Introduction & word of warning:
It’s been a long journey from Mormon Bishop to Secular Humanist and it has not been without its challenges.
This transition over the last 20 months has culminated in an introspective analysis of how I came to be a non-believer.
Some members have claimed I never really had a testimony.
Or I never had a relationship with God.
This Blog post details some of the understanding I’ve gained about the psychology of belief.
If it’s possible for you to entertain an idea which is contrary to your own personally held beliefs without feeling threatened then feel free to peruse my Blog. If not, please ignore it.
I do not wish to offend anyone.
I once held a belief in God which was so strong I considered it to be a form of knowledge. My ‘knowledge’ that God existed involved me feeling I was in a strong father-son relationship with Him & a closeness to my Saviour Jesus Christ.
At the time I felt that this ‘knowledge’ was the most reassuring & consoling knowledge I possessed. It was deeper, broader & more certain than any other type of knowledge. At the time it felt more real than any knowledge I had gained through my physical senses. And it felt more durable & undeniable than anything else I ‘knew’.
However, this ‘knowledge’ melted away when I began to understand how the human mind works, coupled with a realisation that the foundational narratives around which my faith was formed were man-made fabrications by Joseph Smith & his followers, along with an even older mythological narrative from ancient bronze age people’s of the middle-East, and a man-made narrative about the life of Jesus of Nazareth & his disciples formulated over several centuries post-dating the early Christian church.
Sure, I had experienced my spiritual feelings in the very ‘soul’- so I thought. But I forgot one thing. We perceive the natural world through the medium of our senses. Everything we understand about the natural world around us has to be experienced using our sensory nervous system sending nerve impulses to our brains.
What we perceive as reality is just our brain’s interpretation of those sensory impulses.
For example the colour perceived as red is not actually red, but just our brain’s interpretation of the sensory information caused by a particular wavelength of light stimulating the receptor cells in our eyes. We know this mechanism fails in a small number of people with red/green colour blindness for instance.
All of our understanding of the natural world is perceived this way.
We also know that those same brain neurons can create a perception of reality without any sensory nerve input. We call this dreaming.
The evidence from neuroscience shows that when a part of our brain is experimentally stimulated in particular ways the person experiences an event as if it were really happening in the physical world, but it is, in reality, only being created and experienced in the brain.
I used to believe in the existence of spirits. I believed that who I really am, was actually a spirit inhabiting a physical body. Some call this idea “the Ghost in the Machine.”
I never really had a concept of what the mind was other than my spirit using the brain to control the body. I now realise that actually the mind is what the brain does. The mind is a function of the brain. When the brain is damaged, say by disease or injury, then the mind is disabled in some way. When this happens the disabled individual’s ability to perceive the natural world is incapacitated or handicapped in some way such that they can no longer function as they did before. Even their personality may be affected because who you are, your personality, is a function of the mind.
So it seems the evidence strongly suggests our spirit (or the Ghost in the Machine) is just a process of the brain.
From my study of neuroscience I do not now believe in the presence of spirits.
We also need to remember that the conscious mind, the bit we’re aware of, only occupies a very small portion of our brain’s activity. Most of our mind is subconscious. Studies have shown that about 96% of the time our brain is functioning subconsciously.
Neuroscience has discovered that decisions we think we make consciously are actually made subconsciously some time before our conscious minds become aware of the decisions. Which means we’re not consciously in control, our subconscious minds are.
Our subconscious minds are more powerful than we give them credit for.
When scientists look into the nature of dreams, it is obvious that they are created by the mind & controlled by the subconscious as they process information during sleep.
To us, to our conscious minds, these dreams often seem real. Usually more intensely real than waking reality.
If we add into the mix of things to consider about how we perceive reality, we need to remember that our paradigm or concept of reality is strongly influenced by cognitive biases & assumptions. These are visual, auditory & kinaesthetic assumptions which our minds use to make sense of the sensory information it receives. These assumptions are not always reliable.
These cognitive assumptions are what stage magicians & con-men use to trick us into believing something is real when it isn’t.
I now believe that my past personal spiritual experiences were in fact products of my subconscious mind. In other words I was tricked by my subconscious into believing that what I experienced was real. An hallucination! It felt real enough at the time, but now with the benefit of other information I can see a more plausible explanation.
I understand why some people need the concept of god as an answer to difficult questions. It is hard to face the difficulties & challenges of life all alone. I don’t judge anyone harshly for their belief, for I can completely empathise as a previous believer myself.
If your belief brings you comfort then use it. But be careful that it does not impede you from accepting the truth when you are presented with new information which could potentially expand your understanding of the natural world & your place in it.
There are three methods of gaining information about the natural world:
1. Our personal experience through our senses & emotions
2. Rational Reasoning & Logic
3. Scientific research evidence (peer reviewed & scrutinised)
For us to be as certain as possible about our objective facts we need to rely on as many of those three methods as possible.
If your life depended on it, say if you require a major life-dependant surgical operation, would you want your surgeon to base his decisions on emotional evidence or on rigorous scientific research?
I’ll consider other evidence with regards to the existence of God.
1. Proof of God: One can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. There is no hard evidence. Therefore we can rationalize that there could be one then base our hopes on that.
However, we can prove that man has made up theories about God’s existence and that those theories are in conflict with each other. There have been over 2000 different gods over the centuries.
Therefore without any hard proof we are left only with speculation as to his existence. Any experiential evidence for a god is just brain function, or hallucination.
We DO, however, have hard evidence of mans’ manipulative powers to control individuals through many different religious belief systems. We know mind-control cults exist and have hard evidence from psychological experiments & neuroscience that people can be manipulated through the use of cognitive biases & the power of suggestion.
Based on the evidence I must conclude that God does not exist. If he does it means God does not care about us or he would let us know. I don’t consider third-hand claims from other people as sufficient evidence of God’s existence.
Just because the word ‘God’ exists does not mean I should worship a god.
The word ‘God’ is just a word. A representation of a concept created by humans to satisfy & console their superstitious fears. Words only have the meaning which we give to them. I understand the concept of other people’s gods which they reverence & hold sacred, but it means nothing to me.
2. The Word or teachings of gods: If we accept Jesus or any other prophet as simply wise men, then we can analyze their teachings and keep the good ideas that will benefit society. If we accept them as a God, or spokespersons for God, then we are compelled to follow them, blindly accepting the good, the bad, the ridiculous, and in some extreme cases immoral.
Though the concept of obedience being the ‘First Law of Heaven’ is often taught, I believe it is the lowest form of manipulation and would not be used by any benevolent supreme being. (It sounds like the Devil’s plan to me.)
3. Coping with Life: When people cannot accept the realities of life, they begin to fear, then they fall back on superstitions to find relief & consolation. Religion has many superstitious rituals to console the believer.
4. Religion and Magic: Religion is a combination of magical practices. Magic can be divided into illusion, mentalism and hypnotism. They utilise our own cognitive biases & assumptions to fool us. An illusionist uses props, timing & distraction to create the illusion that what you see is what is happening; a good example of this is in Exodus when Aaron’s rod becomes a serpent. The Egyptian priests repeat the miracle. A mentalist controls his audiences’ thoughts and a hypnotist controls his audiences’ actions. A church will use icons, religious symbolism, oaths and covenants along with the repetition of prayers, hymns, sermons, repetitive dialogs and appeal to the masses, which are techniques which mentalists and hypnotists use. A magician uses his talents to entertain and acknowledges that it is all a trick. The priest makes it into a miracle from his god. Magic and miracles are really just science that we do not understand.
5. Miracles: A religious man’s miracle is like a gamblers coincidental win, They are both random. Confirmation bias does the rest.
6. Life after death: there is no evidence of consciousness after death. I do not believe in an afterlife. I am not afraid of death. We have all experienced it ourselves every night we fall asleep & enter deep, non-dreaming sleep where we are not consciously aware of anything. If we never wake up again we wouldn’t know it, nor be concerned about it.
I am of the opinion that there is not a god, but I cannot say I know that there is not a god with any certainty, nor that there is a god, because I simply don’t know. I am an agnostic athiest. I have an absence of belief in a god.
For many people, it is their belief in a god that helps to console them and give them the comfort and security they need to travel the journey of life. I feel truly fortunate to be free of that dependence on religion and belief in a god to have a joyful and peaceful life.
My friend Corban Rushworth summed up my feelings about religion well with this statement:
“I think religion is like an illegal drug – it doesn’t matter whether it’s ‘true’ or not, people like it because it makes them feel good. But it also has nasty side effects, can be very expensive (10%), and can lead to addiction.
“A Mormon rationalising his faith, even after learning that it is not literally true, is like a drug addict in denial. He has become psychologically and physically dependant on the good feelings that religious participation gives to him, even though another part of his brain knows it’s an illusion.
“It’s not really a metaphor though. It is quite literal. The dopamine is released in the same way when a TBM sits in the Celestial room at the temple as when a cocaine addict shoots up. Both have found ways to artificially enhance their pleasure by altering their brain chemistry – one through drugs, the other psychologically.”
People sometimes say that I ‘lost my faith’, but I didn’t ‘lose’ my faith, just like I didn’t lose my belief in Santa either. I haven’t lost anything!
I have gained freedom from oppression, from mind control, from guilt, shame and fear.
Like John Lennon in his song “Imagine”, I too hope that one day all people will gain the benefit of this freedom from religion.
I am surprised by the richness of life post-Mormon, from what I had previously imagined it would be like & believed as a True Believing Member.
I have discovered that my view of the world is expanded & is now so full of beauty, colour & depth, with a vastly increased sense of opportunity & freedom.
I feel more much more connected to other human beings with an increased sense of compassion & desire to serve & make a difference in my community.
I feel more open to new knowledge, more humble & teachable.
And strangely more joy & contentment for life.
These are things I previously thought I already had in abundance as a believing member, but which I now realise I had only just imagined I possessed.