On the Virtue of Disagreement

For most of my young life, I went with the flow. I was a good kid, following orders, obeying my parents, doing well in school. I can count on one hand the number of times I actually had any discipline issues with authority figures.

But midway through high school, I decided to become a contrarian. Clearly, intentionally, and without hesitation. Now, I know that this is in no way unique, but it was a watershed moment for my own development, and I still carry the tendency even today for my brain to start itching ever so slightly if I haven’t had a good dustup in a long while. I adopted the attitude of “if I haven’t pissed off someone today, I haven’t been doing my job.”

Things came to a head when a classmate of mine, a girl for whom I’d previously harbored a secret crush, discovered feminism. She began to test the volume of her roar, and I took that as a signal to respond. Crossing swords over our adolescence-addled understanding of gender theory in English class, in the instrument locker, and at the lunchtable couldn’t have been more ridiculous or less important, but it was FUN.

At least, it was up until the moment of desperate frustration when she said to me, “Where do you get the right to your opinion?”

Whatever that opinion may have been, it’s been lost to the mists of memory. But the question remains, stirring up subtle feelings of shock and anger even today. Where did I get the right to challenge her, to express an opinion that contradicted her, to tell her that she was wrong?

Years later, my opinions, such as they were, have changed dramatically. With regard to feminism, I find myself much more sympathetic to the point of view that she was attempting to articulate at the time, even if my philosophical presuppositions have shifted dramatically from where hers (and mine) used to be (and, I presume, hers still are). I was wrong to think that, as I maintained even through college, the role of women in society should be determined by the writings held sacred by a particular religious community.

Some years back, I went online and searched for a letter I wrote to the student newspaper of my college. Published in the “opinion” section, it was titled “Women are Gifts from God,” and established (so I thought) my utmost respect for a class of people that was so favored by the divine that boundaries had been erected for their own protection. My mother thought it was lovely and shared it with her friends, physical evidence of my upstanding religiosity and faithfulness. A fellow student published a contradictory letter the following day, titled “Women are More than Gifts,” which called out my pious chauvinism and deftly deflated my spiritual ego. Though at the time I was angry and offended, my apostasy has significantly changed that perspective. A few years ago, I found my opponent’s email address and sent her a decade-belated note of appreciation, noting that her criticism at the time had finally been recognized and valued.

As an apostate, being wrong is a part of my history, a part of my identity. The realization that I was truly, seriously, emphatically wrong on one of the most important questions of the human condition is always with me. And I think for many people, there is a significant tendency towards anxiety of error, which is why those in psychology spend time studying the strong effects of confirmation bias.

I can see why that would be the case. Being wrong doesn’t just mean “incorrect” or “untrue.” We use the same word to mean “unjust,” “dishonest,” and “immoral.” The latest billboard campaign by the Freedom From Religion Foundation makes use of this double-meaning to antagonize the Catholic Church.

An erstwhile Catholic, now apostate.

And I think that people in general tend to internalize that second meaning of the word, so much so that to be wrong about something, even sincerely wrong, is to be thought of as being a bad person in some way. But being trained as a scientist, I had to accept being wrong as a fact of professional life. Being wrong about any given hypothesis is, scientifically speaking, just as interesting as being right. And I think that can be true about life in general.

Which is why I’m so in favor of disagreement.

Having a different opinion than someone else, coming to different conclusions, applying a different interpretation – this is essential. Without this interplay, the crossing of rhetorical swords, there’s virtually no chance of change. Assumptions go unchallenged, presuppositions remain undisturbed, and our personal paradigms rest sleepily in our subconscious.

Don’t think that I don’t like to be right. Of course I do, just like we all do, but I don’t want to be right by personal fiat. I want to be right if and only if what I think corresponds with reality. And the best way to test my rightness is to see if I’m wrong. It’s my hope that championing disagreement not as a personal slight, but as an intellectual virtue, will lead to the edification of us all.

So please, let’s agree to disagree. OK?

Why I’m No Longer a Christian

It all started with a question.

I had been raised to accept the truth of Christianity along with my mother’s milk and father’s protection. The church taught me about the Bible, about the history of the Christian faith, and about my proper role in the Kingdom of Heaven. I eagerly read chapter and verse, seeking intimacy with God and better understanding of His divine purpose for me. Cover to cover I found myself traveling, a dozen times in my young life. And then I began to wonder about others outside my religious cocoon of certainty, people who weren’t as convinced as I thought myself to be. What kind of book is the Bible to someone who’s never read it, who’s never heard of it, who hasn’t been raised to accept it without question?

“Would I myself believe the Bible speaks truth if I hadn’t been raised from birth to think so?”

In an instant, my faith crumbled into dust, blown to the four corners of the Earth by a simple question. I didn’t have to mull it over. I didn’t even really have to answer it myself, since as soon as I asked the question I immediately knew…

…the answer was no.

Looking at my faith as an outsider would showed me what had been hidden for so long, by removing the plank in my own eye. So many assumptions had been fed to me, innocently if ignorantly enough by my parents, my family, my pastor, and my friends over the years that I hadn’t ever realized how many of my religious beliefs were built on sand.

Of course God exists, you can read about Him in the Bible. Of course the Bible is true, because it’s the Word of God. The circularity was breathtaking once I could see it for what it was.

Through it all, I resisted. I wanted Christianity to be true, not only because I didn’t want to be wrong, but also because I didn’t want to think about my parents lying to me, even unknowingly so. But my parents were not gods, they were not infallible. I knew they could make mistakes easily enough, so why should their beliefs about religion be immune from error?

I also clung to God selfishly. For years, I had taken comfort in the knowledge that I was a Special Creation, and that God had a Special Plan for my life. Whatever difficulties I had faced were insignificant, so I thought, compared to the power of the Almighty watching over me.

Losing God meant losing the person to thank for all the good things in my life, and all the fantastic wonders of His creation. But it also meant that I didn’t have to pretend that God wasn’t equally responsible for all the bad things in my life. Nor for the bad things that happened to other people that I could see in the world.

And there were lots of bad things. A shocking amount of evil is loose in a world controlled by what I had thought was an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God. Did I really still think that divine providence was at work when children were snatched from their homes, brutally raped, strangled, and tossed in a dumpster? Could I still conceive of a God who stood back with arms crossed while terrorists in the name of their God flew airplanes into buildings? Where was the Hand of God when office workers, desperate for a futile chance of survival, leaped hundreds of stories only to splatter on the Manhattan pavement below? And how could I acknowledge the love of a God who cursed my own grandmother before birth with a disease that slowly strangled her to death? Where was God when her family stood beside her bed as the lungs were crushed inside her chest and the life ebbed from her fragile and broken body?

The God of Love, the God that I had placed so much trust in, was a cosmic disappointment.

And yet the failure of God was a blessing in disguise. The chains of unquestioning belief fell away as I began to realize that I no longer needed to look to this false deity for moral guidance. The God who commanded Abraham to kill his only son, and who was willing to send His own Son to the sacrificial altar, was no source of what I recognized as morality. The Bible taught that the faith of Abraham was willingness to kill one’s own child at God’s command. And that this kind of faith was a good thing. This I could no longer tolerate.

The death of God was the birth of my humanity. For the first time, I began to see others as not brothers and sisters in or out of Christ, but simply as brothers and sisters. Without the dictates of an invisible deity, I began to embrace the tenets of Humanism, which regard human well-being and happiness as the greatest virtue. I came to realize that my moral instincts had pointed me in this direction naturally, and that all that was required of me was to cultivate these instincts with deeper consideration and introspection on the nature of the good.

Throughout this process I have continued to hope that my fellow religious travelers could come to appreciate my revelations about the nature of God and the importance of Humanism. The last time I received a sermon in earnest, I looked around me at the congregation during the closing prayer. I was surprised to find many pairs of open eyes catching mine, silently acknowledging the futility in the inevitability of their attendance. I was also shocked to read the desperation on the faces of those deep in prayer, seeking to force a metaphysical experience that creased their brows with expectation and exasperation.

There was a certain ironic comfort in seeing this dichotomy of doubt, which has been echoed in nearly every church I’ve since visited. Christians in America today find themselves in a precarious balance between belief and disbelief. Their families and culture demand belief, if only in tribute, for the right to pass unmolested through the patterned halls of our society. And yet every aspect of the modern world screams in support of disbelief, from the latest discoveries of science to the glaring necessity of pluralism. The average American is a Christian on Sunday, and a Humanist the other six days of the week.

I suppose the biggest benefit of giving up belief in Christianity is the ability to be the same person on Sunday that I am on Saturday.

Fire and Faith

As much effort is expended to explain and justify the accuracy and validity of the Bible, Christianity is a religion firmly grounded on faith. Faith in the existence of God, faith in the divine sacrifice of Jesus, and faith that acceptance of that sacrifice will bring salvation through grace.

Among other things, I’m an outdoorsman; since I was small, I’ve loved exploring the hidden confines of America’s wilderness. I’ve learned to feel at home in the complex simplicity of nature, and I’ve found that sometimes the most important lessons can be found perched in a tree on top of a hill.

At night, I can see points of light burning in the darkness all around me; campfires lit by other adventurers in the forest. It occurs to me that faith is like fire. It provides light to see, warms us in the frigid night, and protects us from the unknown. Faith and fire entered the human consciousness at the same time in prehistory, when humanity first put a bright, flickering wall between itself and the nature which spawned it and provided for its needs. In those days, fire became one of humanity’s most important assets, and thus became one of his first gods.

As humanity has developed, both his faith and his fire have changed to fit his needs and circumstances. Fire has been confined, controlled, and brought forth only when necessary through the striking of a match. It has been reborn through electricity, shining out of white-hot tungsten filaments. Molecular manipulation has given us fluorescence, fire without heat, and lasers, fire which can kill from miles away. Faith has likewise been condensed, repackaged, reformulated, rediscovered, and dissected with surgical precision. There now exists an almost impossible wide array of faiths for us to espouse, virtually tailor-fit for any individual’s tastes. However, both faith and fire when uncontrolled and unchecked, can bring about grievous catastrophes.

Like fire, faith must constantly be fed to burn brightly. Its fuel is often emotion, which burns the brightest but is depleted the fastest. Apologetics seeks to replenish the spent emotion with more stout fuel, but as any outdoorsman knows, large logs do not burn without tinder. The hot coals of habit can keep faith alive for a time, but without renewed fuel, faith cools to black.

I let both my faith and my fire cool a long time ago. Striding along a ridge top, I watched the sun set and decided not to light a campfire that night. I found a comfortable niche under a limestone outcropping, and gathered pine needles under me. After the light of day receded, I laid quietly and listened to the forest around me. Nocturnal animals began to stir- without a fire to frighten them, they ventured closer to my camp site than I’d ever experienced. When the moon came out, I could see the entire valley spread out before me, more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

There were others in the forest that night, each with their campfires lit. I felt sorry for them; such a bright light allowed them to see things immediately around them, but the rest of the forest dropped into pitch black. Their world ended at the limit of their campfire’s light; mine was spread out over the whole valley, bathed in silvery moonlight. It is the same way for people who hold strongly to their faiths- while they are able to see things close to them, everything is colored in the orange glow of their faith, and everything beyond the scope of their faith is pitch black, and does not exist for them. Theirs is a bright world, but it is also a small world.

I can still enjoy the warm glow of a campfire, and nothing is better for an evening of companionship in the forest, toasting marshmallows and singing songs. But even as I sit by the fire, I know that there is a beautiful world in the darkness, and that warms me more than any fire ever could.