It’s been exactly two weeks since I’ve posted. So much has happened recently, and I’ve been meaning to post about the so-called “turn away the gays” law that was recently vetoed in Arizona, not because it’s current, but because it remains relevant to the legal debate about religious freedom and the legal validity of the “separation of church and state.”
I also want to take some time to address things like the atheist-driven petitions against the 9/11 cross, and how atheist petitions against religious imagery in public spaces can be either necessary, useful, or harmful, depending on the particular circumstances involved. The friction between Christians and secularists is heating up in American media as secularists assert their presence in American public life, and demand to be taken seriously as a socially significant and politically relevant demographic. I’d love to discuss all this, but I can’t until I address some recent events of a more personal nature.
Allow me to level with you: the last nine months have been a whirlwind of changes for me, most of them good, many of them disconcerting. I married David, moved several hundred miles, started to plan a wedding (yes, in that order), made major healthcare decisions, dropped out of college, started college classes again, transferred from one college to another, made more major healthcare decisions, withdrew my membership from my childhood church and church institution, and came out of the skeptic’s closet to several old friends…And if I’m honest with myself, I haven’t taken the time (or the journal pages) to process it all.
My response to these events has been greatly influenced by the friends I’ve made here at Public College. People I didn’t know a few short months ago have become my friends, confidants, and support through these external changes. Two people, however, have (perhaps unknowingly) played a large role in affecting how I’ve changed internally. I’ll call them Nick and Keiko.
I met Nick and Keiko through classes at Public College, and eventually found myself spending more and more time with them. Nick is a 6’5″ carpenter with thick, dark, hair; a baritone voice, gilded in tattoos, and just too lean to be called burly. Nick has a demeanor that inspires confidence and a presence that commands not only respect, but obedience. As the result of his natural authority he has become used to leading packs of peers, often giving orders without a second thought in even the most casual of situations. It’s not over-dramatic to say that were he not a fundamentally benevolent person, Nick would be a formidable villain.
By contrast, Keiko is 5’3″, slight, an artist, and something of a bohemian, contrasting relatively conventional beauty with plaid shirts, unshaven legs, and proudly hairy pits. Keiko’s waifish frame belies a big personality that bubbles and bursts forth whenever she is caught in the swells of her artistic or social passions. She is ever positive, “spiritual but not religious,” and fond of philosophical conversation, but slow to announce her will as it relates to others, even the point of needing Nick to announce her social intentions for her. “So…I’m having people at my house tonight,” she said to me one Friday evening. When no further explanation followed Nick’s amused voice boomed, “She’s inviting you over.” Whenever I spend time with Nick and Keiko I leave the encounter questioning my priorities, my perception of the world, and lately, the value I place on a consistent, secular, and fundamentally empirical worldview.
Neither Nick, nor Keiko is fond of religion. Nick, who was raised by a militantly atheist mother, is fascinated by the cultures and ideologies which arise from organized religion the way a zoologist is fascinated by the social behavior of bonobos. His practical, task-oriented view of the world makes him easy for me to communicate with. He knows where I am, and has been there personally, but being with Keiko has has softened his empirical lens.
I might have once dismissively characterized Keiko’s spirituality as “woo-woo stuff,” and pigeonholed her with Tim Minchin’s “Storm” as a likely devotee of personalities like Deepak Chopra and Iyanla Vanzant. Yet, as I speak with her, I find myself oddly, grudgingly, relating to her non-committal appreciation of un-empirical mystery. She lives her life in shades of mystic whimsy, and she embraces the notion that everything we experience may not explainable, and even the explanations that exist may be irrelevant.
There are many things in my own life that I can’t explain. Things that kept me on the edge belief in something, and thus from identifying as an empiricist for the sake of consistency. The impressions of future personal circumstances I had while I was in high school; the inner voice that told me I would be with David a full year before we started dating, the sense of connection I experienced on every prayer walk; all of these experiences were separate from religion insofar as they were not dependent upon any particular doctrine. They simply happened. Over the years I have explained them away with appeals to confirmation bias, self-fulfilling prophesy, the law of truly large numbers a.k.a the law of infinite probability (particularly as it applies to “miracles” in the context of a highly populated world and possibly infinite universe), and the god-helmet effect (about which there is significant debate). Keiko countered this mindset by saying, “I could explain all this stuff…OR I could accept that it just happened and that’s awesome! That takes so much less energy and leaves so much more room in my brain for art!” She made me question, for the first time, if explanations for experience are always as important as the impact of experience.
My friendship with Nick and Keiko has also forced me to reconsider my interpretation of one of my core values.
“Why does intellectual integrity matter?” Nick asked me once. These are the kinds of conversations we have in bars.
“Well, what am I without my integrity?” I returned.
“Oh integrity, yeah!” Nick enthused. Keiko nodded vigorously. “But intellectual integrity? Why is it so important?”
I didn’t know how to answer. Months of writing on the subject and I still couldn’t answer a simple query over garlic fries. Weeks later, however, I’ve reformulated my answer.
In most secularist communities inconsistency is the shortest distance to invalidity, and yet before I was a secularist, while I was still in academy, I prized logical consistency over most everything else. If an argument was logically inconsistent it did not matter if it was intuitive or comforting; it was most likely wrong. I think I have always believed, on some level, that what is logically consistent is most likely to be true. I have always been committed to seeing—to the best of my ability—the world as it truly is (however flawed this concept may be), so as to understand it more fully, operate in it more profitably, and contribute to it more effectively. Sure, humans are physiologically and psychologically bound to a limited range of experience, and thus understanding, but this has never seemed a compelling reason to accept the distortions of reality we have the power to overcome. Where there is bias we should acknowledge it, limitations should be challenged, and ignorance stripped away. “Per aspera ad astra!”
In short, my intellectual integrity is a quality that enables me to better understand the world, and thus contribute to it more effectively. Over that last few months, however, I’ve turned my reverence for intellectual integrity into something else.
“…so why not? I totally believe in magic.”
“I can’t think like that.”
“Sure you can,” Keiko chirruped.
“I don’t want to.”
“Ah…that’s what it is.” She pumped a forefinger triumphantly.
I hadn’t intended to say the word “want.” “Want” implies choice. “Want” implies that if I made the effort I could come to sincerely believe in magic or any number of fantastic things. I find Christianity a bit fantastic. It would be easier on me if I could say that I am not a Christian because I can’t believe. Indeed, this is what I’ve told myself for months. I couldn’t believe anymore, and that inability to maintain my faith was a fact of my nature, an inevitable outcome of the way I think. Thus, all the consequences of disbelief: the temporary distance I felt from my family, the awkwardness I experience with my in-laws, removing my name from membership, were unavoidable.
I could’ve tried harder to believe. I could’ve prayed more, immersed myself in Christian spirituality. I could’ve “seen with the eyes of faith,” ignoring the holes and discounting inconsistencies as complexities I do not yet understand, questions to be put aside until the afterlife, where all my queries would be addressed by god himself. I could’ve done this and I chose not to. I still choose not to. And to ameliorate the pain and cultural disorientation that resulted from my course of action I became rigid. “In for a penny, in for pound.”
Even as I held “empiricist” at bay I felt as though I were sworn to the modern patriarchs of rationalism: personalities like Bill Nye, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson, to be a rationalist at all times, reject all notions of spirituality, and defend a scientific view of the whole of reality lest I “betray the movement.” Terms like “Secular Humanist,” “atheist,” “free thinker,” became my anchors in the storm of change that has defined the last nine months. They told me who I am, and for what I gave up my sense of belonging. I am a Secular Humanist, and I gave up my old existence to preserve my intellectual integrity—as is my duty and contribution to human progress.
Disdain for seemingly harmless, or even comforting inconsistencies is, for some skeptics, rooted in the belief that each inconsistency allowed to take root in the brain creates a more hospitable environment for more, greater inconsistencies. These inconsistencies may multiply such that one’s view of the world is hampered by illogical constructs, injuring individual function and (subsequently) societal growth. This belief is further rooted in the presupposition that progress is built upon logic, a conclusion I personally believe to be supported by history (for example: evaluating agriculture scientifically, instead of relying upon specialized weather or crop spirits has allowed us to develop better tools; planting calendars; bug, plague, and drought resistant crops; and ultimately, to feed humanity more efficiently, and successfully). Thus, even the smallest inconsistency (a superstition or nominal religious practice) may be regarded as an enemy of progress. So I came to regard spirituality as an enemy.
The attitude I adopted towards spiritual things cut me off from a piece of myself I am not ready to set aside yet. I chose to cut myself off from my spiritual side—whatever it is—just as surely as I chose to leave my faith behind. Keiko made me realize this. Nick and Keiko also made me realize, by their very presence, that I don’t need to continue on this course. I do not wish to adopt a faith-based view of the world, and people like Nick and Keiko suggest to me that I may not need to. Both Keiko and Nick reject organized religion. Nick especially, with his atheistic upbringing and practical, task-oriented patterns of thinking, reminds me enough of myself for me to take comfort in his willingness to consider perspectives of the world that transcend the need for constant materialistic explanations.
Fulfilling my duty to human progress (It’s a bit dramatic, sue me.) doesn’t necessarily mean locking myself into a predetermined notion of what someone like me, an unbeliever in any particular deity or religious dogma, should be. Instead, I should take the time to fully explore what spirituality means to me, to make my own observations, before I pass judgment upon its validity. I’m not entirely like Nick or Keiko, and yet, allowing for flexibility in how I prioritize my understanding of the world—the experience or explanations for it, the mystery or its underlying complexity—will further allow me to be true to my intellect and to my heart. ♦