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What Kills More Unborn Babies: God or Abortions?

October 23, 2012 3 comments

A Disclaimer

This is one of my longer posts.  I’m hoping to bring things back to about 1/3 the length and to lighter subjects in the near future.  But because I don’t post often, consider this to be a few posts worth in one update.

Today I’m going to, as the title says, look at who kills more babies: God or Planned Parenthood/abortions.  I am then going to look at the implications of that information.

Normally I write more traditional, attention-getting introductions.  I like to start with a story that makes this personal and then segue into my topic. Today I’m not doing that.

Sometimes I start with a disclaimer of sorts, and I will do that.

Read the entire post.  I don’t care how it makes you feel.  If you clicked on the link you were interested enough in what I had to say, so read it all.

When I get comments from people telling me that I missed the point I’ll know that they probably didn’t read the whole post.

You’ve been warned.

The Assumptions

Before I begin the showdown, as it were, I’m going to define my terms.

I…I think that counts.

First, so that nobody can accuse me of too much bias, I’m going to define things as follows: life begins at the moment of fertilization, regardless of implantation upon the uterine walls.  Scientifically and medically, implantation is the key moment at which pregnancy starts.  I am using fertilization because it is the most conservative (in all senses of the word) way of defining the issue of “life” and pregnancy.

Second, I will be explaining a lot as I go along, but in strict terms, abortion refers only to human intervention affecting implantation and/or termination of the pregnancy afterwards.  In other words, I am again being conservative and assuming that emergency contraceptives such as Plan B actually end a life, rather than prevent a pregnancy.

Finally, I am taking the strictly and vehemently pro-life stance that any abortion, regardless of the reasons for it, is wrong.  Thus, many of the numbers I will quote will be abortions conducted for the health of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.  However, reasons are irrelevant here, on both sides.

If those of you who are pro-life are sitting there cheering at how this isn’t even a contest because of the way I’ve defined things, hold on to your hats.  Shit is about to get very real for you.

It’s nothing, if not tasteful. Please see my cover letter if you’d like to hire me to do graphic design work for you.

The Throwdown: Planned Parenthood and General Abortions

To start, Planned Parenthood estimates their total abortions per year to be roughly 300,000.

Based upon research conducted by the Guttmacher Institute, it is estimated that the total abortions per year actually numbers at about 1.3 million.

For those keeping tally at home:

Planned Parenthood – 300,000 (23% of total abortions)
Total Abortions – 1.3 million

The Throwdown: God’s Numbers

This, my friends, is where things get complicated.  Those staunchly pro-life and religious that, somehow, are reading this, will probably say there is no way God actually has any numbers to count.  But based upon the strict definitions that the most conservative pro-life standpoints argue (and that I noted above), this is untrue.

God loving the fetus, or lamenting it before it becomes another statistic?

With that said, these numbers were harder to count.  I could easily spin the statistics in favor of abortions by any method, but I figured I’d give a few ways that those numbers work out so as to avoid anybody saying I totally ignored some fact.

So I will start with a first set of numbers, based solely upon “natural” terminations of pregnancy including stillbirth, miscarriage and premature delivery resulting in death.

I included the latter because even with modern medical intervention, some premature babies don’t make it.  With that said, the pregnancy was technically “ended” early by natural means, so this one is on God’s head.  (I could, if I wanted to spin this more, include any premature birth, as prior to modern medicine this would have been a death sentence for the baby.  However, while I may be biased—see below—I do not want to be that blatant about it.)  This, to the best of my ability, only counts those that ended immediately in death.  That is to say, I did not includedeaths a year after the premature birth.

After this, I will include a second set of numbers will be all babies lost due to pregnancy complications.  This number is far wider and harder to keep track of, so I included both numbers because I figure it can provide a more even picture of how much baby death is on God’s hands.

Seeing as the general idea of this post is who kills more babies, it seems only fair to count infant death that results from complications of pregnancy against God.  You may argue otherwise, but if life begins at fertilization, anything related to pregnancy after that point has to necessarily be fair game.  You cannot arbitrarily cut off anything attributed to God after the baby leaves the uterus, as that would not credit him with the variety of problems that result from pregnancy.

One final note on God’s numbers: pregnancy loss can be categorized many ways.  While miscarriages and stillbirths are—it would seem—easily noted and reported, early pregnancy loss can occur well before a woman is aware she is pregnant.  As such, early pregnancy loss numbers are often difficult to compile and may be much higher than reported.  I have thus decided to include an additional section to account for those factors.

All of the following is based upon statistics pulled from these three sources and Wikipedia.

The Guttmacher Institute estimates that about 6.7 million pregnancies are reported in the US each year.  Two thirds are live births, a fifth are abortions and the rest are miscarriage.

This graph from Google, which errs on the conservative side of the numbers, still paints a bleak picture. It’s not looking good for the Big Guy.

Based upon the math that the Guttmacher Institute provides, these numbers are our results for the first category: 6.7 million pregnancies, 4.48 million live births, 1.34 million abortions, 880,000 miscarriages.  hopeXchange estimates about 26,000 stillbirths per year.  Additionally, the American Pregnancy Association estimates that 64,000 women per year lose pregnancies through ectopic pregnancy and 6,000 women through molar pregnancies.

For that second category, statistics indicate that 19,000 infants die in the first month and 39,000 in the first year.  This appears, to the best of my ability to narrow it down, to be limited to those caused by complications resulting from pregnancy in some way.

Finally, the numbers based upon early, underreported or unreported pregnancy loss.  hopeXchange estimates that up to 40% of all conceptions result in pregnancy loss (with many of the women being unaware of a pregnancy in the first place, and thus ending up being unreported).

Other estimates are far less forgiving.  One study found that 25% of all pregnancies abort by 6 weeks, while other studies place that as high as 50% of pregnancies.  In either case, these spontaneous abortions are not recognized by the woman because it occurred so early she was unaware of pregnancy in the first place.

So let’s look at those numbers and work backward to see what number are spontaneous abortions.  If one assumes that 6.7 million pregnancies occur each year and are known, and half of all pregnancies (from conception onward) result in spontaneous abortion, that means that—based upon the 50% estimate—6.7 million pregnancies are lost each year.  Even with the more conservative 25% number, we still end up with about 1.6 million pregnancies are lost before the woman is even aware she is pregnant.

Now let’s recap those numbers and total them for God:

First Set of Numbers:
Miscarriages: 880,000
Stillbirth: 26,000
Ectopic Pregnancy: 64,000
Molar Pregnancy: 6,000
Total pregnancy losses for group 1: 976,000

Second Set of Numbers
Infants lost in first month: 19,000
Infants lost in first year: 39,000
Total infants lost due to complications: 58,000
Total pregnancies lost, including infants: 1,034,000

Third Set of Numbers:
Infants lost in first month: 19,000
Infants lost in first year: 39,000
Total infants lost due to complications: 58,000
Pregnancies lost at 25% estimate: 1.6 million
Pregnancies lost at 50% estimate:  6.7 million
Total pregnancies lost at 25%: 2.6 million
Total pregnancies lost at 50%: 7.7 million

The Throwdown: Who Loses?

Let me be clear here: we are discussing pregnancies ending.  There is no winner.  There is only who does more damage.  That is something I’ll talk about shortly, though.  Let’s focus solely on numbers for now.

Based upon those numbers, I have reached the following conclusions.  I am presenting them in easy-to-digest list format:

  1. If one only does PP vs. God, God loses at 3x as many babies killed.
  2. If one figures total abortions vs. God, abortions lose. God kills 75% of the amount that we do by abortion.
  3. When one includes post-birth deaths, God kills 80% of the babies that people do through abortion.
  4. If you consider the last group of numbers, unreported pregnancies, god kills between two to six times as many babies as all people.  That’s 200-600%.

What’s the point?

Part of the “experimental” nature of this particular post was not equivocating at all in the introductory portion.  Normally, on a subject as particularly contentious as this, I might make the effort to ensure that my intentions are clear.

Also, I consider myself irreverent.  I’m bad at serious, even when I’m being serious.  But to me, this topic isn’t serious.  Neither God nor PP nor abortions, in my mind, kill babies.  So over-the-top and offensive as it may be to some, this post is more an exercise in dark humor, than anything.

But I didn’t want people to know whether I considered this actual ironclad logic or just a tongue-in-cheek showdown.  The answer is, really, a tiny bit of the former and a significant portion of the latter.

So then you might ask, what is the point?  Was I just trying to piss people off and get views? Clearly, yes.  But there also is a point buried in those statistics.

My point is that abortion is a ridiculously complex issue that cannot simply be boiled down to when life begins and how to avoid “taking” said life.  Rather, we must consider all aspects of the issue and ultimately, I would argue, leave the decision about abortion in the hands of women.

I could write an entire post about the intricacies and difficulties of this, but I believe that women should decide if abortion is right for them on their own, without the government interfering.  Especially because some women do not see the fetus as being a life, and some women do not believe in the religion that says—somewhere in the Bible, like it always does—how wrong it is.  This is not a decision for the state, but for the individuals involved.

But then, what do we do with the women who, unaware they were pregnant, accidentally caused a miscarriage through consumption of alcohol or punishing physical activity?  Do we try them all as murderers?  Do we ignore that?

But where this leads is neither here nor there.  I do not want to get bogged down in the intricacies of the debate, but rather only what my post might mean for it, if anything at all.

A Short Note on my Biases

There is no possible way this could be biased.

I am a firm believer in laying out my biases.  It is my belief that biases are the author’s most powerful tool.  When they are present but invisible, the audience runs the risk of being swayed in one direction.  When they are present but overly visible, it’s Fox News.

But when they are present, visible and acknowledged it means the author has to, in my mind, step outside of himself and accept that he is seeing things a certain way.  In doing so, the biases remain but, I feel, the power shifts to the reader, who can then decide if the information presented is still appropriate, even when examined in light of a known bias.

For that reason, I’ll openly state that I am not a fan of organized religion.  I am socially progressive, and I believe that abortion should be available to any who feel they need it.  (I’ll get more into that in a little bit.)  It is my belief that were religion to be robbed of its power in terms of this argument that the science and our own ethics would lead us to accept, rationally, that abortion must rightly be available to women as an option in order to maximize social good.

I do not, however, wish to undermine anybody’s belief in religion.  So while I speak harshly of God in the following passages, do not mistake my distaste for his presence in this issue with an attempt to dissuade you of religion.  Rather, I just feel that this is one place where religion needs to either step aside and let humans make the decision free of God, or find a way to cope with the social changes that are taking place.

Let me also be clear that when I sat down to see how these numbers added up I had no idea what it would look like.  Had it turned out the other way I would still have written a post, and it would look much different.  I don’t know that my convictions against religion’s place in this argument would be nearly as strong.  You do not have to believe me, but I am making it clear now that my intentions with this post are, really, the exploration of a new idea toward simply gathering knowledge.

God’s Plan

(Please note, I will capitalize “God” when I speak of the Christian deity, but I will not go to the effort of capitalizing pronouns because he is not my god, and I also just think it’s silly. Call me lazy, but it’s not happening.  It’s not a habit and I don’t care enough about it to take the time.)

I’m glad God things the universe is akin to playing sports.

Ultimately, what I have shown above is that as a result of natural or supernatural influence, more than 0 women per year lose pregnancies.  That is to say, either God or Allah or whatever deity, or nature, decides to terminate the pregnancy.

There is no conceivable rhyme or reason to the people upon whom this potentially devastating turn of events falls.  Sometimes women who were raped end up carrying children to term and sometimes women who want nothing more than a child of their own genes find out they cannot have one, and anytime they do it terminates.

Simply put, there is no outwardly rational decision-making process behind what pregnancies nature/God ends and what stays.  Because of that, many women suffer unnecessarily, either because of pregnancies that should never have happened or because of pregnancies that should have but never came to term.

To the pro-lifer who believes life begins at fertilization of the fetus, every single one of those pregnancies ended a life.  In this sense, the only difference between us doing it and nature doing it is the reason behind it.

For those not familiar with utilitarianism, a grossly boiled down version of it is that what is right is what does the most good for the most people.

Currently, we are not doing that.  Not in the slightest.  My super-boiled-down version of utilitarianism would, then, argue that we provide the option to provide the most happiness to the most people.  In other words, we can control who is forced to carry what child to term.  This means increased happiness (or a better chance at it, perhaps) in the life of the pregnant woman, as well as eliminating the chance of unhappiness on the part of the would-be child.

That may seem somewhat coldhearted, but ultimately we do not know that the child’s life would be all sunshine and giggles.  I cannot imagine the life of a child born of rape being without difficulties, even if he was living in an adopted family.

If all unwanted pregnancies ended in strange and depressing, yet oddly charming, musical numbers maybe we wouldn’t need abortions.

In other words, we have it in us to correct some of the failings of nature.  Pregnancy is indiscriminate and without intent.  It happens when it happens and doesn’t when it doesn’t and it terminates on its own when it does.  What abortion allows is an option for us to provide agency to these outcomes in an attempt to maximize happiness.  That is, of course, assuming there is no intent behind those actions.

Now, the only way that one could reconcile the problems I listed above is to assume that there is a grand design behind these decisions, but that said design is not visible to us.  In other words, that a rapist being pregnant and seeing a reminder of her violation in the face of a child makes sense, while the woman facing perpetual miscarriage is also part of some grand design.  We just can’t see it, but it is all part of some plan.

Since it is unlikely that nature likes to reward rapists—and is unfortunately just as unlikely that it likes to punish them—the only actor whose means and intent could be unknowable would be a deity.  Since America is largely (and in my view, unfortunately) composed of Christians, the presumed “actor” in this case is, well, God.

So this goes into God’s plan.  Because God has one, as most Christians will tell you, and when little kids die of diseases and murderers and rapists live long lives, it’s because he totally intends it that way. I, for one, am not content to assume—in light of all the evidence to the contrary—that God’s plan for us is ultimately benevolent. Consider, the next time we discuss reproductive rights, if God’s plan so far has made any sense.

Ultimately what my little argument above intended to lay out was that God is responsible for greater than 0 deaths every year—deaths that his believers tend to consider unborn children.  Deaths that the same believers consider ultimately sinful to end.  And yet, it is okay for God to do so in His plan, but not okay for us to do so to maximize social good.

Thank you, Philosoraptor, for summing up my post in a meme.

That is the crux of my argument.  That God is ensnared in the same moral quandary that pro-life believers will use to try to dissuade those advocating choice.  That is a life, it is wrong to end a life, and thus we should not end it.

But if God is benevolence, omnipotence and omniscience incarnate, then he could not engage in any act—by definition of those traits—that would be immoral.  He simply could not end those pregnancies if it were wrong.  Pro-life: 0, Pro-choice: 1.

But let’s say that, somehow, we still have a strawman of a pro-lifer that says that even then, killing those babies is wrong.  God knows it, God is still benevolent, but it is part of his plan an ultimately it leads to benevolence, even if the means to that end isn’t necessarily so.

To accept that premise we’d have to accept one of two things: first, that God either does not consider those fetuses as “alive” or that God is capable of immoral actions if the good from it is greater.  Which means that, if we were to live in his example—he is supposedly perfect—we should also be able to engage in actions that are immoral if the good is greater.  Pro-life: 0, Pro-choice: 2.

But let’s say another, different pro-lifer strawman decides to argue that God isn’t benevolent—he cannot be benevolent in order to truly enact his plan, as he must sometimes act immorally even when the ends are not positive in order to, further his plan.  In other words, sometimes God is an asshole.

If that is the case, why would we ever consider his example?  Why would we follow a deity that is ultimately capable of bad things without it leading to greater good?  Why would we, then, follow what he supposedly says about abortion, the argument religions that follow him make?

These are not proofs.  Nor do I believe that somebody couldn’t punch holes in them in the manner I wrote them (or even in a lengthier, more solid format).  But that is to say that these are things to consider, because we have a case where religion is telling us God doesn’t want us doing something and then he does it himself.

It is the classic case of do as I say, not as I do.  Which, let’s face it, is just shitty parenting.  Thanks, God.

Other Things to Take Away

Not that I’d be the first to point this out, but my big reason for giving women the ultimate say in the issue is because it is ultimately mostly their lives at stake.  The more observant out there would probably agree that a small portion of the abortion debate, no doubt, lies in the idea of men controlling women’s reproduction.

If Arnold Schwarzenegger is counted among that 77% then we have to change the percentage. Sup, Junior.

After all, it’s cool when men use contraceptives to prevent pregnancy, but as the argument over the Pill showed, it’s not cool when women do it.  (Admittedly, the Catholic Church is just backwards enough to have never really been in favor of either, really.  Even if they do sometimes change their mind when it is politically expedient to do so.)

Abortion is the ultimate one-up on men.

A man can rape a woman, he can ignore contraception and impregnate the woman.  All of these things are, ultimately, shows of the control.  But when the woman goes to end the pregnancy the rapist forced upon her, she is told that she is wrong.  That she must live with what he did.

Perhaps I’m being excessive, but it does not have to be in situations of rape.  Men can “forget” condoms and be cavalier all they want, and the women must suffer the consequences.  Abortion is an equalizer.

This, too, could be discussed in lengthier posts.  It could also and has also, no doubt, been discussed by far greater minds than I.  But religion has never been noteworthy for being particularly socially progressive, so why would it be any different in the case of pregnancy?  Women should get pregnant when men decide it is okay, and they shouldn’t have a way out, right?

Finally, The End

One of the key parts of my statement is that there should be no real restrictions on abortion, not in the sense of it only being available to rape or incest victims.  That is a politically expedient way for rich, old white men to say that they hate women controlling their bodies but accept that men do stupid shit and they can’t pretend they don’t.

In other words, it’s a cop out.  The act of abortion is no more or less wrong in those cases, really.  The same action takes place, and while the motivation changes that does not mean that the woman who wants an abortion but wasn’t raped doesn’t feel it is any less necessary.  I don’t think any of us could really say.

Recently unearthed science.

But also, when you start adding in restrictions you allow the system to become more restrictive.  Who’s to say that suddenly rich old white men in congress decide that some rapes aren’t legitimate.  What if incest only counts when it’s a parent, not a cousin.  What if harm to the mother only means if there is an absolute medical certainty that the mother would die, and if there is any chance she wouldn’t abortion is off the table?

In my mind, it is far easier to accept abortion as an all-or-nothing.

The problem is that we often hear slippery slope arguments about abortion as a contraceptive.  And you know what, a world where women get abortions instead of using the pill scares me.

Of course with any system we must always run the risk that said system will be abused.  But in my mind if a single woman every year is spared the mental torture of, say, carrying the child of her rapist to term, keeping abortion legal is worth it.  It an expected product that some person will abuse a system in place for good and assistance, but we cannot assume that system is now worthless because of that.  For as long as that system helps a single person, it is doing its job. (I’m looking at you, republicans looking at welfare with greedy eyes and malicious intent.)

In a perfect world, every pregnancy would come to term and there would be no rape, incest or danger to the mother. Ina perfect world a woman could only become pregnant when she really, really wanted it, not just any time one of the guys happened to sneak in past the guards and crash the ball.

But the world is not perfect.  According to the numbers above, neither is God.

I guess my intent is to ask why we cannot, for just this one issue, ignore what the Bible and religions say and discuss this in terms of what it means to women?  Why must abortion be about a grand message in morality?  Why must it, really, all just be about religion grandstanding?

Random Googled pro-life girl is pro-life until she gets knocked up and her parents want to hide it so their friends don’t find out. Or she just won’t get any, making abortion a moot point. Pick one.  Also, is she foaming at the mouth?  Because I could swear she is.

Why must men be so threatened by the idea of women having control over their bodies, something that, really, we have denied them for almost all of human civilization?  Why must men be such a dominant voice in the debate?  Why can’t we simply defer to the women, graciously saying
“you know, it’s kind of all about them” as we do so?

Why can’t the debate over abortion be about what it has always been and should always be about: women making decisions about their health and reproductive rights?

So if I have to call God a mass-murderer—one with death tolls yearly that rival Hitler’s, and that’s only counting unborn children—I’ll do it, even if it’s polarizing, glib and ultimately pointless.  I’ll do it if it stands event the remotest chance of turning this debate back to the women about whom it should be.  I’ll do it even if it changes only one person’s mind.

I’ll do it even if I’m just yet another man talking about something that he, really, probably shouldn’t be talking about in the first place.

As an aside, I rarely ask for comments but I am interested in what women have to say about this.  That is, about the removal of religion, men and morality from the issue and discussing it solely in terms of women’s health.  Am I just talking out of my ass, or do women actually want it to be centered upon the issues of health, rather than what evil jezebels they are?

Theory of Mind, Atheism and Religion – Part 2

April 21, 2012 3 comments

(I apologize that there are almost no pictures in this post, besides the graphs.  But honestly, finding appropriate pictures for this is near impossible.  Plus, this is one of the few times I don’t want to be irreverent.)

Alright readers, here it is, part two of the (tenuous) connection between autism and atheism.  (Unrelated note: calling you all “readers” is boring.  I’m officially taking suggestions for what I can call you guys that is a little more exciting.)

If you have not read the About Me: Atheism or Theory of Mind, Atheism and Religion – Part 1, I’d strongly suggest that you do so now.  There is a lot of information in those posts to which I’ll be referring in this one, often without re-summarizing. So unless you’re an expert on theory of mind and/or neuroscience, you want to brush check those out.

Autism and Atheism

When last I left you, intrepid connectors (that just doesn’t work), I had explained the connections between theory of mind and autism and theory of mind and religion.  Now is the mind-blowing part of the post where I…blow your minds.  But before I get to that—so maybe I’m not blowing minds now, but I will shortly—I’m going to talk about the link between autism and atheism.

After learning about theory of mind, and considering my paper from my freshmen year, I reasoned that it seemed that those with autism would be less likely to be religious.  Here’s the logic: if religion and theory of mind were linked (something I considered strongly likely), and autism meant decreased or absent theory of mind (something that research available to me at the time seemed to indicate), it would follow that those with autism would not be religion. In other words, if any of the assertions from my first post on this topic have any merit, we should see an increased prevalence of atheism in people with autism.

At the time that I came to this conclusion I was in school and, fortunately, had access to massive databases of scholarly journals that I might not have otherwise. I spent a good two weeks feverishly trying to find any source—scholarly or otherwise—that hinted at some kind of connection between these two things.  At the time, I either wasn’t looking in the right place or there just did not exist such evidence, because for all my searching I could not find it.

In the years since I did this search, however, it seems that the science and studies have either caught up with me (I’m awesome!) or has become more widely available.  Either way, when I started writing this article the first thing I searched was for some evidence of this link, since my entire point would be weakened if there was no such research.

And I’ll be damned; people with autism are more likely to be atheists.   In a study conducted by the University of Boston, researchers used a novel method to collect data:  they looked at a popular forum for people with autism and used the posts, available polls and questionnaires to see if there was a link.  There is one catch, though: these results were within people with high-functioning autism.  This is, however, understandable as more serious cases of autism would make such studies difficult.

I can hear some of you raging about the methodology of the study in terms of it being the result of self-reporting.  While this is a valid scientific study, keep in mind that religion is always about self-identification.  If you meet someone on the street who claims to be a Christian, you do not demand the phone number of his church to verify with his pastor that he attends. (Hopefully you don’t.  To do so would be invasive and, honestly, kind of scary.)  Similarly, we accept atheists at their word.  To do otherwise would be a classic example of my favorite logical fallacy, No True Scotsman.

For more detailed breakdowns of the study, please visit this link, where you can read it in its entirety.

Declared Religion in Neurtypical vs. Autistic Participants

Anyway, what this study found out, as shown in the graph above, is that 15% of the group studied identified as Christian, versus nearly 40% in the control group of NT individuals.  More interesting, people with autism were about 25% atheist in the study, compared with 17% in neurotypical individuals.

The graph is a pretty stunning display of this correlation: people with autism are less likely to be Christian and more likely to be atheist than the NT individual.  There are two major components to that statement, so let’s look at them individually.

First, the most important part of this is that people with autism were way less likely to be Christian.  This seems to be completely in line with the idea of theory of mind being necessary for religion.  After all, if you cannot feel the love, presence and other emotional parts of religion that we often hear about, you’re probably not going to be convinced that such religion has any factual basis.

But then, what was way more interesting were the amount of people who identified at atheist being 7% greater than NT individuals.  Keep in mind that going from “not being Christian” to “being atheist” is a huge step.  Not being Christian just means you don’t identify with that system.  But actively rejecting belief altogether is another thing, and that autistic people are far more likely to do so is telling of that connection.

Again, theory of mind is not required just for Christianity, it is necessary for all religion.  It makes total sense, then, that so many of the autistic individuals identified as agnostic or atheist.

Declared Religion and Autism Quotient

Equally interesting is the correlations between autism quotient and religious identity.  For those not familiar with it, Autism Quotient (AQ) is a number generated by a questionnaire that evaluates parts of personality common to or extremely uncommon in autism.  All of the questions are rated on a scale of four points from “Definitely agree” to “Definitely disagree”.

Some of the example statements evaluated are “I often notice small sounds when others do not” or “When I’m reading a story I find it difficult to work out the characters’ emotions”.  The resulting number, based upon the answers, is your AQ.

Important note: this AQ questionnaire is not a diagnostic tool used to identify autism. Rather, it is a tool used to help measure, to some degree, the severity of autism within the individual.  The idea is that if two people with diagnosed autism–and have different severity of symptoms–take the test they would get two different scores that are a crude measure of that severity.  It is not a perfect system by any means, but it does help in specific cases–like ours.

(Those of you curious about your AQ can go to the Wired website to take it.  Interestingly, I scored a 37 AQ.  For reference, Wired reports that “[e]ighty percent of those diagnosed with autism or a related disorder scored 32 or higher.”  They go on to point out, however, that “many who score above 32 and even meet the diagnostic criteria for mild autism or Asperger’s report no difficulty functioning in their everyday lives.  So don’t take the test, get a 37 and declare yourself autistic.  I don’t know why you would want to do that, but who knows with these things.)

Anyway, so the idea is, higher AQ means more severe autism.  Notice on the graph above that  the higher the AQ of the participant, the less likely he was to identify with a major religion.

This particular revelation is important in that it reinforces the theory of mind connection.  The more impaired your theory of mind (and thus, the more severe your autism and the higher your AQ), the less likely you are to identify with a defined religion.

So from this we can take away that theory of mind, being necessary for religious experience and being impaired in individuals with autism, does seem necessary for religion.  That is all this entire portion really is: further support for the idea that theory of mind enables or enhances religious experience in enough of a manner that impairment of it would lead to someone being non-religious.

Autistic Individuals and “Own Belief”

I want to address the part described as “own belief” in this study. At first, I was honestly totally unsure what to make of this.  After all, depending on the system the person creates, it could easily be considered a faith-based belief system, confounding the results of the study and hurting the case that theory of mind is necessary for religion.

I struggled with this for some time, trying to find a way to rationally explain that.  While I’m not still fully satisfied at my explanation, I think the best way to look at a belief system of one’s own construction is that this person has, effectively, created his own God–and this creation of the deity or religion (or both) circumvents the need for theory of mind.

What is interesting about this is it goes back to the concept of false belief and attributing states to others.  To accept the existence of God (or major deity of another system), the person in question has to understand the outside signs that would indicate this.  That is, the person has to see the patterns and attribute some form of human, causal behavior to it (the idea of a deity being in the world around us) and then, additionally, understand that said deity has unique emotional states, desires, etc.  Theory of mind makes this difficult for the individual with autism, as I’ve shown. False belief–and the linked idea of divergent mental states within different people–is necessary to believe.

However, the creation of one’s own belief system in effect internalizes the major deity of the system (if there even is one).  The person in question does not have to apply theory of mind because the deity of his construction is internalized, in reality a function of himself.

Thus, these particular people have gotten around the necessity of theory of mind in religion.  To use the radio example from my first post on this subject:  if belief in God is receiving God’s radio signal in your head’s transmitter, creating your own religious belief system is just humming your own tune and calling it religion.  It’s glib, but I think it’s the best way to conceptualize that particular internalization of religion.   This deity would never have divergant mental states from the believer, it would follow, because the deity is the creation of the worshipper and, thus, does exactly what the worshipper expects and wants it to do.

The Implications of It All

There are far-reaching implications of all of the conclusions contained herein.  First, let’s go back to the radio metaphor again.

In that metaphor I liken God to someone transmitting radio signals and belief in God to the ability to receive radio signals.  Our minds are the radios, and theory of mind is our receptiveness to the radio signal or the antenna.  Still following?

In people with autism theory of mind—the antenna for the deity’s signal—isn’t working as it should, thus they cannot receive the radio signal being transmitted around them.  As a result, they identify as atheist or create their own music (creating their own religious system).

But how, then, does this apply to the neurotypical atheist and the neurotypical believer?  In essence, I am proposing that there is something inside the theory of mind of the atheist that differs from theory of mind in the believer, causing that antenna to be unable to receive the message of a deity.   I think it is that simple. Now, obviously I wouldn’t have written two lengthy posts to just come to the conclusion that the brain of the atheist is functionally different from the brain of the theist.  That would be silly and wasteful.

What I have been doing is supporting my case with various forms of evidence.  My assertion from the very beginning has been that the atheist and theist have different brain functions.  Now that I feel I’ve established that, I can talk about the implications that arise from knowing that.  While this study on autism and atheism seems to have gotten little fanfare, I think it could easily herald in a new understanding of religion and non-religion.

Particularly evangelical or militant—or whatever word you want to use use—atheists and theists could very well use this information to claim that the other side has some mental deficit.  The atheist can claim that the brain function of the theist is an outdated holdover of a once-useful evolutionary trait.

The atheist, however, would probably himself on the losing side of that argument. Since our brains would appear to have more in common with someone with autism than the theist, it is extremely possible that theists could assume that all atheists are simply socially inept, brain-damaged individuals.

Science further proving these connections could easily be turned by the vicious believer or non-beleiver into weapons against the other side, what I propose is that we use this as a tool of understanding to help bridge the gap between the two once and for all.  Many atheists and many theists spend a great deal of time trying to convert the other side to see things as he does.  Understanding this information means that on some fundamental level, such conversions will never be entirely possible.

Consider that a theist could convert the atheist, but chances are–because of these different brain functions–he will never really buy into the religion because he will never see it the way other believers do.  Given that the feelings of love and fulfillment that people report coming from belief, it would be an empty religion, following the motions without receiving the benefit that comes from it.  (At best, the atheist could potentially create an internalized religion, but then the theist would probably not be satisfied with that as an actual conversion.)

Conversely the atheist could convert the theist, but to do so would also be a hollow victory, in that there would be some part of the theist that is always thinking back to what he is now missing, now that he has converted.  As he goes about his life he would realize all the feelings of love and faith that once flooded him are either not there, or he has had to block them out.

But this also explains why conversion seems so out of grasp to both sides all the time.  I often found myself—in the days when I more actively tried to dissuade people from their beliefs—exasperated by theists who just couldn’t seem to understand the self-evident, that which was right in front of them.  I have no doubt those theists felt the same way about me.  Each side sees the other as totally misguided, apparently willingly ignoring evidence directly in front of them.

What I am proposing is that further study of this—totally neutral study—could usher in an era of understanding between believers and atheists.  If both sides understand that there is a biological reason why some people feel the deities around them and others don’t, it certainly could help to remove some of the tension.  Granted, there will always be extremists on both sides who wish to convert others, but that is not something that can ever change.

I realize my view of this may seem naïve, but ever since coming to the hypothesis that receptiveness to religion is a function of the brain—and seeing proof for it—my view of Christians has changed immensely.  I now understand that there is something that they see that I don’t, something that I will probably never see, that makes them believe.  It is not a matter of level of intelligence, ignorance or anything else.  It is a matter of what our brains let us see.

But the key to this kind of understanding is further neutral study.  (I don’t often bold stuff, so consider that my hint that this is damn important.) You see, throughout this post I have always talked about hearing the signals that come from the deity.  I have tried, and I sincerely hope succeeded, to not touch the question of whether or not God exists.  As an atheist myself, I do not believe there is any God sending signals at all, and that said signals are just a further functions of the brain, functions beyond what I’ve discussed.

But I am not concerned, in this post, with answering whether there is someone sending those signals or it is biological.  To question that would be to try to prove or disprove god, and that is a question that science should not burden itself with answering, nor that theists should ever bear the burden of defending.  It is the ultimate unknowable and we should leave it that way.

What would the theist gain by proving God?  The atheist would still be unable to experience Him.  If the atheist disproved God, does that make the feelings people associate with religion any less real?  The answer to those questions: nothing and no.  Proving or disproving God, in the light of this difference in neurology, only antagonizes one side.

Instead, to foster in an understanding between believers and non-believers, I feel that science should task itself with explaining what makes the brains of each different in a manner that never bothers to ask “is God actually there”, but just acknowledges that, so long as people believe, he is real enough to let the question remain unanswered.  In return, I hope that theists will no longer see atheists as in some misguided rebellion of religion, or some kind of subspecies of person willingly turning away from religion. Rather, I hope they will come to understand the atheist as people who follow our hearts to answers, wherever that might take us.  In that way, we are–believers and non-believers alike–all the exact same—differences in the brain or not.

Theory of Mind, Atheism and Religion – Part 1

April 19, 2012 4 comments

When I was a freshmen in college I took a course that Illinois Wesleyan required to teach us freshmen how to write: the gateway colloquium.  The one I had was with a professor who spent the entire time teaching us to engage in intelligent discourse, both in written papers and in-class discussion.  One of the papers I wrote came about after the professor e-mailed us an article entitled “Is God an Accident”. In the paper I wrote in response, I explored the idea that perhaps religion is a social construct but that, more importantly, I was not “wired” to believe in God.

The brief synopsis came from when my professor spoke about the idea of God being love—that people with intense religious experiences could use only the term “love” to really explain the way it felt.  In exploring this idea, along with the ideas that Paul Bloom explores in his article, I came to the conclusion that perhaps for all of the social components creating religion the most important part is, in fact, the ability of the person to be religious.

Since that time I’ve had a lot more time to learn about the cognitive and neurological sciences, and though I am still far from being even close to speaking with any real authority on the subject, I think that I have absorbed enough information to be able to discuss the concepts herein with some semblance of competence.

In another interesting course, I was introduced to the concept of “theory of mind” in terms of literature.  When I read about this concept I immediately went back and re-read my meandering mini-thesis on atheism and the mind, sure now that I had one more tool to better discuss the concept.

Let me make one thing clear: these ideas are not mine to claim ownership over.  While I do pride myself on the fact that I, over the years, developed the ideas in here on my own, I am not the first person to think of them, ever.  I am sure that over the years I ran into literature discussing these ideas, as well as participated in discussions that informed me.  In that sense, I am sure there are numerous sources I am not crediting in this post that deserve it.

I have a Bachelor of Arts in Literature, which really gives me the credibility to do little more than muse on the subject at hand.  That said, it is of intense interest to me and over the years I have done much with the subject.  What you see below, again, are generally my interpretations of the information and any sourcing is the means to support the conclusion at which I have arrived.

My Goals

Radio head.

Radio head.

So, if you haven’t read my post entitled About Me: Atheism, I would suggest doing so.  It will give context to my views on religion.  I wrote it with the explicit purpose of it being a primer for this post.  If you don’t, then don’t blame me for what happens.  (Hint: total protonic reversal.)

I’ll make reference to something I used in that post: the idea of God as a radio signal and us as radios (or, if you prefer something less weird, as having radios in our head).  It has been my long-standing assumption that some of us—like me—just cannot receive those signals.  Others—the religious among us—are receptive to these signals.

Now let me also point out here that I am not arguing, above, whether or not those signals are being sent by god or created by our own brains.  I am simply going to be making arguments in support of my assumption that some of us are not equipped to hear God.  The discussion of whether God is actually out there is one that I don’t care to undertake for myself.  Not now at least.

A Discussion of Theory of Mind

Theory of mind is a concept to which I cannot do full justice in just a small portion of this post.  Even dedicating numerous posts to it, the idea of theory of mind is still quite complex and I would probably butcher it.  I’ll refer you, in that case, to the Wikipedia entry for theory of mind, which has a decent explanation and the usual links to other resources.

In short, however, theory of mind is the ability to attribute motivations to others.  It is the innate social ability within (most of) us that allows us to see another person’s disparate actions and, from those actions, infer what his intentions and thoughts might be. Theory of mind is not empathy, though they are in some ways related, but rather the ability to attribute intention to another person’s behavior.

Planets don't have motivations.

For those who find analogies helpful, here we go: consider, if you will, the physical laws that describe planetary motion.  When Kepler observed the planets he observed a series of unrelated motions and actions that, at first glance, were a disordered mess.  When Kepler created his three laws of planetary motion he used them to describe the behavior that the planets followed.

When Kepler wrote these laws down the planets did not suddenly start obeying them; nor were the planets, the whole time before the laws were written, following some math in their head.  No, the planets were agents that followed certain patterns caused by the way our universe works.  Kepler’s laws describe those motions. Planets do not have motivations, but in this analogy the laws describe the intentions of the planets. (Scientists among my readers will, hopefully, forgive me for being a bit over-simplistic with these ideas.)

So theory of mind is what allows you to see your friend, Jack, and infer from his actions that he is lonely, or hungry, or tired, or whatever it might be.

Conversely, it may help to think of those times that theory of mind fails us.  Consider yourself walking down a sidewalk in a direct collision course with another person.  In your mind you decide to sidestep right, figuring that this person will do the same.  When you do, he sidesteps left, such that you both are still about to run into each other.

I think every one of us has probably experienced this at some point, and it is a great example of failure of theory of mind.  You, in this case, tried to attribute mental states and motivations beyond your own to this person and failed.

The process by which theory of mind really explains behavior is far more complex.  It, in essence, consists of us seeing action we need to describe, using our own experience with ourselves and other people, and then making inferences and applying them.  The process happens in a way that we do not really realize that we’re doing it.

Finally, theory of mind has a type of filtering process built in, in that we do not apply those same things toward a tree.  When you walk toward a tree you do not apply to it mental states and feelings, you know that if you don’t move it won’t.  Thus, theory of mind has still worked, in this case just to tell you “that thing isn’t a person”.

Theory of mind is an innate and absolutely necessary social tool for humans.  Some of us have run into someone so unpredictable that we cannot fathom what he/she is thinking or intending, and no doubt those situations were extremely frustrating.  Without theory of mind we would all be unable to assume intentions, thoughts and desire even exist in someone else, much less apply these states.

Socialization is absolutely necessary for theory of mind.  Just as with any other skill, practice will help you become good at it.  But, beyond this, we must experience a range of emotions, thoughts, desires and pretend states to build a kind of dictionary of human behavior.

Astute readers may notice that in the above paragraph I included the phrase “pretend states” where that phrase has previously not appeared.  Indeed, our ability to pretend is considered fundamentally tied to theory of mind, in that pretend is our ability to infer the mental states of others, and then act as if we were that person.

Autism

Autism prevalence (incidents per X amount of people) has increased something like 600% in the past two decades, so it is no surprise that autism is a subject of intense study.  In the case of the various advancements in understanding of the human mind and the brain, it is often through the study of the atypical that we can figure out how the neurotypical (from here on out, NT) truly function.

Autism manifests in a series of behaviors. Stacking/ordering is one of them.

Being that I have a degree in literature, I’m taking the time to again emphasize that I will not do full justice to autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASD).  This is meant to provide the basic information necessary to comprehend the rest of the article.  There is far more to autism than what I am about to describe.

Anyway, the brief description of autism is that it is a neurological disorder that causes impaired social interaction as well as impaired communication and developmental abilities.  Those with autism typically have difficulty relating to others and, in fact, seem to have an underdeveloped or non-existent theory of mind.

Additionally, autism and ASD tend to manifest themselves in specific behaviors, such as resistance to change, ritualistic behavior (in this case, highly specific patterns of behavior from which the person does not wish to deviate, not ritualistic in the sense of religion) or other compulsive behavior.

Wikipedia points out that autism is “highly variable” as so no one case will be the same as the others in how it manifests, so keep in mind that not every case will have all of these behaviors.  Nonetheless, the things I described above are some of the key commonalities between most cases, as well as those behaviors most relevant to the discussion at hand.

Autism and Theory of Mind

Within autism and ASD, there is a tendency to associate the social symptoms to the inability or underdeveloped ability of the autistic person to mindread (unfortunately, this term is merely the way people describe “engaging in theory of mind tasks”, and not some super cool superpower).  One of the early studies in this area, Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) tested 61 children with autism, Down Syndrom and some NT children as a control.

The experiment, pictured.

This study used an aspect of theory of mind called false belief—the ability to understand that different people can have beliefs about the world that are different from yours—to test whether theory of mind was present in these children.

The task involved two dolls, Sally and Ann.  After ensuring the children could tell the difference, the researchers took sally and had her hide a marble under one of two baskets.  Sally then “left” and Ann, that devious bitch, would move the marble to the other basket.  The question the researchers then asked, when Sally returned, is where Sally would look for her marble.  The correct answer, my friends, is under the first basket.  The answer coming from the children with autism?  The second basket.

For those not sure how this proves anything, it is a very watered-down test of mindreading and false belief.  Assuming you, the reader, are an NT individual, you would know that Sally wasn’t aware Ann moved the marble, and thus when looking for it would look where she left it.

The failure for the autistic children to understand this was some of the earliest support that their theory of mind was not working in the same way as ours—if at all.  They cannot attribute to Sally the idea that she thinks and sees things different from themselves, and thus believe Sally would have looked where the marble was.  These deficits in theory of mind occur early on in life, usually from about the first year and beyond.

The social difficulties of the person with autism stem from a lack of or underdeveloped theory of mind.  As I described before, the theory of mind within us allows us to understand that the tree we see does not have intentions.

Imagine, however, that you were to lack theory of mind.  Not only would you not be able to attribute intentions to the tree (rightly), but you would not be able to do so to your family.  Because the person with autism cannot mindread the people around him, he instead sees them in the same way we would see another inanimate object, as lacking any emotional states.

You can imagine, then, how unnerving it would be if the tree I have used for examples were to, suddenly, stand up and begin to walk around, talk, and act upon you.  In the same way that we would be terrified or confused by this, the person with autism sees the social behaviors of those around him as other objects acting in unpredictable ways.

So to recap: autism and ASD affect the theory of mind starting at early ages—as early as one—and continue to cause deficits in the applications of mindreading within autistic children.  As such, they are not able to attribute states to other people, objects, etc.  That last line is quite important.  Maybe I should have bolded it.

Theory of Mind and Religion

In the ever-continuing quest for explanations, science has begun to notice that there are a few interesting things about theory of mind in relation to religion. While there are many attempts to “explain” religion, keep in mind that there is still that fundamental aspect of faith that will never go away.  Nonetheless, one of the ways that science is applying theory of mind is to help explain religion.

In the same way that we ascribe behaviors and desires to other people, theory of mind does allow us to attribute these causes elsewhere.  I talked about how we do not assume a tree has a desire, and so we don’t need to apply theory of mind there.

But humans are, if nothing else, creatures that like to know why things happen.  More than that, they notice patterns in behavior where there isn’t necessarily anything to which to attribute cause.   Think, if you would, about sitting on the grass and staring at the clouds.  We look at those and see shapes in them.  Similarly, people have seen and attributed shapes to stars.  People see a man in the moon.  (In a pretty interesting story, people used to talk about the man in the moon, but it wasn’t until I saw a diagram of what you’re supposed to see—at the age of 21—that I was finally able to see him.)

DAMNIT! That cloud isn't shaped like a heart. It's just your mind playing tricks.

Is that cloud actually shaped like a car or is there actually a face on the moon? Not really.  That cloud may bear similarities to a car, but it is, in fact, your mind applying order to the unordered.  It is a human tendency, and it is, I would argue, strongly related to theory of mind.

While we know that there are no intentions behind that cloud, that it cannot wish to be shaped as a car, we can use theory of mind to apply pretend states to it.  In the same way, we often look at disparate events happening within a certain timeframe as evidence of bad or good luck.  Does luck actually exist?  Probably not.  It just so happens that your mind is really good at ordering the disordered.

Is this an extension of theory of mind?  Probably to some extent.  In the same way that we look at a person’s disparate actions and attribute emotion or cause to it, we too look at those “unlucky” events and assume some force was responsible for it: thus, we create luck.

So how does this tie into religion?  Consider early man in a pre-literate but still verbal society.  In order for societies to exist, there had to be some form of theory of mind or people could not cooperate (if you can’t tell what someone is going to do, or attribute mental states to a person, you’re not going to be useful in helping him—if you even want to).

Now think back to things like, say, thunder or lightning.  Or, perhaps, the weather as a whole.  While we know now that the weather isn’t affected by our personal actions, this early society would have no way to know that.  Indeed, in the same way that we think of luck, these people could easily have seen a pattern in the weather and attributed it to something they did.  Thus, they began ritual behavior to appease the unknown force that they had pleased or angered.

If this sounds like a very simple religion, that’s because it is.  In essence, these early people would have recognized patterns and attributed to some unseen entity mental states akin to their own.

Please note: I am not saying this is at all how religion formed, but giving you an example of how theory of mind could, in this hypothetical society, lead to the creation of an ersatz religion.

I’m also describing in this situation the reverse order by which religion tends to happen today.  In the New Scientist article I linked above, there is indication that theory of mind is used to interpret a god’s intentions and feelings in terms that we can understand.  Because we hope to figure the intentions of others, it is only natural that we then apply this to our deities, as well.

Emerging neuroscience is beginning to show this link, as well.  In a study of religious individuals using an fMRI and a series of religious factors the study found that “God’s perceived involvement appeared to activate brain circuits very similar to those activated in Theory of Mind tasks.”  God’s perceived emotion, one of the areas tested, activated areas of the brain “known to be activated when processing emotional Theory of Mind” information.

Religious Brain

This is your brain on theory of mind. Or religion. Or both.

Using Christianity as an example—because it is well known and probably the religion of many of my readers—it is easy to see why theory of mind would work with God.  The Old Testament God was one described in terms of human emotions—he was angry, wanted retribution, pleased, etc.

Indeed, when thinking of God we do so in human terms.  Part of this, one could argue, is because He is so far outside of our understanding that we need a framework of humanity to understand him.  This may well be, but it could also be that God was born from the attempts to explain events in the world using theory of mind.

Whatever the cause is, whether religion is real or not, we do perceive of God in human terms.  In order to do so, one needs a functioning theory of mind, otherwise God would likely disappear, and instead one would see a series of unrelated, random events.

Does that sound a little like the way some people view the world?  Interesting.

Keep tuned in, readers, for the continuation of this in tomorrow’s update, in which I will link all of this together with atheism.

About Me: Atheism

April 18, 2012 4 comments

A Few Things First…

I’m writing this post to give some insight into me, the author of this blog, and also to give context to a few posts I’ll (hopefully) be putting up in a few days.  I’m currently working on a pretty hefty post, “The Link Between Autism and Atheism” (or something of the kind), and I’m working on a book review of sorts of Heaven Is For Real.

I figured, then, that it would probably give help to have some insight into what atheism means to me and the ways it defines me and informs my views.  Initially I was hesitant to do so, only because religion in general, and atheism in particular, can cause some real polarization.  I’m all for people being passionate in response to this blog.  However, discussion religion is a quick way to start a flame war.

But then, I started to realize that because atheism is a huge part of my identity, it is going to color my opinions in a lot of my posts.  The problem is that many people have misconceptions about atheism.  I am not deluding myself into thinking I can clear them all up with just this post.  But I am hoping to help a little bit.

Nonetheless, I figured it would be interesting and useful to discuss what atheism means to me, dispel some rumors about it (in my context) and just to discuss it openly.  After all, people are distrustful of atheists (more people would rather see a muslim as president than an atheist).

I also apologize because this is one of the longer posts of mine and it may not be as interesting to some of you as the other posts.  If you’re going to keep reading  this blog, and I hope you will, it will help to know more about me.

And About Atheists In General…

As you saw in the link above, 48% of Americans would refuse to vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president based solely on him being an atheist.  The article above called atheists “the most despised minority in America.”

Atheism

A Google Image search for "atheist" is a good indication of popular opinion.

I don’t speak for all atheists (I’ll get to that), but while I recognize us as being despised in general, please do not think that I want your pity or that I would compare the treatment of atheists to racist attitudes toward some ethnic minorities.  The fact of the matter is, people don’t like us, but at least you can hide atheism.  You cannot hide skin color, you can pretend you’re not an atheist.

Additionally, I want to point out that I do not speak for any atheist other than myself.  I think most of them would agree that we just want to live our lives and be accepted for who we are without having to lie or, should we be open about it, be looked down upon. But I cannot even be sure that every atheist would agree with that.

I once considered writing a post about the catch-22 that is organizing atheists.  In not having any central organization, we cannot have some spokesperson that speaks for most of us appear on the news to defend us.  That is a problem.  However, to organize under the banner of atheism is to create a church of atheism, in a sense, and become exactly what so many atheists stand against. Numerous groups of “freethinkers” have arisen, groups of like-minded non-theists, but these groups tend to tarnish our image, even though their intentions are positive.

Also, people like Richard Dawkins do not speak for us.  That guy is a gigantic asshole.

Why I’m An Atheist

Whenever the topic of religion comes up, I tend to awkwardly stand off to the side, hoping to avoid bringing attention to myself.  Should it come up that I am an atheist, I think the most common question is “why”.

I could bore you with a long, in-depth story of how I lost faith, but that would be a lie.  I never had faith to begin with.  As a young child my parents were divorced.  I have about one memory from when they were married, and it has been the status quo the rest of my life.  My father became extremely religious and when I visited him (every other weekend) he would drag me to church.  I had a children’s Bible, I heard kid’s stories about Noah and the Whale, David and Goliath.  All that stuff. I’d go to Sunday school, and all I can remember is being very confused.  They would talk about God’s love, and I just never understood what they meant.

If they'd made it in 3d when I was a kid, I might have turned out different.

This was not for a lack of trying.  I would hear about how people, when praying, could feel God above them.  When I was at my dad’s I prayed nightly.  At home, I was embarrassed of it (my mother was non-religious, but not at all anti-religious, and so I could not tell you why I was embarrassed) and would hide under my covers, praying to God at night.  But every prayer felt unanswered.  The presence I was supposed to feel in times of communion with God were marked by a conspicuous absence.

As a kid, nobody tells you that there is such a thing as an atheist.  I don’t think any parent wants to consider their actions of imparting religion on their children indoctrination, but it really is.  Whether they avoid teaching children alternatives to their chosen religion out of fear that they won’t be a good Christian or out of fear that it will confuse the child, most parents just simply don’t.

This whole time I was a child of intense curiosity.  I wanted to know how everything worked.  I read endlessly about the sciences.  (In fact, until my junior or senior year of high school, the idea of studying Literature in college was downright repulsive to me.)  This was the kind of child I was: fascinated by science, obsessed with the inner workings of the universe.  My dad got me a subscription to Discover magazine when I was nine, and I would pore over every page of the new issue until the next one came out.  I somehow knew basic facts about quarks before I fully understood the atom itself.

I was never exposed to alternatives to Christianity, and it wasn’t until I was in junior high that the concept of atheism was even introduced to me.  I don’t even remember how, but I remember that it made sense to me.  I often found my science-oriented world-view at odds with the teachings of the church.  With my introduction to the idea of atheism, the absence of God in the world around me suddenly made all kinds of sense.

The thing is, when most people ask why you’re an atheist, the exact question is: “Why? What happened?”  Believe me when I say that almost every conversation about that had that question tacked on. You see to the theist, as far as I can tell at least, the only reason someone would reject God is if they were pissed at him.  People assumed some awful thing had happened and that I would eventually come to my senses.

This is a fallacy, in my case, and also evidence of the difficulty Christians have in accepting atheists.  You see, I did not reject God, because he was never truly in my life.  Now, there are no doubt some of you who are saying something like “you weren’t listening”, implying that it is my fault.

Radio and God

This picture explains everything: I tried to tune into God and I got Coldplay. That's "what happened".

In a metaphor I’ll use in a coming post, look at each person as having a radio in his head.  God exists somewhere, but his communication with us is through radio signals.  While Christians are tuned into God and hear Him all around them, something in my head has made it impossible for me to hear Him.

To imply that I rejected God, I would have had to be tuned in to Him in the first place, then have tuned Him out.  I firmly believe that the reason is simply some difference in brain chemistry that makes me unable to hear Him in the first place.  Again, this will be its own post, so I wouldn’t dwell too much on it.

Either way.  That receptiveness to God’s radio signal is faith.  I think that some people are fully capable of faith while others, like me, are simply not.

Religion vs. Science

The false dichotomy that is religion vs. science has always been bothersome to me.  You’ll note above that I pointed out that the scientific world view appealed to me.  I do not want you, however, to make the mistake of thinking I am saying that science was the reason for me not having faith. The reason science fascinated me is because it took a step-by-step, logical and falsifiable approach. Science appealed to me because it just made sense to me.

Jesus versus Darwin

My money is on Darwin, but only because Jesus is kind of a pacifist.

As I said above, I think some people just do not have faith built in.  When you aren’t capable of faith in that way, then the resulting view would be more centered around logic, around empiricism.  I accept things that have evidence to support them.  This is not inherently anti-religious.  I firmly accept that some people can be religious and logical.  I am saying that a logical person without the ability to really understand or be faithful is going to have a hard time with religion.

It also brings us to another sub-point.

The thing with science is that it doesn’t have all of the answers.  Science is still learning many things.  To many people, leaving something unexplained is a flaw.  To me, it is merely part of the process.  That science has no really good answer (yet) on some things does not mean that they will never find the answer.  I am okay with having some questions left unanswered and it does not put me in an existential dilemma.  I think this, too, is a main difference between theists and atheists.  The fact that some things are don’t have answers doesn’t bother me in the slightest.  I don’t need to know every detail of the world around me to exist.

Nonetheless, the reason I have moved more and more toward science is not because I am Godless, but because it explains the world around me in a way that is compatible with the way my mind works.  When science makes some new discovery about the universe, I do not simply accept it, but rather read about it, learn, and wait for more evidence to accrue.

I’m Not Anti-Religion Anymore…

I first made public that I was an atheist around the age of fourteen, near the start of high school.  Teenagers are, to put it bluntly, pieces of shit.  They argue everything.  It is not really a stretch of the imagination, then, that I would have gone into an anti-religious fervor from almost the moment I realized I was an atheist.

You Suck

He's pointing at YOU, teenagers.

This continued for years.  In fact, I would say that it wasn’t until the past couple years that I really toned down my anti-religious sentiment.  I owe someone a particular thanks for this, and she should know exactly who she is.

But one of the reasons I became so anti-religious was because religion was so anti-atheist.  You see how people view atheists in that link above.  People immediately assumed that I was just pissed at God.  I was told that I will “outgrow” atheism, as though it was some teenage rebellion, akin to starting to smoke and ride a motorcycle to piss off your parents.

I got used to being attacked or converted.  People would try to prove God was real, argue how stupid my atheism was; the only defense I could think of was to turn it around on them.  As a result, I got really good at turning any discussion into an assault on that person’s religion.  In more than one case I have made people cry because of how intensely I pressed their beliefs.

I’d like to think now that I am far more even-tempered in my reactions to such things.  I don’t bring up atheism as much as I used to because I know it will start these discussions.  If something moves in that direction, I let people know that we all have our beliefs (or lack of) and that I’m not going to argue it.

…But Don’t Try To Convert Me

Conversion is inherently wrong, and this is about the toughest and most controversial thing I’ll say in this post.  I think that conversion is morally reprehensible in any case in which a person seeksto convert another.  Should you be approached about the process of conversion, go for it. But going out and trying to convert someone is wrong.  If I tried to convert a Christian away from religion and into atheism, I’d be treated like a terrible person.  Yet when a Christian feels it is his/her responsibility to tell me how hard I’m going to burn in hell, I get (understandably) upset.

Yes, that'll do the trick.

You have to understand, for me the concept of eternal hellfire isn’t real, and thus not an issue. If I were to approach you, ask what your religion is and, upon hearing you have one, tell you everything you are wrong about, you’d probably get pissed.  So why is it, then, that it’s okay to lecture atheists about how wrong we are?

The answer: it’s not.  Let people live their lives.

Religion Around Me

Consider how strongly religion influences this country and think how it would feel to have that impressed upon you.  The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” and I would not argue for a moment that Christianity is the state religion, certainly not officially.  It may be a very prevalent one, but unlike many atheists, I would never argue that I’m actually persecuted for being an atheist.  There is no government system punishing me for doing so.  But that does not mean there aren’t difficulties.

People, upon finding out I’m an atheist, have varied reactions.  Some ignore it, but are clearly bothered by it.  Others try to ask questions.  I think my favorite side-effect of atheism is in dating.  I have been told outright by some women that they simply cannot date me because they could not marry an atheist.  You’d think this would be some kind horror stories from back when people were less open-minded.  I’ve been told this by no less than three different women.

Beyond the interpersonal consequences are the social ones.  Some of you, some time back, may recall the big to-do made about the phrase “one nation, under god” in the Pledge of Allegiance.  In high school my sophomore year I refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance.  Granted, this was in a time where I was more activist about my atheism than now, but this is one thing I would still do if it were an issue.

Ten commandments in front of courthouse

Totally, one hundred percent okay. I should just ignore that religious engraving in front of the courthouse.

For those of you who are no doubt saying that it’s not a big deal, just say it.  Consider if the Pledge of Allegiance were to say “one nation, under Zeus” or “one nation, under Satan”.  Would you really still stand up and say that? Really? Even though it is fundamentally against what you believe?

Well I didn’t “just go with it” I was told by my teacher that it made students uncomfortable that I wasn’t standing up, at which point—expecting this to be made into a federal case, literally—I told the teacher that I was an atheist and that I would not be made to state that God exists, while in school (even more appropriately, in my chemistry class) when it is fundamentally against what I believe.

Fortunately, she admitted she couldn’t make me, and the issue was dropped.  But consider that such occurrences are reasonably common in life as an atheist.  My religious, but non-Christian readers can probably understand the difficulty that arises when a nation that is overwhelmingly influenced by Christianity expects that you are the same.  No person, of any religion, should ever be forced to just go along with everyone else, despite not being of the same religion. Think back to the news stories about removing those ten commandment tablets from out front of numerous courthouses.  There was a media shitstorm, equating to talk about how Christians are oppressed by secular society.  If you were offended by that, imagine how I would feel, as an atheist, walking into that courthouse.

Please don’t mistake this as some kind of martyrdom. But it does make life harder when the expectation is that you’re a Christian and you’re not.

Some of you may, again, be telling me I should just smile and nod and let it roll off me.  But I challenge you to answer for me why I should have to.  Give me one good reason that it is okay for my lack of religion to be treated that way, as some kind of don’t ask, don’t tell policy for atheists.

Conclusion

I remember once at work there was a conversation going on between some coworkers about their churches.  One of them asked me what church I went to, at which point I said that I don’t go to church.  I chose those words, not wanting to make a scene about it.  But I was then promptly asked why not, and what church did I go to when I did practice, etc.  I said I was an atheist.  The looks on everyone’s face looked more akin to the face you’d see when you found out that I was a cannibal specializing in the torture, murder and consumption of newborns.

Co-workers perceptions of me before (left) and after (right) revealing I was an atheist.

There are days where I look back and can completely understand why, even just a few years ago, I would passionately discuss my atheism.  I am, to an extent, ashamed that I tiptoe around the subject, instead of being proud to share it when asked. But I have grown so tired of explaining myself to everyone that I’ve found it’s easier to just let everyone assume I’m a good Christian, instead of a godless heathen, unless otherwise asked.

My point this post is not to get sympathy or to paint my life as being full of trials as an atheist.  It doesn’t come up on a daily basis.  But when it does come up, it is not a good feeling to know that people think less of you for it.  I am not a martyr, but I also do not think I should have to hide something that is a fundamental part of my identity because of common misconceptions.

My point is also  not to paint Christians, or any theist, as a bad person for being willing to discuss his religion, nor do I think you deserve to be scorned for being proud of it.  Religion (or lack thereof) is part of your identity. If at any point my tone conveyed some disrespect for Christians or theists, I apologize.  I have spent a good portion of the last year becoming far more tolerant, mostly because I began to understand why people are religious.  In the same way that it might be incredibly difficult for a Christian to understand why I’m atheist, I sometimes don’t understand why people are drawn to religion. So if my tone comes off as dismissive, please inform me, as I certainly didn’t mean it that way.

I encourage the open discussion of faith, assuming those discussions are in the spirit of learning, not in the spirit of conversion or condemnation.

My intent here, beyond the previously stated hope to give some context to my atheism, is to maybe impact a couple people to treat atheism with the same respect you would any other major religion.  I think this is perhaps the easiest and biggest change anybody could make to the way they act toward atheists.  Think of how you would act when you find out someone else is Jewish or Muslim or Taoist or anything: respect the difference in religion and move on.

If you should be interested in learning more about me, more about atheism, or want any clarification you don’t feel comfortable asking publicly via comment, shoot me an email at tenuousconnecionsblog@gmail.com.  I am more than happy to talk more about this as long as it is, again, in the spirit of learning.