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I wanted to share with you one of the most significant transformations I've ever gone through regarding my personal identity. I hope you enjoy it.

From Wikipedia: A comprehensive worldview is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society's knowledge and point of view.

From Wikipedia: A comprehensive worldview is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society's knowledge and point of view.

Not something we can easily change, right?

Whether we like to or not, we know each other by the labels we use. Both those we project and those we store as mental representations of others. The combination of all of these labels forms our worldview. These labels influence how we think which then changes how we form new labels and interpret existing ones. We make associations between labels, words, and actions. Surrounding the whole mix are emotions which lack words of their own.

Let me give you an example:

I, Luke Stokes, no longer think the label “Christian” applies to me.

How does that feel? For some, a smile and a chuckle, welcoming another adult out of the world of make-believe. To others, a tragedy of deception from demonic forces with eternal consequences and ultimately damnation. I know people in both of those extreme camps. The largest labels cause the most division. Our religion, our political party, our sex, our physical appearance, our position on controversial moral issues... these can all cause pain and separation. They form neat little boxes our brain quickly references without having to evaluate each person as an ever-changing individual.

Over the last couple of years, I've changed. For a little background, I grew up in a Christian family, served in Christian ministry for 6 years (which required me to raise financial support from others), and worked for a company with a Christian mission statement for almost 4 years after that. Decades of my life are aligned with the label “Christian” from my music, to my friendships, to my presence on Sunday mornings. For many, it would be hard to think of me without thinking about that label (and their various versions of what it means). My hope is for people to see me for who I am and talk to me about ideas as I see them today, not as a set of labels would dictate.

It's been challenging talking about my story. I know what it feels like to remove a label you’ve assigned to someone, especially if important aspects of who they are to you come from that label. These labels often shape our understanding of moral character, trustworthiness, and empathy. Changing them brings a feeling of loss, like a member of the tribe has moved on. The “us” vs. “them” mentality can take over, increasing division and alienation. Conflict arises as questions are raised which other worldviews have already settled and don’t want to revisit. Rehashing tough questions is seen as a waste of time and energy or, worse, a threat to the status quo. I now think those around me are even more confused to think of me under one label while hearing me say things which fit others.

I can't let that stop me. I want to pursue truth [1][2], no matter where it leads.

The problem with this approach, I’m now realizing, is the more I learn, the more I recognize how much I don’t know and how wrong I’ve been in the past. It’s a humbling process. Let me give some examples.

Growing up, my “Christian” homeschool curriculum (I use air quotes there, because I don’t think the books actually accepted Jesus into their heart as Lord and savior) explained how evolution isn’t real. I now think it is real [3][4] and those who claim otherwise have some confirmation bias going on, from my perspective. And yes, abiogenesis is something different from natural selection, please don’t confuse the two. I was taught to believe false things about the nature of reality and some of it was done in very fallacious ways. That really bothers me.

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Let’s go with another even more controversial example: abortion. My parents are no longer with us, but if they were, I’d probably be having some amazing conversations with my mom on this topic. We used to have the best discussions. As a child, I can remember her peacefully protesting for the right to life for what she (and most pro-life advocates) consider to be defenseless humans being murdered. I now take a more nuanced approach. If life starts at conception, why don’t we value single cell or simple multicellular life equally in all species with the potential for high levels of consciousness? Have we rationally and philosophically come to our perspectives or were they handed to us by centuries of dogma? Other than our level of consciousness, is a human being fundamentally different than an animal if we both got here through evolution? When it comes to abortion, why do we also ignore the clear evidence of (at a certain point in time) two fully-functioning conscious human beings occupying the same space? It’s somewhat arbitrary to only call it two lives once the birth takes place and the separation is more clearly defined. So we’re left with a complex question we don’t yet have answers to: When does a clump of cells become a conscious human being with its own claims to life and liberty? Why does a clump of cells have more say about human well-being than a fully-functioning human woman whose life (and maybe whose family’s life) would be forever changed (often negatively) if these cells fully develop into an unwanted child?

How about another one: corporal punishment. Is it ever okay to inflict pain on children as a form of punishment? Every church I’ve ever attended says it is. My own understanding of morality and reason say otherwise (along with many who have spent decades studying this stuff [5]).

Are human beings fundamentally evil by nature? Is authority good for humanity or does it bring about our own corruption? Can non-violent communication and the concept of violence being a tragic expression of unmet needs bring about long-term change in the world?

I could go on, but we’ll leave these questions and others like it for future posts.

So where has my search for truth led me so far? Well, let me lead with some questions I’ve been pondering over the last year or two:

  • How much of my belief system was originally determined by the country I was born in? How much of it by the beliefs of my parents?
  • Do I believe thoughts, memories, emotions, feelings, etc—things we can provably demonstrate originate as functions of the physical brain—can and will exist in an afterlife without a physical body as we know it? If so, why? What evidence do I have for that belief beyond my own emotions?
  • What are my thoughts on the God of the Gaps? [7]
  • How much of my belief system is based on an unquestioning view of the Bible without having actively pursued textual criticisms of it?
  • Do I believe a square circle can exist somewhere in the universe? (no) Do I believe consciousness without matter can exist somewhere in the universe (or outside of the universe for that matter), and if I do believe it, why do I believe it? If matter is involved (such as a miraculous Jesus), what of the “super being” argument instead of a deity?
  • What evidence or reason for believing do I have that humans contain a spirit, and do all evolved beings also have a spirit or were we the lucky primates and if so, why?
  • Given the large amount of things I previously thought I was sure about concerning Christian dogma, history, human perception, etc, how can I reliably trust the things I know now without adopting a more skeptical, rigorous, scientific epistemology?
  • What level of evidence should I require to believe things which have no known, provable representation in the physical world?
  • How do I explain the accepted theories of human evolution and the idea that we mastered fire which enabled us to pre-digest our food which led to more neurons which led to the brains and consciousness we now enjoy? [8]
  • How many skeptical views about my beliefs have I deliberately studied and considered?
  • Given the many contradictory (and changing) views on such fundamental religious concepts as the afterlife, how can I put so much assurance in it? Some argue hell is a second death, not eternal at all. Others say the concept of hell was invented later in the religion. And what of heaven? Is it on earth or not? Who are the people outside of the walls?

In short, I've lost my belief in eternity as taught to me in the Bible. As I started working through these questions, I listened to even more audio books, lectures, debates... always reading and learning. Looking at the world through other peoples' worldviews teaches your brain something and fundamentally changes how it responds to new information in the future. Learning about the brain via books like Thinking, Fast and Slow [9] and Predictably Irrational [10] have fundamentally changed my understanding of what it means to experience existence.

The questions above should not be taken as a direct challenge to anyone else. They are part of my own personal journey.

In summary, my mechanisms for separating out opinion from justified belief have changed, and I think the long-term result is beneficial for myself and my family. Pursuing truth means leaving things which appear to be less-than-true behind. It means following the path, no matter where it takes you or what the personal cost might be. I've already lost very meaningful connections by being honest about my thoughts on these issues. Thankfully, I've also started some great dialogues with true friends who may not agree with me but love me just the same.

I don't know where this road will lead me and for once in my life, I have great peace about that. I'm no longer pretending to know things I don't know. For the things I'm passionate about, I'm now way more open to criticism, correction, and alternative perspectives (but you'll certainly get a strong argument out of me). I've embraced love as a truly powerful force which can change the world. I want to be part of that change, and I think it starts by being honest with myself and those around me while removing faulty thinking and dogma. I'm still quite off in many ways because I understand computers more than people, but I am always improving.

Regardless of how my labels change over time and the emotions that may cause for those around me, I will do my best to be true to myself and continue growing. I hope you can accept me for the individual I'll be tomorrow.

[1] - Religion for the non Religious
[2] - How Religion Got in the Way
[3] Stated Clearly
[4] It’s Okay to Be Smart - 12 Days of Evolution
[5] Upworthy - The science of spanking: What happens to spanked kids when they grow up? (infographic)
[6] Bestoked at (my old blog) - Blogging Is the Mental Projection of Your Digital Self
[7] - What is so special about the human brain?
[8] Wikipedia - God of the Gaps
[9] Wikipedia - Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
[10] Wikipedia - Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely