A Rationalist’s Tale

Warn­ing: sappy per­sonal anec­dotes ahead! See also Eliezer’s Com­ing of Age story, SarahC’s Reflec­tions on ra­tio­nal­ity a year out, and Ali­corn’s Poly­hack­ing.

On Jan­uary 11, 2007, at age 21, I fi­nally whispered to my­self: There is no God.

I felt the world col­lapse be­neath me. I’d been raised to be­lieve that God was nec­es­sary for mean­ing, moral­ity, and pur­pose. My skin felt cold and my tongue felt like card­board. This was the be­gin­ning of the dark­est part of my life, but the seed of my later hap­piness.

I grew up in Cam­bridge, Min­nesota — a town of 5,000 peo­ple and 22 Chris­tian churches (at the time). My father was (and still is) pas­tor of a small church. My mother vol­un­teered to sup­port Chris­tian mis­sion­ar­ies around the world.

I went to church and Bible study ev­ery week. I prayed of­ten and earnestly. For 12 years I at­tended a Chris­tian school that taught Bible classes and cre­ation­ism. I played in wor­ship bands. As a teenager I made trips to China and England to tell the god­less hea­thens there about Je­sus. I wit­nessed mirac­u­lous heal­ings un­ex­plained by med­i­cal sci­ence.

And I felt the pres­ence of God. Some­times I would tin­gle and sweat with the Holy Spirit. Other times I felt led by God to give money to a cer­tain cause, or to pay some­one a spe­cific com­pli­ment, or to walk to the cross at the front of my church and bow be­fore it dur­ing a wor­ship ser­vice.

Around age 19 I got de­pressed. But then I read Dal­las Willard’s The Div­ine Con­spir­acy, a man­ual for how to fall in love with God so that fol­low­ing his ways is not a bur­den but a nat­u­ral and painless product of lov­ing God. And one day I saw a leaf twirling in the wind and it was so beau­tiful — like the twirling plas­tic bag in Amer­i­can Beauty — that I had an epiphany. I re­al­ized that ev­ery­thing in na­ture was a gift from God to me. Grass, lakes, trees, sun­sets — all these were gifts of beauty from my Sav­ior to me. That’s how I fell in love with God, and he de­liv­ered me from my de­pres­sion.

I moved to Min­neapo­lis for col­lege and was at­tracted to a Chris­tian group led by Mark van Steen­wyk. Mark’s small group of well-ed­u­cated Je­sus-fol­low­ers are ‘mis­sional’ Chris­ti­ans: they think that lov­ing and serv­ing oth­ers in the way of Je­sus is more im­por­tant than doc­tri­nal truth. That res­onated with me, and we lived it out with the poor im­mi­grants of Min­neapo­lis.

Doubt

By this time I had lit­tle in­ter­est in church struc­ture or doc­tri­nal dis­putes. I just wanted to be like Je­sus to a lost and hurt­ing world. So I de­cided I should try to find out who Je­sus ac­tu­ally was. I be­gan to study the His­tor­i­cal Je­sus.

What I learned, even when read­ing Chris­tian schol­ars, shocked me. The gospels were writ­ten decades af­ter Je­sus’ death, by non-eye­wit­nesses. They are rid­dled with con­tra­dic­tions, leg­ends, and known lies. Je­sus and Paul dis­agreed on many core is­sues. And how could I ac­cept mir­a­cle claims about Je­sus when I out­right re­jected other an­cient mir­a­cle claims as su­per­sti­tious non­sense?

Th­ese dis­cov­er­ies scared me. It was not what I had wanted to learn. But now I had to know the truth. I stud­ied the His­tor­i­cal Je­sus, the his­tory of Chris­ti­an­ity, the Bible, the­ol­ogy, and the philos­o­phy of re­li­gion. Al­most ev­ery­thing I read — even the books writ­ten by con­ser­va­tive Chris­ti­ans — gave me more rea­son to doubt, not less. What preach­ers had taught me from the pulpit was not what they had learned in sem­i­nary. My dis­cov­ery of the differ­ence had just the effect on me that con­ser­va­tive Bible scholar Daniel B. Wal­lace pre­dicted:

The in­ten­tional dumb­ing down of the church for the sake of filling more pews will ul­ti­mately lead to defec­tion from Christ.

I started to panic. I felt like my best friend — my source of pur­pose and hap­piness and com­fort — was dy­ing. And worse, I was kil­ling him. If only I could have faith! If only I could un­learn all these things and just be­lieve. I cried out with the words from Mark 9:24, “Lord, help my un­be­lief!”

I tried. For ev­ery athe­ist book I read, I read five books by the very best Chris­tian philoso­phers. But the athe­ists made plain, sim­ple sense, and the Chris­tian philoso­phers were lost in a fog of big words that tried to hide the weak­ness of their ar­gu­ments.

I did ev­ery­thing I could to keep my faith. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force my­self to be­lieve what I knew wasn’t true. So I fi­nally let my­self whisper the hor­rify­ing truth out loud: There is no God.

I told my dad, and he said I had been led astray be­cause I was ar­ro­gant to think I could get to truth by study­ing — I was “rely­ing too much on my own strength.” Hum­bled and en­couraged, I started a new quest to find God. I wrote on my blog:

I’ve been hum­bled. I was “do­ing dis­ci­ple­ship” in my own strength, be­cause I thought I was smart enough and dis­ci­plined enough. [Now] hav­ing sur­ren­dered my pride­ful and in­de­pen­dent ways to him, I can see how my weak­ness is God’s strength.

I’ve re­pented. I was de­ceived be­cause I did not let the Spirit lead me into truth. Now I ask for God’s guidance in all quests for knowl­edge and wis­dom.

I feel like I’ve been born again, again.

It didn’t last. Every time I reached out for some rea­son — any rea­son — to be­lieve, God sim­ply wasn’t there. I tried to be­lieve de­spite the ev­i­dence, but I couldn’t be­lieve a lie. Not any­more.

No mat­ter how much I missed him, I couldn’t bring Je­sus back to life.

New Joy and Purpose

Even­tu­ally I re­al­ized that mil­lions of peo­ple have lived lives of in­cred­ible mean­ing, moral­ity, and hap­piness with­out gods. I soon re­al­ized I could be more happy and moral with­out God than I ever was with him.

In many ways, I re­gret wast­ing more than 20 years of my life on Chris­ti­an­ity, but there are a few things of value I took from my life as an evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian. I know what it’s like to be a true be­liever. I know what it’s like to fall in love with God and serve him with all my heart. I know what’s it like to ex­pe­rience his pres­ence. I know what it’s like to iso­late one part of my life from rea­son or ev­i­dence, and I know what it’s like to think that is a virtue. I know what it’s like to be con­fused by the Trinity, the failure of prayers, or Bibli­cal con­tra­dic­tions but to gen­uinely em­brace them as the mys­tery of God. I know what it’s like to be­lieve God is so far be­yond hu­man rea­son that we can’t un­der­stand him, but at the same time to fiercely be­lieve I know the de­tails of how he wants us to be­have.

I can talk to be­liev­ers with un­der­stand­ing. I’ve ex­pe­rienced God the same way they have.

Per­haps more im­por­tant, I have a visceral knowl­edge that I can ex­pe­rience some­thing per­son­ally, and be con­fi­dent of it, and be com­pletely wrong about it. I also have a gut un­der­stand­ing of how won­der­ful it can be to just say “oops” already and change your mind.

I sus­pect this is why it was so easy for me, a bit later, to quickly change my mind about free will, about metaethics, about poli­ti­cal liber­tar­i­anism, and about many other things. It was also why I be­came so in­ter­ested in the cog­ni­tive sci­ence of how our be­liefs can get so screwy, which even­tu­ally led me to Less Wrong, where I fi­nally en­coun­tered that fa­mous para­graph by I.J. Good:

Let an ul­train­tel­li­gent ma­chine be defined as a ma­chine that can far sur­pass all the in­tel­lec­tual ac­tivi­ties of any man how­ever clever. Since the de­sign of ma­chines is one of these in­tel­lec­tual ac­tivi­ties, an ul­train­tel­li­gent ma­chine could de­sign even bet­ter ma­chines; there would then un­ques­tion­ably be an ‘in­tel­li­gence ex­plo­sion’, and the in­tel­li­gence of man would be left far be­hind. Thus the first ul­train­tel­li­gent ma­chine is the last in­ven­tion that man need ever make.

I re­mem­ber read­ing that para­graph and im­me­di­ately think­ing some­thing like: Woah. Umm… yeah… woah. That… yeah, that’s prob­a­bly true. But that’s crazy be­cause… that changes frick­ing ev­ery­thing.

So I thought about it for a week, and looked up the coun­ter­ar­gu­ments, and con­cluded that given my cur­rent un­der­stand­ing, an in­tel­li­gence ex­plo­sion was nearly in­evitable (con­di­tional on a ba­sic con­tinued progress of sci­ence) and that ev­ery­thing else I could spend my life work­ing on was triv­ial by com­par­i­son.

So I mostly stopped blog­ging about philos­o­phy of re­li­gion, read through all of Less Wrong, stud­ied more cog­ni­tive sci­ence and AI, quit my job in L.A., and moved to Berkeley to be­come a vis­it­ing fel­low with Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute.

The Level Above My Own

My move to Berkeley was a bit like the com­mon tale of the smartest kid in a small town go­ing to Har­vard and find­ing out that he’s no longer the smartest per­son in the room. In L.A., I didn’t know any­one as de­voted as I was to ap­ply­ing the cog­ni­tive sci­ence of ra­tio­nal­ity and cog­ni­tive bi­ases to my think­ing habits (at least, not un­til I at­tended a few Less Wrong mee­tups shortly be­fore mov­ing to Berkeley). But in Berkeley, I sud­denly found my­self among the least ma­ture ra­tio­nal­ists in my so­cial world.

There is a large and no­tice­able differ­ence be­tween my level of ra­tio­nal­ity and the level of Eliezer Yud­kowsky, Carl Shul­man, Anna Sala­mon, and sev­eral oth­ers. Every week I learn new ra­tio­nal­ity tech­niques. Friends help me un­cover cached be­liefs about eco­nomics, poli­tics, and util­i­tar­i­anism. I’ve be­gun to use the lan­guage of anti-ra­tio­nal­iza­tion and Bayesian up­dates in ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tion. In L.A. I had be­come com­pla­cent be­cause my level of ra­tio­nal­ity looked rel­a­tively im­pres­sive to me. Now I can see how far above my level hu­mans can go.

I still have a lot to learn, and many habits to im­prove. Liv­ing in a com­mu­nity with ra­tio­nal­ist norms is a great way to do those things. But a 4-year jour­ney from evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tian mis­sion­ary to Sin­gu­lar­ity In­sti­tute re­searcher writ­ing about ra­tio­nal­ity and Friendly AI is… not too shabby, I sup­pose.

And that’s why I’m glad some peo­ple are writ­ing about athe­ism and the ba­sics of ra­tio­nal­ity. Without them, I’d prob­a­bly still be liv­ing for Je­sus.