Losing My Religion

To a few of my associates, I gave the xmas present of a blog post on a topic they pick. Bryan Caplan just finally made his choice: the story of how I became an atheist.

My immediate family is very religious. My dad (now dead) was a part-time pastor for decades, my mom (still alive) wrote many Christian tween novels, one brother is now a pastor, and the other brother is the music director at what was my dad’s church. As a tween, I myself joined what my parents considered a Christian “cult”, and within a year my parents forbade me from associating with it.

In college I drifted slowly away, eventually to full atheism. (At a similar speed to most peoples’ biggest view changes.) But my change had little to do with disagreeing with church doctrines or with difficulties explaining evil. And I never resented nor confronted my parents for teaching me something with which I later came to disagree. This wasn’t about my relation to them either.

No, the main issue for me was that in college I became greatly persuaded by and deeply immersed in a physics view of the universe. It was not just one set of lenses through which one might look to gain insight. No it purported to offer a complete (if not fully fleshed-out) description of the reality accessible to me. It offered me many detailed ways to test that claim, and it passed those tests as far as I could tell. So far as I could see then, and now, the world immediately around me *IS* in fact the world of photons, electrons, protons, and neutrons described by the physics I learned.

But that world just offers few openings for hidden powers to be listening to or influencing my thoughts and feelings, or changing how my life goes according to my sins and prayers. Sure my family, coworkers, or governments might try to do those things. But I at least see many traces of their existence around me. It is the idea of completely hidden powers doing such things that seems crazy to me. Not logically impossible, but quite implausible given our evidence.

Now I must admit that a similar fraction of those who know physics better than most believe in the god of prayer, compared to others. So what else explains how physics influenced me, compared to them? It might be that I just know physics better than most of them. But modesty forces me to consider other possibilities.

Those of us who are different in the head tend to need some convincing of that fact. You see, we assume we are normal, and relevant evidence tends to be ambiguous. For example, most people I’ve seen doing their homework were doing it alone, in a library, on the bus, or in their bedroom. So I assumed most people were used to thinking by themselves. But I was wrong.

In seventh grade, my English teacher assigned me an unusual lesson plan: go to the library every day and just write. No particular topics, just on whatever I wanted. I loved it, and learned lots. My favorite class in high school was physics because it didn’t ask me to just accept things on faith; we could check claimed results in lab experiments.

In college as a physics major, I discovered that the last two years we went over exactly the same topics as the first two years, this time with more math. I instead want to really understand those topics. So I stopped doing the homework and instead spent the time playing with the equations. I’d ace the exams. I also began to browse libraries for interesting things, think about interesting questions that occurred to me, and worked on my own self-invented projects.

I bailed from my grad program in philosophy of science when it seemed I’d found answers to the main questions I’d had there. And after two years of working full time at Lockheed I switched to thirty hours per week so I could spend the rest of my time studying things on my own. And I’ve since change fields many times when it seemed I was learning less where I was than where I could switch to.

I often meet people who ask how to study a topic, what school should they go to, and I say aren’t you old enough to just go learn stuff by yourself? Most researchers are terrible at explaining why their projects offer the world the best progress bang for their effort buck, but I have no problem offering such explanations.

All of this I think suggests that I’m unusually willing to fully own all of my main opinions and research choices, instead of inheriting them from others. So perhaps that’s another explanation for my atheism. Most people accept the usual beliefs of others around them and assume they must have good reasons. I’m instead enough of a think-for-myself polymath that I have to see such reasons for myself, and know enough tools from enough fields to be able to follow most relevant arguments. And I just don’t see good reasons to believe in hidden powers influencing the thoughts, feelings, and life outcomes of most humans.

Merry Christmas, Bryan.

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