Hi John, I hope you aren't offended that I prefer to remain anonymous. First, I'd like to say that I'm impressed by your transparency.Not offended at all. I stayed quasi-anonymous for some time. It's only recently that I've started to try and spread my wings a bit and stop being afraid of the world. I also share as much as I do in that this has been a lonely road. I hope others find this and are inspired, or at least feel less isolated.
It seems this quest is one on which your find yourself due to your highly analytic nature. I would suggest that perhaps others - atheistic or religious - do not often find themselves so entrenched in the search due not to ignorance or brain-washing but rather because their brains are wired differently, in other words, they have different aptitudes.
It's very possible, but I do think brain-washing (if one might call it that) and ignorance can both play a part. In my discussions, it's quite clear to me that many theists meet one or both of these criteria:
-- They are ignorant of the many issues surrounding Christianity's various truth claims
-- Once aware of this ignorance, it is not followed by a sense of urgency to remedy the situation
A massive amount of extremely devout believers literally have no idea what fields play a part in apologetics and the battles of thought and mind that rage therein. My quest took me into surprisingly diverse fields of knowledge: philosophy, biology, astronomy, physics, literary criticism, and history to name a few. While I'm still an absolute novice in these fields, it did surprise me that most of my circles would not even have been able to summarize the general arguments that both sides use.
Hence my support of the term, "ignorance." Most Christians are confident in their belief; they don't spend their nights and days wondering if it's true. They spend their time trying to deepen devotion and holiness because they are confident (one will at least admit that this is implied confidence) that it's true.
Similarly, my lack of interest in woodworking is not an indication that I have been brain-washed against it, or that I am too ignorant to appreciate the intricacies of the craft, but rather that my greatest attempt at woodworking would lead to a frustrated lump of chipped wood. I'm perfectly happy not attempting it, but knowing that there are people that are great at woodwork. I choose to enjoy their work.
I only addressed ignorance above. I'll bring in brainwashing here as it goes with your analogy. Literal "brainwashing" might be a bit extreme, especially with the cultish connotations this evokes, at least in me. I more mean a predisposition to favor one's beliefs for psychological reasons that don't track back to objective facts, data or reasons. In other words, the resistance to a foreign belief is much greater than the reasons one has supporting the current belief or opposing the foreign one.
The "brainwashing" aspect comes along in that the resistance is based on things learned during childhood and supported by social structures. The believer is sold out for the belief for reasons not grounded in facts or logic.
The woodworking analogy is a fantastic one! To summarize the core: there's a topic out there that a bunch of people debate about in terms of the best tools and techniques, what qualifies as "beautiful" art, and so on. It doesn't interest you and thus you aren't going to invest your time and energy into studying Woodworking Magazine just to get up to speed and feel intellectually satisfied. Fair enough, and I really do like the analogy. Now I'll introduce a couple of my own :)
My first objection is that the woodworking analogy doesn't capture the fact that theism is something people are living in, not looking at. To adjust your analogy, a theist more like a professional woodworker who spends no time examining the best practices for safety, quality and efficiency. He doesn't wear a respirator because he's ignorant that certain wood dusts cause cancer. When he's informed of this, he thinks it sounds like a ridiculous idea. He's a gruff, strong guy and this way has worked just fine for him his whole life; there's no way that some silly tree is going to give him cancer. After all, his dad never wore a respirator and that's good enough for him to know he doesn't need one either. Moreover, he only knows how to make one style of furniture. People ask for other styles, but he feels confident that they don't know the true best style, so he chooses not to learn about how to make them or why people disagree with his idea of "best." They're wrong somehow and that's that.
There's some "brainwashing" in that the woodworker has a set of embedded ideas about reality that are stubborn to outside evidence. Whatever can be tracked to reasons (I've been successful so far, this is how I learned, I respect my dad and this is how he did it) are all relativistic: they can apply equally to radically different styles and practices and thus justify any set of beliefs equally well.
I also think my adjusted version gets at the pertinence factor a little more. Woodworking is a trivial hobby. Some like it, some don't. It can take up as much or as little of your life as you want with little matter. But we're talking about a religion that shapes peoples minds and lives. I don't think they can take the same "take it or leave it" attitude with respect to the reasons it is or isn't true.
The magnitude in the original analogy also isn't right. We're talking about what is supposed to be someone's eternal life. While I'm well aware that no one knows what happens after death and any religion's god could be merciful and allow for some type of post-death conversion or atonement, all religions believe that subscribing during mortal life offers some sort of advantage when it comes to death. Thus, there's little excuse not to investigate (as opposed to a hobby).
To sneak in another analogy, let's say I design a new airplane with wings that are half as long as those used today. Will you ride it prior to finding out if it's been shown to actually fly? No. You can't afford not to care or invest some mental energy into this problem; the consequences are too grave. This is my other issue with the topic of religion. Anyone "gets" the idea concerning the plane. We have a plane; it either flies or it doesn't. No matter how much I tell you that I believe it will fly or think we should ride it because I really like the way it looks... you aren't going to bite.
What about religion? It's either true or it's not. It gets you to heaven or it doesn't. A god is either tinkering with reality in response to intercession or it isn't. Why the universal agreement that the plane should be examined but the religion doesn't need to be?
We can complicate it a bit further by bringing in a tidbit from your woodworking analogy: "I'm perfectly happy not attempting it, but knowing that there are people that are great at woodwork."
We could take this to mean that one is happy not attempting to master apologetics, knowing that there are those out there who are great at it. Or that one might know an educated apologist for his religion who he trusts. Thus, if he takes a question to this apologist and receives an answer, he'll accept it. He might not grasp the answer or internalize it, but he hears a stream of words emitted from a trusted source and feels confident knowing that his teacher had something to say and wasn't stumped. That's sufficient.
What about the plane analogy? To replicate the situation of theism(s), let's say that there are many world experts who all disagree on what will happen if we fly this plane. Some say it will fly, some say it will crash. Others say that we'll quantum leap into another dimension. Some say that it will fly, but only if we believe strongly enough. How do we decide? Surely we can't just pick the expert who happens to support what we already believe and judge him to be correct!
To wrap up, the issue with religions is that at the fundamental level, there is no objective, reproducible method to establish one over the other. If there were, guess how many religions would still exist today? (One. Or only the ones with objective evidence supporting them.) Instead, we have absolutely laughable ideas that at least somehow people are made or brought to buy into. I conclude that the issue is the human mind, and not with the fact that the required evidence exists but most humans are simply ignoring it. Conclusive and objective data tends to obliterate falsehood.
I would also like to speak to your frustration on having so many book titles suggested to you from those with religious beliefs. Having had a "going from one belief to another" experience in my life (though not a "deconversion") I can empathize with this frustration. I felt as though I wasn't free to change belief systems until those around me were also convinced, and I knew that wasn't going to happen. I felt their offering of book titles was a symptom of that. However, it's important to note that this wasn't always the case.
Thanks for sharing this and I absolutely relate. I spend my emotional energy these days feeling that two years is enough to move on, while constantly doubting that I've really been objective, that I know enough or have read enough, and/or that the place I've settled is intellectually justifiable. It does bother me a great deal that I feel rather discounted in this area, especially given that I have a track record as the sort of geekish researcher rational oddball of the group. I've written about this before.
For instance, if one of your daughters asked you a question that you did not know the answer to, would you say:
a) I don't know, don't ask me again. (I'm feeling challenged and intimidated by your questions)
b) I don't know, hope you find your answer somewhere (I care about you but I'm not personally interested in that topic at all)
c) I don't know, but let's find out together. (I care about you and I'm also suddenly very interested in the same question, let's work together)
d) I don't know and I'm swamped with work right now, but I do know there's a pretty good explanation in the encyclopedia. I haven't read the whole thing, but I trust the information. (I care about you and I've skimmed across similar questions in the past, or know someone who did, here's what I found/hear is helpful)
I guess I'd ask you where most of your religious friends fell/fall *and* where you wish they fell? Sounds like the book offer-ers were either a or d. It's probably important to make the distinction as to which, since a and d are coming from very different places.
Interesting and great summary. My one correction is that C might sometimes be sacrificial in that I'm not embarking with my daughter because I'm suddenly very interested, but because I think it might benefit her. I'm not really interested but will still be willing to help.
I can think of some who probably fall into both categories. Some might even shift back and forth. I had one guy dialog with me quite a long time fairly reasonably. Then we shifted into talking about the gospels, and I said something that was probably too much for him or indirectly insulting and he said he thought I was crazy and left. That was a situation where I think it shifted from D to A.
There may be another category -- the person who just throws out more and more books because they know that there's no possible way that someone could be intellectually justified in holding a position contrary to their own. I've been in situations where this was my read of the book suggestions. Were I to complete the books and remain unconvinced, it would not have increased the respect the other had for my position. Instead, more books would have come, or simply challenges aimed at whether I was really open minded or objective.
This might be more about the book suggestor than the doubter. Suggestor presents books under the guise of remedying what he claims is ignorance in the doubter; "If you really understood the subjects, you'd be intellectually justified in forming an opinion." What might be occurring is that the suggestor can't cope with someone who both knows a lot (or enough) and still doesn't believe. Thus, the books serve as a perpetual barrier to obtaining respect.
An interesting extension of this requirement to be justified in non-belief is whether our book suggesters in categories A or D apply the same standards to those who do believe. In other words, is there a higher burden of education placed on dissenters than assenters? If I don't have enough education to doubt a god, do believers have enough to worship/follow it? From my experience, the answer is "No." I consider myself more well versed in the field of apologetics (at least being aware of it) than most in my circles (who are almost all devout Christians). Adam Lee, author of Daylight Atheism, just wrote about this on his blog, citing an email exchange we had early in my doubts and puts things quite well.
I'm not ignorant of my finger pointing leading to three pointing back at me, either. Or at least I admit that this is something I need to be aware of as well. Should someone read something I send them and not be convinced, my reflex shouldn't be that the really didn't get it, or that they decided ahead of time not to be open to it. I should stick with the facts: they read a piece of literature and were not convinced by it.
To wrap up (wow, this got long...), my current take is that one should be very cautious of being confident in this realm. After two years of investigation almost night and day, it's the muddiest topic I've ever tried to research. The world stage agrees with me much more than anyone who thinks that their religion is clearly correct and that other believers are either deceived, ignorant, unjustified, sinful, rebellious or stupid. One of the things I found quite eye opening was listening to a gentleman named Joshua Evans who converted to Islam from Christianity. I couldn't believe how passionately he talked, how clearly educated he was, how serious he was about his faith, and so on. I've heard the same at any retreat I've been at. Clearly he knows his stuff and yet it has taken him to a different place. To of his videos are Top 10 Reasons Jesus is not God and How the Bible Led me to Islam. Check them out and soak in his journey!
On a *completely* different note, I do have one question for you - this is absolutely not in any way a challenge or the beginning of a debate, I'm simply curious as to what your perspective is, since I'm positive this must be something that you - with your highly analytical mind - have already asked:
As an atheist, how do you approach the concept of mathematical infinity and space/time eternity both past and future?
I don't think too much about this, at least anymore. Listening to many debates in which William Lane Craig was a participant did have the obligatory effect of familiarizing me with his flavor of the cosmological argument which includes discussion about infinity a la Hilbert's Hotel. My current take is that I'm not sure the concept of mathematical infinity is/was intended to track with reality. It's useful, but doesn't mean that being able to write "∞" and think "the most that can exist" means that such a concept exists in reality. Our brains think sequentially; iteratively stacking is bound to produce issues, as one can always add one more... and thus infinity always brings about paradoxes and issues when trying to imagine an actual infinite set of discrete components. In the sense of counting numbers, no, I don't think an actual infinity exists.
Regarding time, we may very well live in a time block, not on a time line. Thus, all the time that exists might already exist. We experience it as a continuum, but this doesn't mean that's how it is. In that sense, it might not suffer from the same issues of infinite regression/extension that numbers do (in the counting sense).