Monday, January 21, 2013

An Interview with Sheldon Cooper

The following is an interview with Sheldon Cooper of The Ramblings of Sheldon.

It's easy for atheists to feel superior to fundamentalists. Considering you were once a fundamentalist, is there any insight you can give about who you were at that time that might sway atheists from dismissing outright the character and intelligence of theists?

In my experience as a former fundamentalist, the mix of the various IQ’s of people really isn’t that different from the general population.

I knew some people that weren’t very smart, then I knew people like my ex’s father, who was at the top of his field as an engineer for a defense contractor, and one man who had advanced degrees in economics that he used in his job in local government.

As for myself, I was rather advanced for my age as a child. I tested very high, many grades higher on subjects such as history and English than others my age. I have an IQ of 113 (not sky high, but OK). I was explaining world events that were going on in the news to my parents, who had a hard time understanding what was going on, and I was holding my own in advanced theology discussions with pastors, when I was as young as 7 or 8 years old.

I always questioned, I always wanted to know more, and I’ve noticed that’s a common pattern among people who have rejected the fundamentalism that they were raised with.

I do not think that fundamentalists are any less intelligent than the rest of us, but the problem is a deliberate shutting off of normal reasoning processes. Fundamentalism has a belief in absolutes, that some things are true no matter what. You start out first with your decision to believe, then you try to justify it, instead of coming to conclusions through evidence.

It takes a lot of stubbornness in sticking to what you believe, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, or trying to explain it away. It’s a process that’s very confusing and frustrating to outsiders. Cephus from the blog Bitchspot hits the mark when he calls it a massive circular clusterfuck.

Fundamentalists for the most part, aren’t stupid, but they are stubborn, and don’t follow the same reasoning patterns that most of us follow (or should follow).

As for character of fundamentalists, that’s a murky area. In my experience, most were decent people who were desperately trying to live up to the extremely high standards of fundamentalism (and feeling very guilty when they didn’t live up to them in some small way).

However, you have to be careful before trusting someone who is a fundamentalist. The high standards, and the guilt accompanying them will lead to people burying their flaws, both minor and major character flaws very deeply.

This makes it very hard to tell who is trustworthy, and who isn’t, combined with the fact that it is relatively easy for a sociopath (such as a pedophile) to slip into fundamentalist circles and culture, because of the way that their culture is set up. Be cautious when letting one into your life, because dangerous people can be hard to spot.

There was a time when you went to a Baptist college that was considerably less Baptist than your upbringing to that point. While this was a stressful experience for you, would you credit it as the first introduction of doubt? Did anyone make fun of you for your strict, fundamental understanding of the faith? If so, what effect did that have on you?

I think some clarification is needed here, except for my exposure to the cult known as the Independent Fundamental Baptist organization in elementary school, my parents have always been more extreme than the churches we were often affiliated with (it’s odd, I know).

Most of my childhood/teen years were spent in the Assemblies of God and Southern Baptist denominations, and I think my beliefs until my loss of faith were closer to the Southern Baptist denomination than they were to that of my parents.

As often as I post about the IFB, II think some of my readers may have mistakenly gotten the idea that I spent most of my life in that group. if anyone thought this, I apologize for the misunderstanding, and no, it’s not deliberate.

Anyway, no one did make fun of me for my beliefs when I entered college, even though there was a little more variety in beliefs than what you might expect for a Southern Baptist university.
(I would estimate that about 60 % or so were Southern Baptist, 30 % other denominations, and about 10 %, mostly athletes, weren’t Christians at all, no profession of faith was required to enter.)

What led to so much confusion was being unfamiliar with the whole typical American classroom experience (since I was in a private school until 5th grade, then home schooled until 12th), and going from parents having an extreme amount of control over my life, to actually being able to make day to day decisions for the first time. It was too much all at once, and it led to depression (along with severe fatigue and pain), panic attacks and a complete nervous breakdown.

In some ways, picking up the pieces afterwards led me more back into my faith, since my family  blamed me for the depression (it was nothing more than “guilt” and “not having a right relationship with god), I believed it, and I sank myself deeper into fundamentalism.

However, that started leading me out of fundamentalism, seeing the barbarity of the Old Testament for what it is, and seeing the conflicts and practical impossibilities of the Bible (like Noah’s Ark). It’s rather ironic that it seeking to reclaim my faith, I lost it in the process.

It was a slow process, (it took over 2 years from the time I came back to the time I lost my faith), and I didn’t realize what was happening at first.

You've describe yourself as a "closeted agnostic blogger." What do you suppose would happen if you used your real name on your blog? What would happen if all your family and friends knew that you no longer believed?

My feelings may change later in life, but I don’t think that I will publish my real name on the blog, or on any accounts linked to the blog.

Being “Sheldon Cooper” helps me to be more able to express myself on my blog. It makes it easier for me to tell details about my past life that I may not otherwise be as comfortable saying if my real, legal name was out there, attached to the blog.

Besides that, I wouldn’t want to open myself up to threats or personal attacks on my character, the likes of which have unfortunately started becoming common in the atheist blogging world recently.

As for friends and family, I don’t want to make the decision to come out until about a year or so from now, when hopefully I’ll be in a more stable place in life emotionally, etc, than I am now.  I know eventually, I’ll have to come out to everyone, that just a given, I’ll have to do it someday in order to move on with my life.

Coming out to friends shouldn’t be too hard, I have done that on a limited basis, with people I knew I could trust, and it wasn’t too bad, I think most people would either be confused or trying to bring me back into fundamentalism (and that I can deal with fairly easily)

The real problem here will lie in the problems it will cause with family. If I come out on a large scale to people I knew from my past fundamentalist life, word will circle back quickly to family, and they most definitely will not be as accepting of me now. If I come out to people from my past, I’ll have to come out to family at the same time, that’s what I’m not looking forward to. There will be a lot of confusion and anger (since they will likely see it as a rejection of them, not just their beliefs), and they are rather close minded, I hate to say....

As a user of Google Plus, how does it's atheist/agnostic community compare to that of Facebook and Twitter? How would you recommend a new user get acquainted to the social network?

I personally haven’t experienced the atheist communities on either Facebook or Twitter. I don’t use Twitter at all, and my Facebook page is for personal use, it has mostly people from my past fundamentalist life (and I don’t hardly use that account at all anyway).

As for Google +, I like it, there’s a very strong atheist/skeptic community there that is very close knit, and they love to debate about anything. I’ve heard many people who have made the switch from Facebook say that they love it, the crowd there seems to be much smarter and more skeptical over all. I’ve had invitations from fellow bloggers to join Twiiter, but I think that I would have a hard time keeping up with more than one social media account for my blog.

Have you found a community to call your own since leaving your faith? Does it incorporate your outside life, or only on-line? What is the main difference between this community and your church?

As far as outside/offline life, I have no support community, and I’ve come out to very few people.

Online, running the blog has been a great experience in helping to move forward. I started the blog because of the encouragement of Montreal blogger Godless Poutine, he said it was “good therapy” for him, and it’s proven true for me as well.

Finally getting to tell my life story to people from around the world, and get feedback from that audience, both on the blog and on Google + has helped me to move forward in many ways.

In my early days of unbelief, I was also a regular poster on the discussion boards of ex-christian.net, an online support group for former Christians. I feel like I kind of outgrew that site in many ways, especially now that I have the blog, but I highly recommend the site for anyone who is struggling with the transition out of Christianity.

To what extent do you now believe Jesus was real? Did he exist? Did he perform miracles? What do you base this on?

Do I believe Jesus was an actual, historical person who existed on the earth at some point?
He probably did exist, (I know some atheists would disagree with me on that), but seeing as I am an agnostic now, I don’t believe in the miracles that he supposedly performed. I think much of what we now consider Christianity came out of the Council of Nicaea.

There were many conflicting beliefs and practices (as well as what writings should make up the Bible) within the early Christian church, but that all changed when Constantine wanted to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. The Council, and the Roman government probably felt it was best to accept writings and orthodoxy that portrayed Jesus as a powerful, miracle working son of god, because it best suited each other’s interests and ideas.

What do you see as the most harmful aspect of religion?

It’s a tie between the deliberate shutting off of normal reasoning abilities (as I talked about in response to question 1), and the hostility towards anyone who doesn’t look, think, act the same way as the believer.

Both are damaging, the first causes someone to abandon all reason, and often leads to rejection of science, and higher learning, while the other leads to hate, discrimination, and in worst case scenarios throughout history, even wars and genocide.

12 comments:

  1. I think much of what we now consider Christianity came out of the Council of Nicaea.

    That is a very strange thing to believe. We have a ton of Christian writings before Nicaea. Ignatius, Clement, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyprian, just to name a few. All the major doctrines of Christianity can be found in Christian writers before Nicaea. That is not even considering the New Testament itself.

    It is another one of the fundamentalist things that they don't learn much church history.

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    1. Hi Randy.

      Of course there were theologians before the Council of Nicaea, some of them all well known to this day. What I meant is that one of the major aims of the council was to establish what exactly they believed Christianity was, how they viewed Jesus, and what books of the Bible they accepted as divine scripture.

      After Nicaea, all competing views of Jesus, the various books of the Bible that were not accepted by the council were shut out, and not considered "true" Christianity.

      Many of those competing views were almost lost to history.

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    2. I would not call them competing views. There was a lack of precision on many questions. The big thing was they had the tradition of the apostles and they knew who understood that tradition best. They were called apostolic successors or bishops.

      So when Arius came along they didn't ask if they liked his teaching or not. They asked whether the teaching was apostolic. They knew who would know. That is they knew who to invite to Nicaea. Those bishops didn't define something new but simply stated more precisely what the old faith was and what it was not.

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  2. Great interview. I very much agree with your commenting on education and fundamentalism. I know a few fundamentalists, some are quite educated. As a bit of an aside, one is a cancer doc, which I find ironic in that he basically "treats" evolution...anyway... I think you are correct. Many of those people just seem to live in a form of cognitive dissonance. I have a hard time understand that, as it is something that I could not really do. I mean, I understand what it means, but not how one could go through life that way.

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    1. I never realized just how much energy I was spending on cognitive dissonance and trying to defend the indefensible, until after I left.

      So much stress was gone at that point. My anxiety, and the emotionally symptoms of depression went down quickly.

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  3. I completely agree with your assessment of the intelligence of fundamentalists. In my experience they are not any smarter or dumber than anyone else, it's just that their religion spends a lot of energy making sure they don't use their intellect looking at the religion skeptically.

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    1. Right, skeptical thinking is not allowed.

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    2. So atheists are allowed to be skeptical of atheism? I have not seen this. Very few people seriously question the underlying assumptions of their world and life view.

      Seriously, I do appreciate you not going with the "brights" language.

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    3. Any atheist who grew up religious has questioned the underlying assumptions of their world view and changed it at least once. I still do this, and I am open to changing it again, it's just that as of yet, I have not seen any compelling reason to do so.

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  4. I love your interview series ! Can I interview you? Pretty please?

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    1. Sure. Email me: grundy[at]hellscoldday.com.

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  5. Fantastic interview guys! Thanks for doing it.

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