My story / owning one's reasons

by jwhendy4 min read7th Jan 201126 comments


Cached ThoughtsReligionGrowth Stories

This is my first post. I've lurked for quite some time and just recently took the opportunity to join this week. I doubt that anything I post will be groundbreaking, but one thought has been developing that I thought I could at least try writing about. I'd appreciate suggestions regarding the content, but also about appropriateness at LessWrong in general. I have mainly read top level threads, but in my perusal of the discussion area it seems that, for the most part, most things are acceptable... so here goes.


I consider this relevant and somewhat necessary. I also think many may find this interesting. I went through a "conversion experience" approximately 9 years ago next month. In my teens I was a heavy user of drugs and alcohol and was sent to a 12 step boarding school in upstate New York from my home in Milwaukee. After a "breakdown" experience there which amounted to realizing the legal ramifications of my substance usage and receiving a reprieve from those consequences (probation), I believed that god had saved my life. I dedicated myself to the 12 steps [1] and a spiritual path, which took the form of taking seriously my Catholic faith.

I moved to Minnesota for college and joined a Catholic Outreach group. I believed that living out a religious faith was the key to maintaining my sobriety. I also attended AA meetings. I maintained an extremely orthodox and passionate faith for 6 years. I was about as religious as they come -- attending adoration nightly for a month at one point, daily prayer/scripture study, prayer and "discernment" for big decisions (marrying my wife, buying a house, etc.), and so on. And don't view these as pew-warming exercises; I meant everything I did. I was passionate about the second chance I believed I'd been given, thought god was responsible, and had dedicated my life to being his faithful servant and living a holy life.


Turning Point

Last Christmas while visiting my parents, I suddenly began to doubt. I still couldn't tell you exactly why. I simply recall wondering if anyone other than the gospel writers wrote about Jesus. Google let me down. I was very disappointed to find that hardly anyone had even cared to mention him. Now, as an aside, I am almost positive that under different circumstances I would have assumed there was a perfectly reasonable explanation and simply moved on. I had never before actually thought that I might be wrong about my faith. This time was different. The seed was planted. I actually opened up to the idea that I might be wrong. Several key thoughts/developments arose:

  • I trusted that if god existed, study and research should only serve to prove that fact more concretely
  • I thought the most objective way to find an answer about god's existence would be to suspect that Christianity was not true and attempt to prove it back to myself
  • When I realized that other than my personal conversion I had no justification for my belief, I felt absolutely horrid and decided that I never wanted that to be the case about anything again. While perhaps unrealistic, I wished to always know precisely where I stood on matters, as well to be prepared to provide evidence for how I had reached that stance

It's been one year since my journey to research the "god question" began. You can find out more if you're interested at my blog. I can't say I've reached the level of conclusiveness I was hoping for by now, but I can say that I no longer believe.

Main Point

The previous material was a setup for focusing on the last of the three points above. What compelled me to write this was a discussion with a friend (who's still a believer) over Christmas. I had just listened to Richard Dawkins discuss Noah's ark, and was summarizing for my friend what he had said, highlighting that Noah's ark offers nothing in the way of an explanation for the isolation of particular species to various locations around the globe when compared to the explanation provided by evolution. I should point out that Catholics are not of an inerrant/literalist tradition. All of the Bible is inspired, but that doesn't require it to be factually valid (as odd as that sounds... it's what the dogma proclaims). In fact, Genesis and Revelation have been pointed as being able to be interpreted figuratively by the Church. In any case, in most instances of fundamentalist thought, my friend acknowledges belief in things like a young earth and simultaneous development of life (man riding dinosaurs) as silly.

But then I asked her what she thought about the story of Noah's ark. Silence. More silence. Then I asked her,

"Are you wondering what you're supposed to think right now?"

She responded in the affirmative and asked how I knew. I simply said that it's what I would have been wondering if I were asked something I suspected intersected an official Church teaching but didn't know what the actual teaching was.

This interaction produced two responses: gratitude and caution. First off, I'm grateful that since my non-belief I have been truly liberated to think about many issues -- abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, etc. It is truly wonderful to earnestly consider these topics in a rational way without my previous requirement to be allegiant-under-all-circumstances-and-rationality-be-damned. I only knew what my friend was thinking because it used to be me.

Are you pro-life?
Me: thinking as follows
- All Catholics are pro-life
- I'm Catholic
- Therefore, I'm pro-life

Me: Why, yes I am, sir.

It was like this for many topics. I had a bag full of cached thoughts ready to go because rather than making my choices one at time... I had subscribed to the equivalent of a political party, which required me to buy into everything under a particular umbrella whether I had thought about it or not.

So, again, I'm grateful to have been liberated from the umbrella and be free to learn about trusted methods of rationality and make better decisions.

However... my friend's response got me on my guard as well. That was the purpose of sharing this perhaps verbose story in the first place. I wanted it to serve as a reminder to myself and to others about the importance of "owning one's reasons." Her response made me wonder if I have cached thoughts operating in other realms. Do I know why I recommend a vs. b? Or why I subscribe to policy/side-of-debate/method/product x vs. y? And, most importantly, do my answers ever change, even slightly, depending on which "umbrella" I sense I'm standing under? For example, at work when I'm surrounded by those I know to be strongly conservative... do my voiced answers/reasons change compared to when I'm with those I know to be liberal?

My answer to that is, "Yes." There are circumstances where I lessen my conclusions/impact/boldness because I'm letting the "umbrella" I feel I've subscribed to by belonging to a particular group influence my answer. One may respond that this is simply a desire not to offend or be attacked (peer pressure), but I don't think that's necessarily it. I think it's a result of me not "owning my reasons" sufficiently -- knowing the rational approach I took, the supporting evidence behind my decision, the ability recall said evidence, etc.

My reflection has led me to suspect that if my efforts at rationality focused as much on the path as the satisfaction of having arrived at the destination, I'd be more confident and less swayed by wondering what I'm supposed to think in a given situation. In other words, I'd be more confident to state, "The answer is x. Would you like me to show my work?"

Perhaps it's not this easy or simple, but it's my current stab at some recent ideas. I'd appreciate any feedback, especially since this is my first post! I'm happy to be here.