Reader Request Week 2010 #1: Christianity and Me

All right, let’s get started with this year’s Reader Request Week, with a question from Adam, who asks:

I’ve been wondering what your beliefs are pertaining to God, the supernatural, etc.

From a few passages in “Old Man’s War” (which I love by the way… the whole series rocks!), some of the religious bits in “The Android’s Dream,” and some of your old movie reviews from the Old “Official Playstation Magazine” (i.e. the good one) I get the impression that you have more than a passing familiarity with Christianity. So I’m just wondering what your stance is and what your upbringing was because I’m nosy and curious.

Well, let’s see. I was baptized as a baby and when I was very young — that is, kindergarten age — I attended Sunday school because at the time I was living with an aunt who was religious; I still remember the copy of the Bible she gave me, and also my favorite Bible story, which was the one about Samson and Delilah. I liked it because it was full of action and adventure, and I remember imagining it as lots of Philistines lurking about, waiting to leap out at Samson whenever he was bound by thongs, or whatever. I also remember thinking that Samson must not have been very smart, because he kept telling Delilah ways to weaken him, and then didn’t make the connection when she would tie him up and then suddenly pow, Philistines everywhere. After the first couple of times, you would think he would have figured it out. But clearly when it came to Delilah, it wasn’t his brain Samson was thinking with.

Having said that, however, I don’t recall ever having a particularly strong religious impulse, and by the time I was eight years old I was sufficiently unconvinced of the existence of God that I decided not to join the Cub Scouts because the Boy Scout oath had mention of God in it, and I couldn’t in good conscience pledge my duty to someone I didn’t think existed. Around the same time I also stopped reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, because I learned I didn’t have to, thank you Jehovah’s Witnesses, and again I wasn’t down with the whole God thing (I still don’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance, but now it’s for other reasons as well, among them I think it’s poorly written for its purpose).

I don’t pretend that my thinking on the matter of God, religion and specifically Christianity was particularly complex when I was eight, but in the intervening thirty-two years I’ve had some opportunity to think about each in some detail, and all through that time I’ve been pretty consistent regarding belief. In a nutshell, I’m an agnostic, not of the “I’m waffling and don’t want to have to choose” sort, but of the “I don’t believe in the existence of God but there’s no way to know for certain, so as a matter of intellectual honesty I have to call myself agnostic” stripe. As regards Jesus, as I’ve noted here before I don’t personally doubt that Jesus existed, but as a natural extension of my agnosticism I don’t believe he was in any way divine. As regards religion, I don’t follow any in particular and as a general thought I tend to believe that religions often have admirable moral and philosophical goals but their essential qualities are contingent on the humans in them, and you know how humans are. This makes religions much like any other large organization involving humans.

I am not Christian, never have been, and at this point doubt I will be between now and death (and as a practical matter, also doubt that I will regret such a choice after my death, since I find it highly unlikely I’ll have means to be cognizant after that point). However, this doesn’t mean that I am ignorant of Christianity, either historically or the myriad ways it exhibits itself in the world today. I’ve read the Bible a number of times, of course, and have also read the writings of a number of religious writers from the time of early Christianity forward, and try to keep current with what’s going on in culture as it involves Christianity. Part of this is the side effect of having what’s known as a “good education” — thank you Webb School of California and the University of Chicago — but part of this is my own recognition that to understand other people, you want to understand what they believe. It’s also recognition that while I’m agnostic, the vast majority of my fellow citizens here in the US are at least nominally religious and of those who are, the vast majority are at least nominally Christian. It’s nice to be able to speak the language of the majority.

When people learn that I am agnostic, a fair number of them assume that I am antagonistic to the idea of religion, the religious impulse, or Christianity. I’m not. I know too many Christians and other religious folk who I love as people, respect as thinkers and admire as moral actors to insult them by dismissing such a foundational aspect of who they are. Nor am I presumptuous enough to assume that their religious beliefs do not inform the philosophical and moral choices they make. Finally, I know enough people whose lives I believe were saved — small “s” there — by putting religion (and in most cases Christianity specifically) into them that simply as a practical matter even if I thought there was something wrong with religion or Christianity in a general sense, I would be happy those people had it in their lives for their own sake.

Religion requires commitment and understanding of what you believe, however, and specifically as regards Christianity, I expect a lot of people who follow that path, and I get angry with those people who purport to be Christian and yet as far as I can see don’t seem to understand much about Christ. I’ve summed this up before by noting that I think Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it. That sentiment is something to which I continue to hold. If you say you are Christian, and you make that aspect of your life part of your public persona, then I feel just fine pointing out when and where I feel you are failing Christ, the beliefs He taught and His expectations of those who follow Him. Moreover, I feel just fine lecturing Christians about Christ, since I know rather a lot about Him and His teachings; I’ve found in my experience a really excellent way to piss off one of these alleged Christians is make it obvious to him that you know your Bible back and forth and better than he does.

I expect Christianity and the religious impulse in general to continue into the future, which is why I don’t shy away from putting either and both into my books. Moreover, I think it’s worth it to do so with some complexity. There is a group called the “Colonial Mennonites” in The Last Colony not just because they provided me with a convenient excuse to ship non-advanced farm equipment to the Roanoke colony, but also because I wanted to show a group of Christians positively affecting the world around them and also living up to the religious and moral principals they set for themselves. I think the scene in which I have Hiram Yoder confronted by the “werewolves” works — to the extent it does work — because Yoder is called upon to live his beliefs in the most difficult circumstances imaginable. His actions, informed by his love of Christ, are powerful. At the very least, they were meant to be.

This doesn’t necessarily mean I feel that I have to show religion or the religious impulse in a uniformly positive or uncritical way in my work — please see The God Engines for confirmation — but I don’t think it’s a bad thing to do so, either, when it’s appropriate for the book or story. This is a reflection of my own belief that in the real world, the religious impulse can show itself in as many ways as there are people who have those impulses as part of their lives. God (or the gods) may or may not be a reflection of who we are as humans, but how we choose to acknowledge them and act up on that faith most certainly is. And again: You know how people are.

So that’s where I am with religion, Christianity and me.

127 thoughts on “Reader Request Week 2010 #1: Christianity and Me

  1. Well, given you’ve been baptized, you’ll be saved. Isn’t that just an awesome deal? Oh, and “Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it.” ? *heart*

  2. A friend of mine served for a couple of years on Session for her Presbyterian congregation. She resigned from the church as soon as her term was up. When I asked her why she said “My experience with Christians has soured me on Christianity.”

  3. I think it’s very cool that you respect those who practice their religion, and totally agree with you wishing people would practice what they preach :). I would actually be thrilled if an agnostic called me out for not being as Christ-like as I could be. Accountability is a good thing! If I’m going to declare a faith, I’m going to do my best to live it and love people the way Jesus did.

    Thanks for giving us this peek into your life, Mr. Scalzi. Very cool!

  4. Speaking of Christianity, I have noticed a fair amount of Jews in your books or Judaism occasionally coming up on your blog. Did you have a number of Jewish friends in high school? Or I suppose Chicago is the more likely scenario? Presumably, there are not too many Jews in Bradford…

  5. Your views, and experiences during upbringing, coincide fairly well with mine. For much of my adult life I’ve used the term Agnostic for myself in the same “I’m technically an Atheist, but I can’t say for sure because that’s just another brand of religion” sort of way. Thanks for lending your insights on the matter.

  6. Jake:

    I didn’t grow up in Bradford, you know. I grew up in LA. And yes, I know quite a few folks of the Jewish persuasion, including some of my best friends.

  7. I clicked through to your earlier post about expecting a lot from people who profess to be Christians, and was amused to see you know that about 60% of self-described Christians believe the phrase “God helps those who help themselves,” appears in the Bible.

    Did you happen to catch Mary Matalin on the Colbert Report? She wore a fairly noticeable cross and said pretty much the same thing: in the Bible, Jesus says that if you don’t work you don’t eat.

    Colbert responded by telling her that he didn’t think Jesus said “if you don’t work, you don’t eat” (must’ve been Cool Hand Luke) andreminding her that what Jesus actually prescribed was that one give away all one’s worldly possessions to the poor.

  8. Nice writing John,

    I was a child lay preacher when I was 6 years old and i preached for 13 Sundays in a row, to the people of the congragation at our church. One day I asked my Uncle, why we had to preach to the people, as they can do the same as I did, which was to read the Bible and follow the teaching of Christ. His reply stopped me from going to preach, and preaching again.

    His reply, ” Cause the show must go on”

    At that point I kept the teachings in the Bible and other books in my heart and found that I no longer NEEDED organized religion in my life.

    Your response makes me smile as you have lanced the boil of discontent from me and YOU have told them the way I actually feel about church going “Christians”.

    Thank You John

    Pucca the rabbit

  9. The definitions of agnostic and atheist are tricky. I heard James Randi describe his personal religious beliefs as similar to yours in a podcast yesterday, and call them ‘atheism of the second kind’*. As for me, I just got sick of figuring out what people meant when they said agnostic and atheist and started calling myself a secular humanist, because I could get behind that as a philosophy.

    * Basically, atheism of the first kind, according to Randi was ‘I believe there is no god(s)’, and atheism of the second kind was ‘I don’t believe in god(s)’/’I don’t find the current evidence for god(s) compelling’.

  10. Brilliant, but you seem to be confused about atheism. You don’t have to be 100% certain to be an atheist. You just have to lack a belief in God. And optionally, beyond that, you can also believe that there is no God. Which still doesn’t make you certain. All of which fits within the meaning of atheist.

    Self-described agnostics are usually one of two things: either confused in the way described above, or confused in a different way: they truly believe that it is impossible to hold any belief without being 100% certain that the belief is true. Quite an odd claim to make.

  11. Speaking as a ‘modern Mennonite’, who joined that church as an adult (raised Catholic); I was incredibly impressed with your dramatization of Mennonite beliefs in The Last Colony. To actually follow Hiram Yoder’s (and Jesus’s example) would be very difficult but it is what we are called to do. I also believe each one of us have to find our own path. My husband’s a Buddhist and my kids are currently, depending on which one you ask– atheist , agnostic and seeking or sort-of-Quaker.

  12. I used to call myself agnostic, too, because I always thought that you couldn’t really prove (like in a mathematics proof) that there was no God. But then I started to think of all the other things you couldn’t prove the non-existence of (or that hadn’t been disproven yet — was it Russell or Dawkins who suggested the silver teaset orbiting Mars?) and figured I might as well just call myself an atheist. I can always change back if someone does prove there’s a (or some) God(s).

  13. Mark @10:

    First, I respectfully disagree: atheism is the belief from that there is definitively no god. If a person had doubt about the existence of god but didn’t know the answer, he would call himself an agnostic as I (and our host) do. After all, ‘agnostic’ literally means ‘without knowledge’ where ‘atheistic’ means ‘ without god.’

    I also have to add a third (and I believe more common) possibility to your list of things agnostics are – I and a lot of agnostics believe that, if there is a god, it is unknowable and that the question is really unanswerable and possibly even not askable in a meaningful way.

  14. @Mark at 10: Sorry, but I think that you’re wrong there. Agnosticism is the practice of requiring evidence before belief, from Thomas Huxley, one of the first self-professed agnostics:

    “Agnosticism simply means that a man shall not say he knows or believes that for which he has no grounds for professing to believe.”

    As there is no proof regarding God’s existence or non-existence, then it’s a fallacy to make a judgement about it. While I might be skeptical as to the likelihood of it, by not leaving my mind open to evidence then I’m as guilty of zealotry as the next man.

    John: I’m with you on this one, I’ve been agnostic for quite some time now.

  15. “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” — Gilbert K. Chesterton

    Supposedly; I know of no source, but it sure has the bite that his opinions have. Raised as a Scandinavian Lutheran, I think of myself as Christ-ian, most of the time, meaning that I try to follow his teachings, whist rejecting teachings from churches trying to sell watered-down versions of them. There are other sages I put on an equal footing; Gandhi, Lao Tzu, Budda … there are doubtless more.

  16. I tend to call myself a nontheist, because I believe that there is no God, but “atheist” is far too often used as “anti-theist.” If other people believe, that’s fine by me.

  17. Very interesting. What do you think was the main driver behind your religious beliefs? Your environment and circumstances growing up? Or your own innate sense? Nature and nurture? Does your family share your beliefs?

  18. I like the cut of your jib, sir. You have a very good attitude about the thing.

    I wonder if I can identify as “a-opinionated”, since I don’t know if God exists and don’t really care.

    Which is entirely separate in my mind from any other spiritual beliefs I may hold.

  19. John – as a SF fan who has enjoyed your books, a Christian, and a preacher, I just wanted to say thank you for giving all of us this insight into your life.

  20. It is nice to see the occasional non-believer who is intelligent enough to know the difference between non-Christian and anti-Christian. The same is true, of course, of the difference between non-X and anti-X for pretty much any X; non-democrat and anti-democrat; non-republican and anti-republican; non-gay and anti-gay. And so on until the keys wear out.

  21. John,

    Having lurked in these parts for years please allow me to say that this is perhaps one of the most erudite pieces you’ve written. It gets your ideas across and conveys respect for others beliefs all the same time. Well done, sir.

  22. Mark @ 10:

    You are clearly confused about agnosticism. See, agnostics aren’t convinced that you’re divine, either.

    There is no “the meaning of atheist”. There are varied definitions of atheism, your preferred definition being only one of them. There are other definitions, some more in more common usage than others. One of the more common usages that I’m familiar with, even among the atheists I’ve met, is an active belief that gods do not exist. (This is sometimes known as “strong atheism”.)

    I’m not certain that there are no gods. I’m not certain that there are gods. There are no percentages involved in either of those statements, 100% or otherwise.

  23. Isaac Asimov once described himself as a Jewish atheist: he didn’t believe in any sort of deity, but he recognized that his perceptions were inescapably affected by his Jewish upbringing.

    Later on, IIRC, he changed to being a humanist.

  24. @swellsman #7
    Did you happen to catch Mary Matalin on the Colbert Report?

    Funny you should mention that. In the comments section for Health Care Passage Thoughts, Angelie asked why Scalzi can’t be the next James Carville. My first thought was that Kristine is way too smart to be the next Mary Matelin! :)

  25. I believe in God, but my picture of God looks a lot like what some… Let’s call them non-theists… believe.

    In other words, I don’t believe in Zeus. Too many Christians do and call that God.

  26. eviljwinter @ 26 – Whaddya mean you don’t believe in Zeus? John’s posted enough pictures of him on this blog to count as overwhelming evidence of his existence. Unless … are you suggesting they’re all photoshopped?

  27. @GillianA: I’ve seen the cover of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, that’s evidence enough for a level of skepticism surely?

  28. Technically i think you would be an atheist agnostic. The latter is additive, not defining.

    Atheism and theism deal with ‘belief’. Since you lack belief, you are an atheist.

    Agnosticism an gnosticism deal with knowledge or actual experience of god. Since you have none, you are an agnostic.

    Since you lack belief and knowledge of god, that makes you an atheist agnostic.

    One can easily be a christian agnostic for example. An intellecually honost christian who believes but doesnt know for sure.

    Also to pre-empt confusion; atheism is – not – believing there is no god. That is anti-theism and actually quite logical if you realize all christians (for example) are by definition anti-theists towards all but their religon and gods. An anti-theist is a christiqn who does not randomly discriminate between religions but disbeliefs all.

    I myself would be an atheist rationalist. I dont feel the need to claim i dont know if random paranormal absurdities are real or not. They arent untill proven otherwhilse, i’m not wasting brainpower comtemplating wether UFO, bigfoot, god, ghostpictures and videos are real since impressionable or invested people will claim them to be so regardless of the consistent and utter lack of non-aneqdotal evidence.

    God schmod. He’s so powerful, but he can’t tell everyone at the same time he exists? Maybe by suspending gravity or writing on the surface of the moon or just maybe by making Bush and cronies turn themselves in for their crimes against humanity? Rejected. I dont think agnosticism makes a lot of sense and doubt wether its truly intellectually honost at all. Nobody will call me a close minded fundamentalist when i say there is no purple unicorns. Yet i have no proof. Disregard God though, the biggest purple unicorn of them all, and you’re in a pile of shit!

    Also tolerance of people who believe in purple unicorns is frowned upon because we all know they dont exist and want these people to know the truth and stop teaching our kids nonsense about these unicorns. But again, be intolerant of the obviously false, or at least irrelevant, theistic beliefs, and you’re enemy nr. 1.

    Hypocrisy from ignorance, seems like.

    I love my many christians and muslim friends, they are awesome! But they already were before or would be without. What did religion add? Some hilariously random beliefs to poke fun at! And they know it, too.

    Also i disagree with your claims that more people should practice their christianity. Unless you want them to believe gays should be killed, working on the sabbath is a killing offence, slavery is permitted, unruly children must be put to death and women must shut up and sit in the back of the church. Not to mention the arrogance of the claim that only they, even though they are no better or worse then other believers or non believers, will go to some magical place called heaven while everyone else will suffer in hell.

    I really hope you meant to say that people just ought to be good because it enriches theirs and others lives, not because a celestial dictator threatened them with eternal torture, but because they want to. Not fear, but by good example, common sense and loving experience.

    Life free from religion is so grand. So limitless in scope, beauty and power. No imaginary, paternal, omnipresent, angry, jealous, murderous, women-hating, dictating, testy, inconsistent, raping (virgin birth?) and sex-obsessed god will judge you on thoughtcrime or petty ‘sins’ and bedroom antics between you and your lover (man or woman) only on your truly free and therefore inspired moral actions will show others what reciprocal respect you are worthy of. Moral democracyif you will. We do not kill because everyone wants to live, don’t steal because you would not want to have something stolen. The true golden rule requires no god.

    There is no mention of him in “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, because those are not god’s rules. Those are the evolved and hardwired morals of the third chimpanzee, called man.

  29. Mm. I’m a theistic agnostic. I have my own interpretations on reality that happen to include gods, but I don’t know (and because I’m a hard agnostic, I believe that you don’t know either). The words are orthogonal, really. :}

    Meanwhile, the word I use for “I don’t know and I don’t care” is “apatheist”.

  30. Well writen and thought out reader request though! Enjoyed this honost answer, kind sir. You are truly generous in you tolerance of religion! And many wonderful christians and muslims do truly deserve tolerance for being generally swell and liberal!

    Its great reading your well thought out posts and positions on many subjects!! :-) Carry on, sir!

  31. @El #17: The combination of your comment and your handle is (unintentionally?) /awesome/.

  32. Excellent post. Like samrobb @20, I’m a Christian and a sci-fi fan and I enjoy your books. I have not yet read the “God Engines,” but that’s only because my wife might actually do me physical harm if I bring another book into the house.

    Religion is actually responsible for me being a fan of sci-fi and fantasy. When I was a child, I attended parochial school and “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was required reading. I devoured that book (and the series) and went on to read “Out of the Silent Planet.” I haven’t looked back since.

  33. To Scalzi: I think it’s cool that you actually reasoned your shit out, but also that you’re willing to let others do the same without railing at them because their conclusions are not the same as yours. Except in cases of actual hypocrisy, of course — in which case bitchslappery is not only appropriate but desirable.

    I personally think the world would be a much better place if more people would do that (including the slappy). And when you boil it down, isn’t “making the world a better place” sort of the whole point of pretty much every religion, philosophy, etc.? So, y’know: Score. Everyone’s happy.

  34. Maybe Randi can add a third category of atheism: I don’t believe in gods, because the evidence isn’t there, but if they existed, I still believe it is unhealthy to worship them. (I don’t worship my parents. I don’t worship other people who have so much power in the world that they can do things I can only dream of. Why would I worship a god, just because they created me or happened to be further along in a power scale?)

  35. Also i disagree with your claims that more people should practice their christianity. Unless you want them to believe gays should be killed, working on the sabbath is a killing offence, slavery is permitted, unruly children must be put to death and women must shut up and sit in the back of the church. Not to mention the arrogance of the claim that only they, even though they are no better or worse then other believers or non believers, will go to some magical place called heaven while everyone else will suffer in hell.

    ….

    …imaginary, paternal, omnipresent, angry, jealous, murderous, women-hating, dictating, testy, inconsistent, raping (virgin birth?) and sex-obsessed god….

    @Mirik Your diatribe actually proves Scalzi’s point, and your ignorance. These things are not accurate, given a decent understanding of the Bible and its historical context–and also that Christ’s teachings have been corrupted over time by any number of groups who were in power, as humans are wont to do. As for your description of God, that sounds a whole lot more like Zeus than any true understanding of the Judeo-Christian god. I don’t believe in Zeus, either. Unfortunately, a lot of professing Christians have been taught to.

  36. Sure am glad that people did not use this as a chance to poke at Christianity in their response. But if one is preaching to their own choir I guess you would expect it.
    Your posting was very neutral and clear. Not what I would have expected at all.

  37. BWhitt:

    It appears, like a number of alleged Christians, that you’ve not actually paid much attention to what Jesus actually says. Go back and try again.

  38. As a Catholic SF Fan (i.e. a church that can talk about evolution and the possibility of alien life without batting an eye), this is a great post. I’m reminded of St. Francis of Assisi’s advice on how to win over people to Christianity: “Preach the Gospel; if necessary, use words.” For all of the political disagreements that get aired in these threads, it’s gratifying to find people who follow Christ’s message, whatever else they believe. (Such people, in my experience, are closer to God then they realize…)

    @7 swellsman: It was actually St. Paul who said that, not Jesus. (2 Thess. 3:10). But that’s neither here nor there.

  39. The bit about not working and not eating isn’t from Jesus, but from one of the Pauline letters. And it’s useful to know the context. Here’s the quote (2 Thessalonians 3:6,10-12, New American Bible):

    “We instruct you, brothers, in the name of (our) Lord Jesus Christ,to shun any brother who conducts himself in a disorderly way and not according to the tradition they received from us. [...] In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food.”

    Notice here who the writer is talking about. It’s *not* directed against people who are simply poor, or who are unable to work much. It does not prescribe every man for himself. It’s specifically directed against those who *could* work to support the community (which, as you’ll recall from Acts, shared their goods) but instead acted to disrupt it. *Those* folks, the writer says, should mind their own business, and not expect to sponge off the community.

    I don’t know exactly when the phrase got turned into something to use as a bludgeon against the poor. Though, ironically one of the most prominent politicians to use it in politics a century ago was Lenin: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat– this is the practical commandment of socialism.”

  40. I don’t believe in the existence of God but there’s no way to know for certain

    theism is belief in a god or gods

    a-theism is literally an absence of god belief (“I don’t believe” is an atheist position)

    a-gnosticism is a position about knowledge (“I don’t know”)

    I am both, they’re not mutually exclusive.

    I am all for you calling yourself anything you like and if you identify with being agnostic that’s great, I wouldn’t ask you to change that – but I have some objection to the implication in your words (as I understand them) that atheism is necessarily anything different from the first half of that position.

    That is, I feel like what you wrote (though not deliberately so) aids the common misconception that if that position is agnostic, then atheism must therefore be a stronger position. The majority of self-identified atheists I am aware of are agnostic, holding that they don’t know for certain.

    I am often derided for an absolute certainty I don’t hold, simply because people confuse “atheist (i.e. I don’t believe)” with “100% certain there are no gods”.

  41. efrique:

    “a-gnosticism is a position about knowledge”

    Well, no. “Agnosticism” also has a very common meaning regarding a philosophical position regarding one’s theological beliefs — indeed that meaning is the most common meaning. I can be agnostic about any number of things — whether I believe the Dodgers will make it to the World Series this year, for example — but if I say “I am an agnostic,” then it’s well understood that I’m discussing a theological position. Likewise, the most common understanding of “atheism” is different than you would choose to define it here.

    That said, you can object all you like to how you feel I use these terms, but inasmuch as you’re using them in a specific, non-customary manner, I do suspect you’re going to find yourself objecting a lot, and most people choosing to continue these words in their customary ways anyway.

    I call myself “agnostic” because in most situations it is sufficient for understanding of my position. If people want to continue to subdivide from there as to the particular flavor of my agnosticism, fine. But in a general sense I find such fine-grained definition-slicing unnecessary, so I don’t bother.

    I also (unrelated to your comment) find people who want to tell me that what I really am, other than agnostic, really sort of irritating. Aside from knowing my own mind on the matter, I’ve been working professionally (and quite competently) with words for two decades. I’m pretty sure I’m using the word I wish to use.

  42. I also (unrelated to your comment) find people who want to tell me that what I really am, other than agnostic, really sort of irritating.

    It is something of an edge case. “I don’t believe in the existence of God(s) but there’s no way to know for certain” is either an agnostic or a weak atheistic position- basically depending on which of the two the speaker finds more appealing.

    I get angry with those people who purport to be Christian and yet as far as I can see don’t seem to understand much about Christ

    This. I haven’t met many Christians willingly living below the US poverty line to make sure they aren’t too rich to go to hell.

  43. Yonatan Zunger @33:

    That *would* have been great if it had been deliberate–never crossed my mind. El is short for Ellen.

    Your observation gave me a good laugh, though.

  44. I apologize if I am mistaken but, the impression I got from your post was that while you do respect the christian beliefs, and you do expect (and are happy when) christians follow through on those beliefs, you feel no desire to try and apply those principles in your own life.

    Given this I’m curious: If you believe that the beliefs discussed in your thread are good on a personal level (they often improve the practitioner’s life quality, relationships with others, or general happiness) and you believe they are good on a social level (they improve the society of which the practitioner is a part) then why don’t you practice these beliefs regardless of whether you believe in a Supreme Diety, afterlife, or anything spiritual?

  45. “Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it.”
    Can I get an amen? AMEN!
    I wish to echo those who said they’d join your religion, based upon what you said. So many Christians pick and choose which parts of the Bible to follow! :(

  46. I’m very definitely a Christian, but I tend to see other people’s belief systems from an unusual perspective.

    Taking Descartes’ position that the only thing we know is the “I,” or what I like to call Simple Existence, adding in the fact that I believe we know something else exists (though we don’t know what it is,) I then think that we have to take everything else that we see upon belief. This justifies belief as a foundation for living and action.

    Simple Existence then becomes the measurement upon which I base my opinions of the word, in other words, Simple Existence is the point at which abstractions, physical matter, and value meets.

    Using the fact of existence, or Simple Existence, as a value measure, I then I look around at the world I believe to exist and I see Complex Existences (this knowledge and capability making myself Complex as well.) These existences seem to be of varying quality and their value can change. This suggests a scale, with non-existence at one extreme end, and complete existence at the other.

    It’s more complicated than this brief run-down, but it’s the jist of it.

    I take that point of complete Existence, which is all-knowing, all-powerful, omnicience, omnipresent, caring, creative, sustaining, etc. to be “God.”

    Progression up the scale, or promoting said progression is “good” based on my measure of Simple Existence, and downward progression, or causing downward progression is “bad” or even “sin” if one so chooses to define it that way.

    While our existences are limited in the sense that we can never reach the point of “God” we have a great deal of potential that none have ever managed to reach.

    Anyway. While I identify “God” as the Judeo-Christian God, because of the underlying principles I see in Jesus’ teachings and the Bible, I also believe it isn’t a full or clear picture (It can’t be.) I think that people who serve the ideas of “good,” “love,” and the general promotion of the well-being of all things and people, to be serving that same God, even if we all have different levels of our understanding of God.

    In that sense, and I hope you don’t take me t mean that I’m telling you what you “really” believe, because that is not what I intend here, but I believe that, in the end, we serve the same “God” though our limited understandings of it are different.

    Sorry, I get wordy when I talk religion.

  47. I can’t help but jump in again because I see a lot of people throwing out a lot of passionate phrases in defense of one side or another, and I dunno. No offense to any of the people involved, but from my perspective it seems like it’s all kind of missing the point of religion. (Then again I have a really weird perspective in general, so there is that.)

    However, if arguments must be had about the existence of one or more gods, and if the primary reasoning behind the nonexistence of such is a lack of evidence: I mean, I might have missed something, but who says God (or gods) even stuck around? I mean really: Why do people STILL consistently think Earth and humanity are the center of the universe? Why SHOULD we be? It’s a big-ass universe! Plus it’s been around a LONG TIME.

    (Is it possible to make italics in this thing? I don’t like using caps, giving the appearance I’m yelling.)

    Or how about this one: Maybe it suits this being’s purposes to not reveal itself. I know a lot of theologists use this one, but it does seem somewhat logical. Men: Can you fathom why women do the things they do? (Or vice versa, I’m not trying to be sexist here, just make a point.) The answer likely being “no”, how can you expect to know what a supreme being would do? Scalzi even sort of takes this up in Zoe’s Tale, as you may recall.

    I could go on but I think my post is already long enough I’d be lucky if anyone reads it.

    Disclaimer: I’m frankly just throwing this stuff out for the purposes of debate and adding some different viewpoints, since the debate sorta seems two-sided. I really doubt anything I say will change anyone’s mind, but I hope I at least provided food for thought.

    Further disclaimer: I have my own religious beliefs which are not necessarily reflected by the above; but since this discussion is not about ME, I see no need to detail them.

  48. PS: Thought Mr. Cheever’s comment was kinda neat, given that it wasn’t about the a- ag- theo- argument.

    And I second Euphueties’ question.

  49. I’m with efrique. If you lack a belief in God you’re an atheist. That’s what I think most people who lack a belief in God call themselves, and that’s what I call myself.

    Also, I really think the complaint by liberals, both secular and religious, that modern American conservative Christians are not “real” Christians or are less authentically Christian or less “Christlike” than liberal Christians is really without merit. There’s no objective test of authenticity, of course. And I generally find the political and social views of conservative Christians pretty abhorrent. But it seems to me that conservative Christianity is more consistent with the religion as it has been understood and practised by most of its self-identified adherents for most of its history — including most contemporary adherents — than the liberal flavors of the faith. Liberal Christianity seems to be largely confined to certain segments of rich western democracies, and often seems to be little more than a liberal secular ethics dressed up with a bit of supernaturalism and religious terminology.

  50. @FAB – I would just like to point out that just because the majority of a group who claim to adhere to a certain idea act one way, doesn’t mean that is the way it is supposed to be done.

    The majority of teachers in America might teach that George chopped down the cherry tree. That doesn’t make it fact.

    Complicating the issue is that no one group’s members believes the exact same set of beliefs that that the previous generation did.

    A scientist today is just as much a scientist today as a scientist was 100 years ago, though the specifics of their beliefs and methodology have evolved.

  51. @41 “That’s a matter of faith.”

    As a HS English teacher I find all the comments in this thread on the meaning of atheism, agnosticism, theism fascinating as Spock would say. Our language is so flexible and slippery yet we all manage quite well with it. And thanks John for knowing your own mind and clearly expressing what you think and feel in words we understand.
    I speculate that the dividing line between those who incline to theism and those who do not comes down to our ideas of evidence and proof. “Faith” bridges the gap between the evidence we wish we had and the proof we can see and verify, at least for those of us inclining to theism.
    Let me put it this way. As a practicing Christian I will take my last breaths convinced of the light to come and eternity. I will also be really, really angry knowing that if my faith is misplaced, my electrical-chemical brain activity will cease and I will never know. I will be dead all over.
    I chuckle to think that some commentator here will have a apt label to apply to my last moments quandry. For my “faith,” when you get down to it, is a calculated decision based on insufficient evidence. Based on the evidence I do see, I would rather believe than not believe. I live better than I otherwise would–better in the sense of my treatment of others and my attempts to leave this world a better place than I found it. And well do I know that anyone can live better in this sense, with or without faith in any given theological construct.
    Again, thanks John Scalzi, master wordsmith and philosopher, for your courage to tackle the theological shoals which are a third rail to so many with such plain-spoken words.

  52. Edward,

    I don’t know how to define “real” Christianity other than by the beliefs and practises of people who call themselves Christians. It’s not a matter of empirical fact, like whether George chopped down the cherry tree. And as far as I can tell, modern liberal western Christianity isn’t much like Christianity as it has been described and practised by most people who have called themselves Christians over the religion’s 2,000-year history. And that includes most Christians alive today, who live in the developing world, not in Europe and the U.S.

    I’ve read the gospels too. The Jesus I see described in those writings is far from the live-and-let-live humanitarian hippy that liberal western Christians portray him to be. Yes, he did say that good stuff about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek in the Sermon on the Mount. But he also goes on and on about hellfire and damnation, about the righteous and the damned. Liberals always seem to ignore those bits. Overall, Jesus as described in the gospels is pretty dark and judgmental.

  53. FAB,

    Primarily, I think you’re glossing over the good that Jesus talked about. Secondarily, I think you’re focusing too hard on the concepts of hellfire and damnation and all that.

    Let me ask a question. Is it wrong to say that when men harm one another they are wrong to do it, and that bad things will come of it for them? Is it wrong to say that they will get what they deserve? We do have a justice system in America, after all. I like to think having a Justice system is justified.

    I don’t think Jesus is condemning innocent little lambs. I think he’s calling it like he sees it. If a person has no care for the life and well-being of others, he doesn’t deserve his own well-being.

    And even then, such people are given ample opportunity to turn themselves around. How loving is Jesus if he extends forgiveness (whether divine or not) to murderers and thieves, if they are repentant? Heck, he extends it to those who aren’t repentant, though they shove it away.

    Hell, He forgave me! (so I believe)

    It’s not about ignoring some bits and seeing only the rest. It’s about a whole picture, and it’s hard to see the whole thing all at once.

  54. Euphueties:

    “I apologize if I am mistaken but, the impression I got from your post was that while you do respect the christian beliefs, and you do expect (and are happy when) christians follow through on those beliefs, you feel no desire to try and apply those principles in your own life.”

    I’m not sure how you got that impression. In any event, perhaps this will explain my relationship to Jesus and his teachings.

    FAB, Edward Cheever:

    I think you two are about to head into a general philosophical discussion about Jesus, etc that strays off from the direct topic and thus might be better handled in e-mail.

  55. Right-O. :)

    I was pretty much done with that line of thought anyway.

    By the by, it’s great to see that there are atheists/agnostics out there who don’t despise my beliefs. Makes one have a little faith in man. ^_^

  56. I don’t think I’m glossing over anything. I don’t see how anyone can seriously reconcile the doctrine of hell as described in the sacred writings of Christianity with a modern liberal worldview. Again, Jesus doesn’t just mention hell in passing, although that alone would be cause for concern. He harps on it again and again as the just fate of the wicked and sinful. Eternal punishment in hell. And the biggest sin of all, according to Jesus, is failing to love God. So much for us atheists. Not to mention Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc. And there are plenty of other troubling passages, too.

  57. This makes me laugh in ways I cannot describe, not for the content but for the timing. Tonight at the bookstore at which I work, a friend and I were talking about a sale on L. Ron Hubbard’s mysteries…and Scientology, a religion written by someone who mostly dealt with science fiction. Then I looked at him and said that I wondered what Scalzi would write as a religion. He got an awed look on his face and decided that would be an awesome idea :) So I was supposed to come home and ask what kind of religion you would create should you decide to make your own :)

  58. Thanks, John. I have been getting gloomy these last few days about the big news about “Christians” who have confused “suffer the little children” with “make the children suffer.”

    Can you tell me whether you think one can be a Christian if one ignores the several gospels that Rome decided did not fit with their needs as an Empire?

    Pixelfish – alatry is the path of non-worship. Wasn’t sure if I was coining the word but it does exist already. Scofflaw’s post on this page describes it. http://www.boards.ie/vbulletin/showthread.php?t=2055005436&page=2 I am an alatrist because if a god is so insecure it needs to be worshipped I cannot respect that god.

    Pratchett’s golem is the best atheist, on a planet where if you say you don’t believe in them the gods come round and break your windows.

  59. Oh, I forgot to mention. There is a strange sect of Christians cut off for a very long time in the Yemen. They believe that Lucifer wept for the suffering of humanity. His tears quenched the fires of Hell forever.

  60. To compact an extremely complex response into the negligible time I have available for it – Sibling!

    Not identical twin, to be sure: I’m a passionate agnostic or anti-apatheist. That there is nothing supernatural, and that dualism is just kicking problems into the attic, I’ll lay my stake on. But there are a lot of other moral and metaphysical questions bound up in the concept of ‘God’, and some of them maybe ought to be. I am atheistical enough to suspect not, but I don’t know, and I think the answers are important.

    Your take reminds me a lot of my Dad’s – right down to the concern for personal integrity from childhood on up. Because he regretted an early failure in this, he wouldn’t let me receive Christian confirmation until I was of age to do so on my own authority, at which time he stood ready to congratulate me on it. He read me quite rightly, and saved me from a very ill-advised oath because of it.

    Happy request here, and right well granted.

  61. I wanted to stop reciting the pledge of allegiance in third grade, where we had weekly school-wide assemblies that all started with the pledge. I got in a ton of trouble for it. :p Eventually we worked out that I shouldn’t have to say it if I didn’t want to, but I still had to stand up and do the hand-over-heart thing like everyone else.

    Also, @49 Euphueties: not that you were asking me, but my reply would’ve been “because I’m not them.”

  62. John, I think you mis-responded to one of your commenters. You commented @ #39, responding to BWhitt @ #37 — but BWhitt’s first paragraph was actually a quote (sans quote marks) of Mirik @ #30. The rest of BWhitt’s post went on to critique Mirik’s, and is generally in agreement with your principles. Just wanted to clarify.

    And I have no desire to be prescriptive about this, since language changes over time, and for the most part, what people use commonly enough as definitions *become* the definitions — but I took a philosophy course in high school, co-taught by a minister and a secularist, interestingly enough. This is what I remember from the technical definitions offered in that class:

    strong atheist: I am certain there is no god or gods.

    weak atheist: It seems highly unlikely that there is a god or gods, so effectively, I believe there aren’t any.

    weak agnostic: It seems highly unlikely that there is a god or gods, so in the absence of proof to the contrary, I will continue to believe there aren’t any. But my friends who believe in religion — who knows? They might be right.

    strong agnostic: Not only is there no evidence of god(s), but the very question seems likely to be unanswerable / unaskable / unknowable. Short version: “I don’t know, and you don’t either.” You can still respect your religious friends, but on some level, you think they’re deeply wrong.

    I’m somewhere between weak and strong agnostic, modified by the fact that if proof of God does appear, that won’t immediately make me a Catholic again. (The Church, of course, believes that I’m just a ‘lapsed’ Catholic.)

    Because as a spec fic writer, I’m quite willing to believe that there may be greater beings / powers out there in the universe. But to move from belief to worship / obedience would require them answering some hard questions about their supposed benevolence, omnipotence, and possibly giving me a decent answer to the problem of suffering once and for all. Which problem was why I left the Church in the first place. That, plus inability to make the leap of faith, although sometimes I wish I could.

  63. Oh, and just to respond to the ‘hell’ thing FAB brought up above — most of the serious Christians I know, including a Jesuit priest or two, say that hell is simply the absence of God. The fires, the nine circles, etc. are all human interpretations of hell, but the hell of the Bible is the terrible, heart-breaking knowledge that you are denied the presence of the all-good, all-powerful.

    And interestingly, most of them also seem to believe that this is something you have *chosen for yourself*, and continue to choose, such that at any point (before or after death), you can turn back to God, and be welcomed into the glory and joy of His/Her presence.

    Again, as an agnostic, I don’t actually believe this — but if I were a Christian, I would find this a sane and reasonable interpretation, and much more consistent with the idea of a beneficent God.

  64. And a quote, to illustrate why if I ever did manage to make the leap of faith and actually believe in God, I would then feel compelled to preach it (possibly giving up the rest of my life in the process) — a preacher talking of Granny Weatherwax, in Terry Pratchett’s _Carpe Jugulum_:

    “my god, if she ever finds a religion, what would come out of these mountains and sweep across the plains?”

    This is why, even though I’m strongly pro-choice, I can’t blame the pro-life people for all their rhetoric, political maneuverings, picketing of clinics, etc. Because if you really believe with all your heart that abortion is murder, then what moral choice do you have but to try to prevent it? Similarly, in some religious frameworks, real faith actually requires proselytizing. (Also, giving up all your money, etc.) Because otherwise, you are allowing your fellow men to condemn themselves to excruciating agony.

    And having brought abortion into the religion thread, thus ensuring general combustion, I apologize.

  65. “just a little point: I don’t think there’s any historical debate that Jesus actually existed and had a bunch of followers. Whether or not he was God incarnate? That’s a matter of faith.”

    I haven’t seen any compelling arguments in favor the theory that such a person existed, myself.

  66. I call myself agnostic for lack of a better word (because I don’t consider myself humanist–though I don’t disagree with the whole reason and logic bit)…I was raised Catholic, but while I believe in God I don’t wholly agree with any religion I’ve come across, and therefore can’t claim to practice it. Alternately, I feel I CAN call myself Christian because I do TRY to follow his teachings, though I fail pretty often. I just don’t call myself Christian because so many people who do aren’t, really.

  67. John, thank you for this wonderful post. You so eloquently put what I myself think many times but don’t quite have the words to say.

  68. First of all, thank you for answering my question!

    Second,

    “Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it.”

    A fine quote indeed…

  69. “Christianity is a fine religion and I wish more Christians practiced it.

    A fine quote indeed…”

    Curious… present company included?

  70. Hmmm. I tried to be a Christian. A bunch of my friends at university were doing it and having been raised in a church-going family it was easy and even kind of comforting to go with the flow and take part in the rituals that go along with the faith. I never really quite believed what I was saying though.

    I re-evaluated things later on and concluded that if you believe, you have to believe 100% and commit your waking life and worldly wealth to the cause, otherwise you’re just picking and choosing the bits that suit you and that doesn’t strike me as much of a faith.

    I was filling in a diversity survey at my place of work recently and was asked about my religion and had to conclude that I was an atheist, which was actually quite an enlightening moment for myself.

    I choose to live by a simpler set of philosophies these days. “Be excellent to each other” and “Don’t be a dick” seem like great rules of thumb. I’m sure most of your readers won’t need the attribution for those particular quotes!

  71. As one of Jehovah’s Witnesses myself, I’m glad to see someone understanding (and appreciating) the core civil rights other members of my faith have helped pioneer.

  72. [Deleted because a comment on the health care bill should be in the comment thread about the health care bill, not in this one -- JS]

  73. If you lack a belief in God you’re an atheist.

    Oh dear. So you can’t believe in the One Goddess and be an atheist? If you believe in the innate spiritual life of all things (i.e. animism) but not an overarching God that makes you an atheist?

    Yes, I am poking fun. An awful lot of the discussion about atheism conflates “religion” with “my understanding of Christianity”. And that tends to shape the discussion in really unfortunate and ill-informed ways.

    FAB, I don’t think the are-they-Christians argument is without merit. If I proclaim myself to be a Communist, but I own a factory outright and don’t share the profits with my workers, and engage in union-busting, you’d be well within your rights to ask me “Dude, wtf?” Likewise, if someone professes to be a Christian but ignores most of the tenets of that faith, it’s reasonable to ask them why they don’t pick a religious path better suited to their needs.

  74. Very intresting post John. Thank you for writing it. Growing up in New Orleans which is about 90% Roman Catholic, there are many religous traditions that are in our cultural and civil activites. It is no accident that our counties in Louisiana are called parishes. All state and local government offices are closed every November 1st for All Saints Day which is a mostly Catholic observance. Madi Gras is always 40 days before Easter.
    I am very active in my church. I’m the senior warden at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans and I have friends of many different beliefs among them some Neo-Pagans.

  75. Labels, Labels, Labels….

    Is anyone else bemused by the numerous assertions that their given definition of “atheist”, “agnostic”, “humanist”, “non-theist”, and so on is the “correct” definition?

    Even our drive to distinguish and classify ourselves into groups (thank you Alan Watts) gets fully muddled by the topic of religion. It’s heady stuff, and we all can’t possibly know the “right answer.”

    I’ve enjoyed this post and comments immensely… reminds me how complex and beautifully messy humans are… ‘s’all good…

  76. John, I want to thank you for your generous treatment of religion (in general) and Christianity (in particular) in your books.

    So many SF writers assume that “the future” means no religion. Or that smart people are atheists, while only ignorant rubes hold to religion.

    That said, a lot of people mistake Jesus as a “great teacher” who taught us to “do good”.

    Most of Jesus’ teachings are really about setting an impossibly high standard – to break our pride and destroy the rituals and teachings of men which inoculate us from true repentance.

    If we take Jesus’ words seriously, then either he was an evil lunatic who said terrible and crazy things –
    or He was God in the flesh, and His death paid the price for our sins, His resurrection proved God’s approval of Him, and we should turn to Him.

  77. John,

    Didn’t mean to label you unwanted. Apologies. Just spouting out my own vision on things by the definitions I have found to cover this ground.

    Wether or not there is an inclusion or merger of these kinds of terms, I suppose is not that relevant.

    But then again you are labeling my atheism after claiming you don’t like people labeling you! :-)

    I’m sure you can see where I come from. I identify with atheism because I lack belief in Gods, I will be agnosting about my knowledge of God (not my belief, that would make no sense? “I don’t know” is not a statement or lack of belief). I will brush with anti-theism because I don’t think agnosticism is sufficiently intellectually honost to my views and it makes perfect sense do actively disbelieve in random nonsense, for all kinds of practical purposes, even though one would have to be ‘agnostic’ about it in some irrelevant philosophical sense.

    Anyways, just wanted to clarify, I think your views are perfectly well spoken and though ought. I just think it’s not complete, since you only stated your stance on personal experience and actual factual knowledge of the existence God. Not the belief part.

    I think the way of defining it I portrayed before is very clear and obvious just because of that reason; agnostic is relevant to knowledge (i know, don’t know), atheism to belief (I believe, don’t believe).

    Thanks for your response! I’m certainly not doubting your writing or analytical skill. I am confident they are abundant. That still being no reason to include (when found relevant, of course) new relevant information and views, though. I was just trying to add some relevant notes. :)

  78. @BWhit

    You may be right, sir. But I’m not debating YOUR context and interpretation of the bible, or the following corruption. The gay-hating Christians don’t find that relevant to their particular interpretations.

    If Christinianity is following Christ, that still leaves a lot to be wished for before it’s a moral doctrine worth following. There is far more better alternatives without all the ambiguity out there that don’t require religion of Jesus.

    He often contradicts himself and is generally unclear about many practices and guidelines that are taken as founding principles of his religion. Not to mention the fact he is still unreasonable judgement incarnate, even if he puts a nice face. I don’t find his teachings in whole interesting or relevant at all. Pick and choose what you like, that just makes him irrelevant, since those elements didn’t require him or his teachings. he just befuddled and confused and added nonsense and superstition to the already hardwired cooperative moral laws. Even if he was a rolemodel of his time, he isn’t a very good one today in whole.

    Also Jesus IS certainly a debatable historical figure, but that may be irrelevant, since God is as unlikely a figure as any to begin with. I personally believe he existed as one of the many prophets of the time and was crucified as such.

    To all the people claiming this confusion about terms is pointless. It very well may be, but then again so would be philosophy by that reasoning. Discussion is the fertile soil of progress, even in a silly debate like this people will find new information and inspiration. If it’s not you, all right, but it’s more interesting to see responses of people claiming to have learnt or something to add. Doesn’t have to be true or profound. Just saying. :-)

  79. I’m agnostic in the “It’s a neigh-infinite universe – and the odds are therefore neigh-infinite that something very like God exists somewhere. But lord help me if I know what it is.”

  80. One thing I really enjoyed about The Last Colony was the inclusion of the Mennonites (especially as I live just 40 minutes from Lancaster, PA). I enjoyed their respectful treatment (in particular Hiram Yoder’s stand) showing an understanding of their philosophy and portraying them in a positive light, instead of one of ridicule. I don’t happen to cotton to their beliefs, but that’s not the same thing as dismissing them.

    I remember that one of my favorite episodes of Babylon 5 (and one of the few shows that truly could not have been done in Star Trek) was “…and the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place”. In that episode, a multi-faith council holds a meeting on the station and we are presented with a rabbi, a minister and a monk, all shown as friendly and in a positive light. The speech the one baptist (I think) minister gives still rests with me about his wife helping him clean his apartment (and the extended metaphor it offered).

  81. FAB — you’re pointing out the difference between Christ’s life and teaching, and the Christian Church’s preachings. There are similar differences between, say, Gandhi’s own life and writings and the preachings of the pacifists who claim to follow him. Prophets are unhonored in their own lands, and are followed by neither the Churches nor the Rulers which idolize them.

  82. My favorite book of all time is The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. This book has alot of very religious characters that are treated respectfully. Follett is an atheist.

    I don’t think an authors religion matters. I don’t care. I also don’t care about their political views unless they ram it down my threat. Tom Clancy is very far to the right. His early work is great. His later work became bloated right wing diatribes.

    Scalzi is obvious a liberal. It doesn’t matter. George RR Martin (one of my favorite authors) makes Scalzi look like Rush Limbaugh. You don’t see him preaching about it in his writing. I doubt Jaimie Lannister would be welcome at a Moveon.org meeting.

    I don’t see Brandon Sanderson or Orson Scott Card having mormons converting people all over their books.

    I get annoyed when people can’t separate a writer, actor, athletes political/religious choices from their writing, acting, or athletic performance.

    I don’t care.

  83. I doubt Jaimie Lannister would be welcome at a Moveon.org meeting.

    Maybe not, but wouldn’t you pay good money to be at that meeting?

    And while you don’t care, other people might get annoyed if you insist “Because I don’t care, you shouldn’t either.” To each their own, you know?

    nedbrek, your false dichotomy does your faith no credit, and is frankly little more than a half-baked ‘gotcha’ that impresses believers and turns off nonbelievers. Really, it is not possible to believe that Jesus had some great things to say, but was not himself divine? Or that Jesus was a true prophet of God, but again, not divine? Or maybe that he was just this cool dude who had a lot of good things to say? (I must have missed the part where saying that you should forgive your enemies automatically makes you a crazy, evil lunatic.)

  84. @mythago: so are you saying that you wouldn’t read a book by a Jew? We think Jesus was just another crazy guy who thought he was god. We don’t usually put it like that due to 2,000 years of Christians you know, burning down our homes and murdering us.

  85. mythago, I am only repeating the well known “trilemma” (liar, lunatic, Lord)… which is often forgotten or ignored, but never refuted.

    I don’t know how you can pick and choose what to believe about Him.

    The authority of Jesus’ teachings come from His claim to Godhood, if you reject that, you are really just making up your own religion – which is the exact opposite of what He taught.

  86. @nedbrek: My (weak atheist) opinion on Christianity is that it’s generally a nice philosophy, once you strip out the supernatural that I can’t bring myself to believe in.

    You seem to be arguing that because Thomas Jefferson wasn’t divine, I should ignore what he had to say about good governance, because he obviously had no authority.

    @Guess: Need to play victim, much?

  87. I tend to believe that religions often have admirable moral and philosophical goals but their essential qualities are contingent on the humans in them, and you know how humans are.

    Word.

    If more religious folks actually considered whether or not some of their holy teachings might have been filtered through fallible humans it would save a load of drama.

  88. Kevin, I certainly wouldn’t take anything TJ said as binding on my life.

    Like I said, Jesus didn’t give us a nice set of rules to live by.

    Jesus revealed God’s standard for goodness, and stressed how we fail to meet it (what we call sin).

    Then He was brutally murdered (by God) to pay the price God demands for sin.

    Then He raised Himself from the dead, showing that we have reconciliation with God.

    Without the supernatural, there’s not much there.

  89. The problem with terms like atheist and agnostic is that there are precice technical meanings, andthen there are the way they are used in general conversation.

    Atheist: one who does not hold a positive belief in a diety.

    Coloqually it’s also used to describe someone who has a positive belief that god does not exist, but philisophically speaking that is a completely different statement. Properly speaking that would be an antitheist. a= without, anti = against.

    Agnostic = without knowledge. It’s less a statement of religius belief or lack thereof than about epistemology.

    There is nothing wrong with saying “I am an agnostic Christian.” It’s equivelent to saying I have faith in god (and Christ) but do not believe that one can actually know. Which if you think about it is what “faith” is suposed to mean anyway.

    And yeah, as the past president of our university Atheist Association, I get very picky about how words are actally defined, as opposed to how they are used.

  90. nedbrek @94: fine, it’s a false trilemma. There are plenty of other options that don’t require the false choice between “malicious nutbar” and “divine”. I get that you reject those options; but pretending it’s a logical proof is, again, persuasive only to those who already believe it.

    Guess @93: I’m a Jew. Your point was what again?

  91. mythago, I think in order to show it false, you must provide an alternative answer which is self-consistent.

    To say that Jesus had some “great things to say”, but was not divine is arbitrary.

    How do you decide what is great and what is not?

    He did say He was divine, is that great or not? Why?

  92. nedbrek @101 – I’ve already explained, twice, why the “trilemma” fails as a logical argument. The fact that you believe its ultimate premise is true is not proof. If I say “cats are mammals because they purr”, that fails as a logical argument, even though it is indeed true that cats are mammals.

  93. @nedbrek:

    You seem to be arguing that if one doesn’t accept Jesus’s divinity (me and our host, for example), then one has no reason to follow his teachings. That’s a rather small-minded viewpoint.

    Perchance are you a believer in the total depravity of man, i.e. that all morality comes from your god?

  94. Christ claimed to be divine? [citation needed] While you can infer such a claim, that he implied it is a different claim, and the outright claim isn’t there. (Well, other than the abstract claim that all of mankind is the son of God.) This is not to say that any number of other people, then and now, claim he was divine. Churches say remarkable things about their idols.

  95. Kevin, I am indeed saying you have no (logical, rational) reason (to believe anything, really).

    Logic and rationality must have a logical and rational explanation/basis/foundation (or else it is arbitrary).

    For the Christian, it is that we are the product of a rational and logical God.

    For the atheist, I don’t see it. It seems to be “I am logical because I say I am logical” or “I am logical because my logic works/is useful”. I would be happy to hear a better explanation.

  96. My understanding is that in the gospels Christ made no claim to Godhood. His references to himself as the son of the Father included the rest of humanity as sons and daughters of the All-Father.

    I worked with a girl who, though intelligent and generally well-informed, was very surprised at my casual mention that Jesus was a Jew. She had been schooled by Catholic nuns who taught Catholic creeds and very little of the gospel. We argued for half an hour before I requested her to go to the source before she made more of a fool of herself.

  97. The idea that Jesus never claimed to be divine is quite common, but not defensible.

    – Jesus forgave sins. The Jews at that time rightfully recognized this as blasphemy (a claim to be God).

    The reason for this is simple:
    1) Sin is primarily an offense against God
    2) Only the one offended can offer forgiveness

    – Jesus accepted worship

    There are others, but these are easy ones to pick up on.

  98. Pat @107: It depends a lot on the gospel. The “wisdom” series of gospels (Thomas, etc) never make any such claims, and are basically collections of Jesus sayings. The “gnostic” series (Magdalene, Valentinus, etc) are extremely explicit about Jesus being divine and having magical powers. The “histories” (including the four synoptic gospels) tend to vary depending on their time of writing; older ones such as Mark don’t divinize as much, while later ones like John are all about the godhood.

    During the editing process post-Nicaea, when the four synoptic gospels were picked as “canonical,” there was an explicit decision made to pick gospels which were either explicit about the divinity of Jesus or which were wholly compatible with it; which focused on history rather than sayings, and which had a history compatible with the idea of a blessed priesthood; and which didn’t include supernatural powers available to people other than to Jesus.

    The decision about explicit divinity in the canonical gospels was tied in to a number of other conflicts that came up during the council at Nicaea, which basically boiled down to the decision that the priesthood / episcopacy / etc was legitimate. (Which shouldn’t be too surprising, since it was a council of bishops making that decision) That, in turn, depended on the argument that they were carrying on the “throne of Peter,” which in turn required that Jesus’ instructions about the building of a church came from God directly — and thus, that Jesus was identically equal to God, not a related being.

    So the short answer to your question is: In the canonical gospels, divine; in the mystical gnostic gospels, divine and can give you magic powers too; in the pure-wisdom gospels, generally not divine; in the other gospels, depends.

    Which gospels you personally consider valid sources about the life and nature of Jesus is up to you. :)

  99. nedbrek, your argument is that “I am logical and rational because I say my God is logical and rational”. Do you not see that to me that is as logical as saying “I am logical because my imaginary parrot is logical”

    I am logical because my logic has developed all my life in response to what I learn.

    I am aware that my logic varies delightfully from the rest of us crazy humans, because all our lives are different.

    A logical and rational God would be a marvel to meet. I hope it would have the time and inclination to explain its reasoning to me.

  100. Thanks Yonathan, I must read the gospels again. They probably have more now than when I was young ;)

  101. nedbrek: I think we’re defining authority thus:

    Your definition seems to be “do this or else”. Mine was more the sort of respect you’d give a valued teacher or philosopher.

    Authority freely given, is what I’m getting at.

  102. I was thinking about suffering recently, and came up with this:

    Without suffering, we have no need to strive. Why build better houses if they ones we have don;t occasionally result in suffering? Why reach for the stars if where we are is perfect. Why, in short, make any effort to improve anything if there is no suffering at all?

    If there is no suffering, you are already in Utopia, surrounded by perfection. The only way to remove all suffering is to achieve perfection, in effect, to become God.

    Do you let your children make mistakes so they can learn from them? Do you let them try new things knowing they may fail at them? I would venture to suggest that none of us learned to be respectful of staircases until we fell down one.

    Suffering is necessary for growth. It sucks, but there it is.

    And here’s an interesting question – why in the world did I spend a 40 minute car ride last week thinking about suffering and why it’s necessary? Who put that thought in my head so it would be of use this week? The collective consciousness? God? Pure coincidence that among John’s 40,000 followers at least one of us had to be thinking about it lately? I am agnostic on the issue.

  103. Let me quickly say, I appreciate everyone’s patience and participation!

    Pat, it is not a question of what I say. Look at what Christians have said for 2000 years. Read the book yourself. It presents a God of words, who says, “Come, let us reason together”.

    Kevin, are you really respecting the teacher if you neglect everything he said, and come to a completely opposite conclusion from the plain reading?

  104. Joel @114, some of us learned to be respectful of staircases by observing somebody else falling down them.

  105. @mythago 116

    Ask your parents about that – I suspect you fell down a short flight or two yourself at such a tender age you don;t recall it. I know all three of my kids did ti a couple of times.

    On the other hand, how the (&()* do I know? I certainly wasn’t there. If you did learn by watching others, it speaks to the great possibilities of education – the whole point of which is to learn from other peoples’ experiences so every generation doesn’t have to reinvent the microwave.

    mmmmmmm. Hot pockets.

  106. @nedbrekon 107

    For the atheist, I don’t see it. (*snip*) “I am logical because my logic works/is useful”. I would be happy to hear a better explanation.

    Is a better explanation required? If by ‘works,’ you mean ‘proceeds consistently from a set of unobjectionable axioms,’ that would seem to me the very definition of logical. If you mean that it ‘works’ because it produces the results the person desires… Well, as long as the chain of logic is correct, and the axioms sound, it would seem the mark of a well-adjusted person, to desire what is.

    The trick, of course, is to get people to agree on what axioms to use.

    That said, I personal would try to judge the suitability of axioms on whether or not they produce acceptable positions for all involved — that this leaves axiomatic positions as essentially arbitrary doesn’t seem so much a failing, but a source of wonder and delight in our own capabilities.

  107. One theism you don’t see mentioned very often is henotheism. I only know the word because I used to read dictionaries when I was a child.

    From OED Online:

    henotheism : The belief in one god as the deity of the individual, family, or tribe, without asserting that he is the only God: considered as a stage of religious belief between polytheism and monotheism.

    From Merriam Webster online:

    henotheism : the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods

    nedbrek, talking of definitions, you use the narrow definition of authority as “that quality of the writer of a book”. I have read the Bible and came to different conclusions, I am afraid.

    When you say that “The Jews at that time…” you are referring to the beliefs of the official Jewish religion. The heterogeneity of Jewish belief at that time in Jerusalem is debatable but Jesus was familiar with the Samaritans. In Jesus’ time the Samaritans were within 100 years of a polytheistic version of Judaism, claiming ancestry from the Israelites who were not exiled to Babylon. They were despised because of their heterodoxy. They are very likely to have had different ideas on blasphemy and sin from the mainstream.

    I know this is a bit inflammatory to some people but anyone who has read this far should take it well: how many of you know that there is archaeological proof that the wife of J*h*v*h was called Asherah? Or that Allah was the Moon God in the polytheistic pre-islamic Arabic religion?

  108. Henotheism: We have our god, you have your god, and our god can *beat up* your god.

    [Putting on religious scholarship geekery hat]

    There’s been a lot of interesting scholarship in the past 20 years about the evolution of monotheism in Judaism. The current consensus is that during the late bronze age, Jewish religion was fairly similar to other West Semitic religion, generally worshiping a few gods. (Yahweh in the southern regions, El and one of the many gods named Baal further north, *possibly* a goddess named Asherah but the exact point at which she got absorbed into being part of El is a matter of some debate) Yahweh and El got conflated into a single deity around the very end of the bronze age, and during the early monarchy (c 900 BCE, early iron age) this process was accelerated by this god being identified as the official god of the kingdom.* (Thus David as the anointed king, the country’s special covenant with the god, etc.)

    (And BTW, this is well borne out by Biblical textual evidence, not just archaeological evidence. NB the passages in 1 Kings where they refer to “rediscovering” the old religion of the people)

    This was the heyday of henotheism; there was a single official god of the kingdom, and worship of that god was associated with patriotism. As the monarchy wore on (and split, and went extra-nuts) this got a lot more contentious; famously, there was the split between people who considered Baal a traditional Israelite deity (and by worshiping him, tightened relationships with the nearby metropolis of Tyre) and with the ones who considered those foreign ties to be dangerous to the country. The famous bit with Ahab, Jezebel, Elijah, etc., was the peak of that, followed by a general bloodbath.

    It appears that henotheism and monolatry (worshiping only one god, no matter what you think of the others) rose sharply, up until the Babylonian conquest and exile; then during those 70 years, the exiled elites restructured the religion away from temple operations and towards a notion of “faith” much more like our modern one. And in fact, in the post-exilic period the record of polylatry among the Jews in Israel suddenly vanishes, right around the same time that the ideas of universal monotheism kick in.

    I’m not sure about the status of the Samaritans. These guys were operating 600 years later, after a time in which Judaism had been both much more centralized and much more aggressively monotheistic than before. IIRC they did still have some worship of Baal, but I believe that the details are far from agreed-upon.

    There was definitely a good deal of variety among Jewish beliefs by the time of Jesus, though. The split between the strict monotheist/isolationists (now a power elite as the priesthood) and the people who wanted closer contacts with the outside world had gotten worse; the entire war which Hanukkah commemorates was in its essence a civil war between these two groups that the Seleucids got involved in, and that was only a few hundred years earlier. The divisions were deep in the society then, and for that matter they still are today. (Secular and Orthodox; I think one could argue for a certain continuity of this division all the way since then) And on top of that there were groups like the Essenes, who were following radical versions of ritual purity; and influences coming in at least indirectly from places like Egypt and Persia thanks to Israel’s new imperial ties.

    So this was definitely a very varied world that Jesus was walking around in, with some very deep divisions about what religion ought to be and how it should be tied in with social life. If you read his sayings in this context, they’re fascinating things — they sound like the words of a radical reformer, preaching that (in essence) the laws should be interpreted in terms of their moral purpose and that the ritual law is markedly less important. (“It’s not what comes in to your mouth that defiles you, it’s what comes out of it” and so on)

    * BTW, about Asherah: It’s clear that in the middle Bronze Age, Asherah was considered the consort of El. Her properties started to get conflated with El’s right around the time that the Jews in the North and South started to conflate El with Yahweh, so some sources describe her as the consort of Yahweh, and then reference to her tapers off. There’s a lot of argument about whether she was still viewed as an independent goddess later on; the “Asherot” mentioned in Jeremiah etc very possibly refer to ritual artifacts in the temple (a tree or pole, very likely, standing near the altar) rather than to a separate deity. There’s never enough data to be sure on this…

    WRT Allah, n.b. that El / Eloha / Allah / etc are all variants of the same stem word ‘l, which by the time of the Prophet had come to be used as a common word for “god” in the entire region. So while it’s definitely true that the word “Allah” was in use for the moon- (and many-other-things-)god in the region, I don’t know if we should read too much into that.

  109. The crescent Moon symbol used as the commonest sacred sign throughout Islam is just a coincidence, you think?

  110. I believe that the moon-and-star was an Ottoman thing, picked up after they conquered Byzantium. (It was the traditional sign of that city) AFAIK Most Muslim countries don’t use it.

  111. Just to add to the Bronze Age Near East religious scholarship: I believe Asherah was originally the Syriac variant of Ishtar. El was the supreme Canaanite deity, father of various Baals. “Ba’al” being an ancient Semitic word for “Lord”, it was a title given to quite a few dieties. (Most notably ‘Baal-Merodach”, aka Bel-Marduk, patron diety of Babylon. A great many deity “names” in the Old Testament are actually titles from old Semitic languages.)

    It seems like a great deal of Ancient Near Eastern religion traces back to Sumer, one way or another. The Sumerians influenced the Akkadian civilization that overran them, and in turn they influenced the regions they conquered and traded with, or were influenced in turn. Variants on Inanna/Ishtar/Astarte pop up all over the region.

  112. Pat @119, it’s not as inflammatory as you might like, given that the name of the deity in question is not (classically) Jehovah, or Yahowah, or anything with asterisks; “Jehovah” is an English misreading of how Jews write the name of their god. Since the name of the divine is sacred, we don’t want to mispronounce it, and since we don’t know what the vowels of YHWH were, Hebrew texts use vowel pointing to mean “when you see this word, what you should say aloud is ‘Adonai’.” Christian translators who didn’t get that read the word as “Yahowah”.

    All the Caananite deities (which differ in a lot of ways from the Sumerian and, later, Akkadian deities) had gods with ‘families’. The Bible’s pretty clear on the fact that gods other than the Hebrews’ were believed to exist, you just weren’t supposed to worship them, and it reflects the evolution away from a view of their god as part of a pantheon.

  113. mythago, you know who I am talking about. I took it as read that everyone knew the other names of G*d (a form used in some Jewish journals because God is the English translation of YHWH). He is quite famous, you know. You did not nitpick when people referred to Jesus rather than Yeshua. YHWH had a wife called Asherah for a time. The Bible books are quite clear that the Israelites themselves had many Gods of their own and returned to polytheism frequently during biblical times.

    If I wanted to be really inflammatory I would suggest that the Tetragrammaton was ATEN.

    Yonatan, the Sassanids and Timurids also used the crescent moon as a symbol. Looks like you can find out more about the Samaritans than I can. However, you say they were 600 years later than the exile, though they say they stayed in Israel while the exiled were away.

    According to Wikipedia there were 712 Samaritans practising their religion remaining in 2007, though many locals are probably of Samaritan descent.

  114. John,

    Thanks for sharing your internal life with us. I loved Old Man’s War for many reasons, not the least of which was your respectful treatment of religion and Christianity in general.

    This was a refreshing change from the way that God is treated by most sci-fi types. At least in my perceptions. Why do you think that sci-fi authors seems to be so hostile towards God and/or Christianity?

    thanks,

    df

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