Claims Can Be Questioned

The Believing Brain

I don't have nearly as much time for reading as I would like to these days, but I was reading Michael Shermer's The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths last night and it made me realize something about my own journey to atheism that I'd like to share here.

For those who are not familiar with Shermer, he's a very interesting guy. Despite being raised in a non-religious family, he became a born-again Christian and did the evangelical thing for several years. It sounds like he took it quite seriously and sought to share his Jesus with as many people as possible. Fortunately for us, he discovered skepticism along the way to becoming an experimental psychologist. He became an atheist and has been an influential figure in the skeptical movement ever since.

In The Believing Brain, Shermer notes that creationists struggling to explain how they lost one of their own placed the blame for his de-conversion on exposure to evolution and secular education. Shermer explains that it was nothing nearly that simple and that something as complicated as disbelief is almost never caused by only one variable. While he explains that evolution and secular education were certainly relevant, they were only part of the picture.

When Shermer identified the process that led him away from religion and to atheism, I immediately identified with it. What he said was that it was not any single experience or exposure to any particular idea. Rather, it was the gradual realization, converging from many sources, that it was okay to question what one had been taught and to critically examine one's beliefs.

When I think back to how I moved from religious belief to atheism, it was this development at work. It was related to education to some degree in that I had a couple of good models of critical thinking in school, but it was also related to the manner in which my religious parents encouraged curiosity and exploration (of matters other than their religious beliefs), aspects of my personality and my long-standing distaste for authority, the hypocrisy I observed among the religious and the questions this raised for me, and more. Like Shermer described, the lesson around which these sources converged was the notion that claims could be questioned and premises examined. Asking questions was not some sort of thought crime. It was as if a door had been opened in my mind that could not be closed.

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