Interview with Atheist Blogger Chana Messinger
Chana is a recent graduate of the University of Chicago with a BA in mathematics. She was the president of the University of Chicago Secular Alliance for two years, a Speaker at the 2011 Secular Student Alliance Conference, a panelist at the 2012 Skepticon Conference, and a speaker at the 2013 Chicago Skepticamp and at Chicago Skeptics.
She describes herself as an atheist, feminist, Jew, and nerd, as well as a blogger and (soon!) high school mathematics teacher. She has spent a great deal of time in secular, Jewish, and Christian communities, and loves learning from all of them.
Brandon: Let’s begin by discussing your religious journey. You’re ethnically Jewish, and you have many Christian friends. How did you end up as an atheist?
Chana: I am Jewish, to be sure, and was raised in a Reform household, going to a Reform temple and Reform Hebrew School. I think I believed in God—I have a memory of that—but it was never so strong as to be the core of my life. I don't recall ever loving God.
Sometime in my early teens, I adopted a pantheistic belief, believing that God was in and composed of the connections between people, animals, and all of the world around us. It was a pretty shallow belief, created mainly out of a motley amalgam of various books, an admiration of Baruch Spinoza, and a sense of wonder and awe at the world around me.
Upon reading The God Delusion, whose first chapter described pantheism as "sexed up atheism", I decided I agreed with Professor Dawkins that I may as well just admit I didn't believe in something that would reasonably be called God. I've been an atheist ever since. Yet still, I've never lost my love for religious ritual and I gained a love for theological discussion and analysis in college. Hence all the religious friends!
Brandon: What were the most compelling reasons that led you to atheism?
Chana: The strength of any epistemology relies in its ability to act differently in the face of true things and false things. Faith, as far as I can tell, does not do this. Empiricism and rationality do. I have never heard a conception of God that is both coherent enough to test by these methods and that passes these tests. Furthermore, it does not appear that the existence of a God explains anything I didn't know before.
Brandon: What three books best represent your worldview?
Chana: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality is a fan fiction of Harry Potter, written in a world where Harry is a rationalist science whiz. It takes the notions of learning about science and trying to develop an accurate picture of the world and magically whirls them into a story that is a beautiful, educational, and addictive besides being, all on its own, a knock-down argument for a rationalist way of living.
How The Mind Works, by Steven Pinker, gives a thorough and thoroughly materialistic understanding of minds and brains. It is part of a canon of science books that provides a satisfying grounding in how the world works, which makes people more educated and obviates the need for supernatural explanations for those same phenomena. I find this especially useful when mystical or dualistic approaches might be tempting, such as in the case of the relationship between the brain, the mind, and consciousness. Thankfully, Pinker and others are there to give the scientific account.
Finally, Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials Series is a brilliant, wonderful fantasy series. It proves by shining example the existence of beautiful atheistic stories about adventure, and difficult choices, and being good people, and truth, and growing up. It calls on humans to be humanists, to think critically about religion, and to explore mysteries with abandon. And I think the picture it gives of religion is deeply sympathetic while being sharply critical of institutions he thinks are harmful. The worldview present in this book is in large part the one I aim towards myself.
Find more from Chana at her blog, The Merely Real, or by following her on Twitter at @chanamessinger.
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