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27 July 2010

Why I Became an Atheist | Ch 6

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This is part of a series of notes in response to "Why I Became an Atheist" by John W. Loftus

Chapter Six: The Lessons of Galileo, Science, and Religion

I want to write about this chapter only because in re-skimming, I encountered John's discussion of methodological naturalism and wanted to comment on it. I'm far from being well-versed in epistemological methods but this was my first time seeing this term and thus it was intriguing. As a Catholic I couldn't have told you with the foggiest of words what my "epistemology" was. I didn't know what epistemology was whatsoever.

While I'm still not resolved on whether methodological naturalism "holds up", I will say that simply encountering it proved to be quite the thought experiment. I think that this thought experiment has served quite well every since I read the pages in John's book. In essence, my mind was opened to ask, "Could everything I have experienced and know of be explained naturally?" I have found it quite helpful to continue comparing alternative theories, examining what is required of theological vs. naturalistic propositions in terms of assumptions, deviations from commonly understood phenomenon, etc.

These thought experiments have not always been easy. My initial conversion came out of a very intense period of drug and alcohol abuse. When I decided to become sober, I absolutely believed that god was the only thing/being sustaining my sobriety. I believed that it was only due to his grace and my dependence on him that the desire to drink and drug left me. I had a powerful experience of "his presence" which convinced me that the resurrection was real, for Jesus was obviously alive and well since I felt him. I tried quitting smoking countless times and always failed. After being a pack/day smoker throughout almost all of college, I finally quit on July 31, 2006, having had my last cigarette before entering an adoration chapel on the eve of St. Ignatius of Loyola's feast day (my confirmation saint). Having spent time in prayer in my room deciding to tithe in return for all the blessings god had given me, I came to conclusion that I would "catch up" on my past non-tithing. This essentially required me to donate everything I had (about $750 at the time -- I was a junior or senior in college). I solemnly decided to tithe anyway in faith, left my room and saw that I had a letter waiting for me. It was from my grandma. It was a copy of the loan contract we used a year or two previously in which I borrowed $4,000 from her when I ran out of money at college. It was signed, dated, and declared "Paid in full." She had decided to give her grand children all $5,000 each as she grew older; my debt was not only erased, but a check for the remaining $1,000 was inside.

When I began to doubt, these types of experiences were some of the hardest to re-evaluate. It felt embarrassing and uncomfortable to think about possibly being wrong about what I was so sure was god's hand. Nevertheless, I am open to having been wrong. I have far less trouble with the freedom from drugs/alcohol/smoking and the emotional experiences than I do with the check for $1,000. Nevertheless it has not been very difficult to think of explanations for all of them. Intense emotional experiences and beliefs do change our brain states and perceived abilities. Believing that a saint is empowering you could produce the effect of quitting when other times failed. In reality, the quitting of substances is functioning in exactly the same way as a placebo. A believed power contained in a provided aid produces results even when there is no actual power. If this works for all kinds of diseases and illnesses... why not for the act of substance cessation?

The check... the only explanation is coincidence. I'm left with the option that god knew I would decide to tithe and thus the mail (which had already arrived but I was simply unaware of it) was a way of him "blessing" that decision... or it was just a chance occurrence. I have two reasons in which I see no issue with the coincidence hypothesis over the supernatural:

1) this is one of the more amazing things I would say has happened. These things do not happen to me all the time. Given that it is rare, why could it not be a coincidence, which is simply defined by that which is rare and unconnected by appears causally connected? Couldn't most people think of something like this in their lives? It's bound to happen at least a few times over 20-some years of life.

2) The far more convincing thing, in my mind, is the plethora of unanswered prayers that surrounds me. Far more faithful Christians than me (at least that I respect and have looked up to for years) have trusted god recently in several instances and prayers have not been answered (observably/expectedly):
--- a missionary family (father fund-raises, mother stays at home) made a decision to buy a foreclosed home and fix it up in faith that it was the right time. They ended up landing in far more debt than they expected
--- a family felt that god wanted them to sell their suburb house (where they were far removed from many friends) and build a new house in a suburb where several strong Christian families had all moved in together. After months of their house being on the market... no bites. They were pretty sure that god wanted this.
--- the same family with the suburb house had a son fall off his swing and in the Christian small group I'm in, we prayed as soon as we found out about the incident that god would literally mend his bones, make tendons and joints right, and that he would be fine. Instead both wrists were fractured (this is for sure) and one elbow was also fractured (or damaged... can't recall for sure)

Well, this is just anecdotal evidence you say. Indeed. But it's the exact same type of evidence that my tithing story would serve were I to present it as a reason to believe that god is active and faithful. To be honest with myself, I need to put aside my former bias that god did specific things for me in response to specific things I did and consider that god is nonexistent and doing nothing.

In cases like prayer and many others, the thought experiment of asking what the world would look like if no supernatural intervention were occurring and what it would look like were there supernatural intervention has proven very fruitful. There are very few remaining puzzles for me with a naturalistic hypothesis of some sort. These have been: the evolution of consciousness and morality, the origin of life, and why there is something rather than nothing.

I don't think these areas are untouched in science but simply recognize that the verdict seems far from clear and there are strong objections to many theories in the above categories across the board.

In any case, from a naturalistic point of view one simply concedes, "I don't know." From a supernatural perspective, one must concede that "You don't know, but I know perfectly well."

To Ch 7: The Strange and Superstitious World of the Bible >>

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