The Story of My Rationalism
My parents– like all parents– love to tell stories, bragging about me to their friends. One of their favorites comes from my early childhood. When I was just four or five years old, my Sunday School teacher came to my parents flummoxed, after a particular day of church. She pulled them aside and apologized, telling them that I had asked a lot of questions that she could not answer. In fact, she had never even thought about many of my questions before then. If Adam, Eve, Cain, and Abel were the first people, who did Cain think was going to kill him after he had been caught in his crime? Who lived in the land of Nod and how did they get there? If there were no people before Adam and Eve, didn’t that mean Cain married his own sister? I was young, but I loved to think and to learn, and the combination of these three things often brought me to places that my teachers had never even considered.
As I grew, so did my love of knowledge. By the time I hit Kindergarten, I was already an avid reader. In first grade, I was placed in my school’s accelerated reading and math classes. In the third grade, I was among the top 23 students chosen from across 9 different school districts to be placed in a special Gifted & Talented program. That same year, I began to learn the Computer Programming skills which would become my eventual profession. I loved to learn and to question and to explore; and at right about the same time, I began to love debate.
I had been raised in a fundamentalist Christian church which taught a very literal interpretation of the Bible. One of my classmates had been raised in a Catholic home with a more open interpretation of the text. I had been taught– and believed– that the world was young and that evolution was a lie; my friend had been taught the opposite. He and I would very often get into discussions about these points of view, going back and forth with little tidbits of data as we learned them. I started to learn that simply presenting my position arrogantly and presumptuously would do nothing to convince people of my claim.
Years later, when I entered high school, I stumbled across the biggest culture shock of my life. Until that point, I had been educated in public schools, but the majority of my classmates had also been Protestant Christians raised in Bible-reading homes. For high school, however, I would be attending a private, Catholic academy. I was very excited, especially about the Religion classes which were never before available to me. I would be going to a Christian school, operated by Christian monks, and populated by mostly Christian students– this was going to be fantastic! But then, when school started, I became absolutely flabbergasted. We spent the first two weeks (weeks!) of my Freshman religion class learning the Book/Chapter/Verse system of the Bible; and even after that, there were still classmates who would ask me what page we were on! Having grown up reading the Bible, it had never occurred to me that there might be anyone– let alone Christians!– who would be unfamiliar with such a basic concept. And more than that, there were very basic Bible stories which were entirely unfamiliar to my classmates. I remember being absolutely dumbfounded, one day, when a friend told me he didn’t believe the Bible was true because Jesus was talking at his own baptism, and little babies can’t talk! Suddenly, “Because The Bible Says” wasn’t only inadequate to most of my conversations, it was almost useless.
My senior year of high school introduced me to another radical change in how I thought. In that year, I took a course entitled “Myths, Dreams, and Cultures.” The class was taught by an eccentric teacher with the explicit goal of getting his students to stop thinking within the set framework which had been erected for them, and to start evaluating the evidence of the world for themselves. More than encouraged, we were required to formulate our own conclusions about things. We were taught the nature of persuasive argument, the importance of properly defining your terms, and the futility of attempting to force your own worldview upon others. We played a game called “Stump the Aborigine,” where our teacher took on the role of a Native American man living by the traditions and tenets of his forefathers, and our goal was to get him to abandon his ways in favor of our own. We quickly realized that the game was un-winnable– but that never stopped us from really trying to win. It was this class, more than anything else in my experience, which taught me to try to view my arguments from my opposition’s point of view. It was MDC which showed me how to think about how other people think.
Many years later, I decided to start learning martial arts. I had always been fascinated by karate and kung-fu, but I had never had the opportunity to learn when I was a kid. I watched old kung-fu movies by the dozen, and being a child of the 1980’s, I was absolutely enamored with everything Ninja. As I started researching and looking around, I found a martial style called Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu, which claimed to have been descended from the last ninja. That sounded amazing, to me, so I located a school near where I lived and tried it out. I quickly found myself disillusioned, though– the people there were really nice, but they seemed more like kids pretending to be ninja than the “legitimate” shinobi I had envisioned. I left that school, and soon after, I started learning tradtional Shotokan-ryu Karate. My sensei was a legitimately big and tough guy, and he made us exercise in ways that would put most drill-sergeants to shame. This actually felt like my body was improving, but something felt wrong. The entirety of our classes centered around exercise and kata, but we never actually sparred or put our techniques into practice. I wanted to know if what I was being taught would actually do what I expected it to do. This is when I first learned about Mixed Martial Arts. I found a website called Bullshido which attempted to expose the fraud and mythology which had become entwined with martial arts. The things which Bullshido members had written about Bujinkan and Shotokan matched up with my experiences perfectly, and some of the myths which I had held about heroes of mine (like Bruce Lee) began to fall away. Members of the site recommended martial arts where live practice is not only encouraged, but required, like boxing and wrestling and Judo. One of the arts which was highly respected was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so I found a school by me and began to learn. I fell in love with it my first day on the mat, and it has been one of the central pillars of my life ever since. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu didn’t just make baseless claims about its usefulness; it required that its practitioners be able to prove those claims.
Interestingly, this view began to inform the way I looked at all philosophy– not just the martial arts. I began to really test the things I believed, rather than simply taking them for granted. Then, one night while scanning through the radio stations on my way home from the gym, I stumbled across a preacher named Harold Camping who was making some ridiculous claims. Camping was a literalist Christian, like myself, but he was asserting that he had discovered exactly when the end of the world would arrive, according to the Bible: May 21st, 2011. As I listened, I simply laughed, thinking that his claims were patently ridiculous and that only the lunatic fringe would believe him. However, I came to learn that many people had been utterly convinced by Camping’s arguments, including a friend of mine. Desiring to help my friend come to reason, I started researching Camping’s position in an attempt to find any blatant inaccuracies with which I could convince him that these end-times calculations were wrong. The lynchpin of Camping’s argument was a timeline of Biblical history that he had calculated, and I thought that if I could prove this timeline wrong, the whole Doomsday prediction would crash beneath it. Knowing that Egyptology has access to vast amounts of information about that ancient region, I decided to focus on Camping’s date for the Exodus. If that was wrong, his whole timeline was wrong, which meant that Camping’s crazy interpretations were also wrong. However, as I began to research the Exodus, I found quite quickly something that I had never been taught in Sunday School or in history class: there’s absolutely no evidence that it actually occurred, except for the book of Exodus, itself. No archaeological evidence. No hieroglyphic record. The Bible doesn’t even give us a name for the Pharaoh involved, or for his father. There was no good reason to think that the Exodus actually occurred except that the Bible claimed it did.
However, that raised a new question in my head: is the fact that the Bible makes a claim actually a good reason to believe that claim? I realized that I had always simply presumed the factual truth of the Bible. However, the silence of history on the Exodus was deafening. How could a million Hebrew slaves suddenly leave a country, en masse, without leaving more evidence of their presence? Soon, other bits and pieces of the Bible which I had always either ignored or explained away began to bite at my conscience: the description of the sky as a solid dome, hares chewing the cud, minor contradictions between stories related in different books, and more. I suddenly realized that I had never really taken the Bible quite as literally as I claimed, because it is quite impossible to do so without quickly butting up against reality. So, if it can’t be taken it completely literally, how much of it can be taken literally? I decided to attack the issue from a blank slate. Rather than first assuming that the Bible was true, then evaluating things in terms of that assumption, I decided to treat the Bible like I would any other claim. First, I would evaluate the evidence for the claim, then I would come to a conclusion about it. Viewed from this perspective, I found that I could no longer bring myself to believe the things I had believed before.
Ironically, this actually led me to a greater love and appreciation for the Bible than I had espoused when I considered it to be the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I began to research it more intensely than I had ever done before. I started learning ancient Greek. I devoured everything I could about textual criticism. I poured over the history of Christianity, from its earliest inception through today. At the same time, I opened myself up to evidence in other areas to which I had completely and intentionally blinded myself, when I was a Young Earth Creationist. I looked completely anew at the evidence for mainstream cosmology and biology, forcing myself to evaluate those claims on their own merit, rather than evaluating them in light of a literal reading of Genesis. I began researching philosophy again, but this time from bare principles and logic. Over the years since, I have dedicated myself to eliminating as many of my own false beliefs as possible. It has been a fascinating journey.
My story has given me a fairly unique perspective. Most people who experience the sort of radical disconfirmation of their beliefs that I encountered tend to suffer for it. They often describe it as a painful, maddening time after which they start to heal; as a result, such people often (though certainly not always) become embittered towards their old beliefs, treating those who still adhere to them as inferior or deceivers or “the enemy.” Thankfully, my own move to rationalism was entirely painless. I am very much the same person now as I was before, and even my view of morality has not changed as much as I would have expected. Because of this, I can still very easily sympathize with people who hold to my former beliefs. I can understand their positions and address their claims without dissolving into the vitriol and arrogance that plagues many atheist commentators on the Internet. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, I will often spend seven violent minutes doing everything in my power to viciously break a man’s arm, only to get up and hug him cheerily after the bout. Philosophy is no different. While I may spend tens of thousands of words and hundreds of hours boxing Pythagoras, when the final bell rings, we are all still happy to have found one another.