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A Rationalist's Tale

81 Post author: lukeprog 28 September 2011 01:17AM

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 ShulmanAnna 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.

Comments (305)

Comment author: Manfred 10 September 2011 01:47:16AM 18 points [-]

Are there also lots of "undramatic" people like me? Every one of these personal stories I see involves sadness, epiphany, that sort of thing, but is that publication bias or am I unusual?

Comment author: orthonormal 11 September 2011 02:37:07PM 10 points [-]

I think it has to do with the "leaving the tribe" aspect more than anything. Those of us who became devout in one of the more serious religions (that is, religions that view everyone else as a spectrum from "good but deeply flawed" to "hellbound") had that religion encompass most of our social world, and so in order to leave it we had to face the prospect of ostracism from all the people we cared about. The evolutionary pressures to never get ostracized make for a lot of subconscious bias to fight, and a pretty dramatic tale.

If your conversion was undramatic, therefore, I conjecture that you didn't have lots of friends or family who might have abandoned you if you stopped being religious.

Comment author: bigjeff5 13 October 2011 06:01:27AM *  6 points [-]

I've been an atheist for about a year now, but I still haven't "come out" of the atheist closet with my parents yet. They are southern baptist, and I know it will devastate them - my mom especially.

My own break with Christianity was a light switch moment (more like turning out the last light before leaving the place for good kind of light switch moment) that happened while I was watching the Discovery Channel, of all things. I'd been raised with the hard-line young earth, all-evidence-for-evolution-is-fabricated, fire and brimstone style belief. My faith had been eroding for almost a decade as I tried to rationalize the existence of God, but it didn't really click until I saw a bunch of little Japanese Mudskippers crawling around in the mud with their elongated fins, the very picture of an evolutionary transition species that I had been taught since I was kid could not exist. I just thought "Well, that's it then. I can't honestly believe Christianity any more can I?" I think I actually let out a sigh at some point, but that may just be my mind filling in details for dramatic effect.

Really, my true belief had been gone since probably some time in high school. That was just the last straw that forced me to give up my belief in belief. Sort of like finally letting go of the rope, expecting to fall to your death, and discovering you were only a few inches from solid ground after all.

Comment author: orthonormal 13 October 2011 02:13:19PM 3 points [-]

Sort of like finally letting go of the rope, expecting to fall to your death, and discovering you were only a few inches from solid ground after all.

I like this analogy. I think I'm going to steal it.

Comment author: wedrifid 14 September 2011 03:38:39AM 4 points [-]

(that is, religions that view everyone else as a spectrum from "good but deeply flawed" to "hellbound"

That isn't exactly a spectrum. There are serious and sincere believers who I have met who are forthright with the 'hellbound' prediction while also being far less judgemental than others who say 'good but deeply flawed'. "Hellbound" is a prediction about future consequences not a personal criticism.

Comment author: orthonormal 14 September 2011 04:27:38AM 0 points [-]

I meant 'religions with claims to exclusivity', basically. I don't think anyone today worries that they'll lose their social world if they leave their Unitarian church.

But yes, the relationship between theology and arrogance isn't quite as simple as some might think.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 14 September 2011 04:35:09AM *  0 points [-]

Indeed, I had two close friends in high school who predicted I was definitely going to hell. One academic liberal, one fundamentalist conservative. (It didn't come up much.)

Comment author: Manfred 11 September 2011 03:07:34PM 3 points [-]

Conjecture correct.

Comment author: Logos01 28 September 2011 05:02:56PM 4 points [-]

I grew up atheist. Without a story to tell, I've got nothing to publish. I would agree with the publication bias conjecture.

Comment author: Jack 11 September 2011 03:03:51PM 4 points [-]

"Oh. There are people who aren't sure about God? They're called agnostics? Huh, yeah, I think that's what I am."

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 11 September 2011 10:40:04PM 3 points [-]

Just publication bias, I think.

Personally I just gradually went from "believing by default because of what school and family were telling me" as a kid, to "believing mostly, but not all of religion" in junior high, to "believing very little of it must be true" in highschool, to "vaguely hoping there's some just and merciful order in the universe" in college, to being an atheist now.

There was hardly any drama at all, as far as I can recall.

Comment author: wedrifid 11 September 2011 04:45:17AM *  3 points [-]

Are there also lots of "undramatic" people like me?

Definitely. My story is much the same as Luke's but I was a whole heap more chill the whole way through. Although come to think of it if I did publish my style of writing is such that it would come out seeming dramatic anyway.

Comment author: arundelo 10 September 2011 06:29:51PM 3 points [-]

My deconversion was undramatic too.

Comment author: AdeleneDawner 10 September 2011 09:29:59PM 2 points [-]

I assume it's publication bias, based on the fact that dramatic conversions are easier to write about - not only do they make better stories, but the details of that kind of thing are easier to remember. (I'm also in the 'undramatic' category.)

Comment author: Nick_Beckstead 11 September 2011 02:11:36PM 1 point [-]

Dramatic deconversion here.

Comment author: Bill_McGrath 10 September 2011 09:58:10AM *  1 point [-]

I was terrified of Hell when I was younger, so it was a while before I was able to admit my doubts to myself, and my deconversion was a gradual process; but it wasn't particularly dramatic. I felt a bit sad a few times, and a bit guilty, but by the age of 17 I was an atheist and not too worried about it.

So it may be publication bias, yes, but that's only two examples. I post quite regularly on an atheism & agnosticism forum, I might put a poll asking this question.

Comment author: Virge 29 September 2011 01:52:36PM 0 points [-]

Undramatic for me too.

If you've got a talent that keeps you very popular within a group, it's very easy to get sucked into being what those admiring people want you to be. Being bright, clear-thinking, eloquent, confident (and a musician) moves you very easily into a leadership position, and builds the feeling of responsibility for the welfare of the group.

It took me too long to commit to acknowledging my accumulated doubts and misgivings and examine them in anything other than a pro-Christian light. I had enough religious cached thoughts in an interconnected self-supporting web that doubting any one of them was discouraged by the support of the others. However, I was spending more of my time aware of the dissonance between what I knew and what I believed (or, as I later realised, what I was telling myself I believed).

I ended up deciding to spend a few months of my non-work time examining my faith in detail -- clearing the cache, and trying to understand what it was that made me hold on to what I thought I believed. During that time I gradually dropped out of church activities.

I look back on the time and see it as a process of becoming more honest with myself. Had I tried to determine what I really believed by looking at what I anticipated and how that influenced my behaviour, I'd have realised a lot earlier that my true beliefs were non-supernatural. I'd just been playing an expected role in a supportive family and social group, and I'd adjusted my thinking to blend into that role.

Comment author: Thomas 11 September 2011 10:19:18PM 0 points [-]

I was always an atheist. But I saw the drama of atheisation a generation before myself. 50 generation before that, pagan ancestors embraced Christianity.

Comment author: MBlume 11 September 2011 02:17:37PM 0 points [-]

Daria here -- I sobbed aloud the first time I read that story because of how strongly I identified with her. No family troubles to speak of once I deconverted, but I did lose a girlfriend to it.

Comment author: Hyena 12 September 2011 01:09:53PM 10 points [-]

When I read these stories, I always feel guilty. I became non-theist. I simply stopped believing in it; there was no grappling with theological or historical issues, I just stopped believing. A bit flipped one day and I've never been able to believe since; I can't even conceptually access my pre-flip self.

Sometimes I wonder, though, if my version isn't more true. Everyone else could also be subject to the flip but seek to rationalize it. Later I went through many attempts to "find religion" but couldn't. I can't help but womder if lukeprog's research wasn't a similar process of post-flip grappling rather than it's source.

Comment author: Spurlock 09 September 2011 03:06:19PM *  7 points [-]

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.

You sort of glossed over this, but it seems like the bit that a lot of people have trouble with (and have trouble realizing that it's even possible). There are lots of arguments for this position, but I'm just curious if there were any particular things that were "Aha" moments for you here.

ETA: Do you think you could have come to this position before rejecting God? That you could have said "even though there is a God, it would still be possible to be moral and happy and purposeful if there weren't"? I'm curious how easy it is to get people to realize this before it's their last resort for preserving morality etc.

Comment author: Yossarian 29 September 2011 03:22:45AM *  3 points [-]

As an atheist that attended a Catholic high school, one of the questions often leveled at me was what exactly prevented me from going on murdering rampages without a religious morality to keep me in check. I got this question from both students and faculty (usually as part of the class discussion in religion class). So in my experience at least, it is difficult for religious people to understand the morality of a non-religious person. I would speculate that this is because they, on some level, didn't believe in God (or at least the Catholic God) and were instead believing in belief, feeling that the morality that came with the dogma was necessary and beneficial to leading a proper life.

Comment author: Desrtopa 29 September 2011 03:35:00AM 2 points [-]

How did you usually answer when they asked that, and how was your answer received?

Comment author: Yossarian 29 September 2011 04:07:58AM 0 points [-]

At the time, I made a distinction between ethics and morality that I would now say is probably more semantic than definitional. But, IIRC, they defined morality as a code of behavior with a religious basis. So I used the term ethics to say that I followed a code of behavior that didn't follow from religious belief.

Essentially, I made the point that just because I didn't believe I would go to hell for killing somebody didn't mean that I had any desire to. Or that the prospect of prison and general rejection from society didn't serve as an adequate deterrent. I don't remember specifically, but I might have made the point that the Golden Rule doesn't have to be tied to a religious belief and is a pretty self evident truth on its own.

As for their response, I mostly remember them moving onto a different topic (or at least, ceasing to focus on me for that moment). I always thought about my answers and tried to give an honest answer, but I actively avoided giving them the answers they were expecting or wanted, since they were usually leading questions designed to get me to agree with them in some basic way.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 09 September 2011 05:46:39PM 2 points [-]

I know plenty of religious folk who freely acknowledge that there exist non-religious moral folk, and accept that it follows that belief in God (as they understand God) is not crucial to living a moral life.

Mostly they seem to have arrived at that conclusion by observing the behavior of other people who don't share their understanding of God, and concluding that it sure does seem moral to them.

That said, I also know religious folk who have made that same observation and conclusion, but nevertheless continued to believe that there is no living a moral life without sharing their understanding of God, so it's by no means a given.

Comment author: lukeprog 09 September 2011 04:36:35PM 0 points [-]

Yes, I think I could have realized this before deconversion. Plenty of people do; perhaps most. I was just too thoroughly isolated.

Comment author: kilobug 09 September 2011 09:38:02AM 6 points [-]

Very interesting story. Since I'm born in an atheist family and never believed in God, I lack any similar experience, and somehow, I regret it, because that experience must definitely be of a great help to change your mind about other topics. The closest experience I have to this is the Santa Claus thing, but I was such a young child that I only have confuse memory about how I started to doubt. But the process looks similar : there is nice Santa Claus person that gives me present, I start to doubt it's real and feel bad because I don't want the "magic of chirstmas" to go away, and then I realize that it's something even more "magical" than elves and flying Santa Claus going faster than light : it's the love of my parents, who spent days going from shop to shop to find the silly present I asked for in my letter to Santa Claus that the teacher gave them... it has the three phases : belief in something supernatural that makes you happy, doubt and feeling sad, and then realizing that reality makes you even more happy. But it's so lost in the mist of early childhood that it doesn't have the potency you describe.

Oh, on other topic, I'm still doubtful about "Singularity", « an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an 'intelligence explosion'» sounds a logical jump with no foundation to me, let me try to explain : let's assume we have a measure of intelligence into a single real number, I(M). An intelligent machine can design a better version of itself, so we have I(Mn+1) > I(Mn). That's a strictly monotonically increasing sequence. That's all we know. A strictly monotonically increasing sequence can have a finite limit (like 1+1/2+1/4+1/8+... has a limit of 2), or can grow towards infinity very slowly (like log(n)). How do we know that designing a better intelligence is not an exponentially difficult task ? How do we know that above a given level, the formula doesn't look like I(Mn+1) = I(Mn) + 1/n, because every increase in intelligence is so much harder to make ? I guess there is an answer to that, but I couldn't find it in siginst FAQ... does any of you have a pointer to an answer to that question ?

Comment author: [deleted] 09 September 2011 11:11:29AM 10 points [-]

How do we know that designing a better intelligence is not an exponentially difficult task ?

Well, the answer could simply be, "you're right; we don't know that". However, I think there is evidence that an ultraintelligent machine could make itself very intelligent indeed.

The human mind, though better at reasoning than anything else that currently exists, still has a multitude of flaws. We can't symbolically reason at even a millionth the speed of a $15 cell phone (and even if we could, there are still unanswered questions about how to reason), and our intuition is loaded with biases. If you could eliminate all human flaws, you would end up with something more intelligent than the most intelligent human that has ever lived.

Also, I could be mistaken, but I think people who study rationality and mathematics (among other things?) tend to report increasing marginal utility: once they understand a concept, it becomes easier to understand other concepts. A machine capable of understanding trillions of concepts might be able to learn new ones very easily compared to a human.

Comment author: lessdazed 09 September 2011 11:16:36AM 7 points [-]

If you could eliminate all human flaws, you would end up with...

You might end up with nothing. You really have to start over and build an inference machine vastly different from ours.

Comment author: Omegaile 28 November 2012 03:11:22AM 0 points [-]

If you could eliminate all human flaws, you would end up with something more intelligent than the most intelligent human that has ever lived

This seems true...but it doesn't argue against a bounded intelligence, just that the bound is very far.

Comment author: JenniferRM 10 September 2011 07:05:55AM 5 points [-]

There are lots of words on the subject in the FOOM debate but that's (1) full of lots of "intuition, examples, and hand waving" on both sides, (2) ended with neither side convincing the other, and (3) produced no formal coherent treatise on the subject where evidence could be dropped into place to give an unambiguous answer that a third party could see was obviously true. It is worth a read if you're looking for an intuition pump, not if you want a summary answer.

If you want to examine it from another angle to think about timing and details and so on, you might try using The Uncertain Future modeling tool. If you have the time to feed it input, I'm curious to know what output you get :-)

Comment author: kilobug 10 September 2011 04:09:35PM 4 points [-]

It seems to me that I'm both pessimistic and optimisc (or anyway, not well calibrated). I got :

  • Catastrophe by 2070 : 65.75%

  • AI by 2070 : 98.3%

I would have given much less to both (around 25%-33% for catastrophe, and around 50-75% for AI) if you directly asked me... so I'm badly calibrated, either in the way I answered to the individual questions, or to my final estimate (most likely to both...). I'll have to read the FOOM debate and think more about the issue. Thanks for the pointers anyway.

(Btw, it's painful, the applet doesn't support copy/paste...)

Comment author: scientism 12 September 2011 02:01:17AM 5 points [-]

Would you credit your upbringing with giving you the fervour and energy you now bring to studying rationality? Possibly also the virtue of scholarship? (I don't mean to suggest anything negative by this; just that you attack problems in a very methodical way that surely requires great feats of willpower and I wonder what the source of that is.)

Comment author: lukeprog 12 September 2011 04:16:37PM 2 points [-]

Yes, probably.

Comment author: GabrielDuquette 08 September 2011 10:56:33PM 18 points [-]

I witnessed miraculous healings unexplained by medical science.

Can you elaborate? Were they explainable in retrospect?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 29 September 2011 03:13:52PM *  2 points [-]

I've got a similar story. A high school friend's grandmother took a trip to Sri Lanki (their home country) to visit a "healer" (they were Buddhist, but I don't know which kind) in a last-ditch effort to avoid death from cancer. She came back without her tumor. Can I explain this? No, I can't.

Comment author: kilobug 29 September 2011 03:34:34PM 10 points [-]

Well, we know that spontaneous remissions on cancers do occur, very rarely, but they do occur. One of the hypothesis is that the immune system finally learns to attack the cancer. With the huge number of people who, faced with a disease that scientific medicine doesn't know how to cure, go to prayer or healers, it's not surprising that, statistically, a few spontaneous remissions do happen just after such a visit. Especially considering the placebo effect, and the non-negligeable links between the efficiency of the immune system and the mental state (it's well known that stress diminish the efficiency of the immune system).

What would be meaningful is not a single case of unexplained spontaneous healing. It's a significant, reproducible, higher-than-placebo, increase in survival rate by a given healer (or a set of healers using a given faith). And that is, as far as I know, not backed by any study (or if it is, please show me the link).

Comment author: Vaniver 29 September 2011 11:20:25PM 10 points [-]

It's a significant, reproducible, higher-than-placebo, increase in survival rate by a given healer (or a set of healers using a given faith). And that is, as far as I know, not backed by any study (or if it is, please show me the link).

That said, if you get the placebo effect from going to a faith healer, do it.

Comment author: dlthomas 29 September 2011 11:37:16PM 5 points [-]

Unless you can get it cheaper ways...

Comment author: Technoguyrob 30 September 2011 12:13:37PM *  8 points [-]

Right. Moreover, of all the people who read GabrielDuquette's comment and know someone that had cancer and went to a faith healer, I imagine only the ones with a story like Jayson_Virisimo's will post a reply. Failed attempts are not reported. If you are acquaintances with someone that experienced a failed faith healing, you are likely not even aware of it! (If it was successful, they would have lauded it.) An easy Bayesian estimate makes the presence of Jayson_Virisimo's comment unsurprising.

Given a sufficiently non-zero probability of spontaneous remission, this argument explains my lack of surprise at such a story. This is an important addition to your argument (and, I feel, indeed the crux), because a non-zero probability is not satisfactory. Consider if we had many people posting such claims; with sufficiently low probabilities of spontaneous remission, we would not expect such a density of claims.

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 30 September 2011 01:10:18PM 0 points [-]

That sounds about right.

Comment author: Bugmaster 30 September 2011 09:17:58PM *  2 points [-]

I would explain it as a spontaneous remission followed by the post hoc fallacy.

Edit: assuming, of course, that the tumor was actually gone, as DSimon points out.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 30 September 2011 09:26:29PM 4 points [-]

I would explain it as a spontaneous remission followed by the post hoc fallacy.

Surely you mean, causing post hoc fallacy?

Comment author: Bugmaster 30 September 2011 10:07:01PM 1 point [-]

If I do that, I may be in danger of committing the post hoc fallacy :-)

Comment author: dlthomas 30 September 2011 10:18:37PM 0 points [-]

That was the joke...

Comment author: Bugmaster 30 September 2011 10:52:07PM 1 point [-]

Indeed.

Comment author: DSimon 29 September 2011 03:26:59PM 1 point [-]

How did you know that the tumor was eliminated? That is, was there a before-and-after x-ray clearly showing the difference?

Comment author: Jayson_Virissimo 30 September 2011 10:02:21AM 2 points [-]

How did you know that the tumor was eliminated? That is, was there a before-and-after x-ray clearly showing the difference?

I don't know it was eliminated. My only evidence is my friend's testimony, his track record of truth-telling, and the fact the his was an atheist (and, therefore, unlikely to make up mystical stories to promote his religion).

Comment author: DSimon 30 September 2011 09:10:20PM 0 points [-]

Then what I really want to know is: how did your friend know the tumor was eliminated?

Comment author: Will_Newsome 10 September 2011 09:34:20AM *  1 point [-]

I'd like to second the question. Computational decision theoretic cosmology doesn't rule out statistical miracles and more importantly it's best to compute likelihood ratios and posteriors separately. E.g. see: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/02/share-likelihood-ratios-not-posterior-beliefs.html

Comment author: XiXiDu 08 September 2011 06:07:37PM 16 points [-]

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.

"Whoso wishes to grasp God with his intellect becomes an atheist."Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf

It seems you abandoned Christianity for the right reasons. Few are those whose disbelief is the result of extensive studies and advanced knowledge, I'm certainly not one of them.

Comment author: lukeprog 08 September 2011 06:32:30PM 4 points [-]

It seems you abandoned Christianity for the right reasons.

Well, kind of. My reasons for rejecting supernaturalism are much better informed than when I originally left theism behind. I didn't know about technical explanation, Bayesianism, or Solomonoff induction when I lost my faith.

Comment author: orthonormal 08 September 2011 08:47:31PM 7 points [-]

Well, you've been able to understand the reasons much more clearly than you first did, but they're still essentially the same reasons. It's not as high a barrier as understanding quantum mechanics, for instance; once you just stop sabotaging your mental processes, atheism is the obvious conclusion.

Not to say there's anything easy about the first part of that, of course! I'm just saying it sounds like you'd advanced far enough there at the time you left religion.

Comment author: jubydoo 08 September 2011 08:52:43PM 4 points [-]

It's good to know I'm not the only one. I can give a good argument against the existence of God these days, but when I first walked away from religious belief it was just a vague sense of "this is all BS".

I'm still new around here, and I'm still learning how to really be rational, but after being the smartest guy in the room for so long it's nice to learn that there's still room to grow. On that note, what is Solomonoff induction?

Comment author: lukeprog 08 September 2011 08:56:18PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: [deleted] 08 September 2011 09:07:37PM *  7 points [-]

Though I like Shane Legg's formal explanation, it's not very kind to people without mathematical inclinations. I think starting with Eliezer's post on Occam's Razor and Solomonoff Induction would be a much gentler introduction.

Comment author: lessdazed 08 September 2011 11:22:35PM *  0 points [-]

I like this one.

If you fall off your chair the first time you read section 8.2, you're doing it right. Alternatively, if you think to yourself "Obviously..." you are at a far deeper level of amateur understanding than I am.

I didn't find the sections had to be read in order necessarily, so if one is obscure you could skip around.

Comment author: XiXiDu 08 September 2011 07:19:26PM *  3 points [-]

I didn't know about technical explanation, Bayesianism, or Solomonoff induction when I lost my faith.

I still don't, my comprehension is at best vague. My knowledge of history, evolution and physics is virtually non-existent. The main reason for why I don't believe into a god is that an universe with a god seems less likely than one without god. Not because I have studied evolution and made sense of its mathematical and conceptual foundations, but simply because all other available explanations and their implications sound incredible unlikely, even less probable than a global conspiracy among rival scientists to reach a consensus on something as complicated as the theory of evolution.

The original reason for me to abandon religion was that I perceived the christian god to be morally bankrupt.

Comment author: loup-vaillant 13 September 2011 04:19:12PM *  0 points [-]

I didn't know about […] Bayesianism […]

Did you ? My guess is, at an intuitive level, you were already close. Quoting from your post :

Historical investigations use three basic criteria to determine the probability of recorded events.

There were some flaws, of course, like when you said that "miracles are, by definition, highly improbable" (probably doesn't make the distinction between prior and posterior probabilities, and maybe (I'm not sure) some mind projection fallacy).

(Of course, that could just be me projecting my atheist slant to your believer's post. I'm not strong enough to judge that.)

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 08 September 2011 07:17:02PM 24 points [-]

Luke is really being too humble here. Clearly the events up to the atheist realization happened in the first 15 minutes of his existence, given a reasonable allowance for all the sources he read for his articles.

Comment author: metaweta 01 October 2011 11:21:23PM 3 points [-]

Lukeprog: how has this transition affected your relationship with your parents, siblings, and extended family? Have any readers had similar transitions later in life, with spouse and children?

Comment author: D-Rock 01 October 2011 06:31:12AM 3 points [-]

lukeprog - I'm curious about when you 'felt the presence of God'. I'll often have a discussion with someone and they tell me that they can 'feel God' (usually followed by accusing me of being an atheist because I don't want to feel Him.)

While you were a believer, what did it feel like to feel God's presence? What did the tingling feel like (followed by sweating) with the Holy Spirit? Now that you are not a believer, how do you explain what you were feeling back then?

It's an area I would like to comment on when speaking with theists, but I have no frame of reference. I grew up religion-neutral, and became an atheist to find out 'what this whole God thing was about'.

Comment author: summerstay 01 October 2011 10:09:12AM *  3 points [-]

Have you ever heard of musical frission? Sometimes you hear a piece of music resolve, and it feels right, and that rightness makes you feel pleasure, sometimes described as a chill running down your spine. You can get the same emotion from learning a new idea that overturns a lot of what you knew and inspires a manic rush of ideas. Or if you've been in a room full of people listening to a speaker seriously talk about a deeply personal experience, the room gets totally quiet and you realize that everyone in the room is feeling the same things as you at the same time. These are the kinds of experiences people describe as feeling the spirit. It's an intense feeling that something is true, and good, and important.

Comment author: HSala 13 September 2011 06:14:43AM 3 points [-]

This is such a feel-good tale for atheists. Growing up as one of three Jewish kids in a predominantly Catholic town, I've always known my parent's beliefs are not everyone else's parents beliefs. I think that's made it much, much easier to discard them. When you're placed outside the norm to begin with, it doesn't hurt to switch to a different outside-the-norm belief. But, it wasn't like that for you, and for that I applaud you even more.

Comment author: Aharon 18 September 2011 02:36:03PM 2 points [-]

I'm curious what the good christian philosophers you read were.

Comment author: lukeprog 28 September 2011 06:31:14PM *  0 points [-]

Many of them can be found in one bunch in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology.

Comment author: Aharon 09 October 2011 07:18:05AM 0 points [-]

Wow, that is a lot of stuff to go through. Thanks!

Comment author: [deleted] 09 September 2011 02:26:07PM 2 points [-]

Well written and thought out. Thanks for sharing. I have a very similar story, for me it has meant a dramatic difference in the way that I approach life. Before my rejection of faith, I was plagued by a feeling of impending doom. I carried the world on my shoulders as if the fate of all these "souls" relied upon my efforts. I was continually depressed and struggling with negative emotions and thoughts. It turns out it can be rather upsetting and extremely difficult for a person who thinks and asks questions to maintain a relationship with a being who never reciprocates the effort. After 6 years of slowly picking my way through all of the bogus arguments in favor of faith, I began to go through the typical winnowing process (christian pluralist, pluralist, agnostic, indifferent, atheist). Stumbling upon Sagan's The Demon Haunted World started me on a process of rearranging my way of thinking and processing information. Truth be told the gloom of life is gone, I am free to accept reality and embrace it. In rejecting fantasy and embracing reality, I have come to find that the route to piece of mind is not divine favor from an invisible deity, but to reasonably approach disagreeable circumstances with calm thought and reason. Honestly I have never looked back.

Comment author: TimFreeman 30 September 2011 12:25:12AM 6 points [-]

Before my rejection of faith, I was plagued by a feeling of impending doom.

I was a happy atheist until I learned about the Friendly AI problem and estimated the likely outcome. I am now plagued by a feeling of impending doom.

Comment author: khafra 30 September 2011 02:51:17PM 3 points [-]

As an atheist, I was seriously bothered by the thought of my inevitable, irreversible death in just a few decades. As a Friendly AItheist, I'm seriously bothered by the thought of highly probable astronomical waste, but cheered by the thought of MWI putting more of my future probability mass in universes that turn out really nifty, especially if I can help out with its creation. Of course, unless something like mangling takes place, MWI + quantum immortality is far more horrifying than astronomical waste.

Comment author: wedrifid 30 September 2011 06:31:11AM 1 point [-]

I've got the impending doom but I don't bother with the 'plagued' bit. Why on earth should lack of incomprehension oblige me to experience negative emotion or adverse psychological states? That makes no sense.

Comment author: antigonus 30 September 2011 02:28:03PM *  1 point [-]

I imagine because the thing you've successfully comprehended could be very, very bad. Not sure if that "obliges" you to feel anything (or if anything ever obliges anyone to feel anything), but if you're actually wondering what the thought process is...

Comment author: RobertLumley 08 September 2011 11:51:25PM 3 points [-]

That sounds familiar...

Comment author: lukeprog 09 September 2011 02:36:45AM 6 points [-]

Indeed. For those unfamiliar, here is the version from 2008, from before I had heard of Overcoming Bias, Less Wrong, or intelligence explosion.

Comment author: RobertLumley 09 September 2011 04:14:11AM *  5 points [-]

That's not what I meant, actually; I meant it sounded familiar because it's very similar to my life...

Comment author: lukeprog 09 September 2011 05:56:45AM 0 points [-]

Ah! Cool.

Comment author: DSimon 11 September 2011 04:37:08AM 1 point [-]

Did you also once post this on the old De-Conversion.net blog? (Which I see now is unfortunately kaput.)

Comment author: lukeprog 11 September 2011 04:40:59AM 1 point [-]

The 2008 version was pasted by other people to many other websites.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 10 September 2011 10:29:29AM *  2 points [-]

I wonder how much similarity there is, on psychological level (and in terms of the process of deconversion), between religious belief and belief in the Mighty Status Quo that would Deliver Us From Harm...

Comment author: Will_Newsome 10 September 2011 11:48:20AM *  8 points [-]

What is belief in the Mighty Status Quo? Are there people who truly have faith in the status quo like there are some that truly have faith in their religion? (Or do you mean belief in belief in the status quo / religion?)

Comment author: wedrifid 11 September 2011 04:44:07AM 2 points [-]

(Second the question!)

Comment author: Konkvistador 15 September 2011 08:43:01AM *  1 point [-]

It could be interpreted as pointing out the strength of standard background ideology. Having my older relatives explain how seriously basically everyone under a certain age took communism was really eye opening to me as a teen. Even more odd was how only the elderly pointed out that the current system too may pass someday, and that it isn't wise to personally attach oneself to it to much, while some of my younger relatives (still old enough to grow up in communism!) seem to assume that this time it really is the "end of history".

Societies used to have a background religion no one even considered to question, and those people who did kept really quiet about it, many still do, this is why we have countries that are say 97%+ Muslim. But nearly all societies still have a background ideological foundations on which everyone agrees.

The ideological foundations always reinforce existing dominant power structures, even if it perhaps dosen't paint the positions it is supporting as dominant. Counter-revolutionaries and wreckers are needed to explain failure after all. You see our society dosen't suck because its ideals are impractical or flawed, it sucks because we don't live up to them enough, and are prevented to do so by those nasty people who still have too much power, though they are so clever about it that we can't really say how they do it. We are still struggling for a [adjective] society but aren't you glad you now have us on your side?

I still get goose bumps realizing just how much my world view may be deformed by the current social order that I've internalized.

Comment author: simplicio 12 September 2011 12:05:15AM 1 point [-]

Great article, and by the way, I have been listening to episode after episode of your very interesting podcast for a few days now.

A worry about theism/atheism... thinking and writing about that question is indeed worthwhile, for the sake of helping confused people relinquish their confusion. However, it seems to me that there is a point at which it becomes flat-out epistemically dangerous, in the sense that a person writing and thinking about X all the time, even as a critic of X, is going to have their thinking inadvertently shaped by X. One sees this with certain atheists who don't have any opinions about anything except insofar as it relates to the atheism/theism debate. For example, I recall one fellow who could find nothing more germane to a discussion on the ethics of eating meat than a passing comment by some atheist debater on YouTube he had recently heard.

I am certainly not accusing you of this problem, but it is something to watch out for. Religion is psychological candy, after all. (I swear my right hemisphere is a theist.)

Comment author: lukeprog 12 September 2011 04:18:43PM 10 points [-]

Highly agree. My current approach when talking to theists is not to mention atheism at all. I just talk about science and rationality and sociology and so on. If you know enough science and can overcome a few cognitive biases when you're told about them in vivid ways, then theism starts to look ridiculous even when I don't explicitly mention theism. That's a theory, anyway - I haven't tested it carefully.

Comment author: Logos01 28 September 2011 05:01:55PM 3 points [-]

If you know enough science and can overcome a few cognitive biases when you're told about them in vivid ways,

Interesting anecdote along these lines: just this morning I used the 1960 Watson experiment as an attempt to explain the Confirmation Bias to a coworker. (That's the 'list triplets of numbers. I'll tell you if they fit or don't fit the rule I'm thinking of. Your first free example is 2 4 6, which fits.') Even after having the Confirmation bias explained to him as the fact that people don't tend to try to look for ways their beliefs might be wrong (amongst other things), he still only made 'positive' guesses, and came up with "Each number is even and a multiple of the first."

I was fascinated by this.

Comment author: Desrtopa 28 September 2011 05:19:44PM 1 point [-]

What was his reaction when he learned that he was wrong?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 28 September 2011 05:10:21PM 1 point [-]

Hypothesis: Your coworker is an idiot. Observation: This hypothesis has little to do with whether or not he is religious.

More seriously, I've given the selection task to people before and no one I've ever encountered does that badly if they've been primed about confirmation bias and similar issues. Even just telling people that it is a puzzle seems to go a long way to them getting the right solution.

Comment author: Logos01 28 September 2011 05:26:30PM *  0 points [-]

I've never been greatly impressed by his intellect, but I would definitely say that he is of at least average intelligence. The field I work in doesn't suffer individuals of significantly poor intelligence (IT/sysadmin), though I freely admit that isn't really saying much. There are some folks to whom the practice of thinking rationally is just... alien. Once you reach somewhere around forty, thinking patterns get pretty firmly set, too.

Additionally, the guy is an english-as-second-language speaker, so it might not have been a 'fair trial' to him. I'm trying to be generous (to him) considering I pretty much agree with you.

This hypothesis has little to do with whether or not he is religious.

He's openly atheistic, in fact.

Comment author: Multiheaded 28 December 2011 09:20:32PM 0 points [-]

Luke, I've only just stumbled upon it, and this story is damn near heartbreaking - not in a bad way, no. I've never experienced the entire memeplex of theism from the inside, yet, having found myself bitterly envying the comfort of organized religion during unpleasant times in my life, I feel like I understand what it must've been like for you emotionally.

I must admit that my opinion of your judgment and moral character, shaken by that controversial dating advice post of yours, has now much improved.

Comment author: [deleted] 08 September 2011 06:51:45PM *  0 points [-]

This seems to have disappeared from the discussions page? Perhaps some kind of clash between:

Edit: When checking main one must check the 'new' tab.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 08 September 2011 06:55:26PM 2 points [-]

It was moved to Main.

Comment author: lukeprog 08 September 2011 08:57:44PM 0 points [-]

Yeah. I accidentally published it to discussion though I had intended to post it to main, so I moved it.