Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

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.

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14 thoughts on “The Story of My Rationalism

  1. Awesome post. My story is much like yours. In fact, being a Christian was no hardship for me. Now I can hardly believe I believed those things, but I did and that helps me appreciate how and why people believe religious claims.

  2. As a Christian, your worldview answered questions like “where did it all come from” and “what’s wrong with the world” and “what happens when we die” etc. What is your worldview now that you have rejected Christianity and how do you answer those types of questions?

    • Actually, my worldview as a Christian didn’t answer those questions any more adequately than my current worldview.

      As for my current answers, I’ll attempt them with the following responses:

      1) “Where did it all come from?”
      I’m not even sure this is a cogent question, to be honest, because it presupposes that everything “came from” something else– however, since that something else is included in “everything,” we reach a paradox. If I limit the question to “Where did the physical cosmos come from?” then I still have to wonder if it actually came from anything else. To simplify, I don’t know, and I’m not even convinced the question is a good one to ask.

      2) “What’s wrong with the world?”
      Again, I’m not sure this is even a proper question, as it presupposes that there IS something wrong with the world. I’m not even sure what “wrong” is meant to indicate, in such a context.

      3) “What happens when we die?”
      Assuming you mean “what happens to consciousness after physical death?” I’ll have to say that I suspect it’s the same thing which happened to consciousness prior to conception. Non fui, fui. Non sum, non curo.

      • Would you consider yourself a strict materialist, or something else? For instance, you mentioned consciousness. Is that a material or non-material (supernatural) property in your view?

        Thanks for showing me the need to sharpen my focus in some of the questions I ask.

        • I consider myself a materialist. I do not find the idea of immaterial existence to be a cogent concept.

          I consider consciousness to be a mechanical process of physical systems. I am not aware of any reason to think this might not be the case.

          As for sharpening your focus, it’s my pleasure! In fact, it’s the entire purpose of the blog: to improve and to be improved by the arguments of those who disagree with my positions.

  3. As a materialist, do you agree with Stephen Hawking when he says “It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems that we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion. ”?

    • It depends upon one’s definition of free will. I personally advocate a position which is slightly different than the concept most people operate under. I’m actually planning a post on this subject, soon, as it’s a bit too complicated for a simple answer, here.

      • I’ll look forward to it. Thanks.

      • As to “free will” I am just using a simple-every day definition. For instance, this morning my wife and I had several options for breakfast. I chose a fried egg sandwich with ham, and my wife chose the same without ham.

        Now I say “chose”, but according to Hawking we were physically (subject to the laws of physics) determined to make and eat our sandwiches the way we did (not to mention every other reaction we experienced this morning).

        So my question basically boils down to, did I, in all actuality, choose what I ate for breakfast, or was my choice just an illusion?

  4. Viktyr Gehrig on said:

    Hail the questers for knowledge! As a heathen, and a member of the heathen community, I deeply appreciate your ability to have left Christianity behind without turning to hatred and contempt for those who still follow it– this prejudice, this anti-Christianity, is like a plague upon my faith and those who follow it.

    And I especially appreciate your comparison between your arguments against Christianity and a particularly intense grappling match– “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.”

    This, to my mind, is the essence of the gentleman warrior, that he endeavors by all possible means to destroy his enemy for as long as they are enemies, and as soon as they are no longer enemies, stops. And, of course, that he should recognize whom is truly his enemy, and whom is not. We have certain disagreements about the nature of the universe, and certain incompatible goals, but you are not stealing my sheep or killing my brother; I have no more reason to consider you an enemy, any more than you or I should consider Christians our enemy, except when we meet explicitly to do battle.

    Also, I must confess to no small amusement that you are the first atheist in my experience to have deconverted from their original faith because of Bullshido. I think I will treasure that forever.

  5. Is it possible the exodus occurred but no evidence has been found, to date, of those events? What kind of evidence would you accept as validating the biblical account? If such evidence was found, would you reconsider your views on Biblical accuracy?

    Could some of these problems you have mentioned be hermaneutical issues (such as the sky as a solid dome)?

    • It is possible, but extremely unlikely, that the Exodus could have occurred without leaving any evidence. It is absolutely unfathomable that over a million people could disappear from Egypt without leaving some archaeological or documentary evidence of their existence. Even ignoring the purported plagues, for a moment, such a mass suddenly removing themselves from the nation would have been incredibly devastating to the Egyptian economy. One would expect to see records of this from Egyptian scribes, as we have for numerous other periods of hardship or famine.

      As far as evidence to convince me that the Exodus had some basis in history, it would not take very much. A hieroglyphic inscription on a wall or a stele, or perhaps even a hieratic papyrus, detailing the rebellion and flight of a huge mass of slaves around 500 years before the construction of Solomon’s Temple would be enough to convince me that the legend had some actual basis in history.

      Many of the problems with my previous views of the Bible were most certainly hermeneutical issues. I have come to believe that attempting a completely literal reading of Genesis is exceptionally bad hermeneutics, and completely ignores the cultural and literary context in which that book was constructed.

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