My story /​ owning one’s reasons

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.