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Our next writing prompt: Talk to me about religion/spirituality.

I'm an atheist. I was raised as a mainline Protestant Christian (United Methodist, specifically), and I believed up until my mid-teens, at which point I considered myself agnostic until about 19 years old. Though religion did contribute a lot of guilt to me, and I found church pretty boring, that wasn't really what drove me away from it -- it was simply a slow, progressive realization that all of the statements it made about the supernatural were either objectively false or empirically unverifiable. Eventually I had stopped believing in enough of the facts that following their conclusions stopped making sense to me. Even "converting" from agnostic to atheist wasn't really a change in beliefs, only in terminology -- I realized (via reading Ayn Rand's nonfiction, actually) that if I were "uncertain" about anything else in the same way I was "uncertain" about the existence of God, I'd say I didn't believe in it, so why should religion get special dispensation that nothing else does? I was agnostic to God in the same sense that I was agnostic to elves or unicorns -- there is no evidence they exist, and the fact that I can't somehow magically prove they don't doesn't mean I have to say I'm "unsure" if there are elves or unicorns; there aren't.

I find a lot of Christianity emotionally appealing -- I like the sense of community, I like the encouragement of charity, generosity, and compassion, and as someone who doesn't want to die, I would certainly like to believe that there is life after death. I love the Christmas season, its messages as well as its trappings (the songs, decorations, etc., and giving gifts to people I love.) There's plenty I don't like about Christianity, too -- like all religions, it has a long history of being used by people in power to justify the oppression of those not in power, and over time it simply changes to oppress whoever the disfavored group is at the moment. This isn't a unique fault of Christianity, though -- any belief system, religious or secular, gets manipulated this way. But in any case, when it comes to my beliefs, I find all of the above to be irrelevant -- to my very rationalist and empirical way of thinking, what I want be true and what I feel to be true have absolutely no bearing on what is true. For me to believe in a religion, I don't need to be told why it would benefit me to believe -- I need to be shown the evidence, and apply to it the same epistemological principles as I apply to everything else.

People talk a lot about "spirituality," and I honestly don't know what that means. I gather from context that it's a combination of a generalized belief in the supernatural ("there must be something more than the world we observe") and a sort of vague mysticism (gaining knowledge from feelings.) In this case, I am not a spiritual person at all. Mysticism seems like intellectual laziness -- emotions are not tools of cognition. Emotions can tell you about yourself, but they can't tell you anything about the world.

And as for the supernatural, I have never found even a definition of "supernatural" that doesn't outright mean "not real." If you verified a supernatural phenomenon to be real, then it would cease to be supernatural -- it would simply become part of nature. If magic exists, then there must be a mechanism of action. If God exists, God has to be made of something, act in some manner, and come from somewhere. Certainly we don't fully understand all the mechanisms of action in nature, but that doesn't mean that those mechanisms don't exist, merely that we haven't figured them out. If there's a "higher plane of existence" beyond the universe, and we proved it to exist, it would then cease to be beyond the universe -- it would be an accepted part of the universe and we would begin puzzling out how it works. It's only supernatural as long as it's not real.

This is in some way just a semantic argument over definitions, but I think it's also indicative of how I think -- that everything fits into systems, and when it doesn't, it just means that we don't understand the system. Perhaps we'll never understand the system, but it's there.

It's interesting to ponder naturalist creation stories -- e.g. directed panspermia (humanity was created by aliens and "seeded" here on Earth) or the simulation hypothesis (the entire universe is a computer simulation being run in a higher-dimensioned universe.) I find them emotionally more plausible, for the simple reason that rather than asserting a systemless "supernatural" they just propose higher-order systems that we cannot yet observe or understand. However, they run into the same problem as religions for me. I can't disprove or even offer a convincing argument against the idea that "since one real universe can build computers to simulate many, many simulated universes, statistically speaking we are much more likely to be in a simulated universe than a real one," but I'd never say I believe that the universe is a simulation, because we have no evidence pointing to the fact that it is. We have no other universes to compare it to, so making statistical statements about the nature and behavior of other universes is just making stuff up.

It would be nice if the universe were created with a benevolent order in which the laws of nature favor the good and conscious beings live forever. However, as far as I can tell, the only way we get a benevolent universe is to make it that way.

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