Truth is not stranger than fiction

The mind is an amazing thing. It loves a story, and will see one even if none exists. I’m enjoying Stranger Things 3, having watched the first four episodes… At one stage, in a clever little nod to realistic skepticism, Hopper tells Joyce she is experiencing apophenia, when she sees magnets falling off her fridge both at home and at work. Of course it is all part of something bigger, and with a formula that works as it has for the two previous seasons, by episode four all of the familiar and new characters’ plots have begun to converge, more reminiscent of a Dean Koontz novel than one by Stephen King. It’s the perfect example of how we think the world should work, and that’s probably one of the reasons the show is so good. (Apart from the excellent writing.)

But the real world doesn’t work like that. Our lives are not part of some greater plot, and life is meaningless until we create meaning for ourselves. There’s no shady government organization behind everything, no god or devil pulling our strings, and signs of climate change really are signs of climate change exactly as scientists have told us, rather than signs of “end times” as some people would like to believe. We also see agency where none exists. For example, many people ascribe their children’s autism, diagnosed around the same time as their childhood vaccinations, with the vaccinations themselves. Of course this is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  It makes as much sense as blaming the diagnosis on the sun rising that morning. But believing it involves a convenient narrative, with an antagonist covering up the truth, and heroes, brave people fighting the system.

It’s probably easier to believe in fiction rather than truth. Maybe that’s why people believe in conspiracy theories? As I found a couple of months ago, people would rather believe that evidence of climate change is evidence that Satan/god is punishing us, or that a rogue planet is approaching Earth and being somehow covered up by NASA. It’s easier to believe that someone, anyone is in control, rather than face reality. Truth is not stranger than fiction; maybe it’s scarier. But that’s only because there is no narrative, no plot, no point, no one watching over us and no one responsible for our mistakes other than ourselves.

In reality, unlike fiction, even our behaviour is not according to some plan. Maybe that’s why employers latch on to pseudo-scientific personality profiles, keen to believe that employees’ behaviours are all part of some kind of scripted personality. But that’s not how the world works. People in real life don’t always act consistently. Smart people can give you terrible advice. People constantly act “out of character” because character is dynamic and changes over one’s lifetime and is not some prescripted, predefined construct. Also, people often say pointless and completely inappropriate things, things so far removed from anything at all that such statements would never be found in fiction.

I like to tell people about the time I was mugged in my early twenties. I worked late one night, and walked home through a subway under a railway station… In the subway, I was trapped by four young men, two in front of me and two behind me. When I realized what was happening, I spun around as they grabbed me, leaving my jacket in their hands, and it slipped to the floor as I slipped away. But once out, I turned foolishly to pin one of them against the wall and began punching him, only to be gripped by the other three from behind and dragged back into the subway. Once there, I still told them I would take the money out of my wallet and give it to them rather than let them take my wallet, because I didn’t want to get a new ID, bank cards and so on. Having done that, I turned to go. Then to my surprise, the main mugger, the one I had pinned to the wall, got my attention.  “Wait!” I turned. “Don’t forget your jacket”, he called out. “Thanks,” I responded as I retrieved it and left. Muggers in fiction don’t do that. But reality is not like fiction.

In fiction, we always know who the bullies are. In real life, bullies and other abusers, people with narcissistic or borderline personality disorder, are brilliant at playing victims. They don’t just exploit and abuse others, but also gaslight them. That’s just on a personal level. More broadly, how many people believe in “white genocide” and “false rape accusations”? How many believe that feminists are the “real” bad guys? In real life, the bad guys almost always win; they almost always convince most people that those who stand up to them are the real oppressors. Right now I’m on a 30 day Facebook ban for being “racist” towards white people.

My fascination with people who have beliefs that defy reality

I just spent two days sick after getting food poisoning from a chicken, bacon, and cheese burger at Wimpy in Eastgate.  It was not a pleasant experience, especially the first day because apart from the obvious symptoms, my whole body went lame. It was the sickest I’ve ever been (and to be honest I seldom get sick) and I had no idea that food poisoning could be so unpleasant. But it also triggered an odd memory for me, which is why I’m writing this today…

For many years, I’ve been fascinated that there are people who hold beliefs that contradict reality. And I don’t mean Trump supporters or others whose beliefs are clouded by hateful biases and prejudices. I mean people whose beliefs are based on things that are not, were not, and never will be real in this universe. This applies to people who believe in doomsday conspiracies like the Nibiru cataclysm, those who insist the Earth is flat, and those who believe in conspiracy theories. So now I have remembered how my fascination began.

In 1990 to 1991, thanks to being a white male South African who could not decide what to study and an unfortunate law of conscription, I spent a year in the old apartheid army. It’s kind of ironic that this was still the apartheid government, because the only thing that our troops ever had to do was be deployed to protect various people from the AWB, which was a right-wing racist nutjob Afrikaner group that made various threats. I write “our troops” and not myself, because I was a chef in the army. If I wasn’t on duty when the “reaction force” was called for, I faked being on duty or hid away somewhere where they couldn’t find me. Just because I had to be there against my will wasting my time for a year didn’t mean they could make me go out and actually shoot anybody, or lay in some bushes for a whole night waiting for some spineless white dude to make true on his empty threat. (I can handle a rifle though, and I’m not a bad shot. But I haven’t done so for 29 years now and have no interest in ever owning a gun.)

Anyway, I discovered something interesting as an army chef… There was an urban legend about army food containing something that caused temporary male infertility, that was supposedly added to the army food. I’d first heard about it from a teacher in high school. The most common story involved washing powder being added to the food. (Yeah, it’s dumb. I don’t know how that would work either.) There was even a name for the stuff, according to the urban legend. Unfortunately my memory does not include whatever that name was. Something like “blue balls”? I’ll write the rest of this under the assumption that your balls were supposed to turn blue, preventing unwanted pregnancies while you went AWOL and partied with the local Afrikaner girls, who had a thing for idiots in uniform, every night at the local jol.

Needless to say, the urban legend was not based on reality. Food deliveries arrived in the army camp by truck, from wholesalers used by restaurants too, and the food was packed directly into large freezers in the two mess halls of the camp. (But not the third empty mess hall where I hid from reaction force. This was Intelligence school in Potchefstroom, by the way. Strange, it was called “Danie Theron Krygskool” or DTKS but Google is giving me a completely different place when I search on that name.) Then we, the chefs, would remove the frozen meat and vegetables as necessary according to the menus we worked from. The food was good, by the way, with each meal including a meat, a vegetable, and a starch of some sort, plus lunch always came with a dessert and a cool drink while supper included a warm drink such as coffee or hot chocolate. Dessert was a large tray with some kind of instant pudding and canned peaches, or banana and biscuits, or something like that, and more importantly, there was one such tray between 8 chefs, so we got a great deal more dessert than the rest of the troops. Also I could sneak into the mess hall in the middle of the night to make myself toasted bacon and cheese sandwiches (with a whole pack of bacon).

The point is, there was no step along the way where anything to cause temporary male infertility could be added to the food. But do you think that anybody who believed in the conspiracy believed that? Noooooo. No, of course not. It didn’t matter that to those who asked me, I explained how it was impossible for it to be true. It didn’t matter if I showed them the sealed meat directly from the distributors in our freezers, and explained how the cooking worked. In fact, nothing I said mattered. They believed what they believed and that was that. In their eyes I was either a hapless pawn in the process of turning their balls blue and forcing their puny pee shooters to fire blanks, or I was an evil liar, part of the conspiracy, actively ensuring the toxins tainted their tiny testicles.

That was when I learned that those who choose to believe in a conspiracy will continue to believe regardless of any facts presented to them, so it’s been a while… 29 years have not shown me any different. I have never convinced anyone who believes in a conspiracy that they are wrong. It isn’t even worth trying. Don’t debate them – just mock them.

Aside… Imagine a world where men regulated the consequences of the actions of other men and actually tried to prevent unwanted pregnancies… just fucking imagine. This conspiracy about the old SA army is especially dumb. The officers knew that most (I can’t say all because I wasn’t one of them) of the troops went AWOL to local nightclubs every night and had unprotected sex, and instead of doing anything practical about it such as supplying condoms, they created rules to outlaw such activity, and then turned a blind eye to anyone breaking those rules. (I don’t remember anyone being punished for sneaking out of the camp at night. In fact I don’t recall anybody ever being caught. We, the same troops who snuck out at night, also took turns at guard duty.)

I hope you’ve enjoyed these anecdotes brought on by my diarrhoea and may you never have the misfortune of eating bad chicken…

Indoctrination gone wrong. My journey into atheism. Part 4

And here we have part 4. Originally published on my old blog on 23 January 2014. This was the first time I tried to articulate my arguments against religion, and I don’t think I did a bad job of it. Lately I have been wondering why it took me so long to figure out I was an atheist. Maybe I’ll write something about that in the next few days, if I can find the time.

Where part 3 left off I was 14 years old and a confirmed Roman Catholic. The previous parts of this series were mostly anecdotes, but I’ve more or less finished them. Sure, I could write the names of one or two people who influenced my way of thinking, but at 14, my indoctrination was complete, and thanks to my analytical thinking, I think that atheism was always going to be my final outcome.

Getting there, however, took a while. For several years, I found myself praying every night to a God I no longer believed in. Somehow I had become attached to Christianity, even though I no longer believed in it, and also there were some weird feelings of guilt involved. So I prayed, and I read the bible, looking not for moral lessons, but for some sign that it was true. Some sign of God. I found none.

Around the age of 21, I made a promise to my mother, that I would never convert to another religion. It was an easy promise to make. Atheism is not a religion. I didn’t convert to any religion, but rejected them all.

Before I could do that, I did a little research. What I found astonished me. There are similar beliefs, too similar in nature to be coincidence, throughout many religions. Were I still a believer, perhaps I could have interpreted this as supporting evidence in my belief, and that, ultimately, is what the religious do. They see signs, find ways to justify their beliefs.

But that’s not how I interpreted the data. To me it is obvious: Religion has “evolved” with man. All of the popular religions today probably had a common ancient religious source. People love to think there is meaning in life, and that somehow we, mankind, have lost something along the way, that ancient man knew the truth. But the truth is, ancient man knew nothing, but attributed superstitious spiritual significance to everything. The sun was a god up in the sky; the treacherous sea was a god; the moon was a god; even the rocks and the trees. At some point that evolved to a single god, a virgin birth, and other interesting stories.

Whatever the forgotten religions are, they don’t matter. What matters is that the modern religions incorporate pieces of them. Even the angels, named in Judaism and Christianity, are former gods of older religions. The people joined with the religions that became Judaism, bringing their gods with them. Old gods were not forgotten completely, but became angels.

It is impossible for me, as an atheist, ever to debate this with a religious person. [Edit, 28 August 2016. Haha! Why didn’t I take my own advice here? I wrote this before attempting to debate theists, and have done so frequently for the last two years. And I was right! Might as well debate the walls…] Religion, because of indoctrination, approaches the argument arse about face.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.

Carl Sagan

A religious person starts with the assumption that god exists, because that’s what they were always taught and they do not question it. If they debate with an atheist, they expect you then to disprove the existence of something that they believe in, despite no evidence that it exists. This is not a valid argument, but is backwards.

Yes, I’ve said it before, but you can not disprove the existence of something that does not exist, to the people who believe in it. They will not and can not argue rationally. It’s the same as trying to prove to someone who believes in a conspiracy theory or doomsday theory, that they are wrong. They can never accept it. If your argument is convincing, you become part of their conspiracy. [Edit. 28 August 2016. If your argument is convincing you become part of the conspiracy, in the case of debating a conspiracist. In the case of debating a theist, a convincing, factual, rational argument is often dismissed as coming from the evil that their religion believes in. So for Christians, the best arguments can be dismissed as coming from their devil. It’s a classic false dilemma: If you don’t worship my god, you must be under the spell of my devil.] A religious person knows that God exists, in their mind.

Some atheists seem to think that the religious lack intelligence. I am convinced this is not the case. I think there is no correlation between intelligence and religious belief. It’s all about indoctrination, and most people who have been indoctrinated into religion will never see the obvious fact that they believe in something that isn’t real.

I hope you have enjoyed this series. It was my first attempt to articulate my argument against religion, as well as explain how I reached this point. It’s probably not going to be my last.

Indoctrination gone wrong. My journey into atheism. Part 3

This is the third part of my four-part series on atheism. This one was originally published on my old blog on 20 January 2014.

Where part 2 left off, I was eight years old, and had completed my first confession and first communion. I did believe in God (but no longer believed in Santa Claus), and I did believe in Jesus, kind-of. At least, I believed that God had a son, but I could not understand why I was supposed to pray to him, rather than praying to his father.

I kept my doubts to myself, because I was a child, and had been taught that I must have the faith of a child. I found the whole thing very confusing. Also, I didn’t want to get into trouble.

I went to confession twice more in my life, once that same year, and once before my confirmation, which happened when I was 14.

Before I reached the confirmation class, there were a few years that are mostly a blur in my memory. At one stage I had a teacher named Patrick, who was an Irish South African complete with red hair, red beard and a smoking habit that required one of the kids to be sent to the shop and buy him a pack of cigarettes before each lesson. He was a pragmatic type of fellow, and told us tales of his youth and what it was like to attend a Christian Brothers school, and spent the rest of the time teaching us to know the required prayers and Creed off by heart. He also taught us what to say when people criticized us Catholics, accusing us of worshipping Mary and what-not.

Those lessons came in quite useful in the most surprising of places… Years later, while adding features and fixing bugs related to a program that could store freeform data, but did not correctly persist the right number of characters, I unit tested the code by filling the freeform text with the Hail Mary and Glory Be prayers, from memory. I reckon that after my colleagues saw all the prayers in that database, they must have thought I was off my head.

As for the lessons in defending Catholicism, I learned in later years, when it comes to criticism, even if the negative criticism is unfounded, people who criticize are often just not willing to listen to any response, so there is seldom any need to answer what they have to say. [Edit 28 August 2016. I used to be defensive about my former religion. When I wrote this, I still was. The truth is, the rationalizations that Patrick taught us to use when defending the religion didn’t make much sense, when I think about them now. Why should Mary intercede between us and god? Why pray to Mary?… Assuming a need for prayer at all, which I do not. But even if god existed, praying to Mary makes no sense at all.]

Patrick also taught us about the Holy Trinity, and I did not understand that part. By the age of ten, I was already successful when in came to selective belief. I think, as a Christian, you have to be. I mean, is creation a literal tale? Is it a parable? I thought a parable must have a second meaning. What is the second meaning; the lesson that it conveys? The whole story of God creating the Earth in 7 days, “Let there be light” and the fall of man don’t make any sense, no matter which way you look at it. I knew that already at ten years old, but I did what every good little Christian does, and tried not to think about it.

Then we moved on to the next Sunday School teacher. She was a crazy person named Beverly. I was convinced that she was out of her mind, when she taught us about Heaven and Hell, Purgatory, Limbo and original sin. WTF? We all inherit Adam’s sin, and are not forgiven for it… Only baptism in a Catholic church frees us of this. Thus if a baby dies, having not been baptized, it can not enter Heaven, but must spend eternity in Limbo. As for the rest of us, even if we live saintly lives, after we die we must hang around in Purgatory for a while, maybe hundreds of years, before we can go to Heaven.

I’m sorry, but only a lunatic could ever believe that nonsense. So we inherit sin? The sins of the father, literally. What about every sin of all the other billions of ancestors after Adam?

So by 12 years old, my selective belief was starting to get out of control. By the time I reached 14, at around the same time as my confirmation, I’d reached the point where there was more that I disbelieved than I believed, and my doubts in the existence of God, at least the God I had been taught of, was starting to take over.

Again, this is starting to get long… I don’t want to put too much into a single post (and it’s almost time for me to drive home anyway). Thus here ends part 3. Of course there will be a fourth part. Beyond that, I don’t know.

Indoctrination gone wrong. My journey into atheism. Part 2

This is the second part of my series on atheism. This one was first published on my old blog on 17 January 2014.

Where part 1 left off, I was six years old, and two weeks into my very short stint of attending Mass alone. I still believed in God at that point, but I also believed in Father Christmas (or Santa Claus, as he is called in many other countries).

I was a shy and introverted little boy, and spent most of my time in my own universe of my imagination. I’d also only just started reading, so it would be a good two or three years before I could discover that books brought a wealth of imaginative tales just as interesting as my own. In retrospect, I was quite advanced for a six-year-old in some ways, and quite behind in others. I was terribly clumsy; my verbal skills were probably not on par with my peers because I didn’t talk much and my imaginary people and places were visual; and my perception of the world was somehow a tad different to everybody around me. This makes me sound almost like a (retarded) child prodigy, but that was not the case. I was just a quiet, shy boy, in everybody’s eyes. I did however, already criticize things like the movie I referred to yesterday, and my taste was already quite different to that of my peers. When I tried talking about it to anyone, they didn’t understand, so I stopped talking about it.

I said I’d explain why my family joined me at Mass… My father would drop me off at the Sunday School, which was done at St Anne’s Primary School in Plumstead, Cape Town. This is on the same premises as St Pius X church. After the class was finished, I would attend Mass (or maybe before – my memory of this is unclear).

Afterwards, I had to walk home. It was only a short way but I always had the problem where I only remember the directions one way, and get confused going the other way. Here is the route, from my house in Attlee Rd to the church. (Ignore Edu-Babez preschool… That wasn’t there back then, and even if it had been, retarded spelling wasn’t all the rage as it is now.)


So, the very first time I had to walk alone, I got confused and turned into the wrong road. I think it may have been Rotherfield Rd… So I walked about twenty meters, realized I was going the wrong way, and turned back, crying all the way as six-year-olds do.

A very kindly old man was driving along, with his wife sitting in the passenger seat. Seeing the poor little lost boy, they stopped and asked me what was wrong. They offered to help, but we had a campaign at school about strangers. You know the type… Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t go to strangers. Don’t get into the car with a stranger… And so on. I couldn’t imagine why that might be. I figured the old guy and his wife didn’t look like monsters who might eat me up, but you never can tell with monsters.

I began to cheer up, having relaxed and been put at ease by the kindly elderly people, which had jolted my memory of the way home, so I politely informed them that I couldn’t get into their car because they were strangers, but “It’s this way” and proceeded to run home.

Of course I informed my parents of the whole thing and they were concerned. They were possibly even more concerned after a mother of another child informed them of my antics during Mass. Mass was rather a boring experience, so after I figured out the mystery of the hymns, I decided to show off by playing with the hymn book when boring things like singing and sermons telling the same stories about Jesus that I’d already heard were going on. Apparently this (random paging back and forth through the hymn book) distracted her. My other favourite pastime during boring moments, which nobody knew about, was pretending that I could shoot laser beams out of my eyes which then stole the life essence out of the back of people’s heads. (Hey, that’s what you should expect when sending a six-year-old alone to church!)

So that didn’t last very long. Soon the whole family went to Mass together, and continued to do so until I was about 18.

The rest of my Sunday School years were mostly uneventful. I was a good boy who never disobeyed, and although I never got comfortable with the whole Jesus thing (I prayed to God, but the idea of him having a son – who was also God – and a holy spirit – who was also God – was something that just didn’t feel right), I thought I was a good Christian.

The only other thing that really stood out for me was my First Holy Communion. Not the communion itself, mind you – I always wondered what those little thingies tasted like, although I knew it was not cake, but the confession. By then I was eight years old, and we all did our first communion together. Before that, we all did our first confession. At eight years old, I had already decided that I didn’t believe in confession. My logic then was not much different to that of an adult: There was nothing about confession in any of the bible stories I knew, therefore it made no sense. I also didn’t understand what made the priests so special that they could forgive all my sins, because they were just men, and I had been taught that Jesus died for my sins, so there was no place in my understanding for confession.

So I bunked my first confession by pretending to be sick that week. I did eventually go the next week though, and consequently felt left out. Everybody else had gone and stood in a long line together, for confession with Father Tom Nicholson, who was much loved by all, while I was all alone, and had to face Father Roche, who was a cranky old man much feared by all. I even had to make up some sins because I had not, in my understanding, done anything wrong. This contradiction confused me: Lying is a sin, but I must lie because I need some sins to confess. (Who’s going to forgive me for that one?) It didn’t occur to me that I had committed a sin by bunking my first confession the previous week, because I was always good at convincing myself that I was really sick.

Of course, in religion we always convince ourselves of things that we know can not be true, don’t we? Then we call it faith.

Here ends part 2. There will definitely be a third part. Beyond that, I don’t know.

Indoctrination gone wrong. My journey into atheism. Part 1

A new Facebook friend asked how all her atheist friends came to be atheists… So here it is for me, a series I wrote on atheism and first published on my old blog. Although I’d mentioned my atheism in passing before that, this was my first attempt at writing about it. This was originally published on 16 January 2014.

I’m publishing the original four parts here, separated by 30 minutes between posts…

A short intro: Sometimes I have entire entries, right down to the paragraph level, maybe one or two puns or wordplays or some other deliberate ambiguity to keep things interesting, as well as the summary with some sort of smart-ass comment, all in my head before I write a single word. That is, the entire structure is predefined and I know exactly what I want to say, which means that the only thing not preset is individual words making up the clauses to link everything together. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I just write. This is one of those times, so I don’t know how long it will be, or whether there will be more parts.

I’m an atheist. You should already know that by now. But I wasn’t always this way. I started out as a good little Catholic boy, and somehow ended up here. How did I get here? I am interested in what makes me tick, and hence what makes other people tick. The psychological journey, of myself and of others, intrigues me. Thus my objective here is to remember “out loud” how I got here, in anecdotal form. (I recently discovered I’m good at writing anecdotes, so hopefully it will be interesting.) I must warn you that it may not be interesting, so if you find yourself getting bored… Sorry! Just go read something else.

Wind back the clock to 1978, when little six-year-old Jerome started Sunday School. Throughout my childhood and early adulthood, I was too quiet and shy, and struggled to fit in. At six years old, I was probably at about the furthest point from fitting in. I had few friends, and preferred to be alone. I lived in my own world most of the time. This was years before virtual reality, but in my universe, something just like it already existed. In the stories that went around my head as I played, everybody owned a game system, similar to a PlayStation or console system, although no such items existed yet. In my universe, you plugged into the game and became somebody else, either a super-hero here on Earth, or a character on some other planet or space-ship. You could work yourself up, and eventually rule planets. I’m making this sound far more sophisticated than it was… None of my characters even had names because it was a visual game in my head. When they spoke to each other and used names, they would be mumbled, so everybody was called Hmmmph or Ergh.

The point is, the little Jerome who arrived late for that very first Sunday School lesson was a boy who struggled to relate to other children. I hated the Disney-style movies that everybody else loved, like Freaky Friday, because I thought they were false and just too sweet. So when I walked into the room and everybody else was singing “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands”, followed by “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so”, which I had never heard before, but decided immediately I disliked, I was completely out of place.

I did grow to love the place though. The old lady who taught the little ones and ran the place was called Aunty Penny, and she made me think of tea and cake, which was my primary objective when not living in my own world. So when we were all encouraged to go to Mass (“It’s a celebration”), I told my parents and ended up going to Mass alone for the first few weeks. (More on that in the next part, including when and why the rest of the family joined me.)

I didn’t know what they meant by celebration. I hoped it would be like a birthday party, with lots of tea and cake. So when I attended that first Mass by myself, I was sorely disappointed to find it was just a normal boring church service, like the ones we (the family) attended at Christmas and Easter. Everybody seemed to know what was going on and had a Sunday Missal, except me, but there were hymn books on the benches. I soon caught onto the pattern of the Mass, and knew when to stand up, or sit down, or kneel, and repeat the mumbo-jumbo like everybody else.

What I did not get was how you were supposed to know what hymn to sing. I was in my first year of school, and so had begun to learn to read. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could make out most of the words and read the hymns without any difficulty, but the mystery of knowing which hymn to sing eluded me for the first two weeks. Then it came to me… Aunty Penny (the sweet old lady who had, in my mind, tricked me into attending because I thought I would get tea and cake) was changing a series of numbers on a wooden board at the front, and those were the numbers of the hymns. I was very happy to have figured it out, but the numbers were often bigger than I could count, and singing didn’t really interest me, so I didn’t actually sing the hymns.

The rest of my team has arrived here at work (the testers), so now I have work to do, and besides, this is about long enough, so here ends part one. There will be a second part, but beyond that, I don’t know.