or, Think Like A Believer is perhaps a better title? You decide. Actually I’ll have a go at the atheism/theism issue from a side angle. It’s one of my favorites: how do we think and what is thought.
I found a post from a presumed Christian believer which illustrates what I want to say in this post. In the mode of trying to understand the theist discussion by asking questions I run into a small problem: what were they thinking? I also try to understand how all of us think. Theism is not a disease or even a brain malady. We all have the same brains so when I changed from evangelical to atheist it was not a case of my brain changing nor a case of me finding a cure. Something changed, this much is certain…. but what was it that changed? Maybe we can figure this out by examining the reasoning and thoughts that theists use in rationalizing and supporting their beliefs. I’m going to try to do this more often.
Those of you who follow my blog know that I write about my theory of how we think, how our minds work and have a profound interest in consciousness. In this post I’m going to take my theory and apply it to the post I found so we can see how the ‘same’ brain can arrive at vastly different ideas and how this does not require atheists and theists to have different brains or health.
The post in question is called Sin is Enacted Atheism by The Orthosphere. I’m choosing which portions of the post to include here and may reformat it slightly. To see the original, click the link. I urge you to think about what the writer of the post might be thinking, how we are not generally lying to ourselves on purpose, and finally that we do all try to solve the puzzles we find in life for the most part.
This is not going to be a quick post, so go run and get a beverage… or three
Sin is Enacted Atheism
I have thought for some time now that there is a direct relation between unbelief and sinfulness, and that *it runs both ways.* Thinking about God can be extremely hard when I feel really bad about how sinful I’ve been. When I’ve done something wrong, or want to, I want to avoid thinking about God. Because if I do, I shall see what a disgusting worm I am. And no one wants to face that.
The post starts out with contemplation of guilt. Guilt is when we know we’ve broken one of the rules about life that we think we should not break. You can break the civil law and not feel guilty. Guilt only happens when you believe you should not have done the thing which you now feel guilty about. It is wholly subjective. Being subjective, the rule you broke was part of a plan to achieve a goal you have set for yourself or in some way subscribed to. Subjective rules are not arbitrary from the perspective of self. What we are talking about here is the reaction to breaking a certain kind of rule which (the writer in this case) person has set for themselves based on some beliefs and truths and experience. It is not a simple rule like fire is hot or the Sun is bright. It is not universally agreeable as a rule, it is subjective in nature by the very nature that it can cause guilt as a reaction. This kind of rule can be one such as we make each January first. Importantly this is not a whim but something the writer has put a lot of time into thinking about. What is thought? What is thinking?
It’s easy to see why shame would make me want to avoid God when I have sinned. The hardest thing of all to admit in our hearts about God is that because his beauty is infinite, even our worst sins are to him infinitely tiny. Whether we know it or not, and whether or not we admit the fact to ourselves, his overwhelming power washes over our sins the way that a great wave washes over the filth a fly has left in the sand of the beach. So, no matter how bad we have been, we can turn to him and he will wash over us, cleanse and refresh us completely.
That sounds like a good thing but it turns out to be one of the most effective reinforcements of the original arbitrary rule. In this case the arbitrary rule(s) were established in order to achieve a goal – that of getting into heaven and not going to hell. The only way to get absolution for the guilt is to renew your vow to the original goal… not through prescribed public scapegoating or admission but through private commission of your thoughts. This regenerative feedback loop happens entirely within the mind of the adherent. No external input is necessary as demonstrated in this post. Note that the absolution of guilt does not modify behaviors nor adjust thought. It only reinforces the original goals and rules.
But this is hard to remember, or understand. Indeed, it is hard to remember *because* it is hard to understand. Our sins loom large in our lives, and we understand the harm we have done – and the cost of its repair – quite well. Infinity being by contrast impossible for us to comprehend, we have a hard time doing the moral accounting involved in reconciling God’s omnipotent redemptive power to our picayune peccadilloes. It’s like expressing inches in light years, or vice versa. Light years just don’t mean anything concretely commensurable to our lives as lived, compared to the distance between two joints of a finger. So, all we can see is the sin, and the penalty thereof; we cannot see the everlasting life beyond its redemption. And so we avoid turning our minds in its direction, or toward God and the agony of his glory.
Sometimes apologists say stuff that just takes way to long to figure out the meaning of. This paragraph above is one of those. The notion that infinity is impossible for us to comprehend begs the question… what then does infinity mean? Oh, I see, we actually do comprehend it. I think this is a case of trying to say that when it comes to our guilt we can’t see the forest for the trees. In this case the writer seems to be of the mind that when they feel guilty for their ‘sins’ they think themselves unworthy of their god’s redemption.. I think that is the definition of guilty actually… correct me if I’m wrong. What is the writer doing here with thought? There is the effect of harm and guilt due to the sinful cause. Then a statement on the nature of god, infinite redemptive power… god will forgive anything. This is a rule in the mind of the writer that they are reinforcing with this statement. Like taking the Sun for granted and stating we forget the great benefit it brings us. Next another couple of rules: if you sin you burn forever. This rule is not questioned but taken as fact to the writer.
When we believe in something, we conform ourselves thereto. It shapes our minds, our thoughts and attitudes, and so our acts, and our lives. Because he has a hard time even thinking about God, the sinner, then, has a hard time really believing in God. His shame disinclines him to God; his disinclination to God inclines him to sin; his sin is shameful. It’s a vicious cycle.
Because the sinner is guilty and can’t think of god, it’s hard to believe in a god. What is described is not a cycle, but a spiral downward (if I understand the thinking) toward godless sinning and shame and guilt. Now, let’s think about this. Guilt for breaking a rule makes it difficult to feel good about the rule. If your new year’s resolution is to exercise more, when you skip the gym do you then excuse yourself and feel good about your resolution? I opine that the answer is no, but you will tell yourself that it will be okay because you’ll go to the gym tomorrow and all will be okay again. Do you see what’s going on here? Theists have built-in behavior justifications. The rule only applies when they want it to and they can justify breaking the rule when needed. This, as therapists will tell you, is exactly how to fail at a resolution for change. There is no behavior modification, only reaffirmation of the rules and goals. The thoughts here are that ‘you are what you think you are’ and in the mind of the writer when they are not thinking of god their life is not godly and their actions and thoughts remain sinful. This is a cause and effect rule in the writer’s mind. What we’re seeing is the rules used in the writer’s mind to reason out a cause/effect puzzle.
But it works the other way, too: the unbeliever is eo ipso a sinner. Indeed, unbelief and sin are two sides of the same coin. For, as sin is enacted falsehood, so is it an explicit enaction of disbelief in the God who is all truth, and the whole of truth. It indicates a want of faith; for, if I really believed in God, and understood him, how could I bring myself to sin – indeed, how could the notion even occur to me? Doesn’t the presence of God in our hearts drive out sin? So, if I am sinning, doesn’t that mean that I have not very much God in my heart?
Right, so sinning is to be godless and to be godless is to sin. So every sin causes a do-over, start from the beginning kind of thing. This kind of thinking only serves to reinforce the original thought. Whatever sin you commit brings guilt which in turn reinforces the thought that it was a sin (wrong) in the first place… only this is worse because it is here described as a denial of the rules that the believer has accepted as true. This thinking brings the writer to conclusions: sin and unbelief are two labels/aspects/properties of each other. This association of properties between object/actions in the writer’s mind is important to note.
If my understanding of God is correct, if I really understand what “God” means – not as a philosophical proposition, so much as a concrete proposal for how I should constitute myself from one moment to the next, what I should consider, think, say and do – then won’t the beauty and power of that knowledge drive out all competing considerations? God is *infinitely* beautiful. Nothing else even registers, compared to him. If I really turned and accepted even that bare notion, how could I sin? If I do sin, then, this means that there is at least some corner of my heart that does not believe in God. It resists him, or else is deeply confused.
Note here that the belief is reinforced also by the unproven fact that the god is infinitely beautiful, yet we cannot comprehend infinity says the writer. So, the rule (stipulated by belief in a god and accepted as true without evidence) gets broken. The writer concludes that this causes guilt/shame which precludes the rule breaker who then is unable to ‘get over it’, yet the writer urges us to do just that by accepting the god (and the rules) all over again. It’s a do over. A clever way to purge the guilt, to acquire absolution and rid yourself of the shame and damnation. Now we see the writer looking at behavior modification by simply having more god in his life and thoughts. A puritanical cycle of thinking if ever there was one. The modification does not remove temptation but changes thinking processes in the writer’s mind in order to avoid temptation next time around. This is a plan that hormones really don’t cooperate with.
My sin tells me that I have not yet truly and fully converted my heart to God. And since the love of God is generated irresistibly by the vision of God, by the apprehension of his beauty, my sin indicates that I have not yet properly apprehended him. I have somehow erred in my apprehension.
We cannot correct the error of our apprehension that enables our sin – or rather, that is to say, *constitutes* our sin – except by turning to face him, opening our eyes and our hearts and letting him in. But because we err, we cannot see where to find him unless we are already facing him – in which case, we are not erring in the first place! So, we are stuck fast in the Sin against the Holy Spirit, the one unforgivable sin that prevents our acceptance of redemption, and therefore effects its rejection.
That’s where Grace enters the picture. God will show us. All we have to do is ask, even though we don’t know exactly what we ask. When we say the Agnus Dei, or the Jesus Prayer, we ask him to show us how and where to turn to him.
What this amounts to is fairly simple, yet delicately complex… even sublimely complex. The believer (the writer specifically in this case) shows that there is no adjustment of rules, no adjudication of morality or right and wrong, only a law that cannot be changed and how the believer must react to it. This is blind acceptance of a rule that was dictated, not discovered. It is slavery of the worst kind… voluntary slavery. We see the writer’s thinking solidified… the original goal is to not go to hell. Interim conclusions accepted without question are then used to reason about the writer’s own actions and what turns out to be self-brainwashing. In the writer’s mind they will make any thing or action which constitutes sin an object/action in the simulator of their brain to have the property of repulsive, ugly, deadly. The writer’s brain will at some point along this course begin to react to said objects/actions with real repulsion and fear. The writer is effectively reprogramming the rules in their brain simulation such that they will be repulsed by sin and could possibly begin to trigger fight/flight responses if they tell a white lie, or find 100 dollar bill on the floor and not turn it in. These seem small matters until you get the situation where these trigger dire reactions in the mind of the believer. That white lie situation can soon trigger fear, bad decision making, avoidance and so on. Not because they tell a white lie but simply in reaction to the urge to do so.
There is a cycle involved here. The same cycle suffered by those that swear to lose xx pounds/stone but are not willing to modify their behavior to achieve the goal every time they seem to fail the objectives. Some folk set impossibly difficult goals for their resolutions, and then feel guilty because they cannot keep them nor change enough to ever achieve them.
I have compared this to resolutions like we make on New Year’s day for a reason. Both are subjective goals, both have subjective rules. These are invented rules which are not guided by empirical evidence and when we see ourselves failing at those goals, introspection causes us to do a number of things:
- Feel shame for not meeting our own expectations, and our brains see this as a problem
- Our brains are evolved to solve problems of cause-effect
- We then see that the cause of the failure is self inflicted – that is we failed, there is no objective consideration of the situation and by objective consideration I mean one that is outside the thoughts of the guilty person
- Guilt drives the person to reinforce the original unrealistic goal/rule
Sorry that this rambled a bit but I’m trying to show that theists get into the business of twisting logic because they first accepted as true a rule/goal without evidence. To twist logic and reason is much easier than going back and changing all the rules that got tied into the original error – the error of accepting something as true without evidence. Further, once we accept something as true our confirmation bias does a lot of harm in that it keeps reinforcing the original error to the point that the believer does not really care that their logic makes no sense objectively.
That is why many discussions end with “Well, it’s just what I believe and I’m allowed to have my own beliefs!”
To try to unravel their rules and properties assigned in effort to support the original erroneous rule/goal will not change that original error in the believer’s mind. The original error won’t get cleared out until the believer begins to doubt that truth by itself. I think that for reason to preside in society we have to ask “why do you think a god exists” and work with the believers, individually at times, to help them understand the first error – why the accepted the existence of a god as true in the first place. Many talk about indoctrination and so on, but this won’t get the believer to look at their own original error. Some of them are old enough now that they won’t remember why they decided that was not an error, rather that it was unmitigated truth. As they grow up they will find many ways to justify this erroneous rule such that no matter how many justifications you tear apart, it does not touch the value assignment of the original error in the believers mind simulation.
The original programming error is what needs to change.
Ideas on how to get the believer to ponder seriously that first error?