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October, 2001, Volume 9 Nr. 2, Issue 98

SKEPTYK IN THE WEB

JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN.

I recently had a conversation on an Internet forum, much of which I will reproduce here. It is about skepticism, as I experience it. The conversation began as I dropped a note into a forum focused on popular television "psychics," but it goes well beyond notions of afterlife and psychics and into the nature of belief itself. For those readers, such as my Mom, who just don’t seem to grok my atheist agnostic skepticism, I hope this helps clarify it. Better yet, I hope it prompts more conversations. This conversation will be continued in future issues, as I expect it to continue in our lives.

I will paraphrase others (in italics) to aid comprehension and flow, but I will not reproduce all they said, to respect their privacy. "Skeptyk" is my usual nickname on the web.

I like JOHN EDWARD. I think he is great. Don't you think Sylvia Brown is Grumpy?

Yeah, what little I have seen of Sylvia Brown, she's cranky and unpleasant. I would not hang out at a bar with SB. Nor would I hang with James Van Praagh, who just strikes me as alternately defensive and dumb. John Edward annoys me because I think he is NOT dumb. I wish he would step back and look at his "abilities" with care. He should easily see that he does not have a useful "psychic" skill.

I would like to give him the benefit of the doubt as someone who stumbled on cold-reading techniques by accident and thinking he has some gift. I wondered the same thing about Rosemary Altea. But the more I see of each of them, the more I am convinced that they are consciously cold-reading; even if they believed in actual Psychic abilities in themselves in the past, they have been presented with enough to have figured out for themselves what is really happening.

So, why would they continue? Money? Power? Fame? Maybe a more compassionate reason: they offer solace and comfort to many folks. I think it is a dubious comfort, but I have spoken to folks who appreciate this.

I find the JE show boring as well as annoying. I hope the TV market gets saturated, that some more critical reporting and testing sees the light of day. I think that, like "repressed satanic ritual memory" and pet rocks, this one will run its course. But then, I am an incorrigible optimist, alas.

Well, you come across as well measured for a skeptic who leans to cynic….

It may take first hand psychic experience for someone so into science to believe; I know that’s what it took for me.

Wow, you're the second person here who perceives me as something of a cynic. I have been a skeptic for a long time, but few have thought me cynical. Maybe if we spent more time together. Or maybe I am becoming a curmudgeonly crone, growing into my 40-something wise-womanhood (or just wise-ass, heh heh).

Anyway, I have had experiences that I was sure were psychic, quite remarkable readings and incidents. But over time and examination, I think they are all mundane. I mean that in the archaic sense of "worldly," of the world. I do not mean, by mundane, that they were not moving. Some of them were quite marvelous and opened me up in ways that I would describe as numinous, transcendent, spiritual. Considering these experiences to be normal functions of my body in various situations, and to consider my consciousness as an emergent function of my wetware, in no way lessens these experiences for me. In fact, it enhances them.

My ability to cherish these experiences, and to not berate myself as a dupe or a fool, is why I don't think most folks who experience such things are dupes or fools. As I have said to friends who are classical "abductees"(were abducted by aliens): I do not doubt that you had the experience, but I do not think it actually happened. I am concerned with the level of credulity and the poor critical thinking skills that washes over from some of these belief habits into places where skepticism is important, like democracy, policy and science. Lack of critical thinking leads to witch-hunts and Bush's nuclear missile defense plan. Habits of credulity can turn around and bite us all. But that is another topic.

I gave Rosemary Altea and John Edward the benefit of the doubt in my last post, not that they are psychic, which I do not know, but that they were honest. I do not expect or ask you to change your beliefs on ADC (after death communication) or trance-channeling. There are good reasons for you to believe, and there are not good reasons for me to believe. The key in that statement is that we each require different kinds of reasons. My personality (mostly genetically determined like yours), coupled with my environment and my history, leads me to a happy, sane skepticism on these topics. Yours leads you to a happy, sane belief.

So, I am not the sort of person who scoffs at your experiences, and you are not the sort that is insulted or offended that I don't share your belief in this area. Note that the point is not that we don't believe one another. I see nothing in your posts which invalidates my perception and I have made clear that I do not invalidate yours. And I do believe things I cannot prove. Example: I am deeply in love, have been for over 20 years. And he has very similar views, and experiences, to mine. Can I prove it? No. BFD, right?

Stay open and kind.

Something that skeptics may be able to accept as scientific is lucid dreaming. This is definitely a skill that can be learned.

I LOVE lucid dreaming. I did lots of it when I was pregnant, and at different times I have trained myself a bit to have lucid dreams more often. My son is interested in lucid dreaming and may start a program of practice. While I love that there are studies of lucid dreaming going on, dealing with dream content is very subjective stuff, so, like much of brain research, we are getting intriguing info, but conclusions are tentative. That is as it should be, although I worry that interesting avenues of investigation will languish for lack of funds.

My son has had many of the experiences some folks consider psychic or paranormal. He considers them natural, if weird, responses to anesthesia, seizures, narcolepsy, fevers... he wants to try lucid dreaming partly because he doesn't have as many episodes of hypnogogic dreams as he used to. He had such complex dreams, he seemed to live entire lifetimes in the space of a couple of minutes. He considers narcolepsy and ADD to be rather nifty conditions, not disorders as much as distinctions.

I am a skeptic, too, and I learned that God spoke to us in more gospels than the ones the establishment church has approved of. The Gnostic Gospels, especially.

As for the scriptures you have been reading, I did some of the same reading years ago. And the Gnostic Gospels were enlightening, as was seeing basic church history with its highly politicized councils of Nicea, et cetera. I do not think that any of these books are written by anyone but people, and none were scribes for actually existing gods, IMO. I do not have belief in god/s or in psychic abilities. I see some odd stuff, I have some remarkable experiences, and I do not know what happened in all these cases, but god and spirits are not explanations that explain anything.

I have, as Carl Sagan said, a great tolerance for ambiguity. I have a lot of "I don't knows". I am happier with no answer than with an inadequate answer. Thanks for the conversation here.

How did you lose the knowing of the experiences that you had? At the time you say you were "sure" were psychic. Was it time or intellect that clouded your knowing into something else? Glad you see the experiences as still enhancing your life. Of course all experience results in lessons and growth, which is nice.

Actually, I have had similar experiences both before and since I became skeptical about them. I guess the main difference is in my intellectual interpretation. I can let go into the experience, and the sensations and the fire-in-my-head and the sureness, the "This is it! This is true!" can still all be there. The tendency to have some of these is perhaps related to the tendency to migraines and seizures, both which my family (sisters, dad, grandma, uncle, mother, me) has. I had many more of the experiences in adolescence.

I can relate to the brain researcher who puts his helmet full of electromagnets on and "sees God"; even as he is sure there is no god/s, he still "knows" that he contacts God. That is pretty much how he describes his experiences. I think he is at Laurentian University in Canada. Now there is a guy with a great tolerance for ambiguity!

I love optical illusions and I have had hallucinations, so I know better than to ever trust my perception completely, especially under certain circumstances. And the more I learn about neurology, the more amazed and amused I am at human wetware. As I said, I would rather say "I don't know" than become enamored of the first attractive idea that comes along. I tend to get crushes on people, and dogs, easily, so why not ideas? I think extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence, and by my lights, I am far from convinced that these experiences had to do with dead folks, spirits, astral body, psi, qi or anything other than my own amazing brain/body/physical environment.

I wish more folks would play with these states, and study them, without preconceived notions and esoteric structures, but, alas, there is a lot of emotionalism, with TBs (true believers) in several camps glaring or ridiculing all the other camps. The "It's All Wishful Thinking" TBs, the "It's Connecting with a Different Plane" TBs, the "It's Mild Brain Dysfunction" TBs, et cetera. Studies of entheogens and psychedelics, which research came to a standstill with "The War on (SOME) Drugs", otherwise known as the war on poor people or the war on good sense or the welfare program for pushers...can you tell this is a sore spot for me? (And I am a teatotaller who has to have a committee meeting in my head to take a muscle relaxant when I injure my back.) The similarity among experiences with various psychedelics, NDEs (ketamine can induce this reliably), OOBEs, sensory deprivation...there is so much tantalizing info.

Have you ever tried to learn to have out of body experiences? Once you have an OBE, you will have no doubt that psychic things, particularly the fact that you are not your body, exist.

I have had OOBEs, and even trained myself to have them more reliably years ago. When they first happened, spontaneously it seemed, they scared the shit out of me, but I got to like them. Never "went" far, although I thought I did a few times only to realize I had fallen asleep. I still have rare instances of seeming to be above or otherwise not contiguous with my body. I do not think I actually am, though, as much feedback and sensation as I get. Too bad I never thought, as a kid, to have my sister put something on a high shelf in my room for me to "see" when I was scooting about up there. That would have been better evidence than my feelings.

Yikes, I have been talking your ear off. I have not talked to many folks about this in such detail, maybe because some folks want to argue rather than converse. The mistrust I have occasionally encountered simply because I am a skeptic even caused an acquaintance to shun me. The fundamentalists of any club are a force to be reckoned with. I am glad that you and I are secure enough in our understandings of the world to have this conversation without the taint of contempt or fear.

Will I pursue hallucinatory experiences, like OOBEs, again? Maybe. My focus of work in the world has been very worldly stuff like raising kids, marriage, GLBTQ rights, poetry, performance, work,and being a buzzing, biting gadfly on the ass of The Man.

Life is a physical detour we take as a learning experience.

I love this idea, and it was long a cherished part of my personal cosmology. One of my favorite poems that I wrote is "A Soul Caught in Matter". As that belief melted away, I had a wistful goodbye, like when a friend moves away.

Does your belief system completely rule out some form of reincarnation? What about life after death?

Ah, this is the interesting thing about agnosticism. I don't have much of a "belief system", more a set of provisional assumptions. So I don't believe there is no life after death, but I don't believe there is life after death either. That is not a cop out, it is, for me, the only sensible POV. I do not know if there is life after death; I do not believe in it.

Sorry if that seems to belabor the obvious, but I have had a version of that discussion with a stream of rather orthodox (usually born-again Christian) theists. On the topic of god/s, I am agnostic and atheist; in short, I don't know, I don't believe. It is a default position. The burden of proof is on the theist, not me, because I make no positive assertion. And there are so many definitions of god/s, some unable to be disproven.

So, even though I think it is vanishingly unlikely that there are invisible, intangible, non-toxic, microscopic leprechauns living in my nose, I don't know. Popular tales, ancient and new, even very widespread belief in nose leprechauns - even if such belief is held by folks I admire or love - would not convince me. I know I made a silly analogy, but it may more clearly illustrate my point.

I have been told, repeatedly, lack of belief (in god/s, nose elves, afterlife, broccoli) is the same as belief of lack of those things. Not so, as I explained above. But I have encountered people who are so vehement telling me that I must choose either belief or disbelief on certain issues! It seems wrapped up in some misplaced sense of loyalty, as if the believer has to defend the belief/idea from my absence of belief. And, indeed, the burden of proof is on the believer, but whatever we each believe in is something we rarely feel compelled to prove to anyone, including ourselves.

And on lots of issues believers and skeptics simply use different types of evidence. And the same person may be skeptical about trance channels but be a true believer, even quite hostile to skepticism, about, say, the natural benevolence of capitalism. "Skepticism is attitude, not dogma." (Wendy Kaminer) I have met folks who seemed classical skeptics until I said something nice about the Cuban revolution, at which time they became religiously fanatical.

I hope this doesn't sound like I am dispassionate and neutral. On the contrary, I am quite opinionated and have strong passions. Those, as well as the skepticism, are all part of my activist drive.

Oh, and I figure I would live my life no differently if I knew for sure there was life after death, or god.

Was there a pivot, a crisis point, an event that caused you to stop believing the reality you experienced?

No pivot point, and this is a good question, because I think key incidents have a lot to do with formation of beliefs. Conversion/satori/enlightenment experiences, or hallucinatory experiences, or trance experiences are all common pivots for folks to form, firm and affirm beliefs. All of those experiences can share certain factors, including senses of "realer than real", oneness with all, ineffable joy or sadness, extreme emotion, transcendence beyond emotion. These altered states are, as you and I both believe, quite natural. Where we differ is that I have seen no reason to assume they are related to conscious beings or entities other than Homo sapiens doing our pattern-finding, big-brain, dimly-understood, complex electrochemical thang.

For very good evolutionary reasons, people are convinced more by conviction than by reason, more by strong emotion than by dispassionate, plodding questions. We are a social species and altruism and affection are important adaptive traits. Believing what someone tells you, especially if they tell it with emotion and conviction, is all many folks need to adopt a belief. Some, such as you, need more, such as convincing personal experience.

Yes, it was just a gradual, quietly cumulative process. Some of has been exciting: as I learn more about how the body works, things fall into place with an "ah ha!" and a satisfying click. Building on a knowledge base shares that feeling with building on a belief base, as things fall in that are consistent. But, as I said earlier, I have had a little wistfulness, a little poignancy, at the disintegration of comforting beliefs, but no wrenching sadness. And no distinct event or idea that clinched it all at once.

You seem to have settled on a position that eliminates the risk of disappointment.

I wish, eh? I am disappointed in the plague species, Homo sapiens, of which I am an individual. We are a social species evolved in a world where we are not very fast or strong, have rather fragile bodies, and mature slowly. There are other creatures that best us in most gross physical tasks, but we can outrun/walk most any mammal (not speed but stamina), we sweat better than maybe anything (a critical trait that now just embarrasses many), and we have exquisite fine motor dexterity. Add those to that big brain, genetics for language, memetic evolution and meme-gene co-evolution and we are a species to be reckoned with.

I used to think we had only to come to our senses and we could clean up the messes we have made. Earlier, I enhanced that hope with additional belief that "come to our senses" included a powerful collective consciousness that was comprised of some kind of good energy that would supercharge our healing efforts and even heal the earth and one another on its own. And, in between, there was also included the notion that this world is just a detour anyway, a gameboard on which we dress up in bodies and personalities and play human to work out karma.

Now, I think that our species will last several more generations… perhaps. The planet will outlive us, and deep time and the continuing emergence of complexity will get life (the digital replicators called DNA) lots of astonishing vehicles, including some new meme vehicles. The other types of replicators that may occur elsewhere in the universe (or multiverse) can mean life, very different life, elsewhere and elsewhen. So, my lament that ours is a plague species is tempered by the informed notion of a powerful natural process called evolution.

My inability to adequately imagine my demise does not contradict my inability to believe "I" will somehow survive that demise. In fact they work perfectly together. I am no less in awe at the idea that my self is a memeplex, my consciousness no more, nor less, than an emergent property of my big brain, than I was in awe when I was sure my self was an eternal piece of Self, and my body was an emergent property of spiritual tasks, a way to work out kalpas of karma.

I am starstuff. Every glass of water I drink contains at least one atom that passed through the bladder of Aristotle; every glass of water I drink has more molecules of water than there are glasses of water in the sea. Billions of neutrinos shoot through me as I type and they touch nothing since I am almost entirely made of nothing. I am an integral part of the vast universe. These speculations are glorious and moving. And measurably, obviously accurate.

Do I wish I could be with Jozef, my husband, "forever and two" as we still say to one another? Well, since "I" and "Jozef" will not exist without our working brains, the idea is meaningless. I cannot be sad for that, then. And, of course, in another sense we will always be together as our components will still be part of the universe, (mostly very local parts for a very long time.) Will I be sad if he dies first? Am I sad at the thought of his grieving if I do? Of course. And even if I believed he simply sort of phase-shifted and was still quite alive and conscious and even available for contact on another plane, I would grieve. In that last case I would also have some solace and even celebration at what I used to think of as a transcendent graduation/homecoming to the Real. But even if I wanted to believe that now because it promises some comfort, I can not. And that is fine, not sad, not smug, not happy. Just is.

Belief is not a choice. It is, for many, a habit, as basic a learned behavior, and as seemingly natural, as using a fork. The tendency to believe (as distinguished from the things believed in) is even more basic, hardwired as is the tendency to language. (Many folks, of course, have unexamined half-assed, half-vast paranatural beliefs. When it comes to religion, for instance, an organized subculture that usually includes unproven beliefs, the number one determinant of a person's religion is geography, very local geography, actually: parent's religion.)

Although I have disappointments like anyone, when it comes to afterlife, I would not be dissappointed if I am "right" that we cease at death, nor would I be dissappointed that we don't. I should think I would be delighted! Unless, of course, afterlife is awful. The very first religious belief I lost - this was after Santa and a few other supernatural beliefs were gone - was hell. I could not reconcile eternal punishment with a loving god, so I gave up the former. See, I have always been an optimist. Even if some of the afterlife is awful, as long as it is not all awful, I should think I would still be pretty delighted because I am curious.

Merry met!

I have had many, many experiences that cannot be explained except as supernatural. (Describes some of these) My imagination? I don't think so....

The condescending tone of cliche' dismissals such as "It's all in your head" and "It's just your (overactive) imagination" are detrimental to the fascinating conversation about "extraordinary phenomena". I hope you did not interpret my long previous posts as saying those. For one thing, we are always interacting with our environment, changing it and being changed by it; nothing is ever "all in our heads". But if the head, the brain, stops working, the self, in my educated guess, stops. I have not been convinced otherwise. As with other notions I have, these are simply provisional assumptions, predicated upon my own experiences as well as my reading, talking, exploring the experiences of others.

As Ian Rowland (great sleight-of-hand artist and author of the definitive book on cold reading) says, "It is nonsense to say psychic powers ‘are’ or ‘are not’ real... Believers slice the evidence one way, skeptics slice it differently."

My lack of belief in "spirit connections" or in survival of self does not make me close-minded; your belief in those things does not make you foolish or crazy. I do not doubt your experiences, only your interpretation of them.

There is an unceasing energy that goes on before life and after death and its only purpose is to help us spiritually grow and learn about unconditional love of self and others.

That is a lovely belief set. I certainly hope you are right. If I could so choose, I would likely join you in those beliefs, which I used to believe myself. As I said in earlier posts, I have had some remarkable experiences, and I cherish them still, even though my interpretation of them has changed. I have not closed the door in those interpretations. Certainly there is an element of "I don't know", but I do not need the dubious security of a closed or complete answer. I tend to parsimony and elegance, and think that extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.

I did not choose my paucity of faith any more than I chose my blue eyes or my freckles. I am a good hypnotic subject and I have a strong and practiced imagination. I don't think there is any such thing as an "overactive imagination", indeed most human pursuits suffer from too little imagination. Skepticism has a lot to do with imagination and curiosity.

Stay open and kind.

I do think and believe that we choose our faith. That is the one thing that we can decide on, no matter the childhood upbringing.... Free will is the most priceless gift one has as a human.

This excerpt points to the notions of belief formation called "voluntarist" and "involuntarist":

"... Now I'll give you something to believe. I'm just one hundred and one, five months and a day."

"I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the Queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said "one can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast..."

Lewis Caroll, Through the Looking Glass

Note the condescending pity the Queen has for Alice, similar to what some folks have for other involuntarist rationalists, like me, who are missing the personal relationship with a god or the assurance of afterlife or the elite knowledge of the alien spacebrothers' plan to help humanity, or whatever. Note also that I have, in the past, used that very passage from "Alice" to support my beliefs "in impossible things." I used to think of belief or disbelief as choices. As an example of an early change in beliefs that I considered a conscious choice, here is a tale from when I was about Alice's age.

At ten, I discarded belief in Hell as I had been taught it by my church. I could not reconcile eternal punishment with the loving God, so I gave up the former. Now there are many ways out of such a dilemna, and millennia of theologians have wrestled with what I, a child was also agonizing over. At 10, I was in Piaget's concrete-operative stage, when so many kids are scientists, naturalists, rationalists. I discarded belief in hell.

So, I CHOSE not to believe in hell? To alleviate the cognitive dissonance, to glorify the god I loved and affirm his absolute goodness? I was not worried about being punished for my hubris at second-guessing God, because I KNEW he was all love. Actually, this "decision", this "choice", was neither. It was the only rational conclusion I could arrive at with the "facts" at hand. The "fact" that God was good, loving, merciful was much stronger for me, and seemed to be validated in the world, than the "fact" I was told about hell. So it was a rational notion based on evidence. I have different standards of evidence for god/s these days, and live my life as if there is no god, no afterlife, no IPU (Invisible Pink Unicorn, she is a common device for agnostic argument).

From an essay by Austin Cline, who also uses the "Alice" passage as an illustration:

"Tertullian and Kierkegaard are perfect examples of those who have argued that not only is belief in the truth of Christianity a virtue, but that it is even more virtuous precisely because it is impossible for it to be true."

Ah, God likes you better if you believe in spite of evidence, a common argument about faith. The notion that faith, belief in things without inadequate evidence, is a virtue, is widespread in our culture. It bolsters the argument for "Faith-Based Partnerships" in the US (which in the form proposed by the bill just passed by the US House, is a dangerous breach of Church-State separation and another step in the dismantling of the welfare state). This belief about faith bestowing or indicating virtue is yet another belief based on grossly inadequate evidence.

Thomas Aquinas still has some of the most compelling arguments about "free will", but like much of his argumentation, he bases them upon premises that are insufficiently supported, therefore the apologetics are a house of cards. We are interdependent beings. Perhaps in the extra ways that you believe, but certainly at least in our physical lives on Earth. Therefore "free will" is still limited by our interdependence, by our embodiment, our incarnation (in a literal sense, "in meat") as meatpuppets. Whether the puppet is animated by a soul or its electrochemical complexity has no extra "spark" of ensoulment, this is where we live, in bodies. I have no reason to believe in souls, but maybe they somehow exist.

Another excerpt from Austin's essay:

"Notice that I use the word "accepts," rather than "chooses." A rational person does not "choose" to believe something simply because evidence points that way. As discussed earlier, once a person realizes that a belief is clearly supported by the facts, there is no further step that we could call "choice" that is needed for a person to have the belief."

The entire essay can be found here: http://atheism.about.com/library/weekly/aa061400a.htm

I think the self, and what we usually think of as sentience/consciousness, is probably a memeplex, a complex set of assumptions arising from our wetware. We are hardwired for self. That doesn't mean we cannot lose a coherent sense of self. We can, and the poetic, metaphoric, symbolic gift of language has given us an apt phrase for this disintegration, "losing my mind".

I do think compassion is a more important factor than belief. (I think we are hardwired for compassion, too, BTW. Basic evolutionary biology.) If you are right about a loving, universalist reality beyond this prosaic plane, or if you are wrong about it, living my life with honesty, integrity, kindness should fit right in, either way. If the fundamentalist Baptists are right and I will burn in some lake of fire because within even a good, kind life I did not believe in the deity of Jesus, then so be it. Any god who would run the show like that doesn't deserve my respect, so if those Baptists are right, so be it. (Not only is my integrity more important than my comfort, but Pascal's wager is predicated on the false dichotomy set up by the Baptist notion above. I used the literalist lake of fire as an extreme absurd example, of course.)

It is not about a dubious security need; it is about a gentle acceptance that evolves. (In response to my statement that I prefer no answer to an inadequate one; that I do not need the dubious security of a closed or complete answer.)

I was speaking of the closed, complete, therefore rigid, "answers" that constitute some folks beliefs. Some people are so motivated by fear that they find security in such a closed set. That is what fundamentalism is about.

In contrast to that sort of fundamentalism stand both you and I. "...a gentle acceptance that evolves". My ideas and yours are informed by experience and knowledge, and evolve as we collect more experience and knowledge. While our interpretations of our evidences may differ, it seems that our attitudes of continual learning and curiosity, of openness to new ideas and evidences, are similar.

Here is an excerpt from something I posted in a discussion elsewhere on Delphi:

"At 10 years old, I became a universalist. I did not know the word until years later, but I had come to the conclusion that I could not reconcile a merciful god with a forever hell, so I gave up the latter. Over the years, my notion of god became less and less personal, as I moved away from the comfort of imaginary friend versions of god and demigods (my buddy Jesus like a nice big brother; my guardian angel, who outlasted Santa; Saint Francis of Assissi...) and also farther from the downside of those characters (they could see me always, even read my thoughts, divine spies, the Holy Spirit's thought police).

"I developed an idea of God that was vague, a notion of cosmic justice, though it may take millennia, kalpas, to work out, and the justice had nothing to do with punishment, but balance, karma, ultimate good... Later, I drifted away from belief in afterlife and reincarnation, but still clung to a notion that there was basic order, even goodness, and I called it God, still clinging to the word.

"At the last was a rather Spinozist idea that God was exactly equivalent with Nature, that is, God=Nature, precisely. At this point I found the word of no use, and prone to confuse others; God=Nature, sans souls, sans redemption, sans prayer, sans any of the idea-baggage it/It is usually saddled with, is so different from what so many folks mean when they say "God", that I felt dishonest even using it with my distinct little definition, like I was a stealth atheist. I was a bit wistful about leaving the god idea behind, like seeing an old lover on a subway platform years later.

"That was just a few snapshots from my interior autobiography, but I wanted you to know that I hung onto bits, and words, past their meaningfulness. I am an agnostic and an atheist. My natural optimism still operates, so I manage to have a lovely life and continue to try to help others on this little round rock. I am not at all dismayed that there is no afterlife."

I would not live any differently if there is an afterlife. My morality is based not on karmic justice. My morality is based on neither carrots (heaven, higher cosmic levels, advanced incarnations) nor sticks (hell, extra turns on the wheel of life-and-death, degraded incarnations). It is a basic human and humanist morality: to do good, to be kind. Things that are not morally good are things that cause harm to others. My lack of belief harms no one, yet it is the one trait that some moral codes name as my most immoral, my most evil; in their closed box of cosmology, any actual harm I do I can be forgiven for, but if I "deny" the Forgiver, I am damned. Go figure.

I still say we have choice. The answer lies in the "perception of the facts" that one purposes to connect with one's belief system. We still "choose" to "believe" in the end result of these observations.

Is there really this extra step, where you consciously choose to believe in "the end result of these of these observations"? Or is the end result, that is, the conclusion/assumption/knowledge to which those observations led, the belief itself? I mean, given what you know, those feelings and experiences that have informed your belief in afterlife, for instance, can you now simply choose to NOT believe it?

I cannot make myself, by force of will or desire, believe in an afterlife of continuation of the self, the distinct, conscious individual. If the preponderance of evidence were to prove, or simply to convince just me, otherwise, then I would believe it through no extra step or effort.

Remember this is not a zero-sum, nor an either/or issue. I can be in the agnostic position on the notion of afterlife, and, in fact, to me that seems the only tenable position, given what I know. I cannot make myself believe in such an afterlife, but neither can I make myself disbelieve in it. There is simply not enough data. As I said, my standards of evidence, of useful data, and your standards likely differ a great deal.

Without afterlife and beforelife there would be no meaning to prior relationships (such as relatives who died) or current ones.

I find a great deal of meaning in relationships. Maybe I am not getting your meaning here.

Murder would take on a whole new meaning, and so would other issues.

Please tell me what you mean by this. I have heard the theory that murder victims (their souls) volunteer to be part of the murderer's soul's lessons in this lifetime, and that being murdered, in turn, is part of their own lesson. I am not sure whether one is expected to be comforted or disgusted by such a notion, but it is underpinned by so many other things I don't buy (souls, life after life...) that my interest in the idea would be about what such notions say about how humans think.

I can't imagine a loving God, in whatever form, would create emotional beings and provide emotional connections for no further use than this life. It just doesn't make logical sense.

Well, I don't believe in any god, so second-guessing its creative motivations is moot. I think this is life is all we have, and even if it weren't, why not cherish relationships for their own sake. Would I rather not have close connections with others because I knew I would eventually lose them (death)? Would I avoid closeness with others to prevent anyone the pain of grieving when I die? No. And the depth of my pain and joy in relation to others is part of the meaning these connections have for me.

Why be goodhearted if there are no repercussions?

Because it is good to be good. See my notes on my morality above. And there are, of course, repercussions in this life. As Abe Lincoln said, "When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. That is my religion."

The story is that we actually choose this life to learn lessons. Maybe we are here to do work on the environment or peace with justice; our lessons are to move not only oneself forward spiritually but an entire (worldly) spiritual consciousness forward.

Great! Then my life can fit right into that story, whether I believe the tale or not. My "purpose" here is obviously served by my skepticism, and the work I do in the world - singing, queer rights, nursing, pacifism, parenting, prison abolition, promoting critical thinking, et cetera - may be part of the lessons I am to learn. As a bonus, I get to do good here and now.

Can you choose to believe something you have no "reasons" to believe? Simply, can you choose to believe what is unbelievable? When Alice said she could not believe in the impossible, I agreed. But I see few things in the realm of the "impossible". The very improbable, improbable-to-the-point-of-my-treating-as-meaningless? Lots of things. I think afterlife, and therefore ADC, is highly improbable. It would be intellectually dishonest of me to think it impossible.

To "choose" to believe, given all I said before, would simply be to "say" I believe, to pretend, to wish, to lie. I am not saying that folks who have beliefs that are tenuous or wishful or riddled with doubts are dishonest. I am saying that I cannot but hold the default "I don't know" when it comes to lots of notions, even those which I may want, wish, hope to be true.

Does it bother you that I don't believe in afterlife or god/s? It bothers a surprising number of folks, and I don't see why. Do you see part of your purpose or mission to convince others? Or simply to support people in their questions and to share experiences which may shed light (and human warmth) on the experiences of others? Are you concerned for me as a fellow being who may be hampering her enlightenment by not believing? Do you think I would prepare for death any differently if I were sure of an afterlife, and if so, how?

In knowledge, love and kindness...

Knowing. Knowingness. When you know something, you cannot choose not to believe it. Maybe you could choose to ignore it.

I don't think we have a difference of opinion on this. And in fact, it goes right along with my idea that one cannot simply choose to believe in something. As you said, "When you know, you know". And when you don't, you don't. Agnosticism: I don't know. Don't forget that belief that there is no afterlife is also a belief. I don't hold that belief, either.

Fear, particularly fear of beliefs or words, is something from which to evolve.

So, my skepticism could be a signal to you that I am a rather highly evolved soul, eh? I'm not kidding, though. As a skeptic, an agnostic and an atheist, I am free of all kinds of baggage. I am well beyond fear of others beliefs, fear of death, lots of other things many people fear. See, skeptics are driven not by fear or apathy but by wonder and curiosity.

And as for "knowing". I think the sureness, the knowingness, is a very human, physiological event, an event that can be instigated and reproduced with drugs and electromagnets, as well as with many "normal" states. My love for my children has the quality of deep knowing. So when that "knowing" feeling is attached to things for which there is inadequate evidence, I tend to maintain skeptical agnosticism. For me, a sense of knowing does not equal truth.

Told you I have a high tolerance for ambiguity ;)

If I could change something that was a terrible impediment to someone else, I would grasp at the chance even if it meant carrying on a heavy load (as with death). It becomes a blessing.

That is the boddhisattva way. That is how I would like to live my life. I remind myself of the boddhisattva vow, and live it within the only lifetime I am sure of.

If one doesn't believe in an afterlife it would be awful to die; it could only mean that one has died in vain.

Ah, but I do not have to believe in an afterlife for there to be one, so no one, (in your knowledge) dies "in vain", do they? Are you concerned about the pain that survivors have, that it might be somewhat alleviated if they know what you know? That is that boddhisattva aspect of you, the kind caregiver. "…died in vain…" I am more concerned that we not live in vain.

What is "bodhisattva"?

The bodhisattva is, traditionally, one who has achieved enlightenment completely, is ready to step off the wheel of birth and death, but chooses to stay on in this world, this dimension of dukkha, and help all others achieve enlightenment. I try to honor the idea in my prosaic way by studying and practicing compassion. Skepticism is actually an integral part of my buddhism and my activism. The bodhisattva is emblematic of that.

Here is a definition I found on Tricycle.com website:

"Bodhisattva: Sanskrit; Bosatsu (Japanese), Bosal (Korean); one who postpones his or her own enlightenment in order to help liberate other sentient beings from cyclic existence; compassion, or karuna, is the central characteristic of the bodhisattva; important bodhisattvas include Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, and Jizo."

BTW, the Dalai Lama is supposed to be the incarnation of Avalokiteswara/Chenrezig (the bodhisattva of compassion). I have several statues in my home which are different representations of this idea : Kuan Yin, Avalokiteswara, Shakyamuni Buddha. These are important means of focus and intent, reminding me, even at an unconscious level, to practice compassion. I am a great fan of symbols and images and sounds (I also chant) that enhance the 'better angels" of my nature. Among the images on display in my home are lots of goddesses, including the Statue of Liberty and Our Lady of Czestohowa and Our Lady of Guadalupe. I have a Manjusri on the Beast, a Hotei (laughing friend of children, that little fat buddha guy), a Kokopelli and a Ganesha, and 10 different tarot decks! And lots more.

A couple of nice short essays on the bodhisattva vows:

http://www.intrex.net/chzg/pat6.htm
http://www.allspirit.co.uk/suryadas2.html

I am glad you are a real skeptic and not a cynic; cynics can be so boring.

I agree, cynics are often boring. I think they are often bored. Skeptics are never bored. Many of us would like to believe in afterlife because threescore and ten is just not enough time to explore this amazing world, to think and do and love.

Can one be a Skeptic, AND agnostic, AND an atheist, all at the same time?

Sure. In fact, it seems the most likely combo considering the definitions of the words. As a skeptic, I question question question. No sacred cows. While I do hold provisional assumptions (evolution by natural selection, no conscious afterlife of the individual, among others), I hold them somewhat lightly. Not because they are flimsy theories; indeed they are well-considered or I would not hold them at all. But because there is always the possibility of new evidence that will so challenge even a good theory, even a cherished theory, that I would have no honest option but to modify or abandon the theory.

About many things, I do not hold even strong provisional assumptions. Unlike the popular notion in our culture that everyone must have a settled opinion about everything, I agree with that very opinionated guy who said, "I was gratified that I could give a prompt answer. I said 'I don't know.' " (Mark Twain. I may not have the quote exact, but very close.) That is what agnostic means. I don't know. While the term is usually used about god-knowledge (about which I am certainly agnostic), I don't know a lot of other things, too.

As for atheism, the term means "without theism", and theism means "belief in god or gods". So, I am atheist, since I have no belief in god/s. Do I believe there is no god? No. But I don't believe there is god/s. Could I be wrong? Sure. Do I care? No. What difference it may make, it will do with or without my belief or consent. The consequences (in my afterlife or next incarnation, say) may be based upon how honestly and kindly and fully I conducted myself this turn of the wheel, or else the consequences will be some arbitrary whim of a flighty puppetmaster, or some other, as yet unimagined, consequences.

I have decided that there is just not enough evidence to base my life and decisions on any of the many theories of afterlife I encounter. I will live as if I have one life and this is it, a good threescore-and-ten, more or less. Because of the real world consequences, to myself and others and the world, I will try to live it with honesty, integrity, kindness, passion and humour. I will sometimes fail miserably, sometimes surprise myself with my own wonderfulness. C'est la vie.

(I certainly know some professed skeptics who cultivate sacred cows, having blind faith in, for example, the protectionist capitalism of the last quarter century of US policy, or, another example, blind faith in actually-existing socialism as practiced by the USSR. Talk about sacred cows! Neither of those guys did a good job of arguing those positions, alas, but both were proud of their skepticism about astrology.)

Go to http://www.skeptic.com/ and click FAQS, then scroll down to "What is a Skeptic?" This is a nice, succinct explanation, with which I mostly agree.

Do you consider that maybe you are a skeptic because you don’t want to lose the mystery or intrigue of life, that you may lose that if there is a rhyme and reason to our existence?

Neat question. I am in no danger of losing mystery. The more I learn about the world, the more in awe I am. The ongoing surprises that the world keeps tossing my way, like giant tube worms that live at depths in the ocean where the pressure is so high I would be squashed flatter than a pancake. How do they live? How did they evolve? Wow! The great new poetry that is being written every day, and the vitality and relevance of poetry written ages ago, and even the vast amounts of really bad, but heartfelt, poetry. So very many things are such a source of intrigue and mystery that I do not think I have to worry about losing that wonderful wonderment.

I don't believe you are really a skeptic...just a "soul-searcher". I enjoy the exchange of insightful words.

As do I. Goodnight, friend.

2001 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

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