Questions on Theology and Dementia

Perhaps you have had the experience of discussing with a Christian how you became an atheist and were told that you weren’t a true believer in the first place. If you are like me, you had a period in your life when your faith was very genuine. You share this with the Christian. But, most Christians cannot comprehend a person making a rational determination that god does not exist. In their mind, a true believer cannot know a better way because they have been raised to believe that their’s is the true way. They accuse you of being a false convert.

It has happened to me on more than one occasion. I was reminded of it recently while reading Ray Comfort’s blog. Comfort, of Banana Man fame, demonstrates a lack of understanding on an array of topics ranging from science, and especially evolution, to atheism, rationalist philosophies, and human nature. In this particular piece, he is discussing a fellow minister who became an atheist. Comfort accuses the man of being a hypocrite, a false convert, and a Judas. The man’s sin was to grow intellectually.

I was raised a Catholic. I took my faith very seriously growing up. I went to Catholic school. I had an aunt who was a nun. I received confirmation. My faith inspired me in many ways. I began to question Catholicism in my teenage years. I am a logical thinker. I was attempting to connect my individual beliefs into something solid and substantial. I was looking for an intellectual grounding for my faith.

I began to ask, from where does the Pope derive his authority? Why is his interpretation in matters of faith considered to be infallible? How could his infallibility be derived through his position? No one could answer these questions to my satisfaction. The priest at my church encouraged me to read the New Testament. I began to do so. I was inspired, but my questions remained unanswered.

In college I met some serious Protestant types who encouraged me to read the whole Bible. They mentioned all of the ways the Catholics were not biblical. They made a good case. I was drifting away from Catholicism. However, in reading the Old Testament I noticed the many ways that God was himself evil. I noticed the genocide done in his name, and His endorsement of slavery. I noticed two creation stories that contradicted each other within the first pages of the Bible.

At the same time I was studying mathematics and science. I took courses in formal logic. I was learning how to think critically. My faith was eroding because I could not resolve the contradictions. This bothered me deeply. I continued to try to make it work. I was, at this point, holding on to faith for purely emotional reasons. Eventually I gave it up. It was not for a lack of trying.

It was around this time that my maternal Grandmother, my only surviving grandparent, began to change in some dramatic ways. She had been living with us my entire life. She began to have trouble determining imagery from reality. One of her pleasures in life was watching Lawrence Welk on Saturdays. Although I had often spent time with her during the show because it was important to her, I did not particularly like it. Neither did my siblings. So, at times she was left to watch it for herself.

One day she began to cry out hysterically. I ran to her room and found her pointing at the television. She was telling me to make them go away. They kept looking at her and talking to her, she said. I told her this was Lawrence Welk. She did not understand. She calmed down when I turned the television off.

On another occasion she was using the toilet. I was alone in the house with her. She suddenly began to scream. I was hesitant to invade her privacy, but there was a sense of urgency and trauma in her voice. I entered the bathroom to find her sitting on the toilet. She was pointing to the National Geographic on the stand near the toilet. It was that famous cover with the Afghani woman with green eyes wearing a veil. My grandmother was telling me to make her go away. I removed the magazine.

Everyone in the family was sharing similar experiences with her. We did not know about dementia. She was never formally diagnosed. But, there is no doubt in my mind today that that is what she was suffering from.

Another curious symptom my grandmother exhibited was a regression in her thoughts and speech. Her first languages were Polish and German. English was learned later in life. As this illness progressed, she began to speak increasingly in her native tongues. Oddly, she often was reciting nursery rhymes in German and Polish. To some extent she enjoyed remembering them. But, she was regressing mentally and emotionally. My mother became her caregiver.

We learned more about dementia and alzheimers when two of my aunts were stricken. One, my father’s sister, began to exhibit severe memory lapses. She forgot how to write checks, for instance. My other aunt was my mother’s sister-in-law. She became combative. She began to wander from the home and get lost. They were both committed to nursing homes at about the same time. My cousin could no longer care for her mother without help. My Uncle was unable to keep his wife safe.

I visited them about four years ago. My wife and I met my mom and dad at the airport. We had all flown in to Cleveland. We all were figuring it would be our last chance to see my two aunts, regardless of whether they would recognize us or not. Even though I had heard all the stories about their conditions I was still surprised and shocked when I saw them. My father’s sister did not recognize her brother. Nor did she recognize me, her godson. Neither did she recognize my cousin, her own daughter. My aunt had advanced alzheimers. She recognized the woman she sat across from each day. She did not remember being married. Although, she sometimes would point to another patient and say that that was her husband.

My other aunt had a different form of dementia. She was unable to speak. She had a nervous energy that drove her to wander incenssantly. This resulted in her being strapped within a wheelchair for her own safety. She constantly fought against the restraints. She still used her legs to push the chair and we had a difficult time keeping her from getting away. She did not recognize my uncle, her own husband.

By this time my father was exhibiting some of the same symptoms that his sister did a few years prior. My mom was comparing notes with my cousin and uncle. She took my dad to see some specialists who diagnosed him, too, with alzheimers. My dad was not speaking much anymore. We would ask him why. He would respond that he had nothing to say. He was losing fine motor control. He shuffled instead of walked. He no longer showed any interest in the many things that had fascinated him. He would look at books, but could not read.

My father passed two years ago. He was followed in the subsequent year by my two aunts. I have another aunt, another sister-in-law of my mom’s, who now has alzheimers. I am more than a little concerned about succumbing to some form of dementia myself. I think the hereditary factors are there. This brings me back to my original topic, faith and Christianity.

As I mentioned, I have been told that my intellectual reasons for leaving the church are not valid. I have been told that I never had enough faith. I did not try enough. Somehow, my atheistic belief is not valid, they say. And, somehow, it is my fault.

I have a question for such Christians. It is very possible that I could become a Christian once again. If I succumb to some form of dementia — if I can no longer reason at the level I do now, and if I can no longer remember why I do not believe — it is entirely possible that I could mentally regress to the point where Christianity is believable once again. It is, after all, a simpler explanation for the world and the phenomena that make it up. God is a simpler explanation for so many things, and it does not require as much understanding.

Much like my grandmother I could regress to some earlier childhood state of mind where God was entirely believable. In such a case, would my faith save me? Would my re-conversion to Christianity be valid? Or, would I be condemned for thinking what I could no longer remember? And if my rediscovered faith does save me, could I be recondemned if I regressed further to the point where I had, like my two aunts, minds that had been wiped clean of any thoughts, even of God?

I originally posted this piece at ThinkAthiest


February 2, 2010 at 3:16 pm 3 comments


quote by Carl Sagan

quote by Carl Sagan

January 10, 2010 at 8:12 pm 2 comments

Ten Questions for Intelligent Christians

I came across this video. I decided to use it here because it addresses some of the issues I have been discussing in another post. Take the time to watch and think about it. It is thought-provoking.

December 1, 2009 at 11:49 am Leave a comment

People Who Want To Share Their Religious Views

I saw the following on another website.  It’s worth repeating.

People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.

November 23, 2009 at 12:24 pm Leave a comment

Does Fundamentalism Induce Moral Idiocy? Or, Does It Attract it?

I am an atheist, although I sometimes waver between atheism and agnosticism.  I can entertain the notion of a god.  It is possible, after all, that there is more to the universe than what can be detected through observation and measurement and what can be deduced from those observations.  However, I see no point in trying to know God insofar as I don’t believe he/she/it is real.  If God were real I don’t think he/she/it would care if I made the effort.  I also believe that if God were real he/she/it would be put off by people who worship some simplistic and misguided notion of him/her/it.

I was raised as a Catholic, and most of my family is still quite religious.  I also have a number of friends who are religious.  I don’t have a beef with religion the way someone like Richard Dawkins does.  He’s quite militant in his atheism.  I, on the other hand, can tolerate it well enough if people don’t try to push it on me.  When my mom visits, I even attend mass with her, mostly to keep her company, but also to think about where I have been and where I am going.  Just because I don’t believe in God doesn’t mean I’m not on some sort of spiritual journey.

Where I do find my tolerance has a limit is with dogmatism and a literal reading of any holy books.  I really have a problem with people foregoing their own reasoning for what some authority tells them they should think or believe.  In my last post I set out to show how a literal reading of the bible is intellectually indefensible.  I quoted a passage from Leviticus where God ostensibly instructed the Israelites on who they could keep as slaves.  I then invited a number of people to respond to some questions I asked regarding the passage.  I specifically invited people who are active in the blogosphere who I perceive to probably believe a literal reading is the correct reading.

I could see from my page hits that the people I invited were probably having a look.  But no one was responding.  I should have expected that since the passage I quoted and the questions I asked were meant to put them between a rock and a hard place.  DavidC99 was game enough to play.  I figured someone would try to defend a literal reading of the bible.  But, I was hoping that people would be willing to agree that slavery was morally indefensible.

DavidC99, or David, decided to give a defense of a literal reading of the bible.  He answered my questions by stating that slavery is justifiable because God said so in the bible.  Even though I was expecting someone to defend a literal reading of the bible, I was dumbstruck by how upfront he was about this.  I expected that potential responders would be torn between believing in their god, and admitting that the passage in the bible has their god condoning something evil.  Not Dave.  By his reasoning, his god cannot condone evil, so anything his god said or did in the bible is therefore not evil!

I actually wanted to verify this further, because I figured I might be misinterpreting how he defended slavery.  After all, he wasn’t providing much in the way of reasoning.  He basically said it was OK because God condoned it in the bible.  So I quoted a passage from Deuteronomy where God ostensibly told the Israelites to kill all of the Amorites.  The Israelites then obliged their god, who led them into battle.  The Israelites destroyed 60 cities and killed every man, woman, and child.  David said this murder and genocide was again moral because God said so!

What I found irritating about his responses were that his answers seemed defensive.  David wasn’t saying much in answering my questions besides “yes” and “no”.  I was hoping to engage him in a more lively debate.  But, our dialogue seemed to be rather dead.  Then it dawned on me that perhaps the lack of a debate was the result of the lack of reasoning behind his positions.  And it got me wondering whether there might be a correlation between religious fundamentalism and a lack of moral reasoning.  In fact, is it possible that beyond a correlation there might be an actual causation?  In other words, is it possible that religious fundamentalism causes a stunted faculty for moral reasoning? Or perhaps religious fundamentalism is a magnet for people who suffer some sort of moral retardation?

Lawrence Kohlberg was a psychologist who developed a theory about the development of moral reasoning in human beings.  He expanded on some theories originally laid out by Piaget.  Piaget divided moral reasoning in human beings into two stages.  Children younger than 10 or 11 years think about moral dilemmas one way; older children consider them differently. Kohlberg built on Piaget’s theory.  But, Kohlberg broke the development of moral reasoning into six stages.  I would encourage you to read the article to get a better idea of his theory.  What follows are some pertinent quotes from the article by W. C. Crain:

Stage 1. Obedience and Punishment Orientation. Kohlberg’s stage 1 is similar to Piaget’s first stage of moral thought. The child assumes that powerful authorities hand down a fixed set of rules which he or she must unquestioningly obey.  …When asked to elaborate, the child usually responds in terms of the consequences involved, explaining that stealing is bad “because you’ll get punished” (Kohlberg, 1958b)…

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange. At this stage children recognize that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities. Different individuals have different viewpoints. … Since everything is relative, each person is free to pursue his or her individual interests….

You might have noticed that children at both stages 1 and 2 talk about punishment. However, they perceive it differently. At stage 1 punishment is tied up in the child’s mind with wrongness; punishment “proves” that disobedience is wrong. At stage 2, in contrast, punishment is simply a risk that one naturally wants to avoid.

Respondents at stage 2 are still said to reason at the preconventional level because they speak as isolated individuals rather than as members of society. They see individuals exchanging favors, but there is still no identification with the values of the family or community.

Level II. Conventional Morality

Stage 3. Good Interpersonal Relationships. At this stage children–who are by now usually entering their teens–see morality as more than simple deals. They believe that people should live up to the expectations of the family and community and behave in “good” ways. Good behavior means having good motives and interpersonal feelings such as love, empathy, trust, and concern for others….

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order. Stage 3 reasoning works best in two-person relationships with family members or close friends, where one can make a real effort to get to know the other’s feelings and needs and try to help. At stage 4, in contrast, the respondent becomes more broadly concerned with society as a whole. Now the emphasis is on obeying laws, respecting authority, and performing one’s duties so that the social order is maintained….

Because stage 4, subjects make moral decisions from the perspective of society as a whole, they think from a full-fledged member-of-society perspective (Colby and Kohlberg, 1983, p. 27)….

Level III. Postconventional Morality

Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights. At stage 4, people want to keep society functioning. However, a smoothly functioning society is not necessarily a good one. A totalitarian society might be well-organized, but it is hardly the moral ideal. At stage 5, people begin to ask, “What makes for a good society?” They begin to think about society in a very theoretical way, stepping back from their own society and considering the rights and values that a society ought to uphold. They then evaluate existing societies in terms of these prior considerations. They are said to take a “prior-to-society” perspective (Colby and Kohlberg, 1983, p. 22)….

Stage 6: Universal Principles. Stage 5 respondents are working toward a conception of the good society. They suggest that we need to (a) protect certain individual rights and (b) settle disputes through democratic processes. However, democratic processes alone do not always result in outcomes that we intuitively sense are just. A majority, for example, may vote for a law that hinders a minority. Thus, Kohlberg believes that there must be a higher stage–stage 6–which defines the principles by which we achieve justice….

My reason for quoting at length from the article about Kohlberg’s theory is that I wanted to place some of my observations in the context of that theory.  What I observed was that David seemed to be reasoning at a stage 1 level.  This it the earliest stage of moral reasoning exhibited by very young children.

“The child assumes that powerful authorities hand down a fixed set of rules which he or she must unquestioningly obey.”  David assumes that God, a powerful authority indeed, hands down fixed rules which he must unquestioningly obey.

I asked:

Is slavery justifiable now?  If not, when did it stop being justifiable?  Was it ever justified by the book of Leviticus?  If so, how so?

David responded:

1) Is slavery justifiable now? Yes.
2) If not, when did it stop being justifiable? N/A; see previous answer.
3) Was it ever justified by the book of Leviticus? Yes.
4) If so, how so? See Leviticus 25:44-46; God said so.

I asked: “Were the Isrealites justified in killing every man, woman, and child?”

David responded: “Yes.”

I replied, “Murder and genocide are not defensible under any circumstances, even in warfare. …”

David responded,

First of all, murder is never usually defined as being any type of killing. It does not include sanctioned killings.

The wiping out of the people of the land of Canaan was ordered by God, because of the people’s wickedness. They had ample time to repent, and they did not heed the call. An exception to this was Rahab, who actually did repent, and not surprisingly, was spared. …

David concluded with:

1) I am supporting these things because I believe God supports them, all in context.
2) You are condemning these things because you think they should be condemned based on some unknown standard of morality that you hold.

My standard of morality might be unknown to David because it is based on reasoning, and a concern for the well-being of all human beings.  I don’t accept unquestioningly the statements and directives of any authority figure.  I certainly don’t accept what people or books say to me about the thoughts and motives of some imaginary authority figure that I can’t detect, but which they say is all around me.

I don’t think David is reasoning even at Kohlberg’s level 2.

At this stage children recognize that there is not just one right view that is handed down by the authorities. Different individuals have different viewpoints…

According to David, there isn’t anyone’s view except God’s.

He’s certainly not reasoning at level 3:

Good behavior means having good motives and interpersonal feelings such as love, empathy, trust, and concern for others….

But, when confronted with the wholesale butchery of the Amorites, including even children down to infants, he exhibited no interpersonal feelings.  He seemed incapable of feeling empathy.  He only showed a fear of the almighty.

Dave is definitely not at level 4:  “At stage 4, in contrast, the respondent becomes more broadly concerned with society as a whole.”  It’s hard to argue that anyone condoning genocide is concerned with society in any way.

It’s impossible that he is reasoning at level 5:

A totalitarian society might be well-organized, but it is hardly the moral ideal. At stage 5, people begin to ask, “What makes for a good society?” They begin to think about society in a very theoretical way, stepping back from their own society and considering the rights and values that a society ought to uphold.

Believe me, the concept of rights and values hasn’t yet entered into an orbit around Dave’s head, let alone penetrated his skull.

Level 6 reasoning?  Please…

Kohlberg’s conception of justice follows that of the philosophers Kant and Rawls, as well as great moral leaders such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King. According to these people, the principles of justice require us to treat the claims of all parties in an impartial manner, respecting the basic dignity, of all people as individuals. The principles of justice are therefore universal; they apply to all. Thus, for example, we would not vote for a law that aids some people but hurts others. The principles of justice guide us toward decisions based on an equal respect for all.

There are no principles of justice in his reasoning.

Is it possible that David is not reasoning beyond Kohlberg’s level 1 because his faith never challenges him to do so?

In describing how moral reasoning develops, Crain says:

The stages emerge… from our own thinking about moral problems. Social experiences do promote development, but they do so by stimulating our mental processes. As we get into discussions and debates with others, we find our views questioned and challenged and are therefore motivated to come up with new, more comprehensive positions. New stages reflect these broader viewpoints (Kohlberg et al., 1975).

We might imagine, for example, a young man and woman discussing a new law. The man says that everyone should obey it, like it or not, because laws are vital to social organization (stage 4). The woman notes, however, that some well-organized societies, such as Nazi Germany, were not particularly moral. The man therefore sees that some evidence contradicts his view. He experiences some cognitive conflict and is motivated to think about the matter more fully, perhaps moving a bit toward stage 5.

Perhaps, sitting in church and hearing the pastor quote the bible, “God says this, and God says that”, David is never challenged to think about moral dilemmas.  And so his viewpoint doesn’t even acknowledge them.  It’s God’s way, or the highway to hell.

Or, is it possible that David, being cognitively helpless, is drawn to church because it provides simplistic explanations that his mind can grasp?

This is a matter for science.  But, if I were to wager, I would suggest that a fundamentalist viewpoint has a way of numbing the faculties.  Ultimately, both factors might be in play.

Now, to be fair to David, I have to acknowledge that he was sporting enough to come to my blog and respond, knowing that I would try to beat him up.  He might say that I am not reasoning with him, but just slamming him and insinuating that he is some sort of moral retard.  And, to be honest, I am insinuating that in a good-natured way while also trying to reason with him.  I am also hoping that I have misjudged David.  I hope that he is willing to think for himself.  I really hope that by doing so he might come to accept that slavery, murder, genocide, along with rape, incest and a host of other despicable behaviors are unacceptable, even if God supposedly “sanctioned” them.

I am optimistic that David will develop to the level of his peers.  After all, he has come to the internet to share his views and be challenged.

Cain says this about developing moral reasoning:

Whatever the interactions are specifically like, they work best, Kohlberg says, when they are open and democratic. The less children feel pressured simply to conform to authority, the freer they are to settle their own differences and formulate their own ideas. We will discuss Kohlberg’s efforts to induce developmental change in the section on implications for education.

The internet is a very democratic place.  And, by and large, there is little if any pressure here to conform to authority.  David will be free to settle his differences with other bloggers and formulate his own ideas.  I think the prognosis for David is quite good.

November 12, 2009 at 2:52 pm 1 comment

The Bible Cannot Be Interpreted Literally

There are a number of Christians who believe that the bible is the literal Word of God.  Some can be found here.  I would like to demonstrate that anyone accepting the bible as the ultimate source of truth will wind up in hot water.  It can be done in a number of ways.  I will choose just one argument today.

Question — Is slavery ever justifiable morally?

According to the bible, it is.  I am using the New International version of the Student Bible.  Leviticus 25:44 – 25:46 says,

Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves.  You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.  You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.

Some questions for Christians who accept the bible as literal truth:  Is slavery justifiable now?  If not, when did it stop being justifiable?  Was it ever justified by the book of Leviticus?  If so, how so?

I contend that the only way to stand on moral ground is to stop interpreting the bible literally, and even to condemn those portions of the bible that are objectionable to human beings on moral grounds.

November 10, 2009 at 11:26 am 74 comments

Evolution — your thoughts?

In Daniel Dennett’s book, Breaking the Spell — Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, he says, “According to a recent survey, only about a quarter of the United States understands that evolution is about as well established as the fact that water is H20.”  (p. 60)

I am interested in what you believe.

July 22, 2009 at 12:40 pm 10 comments

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