The Belief Schism

This article at New Statesman magazine, in which (mostly) prominent (mostly) British (mostly) atheists explain why they don’t believe in God, is both interesting in itself and causes me to remind myself why I’m an agnostic who presumes there isn’t a God, which is: there’s no evidence for God, or evidence that a god-like entity (or entities) ever crawled around the skin of this world, telling humans what to do with their lives. This is different than humans suggesting that a god (or gods) has spoken to them and told them that bananas are forbidden, or to go slaughter the people in the next town, or to wear day-glo orange pantaloons, or whatever. That process doesn’t actually need the involvement of a god; it just needs someone with a good enough understanding of primate grouping dynamics to sell it.

It also reminds me why I don’t feel particularly antagonistic toward religion as a concept, which is: Hey, if ritual and belief help you get through your life, and doesn’t get in my way, enjoy. The fall down here is not the concept of religion, but the practice of it, in which many people seem to believe that it’s not enough that they have to live as their god tells them to, but I do too, and so does everyone else. I find this annoying and typically speaking not strictly required by the person whom the religion purports to represent, and I regret having to spend the time and effort pointing out such things to the practitioners.

Likewise I dislike it when people proclaim their religious affiliation and then steadfastly ignore the core teachings of it. This is the genesis of my comment that I love Christianity, and wish more Christians practiced it, although to be fair that complaint could be equally applied to practitioners of other religions as well. One of the nice things about being an atheist or agnostic is that when you’re an asshole, you can’t blame your god for it, you just have to own it.

But then there are those who do walk the walk the precepts of their religion require (or at least try really hard) — the deep principles, not the social cruft that has accumulated around them — and I find many of those people gracious, tolerant and admirable in how they live their life. I don’t follow their particular creed, but I find that what they believe their creed requires of them and how I believe people should act toward each other run on parallel tracks, and that’s fine with me.

It’s part and parcel of my belief that the apparent ingrained assumption that religious folks and non-religious folks exist at varying levels of hostility with each other is a bad assumption to have. Many of them on both sides of the belief schism do, of course; but they don’t have to. The fact that they have that hostility is on them personally.

318 thoughts on “The Belief Schism

  1. As this inevitably comes up whenever I post about identifying as agnostic, trying to correct me as to whether I am actually an agnostic, rather than [insert whatever stripe of non-belief you think I really am], is both annoying and insulting. So before you do it, please STFU and accept that a) I am not ignorant, b) I know more about the status of my non-belief than you do, c) if you piss me off I’ll just mallet your comment into oblivion. I thank you in advance.

  2. “which more Christians practiced it” ? Did you mean “wish”?

    But yes, I’m in a similar ideological bracket, for similar reasons.

  3. Scalzi

    …there’s no evidence for God, or evidence that a god-like entity (or entities) ever crawled around the skin of this world, telling humans what to do with their lives.

    That would seem to be a rather limited definition of “God”. I mean there are religions that do not prescribe to such a framing.

  4. Thanks to a recent post at Jim Hines’s blog, I’ve been considering how I feel about a person who has a religious belief that I find objectionable, but which he or she feels absolutely no need to foist upon me. So, if you think that all women of your faith should be kept inside the house in which they were born until they marry and move into their husbands’ houses to live for the rest of their lives, but you of course understand that I don’t practice that faith and therefor those rules are irrelevant to your interactions with me . . . am I okay with that, or not? Haven’t made up my mind yet.

    If I think bigotry fundamental to someone’s faith should I be tolerant . . or not?

    It’s an easy answer if they are trying to get laws to support their bigotry, but what if they aren’t? Come to think of it, how often do we see people with strong religious beliefs not try to push for laws to support them?

  5. Frank:

    You may presume that I find no evidence for a god or gods for many reasons, inclusive of the ones mentioned in that particular sentence.

    Hope:

    “Come to think of it, how often do we see people with strong religious beliefs not try to push for laws to support them?”

    There are in fact a number of Christian sects who intentionally stay away from pushing their beliefs into civil law. You don’t hear about them because, obviously, they are not going out of their way to be obnoxious in that particular manner.

  6. Frank, John is not attempting to define “god”. He is assuming one does not exist because there is zero evidence supporting the existense of one, no matter how it is framed.

    Great post John. Wouldn’t it really be such a wonderful world if people let others believe whatever they wanted and didn’t try to push their beliefs onto others and into lawmaking? Sigh.

  7. ‘But then there are those who do walk the walk the precepts of their religion require (or at least try really hard) — the deep principles, not the social cruft that has accumulated around them — and I find many of those people gracious, tolerant and admirable in how they live their life.”

    I also know a great many gracious, generally kind-hearted religious people who “walk the walk”. The problem is that most of them are also intolerant of gays, have an archaic attitude regarding the rights of women and are stunningly untroubled by the idea that everyone who doesn’t share their core religious views with suffer for all eternity in hell.

    These less than admirable aspects of their character are not “social cruft”. They’re part and parcel of their core religious principles as fundamentalist Christians.

    That’s what’s so troubling to me about conservative religiosity. It has an astounding ability to evoke cruel and intolerant attitudes and actions from otherwise very decent human beings.

  8. The theologian Marcus Borg makes a useful distinction between theologies of purity and theologies of compassion. These often exist side by side, but they help to clarify what we like and dislike. Often, though not always, it’s a theology of purity that demands others share the same belief. It also explains why some, not by no means all, atheists come across as so obnoxious–they, too, have a theology of purity. (Clearly our host does not fall into that category.)

  9. David Ellis:

    “They’re part and parcel of their core religious principles as fundamentalist Christians.”

    My thoughts on those sorts of Christians. I personally rather strongly suspect Jesus would be disappointed in them.

    That said, I don’t really mind if people think I’m going to Hell, since I don’t agree with the assessment in any event. What I mind is how they treat me in this world. If they use “I think he may go to Hell” to treat me poorly, than we’re back to the “Jesus will be disappointed” thing. Jesus didn’t say “Love your neighbor as yourself, except the ones you think are going to hell, in which case, screw ‘em.”

  10. Your last paragraph raises a great point. I am religious and my best friend is atheist. We manage this without any difficulty. I think some people are just hostile, and that it has little to do with what they’re hostile about (religion/politiics) so much as their attitude towards others in general.

  11. @hope #5 – “how often do we see people with strong religious beliefs not try to push for laws to support them?”

    We don’t see them – because rather than being loud and shouting about how we need to mandate this or outlaw that, they’re working on the ground, trying to help people and make their lives better; they may be the Christian running the homeless shelter, the Muslim running a domestic abuse help-service, the Jew working for Medecins sans Frontieres, the Hindu working for Amnesty International, the secular humanist volunteering for disaster relief with Red Cross. The louder members of those faiths, and others, take over from those simply getting their heads down and doing, quietly, good work; and we don’t notice them, or credit their faith with being their inspiration (which is of course what we blame for those who try to pass laws with which we disagree). It’s a real problem, but then, especially in faiths which call for humility, how do you deal with it? And I think the answer has to be we just remember them, and bear them in mind, when we discuss the “problem” of religion.

  12. This reminds me of the issue I have with religion, or the vocal practicioners. I have one friend who is very much a “true” christian. He goes to church, he works in a non-profit field, he volunteers, and his purpose in life is helping people. Despite my general agnosticism/atheism (I haven’t settled on which) it’s never come up in conversation with us. He’s never pushed it upon us.
    This is in contrast to a girl I once almost dated. She took me to a youth group thing at her church and I was very uncomfortable. And it was revealed in conversation that she thought I was going to hell unless I joined their church. That didn’t go anywhere.
    In politics you have many “christian’s” demanding that the laws be made to enforce their version of what god demands. And then they want to cut social programs that help the poor, something I would call not fitting with the christian belief of aiding the less fortunate. So I was relieved recently when that group of religious organizations came out pushing for government social programs to not be cut because of the good they did for the poor. There are some people out there that are true to their beliefs.

  13. @David in #8

    Generally good natured people do a lot of cruel things – that’s less a problem with religion and more one with basic human nature. People are callous when they belief themselves to be just and right, the religion/political leaning/scientific research is just window dressing. It’s feeling of being having to be right that’s the trouble.

    For my case I’m running with the oppinion that if you look forward to the end of the world and/or looking forward to have other people to suffer for eternity, you’re cookoo and I’d rather not associate with you; but that might be a bit callous on my end.

  14. The “cruft” as you call it, the sets of beliefs of a religious culture that don’t derive from a reference scripture (and may be in conflict with it). I can’t see treating these as not really parts of the religion. A religion doesn’t have to have any written component; that doesn’t make it less a religion. So people who point to the same book as their authority, and even may call themselves by the same name, aren’t necessarily practicing the same faith. Some belief sets are simply more obnoxious than others.

    Unfortunately, the obnoxious features — proselytizing, persecuting heretics, protecting children from contrary opinions, and the like — do have the effect of perpetuating themselves. That’s why they’re in there.

  15. This sunday’s sermon discussed Romans 10, and one of the core ideas was that by believing you know the spiritual fate of another person, you are diminishing God’s role in your own life. There is a fundamental spiritual difference in speaking about your faith and offering to teach others, and judging or condemning them for not listening.

    I wish the parallel tracks you mention were more common. Too often believers condemn those who disagree, and non-believers belittle and mock those who do.

    —-
    I do have one small quibble with your post – specifically that while you don’t feel there’s any evidence for God, it’s also the case that evidence for all the other core explanations is equally lacking. In the realm of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof”, to my mind at least, the idea that stuff has always been around is just as fantastic as the idea that the stuff was created at some point.

  16. @Daniel in #12

    That’s so true.

    It’s far easier to fold your hands in prayer than to get them dirty with work. And if you just pray and yell loud enough, you can get all the recognition without any of the work.

  17. Hope @ 5, Daniel @ 12:

    There’s also a dynamic in the US media that religious = right wing. To whatever extent left-leaning religious leaders even *try* to be publicly noticed, they either get ignored or get about 30 seconds of “this person claims to be a religious leader but they have some different views from real religious leaders isn’t that *interesting*”. And then they cut back to Pat Robertson.

  18. Tyler:

    As regards Christianity, if one’s Church’s doctrine causes one to actively ignore Jesus, there’s a good argument that it qualifies as cruft. It’s not to say cruft is not pernicious.

    Tony:

    “it’s also the case that evidence for all the other core explanations is equally lacking.”

    Well, no. There are theories in science regarding the development of the universe that have excellent data that conform to the theories. There’s a lot of data which suggests a “Big Bang” model, for example. However, that there is conflicting or incomplete data isn’t a problem; it means we’re still looking. We have a process to evaluate that data, hypothesize what the data means, and test those hypotheses. It’s called the scientific method. That every discovery we make that solves one question opens more questions is a feature, not a bug.

    But to suggest that evidence for other “core explanations” is equally lacking is incorrect. Evidence for other core explanations, from a scientific point of view, is rather more robust.

    Chris:

    Actually, I’d like not to make this a comment thread about evolution vs. creationism.

  19. @Chris #19: I am not. I’m looking much farther back in time, to the origins of the universe itself.

  20. What Hope said @5.

    The biggest problem I have with religion is that even when it’s not directly (or even indirectly) hurting me, it’s often directly hurting others.

    Now, I grant that religion is not the only institution that often directly hurts people as part of its established practices. But it is the only such institution that is routinely given a pass under civil laws to go right on with the hurting. When teachers in a secular school are caught raping students, they are generally arrested in short order. If their school’s administration is found to have been covering up the crime, the administrators are also generally arrested, or at the very least sacked with extreme prejudice.

    My problem isn’t necessarily with religion per se, but rather with the elevated mystique it claims, and actively encourages everyone–even non-members–to respect.

  21. Bearpaw @18:

    There’s a similar dynamic here in the UK, leavened somewhat by the existence of a left-wing (practically socialist) Archbishop of Canterbury in the form of Rowan Williams; very rarely does he come out and make a statement, but last time he did it set the political world briefly ablaze. Otherwise, though, a similar dynamic – the most conservative person sets the tone, because they’re louder – tends to dominate; although the CofE does have strong social-justice elements that are never far from sight, so on those issues, it’s a more left-of-centre standard…

  22. @John #20: and before the Big Bang? Where did all that matter come from? Or all that energy? Eventually, if we walk far enough back on the timeline of existence, we must arrive at “well, this timeline just goes backwards literally forever. “, or “well, at some point all this stuff was created.”

    Those are both beliefs which cannot be tested or falsified.

  23. Tony @ #16:

    Yeah, no. There’s evidence for evolution, the Standard Model of physics, &c. Not so much for religious creationism.

    As to evidence for/against whether any sort of deity exists, you can’t conclusively prove it either way, yes, but it seems to me that you can set constraints as to what’s possible.

  24. Tony @ 16:
    … the idea that stuff has always been around is just as fantastic as the idea that the stuff was created at some point.

    I’m not a cosmologist, but it’s my impression that those aren’t necessarily the only two choices. Relatedly, cause-and-effect aren’t necessarily always inextricably linked … it’s at least theoretically possibly for there to be an effect without a cause (or for a cause to follow an effect).

    My understanding of this is hampered by my severly limited maths. If there’s a cosmologist in the house, I encourage them to weigh in.

  25. Tony @ #24:

    It seems to be impossible to tell what was there before the Universe in its current form was born, hence it doesn’t seem possible to say what the First Cause was.

    You choose to believe a god did it, I choose to believe that some unknown physical process did it. And that’s fine.

  26. I’m given to understand that it’s quite difficult to be a practising Christian in a first-world nation because, purely by virtue of our nice houses and our big-screen TVs and our abundance, we’re basically terrible people in Jesus’ eyes and should be spending that money on the poor.

    Basically my impression is that Jesus was a socialist.

  27. …I love Christianity, and wish more Christians practiced it…

    I know too much about Christianity to go for that. I’m down with Winston Zeddemore in that I love Jesus’ style, but the religion itself incorporates way, way too much archaic OT cruft and neo-Dionysian Pauline garbage. Pare it down to just Jesus, like Jefferson did, and you at least have a viable philosophy.

  28. Tony: Yeah, sorry, our posts crossed.

    Merus: hah. Christianity is against the Republican religion.

  29. Tony Dye:

    “Those are both beliefs which cannot be tested or falsified.”

    Well, no. Much of it can be tested and falsified; much of it already has. It’s true that there is a point at which our understanding of how the universe works stops working (it’s called Planck’s Time), but it’s equally true that physicists are currently doing a lot of hypothesizing in order to push back that particular frontier. Which involves a fair amount of testing and falsifying. As it did before, when our understanding of how the universe worked was less well formed.

    What it looks like you’re trying to do here is a variation of the “god of the gaps” argument, in which you want to suggest that since there’s a certain line at which our current understanding of the universe ceases, all hypotheses for what happens on the the other side of that line are equally valid. That’s not correct. It’s certainly possible that on the other side of Planck’s Time is, for example, a giant purple badger with a claw on a “Start” button, but it’s rather more possible, based on what we know already that there’s some underlying relationship between the currently disparate forces of the universe. Someone may spend his or her time pursuing the Giant Purple Badger hypothesis, but he or she is not likely to get much funding for it.

  30. #27 and yes, that was exactly my point. Why tell me “and that’s fine”? Did you think I was trying to criticize one opinion or the other?

    All I’m saying is that eventually, it’s about belief. Even the idea that there is no door through which science cannot lead us, is naked belief.

  31. Some evangelical once left a tract on my door that, ironically, promoted agnosticism. It was talking to atheists and pointing out that they can’t really know for sure if there isn’t a god. Why they didn’t turn that logic back on themselves is beyond me.
    Ironically, the Catholicism I was raised with is what helped make me agnostic. They really pound the concept of humility into you, and so one day, I started thinking, “Why should my religion be the right one?” One thing led to another, and here I am, disgusted at the pride of people who think they know the truth of the universe (and yes, fighting my own pride that makes me disgusted with them).
    When I told my dad that I didn’t think we could know if there was a god or not, and he told me that made me a good Catholic, I was both surprised and comforted that he was okay with my choices. Of course, many years later, when I talked about being an agnostic (thinking I’d already come out to him years before) he was surprised. I’m fascinated by the brain processes that can lead someone to say, “I believe humans are too fallible to know anything for sure, but I do know for sure that being gay is bad.”

  32. Tuttle @30:

    Depends on your orthodoxy; if you define Christianity as post-Nicene (or even post-ecumenical) orthodoxy that’s still a very different beast than, say, C1st Christianity, or Christianity under Diocletian, or even Coptic Christianity. By the by, the neo-Dionysian is more Augustine than Paul, as a rule, albeit not universally so.

  33. “All I’m saying is that eventually, it’s about belief.”

    That is not true. For many of us it is all about pushing further to see what we can discover through science. Just because we haven’t figured out the existence of universe, it doesn’t mean that we won’t.

  34. @John #32: I’m not really aiming for a ‘god of the gaps’ argument… I have a lot of confidence that most or perhaps even all of these gaps will be filled with scientific understanding. I’m thinking about philosophical First Causes. You speak of the possibility of an underlying relationship between the forces of the universe. I’m speaking of the genesis of those forces – at some point, they must either have been created, or they must always have existed.

    @Chris #36: The essential “where did it come from” question doesn’t go away, no matter how far you push the boundaries of scientific discovery. Answering that question for a given particle or quantum interaction only moves the essential question back another step.

  35. Despite the chance of me having a bad case of mallet-in-the-face-itis:
    What is your stand regarding russel’s teapot? Are you pot-agnostic or an apotist? Or perhaps a devout potist holding to the doctrine that it is filled with coke zero?

  36. Couldn’t agree with you more. I’m an atheist, as is my husband. However, we each “own” our atheism in very different ways. Your last paragraph sums up our differences perfectly. My husband is openly hostile towards any form of organized (or not) religion. I believe that, as long as (insert belief system here) don’t rub my face in their faith, I won’t rub their face in my disbelief in a “supreme being”. I believe “live and let live” is a much more peaceful way to coexist. My husband thinks that non-atheists are all ignorant morons, and should be told so at every opportunity. Fortunately, I’ve never actually *seen* him do so, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he has, or if he will in the future.

  37. From my point of view one should not engage in belief. But I contend that there is evidence of an aware, organizing principle in the Universe and that it is possible to use the scientific method to explore it.

    The catch is that it while you can communicate the process for exploration, you can not show the result: you can not lead and expedition into the amazon (or New York City), capture and bring back a creature put it on display and say “this is that aware organizing principle I was talking about.”

    But you can convince yourself. And it can result in a lifetime of exploration.

    Mohammed did say at least one thing that I am completely willing to validate:

    “God is closer to you than your jugular vein.” Quran L:16

  38. John, in regards to your first comment about people correcting you…I haven’t seen that sort of thing before, so I’m curious, is it a semantic quibble people have? I saw a video ‘blog’ (?) from Penn Jillette the other day, in which he seemed to be saying the commonly held uses of atheist and agnostic were somehow reversed. I didn’t get to finish the video or go back later, so I’m not certain what the argument was. I know on first pass it didn’t really catch with me, because when someone says “so, if you say you’re agnostic, you’re really atheist!” I tend to think to myself, “if I’m in a room of 100 people and tell them I’m agnostic, what are they going to think I mean?” If I got my point across to the majority, I’m fine with it.

    Anyhow, I was just curious to know more – but I don’t want to spark off the kind of trolling you’re trying to avoid. So if you’d prefer, just nod knowingly if I’m on the right path and I’ll go read up more on it elsewhere.

  39. Tony @ 38:
    I’m speaking of the genesis of those forces – at some point, they must either have been created, or they must always have existed.

    Well, no. For the first part of your either/or, you’re assuming a Creator, or at least a First Cause. It’s not clear that a cause is necessary in order for the universe-as-we-know-it to have had a beginning.

  40. My favorite quote on tolerance and religion comes from the novel The Dixie Association by Donald Hays: I don’t mind when they use religion as a crutch, but when they use it as a club, I have to object.

  41. I would probably describe myself as an agnostic deist skeptic. I think there’s probably no god or gods, and if there is then he/she/it/they probably set the universe in motion and then went off to do something else more interesting. There’s no way of telling from observation which of those is correct, nor would it make any difference.

  42. I’m technically agnostic because I can’t prove that God doesn’t exist. However, “God doesn’t exist” is the limit to the equation of religion for me. I can never quite prove that he DOESN’T exist, but the result is so close to it that I just go with “I don’t believe in God.” 3.97789894488779941812179 isn’t 4, but it might as well be.

    I have numerous friends and family who are religious, including some Young Earth Creationists. For the most part, they don’t proselytize, and I don’t bash their religion. The fact of the matter is that I don’t hang out with jerks or assholes, so if I know someone who’s the asshole kind of Christian (or whatever), I do not hang out with that person unless I have no choice (like at a family event). I’m not an asshole, so generally speaking, kind people who are religious have no problems hanging out with me. I’m happy that they’ve found something that fulfills them and makes them happy, and they understand that my lack of religion doesn’t make me a depraved hedonist, and we leave it at that. Life is too short to put up with assholes, regardless of what excuse they use to be an asshole.

  43. Richard @ 43:

    I’m not sure a majority of people — at least in the US — understand or care that there’s a distinction between atheism and agnosticism.

  44. @robert #45:
    Do you recognize that your favorite quote is pretty offensive, and not at all in the spirit of parallel existence our host is talking about? It’s condescending and judgmental.

  45. yes, I hate it as well when people care about something (animal rights, environment, human rights, etc, etc) and try to force their care about it upon me and expect me to support their cause as well. Very annoying and tiring as well….

  46. Tony@38:
    But assuming a Creator doesn’t really solve anything; it just pushes the question back a notch to ask where did the Creator come from? Occam’s Razor would seem to imply that adding a Creator is indeed multiplying entities unnecessarily, since it adds nothing useful to what else we know.

  47. As one who was raised in a fairly conservative Christian church by parents who weren’t overly religious on a daily basis, who quit attending in high school and then went in whole hog back into a much more “intensive” version of the same chuch in college only to drop out again some years later because, as indicated in John’s posting that most of the leadership wasn’t nearly practicing what they were supposedly preaching, I’ve decided that I really prefer the National Lampoon’s “Deteriorata” with a fake Lorne Greene narrating that we should “Know what to kiss–and when” and “make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be: hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin.”

  48. “The fall down here is not the concept of religion, but the practice of it, in which many people seem to believe that it’s not enough that they have to live as their god tells them to, but I do too, and so does everyone else. ”

    The same could be said for politics. I unfortunately find most left-wingers annoying because, if they get power, by the very nature of The State, they can force their ways upon me. Having all the guns makes them worse than merely “annoying”.

  49. “I love Christianity, and wish more Christians practiced it”

    There’s a bit of a logical problem with this statement. One of the core doctrines of Christianity is that its adherents aren’t actually capable of practicing it properly. If they were capable then there wouldn’t be much point to Christianity in the first place.

    The problem lies with the assumption, inherent in the statement, that it is possible to live up to the standards set. Since a core doctrine is that it is impossible then the first part of the statement must be false, because the second part assumes something about Christianity that is not true.

  50. @Kevin #50:
    Problems in tone-via-text. Exasperated is more the emotion, rather than offense. It ought be no surprise that saying “religion is just a crutch” would offend a believer, though. Don’t you think that’s a reasonable thing to be annoyed by in a thread discussing tolerance between believers and non-believers?

    @David #52:
    Uncaused First Causes and “The universe has always existed in some form” are both ideas that cannot be falsified, and that’s the entirety of my point. the question of whether the existence of a deity adds something useful to the body of human knowledge is an entirely separate question, and I’m not even sure the metric is worth considering as a hurdle an idea must clear to be a legitimate one.

  51. Marcus @ 55:

    As they say, that’s why it’s called “practice”. It’s not that anyone expects perfection, it’s that they expect an ongoing effort. To the extent that someone calls attention to themselves for their beliefs, it’s hardly surprising that to some extent they might be judged by their behavior re those beliefs.

  52. Bearpwaw @ 57:

    Absolutely, we are responsible for our actions, but there is a huge leap that must be taken from judging individuals to judging a whole worldview, especially when that worldview specifically states that all people are deserving of judgement.

  53. No matter what you believe (or not believe in), beware that as you go through life, the lives you touch will touch others, and those, others, thus one could can do a lot of good or a lot of evil without intending to. Choose wisely.

  54. At the risk of getting malleted, I’m voicing my opinion on this topic.

    From my experience, most self-proclaimed atheists are just as bad as self-proclaimed (pick yer religious affiliation)s. The only difference is what they claim to believe. Their behavior towards their fellow human beings has the same end result.

    Atheists have been, and continue to enforce their beliefs on others. They have forced schools not to teach creationism, not to allow prayer.

    Religious monuments that have great historical significance have been forcibly removed from public sites.

    I’m sorry you feel threatened by vocal religious people, but vocal ahteist people are *exactly* the same from my point of view.

  55. HarleyPig:

    “Atheists have been, and continue to enforce their beliefs on others. They have forced schools not to teach creationism, not to allow prayer.”

    Atheists believe in the Constitution of the United States and the separation of church and state? Wow! Just like, as it happens, a number of Christians. And it should be noted, of course, that one of the most important rulings regarding religious freedom in the classroom was filed and won by Christians.

    HarleyPig, I’m not going to mallet you, but I am going to say your particular brand of outrage isn’t going to get much traction here.

  56. Hmmm … should have reworded that last paragraph better … I’m not quite sure how to rephrase it though.

    Both vocal religous and atheists are *exactly* the same from my point of view.

    Let’s just pretend I didn’t type out the ‘I’m sorry you feel threatened’ part.

  57. Heh. As it happens I don’t feel threatened by vocal religious people. Being vocal about one’s beliefs is fine. Attempting to impose them on me or others is another matter entirely.

  58. I call myself an atheist rather than an agnostic (which from a formal point of view is probably the correct term) because I really can’t imagine any evidence that would convince me that there is a god, and the stronger term forestalls unnecessary quibbling.

    You might be amused by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s novel 36 Arguments for the Existence of God (the appendix alone is worth the price of the book).

  59. HarleyPig: “Atheists have been, and continue to enforce their beliefs on others. They have forced schools not to teach creationism, not to allow prayer.”

    Which prayer? Which creationism myth? It’s all turtles, you know.

  60. John – another quibble that only minimally changes your post:
    typically speaking not strictly required by the person whom the religion purports to represent

    I’d suggest you reread the first two commandments (well, maybe more it depends on which of the dozen or so versions contained in Genesis and Deuteronomy you choose to believe is the definitive list ‘o 10). Those first couple are pretty clear that everyone has to believe in the one, true, hairy thunderer.

    And, despite His kid suggesting you keep your prayers to yourself in Matthew 6:6 there are various demands to go out and convert others. Its a feature of vague morality tales from 3000 year old sheep herder oral history that they can be read so as to approve, or actually demand, just about any set of behaviors you want them to.

  61. TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN.

    Incidentally, anyone may pray at school. It just can’t be imposed upon one by the school. Small but, yes, fundamental difference.

    That said, and I’m reining myself in here, let’s cap off the “prayer in school” aspect of this conversation right here.

  62. My only antagonism towards religious people (and it’s just a very small subset of them) is the insistence that my beliefs conform to their dogmas and that my failure to do so means that I’m a bad person and should be considered a second class citizen, and watched closely around the silverware. The willingness of said religious minority to be such strident assholes really gets to me, especially since many of them don’t even practice what they preach and they have significant influence on the levers of power here in the US. But really, most of these dogmatic twits have a whole raft of bigoted behavior they’re trying to justify, so it’s more that I don’t like bigots, and I especially dislike religious justifications for bigotry.

  63. “But then there are those who do walk the walk the precepts of their religion require (or at least try really hard) — the deep principles, not the social cruft that has accumulated around them”

    That’s where I have a problem : it seems everyone has a different idea as to what those deep principles might be. I can’t really identify much beyond the Golden Rule (which has been stated in various forms before most of the major religions existed) other than supernatural and social cruft. The spectrum of Christian belief from bibilical literalism to the functional-atheism of many theologians encompasses such a diversity of belief I find it both amusing and frightening when all try to find common cause at anything more sophisticated than enjoying a Christmas carol.

  64. Harley Pig – schools have not forbidden kids from praying. Here is a simple experiment HP – I am now going to pray to the Flying Spaghetti Monster, you try to forbid me or stop me from it. . . . well come on now, pretend you are an evil atheist school teacher and stop me from praying DO IT NOW!

    Sorry, you failed I did it. That is a hell of a lot different than if I was the teacher and demanded YOU pray to the mighty FSM. Something tells me you’d be against prayer in school if I did.

  65. @61:
    Atheists have been, and continue to enforce their beliefs on othersdefend religious freedom for persons of all faiths, Christian and non-Christian alike. They have forced public, tax-funded schools not to teach creationism as if it were science, not to allow require prayer at official school gatherings.

    FIFY.

  66. as always, thank you john.
    your comments and the article itself have provided amazing amounts of things to think about.

    as I have aged, I have found myself, a firm atheist, living the life of christian, following the teachings of christ, which have nothing to do with religion.

    they are a moral code. help others. dont be a dick.

    it is truly tragic that so many Christians follow nothing of the teachings of Christ.

    I recently had a homeless friend stay with me for half a year. the number of Christian friends who asked “why would I do that?” astounded me. because it was the right thing to do.

    for all the Christians out there in the audience: how many adopted children do you have in your house? how many homeless friends? how many cars? how many tvs?

    John, thanks again for the neverending stream of words.

  67. let’s cap off the “prayer in school” aspect of this conversation right here.

    –>Apologies, John. The need to double-check all the tagging meant my reply delayed 10 messages.

  68. Atheists have been, and continue to enforce their beliefs on others. They have forced schools not to teach creationism, not to allow prayer.

    Oh, right, that pesky “wall of separation between church and state”. So oppressive.

    Schools are state institutions, and have no business teaching religious concepts. Not Christian religious concepts, Muslim, Hindu, Pastafarian, or any other religious concepts.

    If you want your kids taught creationism – a religious concept – send ‘em to a religious school. If you want religious monuments, erect them on the grounds of churches – they don’t belong at the courthouse or the state funded school.

    As far as prayer, there is nothing preventing anyone from praying QUIETLY in school. The law only forbids leading public prayer and expecting the student body to participate. Group prayer belongs in church. Individual prayer can and does happen anywhere.

    If your faith is so weak that you have to insist that it be paraded about and held up for all to see, and you have to demand that everyone else play along, why bother having that faith? Seems more like playacting to me.

  69. In a speech to the California Democratic Party convention in 2003, Howard Dean said, “I don’t want to listen to fundamentalist preachers anymore!!” I’m with him and not just because I’m a Jew. I was born here but I’m tired of living in a country where politicians (at least at the presidential-candidate level) must say they are pious, no matter what their true beliefs – and I suspect that they would not have to behave in this way if not for that part of the population that feels it must hear an unreluctant profession of faith. “I don’t wear my religion on my sleeve,” said John Kerry (while asserting that his faith guided him nonetheless) in his 2004 presidential nomination acceptance speech; given the closeness of that election, might he have been president today if he hadn’t said that?

  70. I swing back and forth between atheism and agnosticism and, for the most part, I have no problem with the concept and practice of religion. My problems spring up whenever religion tries to foist itself into politics or whenever a religious tenet causes obvious pain, bigotry or sexism. Sometimes this bigotry is aimed at the religion’s own practitioners, such as the extreme sexism of FLDS polygyny where it becomes evident that females born into many sects of that religion are kept completely apart from American culture so that they don’t learn that they’re being treated unfairly until they’ve been thoroughly indoctrinated into the cult. Sometimes this bigotry is aimed at outsiders, such as some sects of Christianity that have aimed their sites at gay people and have tried to keep them in second class citizen status forever.

    For the most part, however, I think people ought to b able to believe what they want to believe as long as they extend that same courtesy to people who don’t believe the same thing.

    However, if I never hear the phrase “War on Christmas” again it will be way too soon.

  71. Hmm….

    petec: “they are a moral code. help others. dont be a dick.”

    Jesus had a beard. You know who else has a beard?

    Wheaton.

    Ever seen him and Jesus in the same place?

  72. AHHH “Belief”. i “believe” that the universe operates according to “laws”, not all of which have revealed themselves yet and that the preponderance of evidence gathered so far mitigates against a ‘meta realm’ in which such things as god creators, elves and even the fabled spaghetti monster exist.

    If that “belief” is viewed as being on a par with “belief” of the accept-without-question-and-in-the-absence-of-any-and-all-evidence, then so be it, but they are really two completely different animals. On the basis of that difference, I describe myself as an atheist as opposed to agnostic. The chance that I’m “wrong” is so vanishingly tiny as to constitute meaninglessness. Similar to the chance that a fully-ripened tomato plant will spontaneously spring forth from John’s forehead. There is a possibility that it could happen, but one that is so small that it can be discounted entirely.

    My base problem/issue in tolerating religion of any kind (whether the leave me alone OR the recruit me variety) is that religion places nonsensical belief systems on a par with every day reason based on logic (and no, I’m not saying the real world operates on logic alone): Tolerating and making a place for such in our societies encourages the inclusion of other, potentially damaging, nonsensical belief systems and impinges daily on the human races business of getting on and maturing. Scratch many home schoolers, or anti-immunization people and at the core you’ll find a belief system that got its start in some religious upbringing.

    Further, I don’t believe it is possible to have a “religion” that won’t eventually seek to make itself more comfortable within the society in which it exists, which means that we inevitable have to deal with trying to reconcile its (nonsensical) beliefs in some accommodating manner, which gets that whole cycle thing started all over again.

  73. @maggie – “Schools are state institutions, and have no business teaching religious concepts. Not Christian religious concepts, Muslim, Hindu, Pastafarian, or any other religious concepts.”

    of course the schools should be teaching the religious concepts. they are very much part of the world we live in. understanding the beliefs of muslims, jews, hindi, xians, scientologists are required to have informed thoughts about them.

    it is our knowledge of islam that lets us state that suicide bombers are nuts and wrong, even measured by their own religion. that most xians dont acutally follow the teachings of christ (see leviticans …)

    so yes, comparative religion courses have a place in our public schools.

  74. And it should be noted, of course, that one of the most important rulings regarding religious freedom in the classroom was filed and won by Christians.

    John, thank you for pointing out Barnette.

    My son has declined to say the Pledge since fourth grade, and I have supported him in this. In the last few years, we’ve had administrators throwing tantrums about it, demanding a detailed explanation as to why he declines to say it, threatening him with suspension, and all manner of dumbshit More Patriotic Than Thou nonsense.

    I have to keep pointing them to Barnette AND the state law here in Ohio that prohibits them from asking him why he declines and prohibits them from trying to intimidate him into playing along. So frustrating!

  75. David @39:
    Sure, but what if the scientific method is wrong?

    It’s not though, and we know this because we’ve used the scientific method to prove numerous other things about our world/universe that have stood the test of time and been verified by further tests and observation. A tool that works that often cannot, by definition, be wrong. Just because sometimes you don’t hit the nail on the head the first time doesn’t mean the hammer doesn’t work.

  76. Well, I’m glad I’m not drunk. This constant discussion of religion throughout the world drives me crazy. I loved your post, because I am agnostic as well, and never preach to people about my beliefs. It sickens me that our society can be so judgmental and prejudice because of a book, or the characters of said book. Basically an idea. The world would be a much better place if the ‘afterlife’ wasn’t a secret.

  77. petec @82 – Let me rephrase. State institutions have no business teaching religious concepts as The One True Way.

    The people who complain about prayer not being allowed in school aren’t complaining about the lack of comp rel classes, they’re complaining that their brand of religion isn’t being taught as True Fact.

  78. It’s not though, and we know this because we’ve used the scientific method to prove numerous other things about our world/universe that have stood the test of time and been verified by further tests and observation

    So, the scientific method has been verified by using the scientific method? No problem there, then.

  79. My apologies, John. I missed that in the fast moving stream here. Won’t happen again!

  80. I’m pretty sure that science is all about going with the reasonable theory that makes sense given current data, with willingness to re-evaluate as additional evidence arises.

    Evidence for physics and chemistry leading to the current state of things: excellent, back to a certain point.

    Evidence for a conscious entity existing in any way: zero.

    If we want to get into some definitional debate over whether “god” might actually be a grand universal energy, that’s fine, but if we ever find it, it’ll still be part of natural Physics.

    Science describes. With the basis of past experience, science predicts, but allows that there are things unknown that might come into play. The most interesting science happens when the predicted outcomes fail to happen. That’s when everyone says, “Quick, quick, make sure it’s not just a mathematical error, dirt on the lens, or noise on the line.” Because what all scientists want to find is the place where our current knowledge isn’t adequate, so they can make an actual discovery of something new.

  81. Bearpaw @18: There’s also very much a dynamic in the US that religion = Christianity, such that people use those terms interchangeably, either out of ignorance, or religious bigotry (in the case of some religious folks) or because it’s uncomfortable to admit that maybe one’s view of ‘religion’ is a little provincial (in the case of some non-religious folks). It’s pretty astonishing to be told that one’s religion is not really a religion because it doesn’t require belief in the literal existence of a central deity – something I’ve heard many times, and something I understand a prominent atheist speaker has claimed about Buddhism.

  82. Myself@90: should be “…conscious god-like entity…” of course.

    Keith @84: Just because sometimes you don’t hit the nail on the head the first time doesn’t mean the hammer doesn’t work.

    –>Best metaphor I’ve ever read. Kudos.

  83. Maggie @ 83:

    You know, I suspect if you mentioned to most people in the US that public schools in [insert non-US country here] pushed daily loyalty oaths on its students, that would bother a lot of them. (Especially if you said that the oath included a clause stating that the country was under, say, Allah.)

    But I’m sure that It’s Not The Same Thing.

  84. everyone is mostly atheist, except for the one religion they believe in.

    most complaints against atheist and agnostics apply equally well to any religious person’s relationship to any religion not their own. But most religious people complaining about atheists and agnostics seem to have some sort of filter to prevent their complaint from applying to them.

    Why don’t you believe in God, asks the christian.
    Why don’t you believe in the Mesopatamian Gods? replies the agnostic.

    when I think about *how* I lost my religion, and how most people lose their religion, it generally seems to center around a profound phase of introspection where the person is willing to question *everything* about their identity. who am I? what do I know? where do my beliefs come from?

    I grew up religious and got along swell without any introspection. It seems to be true for any belief: you can grow up in any belief system just fine as long as you dont start to question it or yourself.

  85. If you don’t believe a religion is real, how do you conclude that certain aspects of a religion are “the deep principles” and other aspects are “the social cruft that has accumulated around them”?

    This bugs me a bit. You’re not only accepting a form of religious essentialism, you’re accepting a form of religious essentialism that’s been invented as a way to reconcile ancient and repulsive religious practices with modern times and ethics.

  86. mythago:

    And to a lesser extent that religion = the Abrahamic faiths. One certainly got that impression during the Bush II years when certain people were trying to be more inclusive than they normally were.

  87. I know this is a tad off topic, John, so apologies: Maggie, you don’t need to negotiate with these people. Just contact your local ACLU office. I’m sure they have some summer law clerk who could use the exercise.

  88. John, I’m *not* trying to correct you, but I feel a bit of a need to throw this out there:

    The dictionary definition of an agnostic is someone who refuses to take a position with regard to the supernatural, simply discounting it as unknowable rather than rejecting it outright.

    The dictionary definition of an atheist is someone who just fails to believe in gods, or sometimes someone who firmly believes in their nonexistence.

    I think it aids communication if we all agree what we’re talking about.

    So rather than a correction, I have a question. Your stated presumption of the non-existence of gods would seem to firmly disqualify you as an agnostic and classify you as an atheist by the standard definitions. So my question is, what am I missing?

    I assume you’re not ignorant of the standard definitions, so have you chosen to reject them (if so, why do you feel that’s justified?) Or did I somehow misunderstand your position?

    What I think I’m getting is that you’re a scientific skeptic, but not an antitheist and that you feel “agnostic” best describes that position…for some reason. Is that correct?

  89. Patrick: no doubt it’s the difference between what the religion’s founder said and did, and what are later traditions without real support from the founder or the holy books. What Jesus said should have more weight than that usurper Paul or what the Council of Nicaea said.

    Bearpaw: isn’t that interesting? In North Korea one must frequently pledge undying loyalty to the Dear Leader.

  90. “People are callous when they belief themselves to be just and right, the religion/political leaning/scientific research is just window dressing. It’s feeling of being having to be right that’s the trouble.”

    I have to disagree with you there. Speaking from personal experience as someone who was raised fundamentalist in an overwhelmingly fundamentalist community, I used to, as a child, be prejudiced against gays, think women should be subservient to men and that non-Christians would burn in hell. When I questioned and, after long thought and study, abandoned those beliefs, I quickly lost those prejudices.

    The prejudice of the more good willed fundamentalists is directly a product of their belief in an infallible Bible. They aren’t, for the most part, using religion as an excuse for cruelty.

  91. Let’s observe the dissonance between John’s comment in the OP and the chorus of blanket pronouncements that religion is wrong / bad / dangerous in the comments.

    Hmmph.

  92. Mythago, I don’t negotiate with them. I explain to them that they need to knock it off, and that right now, and bone up on the law a bit. Things go along for a year or so until some other teacher gets a hair up his ass about it, and me stomping into school with a printout of Barnette and ORC 3313.602 commences again.

    This past year, it was the principal who picked the fight and insisted that we “agree to disagree”. The look on his face when I offered to have my boss – an attorney – explain things to him was pretty priceless. I suspect the next 3 years will be hassle free, then kiddo graduates!

    Greg @ 94:

    when I think about *how* I lost my religion, and how most people lose their religion, it generally seems to center around a profound phase of introspection where the person is willing to question *everything* about their identity. who am I? what do I know? where do my beliefs come from?

    I remember when I broke with the church pretty vividly. Realizing that I did not believe the words I was saying in church, realizing that I never had believed the words and had only been repeating them because it was expected of me…well, it was startling. I thought I would feel bad about not believing, but I didn’t. What I felt bad about was going through the motions for all of those years, it made me feel like I had been disrespectful of the people who really did believe.

  93. JediBear:

    One, dictionary definitions are best thought of as compact starting points for understanding a concept, not definitive ending points.

    Two, recognizing that one does not have enough information on a subject to make a definitive statement one way or another doesn’t mean one isn’t allowed to have an opinion on what one believes is likely.

  94. Mythago @ 91:

    True, although I’ve also noticed that some folks will get all big-tent about it and graciously include Jews, at least nominally. (E.g. “Judeo-Christian”)

  95. Maggie @ 102: I respect “agree to disagree” when it’s used honestly, but common usage seems to be morphing into “I want the last word in an argument that I seem to be losing on the facts, so STFU now”.

  96. @David in #100

    Hm, maybe I expressed myself oddly, but what I meant is the following:

    You started losing the prejeduces after you started questioning the belief that your worldview was just and right. It was you being invested in worldview X that allowed you to be that prejeduced. World view X in your case was “gays burn in hell”.

    But it could also had been “Capitalist swines will what they deserve” or “Black people are inferior compared to white ones.”

    That’s what I meant with the particular religion just being a soundbite, a window dressing. It always boils down to the pattern of “It’s good to hate/look down on group X, because our group Y is better as it should be.”. That pattern also would happen if you’d completly remove religious differences from the world – if a sudden miracle would convert all people to the same brand of christianity with the same interpretation of it; people eventually would start grouping and hating each other based on things like age, nationality, if they live country or city or even haircolour.

    This elevating your own group of people by (sometimes violently) tearing down the Others, that’s unfortionally part of human nature. Well, basic nature of any social animal. Even apes, monkey, dolphins and wolves will attack others of their species that do not belong to their groups, it increases group cohesion.

    So for me the whole “gays burn in hell” thing is less an issue of religion, but an issue of people falling prey to their darker base instincts. Just because something is natural doesn’t mean it’s good, after all nobody likes the all natural polio virus. Okay, nobody but maybe the scientists studying them.

    Which is kinda funny/sad/ironic, because some of decent people I know use their religion(s) to keep their darker instincts in check as opposed to feeding them.

  97. Maggie, yes I had principal Try and stop a meet you at the pole prayer event that occurred before school hours but when campus open and no involvement by faculty. A lawyer standing in the back participating provided her his business card and offered to explain her to her. She walked away and it continued uneventful for the remaining years my kids where there. Law goes both ways

  98. RE my last comment: “better as it should be” as it “our groups is better – and THAT’S the good, just, right order of things”.

    (WTB Edit button.) XD

  99. MotLy @ 108:

    The law indeed goes both ways, and I appreciate that the ACLU happily wields its Mallet of Emphatic Correction in both directions.

  100. I’m not going to call you an atheist (promise!) but I’m wondering what you consider to be the distinction between atheist and agnostic (or is this an area where you don’t really care too much and call yourself an agnostic because it’s easier to spell or it’s just close enough damnit and coming up with the perfect label really isn’t worth the hassle)?

  101. Over 100 comments in about four hours nicely demonstrates our inclination to try to change peoples core beliefs.

  102. Rembrant @ 112:

    Except that very few of those comments involved anyone trying to change anyone else’s core beliefs. So I’m not sure where you were going with that.

  103. Biggest problem I have with religion per se is that it tends to be humanist done badly. I suppose this is what John alludes to by his cruft comment in the OP. Human group dynamics suggest many ways to enforce your will/engage the team. Many (all?) religions seems to have this stuff in spades, but are all (from my very limited perspective) broken. As was stated upthread – the editing that has gone on to morph old-school goat-herder precepts into “love thy neighbor” is immense (and continues).

    Having said that – I am strongly atheist (no evidence and so unlikely as to be dismissed) but tolerant of religion/the religious so long as their practice does not impinge negatively upon my non-practice.

  104. MotLy @ 108:

    Law goes both ways.

    As well it should! It’s a pity that more school administrators don’t take the five minutes necessary to read what the laws say so they don’t make such regular asses of themselves and annoy the likes of you and me.

  105. I wonder if physics could ever describe God. It seems a strange theory to me to think that all the unknowns will be known someday and the questions will be answered, but that answer won’t be God. If I understand the premise correctly, it is that I am waiting for science to explain that which hasn’t been explained yet and I don’t know what the answer is, but I do know what it isn’t. It will be something scientific, but not God, definately not God. How do you know?

    I’ve been interested somewhat in Planck’s constant but moreso in string theory as an explanation for creation, but neither theory seems to be any more or any less persuasive than God, and its so hard to address the interlocking nature of everthing without it. John mentions the god of the gaps theory as incorrect but I don’t think that’s really a bad way to go. Assuming someday that all the gaps will be filled with science and there will be no gaps to ever be filled with another explanation (like God) assumes more that I am willing to.

    Also, I’d like to say something about faith. In a general sense, if those who were distrustful of religion could think about their own versions of faith, they might find more in common with those who are religous. Faith that the basketball will sink through the net at the buzzer even though there is no chance of it going in, faith that I will be rescued when lost at sea when I can’t see anybody nearby, faith that there is something beyond the horizon even though I can only see that the world is flat. Faith causes people to try. Faith causes people not to give up. Faith in many ways is the opposite of dispair. That’s not bad, is it?

    The thing that troubles me is the lack of religious intellectuals. Christian Apologetics used to be respected, but no longer it seems–and I blame Christian’s for that to some extent. There is too much argument about things that are supposedly in the Bible, that I can’t find in there. (There’s nothing about hating gays, for example, but its been brought up more than once here and it seems to be something that people beleive is a tenet of Christianity–that’s crazy–and I’ve read leviticus–notabley in the old testiment– and it discusses animal cleaning rituals and shaving of beards–how can that not be viewed in context?). What I did find are themes of sacrifice, love, helping your neighbor, finding a purpose, being your brother’s/sister’s keeper. That’s all good stuff, right?

    Also, in terms of society/sociology–many of the things that American liberals consider important (not just helping the poor) but also the thought that no person is worth more than any other person, and themes of love each other and doing good deeds without fanfare–those come primarily from one place. Those thoughts were not prevelent in the Roman Empire.

    Frankly, I think the modern American liberal Democrat has much more in common with the teachings of Jesus than the modern American conservative Republican.

    There has been a lot already about the faults of the religious. I won’t say more other than I agree that the so called faithful are oftentimes their own worst enemy.

  106. “Atheists have been, and continue to enforce their beliefs on others. ”

    Oh absolutely. Did you know the start of the era we call “Modern History” is defined by the end of a particular religious belief? Specifically, Modern History marks the end of the universal religious belief know as “The Divine Right of Kings”.

    The 5,000 or so years of history before that point, religion didnt have to worry about atheists and agnostics pushing their views on other people. In fact, if you want to go back to the glory days of religion being free from atheist persecution, one only has to go back ever so slightly to find a time in Western culture where killing someone for being an aetheist was highly encouraged.

    Luckily, there are some places still on this planet where religious people can live free from the persecutions of aetheists, where monarchy is still the government of choice (choice of the monarch of course), where being a non believer is still a crime punishable by death, and so on…..

    ah the good ol days….

  107. Something I’ve been gnawing on for a while for a book is the notion of death for an atheist. I’m convinced at this point that the best thing militant atheists could focus on would be finding comforting words about death from the atheist point of view – the notion, perhaps, that some small part of us (relatively greater when the person is part of a lifelong pair bond and/or has developed close friendships and/or parented a child from an early age) survives into the future in a meaningful way as part of the personality of other people. I think without some form of death-is-ok narrative to tell it’s always going to be hard to get people of faith to see how atheism really makes sense.

  108. One man’s theology is another man’s belly laugh.

    History does not record anywhere at any time a religion that has any rational basis. Religion is a crutch for people not strong enough to stand up to the unknown without help. But, like dandruff, most people do have a religion and spend time and money on it and seem to derive considerable pleasure from fiddling with it.

    The shamans are forever yacking about their snake-oil “miracles.” I prefer the real McCoy –a pregnant woman.

    — Lazarus Long

  109. Well written. I’ve linked to it in an atheistic forum I frequent because I think it’s relevant there.

  110. David A. W.:

    Before anyone starts quoting R.A.H., I’ll just observe that I don’t really have any problems with the disdain of a man who also wrote “9 times out of 10 when a woman gets raped it’s partly her own fault.” Fuck you, Bobby.

  111. Mike@116: Science says it doesn’t really matter what the answer is, just that something is observable, and that observation is repeatable. That is, if the answer is “God,” then it needs to be measurable and demonstrable. Of course the problem there is that one needs a definition of “God,” something the experts in the subject (i.e. religions) have been unable to agree upon.

    I suspect most scientists don’t expect to ever find the absolute answer. Says one: “Our universe sprang into being when two branes collided.” Says another: “Yeah, okay, string theory is neat and all, but where did the strings come from?”

    Turtles all the way down, even in science. The business of science is looking for the next turtle.

    Regarding faith (your 3rd paragraph): Yes, even atheists have funny little irrational beliefs, and often quite enjoy them. All this really means is that, like everyone else, atheists have amygdalae.

    Neuroscience is fascinating, because it really takes the religion impulse apart. That thing that people feel with religion is a generalized human trait that appears in many, many non-religious contexts. (Sports is the obvious activity that stimulates the same neurons in the same way.) That these feelings inspire the opposite of despair is indeed a good thing, and it has obvious evolutionary advantages.

    Creatures that have hope and belief that things can get better generally do not roll over and die before they have a chance to reproduce and pass on that neural tendency to the next generation. They also tend to try to leave the world a better place than it was when they arrived, because they expect the world to go on and people they like to still be in it when they’re gone.

    This is what leads to me, personally, being really annoyed by religion (most particularly the bad, abusive ones, but the generally good sort aren’t outside the view of my hairy eyeball). Humans are naturally enthusiastic about neat-o things, want to share those neat-o things with other humans, and look for more neat-o things to bring them happiness and make them want to go on living and enjoying and sharing more happiness.

    Then religion comes along and shanghais this tendency, by focusing it on an imaginary thing. Instead of being happy about the real and demonstrable activities one has going on all around them, religion encourages people to subsume their attention to the activities of something that cannot demonstrate any benefit except stimulating neurons that are easily stimulated without the trappings of religion.

    It’s all the same drug. Religion’s just a really, really efficient one.

  112. MGB–

    I would read that book. That kind of thing fascinates me. I picture a lot of dialogue. A long relationship between the characters. That would be really good. The human component fleshing out the theories. I also like the perspective. How does an athiest comfort his or her religious freind on his deathbed? That is high drama and mystery. I love it.

    You are right about comfort in life after death. That’s definately an attractive thought for some people (not everybody of course). Saw an interesting HBO movie called the Sunset Limited based on a play by Cormac McCarthy about life and death and athiests and believers. I thought it was fantastic. It doesn’t take a side, by the way.

    As amusing as that Heinlein/Lazarus Long quote is–I wouldn’t share it at a child’s death bed. That would seem to me to be exceedingly cruel. If there is no life after death–how do we tell that to dying children? There is no hope–life is cruel–science is all there is and here come the worms? Ouch. I can definately see the need to leave open the possibilty of hope that loved ones can be reunited in the next life. I’ve had too many tragedies in my life to completely shut the door on that hope. I know that many believe that religion is a crutch. I guess so. Something to hold you up. I saw a bumper sticker in Cincinnati the other day that said religion is a disability. That’s a little harsh maybe.

    Maybe religion is just a crutch for those who can’t face the fact that death is coming for all of us, but in terms of helping each other through this mysterious life, is it really worthwhile to cynically destroy a person’s hope? To kick away their crutch and say, I can walk without it, you should too. Makes me doubt that person’s motivation. Seems almost as mean as telling somebody they are going to hell.

  113. E–

    Great points and great thoughts. There is a lot beautiful about this world that people should just appreciate more. Should be a little more sharing of the neat-o.

  114. Bearpaw @104: that’s less ‘big tent’ and more appropriation: “See, your minority, obsolete religion and mine are simpatico!” I mean, Islam succeeded and built upon Judaism and Christianity, but nobody talks about the shared value of giving charity to the poor as “Judeo-Christo-Islamic”.

    David A.W. @119: There’s nothing rational about selecting a belief system on the basis of “do I appear to be emotionally stronger this way?”

  115. You started losing the prejeduces after you started questioning the belief that your worldview was just and right. It was you being invested in worldview X that allowed you to be that prejeduced. World view X in your case was “gays burn in hell”. But it could also had been “Capitalist swines will what they deserve” or “Black people are inferior compared to white ones.” That’s what I meant with the particular religion just being a soundbite, a window dressing. It always boils down to the pattern of “It’s good to hate/look down on group X, because our group Y is better as it should be.”.

    My point is that this is precisely where you misunderstand many fundamentalists. They don’t typically hold their archaic, unprogressive values and attitudes because they want to feel superior to an outgroup. They hold these views as a product of having been inculcated with the view that the Bible is infallible. Many of them undergo a painful inner struggle over the conflict between their belief in the Bible and their sense of compassion and basic fairness.

    That pattern also would happen if you’d completly remove religious differences from the world – if a sudden miracle would convert all people to the same brand of christianity with the same interpretation of it; people eventually would start grouping and hating each other based on things like age, nationality, if they live country or city or even haircolour.

    Of course people have other sources of intolerance than religion. My point, though, is that in a society strongly influenced by the progressive attitudes that have steadily grown since the Enlightenment, conservative religion tends to be an obstacle to overcoming certain forms of prejudice and intolerance and, in nearly every case among the hundreds of ex-christians I’ve talked to over the years, those prejudices are lost very quickly after deconversion. So I don’t agree that it’s just human nature to look for excuses to hate and social groups find excuses for it no matter what. There is a strong social drive in this society (and many others) toward tolerance and inclusiveness that should be acknowledged and for which we can be rightly proud.

    So for me the whole “gays burn in hell” thing is less an issue of religion, but an issue of people falling prey to their darker base instincts.

    Then why is it that nearly every deconvert I’ve ever spoken with quickly lost their homophobia after deconversion? Why is that the atheist/agnostic community so overwhelmingly embraces gay rights? Doesn’t this suggest that the religious belief in the infallibility of scripture really IS the source of homophobia? If what you are saying was true then it would be hard to account for why ex-Christians agnostics/atheists are so overwhelmingly pro-gay rights.

    I’m not trying to say religion is all bad but we also shouldn’t let it off the hook so easily. It really is the direct source of a lot of harm and intolerance.

  116. Mike@124: How does an athiest comfort his or her religious freind on his deathbed?

    –>Well, when my 95-year-old grandmother, a three-days-a-week churchgoing Irish Catholic asked me one evening, “Do you think when we die, we go to heaven?” I said, “Of course, Grandma. You’ll see Papa again, and [her daughter who died at age 26], too.”

    I’m an atheist and sometimes an asshole, but not a raving asshole.

  117. Excellent post, John.

    “walking the path they claim to be on” sums up my struggle very nicely, sometimes I can’t even see the path, or walk on the grass willfully. Until I and other Christians can do so, as an example of what we profess to believe, I imagine things won’t change much in regards to what we might try to convince others of.

    I can honestly say that there has never been a time I didn’t believe in God, the Judeo-Christian one if you want specifics, and I while I can understand agnosticism somewhat, I really can’t imagine atheism any more than I’d suppose a blind man could comprehend color.

    Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’s apologetics, by any chance?

  118. David @127: Thanks for providing a very clear example of what I was talking about earlier wrt the assumption that “fundamentalist Christianity” and “religion” are synonyms.

    That said, I suspect what you’re seeing in the “atheist/agnostic community” is a strong overlap, in the organized atheist/skeptic/agnostic community, between people who are atheists and people who are libertarian or politically iconoclastic. That’s not really the same thing as atheism = progressive values, sadly.

  119. pmgb@118: “I think without some form of death-is-ok narrative to tell it’s always going to be hard to get people of faith to see how atheism really makes sense”

    well there is aetheism and there is spirtuality and they are orthoganal. atheism says there is no god, spirituality is how you, a finite thing, relate to the infinite.

    this gets conflated in the West, but Eastern cultures seem to have less trouble separating the two. spirituality, from a purely functional and pragmatic point of view, can be thought of making peace with your own mortality.

    that has nothing to do with God. Unless you make your peace dependent on God granting you immortality if you fight for his team. but then you just conflated god and spirituality again.

    but if someone is clinging to their religion because they are afraid of death, then there is really not much a spiritual atheist can offer that is a better deal. you mean I die? Thats the end? and there is nothing after that? And I just have to accept that and feel good about it? I think I’ll stick with my paradise in the afterworld where God rewards me for being one of the right kind of people.

  120. “David @127: Thanks for providing a very clear example of what I was talking about earlier wrt the assumption that “fundamentalist Christianity” and “religion” are synonyms.”

    I did not treat fundamentalism and religion as synonyms. When I said “religion” I wasn’t referring to all religions. It should be clear from a reading of my whole comment that the source of the problem is, in my opinion, the belief that the Bible (or Koran or other scripture) is Infallible Truth. There are quite a lot of varieties of religion that hold no such view and who have had no difficultly abandoning archaic, misogynistic and homophobic attitudes.

    “That said, I suspect what you’re seeing in the “atheist/agnostic community” is a strong overlap, in the organized atheist/skeptic/agnostic community, between people who are atheists and people who are libertarian or politically iconoclastic.”

    Few of us are libertarians. Most atheists in this country though are liberal/progressive on social issues. I, for one, don’t see that as iconoclastic. It’s part of what’s best in the history of our country: the gradual growth toward tolerance and inclusiveness.

    “That’s not really the same thing as atheism = progressive values, sadly.”

    I didn’t say that atheism=progressive values. Yes, most atheists are progressives but there are, in raw numbers, far more progressive religious people. The religious, after all, outnumber us about 10 to 1 so it should be no surprise and I won’t think of claiming progressive values exclusively for atheists.

  121. David Ellis@#127:
    Then why is it that nearly every deconvert I’ve ever spoken with quickly lost their homophobia after deconversion? Why is that the atheist/agnostic community so overwhelmingly embraces gay rights?

    I’m saying this with only a light seasoning of snark, but I’d really love to live on your planet. The most noxiously homophobic, racist and misogynistic dick-bag I know is a “deconvert” (to use your charming turn of phrase); and when I was coming out, some of the most supportive, open-hearted people I know are people of faith. That doesn’t really prove anything either.

  122. “how does an atheist comfort a religious person on their deathbed?”

    Thats a mystery??? How about:

    I love you.

    You made the world a better place.

    You made a difference to other peoples lives.

    You made a difference in my life and I thank you for that.

    and so on

    Really, when it comes down to it, when faced with dying I think people arent so much afraid of death as they are of having lived a meaningless life. which brings us back to the spirituality issue and making peace with dying.

  123. @ Craig #133

    Sorry to hear that but I never claimed one could find no atheist assholes or bigots. Nor did I say that most religious people are anti-gay. The fundamentalists are overwhelmingly anti-gay but they are, thankfully, a minority position even in this country (and a far smaller minority in most of the rest of the developed world).

    Again, I’m not suggesting that all religion is an obstacle to tolerance. I’m saying that the doctrine of the infallibility of scripture is an obstacle to tolerance. More liberal denominations and religious groups are not in that category of religion. I think their supernatural beliefs are unwarranted but in most other respects I view them as allies.

  124. Greg@#134:
    “how does an atheist comfort a religious person on their deathbed?”

    Thats a mystery???

    Sadly, there are people for whom “Don’t be an ass” and “It’s not always about you” are concepts as elusive as the Higgs boson.

  125. David @132: People can only go by what you say, not what you meant to say but didn’t. Particularly when you use sloppy language and then expect others to read in context that you may or may not have obviously intended. We already have more than one comment on this thread that treats ‘fundamentalist, intolerant religion’ and ‘religion’ as either synonymous or differences of degree rather than kind.

    Most atheists in this country though are liberal/progressive on social issues.

    [citation needed]

    Like Craig, my experience has been that atheists and agnostics are, you know, people. Some of them were brought up with rigid conservative values tied to a particular religious belief, and when they reject that belief they reject the values that go with it. Some of them don’t, because now that they’re free of religious foolery they’re Rational Beings and thus all of their beliefs have a wholly logical basis, how dare you suggest otherwise? Some of them were raised with or developed the idea that they’re just better and smarter than everyone else, so you can simply substitute ‘I don’t need religion as a crutch like the weak-minded’ for ‘God loves me best’ in their worldview. Some of them adhere to atheism as part of other unsavory belief systems. Some of them are quite progressive on some issues and quite reactionary on others (see, e.g., the reactionary shitstorm over Skepchick).

  126. As a believer* I tend largely to agree with you. Believers, agnostics and atheists can all behave decently toward fellow humans and that weighs more heavily in my mind than adherence to any particular creed or dogma.

    * Actually, I, too, disbelieve in the conception of god atheists seem to have in mind when disavowing belief in god. It’s a concept with a wider range of interpretation even than ‘love’ or ‘sanity.’ But defining our terms seems only to lead to more argument.

  127. E @ 128–Hey E, sounds like your not an asshole at all. If you can be nice to your dying grandma and let her keep her faith even though you don’t share it–your my kind of athiest. Honestly, I struggle with it all, and I’m not there yet–may never be–but I think its a worthwhile path to travel. I my humble opinion trying to figure out why we are here and what we should do with our time is pretty important–regardless where you end up–athiest, humanist, religious, or just curious….

    By the way, I’m still searching this Bible I have for those anti gay messages. Somebody must’ve edited this copy. I’ll have to talk to Matthew and Mark about this. Maybe Luke knows, or John. Maybe those messages are in the Gnostic gospels. Where’s Elaine Pagels? We better ask her.

    You know, scientists at one time believed the theory of eugenics. HG Wells, Darwin, all those guys. Hitler too. Because of those few, I think maybe I should hate science. Its racist.

  128. David Ellis @ #135:
    I’m saying that the doctrine of the infallibility of scripture is an obstacle to tolerance.

    I’d go a little further and say the idea of Biblical inerrancy is going to lead you into some weird and uncomfortable places. It’s probably more than a little troll-ish, but I’ve been known to ask folks who quote Leviticus re: homosexuality to show me their kitchen. If they’re not keeping strict kosher (and they never seem to, oddly enough) they need to STFU.

    Then again, I do find evangelical atheists as downright smug, ideological and shrill as their theist soul-brothers. Really, the next time someone tells me that I’m a high-functioning psychotic they’re going to get smacked upside the head with a copy of The God Delusion.

  129. “You know, scientists at one time believed the theory of eugenics.”

    Eugenics isn’t so much a theory as the endorsement on a policy. And eugenics, as much as one may disapprove of it for a variety of good reasons, isn’t not necessarily racist.

  130. David @135, think we cross-posted.

    Again, I’m not suggesting that all religion is an obstacle to tolerance.

    Suggesting it? No, you flat-out said it, in the last paragraph of @127. I understand that you’re trying to clarify that now, but again, you’re looking at a small subset of atheism – people who were raised fundamentalist Christian and rejected that upbringing in favor of liberal secular values – as synonymous with the majority of the ‘atheist/agnostic community’. (To the extent that atheists and agnostics even see themselves as part of a shared community, even.)

    Incidentally, there’s nothing about small-F fundamentalist Christian belief that requires intolerance, hatred and oppression. More than one devout Christian has noted that Jesus didn’t have a lot to say about homosexuals, but he was pretty dang clear about forgiveness and humility.

  131. “Suggesting it? No, you flat-out said it, in the last paragraph of @127.”

    If I said ideology is a source of violence does that entail that all ideologies are a source of violence? Of course not. The very idea would be absurd. It would be to call Gandhi’s political ideology and it’s nonviolent resistance a source of violence.

    Nor, when I say that religion is a source of intolerance does this entail that I’m referring to all religions. I more than willing to admit that the sentence you’re referring to, by itself, lends itself to misinterpretation. But I still think what I said previously is more than sufficient to make it clear that such an interpretation is not what I had in mind. And that’s my last word on that topic.

    “I understand that you’re trying to clarify that now, but again, you’re looking at a small subset of atheism – people who were raised fundamentalist Christian and rejected that upbringing in favor of liberal secular values – as synonymous with the majority of the ‘atheist/agnostic community’.”

    No, I’m not. In my experience there’s little difference between the values and attitudes of either kind of atheist/agnostic. Opposition to gay rights is extremely rare among atheists in general. There really is a strong progressive tendency among atheists. I’m not really sure why you seem so adamant in opposition to this idea but it remains, none the less, true.

  132. mgb @118, and others –

    With regard to the question of “How should and/or do atheists speak to others about death,” this has come up for me from time to time. One noteworthy incident was a close to a decade ago when a rabid fundie in the office received news that his father had died, and a card was passed around for everyone to sign. It was full of brief expressions of sympathy ranging from vague to sincere, some invoking notions of a god and/or afterlife (except for one guy who simply wrote “Dude, that sucks”). When the card came to me I thought for a while about what I could possibly say that would be meaningful, and after a while I grabbed a pen, turned the card over so I could use the entire back side, and wrote the following –

    ——–

    “Dennis, I can’t speak to your beliefs; I can only tell you what I know. I know that the universe we inhabit is vast and ancient, billions of years across in time and space. In that time, countless stars have been born and died; burning only hydrogen at first but creating and adding heavier and heavier elements over subsequent generations as matter fuses in their cores, until such elements as carbon, iron, phosphorus, nitrogen, oxygen, potassium and the like exist in sufficient quantity to make organic chemistry possible. Which makes us possible. We are, all of us, born of the ashes of dead stars.”

    “One day, long after you and I are gone, our own sun, warming us since it first ignited from the aggregate of matter that also formed this world and the other planets in our system, will burn up all of its fuel and die. By that time it will have long since swollen to the point where it has swallowed our world and burnt it to ash, and the shock wave of its death will cast the ashes of our sun and this planet out into the wider universe once more. Eventually, some of those ashes – mine, yours, and your father’s – will likely find themselves condensed into another protostellar cloud, whose newborn sun will warm planets of its own. Perhaps one of those will have life someday.”

    ——–

    Dennis was someone I had locked horns with on more than one occasion previously; he tended to swing back on forth on whether it was more important to convert eeeevul atheists like me and few others at the workplace, or to convert the Muslim employees. He received the card that day and I saw him nodding thanks to some othe co-workers, but he didn’t approach me until the next day and when he did he was at uncharacteristic loss for words. What he finally managed to stammer out was that everyone else wrote something generic and perfunctory, but I had obviously put some real though into my note and said something that I really meant. He didn’t expect that, and he was genuinely appreciative of it. Dennis knew that he was the “Crazy Christian” of the office and was enjoying the free pass that evangelical sorts milked for all they could in the wake of 9-11, and he knew that no one was fooled. He knew what everyone thought of him, and admitted it. The most outspoken atheist was the one who wrote the words that moved him the most in his grief, and he was taken aback by that.

  133. David @143: “In my experience” is not a basis for “this is absolutely true and I don’t know why you disagree.” Like Craig, I disagree because in my experience, it is not true that it is ‘extremely rare’ for atheists to hold anti-gay, let alone conservative, social values. I’m not really sure why you seem so adamant that your experience a) trumps anyone else’s and b) is identical to evidence.

    Now, if what you meant to tell me is that, say, there is a negative correlation between strong religious belief and support for same-sex marriage, you’ll get no argument from me. But that’s a far cry from opposition to LGBT rights being ‘extremely rare’ – as you’ll note that same Gallup poll finds that over a quarter of people who say that religion is “not important” to them oppose same-sex marriage.

    BTW, on one point I must respectfully disagree with our host. Atheists and agnostics who wish to be assholes seem very capable of subbing in “evolutionary biology” or “genetics” or “natural law” where a fundamentalist might say “Man’s sinful nature” or “Satan’s influence” to excuse their own assholery.

  134. mythago @147

    Like Craig, I disagree because in my experience, it is not true that it is ‘extremely rare’ for atheists to hold anti-gay, let alone conservative, social values.

    I have noticed this as well, and I find it to be a head-scratcher. Though it does seem to be true that such things are at least less common among non-believers than among believers.

  135. Likewise I dislike it when people proclaim their religious affiliation and then steadfastly ignore the core teachings of it.

    This is precisely why I don’t discuss my faith too often. There have been more than enough Christians in my life that have made me think, “I don’t need Christ to do ….” (put in your own non-Christlike behavior for the ….). I suppose one of the more recent examples would be the Tea Party who supposedly endorse a Christian way of life but who have shown no compassion in politics. Who wants to be a part of a faith like that? And how do others look at those with the same faith as politicians or church members who trample over the tenets of that faith?

    One of the nice things about being an atheist or agnostic is that when you’re an asshole, you can’t blame your god for it, you just have to own it.

    We all should own it. To my knowledge, we’re not called to be asshats but to love unconditionally. God isn’t responsible for our behavior. WE are. There’s no mind control here. He’s not holding a gun to our heads. It’s just too bad that what we do has to reflect poorly on anyone except ourselves.

  136. Personally, I prefer the term “Secularist” with emphasis on this definition “1. Religious skepticism or indifference.”

  137. But that’s one of the things that’s so great about our country. We can be atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Flying Spaghetti Monster worshipers and not be bothered by the government about it.

  138. Heh… I’ll let people guess where I stand on the idea of a “god”… the big hint is in my name. The sad fact though is that I live in an area where i literally would receive some serious spite and hatred from “christians” who act no better than a herd of drunken goats at breeding time, but dismiss it as alright because they follow the Jesus. On the other hand on other boards and such I’ve been called un-American, told i needed to leave my country of birth (that I spent 9 years in the Army ready to die for!), been told I should be crucified, burned, shot, beaten… you get the picture. And why? Because I don’t believe a ‘god’ exists? Yet i have never told anyone they should be sent to an insane asylum or should not go to church becuase they do believe… hell.. one of my best friends is a total inerrant ‘Bible’ believing, 6000 year old planet christian. heh.

  139. Glad there are people here who are able to separate religion from ethics. The absence of a belief in a deity (of whatever sort) does not in itself equate to someone incapable of love, respect, kindness, etc. Just as the belief in a deity (of whatever sort) does not in itself equate to someone incapable of discrimination, hatred, and violence.

    I happen to be a religious man. I try to be the kind of religious man JS wishes for: someone who tries to live out his beliefs (the core essentials being graciousness, charity, and compassion) without forcing doctrine on others. You ask me about it, I’m happy to talk to you at length, and I’m not any more afraid to quote from the various scriptures I find valid than I am to quote from great literary works or Saturday Night Live, if it’s in the course of a conversation. There’s no intentional evangelizing going on. That is, I’m not badgering others to conform to my belief system or any particular belief system. I do want other people to know the kind of happiness and comfort that I believe my religious beliefs have played a part in bringing to me, but I think it’s up to them to seek that out.

    And I’ve always been struck silly by people who don’t believe that science and religion can get along. People who refute God based on science, and people who refute Science based on god. I guess I don’t understand why they can’t coexist. Maybe von Braun had it right when he said that religion and science were sisters, not enemies, and that man uses science to try to harness the force of nature around him, and uses religion to try to harness the force of nature within him. (I may have mangled that quote, but the sentiment always stayed with me.) I’ve never heard a compelling and logical argument that makes them mutually exclusive. Which doesn’t mean I’m asking for one; I’d rather think that either is capable of encouraging and improving the other in some way.

    domynoe @ 150: Thanks for that comment on the last sentence of John’s post. I would say that one of the nice things about being a man of faith is that when I’m an asshole, it’s my responsibility to own it. I don’t think believing in a god means you’re that much more likely to blame things on them (John’s too smart to make such a blanket comment), and I don’t think that being an atheist or agnostic is much more likely to make someone take responsibility for his/her own actions. There are plenty of other things to blame it on: culture, government, media, etc. It just takes away one avenue of blame. John’s version of agnosticism may emphasize that kind of responsibility, but that doesn’t mean it’s the norm. Just as it’s not the norm for people who believe in a god to blame all bad things on their deity. Just clarifying.

  140. I like your comment that when an atheist or an agnostic is an asshole, they have to own it. I wish some of the pseudo-intellectual atheists – You know the type. He doesn’t want you to agree with him because if you did, suddenly he’s not smarter than you. That asshole – I wish those morons would own it. (Thankfully, they haven’t found religion. I’d have to kill them for the good of all mankind.)

    OTOH, my response to those who profess a belief yet fail to practice it is usually, “I talk to God all the time. He never mentions you.”

    That one pisses them off because they don’t know how to respond to it. Am I lying? Hmm… If I am, I’m a sinner, but if I’m not… The squirming that induces is highly entertaining.

    Schadenfreude is not a sin when it’s at an asshole’s expense.

  141. “The great ideals of the past failed not by being outlived (which must mean over-lived), but by not being lived enough. Mankind has not passed through the Middle Ages. Rather mankind has retreated from the Middle Ages in reaction and rout. The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” — G.K. Chesterson, in “What’s wrong with the world”, 1910.

    Much more of him here.

    Around and around we go.

  142. Digital Atheist: Short of moving (which I heartily advise), the only suggestion I have is to arm yourself with some quotes from Jesus and treat these morons with patience and kindness with a faint, but detectable, note of patronizing indulgence.

  143. Here’s my attitude about Christianity–my Mother (a fairly good Christian, and a really good person), told me to read the Bible, and try substituting the word “Good” for the word “God” to see how right the Bible is about life. I tried it. It didn’t work AT ALL.

    But that’s one of the things that’s so great about our country. We can be atheists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or Flying Spaghetti Monster worshipers and not be bothered by the government about it.

    Yeah, and one of the worst things about our country is that unless you’re a particular one of those things (namely Christian), you can never be president or, in all but the most open-minded of places, a member of Government at all.

  144. One issue I have with this issue was raised by Penn & Teller – had not thought of it before and it’s kinda troubling. (Disclosure: Atheist!) They pointed out that while being on the receiving end of proselytizing is not nice, the truth is that if you fundamentally believe that you have to do this and that, but in so doing you secure your place in an eternal paradise of awesomeness, then you’d have to be a real dick to not want your friends, family, even acquaintances to share in this magnificent opportunity! While it sounds like a pyramid scheme, it does have that troubling truthful element – the fundy who does NOT try to convert you is the dick, not the one who does…
    :(

  145. @160… Douglas Hofstader made a more subtle version of that argument in, IIRC, Metamagical Themas. I actually understand a truly devout person wanting to convert others if they believe that those others will suffer eternal damnation unless they convert. I mean, think about it – if you and I are standing in front of two doors and I was utterly convinced that one leads to a furnace while the other leads to safety, what kind of person would I be if I didn’t try to get you to walk through the door to safety?

    Where they have a blind spot is their sureness about their belief of course, coupled with the idea that a good person who doesn’t believe as they do will really be damned for all eternity (or as I put it to one once “That seems incredibly cruel and I’m not convinced that God is the sort of being who would eternally torture a living creature just for believing differently… but if he is, he’s insane and we’re all in trouble.”)

  146. Yoda, there is a sale going on at wal-mart. They are giving away free cases of floor wax. Wait? Not interested? Oh. ok. Just wanted to let you know.

    (part ways. get back to work. whatever)

    That wasnt so hard, was it? Its not that someone has to make you get the free floor wax. Its not that the you have to get the flor wax or the guy pushing it is an ass.

    Its that the guy pushing the floor wax has to have some sense of what “no” means.

  147. Eric Saveau@145– Even though I think others may have missed my point (I don’t think science is racist any more than I think Christianity is homophobic) I don’t think you are correct in your assertion (that Darwin didn’t believe in eugenics and Hitler was Catholic)—Unless we are reading different books. The ones I read taught me that Darwin preceeded eugenics, but many eugenic theories were based on his writings, particularly ‘origin of the species’ and the leaders of the eugenics movement included members of his family–like his children.

    The theory of evolution has clearly been proven and I think Darwin is a genius for that contribution, but if you read ‘origin’ he’s definitely of the belief that the weak are genetically inferior and they will eventually die off to make room for the strong and only the fittest will survive and reproduce with the fittest, etc. Its science and its biology, but its not necessarily humanity.

    That whole caring for the sick and the disabled the diseased–all those lepers and prostitutes and poor people–that’s not Darwin. That’s not Ancient Egypt or the Romans either. That’s Jesus. I know its inconvenient when you are trying to argue the religion is worthless, but unfortunately its there. Trust me, it would be easier for me to discount Christianity if that part of it was missing, but its not, its pretty damn clear. The resurrection, water into wine, a man sleeping in the belly of a fish–all those things are fantastical I admit–and who can prove that? But the theory of love thy neighbor is straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak–whereas the judgmental rhetoric that is all over this thread is not.

    Hitler a practicing Catholic? Seriously? His mom was Catholic. His dad was an athiest and he despised people of faith. He stopped going to church when he was 11 years old. And he was definitely a eugenicist. Probably the most famous eugenicist of all time. There are many examples of evil religious people. You don’t have to look far to find them. But Hitler is a poor example.

    At least, according to the books I’ve read. Then again, they left that gay thing out of my bible, so Darwin’s compassion for the genetically ‘weak’ and Hitler regularly going to Mass could have been edited out of my history books too.

  148. I call myself an atheist. In reality I am an agnostic, but I don’t think it matters.

    The more you define your gods, the more of an atheist I am. The less you define your gods, the more of an agnostic I am.

    My atheism covers most if not all religions based on the God of Abraham. Talking to people via burning bushes (as in Moses) or walking the earth in corporeal form (as in Jesus) are just two godly behaviors that I have no trouble disbelieving.

    However the more vague your description of your god, the less I can find to disbelieve. If you want me to be agnostic, you have to say something like “god is in the details”, or “god does not play dice”, or “god is the alpha and the omega”. Just don’t make the mistake of making god useful. If both teams in a football match (or war, for that matter) kneel and pray for God to help them win, is God actually responsible at all for the outcome? The atheist in me says that’s ridiculous.

  149. Personally, I just want to state that I am a non-believer in badgers and you seem to keep foisting them upon your readers. And I resent it. So let’s just keep the badger thing to a minimum, please. Beavers, woodchucks, marmots, wolverines – fine. But I draw the line at badgers.

  150. “That whole caring for the sick and the disabled the diseased–all those lepers and prostitutes and poor people–that’s not Darwin. That’s not Ancient Egypt or the Romans either. That’s Jesus. ”

    A couple of Darwin quotes:

    Those who look tenderly at the slave owner, and with a cold heart at the slave, never seem to put themselves into the position of the latter; what a cheerless prospect, with not even a hope of change! picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and your little children — those objects which nature urges even the slave to call his own — being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder! And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty… –Charles Darwin

    The love for all living creatures is the most noble attribute of man.”–Charles Darwin

    As for Romans:

    Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness. –Seneca

    Notice that Darwin unequivocably condemns slavery while Jesus says not a word against it.

  151. YodasEars@160: The problem with that philosophy is that when a cognizant adult has politely said that they are not interested in being saved, that should be the end of it. I think that reading science fiction is awesome and I don’t understand why some of my closest friends don’t dig on it, but hey, it’s not my place to save them from what I may perceive to be the boredom of their reading choices.

    I realize that evangelicals of the stripe you describe would more likely draw a metaphor wherein I’m on a train speeding toward a blown-out bridge and they’re trying to pluck me safely off that train, but again, if they don’t understand why I’m staying on the train, they need to quit distracting me while I try to figure out how the engine works.

    Mike@163: The best thing about science is that when scientists learn new things, they revise their opinions (if they’re good scientists. The ones who stick to old knowledge in the face of new information are trapped by the same ossified brain wiring that afflicts so many people. Scientists are not superhuman).

    Darwin never actually said “survival of the fittest.” Go on and read his book; you won’t find it.

    He was operating under the common attitudes of his time, that some people or creatures (specifically, white human males) are better than other people or creatures. That he saw humans through this warped lens does not negate his fundamental idea, that over time populations of animals (NB: humans are animals) change such that the ones most suited to their environment are the ones that survive and reproduce the most.

    This means nothing in terms of eugenics. Eugenics is a notion that other people thought up later, where they decided they could (a) determine what was “best” for humans to be, and (b) arrange for that to happen rather faster than the usual evolutionary pace by killing off or neutering anyone whose genetics didn’t fit the standards determined in (a).

    We do it all the time to plants and non-human animals, only under those circumstances, it’s called “animal husbandry.”

    What we have learned in the last several decades of highly efficient, industrial-level experimenting is three things:

    1. One person’s standards are not another’s. Tomatoes that are bred for durability in shipping are quite tasteless to many people. Those people now actively seek heirloom varieties from local growers. (I’m partial to Aztec Pinks and Black Crims myself.)

    2. What is a winner in one environment is a loser in another. Sure, sickle-cell anemia is deadly if one has two copies of the gene, but if you’ve only got one, then you don’t get the disease, and you get increased resistance to malaria. In tropical regions prone to malaria-carrying mosquitoes, that mutation is more likely to help than to hurt. Outside of such regions, you’re better off without it.

    3. (Corollary to #2) It’s about population survival, not any individual. With that in mind, genetic variety is a benefit. It’s a bad idea to plant only one variety of wheat, since if a bad fungus that it’s susceptible to comes along, you’re all out of wheat. Whereas if you have different varieties, every variation has a chance it might be immune to any given blight.

    Add in more human-specific things, such as determining that superficial human phenotype differences (e.g., skin color, nose shape) have absolutely no direct effect on the capabilities of an individual’s brain, and the whole business of saying one grouping of genes is “better” than another is obvious nonsense.

    But you know, there are very few living scientists who hold with the notion of breeding a master race, and they’re pretty much discredited and eyerolled-at by the intellectually honest. If you’re going to raise the oogety-boogety of Ebil Scientists Misusing Science, I suggest you stick to at least the last twenty-five years, if not the 21st century.

  152. In all my time on this Earth, I’ve met one honest-to-goodness Christian who both talked it and walked it. She’s probably the best person I’ve ever known and I really loved her. She’s the only person who ever talked to me about Jesus and being saved and all that in a way that made me wish I believed. And yet, it was okay even if I didn’t. Without her, I wouldn’t know what the real deal was and I’d be pretty jaded about the whole capital-R Religion thing in general and Christianity in particular. It’s been about twelve years since I’ve seen her and she still makes up for a lot of bad apples. A truly devout believer who also respects your right to your own beliefs is a rare and wonderful thing.

  153. Mike @163

    I don’t think you are correct in your assertion (that Darwin didn’t believe in eugenics and Hitler was Catholic)

    Yes, I am correct, and you are wrong.

    but many eugenic theories were based on his writings, particularly ‘origin of the species’ and the leaders of the eugenics movement included members of his family–like his children.

    No. There was one eugenicist, Herbert Spencer, who invoked the name of Darwin despite that fact that Darwin himself repudiated the man and his notions. As to Darwin’s surviving children, so what? Darwin himself advocated no such views, quite the opposite in fact, so mere familial relationship is insufficient to demonstrate a causal chain. The term ‘eugenics’ was the invention of Darwin’s half-cousin Francis Galton and Darwin was not impressed by his ideas. The essay below is a good starting point –

    http://sensuouscurmudgeon.wordpress.com/2009/06/21/racism-eugenics-and-darwin/

    if you read ‘origin’ he’s definitely of the belief that the weak are genetically inferior and they will eventually die off to make room for the strong and only the fittest will survive and reproduce with the fittest, etc.

    This is a demeaning misrepresentation of Darwin. No such idea is expressed in his writing anywhere. Darwin never spoke of the “weak” or the “inferior”; the phrase “survival of the fittest” merely means that organisms that are well-adapted to their environmental conditions will survive sufficiently long and in sufficient numbers to reproduce in greater numbers. That’s all. No value judgement, no preferences of any kind expressed, merely an observation. If had actually read Origin of The Species, you would know that.

    I know its inconvenient when you are trying to argue the religion is worthless, but unfortunately its there.

    It would be inconvenient if it were true, or if I were “trying to argue that religion is worthless”, but it isn’t and I wasn’t. Do you have any comments to make with regard to anything I have actually said, or do you prefer to keep making things up?

    Hitler a practicing Catholic? Seriously?

    He identified as one. His writings and speeches all invoked God and Christ and the importance of Christianity as a force for a moral society. He also repudiated Darwin’s ideas and ordered his books burned on the pyres of Nuremberg and served up every utterance of a generous helping of centuries-old German antisemitism, and for these reasons was wildly popular with the conservative Christian side of German society – especially the Catholics So, yeah. You could frantically spin over whether or not Hitler was a “good” Catholic, but there’s no denying that he represented himself as one and that his contemporaries enthusiastically accepted him as one.

    At least, according to the books I’ve read.

    Yuh-huh. Hallowed are the Ori.

  154. Mike –

    Feel free to take up the question of Hitler’s atheism with him personally, why don’t you?

    “My feelings as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison. To-day, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before in the fact that it was for this that He had to shed His blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice….”

    – Hitler, in his speech in Munich on 12 April 1922

    “We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity… in fact our movement is Christian. We are filled with a desire for Catholics and Protestants to discover one another in the deep distress of our own people.”

    -Adolf Hitler, in a speech in Passau, 27 October 1928

    “It will take Christianity, as the basis of our collective morality, and the family as the nucleus of our Volk and state, under its firm protection….May God Almighty take our work into his grace, give true form to our will, bless our insight, and endow us with the trust of our Volk.”

    -Adolf Hitler, on 1 Feb. 1933, addressing the German nation as Chancellor for the first time.

    “The Catholic Church considered the Jews pestilent for fifteen hundred years, put them in ghettos, etc, because it recognized the Jews for what they were…. I recognize the representatives of this race as pestilent for the state and for the church and perhaps I am thereby doing Christianity a great service by pushing them out of schools and public functions.”

    -Adolf Hitler, 26 April 1933

    “We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

    -Adolf Hitler, in a speech in Berlin on 24 Oct. 1933

    “I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord..”

    – Hitler, Mein Kamph

  155. I see a bunch of intolerance and hate for people who believe in a god. It is great to say you dont believe and voice that it should not be imposed on others. But many here go way beyond that and attack, criticize and make fun of those who choose to believe.
    Is that tolerance? If it was done against lgbt people it would be oh so wrong and hateful. Sort of funny i think.

  156. “I see a bunch of intolerance and hate for people who believe in a god. ”

    Please quote examples. This discussion has been carried out in a quite civil manner so far as I’ve read. But please realize that it is not intolerance to criticize another’s religious opinions any more than it’s intolerance to criticize another’s political views. That’s the marketplace of ideas. No one’s opinions get a free pass to go unexamined, unquestioned or uncriticized simply because they have their source in religion.

  157. “…I love Christianity, and wish more Christians practiced it…”

    You’re right, I wish more did. People believe in what they see you do, not what they hear you say.

    I’m a Christian who tries to practice it. I fail every day, and I still try. I know lots of atheists and agnostics who behave MUCH more Christ-like than many self-described Christians. No matter what someone’s professed belief or lack of belief, they way they treat others tells me what kind of person they are, not what they say.

  158. I am an atheist. I am an atheist because;

    – I have yet to see compelling evidence for a god. I believe that our scientific understanding of the universe is currently advanced enough that it can (even if it can’t *disprove* a god – can’t prove a negative after all) say that if the supernatural exists in the holes in our current understanding, it is so weak as to be immaterial. There is no room for the supernatural in my universe, and I would not worship any deity who feels the need to hide from us so. It’s clearly more scared of me than I am of it.

    – I *like* living in a universe devoid of the supernatural. I enjoy not having to worry about the rules set down by Bronze Age theocrats who couldn’t imagine anything better than a king who was as just and merciful as their mortal kings were not. I like the idea that the universe can be explored by our reason, known to our minds, shaped by our hands – that the only thing withholding knowledge from us is our own imperfect understanding.

    – I find the idea of putting the will of a deity ahead of the will of mankind repulsive. The plans and desires of the divine are not the plans and desires of humanity; and humanity, flawed as we may be, are the ones who have to *live* in the world those plans and desires create. I believe in acting for the greater good of mankind rather than for the greater good of any god. Striving to get a ticket into the good part of the afterlife seems contrary to striving to create a better society here on Earth. One can of course improve society while working towards your ticket to the Gated Community In The Sky; but your goal is not specifically to improve society, and where those goals diverge I have to go with society over the afterlife.

    – So many gods are so obviously the product of their times. Chac is Mayan; Tlaloc is Aztec; Ba’al is Canaanite; Yahweh is Israelite. That some of them change and mutate to fit *new* times does not change the fact that gods seem to be created to reinforce the societies that make them; and if you reject one god, what makes another special?

    – We make gods in our own image. We have the power to create gods! Why should we abrogate such power by giving it to our creations? Why should we make them the arbiters of justice and morality when we are capable of deciding so ourselves? Mankind is fully capable of deciding right and wrong for ourselves – even if we fail at times.

    – I find the Christian god specifically objectionable. I disagree with the notion that knowledge of good and evil should be withheld from anyone, and thus with original sin. I disagree with the idea of human/divine sacrifice to negate original sin. I disagree with the idea of predestination. I find the tremendous bodycount racked up by God in the Old Testament highly objectionable. I find the idea of a heaven ruled over by an absolute dictator (no matter how benevolent) to be no heaven at all. If it were proven that the God of the Bible existed, I would be morally obligated to work against Him, and strive with all my might to build the Republic of Heaven. I find the idea of salvation by grace obscene – if one can get into heaven merely by believing in God, that means people like Jeffrey Dahlmer are in heaven! It’s a stupid, stupid set of criteria by which to gate entry.

    Ultimately, I agree with both Voltaire (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to create Him”) and Kropotkin (“If God existed, it would be necessary to destroy Him”). We have an urge to externalize morality, to anthromorphise the universe, intrinsic to humanity. And this urge must be fought! Theogenesis and deicide are both within our power as human beings.

  159. I enjoy not having to worry about the rules set down by Bronze Age theocrats who couldn’t imagine anything better than a king who was as just and merciful as their mortal kings were not.

    Er…would this be the ‘just and merciful’ king whose body count you abhor? And surely gods are a product of their cultures as well as their times, given that the conceptions of those gods varied by era and cultural exchange? Whether you’re an atheist is neither my business nor of interest to me, but good grid, if you’re not going to bother to get the history right please just stick to the ringing pronouncements about what “Mankind” ought to do.

  160. Mythago, I think you’ve misunderstood me or I’ve misunderstood you. Or possibly both. I’ll attempt to explain it better.

    The standard Bronze Age (mortal) king tended to be kinda a jerk. Giving Ultimate Power to people of any time and society will do that. Believing in an afterlife and believing that someone/something was In Charge of both that afterlife and the world as a whole, someone raised in a society where kings have Ultimate Power would tend to envisage their God as also a king with Ultimate Power – only, of course, He’s supposed to do it *right*. That there is justice after life is important when there is no justice before death; when people can escape punishment for their crimes, it’s nice to believe that your God will punish them as you cannot. Karma or Divine Judgment, the idea of supernatural justice for mortal wrongdoing is a strong one.

    It’s also nice to think that God will punish your oppressors/enemies/opposing football team/that one lady at the DMV. Which is where you get the God of the Old Testament going about smiting people. I disagree with smiting on general principles, because I think mass murder is a bad thing.

    I’m not sure what you mean by “not getting the history right” – I think that most people can agree that a bronze age dictatorship is not the best of governments, and I don’t think I mentioned any actual historical events – and I’m also confused as to why you’ve put “Mankind” in scare quotes.

    But in any case, I think we’re making a mountain out of a molehill, which is probably not healthy for the moles.

  161. I’ve just completed an MA in philosophy of religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and am presently preparing to move to California to start PhD work at the Claremont School of Theology, with a focus on Process Studies. So this is very much my area. I’m pretty agnostic, myself… I find religion and theology and religion interesting even while not always finding it convincing. I was an atheist for a number of years, but I’m starting to swing the other way. Most of it has to do with abandoning quite a number of Christian conceits about God.

    In any case, I could easily paste whole papers on this, but I’ll content myself with some bullet points.

    -The most significant objection from the folks in the article seemed to be that there “isn’t any evidence for God.” This I find to be a dubious reason for atheism. If there is a God, then I think it safe to assert that It would have to be a wholly necessary rather than contingent being — necessary in the sense of existing in all possible universes, not a contingent God that “just happened to exist.” But how do you go about looking for empirical evidence for something that is basic to the nature of existence itself? It’s like a fish looking for evidence of water. This is not to say say that theism is more credible than atheism purely on these grounds, but rather empirical evidence has no say whatsoever in proving or disproving God’s existence (the best of the comments in the article acknowledge this fact — that lack of “evidence” leads naturally to agnosticism rather than atheism). I can and do believe in God without believing in crazy miracle stories. In fact, I don’t think God even *can* intervene in that sort of way. Which leads me to the next point.

    -Another prevalent objection to God from the article is the problem of evil — if God is benevolent, omniscient, and omnipotent, then why does God allow such terrible things to happen in the world? The very simple answer, for me, is that God can’t. Not won’t — *can’t*. I don’t buy in to the traditional picture of God’s omnipotence, because it falls apart on close inspection for any number of reasons. Just to give one reason, I’d point out that power is a relational concept; it is not exerted in a vacuum, but always by some entity [i]A[/i] over some other entity [i]B[/i]. To assert that God can do absolutely anything without fail is to assert that God ultimately has all the decision-making power in the universe, that any decision by another agent is not really the agent’s decision at all, because it is God who ultimately allows it — in this conception, no agent can make a decision which God cannot overrule. I mean, what would God overruling my decision to eat a ham sandwich look like? It could be nothing but mind control, meaning I am not really separate from God in the first place. I can’t say that makes very much sense to me.

    -I think Kenan Malik cut to the heart of the issue by asserting that God is not needed to “infuse our lives with meaning and purpose.” But here I am not sure that Malik takes the fact of death seriously enough. Where are we to find meaning if all the people we have ever known and loved, and all of their descendants, are turned to dust? This is NOT to say that I believe in personal, subjective immortality/afterlife. In fact, I find the idea of an afterlife profoundly appalling — it promotes a demonic self-concerned individuality, it self-interestedly deifies human beings over all creation, dehumanizes people by seeing good actions as motivated by reward rather than because they are the right thing to do, and ultimately ends in a self-defeating particularity. The point is that death forces us to search for meaning in something that lives beyond us in some way — otherwise, why not just kill ourselves? But the whole idea of God solves the problem by providing us a being who (at least in my conception of God) will cherish our lives eternally, be really changed by who we are and what we do, and yet continue to exist and influence all of the hereafter. What greater thing could we do than to contribute to the ultimate and eternal being? This is not to say that the neatness of this answer to the problem of meaning is evidence for its truth — but it certainly makes things easier, doesn’t it? I simply don’t see any way to get around the problem of meaning without God. You may say all meaning is arbitrary, and is generated solely by the individual himself — but again, how’d you like me to shoot you in the head, then, if it’s all arbitrary anyway? Fact is, we can *say* meaning is arbitrary, but I don’t think we can actually consistently believe it.

    In the end, I agree with most of these folks in rejecting dogmatic religious claims about empirical matters. Religion doesn’t have any place in asserting dogma such as the creation stories over evolutionary theories. But there are certain types of necessary truths — such as I mentioned in the first bullet point — which simply cannot be gotten at through empirical investigation. Great as the powers of science may be, it can only tell us about empirical facts; it cannot tell us their meaning. So while science can tell us a great deal of things about anything in particular, it cannot tell us why anything in particular matters. That is the special task of philosophy, theology, and religion — to give meaning where seemingly none exists. And this is ultimately where all the people cited in this article fall down. Can any of them tell me why I should continue to live rather than shoot myself in the head? I’m sure some of them would give it a good try, but somehow I doubt I would find their answers convincing. They are too stuck on empirical matters and the majesty of science to see the need for a comprehensive metaphysics — one in which God is either present, or not. Either way, I would argue that for our lives to be truly meaningful, one has to settle the question of God in one’s mind, whether consciously or unconsciously — at least provisionally. It simply has too many far-reaching implications both ways.

    P.S. Dawkins is massively overrated. Why he’s gotten so much attention, I’m sure i don’t know. There are far more convincing and intellectually honest atheists than him. Read John Dewey’s A Common Faith to start.

  162. Dawkins has so much attention for the same reason Fred Phelps has so much attention; he’s loud, strident, and belligerent, all of which makes for good press. Unfortunately while he’s the poster-boy atheism has, he’s not the poster-boy atheism needs; he’s far too focused on the “anti”. Ultimately he’s preaching to the choir.

  163. @Fletcher: where are the examples of his loudness, stridency or belligerency? I mean exactly, not in a hand-wavy “I have faith you’ll find examples” kind of way. To my mind there’s a double-standard – speaking confidently and logically are labelled as stridency by religionists, yet the endless pulpit screamers or iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove of the Pope are somehow not strident.

  164. Eric Saverau:
    He identified as one.

    So were Konrad von Preysing, Bishop of Berlin from 1935, and Archbishop Karl Schulte of Cologne who were vocal critics of the Nazi regime. While they were too prominent to be deported to a concentration camp after a show trial on trumped up treason charges thousands of clergy, religious and lay people (both Catholic and Protestant) were not so lucky.

  165. Let’s not dwell overly much on the “Hitler was a Catholic” thing; it’s mostly derail material.

    Let’s also remember that it’s nice to be polite to each other whilst discussing contentious topics.

  166. Oops, didn’t hit refresh before posting. Apologies, John; I only went there in the first place in the attempt to counter the “Hitler was an atheist” meme trotted out by Mike with a bit of history.

  167. The fundamental question seems to be “Does the Universe show intent, or does it not?” Since
    I can’t find evidence either way, and since I know that there are a lot of things I can’t understand,
    I’ll go for “I don’t know, and I don’t in fact think you know either”, ie. agnostic.

    But a lot of people will believe, pretty firmly, in the answer “Yes” or “No”. Why seems a matter
    of human pyschology and sociology.

  168. “If there is a God, then I think it safe to assert that It would have to be a wholly necessary rather than contingent being — necessary in the sense of existing in all possible universes, not a contingent God that “just happened to exist.”

    Then you’ve defined God in a way that makes him logically impossible. The concept of a being who exists in all possible worlds is as much a logical impossibility as is the idea of a square circle. Imagine a universe that consists of a single hydrogen atom sitting motionless in empty space. That’s it. Nothing else exists. Is this logically possible? It involves so mutually contradictory propositions so, yes, it is. But this logically impossible reality has no God. So there is a logically possible world with no God.

    So if you define God as a being who exists in all possible worlds you’ve painted yourself into a corner. Better to simply acknowledge that you don’t get to define things into existence.

  169. “Dawkins has so much attention for the same reason Fred Phelps has so much attention; he’s loud, strident, and belligerent, all of which makes for good press. ”

    I constantly hear this from people who wish atheists would just shut up and get back in the closet where they belong. Then every time I come across an article written by him or see him interviewed on TV I see this quite polite guy simply speaking his mind in a quite civil manner. He thinks religion is nonsense but he’s not loud, strident, or belligerent in expressing those opinions. I don’t always agree with him but I think all this “tone trolling” atheists constantly get is just a barely concealed way of saying “shut the hell up”. No matter how polite an atheist is in debate some on the other side insist on perceiving any criticism of religion as angry and belligerent.

  170. Joe@177: (cut and paste never works on my phone, so bear with my clumsy paraphrasings). common objection is that ‘there isnt any evidence for god’.

    Wel, yeah. My memory growing up christian in a christian culture (church every sunday, bible school for a week every summer, etc) was that there was no (zero, zip, zilch, none) distinction between believing in God and empirical evidence for the existence of God. It wasnt that people generally said ‘I know I cant empirically prove the existence of God, but I believe in him as a matter of faith’. No. People believed in God and KNEW he existed and held absolute certainty of that fact.

    one of the themes where I began to question the existence of God was about the time I was 8 and got a chemistry set for a birthday present. The idea.of ‘empirical’ started sinking in. And some of my ‘certainty’ about God faded.

    But I think for a lot of people growing up in a religious culture, the belief in god is not distinguished from evidence for Gods existence. there is no distinction. there is only certainty. When someone is born into this culture who has some grasp of the difference between faith and evidence, they see that the religious culture does not have that distiction, it is a valid reason to doubt the conclusions that such a culture reached.

    ‘what would god overriding my decision to eat a ham sandwich look like’

    again, my experience growing up was in a religion of an omnipotent God. .When you grow up in that environment and start seeing moral conundrums that it would mean about God (why did he let something horrible happen when he has the power stop it?), it is a valid reason to question the validity of the religion itself. maybe it doesnt make sense because it is all made up.

    the thing is the lack of evidence for got and the moral conundrums that spring from an omnipotent God, doesnt disprove the existence of ALL Gods, but it can be a valid reason to question the validity of a religion someone might have grown up in these days.

  171. @Tony #24 You’re making assumptions about the nature of time and the nature of cause and effect that are far from assured at the scales you’re talking about.

    It is, for example, entirely plausible that time is actually an emergent or aggregate property of a system (like temperature – it’s meaningless to talk about the temperature of an ideal gas molecule, as that’s the mean kinetic energy of the motion relative to the centre of mass, which is definitionally zero for a single molecule of an ideal gas). If that were to prove to be the case, then the question isn’t meaningful.

    In fact all of the small-scale equations of motion have time fully reversible; it’s not until you get to the second law of thermodynamics that you get non-reversibility – and that’s only applicable to systems large enough that temperature is a meaningful concept.

    If time (well, directional time, ie “before and after”) is only meaningful in a sufficiently complex system, then the Big Bang – definitionally not that complex – is outside of time.

    This might sound like dodging the question of “what happened before the Big Bang?” – the answer would be “there was no before; before started with the Big Bang” – but it’s a testable hypothesis and, indeed is one of the things that cosmologists and particle physicists are trying to test.

    The other problem I have with the First Cause argument is that I don’t see how God gets you out of the problem. If you take the (not at all unreasonable) position that everything must have a cause then you have to have turtles all the way down. You can’t stop when you get to God, because He has to have a cause too.

    Of course, you can get out of this by making it definitional “God is the thing that doesn’t have a cause”. But that’s a scientific subject – you could find out what God was like that way. And if God turns out to be some rather odd sub-nucleic super-high-energy phenomenon, then I can’t see many religious people accepting that as a definition of God.

    It’s far better to define God as “the thing that religious people worship” and then try to work out whether something with those properties exists.

    Some of those are excludable – prayer has no measurable effects other than the psychological ones on the prayer and on other humans who are aware of the prayer (tell someone they’re being prayed for and it can help), others are non-testable, and still others have not been tested. As far as I’m aware, none have been confirmed in a test.

  172. Jeez, people, lighten up. What I think is what Mr Scalzi is saying is: You are free to believe or not believe in what you want. I am free to believe or not believe in what I want. But we start getting into trouble when – for some reason – we feel compelled to try to convince others of the correctness of our own personal belief or non-belief. Which is mostly what is happening in these posts. But I will say it is always entertaining when somehow people manage to bring Hitler, Darwin and Fred Phelps (who lives not far form me) into the same conversation. When that occurs, it’s probably just better to move along to the next topic.

  173. Joe@177: “The point is that death forces us to search for meaning in something that lives beyond us in some way —otherwise, why not just kill ourselves?

    you have it upside down. Dogmatic religion that gives a written in stone set of moral codes, and promises paradise to those who folow those codes, takes away the ability for people to folow their own truths, their own commitments, their own morality, their own meaning.

    Certainly, when I finally rejected my religious upbringing, I felt like I was blowing in the wind. the certainty that comes with religion can be comforting. So I muddled around for a few years, asking myself a lot of questions, one of which was why not kill myself now?

    surprisingly, it took a number of years to put into words the answer. but the simple version is simply ‘because I *want* to live’.In my rejection of religious dogma, I had accidentally (and somewhat unknowingly) rejected *everything*, including my own moral compass, my wants, anything subjective.

    But I eventually came to the realization that I wanted to live, and that was good enough. Somewhere along the line, I had thought that ‘wants’ were just as unreal as the dogmatic religion I had rejected. Took some time to sort that out.

    anyway, the answer to the question of why go on living with no god to give you meaning, is that its because the meaning is inside you.

    the mistake I made was thinking since my internal meaning wasnt part of Gods master plan to save the universe from the devil, that my internal meaning wasnt important enough, so why bother.

    so I dont think “death” is the thing that forces us to look at why go on living, but rather its more like we each have a reason for living, but for atheists and agnostics, it requires we reconcile.that meaning without the comfort that comes with believing our meaning is all part of Gods bigger plan, without the comfort of God telling us we are going the right way.

  174. David Ellis@185

    What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. I’m saying that God is either necessary or impossible — you then come back and say that there could be a universe with one hydrogen atom, and nothing else. But this says nothing about God. And if you think it does, then you’re saying that God’s existence is contingent upon there being more than this one hydrogen atom, which is just what I said is not the case.

    God is either and underlying fact/principle about the way things are… or not. Reducing the universe to a single object doesn’t alter that. Either all possible universes — even those consisting of either a single hydrogen atom — *must* have God, or they *must not* have God. Hence why any empirical facts are irrelevant to the discussion.

  175. Fletcher @176: Again, I’m not sure where you’re getting your information about what Bronze Age kings were or that they were universally “jerks” from the point of view of the people who lived then (or that they had ‘ultimate power’). Kings had laws, and obligations to their people. They also had to be badasses at times, even to their own people. Hence the body count. You seem to be mashing up modern Christian perceptions of an all-wise, all-loving god and a paradisical afterlife with Bronze Age conceptions of gods and the afterlife – the Canaanites (by which I am also including the Israelites), like the Greeks, didn’t think of the afterlife as a very nice place at all, let alone somewhere that justice was dispensed where you didn’t get it here. Everyone expected their gods would smite their enemies, and if that failed, then it was probably that their god was stronger than yours.

    Again, I understand that this is is kind of a sideline to your main point about choosing to be atheist. But I think that “I believe in a rational universe” is a much more sensible reason than “Man, there’s some funky stuff in the Old Testament, God’s an asshole.”

    David Ellis @186: If someone is deliberately behaving like an ass to get attention or to piss people off, I don’t think it’s “tone trolling” to point that out. Setting aside the negative reactions of people who simply don’t want to hear an atheist speak, why is it “tone trolling” when people who are atheists say “Dude, you’re behaving like an ass”? Particularly if said person is, in fact, behaving like an ass, probably to get column inches? A philosophy dedicated to rationalism has no more room for a cult of personality than it does for any other cult.

  176. @ Joe P #191. The trouble with that proposition is that it tells us nothing whatsoever about what God is like.

    If you take the position that God is absolutely ineffable, then He cannot have any influence on us whatsoever – because we can know nothing about Him. Perfectly reasonable Deist position, but it’s not theist at all.

    Nothing wrong with being a Deist, of course.

  177. Those who believe in a God that is an underlying principle of the universe might want to read the Tao Te Ching, or at least read something decent about Taoism.

    Anyone looking for a form of spirituality that doesnt interfere with empiricism too much, might want to look into Zen Buddhism.

    This PSA brought to you by the letter T and the number 6 pounds of flax.

  178. I’m not a religious person, in fact, I’m what I call a Recovering Catholic. It’s on my Facebook profile – “God Exists – I leave Him alone – He leaves me alone. We have an understanding….”

    However, I look at pictures on the Astronomy Picture of the Day and I think while looking at the beauty inherent in the universe and then the beauty of all that complicated math and physics that I have no hope of ever comprehending and I muse, “How can there NOT be a God that created all of this for me to see?”

    There’s just to much perfection in the chaos and order of the universe that I can’t believe that Nature came up with it all on its own.

  179. Death is scary to some people and so is a life devoid of reason or worth. When horrible events occur, such as the aforementioned death of a child, or loved one, or a flood, or hurricane, etc, it befits intelligent people to seach for answers. Reasonable minds can and should disagree. In the spirit of humanity (I won’t say Christianity this time) I will do what I can to help anyone find their place. If they embrace humanistic athiesm, good for them, no wish to convert here. If they embrace a particular regious view that is tolerant and respectful, I’m happy for them as well. I think we can all agree that if they become a dictator and murder 6 million people of faith, that’s a problem.

    When an intellectual someone is on a journey, struggling with sadness, tragedy, etc, it is natural to look for comfort in something other than randomness. I think that is okay. You don’t comfort a dying child with assertions of ‘you lived a good life’, when they haven’t really had the opportunity to live at all. For people facing that type of horrifying sadness, Darwin might not be enough. A serious rejection of survival of the fittest and biology and disease and the logic of randomness might be pretty attractive to a person in that position. Science might not be enough to fix the heartache. Drugs and medicines might not be enough. Exceptional comfort might be necessary. That need is real–I promise you. As human beings, I would ask the athiests in the room to try to understand that. It is important, if for no other reason, than to just respect the sort of ways people try to heal themselves.

    Horrible things have been done in the name of religion. Horrible things have been done in the name of science. Horrible religious individuals exist and horrible athiest individuals exist. But there are good ones on both sides as wellI thought the thread was more about how to understand each other than who is right. But these things can degenerate, I know.

    Since I walk the line back and forth between the two (but generally feel more hopeful on my faithfull days and more hopeless on my agnostic ones) I thought I could add my two cents about what makes me feel good about faith. Its part intellectual (historical teachings of Jesus) and part comfort in the belief that things will be okay. The hope that this is not the end and that loved ones might have a chance to be reunited. That’s an attractive concept to me and to othersand it really offends the shit out of me that its become all about anti gay messages and telling people they are going to hell and all the horrible crap religious people do.

    Perhaps the biggest disagreement I have with some of the posters is not about Darwin or Hitler or who believed what, but about the basic thought that the concept of religion is just a concept and a concept that can be kind of cool. The people that misuse and abuse the concept are deserving of anger and frustration yes–but maybe not so much the concept itself. Its just an idea, a belief, and to some people a truth. The concept of murder or genecide or eugenics might be evil, but religion? Trying to make sense of what is around us when science isn’t enough? Following the teachings of a pretty good guy who lived 2000 years ago? That concept in itself is evil and destructive? I don’t see how.

  180. Richard Gadsden@195

    You’re right, of course, that this bare proposition tells us very little. If God is indistinguishable from the universe at a basic level, one that we can never overcome by definition, then is this conception appreciably different from atheism? Functionally, in terms of how it affects how we live our lives, it makes very little difference at all.

    But, given this proposition, you *can* begin to make educated guesses about God by investigation of how the world works and construction of a comprehensive metaphysics. The idea of doing metaphysics is passe nowadays, probably because we are more aware than ever of how much we don’t know. But any scientific theory rests on the shoulders of a metaphysics — a comprehensive view of how the universe works — whether that metaphysics is stated or not. We don’t get to ignore the need for metaphysical speculation simply because of the liklihood that we will get very much of it wrong… because it isn’t any less wrong when it’s unstated. It’s just disguised better. And there are certain basic realities — such as the emergence of complex organisms — which science doesn’t explain particularly well. Certain theistic theories have a more credible ring to them than any scientific theories I know of. It’s all inductive reasoning, of course. But that’s the best that can be done when it comes to God.

    I’m not trying to make any outlandish or far-reaching claims. I’m just trying to point out that the idea of a universe with a God isn’t any more or less absurd than a universe without one, and that there is real philosophical and theological work being done on developing theories for both ways of thinking. I simply tend to think the universe makes more sense when we pose God to explain certain things, but that’s just my opinion. I’m really still quite agnostic.

    Just FYI, I’m coming from a Process Theistic perspective. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a decent write-up on it:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/process-theism/

  181. “What you’re saying doesn’t make any sense. I’m saying that God is either necessary or impossible — you then come back and say that there could be a universe with one hydrogen atom, and nothing else. But this says nothing about God.”

    Your claim was that “God exists in all logically possible worlds”. This claim is refuted if someone can give an example of a logically possible world with no God (no creator). I gave an example of a logically possible world with no omnipotent, omniscient creator—where, in fact, there are no existent things besides empty space and a single atom. If the set of all propositions by which the world proposed can be accurately described includes no logical contradictions then the world is logically possible. That is so in regard to this world of one atom. It’s description includes, for example, the propositions “no God or gods exist” and “no God or gods created the universe”. There is nothing about this that involves a logical contradiction. So there is a logically possible universe with no God (in fact, there are an infinity of them—being logically possible is a low bar to jump).

    “God is either and underlying fact/principle about the way things are… or not.”

    You’re using the terms of modal logic (logically possible, logical necessity, contingency, etc) without apparent knowing what they actually mean. For a hypothetical world to be logically possible the set of all propositions that describe it must be consistent with one another (not contradict each other). That’s it. For example it’s logically impossible for a there to be a world with square circles or a world where 2+2=109. But it’s logically possible for there to be a world where winged pigs fart magical pixie dust that grants eternal life to those who inhale it. Again, logically possible is a VERY low bar.

    God might be an underlying fact/principle about the actual world we inhabit. But that’s not the same as logically necessity. For any being one proposes as existing it is possible to imagine, without contradiction, it’s nonexistence. That puts the idea of a logically necessary being firmly in square circle territory. It’s an impossibility. A logical impossibility.

  182. I hope John S. won’t find this condescending, but I for one find that he has a remarkably good understanding of how science is supposed to work. An understanding better than that of some working scientists (and of at least one semi-famous astronomer blogger ) I know and also that of several academic philosophers I’ve met. Of course, I’m sorta prejudiced as that’s exactly the same attitude I try to convey in my intro courses (and probably the single most important thing to be gleaned from those courses).

  183. Mike @198

    When an intellectual someone is on a journey, struggling with sadness, tragedy, etc, it is natural to look for comfort in something other than randomness.

    How fortunate for us, then, that the godless universe has far more in it than just randomness. Other people, for example.

    You don’t comfort a dying child with assertions of ‘you lived a good life’, when they haven’t really had the opportunity to live at all.

    Neither do I lie to them. Who is this apparently hypothetical “you” to which you are offering this non sequitur?

    For people facing that type of horrifying sadness, Darwin might not be enough.

    I know of no one who invokes Darwin in the same way that a Christian invokes their god, so it isn’t clear what this is siupposed to mean.

    That need is real–I promise you. As human beings, I would ask the athiests in the room to try to understand that.

    As a human being, I would ask you not to attempt such clumsy emotional manipulation. Atheists deal just as much with death and suffering and loss as believers, so it is ridiculous to ask us for understanding as if we possess none. YOU need to understand that we deal with these things as we can and as we must, and also offer what comfort we can, to believers and unbelievers alike, in the ways that we can. We have genuine sympathy. We have hugs. We have love for our families and friends, and compassion for our neighbors. We step in to help with personal, household, and familial needs. We drop by to visit, we stay up late on the phone, we take the bereaved out in to the world or stay close by them at their homes depending on what they need right then. For you to pretend, even implicitly, that these things are not just as true of us as they are for you, that these things need to be somehow explained to us, is grotesque and offensive, and points very sharply to one of the many reasons some unbelievers sometimes look to the religious with a measure of disdain. YOU are the problem.

    Perhaps the biggest disagreement I have with some of the posters is not about Darwin or Hitler or who believed what

    At this point I will steal a sidelong glance at the Mallet Of Loving Correction, note cautiously that it is still quiescent and the Hand of Scalzi not yet gripping it, then turn back to you and say – The individual who specifically brought “Darwin or Hitler or who believed what” into this was YOU @139. You did so by saying things that were dishonest and historically inaccurate, which you were quite rightly clobbered for. If you wish to acknowledge that and withdraw your inital claims, that’s fine, but you don’t get to just vaguely handwave it away as though you didn’t do anything wrong. If a respectful, nuanced, and contextual discussion of belief is what you desire, lying will not get you there. This ought to be self-evident, yes?

  184. Mike@198: “You don’t comfort a dying child with assertions of ‘you lived a good life’, when they haven’t really had the opportunity to live at all.”

    I am sure I could take some generic answer you gave to some generic question about God and find some speficic case where it sounds absurd. Which is pretty much what you did there.

    “Science might not be enough to fix the heartache. Drugs and medicines might not be enough.”

    Spirituality is making peace with your mortality. How you do that is up to you. Whatever answer you come up with that eirks for you is your own business. But there is a suggestion here that one MUST need God to make peace with death, to make peace with life, to find spirituality. That the empirical world is not enough. And that is not the case.

    “Exceptional comfort might be necessary. That need is real–I promise you. As human beings, I would ask the athiests in the room to try to understand that. It i

  185. Knoxville Buckeye @ 197:
    … I muse, “How can there NOT be a God that created all of this for me to see?”

    There’s just to much perfection in the chaos and order of the universe that I can’t believe that Nature came up with it all on its own.

    I look at all that and can’t imagine why anyone would think it was created “for me”, or even for humans in general. Obviously it *could* have been, especially if you’re positing an omnipotent Creator, but believing it was created for us is a very we’re-the-center-of-the-universe attitude, by definition.

    And as an alternative, there’s need to believe that “Nature came up with it all on it’s own”. The very phrasing implies a creative intent that isn’t necessary to the process. Just like there doesn’t need to be a First Cause, there doesn’t need to be a Primary Reason. There may or may not be a Who and/or a Why.

    You’re phrasing your stance here — at least partly — as a logical appeal, but any logic in it relies on some ungrounded assumptions. That doesn’t mean your conclusion is wrong, but if you’re right, this isn’t why.

  186. BearPaw @ 204

    Primary Reason and First Cause are entirely different arguments. The problem with the First Cause is that without one, it’s turtles all the way down – every event has to be caused by preceding events, so either there’s a start to the process of cause and effect in a First Cause, or there’s a perpetual universe.

    Primary Reason, yeah, you don’t need one. Things can “just happen” without doing so for a Reason. They may have a reason (in the cause-and-effect sense) but not a Reason (in the moral sense).

  187. Eric @ 202–Aw come one man, I’m not trying to insult you or upset you. Hitler quotes you gave were in speeches meant to attack the athiest communists done for political purposes. I just said he hated people of faith–the jews–and that he was a eugenicist. There is even some evidence that he wanted to rid Germany of Christianity when it was politically okay to do so. I promise I’m not making that up. And I wasn’t speaking to you when I said Jesus’s teaching were incovenient when people argue that religion is worthless–just people that argue that–I meant no offense.

    Likewise, I know that athiests are capable of compassion and love, etc. Very much so. I wasnt trying to manipulate anybody, clumsily or otherwise. I just thought that people who couldn’t understand why one would worship a diety, or believe in resurrection or water into wine might be able to understand why one might need some comfort beyond science. Not that you do or that you should, just that some people do. And that might be okay.

    Have you ever felt overwealming sadness? You (or somebody else) might call it a lack of seratonin in the brain. Goodwill from others can be a comfort, so can medication, and so can God. I have felt that kind of sadness and my heart goes out to others who have been there and if I can help I will. I don’t care if somebody is an athiest. I can understand it. It makes a lot of sense to me. My mind can rationalize it clearly and I get why a human being wouldn’t believe what cannot be proven and how a person could be strong enough not to fear death and to beleive in humanity and be a generally good person who has no use for religion or belief in God. I understand it and I get it and I am happy that those people have come to conclusions that satisfy them and make them happy and capable of living good lives. I swear I’ve got nothing but goodwill.

    I personally cannot be satisified with it. Athiesm for me does not provide any comfort. I would rather believe there is a purpose to my life and that good wins out over evil, if not in this world than in the next. I also prefer to believe that there is a chance that I can be reunited with loved ones that have passed. The alternative feel very cold and cruel to me. It might be true, though–at death we might just blink out– obviously–I get it.

    I don’t think the Bible in inerrant and I do think it is symbolic, but I think the messages are by and large good earth friendly messages. Maybe you could agree that a theme of sacrificing for others is good even if you don’t beleive in resurrection. That’s all I’m saying. Hopefully that comes across as humble as I mean for it to.

  188. I find it rather interesting that the major thrust of most of these comments seem to be coming at this discussion from an either/or position. As in: either you believe in an Abrahamic God or you don’t. (Or, I suppose, you waver somewhere on the fence between those two.) Not much commentary seems to be arising from the folks who have faith in $deity *other* than the Abrahamic one.

    Not much more to say than that. I just think it’s interesting.

  189. Greg–You message got cut off–but I didn’t mean to go after you either. I actually really liked your earlier post about athiest comfort. I don’t imply that finding a way to deal with tragedy and death requires religion. It certainly does not. Many people bravely face tragedy adn death on their own and do good deeds not because of the promise of heavenly rewards but because its the right thing to do. That’s not only awesome, that’s badass and tough minded and I respect and applaud it.

    Can’t any part of you see where I’m coming from though? That religion can be okay for some people while not for others? And that we can share common themes rather than divisive ones? Jesus I sound like a camp counselor ready to hold hands in a circle right now–but I really do mean it. Love brother. And good Sci Fi by Scalzi. Common themes man.

  190. ““Exceptional comfort might be necessary. That need is real–I promise you. As human beings, I would ask the athiests in the room to try to understand that”

    I have generally tried to speak from my experience on this thread. How things occurred for me. the processes I went through. Spirituality is inherently a personal thing. By speaking from personal experience, it helps me avoid making global declarations about what spirituality or religion should be for everyone. I am having difficulty reading the above quote any other way than as a global pronouncement. that God might be neccessary for everyone. “That need is real” doesnt say for whom it is real and so occurs as a global pronouncement. And my reaction is to say no, not for me.

    As for “exceptional comfort”, the times I have tried to comfort people in that kind of situation, I find that “I love you” is a good place to start. But thats taking the concept of speaking only for me and not assuming anything about the person I am with. Having consoled some friends facing death, the other thing I have often done is tell them its OK to be afraid. To let them have their emotional reactions and not try to bring my discomfort.about their fear into it. Or any reaction I may be having because its maki.g me think about my own mortality. They were the ones facing cancer or heart attack or whatever. It shouldnt be about me.

    So I generaly tell them I love them, and that I am there for them, and then I try to give them space for their emotions. It is human to be afraid of dying. If they want comfort, I wil try to give them comfort, but the conversations I recall were seldom ‘I am afraid, make me not be afraid’ but rather more like ‘I am afraid. I need to tell that to someone.’ or ‘I am afraid can you hold some space for me to feel that?’ and then I do what I can to support them.

  191. Other than Christopher HItchens, you may be the only other person I’ve read who can talk about their agnosticism or atheism in a non-offensive way – though you are FAR more gentle about it than he is most of the time! (this is meant to be a compliment!) Religion is such a touchy subject and like politics seems to be taken over today by extremists in all faiths. I’m not a religious person. Shortly after my confirmation at age 13 I stopped going to church because I could not reconcile what I learned Christianity was supposed to be versus what I saw going on in my church. Not much walking the walk, but a whole lot of talking the talk. Today, I have a healthy respect for the faithful of all religions as long as they aren’t trying to convert me or pass laws based on their religious beliefs. That’s what I believe our country was founded upon and hope that it would remain so. Current events make me wonder though, if I am not just wishing on a star.

  192. Mike, however you express your spirituality is fine. whether it is through church or yoga or holding hands with someone you love. I was mostly trying to answer the questions you posed. If there is any feedback about your post in itself, it would be just to be a little more personal in your pronouncements. How something does or does not work for you. Cause otherwise I was getting the suggestion that what you were saying was intended to be true for everyone.

  193. Mike @206

    Aw come on man,”

    No.

    Hitler quotes you gave were in speeches meant to attack the athiest communists done for political purposes.

    Yes. Yes they were. Much like Christian politicians in the US have done, and currently do. This does not magically make him or them non-Christian.

    I just said he hated people of faith–the jews–and that he was a eugenicist. There is even some evidence that he wanted to rid Germany of Christianity when it was politically okay to do so. I promise I’m not making that up.

    Again, it must be noted that this began with you falsely claiming that Darwin was a eugenicist, and lumping him and Hitler together in the same sentence. This is dishonest of you. Here, you note that Hitler hated the Jews without noting that this was a very common unifying feature of Christians (themselves a “people of faith”) at the time, this giving him something deeply in common with his fellow German Christians rather than distinguishing him from them. Again, this is dishonest. As to the “evidence that he wanted to rid Germany of Christianity”, this comes exclusively from second- and third-hand translations of second-hand accounts of conversations that cannot be substantiated, and is in stark contrast to everything else the man said and wrote throughout his political career. You may not be “making that up” but thus far your reading of history seems as lazy and superficial as your justifications for your faith and your dismissals of non-belief.

  194. Mike: “athiesm for me does not provide any comfort. I would rather believe there is a purpose to my life”

    Atheism and purpose are not mutually exclusive. I get you were speaking for yourself, but in doing so you made a statement about atheism that came across slightly off.

  195. David Ellis@200

    You say I don’t understand modal logic, but I think it is you who are getting confused with what I’m actually saying.

    Say the only object that exists in the universe is a red “Stop” sign. The existence of the sign entails: matter exists. Similarly, my argument is that the statement “something exists,” or “anything exists,” entails EITHER that “God exists,” or “God does not exist.” What I do not accept is to say that something/anything exists, and God just happens to exist as well, as just another contingent fact, simply because to me, this mode of existence would not be God. Why would I worship a being, no matter how powerful, who is superfluous? Even if the existence of a being like that could be demonstrated, I would not call it “God.”

    So, you’re right in saying that there could be a world with a single atom in which God does not exist. But if that is so, it is only because God could not exist in any world anyway, no matter other things happened to exist with it. God in this conception is not in “square circle” territory at all. Any contingent being that can be imagined to exist can certainly be imagined not to exist. But a necessary being, IF it is necessary, CANNOT be imagined not to exist, by the very fact that it is a baseline necessity of anything at all existing in the first place. Thus your statement “For any being one proposes as existing it is possible to imagine, without contradiction, it’s nonexistence” is false. Gaunilo’s island is an irrelevant example because an island is contingent by its nature, whereas God — if It exists — is the only being in the universe who is wholly necessary. It’s apples and oranges.

  196. Interesting topic, considering that my story in the September 2011 issue of Analog revolves around questions of belief, vs. non-belief. I’m writing a sequel to that story at this very moment, so this thread is useful food for thought.

    Scanning the voluminous contents of the comments, I am seeing a lot of the usual animosity from the secular sector. Not really a surprise, considering the leanings of the OP. Thankfully JS doesn’t completely take a dump on religion, which is more than can be said for Dawkins, Hitchens, and other secular zealots.

    Of course, most of the worst wounds for believers, wind up being self-inflicted.

    Probably the biggest mistake any believer makes — regardless of the type or kind of doctrine — is failure to walk the talk. Perceived hypocrisy is the #1 cause of disillusionment among those raised in most American faiths, and the ranks of the secular (especially the zealous fringe) tend to be populated with post-religious folk who’ve grown bitter and cantankerous in their personal evolution away from faith.

    In my own church there is a saying: Sunday worship isn’t primarily for those who are already clean, Sunday worship is for those who are often the most dirty. Now, I realize that words like “clean” and “dirty” are freighted for some people, so my even using them is liable to raise hackles. The point I am trying to make is that church isn’t a binary state of being. There is no “saved” or “damned” as many evangelicals appear to believe, but rather there is a spectrum from darkness to illumination.

    Where each of us is at on that spectrum is a conversation between us, and our own individual paradigms — whether God factors into it or not. I’ve known some superbly “Christian” secular people, and I’ve known some abhorrently “secular” Christians. “Know them by their works,” is very much in play. I tend to classify myself as a rather piss-poor servant of the Christ. I’d lapse utterly into agnosticism if not for a few specific experiences which indicate that — for me anyway — this wouldn’t be a true state of being; for myself.

    I’ve been thankful for those secular and atheistic people in my life who have been able to recognize myself and my family for who and what we are, without exteriorizing their own particular rancor about any given church, and making it personal against us. Too often, I think, that while the militant believers are waging a culture war against secularism, there is very much a counter-war being waged on believers and belief — by that vocal subset of secular atheism which cannot stand even the existence of faith, or the faithful.

  197. Richard @ 205:

    I know Primary Reason and First Cause are two different arguments. That’s why I used the two different terms. The context of my response needed both.

    *With* a First Cause, you’re deciding where the turtles stop … or at least where you’ll stop looking.

    Without a First Cause, it might turn into a variant of turtles all the way down … *or* it can mean there’s no need for turtles. There’s no need for a cause. The fact — if it is a fact, and it seems to be — that our universe had a beginning does *not* necessarily imply a trigger mechanism of any kind, whether that was God or some set of conditions in some kind of metaverse.

    We’re used to thinking in terms of cause-and-effect because in our day-to-day lives that’s a very useful way of thinking (even if we do often screw up the results). But it’s entirely possible for something to happen without a cause. And I don’t mean just without a cause we’re *aware of*, but spontaneously, in the most basic sense of that word.

    That may be true of the universe. It’s possible that it just *is*. There doesn’t need to be a cause *or* a reason.

  198. Greg and Eric– Hey fellas–again no offense meant–even if Eric did call me lazy, clumsy and superficial–I know you meant it in a good way as a part of spirited debate.

    I don’t dismiss non-faith. I think I just recently called it a bad-ass way to think and tough minded. That’s far from a dismissal. Again, I’m trying to find the common themes. Although you haven’t agreed or disagreed, I hope I can assume sacrifice for others is a common theme of people of goodwill?

    Greg–there’s someting really interesting in what you said about athiesm and purpose not being mutually exclusive. Of course you are right. I was thinking about (some) athiests relating to common themes they likely share with (some) religious people–and having a purposeful life is one of them–you are right about that. I need to learn more about that. Where do athiests find their joy, how to they know their purpose, do they believe in evil? And how to they come to terms with death. I know there are many different answers to these but these are all questions I (personally–just me) find myself answering either religiously or with I don’t know. Of course, these questions could be generically answered with nature, love, human compassion, etc.

    I guess what I’m saying is I’m intrested in the non religious answers to life’s great questions. That’s probably another spot where (some) non religious and (some) religious people could have a good discussion.

  199. Brad@216: “scanning the voluminous contents of the comments, I am seeing a lot of the usual animosity from the secular sector.”

    I am not sure how you define animosity here, but if it means “I disagree with your religious perspective” then, yeah, I guess so. maybe you could point to a specific post?

    If you meant “dismissive” I am sure that such behavior is human behavior split equally among religious and atheists. At which point I would ask, why is it you dont acknolwedge any animosity by christians towards atheists? Would you argue such animosity doesnt exist?

    Finally, if by animosity you mean “bad blood”, then given that atheists have jad to fight for the right to be atheists and have had to fight christians to get them to stop pushing their religion through the government, where do you suppose that animosity comes from? Would yoh suggest atheists are i.herently spiteful people exhibiting animosity for no reason? could you think of a single rvalid reason for atheists to hold bad blood towards religious groups?

    As it is, I think your bias shows through pretty clearly….

  200. Greg –

    I referred to your reading of history and lazy and superficial, and it was meant as a pointed criticism of the support you claimed for your arguments. There are many interesting and meaningful things to say about… various historical figures – let us not name any names, praise be to the Mallet and its thump ;-) – and their words and deeds, and the cultural and historical milieus in which these people lived and were influenced and wrought influence of their own – but meaningful discourse on such matters requires that the participants be specific and substantive.

    Where do athiests find their joy, how to they know their purpose, do they believe in evil? And how to they come to terms with death.

    Mike, any of us could fill pages with answers to those questions, but a few lines here will do for a useful overview – We find joy where we find it, or create it; in meaningful relationships with others, in work and play, in personal projects, in achieving goals we set for ourselves, in quiet contemplation and enthusiastic revelry, in making a difference. Purpose is found and created in the same places and same ways. As to evil, well, some don’t believe in it, others recognize (not believe) the existence of evil because they encounter it, and others would ask for a concise definition of that word. Death is something we come to terms with in varying ways, with varying degrees of difficulty, rage, grief, preparedness, and contemplative acceptance.

    In other words, apart from not using the word “god” as a qualifier, we do much the same as every other living being. Really, was there any reason to suppose otherwise? The very fact that you think to pose such questions is an act of Othering. I get that you likely don’t mean it that way, but that’s truly what it is. And many atheists get tired of having to just suck it up all the time.

    I guess what I’m saying is I’m intrested in the non religious answers to life’s great questions.

    Sigh. You could have started with that, you know. But. oh well. So; what questions do you mean?

  201. Wow, you certainly opened up a can of worms with this one. It must’ve felt like reading a book. I’ll just be over here… Non-judgmental and quiet…

  202. Eric–Thanks for that. Paragraph 3 of your post is the kind of thing I’m talking about. You don’t have to answer the meaning of life on the Whatever, that’s not what I mean. (By all means do if you like–I’d be interested–but not required). I’m a person who struggles between faith and non-faith and comes down more often on the side of faith–perhaps as a crutch. But as I’ve said–I don’t have it all figured out by any means–and I think logic and athiesm and humanism are all good concepts. In my own search I think about them all.

    That’s why I’m interested in the commonalities. The human commonalities that seem to exist across the spectrum. Like all the stuff you’ve addressed in paragraph 3. Can I (personally–just me–not everybody) get there without faith of some kind? I’ll tell you buddy, it’s been almost impossible so far (for me, only me) but obviously its possible for others. Facing death without faith is particularly hard.

    Everything is an “other” to me at this point because I’m looking. That’s important, I think, to undertand that I am not telling anyone how it is–just trying to figure it out for myself. So–respectful questions: Is there a reason I am here? Will my life continue after my death? Is there any chance human beings can be reuinited with eachother beyond death? Is there any ultimate justice for the evil? Do good guys win in the end? Is there a reason that horrible things happen? And finally if the answers to these questions are no, or mostly no, how do I not despair?

  203. Eric Saveau@ #182:

    No, and since John has issued a “my malleting arm is all warmed up” warning I’ll leave it there.

    David Ellis@ #186:
    I constantly hear this from people who wish atheists would just shut up and get back in the closet where they belong.

    So, it’s “tone trolling” to suggest that folks like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens describing religion as a malignant psychosis is ever so slightly hyperbolic? Hell, downright trollish?

    Widdums.

    Really.

    I’ll defend to the death the right of folks like Professor Dawkins and Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps to say things I consider muddle-headed, wrong on the facts and downright offensive to anyone with a micron of human decency.

    But it goes both ways, bitches.

    When you step into the public sphere, you surrender the deference you may expect in the pulpit – or from the podium of a tenured chair. A sharp disagreement is not “tone trolling” or “crushing my descent”. And it’s simply not acceptable for anyone to go out, make deliberately provocative statements then play the victim when the response is not to your liking. Not from politicians. Not from media bomb-throwers like Glenn Beck. Not from theo-con clerics. And most definitely not from the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens.

    Readers Digest version: Harden the eff up, petals. The marketplace of ideas isn’t for wimps.

  204. Mike

    1: There is no God to give you a reason to be here. we have to find our own reasons.
    2: no. you get what everyone e lse gets. one life.
    3: there is no God to make sure evil is punished. We have to create justice ourselves.
    4: only if the good guys try harder than the bad guys.
    5: random things can be horrible without any reason behind them. Tornados can strike due to random weather without needing Gods to send them out.
    6: Of all the people I have had intimate conversations with who were in a state of despair, I cannot think of any of them who were despairing becaus of their answers to the above questions. They were despairing mostly because they werent living life to their fullest ability. they were holding back for one reason or another. afraid of failure. afraid of rejection. afraid of succeeding. A lot of despair comes from holding onto the past.

    if you want to make peace with death, make peace with your past.

    You parents. siblings. childhood friends. people usually have a different perspective on life after that. Then figure out what you are committed to in life and work towards that. Usually when a person makes a difference in someone else’s life the meaning of life takes on a new perspective.

  205. Craig @ 224:

    While the “it goes both ways, bitches” stance is commendable, it’s worth noting that the context of the public sphere isn’t exactly a neutral zone. (At least not in the US; I can’t speak for Dawkins’ home.) Which is part of where the whininess seems to come from with some religious leaders. They’re used to being deferred to not just in the pulpits but in the public sphere as well. A slow, general decrease in public deference is tediously often portrayed as a civilization-destroying war on Christianity.

    This in a country where being Christian is an unofficial requirement for the Presidency, our money invokes God, and every American flag pin comes with a string that, if you pull it, says, “God bless America”. (Okay, I made up that last one. It just seems like it works that way if you listen to a few speeches.)

  206. “The existence of the sign entails: matter exists. Similarly, my argument is that the statement “something exists,” or “anything exists,” entails EITHER that “God exists,” or “God does not exist.” What I do not accept is to say that something/anything exists, and God just happens to exist as well, as just another contingent fact, simply because to me, this mode of existence would not be God. Why would I worship a being, no matter how powerful, who is superfluous? Even if the existence of a being like that could be demonstrated, I would not call it “God.””

    If you want to insist on defining God in a way that makes him logically impossible that’s your prerogative. It certainly makes things simpler for us atheists when you do.

    “But a necessary being, IF it is necessary, CANNOT be imagined not to exist, by the very fact that it is a baseline necessity of anything at all existing in the first place.”

    Again, a necessary being is a logical impossibility. For any logically possible world X where the being “God” exists one can also imagine a logically possible world Y which is exactly the same in all respects except that the being “God” doesn’t exist. What you describe in the quote above is flat out not possible. Just because you insist on putting the words “necessary” and “being” together doesn’t mean that such a thing is reallly possible.

    This is an obvious and inescapable fact (so long as you don’t resort to a tautology like “God is the universe”—which empties the word God of any distinctive meaning and would make you a de facto atheist).

  207. @ Brad # 216

    Regarding your statement “I’ve known some superbly “Christian” secular people, and I’ve known some abhorrently “secular” Christians,” I hope you realize just how insulting that comes across to nonbelievers with its apparent equations of secular=immoral/bad and Christian=moral/good.

    I’m reminded of the time when Kirk said to Spock that deep down we’re all human and Spock replied, rightly, “I find that very….insulting.”

    “I’ve been thankful for those secular and atheistic people in my life who have been able to recognize myself and my family for who and what we are, without exteriorizing their own particular rancor about any given church, and making it personal against us. Too often, I think, that while the militant believers are waging a culture war against secularism, there is very much a counter-war being waged on believers and belief — by that vocal subset of secular atheism which cannot stand even the existence of faith, or the faithful.”

    I’ve not seen much rancor at all from the atheists in this discussion. I’ll ask you as I asked the last person to make that claim: be specific. And please understand that a vigorous criticism of your opinions is not, in itself, a personal attack or insult. If we value truth, as surely we all do, we must no place our opinions, no matter how cherished the beliefs may be, beyond criticism.

  208. Thank you Greg. Well said. Thanks for indulging me. I respect your view and I particularly like the stuff about finding what you are committed to and working toward it. Clearly its important not to take life for granted–especially if you’ve got only one. Its a good way to live.

    Personally, I despair because I’ve lost people too early and can’t bear to think that I will never see them again. It kills me to think that all I will ever have are memories and pain. I despair also becuase I’ve seen evil destroy purity and innocence without any consequence and I can’t bear to think that scales can’t be righted. For those reasons (maybe selfish ones?) I have had difficulties at times (personally) following an athiest view in all situations. Maybe I need to, but honestly that’s a struggle for me. But you are right–its necessary to make peace with the past. How does one do that? Shrinks? Priests? Good friends? Beer?

    For me, I think I need to lean on this crutch from time to time. Maybe I won’t need it always. For now, hopefully people won’t hate me or think I’m a silly blathering idiot becuase I use it occasionally. I promise I won’t hate you or make you try to use one if you don’t need it.

  209. folks trying to argue logically that God does/does not exist, a tale:

    Einstein, incorrectly arguing against the idea of quantum mechanics, said that God does not play dice with the universe.

    Someone, Neils Bohr I believe but I cant google on my phone without losing my edits, looked at Einstein one day, and said “Quit telling God what to do with his dice!”

    tale #2: there is a great scene in one of the hitchikers guide books where God is at a debate and someone proves God could not exist, at which poi.t God says ‘oh damn’ or something and disappears in a cloud of logic.

    tale #3: for the love of pete, read some zen. many of the koans attempt to help the monk realize the folly of trying to understand satori in terms of logic, empiricism, or language. enlightnement is washing your bowl. God is six pounds of flax.

    tale #4: (holds a flower up. points to it. smiles)

    here endeth the reading…

  210. Bearpaw @226: I don’t think anyone is arguing that the marketplace is completely level, as it were. But there is a difference between strong and unpopular opinions versus gleefully being a bomb-thrower for it’s own sake. It’s disingenous to do the latter and then ask all wide-eyed why people are taking it so personally and picking on one’s tone.

    @David: how’s@119 for starters?

  211. Greg, of course I’m biased. But then, so are you. Given your laundry list of assertions @ #225 I hardly think you’re neutral on this issue. That, and you spent several paragraphs criticizing my having pointed out the evident animosity in the thread — towards religion, on the part of seculars — when I spent the bulk of my original post discussing the ways religious people too often fail.

    More generally, I would argue that secularism’s frequent struggle to adequately address Mike’s original batch of questions is a key reason why religion and belief persist in our high-tech information age.

    For many human beings, merely stating, “there is no God, no higher meaning, no ultimate justice, nor any continuance after the body’s death, so we all just have to derive and synthesize our own meaning for ourselves,” is not sufficient. Even if you dump a truckload of data on them which proves, scientifically, that this is the only life, there is no life after, there is no deity, nor divinity, and no objective moral standards, a majority of people will still seek some kind of overarching spiritual and ontological framework.

    That framework might not take the form of traditional monotheism. In fact, current trends indicate that modern Americans are “smorgasbord” believers: picking and choosing from the panorama of world faiths, combining ritual and doctrine as they see fit — usually with an eye towards maximizing comfort and freedom while also minimizing guilt. Our libertine tendencies shining through.

    But the point is made: for most people, a Sagan-esq worldview isn’t good enough. Whether or not the Sagan-esq view — materialist intellectualism — is accurate or not, isn’t as important as the fact that a majority of human beings feel an underlying need for answers and explanations that extend beyond that same materialist intellectualism. A militant like Dawkins might call this cowardly. I’d call it inevitable, only because belief in God, or gods, or an afterlife, or a connection to some form of spiritual out-of-body plane, is so ingrained into us, it seems to almost be written into our genes.

    It’s quite true that secularism has had an up-hill cultural fight, especially in the face of resurgent American evangelism. But from where I sit, the sort of calm, benevolent, self-critical, generous spiritualism that Scalzi seems to admire, also has an up-hill battle. Our society is soaked to the bone in greed, sloth, avarice, violence, the debasement of the intimately sacred, and a cavalier, sneering cynicism about Judeo-Christendom that borders on outright bigotry.

    Seculars may feel under assault from the rabidly evangelistic, but for those of us who are non-rabid and non-evangelist, it often seems as if the secular backlash is catching us with the same buckshot being reserved for pulpit-pounders and the openly crusading.

  212. Mike @223 –

    Everything is an “other” to me at this point because I’m looking. That’s important, I think, to undertand that I am not telling anyone how it is–just trying to figure it out for myself.

    Mm. I can accept that, i suppose.

    So–respectful questions: Is there a reason I am here? Will my life continue after my death? Is there any chance human beings can be reuinited with eachother beyond death? Is there any ultimate justice for the evil? Do good guys win in the end? Is there a reason that horrible things happen? And finally if the answers to these questions are no, or mostly no, how do I not despair?

    One at a time –

    Is there a reason I am here?

    I don’t know; is there? You tell me.

    I know that sounds a bit flip but the fact is, I can’t tell you why you’re here. I mean, I can tell you that you exist because two humans coupled during a fertile window and then made some reasonable effort to keep you alive, but I’m sure you recognize that as an exceedingly trivial truth. Do you have a reason to be here, to continue to live and breath rather than.. not? Only you can determine that.

    Will my life continue after my death?

    As far as anyone has been able to show in even the vaguest way, no. No, it will not.

    Do you need it to? Beyond the simple and understandable fact of not liking the idea of dying, of finding existence better than nonexistence? Is this something you feel a need for? If so, do you recognize that a person’s desires do not shape the fundamental nature of the universe?

    Is there any chance human beings can be reuinited with eachother beyond death?

    See previous response.

    Is this a personal thing for you? Have you … lost someone?

    Is there any ultimate justice for the evil?

    No. There are only survivors. And that will feel a bit hollow sometimes. But you are not the only survivor; there are others. And that matters.

    Do good guys win in the end?

    For certain values of “good”, “win” and “end”.

    Yes, that also sounds flip. In a “big picture” sense, one can look to the tapestry of history and note that war and tyranny and brutality and horror have been visited upon humanity by itself for millenia… but in recent generations more people have had recourse to law and justice than ever before. And even in the darkest times, everywhere in the world, people have aided each other, stood by each other, and given their all for each other for no other reason than because someone needed their help. Altruism may not be more powerful than selfishness and cruelty, but it has proven impossible to eradicate. That’s worth a nod and a smile, I think. If humanity has anything that could be called a “saving grace”, that’s it. And it’s enough.

    Is there a reason that horrible things happen?

    There are two reasons: Circumstances, and other people. Again, it sounds a bit flip, but think about any bad thing you can recall, and you’ll see that it boils down to those.

    And finally if the answers to these questions are no, or mostly no, how do I not despair?

    Sometimes you do, regardless of the answers. There’s no way around that. None. All you can do is get through it. If you can’t get through it, you eat a bullet. If you can, you press on. As ugly and broken as the world can be, and has been and no doubt will be again, it’s also pretty fucking magnificent. People are a large part of why; in both cases. One day you’ll feel utterly alone; another day you’ll be singing the old songs with dear friends, or glowing in a glorious and sweaty tangle with a thoroughly incredible woman. One day you’ll doubt your value; on a later day you’ll get raise. One day you’ll doubt all the human race, and the next you’ll be unable to take your eyes off your infant child as you sit on the couch with her in your arms. Insert your own examples; they are limitless.

    You will despair. Everyone’s life seems to come packaged with some portion of it; maybe just a bit, maybe a lot. And it can vary in unpredictable ways for each individual.

    But despair isn’t the point. That’s just something that will get in your way. It may only inconvenience you… or it may stop you forever. What about you? What’s your path through it? Or around it?

    What is the reason you are here?

    You tell me.

  213. Craig @ 224:

    So, it’s “tone trolling” to suggest that folks like Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens describing religion as a malignant psychosis is ever so slightly hyperbolic? Hell, downright trollish?

    Yes, it is. Since tone trolling generally describes an unwarranted reaction to the ‘words used’ rather than the idea expressed, and takes umbrage at the words not the idea.

    When you look at the entire commentary from which that description comes, it is clear that both Hitchens and Dawkins (and I myself) are of the opinion that religion and religiosity is indeed an aberrant behavioral tick, founded in our evolutionarily valuable abilities to ‘model others’, in our empathy, in our tribal natures, and in our intrinsic need to impose order on our environment. It is a malignant psychosis that makes it almost impossible for sufferers to think clearly and lucidly about many, many things. It makes it almost impossible for sufferers to reliably parse ‘truth statements’, and makes them, generally, unamenable to reasoned argument. To me, that makes it a malignant psychosis. Note, that I do not agree that every sufferer has the psychosis to the same degree – that would be stupid. But I do, sincerely, think that all religion is mentally aberrant.

    Humans have been called many things: the ‘thinking’ ape; the ‘smiling’ ape – but my perspective is that we are simply the ‘storytelling’ ape. Religion is simply a very compelling story, that continues to be told – and in the absence of similarly strong stories it simply becomes ones reality. Science and Humanism are strong stories – but humanism is hard (it forces us to work against our intrinsically tribal nature) and science is hard (it requires us to think, and to relinquish strongly held ideas that are demonstrated to be wrong). Little wonder that the comforting story of religion maintains such a strong hold on people’s minds.

  214. Crag Ranapia@224: I don’t recall either Dawkins or Hitchens appearing on the Whatever to comment (unless they’re hiding behind pseudonyms). Nor do I recall anyone quoting any of their more fiery phrased opinions of religion.

    You appear to have invoked them yourself for the purpose of beating on them as an effigy of Atheism.

    ———–

    Mike @223: Facing death without faith is particularly hard.

    Well, I’ll tell you how I managed it for myself:

    Eventually I’ll die. And then I’ll know.

    That’s my crutch. I don’t think there’s anything like an afterlife. I believe that when you die, it’s because all biological functions have ceased. I don’t believe people have souls. I believe people have chemical processes of the brain–very sophisticated chemical processes that are capable of analyzing themselves, which is extremely cool in a meta way–and when these chemical processes cease, so does the person.

    If I am wrong, I will find out when I die, which is guaranteed to happen eventually. If I am right, then I will be dead and won’t exist enough to even realize I was right all along any more than the cotton fibers of my pillowcase realize they were once a living plant.

  215. Mike @ 229: speaking as someone raised spiritually, who then went over to agnosticism, and back again, I can only say that I honestly believe the harder you try to attack those issues with your intellect, the more you’re liable to be stymied. Mostly because faith — the enduring emotional certainty that there is more to our universe than the material — is not an intellectual product as much as it’s a seat-of-the-pants kind of thing. Which makes it elusive in many very-educated and/or highly intellectually sophisticated circles, because people who are used to handling all problems with their intellect often aren’t prepared to let their hearts do the driving. As cheesey as it might sound, I’d suggest turning off the targeting the computer, and using The Force. I don’t think every answer can be arrived at through intellectual willpower. In my experience, some of the toughest answers have to come to us quietly, like near-silent whispers, when our minds have been disengaged from the flaws and failings of our world. Food for thought.

  216. Our society is soaked to the bone in greed, sloth, avarice, violence, the debasement of the intimately sacred

    You realize this just begs to be read aloud in a 1970’s televangelist voice, don’t you? (And gay people! And feminism! And rock music! Porn! Television! Fast cars and rumble seats! Race-mixing! And kids that need to stay off my lawn!)

    and a cavalier, sneering cynicism about Judeo-Christendom that borders on outright bigotry.

    Uh, no. Judeo-Christendom has all the power in our society and expends a fair amount of that power in declaring itself above substantive criticism, whereas nonbelievers are fair game for any derision, for any reason or none, at all times. That some vocal atheists have managed to carve out some small measure of acceptance for the rest of us is welcome progress.

  217. Brad @ 236

    I don’t think every answer can be arrived at through intellectual willpower. In my experience, some of the toughest answers have to come to us quietly, like near-silent whispers, when our minds have been disengaged from the flaws and failings of our world.

    in other words — just have faith? Seems like handwaving to me. Don’t look behind the curtain!

    Why do you believe some answers are ineffable? What is it about such questions that make them outside the purview of human intellectual investigation?

    Does this mean you dismiss apologetics?

  218. Mike, I am so sorry for your loss.

    I know of no magic words to make the grief go away. Everyone handles the loss of a loved one differently. And its a very personal process, so the only way I could give you any answers that would really help would be to talk with you for a while.

    Barring that, there are some questions that you could think about for a while. no answer is right or wrong, its just for you to get a sense of where you are. and the answers are personal, so I wouldnt expect you to answer on a public forum like this. its really for your own assessment.

    1) have you fully grieved for the people you lost? I only ask because America has a strong thread of stoicism running through it. Handy if you are settlers in the New World, and astronaut, or bomb technician. Not so handy if someone dear to you has died.

    2) as to whether you work through this with a priest, a counselor, or friends and a beer, the main thing is it is someone you have a good, clear, honest, no BS relationship with. Sometimes a professional is needed and they will start off strangers but you have to pick someone you can be straight with. but even if you see a profeasional, everyone needs someone they have a good, clear, honest, no BS relationship with. if you dont have some, get some.

    no man is an island, and all that.

    3) something I didnt mention about making peace. as far as I have been able figure out, you cant make peace with something until you forgive something.

    this leads to a whole bunch of questions that sound like complete nonsense, except usually, for the one question that makes you go “oh shit”. for example:

    have you forgiven the person for dying on you? have you forgiven yourself? have you forgiven (insert some third party) for that thing that never got resolved? Have you forgiven God for their deaths? Have you forgiven the universe?

    questions to pknder with that good friend.

  219. Yes, it is. Since tone trolling generally describes an unwarranted reaction to the ‘words used’ rather than the idea expressed, and takes umbrage at the words not the idea.

    TonyC: Oh, balls. I’m sorry, but I think it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest the equating religious belief with psychosis isn’t really a useful contribution to any discussion worth having. And, yes, if you’re deliberately setting out to get a rise out of people please spare me the disingenuous shock and horror when you get exactly what you’re looking for.

    If you want to call that “tone trolling”, go to.

  220. TonyC @ 239: call it whatever you want, if you think it’s bullshit, be my guest. Mike’s admitting he’s on the fence. There are strong vocal advocates urging him to jump off the fence, in a particular direction. I empathize with Mike’s predicament because I was there once, too. And learning to exercise your spiritual capacity can be scary if you’ve become reliant on your intellectual capacity to solve all your problems. Because from where I sit, not every dilemma in life has a materialist intellectual solution. Just saying. Again, if you personally don’t buy it, no problem. You don’t have to. But maybe it gives someone like Mike a little more to go on.

  221. Thanks Eric–I’m feeling guilty for all the indulgences. I think you have good answers. I really do and I am glad that they are satisfactory for you, or at least that you are living well with them. I’m not sure they will be for me, but maybe they they will. Or maybe I’ll be saying the same things down the road. For the record, I don’t think your answers are flip–kind of tough minded and coldly logical–but not flip. That’s not an insult, I hope you don’t take it as one, just my opinion. Like I say, I’m still on the path, haven’t reached a destination. But where do I stand? I’m struggling hard. Hard enough to be posting like a maniac when I (almost) never post. But I guess I should answer my own questions:

    Is there a reason I am here? I don’t know. It would be a comfort to think there is, whether from God or not, a reason for being is something that I think is important to find. My knee jerk feelings drive me to religion on this one, though I have no doubt you can come to conclusions on this one without it.

    Will my life continue after death? I don’t know, but I would like for it to– and I want that possibility to be there–for personal reasons.

    Will we see loved ones after we die? I really fucking hope so.

    Is there any ultimate justice for those who are evil? I don’t know if God or the universe owes us anything or not or if there even is a God, but if the answer to this question is a definitive no, I might eat that bullet you talked about.

    Do good guys win in the end? They don’t seem to very often on Earth and that’s a real struggle for me to come to terms with.

    Is there a reason bad things happen? Not a good reason that I can find. Religion gives me nothing good here. I’m looking for explanations to this one and ‘circumstance’ is definately a correct answer, though its a tough pill to swallow for me. But one that I must choke down.

    As for despair, that’s part of the path–like you say. Religion has helped me some. Particularly with giving me comforting answers sometimes– like the thought of things shaking out fairly in the end and getting more time with to share with people in an afterlife–like I say –comfort and a crutch–and its not a bad thing in my experience.

    So for now, where am I? Traveling down the path, hopefully respectful to most people–trying to be anyway, interested and curious, admiring of athiets and religious peole who have it together and do it right, despairing but hopeful, looking everywhere for reasons to be and still with some faith hanging on. That’s it–on 8/2/11 anyway.

    Thanks guys–I really got to put an end to this–at least my posting–I’ll tentatively say goodbye. Hope everyone finds something good. I’ve enjoyed it

  222. Mike @229

    Personally, I despair because I’ve lost people too early and can’t bear to think that I will never see them again. It kills me to think that all I will ever have are memories and pain. I despair also becuase I’ve seen evil destroy purity and innocence without any consequence and I can’t bear to think that scales can’t be righted.

    Ah. I didn’t see this earlier; you must have posted it while I was writing my missive @233. These are indeed reasons for despair. But they are also reasons to press on. All we can do is stand against evil where we find it, and stand by the survivors who need us in the aftermath. And memories and pain are not all that you will have; you will have whatever life you and the other survivors build for yourselves and each other in the future. The pain will not go away, but it will not be all that you have. Hang in there, Mike.

  223. Brad Torgersen @241

    that’s a remarkable fortress mentality.

    Not at all. Merely an accurate set of observations, sprinkled with a bit of humor.

  224. Craig @ 242: Care to suggest WHY you object to the description…. it merely says that religion is a short-circuit in our mental behaviors… similar to many others, all of which are aberrations to some degree or other. (perhaps you object to the TONE of the statement rather than the concept, hmm?)

    I, personally, suffer from many behavioral and mental oddities – such that I am off the scale on a few of the Myers-Briggs dimensions. I have learned to cope with those, and to accommodate my oddities into a fairly successful life. I do not, however, suggest that my aberrations are anything but that – mental ticks, oddities, and challenges. Everyone is aberrant to some degree – we are none of us perfect specimens. I merely think that religion is a memetically transmitted disease that in it’s most extreme form, is both debilitating and psychotic.

    Perhaps rather than objecting with such dismissiveness [it] isn’t really a useful contribution to any discussion worth having, you could, instead, muster some arguments against that position? I suggested some mechanisms, above, that I think are contributory to the continuation of religion. Perhaps you could muster some of your intellectual power to indicate where I am so misguided?

  225. Mike @ 246: good luck, whichever direction you decide to take. The issues you’re wrestling with are very tough indeed. Hopefully you arrive at some conclusions that feel true for you. Whether or not they happen to agree with mine. Best wishes, sir.

  226. Mike @244

    Thanks Eric–I’m feeling guilty for all the indulgences.

    You are very welcome, and there is no need to feel guilty.

    For the record, I don’t think your answers are flip–kind of tough minded and coldly logical–but not flip.

    I cop to “tough-minded”, but I smile at the adjective “coldly” applied to my logic. Partly because I don’t find logic to be cold, but also because I have been accused of an overabundance of warmth. And I laugh, cheer, and cry like a child when I watch Doctor Who :-).

    if the answer to this question is a definitive no, I might eat that bullet you talked about.

    I would urge you not to, and if it came down to that I would urge you to find whatever solace you can in religion. I have no love for it, and resent its smug hostility towards me and mine but I begrudge no one, especially the wounded, what they need to survive.

    Good luck to you, Mike. I thank you for this discussion, and hope that you find what you need.

  227. Craig @ 242, et al; Brad @ 245:

    Did you guys actually read the post, or did you stop at the point where i called religion an aberration?

    From the perspective of having a discussion it helps a lot if the participants respond to the content of the posts, and not just to little teeny pieces of them. (i.e Brad, not sure how you could actually think that Greg’s comment was well-said except from the perspective of high-fiving one of the team!)

  228. “And learning to exercise your spiritual capacity can be scary if you’ve become reliant on your intellectual capacity to solve all your problems.”

    We atheists are as capable of “spiritual” exaltation, awe, wonder and of experiencing states of consciousness that bring a sense of ineffable joy as religious people are.

    We simply don’t attribute such experiences to contact with something supernatural.

  229. Mike: I would simply re-iterate Eric’s comment
    I would urge you not to, and if it came down to that I would urge you to find whatever solace you can in religion. I have no love for it, and resent its smug hostility towards me and mine but I begrudge no one, especially the wounded, what they need to survive

    it is your choice to believe what you will – and if you need to believe to make it through the day, then go for it.

    Choices are easier when the options are more palatable. And sometimes we just need to eat the candy, and not feel guilty about it.

    I wish you well in your search.

  230. Brad, my “laundry list of assertions” were my personal answers to Mikes personal questions. they asserted nithing other than “these are the answers to your questions as far as my life goes”. Since Mike and I have been having a fairly good u.derstanding in our conversation between one another, it wasnt needed to insert the “this is my personal answer to yiur question” disclaimer after every bullet.

    as for your “i criticize religious as much as atheists” defense. no. not really. your criticism against atheist is what they unfairly and undeservedly do to religious (taking a dump on religion). Your criticism of religious folk is that they only hurt themselves by not being religious enough. walking the walk.

    So while atheist unfairly dump on religion, which carries with it the implication that religion never did nothing to atheists to deserve this dumping (otherwise it wouldnt be unfair dumping, right?) But religious folk are only guilty of not being religious enough.

    I would suggest a little honesty about the doings of you self identified group would help matters greatly.

    and if you report the behavior of the “good” religious people while focusing on the behavior of the more radical atheists, that too would qualify as foul. either compare the worst atheist to the worst christian extremist, or compare a moderate christian to a moderate atheist.

    but waltzing in and declaring that the atheists are all taking a dump on religion (as usual, nudge nudge), while the good religious people never did nothing wrong, well, now *that* is bias. your bias.

    me, I know atheists can be assholes. and I know christians can be assholes too. but I am not going to compare the best of my group with the worst of your group in some weird twisted attempt to make myself feel superior.

    most of my posts in this thread have been strictly about my personal experiences and I have made a point not to judge others based on their religious beliefs.

    Their *behavior* in this thread, thats a different matter. And I am refering to your behavior.

  231. TonyC @ 253: comparing religious belief to a mental disease is not a terrific way to engage in ‘dialogue.’ It’s indulgent hyperbole on your part.

    Eric @ 254: Cute. I won’t pester you with further responses.

  232. Mike, just want to let you know that there was a time way back when where I stared into the abyss anit stared back. All I have for you is the experience of my own life that as dark as it got, it gets better. The main thing that helped me was talking to people. The more I stayed alone, the worse I got. talk to someone. preferably face to face, voice to voice. Talk to people, real people, people important to you, and I promise you it wil get better.

    All the best.

  233. Brad @ 259:

    Why is my belief (that religion is a mental illness) hyperbole, while your belief</i (that there is a god) is not?

    I compare it thus because that is how it manifests (or so it seems from my limited perspective). A dialog would be useful. So far all I’ve seen is dismissiveness and snark. (Now this is Whatever, so snark is estimable and expected, perhaps even demanded, but not at the expense of dialog)

  234. Greg, I think I’ll stop now. You appear to be inserting things into my mouth that never came out of my mouth, and using them to draw conclusions. I stand by what I said at the start: there is a degree of animosity here that is somewhat typical of these kinds of secular-dominated conversations. Nothing about the last 50 posts would indicate otherwise. If your aim was to have the room reduced to an echo chamber — the secular agreeing amongst themselves — I am more than capable of gicving you your wish.

  235. Brad @ 264, 262.

    Interesting approach to conversation you have there, Brad. [/snark]

    I presume by secular-dominated conversations you mean those that do not automatically pay homage to a sky-daddy. Otherwise known as the majority of conversations in the world.

    What ev. to each their own.

    ciao.

  236. Brad, if you cannot see how waltzing into a thread with a couple hundred posts in it, declaring that the atheists *IN THE THREAD* are being antaginistic, then allowing that some hypothetical religious people, in general, are guilty only of not being religious enough, is not itself antagonistic, ironic, unfair, judgemental, biased, and *righteous*, then I don’t know what to tell you.

    as for the last 50 posts, you havent engaged in the conversation so much as you have *rendered judgement* about it.

    and as for whether I want a secular echo chamber or not, by all means find a post by me anywhere near as judgemental and condemning about religious people in general as you have neen about all the atheists actually on this thread.

    I dont care if you are christian, muslim, jewish, taoist, buddhist, himdu, atheist, or agnostic. Your beliefs are your own personal choice. But your behavior is that of someone standing in judgement, cloaked in self righteousness.

    case in point, you havent engaged in converstion with any atheists on this thread other than to tell them how wrong they are. and yet you accuse ME of wanting an echo chamber? your describing yourself there.

  237. TonyC@#249:
    Care to suggest WHY you object to the description….

    You mean why someone who is living with a bi-polar disorder (and has some experience of real psychotic episodes) would possibly object to “psychosis” being used carelessly by someone who should know better in an attention-grabbing sound bite? At the risk of inspiring our host to doing some mallet-wielding “tone trolling” of his own, I respectfully decline.

  238. tony, “aberration” has a buncch of different meanings.

    deviation from the norm. (how could religion be a deviation from the norm if the norm at least right now is that most people are somewhat religious?)

    an optical definition that means the rendered image doesnt match the original. (completely disconnected to the discussion of religion, unless you were making some metaphor about man created in gods image, but with an abberation.)

    a disorder of the mind (not by the DSM as far as I know. pshychologists dont consider religion to be a symptom of a mental disease, unless you think god spoke to you and told you to kill someone, then they might have a diagnosis.)

    mainly, it cant be an “aberration” from the norm if lots and lots of people are doing it. Unless you want to redefine what normal means to be something like “like me”. but that creates larger problems.

  239. Craig@267: I hear your unwillingness to share the term “psychosis” but how else to describe self-reported episodes of having voices in one’s head? Talking to imaginary (i.e. unsupported by empirical evidence) beings, depending on the religion, talking to people known to be dead and expecting and getting a response. I’m sorry for your particular problem, but it does not mean that religion is not equally a problem.

    Greg@268: I’ll prefix my remarks by noting that ‘normal’ is not a single point, but a distribution.. I’ll also note that yesterday’s normal is not the same as today’s – especially in regards to appropriate societal or behavioral norms,

    The phrase used indicates the extremity of the problem – when religiosity becomes extreme it is most definitely psychotic (suicide bombers, and those who murder doctors are not normal). Religion contains the root and basis of their psychosis. Every religious person (defined as someone who actually practices and believes their religion) is abnormal, from the perspective of current expected societal norms: one does not hear voices in one’s head; one does not expect answers from the questions one asks in one’s internal dialog; one does not have a conversation with an ‘other’ in ones head. These are the behaviors that are abnormal. Note they do not preclude belief in a god, or in anything spiritual. They do indicate that the degree and kind of belief is different from those who treat religion as a club, as something that makes them feel included, that gives them a sense of community. If it were not for the religious label, such persons would be considered mentally aberrant.

    So it can most definitely be considered aberrant.

  240. @Joe P.: This notion that, because of death, we need an eternal God to give our lives meaning seems wrong to me, for the following reason.

    (Note: I’m setting aside the objection that either God exists or he doesn’t, and whether we need him to give our lives meaning shouldn’t actually have any bearing on the matter. That’s not what I’m talking about now.)

    The idea, as I understand it, is that because everyone you know and love will be dead someday, everything is meaningless; so we need an eternal God who cherishes our individual lives and will live forever. That’s why you shouldn’t just shoot yourself in the head.

    It seems like you’re asking for too much! Infinity is a really long time. Suppose God is as you propose, except not eternal. Suppose God will live until the year 29 trillion, and then God will, like everything else, cease to exist. Then, from the perspective of infinity, things are exactly as if there were no God. There will be some point at which nothing exists any more, and nothing we did matters any longer. And 29 trillion years is an instant compared to forever.

    In that scenario, with a mortal but very long-lived God, does that mean that everything is still meaningless and there’s no real reason to keep living?

    If so: really? Whether you should shoot yourself in the head right now depends on something that may or may not happen in the year 29 trillion? That seems like a fragile theory of meaning, if it’s dependent on such distant and probably unknowable cosmic events.

    If not: then what’s the substantive difference between a meaning that lasts 29 trillion years, and a meaning we create ourselves that lasts for the life we’ve got? Why should we not be satisfied with the latter?

    I think the basic problem we’re struggling with here is that we’ve evolved as goal-driven survival machines. The fact, known from science, that everything we’re struggling for is going to snuff out eventually anyway distresses us because there’s no way to deal with it using our daily methods and thought-protocols for surviving. So we reach for other ways to comfort ourselves: philosophy, theology. That’s a fine thing. But I’m personally just as uncomfortable with the idea that that comfort should necessarily rest on something of cosmological scope, or greater. It seems like a consequence of trying to stretch drives evolved to keep us alive one more day into a realm where they can’t possibly apply.

  241. @Matt McIrvin, @Joe P.: This notion that, because of death, we need an eternal God to give our lives meaning seems wrong to me.

    It seems wrong to me, too.

    I give my life meaning in the interactions I have, good, bad, or indifferent with all of the people I encounter, daily, weekly, and throughout my life.
    I give my life meaning in the legacy I leave to my kids – on how to behave, how to love, how to laugh, how to cry, and how to think (but never what to think).
    I give my life meaning though the people I love, and through the people who love me.
    I give my life meaning by striving to be the best I can be in all I attempt, and by attempting more each day.

    I give my life meaning by trying every day to be fully human.

  242. David Ellis@227

    I am going to try this one more time, but after this I don’t think there are any other ways I know how to explain it. I hear what your objection is, and you’re still not speaking to my assertion.

    You say that “just because you insist on putting the words “necessary” and “being” together doesn’t mean that such a thing is really possible.” In every case except for God, this is the case. You can’t just go around arbitrarily predicating necessity on things, because any object in contingent by its nature. This is why Gaunilo’s famous rebuttal to the ontological argument doesn’t work. He claims that if one can pose a necessarily existent God, then one can also pose a necessarily existent island, and clearly this is an absurdity. But the problem is that an island by its nature is limited as well as spacially competetive; to be an island, it must be a mass of land surrounded by a body of water, and it necessarily displaces some other object that might have existed where it currently exists. Hence, one cannot arbitrarily predicate necessity on an island — or indeed any object, because by their very finitude and spacial competetiveness, they are contingent. Hence your squared circle example.

    But the case for God is unique. God is the one being said to be both coextensive with the universe as well as totally noncompetetive in its existence with other entities in the universe. Due to these attributes, there is no contradiction whatsoever is predicating necessity upon God, because God is not forced into contingency by these two factors. In this one case it is perfectly valid by all the rules of modal logic to pose necessity to such a being.

    So, let’s look at this statement: “For any logically possible world X where the being ‘God’ exists one can also imagine a logically possible world Y which is exactly the same in all respects except that the being ‘God’ doesn’t exist.”

    There is a fine distinction to be drawn here. On the one hand, it is possible to conceive of a world in which God exists necessarily, and on the other hand to imagine another world which is the same, except that the existence of God is impossible. This I agree with; it’s what I’ve been saying all along. You *could* also pose a contingent God, but I dismiss this notion because I don’t believe a non-necessary being *could* be God… although I suppose this is a matter of opinion.

    But the second thing that needs to be pointed out about your statement is that if God’s existence is indeed either necessary or impossible, then talking of a world which is “the same in all respects” except for the existence of God is a meaningless statement. If God is necessary, then no amount of imagining can remove God, since God would underwrite the nature of existence itself. And if God’s existence is impossible, then the contrary statement is the case: one cannot imagine an impossible thing, only describe its self-contradictory nature verbally (“squared circle”). That you’ve made such a statement makes me think that you do not fully appreciate the nature of necessity. And it is not only the existence of God that is a non-contingent matter — for instance, I would argue that the statement “nothing exists,” has no meaning, and conversely that the statement “something exists” is a necessary proposition. We could argue about that, but we’d be going pretty far afield. But even more basic than this is my previous example of one statement entailing another statement: the existence of a stop sign requires the existence of matter, by definition. There is nothing contentious about this type of necessity by entailment. In this sense, necessity is everywhere. And there is simply nothing incoherent at all in posing a being whose existence is entailed by everything else that exists. Whether such a being *actually* exists is another matter. But there is nothing *contradictory* about posing the existence of such a being.

    That is about as clear an explanation as I can give. I maintain that there are no contradictions in my statements, that it is perfectly coherent idea to pose a necessary being. If you think there are contradictions, and that such a statement is indeed incoherent, then I think you are confused, but I don’t think I’ll be able to shed any more light on the idea.

    In any case, it’s nothing to get worked up over. It’s simply a statement of God’s modal status, not even a statement saying anything about whether God exists or not.

  243. tony,

    it appears you are trying to redefine “normal” and that comes with its own set of problems. not the least of which is that if belief in religion, not just suicide bombers and people who hear god tell them to kill people, but anyone who holds any unprovable belief, then you just redefined ‘aberration to mean everyone, and changed ‘normal’ to mean a set of nonexistent people.

    everyone believes something. therefore everyone is aberant? It doesnt work that way. and if you dont believe *anything*, you still act on nonrational impulses. we all do. the will to live is not rational. it is emotional. there is no rational objective reason to live other than you *want* to live for one reason or another. maybe because you want to make the world a better place. maybe because you want to live a life of luxury. but it all comes down to the subjective and nonrational impulse that is ‘because I want to’.

    now, if you allow those emotional drives are not abberational, then you have to allow for emotions like sad, happy, angry, and fear. they are all internal drives.God doesnt make you feelthose emotions anymore than god makes you feel the will to live. YOU do. so either you allow that subjective emotions is ‘normal’ or everyone is an aberration and your definition becomes nonfunctional. it doesnt have anyone who is not a member.

    and if you allow emotions such as the will to live as normal then ‘normal’ must allow other emotional reactions and other forms of not-logical thinking. because the will to live isnt logical its emotional.

    and once you allow ‘irrational’ as ‘normal’, then the belief or nonbelief in somsthing like God is ‘normal’, because it is no more rational than the will to live.

    at which point it becomes clear that the definition of ‘normal’ and ‘abberational’ is way, way, WAY, fuzzier than you are tryi.g to define it.

    now, once you get to the point of behavioral problems, then you start getting beyond the purely issue of mind and into the realm of ‘this kind of thinking is abberational. suicide bombers for example. but even then not every suicide bomber hears god talking to them literally.

    your definition is so broad as to include everyone. and seperating abberation from normal becomes a ‘I’ll know it when I see it’ problem. which means if you try to hand the job of abberation hunter over to other people, it will quickly turn i.to a witch hunt of ki.ds of people they dont like.

    if there is no objective measuring, its a meaningless distinction, possibly a dangerous one.

  244. I think what I would say to the ontological argument, just defining God as the one necessary being and ground to all existence, is basically what, I think, Hume said. Fine, we could define God as being that and maybe extract a proof of the existence of God; but this tells us next to nothing about the nature of this thing we are calling God. It certainly doesn’t mean that God is anything like what most people mean when they say “God”: some sort of Person who cares about us in some way.

    Given that, I doubt the name is actually useful in this context without further assumptions.

  245. “That is about as clear an explanation as I can give. I maintain that there are no contradictions in my statements, that it is perfectly coherent idea to pose a necessary being.”

    And I’ve already explained to my satisfaction why you’re not only wrong but obviously wrong. I see no need to flog a dead horse so I’m content to leave it at that.

  246. tony, having pondered it a bit more, what you have is from a functional point of view no different than a potentially dangerous kind of religion.

    you have come up with a definition of who is and is not the “right” kind of people and who are bad people. the definition hinges on a completely subjective definition (have you accepted Jesus Christ as your savior?) And is so impossible to nail down that it could easily be 100 apostles away from turning into a cult.

    The constitution says the government shall make no law regarding the establishment of religion. But I dont think thats really about religion so much as its about saying the state shall not be allowed to create thought police. what you think is your business.

    But what you are talking about is a kind of thought police. if you lump.suicide bombers as no different fromGhandi because they both observe some kind of religion, then there are some seriously dangerous flaws in your proposal.

  247. Greg@273

    I think you are making an error in confusing ‘individual’ behaviors with ‘population’ behaviors.

    All individuals are aberrant to some degree or other (none of us are ‘normal’).

    However – and here is the point – religiosity and religion seem to drive behaviors that are less ‘normal’ than others.

    Religion in a “church on Sunday” and “tea with the vicar” way is nice and normal and inoffensive.
    Religion in a rabid evangelical hell and damnation christianist, or ultra-othodox zionist, or rabidly-factional islamist is not normal.

    Unfortunately for the purposes of dialog – many religionists insist that their religion is of the first sort, and only ‘outliers’ are of the second. This is a problem, for everyone.

    The problem being that religionists of the second sort are most definitely ‘psychotic’ is almost anyone’s eyes – but in real terms they are merely at one extreme in terms of religion and religious belief. They are no different in kind from the vicar and the ladies at the church social, merely different in degree.

    Hence: religion is malignantly psychotic. It is a spectrum disorder that sometimes manifests in psychotic behavior.

  248. Greg

    I didn’t say this was as easy definition. Nor does it mean I want to lock up or treat every single person who claims to be religious. (not at all). I do think that religion is a disorder that makes psychotic behavior easy and accessible — the danger is that we pretty much give it a free rein. (and this is i no way suggesting that atheism is psychosis free…. it’s merely free of that particular path to crazy)

    I do stand by my last post (which crossed with yours)

  249. Joe@272: stop telling god what to do with his dice. my finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. what is god? six pounds of flax. That which can be named is not the Tao.

    God, if there is one, isnt going to disappear just because you used modal logic to disprove his existence. neither will he spring into existence because you prove he must exist.

    a farmer put a baby goose in a glass bottle. he raised the goose in the bottle until it was an adult. now the farmer wants to get the goose out of the bottle without harming the goose or breaking the bottle. how does he do it?

    a wise monk smiled and said ‘there. It is out.’

    I swear there is something annoyingly persnickity about western culture that wants to reduce everything to either the objective world or a language salad.

    god is not language any more than he is calculus, matrix algebra, or boolean logic. good grief.

  250. tony, if none of us are normal then your definition of aberant is useful only in insulting individuals you dont like. abbarant must define when and where an individual falls outside of the distribution that we decide is normal.

    It might be that what you are trying to define has a corresponding word in the dictionary. but I assure you ‘abberrent’ isnt the word your definition fits. or to quote another zen koan: you keep using that word. it does not mean what you think it means.

    I do not know what it is you are actually trying to defi.e because I have been reading looking for a variation of abberant. now that its clear that that isnt the actual word you are defining, even remotely, I could review your more recent posts and try to find the word that fits your definition.

    unless you want to insist that words mean precisely what you want them to mean. in which case I will stop now.

  251. greg@280

    I am using the words precisely and accurately (nicely, as they called it a few centuries back!). I am not engaging in doublespeak or redefinition at all.

    You keep conflating ‘individual’ definitions with ‘population’ definitions. None of us are ‘normal’, by definition – it is an impossible thing to attain. All of us are abnormal to some degree or other – it is simply that in population terms those minor, individual aberrations average out, giving a nice sense of normality for the population as a whole, and adding the required spice to relationships so we are not talking to an echo chamber every day!

    Religion as an individual thing might be (and often is) fairly innocuous. Just like one’s maiden aunt who believes the mailman to be a russian spy. It’s definitely an aberration, it is abnormal, but it is innocuous. It doesn’t harm anyone. Just like tea with the vicar. So, where’s the harm in that, eh?

    That does not mean that religion is innocuous or harmless. It might well be relatively harmless for the vast majority, and therefore societally acceptable (even to the extent of being considered appropriate for participation by almost anyone) but it is fundamentally aberrational in that it invites and requires aberrational modes of thought. The majority will simply go along with the motions, and derive a general sense of well-being or kindred spirits from their religion. Some few will take it to the extreme – and those few demonstrate how dangerous and psychotic religion really is.

  252. tony, yeah, no, Iknow what abberational means. it means deviation from the norm. and yeah, no, I get population versus individual.the population gives a bell curve. someone picks some area under the curve to consider “normal”. 70% 60% 80% whatever. Anyone inside that part of the curve is considered normal. anyone outside thatpart of the curve is considered abberent.

    and no, you are completely wrong about this. Some people reside wholly inside the curve. some individuals are considered ‘normal’ and some are not. I dont know where.you got the notion that ‘everyone is abberent’ but thats simply wrong.

    folks have told you using the term to describe religion is offensive and you ignore them. I am telling you your definition is so wrong to not even be in the dictionary and you ignore that as well. I dont know what to tel you. I said your definition is dangerously close to a dogmatic religion and now you are ignoring everythi.g that anyone tells you that disagrees with this dogma you have about that word. I think thats as far as we can go.

  253. This may be more obnoxious than I intend, if so, please forgive me. For the record, I am very much of the opinion of our host. I was raised in one of those fundamentalist churches, attended a private high school run by another of those fundamentalist churches. After graduation, I, um, left the church. Haven’t been back. I’m 42. My parents and siblings still attend.

    I’m quite pleased that this discussion has been so civil so far. I hope that my comment doesn’t cross the line. But, just for thought, the problem I have with tonyC’s post in #281 is that I have seen pretty much the same argument used in many other places, from the other side. Replace the word religion with any of the following(or pick your own):

    Alcohol consumption
    Playing role playing games
    Playing video games
    Listening to Rock Music
    Dancing
    Sex
    IRC
    Facebook

    It is an argument that is dangerously exclusionary in my opinion. It also relies on definitions of normal, whether individual or general that I don’t think are at all agreed upon.

    My apologies to tonyC, this is not meant as an individual attack. Blame my poor communication skills.

  254. It’s late, and I’m not nearly clever enough to follow all the snark here, and it’s been far too long since I took philosophy or theology. But I have a question. How do atheists or agnostics determine right and wrong? Is there a belief in an objective truth (natural law? something else?), or is everything subjective truth? Or does this vary? I hope this isn’t a stupid question, I’m not trying to be obtuse or deliberately naive, I’ve just always wondered about that. I mean, some things are probably fairly obvious but what about those pesky other things?

  255. David Ellis@275

    *rolls eyes* “Not only wrong but obviously wrong.” Way to rise above the fray.

    Greg@190

    I understand what you’re saying, but in my conception there are no dogmatic moral codes. One of the main tenets of process theology is that the world is constantly advancing into novelty… that not only are all the creatures always changing, but so is God. I very much agree that religions that promise paradise and give some set of moral codes have it wrong. It’s our job to find our own morals, and there is no personal immortality, anyway. I find that whole concept dehumanizing at a basic level.

    If God is posed as a recipient of value, it simply makes more intelligible how there can be ultimate meaning, that’s all. Death poses some tricky problems. For instance, discounting the fact that you probably have friends and family who would miss you, what exactly is wrong in my killing you? After all, when you’re dead, you know long exist to care that you’re dead, or that I killed you. If we don’t contribute any value that lives beyond us, that goes beyond a purely personal and arbitrary meaning, then those kind of questions are difficult to answer.

    Matt McIrvin@270
    tonyC@271

    Fair enough. That’s certainly a legitimate difference of opinion. The important thing that hopefully we can all agree on is that we’re drawn to live for something beyond ourselves, whether it be family, friends, or for some cause strongly held belief, no matter whether it will ultimately turn to dust in a million years or not. Something like the doctrine of heaven and hell strikes me as demonic, hedonistic, self-centered, and dehumanizing. I think we all strive to leave the world a little bit better for our being there, which is what I hear tonyC saying especially.

    We all have ideals which we strive to meet, a picture in our minds of a better world which we try to realize. But I am not so arrogant as to believe that my own ideal describes a utopia incapable of increase. That is both the limit and the glory of the human imagination: that we can imagine a better world, and yet sense, somehow, that even our imagined world hides an even better one. And it is our capacity to sense this second, hidden world, a world beyond even our own imaginations, that defines what it means to be human. That seems to me to be what human progress is all about.

    Greg@279

    Umm… wait… you’re actually *offended* by what I’ve been saying?

    I can appreciate poetry and mysticism about God. I’m a big fan of Teilhard… he was probably the main reason I even entered the theological field in the first place. But I am working in philosophy of religion, and I do think it important that we draw as much from rational arguments as possible — trying to understand God seems preferable to making dogmatic assertions about It. I’m not sure why you would get so worked up over me voicing some of those, especially since it was supposed to be in passing before David Ellis began arguing with me.

  256. Come on Scalzi, we all know that God is just fancy-speak for ancient aliens… speaking of which, don’t you watch Ancient Aliens on the History Channel?

    I thought all of the science fiction authors these days knew about Ancient Aliens.

    Just don’t let the overly excitable and uberly tanned guy with the crazy hair who is always a guest interviewee on Ancient Aliens scare you away.

  257. First, I must identify myself as the original “Mike”on this thread (@70, @179), so kindly ask that subsequent Mikes differentiate themselves, and if others could identify which Mike posts they’re answering it would be very helpful. Osiris bless you all.

  258. isabel@284

    You do the best you can with the information available to you at the time, and hope it works,
    and try to forgive yourself if it fails.

    Which is what religious people do, except that they substitute someone else’s judgement for
    their own; easier in some ways, harder in others.

    Will

  259. On the subject of the afterlife, Morgan Freeman’s new show made some interesting science-ish comments about the possibility. And I have to say I found the kind of posthuman existence posited there kind of depressing. I also found Morgan and later Banks’ ideas of uploading to hell or its equivalent profoundly disturbing.

    The abyss is saying: Hey, you could do worse, no?

  260. “I also found Morgan and later Banks’ ideas of uploading to hell or its equivalent profoundly disturbing.”

    I’ve been wondering for several years now why I’ve never seen a science fiction story about people who were uploaded into a computer running a hell simulation.

    The term I coined for it was a hell box.

  261. Greg@282 – I hear you. I accept that I am failing to communicate well enough, and that you find the label ‘aberrant’, aberrant.

    David@283 – indeed. And there are degrees of acceptance/unacceptance in all of those areas, and that level is socially determined.

    To take one of your examples (alcohoiism).

    Casual drinking and driving seems to be socially acceptable in the US, while in the UK it would be seen as having a drinking problem. The US population norm for ‘OK to drive after drinking’ would fall deeply into the ‘NOT OK to drive’ end of the curve i the UK. The local tolerance for such behavior is different. In the UK, normal american behavior in this regard would be considered irresponsible (at best) and dangerously criminal. Likewise, the brit who refuses to drink anything (I’m driving) is seen as impossibly proper in a US context.

    In other words, the ‘normal’ american exhibits ‘aberrant’ behavior in the UK. The brit exhibits similarly aberrant behavior in the US, but with more socially acceptable consequences, so is not seem as a problem.

    Religion, as a social construct, works in exactly the same way. And it provides the societal support framework for the dangerously psychotic variants.

  262. Isabel@284: How do atheists or agnostics determine right and wrong?

    Everyone has a moral compass. The question is whether religious folks can have enough faith in humans to trust that enough people will follow their compass so that a democratic society could find a way to encode everyone’s compass into legal right and wrong codes.

    The founding fathers didn’t refer to right and wrong being handed down by God, they created a system where people as a group could decide. I think its a good approach.

    Joe@285: what exactly is wrong in my killing you?

    See respone to Isabel above. Because we decided its wrong.

    you’re actually *offended* by what I’ve been saying?

    Not offended. But the language salad stuff drives me batty. Mostly because I used to be a full on, no holds barred, language salad tosser way back when. It doesn’t get anywhere. It can’t get anywhere. Language salad where words refer to other words and those words refer to more words, and none of the words used ever refer to anything outside of language is a waste of time. It doesn’t say anything meaningful if its just words referring to words referring to other words. You don’t exactly what I mean when I say “happy” because you’ll never experience what I experience when I’m happy. You can piece together what it means for you by taking the times I am happy and seeing my external reactions and then looking for when you have similar external reactions, and then you can assume that the internal feeling you feel at that point is likely somewehre near the feeilng I feel when I say “happy”.

    There is no common shared reference whatsoever to the word “God”. It can mean anything to anyone. And it often does. Everything I posted in 279 were from eastern spiritual practices that have as their base of understanding of god the important notion that God is not language and cannot be described by language, cannot be held or contained by language. Many zen koans try to jar the monk out of trying to logically understand god. God is six pounds of flax, is one koan. It doesn’t make any sense because that’s what happens when you try to understand God from language. Taoism has a saying about the Tao, the way of the universe, which is “that which can be named is not the Tao”. The word “tao” is not the way of the universe, it is the word “tao”. And Taoism gets that it is important not to explain god or the way or whatever you call it, but to experience it. The goose in the bottle story is another Zen koan trying to show that God is a logical impossibility and cannot be understood by logic. The goose is removed by complete illogic. “There, it’s out”.

    There is a zen story about the flower sermon. A man stood up on a mountaintop before a group of his followers who had come to hear a sermon from him. He picked up a flower and held it in the air and may have gestured to it (I don’t recall the specifics). One man in the crowd had his “ah ha” moment of satori, understanding, enlightenment at this and smiled. The man who gave the ceremony named the man who smiled his replacement. The story is called the “flower ceremony” google that plus zen and you can get the details.

    Words aren’t needed to understand God. And words can actually get in the way of understanding if you try to figure out which six pounds of flax on the planet are the six pounds that are God. My finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. And it gets me no closer to the moon.

    Spirituality is your relationship to the eternal. That may be God or satori or the Tao or whatever. But you don’t experience the eternal by talking about it anymore than you feel happy by talking about a time in the past when you felt happy.

    Spirituality, like happiness, is way simpler than your language salad is making it out to be. I’m not upset by the language salad. I just know that I was there at one point in my life, tossing language salads about God, and it doesn’t get you any closer to enlightenment.

  263. Mike @ 287: gravatars to the rescue!

    On the whole ontological argument: The proposition that God must be either necessary or impossible could definitely use some justification. I have no trouble imagining worlds with or without one, and nothing seems inconsistent about them.

  264. “what exactly is wrong in my killing you?”

    My thumbnail answer to how atheists ground morality is to ask myself a simple question:

    Is love and compassion worthwhile in and of itself?

    If yes, then we have ourselves a pretty solid basic for morality whether God exists or not. You’d have to say the answer to that question is no to consistently claim that morality is a problem for atheists. And if you do say love has no intrinsic value all I can say is that I’d hate to be looking at the world through your eyes.

  265. tonyc @234: “Tone trolling” does not describe a reaction to the words used, ‘unwarranted’ in the eyes of the speaker or otherwise. “Tone” arguments are a diversionary tactic used to avoid discussing the substance of the argument; if only your tone of voice were nicer, I would have listened to you, but because you were too strident/upset/made me feel guilty, I won’t listen to you, even if I’m in the wrong. There’s some discussion of ‘tone’ issues right here on Whatever in the context of race.

    But ‘tone trolling’ is not the same as paying attention to the actual words people use and the ideas they are trying to convey. Words, in the absence of telepathy or interpretive dance, are how we convey ideas. I hope you would agree with me that there is a difference between “I really don’t think you are correct on this” and “only a complete fucking moron who lives in his parents’ basement and never had a girlfriend would think that was true”. I hope you would also agree with me that it is not “tone trolling” to point out that while I may have been trying to convey the same idea – “you are wrong” – with either sentence, that the latter is unnecessarily rude and insulting, and also conveys other ideas beyond “you are wrong”. (Namely that there is something wrong with the other person’s intelligence, that they are immature and unloved, and other irrelevant things.) Nor would it be intellectually honest of me to claim that pointing this out is “tone trolling”, or that you should clearly look to the idea I was trying to convey (“you are wrong”) instead of getting all hung up on how I said it.

    So when you are trying to say that you believe religion is a flawed mode of thinking that leads to bad results and ought to be discouraged, when you choose the words “malignant psychosis” you are not just strongly expressing that view; you are loading in a lot of other ideas – that religious thoughts are deliberately evil, that having religious belief is akin to serious, function-crippling insanity, that it is an aberration in the correct and normal functioning of the human brain – and it’s more than a little disingenuous to get all wide-eyed and say “what? gosh, guys, why are you attacking my tone?”

    Substantively, “malignant psychosis” is silly. As even you appear to agree, as you’re using some extremely oddball definitions of “aberrant” and “psychosis” (some religious people claim to hear voices, therefore just like psychotics who have auditory hallucinations religious people are all psychotic!) and finally arguing that perhaps it’s that religion “makes psychotic behavior easy and accessible”. What you’re really saying is that religious people are evil fucking lunatics, and if you want to say that, then why are you afraid to own it? Coyly saying that gosh, we’re all aberrant in some way and it’s still psychotic if almost everybody thinks that way just makes you look like you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    Also substantively, by the way, your argument in @291 is not only nonsense, but it’s a more condensed illustration of your shifting-goalposts approach. First you claim that casual drinking and driving “seems” acceptable in the US (to whom? You, apparently), then you argue that this is not only acceptable but “normal” American behavior, that the reverse (refusing to drink because one is driving) is seen as “impossibly proper” in the US, and therefore that the respective behavior of one is seen as “aberrant” in the other culture, QED.

    This is not only a dumb use of the term aberrant, it’s flat-out nonsense, at least as regards the US. Do you live here? Have you actually never heard the term “designated driver”? And you really believe that there is no stigma about drinking and driving in the US, but tons in the UK – which, last I heard, was considering developing special new beer glasses to prevent people from using them in bar fights?

  266. @293: I don’t see anywhere to define an image. And you’re confusing Mikes, as I haven’t spoke about the ontological argument.

  267. TonyC @291: “Casual drinking and driving seems to be socially acceptable in the US, while in the UK it would be seen as having a drinking problem. ” In the areas I’ve lived in the US (Pacific Northwest) and the UK (many places), I would say the exact opposite was the case. The only place I’ve lived where the acceptance of drink driving is at least partially institutionalised is in France where the police will actively avoid policing drink driving after community fêtes because they’d have to arrest too many of their friends and neighbours.

  268. Mythago@296

    yes I live in the states. I spend an inordinate amount of time ‘entertaining clients’, I see the behaviors I described routinely. In business there are no ‘designated drivers’. I’m definitely not ‘behaving as my peers’ if I limit myself to one beer or glass of wine and drink only sparkling water for the remainder of the evening.

    In social settings, yes – there are often designated drivers… but there doesn’t seem to be much traction in the 30+ population (in business, within my suburban neighborhoods, or in other occasions where alcohol has been present) .

    I’ll share an anecdote – only in the US have I ever heard the notion that it’s OK to drink all night and still be sober enough to drive… (one beer every 30 minutes is fine).

    Regarding UK pub violence & plastic drinking vessels. A non sequitur, since the vast majority of pub goers in the UK walk, bus, or train to their drinking establishment. Drinking, especially among younger people more likely to binge drink or engage in ‘partisan arguments’, can lead to violence, and this is simply a recognition of that fact. This has nothing to do with ‘designated drivers’ nor anything to do with whether it is socially acceptable to drink and drive.

    Beyond that – I hear you regarding my choice of words. That particular horse is now begging for mercy. mea culpa. I stand corrected. I beg forgiveness, m’lud. and. so. on.

  269. Casual drinking and driving seems to be socially acceptable in the US, while in the UK it would be seen as having a drinking problem. ” In the areas I’ve lived in the US (Pacific Northwest) and the UK (many places), I would say the exact opposite was the case.

    There are places in the US where drunk driving is at least overlooked, and in Montana it appaears to be a matter of policy –

    http://www.aolnews.com/2011/03/31/montana-rep-alan-hale-says-dui-laws-are-destroying-a-way-of-li/

    Yup. He actually said that enforcing drunk driving laws was “destroying our way of life”. Yikes.

  270. Mike, waaaay back @ 206, said, “why one might need some comfort beyond science.

    This is an assumption you need to let go of and your need to let it go right now.

    When comforting a a friend who has lost a loved one to, say, a car accident, who is asking “Why did this happen?” you will not find an atheist whose response would be, “Well, assuming a coefficient of friction of 2.37, the stopping distance of that make of car, travelling at 65 mph, would have been…” Because no one does this. You seem to be setting up “science” as some sort of alternate, heathen god, and positing that “atheists” are exactly the same as you, except all of their “religious” platitudes are couched in scientific, not scriptural terms. And then, after you’ve set up this non-existent atheistic faith, you want to knock it down for a lack of logical consistency, given that some things religion claims knowledge on (the afterlife, the meaning of life), “science” can’t/won’t answer.

    I’m gonna go out on a limb and speak for many people I’ve never met. I’m going to suggest that a “typical” atheist, when faced with that question (Why did this have to happen?), will answer simply, “I don’t know.” No, that answer is not universally comforting, but if you think “God works in mysterious ways” is universally comforting, even to theists, you’ve got another think coming. But, “I don’t know” – insofar as “mysterious ways” is an admission to not knowing the mind of God – is universally honest, and universally true.

    Isabel @ 284 said, “How do atheists or agnostics determine right and wrong?

    The same way everyone else does, believe it or not. And everyone else determines it from everyone else. Humans are social creatures, regardless of origins. We live in groups, and in order to live in groups, we all have to conform to sets of rules governing our behavior. We learn those rules through a combination of observing other humans in action, and from direct instructions we receive from other humans. Look at any social system, religious or secular, and you will find certain constants: a prohibition against killing other humans (often followed by a laundry list of conditions when killing is acceptable), a prohibition against theft, a prohibition against adultery (often tied into the prohibition against theft, because wives are property, of course *eyeroll*), etc.

    Right and wrong isn’t objective. It’s about “what behavior will bring society down on my head if I do it? What behavior is rewarded by society, and what behavior is punished.” All religion does is places final social authority in the hands of the supernatural (God, karma, whatever). Which, frankly, is kind of weird, if one believes that justice (read: reward and punishment) delayed is justice denied.

    Joe @ 285 said, “…what exactly is wrong in my killing you? After all, when you’re dead, you know long exist to care that you’re dead, or that I killed you.

    Aside form the social structures I describe to Isabel above, let me, if I may, answer your tricky question with another tricky question: Christianity claims not only that there is an afterlife, but also that that afterlife is infinitely better than life.* So, given that in all likelihood you’ll be going to an infinitely better place, what exactly is wrong with my killing you? Sure, while it’s a good deal for you – and since the afterlife is infinitely better than life, it is without question a good deal for you – it might be bad for me (see below). But then again, unless I’m doing a murder-suicide thing, don’t I have time to get forgiveness, to balance my books, as it were?

    * Some sects also claim that there is the possibility of an afterlife infinitely worse, but also claim that if you end up there, it’s your own damn fault.

  271. Doc, I don’t think Mike made very many assumptions about atheism. He seemed to be asking for information, for understanding, not asking loaded, baited, or push-poll type questions, to knock atheism or something.

    There has been at least one poster who was clearly biased towards religion, made a point to insult all the atheists on the thread, didn’t converse with any atheists on the thread except to tell them how wrong they were, and then flew the coop when called on it. But Mike wasnt one of them.

  272. Greg’s right. Mike did intially appear to be heading that way, and made some very poor and ill-supported statements about atheism which he was called out for, but it became clear after a time that a.) he really didn’t know anything about atheism and wasn’t trying to pretend otherwise (though admittedly it seemed otherwise at first, including and especially to me) and b.) his questions were motivated by a deep need to find answers in the wake of something horrible – and most importantly, to understand how and why people unlike himself arrived at their answers and what those answers mean to them.

    He sought – and needed – empathy and straight talk; he was just having great difficulty making it clear where he was coming from. But after a while he did manage to communicate that, and we made sure that he received it. Whether what was said was helpful is unclear as yet, but I hope he’ll be okay. I also hope he’ll show up again, because once we got synced up he did engage our points directly, honestly, and personally.

    (And, yeah; Obvious Troll was Obvious. But he managed to keep his disdainful sneer fixed firmly in place as he flounced, so that deserves a golf clap).

  273. David Ellis @290: One of the sub-subplots in Greg Egan’s Permutation City essentially has a guy doing this to himself (though there’s more to it than that).

    Stanisław Lem wrote a fictional essay, “Non Serviam”, written as a review of a fictitious book by the same name, a monograph on the study of virtual worlds containing their own indigenous sentient inhabitants, who eventually form hypotheses about the nature of their creator. Their creator, the computer scientist who created the simulation and is running it on a mainframe in his lab, feels tremendous guilt about the whole thing. At one point he points out that he could, if he wanted to, create a virtual heaven and hell attached to the computer as peripheral units, and reward or torture beings of his choosing in the afterlife; but that if he did so, he’d consider it even worse than what he’s doing.

  274. Gibbon, as always, has the last word:

    The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.

    Will

  275. Just happened to see this today, the air force is stopping a training course it gives officers who launch nuclear weapons which justified launching said weapons based on christian doctrine. Course material included images of and quotes from Christian saints, quotes from the bible, and a discussion of a concept called Christian Moral War Theory.

    http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/us/2011/08/03/tsr.starr.af.religious.ethics.cnn

    At one point, the video mentions that the airforce has been administering this course for something like twenty years….

  276. Eric @301: I’m sure that attitudes and behaviors vary across the US, just as they do in Britain. It’s a bit silly to say that based on anecdata that everybody in the US thinks “designated driver” is a synonym for “uptight teetotaller”. I don’t doubt that Tony has seen some appallingly irresponsible behavior (haven’t we all?), but as Mike @298 points out, his own anecdata leads to the opposite conclusion.

  277. Mythago @308

    I’m sure that attitudes and behaviors vary across the US, just as they do in Britain.

    Yes, indeed; that’s the point of the statement I made and the article to which I linked. The discussion being held about drunk driving seemed to rest on near-absolutist positions (“It’s widely considered fine here, but widely persecuted over there!” “No, it isn’t!” “Yes, it is!”). There’s a spectrum of views, and some of the outliers in that spectrum can be pretty apalling.

  278. Greg@307: I agree that this training course is incredibly problematic from a First Amendment perspective. That said, to play Devil’s advocate (hehe), I can understand why an Air Force officer would be tempted to add those materials to the presentation. Given the demographic make-up of the U.S., there’s a fairly good chance a person charged with launching the missile is a Christian. And given human nature, there’s a almost certain chance the person charged with launching the missile is going to have moral qualms about it. So, it would be tempting to provide a Christian justification for launching the missile in order to assuage that person’s qualms.

    By the way, this is why I would have no interest in being the president of the United States (not that the country would ever elect someone like me to that position). Knowing that some day, you might be responsible for the incineration of millions of my fellow humans–no thanks.

  279. CLP, the Air Force did a study back in 1983 and found many officers were unable to ‘turn the key’ when they thought it would trigger an actual launch. They subsequently changed the system over to a computer-controlled system called War Operation Plan Response, which now gives a direct connection between the president’s “football” and nuclear launch.

    Some have suggested this system may prove an even weaker link than human operators, since there would be no way to know for sure for example if the designer of the system left a back door into the system. Others argue that it is not a good idea to leave strategic nuclear decisions in the hands of a computer that hasn’t even run through the most rudimentary games of elimination to extract a deeper understanding of whether it even makes sense to start a war if no one can win it.

    As for POTUS having blood on his hands, I dont think there is a single president that has clean hands. junior probably has at least a couple hundred thousand dead Iraqi civilians on his hands. Obama continues Iraq and Afghanistan and started wars in Yeman and Libya. Guantanamo has been moved to Baghram. He has signed off on assasinating an american citizen.Clinton maintained Iraq embargo which caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands alone. Bush has Kuwait among others. And Carter started the afghan revolt against the soviet union.

  280. the Air Force did a study back in 1983 and found many officers were unable to ‘turn the key’ when they thought it would trigger an actual launch. They subsequently changed the system over to a computer-controlled system called War Operation Plan Response

    This system, however, crashed a few weeks later, when it realized that it couldn’t win at tic-tac-toe.

  281. Mike @ 297: No, I’m not mixing up Mikes. The gravatar is based (partly?) on email, so you two have distinct gravatars. In particular, yours is green, other Mike’s is blue.

    The other subject of my post was not to any Mike at all. The point of ‘Concerning…’ was to change the subject.

  282. If you are interested in evidence that “entities” or “psycho-affective forces” can account for early humanities religion and the gods talking to people…
    I recomend Dr Jaynes “The Origin of Conciousness in the Breakdown of the Bi-Cameral Mind”- in breif he builds a case for (but died with his work unfinished so it’s only a good case not airtight) the position that the lateralization of the brain – in particular the auditory and speech processing centers on each hemisphere once operated in a fundamentally different way (like we used to use DOS and now we use windows 95) and the right hemispheres operation caused people to receive commands and instructions and visions as well as the result of the more intuitive processing of the right hemisphere -think oracles and omens- from seemingly outside sources. He argues that this was an important method for our right hemishpere to share the result of its processing with the left hemishere to result in useful action. ie Marduke comes and tells the preists it is time to irrigate the fields and plant food. He does this every year arround the same time, when the right hemisphere collects enough data about the length of the day and the humidity in the air fortelling the monsoon and many other bits of data (the kind of data Sumerian preists were futzing about with in their rituals) ALL THIS IS INTUITIVELY PACKAGED AND YOU HEAR THE GOD SAY IT IS TIME TO PLANT! When a preponderance of the preists have heard it then it is time to plant.
    I fail to do the book justice and recomend it to anybody interested in a different look at early society and early human religious behavior.

  283. How do we know right from wrong? This has not always been a religious issue like it is for many people today. Many people assume that without Yahwey , jesus, mo and the like to tell us murder is wrong and theiving from your own tribe is wrong- that people would be without any restraint and the blood would run in the streets ankle deep from all the monsters who are only restrained by ,,, what exactly? Fear of punnishment in some “other” life? Seriously?
    Look at the Classicalk World, Zeus and Hercules and the like behaved like a bunch of sociopaths rapeing ad killing etc immoral to the max. The supernatural world did not proscribe murder etc instead moral behavior was seperated for the most part from their magical world. Ethics, one of the branches of philosophy, was where this got handled.
    The fact is that the biggest and in many ways most successful lie of the monotheists have used to convince people to be monotheists is that morality and magic are tied at the hip. Inseperable.

    It’s kinda like how the religious right in these United States desperatly tries to convince people that a person can’t be a foreign policy hawk and be for sound fiscal policy be pro-gun, and pro-small government unless you are also a beleiver that the big man in the sky watches you when you masturbate.

  284. @Kris Casey #315 I have heard this hypothesis, or one like it before, but I feel it’s necessary to be very skeptical of that one. From your description, it sounds as though the hypothesis depends on the idea that mental processes are exclusively managed by one side of the brain or the other. The idea of being “right brained” or “left brained” has been popular far longer than it’s been considered scientifically accurate. Long story short, the functions of the brain are not laterally isolated, so any theory relying on that isolation falls apart.

    Of course, I haven’t read the work you’re referring to, so it’s entirely possible I’m misunderstanding the hypothesis.

  285. At the risk of a mallet, I too will jump in after reading most of the 300+ posts prior to this.

    It seems to me that there are many folks require a simple reminder of the difference between the words “evidence” and “proof”. I read folks tossing around the words “proof for/against [insert any deity here]” i their writings but they’ve clearly missed the distinction between evidence/proof, no?

    “Proofs” only exist in mathematics. You can’t “prove” deity XYZ exists/don’t exist any more than you can “prove” the moon is/isn’t made of a nice Stilton cheese (or bacon). I can’t even “prove” my wife exists right now, in the sense that I can’t currently see and interact tangibly with her.

    But “evidence” (i.e., moon dust) is what we humans use to build from a theory to an accepted fact. And we use this gathered evidence in the scientific method to simply try to falsify a theory/hypothesis about, for example, the world around us or the cosmos etc. Science doesn’t set out to “prove” a hypothesis is correct, it’s correct use is to falsify our ideas so we can build better theories about things.

    If we have a theory and a strong, well-tested set of evidence that, after repeated testing (in some cases centuries, i.e., Darwin), we can not falsify, we generally accept that theory as a scientific fact. Gravity and evolution being two theories that are, without question, “facts”. We may not fully understand all of the mechanisms that make something work, and there may be gaps in small bits of the theory and our knowledge, and any theory that humans have accepted as “fact” can certainly be shaken to their core and even discarded based on new evidence that falsifies the original theory (we commonly call the people who discover these better theories geniuses/the giants upon whose shoulders we stand), but it doesn’t make the process of testing things, and the scientific method itself, any less valid.

    So (where in Bast’s name was I?) … Oh, right. That’s the problem with religion and evidence of a deity. There has been no evidence brought forward by religions that can be tested and falsified to determine whether their theory that a deity exists is, in fact, a fact. Religious faith is, seemingly, belief in something without any supporting evidence, and in many cases, a clear denial of both evidence we do have and accepted “facts” (I don’t need to quote Mark Twain here, I’d wager).

    There’s also no reason to believe that a purple badger, or even a nicely toned Abyssinian cat, pressed a “start” button to get this whole thing going when there are a wealth of theories that can be tested and falsified based on evidence; theories that can explain even how the universe got it start in the first place. (As an aside, even that statement may be wrong. Neil Turok has also extensively written, and is testing his “endless universe” theory, the idea that whether or not the universe as we see it even needed a start, given the number of kludges that the Big Bang theory needs to explain things we observe.)

    There’s also, always, seems to be a great deal made along the lines of “Just because you can’t provide me evidence there is no deity, doesn’t mean there isn’t one!” flawed argument.

    Just because I claim there’s an invisible, massless, planet sized purple teapot circling Saturn doesn’t make it as likely as not. Given what we know of how the universe works, the evidence based on the testable “facts” we’ve gathered, it does not support my teapot theory, any more than a religious person’s theory about an invisible deity. And let’s not even get into the problems of logic and inaction around the whole omnipotence thing, or who/what created the deity (and who created the creator etc), or the validity/accuracy of translated, millennium old religious texts.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is, as an atheist (a person who has no beliefs in any deities), I simply can not fathom that any of the 10,000+ practised religions in the world today (according the senior editor of the largest Christian encyclopedia in print) being right about the existence of a deity, based most singly on lack of evidence. Deities are, at the very very very best, unlikely, so why believe? Hoping one exists seems a waste of our very limited time on this grain of dust in the universe, and given history and current religious strife, and the thousands of on-going, contentious civil rights/legal vs religious freedoms messes, and the idea it’s better to tell a child what to think instead of teaching them how to think, I’d say organized religion causes more harm than good in the world, anyway, but YMMV.

    Religions need to provide physical, tangible, demonstrable, repeatable evidence for a deity theory that can be tested and falsified and let it be tested. If this evidence exists, then you’ d be foolish not to accept it.

    Otherwise, let’s simply accept that we are born, will live, and then cease to exist like a mouse that froze overnight or a 400 year old redwood that rots to the ground of a Pacific coast forest (unless fear of the unknown holds you back from doing so). That view helps me be a better person (an an atheist) because I know every social and economic and environmental and moral and ethical decision I make has consequences in my community and the social and geographic world around me That, not the threat of punishment after my death, is what makes me a (passably) good person. I hope my kids think so, anyway.

    To end, two quote from Richard Feynman are applicable, I think …

    “It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving … the possible and impossible.”

    “I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.”

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