Maxims for Non-Believers

The other day Chad Orzel excerpted my post on teaching Athena about Christmas and did a compare and contrast with a comment about religion from another blogger who is a non-believer. This prompted a comment from a reader (who is, presumably, also a non-believer):

“I really can’t approve of John Scalzi’s Laodicean attitude. Believe, if you can. Disbelieve, if you must. But don’t pick out just the pretty parts to pass on.”

This naturally caused me to break out John Scalzi’s Patented Hard Rubber Mallet of Agitated Clarification and apply it liberally. I won’t post the messy, snippy results of this; instead, please visit Chad’s fine, fine blog for the details.

However, in the course of whacking on folks, I did sketch out seven Maxims for Non-Believers – seven heuristics that I use to reconcile my own utter lack of religious belief with the rather more religious world I live in. The maxims are:

1. Being a non-believer does not mean you have to be intolerant of those who believe.

2. Being a non-believer does not mean you have to be ignorant of the beliefs of those around you.

3. Being a non-believer doesn’t mean you need to keep your children ignorant of the beliefs around you either. Withholding information from your children is a very bad way to help them make responsible decisions.

4. Being a non-believer does not mean you can’t empathize with the religious impulse in others.

5. Being tolerant of belief, knowledgeable about beliefs and empathetic toward the desire for belief does not make one less of a non-believer. It makes one tolerant, knowledgeable and empathetic.

6. I believe that my tolerance, knowledge and empathy makes my own non-belief stronger, because I know why other people believe, and why I don’t.

7. I believe that in being tolerant, knowledgeable and empathetic toward believers, I encourage those who believe to be tolerant, knowledgeable and empathetic toward me.

Note for the record that these maxims do not preclude thumping on people of faith who are also ignorant as paste and would try to make me and mine just as ignorant. Since I don’t believe that faith requires adhesive levels of ignorance, I feel perfectly justified tolerating faith while whaling on active, aggressive know-nothingness. Jesus may love us all, even the morons, but that doesn’t mean being a moron should be an aspiration.

But I have to be honest: I find arrogant, intolerant non-believers just as annoying on a personal level as arrogant, intolerant believers. Just as having faith doesn’t require ignorance, neither does non-belief require sneering contempt. Ignorant believers, contemptuous non-believers: Both are equal in my eyes, since both should be laid upon hard with a shovel and put out of my misery.

Anyway: Tolerance. Knowledge. Empathy. They work for everyone. Believe it. Try them.

87 thoughts on “Maxims for Non-Believers

  1. Wholeheartedly agree, but I just had to comment to say that “adhesive levels of ignorance” cracked me way up.

  2. Damn, John. Is it really okay to use someone else’s neck as a batting tee in public like that? Even if they ask for it? ;) Somewhat akin to your response to someone telling you what you really meant to say?

    Nice post.

  3. As a daily lurker, just want to say: Bravo! Truer words have never been spoken.

    Whether believers or non-believers, their fanaticism makes me want to reach for a nice solid hammer…

  4. But a hammer is so impersonal. Wouldn’t it be better to choke the stupid out of them, all the while looking into their eyes for the light of reason come to life.

  5. Bingo.

    I’m a compassionate agnostic with Erisian Zen leanings, and you just made my morning.

    Disbelief is as much an act of faith as belief, to me. Being more or less faithless, I can’t work up much evangelism for either standpoint.

    I do, however, find other people’s gods interesting, charming, and educational. And I don’t see anything wrong with that.

  6. Seems to me that it’s perfectly fine for you, as a non-believer, to introduce Athena to the real reasons for Christmas. As parents, you and Krissy are supposed to teach Athena about things like that. I’m sure that you’d tell her about Easter, now that she’s old enough to understand at least the basics, just the same as you’d tell her about Ramadan or Yom Kippur or why Chinese New Year is a different day than January 1. At the very least, y’all are to be commended for giving her the opportunity to decide on her own what she’s going to believe.

  7. OK, I’m confused. What am I if sneering contempt IS my religion?

    It’s a hypothetical question; I’m actually Zen Agnostic Nihilist (not to be confused with Orthodox Zen Agnostic Nihilists – those guys are weeeeird).

  8. I love this! I have always been a non-believer, even as a child when I attended a church that I loved. And I agree, intolerance from anyone, even if I agree with them, is annoying. They showed a program run by an atheist group on a public access channel in a city where I used to live, which I watched a few times. Those people were cruel and obnoxious and I would NEVER want anyone to think I was like them in any way.

  9. Ahh, how I’ve missed these from you in the past year, Mr. Scalzi! [referring to the posts on Chad's blog]

  10. Elizabeth Bear writes: “Disbelief is as much an act of faith as belief, to me.”

    I don’t think it is. “Disbelief” isn’t (or doesn’t have to be) belief that something _isn’t_ true. It’s simply a reluctance or refusal to believe that something _is_ true. The chair you’re sitting on (at least, I imagine you to be sitting on a chair, so let’s pretend you are) has no more or less belief in deity than I do; would you say that the chair’s lack of belief is an act of faith?

    Not that this in any way negates John’s post, which is very sensible. Though I don’t think it has to do with faith/theism or lack of faith/atheism so much as plain common decency.

  11. I agree with William Dickson–the argument that atheism or non-belief are just as much “acts of faith” as belief is a non-starter. Of course atheists or non-believers can be just as personally annoying as believers, but that’s a different matter.

    The plain fact is that non-belief and belief aren’t parallel; one is rational and the other is, well, a leap of faith. Before anyone flames me, let me say that I speak as a believer, albeit a poor and inconstant one. I wish more Theist-Americans would have the sense to rebut this silly argument that gets constantly made on our behalf. Faith deserves a better defense than “oh, yeah, well you’re stupid too, so neener neener.” Have some intellectual dignity, for God’s sake.

  12. I’m accepting of believers. I just don’t understand why they believe. It honestly baffles me. But I appreciate the fact that there are way too many things in this world I don’t understand, and if they’re comfortable with it, that’s fine by me.

  13. Now wait a second; nice examples aside, the fact is that human beings are not chairs. We don’t have the option of sitting there without a mind and saying that a chair has a lack of belief in a deity is verging on the nonsensical. Yes, William, the chair does in a sense have less belief in God than you do, because you at least can _think_ about the idea of a God. The chair can’t. The analogy is a non-starter.

    Humans by nature have beliefs. Even when those beliefs are beliefs about the non-existence of things, or even “a reluctance or refusal to believe that something _is_ true”, they are still beliefs (i.e. you believe that there are good reasons to be reluctant or to refuse, and so on). And _all_ beliefs, right down to “2 + 2 = 4″, are acts of faith. It’s just that some have better _logical_ grounds on which to claim that we should believe them.

    That’s not a knock on religion; I’m with Kierkegaard, the idea of trying to justify faith in God with logic makes me feel queasy. It sort of misses the point.

    And of course, I’m with William on one thing; this semantic debate (as much as I enjoy it) doesn’t detract from the real wisdom of John’s point.

  14. John:

    Your critic accused you of “just picking out the pretty points to pass on”–as if a particular religion has to be accepted 100% or not at all.

    Even within the general umbrella of Christianity, there is a wide controversy about what being “Christian” actually means. For example, most Catholics don’t have a problem with the Theory of Evolution–Papal doctrine actually acknowledges it–but some Protestant sects are opposed to it. Likewise, even the divinity of Jesus was a matter of controvery until the Council of Nicea.

    Most religious people don’t believe in 100% of what their church teaches them. For example, I was raised Catholic. And while I accept the idea of a God, I don’t believe that clergy have any special insights or authority, and nor do I accept the Catholic stance on birth control. I suppose that this is “picking out the pretty parts”–but I think that this is what most people do in regard to religion.

    It’s also worth noting that many Christian ideas (such as the one about loving your neighbor as yourself) are useful even if you are an agnostic (which was, I think, your original point). There is no absolute and unbridgeable gulf between Christian ideals and charitable agnosticism.

    Ed

  15. John, I am somewhat confused about your concepts of tolerance and empathy here. While you criticize the “sneering contempt” of some atheists toward religion, you have taken that tone yourself with people for their political affiliations, e.g. your statement that people who voted for Bush are stupid, ignorant, or hypocritical. To be blunt, I would choose among the same three adjectives to describe people who subscribe to any sort of magical thinking, be it organized monotheism or base superstition. So why do you believe that the choice to cast away rational thought and worship a nonexistent entity should be respected, but the choice to cast away rational thought and vote for a imbecile should be mocked?

  16. Ghafla asks:

    “So why do you believe that the choice to cast away rational thought and worship a nonexistent entity should be respected, but the choice to cast away rational thought and vote for a imbecile should be mocked?”

    Well, for one thing, voting for an imbecile means *my* president is an imbecile. Whereas believing in a god does not mean I have to believe in your god.

    But also, I think you may mischaracterize my thinking in regards to the recent election. As I wrote here (http://www.scalzi.com/whatever/002873.html) —

    “Also, as a reminder — just because I personally believe something doesn’t make it so. Yes, I do believe that generally speaking you have to be stupid, ignorant or a hypocrite to vote for George Bush in the coming election. But I allow for the possibility that I could be wrong. I don’t really see how, mind you. But there it is. If you genuinely believe you aren’t stupid, ignorant or a hypocrite for voting for Bush, you’re welcome to try to impress me with your intelligence, knowledge and sincerity. I’m willing to be persuaded you are the exception that proves the rule.”

    — and indeed, if one rigorously examined one’s motives for voting for Bush and decided based on that examination that one still *wanted* to vote for Bush, not only would I not have wanted to stop that person for doing so, I would have been happy to drive that person to the polling place. I wouldn’t be *happy* with the decision, but I would be happy that they came to the decision through thought.

    Generally speaking, the direction of my contempt is pretty straightforward — it’s toward the people who *can* think, but who *don’t.* I am dismissive of people who I believe do not questions their own political biases, but give me a rock-ribbed social conservative who can argue his positions down to the wire and I’ll show you a new friend, whom I will disagree with vehemently from time to time. Show me a churchgoer (of any stripe) unfamiliar with his own holy books, who relies on someone else’s interpretation of what is moral and I’ll go to town on them, but show me someone who has come to God after his own trials of faith and intelligence and I’d be honored to break bread with them. Show me a non-believer whose understanding of those who believe is based in contempt, and I’m likely to think as little of them as I think of the ignorant believer. Show me one whose understanding is based in knowledge, and I’ll be happy to buy them a drink.

    In every case, my experience is that those whose beliefs are founded in knowledge and self-knowledge — whatever they are and in whatever arena — are tolerant of others because along with knowledge is the understanding that one doesn’t know everything, and that not everyone will see things the way you do.

    Basically, if we’d all *think,* things would be better.

  17. Ghafla,

    I humbly submit that you offer up your evidence of the nonexistence of God.

    Put another way: why have you chosen to cast away rational thought and deny the existence of an entity whose existence (or lack thereof) is beyond your ken? Actual denial of the existence of God is in fact just as much a matter of faith as affirming it (which is of course distinct from non- or dis- belief).

    To me, the only rational answer to the question “Does God exist?” is “I don’t know.” Ask me when I’m dead, and you might get a better answer, but for now I don’t have evidence that would enable me to decide one way or the other.

  18. When people talk about God, they are talking about 1000 different things. Are we to assume that there are purple elephants orbiting Jupiter until proven otherwise? Likewise, it isn’t useful to posit the possibility of 1000 abstract concepts with label “God”. Before we can talk about whether God exists, we need to define what the heck the word means.

  19. And _all_ beliefs, right down to “2 + 2 = 4″, are acts of faith.

    I think this is stretching the word “faith” past the breaking point. The example is particularly bad, since 2 + 2 is defined to be 4 in our most common mathematical system, rather than believed to be 4. But even a better example (say, the theory of relativity) is quite different, epistemologically, from faith. Having faith in the theory of relativity would mean believing it in a way that nothing could dislodge. In reality, no one (I hope) has this type of belief; instead the theory is accepted tentatively, as the best description that we’ve come up with of certain aspects of the world. No one expects it to last forever, though.

    Atheism is closer to faith, but (at least in my case) I still don’t think it’s the same thing. For me, it’s just preferring not to accept an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence, or really any evidence at all. I do have faiths: for example, I believe that it’s better to be honest, decent and kind even when that goes against narrowly-defined self-interest. Call this faith “GR”. It’s easy to imagine a scenario that would convince me that God exists, but I can’t imagine what would disprove GR. I could possibly have my faith in it beaten out of me, but that’s not at all the same thing. And of course I don’t always live up to it, but that’s not the same thing either.

    My position on the original argument is that (1) it’s better not to judge people at all if you don’t have to (that’s another faith of mine) and (2) that if you must judge, judge on actions rather than beliefs. Someone whose devout Christian beliefs lead him to open a homeless shelter is going to get more respect from me than someone whose atheism drives him to social Darwinism.

  20. Warning: Karl is a religion-babble ringer, and should be dealt with extreme caution. I suggest distracting him with a mountain bike.

  21. For Mr. Anderson’s benefit, I revise my statement from “…worship an nonexistent entity…” to “…worship an entity whose existence cannot, by its very definition, be addressed as a matter of rational inquiry…” Formally, I agree with him that the answer to “Is there a God?” must be “I don’t know.” I would have to provide the same answer to “Is there a race of hyperintelligent crystals on the surface of Titan that spend their time contemplating the relative merits of the singing voices of Liza Minelli and Judy Garland?” However, given available observations, I will continue to behave as if both propositions are untrue as I await further data. Sagan kind of sums up my thinking on this subject: http://www.users.qwest.net/~jcosta3/article_dragon.htm

    I think that Mr. Scalzi may be incorrectly conflating contempt and ignorance. I am decently well aware of the political philosophies of espoused by Machiavelli in “The Prince;” I have read the work, as well as some analysis of it, so I certainly cannot be said to be completely ignorant on the subject. I do, however, hold these philosophies in great contempt. This doesn’t mean that I think that the book shouldn’t be studied; indeed, given its influence, I would hope that it is widely read, and I consider at least a base knowledge of it to be critical before one can be considered an educated person.

    My feelings toward religions are similar: I understand the concepts involved reasonably well, I have both first- and secondhand experience with some of their source texts and tenents (mostly from Judaism and Christianity, I’ll admit), I’ve read numerous books and had numerous conversations with people (including several very serious Christians and Buddhists) on the subject, I believe that learning the basics beliefs and practices of every major religion is extremely important for a functioning, educated person, and fundamentally, I believe that the sort of thinking they espouse is frivolous at best and deeply dangerous at worst. So, I would say that it is fair to characterize me as somewhat knowledgable about religion, but it also might be fair to characterize me as contemptuous of it.

    This is not to say that I refuse to associate with religious people, or that I go around spitting on churches or something. On the contrary, I have several friends who are (serious, knowledgable) Christians. Outside of appropriate context (say, the fringes of a minor flameup in journal comments), I refrain from mentioning that I think they believe some exceedingly incomprehensible things, and they refrain from mentioning that they think I’m going to hell. I don’t know if I’d characterize this arrangement as tolerance or empathy; I’d just call it civility.

  22. Scalzi’s Maxim’s for Non-believers

    As I browsed through Scalzi’s Whatever, the first post I read was one outlining
    7 Maxims for Non-Believers.

    This, I thought, was extremely relevant to a couple of other discussions that have been going on on this webspace, so I figured I would poi…


  23. To me, the only rational answer to the question “Does God exist?” is “I don’t know.”

    Do you feel the same way about Zeus? Marduk? Santa Claus? Young-earth creationism?

    If not, why not? None of them can be absolutely proven wrong.

    If so, how do you prefer *any* beliefs to any others?

    My objection to God is not that he can be proven not to exist, but that positing his existence doesn’t help explain anything. In other words, there is nothing objectively observable about the world that would be different if he didn’t exist. This is just another way to say that believing in him requires faith, but not believing in him doesn’t–he’s simply one of the infinite number of things in which there is no rational reason to believe.

    By the way, I don’t mean to imply that believing in God is as silly as believing in Santa Claus, just that both are examples of faith rather than reason.

  24. Karl,

    Well, in the context of this discussion, as it pertains to Christianity, I (at least) am using God to signify the Christian deity. Of course within Christianity, there are considerably more than a thousand different interpretations of God, but they all have certain elements in common (or else I’d have a hard time calling the religious tradition in question any sort of “Christianity”): God is the omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolet creator of the Universe who sent his son to earth to live and die as a man to redeem mankind’s sins.

  25. A few scattered thoughts:

    1) William Dickson and PNH point out that belief and non-belief are not opposites. While I whole-heartedly agree with that, there is a vocal minority of self-identified atheists who are promoting an opposed belief system, rather than non-belief. These people, as well as their fundamentalist counterparts on the other extreme, are the ones responsible for the continued well-being of both the “Faith and logic are incompatible” and “Atheism is faith” memes.

    2) Ian Mathers says “And all beliefs, right down to ‘2 + 2 = 4′, are acts of faith.” Well, no. There is a necessary distinction between postulates and faith, even though they are comparable. A great example is non-Euclidean geometry; it doesn’t take any sort of faith to change the underlying mathematical postulates and end up with a triangle that has three right angles.

    3) Tim Walters asks “How do you prefer any beliefs to any others?” Simple. I know that my religious beliefs by definition are not grounded in the objective or rational; I don’t portray them as such. They provide me with benefits that I judge to be beneficial to both myself and those around me. If what I know and what I believe come into conflict, I find that a great opportunity to re-evaluate my beliefs and see how my growing knowledge and life experience help me re-interpret things I thought I understood. They’re chances to grow; even though growth can be painful, the alternative is moreso.

    While I teach my kids my religious beliefs, I try to explain to them *why* I believe the way I do — the life experiences that have shaped my faith. I don’t want them to believe everything exactly the way that I do; I want them to understand my beliefs and those of the people around them, to be able to decide for themselves what set of beliefs, if any, helps them be the person they want to be. They have to believe them for themselves or not, and if they choose not to, that is their choice. My faith says that it is my job to teach them how to make good decisions; it is not my job to try to determine the outcome of those decisions (because then I’m not really teaching them how to decide anything, am I?).

    John’s obviously doing a great job of raising Athena; she’s lucky to have such an insightful, caring dad, and he’s obviously lucky to have such a neat kid.

  26. “John’s obviously doing a great job of raising Athena; she’s lucky to have such an insightful, caring dad, and he’s obviously lucky to have such a neat kid.”

    We’ll see on the first, I hope she comes to believe so on the second, and absolutely on the third.

  27. By Tim Walters:

    “My objection to God is not that he can be proven not to exist, but that positing his existence doesn’t help explain anything. In other words, there is nothing objectively observable about the world that would be different if he didn’t exist. This is just another way to say that believing in him requires faith, but not believing in him doesn’t–he’s simply one of the infinite number of things in which there is no rational reason to believe.”

    I think you’re conflating arguments here. You started your post questioning agnostic thought, then go on to use the above explanation to justify why belief in a god is unimportant. What you seem to painfully miss is that by your same argument, DISbelief in god is just as unimportant. Things that are currently unexplainable are not solved by assuming there is no supreme being.

    Thus, an atheist’s disbelief seems just as pointless and groundless as any theist’s belief, by all the same measures.

  28. “Do you feel the same way about Zeus? Marduk?”

    Yes.

    “Santa Claus? Young-earth creationism?”

    No.

    “If not, why not? None of them can be absolutely proven wrong.”

    Well, in the case of Santa Claus, I know that the function he supposedly performs was actually performed by my parents in my house. Likewise, young-earth creationism is at odds with observable facts. In both cases, I have evidence that contradicts them. Of course, the notion of “absolute” proof is a chimera anyway, but that way lies madness (or solipsism — and given the choice, I’ll take madness).

    “If so, how do you prefer *any* beliefs to any others?”

    Well…by using my brain. Down the hall from my office is a kitchen. I believe there are some cookies on the table in there. I’m not positive, but there were quite a few left about an hour ago, so I’m comfortable in that belief. For all I know, someone’s come along and left a cake there as well, but I don’t believe it’s the case, as I have no evidence to support the belief. I would not be surprised to learn that I’m wrong in either case though — some greedy person might have gobbled up all the cookies, and there have certainly been cakes in there before. But I’d be much more surprised to be wrong about the cake — my reason leads me to believe that one possibility is much more likely than the other.

    Now, as to how this relates to Zeus, Marduk and Christ: I don’t believe in the divinity of any of them, although I think the chances of my being wrong are higher when speaking of Christ. Undoubtedly this has something to do with my greater familiarity with Christianity, but there is also the fact that the Bible is purportedly informed by first-hand accounts of miracles witnessed, whereas I’m not aware of any writings by people who claim to have actually seen Zeus tossing thunderbolts around.

    Of course, just because someone wrote it down doesn’t make it true, and there are any number of objections to be raised about the authenticity of the books of the Bible, but in general someone writing “here’s what I saw:” is more convincing than someone saying “I heard this story once:”.

    If someone came into my office right now and said there was cake in the kitchen, I’d believe him. If someone came into my office right now and said there was a walrus in the kitchen, I wouldn’t. Just because I can’t prove either statement absolutely true or false doesn’t mean I can’t judge whether they are likely or not.

    “In other words, there is nothing objectively observable about the world that would be different if he didn’t exist.”

    Well, I think you’re begging the question here. You’re assuming that nothing would be different — by doing so, you imply that the Bible is a bunch of hogwash. You’re not admitting the possibility that the miracles in the Bible happened more or less the way they’re described — because if they did, then that would certainly qualify as objectively observable.

  29. How are we better able to judge reports of Biblical miracles than reports of walruses in kitchens? That is to say, believing that reports of miracles (or other acts of God) in the Bible are anything other than hogwash is as much an act of faith as any other part of accepting Christ’s divinity.

    While plenty of Christians are strict literalists, and believe that everything described in the Bible is absolutely true, we can interpret the poll cited in this article (http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/259410p-222141c.html) to mean that quite a few people who believe in the divinity of Christ aren’t entirely on board with, say, the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the story of Noah being anything other than parables.

    As a nonbeliever, I can go even further than people who merely take much, if not all, of the Bible as fact; I take the position that anything can be exaggerated in the retelling, whether it’s the extent of a big flood or just how dead Lazarus really was in the first place.

    “Objectively observable” should thus be taken to mean something that is objectively observable in the present, and not something for which we have to take the word of someone in the past (and not a disinterested witness).

  30. “why belief in a god is unimportant.”

    I never said it was unimportant. I said it was unjustified by reason. That’s not the same thing at all.

    “What you seem to painfully miss is that by your same argument, DISbelief in god is just as unimportant.”

    Again, what does importance have to do with anything? I’m not saying people who believe in God should stop. My disbelief in God is quite important to me, slightly important to anyone interested in discussing the matter with me, and of no importance to anyone else.

    “Things that are currently unexplainable are not solved by assuming there is no supreme being.”

    So what? I don’t claim that I understand the inexplicable, only that believing in God doesn’t help any, and is actively harmful to the extent it stops you looking for a rational explanation (which, of course, is “not at all” for some theists).

    “Well, in the case of Santa Claus, I know that the function he supposedly performs was actually performed by my parents in my house.”

    Likewise, I know that communion is poured out of a bottle by a priest, and doesn’t change into blood when I drink it. And all the other functions God supposedly performs–creating life, the solar system, etc.–also have non-theistic explanations. How is that different?

    “You’re not admitting the possibility that the miracles in the Bible happened more or less the way they’re described — because if they did, then that would certainly qualify as objectively observable.”

    How would you propose to observe the miracles?

    What we *can* observe is the Bible, and its existence is completely compatible with the nonexistence of God. People make stuff up all the time. I can’t prove that it’s fiction, but I’m not trying to.

    Ghafla said it better than I did, with his “intelligent crystals on Titan” example. As you point out yourself, absolute proof is a chimera; but the corollary of that is that not all unproven beliefs are equal. Which in turn means it’s quite rational to have a tentative disbelief in God. (It’s also quite rational to abstain, but I never argued otherwise.)

  31. Gladly making fools suffer

    Just read a pair of discussions about religion by way of John Scalzi. The one in the comments thread is interesting, but the less-civil one linked to at the beginning of the blog entry is a true ripsnorter….

  32. More Tim Walters:
    “I never said it was unimportant. I said it was unjustified by reason. That’s not the same thing at all.”

    Actually, you said:
    “positing his existence doesn’t help explain anything”

    That seems to be directly represented as being a “use”, which would seem to be a justification by reason. Feel free to interpret “important” as “having any use” in my previous post.

  33. “What you seem to painfully miss is that by your same argument, DISbelief in god is just as unimportant. Things that are currently unexplainable are not solved by assuming there is no supreme being.

    Thus, an atheist’s disbelief seems just as pointless and groundless as any theist’s belief, by all the same measures.”

    Actually, I have no argument with this. If there were no such concept as theism, we would hardly describe the entire human race as atheists, would we? Atheism isn’t something with a _purpose_ of any kind; it is simply a word that describes people who aren’t theists.

    “Now wait a second; nice examples aside, the fact is that human beings are not chairs. We don’t have the option of sitting there without a mind and saying that a chair has a lack of belief in a deity is verging on the nonsensical. Yes, William, the chair does in a sense have less belief in God than you do, because you at least can _think_ about the idea of a God. The chair can’t. The analogy is a non-starter.”

    It’s not so much nonsensical as it is whimsical. But I still think it’s accurate. An atheist isn’t just anyone who has heard of the concept of deity and rejected it, discarded it, or ignored it; he can also be someone who hasn’t ever heard of the concept and has never imagined it. In terms of theism, this person is different from a chair only in his _potential_ for change. His current theistic state is essentially chairlike.

  34. When I say disbelief is an act of faith, I stand by it. It is *not* rational; it’s as impossible to prove that God (whoever you conceive God) *doesn’t* exist as to prove that God (blah blah blah caveat) does exist.

    Belief is faith; disbelief is faith. The rational answer is to shrug and say, “Dunno. I haven’t got sufficient experimental data to say one way or the other, and expect I never will.”

  35. “When I say disbelief is an act of faith, I stand by it. It is *not* rational; it’s as impossible to prove that God (whoever you conceive God) *doesn’t* exist as to prove that God (blah blah blah caveat) does exist.”

    I’ve never understood this arguement though I’ve heard it many times. I don’t get to say that little green men with white eyes and pink hair live under the surface of Mars and then tell people who don’t believe me that the burdon of prooving me wrong is on them. It isn’t the “non-believers” that threw it out there that there is a god. Therefore it is not up to them to disprove the existance of god.

  36. “Likewise, I know that communion is poured out of a bottle by a priest, and doesn’t change into blood when I drink it. And all the other functions God supposedly performs–creating life, the solar system, etc.–also have non-theistic explanations. How is that different?”

    Well, transubstantiation is hardly a universal belief among Christians, so let’s set it aside for the moment. As to all the other functions, as far as I know, we’re still pretty damn hazy on what was going on at the beginning of the Universe, so I’d hardly call the creation of same “explained”.

    “How would you propose to observe the miracles?”

    Well, as far as I know, you can’t. Hey, nobody said this was going to be easy.

    I believe that China exists even though I have no objectively observable evidence to support that. At some point, you have to accept other people’s testimony (or else we’re much farther along the road to solipsism than I earlier feared).

    “What we *can* observe is the Bible, and its existence is completely compatible with the nonexistence of God. People make stuff up all the time. I can’t prove that it’s fiction, but I’m not trying to.”

    Absolutely, and that’s why I said that there are any number of valid objections to raise regarding the Bible’s accuracy. My point was that your argument assumes it’s own conclusion — you say nothing would be different if God did exist, but if God did exist and caused the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, then clearly things are different. People tell the truth all the time too, after all.

    “Ghafla said it better than I did, with his “intelligent crystals on Titan” example. As you point out yourself, absolute proof is a chimera; but the corollary of that is that not all unproven beliefs are equal. Which in turn means it’s quite rational to have a tentative disbelief in God. (It’s also quite rational to abstain, but I never argued otherwise.)”

    And here we agree. When I was responding to Ghafla’s post originally, I was specifically responding to the phrase “…nonexistent entity…”, which Ghafla has revised, implying that I was simply being obtuse, whereas I think the original and revised messages are fundamentally different.

    Of course, I agree that both questions can’t be settled absolutely, and in my estimation, I don’t judge either one to be very likely to be true at all. However, again, I would be more surprised to be wrong about the crystals of Titan than I would be to be wrong about God.

  37. ‘The rational answer is to shrug and say, “Dunno. I haven’t got sufficient experimental data to say one way or the other, and expect I never will.”‘

    But that _is_ disbelief — a reluctance to believe! It is also atheism, if you’re on the subject of the existence or nonexistence of deities; or rather, the “Dunno…other” part is atheism (you’re stating a lack of positive belief, or theism, which equals a- [without] theism), and the “expect I never will” part is agnosticism (gnostics believe this question is answerable, agnostics don’t).

  38. “As to all the other functions, as far as I know, we’re still pretty damn hazy on what was going on at the beginning of the Universe, so I’d hardly call the creation of same ‘explained’.”

    I think it’s pretty clear that what was meant by saying that there are alternate explanations for the creation of the universe was not that the explanations had been proven, but that they are internally consistent and do not require the presence of some sort of supreme being to have been carried out.

    I sometimes wonder — does it ever bother Christians that (assuming they accept the entire Bible as true) there were apparently major miracles happening left and right a couple millennia ago, while there’s been no obvious, widely-reported divine activity since? (I don’t count the Virgin Mary on the grilled cheese sandwich as a miracle. If you showed Polonius that sandwich, he’d say, “Very like the Virgin Mary”, but I’m not so impressed.) Or that it’s kind of sadistic for god to send a messiah to one little town and then tell the people there, “Okay, there’s no way to heaven but through me — now go convince the Buddhists”?

  39. “I’ve never understood this arguement though I’ve heard it many times. I don’t get to say that little green men with white eyes and pink hair live under the surface of Mars and then tell people who don’t believe me that the burdon of prooving me wrong is on them. It isn’t the “non-believers” that threw it out there that there is a god. Therefore it is not up to them to disprove the existance of god.”

    Darren, you need to re-read Elizabeth’s post. She’s not saying anything about burdens of proof – she’s saying that disbelief is just as faith based as belief, since there can be _no_ proof. And there cannot be any burden where there isn’t any proof possible.

    I think atheists don’t have to disprove the existence of God up to and until they begin trying to convince others, at which point they really do have to prove something.

    To save space I’m going to respond to the shortest and best criticism of what I said earlier:

    “2) Ian Mathers says “And all beliefs, right down to ‘2 + 2 = 4′, are acts of faith.” Well, no. There is a necessary distinction between postulates and faith, even though they are comparable. A great example is non-Euclidean geometry; it doesn’t take any sort of faith to change the underlying mathematical postulates and end up with a triangle that has three right angles.”

    Well, no. I think I probably misspoke. It _is_ true, however, that to hold that such a thing is true, valid, etc, one must have faith that the universe works that way. To say 2 + 2 = 4 one must have faith we live in a rational universe, or else why believe that is true? I should have said something like “all acts of affirmation are acts of faith” because, as someone I’m too lazy to look up said much earlier on, there is no such thing as absolute proof. At some point all theories of knowledge turn foundationalist, and that foundation at some point must rest on some variety of faith.

    I think clarifying that changes the scope of what I was saying earlier in a way that makes it more sensical for people. A given mathematical postulate may not in and of itself (if such a thing is possible) be a thing of faith, but that we _believe_ in its veracity is, both just for that proposition and because ultimately the whole complex system of what we belief is based at some point on some sort of faith.

    If you don’t think so, sit down with a little kid and get them to ask you something, and then proceed to have them issue an infinite series of “why”s. Sooner or later, you have to say “just because”. Our brains aren’t big enough to do otherwise.

  40. “you say nothing would be different if God did exist, but if God did exist and caused the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, then clearly things are different.”

    No, things *aren’t* different. If things were different, then there would be some way to confirm the miracles.

    But I’ll rephrase myself to be clearer: nothing we have observed about the world requires the existence of God. Therefore, invoking God adds nothing to our understanding. The commonsense position, therefore, is that God does not exist. I’ll be the first to admit that common sense is not infallible, but it’s not faith either.

    “I’ve never understood this arguement though I’ve heard it many times.”

    That’s because it’s not an argument, but instead a reciltal of the One and True Holy Creed of the Pious Agnostic Church, a splinter group that holds that the existence of God cannot be discussed using the ordinary rules of argument, where the burden of proof is on the affirmative; that an atheist who offers a tentative opinion that God does not exist is just as much a creature of faith as the guy on the street corner yelling that Jesus loves you; and that they are the only rational beings on planet Earth.

  41. I should have said: “to our *rational* understanding.” Obviously, there are a lot of people whose emotional understanding of the world is greatly enriched by their belief in God (just as mine is by my non-theistic experience of the awesome and the sacred). I trust this answers RooK’s question as well.

  42. I suppose it is true that disbelief is as faith-based as belief. I am merely taking it on faith that there is not a giant invisible turtle who will grant my every wish if I am pure of heart and leave out tasty bits of lettuce for it to eat, for instance.

    My atheism is indeed really a lack of theism (see William Dickson’s comment). I do allow that there may be some sort of uber-being that created the universe, but I feel (and maybe this is just me — I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts) that the word “agnostic” has the connotation of someone who is interested in the question of whether there is a god or not (interestingly, this seems to describe gnosticism more accurately), and I just don’t really spend all that much time thinking about the potential existence of god, so I’d rather not refer to myself as an agnostic.

    I do, however, have a *firm* disbelief in the existence of a god who is so insecure that he requires regular affirmation from those who believe in his existence, or he’ll get ticked off. I think a supreme being would have better things to worry about.

  43. *g* I’m getting a good deal of joy out of the things that are being inferred into my original and subsequent statement which aren’t implied by it. I can’t quote swing a response point-by-point because I can’t sort the anonymouses out, but–dismissing the spurious reducto ad absurdum “Pious Agnostic” argument, which assigns a value judgement to “faith” and “rationality” that’s not implicit in my statements (and attempts to pervert what I said into an emotionally loaded, insulting, and obviously dismissable statement)(and, as an aside, it amazes me how far some people will go to pick a fight even with an essentially neutral stance)–I’m left with a definitional difference, I think.

    To me, dis-belief implies the opposite of belief, which is to say, the disbeliever has chosen to believe that God doesn’t exist. Atheism as it’s *generally* used (leaving aside the semantics for a moment, because of course the anonymous reverting to classical roots is correct in his reduction, based on my little Latin and less Greek) refers to those who deny the existence of a higher power. Agnosticism refers to those who consider the question unanswerable.

    Or so I have, in conversation, encountered them. YMMV, or course.

  44. Post script (whups):

    What Ian said about burdens of proof. God’s existence or lack thereof is uprovable. So, yanno, my attitude boils down to: believe what’s good for you; you’re *precisely* as likely to be right as any other guy.

  45. Ian writes:
    “I think atheists don’t have to disprove the existence of God up to and until they begin trying to convince others, at which point they really do have to prove something.”

    Actually, that is my point. Christianity is evangelical and its very nature is to try to convince others. Somehow much of it has been bastardized into trying to convince folks that they will suffer eternally in hellfire and damnation if they do not fully believe in the lord’s undying forgiveness, mercy, and love. Many of them feel that if you do not live by God’s law and believe in he/she/it by choice, then the legislative branch should make you. You do not have to have faith that nothing is there. When nothing is there it is obvious. You must have faith to believe something or someone is there without any evidence. I have had Christian’s tell me that there is proof of God’s existence. My only reply to that is that if there is proof, it would negate the need for faith. And without faith, kinda don’t have the religion.
    I agree with the arguement that if atheists tried to convince others than the burdon of proof would be on them. Which is why you generally find atheists responding to fundamentalist christians trying to force fundamentalist christian law into U.S. government and not the other way around. But if they did, atheists have built in evidence, which is of course the conspicuous lack of a supreme deity running around wishing everyone a nice day.
    If you want to believe, believe but don’t try to force belief on the population through legislation when you can’t convince them through rational thought.

  46. “As opposed to people who querulously monger bigotry disguised as dispassion.” WOW! That Patrick Nielsen Hayden guy writes even better than John.

  47. While agnostics share Tim Walter’s guess that there is no perceivable contribution in our reality by any god, there is a distinct philosophical difference in then using that as a basis for any insistence that there are no gods. That last step, to support Ms. Bear’s point, is the same sort of act of faith as any theist’s.

  48. I think the anonymice are all me. I keep forgetting to fill out the little form.

    Leaving aside how shocked, shocked you are that anyone would be insulted by having their beliefs called irrational by someone who can’t even be bothered to engage their arguments, what Ian said about burdens of proof is completely wrong. Do you and he seriously maintain that it’s more irrational to reject a momentous claim when no evidence is presented than when some is?

    In any case, rational arguments, with evidence, for the existence of God have been commonplace for millenia. Many, given the knowledge of their times, were even convincing. None stand up in the light of modern knowledge, hence the inclination of some to believe that it’s obvious that the existence of God cannot be proven–an obviousness dearly bought.

    As I said way above, I have faiths, I know faith, and my atheism is no faith. I provionally accept the falsity of God’s existence as a working hypothesis, much as I provisionally accept the falsity of solipsism, the brain-in-a-vat theory, the universe-was-created-twenty-minutes-ago-with-our-memories-intact theory, etc. All of these theories have in common the property that they exist only as epistemological parasites of common-sense realism; that is, each is equivalent to c.s.r. plus an ineffectual, unverifiable term, and none can exist as a coherent theory without replicating all the features of c.s.r. It can’t be proved that the term doesn’t exist, but it is clearly useless for rational understanding.

    Calling this provisional acceptance of mine “faith” is simply to abuse the English language, and yes, it’s an insult.

    Rational understanding, of course, is far from the only game in town, and the God-exists theory is different from all the others in one important respect: it is emotionally fruitful, while the others are emotionally barren. (One might even say “spiritually” if it weren’t such a loaded term.) Hence, it gets a lot more respect from me, and I have a lot to learn from its adherents. What I lack, as it happens, is the leap of faith it would require to actually believe it.

    An agnostic prefers to stress the formal unknowability of the existence of God. I consider that the boring part. What’s interesting is how much we can understand without proof.

  49. “To me, dis-belief implies the opposite of belief, which is to say, the disbeliever has chosen to believe that God doesn’t exist. Atheism as it’s *generally* used (leaving aside the semantics for a moment, because of course the anonymous reverting to classical roots is correct in his reduction, based on my little Latin and less Greek) refers to those who deny the existence of a higher power. Agnosticism refers to those who consider the question unanswerable.”

    That was me. Sorry. Posted that one from home, forgot John’s MT doesn’t know me there.

    You’re right about atheism as it’s “generally used” — by theists. Atheists generally use it in the more classical sense. You know how many people, having decided that “left” and “right” or “liberal” and “conservative” are inadequate for describing political positions, instead use a two-axis description in which people are charted left or right of center based on social politics, and up or down from center based on economic politics? Similarly, theism and gnosticism are two directions on a chart: theism or atheism reflecting belief in deities or lack of said belief, gnosticism and agnosticism reflecting belief in whether it is possible to _know_ whether there are deities. Thus people can be gnostic theists, agnostic theists, gnostic atheists, or agnostic atheists.

    Just as there are different kinds of theists — monotheists, polytheists, etc. — there are at least two different kinds of atheists. There’s the “hard” atheist, who denies the existence of deities (and would tend to be a gnostic atheist), and who pretty much fits your quoted statement up there at the top of this comment. But most of us are “soft” atheists, who simply lack belief in deities (and who tend to be agnostic atheists).

    religioustolerance.org has some pretty good info on this:

    http://www.religioustolerance.org/atheist4.htm

  50. RooK: Atheists, with few exceptions, don’t *insist* there is no god. They merely believe it, with varying degrees of strength.

    If someone says to you that he is absolutely certain there is no god, you can call that faith. I won’t object a bit. That’s not my position at all.

  51. Well summed-up, Mr. Dickson. Just to double-check, though – didn’t you mean for the axes to be theism/atheism and gnosticism/agnosticism?

    Mr. Walters, I’m sorry if I’ve seemed to insist on misunderstanding your position. Are you certain that you have been trying even a little bit of insisting? You’ve seemed quite, um, insistent.

  52. I’ve been quite insistent that my atheism is not based on faith. I’ve never insisted that there is no God.

    My belief in God’s non-existence is just a garden-variety belief. For example, I believe that OJ killed his wife. If someone figures out a way to go back and time and film the killing, and it turns out that it wasn’t OJ, I won’t believe that anymore. I’m more passionate about my atheism, because it’s important to how I understand the world, but I’m only slightly more certain about it.

    Once again, in a less snarky way: I don’t understand why the existence of God is a special case that throws the ordinary rules of argument out the window. I don’t understand why some people insist on branding any opinion about God’s existence as “faith.” I don’t understand why people who (presumably) don’t believe in UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot insist that disbelief is irrational without absolute proof.

  53. Tim Walters said:
    “I don’t understand why people who (presumably) don’t believe in UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, or Bigfoot insist that disbelief is irrational without absolute proof.”

    Oh, but I do. But then, I’m a bit of a jerk. Although, in the cases of the supposed plesiosaur and quasi-hominid, there’s the added difficulty that they shouldn’t have the same ability to exist completely free of earthly interaction as deities and extraterrestrials – you’d think they’d pull a coelacanth by now. Still, I maintain that a lack of proof is not itself proof, as per Karl Popper’s excellent philosophy. Thus, any belief without proof is, by vernacular definition, faith.

    Your indication that you are willing to change your beliefs if presented with contrary proof doesn’t mean that the original belief didn’t have an element of faith, it just means you’re not a raving moron. Like, say, Dubya.

  54. “Still, I maintain that a lack of proof is not itself proof, as per Karl Popper’s excellent philosophy. Thus, any belief without proof is, by vernacular definition, faith.”

    Despite the word “thus,” I don’t see a demonstration.

    But if you want to water down the word “faith” that much, fine. Like Popper, I’ll try to accept my opponent’s choice of terms. However, this does nothing to establish your original claim that agnosticism is more rational than atheism, since under your definition of faith agnosticism–in fact, any belief whatsoever–requires it as well.

    If you think that Popper meant that all unproven contentions are epistemologically equivalent, you have misunderstood him very badly.

  55. RooK says: “Well summed-up, Mr. Dickson. Just to double-check, though – didn’t you mean for the axes to be theism/atheism and gnosticism/agnosticism?”

    Yes. I think that’s what I said:

    “Similarly, theism and gnosticism are two directions on a chart: theism or atheism reflecting belief in deities or lack of said belief, gnosticism and agnosticism reflecting belief in whether it is possible to _know_ whether there are deities.”

    I should have said “two axes” instead of “two directions.”

  56. Apologies, Mr. Dickson, I see that I jumbled my cognition when I first read it. I’ll have to re-read “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” as penitence.

    Mr Walters, permit me to type slowly for the thinking-impaired. At no time have I made any claim that agnosticism is more rational than atheism. Regardless what debate you think you might have been having, all I have done is refute that “there is no god” does not necessarily follow from “no god has been detected”.

    Feel free to consider my use of the word “faith” as diminutive, for I see that you have no difficulty “watering down” the believable definition of the word “belief”. You should also feel free verify your understanding of Popper and how I referenced him, for I think you misunderstand us both very badly. Don’t skip the big words if they confuse you; but take the time to use a dictionary. I believe it might help, but I can’t be sure until you try it.

  57. I realize my rank and utter hypocrisy in saying this, all things considered, but RooK, do try to play nice.

  58. He needn’t play nice. I’ll settle for honesty.

    RooK:

    “Thus, an atheist’s disbelief seems just as pointless and groundless as any theist’s belief, by all the same measures.”

    That’s a claim that agnosticism is more rational than atheism, or at least close enough that you owe me clarification rather than contempt.

    “all I have done is refute that “there is no god” does not necessarily follow from “no god has been detected”.

    If that were true, given that you know perfectly well that I’ve never disagreed with it, I don’t know why you would even bother to argue with me. But, of course, it’s not true.

    You’ve stated, very clearly, that you believe that assertions are equally “pointless and groundless” because, and only because, neither can be proven. You’ve also stated that you’re following Popper’s philosophy. It is impossible for both of these statements to be true, since Popper’s work was dedicated to showing that there are rational reasons for preferring some unproven assertions to others.

    You’ve also consistently misread my posts as claiming that religion is useless, which until now I’d chalked up to honest error.

    When and if you return to intellectual honesty, I’ll be happy to discuss this further.

  59. With all of this talk about believers, agnostics and atheists, I feel compelled, nay scratch that, I feel like my fingers are being pushed by the hand of God to quote Douglas Adams:

    Now it is such a bizarrely improbable coincidence that anything so mind-bogglingly useful could have evolved purely by change that some thinkers have chosen to see it as a final and clinching proof of the nonexistence of God.

    The argument goes something like this: “I refuse to prove that I exist,” says God, “for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing.”

    “But,” says Man, “the Babel fish is a dead giveaway, isn’t it? It could not have evolved by chance. It proves you exist, and so therefore, by your own arguments, you don’t. QED”

    “Oh dear,” says God, “I hadn’t thought of that” and promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.

    “Oh, that was ease,” Says Man, and for an encore goes on to prove that black is white and gets himself killed on the next zebra crossing.

    “Most leading theologians claim that this argument is a load of dingo’s kidneys, but that didn’t stop Oolon Colluphid making a small fortune when he used it as the central theme of his best-selling book, Well That about Wraps It Up for God.

    And as I close the book, I say unto you: “So sayeth the Shepard, so sayeth the flock!” :)

  60. Mr. Scalzi: I understand. I’m sorry if I’ve sullied your corner of the web, and will try to avoid it in the future.

    Mr. Walters:
    I do hope you are enjoying our mutual irony of each believing that the other misunderstands us.

    For me to achieve the honesty I think you are seeking, I fear I shall have to resort to a mechanical metaphor. (I’m sorry, I’m an engineer. I can’t help it.)

    The metaphor I’ll use is climbing a wall. Theism is unable to climb the wall, but futilely keeps trying anyway without succeeding (despite claims to the contrary) because it believes the wall can be climbed. Atheism is also unable to climb the wall, and so believes that the wall cannot be climbed. Agnosticism doesn’t even bother trying to climb the wall, possibly because it’s afraid of heights anyway, and pettily amuses itself by laughing at poor theism and picking on surly atheism.

    So, let me go on to say that I consider atheism to be more rational than theism. This is because I consider theism to be too often guilty of ignoring inconvenient evidence/proof, which seems irrational to me. Given something unexplained, I consider supernatural theories to be somewhat less probable than being struck by a meteorite while in a mine. I admit that this is in accordance with Popper’s philosophy that theories will undergo a sort of natural selection.

    Having said that, using Popper’s slightly-more-famous philosophy of falsification being the only true tool for scientific progress, believing that there is no god at all is just as unprovable as believing there is a god. Again, this assumes that you understand that I mean to differentiate between NOT believing in god and believing NOT any god exists – as per my earlier wall-climbing metaphor.

    Hopefully this will appear as clarification, and not as contempt. Though, if you believe I have expressed contempt to you, please consider this as evidence for the falsification of that theory. Or, whatever.

  61. “Mr. Scalzi: I understand. I’m sorry if I’ve sullied your corner of the web, and will try to avoid it in the future.”

    Heh. Not sullied at all; just hoping for not bloodied.

  62. “I do hope you are enjoying our mutual irony of each believing that the other misunderstands us.”

    More than having my intelligence questioned, certainly.

    But I think we’re getting somewhere, regardless.

    “Given something unexplained, I consider supernatural theories to be somewhat less probable than being struck by a meteorite while in a mine.”

    This is a pretty good description of my own atheism (which, to reiterate, I agree is unprovable). Do you feel that this position is “faith”, in the same way that devout Christianity is “faith”? If so, it seems to reduce “faith” to a synonym for “opinion.” This strikes me as both inconsistent with normal usage, and kinda boring. If not, I’m not sure we really have a disagreement.

  63. By Tim Walters:
    “Do you feel that this position is “faith”, in the same way that devout Christianity is “faith”? If so, it seems to reduce “faith” to a synonym for “opinion.” This strikes me as both inconsistent with normal usage, and kinda boring. If not, I’m not sure we really have a disagreement.”

    You still seem to be ignoring the distinction I’m suggesting.

    The theory that I could be hit by a meteorite in a mine is quite improbable, however, to then actually commit the act of believing I will not be hit by a meteorite in a mine requires a leap of faith (as in, unproved by any direct evidence). That faith would be that an already-improbable meteorite would not, by an amazing series of further flukes, hit the entrance to the mine and ricochet until it struck me, possibly frightening a flying monkey to come out my butt. So, as an agnostic, I refuse to pretend that I know for certain that I will not be larruped by a meterorite in a mine. My opinion is that it is incredibly unlikely, but not impossible, and I’ll probably use that theory until some ironic meteorite falsifies it.

    I would say that I’m using “belief” and “opinion” as being approximately synonyms. This is consistent with my dictionary. If normal usage is indeed different, then that just serves to fuel my misanthropy.

  64. I think that a lot of it hinges upon what people mean by the word “God”. For example, if someone has a concept of a God that clearly and personally interacts with the world, then it’s easy to argue for being an atheist. If however, someone sees God as a vague sort of deeper meaning that started this beautiful mess, then it’s much harder to hold an atheistic stance. For example, Einstien talked about finding the thoughts of God but he was thinking of God as something akin to the laws the govern the universe. I couldn’t argue against that.

    The word God might be one of the most abused terms ever. In my opinion, God is usually a conceptual category for something of which we are mostly ignorant. The Christian might protest but they go on to believe in one God that is three persons, that God is omnipotent not withstanding our freewill, and that Jesus was both fully God and fully man. That’s fine. Maybe it’s one big mystery but let’s face it, there’s a good deal of agnosticism (lack of knowledge about God) within Christianity.

    Christians might also be surprised to realize that they are atheists with respect to differing concepts of God.

  65. Aaaaiiiieee! I’m melting! Meeellllltiiinng…

    Damn you, Karl, and your broadly considerate and understanding ways. Now I have to surf back to Hell to find someone to be mean to.

  66. Your first paragraph says that “belief” is equivalent to a pretense of certainty, and an act you refuse to commit, while your opinion is not, and is just fine. This is just nonsensical to me. When I say either that I believe, or that it’s my opinion, that God doesn’t exist, I’m emphasizing my lack of certainty, not my certainty. I happily throw in “but I’m not sure” as required. I am, in William’s schema, an agnostic atheist. Again, is this faith, in the same way devout Christianity is faith? I don’t see how.

    Your second paragraph says that “belief” and “opinion” are approximate synonyms (which is often true, I would say, but not always. It’s how I’m using the two in this discussion, anyway).

    I don’t know how to reconcile these two paragraphs, nor what distinction I’m supposedly ignoring.

  67. “In my opinion, God is usually a conceptual category for something of which we are mostly ignorant.”

    Bingo. My objection is really to filling that void by making stuff up, and most emphatically *not* to regarding the mystery of creation with awe and worship.

  68. “This naturally caused me to break out John Scalzi’s Patented Hard Rubber Mallet of Agitated Clarification and apply it liberally.”

    Oooh, I want one! Can you find them on eBay? *covet*

  69. Don’t think they’re on eBay, weren’t last time I looked. Feh.

    Is the holy symbol of Solipsism a bananna peel?

  70. “I happily throw in “but I’m not sure” as required.”

    …and that’s it. We achieve parity.
    As soon as you ever claim to be sure that there is no god, then I argue that you’ve had to use some sort of faith to do so. Are we copacetic?

    My, it certainly took a lot of wrangling to extract that measely little nugget of understanding. It’s embarrassing, considering that I explain things for a living.

  71. “As soon as you ever claim to be sure that there is no god, then I argue that you’ve had to use some sort of faith to do so. Are we copacetic?”

    Ayup.

    “My, it certainly took a lot of wrangling to extract that measely little nugget of understanding.”

    Well, I did say this a ways back:

    “If someone says to you that he is absolutely certain there is no god, you can call that faith. I won’t object a bit.”

    And it wasn’t just a nod to D.C. new wave group 9353 (http://www.80sretromusic.com/biography/0-9/9353.htm).

  72. Does God exist? It’s a bit like asking “Does the perfect US Presidential candidate exist?”.

    An unanswerable question (or, at least, too big for my little brain).

  73. elizabeth bear:
    “So, yanno, my attitude boils down to: believe what’s good for you; you’re *precisely* as likely to be right as any other guy.”
    Harumph, I’d have to disagree with this.
    I believe that no gods exist.
    Person B believes that one and only one god exists.
    Person C believes that more than one god exists.
    Person D believes that at least one god exists.
    With conventional probability theory, it’s just not possibly for each situation to be equally probable.

    Jeff wrote:
    “I’m accepting of believers. I just don’t understand why they believe. It honestly baffles me.”
    Likewise. BUT, I don’t have to understand to accept that perfectly reasonable, rational people believe in the existance of God. I have had to examine the underpinnings of my own beliefs to some extent.

  74. Nice list of maxims. I’ve tried to live by a similar set of standards, as an atheist, for a long time now, but sometimes it’s just too tempting to discuss with the believers.

    I never do with people who don’t want to or don’t answer my arguments, though. It’s usually them who bring it up first, anyway (but they are also the ones who want to stop the discussion once it doesn’t go their way too…)

  75. Religion Article Delayed

    I have to apologize that my earlier-promised essay on religion has stalled. I thank everyone who replied to the poll, but I’m encountering one of…

  76. I only discovered this thread since BBW strip club was kind enough to post. erm.

    Anyway, I remember the day my accidental sister (9 years younger) came home from first grade and proudly announced what she had learned in school that day: Genius makes it rain!

    Yes, we all said, Genius does indeed, make it rain.
    (in a nice kosher jewish kitchen)

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