Friday, March 25, 2011

Interview: Tristan Vick #1

Bret: Today I’ll be talking to Tristan of Advocatus Atheist, who lives in Japan. First international interview, I can’t wait. So Tristan, my first question might seem odd, but I get asked all the time: if you’re an atheist, why get married?

Tristan: Basically, I think people who ask that sort of question are simply under the misconception that marriage is about love. Marriage, until quite recently, has NOT been about love. For over 200,000 years marriage has been a means to an end.

Bret: So you got married to ally your tribe with your wife’s?

Tristan: First it was tribal allegiances, yes. When agricultural societies developed, and patriarchies matured, women were bartered for as part of the man’s property--as chattel. This is the sort of marriage we find in the Christian Bible. Marriage traditionally had to do with sustaining the family. So either you procured a wife who could produce many sons to help maintain the land and do labor, or you used your daughters are bargaining chips to attempt to marry them into a wealthier family--this usually involved arranged marriages.

Bret: Though to be fair, women did work as well. It’s not like women stayed at home sipping wine and watching soap operas before the 50s.

Tristan: Another thing that strikes me odd about that question is that it sounds very Eurocentric, in the Christian sense, as if non-Christian cultures could even possibly comprehend the concept of marriage. The Chinese were paying dowries and marrying thousands of years before Jews ever walked the face of the Earth. I’m just saying, it seems to me that this notion that marriage is supposed to be about love is relatively recent. So why get married? Because you love someone. My sarcastic answer would be, why not?

Bret: Good answer, we also would have accepted “for insurance” or “for citizenship.” I guess you don’t have to worry about the former in Japan. Though what about the latter, was citizenship a factor when you got married?

Tristan: Those are other reasons, yes. All this just goes to show that marriage is not a simple construct. No, citizenship never entered into it. Japanese law is so strict that it is nearly impossible to naturalize and become a Japanese citizen. It’s been done, but I have never thought of myself as anything other than American. That said, marriage to a foreign national does have its benefits, such as Visa status.

Bret: Do you plan to live in Japan permanently?

Tristan: No. I think of Japan as my second home now, but I’ve already enrolled to begin my Masters and PhD at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Also, JET Programme, the teaching job I do, has a limit of 5 years. I’ve done all five. So it was either find a new job or return to the States and continue my education.

Bret: How are things in Japan? We don’t usually hear much about that country, but obviously it’s been in the news a lot. How do you think the nation is handling the recent disaster?
Tristan: The people are great. Natural disasters are commonplace here. Every month there is an earthquake or a volcanic eruption or typhoon. This time it was a daisy-chain of events; one of the worst earthquakes in human history off the coast of Tohoku Japan devastated the entire Eastern seaboard. This set off a massive tsunami, waves 43 feet high, traveling at 800 km/h (about the speed of a jet) which crippled half the country. So it is devastating to say the least. The good news is Japan is well prepared, and well equipped, to handle it. The bad news is that foreign aid isn’t getting to the victims of the disaster because of too much red tape.

Bret: Here in the states, everyone is focused on what they perceive might affect us here, namely the nuclear power plant meltdowns. Have mutated zombies taken to the streets there yet?

Tristan: If the zombies are as cute as the Japanese girl in the opening scene of Resident Evil 4, then I’m not worried.

Bret: One thing a lot of people in the US (particularly on the right) obsess about is deregulation. Do you think the strict regulations placed by the Japanese government saved lives there?

Tristan: They’re more organized because of it. I don’t know. It works both ways. Regulation can be beneficial, but at the same time, as I mentioned above, things can get caught up in red tape and become unnecessarily time consuming. I would say that having Government mandated social healthcare/insurance has been hugely beneficial for me and my family. When my wife and I had our first child last year, the Japanese government paid us! We had a $4,000 bill wiped clean. This included hospital bills, ultra sounds, and even now my daughter gets free immunization shots.

Bret: Yeah, but in return you have to work the salt mines in the Communist labor camps, right?

Tristan: It’s about three hundred dollars a month for a family of three. But heck, my last dentist check up cost two dollars. So I think it evens out somewhere.

Bret: My insurance is like six hundred dollars a month, and I get a reduced rate through my wife’s job. I’ve been so misinformed about socialized medicine! And yet I haven’t been to a doctor in like 3 years. Anyway, what is the religious situation in Japan? Lots of atheists?

Tristan: Mostly. Yeah. About 75% of the Japanese consider themselves secular free thinkers. Another portion is Buddhist, again the secular kind. Which leaves Shinto as the largest theistic faith with a presence in Japan. There are Christians too, but few and far between. And nothing like “American Christianity.” Sometimes I wish Christians would just go to other countries to see how Christianity has evolved there. A lot of the time, I don’t think they would even recognize it as Christianity.

Bret: But of course with the disaster that just hit, that will all change as people flock to churches to find answers, right?

Tristan: Nope. Not here. Japan is a humanist culture first and foremost. What will likely happen is they’ll do what they always do, help each other up, and get things back. As I mentioned, natural disasters hit here every week basically, it’s been this way since the first people came to Japan, and it’s part of their psychology. They deal with it and then move on. Religion is not part of the equation. And even if it were, the Japanese do not believe in talking about their faith with anyone. It’s meant to be a personal matter.

Bret: Ah, now I see. God is punishing them for not spreading the good word enough.

Tristan: That seems to be what a lot of American Evangelical fucktards are saying--but they’re just ignorant.

Bret: True, it might be gay people that caused it, you never know.

Tristan: I just read on the ‘Atheist Revolution’ blog a list of Christians who think God is punishing Japan or that it’s a sign of the apocalypse, or some such drivel. Basically these people are out of touch with reality. They have a world weariness, as I like to call it, and are so terrified, or so utterly stupid, or both... that they can’t help but play the part of the fool.

Bret: Why do you think Christians accept tectonic plate theory and not evolution?

Tristan: Confirmation bias, plain and simple. Tectonic plates don’t interfere with the core theology near enough for it to constitute a problem for them. God made the world that way... so be it. However, evolution suggests that much of Christian theology is incorrect. That we evolved from a common ancestor, and were not created (from clay) by some divine God. What’s more, it implied we were not created in God’s image, therefore evolution does away with the whole first man concept vital to get original sin rolling. Evolution also suggests we’re not special, that the universe was intended for us, that we’re just another animal species--without design and purpose.
And religion constantly tries to suggest that we are special, that there is design and purpose. These are just some of the implications of evolution on Christian theology as I see them. But apparently the Catholic church is in support of Darwin’s theory of evolution now. Times are a changin’.

Bret: Yeah, the pope even started speculating that there might be aliens. I found that kind of... L. Ron Hubbardish.

Tristan: Well, there have to be aliens. It’s a statistical dilemma. You’d be more incorrect to say there weren’t aliens than to say there are, but this isn’t probably the Pope’s line of reasoning. But then again, I don’t know what goes on under that pointy hat of his. For all I know he could be a math genius.

Bret: This pope is particularly scholastic. I don’t know about his math credentials, but he’s much more professorial than the last pope, who was more of a well liked, charismatic figure compared to the bookish nature of Benedict. But you weren’t Catholic before becoming atheist, right?

Tristan: No. My mom recently married a Catholic though. They couldn’t get the blessing of his church because she’s twice divorced, and so they hired a retired priest to marry them. Weird religious politics.

Bret: When did you deconvert from Christianity?
Tristan: About a year and a half ago I became atheist. Before that I was about two years in limbo. And two years prior to that I was attending a Messianic Jewish temple. But I was born and raised an Evangelical Christian, Assemblies of God.

Bret: So you can clearly remember being religious, unlike me.

Tristan: Oh yeah. It was a large part of my life. My mom is extremely religious, and so I was inculcated early on. At 14 I was born again and on fire for Christ. I became a Bible Camp Counselor and taught the ‘good news’ to children--basically indoctrination. I joined Campus Crusades for Christ in college. I was head of my youth group. I went on many interfaith youth retreats... I was pretty much a ‘Jesus freak’.

Bret: That’s funny, I used to deface the signs that Campus Crusades put up at my college.

Tristan: I probably wouldn’t vandalize something, but I may tear something down if I found it overtly offensive.

Bret: I don’t see any harm is writing on a 10 cent photo-copied piece of paper that Christians should remember to bring their suit of armor to the Campus Crusades, or that Muslims should look out. It was more public service announcement than vandalism, really. I hated the use of “Crusade” like it was anything but a bloody reminder of religious violence. Could you imagine if the Muslim student union held a Jihad event?

Tristan: It was motivated by religious politics, definitely. I’d go to a Jihad event just to see the FBI raid.

Bret: What is your stance on religion’s existence, like... do you think the world would be better off without religion or does the mere existence of religion not matter to you?

Tristan: I think those who think religion has to be eradicated and wiped off the face of the Earth don’t understand anything about religion. Bruce M. Hood has written a great book on how our brains naturally create supernatural explanations for things before we are fully aware we’re doing it. He has tested many children in the field of children’s psychology to test mind design theory, and his book ‘Supersense’ is a must read. David Eller also has a good book on the religious anthropology called ‘Introducing Anthropology of Religion.’ Also, the anthropologist Pascal Boyer has an amazing book on religious development called ‘Religion Explained.’
My take is that as long as there are humans there will be religion, in one form or another, since it seems that religion is just something our poorly evolved brains generate to compensate for our lack of understanding about the world. David Eller also has a good book on religion. His book ‘Atheism Advanced’ is also excellent.

Bret: I’m not a big anti-religionist, but I’m not sure I’m sold on the idea that a concept we have naturally cannot be overcome. Bigotry is a natural thing that occurs among all people across the globe, but I also believe it’s possible to overcome, though I don’t necessarily see religion as something that needs to be erased.

Tristan: The difference is in that our minds aren’t hard wired to generate bigotry. Bigotry occurs, most likely, for other reasons. Upbringing, social status, etc. Religion seems to be, at least in part, related to human psychology. When I critique religion I am usually looking at either the history, the philosophy, or the consequences of active belief. These are things I feel I can comment on.

Bret: I’m pretty convinced bigotry is hardwired. Kids treat people who appear strange in a different way, and I think there’s even an evolutionary reason for this, in that seeing outsiders as something to be feared may be a useful trait to have in a world full of violent human beings. So if religion was somehow erased from human culture, you think kids would reinvent it?

Tristan: Only if our minds hadn’t progressed enough to cope with not understanding the world. Basically is has to do with how our brains substitute information and make inferences. Take, for example, the evolutionary vestigial trait of ‘jumping in fright’ at a scary noise, being startled when someone unexpectedly happens upon us, or that spooky old tree outside the bedroom window--our brains our programmed by natural selection to fear these things... because if they were real threats it would pay to be aware of them instead of oblivious, because we’d be dead.
Now we can exploit this physiological reaction by watching scary movies and triggering it for pleasure. Other than that, it serves us little purpose today.

Bret: Well besides giving us great fodder for prank TV shows.

Tristan: My point is, when our brains substitute ‘old scary witch’ instead of spooky tree, this is the same thing which is happening on various different levels when it comes to religion. Also, perhaps in part, it is also due to the awareness of our own mortality. One of the growing theories is that because we often have the experience of seeing or feeling loved ones after they have passed, in pre-modern times, these experiences would have seemed spiritual in nature. Now we can explain such events with modern science, but to the scientifically illiterate (which it seems most religious are) these experiences constitute a mysterious reality. The brain then assumes, like the false assumption of the tree being a threat, that similarly dead people aren’t necessarily gone forever. In a sense, they haunt us. Thus ghost stories are generated. Fables and folklore. Religious ideas. And so forth.

Bret: You bring up an interesting point, because I think most people today think of religion as being about gods, but it’s more than that. There are entire religions that have no gods, or else acknowledge the idea of gods but put no importance in them. Do you think religion will evolve beyond gods?

Tristan: I think it mostly has. Although theistic monotheism is the dominant religion in sheer number of adherents, it is the minority when it comes to types of religions. In fact, non-theistic religions outnumber theistic ones. That is to say, there are more religions without gods than with gods. David Eller actually emphasizes this point in his book. The problem is, however, that we’re so saturated with “God talk” on a daily basis that we often forget that other religious perspectives exist. The Buddhism that is in Japan is mainly secular, it is ancestor worship more or less, but it has nothing to do with any active theology or belief in Buddhist gods. So I’ve seen first hand a non-theistic religion, and it works just fine, if not better than other theistic varieties.

Bret: Do you think religion has to contain some element of the supernatural?

Tristan: Yes, because I think that is the key component in how our brains generate religious thought. The belief in the supernatural is, in my view, a prerequisite for full on religion. But another aspect is ritual. These are the two key elements in every religious belief, to varying degrees of course.

Bret: Oh without a doubt, I was taught in every course I ever took on religion or theology that religion is ritual more than anything else. But in that sense, anything can be a religion, since even brushing your teeth is a ritual, but that doesn’t make dentistry a religion to me. So, I think that the supernatural aspect tends to be what separates religion from sciences or philosophies.

Tristan: Well, most religions are comprised of various beliefs, tenets, and practices. There has never been a religion based on just one belief and one belief only.

Bret: Evangelical Christianity comes close with the concept of “saving grace.”

Tristan: Belief in the tooth fairy is supernatural, but it’s not a religion in itself. Just as dentistry isn’t a religion unto itself. But if you combined them somehow so visiting the dentist, brushing teeth, and belief in the tooth fairy are all part of the same system of belief... it would be much closer to a religion than any of those things independently.

Bret: Like I needed another reason to hate going to get my teeth worked on... How do you feel about people saying science is a religion?

Tristan: It’s sort of like saying auto-repair is a religion. They’re idiots and they need to be corrected for the very fact that such ideas are painfully stupid.

Bret: What about those who say atheism is a religion or a faith? Oh and for the record, when I do auto-repair, I do a lot of praying...

Tristan: It can be. It depends on the atheist I suppose. Atheism doesn’t technically have a dogma, but many atheists try to give it one. The atheist John Loftus, of Debunking Christianity, is one such atheist. He seems to have replaced one fundamentalism for another--but much of what he is on about is simply echoes of his past Christianity. If he’d realize this he’d spend less time being a zealous atheist and more time being a real atheist.Which is to say... I personally do not see how atheism can be misconstrued as a religion as per the nature of atheism itself. So no, atheism is not a form of religion, although it can certainly sometimes appear that way. What it lacks, however, is belief in the supernatural, regular rituals, tenets, and dogmas. It’s theology is evidence--so no--I don’t see any logical progression from atheism to religion.

Bret: Yeah, atheism is a religion like a sauce pot is a hat. It can be, but that’s not really what it’s for. I hate to ask, but do you think I take atheism to the lengths of being a religion?

Tristan: I wouldn’t know. Just this week I was accused by a family member of being a ‘militant atheist.’ I don’t think they meant it as an attack, but I think any criticism of religion is going to come off as seeming a bit strident--perhaps overzealous--even when it’s not.

Bret: Well, religion is serious business. What could matter more than the destiny of our eternal souls?

Tristan: Let me give you an example of atheism as it should be vs. atheism as many use it. When a religious person comes up to tell you that your soul is on the line, that your very eternal salvation depends on you accepting Jesus Christ as your lord and savior, the wrong sort of atheism will simply assert the opposite--nuh-uh! This is what I see John Loftus doing. Christianity says one thing, he tries to disprove it by showing the opposite to be the case. An analytical technique which works for deconstructing various ideas and concepts, but it misses the point. The true atheist would simply respond to all the religious talk with, “I don’t understand you--you make no sense.”

Bret: So a good atheist is an apatheist? Or would it be more accurate to say a good atheist is almost an agnostic?

Tristan: Not exactly. The ‘good atheist’ is one who has no belief. In order for belief to be properly sustained, one needs evidence for proposed theories. If someone comes to me and tells me a wild tale about sin and salvation, talking snakes, God becoming incarnate in the form of his own son, only to sacrifice himself to himself, to atone for the original curse of sin he put on us in the first place... it seems to me to entertain such the notion, even in the slightest, let alone to pretend to know what it means in the literal sense, and is simply not possible, given the complete lack of evidence. As interesting, engrossing, enticing, moving, and powerful of a story it may be... in the real world it is completely without basis. To be asked to take it on a matter of faith... then... is to simply raise the question, “What could you possibly mean by that?” As atheists don’t believe, playing the religious game puts the ball in the court of believers. They can then dictate the rules. If atheism is to effectively deal with religion, it can’t allow religion to dictate the terms of the debate. Atheism will simply have to fall back on the defense that the religious proposal lacks all basis for support and makes no sense, that is, is mainly incoherent, which it is. And that is atheism proper, when belief in the supernatural, and theistic belief, is taken out of the equation. But atheists can be agnostic as well. I personally do not know whether some Deistic entity exists out there somewhere (over the rainbow). But somehow I highly doubt it.

Bret: Do you think the very name “atheist” is allowing theists to define the debate? I am all on board with redefining the label to something else like irreligious, but even that still pays lip service to religion itself. Any thoughts on that?

Tristan: I personally like the rule of parsimony when it comes to terminology. Atheism is the simplest, most straight forward, and clear term. It’s not all encompassing, however, and that’s why modifiers are added, e.g., militant atheist, new atheist, naturalistic atheist, and so on. As a term it suffices. As a philosophy, I think there is more to atheistic philosophy than commonly assumed. It’s still evolving.

Bret: I used to like “humanist,” but I kind of lost my faith in humanity. I’m not sure I like the idea of almost implying I have faith in us. And I certainly wouldn’t raise human beings up to the level of gods.

Tristan: I’ve coined the term Augere Atheist to explain my sort of atheism. But in terms of god belief, I consider myself a post-theist atheist.

Bret: Do you worry that post-theist may imply there were gods at one time?

Tristan: It literally means ‘after theism’--implying that I was once a theist but not any more. I don’t see how one could derive deity from mere belief in deities in the generic sense.

Bret: Anything else you want to tell the world (or the limited portion of it that reads my blog) before we let you get some sleep?

Tristan: I actually thought you were going to ask me more controversial questions, like what sorts of Christians piss you off and what tenet or belief makes you the most irrate.

Bret: Well feel free to tell me. I try not to ask people what pisses them off, that isn’t the best mood setter. But yeah, lay into those damn Christians with all your hate if you want.

Tristan: I don’t hate Christians, per se. I hate certain people and I despise their love of ignorance and am astonished at certain people’s level of credulity.

Bret: Anyone in particular?

Tristan: I guess the sort of Christian I dislike the most is the Christian who thanks God every other word, and quotes the Bible, then thanks God again, quotes the Bible, and never makes a damn point. And they talk like this ad nauseam. The tenet which makes me irate is the belief that we aren’t born innocent, that for some reason, we are born tainted, corrupted, all inherently programmed to be sinful child rapists and cannibal nudists. Original sin is, in my opinion, the most sinister, most puerile, most wicked of assumptions.

Bret: Well, now I feel bad because I believe in that. Not “original sin,” but that we’re born horrible people. To be fair, we are born as nudists... check and mate. But little kids also lie, steal, hit, say mean things... basically all of the things we have to make rules for, kids have to be taught not to do. Our first act on this Earth is to cause great pain to our mothers, also.

Tristan: It depends if you view human emotional suffering on the same level of sin, or just a consequence of our biology. I think a lot of human nature comes from our adaptation to things like our environment and what not. Children lie, steal, and do mean things because, a) they don’t know any better, b) it’s a survival mechanism, c) they weren’t taught properly. So we may be born rough around the edges, but this doesn’t mean we are morally deficient--or outrigh immoral--which is what the doctrine of original sin suggests.

Bret: I think it’s because we’re born selfish and needy. And helpless.

Tristan: Yes, helpless, needy, and selfish--all part of the human condition. But this doesn’t connote moral depravity. Otherwise we could never be moral. I guess the best example of this is the person forced to steal food for the first time or starve to death. Maybe if they were not selfish or needy, if they were a Tibetan monk, they would choose to starve to death. Let’s say you are a father, and your only child is starving to death, your failure to steal food for her survival is a greater moral evil.

Bret: Well, if they were a Tibetan monk, they would beg for food with an open bowl and probably be given something. But I get what you’re saying.

Tristan: For me, to suggest we are all morally depraved from the beginning is to suggest we could never make the necessary moral choice--because our morality would be hindered by some supernatural force--i.e., sin. That’s just absurd.

Bret: Some, like Epicurus, would say self-sufficiency is a moral issue.

Tristan: Epicurus also taught moderation. Whether sinful indulgences or moral extremes, I think he’d say to take the middle ground.

Bret: Certainly. Anything else before I finally let you get to bed?

Tristan: Epicurus also believed wine helped one think more clearly. Maybe he was on to something?

Bret: I don’t know... I turn all Mel Gibson when I drink. Maybe it’s different for people with Greek genetics.

Tristan: Do you mean to tell me that you become anti-Semetic when you’re drunk?

Bret: Oh no I don’t turn anti-Semitic... I just let my anti-Semitism out when drinking. But it’s okay, my wife’s Jewish. Though that does mean she starts all the fights in our relationship.

Tristan: I think my wife has the best advice to those who share different religious views and are married---just don’t talk about religion. We did fine when I was a Christian, and we do even better now that I’m not.

Bret: Oh she’s an atheist, but you know how Jews are. It’s a religion when they want it to be, an ethnicity when they want it to be, or a culture when they want it to be.

Tristan: It’s a versatile faith, yes.

Bret: The worst part is my kids will have a Jewish mother. So in that case, I hear they round up.
Alrighty, I think we offended enough people for one day. I feel bad I went 30 minutes over. It’s past 2am there now, right?

Tristan: No problem. It’s 2:07.

Bret: Time flies when talking atheism.

Tristan: I’ll head to bed the moment I log off.

Bret: Be sure you do, I can’t be held responsible for it if you’re crabby tomorrow.

Tristan: Before I do however, I’d like to thank you for the conversation and if you have follow-up questions feel free to drop me a line sometime.

Bret: Oh of course, and being interviewed once doesn’t mean you can’t be interviewed again in the future. This is always a good way to get ideas out there. I sometimes think blogs run by one person end up a little stagnant in their ideas, since it’s all coming from one point of view. It’s been a pleasure, Tristan.

Tristan: Thanks Bret, have a good one.

Bret: Good night.

Tristan: Oyasumi-nasai. (Japanese for goodnight)

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