Saturday, January 18, 2014


If I were to write a book about myself, it might start with a forward like this:

Depending on where you were born, your parents, community and culture will instill in you a general set of beliefs and behaviors. In my childhood, along the Mason-Dixon Line, the politics were slightly capitalist and Republican, and the religion was Christianity. My dad was not a committed church-goer while my mom was, and outside of church, God and Christ were rarely discussed. I didn’t get much of that from neighbors or school mates either. This afforded me room to be myself and think for myself, something I’m thankful for to this day. I had the chance to observe the world, compare and reflect on candidate explanations for these observations, and understand to a small degree why some explanations fit the data better than others, and should therefore be trusted more than others. I didn’t think of it in those terms, but that’s what was happening.

I remember a friend in high school who relayed to me that “Bible scholars” thought that Jesus was going to return in 1975 (am I dating myself?) I found it interesting, but it didn’t spur me into a religious fervor. I just watched and went on with my life.

That attitude - that religion is interesting but not essential - has more-or-less stuck with me my whole adult life. With the exception of one brief 6 or 8 month immersion in a Pentecostal church, I was one of the spiritual-but-not-religious types.

I’ve said elsewhere that a verse-by-verse reading of the Old Testament is what disabused me of the belief that the Bible was literally true. And if it’s not literally true, then a believer is left trying to understand the metaphors and allegories that it presents, or eventually comes to understand it as a culturally valuable myth. So after setting the Bible down and walking away, I retained a vague suspicion that there was an underlying supernatural basis for things that the Bible tried to convey. I started to understand religions of any sort as attempts to get down to underlying truths about reality. Maybe God was less a person and more a spirit, or he/she/it was the universe itself, or it didn’t exist at all, but a unifying substrate to apparent reality did. I gently glided across all those currents for over two decades without falling out of the boat and drowning in any one of them.

Soon after 9/11, I began a serious look at how people use language to change people’s opinions about topics. At first - predictably - it was the war with the terrorists and the invasion or Iraq. Then it turned to general political matters, THEN to religion. So it hasn’t been more than 8 or 10 years since I’ve developed a more rigorous intellectual approach to the existence of gods, the costs and benefits of religions, a general world view of what reality is, and whether there’s anything beyond it that’s worth spending time thinking about.

On this journey, I’ve come to realize that people are a varying combination of intelligence, knowledge, education, independence, disposition, confidence and a whole lot of other factors that - before taking into account external influences - would lead them to believe or disbelieve in the existence of the supernatural. And I suspect that the combination of characteristics that create fertile ground for skepticism and non-belief, is rarer than not. When faced with conventional beliefs in god(s) that have been carried down by societies over the millennia, I understand how and why belief is more common than non-belief. But I'd like to help that change.