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Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Us
April 18, 2003 8:44 PM   Subscribe

How Important Is Religious Belief In The Definition Of Our Personality? I would say not at all, but Bernard Lewis's essay gave me pause. Bringing it all back home and wondering about MetaFilter's religious breakdown, does the fact that there are far more atheists, Jews (like me) and Mormons here than in the Western population at large, make any difference? Christians get a hard time here, in my opinion. Is it because, as Lewis says: "Tolerance was a much more difficult question for Christians"? Atheists, Jews and Buddhists seem to have a disproportionately large influence. Whereas Muslims, sadly, hardly get a look-in. What does this mean? That is, if it means anything?
posted by MiguelCardoso (62 comments total)

 
I'd also be inclined to put some of it on geography and demography. Jews, atheists and Muslims tend to be in major cities, which makes having an internet connection very easy. As I understand it, most of the strongly-Christian population in the US is out in rural districts, which makes it more difficult to get one. So, while I'm sure there's a fair number of Christian posters on Mefi, the proportion of JAMs is higher than it would be based solely on demographic rankings. That's just a guess though, and of course, attributing these things to one simple explanation rarely works.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 9:49 PM on April 18, 2003


Great article, Miguel. Thanks.
posted by homunculus at 9:57 PM on April 18, 2003


Fascinating article. I'm especially grateful for the discussion of the word "tolerance," which I've used without thinking lately. I've watched the recent clash of civilizations with a great deal of horror, not to mention curiosity about the civilization I'm least familiar with. I'm also perplexed by the trenchant American lack of that same curiosity. Of course, it comes down to insecurity. The two new kids in town skirmishing for turf. The bloodshed makes it difficult to sit back and laugh like a Buddhist. I suppose the cycle of retribution will end when both parties see how futile it is. Mutual respect, indeed.
posted by divrsional at 10:01 PM on April 18, 2003


The situation doesn't make it difficult to laugh like a buddhist, your own attitude makes it difficult.

There have always been wars. Buddhists have even taken part in some.
posted by nyxxxx at 10:07 PM on April 18, 2003


Quality, not quantity :)

The bigger the barrel, the more bad apples :-/
posted by Mossy at 10:23 PM on April 18, 2003


I think being of a different religion than those that surround you will tend to bring that aspect of yourself into clearer relief, a Christian surrounded by other like-minded individuals won't think too much about his or her Christianity as a defining point of their personality. Whereas a Muslim or an Atheist in North America might see him or herself as being surrounded by Christians and will think much more about how this difference affects their relationship with those around them.

The lack of self-identified Muslims on MeFi and other places I tend to frequent on the net might have more to do with the baggage that might come from identifying one's self as such, and having to potentially answer for the actions of others based on your religion. Atheists get off scott-free in this regard, and Buddhists seem to have excellent PR all around, unloike the big two monotheistic religions.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:35 PM on April 18, 2003


does the fact that there are far more atheists, Jews (like me) and Mormons here than in the Western population at large, make any difference?

I don't think there are more Mormons here than in the general population, it just comes out more because we're actually communicating instead of walking past each other on the street. You probably see half a dozen Mormons everyday and don't think about it because they look and act pretty much like everyone else, at least on the surface.

Either that or it just seems like there are more Mormons here because I make lots of noise. :-)
posted by oissubke at 10:39 PM on April 18, 2003


Space Coyote: Not so true with the athiests... People tend to forget that U.S.S.R and People's Rep of China are/ were both staunchly athiestic governments, known for their nasty atrocities. I tend not to trust se4lf-proclaimed "Athiests." The statement that there is no god tends to entail a dangerous degree of self-righteousness, which is clearly apparent in the two states mentioned, but also throughout the Enlightenment-era thought that gave rise to hard-line atheism in the first place. Me, I claim agnosticism. I've not been convinced that anyone is right about the whole god question, so I don't take sides, and learn what I can from whoever is doing the teaching, careful to screen for bullocks as I do so. I tihnk of my agnosticism as a reflection of certain aspects of my personality, but not as a definition in itself...

To put the point on that, I think that people need to realize that anyone is capable of committing an atrocity, regardless of their creed. I think at this point we've seen major blunders by all of the major religions, whether they be Atheistic pogroms, the Christian Children's Crusade, September 11th, or that whole wierd nastiness that came about in Japan in the 1940's.

Better yet, we need to realize that we're all just people, all of the same basic model, and that a person's geographic or ideological location does nothing to affect that fact. I mean, it sounds simple, right? But ten thousand years into the experiment, it seems to be the one thing we can't work out for the life of us...
posted by kaibutsu at 10:52 PM on April 18, 2003


kaibatsu> You might find this article by Bertrand Russell of interest then. He contrasts agnosticism and atheism and points out that it's possible to hold an agnostic position philosophically, simply because one does not think a logical proof or disproof of God is possible, but to act as if God does not exist anyhow (using Occam's Razor).
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 10:58 PM on April 18, 2003


Space Coyote: The lack of self-identified Muslims on MeFi and other places I tend to frequent on the net might have more to do with the baggage that might come from identifying one's self as such, and having to potentially answer for the actions of others based on your religion. Atheists get off scott-free in this regard

kaibutsu: I tend not to trust se4lf-proclaimed "Athiests." The statement that there is no god tends to entail a dangerous degree of self-righteousness...

Personally, while I'm not often asked to account for the actions of other atheists, it's quite often that I'm asked in a hostile manner to justify my lack of belief, and then insulted after I do so. Seems it took about 12 minutes after Space Coyote hit the "Post" button for some anti-atheist slurs to be tossed around.

kiabutsu: Me, I claim agnosticism. I've not been convinced that anyone is right about the whole god question, so I don't take sides, and learn what I can from whoever is doing the teaching, careful to screen for bullocks as I do so.

kiabutsu, if you're distrustful of "self-procalimed" atheists (is there some certification board I'm unaware of?) because of the certainty you perceive in them, then you might think about why you don't equally mistrust these "others doing the teaching" you claim to be learning from, most of whom are likely to be equally as certain about their beliefs as atheists are. In the interest of consistency and such.

Interesting article, Miguel, thanks.
posted by boredomjockey at 12:34 AM on April 19, 2003


Non-denominational spiritualist. So does that mean I just want be friends with everybody?
posted by feelinglistless at 1:01 AM on April 19, 2003


Praise "Bob" and Hail Connie.

In all seriousness, though, I have often pondered this myself Miguel; compared to the religious makeup of the society I face day to day (Majority agnostic, a few Christians and Muslims, very few Jews or Hindus), Metafilter seems very different, and I've never been sure why that is; different religious proportions in America compared to Australia? Different proportions in tech-savvy people?
posted by Jimbob at 3:43 AM on April 19, 2003


I hate to say it, but an agnostic is just an atheist in denial.

I wonder how many people have become atheists in the last 5 years, it would be an interesting statistic.
posted by CrazyJub at 5:42 AM on April 19, 2003


I became an agnostic around grade 5 or 6.
Up until then I had been, by force of parenting, a christian.
But at that age I started reading (and understanding) popular science magazines. What I read in them was simply not consolable with an immortal soul, an omnipotent and omniscient god or any deity at all, really.
The explanations offered by science where just so much more compelling, more real than the hand-waving offered by religion.

I'm not an atheist, because yes, I'm prepared to believe that there is a god, goddess or gods if there is provided sufficient proof of his/her/their existence.

But as things stand now, my identity is no more defined by religion than it is by, say, the color of my bedsheets or the amount of salt remaining in my salt-shaker.
It's just not very important to me, and many other agnostics I have talked this over with feel the same way.

In short:
Popular science made me a heathen.
posted by spazzm at 5:56 AM on April 19, 2003


I shall no more speak of tolerance, but of mutual respect.
posted by will at 6:19 AM on April 19, 2003


Nyxxxx, thanks for reminding me that mefi is above all an opportunity for putting others down.

*laughs like a buddhist*

Mutual respect, indeed.
posted by divrsional at 6:29 AM on April 19, 2003


An agnostic is an atheist in denial?
"T.H. Huxley, who coined the term [agnosticism] in 1869 . . . expressed this principle positively as: 'Follow your reason as far as it will take you,' and negatively as: 'Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.' . . . [t]o deny either God or meaning is simply the antithesis of affirming them. Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that 'I do not know.'"
From Buddhism Without Beliefs, by Stephen Batchelor
posted by divrsional at 6:43 AM on April 19, 2003


MetaFilter's religious breakdown
*pictures a bearded, scraggly, wild-eyed metafilter standing on the corner shouting "repent!" at passersby*
posted by quonsar at 7:00 AM on April 19, 2003


*pictures a bearded, scraggly, wild-eyed metafilter standing on the corner shouting "repent!" at passersby*

What's funny is this is what I think a large number of people (who I assume are atheist) are doing when the tilt against SUV's, Consumerism, Bush, and America in general.
posted by Mick at 7:53 AM on April 19, 2003


I always thought an agnostic believes there is "something" like a god, and an atheist is someone who does not believe in anything without proof.

Am I wrong?
posted by CrazyJub at 7:57 AM on April 19, 2003


CrazyJub: Yes.
posted by spazzm at 8:18 AM on April 19, 2003


Atheists, Jews and Buddhists seem to have a disproportionately large influence. Whereas Muslims, sadly, hardly get a look-in. What does this mean? That is, if it means anything?

How do you know this? Are you inferring people's religious origins based on your stereotypes?
posted by metaforth at 8:24 AM on April 19, 2003


Pure historical fact made me an agnostic. I won't say atheist for the same reason most agnostics don't--I can't prove anything and wouldn't presume to. All's I know is what I see.

As for the effects of that on my personality: I'd never thought about it before, but I think at the very least I'm less tense now, without the worries that someone's watching me or that there's some bad place I'm headed. And I feel better about being good for good's sake, than I did about being good to please someone. Coming clean with myself about the Jebus is probably the best thing that's ever happened to me.
posted by padraigin at 8:42 AM on April 19, 2003


I used to be agnostic, now I'm atheist.

Agnosticism is just fence-sitting. Rather than commit one way or the other, the agnostic wants to keep his options open, just in case he's wrong. Which is just another way of saying they believe in God, and don't want to admit it.

There are people out there who believe leprechauns exist. Yet you probably do not "sit the fence" on that subject: I should imagine that if you're at all rational, you outright reject the notion of leprechauns.

Sure, if some little leprechaun in caught, you'll have to admit you were wrong and change your worldview, but in the mean time you stand firm in your conviction. Any rational person is willing to admit facts and change an erroneous opinion/belief.

Likewise with the concept of a "creative deity". In short, shit or get off the pot: either believe in it, or reject the concept.

Whatever you believe, believe it with confidence.

IMO, YMMV, agnosticism is immature atheism or religionism.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:35 AM on April 19, 2003


the agnostic wants to keep his options open, just in case he's wrong. Which is just another way of saying they believe in God, and don't want to admit it.

Disagreement. An agnostic just accepts the fact that currently there is no way of proving things one way or the other. I feel the same way about gods as I do about intelligent extraterrestrial life - it's possible that both exist (although the latter are more likely than the former to my mind), but currently we just don't know. I can "reject the concept" of a supernatural deity while still accepting that there is currently no way of determining whether one exists or not. Agnosticism (by my definition, anyway) does not entail fence-sitting (which implies wavering between sides), it involves a lack of firm belief one way or the other - frankly, the whole thing concerns me hardly at all - I'm definitely more atheist than agnostic, but I accept that to have a firm opinion one way or the other requires more facts than are currently available to me. In short, I don't care about it unless it impinges on my life.

Your later statement: "Whatever you believe, believe it with confidence." sums up why I don't characterise myself as atheist. I don't "believe in" anything in a way that's comparable with religious belief. I don't even "believe in" science, science is close enough to provable fact for me, that I don't think "belief" (in the sense of "faith without evidence") is required.
posted by biscotti at 10:18 AM on April 19, 2003


The leprechaun tells me to burn things.
posted by homunculus at 11:24 AM on April 19, 2003


I subscribe to the Atlantic—great magazine—and read this article when it came out... wonderful piece (the article preceding it is on "apatheism"... I found that one just plain disturbing).

To answer Miguel's question, though, I find that my faith is central to how I define myself: faith comes before nationality, tribe, or just about anything else... but that said, space coyote's comment about how one's relative differences affect one's own perception of self is important. When I lived in Spokane, I was the Mormon boy, and I identified with that "otherness" in me. Now that I'm in Utah, I'm the crazy liberal, and I identify with that otherness in me much more than I did in Spokane.

I haven't changed, but my environment has.

On another issue, it's important to note that just because one believes that their religion is true they do not necessarily have to believe that everyone else is false/evil/delusional or what have you.
posted by silusGROK at 11:34 AM on April 19, 2003


I believe in God. My faith isn't something I set out for proof or disproof. It's a first principle, a fundamental axiom in my understanding of the universe, like the axiom of rationality (indeed, I derive rationality and the other two from the first principle of God).

I don't know what this says about my personality. But my religion is very comfortable with my understanding of modern science. So much so that if evolution were somehow disproved tomorrow I would have a crisis of faith!
posted by wobh at 1:00 PM on April 19, 2003


The sad fact of the matter is that as I have gotten older, I have become less tolerant of all religions. The more I read, reflect, interact, the less patience I have for those who blindly follow their faith. I simply cannot forgive the Christians or the Muslims for their perversion of religion into an instrument of torture against humanity whether a thousand years ago or yesterday. If I had to chose, I could probably become a Buddhist-- but I find all of this talk of higher beings a lot of superstitious mumbo-jumbo.

Sidenote Book-plug: Just finished reading The Devil and Daniel Silverman by Theodore Roszak which is "A wickedly funny novel about an outraged (homosexual Jewish) liberal trapped in a fundamentalist Bible College." A highly enjoyable read if you happen to believe in evolution, a woman's right to choose, homosexual rights, and the non-divine origins of the Bible.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 1:16 PM on April 19, 2003


Oooh yes, another difference between dealings with religion in my day-to-day life and that on Metafilter - so much more athiest bashing. People seem to abuse athiests because they (being religious or from a religious background) assume that religion has to be part of your life. If it isn't, then you must be making a strong effort to keep it out, and therefore somehow "athiests are as extreme as religious types".

This is simplistic bullshit. Can't I just live my life without religion? I don't consider myself an agnostic because I'm pretty sure there's no "God" / higher power. I don't consider myself athiest because that seems to convince some people that I'm rabidly anti-religion. I'm neither. I just don't care. I live my life happily day to day without religion - simply as an interested observer.
posted by Jimbob at 2:32 PM on April 19, 2003


I don't "believe in" anything in a way that's comparable with religious belief. I don't even "believe in" science, science is close enough to provable fact for me, that I don't think "belief" (in the sense of "faith without evidence") is required.

By my definition, that's exactly what atheism is: lack of belief in a deity. I can't prove there's not a god, because you can't prove the nonexistence of anything--I can't prove there's not an invisible pink unicorn in my bedroom, either, but that doesn't mean I call myself an agnostic as regards invisible pink unicorns. I simply don't believe they exist, until I see some pretty persuasive evidence to the contrary. Lack of belief is the default. I don't have faith that there's not a god, but since I also don't have faith that there is one, I'll act as if there isn't and call myself an atheist.

As for how this affects my life ... for the most part, it doesn't. I work at a church, and I've been dating a Christian for nearly four years. I follow the Golden Rule to the best of my ability, and that seems to be enough for most people. It's enough for me. When asked about religion in a setting in which a detailed discussion would be unwanted or unnecessary, I generally deflect the question with a polite "Baptized, but not churchgoing" (borrowed from Jack Nicholson in The Pledge).
posted by Acetylene at 2:56 PM on April 19, 2003


I'm a Christian SubGenius Apathetic: I believe there is a God, but that HE no longer believes in US. Whereas some look at science as proof there is not a god, I see it as proof that there must be. DNA is far too intricate and complex to have happened by pure chance. The laws of physics are not random. There's a method to the madness so there must be a madman behind it all.

Who or what? We're just throwing rocks at the moon.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:57 PM on April 19, 2003


Christians get a hard time here, in my opinion.

Only the fundamentalists.

Liberal Christians respect the views of others and do not try to force their belief systems upon them. What I'm trying to say is the approach to your belief system often defines you as much as your beliefs.

Thanks for the link!
posted by nofundy at 5:33 PM on April 19, 2003


By my definition,[...]

Maybe the world would be a better place if people could accept the definitions in the dictionary rather than make up their own.
posted by spazzm at 6:24 PM on April 19, 2003


...or be able to tell the difference between 'definition' and 'description.'
posted by ZachsMind at 6:35 PM on April 19, 2003


How about our personalities may help determine at least our approach to our beliefs?

The old correlation is not necessarily causation warning is indicated here.

Might it be more correct to ask if belief systems are affected by prevalent cultural norms and individual personalities than the other way around?
posted by nofundy at 6:50 PM on April 19, 2003


My faith isn't something I set out for proof or disproof. It's a first principle...

Fair enough, but then it would seem that the burden would be upon you to explain why your "first principle" is in any way superior or preferable to any other that one might choose. I find the idea of trying to build a sound structure upon a random foundation quite odd.

To respond to Miguel's question, which regarded the impact of religious belief on personality, not worldview, I think that the very nature of all religious doctrines would necessarily shape the personalities of those who seriously adopted them, either through their successful internalization of the framework and resulting prescriptions or their ongoing failure in their efforts to do so.

Those of us who lack any commitment to such doctrines form largely apart from them, although certainly we are impacted by our interaction with the ideas they contain and the people who espouse them, as with any other human idea to which we are exposed.
posted by rushmc at 8:31 PM on April 19, 2003


Might it be more correct to ask if belief systems are affected by prevalent cultural norms and individual personalities than the other way around?

I don't know about "more correct," but it is certainly a more interesting question to me. If you are who you are because of what you believe—well, then you aren't very special or much differentiated from countless others, are you, since beliefs can be transmitted relatively easily? If, on the other hand, you believe what you believe in some measure because of who you are...that directs us back to the central question. Belief is surely a subset of the total processing that we perform, and therefore interesting, but to a limited degree.
posted by rushmc at 8:41 PM on April 19, 2003


And maybe more relevant to the progress of consciousness would be an understanding of why some people can comfortably hold several possibilities in the mind without choosing one, and others (such as five fresh fish) insist that everyone else "shit or get off the pot."

*sits on the toilet, not shitting, with a laptop tuned to mefi*
posted by divrsional at 9:13 PM on April 19, 2003


And maybe more relevant to the progress of consciousness would be an understanding of why some people can comfortably hold several possibilities in the mind without choosing one...

Speaking for myself, I find it quite simple: I feel no pressing need to choose a possibility, mainly because religious belief or lack thereof has no bearing on my life, it just isn't important to me (I find it very interesting from an anthropological and sociological standpoint, mind you). Unlike those who see a clear choice in the matter, whose faith is a tangible thing, and whose lives are thereby directly and widely affected, it makes no difference to my day to day life whether there's a god or not - I care most about the here and now, in the event that there's an afterlife, I'll sort that out when I get there, I'm sure god will understand. And I very much doubt that the way in which I live now would be in any real way affected by sudden proof that there was a god: I already do the best I can (and try to do better) in terms of how I live my life and treat people and other living things; if how I dress, who I have sex with, and what I eat matter more to god than those things, then probably he and I would have some things to discuss anyway.

I find it far stranger that people can claim in no uncertain terms that their version of god is somehow more correct than someone else's. When I do think about it, I'm inclined to think that, if there is a "god", all believers of all faiths are just seeing and interpreting different parts of the same elephant. Oh, and I'm only going to the heaven that allows pets, because otherwise it's not heaven.
posted by biscotti at 11:30 PM on April 19, 2003


divrsional: well, this "other" just dislikes wishywashyness. If you're going to believe something, believe it whole-heartedly. If you're wrong, you're wrong, but at least you're wrong with confidence.

Could be, however, that my ideas of agnosticism are different from others. In my experience, agnostics (including myself at one time) are unwilling to commit: they believe there's a chance that there's a god, and they'd hate to upset him by saying he doesn't exist, so they weenie around it.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:08 AM on April 20, 2003


biscotti: are you an agnostic or an apathist, then?
posted by five fresh fish at 10:10 AM on April 20, 2003


they believe there's a chance that there's a god, and they'd hate to upset him by saying he doesn't exist

Good grief, why on earth would you assume it's fear of offending a potential deity that motivates agnostics' agnosticism, and not, say, scruples of intellectual honesty? Let's imagine that I come up to you with a closed carton and said, "What's in the box?" If you said, "I don't know," would it be reasonable for me to surmise that you're afraid of offending me, or the thing in the box, or God, or, really, anyone?
posted by redfoxtail at 11:09 AM on April 20, 2003


fff: I'm an agnostic - I just don't know (which is what the word means, along with "doubtful or noncommittal"). It's nothing to do with an unwillingness to commit, and everything to do with a lack of compelling evidence to make any commitment worthwhile, and a lack of a good reason to make making a commitment important. Why should I have to have a solid opinion about this? I'd rather be right than wrong ("wrong with confidence" is just another way of saying "aggressively ignorant", and I try not to be that), I see no reason to make a bad decision just for the sake of making a decision, when there's no good reason to have to make a decision in the first place, that's like saying after a KKK meeting that one may as well be racist, even in the absence of other evidence, because at least then you had an opinion, wrong as it may be. It's nothing to do with upsetting any god, I couldn't care less, if there's a god worth believing in, it'll understand. I reject your assertion that making a decision about this is in any way important or more meaningful than choosing not to make a decision until such time as compelling evidence is available. It's about intellectual consistency, and nothing else.

And what redfoxtail said.
posted by biscotti at 11:14 AM on April 20, 2003


iIn my experience, agnostics (including myself at one time) are unwilling to commit: they believe there's a chance that there's a god, and they'd hate to upset him by saying he doesn't exist, so they weenie around it.

Your mileage may vary. There are, no doubt, people who call themselves ``agnostic'' who are ``really'' just atheists without the courage of their convictions. There are, no doubt, other agnostics who take their position from a principled refusal to claim certainty where they don't see it. There are also, no doubt, other people who call themselves agnostic to pick up chicks named Agnes.

ABORTIONS FOR SOME, MINIATURE AMERICAN FLAGS FOR OTHERS!
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:30 AM on April 20, 2003


Can you be agnostic and still believe that the concept of a god is absurd?

If someone came up to me with a shoebox and said there was an elephant in it, I wouldn't be agnostic about it, I'd be outright atheist: there is no elephant in any shoebox. If you continued to insist that there was an elephant, I'd quickly become apathist: I really don't care what's in your shoebox, you crazy bugger!
posted by five fresh fish at 12:22 PM on April 20, 2003


Can you be agnostic and still believe that the concept of a god is absurd?

Yes.

I really don't care what's in your shoebox, you crazy bugger!

I don't think this is necessarily an inappropriate response.

(Your analogy differs from the god question, of course, in that you can open the shoebox and settle the matter once and for all, since it's not Schrodinger's elephant.)
posted by rushmc at 12:54 PM on April 20, 2003


Can you be agnostic and still believe that the concept of a god is absurd?

Yep. And one can think it's more or less absurd and still understand and respect that it's important to many good people, and that it affects many people's behaviour in positive ways. I feel that what some people get from their concept of god, others get from other places - the end result in terms of how it affects you is the same.

Your elephant/shoebox example is flawed, though. Aside from the fact that you conveniently ignored the possibility of genetically-engineered miniature elephanteenies (coming soon, watch this space!), both elephants and shoeboxes are scientifically measurable, tangible, known, independently verifiable things. It's a reasonable assumption that an elephant can't fit in a shoebox, because you know their relative sizes. Also, you could easily just open the shoebox and look inside to determine the presence or lack thereof of an elephant. None of these things are true of a god, by any concept I know of, so you're comparing apples to oranges.

Is this the problem you're having with agnosticism? I say that I'm agnostic because we currently have no way of measuring the existence of something like a god, so I feel it would be intellectually dishonest of me to state unequivocally that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there isn't one. I feel it's reasonable to assume that there isn't one, and conduct my life according to principles other than religious ones, but I don't feel that it's reasonable to choose to believe categorically that there isn't one (any more than I think it's reasonable to believe categorically that there are no intelligent extraterrestrials). I see no reason to take a strong stand on something when there isn't adequate evidence to do so.
posted by biscotti at 12:54 PM on April 20, 2003


I suppose I'll begin by apologizing for my first post way up yonder, since it was poorly written after a long goddamned shift... And then start rephrasing and responding.

My problem with atheists stems mostly from individuals who, in my opinion, give a bad bad name to the whole camp of non-believers, if indeed a camp we be. Much as fundamentalist evangelical Southern Baptists give a bad name to Christianity, I have met my fair share of athiests claiming disbelief based on really distorted, second-hand information about Christianity alone. Is the Christian god, as presented by the Methodists, the one true supreme being? I think the chance is epsilon. Is the bible a man-made (and consequently flawed) reflection of a being that once revealed itself? I think that's a much harder question to answer, because you have to run at it assuming that the writers and translaters of the bible have likely lost something amounting to god in the translation.

I often see atheism acting as a label that a person uses to dismiss others. "Oh you're a Christian? I'm so much smarter than that." (See Greg Egan.) In fact, there's a lot that we non-deists can learn from the religious folk, regardless of the whackos that swell in their ranks. But there are things you can learn from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and, yes, even the Jains. (I mean, hell, if an atheist were to walk up to a Jain and say that all of this superstitious stuff is garbage, the Jain would most likely laugh at the degree to which our hypothetical atheest has missed the point.) Too often, the atheists I've known have been anti-christians first and foremost and lacking any solid spiritual grounding of their own. (We can have a flame war about what I mean by "spiritual grounding" and whether or not it nullifies or consummates my agnostic title some other day. But it boils down to the idea that Carl Sagan is not a good substitute for, say, the Buddha.)

Right. So we can learn a lot from our friends in religious circles, and it is foolish to dismiss them because they believe in a god. Furthermore, shoeboxes in this part of the world are small, and for all I know, they do things differently in India and with baby elephants to boot.

As for this nonsense about "Whatever you believe, believe it with confidence," methinks it poor rhetoric that is unlikely to lead anyone to change their minds about anything. Quite possibly it represents the same breed of circle-jerking that leads to pogroms since 'if you really believe with confidence, you must be willing to prove it, right?'

Can you be agnostic and still believe that the concept of a god is absurd?

Sure. And while you're at it, go talk to a Jainist, who will undoubtably also tell you that the idea of a god is absurd. The Dada was absurd, but that doesn't stop me from believing in the Dada...
posted by kaibutsu at 1:05 PM on April 20, 2003


And to cover me arse a bit on that last post, it should be pointed out that I'm speaking of the vast majority of atheists I've known, a mindset that seems to be following around a very loose definition. Exceptions to the rule almost certainly exist...
posted by kaibutsu at 1:09 PM on April 20, 2003


Carl Sagan is not a good substitute for, say, the Buddha.

Perhaps not, but I'd say he's a damn sight better by any sensible measure than the Swaggarts/Falwells/Robertsons/Grahams of the world, which is perhaps a fairer comparison.

we can learn a lot from our friends in religious circles, and it is foolish to dismiss them because they believe in a god.

I suppose one could argue that one can learn something from *anyone.* Of course, a lot of what they can teach is by negative example (e.g., the young geniuses who persist in duplicating "Jackass"-inspired acts). A limited perspective tends to produce shallow, repetitive lessons, which can quickly become tiresome and unproductive.

I'm curious: in your statement, "it is foolish to dismiss them because they believe in a [X]," would you equally consider it true no matter what you replace the variable with? Or is it only "god" that gets special dispensation (if so, why?)?
posted by rushmc at 2:05 PM on April 20, 2003


Well, I'm firmly in the "there are no gods" camp. I think the entire concept is as preposterous as the idea of a tooth fairy or easter bunny. Or elephants in shoeboxes.

I think this makes me an atheist by most people's definitions.

This does not make me non-spiritual, though. I am awed by the beauty and complexity of the universe and life on earth, and I am deeply thankful that I am able to experience it.

I also understand how faith in the supernatural helps some people cope with the stresses of life and provides them with a moral structure. For these people, faith is a positive thing.

I also see a lot of religionists who use faith as a tool to bring other people down, to commit immoral acts, and to deny responsibility for their lives. I pity these people because their faith is an unhealthy facet of their lives.

Maybe I'm an apathist. I don't care about other's religions, except when they use their religion to bother me or cause harm to others. On the other hand, if I were an apathist, I wouldn't have read so many philosophy and religious studies books as I explored religion.

Hmmm.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:30 PM on April 20, 2003


"I suppose one could argue that one can learn something from *anyone.* ... A limited perspective tends to produce shallow, repetitive lessons, which can quickly become tiresome and unproductive."

This second statement is exactly what I've been talking about. A belief in Christ (or anyone else, for that matter) does not equate to a 'limited perspective.' (Perhaps your perspective is just as limited, in refusing to accept [X]? The argument goes both ways.) Yes, there are an abundance of Falwell-followers in the world, far too many for anyone's general happiness, methinks, but a majority does not the ideal make.

Take, as an example, a group up in Philly called the Simple Way. They have set out to abandon the church in its present form, and return to something closer to the Early Christian church. In the process, they have become rabid anti-capitalists and are on the front lines of a war against poverty. (The goal is to end poverty, not beat up the homeless, which is apparently something our governments excel at.) Sure, they believe in Christ - he's central to everything they do over there - but I think they've also things to tell us about the joy of a simple life and the need to rebuild communities in a society overflowing with walls.

I'm curious: in your statement, "it is foolish to dismiss them because they believe in a [X]," would you equally consider it true no matter what you replace the variable with? Or is it only "god" that gets special dispensation (if so, why?)?

Well, 'god' gets a bit more consideration than, for example, 'nazism,' because the diversity of believers in some higher power is far greater than the diversity of ideas found among neo-nazis. But in any case, I do me best not to completely close my ears to the words of any person. I'll certainly do my best to convince the neo-nazi that he's on a very ugly path, but to do so, you have to listen to him or fall into the huge class of people that he ignores. I won't try to turn a person away from religion, since it is entirely possible that something has been revealed to them which has not been revealed to me. I may try to convince them that Rev. Graham probably isn't the chosen medium of their savior, but by that point we're down to particulars...

I also see a lot of religionists who use faith as a tool to bring other people down, to commit immoral acts, and to deny responsibility for their lives. I pity these people because their faith is an unhealthy facet of their lives.

And what about those who use their faith to make the world a little better? Do you admire their faith? Do you think that you are incapable of such acts because you have no faith? Again, look to Maoist China, which systematically slaughtered the Tibetans over a religious difference... Lack of faith does not necessarily make one a better person.

As non-believers, it falls to us to decide our own morality. Thus far, when we've taken our non-belief to the scale of countries, I don't think we've done a very good job of convincing people that it's a safe way to run a society. What have we got? Hitler, Lenin, Mao... We've also got Thoreau and Eugene Debs, but their names aren't tied to agnosticism in the way that Christ is tied to Christianity...
posted by kaibutsu at 9:00 AM on April 21, 2003


rushmc: Philosophically it settles one big issue from which a lot of smaller ones arise. If I believe that all finite things come from one infinite thing, it settles a matter that would otherwise have to be settled with infinite regression: "It's turtles all the way down." I find the single infinite God a more elegant solution.

I find the idea of trying to build a sound structure upon a random foundation quite odd.

And yet nature has done just this. Early in the Selfish Gene, Dawkins points out that evolution is a consequence of a more general principle of physical and chemical stability. Over time the things which, just so happen to be physically and chemically stable survive over less stable configurations. I suspect that we will continue to find that this to be true at a very deep level, right up to and including things which are physical laws. Order out of chaos, reason out of unreason, everything out of nothing.

One can believe in just this. Indeed, it is irrational to assume that there might be more. But it is also the most supreme act of faith I know of.
posted by wobh at 11:31 AM on April 21, 2003


kaibutsu: read the paragraph before the one you quoted.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:24 PM on April 21, 2003


A belief in Christ (or anyone else, for that matter) does not equate to a 'limited perspective.'

I think a strong case can be made that it does. Perhaps you can present arguments that it does not, but simply stating it as fact doesn't make it so.

Well, 'god' gets a bit more consideration than, for example, 'nazism,' because the diversity of believers in some higher power is far greater than the diversity of ideas found among neo-nazis.

I'm not sure I follow your argument here: "diversity=truth?"

I do me best not to completely close my ears to the words of any person.

So do I, but that's not what we're talking about here. There's a difference between hearing someone out and according them equal credibility to everyone else in the world, simply so as not to hurt their feelings.
posted by rushmc at 1:08 PM on April 21, 2003


I find the single infinite God a more elegant solution.

I find the notion of omnipotent, infallible parents more elegant and satisfying, too. That doesn't make it real.

But it is also the most supreme act of faith I know of.

You say that like it's a good thing. Can you provide a definition of "faith" that makes it appear desirable, moral, or good?
posted by rushmc at 1:15 PM on April 21, 2003


me: A belief in Christ (or anyone else, for that matter) does not equate to a 'limited perspective.'

ye: I think a strong case can be made that it does. Perhaps you can present arguments that it does not, but simply stating it as fact doesn't make it so.

But see, I did provide an example. The kids at the Simple Way have an amazing viewpoint, which is almost completely seperate from the views of the Religious Right that we've all come to know if not love. (in math, we call this kind of argument a 'counter-example.')

Maybe this is getting back to the original point of the thread: a person is not their religious affiliation, and their religious affiliation does not prevent them from being individuals, no matter how firm their conviction in those ideals may be. The relationship of a person with their god is often a very personal thing, colored by the believer's personality, and therefore likely to be about as homogenous as people in general, which is to say not. Much as I hate to bring Sturgeon's Law to the table, it may be true that 95% of religious people are idiots, but it's also true that 95% of people are idiots, and I don't think atheism is going to do much to save us from that unfortunate statistic. What we can do, though, is seek out that half-a-percent who have really ground-shattering things to say, and listen to them as people, rather than as creeds, colors, or nationalities. Great minds are notoriously idiosyncratic, and as likely to be Jains as Atheists. I learned a hell of a lot about voice and community from a bloody Hari-Krishna, fer crying out loud...

new point: Atheism and Agnosticism have a lot of problems that need to be worked out. Are these words seperate from 'Rationalism?' Because I've come to have some problems with reason, even in my short time around this world: not all can be made certain, and lifestyle by statistic will invariably screw some percentage of the population. Maybe I'm some kind of freak Super-Agnostic, unable to accept any god, but also unable to accept in its place the science and cold reason that many substitute... I mean, you've got to realize that there are reasons that people don't generally convert to this Sagan-flavored atheism... It sounds cold, contrarian, and really holier-than-thou.

I'll go ramble somewhere else now... It really annoys me when atheists are, you know, contrarian and holier-than-thou when they've not bothered to really do their homeworks, and thus the rants above. sorry if none of this was helpful or relevant.
posted by kaibutsu at 6:56 PM on April 21, 2003


It sounds cold, contrarian, and really holier-than-thou.

It sounds that way, just as religious folks sound "nutty" to those who don't take the time to understand them? I think you just ran up onto your own complaint. :)

Thanks for the comments and an interesting perspective, kaibutsu. I don't agree with you on several issues, but we aren't going to settle that (or even be able to delve into it deeper) here. I respect the fact that I can at least have a reasonable conversation with you about these issues, which is more than I can say for many self-proclaimed Christians (and I have no respect at all for anyone so close-minded as to remove themselves from rational discourse).
posted by rushmc at 8:10 PM on April 21, 2003


rushmc sez: You say that like it's a good thing. Can you provide a definition of "faith" that makes it appear desirable, moral, or good?

I don't know. I've not done a rigorous analysis. I don't even think I've answered my own questions about it in a satisfying manner much less in a way that would satisfy anyone else.

I don't believe it is possible to prove God exists. I don't know if I believe it is possible to prove that a belief in God desirable, moral or good (in fact it is a no brainer that faith can be manipulated and corrupted into something that is clearly quite evil).

I also don't believe this is the best forum to discuss this at length. Maybe I'll put something in my kuro5hin diary. (I mean, maybe you don't care, and I know I wouldn't blame you. Amateur theology, sheesh.)
posted by wobh at 10:15 PM on April 21, 2003


Don't mean to intrude here, but exactly when did science become the antithesis of religion? I've always viewed them as complementary - science is that which can be explained, and religion that which cannot.

Ancient people couldn't explain things like weather, so that fell under religion (thunder gods, rain spirits, etc). Today we can't explain the meaning of life, what happens after death, or the origins of the universe (pre-Big Bang), so that remains religion's purview. To "believe" in science does not mean you cannot also have some sort of faith. True, science shapes the scope of faith, but as long as there are unanswered questions there will remain a place for religion.

for the record, I'm atheist
posted by GhostintheMachine at 8:29 AM on April 22, 2003


*nods*

Thanks for sticking 'round Rushmc; those last barbs were certainly not meant for you. My only point to be made was that atheism really isn't any better than any other religion, filled with over-simplifications and certainly with plenty of blood on its hands... Organized religion is a poison to the soul, and the prepackaged atheism I see from time to time is no exception.

See you around.
posted by kaibutsu at 3:40 PM on April 22, 2003


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