A Rationalist’s Tale
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.
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.