This is the first of what I hope will be a number of interviews with atheists who have declared themselves as such fairly recently. You can click here to find out my rationale for the series.
The interviewee is blogger Mike Burns of the blog Fox Valley Thinker (this interview has also been posted there). Mike is a 48 year old former Roman Catholic who self-identified as an atheist a little over a year ago. He works in technology consulting in Illinois and is the father of a teen-aged son. Mike gives us this personal background:
I was born in 1959 and I was raised Roman Catholic (baptized but not confirmed). It never really stuck. At no time did I ever think the wafers or wine were anything more than wafers and wine. I always thought that the whole resurrection (and any of the miraculous stuff) seemed kind of outlandish . . . but I never gave it much thought. I assumed that my level of doubt was the norm and that I was a believing Catholic. It didn’t occur to me that many around me really, really bought into the literal biblical stories. By my teens I considered myself Catholic, but never gave it much thought and stopped attending services of any sort by age 20. Between around age 20 and 9/11/2001, I was of the mindset that I should live as though God didn’t matter . . . live a good life and, should I find myself at the pearly gates, I would be judged favorably. Also during that time, I pursued my degree in Engineering and Computer Science (I mention that to frame myself as someone who is probably more analytical and empirical than most).
Once the events of 9/11 were identified as the work of religious extremists I began to get increasingly uncomfortable with religion’s role in society. I knew instinctively that a supernatural worldview could be easily perverted for the most horrific of things. Still, I accorded respect to religion because we were raised to think that criticism of religion is impolite. Even at this point, I would have considered myself an agnostic.
Early in 2006, I read an article in Wired Magazine entitled “The New Atheists” which referenced Richard Dawkins and ‘The God Delusion’ and unapologetically pointed to the horrors that are/can be perpetrated by religion and highlighted how religious mythology can warp public policy. Shortly thereafter I picked up ‘The God Delusion’ and it was an epiphany. Dawkins supported all of the things that I was thinking casually and brought much more historical information to the table. It was then that I formally self-identified myself as an atheist. Understand that the term ‘atheist’ means different things to different people. I was glad to see that serpents didn’t crawl out of my mouth nor did blisters erupt from my flesh (which was the mental image that the Catholic church had nurtured in my head). Atheism simply means ‘without theism’. It really says nothing about a person’s worldview. Just as bald is not a hair color, atheism simply means that gods don’t factor into the person’s worldview. It is not, as many would believe, a specific denial of any gods nor does it mean absolute certainty. Even Dawkins acknowledges that he is agnostic on the existence of God. Should compelling evidence be presented for his existence, he and I would giddily accept that evidence to reshape our worldview.
John: The first thing I'd like you talk about a little is this thing of you having a degree in engineering. One of the interesting statistical facts is that those with engineering degrees are somewhat less likely than those in other sciences such as biology, genetics and physics to be atheists. Indeed, you personally didn't come to a strictly atheistic outlook until your mid-forties. What is it about "engineering"?
Mike: The fields of biology, genetics, and physics place the practitioner directly into the areas that are in conflict with the truth-claims of many religions. This, I would imagine, forces those scientists to either reconcile those conflicts or abandon one of the two explanations. An engineer is not a ‘pure’ scientist like those studying molecular biology or sub-atomic physics. We are rather removed from that level as we contemplate things like the load bearing capacity of a beam or how to store information in a magnetic media. The bible/Koran/torah doesn’t generally come into conflict in matters such as these. Still, I love all the sciences . . . and physics is one of the most valuable things that I have studied. There are probably many similarities between the ‘pure’ scientist’s mode of thinking and the engineer’s mode of thinking; the former just confront the big questions more directly.
An interesting statistic shows that 74% of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences is specifically atheistic. Fully 93% do not believe in a personal god (one who answers prayers or interacts with our world). When one really looks for answers to the big questions (as those in the sciences do), you come to realize that the supernatural explanations for things are unsupported and that there are, almost always, natural explanations.
I cannot say for sure, but I have to imagine that the vast majority of human-kind has no interest in doing the arduous, rigorous research that the scientists do for a living. That does not mean that the human animal does not want answers to the big questions. I contend that we, as a species, will always put an explanation to virtually everything whether we have genuine knowledge about it or not. Prior to an enhanced understanding of our solar system, some used to think that the sun was a flaming chariot being pulled across the sky (we almost always invented an anthropomorphic being for these things). Now that we have real understanding and it was disseminated to the population, most people understand that earth is orbiting a large ball of boiling gas. It is that dissemination of knowledge that needs to occur on other natural explanations of our world.
John: I think I read on your blog about the birth of your son and your mother's horror, when you were still more of an agnostic, at the thought of her unbaptized grandchild. Apparently she actually got you to examine your faith at that time and it had the opposite effect she had hoped for. How is she doing with all of it now that she (in part) has actually led to the problem being worse, from her perspective?
Mike: My mother is not yet fully aware of my position. She does know that I have serious problems with Christian dogma and Catholic dogma. With regards to her grandchild, she is doing better, since the Pope decided that the concept of limbo (where the unbaptized go) was a boo-boo and that the unbaptized are eligible to get to heaven. If you are not familiar with the concept of ‘infallibility’ within the Catholic church; it means that *whatever* pope says is absolutely true because he got his information directly from God. One of the recent popes was a little uncomfortable with this and modified it to say he should be treated as if he were infallible. Of course this is no consolation to all the parents of deceased, unbaptized children who thought their babies were languishing in this isolated no-where-land. I just makes me more angry with the church that the pope can say “Ooops! My bad. We just made that shit up.” and that the cult-members will respond with “Thank you your holiness”. Another story made up by the popemeister is the ascension of Mary. There were stories floating around about what happened to Mary when she died. One of them was that she ascended bodily into heaven, but it was just one version of the folklore. The pope sits down and ponders and thinks his thoughts and decides that, yes, Mary did ascend bodily into heaven . . . and hence is born a new Catholic ‘fact’.
John: What do you say to your child about god, the beliefs of others and how you view our life in the universe?
Mike: I tell him everything that I know when I get a chance to get into the incredibly perplexing teenage brain. I took him to the World Trade Center site and talked about the role that religion played. I talk of the role that religion has played throughout history; both good and bad. Many of our good friends and neighbors are devout Christians. I tell him that everyone is our friend unless they prove otherwise. I certainly have my biases, but I certainly don’t tell him that he is an atheist or must be an atheist.
John: You talked about reading Dawkins "The God Delusion" and other books and authors. A frequent criticism of him (as well as Harris, Dennett, Hitchens, etc) is that they are arrogant, overbearing, condescending, dogmatic in their own way. It seems obvious that this is not what you took from it. It's also said that all they do is "preach to the choir". You may have already been fairly certain that you didn't buy into all of the dogma of Catholicism, but you were hardly a Dawkins choir boy. Is this approach to free thinking (espoused by Dawkins, et al) the best way to bring others over to rationality?
Mike: I don’t recall criticism of Dennett putting him in league with Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. I greatly admired Dennett’s book [Breaking the Spell] in that he merely framed and forwarded arguments that, to my mind, had virtually inescapable conclusions. Most certainly, there is a sizable segment of the theistic population that does take great offense to even the most casual questioning of faith. This, I feel, is why many theists consider these authors so rabid. Indeed, there are some very unflattering things said by some of these authors (with regards to religion), but the level of rhetoric in criticizing them often outstrips the authors criticisms.
One common criticism is that these authors don’t appreciate the nuance of the critics brand of religion. But this is a red herring. While these authors are much more scholarly than most (with regards to religion), the criticism of nuance has nothing to do with their arguments. The authors posit that religions are merely mythology. The critics, instead of demonstrating that their religion is NOT mythology, take the tack of (effectively) saying my mythology is better than the other guy’s mythology. The authors (and I) maintain that decisions and public policy are much better when based on real knowledge instead of mythology.
I do think that they are ‘preaching to the choir’, but the choir is much larger than most realize. I would not expect that a Jerry Falwell-type theist would pick up ‘The God Delusion’ and turn into an atheist. Even a less devout theist would not just ‘POOF’ become an atheist. I have a casual understanding of brain physiology and an appreciation for its complexity and malleability. The brain becomes what we need it to be but it can be persistent in holding onto old information. I consider it nearly impossible that someone firmly in the theistic camp could, in the span of one book, become an atheist. When you spend your life surrounded by people who believe in the [regionally prevailing] religious stories, your brain is literally ‘wired’ to accept and these stories. It took me decades to really formally move from my weak theistic position to atheism. But, as a demonstration of brain physiology, even today, my brain tells me that Jesus’ resurrection is more plausible than Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse. . . even though I know both are equally improbable! It takes time and great effort to overcome inculcated beliefs.
As far as “the best way to bring others over to rationality” . . . I suppose there are different techniques for different audiences. The authors mentioned speak to the audience of closeted skeptics like me. For me, Dawkins hit a home run and I will remember his book as an epiphany in my life; allowing me to realize that my concerns with regard to religion were well founded. The fact that they sell so well, speaks to the fact that the audience is large. I honestly don’t know how to reach the deeply inculcated. I like to think that the growing visibility of skeptics will force more and more theists to question their position.
John: I think your point about how the mind works, and your personal example of finding the resurrection of Jesus to be less fantastic than Mohammed flying to heaven on a winged horse, to be very interesting. So, let me ask - what if we toss in Jesus' ascension to heaven? I am pushing this a little because, for me, I see absolutely no difference. Maybe it's just that I've been an ardent atheist for so many years that all mythology sounds very much the same to me. The only difference I can appreciate is that there are some mythologies that many people currently believe and others that you don't really need to argue about. Worshippers of Horus are fairly hard to find.
Mike: It is rather hard to describe, and maybe I didn’t do a very good job of it earlier. My point was that the brain wires itself (literally wires itself) based on information that it is exposed to. After years of hearing and accepting the story of Jesus’ resurrection and being told it was truth, my brain seems to have wired a region of the brain so that I don’t recoil from the absurdity of it. Throw a new mythological story at my brain (Mohammed’s horse) and I, like you, recoil at the silliness of it. I know full well they are equivalent impossibilities, but through inculcation, my brain has developed (and maintains) a tolerance for the Christian narrative. In no way am I saying that I give Christianity any more credence than Islam or any other religion. I merely make the point to illustrate the amazing complexity of the human brain.
Sam Harris said something that well illustrates the same thing. [I paraphrase] “Which is more ridiculous? 1) God speaks to George Bush and tells him to conduct this war. . . or 2) God speaks to George Bush through his hair dryer and tells him to conduct this war.” Familiarity with the Christian narrative makes the first statement seem more reasonable even when it is not. The introduction of a completely insignificant detail (the hair dryer) in the second statement makes it seem ridiculous . . . probably even to many devout theists. The brain is a wondrous thing but is capable of tremendous bias and warped interpretation. One thing that people should recognize is their minds are not the perfectly reliable, trustworthy things that most would like to believe. The utter certainty that some feel in their faith is merely what the brain has been trained to do.
John: Philosophically, do you now follow in the style of these authors when talking to people or writing in your blog, or do you take a less aggressive posture?
Mike: I have a couple of points on this. I have noticed that Dawkins is more aggressive in his book, but is more pragmatic in interviews and debates. [Christopher] Hitchens is unbelievably caustic in debates and interviews, while his book was more tame. I must give Hitchens credit though. I have never seen anyone so consistently destroy his opponents in debates. He is a freaking razor blade. He is also rude and doesn’t follow rules, but he is a debate machine! I have heard him described as the best justification for two martini lunches (he is apparently a heavy drinker).
I recently read a piece by Michael Shermer from Skeptic Magazine and eSkeptic.com that, at least in part, fits my position. In it, he said that anti-anything always fails. My feeling is that simply lambasting the theists for their wrong-doings or religious ills will, for the most part, only make people angry. An important part of my position is to demonstrate that there are other naturalistic explanations for our world. I have to imagine that there are a lot of people who don’t realize that there are other plausible explanations for things. This can be difficult as it often requires that some science education be included. In a nutshell, I am more pro-knowledge than anti-theistic.
All that being said; I cannot help but get pretty in-your-face when someone offers patently ridiculous arguments. If you read my essay on the “milk miracle” on my blog, that was one of those cases.
John: Speaking of Michael Shermer, I have a very ambiguous [interviewers note: I meant "ambivalent", but Mike got the gist of my question] feeling about his style. I really like the guy, and I say to myself that I like his way of discussing issues of skepticism much better than I like Dawkins, yet I find myself more drawn to Dawkins writing. It’s ironic, because I would rather emulate Shermer. Is there perhaps a little arrogance in us that enjoys sticking it to the theist?
Mike: I am not broadly familiar with everything that [Shermer] has said on the topic of religion, but I greatly enjoyed what I have read and seen. For instance his “Skepticism 101” video on www.skeptic.com is inspired. It clearly demonstrates what the mind is capable of just as I mentioned in your previous question. Things like this video fall into the ‘pro-knowledge’ area that can probably do more good than the anti-theism. He has also written on empirical studies that intercessory prayer has no effect. I often do as he does and offer the facts (knowledge) that shows proto-ethics in other species, prayer having no effect, less religious societies having fewer societal ills, atheists being grossly underrepresented in prisons, etc. I offer this to give others knowledge. Do I emulate him? I don’t know his work well enough to say so.
John: Did you find any particular aspect of atheism to be repugnant or problematic to you as you contemplated "coming out" and declaring yourself to be an atheist?
Mike: Not at all. First of all, atheism (in its strictest sense) defines nothing of a person’s worldview. It merely says that the person is not-theistic. If we were speaking of hair colors it would be like saying that someone’s hair is not brown. It doesn’t say anything as to the person’s actual hair color. Growing up, the Catholic interpretation of an atheist was that they were cloven-hoofed with serpents crawling from their mouths. Very little rigorous, empirical research has been done specifically on atheists and their role in society, but there is some. Unfortunately for the theistic camp, it is all quite flattering to the atheist in virtually every aspect (racism, intelligence, education, tolerance and more). One study I read from a Canadian university only showed ‘charitable giving’ as an area that theists lagged behind . . . but calculating how church monies get divvied up between proselytizing and social services even makes that cloudy. I am proud to be in the company of clear thinkers.
John: I'm certainly proud to have people like you on our side! As to this problem of charitable giving, a couple of things: Isn't it likely that the community function of a religious group would tend to encourage this? We have to be honest and say that this is one positive from religion. But, again, it's a bit superfluous if we can do the same through a secular community. Is it possible that as we create more secular communities (like the on-line one that is growing) that those communities will ask members to do things in the public interest and that, many times, that's all any human being needs - a little direction in an area that's tough to navigate, if you have to figure out on your own where and when to contribute?
Mike: I would tend to agree that the aspect of community is a genuine positive of religion (of course that community is too often intolerant of other communities). I don’t think the on-line community could ever be an analog for this type of interaction though. I have the very great fortune to live in a small, historic residential community . . . an actual community. The neighbors converse, watch out for each other and their children, have barbeques together, have philosophical discussions and more. Having moved here from just 10 blocks away (where very little of this interaction occurred), I am stunned by how enriching and satisfying a real community can be. Just thinking aloud . . . I wonder if the decades-long trend of sprawl (placing homes further apart, homeowners driving into their attached garages and disappearing until the morning commute) has had an inadvertent isolating effect that makes them seek out other ‘community’. It would seem to me that real ‘community’ is a bit of an endangered thing in today’s society. I actually looked into the local Unitarian Universalist church here as they don’t follow any dogma, and accept atheists and theists into their ranks. While I laud the organization, I found that to be too ‘spiritual’ for my liking.
All that being said; there really isn’t an atheist community of the type that religion offers. After all, the religious community is motivated by the worship of [a] god. The atheist is motivated by everything but the worship of a god; hardly a unifying interest. Possibly the single greatest factor uniting atheists would be political activism in support of church-state separation; but that is by no means universal. The likelihood of real atheist communities forming would be helped if so many of our ranks were not closeted.
John: You mentioned to me in an aside that the blogging with the Fox Valley Thinker has been going a little slow lately. Any future plans for the blog, or in other areas, that you'd like to announce?
Mike: It goes in fits and starts. It is quite cathartic to write about these things and it helps me really analyze my position. Even if nobody reads it, it is helpful for me. I have no grand plan for the blog, but I would like to figure out how to conduct an anonymous survey of our lawmakers in Washington asking about their religiosity. I feel that a lot more would admit their non-theism if they knew it was anonymous.