How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 2

This is Part Two of a serial. In our previous episode, our heroine had gone from the deep-rooted but unexamined agnosticism of her childhood, through a credulous hippie woo-woo bullshit phase in her college and just-post-college years, to a general belief in some sort of animating spirit that inhabited all living things and that survived in some form after death. We now return to the story.

And then two things started to happen.

First: I began to get interested in books about science, and especially the science of the brain and the mind.

Which was a problem.

It’s not that the science of the brain and the mind actually disproves the existence of the soul. It doesn’t. That wasn’t the problem.

Here was the problem: Reading books about the science of the brain and the mind made it very clear to me — unmistakably, unignorably clear — just how easy it is for the human mind to deceive itself. From optical illusions, to auditory hallucinations, to wildly inaccurate memories that are remembered clear as day, and so on and so on and so on  the human brain and human mind are tricksters. They fool themselves. They see and recognize faces, whether there’s a face to see or not. They’re far more likely to see what they expect to see than what they don’t expect to see, regardless of what’s actually there. They eagerly embrace evidence that fits their theories about how things work, and just as eagerly reject evidence that doesn’t. And they see patterns, and intention, and cause and effect, EVERYWHERE. Absolutely everywhere. For very good evolutionary reasons, this is all part of how brains work.

All of them.

Every remotely functioning human brain.

Including mine.

And once I knew — in some length and in tremendous detail — just how easy it is for the mind to be fooled, just how possible it is that the faces and patterns and intentions it’s seeing really aren’t there, it became impossible to believe something simply because I personally experienced it. Or rather, it became impossible to believe something about the external world, with no question or room for doubt, simply because I personally experienced it. I could look inward to decide if I really wanted to quit my job, or get involved with Ingrid  but I couldn’t look inward to decide if the World-Soul was real, or my mother was really visiting me in my dreams. If I was walking down the street and suddenly felt the presence of a beloved dead person wash over me, I could no longer assume that I was really experiencing a visitation simply because the experience was vivid and powerful.

Which leads me to the second thing that happened. The second thing that happened was that, somewhat by accident, I started reading the Skeptical Inquirer.

Which was a problem for three reasons.

Reason One: I had believed for a long time that spiritual beliefs were beyond questions of evidence or proof  and that therefore, except for the obviously wacky ones (how I defined “obviously wacky” wasn’t clear to me even at the time), pretty much any spiritual belief could reasonably be held by any reasonable person.

The Skeptical Inquirer — and its mission of applying rigorous scientific methods to testing claims of the paranormal — made it brutally clear that this was not the case. At least some claims about spirituality — such as astrology, or faith healing, or speaking with the dead — could be tested. And while they couldn’t definitively disprove (for instance) the existence of life after death, they could show that, every time a claim of speaking to the dead was rigorously tested, it utterly failed the test.

Every single time.

That’s daunting.

Reason Two: I’ve always considered myself someone who cares about truth, more than almost anything else. I’ve prided myself on being someone who was willing to face reality, even when it was harsh; who believed that understanding the world to the best of my ability was the foundation of deciding how to act in that world; and who was willing to change my mind and admit I was wrong when the evidence demanded it.

Reading the Skeptical Inquirer made me feel like I was being challenged to live up to that principle.

Reason Three: Reading the Skeptical Inquirer made me aware that there was a community of people who felt the same way I did about Reason Number Two — a community I respected, and admired, and wanted to be part of.

There is actually a third thing that happened as well: something that doesn’t quite fit into the same category as the other two, but that was powerfully important anyway. And that’s that I fell in love with Ingrid  and started hearing her sad and awful stories about her fundamentalist grandparents, and the terrible rift that religion had caused in her family, and her anger and grief about it. This wasn’t something that forced me to question my own beliefs, exactly. But it brought the whole question of religion front and center in my life, in a way that it really hadn’t been before, not with my agnostic parents and my lukewarm-Protestant grandparents. Being with Ingrid took this from a somewhat abstract issue to one that was immediate and personal.

At this point, my ripples of belief hadn’t exactly disappeared. But they’d definitely become more shallow. The level of my certainty was dimming: whereas before all this reading and thinking, I’d probably been about a 3 on the Dawkins 1-7 scale of faith (not certain, but leaning towards belief), I was now at least a 4 (thinking that the existence and non-existence of the soul were about equally likely), and maybe even a 5 (not certain, but leaning towards non-belief). The whole “substance that enables us to have consciousness and free will” idea began morphing into “a substance — or maybe just a quality — that enables us to have consciousness and free will.”

And —

most importantly —

I began to realize that I didn’t really believe in the immortal soul because I actually believed it.

I never had.

I believed it because I wanted to believe it. I believed it because I found the idea of permanent death to be dreadfully painful, and I found the idea of some sort of afterlife — even a nebulous afterlife in which my soul dissolved into the world-soul — to be a comfort.

But this realization pretty much shot the comfort to hell. This realization made me pretty damned uncomfortable. And when it came right down to it, I wasn’t willing to believe in the soul — or anything — simply because I wanted to. I wasn’t willing to be that sort of person. Self-delusion is human, forgivable, none of us escape it. But willful, conscious self-delusion  that, I believe, is a serious character flaw, and one that leads to an enormous amount of suffering in the world. (“The Iraqi people will greet us as liberators!”) I couldn’t do it.

So I was already teetering on the brink, already leaning towards “I really don’t know what happens when we die, and it’s entirely possible and even likely that death is forever”  when the accident happened.

This is a serial story in three parts. To find out what the accident was and why it mattered, visit this blog again tomorrow for the exciting conclusion.

How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 2

15 thoughts on “How I Became an Atheist, Why I Became an Atheist: Part 2

  1. 1

    Hi Greta,
    I read once that what we know about the human brain is like an encyclopaedia that has been ripped into thousands of tiny pieces and scattered over a city, and we’ve picked up a few meagre scraps of paper and tried to piece them together.
    The more I read about science the more I realise how little we really know.
    Also – the idea of ‘truth’ is a fairly nebulous one. The word is loaded. There may be many or no truths. Perception itself, as you say, alters our findings.
    I suppose this makes me an agnostic…!
    Interesting reading, thank you.

  2. 2

    I was also raised in an agnostic household. I was curious about religion, and no one discouraged me from exploring it, so I’ve pretty much drawn my own conclusions.
    I used to go to church services with various friends in order to understand their beliefs better. I tried hard to be sympathetic to all of their beliefs, but I found that I couldn’t accept any particular religion without rejecting all the others, and I could really find a reason for preferring any one over all the others.
    When I was in college, I had two musician friends who were born-again Christians. We used to get together to play music a lot, but I always avoided talking about religion, because I knew I couldn’t accept their extreme form of fundamentalism, but I still valued their friendship.
    One days they decided they were going to try to “save” me. We ended up talking for several hours, and the end result was that I became a thoroughly convinced atheist.
    The point that really convinced was that, according to them, I had to sincerely believe in God, Jesus and all the other convoluted, self-contradictory stuff in the bible, or I couldn’t be saved. I assured them that I couldn’t believe what they believed because it simply didn’t make sense to me, and why would any god make human beings capable of rational understanding, and then damn them to eternal suffering if that made them incapable of believing nonsense?
    It no only didn’t seem fair; it was totally inconsistent with everything else they said they believed about God. If God cares so much about the birds that he creates them with the innate ability to fly south for the winter, why would he leave so much up to chance when it comes to the eternal life of a human soul? If every bird can be born with the instinctive knowledge of how to migrate to avoid freezing to death, why isn’t every person born with an innate knowledge of God in order to avoid damnation?
    They countered with a feeble “free will” argument, to which I responded that I couldn’t simply choose to believe in something I either couldn’t understand or knew to be false, and if God made me that way, then that was his choice, not mine.
    I was kind of surprised that their faith wasn’t shaken by this conversation, but it was the last time they ever spoke to me.

  3. 3

    My favorite example of how complex the brain is is that, while we can distinguish thousands and thousands of different faces and remember them in sufficient detail to recognize them after many years, we can’t describe them in sufficient detail to allow another person to pick a specific face out of a substantially large crowd.
    For example, if I mention the name, Harrison Ford, you can probably picture what he looks like and recognize his picture, with or without facial hair, but neither you nor I could describe Harrison Ford well enough to someone who had never seen him to allow them to distinguish him from, say, George Clooney or a million other people.

  4. 4

    Skeptical about skepticism
    Hi Greta. Enjoying your tale of journey into atheism; however, it seems to me that agnosticism is as far as skeptical rationality can take us. No spiritual belief system, so far, can explain where God came from, which remains a theological mystery; and no science, so far, can explain where the universe (or whatever existed before the big bang) came from, an equivalent mystery. That makes them equal, in my book, which means the nature of existence at its most elemental levels remains shrouded in mystery.
    And I think we have ample evidence to be skeptical of science, especially when it comes to scientific skepticism about spirit. Science is far from neutral on the issues. Most scientists have a dog in the hunt, an antagonism towards spiritual claims that goes beyond the critical analysis they apply to other inquiries. The beliefs scientists hold do influence their investigations, as we all know. Right wing scientists arrive at right wing conclusions about sex education. Tobacco company scientists arrive at different conclusions than the scientists hired by attorneys involved in lawsuits against tobacco companies. Is there a good reason to think that scientists who begin with a belief that spiritual claims are hocus pocus are likely to change their views after investigating the claims?
    In my view, the 150-year-old split between philosophy and science is unfortunate. Scientists should be actively investigating the world in the context of spiritual beliefs and metaphysical theories, rather than merely and merrily debunking them. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena to be investigated, The Skeptical Inquirer notwithstanding. See for example, Michael Murphy’s “Future of the Body” for a painstaking and diligent compilation of mostly unexplored mysteries of human consciousness.
    Layne Winklebleck

  5. 5

    But I haven’t even finished the story yet! 🙂
    Layne, you old dog, it’s good to see your name pop up here. How the hell are you? I miss the old Spectator days sometimes — that was a good gig when you and Kat were there.
    Now to your comment: I’ve talked about some of what you’re saying here elsewhere in my blog, and I don’t want to bore everyone by repeating it all here. So here’s a couple of links. I talk about the “agnosticism is as far as skeptical rationality can take us” in my “Atheist or Agnostic?” post (brief summary: “atheist” doesn’t necessarily mean being absolutely certain there is no God or spirit, it can also mean thinking it’s not unprovable but extremely unlikely):
    I also talk a little more about that idea, as well as the “no science, so far, can explain where the universe (or whatever existed before the big bang) came from… that makes them equal, in my book” idea in “The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely” (brief summary… I think currently unexplained phenomena are far more likely to wind up having physical explanations than metaphysical ones, for reasons I explain in the piece):
    As to scientists having an axe to grind about religion and spirituality… yes, there’s some truth to that. But I think there are good reasons for that: the essential unprovability (and therefore un-usefulness) of many metaphysical claims being one. (The very annoying tendency of many metaphysical claimants to agree to testing protocols ahead of time, and then get mad and say they weren’t fair after the test is over, being another…)
    More to the point, I think that saying scientists are biased against metaphysics is kind of putting the cart before the horse. I don’t think tests of metaphysical claims fail because the scientists were disinclined to believe them. I think scientists are disinclined to believe in metaphysical claims because they don’t hold up to testing.
    And in any case, I think that the scientific process, in the long run, filters out bad, biased science. That’s kind of how science works — bias can show up in the way tests are set up or run, but if the tests are set up or run fairly, the results will be the results, regardless of what the scientist wanted. And tests can be repeated by other scientists, which will will also filter out bias if the results aren’t replicated. The Skeptical Inquirer’s process seems pretty fair and pretty transparent (of course, I’m not a scientist, so that’s hard for me to judge); but if you look over their articles and think any of them are unfair, you should certainly tell them that. (If memory serves, they have done re-testing because of claims that their protocols were biased.)
    I keep thinking of a story Ingrid told me, about a TV show she saw with a woman who claimed (Ingrid, did I get this right?) that she had been born on Venus and there was a whole domed city there. The show also had an astronomer on, who asked this woman to please tell him exactly where on Venus this domed city was. When she sputtered and said, “You scientists are biased against me, you don’t want to believe me,” he replied, “Are you kidding? I would LOVE to prove that there was a domed city on Venus! If I could prove that, I’d be the most famous astronomer since Copernicus!”
    My point (and I do have one) is that, while scientists are human and thus are just as likely to see what they expect to see as everyone else, the scientific method, when followed correctly, is designed to correct for that as much as is humanly possible. And in the long run, it works pretty well. Scientists are biased, but they’re also — on the whole — curious and careful and open to being proven wrong. (Medical scientists especially. Medical scientists, on the whole, don’t give a flying fart about their theory being right if being proven wrong means saving lives or alleviating suffering.) And if a scientist could definitively prove the existence of (for instance) a metaphysical force behind human consciousness, they’d be the most famous scientist since… well, anybody.

  6. 6

    Hi again Greta.
    Yes, I miss the good ol’ days of Spectator, including our lunches and fun collaboration on all your great reviews. And what a treat now to discover now that you are blogging on the juicy metaphysical stuff that most interests me these days. I may have a comment or two more, but obviously I should wait, as you say, until you finish your story and I will also check out some of your previous writing on the subject first.

  7. 7

    ‘The scientific method, when followed correctly, is designed to correct for that as much as is humanly possible.’ – isn’t that a contradiction in terms? I read that to say: Scientific practitioners do their best not to be influenced by their humanity, but only as much as that is humanly possible…
    I don’t think its possible to filter out bias. Bias is inherent in the system – whether scientific or otherwise.
    (I did read your final installment. While it seems that was a deeply significant experience for you, it was a subjective experience. How is your non-experience under anaesthesia proof or disproof of anything?!)
    Just flying the flag of perpetual doubt…

  8. 8

    How is your non-experience under anaesthesia proof or disproof of anything?!

    I don’t believe it was offered as proof, but rather as evidence in support of a position already supported by a lot of other evidence and arguments.
    Furthermore, it is a repeatable experiment. If you don’t believe her subjective observation, you may try it yourself and see if you have an out of body experience or something. We’ll weight your testimony along with that of all the others who’ve tried it.
    Personally, I was hoping for reincarnation. You know those mechanical breast pumps they sell wherever fine maternity supplies are sold? I was hoping I could come back as one of those. Or maybe a dildo. Sigh….

  9. 9

    “I don’t believe it was offered as proof, but rather as evidence in support of a position already supported by a lot of other evidence and arguments.”
    Yes. Exactly. Thank you, BF.
    My experience of anesthesia *was* subjective, and by itself it doesn’t prove the non-existence of the soul, any more than Michael’s subjective experience of being saved by Jesus Christ (see comment to Part 3 of this piece) proves the existence of Jesus Christ. This piece wasn’t meant to be an argument — it was meant to be a personal narrative.
    But since Nikki asked: I think there is a large body of evidence, growing every day, that selfhood and consciousness are essentially physiological phenomena. The fact that even relatively small changes changes to the brain — drugs, injury, illness, sleep-deprivation, etc. — can make such dramatic changes in a person’s consciousness and character and sense of self, are all evidence of that. My experience of anesthesia certainly isn’t the single most compelling piece of that body of evidence — but because it happened to me, it was the one I found impossible to ignore or rationalize. (And believe me, I tried. Like I said — I’ve come to my peace with this now, but at the time, this was an unbelievably upsetting conclusion.)
    I do think there is still a tremendous amount we don’t know about what exactly consciousness and selfhood are and how the brain produces them. (I have a separate post brewing about that.) But since we have such a large amount of evidence and argument supporting the idea that it’s physical — and none at all that I know of supporting the idea that it’s metaphysical, other than the one I held onto for years, which was essentially “Well, it sure seems that way” — then in the absence of evidence or logical arguments countering the idea, I have to assume that it’s physical.

  10. 10

    “I don’t think its possible to filter out bias. Bias is inherent in the system – whether scientific or otherwise.”
    In the short run, there’s real truth to this. But in the long run… the thing about scientific results is that they have to be replicable. One scientist can have their experiment skewed by bias in a hundred different ways… but when thousands of scientists read about it in the journals, and hundreds of them start bickering over whether the testing protocols were solid and whether the results really support the theory, and dozens of them try to replicate the experiment… that’s how bias tends, on the whole, to get filtered out in the long run.
    (It’s one of the reasons scientists get so annoyed about the fact that the news reporting on science tends to focus on exciting new findings. “Scientific Consensus Finally Reached After Years Of Careful Testing And Debate” doesn’t make a very good headline, but it’s a better representation of how science really works.)
    Of course there’s bias in science. I think very few scientists would argue that there isn’t. But the scientific method — the whole process, transparent testing protocols and peer review and repeating experiments and the whole shebang — is specifically designed to minimize that bias over time. More than any other method I can think of that humans have come up with to try to understand the world.
    (BTW, if you’re interested, there’s a great article in the Skeptical Inquirer about how the current theory of ulcers replaced the old one — and how, while it often gets cited as an example of science being pig-headed and close-minded about new theories, it’s actually a beautiful example of science working the way it’s supposed to. It’s at )

  11. 11

    Er, Nikki, I think that’s a redundant statement, not a contradiction in any way. “Scientific practitioners do their best not to be influenced by their humanity, but only as much as that is humanly possible…”. They are human, they do their best, obviously their best is only as good as their humanity permits. Thus “their best” and “as much as that is humanly possible” are two ways of saying basically the same thing.
    There are minor semantic discrepancies regarding the best that a given individual can do vs. the best that any human can do, but that’s a matter of degree, not the direction of the goal.
    (Apologies to all for bringing down the level of discourse of this excellent blog with this picayune point of grammar.)

  12. 12

    Oh boy. I think I didn’t explain what I meant very well. These are tricky questions to grapple with, and I wasn’t trying to slip into a semantic debate, honestly!
    Okay, thinking hard….
    What I meant to say was…We’re trapped in our humanity. We can’t ever perceive anything outside of the experience of being human, I don’t think. Science (and religion) are human inventions. The very idea of ‘truth’ is a human invention.
    As for anaesthesia, well, yes, I’ve experience the same ‘great blankness’ – twice. But I don’t know, for me, that it was evidence of anything, other than chemical reaction turning my consciousness off. I have no way of telling what, if anything, was going on while I was ‘under’. It might have been something outwith the limits of human perception, (which I believe much of the universe may be).
    I should apologise for blundering in here uninvited, by the way! The discussion intrigued me, and it’s not often I get to debate things like this (sober, at any rate…)
    Thanks for stimulating my atrophying brain!

  13. 13

    I should apologise for blundering in here uninvited, by the way!

    We’re all uninvited here. And apparently we’re all welcome, if we behave ourselves. That doesn’t mean we can’t present differing points of view, as long as we’re all honest and respectful.
    The great thing about people having different perspectives is that, if we share them honestly, it broadens all of our perspectives. We understand more about the world if we can borrow other people’s experiences and insights. So, speaking strictly for myself, please continue to present yours!

  14. 14

    “My experience of anesthesia *was* subjective, and by itself it doesn’t prove the non-existence of the soul, any more than Michael’s subjective experience of being saved by Jesus Christ (see comment to Part 3 of this piece) proves the existence of Jesus Christ. This piece wasn’t meant to be an argument — it was meant to be a personal narrative.”

    Nevertheless, it is a reliable first-hand report of an experience, and it is repeatable. Michael’s experience is also repeatable. I tried doing exactly what he said he did, under similar circumstances, and got a very different result. I haven’t experienced general anesthesia yet, but many others have, and while a few report incredible out-of-body experiences, most people’s experiences are very similar to yours.
    What does this mean? Maybe it means only certain people have souls, but I don’t think so.
    I think it means that some people’s brains take what little information is available while they are coming out of anesthesia, along with voices and other sounds and impressions they might have experienced while semiconscious, and try to throw together something meaningful out of the bits and pieces.
    There is ample evidence that our brains do lots of similar things. For example, our eyes are only capable of perceiving color in a relatively small area at the center of our field of vision, yet the brain carefully fills in colors for everything we see based on information it has already recorded. It also carefully edits out the network of blood vessels that cover our retinas, partially obscuring our view.
    Anesthesia, by the way, is not an exact science. Anesthesiologists use a battery of different chemicals to achieve different states of immobility, unconsciousness and analgesia. We tend to think that our ability to move, feel and be aware are turned of with one switch, but they are actually largely independent and under the control of different anesthetic agents. The anesthesiologist tries to maintain all three parameters at the same level throughout a procedure, but it isn’t unusual for them to fluctuate considerably, and different people have different sensitivities to different anesthetic agents.
    So as a patient lies in recovery, coming out of anesthesia, they may have a trace of a memory of awareness without sensation, or sounds experienced in the absence of awareness, and the mind quickly stitches together these loose threads to weave a tapestry of experience. Needless to say, the experience will often end up being profoundly weird by the time the patient gets around to trying to relate it to another person.
    So I think the reason why a few people have different experiences under anesthesia is easily accounted for by the fact that people respond differently to different anesthetics.

  15. 15

    Ah, the question of Truth. What is Reality? Are we all prisoners in Plato’s cave, seeing shadows on the wall of a much larger and richer reality?
    The answer of science is to dodge the question. Science’s goal is to predict. What it predicts is future observations.
    Whether those observations reflect an objective reality is open for philosophical debate. At most science can say “after a lot of careful testing, the observable world behaves as if there were a reality that followed certain rules”.
    We could be all living in The Matrix where those rules are all simulated. But as long as we cannot distinguish the two situations, the easier-to-work-with mental model has obvious advantages.
    If you can find any situation which would be observed differnetly in a “real” reality and a simulated reality, then we have a possible experiment to distinguish the two,
    But as long as both explanations make the same predictions about what we’ll observe, then as far as science is concerned, there is no difference between the two. How you arrive at a prediction is a matter of convenience. The only thing that matters in the end is whether the predictions come true.

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