Thursday, November 12, 2015

Pendulum swinging in our direction: but faith equilibrium a major challenge

It's been quite an active last few months for me as an atheist and secularist. Haven't had the chance to put out all the various thoughts and reflections, but there has been no shortage of material coming in.

Starting back in August, I had the pleasure of attending the first atheist conference held in Puerto Rico. That filled me with optimism as I heard stories of secularism and activities to make sure that the separation of church and state that is clear in the US constitution, extends to this Caribbean island territory. However, at that conference there was also a measure of despair as I heard of the hold that faith thinking has in that country. A kind of addiction to dogma that I have seen at play in many other Caribbean islands. The news that they had a police road stop to force drivers to have a pray was certainly an eye opener. Definitely won't be forgetting that one soon. 

In the USA itself,  the excitement of marriage equality was tempered by the obstinance of Kim Davis and her continued refusal to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples. A lot has been written and said about that issue, but it shows plainly that the defiance of those in the religious right who always think they are right, knows no bounds. Then news of Pew studies showing declining interest in faith and religion in the youth was counter balanced by the Popemania that surrounded the tour Francis took to the US. 

On a personal note, the feature of some of my work in Greta Christina's blog was a boost to me to continue to work to promote secularism in the Caribbean. I still feel humbled to be considered an 'atheist leader', but I received quite a few new contacts and messages of interest in our efforts in the Caribbean stemming from that article. I can only believe that this will augur well for our future growth. So thanks again to Greta for all of that.

Meanwhile, in Calgary a torn banner at our counter protest against Jesse Rau,  the driver claiming persecution for having to drive an LGBT bus, reinforced in my mind the vitriol coming from the small but very vocal and influential fundamentalist wing here in this city. A few weeks later, the first Alberta secular conference was cause for some optimism once again, even as we learnt of creationism and other anti science attitudes pervading the schools throughout the province. 

In Barbados, my island of birth, a tragic vehicular accident that left four dead, has been met with calls to pray and look towards God for assistance rather than exploring ways to fix the condition of a road that has seen many serious accidents at that spot over the years. My brave colleagues in the Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers group in Barbados still have their work cut out in convincing those around them that leaning on the Lord is not worth it all in the end.

The latest flicker of hope has come here in Canada where the new prime minister Justin Trudeau has brought what looks like a sweeping change to how critical thinking will be valued. Ministries dedicated to issues such as science advancement and climate change are definitely steps in the right direction. Meanwhile south of the border, Donald Trump and Ben Carson battle for first place as the Republican nominee for the 2016 US election. Enough said. 

As I write this, reports are coming in of a deadly terrorist attack in Paris at the hands of ISIS. Yet another grave reminder of what can happen when religion holds sway over reason.

I could speak of many more ups and downs to my secular morale over recent times. Over and over again, you think the pendulum is swinging in a progressive secular direction, but just as you are about to celebrate, there is a sharp and vicious swing back to faith positions and a trust in dogma and the divine.
In looking back at how the pendulum has been swinging recently,  I couldn't help but think that the same movements that happen towards and away from secularism in our societies, happen in the minds of individuals who are exposed to the paradigms of both religion and realism on a daily basis. Of course we in the atheist community would just like to grab hold of these ever swinging pendulums and hold them in the rational position. We as persons that consider reason to be the best road to reality, don't go back and forth on the faith issue like so many of our believer friends do. As atheists, we see no reason to return to faith positions even for a fleeting moment. 

However, if we don't understand the nature of the faith/ reason swing in the minds of different believers, we'll never figure out what we need to do to get people to get off this continuing, repeating cycle and dwell in the region of reason, that promises a future ripe with exciting possibilities for all.

Analysing the swing  

So, let's look at this pendulum in more detail. Where does this oscillation come from? It comes from that conflict that leads to the much discussed cognitive dissonance. The dissonance we experience from living in a world where we are regularly fed the message that faith and reason are both important. Every believer that I have engaged in discussion over the god question, has assigned some value to both faith based and evidence based beliefs.

Some believers see the two as equally important, for some faith should always trump reason and for others of them reason takes precedent over the dogma. But whatever they have faith in and however strongly they believe it, they argue that these unsubstantiated beliefs have some value to individual and/ or society and that is why they hold on to them.

That being said, believers cannot deny that they live essentially in a world where rationality rules. A world where we have proven over and over again that looking at the evidence, developing hypotheses, testing those hypotheses in light of observations, drawing inferences and then further testing these inferences through making predictions, is by far the best way to learn what is true about the universe we live in. 

Invariably these truths that reason tells them comes into conflict with what faith and religion tell them, but because ultimately survival in reality is first and foremost on the mind of most people, believers are just as quick as atheists to put all their  trust in science  when it comes to those critical decisions that could mean the difference between life and death.

They will go to doctors when sick, take out insurance, consume medicines that have been FDA approved and wear helmets or seatbelts that have been tested to the required safety standards. When believers engage in these actions, they are behaving like a pendulum swinging away from its faith centre. The swing away is not permanent however, because latent faith inherent in them remains strong even while  they do their reasoning. We know from observation that a swing back to faith is never far away for these believers. That pull of attraction from the extremes of reason back to the centre of faith, comes from the emotional factors in their lives and the widespread idea that is perpetuated in many societies that I have been exposed to. The idea that everybody needs to have faith and that we all 'have to believe in something'.

We are told that we need to have faith even to make sense of anything. In one of life's greatest oxymorons we are told that reason means nothing unless there is faith to ground it in. We are told we need it to have purpose, to be assured of a life after death, to experience love, to be moral beings, to be true supporters of our families traditions or the countries in which we live. The combination of all these forces is what continually ensures that the pendulum swings back towards the faith centre after each journey towards the extremities of reason.

To explain this more clearly, I hope you indulge me in a short physics lesson.

Faith is represented by the middle position (A) which is equilibrium. This is where the believer feels most comfortable. It's a natural, familiar position and any deviation from this point feels like a displacement.

Education, exposure to the scientific method, problem solving and critical thinking pushes the believer away from his midpoint of faith comfort, just like a physical push of a hand on a pendulum 'bob' causes it to move it away from equilibrium. 

Just as with the pendulum in the diagram above, the greater the force of reason the greater the push from the equilibrium and the greater the amplitude of the swing towards (B) or (C) which are the points of maximum 'reason'. These points of maximum reason are where the potential (energy)  of the believer is at its highest. As the distance the pendulums swings increases,  the height which it can reach also increases. It can be thrilling and exciting for even the most  devout believer to push towards those reason 'maximums'  where you can figure things out by thoroughly thinking through a problem. Exploring topics such as the evolution of our species or the expansion of our universe after the Big Bang can be truly exhilarating, like being thrust into the air on your favourite ride at a theme park.

But of course with that excitement comes a level of fear as well. The further the believer gets away from that initial ground level, the greater the worry of being separated from 'home territory'. They can see their faith slipping away in the distance, even as they revel in the height of discovery in science and reason. Eventually the forces that act as a constraint to reason become too strong, and the believer slows down as 'reason maximum' is approached. 

If you look back at the pendulum above, you will recognise that the greater the distance from the initial equilibrium point (A) the greater the force pulling the 'bob' back to that equilibrium point.  In my experience, this is how faith works with a lot of believers. The greater  the extent to which their faith is tested, the stronger the urge within them is to get back to their faith. The more they start to doubt, the more scared they become and the more desperately they try to cling back on to the faith centre that keeps their life in balance.

This not only comes when they are pushed into reason by intellectual pursuits, it happens when they have those emotional jolts in the pendulum of life  that make the god they believe in seem distant. The times like four families in Barbados are facing right at this moment, as they come to terms with the fact that four of their most beloved have had their lives snatched away in their prime. Those kind of tragedies that push the believer's pendulum into planes of uncertainty and doubt are followed up by extremely strong dependencies on faith present at their core to get through it. In essence, the more experiences in life push these people away from belief, the greater their desire to hold on to that same belief. That's how it tends to work for believers and that's why they keep swinging like a pendulum and most never get to the point of  grounding themselves in reason's territory.

Sadly, this swing back to faith centre happens also when we atheists engage believers in extended, discussions and debates. For many, the more you bring arguments against their belief the more they dig into hold their belief.  They'll acknowledge the points we make but still say that the belief in the god they believe in is locked at 100%. I can't tell you how many believers that I have had discussions with, claim that their faith in God has been STRENGTHENED as a result of our discussion. It's frustrating as hell, but now I am realising that it is nothing more than the simple harmonic motion of their pendulum of faith.

The strength of the centripetal force in the faith pendulum is immense, but remarkably still often underestimated. Faith congregations, faith communities and faith countries all play a large part in this force to bring back those swaying from the faith. They do this by telling the believer who deviates from faith that they just have to pray more, ask Jesus for help, or just go to the pastor for a counselling session. The more the believer questions the more measures the faithful around the believer will put in place to stop them from drifting completely away.

With these types of messages circling around, the believer will then actively try to erase the doubts. The desire to have faith will at that point come to the fore. The believer will while acknowledging doubt, continue to tell themselves that they 'just got to have faith'. It's the old 'fake it til you make it' rule. If you believe enough, suppress your reason enough, you will be able to force yourself back to the centre with the help of those 'pulling for faith' around you.

But what happens when the believers get back to centre? Let's look at the pendulum again. The believer starts moving away from faith once more. That is because as much as faith is a comfort, it's easy to be pushed away again to reality through reason. Indeed in a pendulum the velocity (speed) is maximum as it moves through that equilibrium point. The 'bob' of the believer just can't stop there in the middle as the challenges to faith and belief are always around. They feel the urge to keep moving, because in that position they have a large amount of kinetic energy. As much as a believer just tries to remain at that faith centre, it very seldom happens. Many Christians will claim that this failure to remain at the centre is the fault of sin or the devil. But I don't think so, it's just nature and reality. You just can't live in that fantasy world all the time. That's why so many faith activities, are done at certain times with a definite start and finish and then it's back to 'reality'.Church on Sunday morning, bible study on Wednesday night, or praying facing mecca at five specific times of the day. Faith is a little 'check in' with god to make sure you are OK. Then you can move back out in to your world of reality and reason, until you have the realization of too much drift and then come surging back to centre for one more go around.

This is the reason why believers, however questioning and skeptical they may be in everyday life, never quite get away from oscillating back and forth around their faith equilibrium. They may swing miles and miles away from their faith home, but there is always something in their centre that brings them back. The swing back may be after one week from Sunday to Sunday, a year between Easter and Easter, or even decades between when the children came along and when the sceptre of death begins to threaten.

I know many believers that are on the pendulum. They swing a lot, they swing widely and sometimes wildly, but they keep hanging on.  I was on it myself for more than 35 years. So I know more than most, that it can be extremely hard to remove yourself from it.  As it is with the pendulums we come across in physics, so it is with believers. Not all of them swing to the same extent or with the same frequency. Below are three types of pendulum believers I have come across. Maybe you know them too!

Wrecking ball believers

These are by far the hardest believers to deal with. The ball on their pendulum is heavy, really, really heavy. You try to push it and it just doesn't move an inch. Yon can try every instrument you have in your reason toolbox, but they just won't budge.  They are rigid in their beliefs,  the entire bible is inerrant, everything written there is absolutely and undeniably true. 

You bring your skeptic friends around, yell at everybody around to push simultaneously, and still no movement. Feels like this type of believer's  stubbornness weighs over a tonne and it probably does. They deny evolution, climate change and any other part of science that even appears to be a distant threat to their cherished dogma.

You may have to bring a crane to get movement, but you must be careful, because balls of that mass at the end of a pendulum can be really unstable. And because they are heavy if they move and hit something they can do a lot of damage to everything around them. People, buildings, towns, vehicles, nothing is safe. These are wrecking ball believers.

Their beliefs in absurdities can easily turn to atrocities. These are the raging fundamentalists. The Fred Phelps, the ISIS, the Westboro Baptists. No controlling these kind of believers, just best to try to contain them and make sure they are never close to anything that can be destroyed.

Metronomic believers

These type of believers are not usually dangerous but they can be infuriating as hell. I know quite a few of these and there were common in the Anglican church that I was once a part of.

For these believers its all about routine. Everything has to be done in an exact and completely predictable way when it comes to worship. They are like clockwork. Like a metronome keeping exact time to the music.

Prayers must start at a certain time. Incense must be swung when it has to be, not a moment too early or late and the swing must be consistent.  Hymns must be played as written, no slowing down or quickening up, no pretty improvisations. These guys will go crazy if anything changes in the church. Ask them what their faith means to them they can't tell you. Ask them what they believe is true and they give some vague wishy washy answer.

But change one thing in the liturgy and it's hell to pay.

Free swinging pendulum believers.

These are the type of believers I like to engage with and I daresay most atheists too, even as we wonder why they don't just jump off the swing and join us. These believers swing in reason's pendulum with childlike glee. Not that they have childlike faith, far from that, they have great maturity. However, they have a child like curiosity, that spurs them on higher and higher. They are like the kid playing in the park that just wants you to push the swing harder and harder, so that they can feel their body going up, up into orbit. They don't settle for the regular or ordinary, they seek to push the envelope of discovery.

At their best these free flowing pendulum believers can be among the greatest of scientists and skeptics. They can blow your mind with ideas, levels of creativity and understanding of complex concepts. 

These tend to be the liberal believers, the 'spiritual but not religious', those that insist there are agnostics or even ignostics. Yep they'll carry any label that sticks just to avoid 'atheist'. Let me clarify that  I respect people's right to self identify in their faith or non faith in any way that they see fit. But when I see people who essentially agree with my philosophical position, desperate to avoid the label that quite clearly fits, I tend to ask why.  I think it has a large part to do with there desire to keep that faith equilibrium, be seen to have it or at least not be seen to have lost it. Perhaps the strongest emotional force that keeps people wanting to have a faith centre of some kind is the idea that faith is a virtue. It may be irrational, it may sometimes be laughable and ridiculous, it  may even in some people lead violence, but it's still all in all seen as a trait to be desired.  And nobody wants to identify with a trait that is undesirable. People generally don't want to go around saying they have thrown away that faith equilibrium that is valued by so many.

We as atheists often don't see this when we are dealing with these free flowing pendulum believers. When they swing up in to reason's territory we get excited. They reason with a critical eye, see through biblical contradictions, smell the bullshit like it really is and we sit there waiting, thinking that it's just a matter of time. We'll just keep the challenges up, show them more and more about how faith isn't worth it and they'll come around to reality, happily throwing faith away completely, just like we did. But they don't, they keep holding on to that faith centre no matter how much their rational mind tells them it's not needed. And what do we do? We keep adding more reason pushing them harder, forcing them more but like the pendulum 'bob' they just keep swinging back.

We have to understand that giving then the push of reason is not effective on its own, the only way to truly make the difference is to break the chain of the pendulum and set the 'bob' free completely. We need to break the pendulum not just push it harder in the hope that magically sometime in the future the system will collapse under its own weight. Breaking the oscillatory cycle means chipping away at that centripetal forces that draw believers to the centre. That force is mainly about desire stemming from an assumed need, so essentially what we have to do from an individual and community perspective is to work at removing that desire to embrace faith. As long as people continue to hold the position that faith is a virtue, they will seek it out and we'll keep going through the same cycle over and over again.

We atheists often actively encourage believers to cling to their faith equilibrium.  We tell them if faith works for them they should cherish it and  keep it. Sometimes we even apologize for not having faith ourselves. I used to do that a lot. We tell believers that we wish we could believe but we just can't. It gives people in the faith the idea that atheists are people with an emotional handicap, a kind of 'god blindness'. So those liberal pendulum believers begin to feel they are better than we are. Having the best of both worlds, reasoning with the best and still able to hold on to a steadfast faith.

We have to stop speaking about losing faith as if it we have lost something of value.  We have to emphasise  that faith is NOT a virtue. This is where I agree a lot with Peter Boghossian's approach of showing faith as a flawed epistemology, a bad process for making decisions, doesn't matter if it's a decision about what to eat for dinner, which elementary school to send your children to or what god to believe in. It is more the method of faith belief rather than the content of faith belief that we should be attacking.

If people start to realize the dangers of making decisions without evidence, eventually they will abandon it. It will be a long eventually, because of all the other emotional forces that keep the believer swinging back to faith centres.  But in time as we build the secular institutions and show how much wonder there is in the world and the satisfaction associated with really figuring out an answer rather than guessing at an answer, faith will become less attractive. I look forward to the day that the masses look for centres for inquiry rather than centres for faith, to keep them moving froward. When faith is seen universally as an unattractive way to live,  believers will cut away from the pendulum themselves. I did it and more and more people are doing it. As I said, I was swinging on that pendulum for years before I got my scissors  and had the courage to cut the cord.

In the end, my decision to cut that faith out was done not because I no longer needed it. It was done, believe it or not, because I no longer wanted it.


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  3. That's all-fine-and-dandy if God wasn't above -and- Satan wasn't below waiting for U.S. Know how I aint gonna fall down to my death? True, we all croak as our bodies are mortal... yet, our soul is INDELIBLE (never dying, infinite); thus, as our body decomposes at death, our INDELIBLE soul rises-up to meet our Maker and we decide on where we wanna live our eternity: L or R, up or down, Seventh-Heaven or the Abyss o'Misery.

    Still here?

    God gives U.S. free-will in our finite existence, thus, what we sinfull mortals DO with our FREE-WILL determines our destiny for eternity:

    Only 2 realms after our lifelong demise, brudda, and 1 of em aint too cool.

    trustNjesus, pal.
    Meet me Upstairs.
    Let's getta Big-Ol beer...
    gotta lotta tok bout.