Religious/Worldview Techniques

by katydee1 min read5th Nov 201037 comments

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This is really weird, but I find myself strongly drawn towards religion (specifically, Christianity), which for some reason feels intuitively right to me. I *know* or at least seem to know that I'm just infected with a meme, I know all the standard arguments, and the majority of my friends are atheists, but it feels right to the extent that I am experiencing serious mental discomfort at not believing. Are there techniques that can help in this situation? I find that I can change my worldview fairly easily in many regards, but this one is deep-rooted.

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I know or at least seem to know that I'm just infected with a meme, I know all the standard arguments, and the majority of my friends are atheists, but it feels right to the extent that I am experiencing serious mental discomfort at not believing.

Is it not believing or is it that the rationalist approach to life seems alien?

Because I sympathize with the latter. My self-examination suggests I would be genuinely happier if Thoth (or a similarly constructed deity) existed.

It seems like the best course of action is placebo (I'm going to pray because it calms me, not because I expect someone is listening) or subversion (many people have worshiped a personification of reason/wisdom, and nothing stops you from doing the same).

I mean, read the silliness Eliezer's written out about a Bayesian Conspiracy. Why does that exist? Because conspiracies are exciting, and because intelligent, ambitious people are naturally attracted to cabals. If you have levers that are pulled by religiosity, change what the levers are attached to and pull away.

many people have worshiped a personification of reason/wisdom, and nothing stops you from doing the same

Alethea is another good Ishta devata for those who are squeamish about praying to the traditional gods.

Less reassurringly, Yog-Sothoth.

For a short period in high school, I used to offer an evening prayer to Athena Oxyderkes ("sharp-sighted").

I have a somewhat similar situation. I don't have a strong positive intellectual case for the reality of the divine but I do really like religion and like to participate in it. So I do.

A few questions, if you are willing to answer:

Do you hold beliefs about the "divine" in addition to participating in religion?

Would a strong argument against the "divine" change your behavior?

What attracts you to religion? What form? Essentially the same questions I asked katydee, but with your preferred group replacing "Christianity".

Oh, I don't mind questions, but I may not have very fullsome answers.

Do you hold beliefs about the "divine" in addition to participating in religion?

I find some religious ideas more attractive than others. I've found that as I get older I tend to have fewer and vaguer beliefs. To take another example, I'm interested in US politics and have been for a long time but I no longer have any strong opinion on which of the two parties is better. This sometimes bothers me - I'd rather not wake up one day finding that I no longer care about anything.

Would a strong argument against the "divine" change your behavior?

If you convinced me that I would get more utility with different behavior then I assume my behavior would change. I've read a whole lot of atheist literature, though, if that's what you mean.

What attracts you to religion?

I don't know exactly but my views are roughly similar to those described by this person.

What form?

I find most religions at least moderately attractive. I dislike Christianity less as I get older, though I still have an aversion to the Lutheranism which I was raised with and converted out of in my teen years.

I mostly worship privately and perhaps somewhat idiosyncratically but I sometimes attend the public rituals of a local pagan group.

If you convinced me that I would get more utility with different behavior then I assume my behavior would change. I've read a whole lot of atheist literature, though, if that's what you mean.

Your utility response matched my intent. Although I do have a question related to your second response. Based on your comments you seem to hold onto beliefs about the reality of the divine, despite your exposure to atheist literature. Is there a core sense to your beliefs that the arguments against God have not addressed?

To provide context for my questions, I had a Christian upbringing and a strong belief in God and the spiritual. I eventually evaluated these beliefs and found them to be baseless. Then I found that they were almost certainly wrong, and that they resulted in negative value for me. Now I am interested in arguments against my atheist beliefs, and in understanding how other people evaluate their beliefs.

I'd like to answer, if I can find time, but it would probably end up as a fairly long discussion and perhaps you would ultimately find it disappointing. I don't have any well developed argument thread which starts with premises everyone will accept and ends with "therefore, the divine is real. QED.". I mostly have a lot of meta-arguments and some criticism of the ways the relevant problems are typically approached.

I mostly have a lot of meta-arguments and some criticism of the ways the relevant problems are typically approached.

I would be interested in these if you find the time.

I appreciate your interest.

During the last couple of days I have become progressively more convinced that my daughter is autistic (she is 17 months old and is showing regression in language and imitation skills), a situation that calls for immediate and sustained attention. This will sharply limit the time and energy I spend on philosophical speculation, in particular LessWrong.

I regret that I likely won't have the resources to engage in what would probably have been an interesting discussion.

Edit six weeks later: Though there is still some cause for concern, the situation is looking a lot better now. I suppose no-one is watching this thread anymore but maybe some other time.

[-][anonymous]11y 4

One other thing: serious mental discomfort is part of the (de)conversion experience. It is very common for this to be hard and stressful. If you want to ultimately become a well-adjusted atheist, it may help to think of the discomfort as a challenge to overcome, and to consider it a victory when you push through the discomfort.

In the same vein, be forgiving of yourself if you're not ready for everything all at once (if you don't want to tell your family you're not religious, for example.)

It will help to think of leaving religion as a project that takes effort. The fact that sometimes it "feels wrong" or stresses you out is nothing to worry about, any more than the fact that doing work can be hard or stressful. Thinking critically is difficult and can sometimes be heroic.

[-][anonymous]11y 4

Yeah, more explanation would help. Were you raised Christian? Are there facts apart from the existence of God (resurrection, Noah's Ark, that sort of thing) that you think are true despite the "standard arguments"?

The truth is, I'm still connected with religion myself. I still find comfort and community in religious observance, and I have no problem with that, but like JoshuaZ I'm quite clear on the fact that it isn't belief.

The other thing is, I do find myself praying, instinctively. The other day I was running in the woods and I thought automatically, "Thank you, God, for these maple trees." And then I thought, "No, wait, God didn't make these maple trees. They grew out of the ground, from maple seeds, which came from other maple trees, which evolved from other kinds of trees over millions of years. These leaves are still yellow. They are still beautiful. I'm going to drop the God part and just focus on the color of the leaves, which I know is real." In other words: change your focus to what you know is real.

It's hard for me sometimes, because it's so tempting to believe that the world is wisely run by a benign Parent, someone to thank when things go well for me, and ask for help when they go badly. Unfortunately that isn't the case. But if you want someone to love you and look out for you, that is possible.

I am curious whether "Thank you, God, for these maple trees." is a phrase you think or say, or if it's a feeling of thankfulness towards a specific entity.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

I'm not sure what the difference is.

I think what's going on is that feelings of thankfulness happen naturally, just as a part of ordinary life, and if your first instinct is to give them a religious outlet it takes a deliberate choice to think a different thought.

And then I thought, "No, wait, God didn't make these maple trees. They grew out of the ground, from maple seeds, which came from other maple trees, which evolved from other kinds of trees over millions of years. These leaves are still yellow. They are still beautiful. I'm going to drop the God part and just focus on the color of the leaves, which I know is real." In other words: change your focus to what you know is real.

I was raised as an atheist Jew, but didn't attempt to apply consistancy to my beliefs until recently. Thankfulness in the form of blessings is fairly well ingrained, and I've always enjoyed them both for the tradition of completing a rituals that my ancestors did, and for the acknowledgement of the things that are right in the world. This is much easier when praying in a different language.

One approach has been to redirect the blessing from God (Baruch atah adonai, elohenu melech ha'olam) to the universe itself (Baruch atah ha'olam), which still keeps the form of the blessing while being more consistant with my beliefs. When I do this, it gives me time to think through the whole chain of existance that has lead to whatever I'm acknowledging.

This hack makes sense for blessings that are thankful for the provenance of a thing (e.g. the blessing that bread has been brought forth from the earth), but not so much for blessings that acknowledge a commandment (e.g. the blessing that we have been commanded to light candles).

Unfortunately, as happy as this has made me, I realized recently how badly the toxic Exodus meme had corrupted my ability to think rationally. Because it was part of my upbringing and reaffirmed each year at Passover, it's near the root of the analogy chains that make up my thinking, and I don't know if I can morally pass it on to my children.

Toxic Exodus meme?

The Exodus meme is the story of how Israelites became Jews after escaping Egypt. The tribe is persecuted by the world as a whole, and can take retribution against any group in retaliation. After the Israelites get the ten commandments, they proceed to invade, rape, murder, and enslave an innocent population that had nothing to do with what the Egyptions had done, all with God's blessing and participation.

There is also the bit about Israel being a promised land. Even knowing that there was no God my whole life, it's difficult for me to think about the political situation there without an itch at the base of my brain that says "but that land was promised to us!"

I was taught all of that as a history of my people, not as a religious truth, but it still is a foundational part of my thinking. One approach I've been considering has been passing it on from the perspective of the cities that were razed. But how do I do that going from a text that applauds their death?

That being said, I believe that there is happiness in knowing your roots, and in celebrating traditional rituals. Just talking about the universe as it is doesn't fill the same void for a 5 year old. At what age do you tell a child that some of their ancestors were villains? Can you have rituals and traditions that acknowledge them without tacitly celebrating their actions? How solid does their foundation need to be before they can understand that their ancestors have been both victims and persecuters?

So I sort of understand this. Not in terms of belief as such but from the comfort of religious ritual and shared community. But I don't confuse that with belief.

Do you actually feel that you believe or do you find strong comfort in belief and the behaviors associated with belief?

(And possibly not a good idea to suggest this, but one possible answer is that John Calvin happens to be right and you are one of the pre-destined elect...)

Why does that question occupy your thinking? Why do you feel it necessary to take the time and experience what it feels like to believe religious mush, as opposed to just ignoring the whole topic and doing something else? If these questions meet an answer I'd expect, my advice is for you to find a skill to master.

Because it strikes me as a fundamental question and I'm exposed to it constantly? I've tried to just ignore it for several years, and that isn't yielding results.

Because it strikes me as a fundamental question and I'm exposed to it constantly?

Now this is something different from the impression the post left me with. It is one thing to have emotional response to something, and another thing to have a judgment about that emotional response. From your post, I understood that you have emotional attachment to religious beliefs, but you don't approve of that attachment, it's not part of yourself, you don't actually think those beliefs are true, and so you asked about strategies for cutting that unwelcome not-part-of-yourself off. But for the question itself to be deemed "fundamental", you need to believe it has any merit, in this case hold religious beliefs as not obviously false.

(Whatever the case, stating your situation more clearly would be a first step.)

[-][anonymous]11y 1

and I'm exposed to it constantly

Have you noticed which specific situations make you think about Christianity and cause the discomfort? Is it any reference to the religion, or something more specific, like during discussions of morality?

Living in America-- it's basically unavoidable in this culture.

Where do you live? Different parts of the US have substantially different religious sociocultural patterns and most people are unaware of the extent to which they live in a bubble that is unusually homogeneous in a number of respects. (See Yvain's post for examples of this in non-religious contexts.)

For religion, the number of people per 1000 who attend church regularly varies from city to city within the US, with some cities at about 998 (think Provo Utah) and others in the low 300s. There is an "unchurched belt" along the west coast where high individual and family mobility, and car oriented city planning reduces social pressures to join religious communities. Some places are mostly traditional with strong anti-novelty pressures (the "bible belt") and others are full of meditation centers and tai chi classes and other "hippie" religions for people high in openness to new experience who can't swallow the stories from their childhood but are less critical of novel stories that fulfill similar needs.

In The Future Of Religion, religious sociologists Bainbridge and Stark develop an explanation of religious behavior based on the theory that people "rationally" seek out religions that give them a make-believe version of things they want in real life but cannot feasibly acquire by truly effective methods. This predicts that different people should want different religions and is part of Bainbridge & Stark's causal explanation for sect formation (IE when religions have schisms and split into pieces). Their book is full of geographic analysis showing that different regions in the US vary systematically in roughly the ways that their theory predicts. Without regional variation to analyze, their book would have lost a substantial chunk of its content.

Without knowing which "sociocultural bubble" you're in, its hard to predict what your memetic exposure is going to be like. Its possible that instead of changing your religion to make yourself happier, you could move instead. Of course, more and more people are doing exactly this, and it is causing the regional cultural bubbles in the US to become even more extreme due to evaporative cooling...

Can you be specific, what aspect of Christianity are you drawn to?

Some possibilities that I've heard from other people. The sense of belonging, family or love. Security from knowing you are doing the right thing. A deep down sense of the spiritual. The music. The people.

Related, are you drawn to church going Christianity or perhaps "I've got my own path in God" Christianity?

Deep sense, own path.

Attempting to refine this a bit more.

I feel, on a deep level, that Christianity is true

Is it Christianity specifically that you feel is true, (original sin, virgin birth, son of God, walking on water miracle, Holy Spirit, baptism, sad ending involving a cross ...) or is it that you have a sense of the spiritual nature of the universe that you can't shake.

As Vladimir_Nesov says above:

stating your situation more clearly would be a first step

As this sounds a bit like me, reading the Bible might lead you towards atheism.

I'd also consider asking why (Christians you disagree with) followed such a different path, if you feel inclined to believe any form of 2 Corinthians 5:17 and you can find anyone whose views you definitively consider wrong.

(I was going to say, 'LaHaye and Jenkins to the rescue!' But perhaps you'd better start with Fred Phelps.)

Eliezer has written about at least one technique for such a situation: Leave a line of retreat

See also the Litany of Gendlin:

What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn't make it worse. .... People can stand what is true, for they are already enduring it.

I know all these techniques. The issue is that I feel, on a deep level, that Christianity is true. I can't explain it in normal terms, but I feel it. I have tried to live a life without it for several years, but have found this difficult.

The issue is that I feel, on a deep level, that Christianity is true.

In a kind of Disney movie/believe in yourself/do what you feel is right, kind of way? I'd just go right ahead and suppress that feeling. Seriously. Things don't become more likely because you have a deep feeling that they're true. Lots of people have deep level feelings about lots of things*.The great thing is that if you suppress those feelings, and God does turn out to exist, being rational about it will lead you to the correct beliefs anyway.

*I have a constant feeling that pacifism is always the right course, and that I should never use violence for anything. But I suppress this feeling because it isn't actually correct.

The issue is that I feel, on a deep level, that Christianity is true.

You feel that, but do you believe that?

Were you raised Christian? Were you originally convinced (not just emotionally) that it actually was true?

I feel, on a deep level, that Christianity is true

I'd like to read more about that. What do you feel, think, and believe happened in Palestine circa 0-33 AD? What about the previous several thousand years of Israeli history ? What about the saints and miracles of the following ~1600 years or so?

And do you have any idea of why (I assume) you don't feel the same about the events that built Islam, Asatro, or Hinduism?

Could you expand on what the feeling is like?

Also, what would you be doing or thinking differently if you accepted Christianity as true?