Saturday, May 7, 2022

Part VIII: Dodging nihilism better

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, Part VIII. For context, start at the introduction. In this post, I assume familiarity with a number terms from Check out Part VI where I summarize, and, even better, read yourself.

The Nihilist by Paul Merwart [public domain].

This series has a lot on rejecting Christianity. My Christianity carried a Trojan horse dead man's switch nihilism. For this post, I adopt David Chapman's definition of nihilism:

Nihilism holds that there is no meaning or value anywhere. Questions about purpose, ethics, and sacredness are unanswerable because they are meaningless. You might as well ask about the sleep habits of colorless green ideas as about the meaning of life.

(As usual, Wikipedia is also a great source.)

This post speculates on how to jointly reject Christianity and nihilism, and whether or not the nihilistic angst can be avoided. Some of the pain was intrinsic to losing my religion specifically and would have been there even if I hadn’t had a close brush with nihilism. But nihilism was the existential threat. While Eternalist Christianity can be highly functional (perhaps even adaptive!), nihilism is really bad. Therefore, it’s more important to reject nihilism than it is to reject Christianity.

Not every Christian has a nihilistic tendency hiding inside of them. If you don't see nihilism as the "other option," that's great! You're ahead of where I was.

Artfully dodging nihilism is mostly a case of not actively flinging it upon oneself. For me, and I think a lot of Christians, nihilism grew up inside my own heart as the vengeful inverted image of Christianity and the only other logical option. (Theologian William Lane Craig has this view of nihilism too.) So after rejecting Christianity, I had to also reject nihilism. A better way to lose one’s faith would be to reject nihilism first and then reject Eternalism, but I’m not really sure how one could cause this set of belief-state transitions. It must be possible for some people, but for me, I don’t see how it could have worked. 

Consider two possible paths through belief-space:

Belief Trajectory 1, the general path I followed

  1. Christianity is true, therefore nihilism is false. (Hidden assumption: meaning is non-nebulous.)
  2. Christianity is false because too many statements in Christianity are not well supported by evidence. Nihilism must be true by process of elimination. (Hidden assumption: meaning is non-nebulous.)
  3. Nihilistic angst.
  4. Christianity and nihilism are both false, because meaning does have nebulous character.  

Belief Trajectory 2, a hypothetical path

  1. Christianity is true, therefore nihilism is false.  (Hidden assumption: meaning is non-nebulous.)
  2. Christianity is true. Nihilism is false because meaning does have nebulous character. 
  3. Oops, the nebulous nature of meaning threatens Christianity!

One could hope that one’s Christianity gradually becomes more weakly held and less intimately connected to one’s identity, so that the nebulous nature of meaning can creep in without coming into a head-on collision with the Christian Eternalism. In fact, some degree of realization of the nebulous nature of meaning did grow in my mind before I rejected Christianity. That germ of realization grew into an escape hatch from the deep-space vacuum of nihilism. Chapman’s somewhat bizarre assertion “You are, therefore, always already implicitly in the complete stance,” rings true to me.

My tour through nihilism was, in hindsight, short. It only lasted a few months. Therapy and a supportive environment were essential. In my heart, I also credit and thank David Chapman. His words accelerated my recovery, but I might have made it through anyway. However, I don’t see my dodge of nihilism as having been a 100% certainty. Ultimate failure was possible. 

The path through nihilistic angst is common and it’s reasonable to expect that a lot of people will have to walk through the valley of the shadow of the meaningless. We on the sidelines can help in two ways: by expounding the obviousness and immediate use of meaning (as Chapman does) and also by providing better symptomatic treatment for the pain, the angst and the depression. As a culture, we need to do better with our mental health. A simple step that we can all take is to start talking about our own mental health issues more openly. 

Perhaps Belief Trajectory 2 is not so unreasonable or improbable. A person could reject Christianity on the grounds of having embraced the nebulous nature of meaning directly, and simultaneously reject Christianity and nihilism. The person would have to reject the false dichotomy between Eternalism and nihilism before rejecting Eternalism. Effectively, that person would have to learn of the third option of the Complete Stance (either in the form presented by or any other). This is not the path I took, so I am less competent to be a guide along that path, but given the upside of avoiding a period of depression, it is the path that I would recommend. This blog post series describes my own path, and I really hope that the description is taken as a prescription. 

In conclusion, yes, leave your eternalist system. But first, reject nihilism. Fully embrace the true richness of meaning, the intrinsic value of life in general and your life specifically. It’s not complicated: a full belly is better than starving, life is better than no life and the beauty of humanity comes from the sum of its parts — including you. From a certain vantage point, the pervasiveness of meaning is obvious. Consider this tiny example: if you don’t accept the existence of meaning, then how are you reading these words?

Friday, May 6, 2022

Part VII: My new identity

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, Part VII. For context, start at the introduction.

In Part I, I mentioned about how I saw a counselor in 2016 and explained to him about the loss of my Christian faith. Removing Christianity seemed to remove my identity. The counselor said that he was excited for me, because I would get a new identity. Indeed, Christianity had a strong grip on my identity. In some sense, the counselor was right: I had a significant shift in the way I saw myself, but he was also wrong: the substance of my identity was mostly unchanged. In this post, I discuss how my new identity is largely the same as my old identity. 

Carina Nebula by Harel Boren, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license. I now accept the nebulous nature of meaning. This amazing picture reminds me that the nebulous is beautiful. 

Christianity had made a near-total claim on my identity. Furthermore, it made a systematic claim on my identity, such that other aspects of my identity were defined in terms of Christianity. To give but one example of many, I was a Christian husband. My marriage was literally defined in Christian terms. It seemed sensible to wonder who I was if the Christian part were subtracted. The nihilist answer is that I was no one, but fortunately that answer doesn’t survive even a modest degree of sober, well-informed scrutiny. 

From one identity, mostly back to the same

The actual answer to who I have become is the most boring one: I’m the same person as before, just not a Christian. There are confusing philosophical problems around the continuity of the self but we can side-step those by accepting the nebulous nature of identity. I often take mental refuge in the realization that there is no "true self." 

To give a bit more detail on the “new” me: I am still husband to the same woman, I am still father to the same children, I still play the same electric guitars, I still work for the same company, I still have the same last name and the same extended family, I still have the same digital identities on various websites, I am still the same height, my eyes are the same color, my body has aged a bit but that was going to happen anyway, I still have that cluster of small congenital hemangiomas on my right wrist, etc. 

The big realization is that the all-encompassing system (Christianity) doesn’t support the ancillary meanings (marriage, family, music, work, etc.) — actually it’s the other way around! Christianity presses meanings into its service, so that Christians see Christianity as total. But hear me, Christian, actually you are a person, with an identity of unbounded richness and complexity! When I took away the Christianity, I only took away a single part. Most of my identity remains unchanged.

Increased tolerance for contradiction

My Christianity was a grand system of meaning that deliberately and consciously forced meanings to be more consistent with each other. I had a low tolerance for contradiction and a low tolerance for what David Chapman calls “nebulousity.” Individual meanings had to be clear, the connections between meanings had to work well and the entire system tried to be consistent. As seen in “Nash and the Strawman,” I did not require absolute consistency, but consistency was definitely strongly favored. 

I still value consistency a lot, but removing the grand system has significantly reduced my drive to eliminate inconsistencies. Equally, I’ve gotten more comfortable with the nebulous nature of meanings. People are contradictory and inconsistent. It’s ok for me to be contradictory and inconsistent, too, sometimes. And the nebulous is ok — actually it’s beautiful. 

Part of this increased tolerance for fuzz and error is because philosophical and spiritual topics are now a lot less important to me. I don’t have a system as my identity. I don’t go around calling myself a follower of the method of David Chapman, which I summarized in Part VI. (What would that be, a “Chapmanian”?) And that’s because I’m not. I don’t have a system, not even “the system of” And I don’t need to defend my ideas so ardently any more. I’ve tried to reach the lowest possible potential energy state for my beliefs and now I don’t fear falling further. Prove that I’m wrong and, hopefully, I’ll shrug, laugh and correct myself. Practically, I probably don’t react quite so well, because I’m human. I still repeat my mistake of fusing my identity with my beliefs, but I’m only going to do that in comparatively tiny ways. In the words of The Who, I “won’t get fooled again.”

One could see my newly-failed ardor for "the truth" as evidence of apathy. Maybe it is, but I like to think that it’s a sign that I’m starting to take a meta-systematic approach. Systematic thinking is an enormously useful skill and my attacks on Eternalism shouldn’t be perceived as downplaying the importance of systems. But no one system fits every situation, so I think it’s better to spend energy moving between systems rather than trying to weld all the systems together and smooth over all their differences. The way forward is to use meanings rather than to obsess over them. I ought to refocus on practical problems instead of crashing my head against the dead stone wall called “philosophy.”

The living reverberation of my old Christianity

Defining myself by disagreement with Christianity isn’t actually a goal (in spite of this whole series). My wife is a Christian. I go to church, celebrate Christmas and I join in praying. In a definite cultural sense, I still am Christian. (Imprinted cultural identity is just that strong!) Mostly, I do Christian activities to support my wife and kids. But going to church is also a good way to make friends.

My marriage is very important to me. I love my wife and she’s a Christian, so I walk the line of living in a way that’s respectful to her beliefs. Everyone is on a path of learning and knowledge is so high-dimensional that no one can be in the same state of knowledge as anyone else. Each of us has to learn to cooperate with people who think in different ways and who hold different beliefs. It helps that my no-religion is one that does not seek to proselytize. 

After a period of thinking, I realized that life is too short for me to figure out morality again. Furthermore, while there are several different ethical theories and each has slightly different implications and each produces different answers under extraordinary conditions, generally, I find that morality is just one thing. Everyone thinks you shouldn’t murder people or steal their stuff. Kant’s categorical imperative is a re-phrasing of the Golden Rule. So, as a general rule, I stick with the ethical system that I know from Christianity. Certainly, I don’t hold myself to all the rules in the Bible, for example, the rule against idolatry is a little nonsensical for a person who doesn’t believe in God. And I am not hesitant to accept moral developments that are more recent than the 1st century AD, for example, feminism, universal egalitarianism, and the idea of accepting everyone in the world as my “neighbor” in the parable of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37.

Some beliefs are about the practical object world: gravity, keeping a job, cooking breakfast, etc. Other examples of group membership statements could include: believing in God, that gun control is bad, that Muhammad designated Ali ibn Abi Talib as his successor, etc. Group membership beliefs are parts of a person’s identity, but practical beliefs aren’t. In “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari calls socially constructed belief systems “myths” and says that they are required for humans to organize themselves into large groups. My synthesis is that Harari's work implies that we cannot remove all group-membership beliefs. On the other hand, Steven Pinker in “Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters” says that we can eliminate the realm of mythology, but I think his definition of mythology is smaller than Harari’s. (Also, Pinker ignores some of his own socially-constructed identity-beliefs.) 

I aim to minimize my identity-beliefs, an idea from Paul Graham: “If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”  For example, if I accepted “New Atheism,” (which, in 2022, is already an old idea!), then in many ways I would be trying to replace one tribal identity with another. I may still have some group identity beliefs, but while I may be outwardly “Christian” in many ways, I do not accept the Christian group membership beliefs.


I stopped being a Christian. Not much else about me changed. But the process of leaving Christianity caused significant trauma at the time and the question of what that meant for my identity was pressing. Fortunately, I was able to detangle the rest of myself from the grip of my former systematic Christianity. In Part VIII, I’ll expand on how nihilism appeared in the crater of my exploded Christianity, and I speculate on how I could have avoided the pain that nihilism caused. 

In hindsight, I wonder what the counselor could have said that would have been more helpful. Maybe he should have said: “I’m excited for you because you’ll be the same person as before, just not a Christian.” On the other hand, he might have said something like that, and I forgot because it’s a less catchy meme. Sometimes the truth is like that. 

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Intermezzo: Fast forward to 2022

Faith, Doubt and Anti-Metanoia series, a brief intermission. This post parallels the passage of time between when I wrote most of the material in Parts I-VI (2015-16) and when I wrote Parts VII-X (2021-22). Here's a link to the series introduction.

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich. (This image is in the public domain.)

In Part I, I told the story of my Christian faith-to-no-Christian faith journey. Part II is my argument against absolute Biblical authority. Part III presents summaries of four books and one essay that fed into my thinking during my period of doubt and seeking. In Part IV, I outline some early Christian writing by summarizing Bart Ehrman’s book “Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make It into the New Testament.” Then I explored the question of which books actually did end up being the Bible, in Part V, by summarizing three scholarly books on the subject. Part V finds that the support for the Biblical canon is less than absolutely solid; that is one way to see that the Eternalist system of Evangelical Christianity is build on a foundation of unjustified dogma, rather than reason.

After too much material on the Bible, Part VI presents a summary of, moving on to the post-Christian part of my journey. Certainly, removing Christianity left a void in my life. But the question of “what to replace Christianity with?” turned out to be badly formed. I think of as a catalyst for my realizing that Christianity needs no direct replacement in my life. It’s not that I had the wrong system, it’s that no system could ever be the perfect one or even the right one. 

The first six posts in this series were drafted in previous years, much of it during a transitional period. Now, in 2021-2022, I have a modicum of hindsight and the benefit of having worked through some of the associated emotional problems. The upcoming posts are my thinking on these questions: 

  • After leaving Christianity, where did I land? In my story of Part I, I briefly mentioned the counselor who was excited for me because I would get a new identity. This is addressed in Part VII “My new identity.”
  • How could I have made my journey out of Christianity easier? In particular, I’m interested in how I could have avoided the problems caused by passing through nihilism. I discuss more in Part VIII “Dodging nihilism better.”
  • What new problems of meaning do I now face and how do I address them? This is the topic of Part IX “Answering Eternalist objections to the Complete Stance.”
  • What do I see as the next steps for meaning in my life and in the world? Addressed in Part X “Next steps in meaning-space.”

But before you read the next posts in this series, I recommend that you read these pages by David Chapman: