Saturday, May 30, 2009

Maybe You've Been Brainwashed, Too...

But isn’t it a wonderful world, Carolina? Look at the birds in the sky Jehovah made this whole joint for you, Carolina So isn’t it wonderful to be alive? -- “Jehovah Made this Whole Joint for You,” The New Radicals Don’t you just love my command of random ‘90s music everyone should have forgotten about by now? Anyway, ever since Ethan Siegel joined Scienceblogs I’ve been a regular reader of Starts with a Bang! It’s just damn good astronomy stuff written by a guy who has a real sense of wonder about the universe and an infectious enthusiasm about the learning. Plus he just totally looks like a stud in that spandex outfit in his profile picture… I started reading Arthur C. Clarke when I was just a young Geds and it had a fairly profound effect on my development. I found the way Clarke communicated the nature of the universe fascinating. The fact is, too, that the more we learn about the universe the more amazing it becomes. We only figured out that the Milky Way isn’t the only galaxy about a hundred years ago. A few hundred years before that we figured out that the stars in the night sky are actually suns, some like ours, some not so much, and that each of those distant suns may well have their own planets on which there might be life. There was a time before that, of course, when the human race thought that the sun revolved around the Earth. It’s really quite amazing. Our knowledge of the universe is expanding rapidly. As our knowledge of the vast size of the universe expands the position of the human race moves ever fringeward from that place atop the pyramid of all creation. This, I think, is a good thing. Of course humans will always think they’re the center of their own universe to a certain extent. This is forgivable and understandable. We’re limited in our ability to comprehend things, after all. We’re also trapped inside the walls of our skin and forever separated from the rest of our world. All our perception gets filtered through the individual understanding, the individual perspective, and the individual history. So we are limited in our ability to empathize. We can feel the pain or joy of another, but not in the intimate way the other feels it. Some people are better at recognizing and compensating for that than others. The ones that are tend to be compassionate, empathetic people. The ones that aren’t tend to be selfish, self-absorbed people. There are, of course, other factors that create the plot points on that continuum, but in general I believe I’m not going too far out on a limb when I draw that comparison. As I’ve lately considered the size of the universe and my own extreme tininess I’ve been reminded of a question that was posed to me a few times when I finally went public with my non-Christianity. The question was asked different ways each time but could basically be answered the same way. Although the worst part about the question wasn’t how it was asked, but the fact that it was asked at all. The question basically boiled down to this: “Have you considered how your decision to leave Christianity would affect me?” The answer to the direct question is, “Fuck no. Why should I?” There are, of course, plenty of times when it’s really, really important to consider how the action I am going to take will affect others around me. Like, say I was married and one day decided, “You know what? I’m going to move to Burma.”* My theoretical wife would then be perfectly within her rights if she said, “I think you should really think about what this move is going to do to me. Also, here are some divorce papers. Jackass.” I do not, however, think that it is my responsibility to canvass everyone I know before I change my opinions on things. Even if those things are really big. Because when it gets right down to it, my decision to eat Cheerios for breakfast and my decision to switch from Christianity to atheism have the exact same net effect on the person sitting across from me: zero. That’s the joy of living in a free country. Nobody’s going to break down my door and drag my family out in to the street for being an atheist. Well, at least not in the part of the free country I live in. I’ve heard stories from some other parts of the country. We really have a lot of work to do on that whole tolerance thing. However, that doesn’t stop certain people from thinking that I was supposed to sit down and think long and hard about how my decision was going to change their life. This honestly mystified me for a while. Then I realized something. Ever since I started reading Arthur C. Clarke (or maybe even before, I don’t know) I’ve been impressed by the epic scale of the universe I occupy. In the days after my initial switch from Christianity I often paraphrased Douglas Adams and said that I felt so much better when I wasn’t worried about being under the microscope of the god of the universe and instead allowed to be just one of six billion people on a backwater planet on the outer edge of an arm of a nondescript galaxy. The universe, for me, was finally in its proper context, everything was finally in its proper order. I found myself by figuring out just how little anyone really cared about who I was. It was a tremendous boon to my sanity in those days when I was still so close to the point where I thought I’d lose my mind. Unfortunately for me not everyone shares my opinion of the place of the individual human in relation to the theoretical center of the universe. So I occasionally find myself subjected to the inherently stupid question about whether I thought about how my decision would change the life of the asker. Chances are they didn’t even realize that’s what they were asking, though. For a lot of Christians I used to hang out with the idea of being the center of the universe wasn’t even up for debate. They were, even if they didn’t say it in so many words. This is the danger of believing that there is a god and that your god has nothing more important to do than sit around and wait for you to start praying. It’s probably why Copernicus was so freaked when he uncovered the true nature of the solar system that he didn’t publish his findings until his death. Yes, the direct cause of theoretical punishment to Copernicus would have been his challenge to Church dogma. But the proximate cause was that he upset the Church’s notion that it was the center of the universe. The Church would say, of course, that it wasn’t the center of the universe. Everything came from god, after all. We were just the pinnacle and center of creation. I suppose my interrogators would make the same argument. But if you honestly believe that the god who is the center of your universe is just sitting by the hypothetical phone waiting for you to call, is that god really the center of the universe? If you believe that god orders everything just so to make sure that you get to work on time or find the right school or what have you, is god really the universal fulcrum? Hell no. That was one of the things that absolutely shocked me when my own perspective shifted. I’d always taken it for granted that god heard my prayers and had time for me because when I lived in that subculture I took its attitudes for granted. If everyone is praying and believes that god is listening it’s fairly easy to agree. This is human nature. When I was no longer immersed in that culture, though, I suddenly saw its attitudes in a new light. I was shocked by the unbridled arrogance of my former co-religionists and how flimsy the wrapper of humility with which they surrounded themselves actually was. My opinion of several people I’d once really liked dropped precipitously in the months that followed my casting off of religion. It’s good, though, to be reminded of that every once in a while. So do yourself a favor. Go poke around on Starts with a Bang! for a while. Go dig up an Arthur C. Clarke book. Or just go outside on a clear night in the lowest light pollution you can find and look up. Think about the fact that some 15 billion years ago the process started that brought us to where we are now. Think about the fact that some of those bright specks in the sky are stars just like ours that might have planets like Earth. Think about the fact that other specks are entire galaxies that are so far away the light you’re seeing started on its journey toward us millions or even billions of years ago. Take a minute to revel in the sheer enormousness of the universe. Drink it in. And then remember that you’re just a tiny speck on the surface of a small planet orbiting a nondescript star on the far end of medium sized galaxy. It’ll be good for your soul. I promise. ---------------------------------- *Does Burma still exist? I should look that up…

6 comments:

Andrew said...

Before I even read this blog entry, I must say, no, we shouldn't forget something as fantastic as the New Radicals' album. It's great! Okay, now I'll read your blog :)

Andrew said...

Good stuff Geds. I haven't spent a lot of time on your blog, just out of sheer time issues, but now I'm going to make time. I like your take on things. The question, "Have you considered how it would affect me when you left Christianity," strikes me as strange. What brand of Christianity was this?

jessa said...

I'm sorry, but I just have to analogize to mental health care again.

When Christians ask you if you have thought about how your decision would affect them, it totally comes out of a mindset that they are the center of the universe. But I suspect that it is also motivated by that whole "get them to believe no matter what you have to do; the means don't matter so long as the end, belief, is achieved" mindset. Both of those aspects of the Evangelical mindset are pretty despicable from our point of view and I would argue that they are objectively despicable. But we'll have a hard time convincing them of that because, since the only thing that really matters to them is salvation, even if they understood why we think that is despicable, they would believe that the despicable-ness is excusable in the service of saving souls.

I have seen the same sort of reaction to suicide and suicide attempts: "did you ever stop to think how that would affect me?" I find this actually much worse than when this question is posed in your situation, Geds, because, to me, in the situation of suicide, this question is sadistic. It is kind of saying, "I know you are thinking about suicide because your suffering is so intolerably extreme, but did you ever stop to think that I might suffer as a consequence? That I might experience your suicide as a pin prick to the anesthetic-less amputation you are suffering as a result of being alive? I want you to continue your intolerable suffering so that I don't have to experience that comparatively insignificant twinge." On one hand, this expresses that same center of the universe mindset. In this case, I can actually empathize with that more than when Christians do this to the newly de-Christianeds, because I do understand that the suicide of a loved one is painful. But the other aspect, the "achieving the end by whatever means necessary" is so much worse in this case. For Christians, the means necessary are usually just annoying people and being really rude to them, but in the case of preventing suicide, the means necessary to keep people alive are sometimes sadistic, inflicting continued suffering on the people who are already suffering the most. Sometimes this makes me sob convulsively because I have experienced this kind of suffering, but especially because I am fairly certain that others have suffered more intensely.

I'm never sure that I have thoroughly expressed just how awful I think this kind of absolutist suicide prevention is. But, I used the word "sadistic", which is a very strong word, and I hope you realize that it isn't one I take lightly, and that all of this is completely sincere. And it isn't that I am totally pro-suicide. I am here talking about those situations in which suicide really does make sense. I'm not against stopping the girl who just broke up with her boyfriend and who would regret committing/attempting suicide, I'm talking about those whose suffering is on an entirely different scale.

Geds said...

Hi, Andrew. Welcome.

The Christianity in question was the non-denominational Bible-church variety of Christianity. I also spent some time with Baptists, but it was the non-denom Bible-churchians that were asking me if I'd figured out how things affected them.

jessa: To be fair, if you weren't writing stuff about mental health care, I'd start to wonder if you were doing okay...

big a said...

Burma's totally Myanmar now, dude; and has been for some time.

mercury said...

Knowing I'm not on top of God's pinnacle of priorities has made me feel better too. :)

And yeah, Burma still exists. The military regime has renamed it Myanmar, though. The woman who won in their last set of election in 1990 or whenever it was - Aung San Suu Kyi - is in court again. She's probably going to be found guilty of harboring illegal outsiders and put back under house arrest. (She's been under house arest on and off for the past... 14, 15 years I think.)

(My grandpa is Anglo-Burmese, so I'm semi up to date on these things. Aun San Suu Kyi is one of my heroes these days, too.)