Embracing Secularism

Having thoroughly deconstructed religion, I was prepared to reconstruct my psyche on a more rational foundation. I wanted to try to learn as many true things as possible and reject as many false things as possible. I didn't want to live with cognitive dissonance. I wanted to form a worldview that would help me to live in this world. I wanted to accept reality.

Embracing Science

I had heard that many people who lose their faith / leave their religious tradition tend to favor science, and I wanted to find out why. I began a journey to see what science had to offer and I began to understand why people in a post-conventional stage of faith embrace science.

Truth vs. "Truth"

There's an LDS hymn titled "Oh Say, What Is Truth?" and indeed, I found myself asking that same question. If the religion I was raised in had been shown to be false, after hearing all my life that it was the pinnacle of truth, then what was truth after all?

I reflected on other things I had learned during my upbringing and pondered on what else I thought was "truth". I took a lot of math classes throughout my schooling, and I decided that the most solid thing I learned was mathematics. Of all the hard sciences, math seemed the hardest. Intellectually, math always made sense to me. Anytime I was taught a new branch of mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry, etc.) I could process it, grok it, and apply it.

If, by some quirk, we lost all of the mathematics that we currently have, we would be able to reconstruct them all, from scratch, back to what we have now. This is because math is part of the reality that we live in. On the other hand, if all traces of Mormonism were to suddenly disappear, it would likely be lost forever. We would not be able to reconstruct it because it is the product of a very specific time and place (the 19th-century burned-over district) that no longer exists. (For that matter, if we lost any of the world's religions, we probably couldn't reconstruct any of them from scratch.)

A more sure foundation

It also occurred to me that time had never dimmed my firm belief in mathematics (even if I couldn't remember every single formula). I knew it was true, despite the fact that I had learned it decades ago. I didn't need to attend a weekly math class and hear people bear testimony, over and over, of the truthfulness of mathematics. It wasn't necessary. I just knew it was true, no doubt about it.

There are plenty of stories about members who "studied their way out of the church". They were faithful, they delved into church history, and after they learned about the skeletons in the closet, they were out. I have never heard of anyone who "studied their way out of mathematics". "Oh yeah, old Bob knew a lot of math. He even became a math professor, but he just kept studying and studying and now he doesn't believe in math anymore." The very idea is absurd.

Furthermore, even if a hundred mathematicians all did their best to try to offend me, it would not diminish my personal knowledge of mathematics in any way. No amount of bad behavior would cause me to "fall away" from believing in the rules of arithmetic, algebra, calculus, or any other branch of math. Contrast this to the various rumors you hear of people who "got offended and fell away".

It is also worth noting that no amount of "anti-mathematics" literature would ever shake me from my belief in mathematics. People could point to the flaws & foibles of ancient mathematicians and it would not discredit their discoveries. Conspiracy theorists could rant all day long about how math is "wrong" and "bogus" and I would just blow it off. I've proven to myself that it's true, and that's all that matters.

Now contrast that to what we hear in church about "faith-building": we need to hear the testimonies of others and bear our own testimonies to keep them strong. We need to attend church and gather with like-minded people to keep our faith "burning bright". Getting "offended" can cause a person to lose their testimony. I had to wonder: is this "knowledge", or is it just Pavlovian-style conditioning?

See this blog post: God and my Stinky Kitchen Counter

Alternate Epistemology

While I was a believer, I tended to favor supernatural / spiritual explanations over scientific ones. I would occasionally tell myself, "Science hasn't got it all figured out. Scientists keep changing their minds. They're using a very inefficient method for discovering truth (falsification). God's got it all figured out." I accepted the epistemology that pondering and praying to get an answer that would confirm one's beliefs was right and good.

Having learned about confirmation bias and its shortcomings, I was open to alternate epistemologies. I was intrigued at the approach taken by science because it was so radically different from the approach I'd been raised with. The "pray & receive" approach starts with a conclusion and favors signals (in the form of "fuzzy feelings") that  confirm those conclusions.

Science takes a very different approach: A scientist makes observations, then forms a hypothesis and, makes tests, and observes the results to refute or verify the hypothesis. Note that a single verification isn't sufficient (as it is with the spiritual approach): You have to be able to get the same results numerous times by both yourself and by other people (to ward against bias).

Falsification

It doesn't end there: A common question asked is "Can we falsify it?" This is a much more critical (some might say "negative") approach because we're actively trying to disprove the hypothesis. (I gained some experience with this approach doing "destructive" or "negative" software testing where I actively tried to break a program with malformed inputs, out-of-sequence steps, etc.)  A hypothesis that is able to survive numerous attempts to falsify it emerges as a very solid, very sound, scientific theory.

I was also impressed at how (good) scientists are willing to see their theories disproven and have existing models supplanted with alternate models that better explain the observed results. (One example of this: Early astronomers believed that planets revolved around the Sun in a circular orbit, but later concluded that an elliptical orbit modeled their observations much more parsimoniously.) This stood in stark contrast to the religious approach where, when observations conflict with "revealed truth", apologetics enter the scene to try to ease cognitive dissonance, rather than any admission that the "revealed truth" might be flawed.

Also problematic is that religious teachings are bound up in holy books that are believed to be the unbending Word of God and therefore eternally correct and unalterable. It just makes for an unworkable situation.

"Science adjusts its views based on what's observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved." - Tim Minchin

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I also noted that many scientific discoveries build nicely on each other over time: a discovery in one generation leads to a more advanced discovery in a later generation, etc. (e.g. Arithmetic -> Geometry -> Calculus).

But new scientific discoveries seldom (if ever) validate older religious beliefs. More often than not, those discoveries disprove religious teachings. I was forced to ask myself: which of these is more solid ground for building upon?

Unconstrained Learning

It was refreshing to be able to read science articles without trying to filter everything through the broken worldview of Mormonism. When I was a believer, it was so tedious, whenever I learned something new, to go through the mental gymnastics of trying to fit it into the narrow worldview of the church. It put such a strain on my brain. It was so liberating to be able to learn something new and just accept that it is the way it is, right at face value. No straining, no cognitive dissonance, just pure, acceptance-based learning.

For the record, I didn't instantly abandon any / all beliefs in the supernatural. I remained open to supernatural ideas but I opened my mind to naturalistic explanations for various phenomena. One example: I was taught that our innate morality is the "Light of Christ", given to all men by God as a gift to help us behave righteously. I later learned that our innate morality is a byproduct of humans having evolved to be a cooperative species (as per the works of Jonathan Haidt).

While I remained open to both the supernatural and the natural, I found that the rational / naturalistic explanations were much more accessible, much more satisfying, gave me a greater sense of closure, and required much less of a stretch to accept. This started me on a path toward rationality. Over time it became increasingly more difficult to believe that supernatural explanations could have any real merit.

What science can't do

Believers in various faith traditions are often quick to point out that there are limits to what science can do, and they offer some valid criticisms. A favorite point that believers bring up is that science cannot answer the question "Why was all this created?" (Though the way it is often stated is begging the question.) It is important to note that science alone cannot offer a person purpose for their lives. By and large, the scientific method is a destructive process designed to disprove falsehoods. It doesn't imply a purpose for why we exist. That is the realm of philosophy.

On my own, I observed that the fuel for the scientific method are hypotheses and science alone does not come up with these. Human beings are the ones that propose hypotheses, using their wonderful, observation-inspired, imaginations. Without human creative juices, the scientific process would be an unfueled, non-running, machine.

Another criticism I heard is that science alone cannot teach ethics. This is only partially true. Yes, there have been some abominable, wholly unethical, experiments performed in the name of science. (I think this is where the "mad scientist" archetype comes from.) That said, such experiments are not considered "good science". (One hypothetical: If a chemistry student enrolled in a program with the explicit goal of creating a more potent form of nerve gas, I doubt if he would get much support from his professors.)

Furthermore, there are some fields of science that carry a strong ethical component with them. The medical sciences, for example, include the Hippocratic Oath of "First, do no harm". Psychology / Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is interested in developing attitudes and behaviors that promote healthy, functional, lifestyles & relationships. But as a general rule, many branches of science are ethics-free (e.g. mathematics, physics, chemistry), which led me to...

Embracing Secular Philosophies

Having been burned by religion, I was not eager to jump into another religion that required belief in unprovable supernatural claims. Instead, I found greater satisfaction in secular philosophies. The word "philosophy" comes from two Greek roots, which literally translated mean "the love of wisdom". Philosophy is defined as "a rational search for the truth" or "a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs".  I heard it said that "religion offers salvation in the next life, while philosophy offers salvation in this life". I'm very unsure if there will be a next life, but I am sure I need to be able to live effectively in this life, so I have turned away from religion and toward philosophy. Here are some that I like:

Secular Buddhism

I've long been fond of Buddhism, so the secular flavor was very appealing to me. Buddhism has the distinction of being the only ancient religious tradition that is compatible with modern science. It also makes no supernatural claims in its core tenets and is compatible with atheism.

This podcast hosted by Noah Rasheta (an exmo) has been very helpful and enjoyable to listen to.

Good documentary on Buddhism right here.

Core Principles

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism are:

  1. In life, there is suffering. (Put another way, dissatisfaction is the default state of the human mind.)
  2. Suffering is caused by wanting reality to be something other than what it is.
  3. We can find release from suffering as we align our expectations with reality. ("Expectations are the root of all suffering.")
  4. The way to find release from suffering is to follow the eightfold path.

The Eightfold path is:

  1. right perception / view / understanding [wisdom]
  2. right thought / intent / resolve / aspiration [wisdom]
  3. right speech [morality]
  4. right action / conduct [morality]
  5. right occupation / livelihood [morality]
  6. right (mental) effort [meditation]
  7. right mindfulness / awareness (in touch with your feelings & surroundings) [meditation]
  8. right concentration (mental control) [meditation]

See this excellent eightfold path reference card.

On the nature of suffering

At its core, Buddhism addresses the problem of suffering and how to deal with it. "Suffering" is broken down into three categories. Here is my understanding of them and coping techniques I've learned:

(1) The "suffering of suffering": Pain in the here and now caused by aging, sickness, and the slings and arrows of day-to-day life.

I deal with this by trying to accept my current situation rather than wishing for something different.

(2) The suffering of change: This is caused by developing attachments to things that are fleeting. When those things inevitably change, we feel the pain of loss.

I deal with this by remembering that everything in life is impermanent.

(3) The suffering of conditioning: Traumatic past experiences cause us to be triggered by associated present events. Similarly, present trauma might cause us to be triggered sometime in the future.

Meditation helps me with this one as it gives me a chance to challenge my thinking patterns, question the validity of my anxieties, and try to see them more objectively, which in turn releases the power they have over me.

The Three Poisons

There are three things that keep us mired down in suffering, referred to as the three poisons.

Poison

Description

Represented as

Overcome by

Attachment

desire, sensuality, greed

a cock

generosity

Aversion

fear, hatred, ill will

a snake

loving kindness

Ignorance

confusion, delusion, incorrect beliefs

a pig

wisdom

Other Teachings

There are several recurring themes in Buddhism that I have found useful:

The Three Jewels of Buddhism

  1. I take refuge in my Buddha
  2. I take refuge in my dharma (eternal truth / teachings / the path)
  3. I take refuge in my sangha (community / monastic order)

Karma

Westerners often interpret karma to mean "what goes around, comes around". They sometimes ascribe mystical qualities to karma, suggesting that people will eventually be punished for their wrong actions or rewarded for their virtuous actions. The Eastern / Buddhist notion of karma is somewhat different.

One example: If someone cuts me off in traffic, I might become angry and go home and yell at my wife. She might in turn yell at the kids. The kids might in turn get riled up and hit the dog. So on, so forth. The idea here is that negative attitudes and actions I put out caused ripples that reverberated through the beings connected to me (interdependence).

These ripples may or may not get back to me, but the energy I put out infiltrated through the system. This notion of karma isn't mystical at all, nor does it guarantee (or even suggest) that some cosmic punishment / reward will be revisited upon me.

The upshot of it all is that if I want to live in a positive system, I need to put positive energy into it. A key component of that is for me to analyze negative feelings / attitudes when they emerge in me and deal with them before they take root and spread. This concept of karma is compatible with modern psychology / Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.

Koans

Another thing that impressed me were Buddhist koans, which are questions / propositions designed to open the mind to thinking. These were refreshing after having been spoon-fed a steady diet of thought-terminating cliches throughout my upbringing in Mormonism (also here).

Some examples of Buddhist koans are:

List of koans

Another list of koans

Stoicism

Stoicism is a secular philosophy for living that flourished in ancient Greece & Rome. Nowadays, we think of a "stoic" as someone who doesn't cry at funerals, but it's actually a logical / naturalistic system of ethics that includes meditation / reflection, discerning between what we can control and what we can't, overcoming desire for pleasure / fear of pain, and pursuing excellence of character. (It is sometimes called "The Buddhism of the West".)

Most Stoics were pantheists who saw nature / the universe as "God" and that we should use our faculties of reason to determine how best to live and thrive in the natural world. Stoicism is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in the modern age. I've heard it claimed that the underlying principles of Stoicism make up the foundation of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

Stoics believed that the universe was made up of a series of cause / effect situations which they described as Logos. (This compares to the Buddhist notion of "causes and conditions".) They believed that they could come up with a philosophy that could help them to live in this imperfect world, rather than striving for some perfect, future, afterlife which may or may not ever come.

Core Principles

The four main pillars of Stoicism are:

There are a handful of Stoic proverbs that have stuck with me:

Good / short introductory videos:

The philosophy of Stoicism - Massimo Pigliucci (5:29)

10 Themes of Stoicism (14:59)

Introduction to Stoicism (14:19)

On dealing with misfortune

The first noble truth in Buddhism is: "In life, there is suffering". Stoics take a much more proactive attitude toward suffering.

Stoics believe a person should contemplate worst-possible scenarios daily. In so doing, they can avoid abject thoughts and covetousness. Stoics believe that "virtue is the sole good" and that misfortune gives us training in virtue (much like a soldier trains for battle). A Stoic mantra to start one's day is: "Today I will face mistreatment, injustice, insult, and injury -- And I will welcome it because it will give me an opportunity to show and develop virtue!"

This quote sums it up nicely:

"Misfortune, nobly born, is good fortune." -- Marcus Aurelius

The breadth of practitioners

One other thing that impresses me about Stoicism is the variety of the major players who developed and practiced it:

If Stoicism can work for people from all of those walks of life, that tells me that it has some real value.

The Stoic Sage

It was believed that a "true" practitioner of Stoicism didn't exist and that if one did, he would be closer to the gods than to men. This compares somewhat with the rarity of finding a fully enlightened Buddhist.

The following quotes sum it up:

"By the gods, I would love to see a Stoic, but you cannot show me one fully formed." -- Epictetus

"And if you come across a man who is never alarmed by dangers, never affected by cravings, happy in adversity, calm in the midst of storm, viewing mankind from a higher level and the gods from their own, is it not likely that a feeling will find its way into you of veneration for him? Is it not likely that you will say to yourself, ‘Here is a thing which is too great, too sublime for anyone to regard it as being in the same sort of category as that puny body it inhabits.’ Into that body there has descended a divine power." -- Seneca

Podcasts

I found some Stoic-themed podcasts that I enjoy:

There are also a couple of one-off episodes about Stoicism that have been featured in other podcasts that are not strictly stoic-related.

Quotes

"There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will." -- Epictetus

"It is not things that upset us but rather our views of things." -- Epictetus

"We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality." -- Seneca

"Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all: the fear of future suffering and the recollection of past suffering. Since the latter no longer concerns me and the former concerns me not yet." -- Seneca

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen and you will go on well.” -- Epictetus (Note how closely this quote compares to the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism.)

"The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing." -- Marcus Aurelius

This next quote needs some context: Emperor Nero commanded Seneca the Younger to commit suicide after being implicated in a plot to kill him. Seneca's wife & children were sobbing as he was led to his death. He "comforted" them by saying: "What need is there to weep over parts of life when the whole of it calls for tears."

Great selection of quotes here.

And here.

Humanism

Humanism uses reason, rationality, and critical thinking to arrive at the conclusion that we should behave in an ethical way. It uses reason rather than "because God said so" to promote nonviolence and cooperation. A Humanist would think along the lines of "Let's identify the things that promote the greatest amount of well-being and do more of those. Let's also identify the things that cause suffering and do less of those."

The 14th century scholar Petrarch is widely regarded as the founder of the Renaissance and the founder of Humanism. He became disenchanted with the Medieval notion of ethics defined as strict obedience to God and thought that people could engage their rational faculties to make ethical choices. Humanism relies on secular rather than religious means to promote good behavior and values individual freedom over group conformity.

Core Principles

Two core principles of Humanism are:

Tools used by Humanists are:

See: What Was Humanism?

See: "What makes something right or wrong?" Narrated by Stephen Fry - That's Humanism!

See: AC Grayling - Humanism

The Kingdom of God Is Within You

Many people who lose faith in their religious upbringing wonder where they will get their morality from post-religion. Here is the dirty little secret: Humans don't get their morality from religion, religion got its morality from humans, and then they bundled it up and sold it back to us for a price.

If you look at numerous other animal species (particularly mammals) you will find that they behave in a way that promotes group cohesion, cooperation, and well-being. This is not by accident. A species that displayed only selfish / destructive behaviors would have died out a long time ago. Our ancient hominid / primate / mammalian ancestors developed social behaviors that include a sense of morality and we are the lucky inheritors of that.

I have heard Christian preachers say that "the laws of God are written on your heart". I understand the sentiment. I also understand that they're phrasing the concept in religious language that is familiar to them. If I were to phrase the same concept in secular language, I would say that humans have evolved to be moral creatures, and that is something that should be celebrated.

Others

Secular Buddhism, Stoicism, and Humanism are my three favorite philosophies for living. Each one of them is compatible with modern science and with each other; they syncretize well. There are a handful of other useful philosophies / writings I've found that I'll just mention here.

The Four Agreements

The Four Agreements is a book by Don Miguel Ruiz that remixes ancient Toltec wisdom for a modern audience. These "agreements" are personal codes that you choose to live by, or agreements you make with yourself about your own conduct. They are:

  1. Always be impeccable with your word
  2. Don't take anything personally (the things people say are a reflection of themselves)
  3. Don't make assumptions
  4. Always do your best.

Jonathan Haidt

The writings of Jonathan Haidt, who largely argues that humans are inherently moral creatures as a byproduct of having evolved to be a cooperative species.

Meditation

Meditation has become my alternative to prayer. Numerous traditions employ meditation, including Buddhism, Stoicism, Rosicrucian, and even secular atheism.

I once heard Sam Harris say that "We experience the greatest suffering when we are lost in thought". The purpose of meditation is to allow us to be present for those thoughts, to distance ourselves from them, and to analyze & question them. In so doing, we can find greater peace.

Mind-clearing meditation

Here's a basic mind-clearing meditation technique. This is especially useful when I'm trying to get to sleep at night. Here's the basics of what I do:

1. Establish a regular / rhythmic breathing pattern.

2. Allow thoughts to pass through your mind like clouds through the sky. Do not force thoughts to enter, do not force them to leave. If you find yourself becoming distracted by your thoughts, re-focus on the breath.

3. Be non-judgmental about the thoughts that pass through. Some of them will be weird or strange. Don't try to evaluate them, and do your best not to react to them. Just accept & observe those thoughts. They'll pass soon.

4. After awhile, my mind clears. It's much like a jar of muddy water. The only way to get the water to clear is to stop shaking the jar and let the mud settle to the bottom.

I find that when I do this, I'm able to fall asleep more easily and sleep more soundly.

Listen to How to Meditate for more.

Other meditation techniques