I was born year 1973. Both my parents had a biochemical education. My father worked long days in the research laboratory and died when I was eight years old. I don't remember him very well. My mother stayed at home with my sister and me.
In Finland there is unfortunately an official state religion, the Luthean Protestant Christianity. While over 80 percent of the population are formally members of the church and pay about one percent of their income as a church tax, my feeling is that very few are strong believers. Most are members because it is the tradition and the norm and because church offers their families familiar traditions such as wedding, name giving and funeral.
Although there are some minor links between the government and church, we don't have strong politically active or fundamentalist religious groups. In this sense I would say that Finland is a more secular country than United States.
The worst problem concerns education. All children of parents who are members of the Lutheran church - i.e. almost all parents - must attend religion classes through all their school years, from age 7 to 16. In these classes no objectivity is required, instead all kinds of preaching is allowed. Children must also attend church sermons with classes about once in month.
I have some rather clear memories of my childhood that relate to religion. One is from one of the compulsory church sermons when I was on the first class and 7 years old. Everybody was supposed to read aloud the statement of belief: "I believe in God, our heavenly father, and Jesus Christ, the only son of God... blaah blaah", about one hundred words in total. I remember I became angry, thinking: "What is this?! We are supposed to say we believe all this and they haven't even asked us if we do believe it!" I refused to read the statements and join in the singing of religious songs.
Also from that time I remember explaining a simple version of the Big Bang theory to other boys in the neighborhood. I was very excited about it! Although it is clear that I must have heard about it from my father, I don't have memories about hearing it - only about telling about it. Teaching is the beast way to learn I guess!
Another memory comes from the second class. A boy in my class came to talk with me after one of those compulsory religion classes. We had a short conversation about existence of God. He said: "I think it is better to believe in god. You see, if there is no god, what does it matter? But if there is god, then I'll get to heaven when I die." I didn't reply much but I remember I was thinking that his argument was both childish and selfish and I felt there was something philosophically wrong with it.
When I was young, I did regard the Bible as a problem though. I didn't believe in the supernatural miracles presented there but couldn't think of any other easy explanation for the book. I remember in age of 8 making theories about how Jesus might have actually hypnotized the people who saw a "miracle". Whereas even that would be a better explanation than supernatural powers, I have of course found later much better analysis about the origins the Bible from critical research literature and it presents no problem at all to me nowadays.
There are also some memories from age 7-9 that present me as a not-so-skeptical observer. Once my mother bought Chinese "health"-shoes that had magnets in the bottom and were said to improve circulation and general health. I remember I thought: "Well, they must work because they have magnets!" without even understanding properly what a magnet is.
A bit more disturbing memory is from a lottery. I won a car washing set with a ticket my mother bought me. Of course a 7-year old doesn't do much with some car shampoo, but I was very happy anyhow because I has won! But in few hours I had lost the set somewhere and was very unhappy. After futile search my mother bought me another lottery ticket - and it was also a winning one! This time the prize was an umbrella, slightly more useful than a car wash set. I was happy again and - here is the point of the story - thinking: "I must have been aided by some greater power - two tickets in a row can't win without some reason!"
I'm not sad because of these experiences although they show I haven't been absolutely critical at every time. Having had them, I know how easy it is for young people to believe paranormal explanations and how strong sometimes the urge to do so is.
My father died when I was eight years old. I didn't miss him much because I didn't know him well, but it was hard for my mother. She started asking in the Jehovah's witnesses who were preaching from door to door in Finland as they do everywhere around the world. I remember her lengthy and numerous discussions with them although I tried not to listen. I didn't like it at all. I felt humiliated and angry because she was religious or at least trying to find faith. I understand her better now. She never become Jehovah's witness or very openly religious person but I suspect she was not an atheist.
Whereas my fathers was not so bad for me and my sister, our mothers was. I was then 12 years old. Slightly too young to be emotionally independent, slightly too old to accept any other woman as a replacement mother - a very age indeed to become orphan. And bad it was: I changed from an open to a very closed person for many years.
How did this affect my worldview? Some people, mostly believers, have later said to me that I am an atheist because of this experience, that after such experience one can not possibly believe in a caring god. I reply to them that I certainly and evidently didn't possess any belief in gods even before the incident.
It must be said though that there is atheism and there is atheism. One type of practical atheism is just lack of thinking about bigger questions. These people - and there are very many - live their everyday life and don't ever stop to consider the existence of supernatural powers. If one asks them about their beliefs, they are confused and say they don't know or that they haven't thought about such things. The other type of atheism is more pronounced and clear, more thoughtful, more detailed and intellectual. Of course there is no sharp division between the types - there are many possibilities between the two extremes. What did happen after my mothers was that my atheism started to drift from the former type to the latter.
This division of non-thoughtful and thoughtful atheism should not be confused with the more usual division to soft core atheism (lack of belief in god) and atheism (belief that there is no god). I don't in fact much like the latter division. The confusing word is "belief" which the believers understand to mean 100% religious certainty but most atheists understand to mean much less.
I prefer to think in terms of probabilities. For example, I think that the probability that earth is a flat like pancake is less than 10e-30. I might say in the same way that the probability of existence of Christian god is less than 10e-40. These are, of course, subjective probabilities, based on my premises and my reasoning.
Now if the fact is that I regards god's existence as extremely unprobable, am I a "soft core" or " " atheist? I would say that I'm . After all, I would say that I believe the earth is round and my disbelief in gods existence is really very similar with my belief in earth's roundness. But it all depends on ones definition of "belief" (100% or 99.9999%) and that's why I use probability arguments when my position in this matter is asked.
Another reason why I don't like to run around telling I'm atheist is that many believers think that atheism is just a religion among other religions. Even if my disbelief in god would be 100% absolute (which it is not) I wouldn't regard my views as a "religion". Religious belief is very different in type from thoughtful strong atheism. After all, would I be called to practice religion if I would have 100% disbelief towards pink unicorns? What kind of religion would that be? No - it wouldn't be a religion, and I disbelief pink unicorns in exactly the same way as I disbelieve gods.
A final point about the soft core vs. debate. Although there is a major philosophical difference in thinking that god exists with 0% probability and god exists with 10^-40 probability, there is no practical or technical difference. For purpose of our actions, praying for example, a 10^-40 is as good as zero. With so low subjective probability, even a ten second prayer that asks god to give 100 billion dollars is worthless: the expected return is higher when the ten seconds are used for some more productive work.
After my mothers followed many dim years with the situation worsened by some quite serious bullying that I suffered in school. I remember I was thinking that in school the laws of our civilized nation have changed to the laws of jungle: what really counts is physical power and (to a lesser degree) quick and smart verbal response. At the time I lacked both. Certainly there was no guidance, no support, no strength of any kind coming from any paranormal powers. I thought that if god exists, he tends to favor bigger armies and bigger muscles, not kindness or responsibility. Certainly that time did make my thoughts more radical and defined though I was only much later able to talk about them.
Those years were also marked by improvement of my school grades from good to excellent. Later I have suspected that the main reason for the progress was that in almost total absence of social life I had turned the whole focus of my life to science, knowledge and understanding. Having a very messy head, achievements in school brought some sense of order and much needed self-confidence. Although people some times tend to call me a genius when they hear about my achievements, I think that success in academic life is more dependent on self determination, motivation and will to achieve than genes.
To be truthful, I must mention some cases (I think there was two) during the dim years when I wished I would become a nutty believer in order to get rid of all the pain and to get strength. The believer vs. skeptic discussion inside my head on those occasions proceeded something like:
- OK, now I'll throw away my skeptism and start to believe in god and I'll get happiness and strength...
- Well, well Robert... are you now being quite truthful towards yourself? Remember that wishful thinking doesn't make something true. Are you willing to sacrifice your dignity and commitment to truth in order to get some good vibes?
Both attempts lasted about one day and didn't make me a believer (I don't think I was even near about being one). Although I was for a few years quite ashamed of even attempting to believe, I have later learned to appreciate the experience. I understand now how strong the need for mental peace is in human beings and how easy it is to blindly attempt all perceived possibilities to take away the mental pain.
This need is often confused with need to believe. I think that the need for mental peace and stability is much more fundamental and stronger need and religion is only one perceived method to achieve this deeper goal. Because our society can be quite hostile and not as active in offering help for those with mental pain as churches, an uncareful observer can conclude that human being has a need for religion. Nowadays, being a happy atheist, I can assure that I have no primary need for any kind of religious thinking.
For a long time though, I did think that religions offer some positive mental stuff for the believers. I expressed this in many discussions with Christians by saying that I don't want to trade probable truth for probable happiness, that truth is more valuable for me. I was very surprised to hear some of the believers respond that I shouldn't think Christians life is always sunshine, that they can have depressions and bad times as bad as nonbelievers. (Of course they added that their god gives them support during the bad moods but I remained curious as to why their god would cause the bad moods in the first place)
Nowadays I tend to think that religions don't possess any happy-making magic that could not be achieved in other ways. When it comes to the purpose of life, I am sometimes asked by the believers that isn't it horrible to think that life has no purpose and that it ends in . I reply, as I think many other atheists would too, that praising some imagined man in the clouds and getting a piece of the heavenly cake don't seem much better or unselfish purposes than working, loving, being kind and having fun here on earth. And, quite naturally, everlasting life would most likely be boring and horrible.
When I was 15 years old and having bad time in my life, my relatives put me into a confirmation school camp. I don't know whether other branches of Christianity in addition to the Lutheran have confirmation school tradition. It means that the teenagers are for some period given religious teaching by church employees after which they are "confirmed" and become formally members of the church. This teaching happens in addition to the religious teaching in school.
Usually this confirmation school takes place on a camp lasting one week with the addition of prayers and Christian songs. Before the camp, the teenagers must attend the church mass for about ten consequent Sundays - quite clever preparation for a camp of brainwashing. These camps can be horribly effective in making non-believing youngsters Christians. Not so much because they would offer logic or reasoning supporting the Christian premises but because they are very powerful social and emotional experiences and that's what religions are mostly about. Although my own camp was not extremely effective in that sense, I have heard of camps where over 90% of the teenagers have converted to Christianity during long and emotional prayer sessions.
What is brainwashing? I think a good definition would be that in brainwashing arguments are pushed for acceptance not by logical reasoning but by repeating them very many times and in many forms with the addition of emotional pushing. For most people, the idea of brainwashing is quite remote but I do see many examples of it in our society from some commercials to Lutheran confirmation school camps.
If a group of manipulative teenagers all convert during one emotional week with no single argument presented to support their new beliefs, what else is this than brainwashing? In my camp, the sentence "Jesus loves you" was presented at least ten times in an evening. Even one repetition would be enough if sole purpose was to discuss the possible reality of the claim but many repetitions are needed to implant the idea to the brain without questioning.
I had d the idea of going to confirmation school, but when my relatives finally got the idea (no weird thing considering that over 90% of the teenagers go to these schools!) I didn't have the mental strength to rebel. I must say that I did enjoy the warm atmosphere and new friends on the camp.
When we were singing I thought: "I don't believe a bit of there words but singing them is nice." And although it must have been clear to the church employees that I was an atheist - I even remember having some philosophical arguments with them - they liked me very much. I think the reason was that I was a kind person and academically well performing. One must also remember that a true believer never stops to hope that a clever atheist would convert to belief - it would be such a mighty victory for them. So, although in some ways it was a very weird thing, when the church staff was faced next summer with an acute lack of co-instructors on the camp, they asked me among others.
And now here comes the funny part: I took the job! And not only on that summer - I was a helping at the camp for four years after my own! Why in earth? When one starts to think, there were actually quite many reasons. I wanted to have fun and the much needed social experience again. I and the other co-instructors didn't have to do any of the teaching jobs - we had only simple jobs such as arranging some games to play for the young ones. Some of the other co-instructors were my good friends and not believers either (though I suspect I was strongest in atheism). Knowing how effective these camps can sometimes be in converting I knew that at least I would not help in the process. If I hadn't been there, my position might have been filled by some true believer with nondesirable consequences. To this I must add that although I was straight to the teenagers about my atheism if they asked, they rarely did, and some must have thought that I was a believer because I was there. On the later years I had already developed some needed experience as a co-instructor and asking me again was quite natural.
Later I have thought much about that time. It is funny to tell about these confirmation camps to some new atheist friends to see how they are confused about the fact before I explain the matter in more detail. Although it was nice time, I don't think I would do it again. My attitudes towards acting in a religious-looking way have fluctuated during these years. One extreme is to consider all song singing, prayer saying and church sitting as hypocrisy, wrong and unenjoyable. The other extreme is to say: "I don't believe any of this stuff but what the heck? I'll just go with the flow - and besides this is fun and social."
In the recent years I've been slowly drifting towards the first position, which is also my original standing. Not though nearly as far as I was sometimes in my radical teenage. I simply feel that I'm more honest towards myself and others when I act in accordance with my opinions. I guess I realized already earlier that doing the opposite is not honest but I didn't bother about it. Nowadays I feel my moral standards are higher in this and other respects.
When I was sixteen, I applied for and received a scholarship for two year college in Atlantic College, Wales, United Kingdom. This international school was excellent both in academic and social respects. While my academic performance remained high, my social performance remained quite low - a great pity when you have very nice people from over sixty nations around living you.
While Atlantic College was diverse in nationalities it was naturally also diverse in religions and philosophies. One of my best friends was Islamic and I had many discussions with him. It was very revealing that he used exactly same types of arguments to support his religious views as did my Christian friends to support theirs. I heard for example that the Koran has parts which are such that they could not have been written by a human being.
He was also fairly intelligent - as were many other believers in the school - and convinced me that logical and religious thinking can be located in the same head. Previously I had thought that religious people must be somehow simple. Nowadays I tend to think that religion and logic must be located in different locations in our brains, perhaps even in different hemispheres. How else could be explained comments like the one from my Christian friends who studies theoretical physics: "OK, I know my religious views sound stupid - and I tell you they sound stupid even to me. But I just happen to have them, believe in them. This is the belief I have, and that's all there is to it."
While most believers try to hide the conflict between their religious and logical sides from the outside world, this comment seems to me revealingly honest in all its absurdity. How honest and brave it is to admit to yourself and others that there are two separate thinking systems, two separate opinions in your head! It is scary, but I think it is true in the case of believers as well some other cases. Comment like this bear a peculiar resemblance with the observations made of patients whose brains hemispherical connection has been cut off. They can start arguing with themselves, saying "Yes!" - "No!" - "Yes!" - "No!" just like two humans argue with each other. Normally believers hide their possibly conflicting inner opinions. An example of this is the dressing of religious views as rational or even scientific.
Although a believer can offer a million pieces of evidence seemingly supporting his religious views, that evidence seems to always come after the conversion to faith. As they like to say themselves: "My conversion opened my eyes to see all the evidence of god in our world." Very rare are the cases where a nonbeliever is presented with such powerful logical arguments and evidence that he obtains a rational belief in a religious dogma. Very common on the other hand are the cases where conversion to faith happen in the total absence of logical arguments and evidence - during long and emotional masses with much prayer and singing.
Faith is the primary fact - it comes and stands with or without any evidence. Evidence and observations are simply offered to the outside observer (and even to self!) to make the faith look more rational. Faith comes first - then comes the hunt for observations that fit with the faith and support it in the eyes of the believing individual.
I had most of my religious and philosophical discussions in Atlantic College with a boy from Bahai Faith. A good thing about the Bahai is that they try to keep things simple: no churches, no sermons, no priests, no standard statements of faith. They want to remain in the core and don't want to let any add-ons to disturb it. The bad thing is that the core in Bahai faith is as illogical, paranormal and non-supported as any old religion.
My Bahai friend was perhaps my last great attempt to try to convince a religious person of his fallacies. On some occasions with him I feel I got quite long way towards this goal but on the next day he would return with his faith restored again. Nowadays I am quite pessimistic about the possibilities of a religious person becoming non-religious and enjoy the occasional discussions with Christians only in order to learn about the faith process and - of course - enjoy some sarcasm about their beliefs. I don't find arguments with believers difficult - quite the contrary - but I do find them less and less useful for any purpose.
What is interesting to note is that although conversions from faith to no faith are very rare, conversions from one faith to another seem to be more common. I interpret this observation to support the view of emotional and nonrational nature of religions. In arguments with believers, it doesn't seem to be the step of the logic which they are unable or unwilling to take - it's the emotional and psychological step which is very high from religion to atheism. Step from one religion to another is likely to be smaller even if the belief systems would be very different.
In the last year in the college I was quite pessimistic about mans ability to think rationally in all matters. Almost everybody I saw around me and everywhere had more or less paranormal world view. I remember I thought that perhaps I'm the only rational person in the world and everybody else are weirdoes.
Fortunately, after that I have been happy to find the skeptical and atheistic communities in both Finland and United States. Although at least the ones in Finland are extremely small, I have enjoyed much their existence. Presently I'm a member of the board of Finnish skeptics and the secretary of Helsinki area freethinkers. The experience of many other of our members have been quite similar: when they found that there are other atheists they have been very happily surprised and joined us straight away.
It seems that atheist are more or less lonely wolves at least initially. This supports the view that atheism is more rational and less brainwashing than religions where any conversion is usually preceded by many lengthy and emotional pushing sessions. And besides: who would convert to Christianity alone without ever hearing about it? No one. It doesn't follow from observations of the world so one must be told about it to convert. On the other hand, who would develop atheism alone by critical observations and thinking about the world? Many - including me - have done so.
This summer I have "found" a third and very refreshing non-believing activity here in Finland. The "Prometheus camp" organization is only six years old and they arrange summer camps for mainly non-religious teenagers. They attempt to offer youngsters an social and enjoyable experience of thinking and mental growth but without the religious dogmas of confirmation camps. I was as an instructor on two camps this summer and think that both were great successes.
It is very important to see that the great social feeling of many religious gatherings is not caused by the religion as many seem to think. As great feelings and can be obtained without the dogmas. And what's more, these camps include discussions where the teenagers tend to discuss moral and philosophical matters with extreme openness. I find this much more educating than the unidirectional lectures of priests on confirmation camps. I am looking forward in continuing to act as an instructor on these camps. It is, after all, priceless and unique experience also for the instructor.
My other present activities include occasional lectures in schools about atheism and general skeptism for teenagers. These are also very rewarding experiences. Most teachers have also positive attitude (and it is indeed always some teacher that invites me to speak) but there are notable exceptions. I also write articles to the magazines of Finnish skeptics and freethinkers.
My philosophical interest is at the moment focused on the probability arguments on existence. One concerns paranormal belief in context of conditional probability. An example clarifies what I mean. I know an old couple who believe in ghosts. As their main evidence supporting their belief they told about a happening few years ago. They were walking in dark evening on a seashore which was told to be haunted by legends. They said to me they saw a group of people walking with lanterns further away. The husband called them and asked what time it is. They didn't respond. That's the whole story and the couple firmly believe what they saw was ghosts.
What was their reasoning? They said that it was very unlikely that there would be such a group of people walking on that beach (perhaps chances of one against one hundred) and that it was very unlikely that they would not respond if they were humans (perhaps again on against one hundred). So, they concluded, because it was highly unlikely that they were humans (in our example one in 10.000) it was highly likely that they were ghosts (9.999 in 10.000).
So what's the problem with their argument? It is their silent assumption that in absence of their evidence the probability for ghosts existence would be about 50%. In reality, we should start the probability calculation by a theoretical estimation of the probability that ghosts exist P(G). Then the probability P of ghost existence in the light of their evidence E would be the conditional P = P(G|E) = P(G)/P(E). Now, if we say that P(G) is at most one in a billion considering all their aspects that contradict modern scientific findings, an P(E) of one in 10.000 (as in our example) still leaves the existence of ghosts very unlikely.
Conditional probability arguments are really only a more formal statement of the good old skeptics rule: "More radical claims need more radical proofs." If this is forgotten - as the couple did - it is too easy to deduce gods existence from quite probable things like healing from cancer or winning in a lottery. Preachers often try to confuse soon-to-be believers to forget the conditional probability by statements like: "either god exists or god doesn't exist. Yes or no." This kind of statements of course try to mean: "Existence of god is like flipping of coin: heads or tails, fifty-fifty".
There are many other areas of probability arguments that atheists should consider. Atheists typically think that existence of god is very unprobable but the formal probability arguments that show this are difficult to form and often not considered at all. The problem with the world is that nothing is certain and any set of observations can be explained by an infinite number of explanations with no logical contradictions. How to choose? Choose the most probable explanation. What's the most probable? That is the problem. There are of course some rules of thumb, like "select the simplest and most natural theory." But what is the formal way to define what theory is simplest or most natural and what is the formal way to show that such theories are more probable? I haven't seen any good analysis about these things and am planning to do some writing myself later.