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So much talk of the god-shaped hole
March 31, 2013 8:25 AM   Subscribe

"Most of us are introduced to God at about the same time as we hear about Santa Claus, but over the years our views of Santa mature and change, while our notion of God often gets stuck at an infantile level."

The NewStatesman asks "After God: What can atheists learn from believers?"
posted by Brandon Blatcher (228 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
[New New Atheists] argue that a secular state need not demand of the religious that they put their most cherished beliefs to one side when they enter public debate; only that they shouldn’t expect those beliefs to be accepted without skepticism.
I guess I'm just an Old New Atheist, but I absolutely believe that whens someone argues from a premise I don't accept, that their argument is an empty one for me. What kind of fool would start an argument to a theist with: As we both know there is no god, therefore …?
posted by jepler at 8:46 AM on March 31, 2013 [8 favorites]


For me, the link was entirely worth it for this paragraph:
We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.
Bingo. And with that, I should get ready for the 10:00 a.m. service, with I am accompanying a friend to.
posted by jokeefe at 8:49 AM on March 31, 2013 [37 favorites]


It's interesting to me that most of these essays are focused on the perils and shortcomings of Christianity and no other religions are really being mentioned in anything but the most general and vague terms. It's as if they only have superficial knowledge of Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and other religions, and their proponents.

It makes me wonder if these folks have ever spoken to a conflicted, thoughtful theist. Many of us who are theists, both Christian and non, spend years thinking about, adapting, evolving and perhaps even struggling with our faith and beliefs, and certainly not following them blindly.

Ah well.
posted by zarq at 8:53 AM on March 31, 2013 [30 favorites]


"The biblical God is a “starter kit”; if we have the inclination and ability, we are meant to move on." -- Karen Armstrong

The problem with statements like this, which would make religion much more tolerable, is that there's no support for them in the original texts. The only allowance are for "prophets" and the like which generally claim to have a direct hotline to god, and anyone who'd really evolved wouldn't make such a claim.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 8:54 AM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think atheists can and should have a great deal of respect for the narrative power of religious myth and the way it relates to the human condition. Just as much respect as they have for Aesop's Fables or AMC's Breaking Bad. But there's no reason to qualitatively elevate the religious fables above the secular ones.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:58 AM on March 31, 2013 [72 favorites]


The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.

Where do I even start? Who advocates disenchantment? Nobody. What's the difference between "enchanted" and "passing oppressive laws against anyone who doesn't believe The One True Interpretation Of Some Very Old Fantasy Writing"? Everything.
posted by DU at 8:58 AM on March 31, 2013 [43 favorites]


I just don't get the "god-shaped hole" thing or the notion that religious non-belief robs one of meditation, reflection, transcendent experiences, consolation, reassurance, community, fellowship, ability to get outside the self, exploration of what existence means, contemplation of one's place in the cosmos, etc., etc.

The freedom from religion (belief and organizational participation) in my life hasn't affected my access to any of those things one tiny bit. Now, it is pretty much impossible to find a secular bell choir, place where people get together in groups and sing en masse, or free pancake breakfast, but that's about it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 8:59 AM on March 31, 2013 [35 favorites]


The problem with statements like this, which would make religion much more tolerable, is that there's no support for them in the original texts.

Religions are living communities and not just collections of texts. Many religions have no canonical texts. Certain religions possess different tenets for different social groups. Some religions are non-exclusive, and their communities permit the practice of other religions. But many, many religions with canonical texts give those texts non-obvious meanings, or are uncertain of the most accurate, useful or doctrinally consistent interpretations of those texts.
posted by mobunited at 9:01 AM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.

Atheists also have imaginations and also create art. They also enjoy being joyous and experiencing awe, and excellent craft beers
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 9:04 AM on March 31, 2013 [19 favorites]


Atheists also have imaginations and also create art. They also enjoy being joyous and experiencing awe, and excellent craft beers

Read the quote in context. That's not what the writer was talking about.
posted by jokeefe at 9:06 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


But many, many religions with canonical texts give those texts non-obvious meanings, or are uncertain of the most accurate, useful or doctrinally consistent interpretations of those texts.

Admitting uncertainty would be a great start. If it wasn't apparent, my complaints were directed at religious fundamentalists, primarily of the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem varieties.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:07 AM on March 31, 2013


But there's no reason to qualitatively elevate the religious fables above the secular ones.

There is. These fables are used as frameworks for the moral and social outlooks of large numbers of human beings. This means that they possess a different order of importance. When the framework they create includes something objectionable, there is a special obligation to fight it. When the framework creates praiseworthy results, this should be accorded some respect. The idea that you should simply judge all things based on the most accessible interpretations of their texts or stories, without accounting for the contexts in which those exist, is mistaken.
posted by mobunited at 9:07 AM on March 31, 2013 [8 favorites]


I just don't get the "god-shaped hole" thing

It's more or less entirely projection. Humans certainly have a propensity for making up his shaped things but it's not like the knowledge that it's just humans doing that leaves you wandering and weeping bereft of an inner life...

Of course, if Dawkins did have a god shaped hole and Went all Jesusy in his later life it would be about the only thing that could make him more annoying.
posted by Artw at 9:10 AM on March 31, 2013 [10 favorites]


What can atheists learn from believers?

How to gather in one place and talk to each other in a normal social manner, instead of proudly reciting bits of Our Opinions 101 to each other.

and now to read the article
posted by jinjo at 9:10 AM on March 31, 2013 [17 favorites]


instead of proudly reciting bits of Our Opinions 101 to each other.

and now to read the article


If this was a deliberate irony it's hilarious. If it wasn't, it is also hilarious.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:15 AM on March 31, 2013 [30 favorites]


This article gives religion too much credit, and science too little. As usual.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:18 AM on March 31, 2013 [15 favorites]


There are countries already where a quarter to a third of people are atheists. This number is rising. Atheism is doing just fine on its own. The idea that atheists need to be told to "rescue" elements of religion strikes me as bizarre. When I grew up, we went to a Southern Baptist church. We had a potluck every week. Do I need to be told, now that I am an atheist, that I can still share food and fun with friends? No. If I feel the need for something, I'll act on that need.

The point is that religious people figured out what they needed in the past, and incorporated into their lives. Since these things are not linked to any specific belief structure -- what the writers are talking about is not unique to any religion -- there's no reason why nonreligious people won't spontaneously find ways of incorporating their core in their lives too.

It's not like nonreligious people are totally different from everyone else, and blind to their own needs. We don't need to be told these things. All this is terribly patronizing to atheists, as if they are somehow too dumb to know what they need. If things are really necessary to the human experience, we'll have them in our lives. If not, we won't.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 9:23 AM on March 31, 2013 [40 favorites]


This article gives religion too much credit, and science too little. As usual.

It's predicated on Dawkins et al being representative of atheists for a start. It's not like finding a bunch of equally awful and intolerant religious types is a stretch.
posted by Artw at 9:23 AM on March 31, 2013


Admitting uncertainty would be a great start. If it wasn't apparent, my complaints were directed at religious fundamentalists, primarily of the Jewish, Christian, and Moslem varieties.

This is an odd way of doing so; your phrasing kind of accepts that they've interpreted their texts more accurately than non-fundamentalist sects. But all fundamentalists stray from even the most straightforward interpretations of their own core texts. This is not to say that there *is* a correct interpretation, but no sect is free from roundabout reasoning.

I think the best comparison is really between popular atheism and popular religious belief, and not intellectuals from each tradition. In these discussions we often get an imbalance where intellectuals on one side hammer popular belief on the other, mostly because it's much easier to win a fight that way. For example, a lot of atheist rage about Protestants thanking God for things stems from a basic misunderstanding of what that means . . . but it is a popular misunderstanding, too. Similarly, it's easy to crush the idiots who spout naive evo psych narratives that have trickled down from popular science books.

When people leave their religion's community, they often come around to finding their religion, or at least the elements that get obscured by the lay community and its biases. The average Catholic or Protestant doesn't know that the original doctrinal division that caused the Reformation was resolved, for example. The average American Protestant doesn't know that prayers and thanks to God are addressing things that according to doctrine, God has already decided.

Similarly, I would hazard a guess that the average atheist has a hazy understanding of the scientific method, and that many of them believe evolution possesses some kind of path ending in super-cool intelligent beings like us. Many religious people I speak to, when they get into it with atheists, are not dismayed by atheism as much as the abject stupidity with which some atheists invoke their intellectual touchstones. These are people who feel an antipathy to fundamentalist idiots, and re disappointed to find the same lack of rigor across the hall. And in all cases, the smart people are pretty concerned with maintaining their camps, and seem willing to dumb it down a bit for them. Atheist communities can take the high road by insisting on the higher standard religions don't.
posted by mobunited at 9:35 AM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should.

Yikes. One should be careful using terms with some very disturbing political implications. "Year Zero" is very much the sort of fear many extreme christian fundamentalists have regarding a purely secular world.

Yes, I understand the traditional definition of Year Zero. However, on cannot blithely toss-around the term without being fully aware of its recent usage and meaning. It would be a bit like incorporating a swastika into a design and defending it entirely on the basis of it being an ancient religious symbol. While being correct, it's also highly naive.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:36 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


How to gather in one place and talk to each other in a normal social manner, instead of proudly reciting bits of Our Opinions 101 to each other.

You know that's all that mass is, right. I mean for gods sake, you stand up and say the nicene/apostles creed every Sunday.
posted by empath at 9:42 AM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


your phrasing kind of accepts that they've interpreted their texts more accurately than non-fundamentalist sects

No, but that's exactly the issue I was referring to. It doesn't matter if they're "correct" or not. Their style of interpretation implicitly assumes they are correct and they have received the literal word of God/Yahweh/Allah.

The texts themselves reinforce this style of interpretation by providing "historical" examples of such things.

I'm well aware that more liberal denominations would view that elevation of the texts to an almost idolatrous level, but the exist none the less. In the case of Christianity, that's sort of a side effect of the Reformation, which freed each reader of the Bible to interpret it in his or her own way, but some of those interpretations are pretty harmful.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:48 AM on March 31, 2013


[Please make an effort to discuss the link rather than rehearsing general opinions about theism/atheism; thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:49 AM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


So, why does the notion of replacing religion with culture, of living according to the lessons of literature and art as believers live according to the lessons of faith, continue to sound so peculiar to us?

Does this actually sound peculiar to anyone?
posted by Huck500 at 9:49 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


My "practice" of atheism is incredibly simple. I truly do not give a shit what you believe, and I am never going to give you a problem about it... until you for your part either A) get in my face about it and/or B) abuse democracy by foisting your religion on me in the form of laws. Then I'm going to push back very, very hard. The end.

To call this "intolerance" is such a stretch that it can only be done by someone whose reason is completely lost to an imaginary world.. My tolerance is limitless until you actually fuck with me.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:50 AM on March 31, 2013 [64 favorites]


Read the quote in context. That's not what the writer was talking about.

I did, and I still don't understand. Who is he talking to, and who is he taking about? What is the enchanentment, and who is he saying is advocating against it?
posted by rtha at 9:57 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's an interesting mixed set of short essays. Thanks Brandon.

Like jokeefe, I thought Francis Spufford's essay was excellent. Jim Al-Khalili did a good job of succintly outlining the problems a lot of atheists have with religion and with the attitudes of fellow atheists like Sam Harris and Dawkins. Alain de Botton's essay was mostly incoherent ...
posted by nangar at 10:08 AM on March 31, 2013


Most of us are introduced to God at about the same time as we hear about Santa Claus, but over the years our views of Santa mature and change, while our notion of God often gets stuck at an infantile level.

Personally I would say that my beliefs in Santa and God matured and changed in exactly the same way - as I got older and learned more about the world, I came to the conclusion that they were both human inventions. It's the people who never come to that conclusion that I don't understand. It's as if our society is run by people who believe that Santa Claus is real, and base real-world policies and laws on the notion that he is up there making a list of who is naughty and who is nice.
posted by oulipian at 10:18 AM on March 31, 2013 [10 favorites]


Derbyshire: They glance at the stately pile of story and myth bequeathed to humanity by religion and quickly move on, pausing only to ask of the benighted millions who continue to profess one faith or another that they keep their beliefs to themselves and don’t demand that they be heard in the public square.

This ignores the praise that Hitchins and Dawkins have expressed for works like the KJV Bible.

Supfford, I suspect, doesn't understand Puritanism or atheism.

Armstrong's critique of god-as-Santa was largely directed toward religion.

Holloway gets points from me for noting that thinkers on both sides are probably more complex than they get credit for.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:20 AM on March 31, 2013


The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.

So much of this article is like this: taking an idealized view of the role that religion and their ministers actually play in the lives of adherents. As though all chrurches and any church has always and only been kindly and ministrative, as opposed to oppressive, cruel, extractive and with deliberate policies of promoting fear and ignorance. Note that I do not characterize religion itself this way, but no-one acquainted with history can deny that this has been the religious experience for many populations over many centuries.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:24 AM on March 31, 2013 [12 favorites]


Also, very well said, Philosopher Dirtbike. Much better said than some of our linked essayists.
posted by nangar at 10:32 AM on March 31, 2013


Intolerance, a hard sell, and legislating belief or non-belief are pretty shitty no matter whether they come from atheists or believers.


thinkers on both sides are probably more complex than they get credit for.

Yep. Though both sides have their non-thinkers as well. Also, why are they sides? I'm not opposed to anything except people being assholes.
posted by Foosnark at 10:34 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Every Sunday I gather with a group of friends. We drink special libations, share the good news, and sometimes work together on charitable projects.

Church group? Nope, my crafting group that meets in bars. I don't need "believers" to teach me that a gathering of like-minded friends is fun and satisfying.

And I have never, ever, ever in my life felt the need to have a priest to talk to. I don't have an appeal to authority personality. Instead, I have mentors, friends and family to talk to - people with real-world experience who I trust without any false authority given to them by a hierarchical institution.
posted by Squeak Attack at 10:41 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Here's Carl Sagan on the size of the universe. That's not disenchantment. Science can and should evoke awe and wonder without making reference to religion. I worry about the soul of anyone who doesn't feel awestruck when they hear about the best new findings in biology or astronomy.

Speaking as a Christian, I think it's important to ask what believers can learn from atheists. Rather a lot, actually.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:43 AM on March 31, 2013 [21 favorites]


> It's predicated on Dawkins et al being representative of atheists for a start.

So Stephen Jay Gould wins after all? Fuller waves "you go, Stephen" flag for both punctuated equilibrium and non-overlapping magisteria.
posted by jfuller at 10:44 AM on March 31, 2013


From the article: For centuries in the west, there was a figure in society who fulfilled a function that is likely to sound very odd to secular ears. The priest didn’t fulfil any material need; he was there to take care of that part of you called, rather unusually, “the soul”, by which we would understand the seat of our emotions and of our deep self.

I lean towards atheism myself, but in a hospital I will ask for clergy. Why? Their job is to comfort you, help you make sense of things, and just plain care.
posted by IndigoRain at 10:56 AM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


>>But there's no reason to qualitatively elevate the religious fables above the secular ones.

>There is. These fables are used as frameworks for the moral and social outlooks of large numbers of human beings. This means that they possess a different order of importance.

Can you explain how? That is, how religious fables function as social frameworks in a substantially different way to advertisements, celeb gossip and filmed media? I don't see how religiosity deserves any special privileging in this regard - all form/transmit/discuss our mores and morals comparably, and if anything the new media are orders of magnitude more effective and extended and important than religiosity.
posted by forgetful snow at 10:57 AM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


As long as any random individual, acting on the basis of his (or her) single viewpoint, can posit a structure and intent to the universe and use it to manipulate the emotions and rights of other people, I cannot afford it the same qualities as science, which at its core simply seeks to understand the interconnections of the components of the universe, using a useful, proven method of inquiry. I will not extend reverence to fantasy, nor credit wisdom when it is self-granted.

Paper is not stone. Wishing is not energy. Fantasy is not reality. Religion is not fact. Consensus is not truth, in and of itself.

Atheism is not a religion. It is an observation.

As a species, we must embrace things that work in the interests of self-preservation. We must abandon magical thinking and blind allegiance to the fantasies prevalent where we are born in favor of invariant, consistently criticized truths that are demonstrable anywhere. This is our only way of of the hole of ignorance and stupidity that is the easy resting place of the weak mind.

This isn't to say that this is not a wondrous place we occupy. It certainly is. The magnitude of it all inspires reverence in me, convinces me of my insignificance, and imbues me with a commitment to enjoy my limited time and to help my fellows get through the dark night of knowledge that our perceived mortality hands us. All of these emotions may be accessible to the religious, but in me, at least, they do not inspire an urge to murder and suppress those who don't parrot my vaporous dreams of magical entities pulling the strings based on my good and bad acts, my good and bad thoughts, and how much money I put in a basket.
posted by FauxScot at 11:14 AM on March 31, 2013 [16 favorites]


Who advocates disenchantment? Nobody.

You are not a Morrissey fan, clearly.
posted by jimmythefish at 11:17 AM on March 31, 2013 [14 favorites]


One thing that religion provides some (many?) people with is answers, especially to the question "why?" While the "true nature of god" may be unknowable, the answer to everything else becomes "because it was god's will." Life hits us all with a lot of random unpleasantness, and it's comforting to think it's all for a reason, I imagine.

I also, as an atheist, don't care at all what you believe until you start passing laws and otherwise try to impose your beliefs on people who don't share your world-view.
posted by maxwelton at 11:17 AM on March 31, 2013


A. It is true?
B. What does it mean?


A. Nobody really knows.
B. There is no agreement.

What lies in the God-shaped hole? Some one or another, or a group of, gods, of course. What beast lies in the darkness? The one you fear. What kind of afterlife is there? One for you, another one for you enemies. Your framing will determine your answer. The details are--more, or sometimes less--charming inventions. Gibbon required that the religious not bother him with their issues. Another version is that the religious ought to be prepared to meet non-belief in the spirit of reasoned debate. Here's the main problem: the fundamental premise (the existence of God) cannot be proven or disproven. Testaments of the prophets need be stipulated and agreed upon before they can be accepted as working premises. Then the words of the prophets ought to be considered equal in value to the words of other people, not the unassailable manifestations of the will of (whatever deity one cherishes).

The notion, that arguments usually involve the experts on one side smashing the morons on the other, raises a good point, but it's not relevant here. Morons and experts always follow the same rhetorical arc, where all roads lead to Hitler. Derbyshire writes (if I may paraphrase) that art museums and psychologists can fill the (more or less social) role once handled by priests, but we haven't yet accepted counselors as widely as we once accepted priests, and art museums ought to be scripted in such a way as to elevate our spiritual senses (and, presumably, they aren't).

I take his point about counseling. Trained personal advisors could do a lot to help us sort out some of ethical or existential knots we find ourselves facing. When Derbyshire notes that counselors are not available to us (generally) for several reasons, he makes a good point. His notion of having museums focus their art is also good, and we see that a lot. However, artists, to my mind, are note-takers. Their work reflects what beats at their sensibilities in ways that even the artists often can't articulate except through their work, and then the details of the message are best left to stirrings that reside in the viewer. The best artists often send their viewers away carrying inner churnings that may never be quite available to grammar.

And, when I think of focused art, I'm reminded of the proletarian art of the former Soviet Union. This sort of stuff is powerful, but its meaning is best absorbed after the institution that sponsored it has collapsed. I think religions operate in a similar way—they let us see from a distance that which befuddled them when they had to deal with it in person. (Epiphanies that come down to burning bushes need more work to hit the modern person's sensibilities, but as a metaphor for awe, they work just fine.) Museums curate--and they should, but institutional curation has an Orwellian aspect I find chilling.

Santa lives in the god hole. So do the Hobbits, and Yoda, for that matter. We should not reach into the god-hole to pull out our leaders, even if we wish to go there to view our heroes. I notice that Darth Vader already has been elected to public office here in the US, but I hope this trend will not continue, not even if Santa himself is nominated for office.

I guess I go with Gibbon’s argument, or at least its derivative: pray if you wish, but don’t bother me with your versions of existence unless you are prepared to respect mine.
posted by mule98J at 11:25 AM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Those articles seemed very British; in America they would have to address very different issues.

As for what Atheists should/could learn from believers, I've nothing to say about tenets, but there are social structures and civil institutions that are currently tied to religions that would be great to have in non-religion form. Some have already been started.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:31 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a line I never forgot from Peter Weir's The Last Wave, in which Chamberlain's character ask his father, a minister, "why didn't you tell me there were mysteries?" And his father says "Son, my life has always been about the mysteries." And Chamberlain lashes back "No! You stood in that church and you explained them away!"
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:33 AM on March 31, 2013


I mention it because the thrust of the article is that atheists are denied the numinous. And my point is "and religious people never are?" Hardly.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:37 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


zarq: It makes me wonder if they have ever spoken to a conflicted, thoughtful theist. Many of us who are theists, both Christian and non, spend years thinking about, adapting, evolving and perhaps even struggling with our faith and beliefs, and certainly not following them blindly.

That's what faith is, though. I see a lot of people, especially Catholics, wrestle with the dogma, but to an atheist (to me at least) that's missing the big picture. The specific dogma of your system to me is really just a different flavor of religion, and extremely unimportant to me. (I get it's a big deal to a theist.) At some point, you're employing faith, and that's the underlying difference between an atheist and a theist. We can agree on 99% of everything, but we have fundamental differences in how we think the universe works. In day-to-day life, this probably isn't an appreciable difference. But for you all your thoughtfulness and struggle, your universe is more like a fundamentalist's than it's like mine.

In fact, I have to say fundamentalists seem to be the most intellectually honest theists, because if you really believe in an all powerful, all knowing, emperor-god, then why all this pussyfooting around?

To get back to the article: believers have nothing to teach atheists. We don't really speak the same language. We can convert each other or we can live and let live. But we already share everything that works in both systems; the rest is not applicable to each other.

mobunited: But there's no reason to qualitatively elevate the religious fables above the secular ones.

There is. These fables are used as frameworks for the moral and social outlooks of large numbers of human beings. This means that they possess a different order of importance.


I think this has cause and effect backwards. Religion reflects the moral and social outlooks of society. It's a tool of enforcement.
posted by spaltavian at 11:40 AM on March 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


Myth is an extraordinarily useful tool for condensing a series of difficult, complex ideas into a story which can be contemplated, over and over, by somebody who slowly gains a richer understanding of the various forces at play in the story being told.

People who take myths at face value are doing it wrong. So, yes, many theists are doing it wrong. The majority? I don't know. But enough that it's making our country suckier. The idea that religion is the only myth causing us harm is laughable; I think the people who worship the idea of a free market are causing the world nearly as much, if not even more, damage right now. And plenty of those people are stone cold atheists.

The problem is dogma and shallow thinking; all religions have dogmatic followers, but to the extent that I understand them most of the major religions center themselves around astonishingly deep ideas and explore those ideas with aplomb. I'm fascinated with Christianity and Hinduism in particular right now, but I tend to cycle through the religions as I feel that certain ones are better for exploring certain avenues of thought. I have plenty of theist friends who do the exact same thing, for whom choice of religion is more a choice of where the center of their faith will lie than where the limits to faith will go.

I wish that every person on the planet would familiarize themselves with Mircea Eliade's The Sacred and the Profane, a book that I read my second semester in college that changed my thinking about religion somewhat fundamentally. Eliade sidesteps the question of myths and gods and asks, specifically, whether there's such a thing as "sacredness", and concludes that there is, and that it's created by tradition and ritual and concentrated human activity. That, subjectively, a space changes when it becomes a part of somebody's faith – but also that this is as much true of a library or a theatre which a group of people use in certain ways as it is of a church or temple. From Eliade's definition, I can say that the most ancient of religions have accumulated something sacred and wonderful because of how long their customs have existed, and how long they've had to grow –but that sacredness has nothing to do with dogmatic belief or truth of myth, and in fact can exist without "true believers" entirely. And that's the hope I have for the direction the world moves in: preserving that which is meaningful and sacred in religion, and slowly phasing out of the rest.

What's interesting to me is that many religious writers are good, brilliant even, at exploring this subjective avenue of human tradition and faith, noting the powerful effects they have on communities and spaces and even arts and architecture using terminology that is powerfully complete, in its own way. At some point over the last two years, as the project I've been working on became reliant on difficult, half-understood ideas of mine, I realized that the Muslim faith in particular had a whole vocabulary for discussing the area of my research that the psychologists and aesthetic philosophers I was reading lacked. Said psychologists/philosophers would occasionally cite a Muslim concept, without any seeming understanding that this concept was tied into a richer field of study in the original faith. So I switched over to reading texts by religious writers for a while, and found that there're whole zones of knowledge that are only slowly being touched upon by more secular writers. (I also found, of course, that there's a nifty overlap between religious studies and those conducted by enthusiasts of powerful hallucinogens – and that the latter group is often dogmatic in their interpretation of their results as well.)

The problem, though, with said religious writers is that often they simply can't disconnect their discoveries from the faith which motivated them. You'll read a long wonderful tract of logical, intricate thought, followed by a clumsy page which attempts to assert a simpler and cruder kind of belief that contradicts the more interesting thought in a bunch of ways. To pick an example lots of MeFites probably know well, I've been rereading Orson Scott Card's Ender saga and it's remarkable how you can almost pinpoint the parts in his novels where he inserts an inane religious idea into his plot and the story suffers for it. Long swatches of those books rely on Card's admittedly tremendous human insight, without touching on shady areas, and then he gets to some nonsense about how we're connected to God or how male-female relationships are sacred, seemingly still in his "THIS IS LOGIC, PEOPLE" vein, but from that point on the plot sticks to those weird ideas and it's blatantly less thought-out than anything else, possibly because for Card these ideas aren't even worth examining, they're just taken for granted, and stories which rely on them are obviously sensible. Even when they're batshit crazy.

(This applies to Card's screeds against gay marriage too, by the way, which far from insane follow a delightfully perverted logic. Because if liberals can't see that homosexuality is a genetic defect then they must be either fools or up to something, and since they're clearly smart they must have an agenda, and therefore their insistence of secular state is part of their plot to undermine clear moral thinking, and therefore all liberals are Up To Something and even their most innocent agendas are part of this long game to undermine society. It's like how liberals believe conservatives think, actually, except that liberals are much more right about how harmful all the things conservatives are doing are, since their arguments are backed up in intellectual research rather than in tradition. Usually.)

Anyway, I think this article's onto something important, and is part of a larger trend among the informal atheist "community" to ask what wonderful things still exist primarily within religious faiths and have no good, widely-spread analogue among nonbelievers. Some of these thoughts are interesting, and I really wish the discussion would talk about the individuals writing here rather than lump them together and summarize them as a whole. Obviously, I like Richard Holloway's bit, and think it states most directly what needs to be stated; some of the others' writing is a bit cutesy for me and suffers for that, but the ideas are interesting. I loved Alain de Botton's bit about therapists taking the role of priests – I think that a society that treated psychotherapy as a "calling" and encouraged more people to become psychotherapists would be a healthier one to live in, especially if psychotherapy became as accessible to the general public as priests tend to be now. And I would love to go to a museum like the one de Botton described. He nailed the thing that makes the art world so frustrating to me – so many brilliant people, either refusing to or incapable of creating a dialogue with the general public.
posted by Rory Marinich at 11:43 AM on March 31, 2013 [20 favorites]


> "Every Sunday I gather with a group of friends. We drink special libations, share the good news, and sometimes work together on charitable projects."

And each week I join a gathering of like-minded folks to listen to someone read to us from a book, wherein is written the details of how legend and mythology inform and shape the rules we must follow in order to survive.

I still say my gnome should totally have lived though that encounter with the red dragon, though. It shouldn't have been able to take a full round action in the surprise round.
posted by kyrademon at 11:47 AM on March 31, 2013 [27 favorites]


There is no reason why even a hardcore atheist can't participate in religious community activities, as long as it's not done under false pretenses. There are other values that don't depend on adherence to belief systems.

For instance, yesterday I went to the Blessing Of the Animals, as I do most years. The weather was wonderful, we had some churros, took a lot of photographs (my wife is a dedicated photographer), talked to people with pets, played with some ducks, goats and saw unusual dogs (Irish Wolfhound!), and generally a good time was had by all. Nobody asked anybody about their beliefs. It was a community event and the religious aspect was simply a cultural expression, free to take or leave.

People lined up with their animals, and it was a ton of fun. Many years ago I even lined up without having a pet, for the blessing. Nobody objected that I didn't seem to have a pet (or maybe they thought I had a hamster in my pocket), and when my turn came, I just looked up and started meowing loudly... "Meow!" Meow!" "Meow!"; after some brief confusion Archbishop Mahony blessed me and I was on my way. Nobody minded, there was some good-natured laughter and I felt I participated fully in the event.

It doesn't have to be all war all the time.
posted by VikingSword at 12:11 PM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


I don't see how religiosity deserves any special privileging in this regard - all form/transmit/discuss our mores and morals comparably, and if anything the new media are orders of magnitude more effective and extended and important than religiosity.

Certainty without the need for facts is the linchpin to every religious belief system. Because of this dependence on credulity, religious media has to demand special privileges because without blind acceptance of their fundamental philosophy, there is simply nothing special about it.
posted by tripping daisy at 12:14 PM on March 31, 2013


In fact, I have to say fundamentalists seem to be the most intellectually honest theists, because if you really believe in an all powerful, all knowing, emperor-god, then why all this pussyfooting around?

Why do you think fundamentalism is the proper religious interpretation? All it reminds me is caring too much about appearances:
27 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. 28 In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.
posted by ersatz at 12:22 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Happy Easter everyone.
posted by shakespeherian at 12:22 PM on March 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


Why do you think fundamentalism is the proper religious interpretation?

Because they interpret the least.

As for your Jesus quote; I think he was criticizing the Jewish religious authorities of his day, and not suggesting we be skeptical of those teaching his message. Pluck your eye out if it leads you astray and all.
posted by spaltavian at 12:30 PM on March 31, 2013


It seems to me that the theists and atheists in the article are largely talking past each other. Derbyshire and Spufford seem to be about giving so-called "New Atheism" the finger, while De Botton and Al-Khalili are explicitly not a part of that group. Armstrong strikes me as one of the more moral people in the set by simply stating how she defines religion.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:34 PM on March 31, 2013


I wonder if atheists might be like color-blind people. They can't see anything special about a rose's color, so they claim no one else can either. In fact, they don't believe in this thing called color at all, so who cares what words one uses to describe it? Who cares if some call the rose red and others scarlet? The whole lot of them are wrong! Meanwhile those who can see color try desperately and in vain to persuade the others that yes, colors do exist.

And then, to complicate things, some people only pretend to be able to see color because they were raised to believe that it exists. And some who are color-blind deliberately ignore and try to rationalize away what they see because it's not cool among their friends.

And perhaps there is an occasional way of opening up the faculty of seeing color among the color-blind...
posted by shivohum at 12:43 PM on March 31, 2013


I wonder if atheists might be like color-blind people. They can't see anything special about a rose's color, so they claim no one else can either.

No, they're not anything like that.
posted by Squeak Attack at 12:50 PM on March 31, 2013 [17 favorites]


I wonder if atheists might be like color-blind people.

Why do you assume that atheists don't have those experiences and reach a different interpretation?

They can't... so they claim...

Exactly who can't? Exactly who claims?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 12:50 PM on March 31, 2013


I wonder if atheists might be like color-blind people....

"I wonder if religious people are like someone with a brain tumor ...."

I think that kind of argument is pretty condescending, and probably doesn't do anything more than try to delegitimize those we disagree with. Personally, I'd rather we don't go down that path.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:50 PM on March 31, 2013 [22 favorites]


I wonder if atheists might be like color-blind people.

No, we are not. We are not disabled, blind or lesser than you.
posted by spaltavian at 12:53 PM on March 31, 2013 [23 favorites]


In fact, I have to say fundamentalists seem to be the most intellectually honest theists, because if you really believe in an all powerful, all knowing, emperor-god, then why all this pussyfooting around?


Because virtually no one "really believes" in an all-powerful, all-knowing emperor-god.

I don't know if you've ever noticed this, but most religious beliefs are about things that can't be empirically verified. Advances in modern science have created some uncomfortable conflict, but generally speaking you can't see God's hand and you can't see what happens to people's souls when they die.

That's not some kind of weird coincidence, that's almost the whole point of religion. People have faith in an illusion of certainty even though their eyes tell them otherwise. No one knows what the future will bring, no one knows if justice will be served, no one knows if everything will turn out OK. So people believe in some ineffable notion that contradicts basic experience. They find comfort in that. It seems to make their hopes, their concerns, their morals more profoundly "real."

Now some people are nice people, and they care about others, and if they're religious they'll voice this in terms of "we're all God's children" and whatnot. And some people are shitheads, and have a strong need to believe that bad things only happen to those who deserve it, and if they're religious they'll also believe that their crappy morality is dictated by a higher power.

Only fanatics, atheist or deist, believe that human actions are just logical consequences that flow from a small set of core principles.
posted by leopard at 12:56 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think that kind of argument is pretty condescending, and probably doesn't do anything more than try to delegitimize those we disagree with

There's nothing particularly condescending about it anymore than calling someone color-blind is condescending. There are different subjective experiences. Is calling someone deaf if they actually are deaf condescending?

Some experiences may be richer than others, that's all. There's nothing wrong with color-blind people. They report on their experiences as they see them. They simply see a less rich experience of the world, that's all.

And the richness of their subjective experience is not a matter that can be disputed with logic -- that's the big source of misunderstandings on both sides, perhaps.

If a "brain tumor" allowed me a much richer, more beautiful experience of the world, one associated with tons of positive psychological attributes and good health -- hey, I'd take it. Color vision originally was after all quite possibly a mutation.

No, we are not. We are not disabled, blind or lesser than you.

That's just what color-blind people who didn't believe in color would say. Believing in color, they would say, is just like believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
posted by shivohum at 12:58 PM on March 31, 2013


There are different subjective experiences.... They simply see a less rich experience of the world, that's all.

Exactly how are you an expert on the subjective experiences of a diverse group consisting of millions of people?

Believing in color, they would say, is just like believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Are there any actual colorblind people who say this?
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:03 PM on March 31, 2013


They simply see a less rich experience of the world, that's all.

Well, it's an interesting sort of believer in God who thinks that belief in God is a purely psychological state, nothing more. I commend you on your self-awareness.
posted by leopard at 1:06 PM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


I wonder if atheists might be like color-blind people.

If that were true, you would expect peoples positions on religion to be unchanging, i.e., an atheist wouldn't turn religious or vice versa. Since people do switch (and in both directions), it seems unlikely to be the case.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 1:08 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, it's an interesting sort of believer in God who thinks that belief in God is a purely psychological state, nothing more.

Is color purely a psychological state? I'd argue that it's a psychological state that nonetheless reflects a genuine reality outside as well.

Since people do switch (and in both directions), it seems unlikely to be the case.

Yeah, it's an interesting point. Perhaps it's a faculty that can be developed in some people (or maybe even most people) who initially lack it. Maybe for those people it's like a bad TV that usually shows black and white but occasionally flickers into color. Then those people try to figure out whether they hallucinated this experience or it was really there, and they argue about it.

Or perhaps the conversions in each direction are people who simply tricked themselves into believing they were one thing or another -- a Seer or a Non-Seer -- and then finally lapsed into what they really were. Hard to say.
posted by shivohum at 1:21 PM on March 31, 2013


I was deeply religious as a youth, and spent my teen years struggling with questions of philosophy as much as I did with questions of my own identity. I went into my teen years a devout United Methodist Christian and came out as an atheist, which position I still hold at the age of 30.

So, like, did I get hit on the head and lose my ability to see colors or what, or am I/was I lying at some point about some aspect of my philosophical beliefs, or how do I fit in to that metaphor?
posted by titus n. owl at 1:21 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Because they interpret the least.

That's not true. They're just in denial about the breathtaking amount of interpretation they are engaged in.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 1:27 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Then those people try to figure out whether they hallucinated this experience or it was really there, and they argue about it.

Better to categorically deny that we have those experiences altogether, than to engage in a dialog with us about our experiences apparently.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 1:28 PM on March 31, 2013


I'd argue that it's a psychological state that nonetheless reflects a genuine reality outside as well.

That's why your analogy is question-begging against the atheist.
posted by LobsterMitten at 1:30 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


shivohum No, we are not. We are not disabled, blind or lesser than you.

That's just what color-blind people who didn't believe in color would say. Believing in color, they would say, is just like believing in the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

No, they wouldn't, because they would be able to use their most important faculty, reason, to learn about and understand the electro-magnetic spectrum with it's empirically-verified observations. They would also be able to access the experiences to others, who could explain how they perceive color without resorting to supernatural explanations and unsupported assertions.

You're welcome to do the same for your deity assertion.

But I really like how your argument is biased to whomever claims more. Because if you don't see it, you're just some broken person. For example, while you claim there is a god, I can claim there is in fact a super-god that created your false god. Your inability to see anything other than your regular god is very sad for you.
posted by spaltavian at 1:31 PM on March 31, 2013 [22 favorites]


If a "brain tumor" allowed me a much richer, more beautiful experience of the world, one associated with tons of positive psychological attributes and good health -- hey, I'd take it.

People who hallucinate - for example mentally ill people, schizophrenics and so forth - can also report very rich experiences. In fact, many "visions" religious people (fabled saints etc.) had clear clinical symptoms. Many tribes would take psychedelics to actually induce such visions and "richness" in a religious context.

And there is a common trope among some atheists who take a view that any religious experience is mental illness and religious people are simply less sound of mind. That's not a very charitable view, and I don't hold it.

There may be some component of physical brain changes that are associated with religious feelings: Selective brain damage modulates human spirituality, but nonetheless it would not be kind to ask a religious person in the throws of religious ecstasy "have you taken your meds today?".

So yeah, it can play both ways, and I suggest it's best to play nice, cause there is more than enough sharp digs one can throw at a worldview without bringing it all down to mental illness or supernatural insight.
posted by VikingSword at 1:32 PM on March 31, 2013 [8 favorites]


but nonetheless it would not be kind to ask a religious person in the throws of religious ecstasy "have you taken your meds today?"

Well whether you'd want to medicate these experiences would depend on whether they were good to have. What's the difference between being, say, very low-IQ and being very high-IQ? These are both abnormalities, deviations from the center of human normality.

The difference is that one is maladaptive, decreasing human fulfillment, the ability to work, play, love, and create, and the other increases that ability. Studies mainly show that religious belief is often quite adaptive.

Or take someone who deeply appreciates music, who gains great pleasure from it, and someone else who doesn't take pleasure in it at all. Which is the worse condition?

Another interesting point, however, is that even among those who see color or enjoy music or whatever, their logical statements about their experiences may nevertheless be wrong. Because what exactly is beautiful about Beethoven is debatable; but that doesn't mean there isn't anything great about him, for those who have the gift of musical appreciation. Every Beethoven-appreciator may agree on a few fundamental points: that there is such a thing as Musical Beauty, for instance. But the details may be full of controversy.
posted by shivohum at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2013


As an atheist who is pretty much completely color-blind, I feel uniquely qualified to comment on why this is an utterly ridiculous analogy! Yay!

OK, so. It should first be noted that 99.999% or so of color-blind people DO BELIEVE that color exists. Why should this be, if they can't perceive it?

UNIVERSALITY: If you show a "red" object to people with color vision, only a statistically insignificant number of them will disagree that it is red. This holds true across language, culture, upbringing, you name it. Contrast this with theism -- many people within a single culture cannot come to an agreement on the qualities and nature of their god or gods. In fact, they have sometimes even been known to go to war over these disagreements.

COLOR has a KNOWN MECHANISM, TESTABILITY, and PREDICTIVE POWER: The nature of color has a known mechanism (wavelength of light) which can be easily explained. What's more, this mechanism can be tested, even by someone without color vision, by making a measurement. If you measure the wavelength of reflected light from objects you are told are "red", they will fall into that "red" wavelength area every time -- and what's more, if you are then given an object you are told is "yellow", it will have a different wavelength that will fall into the "yellow" wavelength area. Since this will happen every time, with any random object, it's easy to see that this "color" thing is a real thing that people are actually sensing.

Special bonus! COLOR BLINDNESS also has a KNOWN MECHANISM, TESTABILITY, and PREDICTIVE POWER: Plausible, physical mechanisms have been proposed, tested, and identified as being responsible for color-blindness. They can be easily explained to anyone who cares to do the research. Because of this, without asking someone if they are color-blind, you can perform a set of simple tests which will identify, with 100% accuracy, whether or not they are color-blind. And because of that, you can predict, again with 100% accuracy, the response of a color-blind or non-color-blind person to those tests, every time. I will never see a number in that little circle of dots, and everyone with color vision will see the same number, every time.

Contrast both of these with your proposed "god-sense" which as of yet has no known mechanism, testability, or predictive power.

Ah, you say, but what if some day it does? There is much we do not know.

Well, let me make what I think is a slightly better analogy for "god sense" than "color vision". Psychic power.

There are people who claim to have psychic power. Many of those who do not, also do not believe in psychic power. Why? Because it has not been shown to have universality among those who profess to have it, or any known mechanism, testability, or predictive power. In fact, every test of psychic power that has been attempted has come up showing nothing. So people don't believe in it because they have no evidence for it.

If you showed me overwhelming evidence for psychic ability, with all of those features, would I start to believe in it? Sure! If you showed me overwhelming evidence for a deity or deities, with all of those features, would I start to believe in it or them? Sure!

Do I expect that to happen? Nope. Theists have had thousands of years to come up with anything resembling that, and so far have offered up nothing that could be regarded as plausible evidence. Which is why atheists tend to place theism in the same category as Santa Claus, psychic self-levitation, and yes, the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Interesting idea - get back to us when there's any evidence whatsoever.

We're still waiting. And in the meantime, I know quite well why the Metafilter main page is "the blue."
posted by kyrademon at 1:39 PM on March 31, 2013 [39 favorites]


I'd argue that it's a psychological state that nonetheless reflects a genuine reality outside as well.

Well, sure, an omnipotent and omniscient deity really exists, but not everyone can observe him. Why is this the case exactly?

At some point in my life I realized that the only way I could answer these questions in a non-contrived way was by postulating that the deity did not really exist, at least not in any way that humans are likely to be concerned about. This realization felt much like my experience upon wearing corrective lenses for the first time.
posted by leopard at 1:41 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Contrast both of these with your proposed "god-sense" which as of yet has no known mechanism, testability, or predictive power.

Ah, you say, but what if some day it does? There is much we do not know.

Furthermore, since positing a supernatural god is arguing for an ultimately non-rational universe, any argument for god's existence via appeal to science is self-defeating.
posted by spaltavian at 1:44 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is calling someone deaf if they actually are deaf condescending?

"Do you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"That sound"

"No, I don't think I hear a sound."

"Really? I was sure I heard something"

"Was it that bird? The traffic?"

"No, neither of those. I don't think it came from anything in particular."

"So, it's a sound from inside your head?"

"No, someone else told me they hear sounds like that sometimes, too. If you never hear it, maybe you just have a hearing problem."

"But sounds are the result of vibrations in the air, caused by things moving. And I can hear those kinds of sounds."

"You don't have songs stuck in your head? You can hear those, even if they aren't from speakers."

"I thought you said that it wasn't inside your head."

"Well, no, it came from outside."

"How can you tell?"

"I just can. You'd understand if you weren't deaf."

"Maybe we can perform an MRI, maybe capture what's going on in your brain when you hear those sounds."

"Now you're just trying to destroy the mystery of life. Can't you just take my word for it?"

Etc.
posted by empath at 1:46 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm honestly still not over how condescending it is to tell people that their religious conversion experiences are simply a matter of having "tricked themselves". I don't think I've been tricking myself. I think I'm a fully conscious adult who can make my own decisions and come up with my own philosophy. I don't believe that other people are lying to themselves or to others when they speak about their own personal religious experiences or lack thereof.
posted by titus n. owl at 1:48 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Furthermore, since positing a supernatural god is arguing for an ultimately non-rational universe

That's actually distinctly not the case. The universe as described by science isn't particularly rational, while the universe posited by the neo-platonists was extremely rational. One can't derive the universe from first principles. It has to be discovered by experiment.
posted by empath at 1:49 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


It should first be noted that 99.999% or so of color-blind people DO BELIEVE that color exists. Why should this be, if they can't perceive it?

Simple. Because everyone around them believes and scientists haven't taken atheism to its logical conclusion. If that changed, all the testability and predictive power in the world wouldn't save the belief in color.

You see, the atheist-materialist view, represented by philosophers like Daniel Dennett, already denies that subjective experience even exists. Subjective experience is inconvenient for materialism, because your personal, private inner "movie" can never be directly seen by anyone else. It can never be directly measured, tested, or predicted. Only actions can be -- not experiences themselves.

A belief that other people even have experiences at all and are not just sophisticated robots is something one will always have to take on faith. If people are finally viewed as robots, there is no reason to think that a belief in the experience of color will remain.

--

Why is this the case exactly?

Ostensibly because the supreme being, whatever it is, wishes people to have different points of view. If everyone saw everything the same way, that would be the end of any drama in life.

--
I don't believe that other people are lying to themselves or to others when they speak about their own personal religious experiences or lack thereof.

Really? Not everyone is lying, obviously, but I think this is a pretty common thing.
posted by shivohum at 1:54 PM on March 31, 2013


Btw I should really give some credit where credit is due and say that my color-blindness metaphor was inspired by philosopher Alvin Plantinga.
posted by shivohum at 1:59 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, really, I really do think it's condescending to tell other people that you know, believe, or understand more about their thought processes than they do
posted by titus n. owl at 1:59 PM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


empath: It has to be discovered by experiment.

I don't follow you. I didn't say anything about first principles. A rational universe is one that can be experimentally verified; you can't have a rational universe where the supernatural exists- that's what supernatural means. A rational universe is rational even if we don't currently understand it; the universe described by science is rational and the universe described by all supernatural faiths is distinctly non-rational.

Are you taking my use of "rational" to mean "reasonable" in a colloquial sense perhaps?
posted by spaltavian at 2:00 PM on March 31, 2013


I gotta say, as a Christian, the "atheism == colorblindness" thing definitely straddles the line between inaccurate and offensive, with one foot firmly in each. Belief is not a matter of perception or disability, it's a choice. It's not like there are special polarizing lenses you can use to hide or reveal the presence of God. The whole thing is an obnoxious, condescending derail IMHO.
posted by KathrynT at 2:01 PM on March 31, 2013 [19 favorites]


What's curious about this is that there are entire religions and cultures where the existence of a deity that can be named as such is considered to be an open question. They are not religions and cultures absent poetry, art, moral philosophy, or even practices for having transcendental or "peak experiences" (curiously a concept developed by an atheist.)

Glib comparisons between religious belief and mental illness insult me as both an atheist and a high-functioning madman. Don't pretend you understand either if you haven't even bought me a beer.

You see, the atheist-materialist view, represented by philosophers like Daniel Dennett, already denies that subjective experience even exists.

Covering the grand scope of atheist thought from 'd' to 'd,' I see. Also, I was not aware that Dennett contributed to the article in question.

Btw I should really give some credit where credit is due and say that my color-blindness metaphor was inspired by philosopher Alvin Plantinga.

Oh rubbish. Plantinga knows at least a little better than to indulge in simplistic bigotry.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:03 PM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


Denial of the existence of subjective experience is not the logical conclusion of either my atheism or that of anyone I know.

It seems to require rather a leap to get from "a statement of subjective experience cannot be taken as proof of something that has a manifestation in physical reality without any additional evidence" to "subjective experience does not exist".
posted by kyrademon at 2:16 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Fine. I'm not color-blind. I just don't want to sit in your dusty, barren garden, looking at your single rose, listening to your old man priest drone on about the One True Rose and how I should accept no other flowers before it.

The whole world is a garden and I'm off to glorious vistas of purple irises, yellow daisies, red tulips, and yes roses of all colors, growing together, beautiful and free. Each with their own truth, no one flower better than the other, each to be enjoyed, none to be worshiped.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:21 PM on March 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


Subjective experience is inconvenient for materialism, because your personal, private inner "movie" can never be directly seen by anyone else. It can never be directly measured, tested, or predicted. Only actions can be -- not experiences themselves.

Subjective can't be understood externally! Except when it comes to bold theories about the differences among philosophies! Then it's obvious that atheists have impoverished subjective experience!
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:24 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Denial of the existence of subjective experience is not the logical conclusion of either my atheism or that of anyone I know.

It may not be the logical conclusion of your particular brand of atheism, because, of course, anyone is free to build any kind of belief system which stops at any arbitrary point.

But you asked why color-blind people generally believed in other people's experiences of color. And I think that general belief in other people's experiences of color rests, for most people, upon an implicit belief in other people's having experiences at all.

Now there is no scientific evidence that can be given to show that other people have experiences at all, and are not just sophisticated robots.

The connection between the electromagnetic spectrum and the experience of color is extremely loose. The spectrum looks nothing like an actual color and never will.

So that if one were to disbelieve in other people's experiences of God based on a lack of "additional evidence," or to argue that the evidence given (say, of intelligent design), is inadequate (as it often probably is)... why wouldn't this same rigor be extended to other subjective experiences? It seems to follow.
posted by shivohum at 2:30 PM on March 31, 2013


A rational universe is one that can be experimentally verified

Not necessarily. You do understand the difference between rationalism and empiricism, yes? There are plenty of ways to construct entirely rational universes which include gods of all kinds.
posted by empath at 2:33 PM on March 31, 2013


I'm colorblind. Most people who have a color deficiency (it's not a disability), including myself are only colorblind to a degree. I can see and distinguish all primary and most but not all secondary colors in vivid hues. As certain colors fade to pastels, they become harder to identify. They also become more difficult to distinguish from each other.

shivohum, your analogy only applies to people with complete achromatopsia -- a very rare condition. It's an absence of any cone cell activity, which only allows someone to perceive black, white and shades of gray.

This isn't colorblindness as most of us experience it. Achromatopsia is an exceptionally rare disorder, which is nearly always accompanied by additional deleterious side effects.

People like me have no problem believing a color like purple exists, even though I'm incapable of discerning nearly every shade of it.
posted by zarq at 2:34 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


What's curious about this is that there are entire religions and cultures where the existence of a deity that can be named as such is considered to be an open question.

I suspect the real division may be simply between those who strongly intuit that there is Something More beyond the physical universe and those that don't. What the Something More is called and all its details become a much more nitpicky set of questions.

Achromatopsia is an exceptionally rare disorder, which is nearly always accompanied by additional deleterious side effects.

Interesting. Thanks for the insights.
posted by shivohum at 2:37 PM on March 31, 2013


So that if one were to disbelieve in other people's experiences of God based on a lack of "additional evidence," or to argue that the evidence given (say, of intelligent design), is inadequate (as it often probably is)... why wouldn't this same rigor be extended to other subjective experiences? It seems to follow.

Curiously, a fair bit of religious thought argues the same: you should not naively believe your experiences, but subject them to rigorous examination and inquiry.

I think the real division is simply between those who strongly intuit that there is Something More beyond the physical universe and those that don't.

Of course, this excludes not only atheists who have transcendental experiences, but religious monists as well.

I think the real division is between those who overgeneralize in ignorance about the experiences of millions of people, and those who don't.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 2:41 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


The connection between the electromagnetic spectrum and the experience of color is extremely loose. The spectrum looks nothing like an actual color and never will.

You are being very loose with language. Define 'looks like'. All human experience is lived within a world created by the individual brain in response to external stimuli. We can't have any idea, subjectively, how it appears to them. We can only verify that they are interpreting the same external stimuli as we do, which is why science insists on repeatable experiments rather than subjective experience to determine truth.

You can claim you experience anything you like, and i can agree that you experience it, but there is absolutely no reason to attach any significance to it beyond what you attach to dreams or hallucination, unless it somehow also exists outside of their own mind, either as a cause or an effect. And you prove that via the scientific method.

It ultimately doesn't matter if you see the same red that I do, because colors aren't real. They're artifacts of human perception. There is absolutely nothing in the world that could change because your red looks like my green or vice versa.
posted by empath at 2:43 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


There are plenty of ways to construct entirely rational universes which include gods of all kinds.

Only if you're choosing to call something a "god" that isn't supernatural.
posted by spaltavian at 2:43 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Again, natural and supernatural are only terms that have meaning to empiricists. If god is an actor in the world, then it is not supernatural. Reason isn't sufficient to disprove god. If we had discovered evidence that prayers worked, for example, it would be entirely reasonable to believe in god. Atheism requires some knowledge of the way things happen to be, rather than how things could be.
posted by empath at 2:46 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


People like me have no problem believing a color like purple exists, even though I'm incapable of discerning nearly every shade of it.

Interesting example, because purple doesn't exist, by one definition of color (a particular frequency of em radiation). Red and blue are on opposite sides of the spectrum, so purple is only a mix of frequencies which is changed into purple in the mind.
posted by empath at 2:49 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


but subject them to rigorous examination and inquiry.

It's not the same kind of inquiry to which scientific materialist atheists subject experiences. It's more psychological inquiry.

Of course, this excludes not only atheists who have transcendental experiences, but religious monists as well.

To the extent that religious monists are materialists -- and I think very few truly are -- they are simply atheists masquerading under another name.
--
It ultimately doesn't matter if you see the same red that I do, because colors aren't real. They're artifacts of human perception. There is absolutely nothing in the world that could change because your red looks like my green or vice versa.

That's just my point - that not everything important involves changes in the physical world. There is nothing physical in the world that changes because one person appreciates Musical Beauty deeply and another doesn't, yet I think the first person grasps something actually true that the second one does not. And I don't think it's just a hallucination, either -- I think that the first person grasps something that's actually in reality that the second person doesn't.
posted by shivohum at 2:50 PM on March 31, 2013


> "Now there is no scientific evidence that can be given to show that other people have experiences at all, and are not just sophisticated robots."

Ah. I think I see where the problem is. This is not actually correct by the standards I have laid out.

Subjective experience has universality -- it has universal characteristics that can be described, understood, and recognized across cultural or linguistic boundaries (for example, the concept of "thoughts".) It has a plausible mechanism -- an exceedingly complex neural system. This mechanism has been tested -- for example, changes to the neural system result in predictable changes to subjective experience, which can be demonstrated in double-blind studies; there are areas of the brain identified where, if two people are damaged there in the exact same way, they will report the same changes in experience. And that means it also has predictive power -- as stated, alterations to the mechanism result in predictable changes.

I therefore consider there to be plenty of evidence that subjective experience exists. Hence, I have no need to deny it and am perfectly willing to believe that other people "experience color". For that matter, I am perfectly willing to believe that other people "experience god(s)". But I also have the additional evidence that the experience of color corresponds to a physical attribute of the world, and no such evidence for the physical existence of any gods.
posted by kyrademon at 2:53 PM on March 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


There is nothing physical in the world that changes because one person appreciates Musical Beauty deeply and another doesn't, yet I think the first person grasps something actually true that the second one does not.

The song is the same song no matter who is listening to it. And whatever magic you get out of it is entirely contained in the 1s and 0s that encode it on the CD. There is nothing there which isn't ultimately entirely physical. All you are talking about is qualia. This is not something new, or anything which is relevant to belief or disbelief in god.
posted by empath at 2:58 PM on March 31, 2013


It's not the same kind of inquiry to which scientific materialist atheists subject experiences. It's more psychological inquiry.

Demonstrating that you don't understand psychology either.

You can't have it both ways in this discussion. If you argue that subjectivity can't be understood externally, then your deductive claim about the subjectivity of non-theistic beliefs is incoherent. If you're going to argue that subjectivity can be at least partially understood externally, then you're first claim to color blindness becomes just plain wrong as a matter of data.

To the extent that religious monists are materialists -- and I think very few truly are -- they are simply atheists masquerading under another name.

Now you're just massaging the definitions because they're inconvenient to your original hypothesis.

There is nothing physical in the world that changes because one person appreciates Musical Beauty deeply and another doesn't....

Changing the terms of the metaphor doesn't change the fact that you're speaking broadly about people that you not only don't understand, you refuse to understand.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:05 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


(Not to mention failing to understand De Botton or Al-Khalili, the two atheists who identify themselves as such in the linked article.)
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:09 PM on March 31, 2013


The universe as described by science isn't particularly rational

I want to extend this because the difference between rationalism and empiricism is important and often trips up atheists when talking to theists.

The desire for god to exist can be and often has been an entirely a rational pursuit. People want there to be reasons for things, all the way back to the beginning. The idea that effects must have causes is one of the foundations of reason. And science is unsatisfactory in many respects, because at some point one must throw their hands up and say 'that is just how it is'.

Much of early philosophy and theology was concerned with creating a rational universe in which things are as they are because that was how they must be, and positing the existence of an omiscient, omnipotent god as a unity that underlay everything was one way of doing it.

The idea of god was in many ways the ultimate expression of rational thinking. It just happened to be wrong. Because the universe, as far as we know, is not derived from rational first principles. It just is the way it is. Why is it here? Why dark energy? Why a beginning state of low entropy? There is no guarantee that there will ever be a satisfying answer to any of those things. It seems to be a lucky thing that the universe is comprehensible at all.

One should not mistake theists as being irrational. They often are not. They simply are not satisfied with empiricism.
posted by empath at 3:17 PM on March 31, 2013 [10 favorites]




I want to extend this because the difference between rationalism and empiricism is important

Apropos of which, never trust anybody who says they're acting rationally. They just haven't examined their own prejudices.
posted by MartinWisse at 3:27 PM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


The bottom line for me here--the one I've become a bit boorish in defending--is that if you're going to make claims about a group, you need to show me the data, show me the ethnography, or show me that you're a fellow traveler. You need to show me that you understand who you're talking about, and exercise due caution, respect, and understanding of the limits of your knowledge.

If you can't do so, then as a matter of both epistemology and ethics, you should limit your comments to your own views and experiences.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:36 PM on March 31, 2013 [5 favorites]


Why do you think fundamentalism is the proper religious interpretation?...Because they interpret the least.

That's certainly what they'd like you to believe.

The singular, capital-A Antichrist of Pre-Millennial Dispensationalist prophecy is based on a variety of passages cobbled together from throughout the Bible. He is the Beast of Revelation; the King of the South and the King of the North from Daniel; the false Christ(s) that Jesus warns against in Matthew's Gospel and Paul's "man of lawlessness" from Thessalonians (which is a delightfully Nietzschean phrase). The composite sketch derived from all these descriptions yields a portrait that looks a little like Nebuchadnezzar, a little like Antiochus Epiphanes, a little like Nero or Diocletian, and a little like Victor von Doom.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 3:44 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


One should not mistake theists as being irrational. They often are not. They simply are not satisfied with empiricism.

I never said anything about rational actions or people. It's quite possible for a religious person to be a rational person. I think we're talking past each other, but my original point is that you can't appeal to evidence for something that is manifestly beyond physical reality. Again, I am only speaking towards the supernatural vs natural.
posted by spaltavian at 4:22 PM on March 31, 2013


I agree with this article 100%. I'm an atheist, but I love the idea of religion, and the good things it brings - fellowship, community, a sense of the numinous. I personally find it in music, and that subset of rock and roll that is self-conscious about itself as having a spiritual dimension. When I saw Springsteen last week I found my hands entwining in prayer, because the experience and the idea and the feel of being in the hands of a preacher was so powerful.


But it can be anything. Just sharing a smoke with friends, or a crowded pub ('hey barroom hey tavern I find hope in all the souls you gather - The Hold Steady) or sitting down with your family to watch Doctor Who. Or videogames - I paused for a few minutes at the Dark Souls Easter Egg in Borderlands 2 because Dark Souls was such a powerful and cleansing experience that I wanted to meditate on the reminder of that. Australia is a very secular nation, and Easter is often joked about, but I don't doubt they feel awe at the infinity of the ocean or fellowship in the annual Easter Show.

I don't believe in the supernatural, and I'm no fan of the church, but I still believe that we can manufacture a greater dimension to the world.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:26 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


OK, if you are going to take refuge in solipsism, then that game can be played the other way too.

You say religious people have "richer" experiences, not accessible to atheists. Since you claim that there is no way to bridge subjective experiences with objective measurements, why do you claim that religious experiences make for a "richer" experience? There just is no way of telling is there, if nobody has access to or can measure the experiences of anybody else, including religious people? So the claim of "richer" is completely unsupported in this scenario, and indeed cannot be supported in such a framework. On the other hand, if you claim that there are objectively measurable effects, then that's all the opening the materialists need to come down on you like a ton of bricks showing secular states of rapture (art, music, awe at the universe, love etc.) can be just as "rich" subtle and intense as religious experiences (if not more!).

And if you argue from a categorical position while maintaining a solipsistic framework that if the religious experience is different from an atheist one, it represents an extra "richness" not available to the atheist, the immediate comeback would also be based on the solipsistic framework: if religious experiences are unique, how do you know and can you prove that the atheist experience is not also unique and not accessible to the religious person (and since it's radically subjective - solipsism - it cannot be proven) - therefore the two claims cancel each other: "well, I have religious experiences so I have richer experiences not accessible to you - very well... then I in turn have atheist experiences which are not accessible to you as a religious person and therefore my experiences are richer". Solipsistic standoff.

Given that solipsism cannot adjudicate between these two, it strikes me as not useful. And if we forego that, we are ultimately, reduced to reports of subjective experiences, and also to brain activity measurements. And going by those reports of people's experiences in the absence of religion - from awe at the universe, perception of mathematical beauty, a whole vast range of aesthetic experiences and extreme responses to art and emotional states (love etc.), nobody has shown that it's one iota lesser in "richness" than a religious experience - some would claim the opposite, that the religious experience shoeboxes the experience along one dimension, while a non-religious one is infinitely richer. As to brain activity, we see the same degree of arousal in extreme cases of aesthetic experiences as religious - hard to argue "richness".

I think the ultimate weakness of your claim is in asserting a difference in "richness" which is a can of worms and would need a lot of defining - and quite frankly I don't see how you can do successfully. By the way, this actually would also apply recursively to religious experience itself: one can argue that there is a range of religious experience too - starting with the "richness" of getting God's commands through the medium of your dog, to celebrated raptures by saints. And worse, you could argue that each religion has its own range of experiences - pentecostal speaking in tongues may not be accessible to a lutheran - is the pentecostal experience "richer"? Catholic experiences versus the claimed vastly different experiences of Zen Buddhism - who is "richer"? So one can't make that claim of "greater richness" and have it apply to any one religion... or indeed profound experiences outside of any religious context at all.

So yeah, the "richer" claim is just not looking good.
posted by VikingSword at 5:32 PM on March 31, 2013 [9 favorites]


A materialist who lived his life according to his professed convictions—understanding himself to have no moral agency at all, seeing his friends and enemies and family as genetically determined robots—wouldn’t just be a materialist: He’d be a psychopath.

Wow, what an absurd strawman. Materialists believe in moral agency and materialists do not believe in genetic determinism. Materialism as a philosophy is about (among other things) the nature and origin of our moral beliefs and agency, it is not about whether those things have no existence at all.

The amount of intellectual laziness required to write and think this is staggering.
posted by leopard at 5:35 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is a nice collection of essays. Thanks.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 5:36 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Now, it is pretty much impossible to find a secular bell choir, place where people get together in groups and sing en masse

That would be a huge loss though. I did read about how secular choirs are coming back. I also hope the idea of preaching doesn't go away. It's such a powerful activity.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:41 PM on March 31, 2013


some would claim the opposite, that the religious experience shoeboxes the experience along one dimension, while a non-religious one is infinitely richer.

Regarding this, a few years ago my wife and I were visiting Yellowstone NP. We were standing on an observation point of particular beauty and my wife was taking photographs. There was a small group of people there and everybody was silent, in awe of the vista ahead. Suddenly one guy - white, looking to be in his late fifties said to us "Isn't it beautiful" and we agreed, upon which he exclaimed "Oh, the glory of god's creation!" - it was like in the midst of listening to an exquisite symphony somebody farted, stenching up the joint. I remember distinctly, thinking that it's so sad that the immense awe at this geological marvel is now reduced to some creature having decided to poof it into life in some sad little religious imagining; that the world is so much more marvelous and interesting and amazing than the poor imagination of a band of religious figures, a perfect illustration of "there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy"; what struck me as sad was exactly how limited his experience and explanatory framework was, given the richness of what was in front of us.
posted by VikingSword at 5:44 PM on March 31, 2013 [10 favorites]


Jonathan Derbyshire writes: Jeremy Bentham, his disciple John Stuart Mill once wrote, would always ask of a proposition or belief, “Is it true?” By contrast, Bentham’s contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Mill observed, thought “What is the meaning of it?” was a much more interesting question.
Today’s New Atheists –Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and the late Christopher Hitchens principal among them – are the heirs of Bentham, rather than Coleridge. For them, religion – or the great monotheistic faiths, at any rate – are bundles of beliefs (about the existence of a supernatural being, the origins of the universe and so on) whose claims to truth don’t stand up to rational scrutiny. And once the falsity of those beliefs has been established, they imply, there is nothing much left to say.


This is such an important point, and I see it come up everywhere, especially in political debate. The 'facts' about things are pretty meaningless, assuming they exist at all. What matters is the truth we can find, create, or orate from those facts.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:50 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


Every essay linked ignores the elephant in the room: death. Religion is a technology for dealing with mortality, and the most powerful one we have. Without it humanity would be mired in constant existential crises and mass suicides. Carving meaning from a meaningless existence is tough stuff, and religion gives us a ready-made way to do it.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:56 PM on March 31, 2013


then I in turn have atheist experiences which are not accessible to you as a religious person and therefore my experiences are richer

But as far as I can tell, every atheist experience -- of nature, love, etc. -- is open to the religious person, but not vice-versa.

what struck me as sad was exactly how limited his experience and explanatory framework was, given the richness of what was in front of us

Well that's a funny story and a different point. Someone's particular religious statements may often be crude and unsophisticated, even downright illogical. That doesn't mean that there isn't a religious experience or intuition that nevertheless exists. Beethoven's music is great, and an uneducated person may describe it in a very pedestrian way: "It's so pretty." An expert critic may have far more sophisticated terms. But in a sense both are in a very different position from someone who sees nothing beautiful in Beethoven, or in music more generally.

Would it be credible for someone who got no enjoyment out of music to say that their experiences of non-enjoyment of music were just as rich as the experiences of a music lover? Seems unlikely. Seems like in that case the music lover really gets more out of life. And I think it's because they see some beauty in the music that is actually there, but which is not scientifically measurable.
posted by shivohum at 6:07 PM on March 31, 2013


But as far as I can tell, every atheist experience -- of nature, love, etc. -- is open to the religious person, but not vice-versa.

Well, not in your framework of solipsism. If you maintain, as you have, that it is impossible to evaluate the quality of subjective experiences, then no, you cannot assert the above. Hoisted by your own petard.

Many people would claim - and I'd be among them - that an aesthetic experience can be very different for a religious person vs a secular person. Because as in Yellowstone the example I gave, my appreciation felt like it was extending into the amazing complexities of geological processes, while the religious person stopped very quickly at "god made it". It is immaterial that this particular religious person was primitive - I have a feeling that a religious cast of mind tends to color many experiences and that this would creep at some level into music or whatever experience one has, no matter how sophisticated the person is. Not better or worse, simply different psychology.

So right there, I disagree that "every atheist experience -- of nature, love, etc. -- is open to the religious person", I disagree substantively. But also philosophically you simply cannot make that statement - you cannot prove that "every atheist experience -- of nature, love, etc. -- is open to the religious person", and certainly not in a solipsistic framework, because every such world is completely individual and not subject to objective quantification.
posted by VikingSword at 6:20 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Religion is a technology for dealing with mortality, and the most powerful one we have.

No kidding. So many times in my life, I have wished that I believed that "the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible," that "though worms destroy my body, yet in my flesh shall I see God." I gave a performance of Handel's Messiah the day of the Sandy Hook shooting, and I nearly wept during both of those movements (there is a bass aria and a soprano aria set to each of those texts), because I so, so, so badly wanted it to be true, I so badly wanted to believe that those kids were in Heaven with a just and loving God, and that they would one day be reunited with their parents and their friends in the fullness of perfection.

But I don't. I don't believe that. I know there are people who do, and I don't think any less of them, I just. . . don't. In many ways, it sucks. But that's the gig.
posted by KathrynT at 6:24 PM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


But as far as I can tell, every atheist experience -- of nature, love, etc. -- is open to the religious person, but not vice-versa.

Two ways this is wrong:
1: Atheism and religion are not mutually exclusive categories.
2: Atheists have and document our own "mystical" experiences which appear to have all the qualities associated with theistic ones.

So it's both an incoherent theory and incompatible with basic facts.

Would it be credible for someone who got no enjoyment out of music to say that their experiences of non-enjoyment of music were just as rich as the experiences of a music lover?

I'd say your argument is more akin to claim that everything composed after 1900 and outside of European traditions isn't music. Since the Songs of Ice, Pollen, Fossil, Tree, and Crab were subjective experiences for me, they can only be described, not fully shared. But thankfully I have had the opportunity to discuss them with people of a more theistic bent, and we agreed that they are similar in quality, even if we reach a different conclusion about what they mean.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 6:26 PM on March 31, 2013


E.O.Wilson: "Along with our productive, semantic language, I think religion is the unique human trait, sui generis. It has to be studied on its own terms, but it has to be looked at as a biological phenomenon, not just as a cultural phenomenon, nor as an aberration, nor as some would like to have it, the conduit for divine guidance to man... religion is essentially an extension of tribalism..."
posted by ovvl at 6:33 PM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "But as far as I can tell, every atheist experience -- of nature, love, etc. -- is open to the religious person, but not vice-versa."

A lack of belief in a god or gods does not render someone incapable of experiencing transcendence, awe, humility, gratefulness, or wonder. It does not render someone incapable of noticing serendipity, coincidence, or the inexplicable. Heck, it does not render someone incapable of being vengeful, hidebound, petty, irrational, or limited. It does not prevent someone from participating in ritual, following a code, or wearing a funny hat.

All atheism means is that the person experiencing those things does not attribute them to the actions of a supernatural entity or entities.

So I'm having a hard time seeing what important experience is not open to atheists. I suppose the experience of believing in a supernatural entity or entities, but that seems ... well, kind of a petty thing. Are you similarly limited if you do not believe in the efficacy of homeopathy? Then you will never experience the belief that a vial of water will cure your flu. Are you so limited if you don't believe that when you cannot find your car keys they are hidden by gremlins? For that matter, are you so limited if you don't believe in, I don't know, gravity, but instead think you are held to the earth by demons?

Are any of these imagined people actually incapable of experiencing love, joy, despair, rage, ecstasy, the full range of human emotion, because they believe certain things but not other certain things, for whatever reasons they might have?

That seems like a very dismal view of humanity. I'm glad I do not share it.
posted by kyrademon at 6:34 PM on March 31, 2013 [7 favorites]


But as far as I can tell, every atheist experience -- of nature, love, etc. -- is open to the religious person, but not vice-versa.

No person is capable of having every experience. Apart from anything else, we are finite beings with finite minds and finite lifespans. Every person has a set of experiences to which they are open, a framework through which they view the world, and everyone's is different. If you really believe that theistic people have a larger set of experiences to draw from, not just potentially but actually, you're going to have to do some serious work to justify that -- and not just of this "I dunno, man, what if the whole WORLD is a dream?" Philosophy 101 variety.
posted by KathrynT at 6:38 PM on March 31, 2013


I find Derbyshire's framing troubling. He reiterates the angry atheist trope without acknowledging the complexity it obscures. Derbyshire sets up a binary opposition: "Lately, however, we have begun to hear from atheists or non-believers who strike a rather different, less belligerent tone." And he talks about those atheists who "argue that a secular state need not demand of the religious that they put their most cherished beliefs to one side when they enter public debate; only that they shouldn’t expect those beliefs to be accepted without scepticism."

I'm one of those atheists. Yet, my skepticism has at times been mistaken for belligerence. I think that's because skepticism is seen as belligerence by some. When people's cherished and heretofore largely un-criticized beliefs are subjected to challenge, they can experience that challenge as an attack, as affront, as hostile belligerence. If Derbyshire's interested in engaging the full range of atheist views, I'd ask him to be more nuanced in the way he describes our positions.
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:50 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]




Some experiences may be richer than others, that's all. There's nothing wrong with color-blind people. They report on their experiences as they see them. They simply see a less rich experience of the world, that's all.

shivohum, do you honestly not understand that by saying this, you are implying that the atheist perception of the world is lacking some inherant element?

That actually is a rather insulting thing to say. And I'm telling you this as a theist.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:28 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


We’ll never arrive at the Year Zero where everything means only what science says it should. Religion being a thing that humans as a species do continuously, it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear. Imagination grows as fast as bamboo in the rain. The world cannot be disenchanted. Even advocacy for disenchantment becomes, inexorably, comically, an enchantment of its own, with prophets, with heresies and with its own pious mythography.

War being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Slavery being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Abuse of children being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Violence being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Torture being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

...it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear.

Bullshit.
posted by Splunge at 8:40 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


"Richer" is a value judgment. We do not say that bees have a richer experience of life because they have compound eyes and we do not. They simply have a different experience of seeing than we do, and one that may be more suited to their experience.

This is an important distinction that I have learned from my disabled friends, because there is a tendency to simply assume that their life is lessened by their disabilities, when, in fact, it is merely different. There are many deaf people who would not trade the sense of belonging they have and the beauty of ASL for being able to hear, and we should not presume their experience is less rich than our because they lack the same sense of hearing we do.

I do not presume theists have a richer experience than me; neither do I assume that I or my fellow atheists have a richer experience. We have different experiences, and we could stand to find value in each other. One of the things that religion has, I think, often legitimately done a marvelous job with is to delineate the life cycle, craft a narrative to it, and create rituals to mark these moments as part of a community. This is not to say that atheists don't have comparable experiences, but it has not been addressed by the atheist community with the sort of comprehensive, lifelong system of support that religion has offered. This may be worth looking at, as people value it enormously. I do not know that my mother believes in God -- I suspect it barely enters into her relationship with her synagogue. But, when her brother died, it gave her a mechanism for addressing it with a community of peers that she has known for decades, and shared similar life events with.

I think this is was the article attempted to address it to; perhaps unsuccessfully. But these are interesting points, and as I grow increasingly interested in community, they are questions I myself wrestle with.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 8:46 PM on March 31, 2013 [3 favorites]


Bunny, I'll admit I was coming into the conversation late; but while I understand where you're coming from, I think shivohum may disagree with you. Or, at least, said things that would lead people to believe thus.

The way Shivohum was speaking implied s/he felt that there was something about the atheist experience that was indeed lesser-than, and I was expressing my disagreement with that specifically.

If I'm wrong, shivohum, please do let me know.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:51 PM on March 31, 2013


The way Shivohum was speaking implied s/he felt that there was something about the atheist experience that was indeed lesser-than, and I was expressing my disagreement with that specifically.

Yes, that was the viewpoint I was responding to as well, and disagreeing with. I am an atheist, and do not believe my life is lessened by it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 9:14 PM on March 31, 2013


Would it be credible for someone who got no enjoyment out of music to say that their experiences of non-enjoyment of music were just as rich as the experiences of a music lover? Seems unlikely. Seems like in that case the music lover really gets more out of life.

Wrong. The music lover only gets more out of music. There's no way in this scenario to say which person gets more out of life.

If your music lover only loves music, but your non-music-lover loves family, and art, and kindness to others, then your non-music-lover could be getting more out of life. No life is better lived due to one element.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:47 PM on March 31, 2013


War being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Slavery being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Abuse of children being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Violence being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

Torture being a thing that humans as a species do continuously...

...it seems unlikely that we’ll stop, any more than we’ll stop making music, laws, poetry or non-utilitarian clothes to wear.

Bullshit.
posted by Splunge at 11:40 PM on March 31 [+] [!]


To be fair, we as a species have yet to stop doing any of those things either.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 10:43 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Pieces like this are seriously problematic.

In the US, at least, religious people are not just a majority, but an overwhelming majority. And among elected officials, the disparity is greater: not a single member of congress identifies as an atheist (there was one, but he retired). No atheist can get to adulthood without meeting many religious people, and knowing a great deal about what religion is like. Well, Christianity anyway; an article about what atheists could learn from Jews or Buddhists might be more interesting -- but of course, it would likely apply to Christians just as well.

But how many religious folks know what atheism is like? Some, sure. But one of TV's most famous atheists is Dr. House -- an asshole who is incapable of taking pleasure in anything. And judging from this thread, that seems to be what a number of religious people (not all, of course) think atheists are like.

Atheists also have a hard time getting their views out. But Christians (and all of the religious folks quoted in this article are Christians, unsurprisingly) have no problem, because their views are unavoidable.

Imagine an analogous article: "what Black people can learn from White people." Shit would be flying! Now, atheists are in a different position than Black people. On one hand, atheists don't have the history (in the US) of institutionalized discrimination, and it's easy for atheists to "pass". On the other hand, overt prejudice against atheists (including the sort seen in this thread) is way more popular.

If this article didn't contain religious folks saying exactly the same things they say every single time, but instead had entirely atheists' perspectives, that would be more reasonable. Because atheists (in the US or UK) have *already considered what religion offers*, and rejected it. We have had no choice but to do so; we see it every day. Even Star Trek, a resolutely secular show, had a Christmas episode or two. And, because these religious folks don't have much of an idea of what atheism is like, they write things like "a reconciliation of unbelief with the sprouting, curling, twining fecundity of culture" -- as though atheists live in empty gray boxes devoid of any culture. We don't; we simply choose to skip out on certain parts of culture in favor of others (Everyone else does too; there is simply too much culture for one lifetime).

A straightforwardly religious apologetic article would be no problem at all; it would be an honest attempt to make an argument. But most of this article is not at all honest; it doesn't engage with atheism at all.

I'm pretty tired of this sort of concern trolling from religious folks. Atheists are doing just fine, thanks. When we need some help, we'll ask.
posted by novalis_dt at 11:06 PM on March 31, 2013 [6 favorites]


as an agnostic, I'd just like to remind everybody that you're all wrong, and so am I
posted by philip-random at 11:13 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Suddenly one guy - white, looking to be in his late fifties said to us "Isn't it beautiful" and we agreed, upon which he exclaimed "Oh, the glory of god's creation!" - it was like in the midst of listening to an exquisite symphony somebody farted, stenching up the joint.

Funny, I can say the same thing about your post's effect on this thread, what immense condescending crocodile tears and intellectual contempt you have for a man who happens to possess a more dreamy philosophy than your own, and who happened to express wonder in a different way from yourself.
posted by Apocryphon at 11:43 PM on March 31, 2013 [4 favorites]


Pieces like this are seriously problematic.

In the US, at least, religious people are not just a majority, but an overwhelming majority. And among elected officials, the disparity is greater: not a single member of congress identifies as an atheist (there was one, but he retired).


Not every place is America. Australia, at least, is aggressively secular (there was an article like this one that ran for Easter) and our prime minister is an atheist. The main sensibility is a secular one, and public rituals revolve around alcohol and sport.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 12:10 AM on April 1, 2013


The color-blindness analogy is not apt. I think a better analogy is with dreams (the kind that happen when you're asleep). We all have dreams. Some of us remember them; some of us don't. Some of us have vivid dreams, some less vivid. Another thing that varies across people is the meaning we attribute to them. Some people are happy to think of them in simple biological terms; they are the result of an our active brain, perhaps consolidating skills and memories while we rest. Others may apply mystical significance to the dreams, interpreting them as if they say something deep about who we are, or connect us to other people in mystical ways. Still others believe that the events in dreams either literally occur, or actually tell the future. These three groups roughly correspond to the atheist, the religious (but not fundamentalist) religious person, and the fundamentalist.

The atheist dreams. The atheist can even think that dreams are interesting to talk about and describe, and can spur creativity. The atheist can be amazed by dreams as biological phenomena, wondering how the sleeping brain constructs such bizarre imagery from the experiences of the day. The point is that the atheist does not really have a different experience so much as they interpret the experience differently.

And an atheist does not have to relinquish enjoyment of other peoples' more mystical interpretation of dreams; if a piece of literature was written by someone who was transcribing a dream they interpreted as having a significance beyond the biological, that's ok. But if you really believe in some sort of mystical dream power beyond the biological -- and then say that everyone should hold your belief -- you can expect to be challenged on that by people who don't believe that.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 2:22 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


jesus Alain de Botton is still trying to sell that crappy book about Religion. The one about Work was just as awful.
posted by mary8nne at 5:42 AM on April 1, 2013


novalis_dt: "On one hand, atheists don't have the history (in the US) of institutionalized discrimination, and it's easy for atheists to "pass"."

That is arguable. Especially in small towns in America, where religion is ubiquitous and churches form the backbone of much of the community.
posted by zarq at 6:44 AM on April 1, 2013


For a start, therapy remains a minority activity, out of reach of most people: too expensive or simply not available. There have been laudable efforts to introduce therapy into the medical system, but progress is slow and vulnerable. The issue isn’t just economic. It is one of attitudes. Whereas Christian societies would imagine there was something wrong with you if you didn’t visit a priest, we usually assume that therapists are there solely for moments of extreme crisis – and are a sign that the visiting client might be a little unbalanced, rather than just human.

I have to say, this rings very true to me, and was an interesting point I'd never really considered.
posted by mstokes650 at 7:00 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


shivohum: Ostensibly because the supreme being, whatever it is, wishes people to have different points of view. If everyone saw everything the same way, that would be the end of any drama in life.

So a religious believer's perception of God is like a professional wrestling fan's perception of Vince McMahon. I'm not sure why you're running with this colorblindness analogy when you could go with that instead.
posted by leopard at 7:18 AM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


The New Statesman should have included the views of Susan Jacoby. She is unapologetic about atheism, but unlike Spufford and Al-Khalili doesn't confuse a positive statement of atheist and humanist values for intolerance and stridency. She appeared on yesterday's This Week:
But the problem is, Newtown was a perfect example of it. There were people sitting in that audience obviously, if we believe the polls, that 20 percent of people don't belong to any church, and some of those people are atheists and some of them aren't. It's hard to tell because atheist is still quite a pejorative, but when President Obama, unlike some atheists who are sitting here, some will tell you that they objected to his mentioning religion at all at that service, which I think is ridiculous. There were a lot of religious people there. Religion is a solace for religious people in grief. But he could very easily have expanded that to say, whether we are religious or non-religious, he could have said that we are all united in our grief, and not made it exclusively, and he should not have been talking about Jesus Christ when some of the parents who lost children are people who don't believe in Jesus.
posted by audi alteram partem at 7:23 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


audi alteram partem: "But he could very easily have expanded that to say, whether we are religious or non-religious, he could have said that we are all united in our grief, and not made it exclusively, and he should not have been talking about Jesus Christ when some of the parents who lost children are people who don't believe in Jesus."

That is a very good point. The youngest person killed at the Sandy Hook massacre was a Jewish boy named Noah Pozner. He was six years old. His twin sister survived.

The President quoted Jesus (and iirc, no one else) at the interfaith vigil right before he read the names of the dead. It felt a little jarring.
posted by zarq at 8:04 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I wonder if atheists might be like color-blind people. They can't see anything special about a rose's color, so they claim no one else can either. In fact, they don't believe in this thing called color at all, so who cares what words one uses to describe it? Who cares if some call the rose red and others scarlet? The whole lot of them are wrong! Meanwhile those who can see color try desperately and in vain to persuade the others that yes, colors do exist.
Color blind people can do spectral analysis just as well as anyone else. Hell, blind people can.

And even before the age of science, a color blind person could have painted an "X" in paint that he was told was green on top of a background of paint that he was told was red, and showed it to people and asked them what it was.
posted by Flunkie at 9:03 AM on April 1, 2013


I lean towards atheism myself, but in a hospital I will ask for clergy. Why? Their job is to comfort you, help you make sense of things, and just plain care.

So what do you do when they ask you to pray with them?
posted by Billiken at 9:20 AM on April 1, 2013


So what do you do when they ask you to pray with them?

"No, thank you, but I don't mind if you do."

Although my personal experience with clergy in a hospital was having someone I didn't know pushed on me on my worst day, in an afternoon of significant anxiety while nurses fussed with a failing IV. My response then was a bit less graceful, something I mildly regret.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:27 AM on April 1, 2013


The connection between the electromagnetic spectrum and the experience of color is extremely loose. The spectrum looks nothing like an actual color and never will.
So what?

The point of the "color blind guy paints a green X on a red background" experiment is not to enable the color blind guy to experience color in the way that non-color blind people do. The point is that it enables him to have a high degree of confidence that most people aren't simply just making this "red vs. green" shit up.

A similar experiment: An atheist sneaks into a Catholic church, and steals a communion wafer before it has been transubstantiated. He then goes back during mass, and gets another wafer that has been transubstantiated. He then shows the two to various people, including Catholics... hell, including Catholic priests. The Pope, even. Which is bread and which is Jesus, he asks?

These two experiments -- "green X on red" and "bread or Jesus" -- are essentially the same thing as each other, except in the details.

Well, the details and the results.
posted by Flunkie at 9:30 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


A similar experiment: An atheist sneaks into a Catholic church, and steals a communion wafer before it has been transubstantiated. He then goes back during mass, and gets another wafer that has been transubstantiated. He then shows the two to various people, including Catholics... hell, including Catholic priests. The Pope, even. Which is bread and which is Jesus, he asks?

My understanding of Catholic doctrine is that the two would be indistinguishable, because transubstantiation changes the substance but not the appearance of the bread. Therefore, the test would be meaningless according to Catholic doctrine.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 9:42 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Wittgenstein's Lecture on Ethics
Thus in ethical and religious language we seem constantly to be using similes. But a simile must be the simile for something. And if I can describe a fact by means of a simile I must also be able to drop the simile and to describe the facts without it. Now in our case as soon as we try to drop the simile and simply to state the facts which stand behind it, we find that there are no such facts. And so, what at first appeared to be simile now seems to be mere nonsense.

Now the three experiences [wondering at the existence of the world, absolute safety, guilt] which I have mentioned to you (and I could have added others) seem to those who have experienced them, for instance to me, to have in some sense an intrinsic, absolute value. But when I say they are experiences, surely, they are facts; they have taken place then and there, lasted a certain definite time and consequently are describable. And so from what I have said some minutes ago I must admit it is nonsense to say that they have absolute value. And I will make my point still more acute by saying 'It is the paradox that an experience, a fact, should seem to have supernatural value.'
[...]
I see now that these nonsensical expressions were not nonsensical because I had not yet found the correct expressions, but that their nonsensicality was their very essence. For all I wanted to do with them was just to go beyond the world and that is to say beyond significant language. My whole tendency and, I believe, the tendency of all men who ever tried to write or talk Ethics or Religion was to run against the boundaries of language.
posted by Golden Eternity at 9:50 AM on April 1, 2013


Right, right, the experiment's invalid because when we say that it has literally changed from bread to Jesus we mean that nothing that can possibly be detected in any way shape or form has changed.
posted by Flunkie at 10:02 AM on April 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think this is the whole "empirical vs. rational" thing that empath talked about upthread.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 10:13 AM on April 1, 2013


Right, right, the experiment's invalid because when we say that it has literally changed from bread to Jesus we mean that nothing that can possibly be detected in any way shape or form has changed.

Wrong. Because the claim is not that the bread literally changed. The claim is that the substance or essence of the bread changed while the appearances remained the same (dependent, of course, on a whole metaphysics in which substance and appearance can be two different things). But you are correct in that Catholic doctrine places this outside of what can be "detected" or scientifically verified.

I don't buy it either, but if you're going to critique it at least get the basics correct.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 10:47 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh god. Fine. The experiment is invalid because when we say that the substance or essence of the bread has literally changed we mean that nothing that can possibly be detected in any way shape or form has changed.
posted by Flunkie at 10:54 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Wrong. Because the claim is not that the bread literally changed.

Um, I was taught that the bread does literally change.

I mean, I think we're all talking about the same thing but using different words here; however, calling that claim "wrong" because of the use of the word "literally" may be taking a bit too narrow a view here. Unfortunately, I think a lot of the confusion is coming from there actually being a bit of a variance in what is meant by the words "literally" and "changed".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is exactly what I was talking about when I said that theists were rational, but not empiricists. The substance and appearance thing is straight out of Aristotle.
posted by empath at 11:12 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


empath: "This is exactly what I was talking about when I said that theists were rational, but not empiricists."

It would be nice if you would stop inaccurately lumping us all together in statements like this. There are plenty of Jews that are practically agnostic in the way they approach their religion.
posted by zarq at 11:17 AM on April 1, 2013


Australia, at least, is aggressively secular (there was an article like this one that ran for Easter) and our prime minister is an atheist. The main sensibility is a secular one, and public rituals revolve around alcohol and sport.

What. The. Fuck.

CiS, seriously. How many times must we go round and round the roundabout? Again, you have no idea what you are talking about. Australia's population is over 60% Christian, with a smattering of other religions bringing religious belief up to almost 70%.

Legally, Australia's Constitution provides that the Commonwealth Government must not make a law establishing religion. Sound familiar? But there are many public holidays based on religion (Good Friday and Easter Monday, for example), there are still prayers in Parliament...etc. Religion is a large part of many Australian people's lives.

As for the 'public rituals' thing, as has been pointed out to you many times, just because things don't happen to you, doesn't mean they don't happen.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 11:22 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


It would be nice if you would stop inaccurately lumping us all together in statements like this. There are plenty of Jews that are practically agnostic in the way they approach their religion.

Sorry, I couched it with a lot of 'often's and such, earlier.
posted by empath at 11:31 AM on April 1, 2013


Every essay linked ignores the elephant in the room: death. Religion is a technology for dealing with mortality, and the most powerful one we have.

I say this as someone who wouldn't describe himself as an atheist and who actually does have a kind of personal faith that involves aspects of Christianity (though not to the detriment of trying to see things as clearly as I can free of the distortions of that faith, and not one that depends on the possibility of supernatural forces), I don't think this is true.

Einstein's theory of general relativity is usually what I turn to for comfort when I'm grieving the dead. According to that theory, I'm still with everyone I love in a certain sense, because movement through time is essentially an illusion and past, present and future all exist simultaneously in absolute reality. So for instance, from my scientifically-informed POV, my mom's still right here holding my hand and giving my palm a little tickle and flashing me a mischievous grin as she did when I was a little boy in Germany (and just as she later did on her deathbed) even though the fact of her being dead at this particular point in space-time makes it impossible for me to see that. If I chose the "religious technology" in this case, I'd probably be anxiously wondering if she made it to heaven or not for the rest of my life. So, for these reasons, I personally find the scientific view much more comforting when it comes to dealing with questions of mortality and have used it successfully to comfort my son (with the necessary preparatory explanation that no human really knows with certainty what happens when you die) on a number of occasions, including when he was dealing with the death of his great grandmother and the once or twice he's frightened himself considering the reality of his own mom and dad's mortality (BTW, if this is still around by then, son, and you happen to come across it, I'm still back here, and I still love you! Wish I could be there with you too, but please remember, part of you's still here with me, too, and always will be--unless Einstein got it wrong).

ultimately doesn't matter if you see the same red that I do, because colors aren't real.

Small nit to pick with this: Red is real if you take into account the whole system--i.e., including the observer and the totality of their sense-processes as part of your description. It's true that "Red" is not a property of anything physical in the world, but it's a label for the very real outcome of a complex phenomenon that involves taking in sense-data based on physical cues and processing them. Now, that still doesn't necessarily mean everyone produces the same qualia corresponding to the label we give the color "red." But it's a label for a real thing, just not a real thing that inheres to the objects of our perceptions so much as it arises from the active processes of perceiving.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:46 AM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


empath: " Sorry, I couched it with a lot of 'often's and such, earlier."

It's okay. I was more jumpy than was called for. Sorry about that.
posted by zarq at 11:52 AM on April 1, 2013


When I read Spufford asking atheists for "greater tolerance" and Al-Khalili too urging us "to be more tolerant and inclusive," I kept wishing that they would quote specific examples of atheists being intolerant. Intolerance should be critcized, and while I think there are various problems with Sam Harris' arguments or Richard Dawkins', I don't have at hand a range of examples that would demonstrate the kind of over-arching intolerant attitudes Spufford and Al-Khalili attribute to atheists at large (beyond the big name published atheists). Mind you, I don't doubt that such examples exist, though I do doubt the situation is as dire as the post-New Atheist critique suggests. In either case, we need concrete examples to have a productive dialogue, not overly broad paraphrases and supposition.

I do have at hand an example of intolerance toward atheists I came across today. As summed by at The Friendly Atheist by Hemant Mehta in "Arkansas State Representative Calls Eight-Year-Old Atheist a Fool":
A concerned mother writes to her state representatives urging them not to vote for legislation that will inevitably lead to the bullying of her atheist child… and one of the representatives writes back to say the eight-year-old girl is a fool with a darkened heart for not believing in God. It’s not just insensitive. It’s a form of bullying from a high-ranking government official.
posted by audi alteram partem at 12:47 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


as someone who find the universe to be an amazing and beautiful place I find it difficult to understand why others seem to find it necessary to add another layer of something extra-natural to make it even more amazing. Why isn't what we have before us enough? To me, the insistence that everything was created by a supreme being somehow cheapens reality.

I can see on some level how spirituality could be beautiful to someone but I think it's important for me to realize that I don't seem to be able to understand it in the same way. So while I think the color-blindness metaphor is condescending and self centered, I can see how someone could find what I wrote in my first paragraph to be condescending and self centered.

Not being able to relate to theists sort of feels like we're different species. It's similar to my not being able to relate to people who enjoy guns, or people who care what other people get up to in the bedroom, etc. We are so very similar in many ways but in some ways our brains appear to work very differently. This all probably says more about my own limited ability to understand things than anything else.
posted by sineater at 12:53 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


as someone who find the universe to be an amazing and beautiful place I find it difficult to understand why others seem to find it necessary to add another layer of something extra-natural to make it even more amazing. Why isn't what we have before us enough? To me, the insistence that everything was created by a supreme being somehow cheapens reality.

Not all versions of Theism do this though, do they? Or does Pantheism not count as a form of Theism?
posted by saulgoodman at 1:45 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Karen Armstrong makes specific reference to the idea that God is Being. This is a rather common position in philosophy and mysticism. In fact, some Jewish thinkers maintain that this is the true meaning of the word Jahve. Some have even translated the shema as, "Hear O Israel, Being is our God, Being is One."
posted by No Robots at 1:58 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not all versions of Theism do this though, do they? Or does Pantheism not count as a form of Theism?

Not all versions of theism believe or do anything. Theism is not a singular, coherent world-view. Which makes sense, because, basically by definition, it's based on belief without reference to evidence. Which means that you can find someone that believes pretty much everything you like. It doesn't even have to be internally consistent.

So yeah, critiques of 'theism' as a whole can be pretty difficult to make with specificity, because someone can always throw out counterexamples. Oh, you don't like fundamentalism, what about the unitarians? Well, you think the unitarians are too wishy washy, how about muslims? Oh, you like bacon, what about the hindus? Oh, you dislike polytheism, what about Judaism? It's like a cat chasing its tail.

That all of those belief systems are mutually incompatible with each other should tell you something about theism as a model for the world.
posted by empath at 2:02 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Not all versions of Theism do this though, do they? Or does Pantheism not count as a form of Theism?

that's a good question. I guess it depends, with regards to what I was saying, what a pantheist focuses on when they have that feeling of beauty. Is it on the thing itself, the canyon view mentioned above or whatever, or is it on how the thing is a part of "everything"? what I mean is, is the pantheist adding something supernatural and is that what's important to them? I obviously don't know anything about pantheism. wikipedia tells me that some people consider it the polar opposite of atheism while others think it is the philosophy most closely related to atheism. I could see some atheists perfectly comfortable with some pantheistic ideas. I'd want to know what the difference is, what does pantheism add that makes it distinct?
posted by sineater at 2:05 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


sineater: "as someone who find the universe to be an amazing and beautiful place I find it difficult to understand why others seem to find it necessary to add another layer of something extra-natural to make it even more amazing. Why isn't what we have before us enough? To me, the insistence that everything was created by a supreme being somehow cheapens reality."

What the hell. I'll try to answer you.

I feel a strong sense of immanence, and have since I was a small child. Have spent at least some of my life trying to puzzle that out. It is difficult to describe or quantify. And it is personal to me in that I don't impose that sense on others either personally or through secular legislation or demand that other people understand it. Frankly, I'm not sure I understand it myself. I don't insist that everything was created by a supreme being. I have a strong and clear understanding that modern religions, their structures and associated rituals, including the one I currently self-identify with, are mostly man-made. Constructed by men and women as an attempt to eff the effing ineffable.

I'm strongly pro-science, pro-skepticism and pro-intelligence. Pro-rigorously questioning one's universe through healthy skepticism. Am anti-blind faith. I don't really understand the comment made by spaltavian above that as a theist I'm automatically "employing faith." The idea that the ultimate answer to anything might be "god or the gods willed it to be so" is intellectually lazy. A cop out.

I also feel quite strongly that people should have a right to believe whatever the hell they want as long as those beliefs don't infringe upon other people.

I realize that this is probably not a satisfactory answer to your question. But there you go.
posted by zarq at 2:27 PM on April 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


All you are talking about is qualia. This is not something new, or anything which is relevant to belief or disbelief in god.

I disagree. If you're not a reductionist, if you believe that qualia exist (as I do), it's tough to really make sense of it in an atheistic world. That leads many people to religion. As for myself, I don't see much point in the debates. Ray Smullyan sums up my views nicely:
Good heavens, the amount of debates, battles, bloodshed and torture over the question of whether God does or does not exist! It has seemed to be even more than a life and death issue. At all costs, the Christian must convince the heathen and the atheist that God exists, in order to save his soul. At all costs, the atheist must convince the Christian that the belief in God is but a childish and primitive superstition, doing enormous harm to the cause of true social progress. And so they battle and storm and bang away at each other. Meanwhile, the Taoist Sage sits quietly by the stream, perhaps with a book of poems, a cup of wine, and some painting materials, enjoying the Tao to his heart's content, without ever worrying whether or not the Tao exists.
posted by smorange at 3:10 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I realize that this is probably not a satisfactory answer to your question. But there you go.

thanks, I appreciate it. Perhaps that's the difference. You have a strong sense of immanence that you don't fully understand and while there are plenty of things that I don't understand, I don't have that same sense. I don't find that sense disagreeable (in theory) and even at times can desire it for myself, but I just don't have it. Actually I guess I have a similar strong sense of the opposite.

I also agree that we all have the right to believe whatever we want as long as those beliefs don't infringe upon others, as you and several others above have said. But this is clearly problematic as part of creating a society together is finding where on the spectrum between total prescriptiveness and total personal freedom we all agree to be. And I don't see how people who hold certain beliefs can help but act on those beliefs when participating in making those types of decisions (voting or whatever). And atheists might not have beliefs (a word with far too broad a definition but that's a different discussion) but they certainly have strong thoughts on how things should be and can just as easily infringe on the rights of others as believers can.
posted by sineater at 3:20 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Passive withdrawal is not the answer to life's difficulties, as even some Taoists acknowledge. See, for example Stephen Legault's Carry tiger to mountain: the tao of activism and leadership (review).
posted by No Robots at 3:20 PM on April 1, 2013


smorange: If you're not a reductionist, if you believe that qualia exist (as I do), it's tough to really make sense of it in an atheistic world. That leads many people to religion.

From my perspective, none of these categories are exclusive, and the worst reductionism in this discussion are the people oversimplifying the "atheist world."
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 3:26 PM on April 1, 2013


If you're not a reductionist, if you believe that qualia exist (as I do), it's tough to really make sense of it in an atheistic world.

I don't understand. Why is it tough to make sense of it (only?) in an atheistic world?
posted by rtha at 3:28 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Karen Armstrong makes specific reference to the idea that God is Being. This is a rather common position in philosophy and mysticism. In fact, some Jewish thinkers maintain that this is the true meaning of the word Jahve. Some have even translated the shema as, "Hear O Israel, Being is our God, Being is One."

Or, as a famous burning bush once said, I Am that I Am. I always took that as a sort of I-am-all-and-everything-that-is statement, and as they say in AskMe, we should believe what people (or Levantine desert gods) tell us about themselves. YHWH was a crypto-pantheist all along!

My suspicion is that the Eleusinians and the Gnostics were pitching straight-up pantheism (wrapped in some blow-your-mind esoteric packaging), too. I think a lot of religious traditions reduce to this if you boil down the theology hard enough.
posted by prize bull octorok at 3:37 PM on April 1, 2013


Now, it is pretty much impossible to find a secular bell choir, place where people get together in groups and sing en masse, or free pancake breakfast, but that's about it.
posted by FelliniBlank at 11:59 AM on March 31


I see this and raise you my secular bell choir, the rockin' ladies of Pavlov's Dogs Handbell Ensemble...if you haven't heard Queen, Fleet Foxes, MJ, the Trans-Siberian Orchestra or various video game themes on handbells, you haven't lived (see, we exist). Of course, I reckon the reason we get bookings is because we're such a rare breed, so point taken. I also sing in a choir which is secular, though often with religious music; I think that speaks to the ability to appreciate though not believe.
posted by ilana at 3:51 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


sineater: " thanks, I appreciate it. Perhaps that's the difference. You have a strong sense of immanence that you don't fully understand and while there are plenty of things that I don't understand, I don't have that same sense. I don't find that sense disagreeable (in theory) and even at times can desire it for myself, but I just don't have it. Actually I guess I have a similar strong sense of the opposite.

*nod* You're welcome. I know I'm not representative of most theists. But thought perhaps the perspective might be interesting.

I also agree that we all have the right to believe whatever we want as long as those beliefs don't infringe upon others, as you and several others above have said. But this is clearly problematic as part of creating a society together is finding where on the spectrum between total prescriptiveness and total personal freedom we all agree to be. And I don't see how people who hold certain beliefs can help but act on those beliefs when participating in making those types of decisions (voting or whatever). And atheists might not have beliefs (a word with far too broad a definition but that's a different discussion) but they certainly have strong thoughts on how things should be and can just as easily infringe on the rights of others as believers can."

Yep. Agreed.
posted by zarq at 3:54 PM on April 1, 2013


I don't understand. Why is it tough to make sense of it (only?) in an atheistic world?

Because scientific explanations are the wrong kind of explanations. You can't explain how chocolate tastes with physics, chemistry, or biology. It wouldn't be the right kind of explanation. Nor can you adequately explain the value of a tree with economics, and not because our economic theories are bad. Qualia, from this point of view, just is spirit (or the numinous, or the Tao, or whatever you want to call it).
posted by smorange at 3:56 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


You also can't explain how chocolate tastes with religion.
posted by Flunkie at 3:59 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


yeah, how do you explain it theistically or whatever? If you're saying it 'just is,' that isn't much of an explanation of anything, it seems to me.
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:01 PM on April 1, 2013


Because scientific explanations are the wrong kind of explanations.

I cannot explain with science how I feel when I am having a good day counting and identifying migrating raptors. I cannot explain that feeling with religion, either. I don't need either one, frankly, to describe how I experience the taste and mouthfeel of a good piece of chocolate, or a glass of whisky. I had many, many feels, as the tumblr kids say, when we were driving around UT/CO/NM looking at rocks; none of them are "explainable" by science. How are they to be explained by religion or theism? In what way is that description more...accurate or useful or understandable by more people?
posted by rtha at 4:11 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


You also can't explain how chocolate tastes with religion.

That depends on what you mean by "explain." If by "explain," you mean in the scientific, causal sense of the word, then of course you're right. If you mean something else, like "making sense of the experience," then I'm not so sure. In a certain kind of mood, like when I'm thinking about how mountains are formed, I'm an atheist. At other times, like when I'm staring at a mountain across the bay, aware of its majesty, I'm as religious as anyone. Religion, in one sense, is a pleasing story with no truth in it. In another sense, it facilitates contact with the only thing in life that really matters, pure being, from which we derive value itself.
posted by smorange at 4:17 PM on April 1, 2013


Yes, so if by "explain", I mean something other than "explain", then maybe I can "explain".
posted by Flunkie at 4:23 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


You said it made no sense in a non-theistic world. Is that not what you meant? Or perhaps you meant that for you, you need a theistic backdrop to make sense of certain things. That is not the case for everyone.

I feel a sense of connectedness when I'm having a good hawkwatch day - connected to my fellow hawkwatchers, to the weather, to the birds, to the landscape. Is that a religious feeling? For some, certainly. Not for all. Not being able to describe that feeling in scientific terms does not make it religious or theistic.
posted by rtha at 4:23 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


sineater: Not being able to relate to theists sort of feels like we're different species.

I think this is more a cultural and political gap more than an experiential one. My answer to the question of "What can atheists learn from believers?" (a false dichotomy from the start) is nothing at all from the likes of Derbyshire and Spufford. What I've learned from non-atheists attempting to explain atheism to me for the sake of rhetorical argument is that they have some pretty queer ideas about how I actually live my life.

smorange: Because scientific explanations are the wrong kind of explanations.

Atheism != scientism. And of course they are the wrong kind of explanations, because scientific explanations are inadequate for dealing with singletons or infinities. Which is why many of us don't use scientific explanations when they are clearly inappropriate.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 4:38 PM on April 1, 2013


because scientific explanations are inadequate for dealing with singletons or infinities.

What is an adequate non-scientific way to deal with singletons and infinities?
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:42 PM on April 1, 2013


> "What is an adequate non-scientific way to deal with singletons and infinities?"

I've tried writing plays, falling in love, reading books, and going on long hikes through the woods, as a few examples. They all worked pretty well for me.
posted by kyrademon at 4:56 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


What is an adequate non-scientific way to deal with singletons and infinities?

For singletons, you can use something like deductive application as lawyers do (do these principles apply to this instance?) or qualitative triangulation ("is this a credible account given multiple sources of evidence?"). For infinities, one common epistemology is mathematics.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:00 PM on April 1, 2013


(Given the discussion leading up to it, I had been working under the assumption that we were referring specifically to things which cannot be measured in any objective way -- such as, for example, "meaningfulness" -- rather than measurable quantities that present analytical challenges such as nonrepeatability. I should probably have made that clearer in my previous post.)
posted by kyrademon at 5:14 PM on April 1, 2013


But I'm a cranky paleoatheist who finds questions about whether science can or cannot explain something to be completely irrelevant.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 5:15 PM on April 1, 2013


I think this book is fascinating and a good read for theists and atheists alike, just because it's an interesting book. But it goes a long way in explaining in common language how it can be possible for the brain to create religious experiences.

Believers often don't seem to take into account any of the empirical evidence we have that the brain is what shapes and creates our experiences of what we call "divine."
posted by agregoli at 5:25 PM on April 1, 2013


> "But I'm a cranky paleoatheist who finds questions about whether science can or cannot explain something to be completely irrelevant."

Well, yes, I agree, actually, even if that may seem odd in light of some of my previous posts.
posted by kyrademon at 5:31 PM on April 1, 2013


Well, yes, I agree, actually.

(And because of that I'm a little annoyed that some of my posts on this thread ended up being a defense against the equivalent of, "But you ALSO can't 100% prove that you're not a disembodied brain floating in a glass jar, so that is the logical end of your philosophy, God-denier!")
Oh, please. Is it really not reasonable to bring up the fact that, for example, religion doesn't explain what chocolate tastes like in direct response to science being disfavorably compared to religion because science doesn't explain what chocolate tastes like?
posted by Flunkie at 5:38 PM on April 1, 2013


No, it's not unreasonable at all to bring up that fact. That's not what I meant. I meant I was annoyed that I felt the need make that kind of response post in the first place, because I thought in some cases the thing I was responding to was wrongheaded in that "you're so far off base that you're not even wrong" way.

(If anyone is confused, I edited the part of my post Flunkie quoted because, immediately after posting, it seemed a little too fighty to me.)
posted by kyrademon at 5:52 PM on April 1, 2013


Oh, please. Is it really not reasonable to bring up the fact that, for example, religion doesn't explain what chocolate tastes like in direct response to science being disfavorably compared to religion because science doesn't explain what chocolate tastes like?

I didn't mean to compare science disfavourably to religion. I love science! I simply meant to say that scientific explanations aren't the only kind of explanations.
posted by smorange at 5:53 PM on April 1, 2013


I see. I misread. I apologize.
posted by Flunkie at 5:53 PM on April 1, 2013


And to be clear, smorange, it wasn't your posts I was actually referring to in my recent comments.
posted by kyrademon at 5:54 PM on April 1, 2013


That was in response to kyrademon, not in response to smorange's post which came as I was typing my response to kyrademon. In response to smorange's post which came as I was typing my response to kyrademon: By "disfavorably compared", I did not mean that you were claiming science is evil or something. I meant only that you brought up "science can't explain the taste of chocolate" as if a point in favor for religion, whereas in fact religion doesn't "explain" it in any meaningful sense either.
posted by Flunkie at 5:56 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm just glad this thread didn't devolve into name calling and reductive stereotypes.
posted by mecran01 at 5:57 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think I'm learning a valuable lesson about the quality of my posting after 2:30 AM, personally.

(Greetings from Germany! And good night!)
posted by kyrademon at 6:05 PM on April 1, 2013


I meant only that you brought up "science can't explain the taste of chocolate" as if a point in favor for religion, whereas in fact religion doesn't "explain" it in any meaningful sense either.

Yeah, that's where we run into the issue of what counts as "meaningful." If that's just scientific and/or analytic truth, then religion doesn't explain anything, I agree. But I think there's more to a meaningful life than that. I think there's as much meaning in a sunset, or skipping a stone along the surface of a lake, or a great conversation with friends, as there is in any scientific theory. I recognize that it's a different kind of meaning, which is precisely why I think qualia both exists and is irreducible. Trouble comes when people, on either side, try to reduce one kind of meaning to another.
posted by smorange at 6:06 PM on April 1, 2013


By saying that religion does not explain the taste of chocolate in any meaningful sense, I was not saying that one cannot draw meaning from the taste of chocolate. My gripe is about your claim of an "explanation" of how chocolate tastes. Not with whether you personally draw some meaning from it. Whether you can meaningfully explain the taste or not. Which was the standard that you were holding science to.
posted by Flunkie at 6:10 PM on April 1, 2013


I'm not really seeing why singletons and infinities can't be dealt with scientifically (but this is way over my head and you are much smarter than me). The universe itself could be a singleton couldn't it? Time could extend to infinity? It seems to me dealing with something mathematically is not really that different than dealing with it scientifically in common uses of the word 'scientific.'

"But I'm a cranky paleoatheist who finds questions about whether science can or cannot explain something to be completely irrelevant."

Irrelevant to what?

Believers often don't seem to take into account any of the empirical evidence we have that the brain is what shapes and creates our experiences of what we call "divine."

Couldn't a "Believer" respond to this by saying they believe the "divine" shapes and creates the brain? I have my doubts that neuroscience can explain much about how any experiences are shaped and created at this point, though I have hope a scientific approach will reveal a lot more someday - long after I'm gone I'm sure. Simply describing how neurotransmitters move around and which neurons fire doesn't seem like it will get very far in explaining how experiences like color or taste are created. From wikipedia:
In 2004, eight neuroscientists felt it was too soon for a definition (of consciousness). They wrote an apology in "Human Brain Function":[75]

"We have no idea how consciousness emerges from the physical activity of the brain and we do not know whether consciousness can emerge from non-biological systems, such as computers ... At this point the reader will expect to find a careful and precise definition of consciousness. You will be disappointed. Consciousness has not yet become a scientific term that can be defined in this way. Currently we all use the term consciousness in many different and often ambiguous ways. Precise definitions of different aspects of consciousness will emerge ... but to make precise definitions at this stage is premature."
I think there's as much meaning in a sunset, or skipping a stone along the surface of a lake, or a great conversation with friends, as there is in any scientific theory.

This depends on the meaning of meaning. In the case of the meaning in a sunset it is conveying special value or significance to an experience - so meaning is being used in an ethical or aesthetic or 'spiritual' or 'mystical' sense, whereas typical scientific meanings obviously have to do with precisely defined quantities like mass, energy, etc. Though scientists often talk about the special value and significance they personally experience thinking about scientific theories, to talk about that experience scientifically would seem to me to require talking about neuroscience and consciousness, which scientists currently can't tell us much of anything about.
posted by Golden Eternity at 6:32 PM on April 1, 2013


That all of those belief systems are mutually incompatible with each other should tell you something about theism as a model for the world.

I think you're being unfairly dismissive of Pantheism, which explicitly only allows for a naturalistic conception of "God." Basically, the ideal priests of pantheism would be (and sometimes are) very enthusiastic natural scientists, because in the Pantheistic view, discovering the natural processes and laws that create and govern the natural world is the religious practice. Since Pantheism is the view that God and the natural world are one and the same, in many respects, it's more like a particular philosophical mode through which to view the natural world and scientific discoveries--a metaphysics--than a belief system with un-testable faith-based beliefs. The best way to practice Pantheism is to seek to discover and understand truths about the natural world. Why should that sort of theistic belief system get lumped in with other systems that explicitly do require commitments of faith?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:33 PM on April 1, 2013


Athiesm does not equal 'colour blind' hyper rationalism, but it can corralate with a certain kind of STEM studying Internet Atheism.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:36 PM on April 1, 2013


I'd want to know what the difference is, what does pantheism add that makes it distinct?

I'd say potentially a sense of awe and appreciation for the beauty/elegance/mystery of the natural world (not "natural" as distinct from the man-made world, to be clear--I don't meant to imply pantheism necessarily entails fetishizing scenic mountain vistas and cute bunnies or anything. Just "natural" in the same sense as it's used in "natural sciences." Observable phenomena that aren't caused by supernatural forces.) And you know, for some people it might also provide a sense of purpose and meaning to experience: a hopeful view of conscious life as the universe discovering itself, to paraphrase someone who once said it better than me.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:40 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not talking about the nature of consciousness, per se. I'm talking about how we know that the state of feeling a "divine presence" for example, a feeling of oneness with the universe, can be induced by stimulating or damaging specific regions of the brain.

This is obviously not an exact science, as we know so little still about the brain. But it's far more complex than "simply describing how neurotransmitters move around and which neurons fire doesn't seem like it will get very far in explaining how experiences like color or taste are created."

I guess I'm not interested in color or taste or all these analogies, but rather, why some people feel a godlike presence, a sense of oneness, etc., and others don't. And that sort of thing is a very real question that science is exploring and beginning to answer.
posted by agregoli at 6:51 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you maintain, as you have, that it is impossible to evaluate the quality of subjective experiences, then no, you cannot assert the above. Hoisted by your own petard.

Where did I maintain that it was impossible to evaluate the quality of subjective experience? I said it was impossible to scientifically measure subjective experience directly. Of course I'm saying and have said that the quality of the experience of someone who appreciates music, who then listens to music, is superior to someone who doesn't understand the appeal of music and listens to music; so it clearly can be evaluated that way.

Because as in Yellowstone the example I gave, my appreciation felt like it was extending into the amazing complexities of geological processes, while the religious person stopped very quickly at "god made it".

You realize most of history's greatest scientists were religious, right?
--
So I'm having a hard time seeing what important experience is not open to atheists.

Well that's not surprising. Hasn't that been my contention this entire thread? You could talk till the cows come home about the beauty of Van Gogh or the Alps to people who felt utterly unmoved by them, and they would simply never understand what they were missing. You can only be understood by someone who has some latent receptivity to the message. This is true of language generally. One needs the strong sense of the uncanniness of existence, the sense that there is something more than what can be perceived, in order to sense the truth of religion.

Though belief or disbelief in the tenets of a specific religion is a different issue. But the religious bent is I think something more fundamental than that.
posted by shivohum at 7:01 PM on April 1, 2013


Flunkie, my taste of chocolate example is an argument in favour of qualia. I'm arguing for the existence of qualia because I think that its existence and irreducibility is the basis of, and the grounds for, non-scientific meaning, of the kind you see in religion, philosophy and literature. In my view, religion, philosophy, and literature are expressions of the fact that experience is, in some sense, unanalyzable. This reads like nonsense to some people, I understand. I've done degrees in philosophy and law, where this kind of talk isn't much done these days, and I think that's a shame, personally. I think the pendulum has swung too far toward conversations about scientific/material truth, both among theists and atheists.
posted by smorange at 7:15 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Sense the truth" claims you have more insight into the fundamental whys of our existence than an atheist...because you feel like you do.
posted by agregoli at 7:20 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think you're being unfairly dismissive of Pantheism, which explicitly only allows for a naturalistic conception of "God." Basically, the ideal priests of pantheism would be (and sometimes are) very enthusiastic natural scientists, because in the Pantheistic view, discovering the natural processes and laws that create and govern the natural world is the religious practice. Since Pantheism is the view that God and the natural world are one and the same, in many respects, it's more like a particular philosophical mode through which to view the natural world and scientific discoveries--a metaphysics--than a belief system with un-testable faith-based beliefs.

The belief system you've described is indistinguishable from most atheists I know, except for some vocabulary.
posted by empath at 7:40 PM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I guess I'm not interested in color or taste or all these analogies, but rather, why some people feel a godlike presence, a sense of oneness, etc., and others don't.

In some way, this reminds me of how some theologists got all caught up in arguments about exactly how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

...I don't mean for that to be flip or dismissive; what I'm getting at is, there are people - both theist and atheist - who really try to pin down the who's and what's and how's of everything to the minutest detail, while other people are simply just....going along with it, because they feel that even though they may know that there is a biochemical part in their brain causing the particular rush they get when they taste really good chocolate, that does not diminish the lived experience of feeling that rush. Or, a better example - you may know intellectually that the sensory response prompted by sexual activity comes from a particular combination of neural impulses. But when you're actually having sex you're not thinking about the fact that it is a particular group of neural stimulation because you're too caught up in "WHO THE FUCK CARES WHY THIS FEELS SO FUCKING GOOD, IT JUST DOES". Yeah, okay, you can acknowledge the "why this feels so fucking good" later over pillow talk, but not right then.

I wonder if this particular discussion isn't so much a discussion between "whether or not we can evaluate subjective experience", so much as it's a discussion between "sexual response is caused by a particular set of neural pathways" and "DON'T TALK TO ME ABOUT WHY THIS FEELS GOOD, GO AWAY AND COME BACK WHEN I DON'T HAVE SOMEONE GOING DOWN ON ME THANK YOU".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:42 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


In my view, religion, philosophy, and literature are expressions of the fact that experience is, in some sense, unanalyzable.

I'm an atheist, and I don't disagree that some experiences are unanalyzable, or indescribable or ineffable, or however you want to describe mystical experiences. I've had experiences like that myself, both chemically assisted and not.
posted by empath at 7:42 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Golden Eternity: I'm not really seeing why singletons and infinities can't be dealt with scientifically (but this is way over my head and you are much smarter than me). The universe itself could be a singleton couldn't it?

Because you can't construct hypotheses around N=1, nor can you do more than make probabilistic statements from hypothesis testing for N=infinity.

Golden Eternity: Irrelevant to what?

Irrelevant to whether atheism is a reasonable or moral position to hold.

shivohum: I said it was impossible to scientifically measure subjective experience directly. Of course I'm saying and have said that the quality of the experience of someone who appreciates music, who then listens to music, is superior to someone who doesn't understand the appeal of music and listens to music; so it clearly can be evaluated that way.

Yes, and in the music world, the person who calls entire groups tone deaf because he can't understand the music they produce can safely be considered a bigot. Personally, I prefer both my musical and spiritual community a little more open-minded.

(I suppose the next step involves dragging out that ridiculous study about self-diagnosed and self-selected autistic people on an internet site.)

shivohum: You could talk till the cows come home about the beauty of Van Gogh or the Alps to people who felt utterly unmoved by them, and they would simply never understand what they were missing.

The proverb: "those who say it can't be done, should get out of the way of those doing it" comes to mind.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:17 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


empath: I'm an atheist, and I don't disagree that some experiences are unanalyzable, or indescribable or ineffable, or however you want to describe mystical experiences. I've had experiences like that myself, both chemically assisted and not.

This is approximately the point that the believer in god-blindness starts playing calvinball with the definitions of "atheist" and "mystical" in order to justify the view that we ain't got no soul.

EC: But when you're actually having sex you're not thinking about the fact that it is a particular group of neural stimulation because you're too caught up in "WHO THE FUCK CARES WHY THIS FEELS SO FUCKING GOOD, IT JUST DOES". Yeah, okay, you can acknowledge the "why this feels so fucking good" later over pillow talk, but not right then.

And then, the village crank starts banging on the wall shouting, "you can't be having sex, you're over 40!"

That's my take on this discussion anyway.
posted by CBrachyrhynchos at 8:36 PM on April 1, 2013


You could talk till the cows come home about the beauty of Van Gogh or the Alps to people who felt utterly unmoved by them, and they would simply never understand what they were missing.

Believe me, they almost certainly get that feeling from something else in their life, which you won't enjoy in the same way.
posted by empath at 8:41 PM on April 1, 2013


Honestly, the human universe of science and art is so vast at this point that immersing oneself in any religion that I know about would be like crawing into a cardboard matchbox and pulling it shut behind you.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:22 PM on April 1, 2013


(Though in fairness, any comeback based on the clause "that I know about" which suggests that perhaps the depth and breadth of my knowledge of the available religions is insufficient to make any such blanket statement would be entirely justified.)
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:39 PM on April 1, 2013


Honestly, the human universe of science and art is so vast at this point that immersing oneself in any religion that I know about would be like crawing into a cardboard matchbox and pulling it shut behind you.

Then why not create your own, one that includes the human universe of science and art and then opens out even further to include things that don't fit in those worlds?
posted by benito.strauss at 1:17 AM on April 2, 2013


(Though in fairness, any comeback based on the clause "that I know about" which suggests that perhaps the depth and breadth of my knowledge of the available religions is insufficient to make any such blanket statement would be entirely justified.)

...Well, there's your problem....that's a mighty big blanket statement to make if you know that you already don't know much.

Also, what is meant by "immersing"? There are plenty of religious people throughout the ages who also have embraced science and art - in fact, many of the scientists of the 17th and 18th Centuries were motivated by a desire to know God's natural laws for the world better. You know? "God created the universe and wrote each and every one of the natural laws that make it work, so it makes sense to study those laws and find out what they are, so we understand God's work in even better detail."

So I'm not sure accusing religious people of "immersing" themselves in religion to the detriment of science is quite accurate. Unless you are referring to Scriptural literalists ("I don't know about this evolution crap, because our religion says it happened like THIS"); if you are, they are a minority compared to the total number of theists.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:18 AM on April 2, 2013


if you are, they are a minority compared to the total number of theists.

Not true., at least, not in america.
posted by empath at 4:28 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Empath, I think you and I have ridden this particular hobby horse before with bad results, so I'm gonna get out here.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:52 AM on April 2, 2013


...can just as easily infringe on the rights of others as believers can.

I think it is important to distinguish between potentialities and capabilities. Yes, atheists may succumb to bad thinking that leads to rights violations. However, they can't "just as easily" infringe on rights because political actors need power to infringe on rights, and within the US political context that power has more often been used against atheists and other religious minorities than by them.

This is the problem I have with Spufford's "post-Christian puritanism" metaphor. The Puritans fled Europe due to violations of their religious rights. When they get to the New World and set up their own governments, they violate the rights of religious dissenters (e.g. Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson). Today's atheists do not hold equivalent political power. I will listen to those who argue that atheists unfairly describe their views. However, I think it is dangerous to equate atheist criticisms of religious views (right or wrong) with political intolerance of the human rights of people who hold those views, because it obscures the extent to which religious majorities and pluralities continue to violate the rights religious minorities including atheists.

I will say that the Puritan metaphor is apt in one sense in that those who protest Establishment Clause violations can face horrendous retaliation including death threats, assaults and pet killings as documented in this recent petition by the Freedom From Religion Foundation to allow their clients to file suit with pseudonyms lest they be subjected to similar abuse [pdf].
posted by audi alteram partem at 6:54 AM on April 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


zarq: I know I'm not representative of most theists.

I would suggest you're actually a great representative. You're like an ur-theist; without dogma or specific creed. I imagine that, before social stratification lead to priests and temples, tribal bands would have spoken of something that sounds a lot like your "immanence".

I don't really understand the comment made by spaltavian above that as a theist I'm automatically "employing faith."

Is the immanence you spoke of not supernatural? Your flavor of theism may not include a creator god- you wouldn't be the first and you won't be the last! But, if you think at some point, there is a divine something, something unbound by reality, you have faith in something. This isn't the same has belief in something we don't have evidence for, this is belief in something that defies the possibility of evidence.

Faith is belief without, or inspite, the rational: evidence and/or hypothesis via appeal to logic. (There is no distinction between "blind-faith" and "faith". All faith is blind, it's just how much of it you have.) The supernatural is a concept of things beyond nature, beyond rationality, where the concept of evidence cannot even apply, let alone be produced. Belief in the supernatural necessitates faith.

If at the end of the day, you think your immanence comes from within the bounds of reality, and is simply something we don't understand yet, then it's not supernatural. It would be no different than advanced aliens communicating with us in a way we don't understand. If this is the case, I wouldn't consider you a theist, though you and empath may disagree.
posted by spaltavian at 7:40 AM on April 2, 2013


Outgrowing Religion: "You mustn't believe in your own religion; I don't believe in mine. Religions are like the fences that hold young saplings erect. Without the fence the sapling could fall over. When it takes firm root and becomes a tree, the fence is no longer needed. However, most people never lose their need for the fence."

also btw...
-Meta-Rationality
-Probability Theory and the Undefinability of Truth
posted by kliuless at 9:00 AM on April 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Glad to see a mention of Tarski's theorem. It influenced my (basically Taoist) views.
posted by smorange at 10:02 AM on April 2, 2013


> You also can't explain how chocolate tastes with religion.

It is senseless to try to tell the taste of chocolate to someone who has never tasted it, full stop. You are running up against one of the boundaries of language Wittgenstein mentioned in Golden Eternity's quotation up above. But just because it is senseless to try to formulate a thing in words, that is not evidence that the thing doesn't exist.
posted by jfuller at 2:11 PM on April 3, 2013




Philosophy "Bro": Wittgenstein's "On Certainty": A Summary
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:26 PM on April 3, 2013








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