Do I really not believe in God? Do you?

post by shminux · 2012-12-10T07:02:14.394Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 58 comments

Well, I used to think that I do not believe in anything supernatural that affects what happens to me, but I'm wondering if maybe I actually do alieve in it. For example, a few days ago I had a close call in traffic, and when a collision I fully expected to happen just a second prior did not transpire, I mentally thanked... whom? I definitely had a clear feeling of gratitude for escaping, and I don't normally mean it literally when I say "Thank God!". So, who or what did I feel thankful to? I've never been religious, and I got rid of most of my superstitions over the years, but apparently there is still something there, and I do not know how to react to this knowledge.

What would be the proper reaction after a close call? Shrug and say "got lucky this time, should be more cautious next time"? What about when waiting for a diagnosis, what does sort-of-praying "please, please, let everything be OK" say about one's true beliefs? I know that I am much better at not blaming the world when something bad happens to me by chance than at not thanking the world when something good happens. Should it not be symmetric? Which part of a normally non-religious person wakes up and asserts itself in a crisis situation out of their control? Should it be embraced, suppressed, worked on?



Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2012-12-10T19:50:19.046Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Apparently our gratitude reflex, like our help reflex, has the sensation of gratitude preceding the search for a target of that sensation, and thus fails to avoid activating when the search is destined to come out negative.

In other words, we feel: "YAY! THANK YOU! who? X who helped me!"


"YAY! Did anyone help me with this? X did... THANK YOU, X!"

similarly, it's:

"OH NO! HELP! who? X can help me... help, X!"

instead of

"OH NO! ...can anyone help me? X can... HELP, X!"

Replies from: shminux, Vladimir_Golovin
comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T20:14:18.475Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"gratitude reflex" seems like a good name for it. Makes me feel like it's out of my control, like jerking away from a source of pain, or laughing when tickled. And that's certainly how it feels. One can now construct a plausible just so story that wanting to find a target for gratitude or anger is one impetus for supernatural beliefs.

I wonder if there is any evopsych and/or neurophysiological basis for this feeling being a reflex.

comment by Vladimir_Golovin · 2012-12-11T18:23:21.092Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Gratitude reflex" is a perfect name for a feeling I had during an extremely stressful, extremely intense experience related to my daughter (now, thankfully, alive and healthy). I’ll spare the details, but let me just say that there was a risk of an incurable genetic disorder involved and I was powerless to change the outcome. It was, without any doubt, the emotional peak of my life to date. It lasted about six months, and it almost crushed me.

I never was a theist before, but during that period I noticed that I was sliding into some form of theism. There clearly was a feeling that I badly needed someone or something to be grateful to, should things turn out well. To make the matters worse, I was going through a huge, 2-year long update towards strict naturalism, so I knew that there’s nothing in the universe that could respond to my pleas for help and promises of my future gratitude and loyalty in the event of a positive outcome. Despite knowing that, I had experiences that a theist would describe as religious or spiritual.

During my recovery, there was another emotion in addition to the “gratitude reflex”. After the situation has resolved positively, my naturalistic worldiview was gaining its strength back and I felt guilty for it, guilty for not being thankful, guilty for denying the existence of someone or something who arranged the chromosomes correctly.

A generalization from one example, if I may: people who are powerless to change the outcome of extremely stressful situations they experience may feel a need to be thankful to someone or something beyond the natural world; and after a positive outcome they may feel guilty for not being thankful for the resolution, which may keep them locked into non-naturalistic worldviews.

comment by jimmy · 2012-12-10T08:09:19.710Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Intense experiences will mess with you. I've had a similar thing happen, but unfortunately it went the other way. I found myself praying to "the probably nonexistent simulator 'god'" to make it unhappen. It wasn't that I secretly alieved it'd help, or had a "religious part" or anything like that. It's just that the reality was too damn horrible to accept, so my brain was desperately searching for solutions to make it all okay and going way down the search results. I never actually alieved it - It still felt completely hopeless. It's just that when the stakes are really high, you don't give up so easy.

Similarly, I don't think it's any religious part that's been in hiding in your head. It's just that you were anticipating a big loss, so when things turn out okay, you really appreciate it. It turned out okay when it "could have" turned out not okay, and you're thankful that it did.

It's expected and normal. Shrugging off a serious close call wouldn't be taking it seriously enough, and just saying "I should be more careful" before moving on won't make you more careful, so don't try to suppress it. Instead embrace the emotions that come up and sort things out until they're satisfied. Look in depth into the question of "could I have done something to prevent that?". When you've traveled far enough down the search tree that you feel satisfied and you've done what you need to do to be confident that you have actually taken what needs to be learned and applied it, then you won't feel conflicted anymore. I almost never come out of it without lessons learned, even when life hands me an impossible situation.

Replies from: handoflixue, None, shminux
comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-11T00:10:57.457Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'd also point out that since it's a common cultural script, it's very easy for your search tree to locate it. And for it to go "sure, you said you don't believe this, but 90% of the world does so it's worth at least a second thought!". And the "Pascal's Wager"-esque situation that praying to god to make it unhappen has a very, very low cost, and even praying in advance seems unlikely to be costly...

Replies from: jimmy
comment by jimmy · 2012-12-11T06:26:30.824Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree and I don't think you mean it that way, but I want to clarify that there wasn't any verbal deliberation at the time. I didn't actually go through the steps of thinking "Well, other people think..." or "It's worth shot..". It's just what happened.

Just like the reflexive "oh god no", but taken a little further to "Please please please let this just be a nightmare - no, this is definitely real. I have way too much context for this to be a dream." and so on.

Replies from: handoflixue
comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-11T18:52:52.814Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Please please please let this just be a nightmare - no, this is definitely real. I have way too much context for this to be a dream."

Given the existence of schizophrenia and so forth, this actually seems like a reasonable node to have on your search tree :)

Replies from: Desrtopa
comment by Desrtopa · 2012-12-13T04:02:32.102Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Even just given the existence of nightmares it's a reasonable node to have on your search tree. I've never been in a war or a debilitating accident, so all the times I've ended up maimed or disfigured have been in my dreams. And all the times I've had loved ones killed in front of me or accidentally killed people I cared about.

I've lived a fortunate enough life (at least relative to my experiences while asleep) that noticing when whatever's happening to me seems to be just too horrible, and considering whether I'm just dreaming it, has by and large been an extremely useful response which has resulted in a lot of reduced stress.

Replies from: handoflixue
comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-14T18:54:20.628Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Ahh, I forgot about that. Every time I've done a "is this a dream?" test in a dream, I've gotten back a negative (this is not a dream) response. I've stopped doing it, since it usually makes the nightmare that much more terrifying.

Replies from: Risto_Saarelma
comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-12-14T21:30:05.948Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What kind of test do you use?

Replies from: handoflixue
comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-14T22:20:23.985Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Off the top of my head: pinching myself, checking small details, checking for internal consistency and/or odd gaps in recent memory (this one is the worst to know that my brain can fake), checking illumination levels, pretty much ANY variation of "you can't do X in a dream" (I can read, see color, and do comparison price shopping between competing brands with the price signs remaining consistent)

Light switches never work in my dream, but I always just assume the bulb burnt out and it drives me nuts that I can never use this as a reliable test. Maybe the dreams where the lights work are just not noteworthy enough to get remembered, though.

Replies from: Risto_Saarelma
comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2012-12-15T21:02:15.523Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What about pinching your nose shut with your hand and then trying to breathe through your nose? That's one that works for me I actually remember using within the last year.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-12-10T14:08:11.566Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Intense experiences will mess with you.

Agreed. I had a longer explanation, but it essentially boiled down to this, plus some chemical explanations I decided to take out because I was insufficiently familiar with the chemistry to feel confident that I was using the right names for chemicals.

comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T15:56:15.787Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

when things turn out okay, you really appreciate it.

Yes, I do, but I don't just "appreciate" it. I can usually tell what emotions I am feeling, and gratitude was unmistakably there.

Replies from: handoflixue
comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-11T00:16:01.078Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could one be grateful to the other cars involved in the situation? I usually feel gratitude towards myself (for being skilled), my teacher (I'm still new, and she taught me well), people who contributed to me being calm in a crisis, and/or the other cars who managed to avoid the situation.

You can also be grateful for a huge nebulous social system that teaches driving and ensures reasonably consistent behavior, which makes this all MUCH easier than if everyone was just improvising (i.e. rules of the road both legal and social).

When I was learning to drive I had a few close calls, and I got very aware of what I was grateful for - it was important to focus on WHY I wasn't dead, so I could make sure I continued not dying :)

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-12-11T00:27:09.017Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Could one be grateful to the other cars involved in the situation?

Absolutely. What I mean is the feeling of gratitude in the situations where there is no feasible target, like having a pregnancy test turn out negative after a contraception accident.

Replies from: handoflixue
comment by handoflixue · 2012-12-11T00:33:04.313Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

True. I like the points elsewhere in this thread that gratitude can exist without a target :)

comment by acephalus · 2012-12-10T17:28:46.400Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Asking the question "to whom am I thankful", more than feeling thankfulness, is the superstitious behavior here. If we allow thankfulness to have no object, the conflict is resolved.

You may be thankful to the other driver. You may be thankful to yourself or the relevant parts of your body that helped avoid a worse outcome. You may be thankful to your past self, or your alternative universe self. You may be thanking the laws of physics. Maybe we can just drop the to preposition and be done with that.

As to why you are feeling thankful, I find Antisuji and DaFranker explanations plausible.

As to what should be done about it, I can't identify negative consequences to being thankful. Do you suspect it trains you to for risk or clumsiness?

comment by nigerweiss · 2012-12-10T13:40:39.489Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Human intelligence (probably) evolved in a social arms race. We tend to favor explanations that involve agents (with wills, intentions, etc), which can be appealed to, manipulated, or placated. When something happens through (effectively) mindless processes, we look for a will to attribute it to. It's natural, and comforting. It just probably isn't true.

Just another cognitive bias. Move along. Nothing to see here.

comment by fubarobfusco · 2012-12-11T05:45:27.041Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A while back I had this language-difference (not to say "argument") with a lover. I said that I felt grateful for the chance to meet and be close to her. She asked: given that I'm an atheist — grateful to whom? My thought was that gratefulness didn't really have to be attached to a particular giver; I could be grateful for something rather than grateful to someone. But it might be that "appreciation" or simply "gladness" would be more unambiguous descriptions.

comment by Nisan · 2012-12-10T20:35:16.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somewhat relevant: Thank Goodness! by Daniel Dennett.

comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-10T19:29:41.415Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gratitude doesn't need an object towards whom you are grateful. Keeping a gratitude journal is an activity that's recommended by positive psychology. Giving religious people a monopoly on feeling grateful seems a bad strategy if you want to lead a happy life.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T19:39:16.714Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gratitude doesn't need an object towards whom you are grateful.

Then we differ in our definitions of the term. My understanding is that it necessarily requires a target, real or imaginary.

Giving religious people a monopoly on feeling grateful

Monopoly? Not sure what in what I wrote prompted this particular strawman.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-10T21:28:19.018Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then we differ in our definitions of the term. My understanding is that it necessarily requires a target, real or imaginary.

From where did you get your understanding? The positive psychology literature I read suggest that gratitude works well without having a target.

There are also plenty of Buddhist monks who have no problem doing gratitude meditation but who never believed in any God because their Buddhism has no concept of Gods.

Monopoly? Not sure what in what I wrote prompted this particular strawman.

I think you suggest that not believing in God means that you shouldn't feel gratitude as long as you don't have a person towards whom you can be grateful. Doing gratitude jouranling is much harder when you have to identify a specific actor for everything that you identified to be grateful about.

In that model atheists can still be grateful towards the actions of other people, but if you limit your ability to feel gratitude in such a way I think you will feel less of it. Given that other people are just a bunch of atom, I also don't see a good reason why you should be grateful towards people but not towards other constellation of atoms that provide utility for you.

Replies from: shminux, DaFranker
comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T22:36:12.650Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It looks like the lay person's definition (The quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness) is somewhat different from the psych one (Gratitude is an emotion expressing appreciation for what one has). I'm now confused enough as to which one I feel that I shall stop here.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-10T23:02:26.525Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The dictionary you linked says "the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful:"

Grateful being: warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; thankful

Thankful being: feeling or expressing gratitude; appreciative.

If you got a benefit of still being alive and you appretiate that benefit, you can be grateful. It's not necessary to identify an agent who's responsible for the benefit. The imporatant thing is that there a benefit and you appretiate the benefit.

comment by DaFranker · 2012-12-10T21:51:31.432Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Derp, no real disagreement on the "gratitude" as far as I can tell.

"feeling of gratitude" (or gratitude!ChristianKl) = something that just happens in the mind, a feeling, target irrelevant

gratitude!schminux = (Cause => Effect | Effect is good) => gratitude towards Cause

Is this perhaps useful in resolving that bit of confusion? I hope I'm not strawmanning anyone.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-10T22:33:27.287Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

From how I understand schminux, he suggests that the cause needs to be an agent. Is that true?

Replies from: DaFranker, bbleeker
comment by DaFranker · 2012-12-11T14:38:33.967Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If my understanding is correct (based on other comments), this is one of the main things being put into question by the main post and which motivated schminux to start this discussion.

comment by bbleeker · 2012-12-11T10:17:18.052Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't know about him, but for me, yes. It needs to be someone who you could say "thank you" to.

comment by Morendil · 2012-12-10T17:57:05.218Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Which part of a normally non-religious person wakes up and asserts itself in a crisis situation out of their control?

This post from RationalPoker seems apropos.

Reality dealt you precisely the best possible hand: a) your illusions (e.g. your perception of feeling safe and "in control" in the midst of traffic) have been dispelled, but b) you have gotten away without any damage.

You received a gift - the feeling of gratitude isn't precisely insane, but you should assume you made a mistake, and analyze the situation in terms of "where did I mess up" rather than "guardian angel was watching over wonderful me".

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T18:54:56.863Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Preaching to the converted, bro. I have mastered the logic of it a long time ago, but it does not affect the feeling.

Replies from: Morendil
comment by Morendil · 2012-12-10T19:52:45.362Z · LW(p) · GW(p)


Communication remains hard. Looks like I've messed it up, somehow. :)

My best idea at this point is to recommend a (re)reading of The Sirens of Titan.

comment by Antisuji · 2012-12-10T07:22:27.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've experienced roughly the same thing. I think of it like this: when I experience an unexpectedly good outcome, I immediately feel a feeling of gratitude. Normally when this happens it is due to another person's actions (I'm given a gift or a promotion, or I'm pulled out of the way of a speeding bus, say), and as social creatures we pay attention to that and strongly associate the resultant feeling of gratitude with that person.

But it's not the person that (directly) causes the feeling, it's the circumstances. So when the feeling is caused by a good outcome that was not directly or intentionally caused by a person's actions, our brain by habit or instinct seeks out a backup candidate: God, luck, etc.

Replies from: beriukay
comment by beriukay · 2012-12-10T11:35:13.371Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was at a lecture by Richard Dawkins a while back, and he specifically brought up the topic of gratitude as a human parallel for (I can't remember the exact name he gave it, but wikipedia calls it Vacuum Activity). Just like a dog trying to bury a bone in the corner of the room. It also had to do with our inherent patter-matching nature, and the survival difference between making Type 1 and Type 2 mistakes (where if you falsely believe a tiger is about to pounce you, you pay a small energy cost from freaking out and running away; but if you falsely think it's just the wind, you die).

comment by DaFranker · 2012-12-10T17:04:07.721Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This sounds like it's just an emotional script, a trained mental routine to feel a certain way and fire a few mental nodes in reaction to certain types of events. IME, there doesn't really need to be any real belief or even an alief in some "God" for someone to have the experience of being thankful towards (MentalNode-34223359 | Pointer error, no data at requested location), as a simple result of the way one's brain has currently configured itself.

In many cases, I've felt something similar where to the best of my knowledge my brain is simply firing the exact same patterns as when I'm thankful to someone in particular (a real other human being) for a specific action (e.g. reminding me of something important), but without actually finding a referent for the (ThankfulTo()) function, simply as a matter of this being by default what my brain considered the appropriate follow-up pattern to my experiences.

I'm perfectly fine with these empty pointers/referents, which may be partially thanks to learning about Lojban and its grammar, but most people feel differently with them and this and similar mental experiences will often be tagged "spiritual" - from the inside, it feels like they're actually thanking something, so there must be something to thank, and therefore this is evidence of a supernatural higher power ("God"). I've seen many (more than I care to count) instances of people having experiences I would pattern-match to this brain behavior claiming them as evidence for God or other spiritual entities. This was, in fact, one of the reasons I used to classify myself as "spiritual but not religious", and believed in some kind of cosmic mental universe that could think about itself and which we lived inside of.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T17:26:28.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This sounds like it's just an emotional script, a trained mental routine to feel a certain way

This makes sense. I'm just wondering whether this script (something/someone is responsible for the good/bad stuff that happens to me) is equivalent to an alief in supernatural.

it feels like they're actually thanking something, so there must be something to thank, and therefore this is evidence of a supernatural higher power

Maybe I wasn't clear. Of course I understand logically that the target of gratitude does not exist in this particular case. (On an unrelated note, I hate it when people use fancy words for simple ideas.)

I'm perfectly fine with these empty pointers/referents

The conscious me is fine with them, too. It's the subconscious me who apparently wants to believe.

Replies from: NancyLebovitz, DaFranker, Nick_Tarleton
comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-12-11T03:29:21.633Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I've heard (sorry no source) that it takes three generations to make an atheist, which seems plausible to me.

Do you think that having some occasional moments of theist alief has a significant chance of making your life worse?

comment by DaFranker · 2012-12-10T18:09:51.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(On an unrelated note, I hate it when people use fancy words for simple ideas.)

(Any examples from my comment? These are the simplest terms I know to accurately convey the relevant ideas, any help would be appreciated.)

The conscious me is fine with them, too. It's the subconscious me who apparently wants to believe.

Then it appears to me that your doubts / questions might be coming from somewhere else, as a first thought. My subconscious has no particular problem either, and doesn't appear to want to believe anything - it just runs its scripts, and I've seen none of them that are attempting to generate an explanatory belief-system to fill in missing nodes and empty referents of other emotional scripts.

Of course, this is all assuming I'm not doing some sort of third-order motivated cognition, i.e. unknowingly deceiving myself about what constitutes evidence of me deceiving myself, and also that your mind works remotely similar to my own in these respects, which is itself a very shaky proposition.

If your mind is automatically attempting to resolve the discrepancy of a missing target, which might equivocate to an alief in supernatural (or "fate") and eventually cause one (but still remains, so far, substantially different IMO), then my own next step would be... hmm, I started to write this down, and then realized that it relies on a very critical "Recompute Scripted Mental Behaviors" black-box skill that I trained at a young age, one that would probably take more reductionist skill than I have to properly describe and probably presents too much inferential distance at the moment. In fact, this realization is an important one that I should have made long ago, and it now explains quite a bit about the mysterious inferential distance I find popping up in various psychology-related topics.

Anyway, on topic, my current impression is that your current mind configuration is not as "bad" as you seem to question/wonder/fear (insofar as you consider alief in supernatural entities to be "bad"), but rather that the complex and impenetrable interaction of various thought patterns is making your brain do strange things that might lead to some alief or anti-epistemology not explicitly contained here, but are most likely a result of the brain passing non-typesafe parameters and pointers and being able to randomly stumble from one thought pattern to another, even as it plugs in other patterns as parameters to the current one. (Note: Gah, not using programming terms and concepts while talking about cognition is hard when you haven't studied any real/formal neurobiology and whatever other topic(s) studies these things.)

ETA: Morendil's suggestion seems like a very good first step approach for someone who doesn't have my mental configuration and abnormal skillsets.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T18:58:20.227Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Any examples from my comment? These are the simplest terms I know to accurately convey the relevant ideas, any help would be appreciated.)

Cf "target does not exist" with

MentalNode-34223359 | Pointer error, no data at requested location

without actually finding a referent for the (ThankfulTo()) function

and to a reference to an esoteric language Lojban.

As you pointed out, your other geeky analogies, like "brain passing non-typesafe parameters and pointers", while understandable to a programmer like myself, also appear needlessly complicated.

my current impression is that your current mind configuration is not as "bad" as you seem to question/wonder/fear

I simply noticed the disconnect between a belief and an alief in this particular case. Whether it is possible/worthwhile to get them aligned, is another question.

Replies from: DaFranker
comment by DaFranker · 2012-12-10T19:17:43.479Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

and to a reference to an esoteric language Lojban.

I agree with the other needlessly complicated analogies, but I forgot / should have explained that Lojban has a very logical structure where a word can have certain specific required or optional complements, e.g. IIRC the "expressing thanks" word would have a complement slot for (Target), a second slot for (what the thanks is for) and then one for (who is thanking the target) (defaults to speaker or provided by context), and in Lojban it's perfectly normal to leave some slots empty for deliberate ambiguity/vagueness (but explicit ambiguity, unlike most natural languages).

So the reason I mentioned it is that this may be where I got this lack of any particular issue with empty/confused targets and could also be why my mind doesn't seem to generate any aliefs from it as it seems yours might. There are other plausible explanations, but I doubt a test for that is feasible or relevant.

comment by Nick_Tarleton · 2012-12-10T23:55:39.511Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm just wondering whether this script (something/someone is responsible for the good/bad stuff that happens to me) is equivalent to an alief in supernatural.

I'm not sure this is a meaningful question. "Alief" is a very fuzzy category.

comment by Zaine · 2012-12-10T20:46:43.829Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It could just be gratitude towards your resultant situation. Conceiving or fearing outcomes inferior to the actual occurrence inspires gratitude for not being a victim of numerous worse possible conditions.

Similarly, one might feel anger at an impossible situation - anger that arises from comparisons to better possible conditions.

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2012-12-10T15:39:57.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When feeling relief, it presents as relief, not thanks.

When feeling hope, it presents as hope, not a request.

If I'm lonely, I might make up an imaginary friend, but I treat it as an imaginary friend.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-12-10T15:54:17.924Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For me this is how the things ought to be, but not quite how they are.

comment by someonewrongonthenet · 2012-12-10T07:30:23.118Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I really don't alieve in god usually. When I have a close call, my response is usually laughter and relief rather than gratitude. I thought I was I danger, but I wasn't...I don't know. There is something hilariously funny about that dissonance between expectation and reality. I'm not a big risk taker or thrill seeker either, so it's not only the adrenaline.

I think the closest I've gotten to alieving in god is when I was sad and a friend told me to try praying. I tried it, and sort of felt a little better for a few minutes...but it wasn't the same as the feeling of wonder I get when I contemplate the relationship between myself and the rest of the universe. I guess for me, in order to get that "religous" high, I've got to believe and alieve the concept of worship simultaneously. And that kind if thought requires eliminating anthropomorphic tendencies, not creating them.

The other time I was close to alieving in anthropomorphic things is while laying In the grass in the sun. I felt gratitude towards the ground I lay on...i felt like i was hugging a person. and the sunlight and wind, I felt like they were acting for my benefit..even though I knew they weren't people.

When something bad is about to happen, I generally visualize it happening. I can't imaging the emotional roller coaster of praying for something to be okay and then it turns out not okay. Although...I guess I do hope sometimes, kind of like how you roll dice in a special way or blow on them or something, as if by paying close attention you could will them into having a certain outcome. That's sort if the same thing as "please let everything be okay" if you boil it to the basic, nonverbal sentiment. But pleading to a person feels very different from blowing on dice, subjectively.

comment by A113 · 2012-12-11T04:21:34.501Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I found this very interesting because I often have the exact inverse experience. I am a theist, but when I have a close call like that my first reaction usually is "I got lucky." It's when my conscious mind kicks in that I start thinking ""Lucky" doesn't have to mean just "lucky," and God has worked in more mysterious ways before." (Which, yes, is precisely what you'd predict a theist would say if you asked one.) And then I start feeling gratitude.

I know people here would say that this must mean I don't actually believe in God and only believe I do, but if you judge real beliefs by first reactions then shminux has a point.

comment by Epiphany · 2012-12-11T04:07:20.700Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What a brave topic. This makes me think. I realized, to my surprise, that I don't experience gratitude at good events happening and I can't recall a time when I ever have, even though I was formerly Christian. I wondered what "aliefs" I might have though, and I remembered one that has popped up to my surprise a few times semi-recently that because I am a good person I was magically rescued. (This is making me laugh so hard, at myself!). I also haven't done any praying or "please-please" for a long time.

So now I am wondering what the difference is between you and I that might give you insight into how to stop your gratitude alief and please-please alief.

I think the key, for me, has been the sheer number of things that went wrong outside of my control. I've been ridiculously unlucky.

I can guess from prior experience that right now, you're writing the bad luck off as something I caused myself. What if you didn't do that? If you haven't had enough bad luck yourself to see that nothing is controlling your life, then look at someone else's life and marvel at the luck they've had.

That's a belief, too: that people are in control. We get to have an influence, but no way to dictate what happens. Normalcy bias and optimism bias protect our sense of security. Without something to give us a sense of security, life is very stressful. I have a source of security in having lost a great deal of attachment (I'm not a religious Buddhist, but I have borrowed quite a bit from Buddhist philosophy). So, I have managed to, for the most part, deal with the fact that not nothing is in control, including myself.

Not god, not you, not me. Nothing.

That is a hard thing to accept, but that is what you are asking to accept if you want to get rid of normalcy bias, optimism bias, and your alief that there's some magic causing good things and preventing bad ones.

I had either the luck or the terrible misfortune, depending on how you want to look at it, to have the fact that I am not in control of my life shoved in my face hard. Not just once, but repeatedly. Not just repeatedly but like ad nauseum beating a dead horse to death three or four extra times repeatedly.

I woke up from a lot of silly dreams and lost a great deal of attachment.

I have found that often what I need when getting rid of something is to figure out what need it filled and replace it with something better and that it isn't until I replace it that I am able to get rid of it. As I see it, the main thing you're likely to need in order to let go of this one is some way to deal with the fact that the universe does not give a rat's behind about you.

Now I'm thinking about my rescued-good-person alief. That pops up after something bad happens, not when I am considering a bad thing that might happen in the future. It seems like it's purpose is to explain how I survived - this does seem kind of magical since my bad luck has been so ridiculous. I think I will mindhack this now. meditates

Note: I do use the phrasing "thank goodness!" sometimes but it is as an expression of relief. I will probably try to avoid using that phrasing from now on.

comment by Nornagest · 2012-12-12T03:59:18.343Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I say "Jesus Christ!" when I'm startled. I say "Thank God" when I'm relieved, and "Oh, God..." when I'm hung over. I say "God damn it!" when I'm frustrated. But all of these feel like idiomatic expressions of emotion to me, not like invocations of divinity. And I'm not too worried about this; signaling atheism isn't much of a priority for me, and there's linguistic precedent for it, by Jove.

If you're seriously worried about expressing yourself this way, I might suggest implementing a God jar, with the proceeds going to the atheist nonprofit of your choice.

Replies from: shminux
comment by shminux · 2012-12-12T04:26:08.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

all of these feel like idiomatic expressions of emotion to me

I was talking about a genuine feeling.

signaling atheism isn't much of a priority for me

I'm not an atheist, and I don't care much about signaling anything of the sort.

If you're seriously worried about expressing yourself this way

I'm not worried, I was curious.

comment by negamuhia · 2012-12-11T15:29:24.466Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This happens to me sometimes, and I sort of bring myself back to normality by reminding myself of the fact that the things my meat-brain chooses to bring to my attention are out of my control (for a short time) when I'm in panic mode. Other facts I recall: I have a reflectively-inconsistent meat brain, I was raised in a Christian home (I'm atheist now), and just about everything relevant that I can remember from Kahneman (correspondence bias etc.) and other psychology texts. Also, the Sequences.

Annoying aliefs are annoying.

A thing to do would be to condense all that gratitude into the word "awesome". Best said with a wide grin.

comment by Bruno_Coelho · 2012-12-11T15:28:06.712Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A tendency to thanks some randomness in life, like Taleb, could help. Maybe you should blame the incapability of perfectly prediction, or the fact that cars kill dozens of people, and yet you insist to drive.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2012-12-16T23:42:17.923Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Gratitude feels much better emotion than than blame.

Using Taleb in this context is also funny considering that Taleb is a devout Christian who believes in God.

comment by almkglor · 2012-12-11T06:34:35.537Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure about others, but while I initially felt that way ("Thank .... who?") whenever something like that happened, careful thought-screening and imagining situations (i.e. simulation) helped weed it out. I'd be surprised if I slip something like that these days, unless it's really really nasty.

comment by lsparrish · 2012-12-10T21:49:01.404Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Is there any real harm to God as an imaginary proxy for goodness? Say you explicitly disbelieve, but consciously embrace the alief that there is a sentient embodiment of goodness responsible for creating you and saving your life from accidents. This has the advantage that you can "thank" the imaginary entity and thus trigger similar social circuitry in your brain to thanking an individual who has done you a personal favor.

It's not literally true or really being claimed to be true, but is it actually harmful to indulge in these kinds of fantasies? Or is denying this impulse the atheistic equivalent of right-wing parents who are afraid to let their kids read Harry Potter (because it is about witchcraft)?

Replies from: RolfAndreassen
comment by RolfAndreassen · 2012-12-10T22:54:41.503Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This has the advantage that you can "thank" the imaginary entity and thus trigger similar social circuitry in your brain to thanking an individual who has done you a personal favor.

Why is this an advantage?

Replies from: lsparrish
comment by lsparrish · 2012-12-11T02:05:48.938Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanking people feels good and reinforces a non-arrogant self-image.

comment by mwengler · 2012-12-10T20:21:48.269Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What does it mean if I am grateful to "god" ?

Suppose I believe that "god" is just the workings of the entire universe collectively, not supernatural but natural, not an old mean white guy with emotions and desires, but the sum total of existence and all the things that happen in it, not active personality in the world but passive non-personality, the system on which the entire universe is "emulated."

Then I am grateful to a non-personality, but I suspect people in accidents are grateful to seat belts or airbags or whatever came between them and a hard object moving quickly at them.

And maybe it means I believe in "god," but the "god" I believe in puts me more in common with atheists than with the religious.

Having enough belief in "god" to thank it (or feel like thanking it) doesn't need to suggest the properties of the god(s) of the religious that are so valuable to reject.