Recent de-convert saturated by religious community; advice?

Edit/Update: Wow, not even a day later this has had quite the number of comments. Hopefully more will come in, but I'd like to thank those who have contributed so far. The suggestions that I think I'm really going to run with are:

 

  • Finishing my "statement" (in progress already) and deferring to that when specifics are requested (Yvain)
  • Have a suggestion of a convincing book or online article to which I can refer challengers (David Gerard)
  • Reminding myself that I haven't eaten any babies, to date, and that questioning is/was okay (jsalvatier, RobinZ)
  • Just try to avoid the topic (pretty much what I already do) (Risto Saarelma, thakil, MinibearRex)
  • Focus on the point of a "quest" -- enough confidence to practically advance, not pursuing a question so far that no progres is made anymore or because doubt/uncertainty seems virtuous (Desrtopa, Vladimir_Nesov)
  • Come to accept that since such a large amount of energy and time was invested in this particular belief system, the nagging I feel about my research into it might never go away/take some time to go away (beriukay)

I'd like to "honorable mention" a suggestion begun by James Miller that I could just pretend to believe for the sake of preserving relationships and social satisfaction. I see some merit to this but think it might have been based on thinking that my closer/est friends/wife didn't already know (they do). The comment made for some interesting comments, but I think I'd just feel like a phony and even more miserable if I were to really implement this suggestion for any extended period of time.

 

---

This issue has been negatively affecting me for quite some time and for lack of clear solutions on my own and knowing that some here have traversed the same stream, I thought I'd ask for help and suggestions. If you're interested, some background information about my story exists here, here, and here.

 

Background

For the sake of having at least some information here, the brief synopsis is like so: 

  • In my middle school/high school years, I was quite insecure, attention-hungry, and had poor methods of dealing with emotional burdens. This manifested itself in highly addictive tendencies, specifically my use of tobacco, alcohol, and marijuana as often as possible. This led my parents to send me from my hometown of Milwaukee, WI to a twelve-step boarding school in upstate NY.
  • After being there a year,  I ran away, broke into a house to get drunk, managed to find someone in a town seven miles away to get me high, and was found and captured after boarding school staff after two days. I underwent subsequent legal proceedings and was eventually sentenced to a mere three years of probation and a youthful offender status rather than a potential third degree burglary charge (and possible prison sentence).
  • This rapid rebellion, breaking a serious law for a substance (something previously foreign to me), and apparent "fortune" of a sentence brought about a strong conviction that god had provided me with another chance to live a "good life" in service of him as a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous whose purpose was to get to heaven and spend an eternity with him.

Yes, that last conclusion had some more contributing to it, but for the sake of brevity, just accept that this was my stance. Following the outburst and relatively minor consequence, it was almost like my "second chance" holy life was just waiting there to be lived. I had a renewed sense of purpose and ran with it.

I built the next seven or so years of my life completely around god and my Catholic faith. Much of this is covered in the link above to my blog, where I've written down a rough draft to my story. In short, I married who I did because of god/religion, went to the college I did because there was an extremely active Catholic outreach group connected to it, and a couple years ago even professed a lifelong commitment to a lay association of Catholic families who pledge themselves to live their lives with a common vision, attend bi-weekly events, complete [theological] education courses [taught by members of the same community], attend a couple of retreats together each year, and more.

Then I, literally out of the blue, a question popped into my head; I wondered whether other historians had written about Jesus. I googled the question various ways and was surprised/disappointed to find out that none had in the manner I expected. The rest is history. It's about 15mos later and I'm a non-believer.

 

What now?

I'm posting as trying to navigate the social implications of my deconversion has been quite difficult. My close friends were some of the first I informed, probably within a month. This community, however, is probably ~300 members strong. I know a lot of acquaintances via our [former] common religious beliefs.

I find myself quite fearful when I see these individuals. I'm afraid something will come up that will be awkward or that I'll be in a large-group setting and somehow a lot of individuals will find out about my non-belief at once in an "untactful" manner. Some of this is due to a sense of friendship -- if someone learns something more serious about my life, I'd prefer that it be from me.

A bit more irrationally, I fear how their opinions about me will be affected. I already think some think I'm "broken" somehow. In fact, I had a member of my former men's group tell me I was "crazy" (verbatim) when I told him it may very well be possible that some or all of the gospels were made up. I felt talked to like a small child by my men's group leader as a result of my non-belief. Heck, some might think I'm possessed by a demon. My wife and I turned our mattress a couple weeks ago and there was some sort of religious trinket (maybe a scapular?) under my side of the mattress on the box spring. She said someone suggested that it might be helpful...

I also find myself balancing between insecurity and anger. I'm insecure because I just plain wish I was more secure in my non-belief... yet I find myself looking back over my shoulder wondering if I've made a wrong turn in my reasoning, if I've simply pendulum-swung over to the opposite extreme as a result of my initial doubts, or if there's some remaining book that would answer my questions. I read mostly atheistic material, though I have read a couple books per the requests of those close to me. I've also been adding books suggested to my list. I admit, though, it's been far more rewarding to do woodworking than analyze the latest solution of the problem of evil. I guess I'd just say that it's been hard to "fully let go" and just walk away from my past belief, hence the insecurity.

On the other hand, I am easily angered in certain situations, perhaps resulting out of feeling insulted and addressed by hypocrites. Those around me want to know if I've read x, y, and z books by a, b, and c apologists. They want to remind me of how hard this is on my wife (who's still a believer). They would like to make the case for my wife raising our children as believers due to the incredible gravity of the future of their souls. And this all from, as far as I can tell, the comfort of ignorance of the theological/apologetical landscape. Some are fairly educated, but the average individual who would like to critique my path could not provide anything in the way of even a summary of the various topics and arguments involved when trying to answer the question of god's likelihood. That's frustrating.

 

What I'm looking for

 

  • Have any of you been in a situation like this? How did you "come out." I think I may be approaching a time when this may be advised. It just might help me be more at ease if at least everyone knew. I've thought of writing up some kind of "cumulative case summary" and then making it widely available somehow. What did you do, primarily for the "acquaintance" types who were the last to know?
  • I'd very much appreciate suggestions for dealing with my intellectual insecurity. How could I be more at ease? When can one rationally conclude that they've "done enough", at least for the present moment and apply their energies elsewhere? I've felt like this is such a large question with respect to one's "life framework" that I've pretty much been consumed with this one question because it seems like the answer would affect so much else going forward. Were it conclusively answered (or perhaps better phrased, could I be convinced that I'm aligned with the truth), it might be easier to pursue applying rationality to other areas of life (I also do this, but think much more biological CPU/RAM could be freed up).
    • The solution to this might honestly be that I just need to move on. While insecure about my justification, there is nothing insecure about stating my current state. I think god is quite unlikely, at least in the theistic sense. Perhaps the solution is to see that I'm irrationally favoring the prospect of certainty in this one area while ignoring the fact that there are tons of other areas I'm not certain about that don't even cross my mind in daily life. I'm not sure why this one bothers me so much -- perhaps the social aspect of it, recentness, and affect on daily living make it more acute?
  • For those associated with primarily religious communities (still or in the past), do you have any suggestions about how to engage on-the-fly discussions? For example, I've thought than an elevator-pitch about my non-belief would be helpful... but I have found that previous conversations almost always degrade into pointless debate. How might I clearly express my stance while avoiding the pitfall of purposeless ruffled feathers? It's so darn natural for the conversation to flow like so: 
    • Me: "I don't believe anymore." 
    • "Why?"
    • Me: "Well, many reasons. Since you asked, one would be X."
    • Followed by extremely long summary of why X is, in fact, incorrect, list of apologists who've covered this topic, suggestion of a few older Christians this person knows that I should schedule time with, etc.
    • Me: I respond in any number of ways... perhaps saying that I might check out such a book later, or simply that I'm not convinced by the response.
    • "But didh't you hear? So-and-so covered this. The answer is already in his book! Also, from talking to Mr. X, he clearly knows his stuff an also agrees."
    • So clearly the conversation isn't going anywhere. It's like being asked for money to support a cause you just don't currently support, having your pockets stuffed with pamphlets, again stating that you just don't support the cause at the moment... and the person continues to stand in your way, palm outstretched for money as if you might instantaneously change you mind because of the pamphlets.

 

For my own part, I'd say that I need to do more work brainstorming through possible conversation paths, and especially identifying why this all bothers me so much. Or perhaps the latter is simply obvious -- I don't have any close friends anymore who think I'm rationally justified in not believing in their deity. In writing that out, I suppose that is a pretty heavy social hit to take. Even after having these friends for seven years, I'm more "at ease" talking with those at Minnesota Atheists meetups that I've only been attending about 1-2x/month for less than a year.

This ended up far longer than I expected. I knew that was a potential issue when I started it and tried revising some bits and pieces, but I think I'll leave it. For one, this is the discussion area and I'm not necessary trying to present a well-thought out proposal; this is a request for input, ideas, support, and especially suggestions from those who may have been through something similar.

Also, I have to say that writing this out is slightly like talking to the close friend I don't really have. Much of my "real feelings" about this whole issue are kept inside because I simply don't want to hurt those around me by expressing them or bringing it up. My relationships go far better when god just doesn't come up at all, or at least stays to "meta-discussion" like, "How's this all going for your wife and you?" vs. "Here's this new book you should read which will definitely prove you are wrong." As a result, my outlets for bouncing these questions and difficulties around are a bit limited.

 

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I've never been in this situation and I can't imagine what you're going through.

But when I have positions that get challenged by a lot of people, I have had some success in writing very long and complete essays detailing why I hold the position, along with all of the responses I expect to get and why they're wrong, and putting it on a blog or website. Then when someone asks why I believe X, I just tell them I'll send them a link to the essay. It weeds out the people who don't care enough to go to a link, and it lets the people who really want to know see the position defended as best I can without having to come up with it on the fly. If there's any pre-existing explanation of atheism you really identify with, you could use that too.

And I have had good experiences with religious people by confounding as many atheist stereotypes as possible: being exaggeratedly nice and understanding, mentioning how much I enjoy religious music / religious writing / the teachings of Jesus / whatever else I honestly respect about religion but saying that some other parts aren't for me, not bringing the issue up but having a few overwhelmingly strong points that they will agree with when it is brought up, and having a link to a more complete argument ready in case I feel a discussion is getting too confrontational and counterproductive.

I also find that if my goal is just to end an argument without losing too much social capital or coming across as confrontational, I get better results with emotional rather than intellectual points, as long as the emotional points are framed in a nonconfrontational and nonchallenging way. Going on about Biblical contradictions just gets a "You're obviously proud of your worldly learning, but worldly learning leads you astray" or something from the less intellectual, and an attempt to rationalize the contradiction from the more intellectual. But if I say that some of my Jewish relatives died in the Holocaust and I don't accept that a just God would allow that to happen, most people have the social graces not to go into a full-fledged explanation of proposed solutions to the problem of evil and to just let the matter rest, or to say that they think my heart is in the right place and they'll pray for me or something, which is really the best one can expect in these sorts of situations.

I get better results with emotional rather than intellectual points, as long as the emotional points are framed in a nonconfrontational and nonchallenging way.

Huh, interesting. I'm going to have to try this more.

In a Philosophy class I'm taking, a popular counterargument to positions like materialism is just that it feels wrong. My best response so far "Its kind of like drinking milk -- if you think about it its really really weird, but you just get used to it".

If people don't understand why milk is weird, just explain the industrial process by which a fluid comes out of a domesticated cow's udders and into your mouth.

I have had some success in writing very long and complete essays...and putting it on a blog or website.

Good to know. I have been entertaining that idea as well and started trying to make it real at my blog.

Then when someone asks why I believe X, I just tell them I'll send them a link to the essay.

This is extremely appealing. While further debate might arise later, I think this would quite defuse the situation and avoid the pitfalls of on-the-spot debates (especially since person-to-person discussion almost always lacks the ability to provide sources).

I have had good experiences with religious people by confounding as many atheist stereotypes as possible...

Interesting tactic! I'll have to ponder this one. In my circles, the Lewis trilemma is still thought to hold and they don't think very fondly of the Jesus-as-great-teacher crew.

...not bringing the issue up but having a few overwhelmingly strong points that they will agree with when it is brought up...

Could you expand on this? I'm not sure I understand what overwhelmingly strong points you might bring up that your opponent might agree with. Would this be something like priest scandals? Or not having your prayers for understanding answered?

I also find that if my goal is just to end an argument without losing too much social capital or coming across as confrontational, I get better results with emotional rather than intellectual points...

Another interesting strategy I'll think further about. I'm tempted to think I've already adopted this sort of strategy, though more so through being overly "hazy." Earlier, I would go into far more details, whereas now I've found that if I just say that "I'm not convinced," and offer as few supporting details as possible, I do end up at your example destination: person shrugs, presents puppy-dog stare of pity/compassion (fine line...), and says they'll pray for me.

Thanks for the response; there are some great points to ponder here and perhaps this is the encouragement I need to finally write my "summary of non-belief."

Interesting tactic! I'll have to ponder this one. In my circles, the Lewis trilemma is still thought to hold and they don't think very fondly of the Jesus-as-great-teacher crew.

Even as a nine year old reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, it was clear to me reading Professor Diggory's advice to the other children regarding Lucy that C. S. Lewis simply did not understand crazy people.

The obvious fourth choice is that Jesus was deified after his death, and that the parts where Jesus appears to claim unambiguously to be divine were tacked on as the tradition built up around him, but provided that Jesus lived at all, I think it's actually more likely than not that he was at least a bit crazy.

The obvious fourth choice is that Jesus was deified after his death, and that the parts where Jesus appears to claim unambiguously to be divine were tacked on as the tradition built up around him...

And off to the races on whether the scriptures are historically trustworthy, the "four facts" of WLC, etc. I do see your point, but the pill wouldn't go down very easily :)

Do you mean regarding Susan (when she stops believing in Narnia)? Otherwise I can't recall the section you're referring to and would be interested in a reminder!

Edit: oh, I've just realised you're probably talking about the very beginning, when Lucy has seen Narnia and none of the rest have. Never mind, sorry.

Could you expand on this? I'm not sure I understand what overwhelmingly strong points you might bring up that your opponent might agree with. Would this be something like priest scandals? Or not having your prayers for understanding answered?

The one I mentioned about the Holocaust would be my go-to example. But really what's important is that it's not something completely intellectual they're going to have a cached response for.

On a side note, I've never understood people who use priest scandals as evidence for atheism. It seems totally ad hominem - "some of the guys who talk about this God stuff are bad people, therefore it's wrong". I guess you could get there by saying that if God existed He wouldn't allow such evil among His followers, but the only possible response to that would be "And where have you been for the past five thousand years?"

If I'm accustomed to people arguing for theism from authority (e.g., "I know God wants me to perform these rituals in this way, because my priest said so"), impugning the credibility of the authority figure (e.g., "Oh yeah? Well, your priest molests children!") is an understandable response.

But you're right, of course, that it isn't itself evidence for or against much of anything.

Thanks for the response. The note re. not having a cached response is helpful.

I don't find priest scandals to say much of anything about the existence of god any more than I find the rote bringing up of Mao or Pol-Pot as evidence against atheism. Bad people exist. They tend to be tied to various ideologies. Get over it :)

Now, I will say, that when someone begins to tread on the ground that thinks the Pope has some incredible moral elevation on the rest of us, it's then I think it can employed as a bring-one-back-to-earth tactic.

I also do find it a bit odd for someone to say that one should just disregard everything bad that comes out of Rome while insisting that the encyclicals or whatever else are nearly revealed wisdom.

I was going to suggest trying to find ways of shutting down in person conversation and this seems like a good one.

I was going to go with excuses such as "I don't have time to discuss this at the moment, I busy doing activity that Christians would approve of"

This seems like a particularly good idea if they're already trying to foist works of apologetics on him; it seems that it would encourage them to believe that the fair arrangement is to suspend the conversation and read each others' material.

Agreed -- this will probably work best for the incredible mass of people ahead who may or may not know (through the grapevine), but who I've never addressed the topic with in person (and who may volunteer some apologetics or want to know exactly why I don't believe).

There are other types of situations where this wouldn't help as much.

Some of the nearly-as-awkward conversations are the close friends who are aware of the situation and always want to know "if there's been any progress" or "where I'm at since the last time." Or those who feel that it's necessary to tell me repeatedly that they miss the common ground we shared or even like a part of me is missing.

While I fully admit that we've lost the common ground, I don't think I've necessarily lost any "part" of me. I think I've simply applied a studious tendency that was already present toward a new area that happened to be something we were incredibly immersed in. I wrote about this in a series of posts about my attempt to debunk a multi-level marketing scheme HERE. The pertinent passage is from part 3 (the preface was discussing my "anal" researching nature about other decisions, then connecting it with the current topic of interest, god):

...somewhere deeply ingrained in my nature is a desire to learn, understand, fiddle, and to know. I can't tell you that I had anything to do with it being there, but it's there. It comes out all the time when it's not convenient (e.g. when I should be sleeping but am on Wikipedia or reading books until 3:00am instead).

When I questioned god, I simply did what I always do. I applied my reasoning skills in the best way I knew how. Suspend judgment and belief and try to prove Christianity to myself. It hasn't worked. I think it's a great idea, but I was met with immense dissent from fellow believers. But why?

My reflection on my nature has led me to think of how others perceive my decision making and analytical tendencies. Honestly it's with almost unanimous respect...No one suggested that my reasoning or decision making is flawed.

But what about now? Now I am criticized for stepping outside of the bubble and suspending belief. I'm told that I should have had faith seeking understanding in order to come to the truth. For some reason, one can only reach "the truth" if approached from one of two starting positions: assuming that god exists and that Christianity is true.

Anyway, perhaps that wasn't entirely pertinent, but I wanted to highlight that there are, indeed, other circumstances where someone might not be presenting new material for me to read... they just disagree a priori and are unhappy about it. And decide to reiterate that dissatisfaction frequently. This isn't in a way that blatantly says, "It's your fault that you don't believe" -- it's just a verbal lamentation that has the same effects as following it up with, "Yeah, so I feel like shit about our relationship and you cause that upon me."

I have not figured out what to do in these situations rather than simply say, "Yeah. I can absolutely see where you would feel that way." That's about it.

But what about now? Now I am criticized for stepping outside of the bubble and suspending belief. I'm told that I should have had faith seeking understanding in order to come to the truth. For some reason, one can only reach "the truth" if approached from one of two starting positions: assuming that god exists and that Christianity is true.

Perhaps you've already tried this, but I think I would point out that people who who have "faith seeking understanding" tend to end up with the same beliefs they started with in other religions as well, and indeed, with any sort of belief, it has a marked tendency not to change one's mind. You can tell them you don't think a benevolent god who wanted people to believe would provide so little evidence that people can't come to the right conclusion without using methods that aren't generally useful for finding out what's true.

Absolutely. I should have added that, ever since I heard it, I have come to see "faith seeking understanding" as roughly equivalent to "believe that you may believe more."

You can tell them you don't think a benevolent god who wanted people to believe would provide so little evidence that people can't come to the right conclusion without using methods that aren't generally useful for finding out what's true.

Indeed, and I think this is one of the easiest, simplest ways to offer a reason for non-belief. Theists also don't go down so easy and would suggest that it's possible, given the weight of the consequences, one should never give up and spend their whole lives seeking after a way to believe.

This is pretty much a prettied up version of Pascal's Wager.

My wife was on retreat this weekend and talked glowingly of a talk in which a guest speaker said that he struggled with non-belief but concluded that since heaven is possible, he is going to dedicate his entire life to study and religious living so that if it exists, he will go. She thought that this was about the most admirable thing ever.

And hence, even if you don't believe now, surely god has a plan and you need to keep your head in Swinburne and Kreeft until your death bed. There seems to be no way out that a theist will accept is honorable and justified, which is quite unfortunate. I dialogued with the author of Daylight Atheism, who made the great point that to join a religion, you just need to say a few words, but to leave you need to conclusively refute every theologian who's ever lived...

Anyway, perhaps that wasn't entirely pertinent, but I wanted to highlight that there are, indeed, other circumstances where someone might not be presenting new material for me to read... they just disagree a priori and are unhappy about it. And decide to reiterate that dissatisfaction frequently. This isn't in a way that blatantly says, "It's your fault that you don't believe" -- it's just a verbal lamentation that has the same effects as following it up with, "Yeah, so I feel like shit about our relationship and you cause that upon me."

I have not figured out what to do in these situations rather than simply say, "Yeah. I can absolutely see where you would feel that way." That's about it.

You might try telling them that you're trying to follow up a case of genuine curiosity, the sort they never condemned when it didn't touch on matters of faith, and it hurts you to feel that you're being discouraged from being intellectually honest. If God wants you to believe, he can do it by placing the evidence you're looking for before you, rather than preventing you from carrying out an unbiased investigation.

I've done this with a few. The response has been varied. I think my wife understood that. I had another friend basically tell me I was obligate to "have faith seeking understanding" because I was the one who defected and that I owed it to my wife.

I still have an incredibly hard time seeing as how that's proper.

If God wants you to believe, he can do it by placing the evidence you're looking for before you...

Indeed. Many initially object to this idea because they think it fiddles with free will, but if god is the author of all events and permits everything to happen according to his will and has all knowledge... he already knew what would cause any given person to believe and necessarily allowed that evidence to come before them. I think of people as having a "threshold of belief" and think they are blind to where it lies. Some unpredicted thing comes along one day, breaks the threshold, and you change your mind.

If you can go along with that model as useful, then it could be said that god knows where my threshold is and isn't meeting it.

I had another friend basically tell me I was obligate to "have faith seeking understanding" because I was the one who defected and that I owed it to my wife.

Have you tried asking if you were, say, a Muslim, if it would still be right for you to have faith seeking understanding? Does your friend think this is always the right thing to do, or just when you happen to start out believing the right thing?

Indeed. Many initially object to this idea because they think it fiddles with free will

If God can't alter events that will affect our decisions, can he actually do anything in the real world?

Free will has always been one of the most frustrating arguments for me to deal with, because it's subject to such an extent of doublethink. It appears that God is capable of everything, except when he's incapable of anything. It's extraordinarily difficult to get people to notice that they should be confused by this.

Does your friend think this is always the right thing to do, or just when you happen to start out believing the right thing?

In theory, I think he'd actually say that this is always the right thing to do if you are pre-committed in various ways to a life based on X and which affects close relationships.

In practice, I think he'd welcome me with open arms if I was a Muslim/Jew/Scientologist/Mormon and told him I was having doubts and wanted to seriously consider Catholicism as the one true faith.

If God can't alter events that will affect our decisions, can he actually do anything in the real world?

Great point.

It appears that God is capable of everything, except when he's incapable of anything.

Another great point. I played praise and worship at a friend's wedding last summer as a non-believer (he asked and I wasn't going to say no), and one of the songs was this one(I linked to the chorus), which has this refrain:

Savior, he can move the mountains

My God is mighty to save, he is mighty to save...

Having that in my head for so long to practice it and what not, I came up with a re-write that illustrates your point:

Savior, he can move the mountains

But he can't do anything that's tangibly observable...

I'd very much appreciate suggestions for dealing with my intellectual insecurity. How could I be more at ease? When can one rationally conclude that they've "done enough", at least for the present moment and apply their energies elsewhere?

For an ideal rationalist, this probably shouldn't take much time or effort. For a human being changing their mind on a momentous matter, to be emotionally satisfied, it probably takes a considerable excess of evidence.

Personally, I spent a period of years telling myself I was pursuing truth in the matter of religion, exposing myself to as many different arguments and viewpoints as I could find, and dedicating enough time to the question that it's now rather embarrassing to look back on. Eventually though, I came to realize that I had no reason to commit to further searching, that I had more than enough evidence to treat the question as settled, and that my probability estimate of being wrong wasn't remotely enough to justify expending further effort.

If you keep in mind the proper uses of doubt and humility, remembering that you're trying to find out an answer you can have confidence in, and you're not trying to doubt because it's virtuous to be unsure, then I think you'll come to a point where you can be emotionally satisfied with your conclusion, not with a speed you could compare to a Bayesian supercomputer, but hopefully with a faster turnaround time than I had when I thought it was more respectable to be trying to answer the question than to be decided.

This is quite helpful. If you the "current you" could go and tell the "past you" something in the midst of your "questing," what would it be?

Eventually though, I came to realize that I had no reason to commit to further searching, that I had more than enough evidence to treat the question as settled, and that my probability estimate of being wrong wasn't remotely enough to justify expending further effort.

I think I could roughly define my view of the matter like this, but it doesn't feel like that. Where Catholicism of theism in general to be true, I have so many objections and things that remain unexplained about how that works, that I, also, would say that my current estimate of all of them being wrong (and, thus, theism actually being true) is extremely low.

It's also possible that it's true but just not discernible as such. In that case, I'm not sure whether it matters -- one lives life as if it's not true until it does become discernible. Though the Pascal's wager advocates would say otherwise.

Re. the doubt/humility points, I'll definitely think on this further. And, yes, it's quite possible that there's some doubting-as-virtuous going on. There might be some genuine uncertainty, but like I said in the post, it's probably irrational that I give sooo much weight to this one uncertain area and so little to all the other topics I'm also uncertain about.

but hopefully with a faster turnaround time than I had when I thought it was more respectable to be trying to answer the question than to be decided.

Are you distinguishing between "answered" and "decided about"? That's how I'm reading this and it would be great if you could add a bit more about it.

This is quite helpful. If you the "current you" could go and tell the "past you" something in the midst of your "questing," what would it be?

There are a lot of things I think I could teach my past self, but for the purposes of religious investigation, I think I would simply have reminded myself that while it might be more socially acceptable to take an attitude of uncertainty, the ''goal'' is not an eternal quest for truth, but a conclusion that I can be confident enough in for practical purposes.

I certainly wouldn't take back the entirety of my "quest," I learned a lot about various cultures and how different people think, but I continued far beyond the point of diminishing returns. Keep track of your expectations of learning new things.

Are you distinguishing between "answered" and "decided about"? That's how I'm reading this and it would be great if you could add a bit more about it.

We can never be absolutely certain about anything, but that doesn't mean we should continue to make significant concessions to the possibility of our being wrong when it's overwhelmingly unlikely. When it comes to the existence of God, it might be seen as arrogant to be convinced that one does not exist, as opposed to attempting to find out whether one exists, but that doesn't mean you should hold yourself back from becoming satisfied in your conclusion. Don't let social norms control your perception of the question; nobody's likely to call you arrogant for being satisfied with the conclusion that unicorns don't exist.

...the ''goal'' is not an eternal quest for truth, but a conclusion that I can be confident enough in for practical purposes.

I agree, though it's a great reminder to hear again.

I certainly wouldn't take back the entirety of my "quest," I learned a lot about various cultures and how different people think, but I continued far beyond the point of diminishing returns. Keep track of your expectations of learning new things.

Good point as well. I've also learned quite a bit, particularly about cosmology and how we know what we know in that area. I'll have to think hard about what it would take to convince me even if I learn new things. Solutions to the problem of evil, for example, seems like it will always rest in speculation or what is possible; without god confirming a hypothesis or showing what, exactly, the greater good of little Johnny's suffering is... we'll never know what speculation is accurate.

Without a time machine, we'll never confirm what really happened at the hypothetical tomb, either. And what we have of the Bible will also pretty much remain the same and continue to be reinterpreted to attempt to explain various issues away.

So... even with reading someone else's take on these things... I'm always left puzzled and unconvinced because they seem to be based on vague speculation and there's never anyway to verify the answers.

Does that make sense?

Perhaps that's the "decidedness" I should focus on, anyway. Proceed with a practical stance until something comes along that can be shown to have merit from apologists?

I get the feeling that many modern-day religious communities have had quite a bit of evaporative cooling going on, with being religious going from a mostly unquestioned, society-wide norm into being something that needs to actively justify itself against an increasingly secular intellectual culture. A lot of people who are in any way receptive to having an actual argument about the content of the religion may have already had it and come to a conclusion that doesn't favor religion, and the remaining religious community is being selected for people who don't listen to such arguments, no matter what. So I'm not sure if elevator pitches are going to work very well.

and the remaining religious community is being selected for people who don't listen to such arguments, no matter what. So I'm not sure if elevator pitches are going to work very well.

Good point. This is probably the state of my wife, actually. If we "get into it" about religion (which I pretty much try to avoid) and I bring up anything in opposition, or worse, cite an eminent scientist working a field that could one day conclusively eliminate the remaining areas where the god hypothesis is invoked, a fairly standard response is: "It doesn't matter. I don't need to understand or explain everything."

Her strongest [verbalized] reasons for believing rest on the love she sees in the people in the community, times when she's felt some sort of transformation or insight result from prayer, and the fact that she sees her current lifestyle as having a "purpose higher than herself" coupled with an improvement from what she would say were shallow aims of her high school/early college/"pre-conversion" times.

So... yes, there's probably a good subset of those who will remain unconvinced. I was more looking for "elevator pitch" with respect to length, not necessarily with respect to its ability to convince.

In other words, a short conversation that begins and ends smoothly, briefly, and allows both parties to go on their way rather than the typical open-ended discussion/debate that follows. Think of it as a way to make my "pitch" that expresses 1) my clear non-belief but 2) doesn't lead into a back-and-forth pointless banter that I know ahead of time will not sway either of us.

I think Yvain's comment above about writing up a summary and then sending a link later on might be the best suggestion thus far (though I haven't caught up to all the comments below yet).

The RationalWiki Atheism FAQ for the Newly Deconverted is for people approximately where you are. It probably won't tell you anything new, but does have it in one place. (Edit: The tl;dr version!)

Dawkins' The God Delusion is damn fine (and I see you've read it). Having actually read the thing, I conclude that its reputation amongst the religious is made entirely, 100%, of butthurt, including assumed butthurt from people who haven't read the book but parrot stuff people they think they agree with have said about it. I extended an offer to my theist friends who have complaints about Dawkins and haven't actually read it to give them a copy. No takers so far, though interest from the atheists ... you may try extending a similar offer.

As for the community: keep being an ethical person to deal with, behave like a good person. Honest, helpful, loving. People will in fact eventually realise they prefer, given the option, to deal with a decent atheist than a religious asshole.

As for the community: keep being an ethical person to deal with, behave like a good person. Honest, helpful, loving. People will in fact eventually realise they prefer, given the option, to deal with a decent atheist than a religious asshole.

I'd imagine this will work better for outsiders interacting with the community than for formerly religious members of the community. The still-religious community members might see it as a threat to their identity to accept that one of their own could still be a good person after no longer observing their tenets. There's less cognitive dissonance involved in dealing equitably with outsiders with questionable beliefs.

The still-religious community members might see it as a threat to their identity to accept that one of their own could still be a good person after no longer observing their tenets.

That, or they just explain it by stating that god is the source of all goodness anyway. Any good "steam" I'm running on is from god, regardless of if I'm aware of that fact.

Oh, yeah. I'd think there'd be a mix of effects, depending on how much their opinions are shaped by the local Department of Enforced Stupidity.

I disagree about Dawkins here. Andrew Rilstone, one of my favourite bloggers and a devout Christian, did read The God Delusion, and did disagree with it, for reasons which you may well disagree with but which definitely don't amount just to 'butthurt': http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/04/where-dawkins-went-wrong-most-leading.html

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/04/2-some-more-of-dawkins-greatest.html

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/04/3-final-and-clinching-proofs-little.html

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/05/4-who-is-this-dawkins-person-anyway.html

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/05/well-that-just-about-wraps-it-up-for.html

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/09/everything-you-never-wanted-to-know.html

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/09/everything-you-never-wanted-to-know_24.html

http://www.andrewrilstone.com/2007/09/everything-you-never-wanted-to-know_27.html

And so on... (Rilstone's whole book, Where Dawkins Went Wrong, is to my mind essential reading especially for atheists, because it's a set of actual good arguments against some bad arguments from the atheist side.)

Thanks for the link; I'll check both of those out shortly.

I did like part of The God Delusion, though perhaps I should re-read it. I don't recall much of it being particularly forceful... though I did have a fantastically "spiritual" experience reading it late at night on the crapper. More HERE.

As for the community: keep being an ethical person to deal with...

Indeed. Though, I think I'd also like to build up a wholly separate group of friends. I have probably five that are still close. We enjoy spending time together and pretty much just don't talk about religion. I think it's better that way, frankly. I think it's going to be important to rebuild, in a way, my close confidants. I try to avoid going to large events with the community as much as possible... but being married to a very active member of it doesn't help :)

There is nothing irrational about caring what the people who feature prominently in your life think of you, all of us care about that. You are human and humans are social creatures who's brains are built to care about that kind of thing. It could be irrational to make that your biggest concern, but it's certainly not irrational to take those feelings into account.

You might consider emphasizing that you are still a good person; that you still love the people around you; that you don't reject the people around you just because your reject their belief.

15 months from devoutly religious to atheist and rationalist is rather impressive speed. I wish you good luck.

You might consider emphasizing that you are still a good person; that you still love the people around you; that you don't reject the people around you just because your reject their belief.

Thanks for that. I will.

15 months from devoutly religious to atheist and rationalist is rather impressive speed. I wish you good luck.

Well, aspiring rationalist at least. I was, after all, the one voter who said he'd not read the sequences...

As I mentioned above, I like to think I was already an analytical, rational-esque type, just perhaps not with eyes opened to religion. Some thoughts on that HERE.

When doubt arose about Christianity, one of my very first thoughts was that an objective test would be to suspect its falsehood and attempt to prove it back to myself. I even thought this with faith -- if god is real and true, there's no way I could end up at a conclusion of "not god."

For whatever reason, believers didn't think this was a good approach...

One on one conversation is a really bad way to make decisions on belief. If someone insists on arguing belief with you, make it clear that there are a number of reasons why you doubt and are comfortable with your position and do not really want to.spend too much time discussing it. If they persist you might point out that they would probably not persist against a jewish or islamic person

Or that they would probably not appreciate someone doing the same thing to them.

Great, simple, suggestion. Perhaps I've been running imaginary and overly-extravagant conversation paths in my head and it could be as simple as this. Perhaps this, combined with Yvain's comment (having an online/file "statement/summary" available) is the best way forward.

Just push back and refuse to engage. Tell them you're not amoral and you have examined some advanced theology, thank you very much. It may help to throw some prepared, impenetrable, philosophical jargon at them (e.g. try to explain rule-based utilitarianism or TDT). They may give up quickly if they were just prepared to argue at the Pascal's Wager level.

Religion has "armor" that some believers use to shut down those trying to question it; appropriate some of that in service of your atheism. To wit:

"You're worried about my soul? Don't - I accept the responsibility."

"It's a separate magesterium! Beliefs about the spiritual realm don't affect reality, so all are equally valid!"

"You're being intolerant of my religion by criticising my [non]beliefs!"

Interesting tactic. Perhaps brainstorming some responses like this will help as well. I'm not terribly fond of sort of "aggressive" responses, but think the suggested route might have some definite benefits, especially to avoid unnecessary fear since I know I have a handful of "escape clauses."

There would be nothing irrational about pretending to believe so you could have better social relations with your friends.

A priori, maybe not. But it could be stifling and unpleasant, it could contradict a sense of truth, and it certainly is not how I would want to live my life.

Being rational should help you win at life. Do you think the author of the top post would have a better/happier/more fulfilling life if he (a) told the truth about his religious views but alienated his wife and friends, or (b) maintained his social relationships, mostly kept quiet about his atheism, and on rare occasions pretended to go along with other peoples' religious views?

Sure:if the only choices are to stay in the closet or come out of the closet and lose all social relationships, and if staying closeted leads to being happier and more fulfilled than losing all social relationships, then the rational choice is to stay closeted.

Those are really big "if"s, though. I'd say in that situation it's worth devoting some resources to looking for third options.

...if he (a) told the truth about his religious views but alienated his wife and friends

I might not have been clear, but my wife and close friends already know. This might have been a reasonable path to entertain where this not the case (I guess TheOtherDave made that point below already). They are already alienated and I don't think there's much hope of "going back" or trying to preserve ignorance in the rest of the acquaintances who don't know.

(b) maintained his social relationships, mostly kept quiet about his atheism, and on rare occasions pretended to go along with other peoples' religious views?

Well, I already do the first part (keep quiet) most of the time. The "going along with" is quite difficult when it involved actions. I guess I would put it like this:

  • I already don't believe in god. That's that.
  • Given this, it has seemed most consistent to me to not kneel at Mass, make the sign of the cross, bow my head or lip-sync along with various prayers, and the like.
  • In addition (also unstated, so you wouldn't have known my personal conclusion on this), I resolved quite early on that I'd gladly (pun!) trade happiness for certainty/alignment with the best description of "what is."

Your (a) is not possible, but that's not necessarily your fault for suggesting it as I might have been unclear about where things are. The biggest problem with (b) that I have is that it actually combines three sub-actions: 1) maintain social relationships 2) mostly keep quiet about my atheism 3) on rare occasions, pretend to go along with others' religious views

Could you make the case for #1 and #2 being dependent on #3 or explain what #3 buys me? Is it just helping with having things not socially awkward? I can understand that, but I suppose it feels quite short term. I just turned 27 and can't imagine that were I to know these people for the next 20-60 years that it wouldn't come up somewhere, somehow either from me or from the various other common relationships who are probably bound to say something about it within those 20-60 years.

Thus, it seems like it might be worse to "fake it" for as long as possible since my confidence is low that I'd 1) be emotionally satisfied "faking it" in the first place and 2) that doing this would make for a permanent social-awkwardness-alleviator.

He thinks so. And in a situation like that, if you think so, you're probably right in thinking so.

  • "He" = me?
  • "thinks so" = that (a) is preferable to (b) or vice versa?

There was an episode on the television show House where a brain injury forced a man to always tell the truth. The condition was destroying his life to such an extent that he underwent an extremely dangerous operation to attempt to change his condition.

I think the TV show had it right because telling the truth all the time would impose an enormous cost on you, one almost nobody would be willing to pay. You need to pick your battles with telling the the truth, weighing the cost and benefits in each situation.

The author of the top post needs friends a heck of a lot more than he needs to adopt a total truth telling lifestyle.

Even if that path weren't already closed to him, how comfortable would you be with friends you know wouldn't accept you if they knew what you were really thinking? Friends who casually degrade the things you believe, not knowing you're offended, but who wouldn't stop even if they knew? Friends who you know through a shared activity which is a major part of their lives, which you can never discuss honestly with them? I'd have a hard time thinking of a relationship like that as friendship.

Posted above before seeing this. Perhaps this was the answer to my last question, then. That friends are more valuable than me expressing my internal thoughts.

I'll have to reflect on that. I'm still inclined to disagree, but moreso because we might not be agreeing on definitions. For example, I might look at "telling the truth" and see how were I to be compelled to tell every fat person they were fat or every person I found ugly that they were ugly, that this would be quite undesirable and increase my overall social dissatisfaction.

But I'm looking for suggestions about telling the truth about myself. More on that in a sec.

Similarly, how are you defining "friend"? People to spend time with and who share common interests? I think that's fair, but what if I added in the clause that a friend should "accept me for who I am"? I'm not saying that you need to accept this definition, but you can see how the advice might change were such a clause included.

In other words, to withhold the truth about myself from others in order to preserve friends seems to reduce to acting like someone else because were my true self to be revealed, I would have no friends.

But, quite possibly, the very definition of a friend is one who knows who you are and sticks around. So... it's kind of a catch 22. Keep "people-to-spend-time-with" by not "telling the truth"... or "tell the truth" and keep a lesser number of "people who accept who I am"?

In the end, I would absolutely agree that I need friends... but we might be disagreeing about what "type" of such "friend entities" will be most rewarding.

I think for most people there is diminishing marginal benefit to having each additional friend. If this applies to you and you can find many people to spend time with who can accept you for who you are then you should indeed be truthful and open about your atheism rather than pretending to realize that your friends have a point about the "truth" of their faith.

I'm relatively confident that a huge percentage of well-educated Americans are basically atheists, don't attend church, but also don't do anything to overtly disagree with their associates' and families' religious views. Given that so many people successfully follow this strategy you probably could as well.

The more unusual your beliefs, the harder it is to find people who can accept you for what you are. At some point those of us with what are considered to be bizarre beliefs have to choose between honesty, and having people who wish to spend time with us. I'm in my forties and looking back at my life I think I have got the trade-off wrong by often being too honest about what I really think.

Eliezer's genius lets him get away with a degree of honesty that most of the rest of us who have strange beliefs can't afford.

Here is an article I wrote for Forbes magazine explaining how excessive honesty came close to costing me my career.

I think for most people there is diminishing marginal benefit to having each additional friend.

That's probably true; the quality of each relationship decreases if one tries to add more and spend equal amounts of time and energy on each.

If...you can find many people to spend time with who can accept you for who you are then you should indeed be truthful and open about your atheism...

Probably poorly explained by me, I do have a handful of friends in this category. We get together a few times per month, still have a great time together, and pretty much leave religion alone even though they know very well where I stand. Probably 2 of this handful are very close.

Even then, though, there is something missing, as I don't even like to talk about the "meta" issues brought about by non-belief (mental anguish, difficulties in marriage, etc.) -- it's easier to do this with non-believers.

I'd actually love to find a "new-best-friend" who is a non-believer, or at least "try it out" if that can be done...

I read the article. Tough situation as well. I can see where you're coming from. I think I'd think twice if my job or livelihood were at stake. And I do -- I stay fairly anonymous online and have never mentioned my employer as I would never want anything somehow tracked back to me by the work arena.

While the social arena is uncomfortable, this is a scenario where I just don't know if I could live in silence or acquiescence when it comes to actions. I can keep my mouth closed for sure... but to actually "play house" when it comes to things like participating in Mass, singing praise and worship, praying, saying "Amen," and the like... I don't think that's in the same category as being docile and hospitable to contrary opinions.

For example, I might look at "telling the truth" and see how were I to be compelled to tell every fat person they were fat or every person I found ugly that they were ugly, that this would be quite undesirable and increase my overall social dissatisfaction.

Let's flip that one around. What do you think might happen if you were uninhibited about telling people what you liked about them?

Intuitively, I think I'd make a lot of people happier, but it might depend. If others were around, it might make them jealous. Or if it were the "wrong" sorts of things (attractiveness, how great their breath smelled, or anything else that makes someone a little uncomfortable), it might have the reverse effect.

If you mean it simply and basically as in telling people I really appreciated their suggestion to a problem, their work ethic, skills I admire, their level of compassion, etc... then I think it would make many people happier and feel more valuable.

They might reciprocate, as well. Double win.

Please remember that you're Generalizing from Fictional Evidence.

Human beings are not perfect liars. A primary problem is that we are rather well evolved to detect deception from other human beings, especially our mates; there is no reason to believe he could hide his deconversion from his friends or his wife. Another problem is that humans tend to slowly believe the lies we tell. Would you consider it a beneficial side effect if he accidentally reconverted to Christianity due to this deception?

There is a cost/benefit for every lie we tell. Generally it turns out that honesty really is the best policy. This case seems to be no different.

Absolutely -- I think I would feel like a liar. Heck, I already do sometimes when I feel group-pressured into saying meal blessings ("Bless us O Lord") or concluding with "Amen" at large events where I'd rather go along with it rather than having someone find out via my non-participation vs. personally informing them.

I would add to magfrump's points above (with which I entirely agree) that, in so doing, I would also be contributing to the difficulties of other people in my same position.

Basically, by remaining closeted, I'd be defecting in a Prisoner's Dilemma.

One can debate whether that's a rational choice or not, but leaving that aside: if it is a rational choice, then I have important values other than rationality.

There's a significantly lower cost to pretending that you are religious than to pretending that you have a different sexual orientation than you actually do.

Being closeted gay would probably prevent you from finding a partner whereas being closet atheist doesn't stop you from thinking atheist thoughts.

Can you expand on your point, here?

I'd agree with this statement as far as it goes (at least, for sufficiently strong understandings of "closeted") but I'm not sure what follows from it.

I mean that it suggests it might be less of a burden to be closeted atheist than closeted gay.

Thanks for clarifying.

The problem, I think, is that neither religious belief nor the lack of it is entirely a matter of sitting around thinking thoughts... it also has a social component.

In fact, the social component is often quite significant.

Come to think of it, the same thing is true of being closeted and queer. It's not so much the sex that creates the problem... for many people, sex is generally done in private anyway, and it's not too hard to find sexual partners who will stay silent. It's the social life around the sex: the ability to flirt, and to preen, and to talk about who I'm attracted to, and to brag about what I did last night, and to introduce my partner to my friends, and to invite my friends to my wedding, and etc.

In both cases, the real problem with living in the closet is that you're forced to live without a supportive social structure.

So it's not clear to me that being closeted is really all that much less of a burden for atheists in religious communities (or religious believers in atheist communities, come to that).

In both cases, the real problem with living in the closet is that you're forced to live without a supportive social structure.

Bingo. To expand, while this might go away in the future, most of my mental energy has been toward thinking about religion, theological arguments, objections to those arguments, and what the best course of action is for raising our two children.

So... when someone in my current social circle who doesn't know me says something like, "So what's new?"... I am left feeling like I must sound like I don't do anything with my life because I can't actually talk passionately about what I'm passionate about.

In addition, I consider what I'm attempting to be basically valiant. I had a question about a big topic and I tried to dive in hard to see what I could make of it. It's extremely disappointing to have your friends think you're doing it wrong, concluding the wrong things, reading the wrong things, thinking wrongly, etc. when you think you're doing something noteworthy and giving it your best shot.

Again, per the original post, this is even more frustrating when these critiques and views are coming from those who have never felt compelled to find justification for their religious beliefs.

So, yes, I think it's the supportive social structure that's the issue. My parents have never been believers and neither has my 15-year-older half brother. Our connection has actually increased tremendously and they area great source of morale for me.

It's tough to have been well respected by a circle and have earned a reputation of being studious, critical, analytical, nerdy, extremely persistent and determined when it comes to problem solving, intelligent and the like about a wide range of topics, and then to have that respect vanish. There was never a problem with how I went about tackling other problems... but when how I tackled this one led to non-belief, my thinking and methods were suddenly all suspect.

I have described it as not having anyone around that was simply "pro me" anymore (as in, supportive of me applying my previously admirable skills toward religion just like I did other areas).

I of course agree that both are burdens. My intuition is that being closet atheist would be less of a burden, but I am not sure I can say why verbally. Perhaps it's simply because my atheism seems less central to my life than my sexuality, and I could see feeling differently in different circumstances.

Sure. And I don't mean to claim that there's anything wrong with that, just that it may not be so for everyone.

I have, though not the paper (thanks!). I stumbled on it as a related video to another AAI 2009 fantastic talk by Lawrence Krauss about cosmology.

There's a significantly lower cost to pretending that you are religious than to pretending that you have a different sexual orientation than you actually do.

That's a very confident-looking assertion. Surely that would depend who the person in question was and who was doing the measuring.