Today’s entry in our ongoing series of guest contributors comes from Bryan Brown, a NonProphet Status reader and undergraduate senior at the University of Rochester. Bryan writes about his journey as a secular humanist and how his understanding of religion has changed over time. Without furter ado, take it away Bryan!

dr houseI wasn’t always the sweet and sensitive secular humanist I am today. I used to see the world through very blunt scientific truths. During my personal journey, I have learned how atheism alone does not define a person’s way of viewing — or being a part of — the world in which he or she lives.

A pivotal time in my adolescence was the winter of my sophomore year of high school, during which I went through a bout of depression. In hindsight, it was probably caused in part by lack of sunlight, my first AP class, and raging hormones.

I kept encountering questions of “why” — questions about my source of motivation — and found my lack of faith to be a bump in the road. How could I justify putting so much energy into something that had no concrete, apparent meaning?

And so one cold afternoon in February, I sat down and created a Word document, titling it simply as “The Philosophy.”  My goal was to justify life’s meaning, scientifically and rationally, without the use of religion. What I produced was a six-page document that, at the time, seemed satiating. I supported my arguments with scientific principles (within the limitations of my high school curriculum, of course); in a way you could compare it to the Three Laws found in Asimov’s I, Robot collection. What I really did was use deductive reasoning to rationalize an end to my depression.

At the time I felt more confident than ever about my beliefs.  I hoped that by aligning my actions with this self-made mould of rationality, I could approach any life problem — academics, friendships, girlfriends — without flaw.

Looking back, I now realize what “The Philosophy” really was. Believing that I had a potent understanding of my universe made me feel powerful and in-control. However, in many social situations, my methods proved unsuccessful. It had become my defense mechanism — my excuse to not regard myself as an emotional human. What initially appeared to be the elegant simplicity of “The Philosophy” ultimately proved to be a blunt instrument. It could easily encourage behavior that was insensitive and self-serving, putting my rationalized life goals above all else.

I think I was afraid that relying on emotional responses was as faith-based as relying on a deity, and therefore reckless. I found myself identifying with a certain archetype of personality found in T.V. and literature; I felt that I was channeling Dr. House from House, Bones from Bones, and even Dr. Manhattan from The Watchmen.

My education at the University of Rochester helped balance all of that out, both in and out of the classroom. When I learned about Freud’s concept of id and ego, it helped me reconceptualize my thoughts on prioritizing conscious reasoning over subconscious urges. My study of anthropology taught me about attention to detail, as well as the exercise of treating one’s own culture as an alien one; it was all that talk about being truly “ethnographic.” I even took a religion course, which helped me analyze religions in an anthropological and non-judgmental way.

Meanwhile, I went through a smattering of social and romantic relationships of all shapes and sizes. Declaring love for somebody scared me for some time; it seemed like a leap of blind faith that was only meant for the religious. My “Philosophy” attempted to define love as something that occurred “when a single stimulus or source becomes associated — consciously and subconsciously — with powerful, positive, simultaneous combinations of synergistically acting viscerogenic and psychogenic responses.”

But in the end it was my actual life experiences that reshaped my secular beliefs, and therefore my entire psychological way of being, into a new and different person. And so during my junior year, as I sat in the on-campus Starbucks among all the caffeine addicts and intellectuals, I felt compelled to open a new Word document.

I poured my thoughts onto the page, combining old truths with my new wisdom, which helped make the whole thing more, well, human-friendly. One of the most important epiphanies I have had is that no matter how much we rationalize the workings of the universe, at the end of our pondering we must reintegrate our ideas into our human culture and experience them.

Would a sunset be less beautiful just because you understood the physics behind its colors? I’d venture that for some this makes the sunset even more intriguing! As for emotions, feelings and the subconscious, they have a place, too. Even if you don’t believe in a soul, and you recognize that all of your emotions are just cocktails of electrochemical signals within your body, you can still appreciate their function in your life. I believe Carl Jung tackles this subject nicely in his work The Shadow, in which he says that the parts of our subconscious that we are sometimes ashamed of must be embraced and transcended, rather than defeated.

Finally, I changed the way I look at religion, as well as atheism. Anthropologically, it is easy to agree that religion, for many people, serves several functions that are integral for a social human world. These include community, tradition, guidance, emotional support, motivation, social activities, networking, and meaning. When I think about it this way, it is easy for me to look “ethnographically” at the religious, and see the ways in which the peaceful theists, especially those engaged in interfaith discourse, can get along fine and do plenty of good in the world.

Meanwhile, I realized that what I want to see most from the secular population is proof that we too can provide community, support and values for one other, rather than spend all of our time criticizing the religions of the world. And so it is from my personal journey and these realizations that I am not only a self-declared atheist; I also have a reason to live, love, and be part of something bigger than myself.

bryan brownBryan Brown is an undergraduate senior at the University of Rochester. As a member of the Rochester Early Medical Scholars Program, he will continue on to the U of R School of Medicine next year. Outside of the classroom, Bryan is also a passionate mandolinist, saxophonist, performer, and composer. While he was raised in a Jewish home, Bryan has been a self-declared atheist for years and has more recently taken a greater interest in secular humanist ideals.

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Is that so? Then why am I grouchy today?

I recently came across an article titled “Population Secularity and Individual Religiosity Predict Human Flourishing.” The purpose of this survey of studies, written by Dr. David Meyers of Hope College and published in the Spring 2010 edition of the official newsletter of the Journal of the Psychology of Religion, American Psychological Association Division 36, was to explore the fundamental claim of New Atheists that religion is innately problematic and whether such claims were reflected in psychological findings and confirmed by survey data. His question:

“Is religion ‘dangerous’ and associated with dysfunctionality, misery, and bigotry (as the new atheists have argued) or is it associated with health, joy, and altruism? [Of course,] in various times and places it has been associated with both; religion comes in both healthy and toxic forms. But on balance, is religious engagement more strongly associated with human degradation or human flourishing?”

In his survey, Dr. Meyers encountered two “striking and paradoxical” findings: that “religiosity is negatively correlated with well-being across populations, and positively correlated across individuals.”

One survey he references is a recent Gallup poll from a first-ever-in-history survey that is supposed to be representative of the entire world’s population. This survey polled around 350,000 people in 152 countries and found that nations where the majority of individuals indicate that religion isn’t an important part of their day-to-day life and places where the majority haven’t attended a religious service in the last week report higher quality of life.

This is localized within the United States as well. Dr. Meyers highlights: “The Southern states all have higher religious-adherence rates than do the West Coast states. They also have slightly higher divorce rates, and much higher crime, teen birth, and smoking rates. So, by some measures, it again looks like the least religious places are the healthiest and most civil.”

So far, this data seems to bolster the New Atheists position, right? Well, not so fast. Before we secularists get all “I told you so” up in here, there are other nuances to consider.

Making the case that there is more to consider in this analysis – essentially, that correlation does not necessarily imply causation – Dr. Meyers continues:

“States and countries vary in many ways, including not only religiosity but also literacy and education, culture and ethnicity, and income and financial security. [Psychologist] Ed Diener, who has noticed the same negative religiosity-well-being correlation across populations, tells me it disappears when controlling for income. The Princeton economist Angus Deaton is also mining the Gallup data, and similarly finds that the cross-country correlation essentially vanishes when controlling for education. Moreover, the great irony is that the correlation reverses when computed across individuals. Religiously engaged individuals tend to be… healthier, more generous, less crime-prone, and less often involved with premature sexuality and pregnancy.”

This is in line with other studies that suggest a correlation between healthy behavior and religious belief. But what about attitudes and mental health?

To contextualize that question in less words: are you non-religious and unhappy? You’re not alone. Quoting the aforementioned Diener, Dr. Meyers highlights the common finding in studies on religiosity and happiness that “religious people have higher life satisfaction in most every nation.” Dr. Meyes cites the National Opinion Research Center’s surveys of 47,909 Americans to confirm this claim. He also adds that “the most religiously engaged Americans have been half as likely as never-attenders to be divorced and about one-fourth as likely to smoke or [have] been arrested (despite highly religious states [having] substantially higher divorce, smoking, and arrest rates).”

Ultimately he concludes, like many such reports do, that more research into the matter is required. While he says that these studies “do not validate religion” in and of themselves, he posits that they “challenge the anecdote-fueled new atheist argument that religion is an overriding force for evil,” and references Bruce Sheiman’s book, An Atheist Defends Religion (who I was lucky enough to interview for this blog a few months back).

For me this study, in spite of some obvious limitations, raises a lot of questions. I totally buy that religion makes a lot of people happier – but why? What is it about religious beliefs that bring people increased satisfaction? Is it the sense of security found in community and in establishing a systematic, structured set of ethics? Because, if so, those are activities that secular folks absolutely can engage in – if only we will.

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