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Render Unto Ceasar?
April 6, 2004 4:37 PM   Subscribe

What America Can Learn From Its Atheists -- by Leon Wieseltier. Taking the Supreme Court case being decided on the "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, he wonders what happens to God and religion when it's pressed into service and has all meaning bleached away. For the argument that a reference to God is not a reference to God is a sign that American religion is forgetting its reasons. The need of so many American believers to have government endorse their belief is thoroughly abject. How strong, and how wise, is a faith that needs to see God's name wherever it looks?
posted by amberglow (155 comments total)

 
The problem is that American Christianity (as distinct from American Christians) has has abandoned faith and worship and devolved into marketing, legalism, and show business. It's a shame, too, because faith, even though I don't share it, can be a beautiful and positive thing.
posted by RylandDotNet at 5:08 PM on April 6, 2004


I still think Thomas Hobbes got it right on the subject of church and state. God is by nature divine and as such unknowable to man. If you can explain God to me then God is just another physical phenomena like a tree or a bird. If God is just another physical phenomena then he/she/it has no real claim over us other than one of brute force. If God is divine we can only know him through personal experience and religion has no place in politics as we can only know what God says to each us and we cannot explain it to others in any way that provides a moral imperative upon them.
posted by arse_hat at 5:09 PM on April 6, 2004


I should have said that I recognize that faith is a beautiful thing even though I don't share it. The wording I used makes it sound like faith needs my approval.
posted by RylandDotNet at 5:09 PM on April 6, 2004


Some of the individuals to whom I am attributing a hostility to religion would resent the allegation deeply. They regard themselves as religion's finest friends. But what kind of friendship for religion is it that insists that the words "under God" have no religious connotation? A political friendship, is the answer. And that is precisely the kind of friendship that the Bush administration exhibited in its awful defense of the theistic diction of the Pledge. The solicitor general stood before the Court to argue against the plain meaning of ordinary words. In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word "God" does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 5:22 PM on April 6, 2004


from the article:
The solicitor general stood before the Court to argue against the plain meaning of ordinary words.

That's the Bush Administration in a nutshell.
posted by Ty Webb at 5:25 PM on April 6, 2004


Seriously, how different is this to Saddam putting "Allah Akbar" on the Iraqi flag during the first Gulf war? And that didn't exactly help him, in the long run.
posted by GrahamVM at 5:41 PM on April 6, 2004


That's the Bush Administration in a nutshell.

Much as I loathe this administration, Clinton has done the same... and it was lame then too.
posted by Foosnark at 5:44 PM on April 6, 2004


The solicitor general stood before the Court to argue against the plain meaning of ordinary words.

When i read this I thought of the way Limbaugh and his ilk used to trot out the tape of Clinton saying "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is." It is all the same thing. Symantic nitpicking of the legalese.
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 5:50 PM on April 6, 2004


Symantic nitpicking of the legalese.
did i really just spell that with a y?
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 5:52 PM on April 6, 2004


It is all the same thing. Symantic nitpicking of the legalese.

Well, what else is the Supreme Court there to do? They can't sing!
posted by Hildago at 5:59 PM on April 6, 2004


Oh, you meant the article's author. Ha. Yet, I believe I scored a point about the utter tone-deafness of the SCOTUS.
posted by Hildago at 6:02 PM on April 6, 2004


Much as I loathe this administration, Clinton has done the same... and it was lame then too.

Sure, Clinton had "the meaning of is," which was shameful, but Bush has clearly left Clinton in the dust with his obfuscations and distortions, from Clear Skies to No Child Left Behind, to the "concession" that Bush and Cheney must testify together before the 9/11 commission. I'm beginning to suspect that there's an office in the White House specifically tasked with developing new and heinous ways to abuse the English language

Not to turn this into a Bush v. Clinton thread.
posted by Ty Webb at 6:02 PM on April 6, 2004


What RylandDotNet said.
posted by cinderful at 6:03 PM on April 6, 2004


The trouble with most atheists is that they are atheists for the wrong reason.

Most fit into categories such as "I swear to God I'm an atheist", "I am an atheist because I hate God", and "I'm so skeptical I don't believe in anything I don't know."

Each of these are missing the grandest idea of atheism: that each of us are responsible for ourselves.

The essence of god beliefs is a bargain between you and your gods, or demons, or luck, or something outside of yourself *not* to do bad things to you. In exchange for this, you offer to give them, or it, credit for the good things that happen to you.

Religious (or superstitious) people are desperate to bargain away their self-responsibility. It is a terrifying idea to them that they themselves are responsible for what they do with their lives, their successes and failures. For the great majority of people, such a way of living is unthinkable.

Examine this carefully. Because its flip side is the very best in religion. To not try to bargain with God and to not believe in luck fortifies a person in an admirable way. If you are a religious person, you may find that what you are left with when you ponder God is a lot deeper than shallow superstition or gambling.

And if you took an atheist and a believer who both kept to this attitude, they would be the ones most appreciated by God, if indeed God exists. For their courage and intestinal fortitude is way above those who just want to play the lottery with God.
posted by kablam at 6:11 PM on April 6, 2004


The trouble with most atheists is that they are atheists for the wrong reason.

So, after having met and spoken to all the atheists in the world, this is your conclusion about most of them?
posted by Ty Webb at 6:20 PM on April 6, 2004


I refer you to my favorite essay on this topic, written by George Orwell, Politics and the English Language. In the essay Orwell says that we need to be more precise in speaking because politicians will take advantage of any sloppiness. They can say something in a speech and, when questioned by someone about a particular word or phrase, the politician can say "oh but that's not what I meant."

Sloppiness leads to easy lies.
posted by Red58 at 6:27 PM on April 6, 2004


The trouble with most atheists is that they are atheists for the wrong reason.

Most fit into categories such as "I swear to God I'm an atheist", "I am an atheist because I hate God", and "I'm so skeptical I don't believe in anything I don't know."


I sincerely doubt that most of the 14% of Americans (I think that's the figure I saw) who claim they're atheists claim that because they hate God. As for the first one, that's purely a matter of coloquial speech patterns. I often use such phrasing as "I swear to God" or "Jesus Christ", although often for ironic purposes only. Regardless, I have absolutely zero belief in a deity of any sorts and hardly think my outbursts to the contrary indicate otherwise.
posted by The God Complex at 6:50 PM on April 6, 2004


Look for me in the konolia lounge. Bring some tea.
posted by squirrel at 6:50 PM on April 6, 2004


I don't know, God Complex... I see your points and I agree with them, but I didn't interpret the descriptions of "wrong atheists" the same way you did.

For example, the "I swear to God I'm an atheist" type didn't suggest to me a person who says the words "swear to God" (or "God bless you," etc.) and thereby betrays a latent belief in God; it suggested to me a type of person who categorically rejects the idea of God, but from within a world of good and bad things, from within a God-model conceptual structure.

He's like a toy soldier in a toy barn at the bottom of the ocean saying, "I don't believe in water."

Another way to say it is that this atheist hasn't pulled back from himself far enough to recognize that his rejection of God happens within a God-centered view of the world. He can see that his situation requires things of him, choices, and that he ought to do his best because it matters, somehow, that he do good things, as many things as he can toward a goal.

But because he has it worked out that his goal is personal, not that of the freakish, doveling masses, he assumes that he's an atheist. He doesn't see God the way they do, any of them. So he thinks there's no God, but he continues to work for God by subscribing to the common meta-belief that the world has good and bad in it, and that good is good.

Still, there are many people who believe in nothing. Nuh-sing, Lebowski! I want to make it clear that I believe true atheists exist, but I don't know how.
posted by squirrel at 7:18 PM on April 6, 2004


but he continues to work for God by subscribing to the common meta-belief that the world has good and bad in it, and that good is good.

Those beliefs don't have to be based on religion tho, at all. Value judgements can have areligious roots too.
posted by amberglow at 7:23 PM on April 6, 2004


The need of so many American believers to have government endorse their belief is thoroughly abject. How strong, and how wise, is a faith that needs to see God's name wherever it looks?

This is a fairly good point - but it occurs to me that it cuts both ways. The need of a few folks to so comletely remove any mention of the word "God" anywhere at all in the public sphere, or in fact any expression of religious faith whatsoever, seems equally questionable - and at times very nearly as fanatical as "believers" are accused of being.

The whole damn argument - both sides of it - just seems sorta ... um ... petty (quickly ducks). Though god knows (hee hee) how much fun MeFi atheism discussions are. And there hasn't been one now for almost a month or something. So there's that.
posted by MidasMulligan at 7:25 PM on April 6, 2004


I probably agree with your point, amberglow, but it would depend on your definition of religion. Speaking philosophically, there is a religion category and a God category. There is some overlap, but they are not identical.

On preview, all good points, Midas. Remember though that this case isn't about removing God from the public sphere, but from federal dictates like public school pledges.
posted by squirrel at 7:30 PM on April 6, 2004


squirrel: I want to make it clear that I believe true atheists exist, but I don't know how

Just to clarify, what does the 'how' refer to?
posted by Gyan at 7:33 PM on April 6, 2004


I want to make it clear that I believe true atheists exist, but I don't know how.

The concept of "good" and "bad" is clearly an issue of societal constructs, as I mentioned in the thread skallas posted late last night. Considering that western society is based on a largely Christian moral structure, it only stands to reason that many of our value judgements are based upon Christian morals.

While many of our social norms and mores are based on a Christian value-set, many of the values aren't distinctly Christian--treating others equally, etc., are basic human qualities that many non-Christian civilizations have ascribed to throughout history. Because of this, I hardly think it's fair to suggest someone isn't a "true atheist" based on the fact that they live in a society based on morals that are often described as uniquely Christian.

What I think you're missing here is that it's simply an issue of awareness. If I don't believe in God in a society based upon the idea of God, I have to recognize this and examine my various beliefs with as much objectivity as I can muster, to see what their roots are whether I agree with them as a matter of principle or simply as an ingrained social norm. This is one of the central tenets of existentialism and is largely why it appeals to me as a philosophical discipline (Sartre has some interesting writings about roles in society and the significance of understanding what role you play--interestingly, it's also a trope that Shakespeare used in nearly every play he ever wrote with his examinations of theater vs. reality).

It's not necessary to be an existentialist to be an atheist, however. Which is why I think it's somewhat silly to conflate the two as kablam has seemingly done, suggesting that someone is an atheist for the "wrong" reason if they reject the idea of god but not the principles of society (it's possible to be fully aware of the origins of your society's value-set and still believe it's worth following for a number of reasons). I'd certainly suggest, as he does, that understanding we're reponsible for ourselves--and our moral and ethical principles--is a very healthy, intelligent way to live life, but I don't simply reject the majority of atheists as not having gone through this based on... well, I don't know what he based it on.
posted by The God Complex at 7:37 PM on April 6, 2004


I've been vacillating between atheism and agnosticism for many years now. In the end, I would have to refer to my belief system as agnostic. It seems that atheism is less a "belief" than a rhetorical position used to further certain arguments and perspectives. That is not to say atheists are being disingenuous, but that when someone declares their atheism it's a philosophical position.

But this isn't about atheism or theism, it's about maintaining a secular society. A secular society doesn't endorse or refute religion, but creates a field where its members are free to form their own ideas about the universe.
posted by elwoodwiles at 7:38 PM on April 6, 2004


Also, thanks for the link, amberglow!
posted by The God Complex at 7:40 PM on April 6, 2004


elwoodwiles: A secular society doesn't endorse or refute religion

Not explicitly, but the rule of law applies to all and social trends can affect you and your environment. And these devices, in turn, are influenced by some aspects of the religion/atheist divide.
posted by Gyan at 7:45 PM on April 6, 2004


Here's an example: The Golden Rule -- found in most if not all societies at all periods of known history, and coopted by every religion going, I believe, yet not specifically attributed as original to any of them. It's a moral rule and value judgement that is not religion-dependent at all, but about societies and how people who live in proximity should treat each other. Would you consider the Golden Rule a religious thing, and would people who try to follow it still be operating in that meta-framework you spoke of, whether atheist or not?

on preview: I think TGC just said it better : >
posted by amberglow at 7:46 PM on April 6, 2004


Most fit into categories such as "I swear to God I'm an atheist", "I am an atheist because I hate God", and "I'm so skeptical I don't believe in anything I don't know."

Thanks kablam for that analysis. Since you know so much about atheists, which one of those three groups do I fit into? And while you're at it, do I drive a Yugo, Fiat, or Datsun?

I haven't read the link or read accounts of the pending case - this is our moot court topic and we are supposed to embargo ourselves from coverage of the legal arguments - but regardless of what happens the important thing is that atheist viewpoints are included in the public debate. Kudos to Newdow and to Wieseltier and to anyone else who takes us seriously.
posted by PrinceValium at 7:49 PM on April 6, 2004


The need of so many American believers to have government endorse their belief is thoroughly abject. How strong, and how wise, is a faith that needs to see God's name wherever it looks?

The need of so many American atheists to be protected from all mention of God in public discourse is thoroughly abject, and so on. On closer inspection, Midas made this point before me, and more eloquently.

The concept of "good" and "bad" is clearly an issue of societal constructs

Woah. Hehe, if you can prove that, then you should quit your job and write a book - tenure at Harvard is no doubt within your grasp.

I happen to (tentatively) agree that good and bad are societal constructs, but to say that it's clear is way, waaay beyond premature. It rests on any number of assumptions, philosophical and otherwise, and it paints as idiotic the vast majority of university philosophy departments, the vast majority of philosophers throughout history, and the vast majority of people currently alive.
posted by gd779 at 7:53 PM on April 6, 2004


But gd, if they weren't societal constructs, they'd always stay the same, and from culture to culture. They don't. (and religious ideas of good and bad are societal constructs too, no?)
posted by amberglow at 8:01 PM on April 6, 2004


amberglow, thanks for linking to this thought-provoking article.

Maybe only 14% of Americans are willing to admit they are atheist, but many more Americans are de facto atheists. Nothing about their daily, even yearly lives betrays any religious belief: They do not go to church (after a brief spike after 9/11, U.S. church attendance is again near all-time lows). Their moral codes are pleasingly universal; they tolerate things like divorce, abortion, and gay sex even though most churches denounce them. If they celebrate Christian holidays, it's only the fun parts--Easter eggs and Christmas trees rather than Passion and mass. They tell others, and themselves, that they believe in God, but you can't see any consequence of that belief in any way on their lives.
posted by profwhat at 8:04 PM on April 6, 2004


they tolerate things like divorce, abortion, and gay sex even though most churches denounce them...They tell others, and themselves, that they believe in God, but you can't see any consequence of that belief in any way on their lives.

And some of us tolerate those things because we believe in God.
posted by jonmc at 8:07 PM on April 6, 2004


The need of a few folks to so comletely remove any mention of the word "God" anywhere at all in the public sphere, or in fact any expression of religious faith whatsoever, seems equally questionable - and at times very nearly as fanatical as "believers" are accused of being.

I agree. Any society with a truly representative government, even one that is explicitly secular, where the vast majority of the population are church/temple/mosque-going believers, is bound to see that reflected in its public discourse, and I think that's fine and proper. Just as long as we don't go making laws based upon Holy dictates. Or forcing people to pledge allegiance under them.

Myself, I guess I'm a pantheist, though I probably make more of an allowance for the transcendent than your average pantheist. In the rare occasions that I'm asked to list my religion, like Frank Zappa, I always answer "musician."
posted by Ty Webb at 8:08 PM on April 6, 2004


You're right, I might have worded that too strongly. However, given the behaviour patterns of animals, the widely accepted belief that we're highly evolved animals, and the various contradictory value sets in different societies around the world and throughout history, I think it's probably likely that issues of "good" and "bad" rely heavily, if not exclusively, on the principles of the society we're born into.

I don't have the material on me at the moment or I could give a more precise response, but I remember reading some old sociological studies a year or two ago where one tribe used to assuage grief over the loss of a tribe member by transferring it (so to speak) to another tribe. It would be something like this: two tribe members are killed in a ship after a storm and the grief-ridden tribesmen of the tribe would then go out and kill an equal number from another tribe. Now, it's hard to predict how such a tribe would have evolved given time, or if this behaviour would have changed, but this sort of action in many other societies would be seen as morally reprehensible, if not certifiably insane, but it was anything but in their society. It was "the norm", in a manner of speaking. Oh, fuck, I just described current American foreign policy! I guess my argument just collapsed into itself ;)

Just kidding. Sort of.

Anyway, you're right, I shouldn't have spoken so strongly, though I do happen to disagree with any philosophy professor who suggests otherwise.

The need of so many American atheists to be protected from all mention of God in public discourse is thoroughly abject, and so on. On closer inspection, Midas made this point before me, and more eloquently.

Public discourse or governmental discourse? Those are very different things. I could care less about public discourse, but I get my back up when government institutions use religion as a reason to do anything for a pretty simple reason: given that we can't prove with any degree of certainty that there is a God or a true religion to follow, using any of these beliefs as a means to govern free-thinking people violates their very right to follow any system of belief they wish to. Can you imagine a world where political debates consisted of self-sealing religious arguments?
posted by The God Complex at 8:14 PM on April 6, 2004


i rather like the view Dinesh D'souza has:

“We have always had atheists among us,” the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “but now they have grown turbulent and seditious.” It seems that in our own day some prominent atheists are agitating for greater political and social influence. In this connection, leading atheist thinkers have been writing articles declaring that they should no longer be called “atheists.” Rather, they want to be called “brights.”

Yes, “brights,” as in “I am a bright.” In a recent article in the New York Times, philosopher Daniel Dennett defined a bright as “a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view.” Dennett added that “we brights don’t believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter bunny or God.” Dennett’s implication was clear: brights are the smart people who don’t fall for silly superstitions.

Writing in the British newspaper The Guardian, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, a leading defender of Darwinism, also identified himself as a bright and called on other atheists and agnostics to embrace the term and to mobilize as a political movement. Like Dennett, Dawkins defined a bright as one who espouses “a world view that is free of supernaturalism and mysticism.” Dawkins couldn’t help mentioning that most scientists and intellectuals are brights. Religious people, he implied, can be found among the ranks of the less intelligent.

Clearly Dennett and Dawkins, like many atheists, are confident that atheists are simply brighter—more rational—than religious believers. Their assumption is: we nonbelievers employ critical reason while the theists rely on blind faith. But Dennett and Dawkins, for all their credentials and learning, have been duped by a fallacy. This may be called the Fallacy of the Enlightenment, and it was first pointed out by the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

The Fallacy of the Enlightenment is the glib assumption that there is only one limit to what human beings can know, and that limit is reality itself. In this view, widely held by atheists, agnostics, and other self-styled rationalists, human beings can continually find out more and more until eventually there is nothing more to discover. Advocates of the Enlightenment Fallacy insist that knowledge of reality can be obtained by reason alone, and that reason can science can, in principle, unmask the whole of reality.

In his Critique of Pure Reason, Kant showed that these assumptions are false. In fact, he argued, there is a much greater limit to what human beings can know. To understand what Kant is getting at, consider the example of a tape recorder. A tape recorder, being the kind of instrument it is, can only capture one mode or representation of reality. It can only capture sound. Tape recorders can only “hear,” they cannot see or touch or smell. Thus all aspects of reality that cannot be captured in sound are completely and forever beyond the reach of a tape recorder.

The same, Kant argued, is true of human beings. The only way that we apprehend reality is through our five senses. If a tape recorder represents reality in a single mode, human beings can perceive reality through five different modes: sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. But why should we believe, Kant asked, that our five-mode instrument for apprehending reality is sufficient for capturing all of reality? What makes us think that there is no reality that goes beyond, that simply cannot be apprehended by, our five senses?

Kant persuasively noted that there is no reason whatsoever for us to believe that we can know everything that exists. Indeed what we do know, Kant said, we know only through the refracted filter of our experience. Kant argued that we cannot even be sure that our experience of a thing is the same as the thing-in-itself. After all, we see in pretty much the same way that a camera does, and yet who would argue that a picture of a boat is the same thing as a boat?

Kant isn’t arguing against the validity of perception or science or reason. He is simply showing their significant limits. These limits cannot be erased by the passage of time or by further investigation and experimentation. Rather, the limits on reason are intrinsic to the kind of beings that humans are, and to the kind of apparatus that we possess for perceiving reality. The implication of Kant’s argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings will simply never know.

Notice that Kant’s argument is entirely secular: it does not employ any religious vocabulary, nor does it rely on any kind of faith. But in showing the limits of reason, Kant’s philosophy “opens the door to faith,” as the philosopher famously noted.

If Dawkins and Dennett have produced refutations of Kant that have eluded the philosophical community, they should share them with the rest of us. But until then, they and other like-minded atheists should refrain from the ignorant boast that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism. Rather, as Kant showed, reason must know its limits in order to be truly reasonable. The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.
posted by Recockulous at 8:25 PM on April 6, 2004


In the essay Orwell says that we need to be more precise in speaking because politicians will take advantage of any sloppiness. They can say something in a speech and, when questioned by someone about a particular word or phrase, the politician can say "oh but that's not what I meant."

true, but doesn't matter anymore. They've grown so bold:

In the Pledge of Allegiance, the government insisted, the word "God" does not refer to God. It refers to a reference to God.

We've surpassed Orwell's wildest dreams.
posted by Miles Long at 8:26 PM on April 6, 2004


I regularly attend meetings where the Pledge of Allegiance is done, One Nation Under God and all. I'm also Canadian so I just stand and look attentive rather than taking part in the pledge because to me it would be disrespectful to do otherwise. What I have noticed is that people just recite the pledge by rote, they're just going through the motions while they wait for dinner or wait for the event to start. It reminds me of grade school. The teacher would come into the room and everybody would recite "Good Morning Mrs. Wilson" with all the enthusiasm and presence of mind of somebody reading a grocery list. We'd then repeat this for O Canada and the Lord's Prayer. So as a kid we learned to recite these things because it's tradition. There was no reflection on the meaning behind it. Hell, the Lord's Prayer was over our heads and we just did it.

Words can have a lot of meaning, both in the boring sense and in the deeper sense but you destroy the second instance when you train people to do it because it's expected of them, it's tradition or it's rude not to.

In fact I would argue that a lot of the arguments in favour of retaining One Nation Under God are based on this assumption. I've seen it written more than once that it doesn't mean anything so why strike it out? This is part of what the article argues I suppose but it's farther than even that.

Personally I don't care if the Pledge of Allegiance retains the additional motto or not. I'm an atheist and it can't hurt me and it doesn't demean me and for the vast majority of people it doesn't actually mean anything even though they're seemingly willing to fight for it.

The pledge also contains With Liberty and Justice for All. So even if it's a pledge that pays respect to a deity it also pledges truth and justice for all of us, even atheists, even Jews, even Muslims and even homosexuals. It's more important to make the government respect that part of the pledge than it is to strike out any reference to God. Right now truth and justice is denied to many people in the U.S. based on things they are or things they aren't. I'd rather spend my time trying to fix that.

I would've written something different a month or so ago, but I've done some thinking and this is what I feel right now.
posted by substrate at 8:30 PM on April 6, 2004


The need of so many American atheists to be protected from all mention of God in public discourse is thoroughly abject, and so on.

It's not about protecting Atheists from all mention of god, it's about protecting government from all mention of god.

Freedom of (and from) religion can only be guaranteed by a wholeheartedly secular government.

On preview, what The God Complex said.
posted by ulotrichous at 8:32 PM on April 6, 2004


Can you imagine a world where political debates consisted of self-sealing religious arguments?

Yes, I can. ;^)
posted by squirrel at 8:34 PM on April 6, 2004


Recockulous: The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.

I hope the theist didn't reason it out to that conclusion.

Seriously, you don't speak for this atheist. Anyone who's read even moderately on quantum physics knows that some part/level of reality is fundamentally inaccessible. Besides, any observation of reality, by definition, requires an observational apparatus and identity. "True" reality seems a meaningless concept.
posted by Gyan at 8:50 PM on April 6, 2004


The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in principle capable of figuring out all that there is...


Most rationalists, theists and non-theists alike, foolishly believe that reason is quite a fine tool for figuring out quite a lot of things. And that there are other tools for other purposes. And that it doesn't make any sense to try and create false dichotomies between them. Not all atheists are rationalists, not all rationalists are atheists.

...while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.

In general, most arguments for the existence of gods or the supernatural begin by posting a false paradox, and then resolve it by pulling their deity of choice out of a hat. In this case, "we know there's something we don't know anything about and can never even aprehend. And that uknowable something is god." Which is alright, as circular arguments go, but not really stellar, and still a god-of-the-gaps argument, as most contemporary theistic arguments are.
posted by signal at 8:54 PM on April 6, 2004


This has been an interesting thread for me to read. As squirrel and The God Complex point out, this case isn't about religion (or more specifically christianity) in the public sphere, but rather about the Government divorcing itself from religion as it should. Who brought the case to the Supreme court really is irrelevant. A christian could have brought the case up as well. The idea that someone is athiest and should not be exposed to mentions of god is somewhat of a blind for the true argument (in my mind) that the Government shouldn't be talking about god. This isn't an argument about who is right or wrong, but rather an argument about what the Government should be doing. Diatribes like Recockulous' truly are a derail to the real issue here.

On a more personal note, I had a discussion about this topic over a year ago with a friend that I work with. He is quite the fundamentalist christian, and views this case as an attack on him, his religion, and on what America is based on. His belief is that the first Europeans that settled here were fundamentalist christians (I made sure he realized they weren't the "first" people here), and that our Government should be more christian by following the bible more. Supposedly that is what will cure our nation of it's moral ills like crime and greed and so on. Of course I disagree with him completely, and no common area was found, but he is still a good friend. He is most welcome to his beliefs, as I am to mine. The difference lies in the fact that he wants the Government to dictate his beliefs to me, while I can peacefully coexist with his without federal intervention.
posted by Eekacat at 9:15 PM on April 6, 2004


Ah, yes. There was a reason I stayed away from this thread. Now I remember.

An atheist is someone who believes that God(s) doesn't exist. Period. Kablam is confusing—as, also, many theists do—atheism with a particular variety of secular humanism. But atheism doesn't require a morality or ethics or even a philosophy any more than theism does.

Amberglow, moral relativism is no more "proven" than it is disproved; which means the same thing concerning moral absolutism. You might note that although cultural relativism demonstrates that mores vary from culture to culture—it's also the case that in contrast to the infinite possibilities, humans pretty much agree on most things. Does that prove anything? No, not really. No more than the disagreement proves anything.

Speaking as nearly a lifelong atheist (at the age of 39), I can say that I've found the outspoken atheists to be about as annoying—and, sadly, often as ignorant—as many outspoken theists. Far too many have a chip on their shoulders; and it seems to me, anyway, that that's what their atheism is all about. I—alanironically—spend a fair amount of time defending theists and theism (usually Christianity) from atheists who don't know a damn thing about what they're decrying.

Wiesleltier's point is a good one. But if y'all want to argue about this, then you should realize that the secular government, moral philosophy, epistemology, theology, and psychology arguments should best be dealt with separately. That this is usually not the case—that it all is thrown into the pot along with a bunch of prejudices and set to boil—is why MeFi (or practically anywhere else, for that matter) rarely discusses this civilly or productively.

I realize that I'm being cranky, which is especially unseemly for a new guy. I'm just trying to fit in.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:31 PM on April 6, 2004


Besides, any observation of reality, by definition, requires an observational apparatus and identity. "True" reality seems a meaningless concept.

Good point, Gyan, and it helps me to clarify my description of "the wrong atheist," who denies God from a context of belief in absolute truth. That's what I meant by believing in "good": believing that there exists an absolute and static category of "good" (such as would exist in the "True" reality you referred to).

I find it irreconcilable to both believe in Truth and to be an atheist. It seems to me that by definition, an atheist would have to believe that good and bad are human constructs, negotiated by societies over time.

Regardless of the content of any particular group's definition of good, a belief in True goodness, per se, is a form of theism. One that I subscribe to, by the way.

Also, welcome aboard!
posted by squirrel at 9:36 PM on April 6, 2004


Eekacat: The difference lies in the fact that he wants the Government to dictate his beliefs to me, while I can peacefully coexist with his without federal intervention.

And that right there is the crux of the entire matter. Christians seems to think that atheists are trying to force them not to be Christian anymore, that they're trying to take something from Christians, when the truth is it's just the opposite. Christians are trying to remove atheism from society, and will unashamedly tell you so. From their point of view, they have nothing to be ashamed of. But they always seem to forget that their faith doesn't exist in a vacuum. All atheists want to take away from Christians is their ability to force atheists to say words they don't want to say.

Ethereal Bligh: Speaking as nearly a lifelong atheist (at the age of 39), I can say that I've found the outspoken atheists to be about as annoying—and, sadly, often as ignorant—as many outspoken theists.

Hear, hear. I've been an agnostic (or "weak atheist" if you prefer) all my adult life, but I don't like to talk about it, even with atheists, for just that reason.
posted by RylandDotNet at 9:42 PM on April 6, 2004


TGC: I think it's probably likely that issues of "good" and "bad" rely heavily, if not exclusively, on the principles of the society we're born into.

Well, at the risk of being accused of arguing semantics, I'd say that we are somewhat limited by the language we use, and that a useful splitting of your 'good' and 'bad' duality into 'good' and 'bad' on the one hand and 'good' and 'evil' on the other would be fruitful, and allows us to drive a bus through the resultant hole in your argument. Not that it's a bad argument, and in fact you go some way towards patching it up in your second comment.

The implication of Kant’s argument is that reality as a whole is, in principle, inaccessible to human beings. Put another way, there is a great deal that human beings will simply never know.

No, the implication of Kant's argument is that the whole of reality may in principle be inaccessible, or that there may be a great deal that humans will never know.

That's a very different sort of conclusion.

Once again, that may seem like semantic waffling to some, but as was mentioned upthread, with matters like this it is important to use language carefully, or you end up wandering down blind minotaurean alleys without your trusty thread to guide you back.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:47 PM on April 6, 2004


It seems that atheism is less a "belief" than a rhetorical position used to further certain arguments and perspectives. That is not to say atheists are being disingenuous, but that when someone declares their atheism it's a philosophical position.

Huh? I'm an atheist because I don't believe in God.
posted by grumblebee at 9:53 PM on April 6, 2004


hmm well i suppose atheism is something of a philosophical position as well as a belief. It leads to a lot more than just not believing in God.

Sure, i'm an atheist because i don't believe in God but there's really a lot more to it than that.
posted by bob sarabia at 10:04 PM on April 6, 2004


Perhaps I'm simply tired or have had too much to drink tonight but what I'm seeing is a division between atheism and christianity. As someone who variously describes himself as either an unorganized or disorganized pagan I definitely don't believe in the Christian god, which by some definitions makes me a atheist. But I do have some sort on convoluted belief system, which by other definitions means that I'm not an atheist.

Which ever way you look at it I do not believe that the words "under God" have any place in the Pledge of allegiance. Atheist or not it's not any of my gods or goddesses that are being referred to. Its not just the atheist that object, many who would not claim to be atheist also object to the terminology.
posted by thecynic at 10:08 PM on April 6, 2004


additionally, i listened to a great program a few days back on npr that mentioned the pledge and the 'under god'. Having finally been told how we got the pledge and subsequently the 'under god' i don't really think we need either of them
posted by bob sarabia at 10:20 PM on April 6, 2004


"It leads to a lot more than just not believing in God."—Bob Sarabia
In practice, maybe. But this isn't necessarily true as a matter of principle, which seems to be what you and others are implying.

My lack of a belief in the existence of a God has not determined my beliefs on, for example, moral absolutism versus moral relativism. The assumption that all theists are absolutists and all atheists are relativists annoys me. Not because it isn't true as a rule of thumb, but because the assumption makes an implicit claim about the essential nature of (a)theist beliefs that isn't true. This leads to a lot of dicey mind-reading about what people's other beliefs and motivations "really" are. I displayed that sort of thinking earlier when I said that lots of outspoken atheists seem to have a chip on their shoulder. But you'll notice that I didn't equate atheism with having a chip on one's shoulder. I was not making a claim about what "atheism" (or "theism", for that matter) is "really" all about and what "it means". That way of thinking is really just a rationale for setting up and knocking down straw men and feeling self-righteous.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:32 PM on April 6, 2004


> The trouble with most atheists is that they are atheists for the wrong reason.

Oh really? Have you done a study or are you just generalizing about people you don't like?

The trouble with most black people...

The trouble with most Muslims...

etc
posted by skallas at 10:58 PM on April 6, 2004


That is not to say atheists are being disingenuous, but that when someone declares their atheism it's a philosophical position.

Pardon me? I'm an atheist because there are no gods. Period. This isn't philosophical: it's factual. There. Are. No. Gods. This whole "believes there are no gods" is about an asinine a statement as "believes there are no zebras." Zebras aren't a belief: they're a fact.

Anyone who isn't committed to this fact is either an agnostic or a religionist.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:24 AM on April 7, 2004


fff, that's very refreshing. I love seeing how articles like this quickly become excersizes in semantics. Its like some people's congitive dissonence goes up to 11 and then they're all arm-chair Kants. The arm-chair philosophy is almost laughable in these threads.

I'm an atheist because there are no gods. It can't be tested or proven. End of story for me. The horrors of religious history, competing religions, contradicting texts, happy beliefs, the bigotry, the hate, etc are just icing on the "you guys are wrong, get over it before you nuke the planet in a holy war" cake.
posted by skallas at 12:35 AM on April 7, 2004


I find it irreconcilable to both believe in Truth and to be an atheist. It seems to me that by definition, an atheist would have to believe that good and bad are human constructs, negotiated by societies over time.

Truth is not contingent on your beliefs.

Bad/Good = Subjective.

Truth = Objective.

Truth = An Ocean contains salt water.

This is a Truth that I can believe in if I am Atheist or Xian.

On Preview: I kick for a Field Goal from my armchair.
posted by jopreacher at 12:54 AM on April 7, 2004


Truth: that which does not impinge upon the viability of the human race is good, insofar as it benefits the continued propagation of the information encoded within our genes.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:00 AM on April 7, 2004


"It can't be tested or proven" has no bearing on my atheism. I'm an atheist because the very idea of god is inutterably stupid.

Also, in review of my previous post, I do freely admit that The Truth may be held otherwise by those beings that do not rely on human DNA. Fuck them: they're wrong.

If that makes me a moral relativist, so be it!
posted by five fresh fish at 1:06 AM on April 7, 2004


An atheist is someone who believes that God(s) doesn't exist.

Close, but you got it a little bit backwards. An atheist is someone who does not believe that any gods exist.

An atheist may also be someone who believes that no gods exist, but it is not necessary to have an opinion on the subject. Mere apathy will do.
posted by Mars Saxman at 1:15 AM on April 7, 2004


"Anyone who isn't committed to this fact is either an agnostic or a religionist."—five fresh fish
This is sophomoric. You probably know that there is a huge difference between asserting a positive and asserting a negative, particularly regarding existence. If you don't know this, learn it.

God's non-existence isn't a "fact"—this "fact" certainly hasn't been empirically proven; and formalistic proofs of atheism are as suspect and unconvincing as are the formalistic proofs of theism.

Strictly speaking, Agnosticism isn't the uncertain belief in God; it's the belief that a proof of God's existence (or non-existence) isn’t possible†. This is almost as silly as your strong version of atheism. Anyway, one can be an agnostic and be an atheist or a theist.

The burden of proof is on theists (agnostic or no) because an existential positive is infinitely easier to prove than a negative. Because of this radical epistemological asymmetry, as a practical matter we are quite "certain" of the non-existence of an infinite number of things. But the only non-existences which are facts are those which are necessarily false—prima facie by reason, or because their existence would be contrary to our fundamental understanding of reality. No one yet has made a convincing case for the non-existence of God on either of those two grounds. Some have tried.

† This is not, however, ordinary language. In ordinary language, an "atheist" is someone who simply does not believe in God; an "agnostic" is someone who isn't sure. Along with what we commonly understand as "believers", these groups comprise a wide spectrum of philosophical beliefs.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:19 AM on April 7, 2004


What bothers me is the double standard that I often see and has been shown in this thread and in my Paul Kurtz thread. A thiest can openly declare they're a Xtian, a buddhist, etc yet when someone declares they're an atheist its almost as if the next question is "So where's your philosophical dissertation, brainiac?"

If some teen told me "This whole religion thing isn't working out, it sounds crazy, prayer doesn't work, and the things my religion endores are horrible so I think I will be an atheist from now on" then I certainly wouldn't give him a 200 question test to see if he can "join the club" but assume he's true to his words just like I do with theists.
posted by skallas at 1:22 AM on April 7, 2004


That, and the whole concept of "proof" whereby the theist says "Prove there is no god," and the atheist responds with "Prove there is a god," as if mythology could be reproduced with the scientific method.

The undercurrent in all of this is the fundamental right to be left alone. The First Amendment implicitly embraces this right; it says in effect, whether you believe or disbelieve, speak or remain silent, isolate yourself or assemble, you're just as much a citizen as everyone else. Throw yourself freely into the public domain with your words and thoughts, as long as you don't step on the toes of people who have chosen to remain in their homes with the curtains closed.

Now if everybody realized this, we'd be a much happier place.
posted by PrinceValium at 1:33 AM on April 7, 2004


"Close, but you got it a little bit backwards. An atheist is someone who does not believe that any gods exist."—Mars Saxman
I phrased it that way for a reason. Strictly speaking, an atheist asserts the non-existence of God. In everyday language, however, an atheist can assert the non-existence of God, or, as you say, merely fail to assert the existence of God.

Being picky with language like this is actually helpful in this case. I'm not a prescriptivist, I'm not arguing that "atheist" necessarily means an assertion of God(s) non-existence based upon the word's form. The problem is that in common usage "atheist" is understood by some to be an assertion of God's non-existence, while others understand it to be merely a failure to assert God's existence. People use the word in different ways and don't realize it. And, as we've seen here, most people think (correctly or not) that there are far-reaching implications about a person's worldview given their understanding of what "atheism" means.

I self-identify as an "atheist" because it most closely approximates my actual beliefs about reality. The term is somewhat misleading to many people, however, as some of them may wrongly assume that I think, as five fresh fish does, that it's a "fact" that God doesn't exist. They also very likely will wrongly assume my position on agnosticism. But this is the least of evils, as "agnostic" or "theist" would be quite a bit more misleading.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 1:35 AM on April 7, 2004


I love seeing how articles like this quickly become excersizes in semantics. Its like some people's congitive dissonence goes up to 11 and then they're all arm-chair Kants.

Well, you see, that's the difference between wannabe demagogues trying to convince the whole freakin' world that they're right! right damn it! and you're all fools!† and others who enjoy the interplay of ideas, and just want to kick the idea football around amongst themselves, for the joy of it, while sitting in their armchairs or not.

Also : spellcheck, buddy, spellcheck.

†Any similarity to MeFi posters living or dead is coincidental.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 1:35 AM on April 7, 2004


Quoting myself:
"But the only non-existences which are facts are those which are necessarily false—prima facie by reason, or because their existence would be contrary to our fundamental understanding of reality.
I should add "...or where our knowledge is exhaustive". That's possible in very restricted domains.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:46 AM on April 7, 2004


they and other like-minded atheists should refrain from the ignorant boast that atheism operates on a higher intellectual plane than theism

Interesting. I wonder how many people on this thread would agree with the proposition that a-unicornism and a-leprechaunism operate on a "higher intellectual plane" than faith in either of those imaginary entities.

God's non-existence isn't a "fact"—this "fact" certainly hasn't been empirically proven; and formalistic proofs of atheism are as suspect and unconvincing as are the formalistic proofs of theism.

Okay, do you think unicorns exist (on Earth, right now)? Because in the absence of compelling evidence to the contrary, it is quite reasonable to consider it a "fact" that they don't.

I don't get why people think their imaginary being is more real just because he's called "god".
posted by beth at 3:55 AM on April 7, 2004


Recockulous:
Kant's critique dates from more than two hundred years ago and was directed (rightly) at thinkers who believed at the time that they could understand everything about the universe through the application of pure reason (as opposed to the empiricists). Modern scientists hardly discount the value of empiricism.

Any phenomenon that is somehow fundamentally inaccessible to humans must not interact with anything to the point where the resulting perturbation might be detected by humans or their tools. What that leaves us with are phenomena that don't do anything that we may notice, like the invisible, intangible pink elephant perched on your shoulder. Occam's Razor tells us that we shouldn't worry about such things too much.

Gyan: Anyone who's read even moderately on quantum physics knows that some part/level of reality is fundamentally inaccessible.
Quantum mechanics doesn't say anything about something being 'fundamentally inaccessible'. Werner Heisenberg gave us uncertainty, which you might be talking about, but which is something else entirely. I think I might have mentioned before: quantum mechanics, incorporating the uncertainty principle, is the most accurate predictive theory in human history. I suppose it can be said to make things 'fundamentally inaccessible' to people who don't understand probability.

To cover the remaining usual suspects that get rolled out: Gödel gave the world an elegant (and complete) way to describe incompleteness. Incompleteness is about expression and leads you towards systems that imply more complex systems that must exist that describe the first system, and so on, which leads us to... Chaos and complex systems theory which allow you (among other things) to work with self-referential systems that give infinitely complex results in finite systems, and even lets you draw pictures of them. None of these herald the end of science.

To answer amberglow: How strong, and how wise, is a faith that needs to see God's name wherever it looks?
I hadn't really thought about it before, but that sounds like an anxious faith to me.
posted by snarfodox at 4:14 AM on April 7, 2004


The problem is that in common usage "atheist" is understood by some to be an assertion of God's non-existence, while others understand it to be merely a failure to assert God's existence. People use the word in different ways and don't realize it.

That's exactly why I defined it the way I did. The "weak" definition of atheism, as "lack of belief in any gods", includes anyone who qualifies for the narrower "strong" definition of atheism you appear to prefer.

I don't quite understand your position; I agree that it is helpful to be picky with language in this case, but that leads me to exactly the opposite of your conclusion!
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:27 AM on April 7, 2004


Quantum mechanics doesn't say anything about something being 'fundamentally inaccessible'.

And I didn't say that. I said anyone's who read up on QM knows that yada, yada, yada...

Of course, physicists do say that measurements beyond the Planck measure are meaningless for that variable. Read into that what you will.
posted by Gyan at 9:45 AM on April 7, 2004


Sophomoric my ass, but I won't get into that.

The issue I have with the assertion "an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in god" is that it is based on a worldview that nominally includes a god. Non-belief requires belief.

Not to put too delicate a spin on it, but fuck that shit. A religionist is someone who doesn't accept the fact that there are no gods. Keep belief and faith out of the definition.

Quit being a milquetoast.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:51 AM on April 7, 2004


the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.

... and then proceeds to say he knows exactly what it is.
posted by InfidelZombie at 9:54 AM on April 7, 2004



Being picky with language like this is actually helpful in this case. I'm not a prescriptivist, I'm not arguing that "atheist" necessarily means an assertion of God(s) non-existence based upon the word's form. The problem is that in common usage "atheist" is understood by some to be an assertion of God's non-existence, while others understand it to be merely a failure to assert God's existence. People use the word in different ways and don't realize it.


Yes, but I think, strictly speaking, Mars is right to insist on this distinction, and right in that distinction.

It's important to insist on the distinction because saying that an atheist is someone "who asserts the non-existence of God" sounds to me a little bit dismissive. Maybe it's only my way of parsing the sentence, but it sounds as though it puts the burden of proof on the atheist when, as I think you've said in this thread, the burden of proof is on the theists.

He's right in the distinction he makes, because for consistency, if an atheist was "someone who asserts the non-existence of god," then a theist would have to be "someone who doesn't assert the non-existence of god". Rather, since we phrase it positively, it has to be the other way around.

I'm sort of talking out of my ass, but it makes sense to said ass.
posted by Hildago at 10:05 AM on April 7, 2004


The issue I have with the assertion "an atheist is someone who doesn't believe in god" is that it is based on a worldview that nominally includes a god. Non-belief requires belief.

You're confusing knowledge and belief. I can have knowledge of a concept without believing in that concept. Three-tailed cats don't have to really exist for the sentence "There is no such thing as a three-tailed cat." to make sense.

Atheists have a concept of God, the Tooth Fairy, and Santa Claus. Doesn't mean any of them must exist, unless you're a Platonist who thinks every concept must be derived from some Ideal Form.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 10:09 AM on April 7, 2004


> This whole "believes there are no gods" is about an asinine a statement as
> "believes there are no zebras." Zebras aren't a belief: they're a fact.
>
> Anyone who isn't committed to this fact is either an agnostic or a religionist.

I presume when you say "there are no gods" you mean gods like Zeus and Yahweh and Ba'al and Moloch and Krishna--that is, individual personalities, rather manlike, albeit with magic-based superpowers.

That's a pretty limited concept of "god" compared to all the wide range of god-concepts that exist in all religions. It doesn't seem quite enough to call oneself an atheist just because one denies this primitive Santa Claus/Easter Bunny notion of god.

What, for instance, would you say to a pantheist who points to your zebra and says "That's part of God right there"? You surely won't feel trapped into claiming the zebra you can see and touch doesn't exist. But what other atheist response is there to the pantheist's claim? A mere counter-assertion ("NO IT ISN'T EITHER!") doesn't seem much of a comeback.
posted by jfuller at 10:38 AM on April 7, 2004


> The issue I have with the assertion "an atheist is someone who doesn't believe
> in god" is that it is based on a worldview that nominally includes a god.
> Non-belief requires belief.

Here's a self-acknowledged atheist who says exactly that in The New Republic.

" Determined not to be pushed around anymore, secularists can now be found celebrating doubt, praising dissenters, and arguing on behalf of a proud separation between religion and the state. A non-believer myself, I am encouraged by their entry into American public debate. But still I worry. For non-belief owes almost everything to belief; without religion to give it meaning, atheism would be the least interesting of subjects. Dependent on believers for their existence, non-believers have long been known for the shrillness of their tone, their thinly disguised contempt for people they can barely understand, and their conviction (you might even call it religious) that they always have been and always will be on the right side of history. And so the interesting question is not whether an atheistic revival will occur--the one that is arriving is long overdue. It is whether its advocates will recognize how much belief has changed since the days of the Enlightenment, let alone over the past halfcentury in America, and how much non-belief has to change to keep up. "
posted by jfuller at 10:45 AM on April 7, 2004


One nation, under...

the Power of Greyskull!

posted by dfowler at 11:04 AM on April 7, 2004


What, for instance, would you say to a pantheist who points to your zebra and says "That's part of God right there"?

I'd say that you can prove just about anything if you stretch the meaning of the terms used far enough.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:26 AM on April 7, 2004


D'Souza (via Recockulous):The atheist foolishly presumes that reason is in pr
inciple capable of figuring out all that there is, while the theist at least knows that there is a reality greater than, and beyond, that which our senses and our minds can ever apprehend.


Not bad until the conclusion, which is complete and utter twaddle. Fundamental limits on what can be understood about the universe have been well understood for most of the last 50 years. In fact, the nature of uncertainty and the inpossi
bility of universal knowledge can be considered the most important theme of 20th century science, math and philosophy. However, it is a huge leap from arguing
that knowledge is limited to arguing for theism.

Wolfe (via jfuller) Dependent on believers for their existence, non-believers have long been known for the shrillness of their tone, their thinly disguised contempt for people they can barely understand, and their conviction (you might even call it religious) that they always have been and always will be on the right side of history.

There is two things about this which are interesting. It comes out of a review of a book about O'Hair who has frequently been criticized as shaping contemporary Atheism into an anti-Chistian movement. Secondly, I suspect that most Atheists would be content not to even address the issue except for the fact that religion has both appropriated and claimed a monopoly on things like love, awe, reverence, ecstacy, morality and beauty.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:34 AM on April 7, 2004


One more thing. Even as a young Christian teen I realized that such things as the "Under God" phrase in the pledge was bad for religion. In that respect I agree with Mr. Wieseltier. The notion that canned references to god repeated as ritual at the start of school morning bolster faith is not worth a bucket of warm spit. In addition perhaps I was a bit too interested in the 17th and 18th century history of my Methodist and Quaker forebearers to not see the link between the Pledge with "under God" and the oath to the Church of England required for education.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:39 AM on April 7, 2004


Secondly, I suspect that most Atheists would be content not to even address the issue except for the fact that religion has both appropriated and claimed a monopoly on things like love, awe, reverence, ecstacy, morality and beauty.
I think some atheists give way too much credit and ascribe way too much power to religion. Out of your list there, I'd say that only reverence is truly appropriated, and even that's questionable.

I agree with you 1000% on the canned refs to god thing.
posted by amberglow at 11:45 AM on April 7, 2004


That's a pretty limited concept of "god" compared to all the wide range of god-concepts that exist in all religions. It doesn't seem quite enough to call oneself an atheist just because one denies this primitive Santa Claus/Easter Bunny notion of god.

As proud as you may be of your advanced concept of god, to an atheist, it's all the same fictional existento-tainment. Enjoy, but please stay out of my house, away from my kids, and out of my government.
posted by badstone at 11:51 AM on April 7, 2004


amberglow: Secondly, I suspect that most Atheists would be content not to even address the issue except for the fact that religion has both appropriated and claimed a monopoly on things like love, awe, reverence, ecstacy, morality and beauty.

I think some atheists give way too much credit and ascribe way too much power to religion. Out of your list there, I'd say that only reverence is truly appropriated, and even that's questionable.

This has not been my experience. Frequently I'm asked how I can look at something like the moon, or the grand canyon, or more frequently the human body and not be so awestruck so as to believe in a designer. Awe, ecstacy and beauty are considered to be "spiritual" emotions. And there have been a lot of knock-down drag-out fights about whether athiest can be truely moral.

There seems to be this overriding stereotype that not having a relationship with a diety means that one is doomed to live life in a perpetually skeptical, existential funk unable to experience joy of the world around us. I can't count the number of times someone as said not knowing me, "Oh, you must be one of those bitter atheists."
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:58 AM on April 7, 2004


> I'd say that you can prove just about anything if you stretch the meaning of the terms
> used far enough.

And I would reply, naturally, that you can disprove whatever you like if you get permission to shrink the meaning of your target concept down to a simplistic straw man (e.g., god is an old man on a gold throne up in the clouds and that's the only kind of god imaginable, ergo if I show that there's nobody sitting up in the clouds I've disproved all conceivable assertions about the existence of god) and the result would be the same as if neither of us had spoken. There's a lot of that around here some days.
posted by jfuller at 11:59 AM on April 7, 2004


No one is really persuaded by the argument that "Under God" is an empty expression, meaning nothing, or at least, meaning nothing religiously.

The words were introduced into the Pledge in the 1950s order to correct what was seen as an anomalous secularism and align it with the pervasive religious content or allusion of public ceremonies and rhetoric. In any event, even were one to concede that "Under God" was at one time contentless, it certainly isn't now, when significant numbers of people are openly atheistic, agnostic, or polytheistic, and even more people are totally irreligious.

As I see it, the empty expression line of thinking (dubbed "ceremonial deism") was concocted by liberal Supreme Court justices as a way to pick their fights -- enabling them to protect their larger secular project from being derailed by an incredibly unpopular decision of symbolic consequence. In other words, the price of evicting the Lord's Prayer from school rooms was tolerating "In God We Trust" on the currency. Oleson echoes it because keeping up the pretense makes it easier for everyone to perpetuate it.

I expect a 7-1 or 6-2 reversal of the 9th, reaffirming the ceremonial deism decision. The liberal justices know that affirming Nedrow would only help George Bush, the greatest enemy that their secularizing project has seen since World War 2. As long as Kerry is in striking distance of Bush, they want to keep him viable.

I wonder, however, whether another 300k plus job report or two might just provoke the liberal Justices to take their win where they can, and push a 4-4 tie which would let the 9th stand and result in the Pledge being banned in the western U.S.
posted by MattD at 11:59 AM on April 7, 2004


...without religion to give it meaning, atheism would be the least interesting of subjects.

As it should be.

But, noooo, we have been brainwashed into framing everything in terms of religious faith. It's simply unacceptable to state that there are no gods. We're expected to cushion that blow by wrapping it in twaddle: we to say we only "believe" there are no gods.

The only reason "there are no gods" is seen as strident contempt is because the message recipient has a worldview informed by belief, a worldview that is shaken to its foundation when confronted with such "blasphemy." It's far easier to deal with a non-believer, who simply has mistaken beliefs and might some day be converted, than to deal with someone who is so utterly confident as to state flat out that there are as many gods are there are unicorns.

There are no unicorns. Period. If you think there are unicorns, you are deeply and sadly mistaken. Period. Too bad, so sad.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:07 PM on April 7, 2004


Agnosticism isn't the uncertain belief in God; it's the belief that a proof of God's existence (or non-existence) isn’t possible†. This is almost as silly as your strong version of atheism. Anyway, one can be an agnostic and be an atheist or a theist.

Ethereal Bligh, could you clarify what you mean by "silly" here? Is it the absoluteness of the language "proof...isn't possible"? I think relatively strong arguments can be made for such a position, and am greatly attracted to it (especially since I agree that it neither requires nor precludes belief).
posted by mr_roboto at 12:09 PM on April 7, 2004


The most preposterous notion that H. Sapiens has up dreamed up is that the Lord God of Creation, Shaper and Ruler of all the Universes, wants the saccharine adoration of His creatures, can be swayed by their prayers, and becomes petulant if He does not recieve this flattery. Yet this absurd fantasy, without a shred of evidence to bolster it, pays all the expenses of the oldest, largest, and least productive industry in all history.

Source: Lazarus Long in Time Enough For Love

The Universe was a damned silly place at best... but the least likely explanation for its existence was the no-explanation of random chance, the conceit that some abstract somethings just happened to be some atoms that just happened to look like consistent laws and then some of these configurations just happened to be the Man from Mars and the other a bald-headed old coot with Jubal himself inside.

No, Jubal would not buy the just happened theory, popular as it was with men who called themselves scientists. Random chance was not a sufficient explanation of the Universe---in fact, random chance was not sufficient to explain random chance; the pot could not hold itself.

Source: Jubal Harshaw's thoughts in Stranger in a Strange Land

(Religious) Faith strikes me as intellectual laziness.

Source: Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land

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

Source: Lazarus Long in Time Enough for Love

A few quotes seeme like the easiest way to sum up my feelings on this subject. One, that it is a bit silly to hold that either God does nor does not exist. Seems to me like the only rational viewpoint would be a fiercely maintained and researched intellectual neutrality, although in my case I must admit it's more of a neutral-against with reference to the existence of a God.

Secondly, with reference to the inclusion of faith-based language in the pledge, it strikes me that it is simply a matter of evolution. A person is intelligent, but people are not. For a long time, many civilizations needed a set of social dictums disguised as the commands of a Lord God Almighty in order to keep them in line. That our Bill of Rights and Constitution come from religious roots does not suggest, to me, an endorsement of religion, but rather that most people cannot force themselves to act in a just manner without the threat of heavenly reprisal. I think that the United States and some other developed countries are slowly and painfully getting to the point where we do not need a religiously based set of rules to keep us in line, but rather can choose to act morally without said rules. This probably only applies to a very small amount of people right now, like maybe 4 or 5 Californians (I kid, but it is probably very small), but perhaps this particular example will signal a gradual shift towads self-responsibility.

Or perhaps we will just replace god with money. Who knows.
posted by lazaruslong at 12:17 PM on April 7, 2004


jfuller: And I would reply, naturally, that you can disprove whatever you like if you get permission to shrink the meaning of your target concept down to a simplistic straw man (e.g., god is an old man on a gold throne up in the clouds and that's the only kind of god imaginable, ergo if I show that there's nobody sitting up in the clouds I've disproved all conceivable assertions about the existence of god) and the result would be the same as if neither of us had spoken. There's a lot of that around here some days.

Which is why I'm rather fond of Russell's idea of disbelief as a warranted default. The burden of proof is on the theist to support both existence and relevance. Until theism can do so, no one is obligated to buy shares in it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:17 PM on April 7, 2004


"Sophomoric my ass, but I won't get into that."—five fresh fish
Well, perhaps I was too generous. If you cannot comprehend the difference between asserting a positive and negative (particularly in regards to existence), then there's nothing for it. You're an imbecile lording it over the dolts.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:18 PM on April 7, 2004


you are deeply and sadly mistaken

And maybe after another century or two of progress "mistaken" will change to "disturbed" and these people will get the treatment they desperately need.
posted by badstone at 12:21 PM on April 7, 2004


I don't get why people think their imaginary being is more real just because he's called "god."

That's an interesting point, Beth. Let's turn it around a little: People call that being "God" because they believe it's more real. I think the belief comes before the naming.

...as if mythology could be reproduced with the scientific method.

Yes, and as if the scientific method didn't require faith. I tire quickly of people who think that positivism is an undoubtable position, an overpowering and eternal Truth, humming with superhuman energy like the obelisk in 2001.

Positivism is a belief system, and therefore empirical research and the scientific method of investigation requires a kind of faith. A different kind of faith than Christianity, etc., but faith nonetheless.

And just to clarify to those who may be reading this thread as merely a tired and typical battle between the theists and the atheists, I'm agnostic. This thread has been compelling to me because it has for the most part managed to avoid that unproductive polarization.
posted by squirrel at 12:31 PM on April 7, 2004


> Enjoy, but please stay out of my house, away from my kids, and out of my government.

You'll forgive me for feeling I've just been told to go drink at the colored people's fountain--and here you don't even have a clue what my belief system may be (nothing I've posted in this thread tips my hand at all.) But dude, you make me want to go to the river and get full-immersion baptized HALLYLOOYAHH OH LAWDY and then run for congress just to annoy such an exclusionist.


> The only reason "there are no gods" is seen as strident contempt is because
> the message recipient has a worldview informed by belief, a worldview that is
> shaken to its foundation when confronted with such "blasphemy."

The thing I mark down as strident contempt isn't anybody's assertion that there are no gods, it's the assertion that those who believe there are gods or there is a god must be excluded from public life unless they leave their beliefs strictly in the closet. If that's really what the separation of church and state means then it's an idea that will collapse in the end, and maybe sooner than later.

That's not what was intended by church/state separation, of course; it was intended only to prevent the state from setting up an official government-sponsored church like the Church of England. To those who are busily stretching it far beyond this restricted meaning I say only You folks better not get greedy, because people who get greedy end up losing everything. Don't be totalitarian about it, don't indulge in ethnic cleansing, leave some wiggle room. Show, in short, some tolerance.
posted by jfuller at 12:42 PM on April 7, 2004


A religionist is someone who doesn't accept the fact that there are no gods. Keep belief and faith out of the definition.

This position leads me to ask for your definition of "fact," fffish. What are facts and how are they created?

Quit being a milquetoast.

I know this wasn't directed at me, but it made me snicker. Are you one of those macho intellectuals who hammers home points about Rilke by slamming your fist on the table? The thinking man's Rowdy Roddy Piper? I doubt it, but you sure look like one when you make comments like that.
posted by squirrel at 12:44 PM on April 7, 2004


"Ethereal Bligh, could you clarify what you mean by 'silly' here? Is it the absoluteness of the language 'proof...isn't possible'? I think relatively strong arguments can be made for such a position, and am greatly attracted to it (especially since I agree that it neither requires nor precludes belief).—mr roboto
It's appealing because it has a great deal of explanatory power. It nicely explains why this issue has not been resolved.

However, that something is unknowable in principle is rather a rare quality to assign to something, isn't it? It occurs to me that although I often correct people about Heisenberg Uncertainty in that its uncertainty is a matter or principle, not practice (i.e., "the act of measurement changes what is being measured"); it's revealing that most folks quail at that assertion and would clearly prefer to believe that it is a practical limitation, and not epistomological.

Indeed, if we look at some more undecidable things, like Godel's theorem, again we see that although the very essence of the proof is that the truth of the Godel Statement is "undecidable", we find that yet again that most people believe that human beings, anyway, have some mystical power to recognize the truth of the Godel Statement (and, more to the point, all implied Godel Statements). Another example: the difficulty in most people's attempts to comprehend relativity come about because the mind balks at denying simultaneity—that the "true" sequence of events not agreed upon by several observers is knowable in principle, one's intuition insists.

Principled, rather than practical, unknowability is a very peculiar thing. It's alien to our normal experience of reality—it is, alanironically, something of an extraordinary claim that must be supported by extraordinary evidence. It is ordinary only in the most trivial (or profound) sense—that is, the question of the knowability of anything. But if we assume, as we must, the knowability of anything; then if I say,
"The existence of this pillow is, in principle, unknowable."
...you're quite right to ask, "Why in the world would you ever claim that?"

So why must the existence or non-existence of God be in principle unknowable? In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we must either believe that He is knowable (because, you know, He made Himself known to people), or that the entire tradition is allegorical.

In fact, this unknowability schtick is inherently suspect because, for example, it defies Popperian falsification. It is guilty by association, at least, with similar awfully darn convenient claims like "psychic phenomena is suppressed in the presence of negative mental energy".
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:58 PM on April 7, 2004


Positivism is a belief system, and therefore empirical research and the scientific method of investigation requires a kind of faith. A different kind of faith than Christianity, etc., but faith nonetheless.

That doesn't quite work; faith requires belief without proof, whereas empirical research and the scientific method, by definition, require proofs.
posted by RylandDotNet at 1:03 PM on April 7, 2004


Squirrel, I assure you I am constructing my sentences with great deliberation, from "sophomoric my ass" through "quit being a milquetoast."

I take it you can all accept that "there are no unicorns" is a fact. You may wish to debate the nature of fact, but let's not go for a drive down idiot road: that there are no unicorns is, in the end, a bare-faced fact regardless the histrionics such a statement might give a philosopher.

But that's all neither here nor there. My sole point is that if one is going to call oneself an atheist, do not state such using a religionist worldview. In short, eliminate "belief" from your vocabulary and commit yourself fully to the facts which you know to be true.

If you can't do that, please call yourself an agnostic.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:15 PM on April 7, 2004


Okay, if you want to do it the long way, what is proof?

For those who want a spoiler, proof is part of a system of explaining and predicting observable phenomena. One limit of this system is contextual dependence. Facts and proofs rely on contexts, and contexts change.

You hold an apple in the air, you let it go, it falls to the ground. The hand is a fact, the apple is a fact, the fall is a fact. But these facts are so only because the observer's system of belief about the world defines them as such. In this case, only the observer's belief is that context makes these facts true.

Kind of like four quarters make a dollar is a fact, but only in the US. Facts and proofs are similarly contextually dependent, though on a different scale.
posted by squirrel at 1:23 PM on April 7, 2004


Bart Ehrman, Bowman-Gray Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and author (among other books) of the excellent Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium on Christianity Without Paul

Christianity is more than just the religion that Jesus preached. It is also the religion that preaches about Jesus. And more than any other person, it was the apostle Paul who shifted the focus of the religion from the proclamation of Jesus to the proclamation about Jesus. One could in fact make a case that without Paul, Christianity as we know it today would never have been possible, and that the Western world--which continues to be, nominally, at least, Christian--would never have adopted this faith, and would have remained firmly committed to the various polytheistic religions of the Roman empire.
(...)
What would have happened had the empire never converted? The vast majority of people living in it would have remained polytheists; and Christianity would have remained a sect within Judaism--a group of Jews who believed that the Jewish messiah had come for the Jewish people. To be a Christian, in other words, one would first have to become a Jew.

If Christianity had remained a Jewish sect, rather than a world religion, it would never have taken over the empire. The empire would have remained pagan. The Christian church would never have become the dominant religious, cultural, social, political, economic institution of the Western world. The entire history of the Middle Ages, down to the Renaissance (imagine all of the art work and literature involved!), to the Protestant Reformation, into the modern world--where some two billion people are in one way or another identifiably Christian--none of this would have happened.
What would have happened had Paul never lived? One could argue that the vast majority of people who today call themselves Christian would still be worshiping the gods of Greece and Rome, and Christianity would be one of the small sects within Judaism, with little impact on the world around it.

posted by matteo at 1:24 PM on April 7, 2004


Ethereal Bligh: So why must the existence or non-existence of God be in principle unknowable? In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we must either believe that He is knowable (because, you know, He made Himself known to people), or that the entire tradition is allegorical.

I also think that Huxley's original formulation of Agnosticism is mostly misunderstood. His point was not that the god question was unproveable, but only that since 3,000 years of rational debate have failed to resolve the issue, that a position of doubt was warranted.

This was expanded by Bertrand Russell into an argument for agnostic atheism. He used the example of a proposal that there is a teacup in orbit around Mars. He admitted that he did not have gounds to prove the nonexistence of said teacup (agnosticism) but without evidence for the teacup, he felt oblidged to adopt non-existence as the view that most likely matched the state of the universe (atheism).

So in actuality, it is possible to talk about "weak agnosticism" (which holds that the question is undecided) and "strong agnosticism" (which holds that the question in unanswerable.)

RylandDotNet: That doesn't quite work; faith requires belief without proof, whereas empirical research and the scientific method, by definition, require proofs.

No, the scientific method requries evidence. Proof is used in a radically different system of epistemology, not science.

FFF: I take it you can all accept that "there are no unicorns" is a fact.

Well, I won't take it as fact without some boundaries on it. In fact, I would argue that in a large universe, the existence of one-horned quadrapedal herbivorous animals that walk on a single fused hard protein mass analogous to a hoof somewhere is quite probable.

My sole point is that if one is going to call oneself an atheist, do not state such using a religionist worldview. In short, eliminate "belief" from your vocabulary and commit yourself fully to the facts which you know to be true.

"Belief" has about as much to do with a religionist worldview as the word "and". The fact that religious philosophers use the term "belief" does not obligate secular philosophers to abandon the term where it is useful.

If you can't do that, please call yourself an agnostic.

I would suggest that you have about as much authority to determine who can and cannot call themselves atheists as the pope. In fact, your astounding ignorance about the varieties of atheism described over the last 100 years would suggest that if anyone should avoid the term, it is you.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:28 PM on April 7, 2004


[My last post was a response to RylandDotNet, but my argument about "fact" requiring belief applies to fffish's comments as well.]
posted by squirrel at 1:29 PM on April 7, 2004


> regardless the histrionics such a statement might give a philosopher.

Being deliberate and careful now--"histrionics" are not given. You're fishing for "conniption fits" or maybe "heeby-jeebies." -helpfully yours,
posted by jfuller at 1:33 PM on April 7, 2004


You'll forgive me for feeling I've just been told to go drink at the colored people's fountain...

Sorry, I'll call bullshit on that. "Colored folk" do no not have an express agenda to impose their "coloredness" on their fellow man. They do not have the express agenda of demeaning the human experience, squashing culture, and restraining scientific progress. That's the agenda I want out of my house, out of my (future) kids' faces, and out of my government. Sorry for the confusion. Again, as I said orginally, you (and I mean the collective "you" for fuck's sake) are welcome to do whatever you like in your own home, just don't impose it on me, my family, or my country.
posted by badstone at 1:39 PM on April 7, 2004


You hold an apple in the air, you let it go, it falls to the ground. The hand is a fact, the apple is a fact, the fall is a fact. But these facts are so only because the observer's system of belief about the world defines them as such.

A superb example of how philosophical wanking can be utterly useless in real-world application. One can spend countless and ultimately wasted hours debating systems of belief and their role in discovering the nature of truth as it applies to falling apples.

Meanwhile, you have a bruised apple. Eat up before the rot spreads.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:53 PM on April 7, 2004


Ok, might as well express an argument for agnosticism since that bugbear has been brought up. First there is a difference between belief and knowledge. At some critical threshold of verification, "proof" and evidence, we upgrade belief to knowledge. Beliefs are not bad things. They help us get around in the world because verifying every single possible fact becomes impractical.

There are some gods for which I have not seen a convincing argument for or against their existence. One example of which is pantheism/panentheism ala Spinoza and Einstein. Granted these versions of god fail both Popper's falsification requriement and Occam's Razor but the former seems arbitrary and not convincing, and the latter is just a heuristic and not convincing.

There is also the prime mover before the big bang. There are a huge number of cosmological theories about the pre-big bang including "god did it." Most of these theories appear to be currently untestable, and many are theoretically untestable. I do not feel it is logical in this case to grant privileged status to any one of these theories, therefore, I have to admit that "god did it" is just as viable as any other hypothesis.

I am equally agnostic about superstrings, branes, quantum foam, and god as explanations for the big bang. My ultimate answer is "I don't know" or agnosis. Because an explanation for the big bang may require energies far in excess of what can be explored in a physical experiment, I'm not convinced that we may ever know.

For all practical purposes, this "I don't know" translates into a lack of belief. I do not feel obligated to promote any of these hypotheses. I do not feel obligated to worship any of these hypotheses. Even if true none of these hypotheses present any moral obligation different from what I already do.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:03 PM on April 7, 2004


> They do not have the express agenda of demeaning the human experience,
> squashing culture, and restraining scientific progress.

Nobody has that express agenda, not even Ozzy, the Prince of Darkness. We do tend to attribute it to folks we don't like, though, don't we?


> "Colored folk" do no not have an express agenda to impose their "coloredness"
> on their fellow man.

I could be wrong; I thought colored folks did like exposing themselves to the light of day--y'know, like, outside their living rooms and all. And even bringing coloredness into the realm of public discourse. So you're saying religious persons can do that also, and you're cool? I stand corrected (and relieved, too, of course.) Good badstone!
posted by jfuller at 2:04 PM on April 7, 2004


What a thoughtless and defensive response, fffish. I expected more from you. So, you find investigating the systems that create the "facts" of our world idiotic and wanky? I'm grateful that Copernicus didn't share your close-mindedness.
posted by squirrel at 2:07 PM on April 7, 2004


closed-mindedness, that is.
posted by squirrel at 2:14 PM on April 7, 2004


On another day, squirrel, I might be content to do the philosophy trip. Today, not.

I originally posted to this thread because I saw several self-identifying atheists stating that they "do not believe," which I believe is a little on the disingenuous side.

Right now, I do not care about the philosophical fluff that surrounds debates of religion and atheism. All the arguments on the nature of "belief" and "truth" don't even come close to entering the picture.

From my point of view, and for this time, this entire discussion is about as silly and senseless as arguing about unicorns.

Sorry that I disappoint you.
posted by five fresh fish at 2:27 PM on April 7, 2004


Indeed, if we look at some more undecidable things, like Godel's theorem, again we see that although the very essence of the proof is that the truth of the Godel Statement is "undecidable", we find that yet again that most people believe that human beings, anyway, have some mystical power to recognize the truth of the Godel Statement (and, more to the point, all implied Godel Statements).

I think we have different understandings of Goedel. Goedel proved that axiomatic systems of a complexity beyond a certain threshold are necessarily incomplete. This theorem itself is not "undecidable" (as you seem to be saying): it establishes, rather, that certain undecidable questions do exist. What's more, it has turned out that certain of these questions are important. For instance, using Goedel's technique, it's possible to prove that the continuum hypothesis is undecidable under the axioms of number theory. So there you go: a proposition that's undecidable on principle. A mathematician would be able to give you more.

I find nothing to be a priori counterintuitive about the existence of such undecidable questions, as you seem to. I guess that's a question of instinct. KirkJobSluder brings up, for instance, the question of the big bang. Contemporary physics tells us that nothing can be said scientifically about the conditions of the universe before the big bang; similarly, science can tell us nothing about the conditions beyond the event horizon of a black hole. That means any questions about such things are, on principle, undecidable. I have no problem with that.

In fact, this unknowability schtick is inherently suspect because, for example, it defies Popperian falsification.

Not everything has to be falsifiable, man. Popper was referring to questions to which the scientific method could be applied. I don't think there are many out there who would claim that the existence of god is a question for science. And that, essentially, is why it's an undecidable question: it's beyond sense and reason. That doesn't mean it's not an interesting question, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:32 PM on April 7, 2004


five fresh fish: I originally posted to this thread because I saw several self-identifying atheists stating that they "do not believe," which I believe is a little on the disingenuous side.

I do not believe in god. I do not believe that the constraints of radical behaviorism are still necessary. I do not believe that George Bush is a good president. I do not believe I will have pasta for dinner.

How so? All "believe" means here is that one is convinced of the truth of these statements. In what way is an atheist being dishonest by stating that they are not convinced god exists?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:36 PM on April 7, 2004


Another time, then, fffish. I guess partly as a result of the way I've groomed my mind, especially with what I'm studying now, I continually hit on the issue of whether or not something I encounter in myself or in the world is "true," and what it means to be true. The paradox of truth requiring a kind of faith interests me to no end; therefore I assumed that it would interest you as well. Perhaps I'm the closed-minded one.
posted by squirrel at 2:40 PM on April 7, 2004


The Godel statement is undecidable within the formal system of which it's constructed. And yet, people like Penrose (and I don't agree with him, I think he's being silly) and many others believe that the truth of the Godel statement is self-evident to the human mind, which he asserts could not be possible if the mind was the expression of a formal system.

Godel is too-oft casually bandied about and my point was merely to demonstrate how undecidability gives people the willies.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:03 PM on April 7, 2004


If it helps, squirrel, I've been taking an evangelistic approach to this discussion. I'm tired of religionists insisting that they have an exclusive on The Truth, especially when they're so god-damn wrong about the (non-)existance of gods. So I had fun with it.

It's always the atheists who are to show flexibility and accomodation for religionists. We're expected to phrase things as "believing" there is no god, when there really is no god. We're expected to put up with a government which is secular in name but not in action. We're expected to allow churches to skip out on taxes, let its priests perform buggery unpunished, influence the content of our children's textbooks, and ...

... and to just sit back and be quiet about all this.

So excuse me if I go all religious about atheism once in a while. It's difficult to put up with the bullshit sometimes.

I think I'll go meditate now, see if I can calm down.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:20 PM on April 7, 2004


"...can tell us nothing about the conditions beyond the event horizon of a black hole."—mr_roboto
Funny you should mention that.

Let me be clear: unknowability is my bag. I spend a lot of time contemplating unknowability. I am well aware that many things are, in principle, unknowable.

My point was twofold. First, that undecidability is the exception, not the rule. Indeed, this is the most common complaint that mathematicians have against popularizations of Godel's work—that such popularizations fallaciously extrapolate undecidability beyond the specific case of the Godel statement.

My second point is more subtle. It is that regardless of whether undecidability is epistemologically exceptional or not, as a rule general human intuition shies away from it. I supplied several examples. Having done so, then, my question was this: when people are otherwise reluctant to embrace undecidability, isn't it suspicious that they would be eager to do so in the particular case where they have the most to gain?

I also get weary of Popper being misused and believe that the importance of falsifiabiity is overestimated. But I mentioned it in the spirit of the previous paragraph—that is to say, formulations of beliefs that defy Popperian falsification are notorious for being, shall we say, the refuge of scoundrels.

Now, about what happens inside the event horizon.

As I said, I've spent a great deal of time contemplating knowability. And, like you—and being obsessed with knowability and rigor—I long held to a rather grouchy view that one cannot say, in principle, anything about what happens inside the event horizon.

That is, until I lived with an astrophysicist. One evening, she brought me up short by asking this simple question:
"How can you justify assuming that the laws of physics inside the event horizon differ those outside?"
Of course, I wasn't assuming that the laws of physics were different, I was being rigorously (strongly) agnostic on the matter. But exactly how can I justify that?

From her standpoint, a physicist and not a philosopher†, I was needlessly complicating things. Contemporary (though somewhat exotic) physics can, in fact, tell us what it thinks is happening within an event horizon, all the way down to the singularity itself where, finally, physics gives up. Just because we can never, ever actually measure anything inside the event horizon and then report such measurement to the outside universe, doesn't mean that physics doesn't have a pretty good idea of what's going on.

Now, of course, this again is the difference between being a physicist and a philosopher. Philosophers are hard-headed and rigorous in only the most impractical of ways.

I agree with KirkJobSluder and I find Huxley's reasoning and sensibilities felicitous. This was, in fact, the essence of my argument with five fresh fish: that a preponderance of belief coupled with a lack of agreement over such a length of time constitutes a sort of evidence in itself. But evidence of what? My point to fff was that this evidence creates a context for considering the issue that is substantially different than, say, deciding the existence of a unicorn. Along with Kirk, I find the mistatement of Huxley's agnosticism as a strong agnosticism overreaching. The lack of agreement on this matter could also, simply and obviously, be a result of the fact that God doesn't exist but that it is virtually impossible to prove a negative of this sort and people are highly motivated, psychologically, to believe. That seems to me to be a much more likely explanation for why the question hasn't been settled, as opposed to the strong epistemological claim about the very nature of the question's decidability.

† As to the question from the other thread: I am not, as it happens, a philosopher. Not quite, but close.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:39 PM on April 7, 2004


Just to get the thread back on track:

i believe the point of the post was that government has no place including any reference to god (or references to references of god) in policy, texts, or excercises of patriotism.

I think further debate should honor the distinction between those things and 'public discourse'

No one is trying to get xians (theists) to abandon their dogmas or keep them under wraps. YOU ARE IN NO DANGER OF PERSECUTION! It would just be nice if you'd keep it to yourselves.

You'll forgive me for feeling I've just been told to go drink at the colored people's fountain

cry baby. No one is asking you to abandon or hide or be ashamed of your foolishness, just keep it seperate from my government.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 3:53 PM on April 7, 2004


I find the preponderance of belief to be absolutely irrelevent. There was a time when everyone believed the sun was pulled by a chariot: that doesn't make it worth considering the issue any more worthy than that of considering the issue of unicorns. Bulk faith does not grant legitimacy.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:57 PM on April 7, 2004


five fresh fish:
It's always the atheists who are to show flexibility and accomodation for religionists.

However, fundamental to my being an atheist is the fact that I'm a scientist and skeptic. As a result, all knowledege (aside from math) is provisional and ideally coupled with a quantifiable estimate of error. Granted, by belief that there is no god is right there between my belief in death and taxes. (I might avoid taxes by dying in the next 5 minutes, so there is a bit of fuzz.) I also believe in Evolution, the heliocentric solar system, and the love of my parents.

In fact, what you are demanding of me as an atheist is what I find most apalling about religion. You are demanding that I make a unique exception from my skepticism for the statement that there is no god. That for this one little bit of knowledge, that we make an unequivical and unsupported claim of absolute truth.

We're expected to phrase things as "believing" there is no god, when there really is no god.

It depends on the context. "There is no X" is a statement about the universe. "He believes there is no X" is a statement about a person. I have no objection to people saying "there is no god." I would say, "to the best of our current understanding, there is no god."

But to demand that we abandon the use of "belief' when talking about how people view the universe is just plain silly.

We're expected to put up with a government which is secular in name but not in action. We're expected to allow churches to skip out on taxes, let its priests perform buggery unpunished, influence the content of our children's textbooks, and ...

... and to just sit back and be quiet about all this.


Which one of your fellow athiests that you have accused of dishonesty have proposed any of the above?

So excuse me if I go all religious about atheism once in a while. It's difficult to put up with the bullshit sometimes.

But excuse me, why take it out on PEOPLE WHO AGREE WITH YOU! If you don't like the pledge, tax-free churches, child molestation among the clergy, and removal of evolution from school textbooks, why start tilting at windmils over the use of "I believe there is no god" vs. "there is no god" (especially when the two serve entirely different purposes)? Why accuse atheists of dishonesty for accuractely reporting what they believe and why.

You are a classic example of why atheism should be considered just a lack of belief with no other common elements. Getting "evangelical" and "religious" about atheism is repugnant to me. For me, atheism is the end product of two more important principles: 1) claims require evidence before belief is warranted. 2) all claims, no matter how well supported, are provisional and should be considered open to future interpretation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:02 PM on April 7, 2004


Eternal Bligh: True, there is no reason to assume that the insides of a black hole are different from the outside. I find the god of the gaps to be profoundly dissatisfying. At the same time, I'm equally uncomfortable with the notion that we can reject god a priori in all cases.

There is also an issue of honesty involved. I have no wish to cop to knowledge that I don't have. I say "I don't know" in many other cases where either the results are open to debate or the results are too technical for me to understand.

Trypto: i believe the point of the post was that government has no place including any reference to god (or references to references of god) in policy, texts, or excercises of patriotism.

And beyond that, such a merger is probably not in the best interest of American religious faith.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:12 PM on April 7, 2004


I find the preponderance of belief to be absolutely irrelevent. There was a time when everyone believed the sun was pulled by a chariot...

There was a time when the earth's flatness was an observable fact, fffish. Few or none questioned this self-evident reality. Those folks didn't think their knowledge had anything to do with belief, either. What is true has changed countless times over the course of human history: it's a construction. To think that what we believe now is finally the Truth, is self-absorbed. Our truths will pass like all the others.

Bulk faith does not grant legitimacy.

Bulk faith alone grants legitimacy. I guess we've found the center of our disagreement, fffish. It's an age-old divide.
posted by squirrel at 4:24 PM on April 7, 2004


> I do not believe that the constraints of radical behaviorism are still necessary.

Now how 'bout that! Did KirkJobSluder ever dream there would be somebody hanging out in this thread who might take a swipe at radical behaviorism personally? Yet here be I, who actually did study with Fred Skinner for a while, in I. M. Pei's campus eyesore scurillously named after poor defenseless Will James.

I bring this up due to itching for one last shot in the thread, after which I can go home and, being no longer trapped behind this hospital's netnanny, get over to fark where I belong. My last shot is: all this yammering about facts and beliefs and falsification and testable assertions is almost entirely beside the point when considering religion. In this I am absolutely on five fresh's side. Being religious (and equally being atheist) are fundamentally not about the natural/supernatural facts of the case, they are not beliefs about arguable facts at all, they are daily bread and life experience, and the difference is crucial. They are things we are -- or rather (fuller assumes radical behaviorist vocabulary, Cambridge-Mass-flavor, slightly modded by Wittgenstein), they are not propositions we have opinions about, they are things we do. Hence being religious (and not being religious) lie in the very large realm of human apprehension that lies outside of "facts" that are expressable as propositions. They are facts only in the sense that stubbing your toe is a fact. What's the truth value of scratching your butt? It can't have any because it makes no assertion. As fff has noticed, the absence of the gods is not primarily a claim of science about which we have a belief or opinion, it is daily bread and life experience. As such it is inarguable. (I hope fff has symmetrically noticed that the presence of god, or of the gods, is also daily bread and life experience and is also inarguable. Experience cannot be wrong.) The verbal interpretation of experience obviously can be wrong, that's where wrongness starts to be defined, hence arguability and truth/falsity only raise their ugly heads when one tries to abstract experience into the form of some this-is-that, subject/predicate grammatical proposition.

Don't do that--you're untouchable. "I reverence" and "I worship" can be transitive and take a direct object, which implies an assertion about the direct object's objective reality ("I worship ______, I worship Freyr, I worship Nuadh of the Silver Hand, once king of Ulster") and will then lay you open to the charge that your direct object doesn't exist, Nuadh is a myth, you worship nothing.) But they can also be intransitive, standing alone and merely naming the thing you are doing. At only one remove from the lived reality, the religious person reports "I worship, I am in awe." Like the other famous self-description "I think, therefore I am," this is very hard to falsify.

home, beer, fark.
posted by jfuller at 4:32 PM on April 7, 2004


jfuller: Did KirkJobSluder ever dream there would be somebody hanging out in this thread who might take a swipe at radical behaviorism personally?

No more than someone taking a swipe at my prediction that I'll not have pasta this evening. ;-)
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:42 PM on April 7, 2004


Tryptophan-5ht

> just keep it seperate from my government.

fuller resists ultimate, bend-over-grease-up invitation to spelling flame and says merely,

Your government, forsooth. Who cared enough to get up off their rears and put out the effort to take control of your government? Hint: it aparently wasn't you, bubba.
posted by jfuller at 4:42 PM on April 7, 2004


"fuller resists ultimate, bend-over-grease-up invitation to spelling flame and says merely, "
the highground: im not going to point out your spelling error, that would be petty, but i AM going to point out that i didn't point it out.

"Your government, forsooth. Who cared enough to get up off their rears and put out the effort to take control of your government? Hint: it aparently wasn't you, bubba."
Wait... there are fundies in power and that means im politically inactive?

But i see your point... the political inactivity of any group or person is more than enough reason to step on them.
posted by Tryptophan-5ht at 4:56 PM on April 7, 2004


Ethereal Bligh: Just because we can never, ever actually measure anything inside the event horizon and then report such measurement to the outside universe, doesn't mean that physics doesn't have a pretty good idea of what's going on.

How does physics know it has a pretty good idea?

squirrel: Bulk faith alone grants legitimacy.

True. Legitimacy is not, however, indicative of anything inviolable (like you attest).
posted by Gyan at 5:05 PM on April 7, 2004


Do I attest that legitimacy indicates inviolability? I don't mean to. What do you mean by inviolability?
posted by squirrel at 5:28 PM on April 7, 2004


squirrel: A miscommunication. I meant to say that you did attest that legitimacy does not indicate legitimacy. Inviolability, in this case, means "invincible".

I'm short of time, but *legitimacy* here has a restricted scope.
posted by Gyan at 5:37 PM on April 7, 2004


We have the hardcore religionists: I know there's a god.

We have the ordinary religionists: I believe there's a god.

We have ordinary agnostics: I don't give a flying fig one way or the other.

We have the atheists: I don't believe there's a god.

We have the hardcore atheists: I know there are no gods.

And we have the philosophers: I don't know and I can't believe, so I conclude all and nothing is simultaneously true, and don't commit an answer.

Only the philosophers say it using a lot more words.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:42 PM on April 7, 2004


jfuller: Being religious (and equally being atheist) are fundamentally not about the natural/supernatural facts of the case, they are not beliefs about arguable facts at all, they are daily bread and life experience, and the difference is crucial.

Here is perhaps a fundamental point of disagreement. Atheism is neither daily bread or life experience, it is only a trivial conclusion that is the result of the way I live my life. It is only due to a quirk of politics and context that it becomes important. My experience that mind/body duality is twaddle is probably more important to my daily bread and life experience than not believing in god. My attempt to live a non-violent life has become something I think about at every meal, while I can go for weeks without thinking about god or anything else supernatural.

But we don't live in a society where mind/body duality, or attitudes towards violence are the critical characteristics that define who we are in society. Instead, it all gets wrapped up in "religion."

Atheism is not something you live, or do. It is only an answer to a single question implicitly and explicitly posed throughout our society. This question would be trivial if it were not for the fact that we have this shared cultural delusion that knowing the answer to the question allows one to infer one's morality, one's lifestyle, one's hobbies and one's education level.

"Atheism" is not a lifestyle, it certainly is not daily bread. The only thing you can conclude from the fact that I'm an atheist is that I don't believe in god.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:05 PM on April 7, 2004


We have the hardcore religionists: I know there's a god.

We have the ordinary religionists: I believe there's a god.

We have ordinary agnostics: I don't give a flying fig one way or the other...


That's a pretty poor characterization of agnostics by my judgement. And, ironically. None of your characterizing lines are statements of fact; only belief. Also, your average philosopher could hold any of those positions. You ought to open your mind a bit about philosophy. You appear to have a chip on your shoulder against anyone who looks beneath the surfaces of things, which doesn't fit with what I've seen from you in other non-religious threads. FWIW, I don't buy your gruff dismissal of all this highfalutin jabber, fffish. I bet that this stuff isn't really as much a waste of your time as you want to put on. I mean, you keep coming back, right?
posted by squirrel at 6:17 PM on April 7, 2004


BTW, this has been a great thread.
posted by squirrel at 6:17 PM on April 7, 2004


it really has been, thank God ; >
posted by amberglow at 6:20 PM on April 7, 2004


Sure, I keep coming back. I allowed myself to get into it, so I'll stay with it.

My issue with the philosophic bullshitting in this thread is that it's absurd. You wouldn't find people holding loud and long on how belief in unicorns is unverifiable and therefore presents a legitimate basis for yadda blah yahoo.

The sole reason there's any attention paid to this is because of the underlying assumption that there's something special about the "belief" of religionists. We don't accord that same thing to those who read a book and ended up thinking Gnomes actually exist.
posted by five fresh fish at 6:44 PM on April 7, 2004


Good point, fffish, but remember that not all non-atheists are "religionists." You probably know that, but I thought I should make it clear. Lots of crazy beliefs swirling around, and some of them fall outside of these two categories as well.

Somehow, some poetic how, all these whacked-out belief systems continue to intersect with each other in real life as well.
posted by squirrel at 7:16 PM on April 7, 2004


KirkJobSluder: The only thing you can conclude from the fact that I'm an atheist is that I don't believe in god.

That's by definition

Wouldn't it be reasonable to also conclude that

1)you don't sincerely participate in ritual prayer or informal pleading,
2)you don't end a thread of curiosity with "coz God willed it so". This applies to both epistemological as well as social issues ("Chosen People"),
3)you don't ponder free will in terms of God-granted ability, rather do so within a scientific paradigm,

among other byproducts of the root belief?

Now, these byproducts do give me some sense of your worldview, if not an outright schema.
posted by Gyan at 7:31 PM on April 7, 2004


Indeed. For instance, the Boston Herald seems to believe that I'm going to create an account with them.
posted by five fresh fish at 7:41 PM on April 7, 2004


Well, then you will.
posted by squirrel at 7:55 PM on April 7, 2004


fff: My issue with the philosophic bullshitting in this thread is that it's absurd. You wouldn't find people holding loud and long on how belief in unicorns is unverifiable and therefore presents a legitimate basis for yadda blah yahoo.

The sole reason there's any attention paid to this is because of the underlying assumption that there's something special about the "belief" of religionists. We don't accord that same thing to those who read a book and ended up thinking Gnomes actually exist.


No such underlying assumption here. We could be having the exact same debate about bigfoot, gnomes, ESP, the soul, or even some of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology. (In fact, IMO questions about the existence of the soul are more important than questions about the existence of God.)

Believe it or not, this is the kind of discussion that people who do science engage in frequently. My lack of belief in God is not a different beast from my lack of belief in homeopathy, desktop fusion or that listening to Mozart increases standardized test scores. From my point of view, you seem to be demanding special treatment for God.

Gyan: 1)you don't sincerely participate in ritual prayer or informal pleading,

It all hinges on how prayer is defined. Given the fair number of non-believers in Unitarian Universalist congregations this claim is dubious. In addition there are plenty of theists who will express doubt that there is a god, but pray anyway for various reasons.

2)you don't end a thread of curiosity with "coz God willed it so". This applies to both epistemological as well as social issues ("Chosen People"),

Here you have things backwards. I don't say, "I'm an atheist, therefore, no thread of inquiry will end in god." What I say is that "no thread of inquiry has convinced me that there is a god." Atheism is a conclusion, not a guide.

3)you don't ponder free will in terms of God-granted ability, rather do so within a scientific paradigm,

Well, this is true primarily because I find "free will" to be a bullshit concept not really worth pondering. However, again you have it backwards. My lack of belief in god does not guide how I think about human psychology, but what I know of human psychology leads me to make some conclusions about the world, the most trivial of which is atheism.

In addition, there is a false duality here. I don't always use a scientific paradigm. The scientific paradigm as properly applied is extremely limited in scope. We can't assume that if one is an atheist, that one is using a scientific paradigm and in fact, I find fffish's insistance on making a special case for god above skepticism about branes, superstrings, and evolutionary psychology to be almost as anti-science as the textbook censors. And one can't assume that if one is a theist, that one is not working within a scientific paradigm.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:32 AM on April 8, 2004


Ethereal Bligh: My point was twofold. First, that undecidability is the exception, not the rule.

To quote James Yorke, "period three implies chaos". To be a little less obscure: in a one dimensional system where any regular cycle with period three appears that system will display regular cycles of every other length as well as completely chaotic cycles. To be much less obscure: the last thirty years or so of chaos research disagrees with you when you say that undecidability is the exception and not the rule.
Forms of organisation can be found almost everywhere (from globular clusters in astronomy to turbulent systems in hydrodynamics) expressing potentially infinite complexity in finite spaces, making a mess of decidability. Most fields of inquiry focus very tightly on decidable problems because those problems are much easier to work with, but that doesn't make them more common.
On a related topic you may have noticed that we don't have three year weather forecasts.
posted by snarfodox at 8:31 AM on April 8, 2004


Believe it or not, this is the kind of discussion that people who do science engage in frequently.

I am perfectly aware that we can philosophically naval-gaze for an eternity about such silly things as the existence of unicorns. And you're right, there's a time and a place for that.

When asked whether unicorns exist, one does not normally launch into a multi-day philosophical debate about the ultimate unknowableness of the universe.

Rather, one merely says "Of course not. Don't be stupid." and carries on with life.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:14 AM on April 8, 2004


KirkJobSluder: You're getting it backwards. I'm just positing what conclusions I can try to reasonably make. I'm not applying a cause->effect framework for those beliefs. Your rebuttal of the prayer argument doesn't make sense. I said that you don't *sincerely* pray. You may pray to not create a scene in a (in)formal gathering. But you don't _sincerely_ whisper words at night, with the intention of telepathically communicating those words to some figurative entity in the sky. If you do *sincerely* pray, to whom and what's the point?
posted by Gyan at 10:15 AM on April 8, 2004


Gyan: You're getting it backwards. I'm just positing what conclusions I can try to reasonably make. I'm not applying a cause->effect framework for those beliefs.

For two of those conclusions, you are proposing a cause->effect framework. #2 Proposes that I start from athiesm a priori in deciding lines of inquiry. My point is that atheism is a conclusion, not a start. If there is ever a line of inquiry that ends with "god did it", well, then I'll have to become a theist. I don't believe that such a line of inquiry exists, and I'm not holding by breath for proof of god.

#3 likewise proposes that atheism is the starting point rather than the conclusion. It also rests on the assumption that I consider "god" to be at all relevant in discussions about "free will" and that theists cannot use a scientific paradigm in talking about these things.

In regards to prayer. One of my most frequent frustrations in regards to these discussions is the tendency to lump all theistic practices together, create a nice tidy straw dog, and then argue against that straw dog. A lot of theists don't define prayer in those terms.

How can they be reasonable conclusions if 2 out of the 3 are wrong?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:37 AM on April 8, 2004


KirkJobSluder: Define prayer and its purpose.

And I don't propose cause-effect for any of them. #2 is a matter of (supposed) observation, not cause-effect. If you did end a line of inquiry with God, then you wouldn't be an atheist. That's the point. Likewise for #3. Your confusion comes from my misdirected phrasing. I should have used "haven't" in place of "don't". But I didn't, because "haven't" indicates past practice, with an ambigious connotation with regards to current practice. I used "don't" to indicate current practice, since you are admit that your current conclusion is athiesm. There's no cause-effect framework here.
posted by Gyan at 12:13 PM on April 8, 2004


Gyan: Define prayer and its purpose.

That depends on who is doing the defining. I believe for example that C. S. Lewis suggested something to the effect of "Prayer does not change god, it changes us." A Unitarian Minister once told me "prayer is simply putting your thoughts towards a goal." Within the buddhist sects I'm familiar with, prayer is not done with the assmption that there is something out there listening, but to focus the mind and build merit. Within liturgical settings prayer has a dual purpose of praising god and to bind the community together.

Even if you revise the cause/effect assumptions out of #2 and #3, they are still grotesquely misleading and pointless. There are an infinite number of possible ends to a line of curiosity? Why is my tendency to not leap to "god did it" more important than any other. In fact, I would argue that the differences between Marxism, Pragmatism, Idealism and Postitivism are more critical in this area than theism/atheism. If someone says "I'm an atheist" I have no idea how one views the world. If someone says, "I'm a capital P-Pragmatist" then I have a fairly good idea about how they view the world.

Likewise, in regards to free will and theories of mind, atheism/theism is trivial. But if someone says "I'm a Social Construtivist" THEN I can start making assumptions and warranted conclusions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:44 PM on April 8, 2004


That depends on who is doing the defining.

All words depend on definitions. And different people define differently. But groups of people do agree on definitions. And a commonly accepted definition of prayer is "A reverent petition made to God, a god, or another object of worship". So, if you want to get precise, replace prayer in my 1st conclusion with "reverent petition to God". I don't understand the Unitarian's definition. Why does "putting thoughts towards a goal" have to be called prayer? It's more common to all it focusing, organization, planning..etc Why co-opt prayer? C.S. Lewis' describes the effect of prayer, not what prayer is. As far as Buddhism goes, you seem to be describing meditation.

Why is my tendency to not leap to "god did it" more important than any other.

I don't know why we're still arguing about this. I'm not trying to make value judgements. I'm not implying that this tendency is more or less important than any other tendency. Your original claim was that your statement of revealing your atheist stance, leaves no conclusions to be made, besides the tautological one. I'm simply saying that's not true.

How is theism trivial in free will?
posted by Gyan at 1:40 PM on April 8, 2004


Gyan: And different people define differently. But groups of people do agree on definitions.

Certainly. And if you want to conclude that no atheist ever sincerely prays. You have to show that there exists no atheists who sincerely participate in any of the varieties of prayer traditions, in any religion. Therefore, I'm not willing to accept conclusion #1 at face value.


I don't know why we're still arguing about this. I'm not trying to make value judgements. I'm not implying that this tendency is more or less important than any other tendency. Your original claim was that your statement of revealing your atheist stance, leaves no conclusions to be made, besides the tautological one. I'm simply saying that's not true.

How is theism trivial in free will?


Here is a good example where you can't make a conclusion beyond the tautological one. Marx, Rand and Dewey are all atheists. But they have fundamentally incompatible positions regarding "free will." For that matter, knowing that a person is a theist does not help much because even within Chistianity, there are fundamentialy different and incompatible positions regarding free will. Combining Chistianity, Paganism, Buddhism, Islam, and pantheism, into a category makes conclusion #3 intolerable.

Even if we assume a god, the nature of god becomes very important. Is this a god that punishes wrongdoing (or rightdoing) now, later, or never. Are we talking an Einstein/Spinoza impersonal god or a miracle-giving father-figure? Theism is trivial in that two people can agree that god exists, and profoundly disagree on whether free will exists.

Not assuming a god does not make things even easier. Are we a deterministic ping-pong bound to the whims of environment? What is the role of history and social context? Two people can get into loggerheads over free will before the question of god is even brought up.

Why am I arguing about this? Well, to start with, the BIGGEST mistake that people make about atheism is in assuming it is "daily bread", a way of life, an ideology or that one can make conclusions about other beliefs given an atheist belief.

You presented three "conclusions" that can be made. Two of them are wrong for me. Wrong no matter how you choose to spin, twist or reframe them. The first may be wrong for atheists practicing in some spiritual traditions (here is a hint, a lack of belief in god does not mean a lack of belief in Karma, divine spirit, or soul.)

Atheism is not a lifestyle, belief system, ideology, or "daily bread." You can't conclude much of anything about an atheist beyond atheism. The quicker that people can get over this fact, the quicker we can move on to more important questions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:53 PM on April 8, 2004


KirkJobSluder: You have to show that there exists no atheists who sincerely participate in any of the varieties of prayer traditions, in any religion.

That's a different activity. I'm referring to prayer as an internal mental activity, without including the dress it is covered with.

Even if we assume a god, the nature of god becomes very important.

It doesn't. If I accept that there is an intervening divine entity out there somewhere (which is what theism is, "Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world."), the factor of how this entity carries out actions is supplementary, not integral. Theism, by itself, allows leeways into reasoning about these aspects, that atheism disallows.
posted by Gyan at 3:26 PM on April 8, 2004


"Atheism is not a lifestyle, belief system, ideology, or "daily bread." You can't conclude much of anything about an atheist beyond atheism. The quicker that people can get over this fact, the quicker we can move on to more important questions.—KirkJobSluder

Well, as I think is obvious from the preceding discussion, atheism means many different things to many different atheists. But we're a minority in this culture and for most theists, a rarity. They will tend to generalize based upon the very few atheists they've met or otherwise been exposed to. In particular, there is a minority of atheists who are very vocal, very strident, and for whom their atheism is, in many ways, a lifestyle. They quite naturally, if erroneously, become the model for most theists' conceptions of atheists.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:29 PM on April 8, 2004


Gyan: Even if we assume a god, the nature of god becomes very important.

It doesn't. If I accept that there is an intervening divine entity out there somewhere (which is what theism is, "Belief in the existence of a god or gods, especially belief in a personal God as creator and ruler of the world."), the factor of how this entity carries out actions is supplementary, not integral. Theism, by itself, allows leeways into reasoning about these aspects, that atheism disallows.

BS. Greek polytheism, modern paganism, Chistianity, Islam, and a Spinoza/Einstein god have mutually incompatible claims about the existence and nature of "free will." The only thing you can conclude from the fact that a person is a theist is that they believe in some form of divine deus. From there EVERYTHING hinges on how that entity carries out its actions.

So fundamentally, all you are saying here is that an atheist is likely to choose ways of talking about "free will" that do not include god. I would call this a trivial and basically fatuous conclusion (rather like saying that a speaker of English will tend to use English vocabulary.) You cannot conclude anything else of value. Marxism, Pragmatism, and Objectivism can all include atheism but have fundamentally incompatable ways of talking about "free will."

But wait a minute here. A part of your claim is that atheists will not follow hypotheses or reasoning that include "god." This is a conclusion which I consider to be obviously false. Some of us do explore god as a hypothesis, and I'm more than willing to play "god's advocate" now and then if simply because I see so many badly created straw dog cartoon stereotypes of theism that are set up and dispatched easily to satisfy the egos of sloppy flacid atheists.

"I am an atheist" and $1 will get you a bottle of soda pop. That's about all you can conclude.

Ethereal Bligh: That is a good point. I can understand why theists who have never bothered to think about atheism make the mistake. The question is why would Gyan and fffish make the mistake of equating atheism to a philosophy and ideology?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 PM on April 8, 2004


KirkJobSluder: The question is why would Gyan and fffish make the mistake of equating atheism to a philosophy and ideology?

Talk about a strawman. Show me where I said that atheism was either of those two things.

From there EVERYTHING hinges on how that entity carries out its actions.

It does. But the point isn't that it does. The point is that it doesn't have to. A theist could simply say that God allows 'free will' and that be a satisfactory end to it.

As for atheism being an ideology, no thought or thinking process or behavior exists in a neural vacuum. Although I wouldn't call atheism an ideology, it is not completely non-indicative of your outlook. Do you think Israelis are the 'chosen people'?

A part of your claim is that atheists will not follow hypotheses or reasoning that include "god."

follow == accept as valid. No, they won't, else they would be theists. This is not a prescription, just an observation of current practice. No one's born a theist or atheist. So, of course, they will follow, as in explore, concepts of god.
posted by Gyan at 9:02 PM on April 8, 2004


I didn't bring philosophy into this discussion and I don't think I've said a word about ideology.

But nice try.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:37 PM on April 8, 2004


Gyan:

Talk about a strawman. Show me where I said that atheism was either of those two things.

It is the logical extension of your claim. If atheism means more than just a lack of belief in gods. If we can infer that a person has a specific point of view regarding "free will" from atheism, then atheism must be a philosophy or ideology.

If you don't want to consider atheism as an ideology, then you must conclude that atheism is simply atheism and offers very few obligations in regards to beliefs about "free will."

It's not a straw man if it is a manditory requirement of your line of reasoning.

It does. But the point isn't that it does. The point is that it doesn't have to. A theist could simply say that God allows 'free will' and that be a satisfactory end to it.

Now that is a straw man because very few serious theologins would approach the issue in such a simplistic manner or be satisfied with "because that is the way it is" and most serious students of religion wouldn't make many points by using this argument.

As for atheism being an ideology, no thought or thinking process or behavior exists in a neural vacuum. Although I wouldn't call atheism an ideology, it is not completely non-indicative of your outlook. Do you think Israelis are the 'chosen people'?

However, again the problem here is that there are a huge number of reasons one could use to reject the claim that Israelis are the 'chosen people' beyond just atheism. Certainly, being an atheist would imply being skeptical of claims to 'chosen person' status. But this again just seems to be a fatuous statement of the obvious "atheists are atheists."

So the challenge is, can you come up with an example of what someone can conclude of an atheist that isn't just saying the obvious "atheists are atheists" or "atheists don't believe in god."

follow == accept as valid.

Whoo hoo. If you start to hang yourself, just change the definitions!

Of course, validity is a loaded term but let's not go there as well. If what you are saying is that in the end, atheists don't find arguments for theism convincing, well, this is yet another bit of trivial stating the obvious.

fffish: I didn't bring philosophy into this discussion and I don't think I've said a word about ideology.

No, what you have done is demanded that atheists who don't agree with you stop calling themselves atheists. What you have done is expressed a willingness to "get religious" about atheism. What you have done is accuse atheists of dishonesty for using "believe" in the proper place, and in the proper context. And you have listed a bunch of issue that in your opinion, atheists should concern themselves with.

If that does not suggest an ideology, I don't know what does.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:28 PM on April 8, 2004


The problem with these "conclusions" is that to me, they seem like "no shit" statements rather than conclusions. Of course in your sloppiness you've chosen to move beyond the "no shit" statement to some pretty dubious conclusions.

For example, saying that atheists are unlikely to bring god into discussions of "free will" is an "no shit" statement. (Actually, one of the more annoying things about many contemporary atheists is that they seem more interested in talking about "free will" in terms of god than the theists are.)

Saying that an atheist would adopt a scientific paradigm to address the question is a "bullshit" statement. A lack of belief in god does not demand that one use a scientific paradigm to address the problem.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:42 PM on April 8, 2004


KirkJobSluder: If atheism means more than just a lack of belief in gods.

It doesn't. You can correlate things with atheism, some of them logical extensions, but atheism remains what it is. The sound of a tree falling to your left is not the same as the visual image of it happening, neither is the audio the cause of the video, but you can make a reasonable general conclusion that you'll visually see a tree falling, if you look to the left. Of course, this can be wrong in specific cases, maybe someone has setup really good speakers *LOL* or you're tripping on acid and you hallucinated the sound...etc. But it's still a reasonable working generalization. Your daily neural activity doesn't require strict and extensive logic, in order to be useful.

Whoo hoo. If you start to hang yourself, just change the definitions!

At this point, I've to think you're trolling me. I just scanned all my comments in our dialogue and not once did I use the word 'follow' originally, let alone in the context you're insinuating. I just used 'follow' once, to define it, since you brought it up. My exact words on 'following' were "you don't end a thread of curiosity with "coz God willed it so"." and "If you did end a line of inquiry with God, then...". They implicitly acknowledge the existence of these explorations.

Now that is a straw man because very few serious theologins would approach the issue in such a simplistic manner

Doesn't matter. Ultimately, they're as clueless as we are. At any given time, they have some explanation of phenomena. When you follow the chain of reasoning to its very end, it's "God willed it so". I'll be blunt. It's theological wankery. The products are a philosophical Rube Goldberg contraption. This is not to say that these practicioners are not sincere. They very well might be, and they could find their worldview pretty compelling, but they're ultimately deciding what color is their invisible pet. Which is why I said the "workings" matter in a supplementary sense, but not integral.

If what you are saying is that in the end, atheists don't find arguments for theism convincing

This is the crux of it. And it's not trivial (for me). Because the bulk of the population DOES find theism convincing. The fact you are part of a minority tells me something. That you're not likely to be a staunch conformist. That you are likely to critically examine things, and reject some modes of explanation. These are indicative of your outlook.

Finally, most of your rebuttals have centered on the fact that the group in question is non-uniform in their beliefs. Which, strictly speaking, is immaterial. 100% or even 95% conformity is not the requirement for a viable stereotype. If I encounter someone atypical, I'll strive to recognize them so. But the lack of a 95% match doesn't prevent me making a generalized working premise.

I don't think there's anything more to clarify. This discussion is over, for me.
posted by Gyan at 7:09 AM on April 9, 2004


Likewise. I just wanted our atheists to understand that there is an alternative to saying "I don't believe in God." A re-framing, if you will.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:58 AM on April 9, 2004


Gyan: This is the crux of it. And it's not trivial (for me). Because the bulk of the population DOES find theism convincing. The fact you are part of a minority tells me something. That you're not likely to be a staunch conformist. That you are likely to critically examine things, and reject some modes of explanation. These are indicative of your outlook.

That's the problem. IME atheists are just as likely to be conformist as any other group. The fact that one is in a minority does not mean that one must be not-conformist (as hundreds of religious cults and youth subcultures demonstrate.)

Nor can you conclude that atheists are any better at critical thinking that any other group. I've found the idea that atheists are more rational and more critical than other groups to be a myth promoted for smug self-satisfaction.

Atheism IS trivial. If you tell me you are an atheist, I know only a tiny bit more about how you view the world. If you tell me you are a Pragmatist, Constructivist, Skeptic, Marxist or Objectivist (to name four philosophies with radically different views of "free will") THEN I know something.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:39 AM on April 9, 2004


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