It's not enough that I espouse a belief system that defines both myself and my outlook on life and the world. I must also recognize that my belief system evolved over time, that it altered, grew, and changed, sometimes diametrically so...
My system of belief has always been — often to the dismay of my conservative kith and kin — a fluid and dynamic thing. I tolerated this dynamism with the intention of seeking truth and uncovering knowledge wherever I might find it, even if what I found cast serious doubt and asperity on my current state of beliefs. Instead of placing my beliefs ahead of truth and knowledge (whatever 'truth' may be, whatever 'knowledge' might unveil) I have always been willing to append or alter my belief system as warranted by the facts, but only after much deliberation and often painful soul-searching. For the sake of truth and knowledge, I have always viewed my beliefs as suspect. A nagging suspicion regarding the underlying motives of my beliefs has kept me honest, if only to myself. Being human, I am well aware that I am susceptible to intentions both selfish and hopeful.
Of course, this is the dilemma of seeking truth and knowledge. It is almost always easier to simply believe in something, in anything, no matter how fanciful or irrational than to do the hard and often lonely work that is required of truth seeking. Seeking truth and knowledge takes time and energy. It requires a commitment to research, study, and years of advanced education most people are unwilling to make. It demands dedication, and may require learning a foreign or dead language, taking classes in the sciences, critical thinking, practical reasoning, even philosophy or comparative religion. It may mean reading an additional 1,000 books over and above those already in your reading queue, learning proprietary jargon, tracking research leads down innumerable branches, roundabouts, dead ends, and unlikely paths.
Nietzsche said that if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire.
There lies the rub. Beliefs oftentime give the appearance of pleasure and peace, because beliefs are almost always personal and subjective and don't push back. People typically believe in those things that make them happy, alleviate their fears, give them hope, and promise to fulfill their wishes and dreams. Life-after-death, living in eternal Paradise with all your loved ones, seventy-two virgins, inheriting a vibrant young 'spiritual' body, all arcane knowledge revealed, seeing wicked people get theirs', escaping eternal punishment — these are just some of the things that motivate people to believe. It's understandable. The promises are tempting, the endings neat and tidy.
Seeking truth and knowledge, on the other hand, typically produces the opposite effect by eventually uncovering the self-deception and denial underlying most untested belief systems. This can be devastating. It is not a pleasant thing to witness the whole house of cards come tumbling down or watch peace-of-mind slip further out over the horizon. No wonder most people are so adament about clinging to their beliefs, sometimes even willing to die for them. Who wants to admit denial, deception, and defeat? Who wants to pick themselves up, slap off the dust, and start over from scratch? Who wants to live in doubt, uncertainty, and the knowledge of impending demise? No, believing in the supernatural seems much more pleasant. It's often easier to believe in the magic of the Tooth Fairy than it is to simply extract the tooth.
What follows is a brief but honest assessment into the evolution of my beliefs and belief system as they were influenced, indoctrinated, enculturated, appended, altered, modified, and qualified over time and space. Oftentimes the discoveries I made along the way were painful and disconcerting, my choices hard, the outcome unpredictable. Other times I found myself basking in the warmth and glow of an understanding I could never have anticipated. In either case, the search for truth and knowledge was always my driving force, and while I sometimes found myself sidetracked in cul-de-sacs of falsity or complacency, the need for truth and knowledge eventually took precedence above all else, including my personal comfort, my religion, my beliefs, my desire how I 'wanted' the universe to be, even my peace of mind.
On this journey honesty is the key. The questions that must be asked again and again are actually quite simple, but very important:
- Am I being completely honest with myself in matters of my beliefs?
- If not, what am I pretending not to know?
The ways in which these questions are answered are doubly important and I've been repeating them for over thirty years. Who knows, in doing the same you might just discover something incredible along your own journey.
I was born several weeks premature at the height of the Baby Boom in the middle of the 'fifties and spent the first ten-weeks of my life in an incubator. Eventually I was brought home to a sleepy bedroom community just north of Seattle. Already in the simple act of birth was the groundwork being laid for what was to become my belief system. Almost immediately were the influential materials of my beliefs gathered together, and comprised of several key elements: geographical location, era, geo-political location, race, gender, personal health, parental health, parental income, parental intelligence and education, parental religious affiliation, parental ethics, familial roles, sibling birth order, and non-familial outside interaction and/or interference.
Because I was born prematurely my lungs were not fully developed and I was susceptible to various illnesses and disease. I acquired asthma, and for the first five years of my life suffered from the croup, acute bronchitis, pneumonia, and various respiratory allergies. On numerous occasions I remember being rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night to be placed in an oxygen tent. Because of my assorted illnesses I was not allowed to "get excited" or play outdoors, but was confined to the sofa where I could watch TV, listen to records, or read books. For lack of anything else to do, I became a voracious reader.
My parents were middle-class, or liked to believe they were — their aspirations buoyed them above the merest hand-to-mouth existence — both of them were children of the Great Depression and forever stigmatized by childhood apparitions of scarcity and need. Because we had food on the table, clothes on our backs, and a warm place to sleep, I was raised to think of myself as a prince of the realm. In actuality, because of my various illnesses and trips to the hospital and chest of medicines, my parents struggled each month to make ends meet. Because I never went without, I knew no better, and had no other life toward which to compare but my own.
My mother was raised in a large family of stolid Scandinavian Lutherans and my father quietly adopted her religious protocol. By the time I was three years old, I was already attending Lutheran Sunday School and being indoctrinated into the faith. Because grown-ups were teaching me about Adam and Eve, talking serpents, angels, Noah's Ark, the worldwide Flood, Moses and the Exodus, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus, who was I to question? I didn't know any better or know differently. As a young child, I was to taught to 'believe' before I knew how to reason, to ask skeptical questions, to be critical. Why would grown-ups want to lie to me or tell me things that didn't make sense? Because I was a young child I trusted them implicitly, with my life and continued well-being. And so, like millions of children around the world, I was taught to believe before I knew enough to ask why. I was expected to accept all the stories at face value and warned that although the stories I was taught were true there were other stories out there that were untrue and even evil. It made no difference where I was born to be given this message — whether Seattle, Russia, Iraq, China — because the message is always the same: our way of believing is correct and true although everybody else's is wrong. Every child is given a similar message. Only the stories they are told are different.
By the time I was five years old, I was completely indoctrinated into the Lutheran faith. I was a Christian. I attended Sunday School while the grown-ups attended church, and learned all the stories of the Bible (at least those stories they picked-and-choosed for me to hear). I believed all of it. I had no reason not to. Although it was Jesus I was taught about, it could just as easily have been Mohammed or Buddha or Krishna or Confucius. Only the geographical hapinstance of the place of my birth made the difference as to which God I was taught to worship, which holy book to read, which songs to sing. And so, ever an obedient child, I closed my eyes and lowered my head and rooted for the home team.
It is evident from the aforementioned influences that the location of my birth should have a profound influence on the construction of my belief system. For the most part a person born in Riyadh becomes a Muslim, a person born in Tel-Aviv a Jew, in Salt Lake City a Mormon, in Milan a Roman Catholic, and so it goes from country to country, city to city, household to household all around the world. Statistically most people embrace the faith of their parents who in turn have embraced their parents' faith, receding further back in a long generational queue. Believers traditionally believe the way they do simply because of where and how they were raised, and most conversion experiences are nothing more than an acceptance of childhood's god and the sacred book used to extol that god. Simply put, if I had been born in Iran would I be raised to be as sure, confident, and defensive of my religious traditions there as I was in Seattle? Indubitably so.
All over the world people in a sweeping variety of cultures have been taught what to believe but not how to believe nor have they been given the intellectual skills necessary to strategically question why they believe the very way they do. Have they embraced Christianity, Islam, Mormonism, etc, because, after rationally and deliberately weighing and testing all the evidence available to them, they've determined no other explanation makes sense, or simply because they were born into a Christian, Muslim, Mormon, etc, household? Most believers have not been taught the underlying mechanics of belief nor the thousand inherent assumptions built into the often-naïve belief process, only the blanket notion that “believing” a particular way is good and the questioning and/or testing of that belief somehow inherently evil.
Understanding the nature of human belief requires much more than religious posturing or doctrinal finger-pointing, an appeal to inconspicuous deities or ancient anonymously-written books, because at the heart of the matter lays an inherent sense of trust, a core set of beliefs imparted without our consent while we were small children, indoctrinated and inculcated at a time when we had no capacity to question, evaluate, test, or reject. Because we trusted our parents, our elders, other family members, the culture into which we were born, we had no reason to doubt the information instilled upon us and which continued to influence us (both consciously and unconsciously) as we grew older. As young adults we may have had the opportunity to evaluate these core beliefs as we tried on autonomy, even challenged some of them, but for the most part (and to the extent they've annealed and become an abstract condition of our reality) it is difficult for us to consider our beliefs dispassionately or objectively. We were taught how to believe before we learned how to evaluate, and so it is upon this foundation of core beliefs that our thought processes were progressively constructed, the knotty neural networks laid out. As adults when we, on those rarest of occasions, actually think about thinking or assume our thought process can approach some degree of objectivity, what we are unable to imagine (or less likely consider) is the extent by which our underlying belief system is influencing our ability to think plainly and clearly, ultimately subjectifying what we interpret to be straight-forward and matter-of-fact. Without putting our beliefs to the task, without digging backwards far enough or deeply enough, we will never approach the kind of objectivity necessary for critical thinking or to achieve any real sense of mindful honesty. We are in fact directly burdened by our childhood past, as much by a missing parent, spiteful divorce, death in the family, abuse or neglect, as by the unexamined patterns of thought sown there. And make no mistake about it — ten years, twenty years, thirty years after the fact — many of us cling to comforting beliefs and contorted arguments as an attempt to shield ourselves or neutralize sticky feelings still percolating along the painful edge of memory.
And therein lays the root of the problem. Down how many branches of the family tree must we trace to determine from how far back our core beliefs have been tapped like syrup, pressed from parent to progeny, over and again, through generations of children too young to ask why, before seeing it is our distant ancestors (wide-eyed and primitive by today's standards) from whom we've inherited our oldest beliefs, whether cherished, irrational, untested, or otherwise. From the shadows of our youth there lingers a vestige of antiquity and superstition reaching across the world, bewitching our perception of reality, encrypting it still with totems and taboos, gods and goddesses, devils, angels, miracles, magic. Like a taproot teasing drink from deep chthonic streams, we siphon belief from the aboriginal past, when the world was flat and the center of the universe and human beings the crowning centerpiece of creation.
After graduating from high school with honors I entered the University to pursue a degree in science (I was equally interested in biology and oceanography). Previously, while in high school, I had experienced a series of religious 'events' which I took to be a 'born again' experience and I gave my life to Jesus. During my first year in college further 'events' began to churn in me and I came to the realization that I needed to give myself completely to 'The Lord'. I dropped out in the spring and began a pilgrimage up and down the west coast that lasted '40 days and 40 nights' (how apropos). Returning home, I knew I had to enter a Bible College and pursue religious study with the intention of becoming an ordained minister.
While at the Bible College I began to access theological, philosophical, and historical source material to which I had previously no access, I studied Greek and Hebrew, and took a wide range of religious classes. This input of information prompted me to throw a volley of questions at my professors and instructors, most of which they were unable (sometimes unwilling) to answer. Undaunted, I started to read everything I could get my hands on, but always with the governing principle that "getting to the truth" (whatever that might be) was of greater importance than my belief system, the tenets of my faith, or proprietary church doctrines. If any of these turned out to be "true," wonderful — I could consider myself fortunate for having been born on a continent and in a country that happened to embrace the real "truth" as a matter of policy (in other words, I could just as easily have been born in an Islamic/Hindu/Buddhist country or into an Islamic/Hindu/Buddhist family embracing a different religious "truth"). If any of these did not turn out to be true, than I would have to put them aside and follow the "road to truth" wherever it might lead.
Undaunted, I started to read everything I could get my hands on (e.g., the Ante-Nicene Fathers, Old Testament pseudepigrapha, New Testament pseudonymous writings and apocrypha, the Nag Hammadi Codices, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Ugaritic Texts, the Amarna Letters, Philo of Alexandria, the Book of Enoch, Josephus, etc.), but always with the governing principle that "getting to the truth" (whatever 'truth' might be) was of greater importance than my belief system, the narrow tenets of my faith, or proprietary church doctrines. If any of these turned out to be "true," wonderful—I could consider myself fortunate for having been born on a continent and in a country that happened to embrace the real "truth" as a matter of policy (in other words, I could just as easily have been born in an Islamic/Hindu/Buddhist country or into an Islamic/Hindu/Buddhist family embracing a different religious "truth"). If any of these did not turn out to be true, than I would have to put them aside and follow the "road to truth" wherever it might lead, however hard the journey might be, and however long the journey might take. I soon realized that hiking the "road to truth" is considerably tougher and more demanding than sitting in the "padded pew of belief."
In the course of my studies, I discovered I was being taught a small and selective fraction of what is available in regards to the Bible, Christian history, doctrine, and religion in general, usually just enough to continue promoting the accepted status quo and "traditions" of Christianity. As I searched further and dug deeper, I realized there was a "hidden" corpus of information that never made it to light of day, was never discussed or taught, never debated, and for all intents-and-purposes treated as if it didn't even exist. I remember once asking a particularly intriguing question about the historical etymology of Yahweh Elohiym ("Lord God") and being told point blank by the professor that he would not discuss it during class because the other students didn't need to know. After class he informed me that "sometimes tradition is more important than the truth" and "it's tradition that gives us hope, not hard truth which can lead to confusion, discouragement, and doubt." He was dead serious. I knew right then that there were two sides to what we were being hand-fed: there was the "traditional" side that was being heaped on us in such measured abundance we hardly had time to question, and there was the "true" side which (a) either wasn't discussed for fear of disturbing the apple cart, or (b) wasn't discussed because it was never taught to those doing the discussing. I realized I had a choice to make. I could follow the "tradition," become a minister of the faith, and continue teaching the tradition as it was taught to me, or I could follow the "truth," venture into unknown territory, perhaps lose everything I ever loved and hoped from the tradition itself. I opted to follow the truth, and over the course of twenty-five years it has prompted me to purchase thousands of books, read ten-thousand articles, journey down a thousand sometimes troubling avenues of inquiry. Today, after diligent questioning, truth-seeking, and decades of study (I have degrees in Philosophy, History, and English and just recently earned my Masters in Humanities after a long hiatus), I consider myself an agnostic atheist and poststructual/postmodern/existential naturalist.
This means that, beyond the realm of religious (i.e., supernatural) language found in "sacred" books, I see no empirical or rational justification for believing any one "interpretation" of god over any other interpretation. Whether one "believes" in Yahweh, Allah, Jesus, or Buddha is not based on any demythologized or verifible evidence, but on the location of one's birthplace, an "assumption" of the veracity of one's local religion, and a strictly subjective, personal, and emotional choice that is legitimized only by pointing to words in a book.
It also means that in the absence of "supernatural" events actually occuring in the "real" world, I must assume that any events that do occur have "natural" (not "supernatural") explanations. This does not mean that I am forced to automatically reject supernatural events as a matter of course, only that unless events are proven supernatural beyond all natural explanations I must be honest with my knowledge of the world and assume a natural explanation. It would be dishonest of me to first assume a supernatural explanation over a natural explanation as there is no confirmed evidence of the supernatural operating in the physical world (and, no, simply being able to point to words in a two-thousand year-old book do not count as confirmed evidence). Unless I examine all possible natural explanations when confronted with a supernatural claim, I am susceptible to deception, trickery, fraud, ignorance, superstition, self-denial, wishful thinking, or error.
While it is true that so-called "supernatural" events are claimed in religious books and documents, these events reside only in the symbols of language, in the artifice of words, and nowhere in physical, measurable reality. Beyond the claims of books, ancient documents, infomercial "psychics," and Fox Television, is there any honest evidence to support belief in the supernatural? If not, why should I accept the claim of "supernatural" as a firstcase or primary explanation while rejecting offhand all "natural" explanations? In the absence of the "supertnatural" in our day-to-day world, doesn't it make more sense and isn't it more rational to consider "natural" explanations first and appeal to "supernatural" explanations last, and only after all "natural" explanations have been exhausted? Since assumptions are made in the belief process, when confronted with a dubious claim isn't it more rational and honest to tip the scales first in favor of a "natural" explanation rather than leap immediately toward the "supernatural" explanation?
As an example, if I find oil spots in my driveway is it more reasonable of me to first assume a "natural" explanation as to how they got there or first assume a "supernatural" explanation? If I assume a "natural" explanation first, this allows me to consider all the evidence and pursue different options to help solve their mystery; if I find that "natural" explanations fail I'm then allowed to consider alternative explanations, even supernatural ones, as part of my investigation. However, if I assume a "supernatural" explanation first, then I'm finished. I don't have to look further or pursue other answers. Because the "supernatural" explains everything upfront, it becomes unnecessary for me to consider "natural" explanations no matter how elementary or rational they might be. As such, when I discover oil spots in my driveway I can assume invisible fairies painted them overnight and be done with it. I'm not required to consider "natural" explanations because I've already assumed the "supernatural" upfront then based all forthcoming "oil spot" beliefs on this assumption. This is precisely what "believers" do with "sacred" books. They assume "supernatural" explanations at the offset, base their beliefs on these assumptions, then reject the need to consider "natural" explanations since the "supernatural" has already been accepted. In other words, they end up believing in the causality of "invisible fairies" while rejecting natural, more rational, more probable, and less complicated explanations. Whenever the "supernatural" is assumed as a first explanation, rationality and honest inquiry are severely impacted in that they are no longer promoted, obligatory, or engaged. If "invisible fairies" are a satisfactory explanation what need is there for other considerations?
Making "supernatural" presuppositions (assumptions) over "natural" presuppositions feels dishonest to me and somehow pathological, a kind of mental illness or intellectual laziness. If I were to always attribute occurrences around me to the interference of a ghost and not pursue less-spectacular but "natural" explanations, I would likely be suffering from schizophrenia or some other form of dementia. Yet "believers" accede to this very kind of assumptive thinking as part of their religious convictions. They attribute this world, their lives, their actions and ethics, even the eternal future of disembodied "souls" to a "supernaturalism" only found in, argued through, and defended by a self-referential collection of words. Why do "believers" give more credence to "supernatural" explanations compiled thousands of years ago, then to trust immediate experience and learn from the "natural" world around them? Is it out of laziness? Complacency? Ignorance? Fear of the unknown? Is it a defense mechanism, a way to deny death, or imagine retributive justice? Are they being honest with themselves? Have they questioned their underlying motives? In embracing "supernatural" explanations, are they acting responsibly or shirking responsibility? When is it ever "truthful" to first assume "supernatural" explanations over "natural" explanations when "natural" explanations are all we have ever known?
As far as I can tell, I live in a "natural" universe. I assume I'm living in a "natural" universe because I see no evidence of a "supernatural" universe, "supernatural" events, or "supernatural" violations of the laws of physics. True, I can "read" about a "supernatural" universe, "supernatural" events, and "supernatural" violations of the laws of physics as "reported" in "sacred" books, but "supernatural" words do not a "supernatural" reality make. If evidence of the "supernatural" only exists in words then this is no evidence at all. Anyone can say they saw something "supernatural" or write something "supernatural" or claim something "supernatural" but unless there is some evidence of the "supernatural" existing in the "natural" universe why should we give any credibility to "supernatural" words or speech-making? If we circumvent the "natural" world in favor of a "supernatural" world whose only "proof" is found in words that refer back to themselves, is this honest, rational, sane or healthy?
I make assumptions about living in a "natural universe" because I have grounded these assumptions on honest assessment, a weighing of evidence, and the probability or likelihood of occurrence based on prior occurrences transpiring over time. For example, while I might make the assumption the sky (if cloudless) will be blue tomorrow instead of green or purple, I do so based on past accessment, a weighing of evidence, and the probability of occurrence. This is a "natural" assumption based on "natural" evidence and as such it is an "honest" assumption. If, however, I were to assume the sky was going to be green tomorrow, highlighted with a thousand rainbows and a chorus of angels, only because I read this in a "sacred" book or heard it from a "prophet" or envisioned it in a "dream," am I making an "honest assumption?" Am I being honest with myself? Does prior evidence, probability, and the likelihood of occurrence suggest this assumption is reasonable and warranted regardless where I read it or heard it? Why should my assumption of a "supernatural" sky be considered more "truthful" or "moral" or "righteous" than any natural assumptions I might make simply because I read it in a book claimed to be supernatural? In light of what we know about the natural world, making a "supernatural" assumption should really induce the opposite impression — it should be considered dishonest, immoral, a type of mental illness.
According to my experience, in order for me to be true to myself and behave in a rational, honest, and moral manner, I must assume "natural" explanations first and "supernatural" explanations dead-last. Why do I presume to arrange explanations in this order? Because I know I'm living in a natural realm that can be examined, measured, and reckoned reliably. It's all around me. I witness it every waking moment. I can see it, touch it, taste it, hear it. Television, computers, automobiles, air travel, sky scrappers, bridges, luxury liners, vaccinations, medications, and surgical procedures all derived from the examination, measurement, and manipulation of such consistent "natural" elements. This does not mean I'm a bad or evil person because I live by "natural" assumptions or utilize man-made devices invented because "natural" scientific assumptions were made. Some "believers" who live by "supernatural" assumptions refuse to take medicines or seek surgery when something as simple as an ear infection or appendicitis can them, or worse yet, kill their children. On the other hand, most "believers" want it both ways — they profess belief in the "supernatural" (e.g., in miracles, faith healing, prophecies) and reject "natural" science as ungodly while making use of "natural" science's innovations (e.g., pain killers, antihistamines, antibiotics, heart surgery, cancer treatment, electricity, birth control). It's easy to malign science and keep the faith when you're popping pills, turning up the gas heat, cooking dinner in the microwave, watching HD television nd surfing the Internet. I sometimes wonder how many "supernaturalists" might be transformed if they were suddenly forced to rely on faith alone and reject the wonders of "natural" science, and "prove" themselves by driving out demons, healing the sick by the laying of hands, speaking in tongues, handling venomous snakes, and drinking poison (Mark 16:17-18).
Because "naturalists" and "supernaturalists" must both make assumptions in order to survive day-to-day decision-making, a few questions remain. Who is being the most honest with themselves, with their assumptions, and the evidence available? Who is looking at both sides of the coin, inside and outside the box, inside and outside the circle? Who is embracing assumptions based only on words in a book and who is testing an assortment of assumptions, observations, experimentation, research, analysis, and the probability of occurrence? Who is claiming truth from a single self-referential source and who is seeking truth from a multitude of sources? Who is proclaiming to know the One True Absolute Truth and who is admitting only to discover honest truth wherever that path might lead, and not be afraid to do the work, admit assumptions and presuppositions, do whatever it takes, admit prejudices and biases, make sacrifices, admit ignorance and weakness, take the time to read difficult books, admit lack of education, go back to school, admit fears and phobias, wishes and dreams, laziness and habit, then start the long and deliberate journey on a thousand avenues of inquiry?
It's not enough that I espouse a belief system that defines both myself and my outlook on life and the world. I must also recognize that my belief system evolved over time, that it altered, grew, and changed, sometimes diametrically so...