Friday, October 9, 2015

How can I know anything?

When I say that I want to believe only those things I have evidence for, people invariably ask, "But then how do you know anything?  How do you know you're not a brain in a jar?"

The answer, I suppose, is "I don't, not with certainty."    What frustrated me about pre-modern philosophy, when I studied it in college, was the desire to know things with certainty, as if you could solve for existence like a math problem.  To achieve that, most of the reasoning was a priori -- starting from basic axioms and trying to reason from there.  What I couldn't see was how you could know your axioms were correct.  For instance, "Everything has a cause."  Certainly I've never seen anything that doesn't.  But how can you prove that there is nothing that doesn't?  You don't, you assume it at the outset, and if you happen to be wrong, everything you conclude in your argument is now doubtful.

But, of course, if you assume nothing, if you say that everything is doubtful, well, maybe you're a brain in a jar.  Descartes, so far as I know, did not set out to prove "a priori reasoning is a joke," but that was kind of what I got out of him. 

The way out, to me, is the scientific method.  I'm sure this methodology would have been more exciting to me, way back in fifth grade when I learned about it, if I had studied Descartes first.  At the time it was like, "Of course you do experiments to find out stuff, how else would you do it?  Doy!"  (Hey, it was the 90's.)

But I missed the real point of it, which was that instead of starting with an axiom -- something that is assumed and never questioned later on -- you start with a hypothesis.  A guess.  You assume it conditionally, you make predictions of what will happen if it's true, and then you see if your predictions are true.  If your predictions always come true, you start to believe more and more that the hypothesis is accurate.  But if even one is false, you have to abandon or at least revise your hypothesis.

So when I make the hypothesis, "my senses are generally reliable," I can then make some predictions.  For instance, I predict that my senses won't contradict one another; that I won't randomly jump around like in a dream, but will have to go step by step from one place to another; that other people will affirm that their sense-experience is similar to mine.  So far, so good -- my experience is entirely compatible with my hypothesis.  I haven't disproven the idea that I'm a brain in a jar, but given that it seems a lot less complicated and less likely, I don't spend much worry on it. 

This is how science develops.  The theory of evolution started as a guess, but as new finds confirm its predictions -- that newer fossils are more complex than old ones, that fossils will be found in the geological layers corresponding to the period when we think they lived, and so forth.  When some minor deviation is found -- say, a T. rex in the Jurassic layer -- the theory has to be adjusted to contain it, and we get new dinosaur books that list T. rex in the Jurassic instead of the Cretaceous.  When predictions fail in a big way, with no way to explain how the theory could be reconciled with them, the theory is abandoned.  If they find a rabbit fossil in a Precambrian layer, that would pretty much disprove evolution, but it's never happened.  That is a good reason to believe in evolution -- but no one claims to be certain, in the philosophical sense, about it.  Certainty is really not something that happens outside of math.

Here are some theories I believe, with a high but not total level of certainty:

1.  My senses are generally accurate.
2.  Other people are mostly to be trusted
a. unless they have a motive to lie, or a reason why they would be mistaken
b.  or they have a history of lying
c.  or if they are asking me to believe something that seems contradictory or highly unlikely
[This theory allows me to believe in stuff like "Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth" without believing every salesman who knocks on the door.]
3.  My moral intuitions should be followed
a.  though I should use reason to doublecheck them
b.  and not act if I am doubtful

This last is perhaps more of a choice than a proper theory because it contains should, but I do think that the fact that humans have roughly similar moral intuitions, and that they match a rational idea of "what actions are good for humanity," it's reasonable if not fully scientific.

Why trust the scientific method?  Well, in the few centuries since it was adopted, it's given us the steam engine, the gasoline engine, the airplane, electricity, penicillin, the eradication of smallpox, the internet, sanitation, a man on the Moon, global positioning systems, and the air conditioner.  Not that these things are indispensable (well, not all of them) but that they are good examples of how the scientific method is a good way of navigating the world we live in.  Rather than either assuming things and not going back to check, or failing to make any assumptions and living in total uncertainty, it's about moving forward with your best guess and seeing if it holds up.  It's about not privileging any belief you hold so dearly that you won't allow future evidence to amend it.  It's humble in what it promises, but impressive in what it delivers.

It can't prove I'm not a brain in a jar, though.  Oh well. 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Would I disappoint myself?

I pulled out an old journal of mine this past weekend and flipped through it.  It's from when I was seventeen years old -- a pretty good year, actually, because I'd mostly gotten over the depression after getting kicked out of boarding school.  I was homeschooling and had tons of spare time, so I did a lot of writing, reading poetry, sewing medieval dresses ... all the sorts of things I love to do, if I haven't got anything else going on.

Around that time, my spiritual director had told me my vocation was marriage, and I, having more or less accepted it, spent a lot of time wondering on how that jived with the sorts of things I wanted and liked.  I had big dreams!  I wanted to write poetry!  I wanted to be a published novelist!  But an older woman I knew, who had told me that she too had had big dreams, never fulfilled any of them, because she got married and had kids instead.  I worried that that would be me.

I wrote this about it:

Why is it that no one ever gets what they dreamed about?  Sure, they like what they get, but isn't that worse?  To slowly sink down, and not even want to fly anymore. 

Reading that was something of a shock.  I thought -- would I disappoint myself?  Not just because I haven't gotten published yet (which I was so sure I would have) but because I'm pretty happy about my life so far despite not doing much writing?

Well, maybe.  I'm a little disappointed myself that I don't write more.  Writing fiction is challenging, you really need to dedicate a lot of attention to it, and I'm almost never not distracted.  And as for poetry -- yikes.  Though I didn't write great poetry then, either.  Poetry is hard and I've kind of accepted that while I can be poetic, I don't write the level of poetry that I like to read, and that's okay.  I can write it for fun, or I can use the poetic way of thinking to write better prose.

But on the other hand, kids are awesome and I don't really have any regrets on that count.  A person is always better than a poem.  And my kids are extra special and wonderful, so I can't say at all that it was a bad tradeoff.  I didn't know how happy they'd make me, so I couldn't see that side of the tradeoff when I was seventeen.

Maybe part of the reason I was so obsessed with poetry at seventeen was because I was so horribly lonely.  I didn't have a lot in my life that I had control over, so I would retreat into my fantasy world and build castles in the air.  I liked to write romance stories, because I was romantic but didn't yet have any real-life romance.

And the worst of it is, what I was writing was kind of awful.  It was naive and lacked any ring of reality.  I clearly didn't know what I was talking about.  If I hadn't spent the past decade-plus living life, I think my writing might well have stayed like that.  You can't write good fiction if you haven't experienced the ecstasy of love, the pain of loss, the burden of duty or the fear of death.  You have to have something you understand that you can write about, and I had very little.

My kids taught me so much.  They made me a libertarian, just by showing me how deep-seated the human desire for freedom is, so that any system which fails to account for it is doomed to failure.  They taught me about non-violence and how the only way to make hate and anger stop was to choose not to participate.  And along the way I grew gardens, read agrarian manifestos while nursing, learned to spin, and discovered a sense of strength and power in myself that I didn't know I had -- realizing that I can do a great deal more than I ever would have thought.

That wasn't something I think I could have learned if I had kept my heart in a box in the hopes of writing down all my Big Thoughts right away.

I still hope I get published someday.  I hope I have time to write all the novels sloshing around in my head.  I hope I reach a part of my life where I have more freedom than I have now.

But for now, at twenty-nine years old, I'd like to reassure seventeen-year-old me:  Don't worry, life is bigger than you think.  There's more to it and bigger dreams than you've yet dreamed.  You will never be able to fit in every single thing you've wished for in one lifetime, but that's all right -- you can fit in quite a bit, and some of it will surprise you with how special it is.

When you grow up and have kids, no, you won't have the free time you have now, where you can spend all morning learning Elvish and all afternoon writing.  But you won't be lonely, either.  You will be in charge of your own life, then, and you will be loved and respected.  Your kids will pile into your lap sometimes and you'll wish for a little space -- but at the same time, you'll know that your love is all they need, and that will make you feel like you matter now, not in some future day when you've done something big. 

Don't be disappointed staring into the future, kid.  I haven't done everything you dreamed, but I've done things you wouldn't have ever dreamed, and it's all been good so far.  Keep believing in me, and maybe I'll get to some of your dreams in the end.

Friday, October 2, 2015

I don't want this

Lately I've heard the same comment a few times: "I won't argue with you because you obviously don't want to believe."

This can be read a couple of ways.  They could mean, "I don't mind that you think differently from me, and I have no desire to interfere with your opinion since it makes you happy."  I'm fine with that, though I don't think the Catholic Church is, exactly.  But, hey, we can't all be proselytizing at all times, and if they don't have the time, energy, or knowledge to argue with me, they don't have to.

Or they might mean, "You aren't really open-minded, so I'd be wasting my time if I tried talking with you."

I tend to hear more of this second one, though it might be just my own oversensitivity.  The implication is that I am bad and wrong for thinking the wrong things, and they are giving up on me.  And so I predictably feel hurt and defensive.

But I suppose there is truth to it in some respect -- I am not in the state I was six months ago, where I wanted so desperately to believe that I would cling to any argument, however tenuous, and try to make it make sense.  Even that wasn't really working for me -- some things don't make sense no matter how hard you try -- but I will admit, I've changed my ground a bit.  I don't want to believe the Catholic faith, per se, I want to believe whatever is true.  I would like that to be the Catholic faith, but if it's not, I still want to believe it.  This is a shift from what I said a few months back.

The thing is, the most important thing in the world to me is to do what is right.  I said before that I would rather do what is right than believe what is true (i.e. I prefer goodness to truth) but it occurred to me that it is not possible to do what is right if you don't know what is true.  Facts have a bearing on morals; you can't reach ought without is.  And hiding yourself in ignorance can be dangerous, because, well, you're ignorant -- you don't know what things you would be doing if you thought differently, until you think differently.

So I asked myself, if I want to know the truth, what is the best way to find it out?  There are different ways of discovering the truth, but the ideal way would be able to discern between truth and falsehood.  That is, "believe what you are told" does not work, because I know that many people who follow this rule believe falsehood and don't have any way to find that out.  (Being in a cult taught me this, but I don't think of it as "trauma" because it is something worth knowing: the mere fact that someone believes something, and is told that it is morally good to believe it, doesn't make it true.)

So the ideal way to find out if something is true, is by a method that would prove it false if it were not true.  Of course there is no infallible method, because people are often wrong about all kinds of things.  But I think the best tools are emotions and reason.  If you feel in your heart that something is true, or have facts in your head supporting its veracity, then you've got something that is, at the very least, something to go on.

Emotions are out, since I haven't had a single positive emotion associated with Catholicism since I got kicked out of boarding school.  I think it's perfectly okay to believe in God because you feel his presence, but as I don't, I turned to reason.

Now if you want to use reason to test something, you have to be willing to prove it either true or false.  If the reasoning you use would only prove it true and can't possibly prove it false, then it can't give you any new information.  If you can't see that, try playing this game and it should explain what I mean.  So lining up proofs for the existence of God is a fun exercise, but until you ask, "Are there counterarguments to these proofs, and how good are they?" you're not really using reason to test a claim.  You're trying to comfort yourself, and sadly, it doesn't work ... because I was doing that and gaining more doubts by the day.

Some loved ones reassured me: "The truth is like a lion," they said.  "It can stand up for itself.  You don't have to be afraid of accidentally disproving it.  Investigate honestly, and you'll walk away feeling really sure instead of doubtful."  I didn't have their level of trust, but I thought -- well, if it's true it can stand up to questioning, and if not, it shouldn't stand up to questioning, should it?

That was a surprisingly difficult question, and I agonized about it for a long time.  Being a "doubting Catholic" is one thing -- struggling with doubts, but never for a minute honestly asking if it might not be true.  You say instead, "I have these doubts, but I know there must be an answer to all of them that I just haven't discovered yet."  It's an entirely different thing to say, "It might be false, and I want to know."  That's not okay to say, it's not even okay to think.

But I thought -- what if it is true?  What if I'm undergoing all these agonies of doubt, and it's all for nothing because there's clear evidence in favor of faith?  I know I'll never truly believe until I take each piece of evidence and thoroughly examine its credibility, because I'll suspect it won't hold up.  But if I've looked, and I know it holds up, then I can believe for real and not be troubled by doubt anymore!

So, for the first time, I tried to critically examine all the apologetical stuff I'd been reading for years.  I'd already abandoned the philosophical arguments for God, finding them reliant on schools of philosophy which I have studied and found wanting.  But I felt the historical arguments were pretty good, so I looked into those.  I had already read Lee Strobel's The Case for Christ, so I went through it and fact-checked it.  The very strongest argument in favor of Christianity, in my opinion, is that the witnesses of the resurrection died rather than deny it .... however, fact-checking this (in the Catholic Encyclopedia, no less!) proved it false; we don't know how the apostles died with any sort of historical accuracy.  And I went right on down the line, hoping so hard for some kind of solid evidence -- something that I could honestly say, "If I am to be objective and use good historical methodology, I have to accept that Christianity is true."  But I did not.

I backed up and tried other lines of argument, looked at miracle claims and asked myself, "Is it possible that this miracle could have happened without divine intervention?"  I went back to the philosophical arguments and had no luck.  Everywhere I looked, I found the rational proofs I was always promised did not hold up to testing.

I am still looking.

What gets me in all this is what in the world God can have been thinking, leaving his existence so plausibly deniable!  Wouldn't it have been so easy to provide a little more proof?  A pillar of fire in the sky would be easy for him, obviously, but even something much simpler would be great:
-He could have a disinterested account of the martyrdom of St. Peter, written by an eyewitness.  The Roman magistrate offers him his life if he'll only admit he was lying about the resurrection, but he refuses and dies for it.
-The Shroud of Turin could date from the time of Christ rather than the Middle Ages, so that we could believe it was real.
-He could have made the Church be the one to first invent feminism, ban torture, and end the death penalty, proving its moral rectitude surpassed what the best minds outside of it could figure out.
-Or he could simply give me a feeling of his presence, so that I could experience him directly and not have to guess if he was out there.  If doubts returned afterward, I could return to my memory of that experience to comfort me.

Any of those would have helped a lot.  And it just confused me that God would leave me, and so many other well-meaning people who struggle like I do, hanging like that.  If God is real and cares, I can't account for it.  But if he isn't, it (like so many other things) makes a lot more sense.

So here I am: disbelieving because I honestly don't think it's true.  I don't try to believe because I don't know if it is right to try to believe.  I want to believe, because everything in my life would be better if I did, but I don't want to believe more than I want the truth, because to do right one must know the truth, to the best of one's ability.

And if you want to respect my disbelief, you know what would help more than anything?  Arguing with me.  I'm serious.  Because when you argue with me, you are accepting my account of myself, that I am an honest seeker.  And you are putting yourself forward as a witness, that you believe your faith stands up to questioning, because here you are putting it out there.  Most of all, you offer me a little hope that it's true after all and that I can come to believe it, because as long as you're still talking to me, there's something more left I haven't heard.

You don't have to do it.  Not everyone's an apologist, and not everyone has the time.  But please, just say so.  Say that you think the answers are out there and I should keep looking, or that you hope I'll find something that helps me believe.  But don't tell me I just don't want to believe.  My preference all along has been to believe!  And if what you're saying is, the truth looks like falsehood unless you are trying to believe it (and sometimes even when you are) -- then I would simply ask, how are you sure that trying to believe is the right choice?  How are you sure you aren't supposed to be trying to believe something else?

If you can't answer that question, I think you'd better stop telling me I should be trying harder.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Poem for Miriam

My child, I have little for your inheritance--
Only the ground strewn with emerald grass
A sky carved of lapis,
And when you are lucky, a shower of diamond raindrops.

My child, I have little for your inheritance--
The knowledge man has learned since past remembering
Libraries full of poems
And the dreams that the sleeping world is dreaming.

My child, I have little for your inheritance--
Diamond tears shed upon the rail of your crib
My heart's depths
And one person who loved you before your deserving.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Profile of a prophet

I think I'm losing readers.  At any rate, I haven't had a lot of comments lately, and that's discouraging me so I don't feel like posting, which of course only makes things worse.  I think people don't like reading the sort of stuff I've been posting lately.

But you know what everybody loves?  Cult stuff!  Admit it, you do.  That's why Sister Wives is popular despite being weird as heck.  You would think I would hate it, that I'd find it triggering or depressing, but actually I eat it up.  Half guilty pleasure, half scientific curiosity.  I'd love to study group psychology -- though we don't know a whole lot about why groups of people act the way we do, it's possible to see all kinds of patterns across different groups, despite different ideology and the varying motivations of the people inside the groups.  Surely there's a dissertation to be written there.

Anyway, I've been realizing that all cults -- in fact, all new religious movements, even ones that later grow into more impressive churches like the Mormons -- seem to have the same cast of characters.

First is the prophet.  This is the charismatic guy that the whole cult is built around.  I haven't heard of a cult that didn't have one.

Sometimes this guy is larger than life -- there are stories of him performing miracles, pictures of him on all the members' walls, a conviction he's the reincarnation of somebody special like Buddha or Jesus.  Fr. Maciel noticeably imitated the style of St. Paul in his letters, and we were often told he was very much like Paul, the same personality type and so on.

But often the hero-worship is hidden behind a heavy curtain of humility.  For instance, L. Ron Hubbard often said he was just an ordinary guy who happened to have discovered a science which unlocked the secrets of everything.  No magic, no prophetic powers -- except, of course, what his science gave him, but anybody could do that if they just knew how.  There was one prophet I read about recently who claimed that he'd gotten all his revelations from a homeless guy who was 1000 years old and really was from outer space.  The idea is that we shouldn't focus on the prophet, because he himself is just a humble servant of whatever.  Or that he's the forerunner or successor of someone more important -- Warren Jeffs started out as just the assistant of his conveniently-disabled father.

But, being the only one on the scene, he is the closest to the secrets of the universe of anyone available, so it's really not so bad if his followers would like to build him a gorgeous throne room, offer to sleep with him, or whatever.  It's really just honor given to the amazing things and people beyond him.

And here's the interesting part -- the followers take over from there.  They're the ones who heap honor on him, feed his megalomania, and vouch for his honesty.  You see, once the group gets big enough to have an inner circle and an outer circle, people realize that the way to power is by propping up the leader.  They have a vision or a prophecy about him, confirming him in the sight of outer-circle members.  In return, the prophet elevates them to power within the cult.

At this point, it is possible that everyone believes the charade.  The cult leader may have some doubts that he's really a prophet, or maybe he straight-up knows he isn't.  (It's often hard to tell with these guys -- they are so convincing and sincere sounding that reporters who know the prophet's a fraud from their independent research find themselves tempted to believe.  So the prophet type is either a great liar or good at convincing himself of his own delusions.  Sometimes both.)  But even if he had his doubts about his ideas, those doubts are undermined when followers start coming to him saying they've had visions about him.  "I guess it's not just me," he might think.  "Here are all these other guys have visions too!"  Meanwhile the followers "having visions" know they're faking theirs, but they assume they are faking a real thing that the prophet and other members are really experiencing.

But it is also possible that none of the inner circle is really convinced -- when the gullible followers are around, they play their parts, and then take the mask off in private.  Some cults certainly do have evidence that this is the case, but oddly enough, most don't.  You can have members get to the very top before leaving, but still their testimonies written afterward don't include any mention of the prophet admitting his cult is a scam.  So we have to leave room for the possibility that the prophet really is that delusional.

And this is why ex-members often report being sidelined in a cult.  True believers who aren't hoping for glory, who have a love of honesty, aren't going to say the right things to propel them to success.  They won't fake a vision or prophecy, and when they are told that the prophet is humble, they believe it and don't flatter him.  The development of a cult is a sorting process -- the most ambitious and duplicitous rise to the top.  That always puzzled me when I was in Regnum Christi -- I knew scads of super-holy people, but Fr. Maciel's inner circle wasn't at all like that.  They were kind of rude and full of themselves, despite the many stories within the movement of how holy they were.  I couldn't reconcile my experience with the legends.

Sometimes I tell stories of the amazing success cults have, and someone invariably says, "Well, I'm in the wrong line of work!  I should go start a cult!"  Not that easy.  First, you need to be extremely charismatic.  Could be a down-home sort of charisma, you can pretend to be plainspoken, but you have to be the sort of guy (and it's pretty much always a guy) that people are drawn to.  If you're not cool enough to win an election, you're not cool enough to start a cult.

Second, you have to be a little unbalanced.  If you weren't, you'd go be a politician or a great salesman, right?  The prophet has delusions of grandeur and not much of a conscience -- a classic narcissist.  He knows how to boast and be believed, probably because he easily convinces himself of any story, provided he's the star of it.

Part of it is the sort of personality that you sometimes see in conspiracy theorists or mystics.  You know the person who will take you aside at parties and rant about some crazy notion for an hour?  I once knew a guy who thought he could read souls.  I'm pretty sure he couldn't, but because he was humble and a decent guy, it didn't much matter.  He wasn't a cult starter, just a person capable of believing strange things.

The cult leader has the crazy ideas and the charisma to make other people believe them too.  On top of this, he's usually extremely bright and a natural at manipulation.  He knows how people tick and what will get each individual to sign on.  If you've read any Lois McMaster Bujold, he's Miles Vorkosigan -- the guy who leaves home to visit his grandma and comes back the admiral of a space navy, using his people skills alone.  (Miles even starts a cult in one story!  And I would believe it.)

Sometimes it's hard to get through to this picture because the cult mythos covers over the prophet.  There will be stories of how he was incredibly holy from a very young age and spent his early years searching for the truth.  In reality, in his pre-cult life he may have been a salesman, con artist, or even nobody in particular.  Joseph Smith dug up Indian mounds, L. Ron Hubbard was a novelist.  Maybe they're raised in a religion where they realize it's their best road to success -- like Warren Jeffs, son of the previous prophet (but not the eldest -- he probably isn't who his father would have chosen to succeed him) or Maciel, whose uncle was a bishop.  Oddly, they may not even really mean to start a cult.  Some of the less-well-known prophets I have read about simply were super excited about some nutty idea, and found that people were gravitating to them.

However, in most cases a cult starts within a pre-established religion.  Gnosticism grew from Zoroastrianism and Platonism, Islam from Christianity.  There are no end of weird Mormon sects -- it sort of lends itself to that, because it's mutated since its founding and you can claim to be a return to its roots.  But there are Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist cults too.  Anything will do, provided it's respectable enough that you can mask your weirdness in it.  It will provide a ready stream of converts for you.

You see, respectable religion is low-demand: that is what distinguishes it from a cult (also called a high-demand group).  It doesn't expect you to spend that many hours a week on it, and it's assumed that you'll mostly make your own decisions without asking your priest.  This is satisfactory for most members, because they don't want to give too much to their religion.  But there will always be those (cough, cough, like me) who can't see a justification for acting that way.  There's eternity on the line, right?  So why are we ranking our religion somewhere between mowing the lawn on Saturdays and Monday night football?  They want to get serious.  They want to give everything.

And there's this earnest holy man who's there ready to take everything!  It all fits together.  The prophet can construct a justification, using scripture verses or a new revelation to himself, for his version of the religion being the Real Deal.  Easy enough to do, because most religions fudge some bits or have changed something over the years.  Fundamentalist Mormons point to polygamy, fundamentalist Catholics go for the Latin Mass, fundamentalist Protestants focus on spanking and wifely submission, and fundamentalist Muslims ... well, you know that one.  The believers are told, "Your religion is lax and corrupt.  People are lazy about it.  They gloss over teachings they don't like.  But we're going to go back to the original form."

And that's why cults have such amazing energy, why they grow in leaps and bounds while respectable religions have trouble coaxing new members in the doors.  They're composed entirely of the people who couldn't be content with one-hour-a-week religion.  Cults often demand hours of your time every day, either on group activities or personal growth.  The true believer is likely to say, "Finally, people who take religion seriously!"  And there are benefits -- if religion provides structure and a supportive community, cults provide ten times the structure and community.  If you talk to a cult member, they will tell you their fellow members really do pitch in and help them out.  However, they don't benefit all that much, considering what they sacrifice.  The cultist usually lives a life that would not make a whole lot of sense outside of the cult's beliefs.  That's the whole point -- they don't want to live a life that would be just the same without their religion.  They want to gamble for high stakes, and sadly they lose.

Returning to the cult leader's qualities, the last one he needs is a lot of good old luck.  He has to be in the right place at the right time.  Just like a politician will only get elected when his ideas are on the upswing (look at Trump -- that's not all Trump, that's a wave of Trumpishness he's surfing on, which was here before he arrived on the scene), a prophet will only be successful in proportion to how ready people are for his ideas.  There's a huge groundswell of fundamentalist Protestantism going around now -- why?  Well, a lot of churches have liberalized, allowing women ministers and gay marriage.  People leave those churches hoping to head rightward -- and there are Gothard, Phillips, Dobson, Pearl, and so forth, ready to meet them with exactly what they are looking for.  Cult leaders reap a rich harvest among people who feel disenfranchised or left behind.  Not all are conservative, either -- some are about bringing something fresh and new into the old, stale religion of the past, like much of Transcendentalism was.  Scientology and many other mid-20th-century cults had a harvest field among post-Christian liberals who needed something to replace the religion they didn't have.

End times prophecies are the cherry on top -- to those who feel everything's headed the wrong way, apocalyptic scares seem very credible.  And it gives a wonderful energy to any cult.  You can always find signs of the apocalypse -- if nothing else works, fall back on "everything's getting worse all the time," there are always people who agree with that.  Oddly, when the apocalypse fails to arrive, it doesn't end a cult.  Some members walk, but the rest, purged of the lukewarm, are even more galvanized.  (Remember the Millerites, who, when the world failed to end in 1830, became the Seventh-Day Adventists.)  They set a new date, or just say it's right around the corner, literally any day now.  No point in saving your money, donate it to the cult!  No point in going to college, get married at sixteen to the prophet!  It's pretty rare to see a cult that didn't profess to be living in the last days.  Listen to the Jehovah's Witnesses next time they visit -- "Do you know what times we are living in?  That's right!  The last times!"

What does the cult leader get out of it?  Money, power, and a volunteer army to build his pet projects are only side perks.  The real thrill, I think, is the attention.  It's like crack cocaine to a narcissist.  (Though plenty of them go for literal crack cocaine as well.  Drugs, adoring women, children to abuse, access to celebrities -- there's no end of rewards for the unscrupulous leader if he makes a real success of his cult.)  If he truly believes, it's sure to be wonderful to have all these people backing him up, instead of calling him a wacko like his friends and family used to do.  He eats up the praise and becomes ever more convinced that God (or whoever) loves him special.  His claims become ever more grandiose -- he's the reincarnation of Joseph Smith!  Of Jesus!  Of God!

When his back is finally against the wall, he usually does not recant.  Joseph Smith didn't; Jim Jones didn't.  Warren Jeffs goes back and forth, as he gets more and more confused in prison.  It's hard to say why that is.  In part, I think it's because the prophet really does believe his story.  He's often a bit delusional from the start, and the years of telling his story and being believed have to have an effect as well.  Partly, they just have their backs against the wall.  There's nothing to be gained by recanting -- is anyone seriously going to let them escape after all the crimes they've committed and the lies they've told?  And as long as they don't recant, they have their followers' loyalty -- perhaps they think their team will pull through at the last minute.  (Narcissists are known for extreme optimism; they can never quite believe they've lost.)  And if death is certain, better to be remembered as a prophet than as a con man, right?  There's no memory so glorious and certain as the founder of a religion -- your followers' descendants will be looking up to you as a hero for generations, if you are lucky.

It's only after the death of its prophet that a cult can become respectable.  The charismatic leader is replaced by a capable administrator.  It's often the guy who has kept the cult going despite its leader's increasing disconnect from reality and his unpredictability -- the guy who keeps the illusion of a saint going even as the prophet is lifting off in a gold-plated helicopter with half a dozen gorgeous acolytes.  Things stabilize, there are no wild fluctuations of dogma, no new revelations.  That heady feeling of starting something new and exciting fades, people are less committed, especially without the thrill of working for the charismatic prophet.  But very often the second leader of a cult is a smart guy who reached the number two spot for a reason.  He is able to organize his group into something durable -- if the cult is lucky.  If you don't have a guy like that, the cult dies; it was all about the leader, and with him gone (especially if he promised the end times in his lifetime) there's no reason to continue.  But if you do, the sky's the limit.  A really successful cult stays culty for another generation or two, especially if the conditions that got it going persist.  But eventually the energy starts to peter out; you get Sunday-only members and then Christmas-and-Easter members.  People talk about it as a respectable religion instead of a fringe group.  It's much more comfortable and healthy to be a member now, though how healthy depends on the structure of the organization and beliefs.

If you reach this point, congratulations -- you played the cult game, a game with very long odds, and won.  You founded a lasting religion.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Three myths about atheists

I don't think of myself as an atheist.  An unbeliever, sure, because I quite literally don't believe in the stuff that Catholics are supposed to, but I still show up to church, and I still hope there's a God out there.

However, I've read the same tired accusations against atheists time and time again, and I don't think they're true.  I want to tell you why.

Myth #1: Atheists have to have faith

It goes like this: How can anyone be sure there is no God?  They must have a lot of faith to believe a thing like that, when no one could ever disprove the existence of God!  I mean, you can't prove a negative, and maybe he's hiding somewhere.

Well, there are atheists and atheists.  "Strong" or "gnostic" atheists, who say they are sure there is no God, prove it philosophically, just like many theists do.  Generally it's some permutation of the argument from evil -- no omnibenevolent, omniscient, omnipotent being can exist, because otherwise this world wouldn't have so much evil and suffering in it.  That's not really a faith-based argument; they just find it illogical.

"Weak" or "agnostic" atheists don't claim to know one way or the other.  They just don't believe in God.  They've looked over the evidence of various religions, don't find any of them convincing, and so they don't have a belief in God.  They choose the word "atheist" to describe themselves like the others do, but it doesn't imply that they're sure about it.

Either way, it doesn't require "faith" to think that way, because faith is about maintaining a belief that is stronger than the evidence for it -- it's what bridges the gap between the uncertainty of the evidence and the certainty you are supposed to act with.  But atheists, in general, don't act like they're sure -- they say they're acting on the best information available and they'll change their mind if they get better information.  Most religious people don't say this.

Myth #2: Atheists have no rational ground for morality

I'm not talking about the tendency of people to say "atheists are evil sinners."  That's easy to disprove once you know a couple.  What I mean is the argument that atheists should be evil sinners, that if only they took their beliefs to their rational conclusions, they'd be killing people at random.

The first argument against this is that it's not a good idea to try to convince someone their ideas require them to do evil, because they might start doing evil rather than abandon their ideas.  That's why I don't try to convince progressive Muslims that ISIS is the real Islam, or tell Biblical literalists that they ought to be stoning gays.  I think they're too attached to their ideology to abandon it, and given that, I think if they've found a way to reconcile their ideology with a set of actions that don't hurt anyone, great.  I don't see how they can reconcile these things, to be honest -- if, to believe in a divine revelation, you have to pick and choose which parts to listen to, I don't see how God can be the author of it.  But perhaps there's something I'm missing.  The same goes here -- if an atheist is living a morally upright life without believing in God, why would you try to convince him not to?

The second argument is that following the Bible without listening to your conscience is just as disastrous as atheism without a conscience -- I mean, there's some awful stuff in there.  This is a good presentation of this argument; I highly recommend it.

The third argument is that, of course, there are some very clear grounds for morality even in atheism.  To put it simply, moral behavior is good for everyone.  We all benefit if we can trust one another to follow certain rules.  And if an individual wants to earn those benefits, the easiest way is to start by following those rules himself.  Not everyone needs to think about it that much -- we all have a conscience, Christians agree, so it shouldn't be a big surprise to learn that atheists don't generally want to do bad things in the first place.  I've written a lot about morality elsewhere.

Myth #3: Deep down, atheists know there is a God

This is the one where people say, "The Bible says that everyone knows that God is real!  So atheists who claim not to believe, deep down they know that God is real.  They just pretend to disbelieve so they can be justified in sinning."

That's just offensive.  You can look at someone who has struggled, prayed, wept, tried so hard to find a way to keep believing, and say "You're just lying."  It boggles the mind.  Obviously I don't know for certain that others aren't lying, but I know I'm not lying.  I can tell you that deep down, I don't know that God is real.  I would like there to be a God, but that's not the same thing.  

You could choose to disbelieve me, I suppose.  But why would I lie?  What do I gain from not believing?  The Catholic faith is not particularly hard for me -- it's comfortable.  95% of my friends are Catholic.  My family is Catholic.  Disbelieving means disappointing everyone I care about and gaining nothing.  Also, I would very much prefer to believe that someone powerful is watching over me, that all the suffering in my life has meaning, and that I will see all my loved ones again in heaven.  And what do I gain from it?  The freedom to watch porn without guilt?  I don't even want to watch porn!

The only reason I don't believe is because I am not sure believing is the right thing to do.  I have no emotional reason to believe, and I have no rational reason to believe.  I can't make myself believe, in the absence of either a feeling it's true or a rational conviction it's true, just from wanting to.

It just undermines all hope of a respectful conversation if you start from this approach.  To discuss anything with anybody, you have to assume they are telling the truth about their own experience, because you can't actually read minds.  If you're going to have a dialogue with an atheist, assume that they're a well-meaning person who wants to believe the truth and will believe you once you demonstrate the truth of what you're saying.  You might have to talk a long time, to figure out what sort of evidence they're looking for, and why they haven't sought out belief on their own.  And you should reassure them that you, too, are open-minded and will change your mind when offered sufficient proof.

Or is that something that you, as a religious person, are unwilling to say?  Do you have a sneaking suspicion that your religion is false, but you force yourself to believe because you're getting something out of it, or because you'd have to make big changes in your life if you allowed yourself to question?  Do you require an opposing viewpoint to meet an extremely high standard of evidence that you wouldn't expect your own views to pass?  If the answer is yes, how can you ask an atheist to be more open-minded than you are?

Now I hope that you, my readers, whether religious or not, do continue to engage with people who disagree with you.  Those conversations can be valuable both in increasing our understanding of one another and in reaching for the truth.  But please, if you're religious and want to talk to an atheist, leave these misconceptions at home.  They won't get you anywhere.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Surviving a one-year-old

Sorry about the recent lack of blogging.  I have a one-year-old.  Need I say more?

Twelve to eighteen months is, for me, the most hair-tearing stage there is.  Babies need a lot of holding, but I kind of like holding babies and so I don't mind so much.  Plus, they normally (except of course for MY kids) nap a lot and can be left in a safe place for a minute if you want to pee alone.  Eighteen-month-olds, meanwhile, are starting to communicate a little better and to understand concepts like "no."  They'll throw a fit about it, sure, but they do begin to know what you mean.

But one-year-olds -- they don't understand much of anything.  But, of course, they can walk and get into stuff.  I'm sure this is made a bit more difficult by the fact that my kids are mobile early, but I imagine even crawling one-year-olds get into stuff all the time.

On the bright side, thought, I've done this a couple times before so I have learned a bit about what to do, and not do, to survive a one-year-old.  I decided to share some of that wisdom here, before I again forget about the craziness that is one.

1.  Part of what makes one-year-olds so hard is the big letdown from the expectation that things were starting to get easier.  When a crawling baby starts to walk, that's all they want to do, so you get a month or so off of constantly holding the baby or pulling them off things they're climbing.  You think, "Hooray, babyhood is over!  Things will be easier from now on!"

But actually, that's a false expectation.  Give them a month, they will either cut molars and stop sleeping at night, give up a nap, or discover some really dangerous thing that can't be moved out of their reach.  Only now, they're harder to keep corralled, plus they get bored in your arms and just want to grab at everything.  They're actually harder than before.  I don't know what to advise other than "roll with it."  And know that sleep is always two steps forward, one step back -- they will regain any progress they've made, eventually.  Probably after those molars pop out.

2.  One-year-olds need, as far as possible, an entirely childproofed environment.  If they find something forbidden, they'll just keep going for it all day.  All you will do is drag the child off the thing.  No amount of attempts at "consequences" will work, because the baby has not developed long-term memory.  What they have is habit, and they've now developed a habit of climbing for the thing, every time they see it.  If you can childproof before they've made that habit, you'll be much better off.  If it really cannot be childproofed, do yourself a favor and take baby with you into another room and shut the door.  In five minutes, they'll have forgotten the thing and you might get some time to get them busy at something else before they notice it again.

3.  They might be less interested in nursing for a bit.  Do yourself a favor and don't try to wean at this point.  They'll regress a bit in a month or so and get crabby and cranky, or cut a tooth, or get a cold, and nursing will be all that will cheer them up.  Also, nursing is a break from the exhaustion of pulling them off of stuff.  Though, be warned, they will stick their foot in your mouth or pinch your belly fat the whole time.  And you'll put up with it because they're letting you sit down.

4.  That said, food makes excellent bribery/distraction.  Who knows how much actually ends up inside the baby, but it's fun for them anyway.

5.  One-year-olds try to communicate!  This is awesome.  They don't have good control of their mouths, which is not so awesome.  Baby sign can help a lot.  Teach a couple signs and when you see they've picked them up, add more.  Stick with signs they might actually have a need for, like milk and cracker.  They can learn elephant and purple when they've mastered the essentials.  The point is to give them something to do when they want something besides the Banshee Shriek.  They might make up their own signs; roll with it.

6.  One-year-olds like nothing in the world so much as playing directly with you.  Piggies, tickles, peekaboo, patty-cake.  Miriam's favorite (as well as one of her first words) is "row row."  Name-the-body-parts is another good one, though she hasn't yet mastered it.

I can't play games all day with Miriam because I have other kids, and I didn't with Marko because I wanted him to learn to play independently.  (And also because patty-cake got old for me long before it did for him.)  But I sort of wish I'd done it a little more.  There are so many hours in the day, there's plenty of time for independent play.  If you get a quiet moment with your baby to play Baby Is Going Up and Down, you won't regret it.

7.  Sleep is always a little fraught.  No longer do you have a baby who can sleep in bits and bobs all day and still sleep at night.  Now you have to carefully ration naptime and not let them fall asleep too close to bedtime.  First they go from "naps whenever" to "sometimes one nap and sometimes two."  Then it's "only one nap, never two," then "sometimes a nap, sometimes not," and eventually "you can't let them nap or you'll be sorry."  My kids fly through these stages.  You might get lucky and stick with one nap for years.  Either way, as a child gets closer to giving up a nap, their bedtime starts inching backward.  It takes longer and longer to get them to sleep and you're doing more and more outlandish things to make them do it.  With Marko we walked him around the neighborhood in a stroller for hours.  One day, with fall coming on, we walked him around till 11 pm.  And that's when I realized it was time to drop a nap.

Here's my rule of thumb for bedtime: let it creep backward up to two hours past when they're used to.  Say, aim for between 7 and 9, or 8 and 10.  If they are not going to sleep within that window, you need to either drop a nap or put the baby to bed much earlier.  (That is, they are staying up that late because they are overtired.)  A baby has a new sleep cycle every two hours, so if baby almost falls asleep at seven, but not quite, play patty cake for two hours (I KNOW!) and try again at nine.  A good clue to bedtime is the evening meltdown.  Does the baby have a huge meltdown reliably at five every evening?  Then bedtime should be seven.  That meltdown means almost-but-not-quite ready to sleep.

Routine is your friend -- if baby ALWAYS naps at 11, stick to it like glue.  Do not schedule anything then, because nap affects the whole day.  However, if the baby isn't sticking to any routine, just try to roll with it.  Right now I am putting a lot of effort into making Miriam nap before noon -- like, planning a drive right about 11 so that she will get at least a little sleep, because if she doesn't nap then she'll wait till one or even three, and three is quite disastrous for bedtime.  Usually she goes to bed at seven, but sometimes

Your mileage may vary -- this is just how my kids are.

8.  One-year-olds do not like to be still for diaper changes.  If you always play the same game at changing time, or sing a song, it's likely to help.  Miriam likes to clap her feet.  Marko played peekaboo.  You could also try the standing diaper change -- that's when you really level up at changing skills.

Or just potty train the kid.  About 14-16 months is supposed to be a good window.  You let the baby run around naked and when they start to pee, whisk them over to the potty.  Or, keep them in diapers but sit them on the potty when they wake up in the morning and after nap.  Clap for them when they go in it.

Michael was trained about this time.  The others, not.  So don't worry, there are other good windows.

9.  One-year-olds have big feelings.  When you watch a one-year-old flop down on the floor and howl dramatically, you may think, "My child is advanced!  I thought tantrums didn't happen till 18 months!"  Well, let me warn you.  The drama level is fully developed, but the attention span is short.  So baby's tantrums will get longer as they get older.  Sorry.

This is a good reason to keep things thoroughly childproofed, and don't take them to places where you're going to spend all your time hauling them out of trouble.  They're going to go limp, or flail, and scream like banshees.  That's no way to spend your day.

10.  One-year-olds are easily bored with toys, so it kind of helps to have a million of them.  On the bright side, they think toilet paper tubes and old keyrings are toys.  Favorites include gross motor stuff (push toys, mini slides, big bouncy balls), soft stuff (dolls, stuffed animals), and sensory stuff (rattles, playdough, mud).  They especially like stuff that isn't meant for them, like pots and pans.  They love to play outside, even if the weather is awful.  They love magic tricks and goofy games and tickles.  They enjoy helping you do chores, though they undo most of it so you might want to call that playtime instead of chore time.  They're starting to get so you can say "put this toy in the cupboard" and they actually do.  Then they clap for themselves.  It's so cute.  But when your back is turned they will take all the toys out so they can play again.

11.  One-year-olds are freaking adorable.  That is a survival tactic for how difficult they are.  They're learning new skills all the time, babbling first words, and growing cute little curlies on the backs of their necks.  They look like little angels even when they are spilling your coffee.  It's great.  Don't forget to enjoy your one-year-old.  Take thousands of photos, snuggle them, kiss their little noses, make up games.  They laugh maniacally about the dumbest joke.  You're never going to have such a delighted audience for silly antics.  Drop a block and laugh about it.  Make silly faces and noises.  Don't, whatever you do, pay attention to them only when they are trouble -- you'll miss the good parts.  Even though it means you never get to drink your tea when it's hot and the laundry stays unfolded in the basket, play with your one-year-old.  It seems to last forever, but it won't.

If you have a one-year-old, you're in for it -- lots of good, lots of bad.  Just lots.  Good luck and enjoy.  Both the good and the bad won't last.

*This post has been interrupted 957 times so that I could drag Miriam off John's desk.  Any incoherence can be blamed on her addiction to pushing the power button on his computer.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...