even has some other very promising leads based on those voice mails she told us about. If she hadn't gotten this job she probably would have been telling a different group of people about how she initially missed the call from HR, but God led her to see her missed voicemail messages which ultimately led to her getting that job. It really boils down to one of those situations where God just can't lose no matter what happens in the end.

My Most recent amazon review: Equal Rites (Discworld Book 3)  [4 stars]

Monday, August 10, 2015

Giving Credit to God

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above...
James 1:17
My birthday is coming up and I recently got a birthday card from one of my extremely religious relatives. I noticed the verse James 1:17 was in the bottom corner, which said "Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above...".

This verse highlights one of those ideas that atheists complain about all the time. The problem is that it takes the good that people do for each other and gives the credit to God. Often you see this with medical interventions, people will get a surgery and then say "thank God the surgery went well". It steals the credit from the people who performed the surgery as well as the entire medical system supporting them. (I'll be using the example of a surgery for the remainder of the post for simplicity, but this applies equally well to many other situations)

But is that how Christians would think about this? I can say that it isn't the case for my religious friends and family. They don't see it as taking credit away from someone else, but rather crediting God as well. They would genuinely thank God for a successful surgery, but they would also of course thank the surgeons and nurses and the myriad of other people who helped them along the way. So what is the harm in that?

In my opinion, the difficulty is that the harm is somewhat subtle. When they thank God, what are they saying exactly? I have heard many times that God is working through the person, but again, what does this mean? I can think of two ways to interpret it, both of which I think are believed by some Christians.

  1. God is literally working through the surgeon, directing their actions in a very hands-on way.
  2. God's presence has influenced the surgeon over their lifetime, perhaps helping them along in subtle ways, helping them get their degree and obtain the training necessary to help you (as well as all of their other patients), even giving them their very morality that caused them to want to help others in the first place.

No one is saying "fuck the doctor, God did it", but if we look at these 2 possibilities, it is hard to not see some of the credit being taken away from the doctor to give it to God. Certainly in the first case, but even in the second, it minimizes the years of work and hardship that the doctor has gone through to get to the place they are today.

Especially as a non-religious person, it is very annoying to see this happen. Our gut reaction can be "hell no, God didn't help me, I worked my ass off to get to where I am with no help from Him!" Sometimes I see atheists respond in this way and Christians are completely taken aback by this response. I think the reason is that for the most part they don't really think about the implications of what they are saying from our perspective. They see the world as God having his hands in everything and helping us out at every turn. They wouldn't take exception to God being credited as helping their work (they would actually probably see it as an honor) so it is hard for them to understand why we wouldn't see it in the same way.

Originally, my next thought was going to be that we should not come out so strongly and alienate Christians, but should instead try to explain our side of things. The problem with this is exactly what I said in the above paragraph, many Christians don't even really think about the implications of what they are saying. Merely pushing back a little bit is often seen as an attack. Couple this with the fact that if they are in a position to be thanking God for something, they are probably going through some difficulty and don't really need our lecture (if we flip the situation we certainly wouldn't want them preaching at us).

So what do we do instead? I have a few ideas, first, make sure that in addition to thanking God, they explicitly thank the doctors as well. With my family, I think for the most part they would do this on their own, but they would also think that by thanking God the doctor's thank you is implied and it might get overlooked. Secondly, when these types of things come up in the media, when somebody on the news is in this situation and thanks God, that is the time for us to have the conversation. When no one in the conversation is actually personally involved, then at least with some distance hopefully some of the emotion will be left out of it and they will be able to see our point of view.
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