I signed into Blogger this morning and was much surprised to find that having an active Blog qualifies me for a Gmail beta account. I've set myself up with an account at email@example.com.
Since I do want to be a good, little beta tester, it would be very helpful if you could spare a moment to send me some email. It doesn't have to be anything specific or profound. Just a simple test message would be find.
Oh, and before I forget: whooo!!
Wednesday, April 28, 2004
I signed into Blogger this morning and was much surprised to find that having an active Blog qualifies me for a Gmail beta account. I've set myself up with an account at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sunday, April 25, 2004
When I started this blog, I said that I'd occasionally like to do something silly. Well, here you go!
Since time immemorial, mankind has pondered the question of how to tell its ass from a hole in the ground.
Among the first people to tackle this subject in a rigorous and philosophical manner (meaning one guaranteed to ensure tenure) was Sophocles who suggested that holes were distinct from asses in as much as people tended to put things into holes. Unfortunately, most of Sophocles' compatriots were Greeks and, thus, did not find this a useful distinction.
Socrates, on the other hand, suggested the following syllogism:
- All mortals have asses.
- Socrates has an ass.
- Therefore, Socrates is the only person who knows his ass from a hole in the ground.
Plato, the arch-student of Socrates, disagreed with his mentor by suggesting that there exists an Ideal Ass and an Ideal Hole and that we are like people trapped in a restroom who can only see the shadows of these Ideal forms being cast upon the stall.
Aristotle had a great many things to say on the subject including such observations as that man is the only animal that has an ass and that nature abhors a hole. Although Aristotle's work on the subject held sway for centuries, modern philosophers now realize that nearly everything Aristotle said about this was wrong and only continue to read him so that they can enjoy the sensation of smug amusement.
It was not until the Enlightenment that philosophers once again began to ponder the question.
Descartes conceived of reality as an infinitely dark hole and insisted that the only thing that we could be sure of was that we had an ass. Pascal, much impressed with this, took Descartes' observations and recodified it into his famous "You Bet Your Ass" Wager.
Hegel, on the other hand, suggested that one could view the problem as a dialectic:
- Thesis: Ass
- Antithesis: Hole
- Synthesis: Asshole
He then proceeded to kick Berkeley in the ass and shoved him down a hole.
Kant believed that it was the hole that made the ass possible and not the ass that made the hole possible and was preparing to construct an elaborate system of ethics from this contention when he abruptly ceased work on the project after Hegel called him an asshole.
Perhaps the bleakest view on the subject came from Nietzsche who wrote, in Thus Spake My Buttocks, "The Ass is dead and we have killed it!"
He also warned that if we gaze into the Hole, the Hole also gazes into us.
Spinoza proclaimed that asses and holes were one and the same but most of his fellow philosophers believed that he only reached this conclusion because he always had his head up his ass.
Freud did not offer any means to tell one's ass from a hole in the ground but did insist that it was this very confusion that was the genesis of all neurosis and that one should, therefore, talk about it in excruciatingly graphic detail. Jung, however, disagreed, claiming that the Ass and the Hole were primal archetypes and that it was the descent of the Ass into the Hole that formed the basis for all societies, religions and governments.
The advent of quantum mechanics has, like all other things it has affected, deeply confused the issue. Bohr claimed that asses and holes only exist when there is someone to observe them to which Einstein famously replied, "God isn't that kind of asshole, you schmuck!"
Heisenberg proclaimed that the matter was fundamentally indeterminable and that it was impossible, even in principle, to truly tell one's ass from a hole in the ground. At best, we could only say that we probably know one from the other.
Schrodinger provided the interesting paradox of "Schrodinger's Butt," in which it is imagined that he has accidentally got his ass stuck in a hole after being administered a Barium enema. According to the dictates of this thought experiment, so long as no one actually looks in the hole, the ass and the hole would exist in a mixed "eigenstate" in which neither is distinct from the other. Since most people have better things to do with their time then to look at the nether regions of physicists, it follows that this would be a permanent state.
Hugh Everett has proposed an even more radical theory known as the "Many Asses" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics which claims that the universe is the product of an infinite number of "ass-events" and that every "ass-event" causes a "flushing" in the time stream. Although this theory provides one of the more interesting and mind stretching solutions to the problem, Everett's detractors claim that it is actually full of holes.
The current set of Postmodernists have, for the most part, decided to unask the question. They believe that every culture has a unique and valid perspective on the question of asses and holes but that only White European Males are really assholes.
Wednesday, April 21, 2004
Sunday, April 18, 2004
I am sure that it says something about me that one of my hobbies is the Fermi Paradox. More precisely, it says that I'm a hopeless nerd who could really stand to get out more often. Be that as it may, the Paradox is something that engages and delights me.
A while back, the great physicists Enrico Fermi (one of the key players for the Manhattan Project) came across some of his colleagues discussing the question of whether or not there was life in the universe. Fermi pondered the question for a bit and then said (and I paraphrase), "Where are they?"
Like many profound questions, it's deceptively simple. Fermi's point was that if life did, indeed, exist and was, in fact, common (as is often believed), why haven't we seen any evidence for it? Indeed, why aren't they already here.
Other physicists have emphasized this last question by noting that the time it takes to get to the farthest star in the galaxy is the same duration that it takes to get to every star in the galaxy since you can send out a multitude of ships in every direction. Since the farthest star, from us, is about 100,000 light years away, this means that if we were expanding through the galaxy at only 10% the speed of light it would take one million years to completely colonize the galaxy. At a mere 1%, you could do it in ten million years. Even at a glacial tenth of a percent, you could still manage the task in 100 million years.
These may seem like long durations but, when you consider that the galaxy is approximately 10 billion years (or 10,000 million years, if you prefer British notation) old, even 100 million years isn't a very long time. If alien colonizers had developed just 200 million years ago at the farthest galactic point from us, they would have already gotten here well before the dinosaurs went extinct (aided by the fact that the stars, themselves, are in orbit around the galactic center).
So where, in fact, are they?
That's the Fermi Paradox. It cuts to the very core of our place in the universe and it has no easy answer. This isn't, however, to say that answers have not been proposed. On one side, you have the bleak proposition that we are, in fact, likely to either be alone or so isolated as to make no difference (see, for instance, Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee). On the opposite extreme, you have the contention that aliens are, in fact, already here and that they've been here since the dawn of history (as the infamous Chariots of the Gods suggests). In between these extremes, you have diverse propositions including Zoo hypotheses that suggest that we're in a kind of cosmic wildlife preserve (where we mustn't be disturbed!), economic models that suggest that interstellar colonization is just too damned expensive to make it worth the effort, and such disturbing suggestions as the theory that intelligence is self-limiting and always results in its own extermination before it gets out of hand.
I will be the very first to admit that, right now, the Paradox is basically a philosophers game. A less kind way to put it would be to call it mental masturbation. In truth, the only way to solve the Paradox is to go out there and to actually take a comprehensive look around. I think that it's fair to say that this won't happen for a very long time, if ever. Be that as it may, even if there's no value to be had in considering the question, right now, it doesn't change the fact that it is still an important question as well as a good way to stretch one's mind. We certainly don't criticize the ancient Greek philosophers for thinking about the nature of the Cosmos (even though their answers were typically wrong and often amusing). In the last resort, it's harmless fun and I see no risk in indulging myself.
The first challenge for any attempt to address the Paradox is that it must account for the existing data. If alien intelligences are out there, their presence is not obvious. We have (tabloids and UFO enthusiasts to the contrary) not found any solid evidence that we are being visited. We have found no artifacts, much less anything as telling as a piece of advanced machinery recovered from the Carboniferous. Diligent sky surveys have also failed to yield anything above natural cosmic noise and a single, unrepeated "Wow Signal" that's more likely than not just an artifact of the equipment that detected it. The universe is eerily quiet. This is a challenge not only to the UFO crowd, but also to the Sagan's and Drake's of the world who imagined a universe brimming with life.
My personal hunch is that intelligence is, for one reason or another, rare. I also suspect that we are near the beginning of the fertile age of the universe and that we may well be among the first to look out upon the universe with wondering eyes. Might there, however, be some way to preserve the notion that life and intelligence are common while, never the less, accounting for the silence?
I don't have much confidence in the theories of Intelligent Design that are currently being offered as a popular alternative to the Theory of Evolution. I distrust any theory whose ultimate support rests upon the proposition that, at some point in time, a miracle happened. Appeal to miracles has always struck me as lazy, even when I was a theist. I no longer believe in any gods but, even if there did exist something godlike, I think that I would have less respect for it if it had to prop up crucial elements of its creations with supernatural buttresses. I think that a truly consummate deity would only need a single miracle to start the universe, if that many, leaving a creation that could look after itself from that point forward. Call it an aesthetic preference for Deism if you like.
That said, if there is one thing about humanity that strikes me as verging on the miraculous, it is the invention of writing. More specifically, it's our very capacity for being able to invent it and use it in the first place. Every other element of our biology and our cognition has developed through evolutionary time, including the explosive development of our brains over the last two million years. Even tool making, which has been seriously proposed (with little contention beyond stick using Chimps) as one of the few things that genuinely distinguishes us from the other animals, has an evolutionary pedigree.
Writing is not like that. Writing relates to language, of course, but language was shaped into our throats and our brains by selective pressure. Even if language is only as old as this more recent (and lonely) branch of the Hominid family, it had time to be forged by evolutionary pressures. Writing, by contrast, is too recent. Much too recent.
The earliest proto-writing extends back a mere 7,000 years, or so. Most humans were not introduced to writing until the last few centuries. Many people, throughout the world, remain illiterate. Despite this, if you were to take any random child from any random part of the world without any concern about selecting a child of the proper race or lineage, you could teach that child to write with as much facility as any other randomly selected child. What's more, if you were to apply a specific sort of lesion to a literate person's brain, you could destroy their ability to either read or write or both. This means that although we didn't evolve literacy, the structures that allow us this feat are present in every single person on the planet barring only those who have developmental handicaps and those who have suffered particular forms of neurological trauma.
I said that I would consider this to be something that verges on the miraculous. I do not mean that literally. Clearly, the skills that allow us to become literate must be co-opting existing neural structures. PET scans and MRI bear this out. Our ability to read and write is closely tied to our ability to speak and comprehend. It is, in practice, little different from being able to use a heavy wrench to drive a nail. Was it, however, an inevitable adaptation?
Is it possible that our easy facility with the written word is a fluke? Could it be that there's something particular about our own neural architecture that allowed us to adapt existing linguistic skills to the novel solution of literacy? We know that intelligence alone does not guarantee literacy. If a person misses a certain magic window, between the ages of four and seven, their ability to become literate, at some later point in life, is compromised even if their overall linguistic development is not impaired. It is not that far-fetched that there could be a species, out there, that has strong linguistic skills but no innate ability to learn how to read and write. From there, we only need to take the further step of supposing that our own species is the exception rather than the rule.
Imagine what it would mean for an entire species to be illiterate. Imagine what would happen to our own species if we were to suddenly lose the ability. Literacy is more than a form of communication, it's a way of distributing intelligence. Instead of each person having to hold everything they know in their own heads, they can offload part of the burden of memory to paper freeing up space to more efficiently use their overall intelligence. Consider how much more difficult the task of constructing a large building would be if the foremen were forbidden from using blueprints. For that matter, think of how much more challenging it is to do long division without a pencil and paper.
Literacy also gives us history. Oral histories are notoriously unreliable over any sort of long term. There is a reason that our understanding of the past changes sharply once you pass the point where we had developed any systems of writing. Once you go past that terminus you literally have to start digging history out of the ground and piecing it together in the form of pot shards and other durable artifacts. This is the reason that we know next to nothing about European history beyond a mere two thousand years ago. Literacy hadn't reached that far, yet, and more the pity.
If literacy is rare, so, I believe, must be technology. Without an ability to record a reliable history, innovations don't tend to accumulate at anything but a glacial pace (again, I use that term literally). More so, the overall level of innovation that you can achieve is limited to the population's ability to hold their entire store of knowledge in their own brains. It is not, I think, outrageous to suppose that a truly illiterate species could not achieve a high technology, much less an interstellar one.
So there is my proposal. Let's call it the Rare Readers hypothesis.
Now, do I believe that this is likely to be the case. No. I suspect that once you achieve brains that are capable of complex symbolic manipulations and abstract associations (that is, language), it's probably that the tools for literacy are already in place and only waiting to be discovered. Even if literacy requires particular neurological features, I think that it's probable that there would be selective pressures towards developing those particular features. I would not be surprised if there were a few intelligence species out there that were stranded in islands of illiteracy, but I am doubtful that this would constitute a norm.
So what was the point of all this. Well, it's fun to think about. At least if you're the kind of nerd that I am.
Thursday, April 15, 2004
I've added a banner link to Amazon at the bottom of the page. I'm part of the Amazon Associates program so if you click through that link and then buy something at Amazon, I'll get a small cut.
Unfortunately, there's not much that I can do by the way of quid pro quo but, if you're thinking about buying something at Amazon anyway, consider it an easy way to increase your overall alotment of karma.
Monday, April 12, 2004
As noted in my last message, I dumped Bloglet as a subscriber notification service. I've been experimenting with Blogarithm and have been pleased with what I've seen. I've also found out that they do have a subscription form that you can paste into your site. If you look down at the bottom, you'll see it. Go ahead and give it a whirl.
Astute readers may have noticed that I've been experimenting with an automated subscription feature that would email people when new entries were made. The utility was through a service called Bloglet. Unfortunately, I have not been happy with how well it's been working, so I've stripped it from the site. I've been unable to find a good in-line utility for notifying users of changes. There is, however, an offsite utility called Blogarithm that looks like a good tool for tracking changes to this or any other blog you want to track.
Until I can find a better alternative, I'd suggest giving them a try.
Sunday, April 11, 2004
Let me start this week's topic with a relevant poem of mine:
Your mother had to wash
Your brains off of the wall,
Scrubbing and scraping,
But that's what you do
For the sake of love.
She's read your note.
She's like a talmudic scholar
The way she tries to tease meaning
From your words,
Your final words.
She even tries to read
What you forgot to write,
As the why of it eats her days,
But all she sees
Is an emptiness that feels
Like a closed casket
Hole in the ground.
It is an open secret that I attempted to take my life when I was twenty-one via an overdose of sleeping pills. It was, without doubt, the worst decision that I have ever made and I am exceedingly fortunate that I had time to repent my decision. I came all too close to lapsing into a perfect and endless sleep. No, strike that. Suicide gets enough romantic imagry. I came close to dying and that is that.
Over the course of the next five years, or so, I confronted the depression that drove me to it and eventually mastered it. After I had extracted myself from harm's way, I set about putting together a project to help others who were contemplating suicide. It took the form of a web site called Songs of the Phoenix and it used, as its hook, the first one hundred poems that I wrote after my attempt.
I sincerely believe that the site did a lot of good. I got frequent emails from people seeking help and I offered both my personal advise as well strong encouragement for them to seek professional help. Often, the mere realization that someone else had gone through the same experience and suffered the same feelings seemed to help.
In addition to emails from people thinking about suicide, I got a surprising amount of messages from people who had lost loved ones to suicide. When I say surprising, I mean that in every sense of the word. I had not given much thought to what suicide does to those who are left behind. The pain and anxiety that came through these letters was intense and palpabale. Again and again, I was asked to explain the unexplainable.
One of the things that distinguishes the human animal is that we are truth seekers. When something happens, no matter how trivial, we like to understand why it happened. This desire for understanding is magnified by tragedy. When something terrible happens, our desire to understand becomes critical. We want to know what happened, why it happened and, if possible, we'd like to be able to assign blame.
When someone loses a loved one to suicide, these natural desires have a way of getting twisted around. The question of what happened is easy enough to answer but the reasons for why it happened are often hidden in a riddlework of cruel enigma. The worst question is the one of blame. They don't want to blame the person they lost, so they find themselves seeking to assign blame elsewhere.
Sometimes they blame their friends. Sometimes, especially in the case of teen suicide, they blame the authorities that we entrusted their children to. More often than either of these, they blame themselves. They ask themselves why they didn't see the signs. They wonder if they could have done anything to prevent it. Worst of all, they ask themselves if they did something to cause it.
There's a lot of myths about suicide.
There's the myth that someone who's suicidal always gives off clear warning signs that they are about to attempt something. The truth is that people who are thinking about suicide can be immensely subtle.
Then there is the myth of the suicide note. Myths rather. The first myth is that there will be one. Often, suicide is a spontaneous act. Relatively few suicides are actually planned. More often, someone whose depressed suddenly decides that they can't take it anymore and then acts upon that feeling at the earliest opportunity, which may be as close as a loaded gun or a bottle full of pills. The second myth of the note is that suicide notes can explain anything. A life is a complex thing and it's impossible to justify why someone would choose to forsake it in the space of a page or two.
The worst myth of suicide, however, is that it's romantic. Suicide is always ugly. There is the shock of discovery. There is the immediate and imponderable agony. Then there is the fact that someone has to deal with the body. That duty typically falls on the people who were closest to the victim. Even in the case of relatively "clean" suicides, such as death by overdose, that means that thier loved ones have to clean up the literal shit that the body expells when it dies. Finally, there are the questions. The unanswerable questions that people ask themselves in hopes of filling the terrible void that's left behind.
There is no romance to suicide. Ever.
When I have talked to survivors, I have tried to explain that suicide isn't a rational decision. People who kill themselves are usually in such an immense state of pain that they aren't capable of seeing a way out of their misery. It is little different than what wild animals do when they chew their own limbs off in order to escape from a trap. I try, above all, to explain that there is no blame and that it's not fair, to themselves, to suppose that they could have seen the signs in advance.
I honestly don't know how much comfort this has provided. I can only hope that it has, at least, been a little.
Tuesday, April 06, 2004
I have added a comments feature that will follow each article. I'm using Haloscan. This is a free service (registration required) that seemlessly integrates into Blogger as well as any number of other popular blogs. The scripts that it generates to add to your template are simplicity itself.
Sunday, April 04, 2004
Before I present this week's essay, I'd like to take a moment to say that the purpose of this site is not to be a forum for my autobiography. While I do intend to occasionally include autobiographical elements in my essays, it is my goal that, when I do so, it will be to illustrate a larger point or idea. As it happens, this essay is almost entirely autobiographical being mainly a story of my personal journey into and out of religious belief. It's also fairly long. If this doesn't sound like the sort of thing that would appeal to you, I would suggest that you might want to wait until next week.
Atheists in this country (by which I mean the United States of America) have a common tendency to exaggerate their plight. This is not to say that there arn't any atheists, here, who have suffered discrimination in the workplace or before the law, nor is it to claim we are never the recipients of threats and even violence. It is, however, to say that these are not the norm. Certainly, in comparison to such groups as homosexuals, our lot is not so terrible.
In my own experiences, the very worst thing that has happened to me as a consequence of my atheism was a single death threat. This sounds dramatic but it was the sort of anonymous threat that tends to bubble out of the cesspool that is Usenet and, while I did forward it to the proper authorities, I did not feel any great distress. I have certainly never suffered any actual violence due to my atheism and the only times I have felt compelled to conceal it was not for concern for my safety but rather for fear that I'd have to engage in some awkward discussions with people whom I had no interest in debating.
Rather than saying that American atheists are a persecuted minority, I would say that we are, in fact, an irritated minority. It is important to understand, however, that the amount of irritation that we receive is not negligible. There is a de facto presumption, in our culture, that it is perfectly okay to criticize atheism and to belittle atheists for holding incorrect beliefs. At the same time there is a double standard where atheists are considered to be arrogant for assuming that we are correct in our beliefs and that we are bitter and hateful for having the audacity to question the beliefs of others. In particular, it is inevitable that if one admits to atheism it is only a short amount of time before someone comes along to challenge that admission with a set of arguments that we have heard innumerable times before. It is for this reason that atheists tend to have a very ironic familiarity with religious argument.
For myself, the most vexing response to my atheism, however, is not the amateur theological arguments that I get exposed to (there was even a point where I sought such arguments out, though not so much anymore) but, rather, the suggestions that people give me to help me cure myself of this epistemological affliction. In particular, the people who suggest that I should just open my heart up and try to believe in God. The reason that this is such an irritant is that I have yet to meet an atheist who hasn't, at some point in her life, attempted to do just that or, at least, has given the question some very serious consideration.
My first experience with the notion of God was while I still in Kindergarten. We had a teacher who wasn't overly concerned about adhering to the Supreme Court's stance on the separation of Church and State. She read us the tales of Narnia, she had us sing religious songs and our craft projects would have the occasional religious iconography (especially around Christmas). I definitely knew about God. Did I believe in God?
It's hard to say. I suppose that it would be accurate to say that I believed in him (and yes, he was a him) in the same sense that I believed in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny. This isn't to say that I had some advanced theological sense whereby I knew that God had to be considered a fiction. Rather, I had the same sort of relationship that five year olds have to all things that are outside of their immediate experience. For a child, the border between reality and fantasy is thin, blurry and permeable. I seriously believed that my best friend and I were actually alien dinosaurs, for instance. At the same time, when my friend announced that the whole alien dinosaur thing was just make believe, I had no trouble nodding and agreeing with him. Reality, at that age, is malleable.
There is also the factor that I didn't really quite understand what God was supposed to be. I knew that God was supposed to be able to do anything, and that God was supposed to be invisible and that he was, most confusingly of all, supposed to be everywhere. Beyond that, the sum of my knowledge about the subject was conveyed to me by the sort of religious claymation specials that they showed around Christmas and Easter (but Christmas and Easter were definitely about presents and eggs, respectively).
It should be noted that my parents never introduced me to religion (more about that later) so it's possible that my own understanding of God was thinner than the other kids. I don't think that's necessarily the case, however. I remember an incident where one kid claimed to be God and one of the other kids demanded that he prove it by picking up a nearby motorcycle. To me, this suggests that God and Superman occupy the same niche for kids that age.
Around the age of seven, I learned that I was an atheist. When I say that I learned this, what I mean is that my parents told me that we were atheists and that we didn't believe in God. This does not mean that I had any more of an idea of what atheism was than I did of what God was. It was just a label. If I had been told that we were Jewish, I would have happily considered myself a Jew. If I had been told that we were Buddhists, a Buddhists I would have been. If I had been told that we were Martians, I would have cheerful and proudly been a Martian.
Past the point of correcting my mother for her occasional "God bless you," in that smugly insufferable way kids have when they catch an adult in an error, I just didn't think much of it. The closest it came to being any sort of issue was one day, in the third grade, when I got into a lopsided shouting match with the rest of my class over whether or not there was a God. It was the typical sort of opinion exchange that kids have with them yelling "Does too!" and me yelling "Does not!"
I think that our teacher was more distressed about this than any of us. For us, it was just the sort of argument that kids have over anything where there can be a difference of opinion. It was no more serious than arguing over whether Mickey Mouse was better than Donald Duck.
I didn't have my next brush with religion until the age of nine or ten when I was vastly surprised to find that I needed to go to Summer Bible Camp. So, how is it that my so-called atheist parents sent me to what amounted to a Christian summer school? Well, the answer to that question is that I am not sure that my mother was really much of an atheist. I know this for a fact: through her childhood and up into her adulthood she was raised a Catholic. At some point between there and then she became an "atheist". At least, she said that she didn't believe in God but, I suspect, that she was probably just going along with my dad's stance rather than stating her true beliefs. I think that she was actually somewhere between a lapsed Catholic and an agnostic. To which of the sides she was closer, I cannot say.
Be that as it may, this wasn't an attempt to sneak some religion into me under my dad's nose. Her reasons were humanitarian: my best friend was apparently worried about my soul. At least that's what my mother heard from his grandmother. So, to sooth my friend's alleged concerns, she cheerfully sent me to "camp" with him. His grandmother was a saintly woman but could she have made that up, herself, in order to save my soul? I honestly don't know.
It was not a grueling ordeal. It was, actually, pretty fun. Now, I should disclose one thing. At no point did I display my atheism. I decided that it was best to just blend in and go with the flow. When the pastor asked for amens, I gave them mine right along with everyone else's. When we were asked to affirm our belief, I affirmed mine, too. I even ended up giving a one-boy presentation, on our graduation night, where I gave a free flow talk about religion (and got many compliments, I might immodestly add, afterwards).
But at no point did I start believing. It wasn't that I was being deliberately deceptive so much as that I found that the subject really didn't concern me. It didn't really bother me that people were claiming that God actually did exist. We just didn't agree. I even thought that it was kind of nice that my friend was concerned about me. I certainly didn't feel adverse to Christianity or anything like that. It just wasn't for me.
My overall indifference didn't last. By the age of twelve I started to get this urge to find religion. I remember giving God a test, once. I prayed for him to show me the location of something that I had lost. Naturally, I found it at some point after that and decided to construe that as a sign and a miracle.
I just could not sustain my belief. The harder I tried to open myself to God, the less I could bring myself to feel anything. It literally felt like I was clutching at air. In the end, I gave up and didn't think about it, again, until I was fourteen.
By that point, my understanding of religion had become more sophisticated. I had, at least, a passing familiarity with all of the major world religions as well as a good sense that there were even more religions out there. I had a feeling that I ought to believe in a God but I had no clear sense of which one. Attempts to find Christianity continued to fail and none of the other attempts had born fruit. I studied and I prayed. I felt an acute need to find something.
Finally, I found Islam. There's a story that had a lot more meaning to me at the time which, now, simply seems embarrassing. One day, while I was studying the Koran, I fell asleep. When I woke up, I miraculously "knew" that Islam was the one, true religion.
Yeah, I know. It's pretty thin. Conversion stories often are, though. How many of the great religious stories revolve around having a vision or an epiphany, after all? All I can say is that it seemed like a genuine revelation and I embraced it with all my heart.
Why Islam? Who knows. I did know an Islamic girl whom I was attracted to, but I retained my newfound faith even after she utterly rejected my claim to be a Muslim (and I can only imagine how outlandish that claim must have seemed to her). She stopped talking to me, and I continued believed. She moved away, and I still believed. I remained a believer for a full three years after she disappeared out of my life (for a total of four years of religious conviction).
Did puppy love have something to do with me choosing Islam? I think it's plausible and even likely. Did it have anything to do with me remaining a Muslim? No. That was part of something deeper.
When I believed, I felt fulfilled. I felt part of something bigger and more important than myself. I felt like I was, personally, part of some grand design. Most importantly, I had a wonderful feeling of certainty – that I had an inside scoop on the answer to the most profound mysteries of life and existence. I knew God and felt his presence in my life and in the cosmos as a whole.
I liked that feeling and wanted, very much, to keep it. That's why it felt so awful when it finally came tumbling down.
In the end, I found that had to keep making compromises between my religion and the rest of what I knew. I have always been a bookworm and one with an appetite for scholarship. I read voraciously on a wide range of topics. Whenever some random fact came into conflict with my religion I would invariably (and, often, instantly) reconcile it with my religious beliefs with a typically small change in perspective. I actually got quite good at being a lay apologist.
"Perhaps this passage where God tells us that we start out as a clot of blood isn't actually meant to be taken literally and – hey! – that's really not that far from embryogenesis, is it? Of course it’s not!"
It couldn't last. Eventually I reached a point where I had to decide whether or not I should trust in knowledge or if I should trust my faith. It was a slow and grueling process but the conclusion was, I feel, inevitable. When put on the scale of my beliefs, knowledge won.
This is not to say that I gave up hope on religion, just Islam. I devoted myself to serious study to see if any of the religions I was aware of, or any potential religion, could bear the scrutiny of examination. I have given every modern religion, and quite a few ancient religions, close scrutiny. The more I looked, the more elusive God (or Goddess, or the gods, or God knows what) became. The more I learned, the harder it was to hope for conviction.
The final deciding point came when I start debating the merits of atheism on the Internet. By that point, I already considered myself to be an atheist, but I wanted to hear the best arguments for theism that I could find. It was a very educational experience. I was exposed to all of the arguments for religion, both the good ones and the bad ones. The arguments had the added virtue of being delivered by their most sincere proponents.
I threw myself into that debate with passion. I tried (with varying success) to avoid the mocking of opponents that so typifies online debate but, rather, tried to focus on the serious arguments. I encouraged my opponents to make their best argument and I debated them vigorously.
At this point, I really have seen all the arguments. It has been, literally, years since I last heard a new case for theism. I've heard arguments ontological, epistemological, qualitative, deductive, inductive, emotive, rhetorical and satirical. I have had gentle discussions with theists of the highest caliber and I've gotten into shouting matches with grievous morons (and have acted the part, myself, now and again). I have thought, I have contemplated and meditated, and I've even had some very good and kind people try to pray for my soul, to no avail.
For me, at least, there is simply nothing there to find. I haven’t stopped considering the question. At the utter least, I think that religion is an interesting mirror upon which we can see a curious reflection of the human psyche. I also reject the assumption that religion can only be the source of hatred and evil. I have yet to encounter a religion from which I can take nothing of value or insight; it’s just that the insights seem, to me, to be human ones and not the works of transcendent beings or processes.
So, how do I reply to the well-intentioned suggestion that I just give God a try? I’ve never found a good reply. I don’t want to summarize my travels through the religious spectrum each and every time but I also don’t want to give the impression that I’m dismissing the consideration out of had. Usually, I’ll simply say that I have and try to leave it at that.
It is not a perfect solution.