I had the dubious honor of attending and graduating from two religious institutions. I completed my undergraduate education at a small, protestant liberal arts school in Texas and then did my graduate studies at a Catholic (Jesuit) school in Wisconsin. All snark aside, I had excellent, life-shaping experiences at both schools and wouldn’t trade my education for anything. Okay, I studied history so maybe I would trade my formal education for a time machine but beyond that I value my education and credit it with shaping who I am today.
What with me spending six consecutive years in private, religious institutions and all, you would think I would have become more religious. For awhile that was the case. However, after my deconversion I looked back on my education and identified a few highly enlightened people who helped put me on the path to critical thinking. I think this is a fairly common phenomenon for atheists who grew up religious. We look back and go “How did I get this way?”
One moment that stands out for me now is a course I took my senior year of undergrad. It was enticingly titled Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters. It was a communications course and I was looking for a few extra credits and basically an easy A on my way out the door. My academic advisor, knowing my devotion to The X-Files, recommended I take this course.
I am so glad I did. It wasn’t about The X-Files at all (surprise, surprise). It was a course in skepticism lovingly cloaked in creative writing exercises and reading assignments that kept me awake at night with their dark creepiness. Alien abductions, account after account after account, until I began to doubt my doubt. For months, Nessie and Bigfoot and all their cryptid friends haunted my dreams. I was obsessed with ghost photography and spent hours combing the interwebs for convincing evidence of an afterlife. Underneath the creep-fest, however, was a running theme of skepticism. What of these ghost, aliens, and monster stories do we believe? And if we say we believe them, WHY? What reason do we give for accepting some and rejecting others? And above all, how do people communicate truth?
It was challenging and more fun than I deserved my senior year. The crown jewel of the course was a writing assignment at the end of the semester where we had to outline our unified theory of belief. If we believed in god, but not ghosts, aliens or monsters then we had to specify what criteria our belief or rejection was based on. I remember this being an uncomfortable exercise for me. Because I was a god believer, I wanted my belief criteria to be inclusive enough for god but exclusive of the crazy stuff like ghosts and aliens. I can’t find the paper I wrote (I think it was saved on one of those old 3 1/2 inch disks that no one uses anymore), but I don’t recall feeling good about that paper. I remained religious for years and years after this course, but it was an important stepping stone. What the course did for me was expose a weakness in my faith. It put my invisible friend squarely in the category with the other supernatural stuff that I simply could not justify belief in.
So, what criteria do I use now to determine what is believable and what isn’t? Well, for one, I don’t really like the word belief anymore. I would much rather accept ideas based on evidence than believe. The world looks different to me now (and better, I think). Like when you realized your Mom and Dad really were Santa Claus and the world suddenly made a little more sense. Years after taking Ghosts, Aliens and Monsters, I would pick up Richard Dawkins for the first time and read the following words: “Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun? The answer to these questions is evidence.” (Good and Bad Reasons for Believing, Richard Dawkins).
What criteria for belief have you established for yourself? Feel free to discuss in the comments….