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In God we doubt
September 2, 2007 4:15 AM   Subscribe

In God we doubt.
This is not an intellectual game. Even if we know what is true – and we don’t – you cannot reduce life to a set of provable realities. Humanity is too complex for that. In the end, it comes down to whether the world would be a better place without religion; and that is a matter of judgment, not certainty.
posted by veedubya (241 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
"In the end, it comes down to whether the world would be a better place without religion; and that is a matter of judgment, not certainty."

You can't "get rid of" religion as much as you can't get rid of faith in human beings. Every day we walk on earth we exercise faith regularly , for instance faith
that we will eat, sleep and whatelse we regularly do. Then something happens and we discover we don't have much absoluty unvariable anything..maybe today we will not eat, but we are very likely to eat.

To some people this variability is so unbearable they prefer to daydream and imagine that some invisible, omnipotent being is always present and going to help : this is quite a reassuring idea, unfortunately when troubles come the entity rarely shows..and expecially the people that said that the entity was going to help will tell you that

1. you didn't have enough faith (it's your fault!)
2. you did some sin (it's your fault)
3. the design of the entity are misterious (I don't know, it's your problem)

Yet when the things goes well, it's all because the entity loves you so much. Sound much like the politicians taking the good things as their success and the bad ones as failures of system ...very same logic.

Problem is with the people that regularly, systematically exploith the natural faith that human exercise for the purpose of bamboozling them into behaviors they wouldn't ordinarily take (it's a war for god ! if you masturbate you will die ! All for the flag, all for the nation, all the glory of the country ! Freedom is going on !)
posted by elpapacito at 4:37 AM on September 2, 2007 [7 favorites]


"And over and over again I was asking myself the other Big Question"

shit or get off the pot?
/snark
posted by hypersloth at 4:37 AM on September 2, 2007


See, as an atheist I've never gotten why "religion is a crutch" is supposed to be an insult. I've got a friend with MS, he uses crutches [1], and that's hardly a bad thing. He, quite literally, need a crutch to get through life and not only do I not think any worse of him, I'd consider anyone who did to be an utter asshole.

If the religious need the crutch of religion to get through life, I'm glad they've got it and I won't think any worse of them.

The problem is that so many of them insist that there's something wrong with getting through life without the crutch. Imagine, if you will, a world where most people can't, or at least won't, walk without crutches, and don't trust anyone who does. A world where "with crutches we walk" is imprinted on our coins, where the words "... one nation, walking with crutches, with liberty...." is in the pledge. A world where not only are there no crutchless people elected to the government, but close to half of the electorate states that they would never vote for a person who walked without a crutch.

It'd get on your nerves, wouldn't it?

If you need a crutch to get through life I'm glad its there and I won't say that you are a bad person for needing it. But I will, and do, get massively annoyed when I'm told that I'm a bad person for being able to walk on my own.

[1] actually he's got it badly enough that he's stuck in a wheelchair, but I'm going to say "crutches" because it makes the analogy work.
posted by sotonohito at 4:40 AM on September 2, 2007 [65 favorites]


elpapacito: while some people may believe what you have described (quite a lot of people believe this sort of thing about gov't, thanks to the wonderful marketing of political campaigns), I suspect that most thoughtful religious people have a rather different view of God/Brahman/Thor than what you described, which is a bit like a big ATM machine in the sky.
posted by honest knave at 4:44 AM on September 2, 2007


Crutches are bad because they mean you've been wounded or are disabled, mkay?

To be blunt, saying religion is a crutch is much like saying being gay is a mental disorder.

I don't need faith or religion to get through life, but they certainly [and they both are my own brands, believe me] make everything i want more attainable, and amplify my want to help those in need.

Never have I judged a person based on their religion, but i'd never call religion a crutch.
posted by phylum sinter at 4:46 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Those crutchers are pathetically deluded. Only cane-users know the true way.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 4:47 AM on September 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


What bothers me about the Never-Ending 21st Century Religious Debate in the media is that said debate is being framed by the extremists. Dawkins is merely reacting to the storm of fundamentalists among us (of every stripe) who dominate the front pages almost every week. Who can blame him for being angry about it? It's maddening. Extremists, even dangerous murderers, are usually woefully ignorant of the leading theological opinions about their particular religions (which are usually measured and carefully thought-out). The media takes advantage of this ignorance in order to sell papers and (inadvertantly?) fuel the fire.

Yeah, Dawkins is strident. I still think he is a necessary evil. It's unfair to have one extreme in the press without the other. Forget about the media focusing on reasonable, intelligent theologists... it's a pipe dream. Calmly expressed opinions have long since been shouted down.

All this goes a long way towards explaining my rampant Apatheism.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:52 AM on September 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


sotonohito writes "The problem is that so many of them insist that there's something wrong with getting through life without the crutch."

You are thinking about their agitprops , or about the people who were terrorized into believing the "religionless" are necessarily evil ?

The agitproprs..it's their "work" to make you feel bad about not having a crutch, or for not loving x. It's a deliberate attempt to obtain more resources for their cause, regardless of how and if such resource will be used , and benefitting who (usually the agits themselves).

The terrorized are people who start on the assumption that different = strange..which is quite obvious : consider an alien landing today on your porch..I doubt you would really invite him/her/it in for a drink , assuming you knew which orificie is the mouth. Now consider a person that acts differently enough to arouse some little suspicion : obviously you will try to defend yourself from any harm, even imaginary ones, even passively so by distancing yourself.

Then an asshole (or somebody so infinitely scared) arrives and tell you "ah ! Evil ! they are crutchless ! Monsters, kill em ! "..if he/she is in a position of being listened, people are likely to act accordingly ; except a few that will be probably impaled and burned, or in the best cases will become outkasts.

honest knave writes "I suspect that most thoughtful religious people have a rather different view of God/Brahman/Thor than what you described"

Such as ?
posted by elpapacito at 4:53 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I saw a lovely article recently stating that Americans are more religious than Europeans and Canadians because they were more scared about ill health and getting fired. I suppose if life was that bad, I'd want an imaginary friend too.
posted by sebastienbailard at 5:04 AM on September 2, 2007 [11 favorites]


Metaphysics lies outside the realm of sense, so what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence, therefore live your religion to your hearts content and STFU.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:05 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


"you cannot reduce life to a set of provable realities"

Do what now?
posted by Tullius at 5:06 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


or in the best cases will become outkasts.

If atheism leads to that fucking "Hey Ya" song, sign me up to be born again right now.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 5:29 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


> The problem is that so many of them insist that there's something wrong with getting through life without the crutch.

There's something wrong with being told to cast away your crutches and walk free by people who themselves depend on a collection of crutches bigger than Lourdes's but haven't the self-awareness to notice. Persons who reallyo-trulyo do live without the crutch of unquestioned beliefs and assumptions are so vanishingly rare that when we actually encounter such individuals we consider them miraculous and call them saints and boddhisatvas. For the rest of you, grab your sticks of choice and heave yourselves more or less erect, time for another day of hobbling.
posted by jfuller at 5:46 AM on September 2, 2007 [8 favorites]


If we could simply accept & respect the 'different strokes' phenomenon instead of wasting energy trying to convert the differers to our own camps, we might actually have a chance of evolving.
posted by yoga at 5:50 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Religion is partly therapy for existential depression. But it also partly the co-option of the power of that therapy for the creation of social and power structures. That is all.
posted by sandking at 5:52 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I hate the "meh" crowd that shows up in every thread about anything creative yet in religion threads I always find myself wishing they would show up.
posted by srboisvert at 5:54 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


phylum sinter If someone considers life to be not worth living unless they believe in a big father figure in the sky, they're disabled. Its not shameful, its not bad, and its not wrong, anymore than its shameful, bad, or wrong that my friend with MS is disabled. If religion is necessary in your life, you are disabled, and there's nothing wrong with that.

I'm "disabled" in that my eyes are broken, I need glasses to get through life. I don't, however, think that everyone needs glasses, I don't mistrust people who can see without glasses, etc. But to deny that there's something wrong with me would be stupid, there is something wrong with me: my eyes won't focus on objects more than about a foot away, and because of that I need outside help (ie: glasses) in order to function.

Our society is much less willing to acknowledge mental weakness, or deficiency, then it is to acknowledge physical weakness or deficiency. Worse our society tends to attach stigma to having any sort of mental problem, or weakness, such that by even *implying* that religion is a patch for a mental weakness I'm going to be castigated.

My point is that needing religion to function is no more bad than needing glasses, crutches, or prozac to function. Let's not pretend that the need for religion isn't a weakness, or a disability. But so what? Pretty much everyone has at least one weakness or disability, and if yours is a need for religion at least its one common enough that the treatment is easily available and relatively inexpensive.

However there is a critical difference between "not stigmatizing" and "glorifying". Look at the twits in the deaf community who are actually opposed to surgical correction of some types of deafness, the ones who spell "deaf" with a capitol D. They're reacting to the stigmatization of the deaf by going too far the other way and trying to turn being deaf into some sort of glorified ethnic thing.

jfuller wrote "There's something wrong with being told to cast away your crutches and walk free by people [...] "

True 'nuff. I think partially thats the result of encounters with folks who *don't* need religion, but pretend to be religious due to the social acceptance it grants, and partially due to the fact that atheists can be assholes just as much as everyone else.

Its also the phsical/mental thing. Its easy to see that someone with MS needs crutches, no one will say "sheesh just walk why don'tcha?" Mental problems aren't so easily visible, and there is an unfortunate trend among many people (including religious people) to assume that those with mental problems could just get over them if they tried hard enough.

There's also the fact that the current (American) culture of considering atheists to be subhuman freaks [1] has, quite naturally, produced some resentment which results in the occasional (if irritating) lashing out at the religious. I'll make you a deal: you guys take all your religious stuff out of the government and stop treating us like we're evil incarnate and we'll stop being pricks about your crutch, ok?

[1] For exaple, in another thread a person I was discussing theology with stated that he understood that since I was an atheist I didn't care about justice, but that I should try to remember that religious people do. Yup, that made me feel sympathetic to him.
posted by sotonohito at 6:14 AM on September 2, 2007 [12 favorites]


Meh.
posted by Greg Nog at 6:15 AM on September 2, 2007


I'm with chuckdarwin: Apatheism is where it's at.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:18 AM on September 2, 2007


Meh.
posted by repoman at 6:20 AM on September 2, 2007


I'd like a crutch. Atheism is hard. Existential depression is difficult.

Unfortunately, the alternative, according to the faithful, is to suspend my disbelief until I'm gullible enough to be suckered in completely. The problem is, that works for pretty well everything from fairies to scientology.

So I just hobble along, existentially crippled like the rest of us. Using drugs to moderate the pain from time to time.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:24 AM on September 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


Our society is much less willing to acknowledge mental weakness, or deficiency, then it is to acknowledge physical weakness or deficiency.

it take a peculiar kind of arrogance to claim that most people in a society suffer from mental deficiency and a peculiar kind of emotional deafness to claim that saying so isn't insulting
posted by pyramid termite at 6:27 AM on September 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


Meh.
posted by meh at 6:28 AM on September 2, 2007 [10 favorites]


In Taiwan I was walking through Taroko gorge and I stopped in at a large temple. I contemplated the giant golden Buddha statue standing peacefully before the grand sweeping view, holding up his reassuring palm. The mists and clouds and trees made it a tranquil moment. It was for this second that I thought to myself, "Something like this place would never come to be without religion, so, maybe it's not so bad..." Then, as I crossed the bridge at the main entrance of the temple, I looked down to the river bank and noticed that some jackass had spelled out in large letters using river-rocks "JESUS [heart] U". Yes sir, right at the entrance of the Buddhist temple, clearly visible to anyone coming or going.

Screw that noise.
posted by damo at 6:30 AM on September 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


I'm not really confortable with this idea that religious faith is not a matter of argument or even a matter of rational discussion, which this guy seems to be suggesting -- I think if you're just claiming things based on some kind of "feeling", you should take it to Oprah, really. Whatever you claim to believe in should somehow be subject to rational critique. But the other extreme is to think that rationality is only a matter of provable hypotheses. This seems to be where the current debate about religion ends up: with fundamentalists trying to argue that their beliefs are provable, atheists arguing that the beliefs are poor scientific hypotheses incapable of proof. Of course when the discussion is framed this way, the atheists are right.

This article isn't that sharp, in my opinion, but the way he introduces the "Big Question" gets to the point of why religious faith can elude scientific explanation if you have a more subtle understanding of it. The "Big Question" is not how the universe works or how it developed but why. The idea behind monotheism as it took shape in Western thought is an answer the why question: a supreme intelligence intended all this. And this is compatible with scientific explanation: if why is God's intention, how can be the Big Bang or whatever other kind of causal explanation scientists propose. And if we exist because (in the why sense) a supreme intelligence intended it, this doesn't in any way contradict the idea that we exist because of evolution (in the sense that that's how it happened).

Now, I'm not religious myself, but since religious dialogue has shaped our entire intellectual tradition, I don't think we're doing ourselves any favors by reducing it to the stupidest possible interpretation.

One error that most, almost all religious people make today lies in trying to leap from the speculation that a supreme intelligence might have conceived our universe to the idea that therefore the Bible is true and science wrong, as if these offered the same kind of explanation. Another error is to argue, as this guy seems to do, that the "no atheists in foxholes" idea proves anything one way or another -- or that we can promote religion because it "makes the world better". These psychological explanations of how people come to believe things do not give us a reason why we should believe anything -- the reason why we should believe things is because we hold them to be true. So whether or not "the world would be a better place without religion" is irrelevant to the truth of religion and it's anti-rational, in my opinion, to ask people to believe a thing because the belief causes good things, just as it is anti-rational to argue that you just "have faith" and argument comes later and for that reason cannot get any kind of foothold on faith.
posted by creasy boy at 6:30 AM on September 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


My favorite YouTube atheist.
posted by meh at 6:30 AM on September 2, 2007


Very few people truly believe in God and Heaven, anyway. In other words, they THINK they believe in God, but really don't. Because when the shit hits the fan, they turn to FEMA or dial 911 instead of letting "Jesus take the wheel", so to speak.

It seems that the brain knows better than the believer; the exception being religious extremists that blow themselves up, but one wonders that if suicide bombers had F-16s, would there still be suicide bombers.

A world without God? That's like a world without Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Adults have to have dreams too, you know.
posted by disgruntled at 6:36 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


I'd count myself as a 'militant' atheist. I know more than a few as well. And a sizeable chunk of the people I'm friends with, along with all my immediate family, are atheist, although perhaps not 'militant' - which is a horrible word while I'm at it, but it looks like we're stuck with it.

I can say I've never met one that matches the description of 'those militant atheists who seem to hold believers in contempt' in that article, and I'd hope I never do. I don't think any of the ones I've met hold believers in contempt, only certain contemptible beliefs in contempt. They also don't seem to have the same kind of views as any of the atheists that are prominent in the media at the moment. I'm sure there's people like that out there, but I don't think they're as common as Mr. Humphrys might think from his mailbag.
posted by edd at 6:43 AM on September 2, 2007


Legs are crutches too.
posted by washburn at 6:46 AM on September 2, 2007


Actually, a big time Meh. I just realized that because of religion, I cannot buy liquor on Sundays before noon. And that means my peach-reisling sangria will not have enough time to soak prior to my guests arriving. People have been asking me to make this all summer. What to do.....
posted by repoman at 6:46 AM on September 2, 2007


Very few people truly believe in God and Heaven, anyway. In other words, they THINK they believe in God, but really don't. Because when the shit hits the fan, they turn to FEMA or dial 911 instead of letting "Jesus take the wheel", so to speak.

I don't think there's necessarily any inconsistency between believing in Heaven, and deciding that you're ready to go there now.

I know that London exists, but I have no desire to go there ever again, if possible.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:51 AM on September 2, 2007


washburn writes "Legs are crutches too."

And the bit between the legs. Is that a crutch or a crotch?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 6:52 AM on September 2, 2007


Because when the shit hits the fan, they turn to FEMA or dial 911 instead of letting "Jesus take the wheel", so to speak.

strawman

fallacy of the excluded middle

nice way to show your mental superiority

meh, indeed
posted by pyramid termite at 6:53 AM on September 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


if you masturbate you will die !

This is true.
posted by flabdablet at 6:55 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


if kittens masturbate, do one of us get killed?
posted by pyramid termite at 6:58 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Isn't there a bumper sticker that says: "Militant agnostic: I don't know and you don't either."

I like that.
posted by John of Michigan at 7:00 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


One really common cognitive bias people have is that feeling that what they are good at is more important than it is and feeling what they are bad at is less important than it is. I am good at crossword puzzles and and bad at driving a car. I think being good at crossword puzzles is a good proxy for being smart and I think being smart is more important than being strong or having a good immune system or being able to drive a car without taking forever to pull out into a not so busy four lane road because in the distance you see a car that could if the driver were to floor strike your car and maybe kill you and him.

Now of course being good at crossword puzzles doesn't fucking matter. Being a good driver beyond a certain point doesn't really matter either. I think atheists tend to forget how little having a correct set of information about shit that comes off after you're dead matters. Of course the atheists are right, there is no god and when you die you stay dead. You stay dead and you rot. And because atheists are good at avoiding the traps of wishful thinking and orthodoxy they think it is important to do so. But it is one of the least important things. Like crossword puzzles.
posted by I Foody at 7:01 AM on September 2, 2007 [24 favorites]


Every day we walk on earth we exercise faith regularly , for instance faith
that we will eat, sleep and whatelse we regularly do.


I disagree. Faith is belief despite absence of evidence or in the face of opposing evidence. The fact that I have always eaten and slept, that I have seen the food in my cupboard and the bed in my room, that I know how to cook and have experience doing it, or any number of other things, are pretty compelling evidence that I will eat today and sleep tonight (unless I choose not to). Knowing (if not for absolute certain, but fr pretty darn sure) that I will eat and sleep is not faith.
posted by arcticwoman at 7:13 AM on September 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


(although I agree with the other things you said, elpapacito)
posted by arcticwoman at 7:14 AM on September 2, 2007


sotonohito writes "If the religious need the crutch of religion to get through life, I'm glad they've got it and I won't think any worse of them."

Are you so sure you ought to be glad about that ? Let me point out that religion may function AS A crutch for some people, but nonetheless that doesn't make a religion just a crutch.

Some people with behavioral/mental problems (and I am not talking about people with physical brain deficiencies or disfunctions) find alcohol or drugs to be a very good crutch for their problems, because their effects on the brain (and therfore on their perception of pain) are such that their suffering is reduced, even for a short while ; in practice they are medicating themselves, without being aware of doing that and in a potentially very dangerous way that often doesn't solves the cause of the pain, it just displaces temporarily the perception of that particular pain.

Yet as we don't necessarily _feel their own pain_ we conclude that they must be bad, because it was many times told them that their drinking/drugging is bad. So contemptible idiots, working on an agenda of obtaining populistic consensus for audience, such as Rush Limbaugh say we should cast them into a river, just to find out that the person who criticized is a regular drug abuser himself ! I bet he will be a born again something anytime soon.

But very few would argue that people should DO drugs to cure themselves, because many drugs when abused cause very bad consequences. And the consequence they are most afraid of is being attacked by a person who brain is on Crack-cocaine or Meth , or they are afraid that their precious kids will abuse the drugs.

Unsurprisingly some people think that there is nothing wrong if these "poor subhumans" use religion to cure themselves ; yet when one of them bombs some abortion clinic or a bus, all the hell break lose and all religions must be destroyed at all costs at once, expecially the subhumans who believe in any fairy tale. That doesn't surprise me because some people receive constant doses of indoctrination (you should think that and not that) , sometime under the form of incessant parroting of the same ideas (drugged people bad, drugged people evil ! they all abuse edonistically , they all are sinners)
posted by elpapacito at 7:14 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


The end is nigh
posted by flabdablet at 7:15 AM on September 2, 2007


Gah, just because someone uses something doesn't mean it's a crutch. Is a car a crutch? Is a microwave a crutch? A remote control, direct deposit, air conditioning - are those things crutches? Nor really, because I can live without a car, without a microwave, a remote control and all the rest, it's just that when I do, I spend time thinking how doing without those things is a pain in the ass.

(I'm an apatheist)
posted by 23skidoo at 7:17 AM on September 2, 2007


I'm sure there's people like that out there, but I don't think they're as common as Mr. Humphrys might think from his mailbag.

They sure are common on MetaFilter.
posted by languagehat at 7:20 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]



© John Humphrys 2007

Extracted from In God We Doubt by John Humphrys to be published by Hodder & Stoughton on Thursday at £18.99. It is available for £17.09 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585


Agnostics, in the end it's always just a shill to buy something.
posted by doctor_negative at 7:24 AM on September 2, 2007


Is a car a crutch? Is a microwave a crutch? A remote control, direct deposit, air conditioning - are those things crutches?
I don't know... Let's ask Urban Scout!
posted by verb at 7:24 AM on September 2, 2007


Unsurprisingly some people think that there is nothing wrong if these "poor subhumans" use religion to cure themselves ;

secular subhumanism, anyone?

meh
posted by pyramid termite at 7:25 AM on September 2, 2007


pyramid termite Actually, and I didn't say this earlier so I can see how you'd misunderstand my point, I don't think that most people in society need religion. Lots of people go to church [1], and even self identify as religious, who don't actually need it and are just in it for the social acceptance and the social aspects of the church.

I'd argue that its only a minority of humanity that truly needs religion. Look, for example, at Japan. Over 60% of the population identifies as non-religious. Of course, many of these people will have Buddhist funerals, but in large part that's simply cultural, over 90% of Japanese have Buddhist funerals regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not.

In America religion is considered to be the norm, so a lot of people who don't need it do it anyway. Nothing wrong with that either, but it doesn't mean that I'm attempting to claim that the majority, much less the vast majority, has a mental problem.

But, assume for the sake of argument that I am. So what? If 90% of the population had the same bad vision I do that wouldn't mean they didn't have bad vision, it'd just mean a lot of people had bad vision.

As for emotional deafness, I think you are in error. There's nothing insulting in observing that I'm nearly blind, its simple fact. There's nothing insulting in observing that my friend with MS has a weak body, its simple fact. So why would it be insulting to observe that those people who require religion in order to get through life have a mental weakness? I'm not even observing that about any individual, simply pointing it out as a generalized observation.

You only see it as insulting because you've internalized the idea that mental problems are shameful.

elpapacito the fact that religion, like just about everything else, has its downside does not invalidate the benefits it can give to those who need it. I'm not a fan of religion, but I won't claim that its particularly the cause of the world's problems either. It can, and often does, provide an excuse for people who want to do evil, but they'd find a different excuse if religion wasn't there.

I think that as atheism beomes less of a social stigma more people who don't actually *need* religion will start drifting away from it. The major problems with religion are a result of the fact that its too big. As it shrinks down to a membership of people who really need it the problems will also fade.

Since religion is considered necessary for social acceptance its easy for the leaders of religion to use it as a platform for indocternation into political views, a form of neo-tribalism, etc. People do have a tendency to go along with the crowd, and if the crowd is chanting "Jesus says kill the rag heads" or "Allah says kill the whore of Satan" [2] that can be a serious problem. But again, that seems to me to be an aberation caused by religion getting too big, not an inherent problem with religion qua religion.

[1] Or Temple, or Synogogue, etc. I'm using "church" as a generic term for any gathering place for religious people.

[2] Or "the Emperor says kill the red-headed barbarians" or whatever.
posted by sotonohito at 7:27 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


PeterMcDermott: I know precisely what you're talking about. Basically try to drink the Kool-Aid and leave your rational self behind, or be stuck in an eternal metaphysical malaise.

In the end, it comes down to whether the world would be a better place without religion; and that is a matter of judgment, not certainty.

The Crusades? The Inquisition? Jihads? Jim Jones? Branch Davidians? Heaven's Gate? Scientologists? Iraq? Bosnia? India? China?

Basically, religion has given us literally millennia of misery and suffering, and in exchange left some interesting art installations.

Doesn't seem like too difficult of a question.

And I'm surprised at how many people in this fairly learned community are misunderstanding the rather straightforward and common figure of speech about something being a "crutch".

Are you guys being needlessly pedantic, or are you really not familiar with the phrase?

On preview, sotonohito, very very well said.
posted by Ynoxas at 7:31 AM on September 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


Isn't there a bumper sticker that says: "Militant agnostic: I don't know and you don't either."

I don't really think that religion is the problem. It's the people who believe in it. Believe whatever you want, but leave me alone. Your faith does not give you permission to "pick my pocket or break my leg".

Worst are the ones who take it upon themselves to determine what their deity needs accomplished, proceed to do the deed without question, and then claim absolution because they were only doing the will of Jehovah/Allah/Dick Cheney.

Religions don't kill people - people kill people.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 7:33 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


repoman: :)

elpapacito: I think that you will find many people in history who have held strong beliefs and acted on them-- beliefs which have far more to do with the good of others than their own wealth and well-being. While these most noted people are rare, they are also rarely the most devoted or excellent people. You will also probably find that (a) there are many differing, not-always-systematic, ideas about the spiritual, supernatural, or divine within religious traditions, and that (b) materialist versions of idealism are a rather recent development.

In one sense, however, you're right. The magnitude of variability in human life is a terrible shame; it's one reason to support universal education, good governance, fair & solid trade policies, gender rights, charitable endeavours, technological innovation, and other societal measures which provide "crutches" and "rehabilitation" for those who have been crippled by the circumstances of their environment and the historical actions of power.

I would be very hesitant to characterise the people of the early Red Cross/Crescent, Tearfund, or Islamic Relief as inferior cripples on crutches, or to tell the same to individuals such as the late Charles Habib Malik, a Lebanese Orthodox Christian who helped draft the UN Declaration of Human Rights.

I'm very worried about ideology which considers religion to be weakness. But then I tend to be generally skeptical about people who not only assume that they stand, but also tell everyone they're superior.
posted by honest knave at 7:40 AM on September 2, 2007


that belief ... does not make them stupid, let alone deluded.

This reads as if Humphry thinks "deluded" is further along some kind of scale of mental deficiency from "stupid". Of course it isn't; a deluded person, by definition, is simply one who believes something to be the case which is not the case. Whether you're deluded or not has absolutely nothing to do with whether you're stupid.

One choice is to accept the conclusion reached by Jean-Paul Sartre in The Age of Reason: “There is no purpose to existence, only nothingness.”

The trouble with these nicotine-soaked Frog intellectuals is that they have an irresistible urge to take a perfectly reasonable conclusion like "There is no purpose to existence" and decorate it with a bit of drama to make themselves sound deep.

"only nothingness." (takes drag, ashes Gauloise in world weary fashion, adjusts tilt of head so light catches bags under eyes better)

Poncy smelly French emo git.

My sister's take on it is "life is random and wild" and I reckon that makes her ten times the philosopher Sartre ever was.
posted by flabdablet at 7:45 AM on September 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


Redemption Draweth Nigh.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:47 AM on September 2, 2007


I know that London exists, but I have no desire to go there ever again, if possible.

Because you've been there. What if you hadn't and were told that every flat was like a room at the Ritz-Carlton and rent free. Not to mention the abundance of virgins making themselves available to you?

Now that's a strawman.

strawman... fallacy of the excluded middle... nice way to show your mental superiority

If a pair of conjoined twins had an operation and were separated, but only one of them survived, I'm sure there would be plenty of Christians calling it a miracle. Christians always give God the credit for the upside to any tragedy. You can call it a strawman, but it's a fact, that's what they do.
posted by disgruntled at 7:47 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


This seemed to go on and on and get nowhere.

Doubters are left in the deeply unsatisfactory position of finding the existence of God unprovable and implausible, and the comfort of faith unachievable. But at the same time we find the reality of belief undeniable.

In summary: Other people believe something!

It’s not necessarily that people are too busy to reason things out. It’s more that they don’t want to. They want to believe. In spite of the terrible things that have been done in the name of God over the millennia, religious belief brings immeasurable comfort.

It is due to their lack of desire to use reason, and it makes them feel better!

...we should also fear a world in which the predominant values are materialism and consumerism, and the greatest aspiration of too many children is to become a “celebrity”. The existence of religion can offer some balance in a society obsessed with image, which turns vacuity into virtue.

Maybe religion can aid us in making society suck less by giving people a set of dictated virtues so they don't have to come up with their own, and get it wrong, because they're getting it wrong!

---

People (in general) absolutely love believing things that both absolve them of ultimate responsibility and make them feel better. "It's not my fault heroin's addictive."

Organized religion and unquestioned power have gone hand in hand for a very long time. Unquestioned power leads to exploitation. Exploitation is wrong.

People can believe whatever they need to, but I personally will never accept any system which encourages people to put themselves into a position where they can be easily exploited. It's not right. And you see? There you go. I don't believe in externally-dictated morality, but it doesn't make me a moral cripple. I just have to come up with them myself, based on reason.

Existential thought isn't necessarily depressing. We exist, and then we don't, and while we're here we have lives to live, we all have similar experiences. Suffering sucks, let's all try to minimize it and get along. What's depressing about that? Why do we need to have specifications about what happens after our lives end? We're not there yet. We can't know. It doesn't matter. Get over it.
posted by blacklite at 7:48 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


This is my latest favourite exhortation to getting over it.
posted by blacklite at 7:50 AM on September 2, 2007


honest knave "Inferior cripples on crutches"? What makes you preface "cripple" with "inferior"?

Stephen Hawking is a cripple, he needs a crutch [1], I don't think anyone will say he's inferior. He's got problems, but who doesn't?

Cripple is not necessarially an insult, and it certainly does not imply inferior.

[1] Metaphorically speaking, a high tech wheelchair/computer combo simply to move and speak in reality.
posted by sotonohito at 8:02 AM on September 2, 2007


Lotta crutch-talk here. Which reminds me, my mom always told me, "Don't complain if you have no shoes. You may meet someone who has no feet!"

After I left home, I lost my job, and was barely scraping by. My last pair of shoes came apart at the seams. There I was walking down the street, shoeless. I was starting to feel sorry for myself, but then I saw a man in a wheelchair coming toward me. He had no feet! I stopped him and said, "Hey, you must have some shoes you don't need..."
posted by The Deej at 8:02 AM on September 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Seconding repoman, I'm in a restaurant in Boston right now in desperate need of a bloody mary and apparently Jesus won't let them serve me one till noon.
posted by nicwolff at 8:03 AM on September 2, 2007


> Unsurprisingly some people think that there is nothing wrong if these "poor subhumans" use religion to cure
> themselves ; yet when one of them bombs some abortion clinic or a bus, all the hell break lose and all
> religions must be destroyed at all costs at once, expecially the subhumans who believe in any fairy tale.

I have one acquaintance who has a touching faith in the inevitable return of the Resurrected Jesus. And another acquaintance with an equally touching faith in the inevitable arrival of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. I smile behind my hand at both of these folks but do not feel called upon to contradict either one in his vain but sustaining belief. (This in spite of the fact that the latter sort, since they appeared in the world, have used bombs at least as often as the former.) Time enough to correct others after I've gotten rid of all my own vain but sustaining beliefs, which will be never.

It is a mere fact of human life that people can't live without vain but sustaining beliefs (e.g. "God loves us." But also "all men are created equal; people are basically good; things are not hopeless; what I do matters.") Those who imagine they have no vain but sustaining beliefs just haven't examined their own critically enough.

But it goes deeper than that. We are actually required to continue to believe in things like these, (...despite absence of evidence or in the face of opposing evidence... - arcticwoman) on pain of being of defective courage--that is to say, failures as men and women. Those who attack religion on the basis that it is a vain but sustaining belief (and we shouldn't have those!) are pretty much arguing against breathing.
posted by jfuller at 8:07 AM on September 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


arcticwoman writes "Knowing (if not for absolute certain, but for pretty darn sure) that I will eat and sleep is not faith."

Well your definition of faith seems very good to me

arcticwoman writes "Faith is belief despite absence of evidence or in the face of opposing evidence."

So while there is pretty hot and easily noticeable evidence of the presence of Sun , the evidence for the existence of , for instance Iupiter, requires instruments such as a telescope. Now imagine measuring the distance between us and a planet..I can't find on top of my head an instrument more convincing then an immense measure tape to convince that, indeed, the planet is that far from us. If you came to me with the relatively complex math to demonstrate me that your assertion is absolutely true, or at least very much plausibile and reasonable, I could accept that as convincing and compelling evidence.

But not everybody ; it's a problem of accessibility to evidence and how a person accepts or refutes the evidence. Indeed blind faith will never accept any disconfirming evidence , neither needs confirming ones (but often looks for some) , but your belief that indeed Iupiter exists and is x Km away from us probably looks much like faith to some other people, that don't deny the offered evidence...they just don't understand it.

Similarly one could argue that you just "don't get" God , because you don't understand it

This faith is hardly altered even in the face of compelling evidence of the contrary , because they just have the hardest time following the reasoning : so what we have are believers that are faithful , unaware of being so, despite evidence that suggests convicingly that some fairy tale is just a fairy tale, but with abundant hard to see, but real evidence that some belief is just very pleasurable (like drugs).

Yet ironically they are faithful, because they are evidence based believers of the pleasurable sides of being faithful and convinced they will find pain (hell) if they leave the faith.

sotonohito writes "But again, that seems to me to be an aberation caused by religion getting too big, not an inherent problem with religion qua religion."

Well if a religious system can become too big and if too big a religious system gives a problem , then this is a property of the system : if it changes scale, it goes out of control and becomes dangerous. That's hardly a system I would like to maintain if alternatives are avaiable or conceivable.
posted by elpapacito at 8:19 AM on September 2, 2007


My favourite philosopher says:

Tread gently on anyone who looks at you sideways. Have lots of long lie-ins. Wear sturdy socks, learn to grow out of medium underwear and if you must lie about your age do it in the other direction: tell people you're 97 and they'll think you look fucking great. Try to catch a trout and experience the glorious feeling of letting it go and seeing it swimming away. Never eat food that comes in a bucket. If you don't know how to meditate at least try to spend some time every day just sitting. Boo joggers. Don't work out, work in. Play the banjo. Sleep with somebody you like. Eat plenty of liquorice allsorts. Try to live in a place you like. Marry somebody you like. Try to do a job you like. Never turn down an opportunity to shout 'fuck them all!' at the top of your voice. Avoid bigots of all descriptions. Let your bed become to you what the Pole Star was to sailors of old... look forward to it. Don't wear tight underwear on aeroplanes. Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. After that, who cares? He's a mile away and you've got his shoes. Clean your teeth and keep the company of people who will tell you when there's spinach on them. Avoid people who know the answer. Keep the company of people who are trying to understand the question. Don't pat animals with sneaky eyes. If you haven't heard a good rumour by 11am, start one. Learn to feel sorry for music because, although it is the international language, it has no swearwords; if you don't count Wagner which in my opinion is one long one and should be avoided at all cost. If you write a book, be sure it has exactly 74 'fucks' in it. Send Hieronymous Bosch prints to elderly relatives for Christmas. Avoid giving LSD to guide dogs. Don't be talked into wearing a uniform. Salute nobody. Campaign against blue smarties. Above all, go to Glasgow at least once in your life and have a roll and square sliced sausage and a cup of tea. When you feel the tea coursing over your spice singed tongue, you'll know what I mean when I say 'It's good to be alive!'
posted by flabdablet at 8:30 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


You know, on the rare occasion I meet a British religious extremist in the flesh, we can probably still disagree (even sharply) without personally insulting each other. I wish the same were true (when I meet one) on the net.
posted by chuckdarwin at 8:37 AM on September 2, 2007


Remember, Jesus wants you to deface road signs and large boulders with bright orange spraypaint.

...

What bothers me most about Christianity is that people who follow it seem to believe it gives them the freedom to hate. That being said, I pretty much feel the same way against Islam, though I don't encounter that hate every day so it's less obvious to me. Further, while I see the hate in the more radical elements of Islam, I see the hate in most of the Christians I've met. When the hate isn't there, I am utterly refreshed and can deal with that person with respect.
posted by Kickstart70 at 8:56 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


There was a time when 'faith' and 'belief' were two entirely separate concepts. When people talked about 'faith' in god, they weren't talking about believing in god, without evidence. At the time, there was no concept of not believing in God. It was thought to be self-evident that God existed and impossible not to believe that God existed.

Faith was about trusting in god, about giving yourself over to his plan, the way a vassal had faith in his lord.

Somehow, that's a much more powerful and acceptable concept to me than blind belief in something that you don't think exists. I'm willing to accept that concept that if one believes in god that one should have faith in him/her/it.

I'm not willing to accept, however, that one should just blindly believe in nonsense without some form of evidence beyond that it makes you feel better, or because its in the bible. So, while you still believe, keep your faith. But DOUBT. Always doubt. Because there's nothing more tragic than fidelity to something that doesn't exist.
posted by empath at 8:59 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]



My sister's take on it is "life is random and wild" and I reckon that makes her ten times the philosopher Sartre ever was.


That, or you're a complacent, self-satisfied ignoramus who assumes that the anti-intellectual stereotype of Sartre and the other French existentialists corresponds to reality.

I will just let Sartre speak for himself:
Most of those who are making use of this word would be highly confused if required to explain its meaning. For since it has become fashionable, people cheerfully declare that this musician or that painter is “existentialist.” A columnist in Clartes signs himself “The Existentialist,” and, indeed, the word is now so loosely applied to so many things that it no longer means anything at all. It would appear that, for the lack of any novel doctrine such as that of surrealism, all those who are eager to join in the latest scandal or movement now seize upon this philosophy in which, however, they can find nothing to their purpose. For in truth this is of all teachings the least scandalous and the most austere: it is intended strictly for technicians and philosophers. All the same, it can easily be defined.

The question is only complicated because there are two kinds of existentialists. There are, on the one hand, the Christians, amongst whom I shall name Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel, both professed Catholics; and on the other the existential atheists, amongst whom we must place Heidegger as well as the French existentialists and myself. What they have in common is simply the fact that they believe that existence comes before essence – or, if you will, that we must begin from the subjective.

[...]

The word humanism has two very different meanings. One may understand by humanism a theory which upholds man as the end-in-itself and as the supreme value. Humanism in this sense appears, for instance, in Cocteau’s story Round the World in 80 Hours, in which one of the characters declares, because he is flying over mountains in an airplane, “Man is magnificent!” This signifies that although I personally have not built aeroplanes, I have the benefit of those particular inventions and that I personally, being a man, can consider myself responsible for, and honoured by, achievements that are peculiar to some men. It is to assume that we can ascribe value to man according to the most distinguished deeds of certain men. That kind of humanism is absurd, for only the dog or the horse would be in a position to pronounce a general judgment upon man and declare that he is magnificent, which they have never been such fools as to do – at least, not as far as I know. But neither is it admissible that a man should pronounce judgment upon Man. Existentialism dispenses with any judgment of this sort: an existentialist will never take man as the end, since man is still to be determined. And we have no right to believe that humanity is something to which we could set up a cult, after the manner of Auguste Comte. The cult of humanity ends in Comtian humanism, shut-in upon itself, and – this must be said – in Fascism. We do not want a humanism like that.

But there is another sense of the word, of which the fundamental meaning is this: Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism. This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human.

You can see from these few reflections that nothing could be more unjust than the objections people raise against us. Existentialism is nothing else but an attempt to draw the full conclusions from a consistently atheistic position. Its intention is not in the least that of plunging men into despair. And if by despair one means as the Christians do – any attitude of unbelief, the despair of the existentialists is something different. Existentialism is not atheist in the sense that it would exhaust itself in demonstrations of the non-existence of God. It declares, rather, that even if God existed that would make no difference from its point of view. Not that we believe God does exist, but we think that the real problem is not that of His existence; what man needs is to find himself again and to understand that nothing can save him from himself, not even a valid proof of the existence of God. In this sense existentialism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of action, and it is only by self-deception, by confining their own despair with ours that Christians can describe us as without hope.

- Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism" (1946)
posted by nasreddin at 9:02 AM on September 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


The major fallacy where both the "have your religion and leave me alone" and the "religion doesn't kill people, people kill people" arguments are concerned is that religious holy books DO instruct true believers to kill people.

People who bomb abortion clinics, strap on suicide vests, behead infidels, or fly planes into buildings aren't taking religion to silly extremes -- they're being faithful to the scriptures.

Besides death being the required punishment for the likes of adultery, apostasy, and heresy in all of the Abrahamic religions, they also each assert status as the one true religion -- condemning the others to an afterlife of hellfire, and proscribing either conversion or death in this world.

Given this, it's only natural that some followers of a religion will believe that their holy book is the literal word of God and attempt to live in adherence to it, rather than cherry-picking which scriptures to abide by and which to claim as allegory.

The folks who kill in the name of religion aren't deluded -- they're faithful. Religion most certainly *does* kill people.
posted by kaseijin at 9:14 AM on September 2, 2007 [4 favorites]


In the end, it comes down to whether the world would be a better place without religion;

Maybe, if by 'it' he means wishful thinking.

The existence of religion can offer some balance in a society obsessed with image, which turns vacuity into virtue.

Wonder how that's working put for him so far?
posted by signal at 9:19 AM on September 2, 2007


Religion most certainly *does* kill people.

Lenin killed a fuckload of priests and other religious people. So did Pol Pot. So did Hitler.

These killings are a direct result, not of atheism as such, but of the particular brand of atheism espoused by these dictators. Which is also true of killings by religious people. If you think Jesus wants us to stone people for eating shellfish, you are either thirteen or have just recently lost a battle of wits with a rotten fencepost.
posted by nasreddin at 9:20 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


If you think Jesus wants us to stone people for eating shellfish,

I don't think that point is that Jesus 'wants' anything (especially for those of us who don't think he exists), but rather that the Bible says so, in unambiguous black and white.

"But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you." (Leviticus 11:10)

"They (shellfish) shall be an abomination to you; you shall not eat their flesh, but you shall regard their carcasses as an abomination." (Leviticus 11:11)

"Whatever in the water does not have fins or scales; that shall be an abomination to you." (Leviticus 11:12)
posted by signal at 9:24 AM on September 2, 2007


Man is all the time outside of himself: it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist; and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist. Since man is thus self-surpassing, and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing, he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence. There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity. This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism.

It is this that I call self-important bafflegab.

The emperor has no clothes.
posted by flabdablet at 9:26 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


but rather that the Bible says so, in unambiguous black and white.

No, the Old Testament says that. The New Covenant supersedes the old. Which is why, even in the most right-wing Christian fundamentalist country, no one will stop you from wearing cotton and linen clothing, or from mixing milk and meat.

As for the Jews, well, the Torah says that he who kills one person destroys the world.
posted by nasreddin at 9:27 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]



It is this that I call self-important bafflegab.

If I can't understand it, it's not worth knowing! Stupid Frenchies with their book-larnin'! Ooga-booga!
posted by nasreddin at 9:29 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


No, the Old Testament says that. The New Covenant supersedes the old. Which is why, even in the most right-wing Christian fundamentalist country, no one will stop you from wearing cotton and linen clothing, or from mixing milk and meat.

Ignoring your rather vicious ad-hominem, I would simply ask you why it is, then, that -- if the New Covenant completely does away with the Old Testament -- even mainstream Christians point to Leviticus in their rejection of homosexuality.
posted by kaseijin at 9:36 AM on September 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


People who bomb abortion clinics, strap on suicide vests, behead infidels, or fly planes into buildings aren't taking religion to silly extremes -- they're being faithful to the scriptures.

Or... maybe they are just whackjobs.

I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good
-Steve Taylor

I have the road in my blood
I drive a custom van
I play the tunes
I'm the neighborhood ice cream man
so don't you mess this boy around

The other day, when the clinic had its local debut
some chicks were trying to picket
the doctor threatened to sue

Now I don't care if it's a baby or a tissue blob
but if we run out of youngsters
I'll be out of a job, and so I
I did my duty cleaning up the neighborhood
I blew up the clinic real good
posted by The Deej at 9:38 AM on September 2, 2007


Asserting that the abolition of religion will solve the world's problems and bring about a new era of peace and understanding is a bigger example of unfounded blind faith than anything any religion in history has yet come up with.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 9:40 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


That they are "whackjobs" is most certainly not in question.
posted by kaseijin at 9:40 AM on September 2, 2007


I would simply ask you why it is, then, that -- if the New Covenant completely does away with the Old Testament -- even mainstream Christians point to Leviticus in their rejection of homosexuality.

Well, I think people easily become inconsistent in their dogma when they are blinded by prejudice. In this case, though, they often point to Paul's epistle to the Romans, which is canonical and says similar things.
posted by nasreddin at 9:41 AM on September 2, 2007


signal writes "'Whatever in the water does not have fins or scales; that shall be an abomination to you.' (Leviticus 11:12)"

Yeah , sure.
posted by elpapacito at 9:48 AM on September 2, 2007


From the article:

3. Maybe, but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong. Count the number of atheists in the foxholes or the cancer wards.

In my immediate family, there are two people who have already gone through surgery and chemo for very lethal cancers. My uncle also had the same experience as my father. All three of these people remain staunch atheists. I suppose my sister might be agnostic.
posted by autodidact at 9:49 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


I would simply ask you why it is, then, that -- if the New Covenant completely does away with the Old Testament -- even mainstream Christians point to Leviticus in their rejection of homosexuality.

Christians will take whatever scriptures from the old or new testament to support their beliefs. Even better, why use the old testament to say homosexuality is a sin, but ignore the old testament's prescribed punishment for it.

Christians also routinely ignore parts of the new testament that are difficult or not in line with their beliefs. There aren't many churches in the US, for example, that require women to wear hats before entering the service, although this is prescribed by new testament scripture in 1 Corinthians 11:2-6. Those who don't prescribe to this teaching say it was based on the culture of the time, and so it's not applicable today. But Paul's teaching is based on the order of creation and the wife's subjection to the husband and to God, which transcends culture.

In short: people choose what they want to believe, and justify it however they see fit. For Christians, that means picking scriptures that fit, and ignoring those that don't.
posted by The Deej at 9:53 AM on September 2, 2007 [3 favorites]



In short: people choose what they want to believe, and justify it however they see fit. For Christians, that means picking scriptures that fit, and ignoring those that don't.


All of this is true, but it in no way implies that religion is inherently murderous.
posted by nasreddin at 9:56 AM on September 2, 2007


All of this is true, but it in no way implies that religion is inherently murderous.
posted by nasreddin


Which is kind of my point, and the point of the Steve Taylor song I quoted above. Whackjobs can justify their whackjobbery by scriptures, the writings of Darwin, or the back of a cereal box.
posted by The Deej at 10:00 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Oh, I understand him just fine. I also understand that his rhetoric is overblown and his arguments are empty.

Man is all the time outside of himself:

From a contradiction, anything follows.

it is in projecting and losing himself beyond himself that he makes man to exist;

Au contraire, m'sieu! It doesn't matter what people do; they exist, regardless. Your map is not my territory.

and, on the other hand, it is by pursuing transcendent aims that he himself is able to exist.

This is exactly backwards. Existence is a necessary precondition to the pursuit of any aim, transcendent or otherwise.

Since man is thus self-surpassing,

Since I am such a paragon,

and can grasp objects only in relation to his self-surpassing,

and only care about what makes me look even cleverer,

he is himself the heart and center of his transcendence.

nothing matters but what I think.

There is no other universe except the human universe, the universe of human subjectivity.

Nothing even exists unless I notice it first.

This relation of transcendence as constitutive of man (not in the sense that God is transcendent, but in the sense of self-surpassing) with subjectivity (in such a sense that man is not shut up in himself but forever present in a human universe) – it is this that we call existential humanism.

If you're smart, you'll keep nodding wisely as I lay this cheap sophistry on you, and then everybody will think you're just as clever as me.

Why hasn't Simone emptied the bloody ashtrays? This place is filthy.
posted by flabdablet at 10:03 AM on September 2, 2007 [5 favorites]



Which is kind of my point, and the point of the Steve Taylor song I quoted above. Whackjobs can justify their whackjobbery by scriptures, the writings of Darwin, or the back of a cereal box.


Watch out for those cereal killers! You might think they're the clean-cut, quiet type who never bothered anyone, and then BAM! they bludgeon you to death with a bowl of Waffle Crisp.
posted by nasreddin at 10:03 AM on September 2, 2007


Imagine there's no Heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today


...

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one


Goodnight xx
posted by monkeyx-uk at 10:03 AM on September 2, 2007


Watch out for those cereal killers!

Ha! I expect a thank-you card in the mail for my unintentional but perfect set-up.
posted by The Deej at 10:09 AM on September 2, 2007


Whackjobs can justify their whackjobbery by scriptures, the writings of Darwin, or the back of a cereal box.

...which is certainly true, though of those 3 examples, only one actually proscribes execution and slavery. At least I think so -- I may be eating a different brand of cereal than some...mine has a bear on the front. ;)

This is essentially my point, though. Moderate religious types are moderate because they cherry pick their scriptures and believe what they want. They are most certainly not moderate because the Bible or the Koran tells them to be moderate.
posted by kaseijin at 10:10 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


flabdablet, Sartre is not proving existentialism in his essay. He does that in the other 8000 pages of his work (for specific answers to your arguments, read Being and Nothingness). He is describing what he believes existentialism to consist of.
The truth or falsity of existentialism is wholly different discussion which is not especially relevant. Taking glib potshots at a body of work of which you evidently have but the smallest glimmer of understanding doesn't make you look clever.
posted by nasreddin at 10:11 AM on September 2, 2007


From the article: He went looking for God and ended up an angry agnostic – unable to believe but enraged by the arrogance of militant atheists. It’s hard to see the purpose of the world, he says, but don’t blame its evils on religion

I just love how agnosticism is abused in this way. Huxley's agnosticism was not an appeal for indecision or a middle ground. Rather like Sarte, Huxley concludes that since the god question hasn't been answered to his satisfaction, that the messy process of philosophy should be based on humanistic concerns. I can't tell if this line is from Humphrys or an editor in search of a soundbite.

And of course, he lost me on the "atheists in foxholes" line. To me, this is a slander as bad as the Christian baby eating Jew.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:22 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


"I would simply ask you why it is, then, that -- if the New Covenant completely does away with the Old Testament -- even mainstream Christians point to Leviticus in their rejection of homosexuality."

This is kind of amazing - I just had a lengthy conversation with a parishioner this morning after church about this very issue. My sermon dealt primarily with the immigrant issue in light of what we call "Christian hospitality." How do we reconcile Christ's commandment to welcome all strangers into our homes with the behavior of so-called Christians who want to build a wall on our border? I said that as individuals, oftentimes we act quite nobly in service to Christ. We do our best, day by day, to welcome the poor, sick, lame and blind into our homes. However, at a national level, sometimes we check our bibles at the door.
I think this was what riled him up, because he's very frustrated by our church's stance regarding homosexual marriage. Today I could tell he was very, very bothered. While I was greeting people in the nave he stood right next to me - tapping his foot - waiting for me to finish.
After I did, he asked me to clarify what I meant regarding "that Mexican thing you were talking about." I explained that in Luke 7, and later in Hebrews 13, we're taught to welcome everyone - truly disregarding their nationality - to our table. Then, just to sort of stir him up a little bit, I added, "I think there's room for a billion people in this country." I was hoping we could just talk about the immigration debate without it constantly falling into the "gay marriage" issue, but I was wrong.
"How come whenever you agree with something - like letting whoever wants to come into our country - you quote the Bible up and down. But when I say something's in the Bible - that it says that a man shall not lie with a man, you tell me that I need to not quote whatever part of the Bible I'm quoting?"

It was a pretty stunning moment. I finally understood what his issue was (at least I think I do.) He's not angry that men are marrying one another in our church. He's angry because he wants to believe the Bible (because he loves feeding and clothing the poor) but the Bible seems to say things that are contradictory. So rather than using his mind to see through some of the more disturbing parts of scripture, he wants to accept the whole thing in one big lump. I thought he was another homophobic right-winger - but I realized that he probably just wanted someone to tell him which parts of the Bible to believe, and why we're allowed to pick and choose. I can really sympathize with that.

I took him to my office and gave him an old copy of The Sayings Gospel Q - the hypothetical "Jesus Text" that was used to write the synoptics. It was perfect. I said - "I know you're looking for consistency - but the Levitican laws are pretty ridiculous and it's the height of hypocrisy to simply pick one out at random and try to force it on others. Rather, read through this every time you get confused - see what Christ says about it." And he said, "Christ never talked about gay marriage." And I said, "This is why Christ spent so much time in prayer. Maybe you should do the same."

And this is where faith comes in.

Because I believe - I have faith - and I know beyond a shadow of a doubt - that if he goes home tonight and reads that book and quiets his mind and listens to God - really listens - that he will realize that we are to love one another unconditionally - that we are to be moorings in the great sea for all our brothers and sisters. I know that he will struggle through this, because he's not a homophobic person, he's only confused about his relationship with the Bible. He's not weak, or deluded, or in need of crutches - he's simply struggling with the lantern he was given.

I have faith that this will come to pass. You might say - "Look at all the horrible Christians in the world! Look at the ruin! You are dangerously short-sighted!" but to be perfectly honest, from day to day, I only see the Christian standing before me, and they are beautiful and have huge hearts and most of them have a strong desire to follow in the footsteps of a very special individual who was persecuted a long time ago.

Sorry for this being so long - I probably shouldn't comment on metafilter when I'm still in "preach" mode.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:31 AM on September 2, 2007 [37 favorites]


i have a crutch. in my pants.
posted by quonsar at 10:38 AM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


What's up with all the proselytizing atheists on youtube.
posted by delmoi at 10:41 AM on September 2, 2007


I'm entranced by the comments at the bottom of the essay: readers disappointed, mocking, offended that Mr Humphrys fails to determine the final truth or falsity behind religion and faith.

An agnostic presenting his case for not knowing is insufficient for these religious and atheists... and how many others? He has failed to convince himself that not having an answer is unacceptable, and therefore hasn't chosen one blindly from a prepared list and declaimed the others, which apparently isn't enough.
posted by NinjaTadpole at 10:46 AM on September 2, 2007


Baby_Balrog, I just wanted to say, that was very eloquent and amazingly written; clergymen like you are the reason I remained a Christian for so long despite lacking any faith.
You should post in preaching mode more often.
posted by nasreddin at 10:51 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


The Crusades? The Inquisition? Jihads? Jim Jones? Branch Davidians? Heaven's Gate? Scientologists? Iraq? Bosnia? India? China?

Basically, religion has given us literally millennia of misery and suffering, and in exchange left some interesting art installations.


spoken like a true ignoramus. all that miserable shit happens all the time, since the beginning of time, without any help from religion whatsoever. it's called the human condition. basically, religion has given us millenia of kindness, charity, mercy, tenderness and good works piled up by the billions, all of which would never have occurred in its absence. pointing to the fact that some tiny proportion of the totality of monstrous acts have been committed in the name of God and claiming that the absence of religion would logically equal the absence of monstrous acts is not only disingenuous, it's willfully fucking stupid.
posted by quonsar at 11:00 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


NinjaTadpole, the problem isn't that he hasn't chosen one or the other so much as that he doesn't seem to have an especially good grasp of the issue, and therefore people on all sides of it are going to feel insulted.

But since I'm an atheist cancer patient, I probably don't exist, so feel free to disregard that.
posted by naoko at 11:04 AM on September 2, 2007


all of which would never have occurred in its absence

I disagree that people require religion in order to be moral and charitable. I feel that we would likely still have the legacy of good works in some other form, had religion not been present. Either way, this is really not provable, charity was there and religion was there, but correlation != causation.


the absence of religion would logically equal the absence of monstrous acts

I do, however, also disagree rather strongly with this. Just as most of the good would still be there in the absence of religion, so would most of the shit.
posted by kaseijin at 11:11 AM on September 2, 2007


I agree with your last comment completely, kaseijin.

I'd also like to add that atheism/freethinking as a significant cultural phenomenon is very very new in human history. So looking at "human nature" free from religion is pretty silly, since religion has accompanied human society for as long as the latter has existed--we really lack a test-case where the dependent variable is 0.

None of which in itself, of course, means that religion is necessary or abstractly good for humanity.
posted by nasreddin at 11:16 AM on September 2, 2007


I thought he was another homophobic right-winger - but I realized that he probably just wanted someone to tell him which parts of the Bible to believe, and why we're allowed to pick and choose. I can really sympathize with that.

It's one of my biggest gripes about organized religion. So your God is the greatest, right? How do you know? Ah, because that guy said so? And who told him? Ah, from that book? You know how that book was created, right? Do you actually think for yourself every now and then?

It's one thing to read a lot, look at a lot of things, talk to a lot of people wiser than yourself, and come to the conclusion that you believe in a God (for example, as an athiest I can say the Sermon of the Mount makes very good reading in that regard - although no actual belief in Jesus is required to appreciate it). It's quite another thing to blindly believe what is being spoon-fed to you. Too much of the "religion" were talking about here is of the second kind, unfortunately.
posted by DreamerFi at 11:36 AM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Interesting Stats.

Americans are more religious than Italians. How crazy is that?
posted by five fresh fish at 11:45 AM on September 2, 2007


It was perfect. I said - "I know you're looking for consistency - but the Levitican laws are pretty ridiculous and it's the height of hypocrisy to simply pick one out at random and try to force it on others.

ridiculous?

you're a clergyman, you say?
posted by Laugh_track at 11:52 AM on September 2, 2007


sotonohito writes "As for emotional deafness, I think you are in error. There's nothing insulting in observing that I'm nearly blind, its simple fact. There's nothing insulting in observing that my friend with MS has a weak body, its simple fact. So why would it be insulting to observe that those people who require religion in order to get through life have a mental weakness? I'm not even observing that about any individual, simply pointing it out as a generalized observation."

The problem is in the assumption that religion exists for those who "need" it, and that their need is in reality a mental problem. That may be true for some people, but it's a simplistic and inaccurate view of why we have the capability of being spiritual beings.

Before going any further I should mention that I am agnostic and do not subscribe to any organized religion. If anything, I consider myself a Taoist, but not a strict one (and it's not really a religion anyway).

The big gorilla in the room that you're missing is the fact that most deeply spiritual and religious people have had spiritual experiences that made them the way they are. And I'm not just talking about metaphysical visions, although they are included. Otherwise sane people have had deeply profound insights through their spiritual experiences. Even the realization that all life is connected is a spiritual insight. Meditate on that long enough, and you'll get an idea of what that means. Those who are enlightened through it often go on to teach others (Buddha), and we recognize some famous examples. In fact Buddhism is not the worship of a creator, but rather the means to achieve what Siddhartha did, a path to becoming enlightened. Similarly, some Christians recognize that theirs is a spiritual path to enlightenment rather than dogma and fairytales, although unfortunately it's mostly used to exploit people through those base methods, even some of the devout, who could be on a better path. There is nothing wrong with using these tools to achieve the end of an enlightened being, if the path is true, if the person understands what they are doing and is not being exploited and is purposeful. And it may look to those who are on these paths and who can see, that those who cannot are in fact the ones who are missing out. Or, as you put it, maybe the non-enlightened are the ones who have a "mental weakness."
posted by krinklyfig at 11:56 AM on September 2, 2007


The big gorilla in the room that you're missing is the fact that most deeply spiritual and religious people have had spiritual experiences that made them the way they are.

don't be so sure... not everyone's faith is built upon "experience", but more often than not, it's built on beliefs -- from stories, books, teachers -- about human history. people are christian because they believe that jesus died on the cross for their sins, not because they had some kind of mystical experience.

some Christians recognize that theirs is a spiritual path to enlightenment rather than dogma and fairytales


true... but on the other hand, some christians are too busy doing good deeds, helping their neighbor, and witnessing to seek "enlightenment".
posted by Laugh_track at 12:10 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


I know that he will struggle through this, because he's not a homophobic person, he's only confused about his relationship with the Bible. He's not weak, or deluded, or in need of crutches - he's simply struggling with the lantern he was given.

If the lantern is faulty--it should be fixed so that it gives a clear light.

If the lantern has problems, another lantern shouldn't be needed to explain the first lantern's problems away, or justify them.

If the lantern is broken, you fix it--you don't simply give them another lantern so they can see the original lantern in a different light.
posted by amberglow at 12:20 PM on September 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


the Levitican laws are pretty ridiculous and it's the height of hypocrisy to simply pick one out at random and try to force it on others
I'm having a hard time understanding what's "hypocritical" about it. Asinine, sure. Idiotic, yeah. Jerky, of course.

But that's your god's fault, not mine.
posted by Flunkie at 12:21 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


And no lantern at all should ever be casting a light that causes others to kill and hate. Religions shouldn't be built on such a lantern if the light they cast so often used for evil and harm.
posted by amberglow at 12:23 PM on September 2, 2007


lanterns aren't expensive or rare--it's important that people aren't given such a faulty one, and then told to believe it with all their heart and soul, and to live by it.
posted by amberglow at 12:24 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


krinklyfig There's a difference between philosophy and religion, and there's a difference between wanting to discuss and think about philosophy and considering that absent a particular non-falsifiable concept (God/souls/whatever) life is meaningless and hopeless.

Those who consider life to be worthless unless there is a god, or a heaven, or a soul, or life after death, or [insert religious belief here] do, from my POV have a mental weakness. Which, as I've said many times here, is not shameful or horrible, its just a problem, and everyone has problems.

Those who persue religion for other reasons may fall into a different category. But a great many of the people I've spoken with have put out one variant or another of the "without God life is a shithole and we might as well all just die" argument.

Spirituality, as distinct from religion and philosophy, is something I don't much care about. Some people have had personal revelatory experiences, I'm not one of them. They, unlike the Southern Baptists [1], don't go around trying to screw with my life, so I'm not going to complain even slightly about them.

I consider the whole spirituality thing to be wanking, but that's hardly a complaint, I consider philosophy and theology to be wanking too, and as you can tell its one of my hobbies. Its fun, its harmless, and it doesn't result in jihads, crusades, or idiot intrusive laws being passed, so I'm not worried about it at all.

You could, as you have, argue that those without a spiritual sense are mentally deficient in some way. I'd disagree, of course, but it'd be a fun discussion. I've never seen enlightenment, I've never been enlightened. I've never seen anyone else's subjective spiritual experiene (kinda by definition, since its subjective), and never had any sort of spiritual experience in my own life. I will not dispute the validity of your, or anyone else's, experiences, but I do maintain that the *absence* of such experience in my life is as significant as its presence in your life. After all, if it is an outside agency responsible for such experiences I think its legitimate to ask why the agency hasn't given such experiences to everyone, especially if we consider the agency to be benevolant and the experience to be beneficial.

[1] for you folks living outside Texas and complaining that you can't get a drink before noon on Sunday, consider that here in the buckle of the Bible belt you can't buy hard liquer at all on Sunday, and until relatively recently you couldn't buy anything even slightly alcoholic all day on Sunday.
posted by sotonohito at 12:26 PM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


The big gorilla in the room that you're missing is the fact that most deeply spiritual and religious people have had spiritual experiences that made them the way they are.

Yes. I couldn't give half a shit for dogma.

My "faith" is the result of Occam's Razor. Snort and guffaw if you like, but my religion gives me a better context for my experiences than atheism or pantheism or Christianity or Pastafarianism. All of which have grains of truth... though in the latter case those are probably semolina. :) Yep, I think atheists are just as correct as I am.
posted by Foosnark at 12:37 PM on September 2, 2007


I consider the whole spirituality thing to be wanking, but that's hardly a complaint, I consider philosophy and theology to be wanking too, and as you can tell its one of my hobbies. Its fun, its harmless, and it doesn't result in jihads, crusades, or idiot intrusive laws being passed, so I'm not worried about it at all.

That's the whole thing--it's what people do with religion and religious dictates and beliefs in this world--to the rest of us--that cause the problems. The problems caused outweigh any good done, because the good done is always smaller and more personal--and that's because the religious themselves see those things differently and as necessitating different levels of use and force. "Charity begins at home" and "Love thy neighbor", etc---but "All gay people are abominations and should be legislated against" and "All nonbelievers are damned", and "All abortions are murder", etc.
posted by amberglow at 12:43 PM on September 2, 2007


all the good is characterized as personal and one-to-one or one-to a small local and visible group, while all the bad is characterized as universal.
posted by amberglow at 12:45 PM on September 2, 2007


"Lantern" is a dumb-ass metaphor, we get it already.

It's obviously perfectly possible to live one's life as a net positive force in our social milieu. It really doesn't take a whole helluva lot of effort to be nice to one's local community.

There's this whole meta-creature we call a "nation" (née "tribe") that has some social problems. Several of our global national players won't play nice with the others, and it is completely fucking-up the world on a dangerous, global scale.

In the end it really doesn't matter what solves that problem, so long as it gets solved damned quick.

It seems really unlikely that a technical solution is forthcoming from the deeply faithful community. They tend to be an anti-scientific bunch.

They do offer a social solution, though: we revert back to peasant life. Wealthy owners will negotiate treaties with other entities, on our behalf; in return, we provide our owners our wealth. There is a sort of freedom, but one is certainly owned: think Chinese mega-factories, which are basically company towns in a single incredible, nearly self-contained complex.

Perhaps that's the end game for mega-churches. Peasant parishoners will keep charasmatic leaders in comfort while they themselves toil and risk harm in a Diamond Age environment.

The single most important issue of our time is global climate change. Education and technology lead to one survival mode; religion and small-scale collectivism lead to another.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:49 PM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


NinjaTadpole: An agnostic presenting his case for not knowing is insufficient for these religious and atheists... and how many others? He has failed to convince himself that not having an answer is unacceptable, and therefore hasn't chosen one blindly from a prepared list and declaimed the others, which apparently isn't enough.

Well, part of it is that this seems to be the case of an "agnostic" (noting of course that Humphrys does not himself use the word in the body of this article, much less identifies himself as such) trying to invent a philosophical high horse by knocking down strawatheists. Many atheists, including such lofty figures as Bertrand Russell admitted that they don't have a hard answer to the question. But effectively, doubt leads them to a position of skepticism and secular humanism.

Whenever I read someone set up the smug and certain strawatheist in an argument, I know I'm reading someone who has barely skimmed the surface of atheistic discourse in the 20th century.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:54 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Your "lantern" should be different from an oil lamp, because no lantern of the True Light should cast its light favorably on a war for oil.
posted by Curry at 12:58 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Yes, but any lamp sheds a variety of wavelengths, only the breadth of the spectrum is different. And some of the wavelengths aren't visible to the naked eye but can be only seen with special instruments - let's call them crutches - and it's impossible to build a lantern or flashlight that shoots dark and if you stand too close to a lantern you'll get burned but modern technology allows us much cooler forms of incandescent light by which to guide our steps down the path which now, more often than not, is paved in concrete or the asphalt of good intentions.
posted by klarck at 1:32 PM on September 2, 2007


nasreddin: We get it, you have a little warm wet place for Sartre. Could you make your point a little less insultingly, please? What is the name of your blog, abusivelibrarian.com?

quonsar: I am not in the mood for your stupid shit today. You're saying that good deeds and noble acts are driven solely by religious belief?

Talk about an ignoramus.

You've gone on this site from being ridiculed to vilified to basically ignored. Anytime you say anything besides your unfunny non-sequiturs, you're usually shouted down pretty quickly, as you were above.

Baby_Balrog: but I realized that he probably just wanted someone to tell him which parts of the Bible to believe, and why we're allowed to pick and choose

What?

I'm not at all impressed with your sermonette above, I'm just confused and a little offended.

Who are you to tell people they should cannibalize their beliefs? What kind of philosophic rigor are you subjecting your beliefs to when your answer is "oh well gosh no, you don't believe ALL of it".

If I were your parishioner, I would be more than a little put-off by your approach and condescension.

And he said, "Christ never talked about gay marriage." And I said, "This is why Christ spent so much time in prayer. Maybe you should do the same."

This is perhaps the worst answer I've ever heard anyone give to a religious question. "Oh now, don't worry your pretty little head over it, just pray some more, and eventually you'll come around to my way of thinking".

"How come whenever you agree with something - like letting whoever wants to come into our country - you quote the Bible up and down. But when I say something's in the Bible - that it says that a man shall not lie with a man, you tell me that I need to not quote whatever part of the Bible I'm quoting?" It was a pretty stunning moment. I finally understood what his issue was (at least I think I do.)

No, you don't. He was upset at your hypocrisy. When you have a position that the bible supports, you quote scripture to bolster your argument, but when you have a position the bible has a (seemingly) contrary stance on, then you wave your hand and say "Oh, we don't have to bring the bible into this".

Your parishioner isn't stupid, he's being misled. Maybe you should revert to a Latin mass so as not to confuse him any further. He's trusting in the holy, divinely inspired, unerring source material you gave him, and you're belittling him by trying to say only pay attention to the important parts.
posted by Ynoxas at 1:52 PM on September 2, 2007 [5 favorites]


People don't kill people because of religion, they do it because it's an evolved trait.
People don't help their neighbours because of religion, they do it because it's an evolved trait.
Nearly everyone on the planer is religious, that seems to be in the programming too.
posted by greytape at 1:53 PM on September 2, 2007


So much of this debate centers on a boring argument about what's real. Atheists -- like me -- tend to follow rigid rules when trying to decide what's real and what's not real. (We follow them because they're really useful. Or because, aesthetically, we like simple systems.) These rules become really important to us and it irks us when other people don't follow them.

For instance, I'm steadfast about Occam's Razor and evidence. I don't believe in God because there's no evidence. Simple as that. (Theists tend to confuse questions and unknowns with evidence: if there's no God, then how did X, Y or Z happen? Answer: I don't know. But an unknown is not evidence. It's just an unknown.)

A great, debate-stopping tactic with someone like me is, "well, I don't really care if God is real or not." At this point, there's nothing much I can do -- other than to insist that reality is important, dammit! I can point out that the theist is being hypocritical -- that surely reality IS important to him. (He doesn't try to deposit imaginary money in the bank.) But he can, again, tell me that he doesn't care. "It's important to me that money is real; it's not important to me that God is real."

In fact, he can tell me that it's USEFUL to me to not care whether or not God is real. I'm hoist in my own petard, because my brand of atheism is based on utility. The best I can do now is get into an argument about whether or not blind faith is useful. I'll probably lose. It surely IS useful to the faithful.

Yet I don't have these arguments. Most theists I've met get as wrapped up in whether or not God exists -- is real -- as I do. I want to say to them, "What if I could prove to you CONCLUSIVELY that God doesn't exist?" Would you stop being religious? My guess is, if they're honest, they would say, "No. I'd be like the guy in the article. I'd pray anyway. So I guess the locus of my faith has nothing to do with reality."

I want to ask myself the same question. If someone proved to me, CONCLUSIVELY, that God exists, would I become religious? Well, I WOULD be religious be "being religious" means accepting God as a part of reality. But that seems like such a small, insignificant part of it. Being religious -- to most people -- means having some sort of RELATIONSHIP with God. Believing He exists is not the same as having a relationship with him. I believe George Clooney exists, but I don't have a relationship with him.

And, knowing myself, I really doubt I'd ever have a relationship with God, whether or not He exists. So -- in terms of what's most important -- reality is a red herring for me, too.

Why do so many of these debates center on what's real? Isn't it because we devalue the imaginary? Because we devalue feelings. We say, "it's JUST a feeling" and we try to trump up fiction by saying it's "based on a true story." Whether or not the story is based on truth doesn't affect it in any way -- but maybe we feel that, if it's based on truth, we're justified spending our time watching or reading it. If it's "just a story," we're masterbating; if it's "based on truth," we're LEARNING.

I find that offensive. So much of what's beautiful and HUMAN is imaginary (or constructs of the mind). "King Lear," "The Magic Flute," Cowboys and Indians, marriage, the past (probably), the future (probably), math...

I suppose its important -- somewhat -- to categorize things as real or imaginary. We say of children, "it's fine for them to watch TV, as-long-as they understand it's not real." Okay. That discussion has its place. But why does it have to always be THE most important discussion?

Most of the rest of the arguments seem, to me, to use religion as a token. The REAL argument is about something else. I'm talking about "why do religious people cram their beliefs down my throat?" and "why are atheists so arrogant" and "religion has caused so much suffering" and "religion has caused so much good."

All major human activities -- religion, science, sports, love, marriage, sex, war, agriculture, etc. -- have cause much suffering and much good. Fanatics of any type (religious, atheistic, economic, political, etc.) cram things down people's throats; many types of people are arrogant -- such people are annoying (because they're arrogant, not because they're atheists).

So many of these debates boil down to "You think I'm stupid!" or "You're not my Dad! You can't force me to go to church!"

Grown up theists don't waste their time with this nonsense. They live well. They pray. Good atheists don't waste their time either: they think rationally; they do science. Both use their systems to make positive contributions to the world. They don't waste their time bickering. What's the point?

Sure, as an atheist I think theism can cause some problems. Sure, I think domains like science are hurt when people believe falsehoods about the natural world. But how should I best combat these problems? By screaming at people that they're stupid to believe in a magic guy with a beard? Do I seriously think that's going to further my cause? Surely the best way that I can promote my system is to USE it.
posted by grumblebee at 1:55 PM on September 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


Grown up theists don't waste their time with this nonsense. They live well. They pray. Good atheists don't waste their time either: they think rationally; they do science. Both use their systems to make positive contributions to the world. They don't waste their time bickering. What's the point?
The point is that some of those theists are forcing their beliefs down the rest of our throats and changing our laws, and some are stoning and killing, and some are bombing gay bars and abortion clinics, and others are doing all sorts of evil under the name of their god, and those you consider "Grown up theists" enable them by disassociating themselves from them.
posted by amberglow at 2:08 PM on September 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


it's called the human condition

That's the whole -
1) My tribe good
2) Your tribe bad
3) Where is sex and pancakes?
-sort of thing, isn't it?

basically, religion has given us millenia of kindness, charity, mercy, tenderness and good works piled up by the billions, all of which would never have occurred in its absence.

Right. Because empathy and altruism have been conclusively demonstrated to have not existed before Jesus!
posted by Sparx at 2:09 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


religion != Jesus
posted by 23skidoo at 2:11 PM on September 2, 2007


... the Christian right no longer even tries to make a secret of the fact that it considers itself a master race, endowed by the Creator with rights and privileges that exceed -- and even negate -- those of non-believers.
Now, we have the pastor of a large regional mega-church right there on national TV, asserting that those who disagree with his theology are defacto aliens in their own country. ...

posted by amberglow at 2:15 PM on September 2, 2007


grumblebee writes "But how should I best combat these problems? By screaming at people that they're stupid to believe in a magic guy with a beard? Do I seriously think that's going to further my cause? Surely the best way that I can promote my system is to USE it."

Nah telling people they are stupid doesn't work, but I guess that example doesn't work as well...or not as much as we would like to. Yet if it does, maybe one could find an alternative in offering psycological help, scientific method based. That's probably one of the cause of Scientology hate for psyco-anything.

amberglow writes "nd those you consider 'Grown up theists' enable them by disassociating themselves from them"

I'd stress by JUST dissociating , which is pretty comfortable and costs nuthin :) , no need to mess with these pesky extremists they are such a nuisance , plus I have to find way to make my womanizing daydreaming habits compatible with my beliefs without having anybody in the church notice I am hypnotized by the chorist bouncing tits ! Boy oh boy that's SOME problem !
posted by elpapacito at 2:21 PM on September 2, 2007


The point is that some of those theists are forcing their beliefs down the rest of our throats and changing our laws, and some are stoning and killing, and some are bombing gay bars and abortion clinics, and others are doing all sorts of evil under the name of their god, and those you consider "Grown up theists" enable them by disassociating themselves from them.

So if someone HONESTLY believes in God, he's enabling terrorists? If that's true, I hope I never believe in God. Because I can't seem to help what I believe. It's not a choice with me. I guess -- if I was a believer -- I'd have to be closeted.

Throughout history, there are been tons of people who have murdered, raped, terrorized and otherwise behaved badly. Some of these people were religious; others weren't.

Are you 100% sure that religion = bad behavior. If you could flip a switch and make all religious beliefs vanish, are you sure all the bad stuff would stop?

I'm not. I don't even think it would lessen (or greaten). I think most evils stem from selfishness and thoughtlessness. People use religion as a justification. If it was gone, they'd find some other justification. Anti-religionists blame religion because it's an easy target. It's too hard to deal with the reality that the human animal ships with base desires.
posted by grumblebee at 2:23 PM on September 2, 2007


What kind of philosophic rigor are you subjecting your beliefs to when your answer is "oh well gosh no, you don't believe ALL of it". --Ynoxas

I kind of took it that he was saying - "As a xian, first look to what x said on the matter" - which is why he handed the guy a reconstruction of Q - "and then have a ponder." He was spiritually 'teaching the guy to fish'. It's a nice story, not just because Jesus was notably quiet on the subject of queer marriage, but because it made the larger point that scripture isn't always what you expect it to be (like consistant). So, with study and prayer, eventually the guy will realise that not even JC was was particularly consistent, realise his faith is based on lies his parents told him, join up with dawkins.net and Baby_Balrog will get a toaster oven.
posted by Sparx at 2:24 PM on September 2, 2007


Nah telling people they are stupid doesn't work, but I guess that example doesn't work as well...or not as much as we would like to.

Right. Nothing will ever work "as we would like," because humans are imperfect. Knowing that, it's better to work to further science BY doing science -- rather than by fighting anti-science. Not perfect. Better.

You can lose a fight. You can't lose by doing research and experimentation. All you can do is further knowledge.
posted by grumblebee at 2:25 PM on September 2, 2007


religion != Jesus

Look to the larger context - he sure as heck wasn't talking about Viking religion or Greek or Roman or Egyptian or Mayan or even OT particularly. Jesus is just a handy-stand in for the subset of ethical instruction he was referring to.
posted by Sparx at 2:34 PM on September 2, 2007


Every single one of you needs to lighten up.

The question isn't whether or not you believe in God. It's whether or not God believes in you.

Whatever you believe in is wrong, but don't feel bad. Everyone else is wrong too. Including me.

We're all wrong. We're throwing rocks at the moon and shouting at it.

Have a coke and a smile and shut the heck up.

Do ants need to understand us in order to live their lives? No. Do we want to understand ants to help them live their lives? No. Multiply that by a googleplex or two and then maybe you'd grok humanity's insignificance in this universe.

Religion is an attempt by Mankind to imagine itself as more important than it is.

Something or someone created order out of chaos, and made the universe. It didn't happen by pure chance. That's not arguable.

There IS a Creator.

He doesn't care about you.

I like peanut butter and jelly sammiches!
posted by ZachsMind at 2:39 PM on September 2, 2007


sotonohito: In America religion is considered to be the norm, so a lot of people who don't need it do it anyway.
This cultural mish-mash 'churchianity' is actually one of the curious aspects of the whole thing. It's one of the pieces of the puzzle that explains why fundamentalists flip-flop between claiming they're part of the silent majority, and claiming that they're part of a small remnant of the faithful that have to help save the world from sin.

Christian theology and Christian culture in the US are two wildly different beasts. It's interesting to see how both of them weave in and out of the broader culture. Shameless self-link: some friends and I have been running a group blog to explore some of those very issues.
posted by verb at 2:47 PM on September 2, 2007


grumblebee writes "It's too hard to deal with the reality that the human animal ships with base desires."

Well it's certainly not comfortable, in the sense that some would like humans to never behave in certain ways, but as you say we co-exists and are born with desire. Yet I don't see desire as a problem, rather the lack of pre-built-in reasonable self-restrains...but I guess that's education is partly supposed to insipire in you. Surely if I teach that killing the infidel or the abortionist is A-OK and give it candy of going to paradise with or without 72 virgins , I am not teaching much about self restrain on violence..I am encouraging it.

grumblebee writes "it's better to work to further science BY doing science -- rather than by fighting anti-science."

That sounds fine to me, but you may sometime have to "buy" yourself some time for actually doing the research ; that's pretty hard to do in an environment in which they see you as "infidel doing sorcery evil" , that tends to cut funds and make an social outkast of the researcher(s).
posted by elpapacito at 3:02 PM on September 2, 2007


Lots of people go to church [1], and even self identify as religious, who don't actually need it and are just in it for the social acceptance and the social aspects of the church.

ah, so now you're going to define religion in a way that you think can allow you to slide past my rebuttal - if you don't believe in it, you don't get to define it for those of us who do

As for emotional deafness, I think you are in error.

if i am, then you should be able to provide me with the section of the DSM-IV that describes religious belief as a mental deficiency

There's nothing insulting in observing that I'm nearly blind, its simple fact.

i can find professional criteria for near-sightedness and many other conditions

where's your professional criteria? ... the american psychiatric association does have some for "religious mental deficiency", right? ... right?

oh, it doesn't? ... then you're just being insulting, seeing as you have no scientific basis to make that evaluation
posted by pyramid termite at 3:24 PM on September 2, 2007


you cannot reduce life to a set of provable realities.

I've seen nothing that indicates this.

Every day we walk on earth we exercise faith regularly , for instance faith that we will eat, sleep and whatelse we regularly do.

No; the problem here is that people mix up the colloquial use of a term with a more philosophical meaning. It is not faith to believe that the sun will come up tomorrow, for we have consistent evidence for it and we have a working theoretical model that says the sun should come up for a long time. This isn't faith, even though we lack absolute certainty.

Faith is belief without appeal to evidence or logic; reason is the use of evidence and/or logic. The faith you're talking about is an entirely different animal than the belief in a supernatural being without (or sometimes because of) the lack of evidence or logical reasoning. Though the same word is often used to describe the two concepts, simply using the same string of symbols does not unite two disparate things.

Yeah, Dawkins is strident.

Not really. He merely argues that there is no evidence of god, that god is not needed and that the possibility of god is very slim. This is far less than arguing that a supernatural being is actually impossible, and therefore an actual assertion that there is no god.

basically, religion has given us millenia of kindness, charity, mercy, tenderness and good works piled up by the billions, all of which would never have occurred in its absence.


Nonsense. The human social/grouping drive gave us all of those, along with war and hated. Religion simply has reflected what was already in society and its people. Religion should get very little credit for the good and very little blame for the bad. It's merely a pretty facade on the real structures of history.
posted by spaltavian at 3:47 PM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Something or someone created order out of chaos, and made the universe. It didn't happen by pure chance. That's not arguable.

OK, I admit it.

It was me.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:50 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


The point is that some of those theists are forcing their beliefs down the rest of our throats and changing our laws, and some are stoning and killing, and some are bombing gay bars and abortion clinics, and others are doing all sorts of evil under the name of their god, and those you consider "Grown up theists" enable them by disassociating themselves from them.

how do you enable someone by disassociating from them? ... surely, amberglow, you're not associated with these evil theists - does that mean you're enabling them, too?

or is diversity in religious belief something you have a hard time dealing with?
posted by pyramid termite at 3:52 PM on September 2, 2007


Something or someone created order out of chaos, and made the universe. It didn't happen by pure chance. That's not arguable.

That's so arguable it hurts. You can't actually win an argument by fiat.
posted by spaltavian at 3:54 PM on September 2, 2007


Something or someone created order out of chaos, and made the universe. It didn't happen by pure chance. That's not arguable.

I'm putting my money on pure chance.

As a matter of fact, if there is a God, I say it is Pure Chance. God is, in fact, Pure Chance.

Get down on your knees, right now, and worship Pure Chance.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:56 PM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ultimately, I think it is a far bigger problem right now that people think Whoppers are food than they think there is a god in the sky. But you don't see people going to Burger King and slapping two all beef patties, special sauce, cheese, lettuce, pickles, onions, and sesame seed buns out of the hands of the true believers.
posted by Astro Zombie at 3:56 PM on September 2, 2007


Oh, and by the way, order is chaos. And vice versa.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 3:57 PM on September 2, 2007


"I'm putting my money on pure chance. "

When you can sneeze and give a fifty fifty odds that something alive may or may not evolve from that? Okay fine then maybe I'll give ya that. Not before.

Sand castles don't get made on their own. Life doesn't just happen. There's a method to the madness, and both 'method' and 'madness' indicates a sentience behind it.

I ain't questioning whether or not there's a God. I know. What I question is whether or not God knows or cares about us. It's pretty arrogant of humanity to think we matter at all beyond this pale blue dot. In fact I don't even think "Gaia" gives a rat's whisker about us.
posted by ZachsMind at 5:05 PM on September 2, 2007


Life just happens.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:09 PM on September 2, 2007


If religion is necessary in your life, you are disabled, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Water is necessary in my life, and yet I'm not disabled. Water has been proven to be a need biologically whereas spirituality has not been proven to be one. That doesn't mean it isn't a need for religion or spirituality in some people, a need that is not necessarily a disability.

I'd say Americans are probably far more dependent on television, cars, and prepared food than they are on religion, if they were forced to answer honestly. Does the use of any of those items imply a disability?

Just because some people have used the analogy of religion as a crutch does not mean that that descriptor holds. I don't consider religion to be my crutch. I believe in a higher being, not because it makes life easier for me (or harder for that matter) but because -- well -- I just do. I've never thought of it as a crutch or something I rely on. At times, believing in a higher power means having a little more flavor in my life, and appreciating creation just a little bit more; sometimes, it means having someone to invoke when I can't find my keys; sometimes it's just a meditation.

Unfortunately, the alternative, according to the faithful, is to suspend my disbelief until I'm gullible enough to be suckered in completely. The problem is, that works for pretty well everything from fairies to scientology.

This is the key thing. Faith is not about being suckered in, or gullible, or suspending your disbelief. Faith is just about faith. If you are a spiritual being you will find believing in a higher power to be easy. If you're not, you won't. I think the world needs both spiritual beings and non-spiritual beings. The only thing the world needs less of is people thinking there's something wrong with the people in the other group. Hopefully, this means people will change their minds and realize that people are in the groups they want to be in, and trying to change their mind is a bad idea. Just let it go.

...it is anti-rational to argue that you just "have faith" and argument comes later and for that reason cannot get any kind of foothold on faith.


Of course it is anti-rational to say you can just "have faith." That's kind of like saying it is "un-vegetarian" to eat a steak. Having faith is the opposite of being rational, and as he repeatedly states in the argument, religion and faith are completely indefensible logically. Most of the religion bits are easy for anyone to do -- if you want to, you can follow all of the commands or rules of most religions just by following the religious texts (and all the attached rules that followed). The tricky bit is belief. Either you have that, or you don't.

I just can't stop:

Very few people truly believe in God and Heaven, anyway. In other words, they THINK they believe in God, but really don't. Because when the shit hits the fan, they turn to FEMA or dial 911 instead of letting "Jesus take the wheel", so to speak.


A Joke.
posted by Deathalicious at 5:24 PM on September 2, 2007


At times, believing in a higher power means having a little more flavor in my life, and appreciating creation just a little bit more; sometimes, it means having someone to invoke when I can't find my keys; sometimes it's just a meditation.

As long as you realize that those statements hold truly solely for you, I'm okay with this.

It's those who suggest they have a deeper appreciation of our existence, or are a better moral person, that I get annoyed.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:40 PM on September 2, 2007


Wow - I guess I didn't expect so many negative responses so quickly. I apologize - sometimes when I see some small point that I want to respond to, I end up saying more than I mean to and I forget to temper my stream-of-consciousness with a little context. I'd never presume to "spoon feed" anyone anything. If I highlight a verse from scripture, it's usually to say something along the lines of, "Isn't this interesting? What do you think of this - these ancient peoples had to deal with many of the same issues that we're faced with, and this is what they believed." It's never in a finger-wagging, authoritarian or paternalistic voice. I was trying to show the guy that maybe scripture isn't infallible and he needs to figure stuff out for himself.
Let me be perfectly clear - I am no more or less qualified to ponder the infinite than any other human being. When I get up on Sunday and put on my cassock it is only an outward sign of my position - that of being an individual who cares very deeply for another group of individuals. My job is not to tell my parishioners who are what God is. My job is to be a steadfast partner - a cojourner - someone who is always, always there for them no matter what - gazing into this huge mystery with them. My job is to be trustworthy. I also see the cassock as a sign that "Hey - here's someone who you can talk to God about." But if I share an interpretation of gospel, it is by no means the final word, and I am very often quite wrong.
This is probably why I put such an emphasis on prayer. Prayer empowers people by giving them a chance to make up their own minds.

You might say, "Well, then - you're nothing more than a professional friend who's interested in talking to people about their spirituality." I guess, maybe, I'm not entirely uncomfortable with this role - but oftentimes it leads to situations where it would be impossible to go otherwise.
I'm thinking specifically of Rev. Walt Coleman of Adalberto Methodist Church. I met him earlier this summer and I've never met a more steadfast, trustworthy individuals. I encourage you to look up Adalberto Methodist on the internet and find out what it was that he did that I find so amazing. He opened his church and created a true sanctuary for a persecuted individual.

Someone upthread kept saying, "Your god this, and your god that, etc." and I think that there's a fundamental miscommunication going on.
I don't presume to have any monopoly on the truth. Nearly every religion in the world has managed to royally screw the whole thing up. I'm not in my particular faith tradition because I think it's right and all the others are wrong, it's simply the only one that I've found that comes close to approximating a spiritual message that jives with my experience.

I can't help that I believe in God. What I can do is be clear about a few things.
First, I'm not much of a theist. I don't for one second believe that God is a giant person out in space. I don't think God is a supreme intelligence who judges people and throws them into Hell. I don't even think Hell exists. What a wretched idea. Even if it did exist, the people who were damned would end up being the righteous through their persecution.

When I drive down the highway, listening to the Avett Brothers and watching the sunset, I have a really, really hard time not believing in God. I don't think it's because I need a crutch, but when the heron sort of swoops down over the road and I notice the way the clouds sit over the cornfield and change the color of the ground underneath them, I feel very good. And then I start to think - what should I do? What should one person do with their life? I tend to shift back and forth between this linear or historic view of purpose to this kind of timeless eternal approach to life. In the first sense - it seems to me that the universe is a little inconsistent when it comes to the prevalence of life. We seem to be it. Why so huge and so empty? Maybe - if there could be a purpose to this, it could be described as a result - maybe it would be a perfect world were everyone lived in a sustained state of love. Maybe that is what we're moving toward. Of course, if there is a creator god - then why not simply create the planet this way? Why all the suffering and grief - why the wars? One conclusion that works for me is that perhaps God can't call that world into being, because it would be false. It would be like a photograph of a sunset, rather than the real thing. For it to have value, it must be constructed by free actors. This eschatological view of history has really helped reconcile me to the idea of free will - God set us free from determinism because that's the only way we could reach this goal. Determinism is pretty iron clad - I must admit that my metaphysical view of creation is pretty much the only thing that helps me cope with the idea of being locked into a totally causal reality.
So what about the afterlife and heaven and everything? Wouldn't it be nice to believe in this stuff? I think so, sure. I think it would be great. But I think it's pretty presumptuous to claim that we know for certain what will happen to us after death.
I certainly don't know. I have suspicions, but they remain just that. This ties into the whole atemporal, eternal thing I referenced above. We see time as this linear thing that we move through, always forward. But physics informs us that maybe this is incorrect - that time is simply another dimension, one that we're only equipped to see in a very limited way. So... even if I die tomorrow, and rot in the ground, the life I lived will stand there, eternal. It's a testament - because though I can't see my past, it doesn't cease to exists.
So what do we do with this eternal testament that we get to make?

I think, when I decided to forgo the design school for the liberal arts program, I started to think about this more and more. I'm not very smart, so I have to go kind of slow - but after traveling around the world a bit and learning some languages and living with atheists for several years, I've started to suspect that there is an architecture that we can't see, and that it has something to do with love and with the golden rule.
This was always my problem with atheism - that it always seemed to me to be the highest arrogance to assume that we understand this world - that no mysteries remain - that science will lay everything bare.
It's almost - but not quite - as bad as the fundamentalists who claim to speak for God.
So there's this hidden architecture - this kind of structure or system that we haven't really figured out yet. But some people seem to get it - or at least they get part of it and they try to communicate it to the rest of the world. We create religions around these people.
They're all seeing through a very thick glass very dimly.
Anyway, after I traveled around and read some books I started to suspect that maybe what it would take to reach this goal - the world where we all live in perfect love - was sacrifice. And the greatest thing a person can sacrifice is their life.
So, instead of trying to earn money to buy things, I would try to do the opposite. Whatever that looks like. I would default on giving rather than receiving, and I would stop harboring violence toward other people, in my heart and actions. It's really hard to love everyone all the time, but it's possible to try. It's possible to see someone outside a burning house and feel love for them - it's harder to see someone in a prison cell and feel love for them.
I thought about this a lot. And then I realized that someone else who had felt this way was Jesus. Jesus walked around and told people to sell all their stuff and give the money to the poor. He was a physician who helped lepers instead of running from them, and he told people to love and visit those in prison.
He also spit in the face of Rome and willingly walked to his own brutal death rather than sacrifice his principles by acting violently or inciting a riot.
I think that this is the sort of behavior that will bring about the world I described above - even if this "perfect world" only exists for 15 seconds between two individuals.

What about faith in God? I keep referencing God, though I know above I said that I'm a lousy theist.
I don't know what God looks like, but I know there have been a million million different descriptions. I'm pretty sure that if there is this hidden force that permeates the universe, human language is a poor vessel through which to describe it. I know that when I sit in silence for a few hours in the chapel I experience something very visceral, and that I come out of it with renewed purpose.

If we are set free to love one another unconditionally, and we do not live in a deterministic reality - then God cannot step in to change the nature of reality. God is no puppetmaster. This probably sounds rather deistic, but I don't think it is - because there are other things that we can get from a prayerful life that go way beyond a good parking spot or getting over the stomach flu or finding a better job. I think that if we pray for wisdom, if we pray to be shown an open door, or that if pray to feel loved, that these things are readily given to us. But we have to embrace them. We have to act on the wisdom given to us, we have to walk through the open door, and we have to accept that we are loved.
I think this last one is the greatest, because when you feel like someone is constantly loving and cherishing you, it's hard to have a bad day.

These beliefs that I have are kind of sophomoric. I don't talk about them in grad school or in the pulpit. I feel like a little kid when I talk about my own faith and I usually end up screwing up what I'm trying to say in the first place. It's much better acted upon than described.
Suffice to say that my scattered ideas - the permanence of our self-created life - the hidden architecture - the practice of downward mobility and universal, unconditional love - the practice of daily, careful prayer - have led me to several startling conclusions.
Namely, that we are all loved - regardless of our race, gender, sexual orientation, criminal status, age, level of education - regardless of anything that humans have created to describe one another. We're all here to work on improving this world and our doors should always be open to one another. There can't be any place for prejudice in the world if this is going to work. Also, I believe that we have to start by serving the poor. I tend to think that I owe the poor a great debt, because everything I've ever consumed was purchased at a discount due to someone else's suffering. When people ask me who my boss is, I usually don't answer "Jesus" or "God" or "the senior minister at my church," I usually say, "the poor." It's a good start, anyway. Love them unconditionally and you gradually stop resenting them for being dirty or lazy or drunken or all the other prejudices people have against the poor - you really start to see them as your brothers and sisters and eventually you reach a point where you'd rather hang out at the mission than hang out at the bar because the people at the mission "get you."
Thirdly, we have to somehow disarm this planet. We have to get rid of the weapons that make it easier to kill each other and kill the planet. I think that these include guns and tanks and bombs but also governments who torture and imprison their own citizens, and corporations who assault the planet. I think we can do this nonviolently, because it's been done in the past. We have to stand up to the empire every day, we have to love them, but we have to stand firm and accept the consequences.
Lastly, I think that we have to continue to unravel the mysteries that surround us. I think we need to invest more and more in the sciences because truthfully it was things like sanitation and the advent of flight and antibiotics and all these things that pull us forward, forward towards this world of all-encompassing love by making it possible for us to reach our goals - healing the sick and lame and housing the poor and ending war.

I've met a few other people who seem to really echo these thoughts - Father John Dear, Rev. Walt Coleman and Rev. Daniel Wolpert at MICAH, and Bishop Spong. And many others. But this stuff seems to be in the minority, especially in the church.

But maybe that's how it always is. Maybe the minority opinion - the heretic - is always going to end up being the one who helps the healing process take place.
Ancient Christians used to meet under over-turned boats to hide from their persecutors. Even today, when you observe the inside of a cathedral, it sort of looks like an upside down boat. We even have a part of the church - the nave - it comes from the same root as "navy." I think then - that as religious folk we're supposed to be "upside-down" from the world around us. And that if the church reflects mainstream culture than the boat has really been flipped.

In short, Christianity today has, unfortunately, very little to do with Jesus. It's more about society - and honestly, it's more and more a tool of Rome - of the empire. The empire always tries to seize the church and use it for its own means.

But - there are Christians out there who believe very different things, and I think that if you met them you maybe would like to sit and have a beer with them. And I think that you would find that they love you very, very much and accept you however you are - because they see the God in you, even if they don't understand why.

I could be wrong about this stuff. Many other people before me have said this a thousand better ways. I only recently turned 24 and I have a lot of stuff to learn. I'm sorry if I made it sound like I have some sort of monopoly on understanding the scriptures. I think the Bible is a story-world, one in which I especially love losing myself.

Okay. That's enough for tonight. I'm going out to a big old bluegrass party. Woot!
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:26 PM on September 2, 2007 [12 favorites]


Taking glib potshots at a body of work of which you evidently have but the smallest glimmer of understanding doesn't make you look clever.

Whatever.

The big gorilla in the room that you're missing is the fact that most deeply spiritual and religious people have had spiritual experiences that made them the way they are. And I'm not just talking about metaphysical visions, although they are included. Otherwise sane people have had deeply profound insights through their spiritual experiences.

When I went mad, several things happened:

1. I became convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I Understood The Plan, and that the rest of the world was divided into Those Who Understood and Those Who Didn't.

2. I spent days being floored by incredible rushing waves of Insights Into The True Nature Of Reality.

3. I became quite charismatic.

The profundity of the experience was astounding. I have never, before or since, felt anything even approaching that kind of rock solid certainty. And the certainty felt good.

Being mad was amazing. If I were not aware of the incredible stress that being mad put on those who cared about me, I would happily go mad again and stay mad until it killed me.

I do occasionally feel a twinge of envy for people whose delusions have social sanction. I know, now, how nice it feels to be sure.

I also think I've got the smallest glimmer of understanding of the process by which religions get started.

But I have no good explanation for Creflo A. Dollar.
posted by flabdablet at 7:05 PM on September 2, 2007 [3 favorites]


Life does not just happen!

This isn't an argument! It's just contradiction!"
"It is not!"
"It is too!"
"No it isn't!"

posted by ZachsMind at 7:48 PM on September 2, 2007


I am not in the mood for your stupid shit today.

quite frankly, i don't give a flying fuck what mood you are in.

You're saying that good deeds and noble acts are driven solely by religious belief?

pretty much, yeah. aside from, you know, self-interest, about which there's nothing noble.

Talk about an ignoramus.

You've gone on this site from being ridiculed to vilified to basically ignored. Anytime you say anything besides your unfunny non-sequiturs, you're usually shouted down pretty quickly, as you were above.


thank you for tracking that for me! i'm quite crushed by the stunning information that perhaps some smug young online turds vilify me. oooh! Lord, bandage my deep wounds! i didn't see anyone shouting me down, either! i saw one rather intelligent reply, with which i disagree. so yeah, let's talk about an ignoramus, Ynoxas.
posted by quonsar at 7:53 PM on September 2, 2007


When I went mad, several things happened...

...Was that considered a temporal lobe seizure? I've heard wonderful thing often happen during them. I ask not because i'm trying to discount the insights you receive, in fact i do believe that this is the part of your biology that is first tickled when it encounters something much larger, perhaps infinite.
posted by phylum sinter at 7:55 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


1. I became convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I Understood The Plan, and that the rest of the world was divided into Those Who Understood and Those Who Didn't.

2. I spent days being floored by incredible rushing waves of Insights Into The True Nature Of Reality.

3. I became quite charismatic.


4. The mushrooms wore off.
posted by dreamsign at 8:06 PM on September 2, 2007


order is chaos

One of my favorite movie taglines is for the movie Pi.

"Faith in chaos."
posted by The Deej at 8:06 PM on September 2, 2007


ZachsMind: Sand castles don't get made on their own.

You don't get out to see many of the wonders of geology do you.

ZachsMind: Life doesn't just happen.

Straw man. Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

Baby_Balrog: This was always my problem with atheism - that it always seemed to me to be the highest arrogance to assume that we understand this world - that no mysteries remain - that science will lay everything bare.
It's almost - but not quite - as bad as the fundamentalists who claim to speak for God.


Gee, is today international strawatheist day?

Or to be blunt. Why does a defense of your beliefs have to rely on glib slanders of my beliefs?

Which to meet you half-way on this, there probably are atheists who believe that science will lay everything bare. Just as there are people who believe that all of the answers can be found in a literal interpretation of the KJV Bible. Just as you object to reducing the wide varieties of theistic thought to biblical fundamentalism, I object to reducing the wide varieties of atheistic thought to naive scientism.

The reason I'm an atheist is not out of a belief that we understand the world. There are clearly many frontiers still remaining.

Nor is it grounded on a belief that science explains everything. I've been consistently critical when science is applied outside of its proper scope of developing general statements from multiple cases.

The reason I'm an atheist is that I choose to approach mystery as mystery. I see mystery as a reason for awe and wonder, not because some anthropomorphic god lurks behind the puppet play of four fundamental forces, but because it is unknown, beautiful and powerful and to be appreciated for its own merits. I'm an atheist because mystery is pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, and I know that if that mystery ever yields its secrets, that we will get more mysteries like birthday presents from friends. I'm an atheist because of that infinity of possibilities that exists in every mystery, I refuse to soil it by insisting on a single possibility. I'm an atheist because I find the language of theism to be limiting in talking about mystery.

This love of the universe as mystery is at the heart of writing by Sagan, Druyan, and Wilson, and even Dawkins can sometimes get into it.

But I've found something very interesting in my 36 years. Which is that people like you are not interested in engaging in the varieties of atheistic thought. It's easier to deal with the stereotype of the arrogant atheist who has all the answers and absolute certainty. Because after all, you "lived with atheists" and are therefore able to speak with authority on this matter, even while you love us all and god bless us.

There can't be any place for prejudice in the world if this is going to work.

Except of course, for your own, towards me and mine.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:12 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Jesus. Now in addition to ranting, angry atheists and ranting, angry believers, I've got ranting, angry agnostics to contend with too? And here I'm thinking there was at least one group I could count on to keep it to themselves. I've observed enough of these "discussions" that I should know better. It's clear that the one thing nobody has a monopoly on is "holier than thou."
posted by nanojath at 8:19 PM on September 2, 2007


Baby_Balrog: And to lay out the agenda on the table. I'm not expecting you to change your faith or your calling. I grew out of the need to convert others about when I was your age.

I'm expecting you to challenge your own prejudices of atheism and atheists, and to stop using the smug, arrogant atheist stereotype when you talk about us. Thank you very much.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:20 PM on September 2, 2007


nanojath: Are you kidding. It seems that just about every discussion of atheism has to include at least one smug person abusing the term agnostic to claim the philosophical high ground from the strawatheist.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:22 PM on September 2, 2007


The reason I'm an atheist is that I choose to approach mystery as mystery.

don't you think it's possible to approach god as a mystery, too? ... in fact, i don't know of any other way to approach him

I see mystery as a reason for awe and wonder, not because some anthropomorphic god lurks behind the puppet play of four fundamental forces,

the thing is that any description any of us come up with for god is inaccurate and incomplete - that's something that's been sorely lacking from this discussion - the realization that people's ideas of god are going to be limited because of the limited ability of people to understand

there's plenty of mystery to be found in theist viewpoints, too ... and one can still consider the mysteries that science is considering with awe and wonder

in other words, you don't get a bunch of easy explanations with faith in god - in fact, what you get are more questions
posted by pyramid termite at 8:29 PM on September 2, 2007


it always seemed to me to be the highest arrogance to assume that we understand this world - that no mysteries remain - that science will lay everything bare.

That's why I respect theists so much. They never presume to know the will of GOD. They just put their vote in the "yea" camp and leave it wisely at that.
posted by dreamsign at 8:29 PM on September 2, 2007


don't you think it's possible to approach god as a mystery, too? ... in fact, i don't know of any other way to approach him

Well, you don't want to startle Him on approach, that's for sure. He might incinerate you with His laser-eye beam. Or send you one of those plagues of locusts.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:35 PM on September 2, 2007


Well, you don't want to startle Him on approach, that's for sure. He might incinerate you with His laser-eye beam.

that's chuck norris, silly

Or send you one of those plagues of locusts.

i'm not a locust, why would i care about that?
posted by pyramid termite at 8:41 PM on September 2, 2007


I don't think it was any kind of seizure, because I was mad for at least a month.
And shrooms don't have that kind of clarity, and they don't run for that long.

I never got an official diagnosis (not that I remember, anyway) despite being arrested and ending up in psych ward, but from the reading I've done since, it was probably some kind of mania, with a bit of grandiose delusion thrown in to spice it up. I think it was brought on by a combination of cultural isolation (I was working in a country whose language I didn't speak), work-related stress and associated poor time management and lack of sleep, and irregular eating.

KirkJobSluder might recall pqlier's meltdown on the About Atheism forum circa 2000; that was the early stages.
posted by flabdablet at 8:48 PM on September 2, 2007


Are you kidding.

Pretty much. More than anything else the way this particular cultural conversation (apparently inevitably) goes makes me tired. Your side, Baby_Balrog's side, specifically and quite decidedly my side. I imagine we could all have a relatively pleasant conversation, over a few beers. I should just stay out of it: I think I will, starting now.

Actually the way a lot of the cultural conversation goes makes me tired. Adversarial rhetoric: it doesn't really seem to be helping us solve our (serious, imminent and generally having fuck-all to do with higher metaphysics) problems, does it?
posted by nanojath at 8:50 PM on September 2, 2007


pyramid termite: don't you think it's possible to approach god as a mystery, too? ... in fact, i don't know of any other way to approach him

Well, this begs the question of "why god?" At some point in my life I realized that I didn't have any faith that there was a god, not using any of the definitions I found meaningful, and therefore it was pointless to cop a claim to a theism that I didn't believe.

Which is why I find the certainty aspect of the strawatheist to be such a pain in the ass. In just about a century of atheist thought, the ontological argument against god has been largely replaced by the justifiable doubt argument. Few atheists claim ironclad disproof of god, most just claim that they find no compelling reason to believe in god.

Certainly I'm not denying that there can be a lot of mystery as to god. It pisses me off when theists claim a monopoly on mystery, or awe, or wonder.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:53 PM on September 2, 2007


I was listening to Rachel Kohn's radio program the other day, and she had some theist scientist on who said something about science being unsuited to answering the basic question of why there is something rather than nothing, which is why he still saw a place for God.

This line of reasoning has always struck me as completely specious. How is "why something rather than nothing" any different from "why God rather than nothing"? Seems to me that, since "something" is (literally!) self-evident, the only fruitful way forward when pondering such a question is to start by looking closely at the meanings you attach to the words "why" and "nothing".

Positing God as some kind of Ultimate Uncaused Cause has always seemed like a fairly straightforward smoke-and-mirrors exercise to me, and I'm always amazed to find apparently intelligent people doing it with a straight face.
posted by flabdablet at 9:11 PM on September 2, 2007


it was probably some kind of mania

A month is a long time. Glad you're feeling better.

Maybe more people should go through such a thing, though, for a shorter period. Being exposed to optical illusions as a child taught me to refrain from wholly trusting what I see. A ton of people out there apparently have no healthy skepticism whatsoever toward what they "feel" to be true.
posted by dreamsign at 9:11 PM on September 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Well, this begs the question of "why god?"

the only real answer i can give you is personal experience, which isn't transferable - to be convincing, it would have to be your experience, not mine

Few atheists claim ironclad disproof of god, most just claim that they find no compelling reason to believe in god.

i can understand and respect that - my experience has been different

Positing God as some kind of Ultimate Uncaused Cause has always seemed like a fairly straightforward smoke-and-mirrors exercise to me

it might seem so - but if you take god out of the picture, you've still got that ultimate uncaused cause in there somewhere

it's smoke and mirrors all the way down ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:29 PM on September 2, 2007


but if you take god out of the picture, you've still got that ultimate uncaused cause in there somewhere

This is one of the main sticking points - as has been stated, most atheists believe that things beyond the frontiers of knowledge are most honestly answered with 'we don't know now, possibly we will later' than 'obviously it was a patriarchal divine father figure we heard about from some goat herders millennia ago and for which there is no tangible evidence'.

don't you think it's possible to approach god as a mystery, too?

What's the mystery, specifically? Black holes we can detect, research and attempt to explain, abiogenesis we can define, attempt and work toward recreating. What is the God mystery? Belief itself has better explanations to account for its various forms and the rest of the God concept is undetectably supernatural. What's they mystery?
posted by Sparx at 10:59 PM on September 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


I just got in a little while ago and found this thread. As I read thru it, I began to copy and paste various statements into a text document and provide my own replies to various arguments. But the more I read and the more I thought, well, I came to the realization that it doesn't matter. Religious/non-religious, none of it. The real problem with the state of mankind is people. Too many people with too many conflicting beliefs and too many ideas of how things should be. This debate is just a subset of the main problem, which is that humanity is on the whole fucked. And there is no real answer to that problem. You can knock back the cancer, but once it gets a real foothold all you can do is hang on 'til the end. All of this talk is radiation vs. chemo. One, the other, or both might keep us going a while longer; but in the end: " . . . the rest is silence." Life is hard, some people are good, and nobody gets out alive. Be nice to those that deserve it, and try not to make things worse for folks. Religion gave us the Inquisition and the Pieta; Science gave us penicillin and the atomic bomb. Both comfort, both kill. Sometimes you can't tell the players w/out a scorecard.
posted by landis at 11:56 PM on September 2, 2007


Positing God as some kind of Ultimate Uncaused Cause has always seemed like a fairly straightforward smoke-and-mirrors exercise to me

If so, it's very powerful smoke and mirrors, reaching all the way back to Aristotle. And it's also a very human sort of smoke and mirrors that arises naturally from rational enquiry as much as from some need for "comfort".

For one thing, if we see that everything in our experience is caused by something else, and that something else by another something else, we're tempted to try to cut straight to the end and ask: well, what causes everything? I.e., we try to get to the beginning of the chain, rather then finding more and more links in the chain incrementally. And then, as Kant says, we face two contradictory images: one of the chain beginning spontaneously in an uncaused cause, another of the chain simply going back forever. Both images are intuitively plausible and yet wildly problematic, and this contradiction arises, as Kant argues, quite naturally from rational enquiry.

We could also see it like this: the human mind naturally asks of things not only how but also why; and when the human mind can abstract enough to conceive of everything as a whole, it can ask of this not only how but also why; and almost our only model of 'why' is ourselves, i.e. we know both why and how we do things we do, so we end up thinking that this all might be the product of intention. At the very least, this kind of explanation can be used as a helpful model. And of course science cannot tell us 'why' things happen, because to every answer (the Big Bang e.g.) we can respond: why? So this is why the Unmoved Mover satisfies this line of questioning, although it opens up a whole can of other questions.

We could also recall the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which states that everything that happens must have sufficient reason for happening, i.e. must be in principle be fully explainable -- quite a rationalist doctrine and central to our intellectual tradition. However as there are many kinds of explanation there are also many kinds of 'reason' we can give: our notion of cause (Aristotle's efficient cause) being one kind, the end-goal or purpose being another kind (Aristotle's final cause). A lot of people nowadays, based on physics as it was 100 years ago, like to think that only efficient causality is rational explanation, ignoring how physicists actually work today or how historians or sociologists explain the phenomena they investigate or just how we people explain each other and ourselves. If we believe in Sufficient Reason and also believe that it can be applied not just to things in the universe but to the universe as a whole, (both arguable assumptions, but I think quite intuitive and natural ones) then we might conclude that sufficient reason for this whole existence of ours cannot be found in an efficient cause, since this would seem to itself require another efficient cause one step further back, but in an intelligence outside of time and space, i.e. as a final cause of the unmoved mover.

Of course this all remains speculation outside of our experience, and of course it's a fallacy to infer from an uncaused cause to the idea that the Bible is true and God has opinions about homosexuality and abortion. Still, as I tried to suggest above before I went to bed, if we forget how throughout our tradition religion has been intimately connected with rational enquiry, we're just muddying the waters.
posted by creasy boy at 12:43 AM on September 3, 2007


I'm expecting you to challenge your own prejudices of atheism and atheists, and to stop using the smug, arrogant atheist stereotype when you talk about us. Thank you very much.

I'm an atheist. Have been since I was about ten. I'm fifty three this month, and I fully expect to die an atheist.

I've never had any particular reason to doubt my atheism -- aside from that one time when I was having an impacted wisdom tooth removed under the influence of nitrous oxide and was conscious of being completely at one with the ebb and flow of the universe. I could hear it throbbing, Ommmmmmmm, and I felt as though I understood what centuries of Buddhist teachers had been trying to impart.

Later though, I realized that it was just the sound of the dentists drill.

But this much I know: I'd much rather hang around with somebody like baby_balrog, who, avoids petty nitpicking and getting all up in somebody else's shit, simply because in their attempt to communicate what they think or believe, they happen to use a bit of shorthand, and don't happen to articulate the full spectrum of possible beliefs that they don't happen to share.

Because as an atheist, generosity of all kinds is important to me. I aint got no God who's gonna save me from the void -- all I've got is my belief in my fellow man, and as a consequence, generosity in communication is probably more important to me than anything else. Despite being a snarky fucker myself, it's probably the major reason why I find myself here on MeFi.

But I haven't seen it much in evidence among the atheists in this thread, and it makes me wonder. If we're so secure in our belief of God's non-existance, why are we so challenged by every percieved slight?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:08 AM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


This is the key thing. Faith is not about being suckered in, or gullible, or suspending your disbelief. Faith is just about faith. If you are a spiritual being you will find believing in a higher power to be easy.

Quite honestly, I don't agonize about my own lack of faith, or suffer from serious existential depression. I was trying to make a rhetorical point about how having more certainty in life would be a nice thing to have, and illustrating that with my feelings in response to the many evangelizing types I've come across during my life.

That said, I've no idea what it could possibly mean to be a 'spiritual being' -- outside of recognizing something of the divine in other people. But that simply reinforces my humanistic tendencies.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 1:25 AM on September 3, 2007


pardon the lack of caps in the following; i still have a couple of bum fingers. after i wrote my previous comment, i thought more about what i said. here's what i came up with.
the usual stance of the atheist is that religion has done more harm than good; i agree w/ that, but as i read this thread i began to think about science and all that it has wrought in the world. i must admit that science has made things better for many in the world. certainly more people have been saved by penicillin than by prayer. but just as science and its kindred disciplines has proved more efficacious than religion in helping us understand the world and the universe we live in, and given more real comfort to people, it has also proved more pernicious in its ability to control and direct peoples thoughts and attitudes. religion gave us the suicide bomber; science gave us the actual bomb he uses. medicine heals far more people than religion, but medical treatment is beyond the reach of many even in the us. the spanish inquisition killed 15,000; the atomic bomb dropped on hiroshima killed the equivilant of one percent of the population of 1650 europe. the church confessional provided one on one surveillance; science has given us the wiretap and cameras in public places. weekly church services assured a certain commonality of experience; science gave us television and the internet.
the root problem of life is not what one believes; the real problem is that humanity will use whatever tools at its disposal to run roughshod over large populations of itself. this is the one thing that history shows has never changed. knowing this, and knowing the technological might controlled by the world's leaders, the only real truth one can arrive at is that we are fucked.
so what do we do? get thru life as best we can, hurting as few as possible, helping those that deserve it, and being conscious of the mess that we will leave for future generations. if there are any.
posted by landis at 3:14 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


For one thing, if we see that everything in our experience is caused by something else, and that something else by another something else, we're tempted to try to cut straight to the end and ask: well, what causes everything? I.e., we try to get to the beginning of the chain, rather then finding more and more links in the chain incrementally.

And we tend to conveniently forget that we're not, in general, dealing with a chain but with a network. As I see it, the "need" for a First Cause is nothing more than an artifact of faulty assumptions pushed beyond their domain of applicability.

If we see that everything in our experience that doesn't fall is held up by something else, and that something else by another something else, we're tempted to try to cut straight to the end and ask: well, what holds everything up?

We could end up believing that the Earth rests on the back of four unseen elephants standing on the shell of a giant undetectable turtle, and when some smartarse asks what the turtle is standing on we smugly assure him it's turtles all the way down...

Or we could inquire further into the nature of the ideas of "held up" and "down", come to realize that they have limited applicability, and figure out that in fact, it's Earth all the way down - and that this can be so without invoking an infinite regress, because we now know that "down" has no meaning at the centre of the Earth.

What good evidence do we have that the ideas of "cause" have, in principle, no similar lacunae?

And then, as Kant says, we face two contradictory images: one of the chain beginning spontaneously in an uncaused cause, another of the chain simply going back forever. Both images are intuitively plausible and yet wildly problematic, and this contradiction arises, as Kant argues, quite naturally from rational enquiry.

And both ignore the possibility of the chain winding and branching and weaving its way through stuff we hadn't bothered to consider when we originally came up with the "chain" metaphor.

Simple, linear causal chains are completely inadequate for the analysis of any system involving feedback; the universe at large is quite clearly such a system.

We could also see it like this: the human mind naturally asks of things not only how but also why; and when the human mind can abstract enough to conceive of everything as a whole, it can ask of this not only how but also why; and almost our only model of 'why' is ourselves, i.e. we know both why and how we do things we do, so we end up thinking that this all might be the product of intention. At the very least, this kind of explanation can be used as a helpful model.

Seems to me that this kind of explanation is utterly specious (to put it in buzzwords, it has truthiness but not much truth). And a very simple bit of logic demolishes it entirely anyway.

By the very nature of the concept of All Things, the Creator of All Things cannot be excluded from All Things. That's kind of the point of the idea of All. Therefore, simply positing such a Creator does nothing at all to address the question of the Cause of All Things. The smoke-and-mirrors part is where people pretty much arbitrarily assign attributes (such as "supernatural") to the Creator, in some kind of misguided attempt to turn the idea of All Things into the much less troublesome Most Things without anybody noticing that this is what's being done; pay no attention to the curtain in front of the man!

If we were honest in our enquiry, the fact that the question "whence All?" leads to contradiction, regardless of interpretation, should make us take a good hard look at the limits of applicability of our ideas about causality, and the assumptions that surround it.

And of course science cannot tell us 'why' things happen, because to every answer (the Big Bang e.g.) we can respond: why? So this is why the Unmoved Mover satisfies this line of questioning, although it opens up a whole can of other questions.

My point is that it doesn't open up a whole can of other questions. It opens up a whole can of the original question. In fact, it begs the question.

Either God is identical to All, in which case positing God is a mere exercise in labelling, rather than an answer; or God is a part of All, in which case positing God is an exercise in obfuscation; or God is not included in All, which is a contradiction from which anything may follow - for example, that the Bible is true and God has opinions about homosexuality and abortion.

We could also recall the Principle of Sufficient Reason, which states that everything that happens must have sufficient reason for happening, i.e. must be in principle be fully explainable -- quite a rationalist doctrine and central to our intellectual tradition.

Personally I think the Principle of Sufficient Reason is pure intellectual arrogance, and that believing it's true is as wrong-headed as believing in an ill-considered though perhaps convenient turtle Creator.

However as there are many kinds of explanation there are also many kinds of 'reason' we can give: our notion of cause (Aristotle's efficient cause) being one kind, the end-goal or purpose being another kind (Aristotle's final cause). A lot of people nowadays, based on physics as it was 100 years ago, like to think that only efficient causality is rational explanation, ignoring how physicists actually work today or how historians or sociologists explain the phenomena they investigate or just how we people explain each other and ourselves.

A lot of people nowadays have completely forgotten, if indeed they ever knew, that Aristotle ever made a good start at unpicking the various threads woven into the common notion of "cause".

If we believe in Sufficient Reason and also believe that it can be applied not just to things in the universe but to the universe as a whole, (both arguable assumptions, but I think quite intuitive and natural ones)

then we might as well believe in God, since we have clearly lost touch with whatever the hell we're talking about. This is an occupational hazard when dealing with high-level abstractions. Abstract away enough detail, and we lose all contact with reality - though the feeling that we still know what we're on about remains as strong as ever. And I say this as one with direct experience of losing all contact with reality while feeling unshakeably certain that I hadn't.
posted by flabdablet at 4:36 AM on September 3, 2007


flabdablet Actually, I think its simpler to simply apply Occam's Razor. Saying "God created the universe" doesn't actually answer any questions, it simply pushes the question "where did everything come from" back one level, and mysticises it. Becuase the logical next question is: where did "God" come from?

I fail to see how its preferable to have a mysticised entity who created the universe via unknown means, still leaving us with the question of where the entity came from, than it is to simply posit that the universe has always existed. In both cases we are supposing that *something* has simply always existed, without cause, and its simpler to assume that the something is the universe rather than a universe creating being.
posted by sotonohito at 5:15 AM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Ugh... Its morning. "simpler to simply" pretend I didn't write that....
posted by sotonohito at 5:15 AM on September 3, 2007


PeterMcDermott: But this much I know: I'd much rather hang around with somebody like baby_balrog, who, avoids petty nitpicking and getting all up in somebody else's shit, simply because in their attempt to communicate what they think or believe, they happen to use a bit of shorthand, and don't happen to articulate the full spectrum of possible beliefs that they don't happen to share.

Well, what you see as "petty nitpicking" I see as "cutting to the quick of the issue." Fundamentally, this entire thread is about how atheists are yucky because of the stereotype that they profess absolute certainty about the universe. It is the raison d'etre of the Humphys article that atheists as a class are just as bad as fundamentalist Christians. It's a claim that is echoed by pyramid termite and repeated by bashos_frog, whose extended spiel is intended to provide contrast to this stereotype. Seeing this stereotype appear once or twice in print, or in pixels on the screen, or voiced in commentary is "a bit of shorthand." When it has become the primary criticism raised against atheists, then it's more than nitpicking, it's a pattern of prejudice that is about as real, and helpful in this discussion as the myth of the Jewish banker.

I don't buy the argument that it was "a bit of shorthand" because it would have been easy, perhaps easier to write, "I've not found any of the atheisms I've encountered to be compelling." BF spend a huge chunk of text, and it would have been trivial for him or her to use language that recognizes the existence of a spectrum.

landis: the usual stance of the atheist is that religion has done more harm than good;

On the contrary, I'd say that the only stance that can be really attributed to atheists in regards to religion is that they don't practice it. This is not even a stance that is taken by all atheists who publish on atheism. Although Wilson, Schermer and Druyan get much less attention than Dawkins and Hitchins.

flabdablit: Which is why I would have to consider myself an agnostic atheist. Yes, "God did it" might be lurking behind the big bang. But so are a variety of other possibilities including the concept that our universe is part of a larger whole with its own rules. Perhaps most critically, using "god language" here leads one to anthropomorphism, and this is where I think Einstein made a mistake in that his use of god language misled many into thinking he shared their belief in an anthropomorphic prime mover.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:36 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


flabdablet, sotonohito: yes, I expected this kind of rebuttal, and ultimately I'm not interested in defending theism or qualified to do so...it's not a part of philosophy I'm terribly familiar with and anyway I am and always have been a non-believer. I suppose if I had any reason for my long rant, it was this: on the one hand I don't like certain people in this thread calling theism idiocy or a mental deficiency, and on the other I don't like people, like the writer of this article, saying that their faith is just some feeling they have, beyond argument. Hence my attempt to explain how theism actually emerged from more than just idiocy and mere feelings, how it has its origin in certain kinds of rational attempts to explain the universe and is susceptible to rational critique and yet not so flatly disprovable the way some people think. And I'm happy to concede that the reason why you can't disprove God's existence is the same reason it's useless to the sciences, because neither provable nor disprovable, and eliminated by Occam's razor: it is ultimately an idle hypothesis and does no real explanatory work, at least not in the sense that sciences need to explain things.

I wanted to suggest as well that the writer of the article, though I think his grasp if the issue is very unclear, does articulate something with his "Big Question", i.e.: people are always going to tend again and again to ask the question "why" in relation to the universe as a whole, and they are right to think that this question is unanswerable by science. Hence this perceived need to go beyond science stems from our use of reason in trying to explain our universe -- not from some fuzzy upwelling of sentimentality. Flabdablet, I don't think it really matters that I spoke of causality as a chain, it could equally well be a big web: the contentious point is whether we can even conceive of the Everything the way we'd like to, and then ask 'why' and expect any kind of coherent answer...since, as you say, whatever answer you come up with will be a part of the Everything and not outside of it. I think the Kantian intuition is exactly right that this is a temptation of reason, i.e. an error of sorts but an error that our reason perennially stumbles into in its search for rational explanations; and I think Kant is right that the speculation on this point will always arise but will never constitute knowledge. However, if we can see the issue this way, then we can see that calling theism 'mental deficiency' or an infantile sort of comfort-blanket misses quite a lot of context. And furthermore as far is your objection that positing an uncaused cause just pushes back the need for explanation, since now we need to explain where God came from: well, I'm not sure if this is necessarily true, my sense is that we would need to ask someone more well-versed in theology. I guarantee you that people like Aquinas thought of this and have some sort of answer. But I certainly see where the objection comes from.

What irks me above all in these kinds of discussions is that this relatively modern rhetoric of emotionalism and irrationalism -- faith is this feeling I have, I just feel that my religion is true, is not a matter of intellect, etc. -- only became popular in the last 100 years, in my unqualified opinion, and it drives me crazy, and it drives me especially crazy that both sides of the debate accept these terms of the debate without any understanding of the philosophical motivations for this "Big Question". And personally, I do suspect that the question cannot be answered coherently, never mind correctly, for the very reasons you mention; but the odd thing is that I also understand the question pretty well and understand why one would be driven to ask it; so this puts me in sort of a bind.

Sotonohito: I think a universe that always existed is just as crazy as a universe that spontaneously popped into being. This is actually Kant's first antinomy: it seems that only two answers are possible, and both lead to absurdity. It's been a long time since I've read this, I can't recall exactly what the objections are to both of the positions -- but Kant definitely has a sort of disproof of both based on reductio ad absurdum.
posted by creasy boy at 6:06 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


creasy boy Actually, I'll agree that both (or all three if you want to drag the theistic angle into it) are absurd.

Ultimately, I suspect that the question "where did the universe come from" is beyond the limits of science. Science, after all, deals exclusively in that for which we have evidence, and pretty much by definition anything that occured prior to the big bang won't have left any evidence....

I can understand why people would ask the question, and why they'd try to come up with answers. What I object to is that for so many these answers lead up a big bearded guy with a coffee can full of lightning bolts who cares deeply and vengefully about who we have sex with. Acually I don't even object to that. I object to the fact that they then try to put their tribal taboos into law and use my tax dollars to enforce them.

Idle speculation on the origin of the universe, and even a mysticisation of the posited origin is fine. But taking your non-falsifiable speculations about said origin and using them to attempt to pass invasive laws, or even to have my government endorse your speculations, isn't fine.

I don't care if someone is Rastifarian, Pastafarian, Catholic, Shiia, Suni, Wahabi, etc, their wanking about universal origins shouldn't be allowed into law, or government, and thats the precise limit of my really caring.
posted by sotonohito at 6:23 AM on September 3, 2007 [3 favorites]


Sotonohito: the "coffee can full of lightning bolts" is a new one to me, thanks. Yes, the opinions of God are strange to behold...especially since in that book he wrote he had comparatively little to say about homosexuality, for example. Apparently he didn't write it down, he just whispered it to a bunch of rednecks. Of course there is a tradition within Christianity (for example, Meister Eckhardt) of people gently pointing out that you can't possibly know what God thinks, so shut it and be humble...just as according to the New Testament Jesus basically said "listen, don't pray to get things or make things happen...you're not gonna convince God of anything. Just tell him thank you." Which also leads me to think that the "harm" caused by religion, which people always mention in these threads, is just caused by general assholery. To put this into perspective: I am not afraid of scientists, but I am sometimes afraid of the advances of science (e.g., increasing effectiveness of weapons). Here it is the other way around: I am not afraid of religion, just of many of its followers.
posted by creasy boy at 6:45 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I should add that the primary reason I find it important to stress the rationalist roots of religion is not just to correct an oversimplified view of religion that someone like Dawkins has, but more importantly to remind the religious of the higher standard they used to be held to. This insistence upon sentiment that we hear nowadays, for example from this article, is not normal; in my opinion it is the product of a modern relativism, and I think it's important to remind believers and atheists alike that this attitude of believing whatever you feel is not traditional religion. Maybe the redemption in Jesus was a matter of blind feeling, but theism itself was an intellectual position.
posted by creasy boy at 7:02 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


What have we learned today, class? Question your beliefs, but not so much that you can't get out of bed in the morning. Hurt no one, but do not abide harm to others. Jesus was a pretty with-it guy who's been taken out of context a lot. There are questions about the universe you don't know and cannot know (a box cannot contain itself). Don't preach, teach. And you can't teach someone something you don't know, though it's possible to learn from the mistakes of others. Avoid worrying about existential and metaphysical questions if there is falling to the ground in front of you. Help him up, dust him off, and take him to lunch. It is a beautiful day, or it soon will be. Take it one day at a time, and stay present. The greatest good you can do is to make the world a better place for the people you come into contact with on a daily basis.

I think this thread, and [proper/good/the nice aspects of] religion itself can be summed up in five words: "Be excellent to each other."
posted by Eideteker at 7:36 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


sotonohito, I don't think positing a Creator as a First Cause for All does push the question back one level. I think it merely gives the appearance of pushing it back one level, which is why I've called it "smoke and mirrors".

It seems to me that the standard schoolyard smartarse response of "well, where did God come from then?" implicitly accepts the smoke (the blurring of the idea of All) though it does draw attention to the mirrors (... causing God causing God causing God causing All). I object to both.

Showing that the Creator idea is unsatisfactory without clearly identifying it as fundamentally incoherent leaves wiggle room for words like "supernatural" and appeals like "Aquinas probably dealt with this".

KirkJobSluder, it seems to me that as soon as you posit a distinction between "our Universe" and some larger whole, you're no longer discussing the First Cause of All - merely the cause of Some; the Big Question has slipped from your grasp.

creasy boy, I think it does matter whether we conceive of causality as chain-like or web-like. In the web case, I see no strong objections to the idea that everything is caused by everything else - a position that not only doesn't require a First Cause, but implicitly denies that such a concept is meaningful: All doesn't have an "else", by definition, any more than the centre of the Earth has a "down".

Apart from that, I think we're pretty much on the same page. I hope you're not including me among those who take the position that theism is a result of a mental deficiency. I think unshakeable belief (be that in God, the superiority of Western culture, the unlimited potency of reason or anything else) is delusional, not deficient; I'm interested in delusion as a phenomenon, having experienced a particularly clear-cut case of it first-hand.

On balance, I think the world would be a better place with fewer delusions, and I think it's worth spending time learning to look out for smoke and mirrors - because I really do think that reasoning is a fairly important part of the process by which delusions sustain themselves. Impeccable logic based on wonky premises causes a lot of misery.
posted by flabdablet at 7:43 AM on September 3, 2007


There's a good anwser to "creator as first cause pushes the question back one level": I don't care. I'm not saying that I don't care. I'm saying that it's reasonable not to care.

If you're wondering what caused World War II, you may be satisfied with "Hitler's rise to power." On the other hand, you might not. You might ask, "Well, what allowed Hitler to rise to power." Such stopping points are arbitrary, but that doesn't stop them from being important to specific people at specific times.

Maybe something caused The Big Bang, but it's still important to me that The Big Bang is the immediate cause of the universe. So while I don't believe in God, it's never struck me as off that theists accept Him. Some might even think God's creator is an interesting thing to think about. But it's a different question.

Also, The Big Bang (in my limited understanding of it) is important to us because it gave us our laws of physics. To a theist, God might be important in a similar way. "There may be a God-creator that came before God, but it was God who gave us our moral laws..."
posted by grumblebee at 7:58 AM on September 3, 2007


flabdablet: Certainly true. However we can't eliminate the possibility that the universe is part of a large whole a priori out of a desire for aesthetic tidyness.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:06 AM on September 3, 2007


Maybe we can't do it out of a desire for aesthetic tidiness, but I think there's a strong argument to be made for doing it out of a desire for clarity of thought. If the word "universe" does not in fact refer to that large whole, how should we decide what it does refer to?

Perhaps we need more words for snow.
posted by flabdablet at 8:14 AM on September 3, 2007


flabdablet: Well, the current theory of "universe" is all that can be conceivably observed using the laws of physics that are currently in force. The problem is that if we extrapolate what we can observe using those laws, we are forced to conclude that at some point in the past, there was a singularity at which those laws no longer applied. What happened before that singularity or outside of what can be observed using the current laws of physics is a big question. Cosmologists who propose theories as to what caused the big bang say that whatever it was is outside of our current universe, but if they think long enough or hard enough about the problem, it might be possible that whatever it was had an impact on the laws currently in force.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:36 AM on September 3, 2007


Flabdablet: well, it's certainly a minor point, but if you don't think of the first cause as being first in time, but rather first in terms of what conditions what, then I think a big interlocking network could have a first cause in the sense of an unconditioned condition to everything.

Anyway, regarding the double nefariousness of both smoke and mirrors, and just for the sake of argument: we can imagine someone asking where all of this -- and here the person makes a sweeping gesture -- comes from; "this" implying all of our experience, including possible & future experience. Conceptually this leaves room for something else as long as it is outside of experience; for example, the condition of all our experience. So now there's nothing inherently nonsensical about asking: "what is the sufficient reason behind all of this" and answering: "it must be a supreme intelligence" or "it must be x" as long as x isn't something like "that mailbox" or "your mother", as long as this x is defined as being outside of what's included in "this".

So I think that takes care of the smoke. As for the mirror, the pushing back of the problem: I would argue that if here has to be an end to explanation, we're more prepared to see it end in intention than in cause. I see it this way:

Basically, the enquiring mind is unsatsified with the idea of everything just depending on other things, and those things on other things, indefinitely, since we want to know what the reason for that is, and generally we seek some foundation where the explanations come to a rest. Yet the enquiring mind is also unsatisfied with an arbitrary cut-off point like "the big bang" or "the big guy up there at the beginning". However if the explanation is going to stop somewhere, intention isn't as ridiculous as cause since we're used to thinking of intention as the end of the explanation. A first cause or a first condition would have to be spontaneous, i.e. arising of its own and generating out of itself. Now compare two ways of explaining human behavior: one explanation based on the causality of neurons, environmental influences, evolution, etc....and another explanation based on the reasons you give, couched in terms like intentions, beliefs, ends, preferences, interests, etc. The first kind of explanation is not going to be spontaneous, we will never find any first cause of that. However, the second kind of explanation is more likely to assume that the buck stops with the person and his/her decision. That is, the second explanation, an explanation in terms of intentions and reasons, is more likely to assume real & substantial freedom, that the person could've decided otherwise and his/her decision was not compelled by anything else other than person's exercise of rationality and free choice. Of course this is a contentious issue, but whether or not we have this kind of freedom, I think intuitively we are prepared to associate spontaneity, i.e. the buck actually stopping somewhere, a chain of causality actually arising by fiat, with an explanation according to intention or final cause. Whereas with efficient causality, this is ridiculous on the face of it.
posted by creasy boy at 8:39 AM on September 3, 2007


Yeah if I had previewed I would have added to what KirkJob is saying...one tends to think that there must be something responsible for the big bang. If there is, we could say, as a matter of shorthand: that (whatever) caused the big bang, which caused everything. But "everything" is not meant in a very strict sense, it just means all this here. Same with the explanation to primordial intention.
posted by creasy boy at 8:45 AM on September 3, 2007


flabdablet Re: delusions. I think its rather telling that in our society the word "disillusioned" holds a negative connotation. It implies that being decieved, or deluded, is a good thing. Language shapes our minds, and vice versa, so I'm of the opinion that little linguistic quirks like that can actually provide insight into cultural and social phenomana. Certainly one can take such linguistic ananlys too far and just be wanking, but I think that it does provide a useful tool.

As for god as Ultimate Creator, I agree to an extent with your sentiment. However accepting the other person's POV for the sake of argument is not, IMO, a bad thing, nor something that undermines your own argument. My point was that even if we accept the creationist [1] argument it still doesn't actually go anywhere. I agree fully that the idea is inherently incoherent, and think my point was simply pointing out the incoherence involved.

grumblebee Yes, one can assume that there is a creator who produced the primordial atom. But that just brings us back to my point that assuming that doesn't actually answer anything, and provides no utility that is missing from simply assuming that the primoridal atom always existed. Occam's Razor leads me to go with the "its just always been here" unless some sort of evidence exists for the "there is an uncreated creator". Neither one is provable, and I agree completely that the entire question is largely meaningless in terms of affecting us in the slightest, which is what you seemed to be saying with the "I don't care" bit.

OTOH, the entire question is philosophic wankery, so our only two choices are to ignore the question because we aren't interested in philosophic wankery, or to have fun wanking.

creasy boy I got the coffee can full of lightning bolts image from my father, dunno if he invented it or stole it.

I've read Eckhardt, part of a History of Christianity class I once took. I'm too much of a rationalist to be able to really appreciate a his mysticism. I can't say I *like* Aquinas, but since he is also a rationalist I found his stuff a lot easier to read.

As for the harm caused by religion, I'll argue that its mostly in that religion provides a form of neo-tribalism that can quite easly be used to justifiy evil. Partially because pretty much every holy text on the planet has a few passages of the "...and God said smite the heritics, the apostate, and the heathen for they really chap my ass" variety. It isn't, in other words, as if you have to twist religion much to turn it into a justification for evil.

But everyone cherrypicks when it comes to what they believe, or at least focus on, out of their holy books. Good religious people ignore the spiteful parts of their texts, bad religious people glory in the spiteful parts of their texts. If the Christians would focus on what it says in the red letters and ignore the rest I'll agree that things would be better. But that isn't exactly a ringing endorsment of religion as a positive force, and thats because I think religion is just a force. Some folks use religion and become St. Francis, others use it and become Torqmada....

[1] Hmmmm... Need a better word. "Creationist" typically means the anti-evolution wackjobs, I'm just meaning people who claim that the universe was created, and therefore a creator exists.
posted by sotonohito at 8:49 AM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Actually, I'd be interested in some list of all the times we're told to smite people in the Bible. As I recall, God does his own dirty work smiting the fuck out of whole landscapes in the Old Testament; and I guess there are other passages telling us to disaprove of things like eating shellfish, these weren't really said in a multi-cultural context, they're more things that apply to members of the chosen people. And you'll note that the really strict Jews nowadays are strict on themselves and their own but do not walk around proseletysing or knocking shellfish out of people's hands, so they seem to have understood pretty well and these are internal regulations and not absolute.

And in the New Testament: Jesus told us not to worry too much about what others do, tend to the log in our own eye, etc.; then Paul, who had to actually help govern the communities that were emerging, said that maybe people should worry about what others are doing, but still I don't recall him telling us to really smite people so much as to smite ourselves when we step out of line; and then in relevations we're all smitten for sleeping on the job.

Is there are quote in the Bible where we're actually told, "go kill that guy if you see him fucking wrong"?
posted by creasy boy at 9:01 AM on September 3, 2007


But that isn't exactly a ringing endorsment of religion as a positive force, and thats because I think religion is just a force. Some folks use religion and become St. Francis, others use it and become Torqmada....
It's not just a force, and it's not neutral at all. It was developed to control people and groups and set laws and rules that people were supposed to follow in living--or they'd get killed or die (for a variety of large and small reasons).

It's not like gravity or motion or stuff like that--it's a constructed system (systems, really), and they never were without condemnation and restrictions and rules for living, dying and everything inbetween. The big 3 were developed to define a group, and endorse and give license to punish those who weren't in that group. And the good done by St. Francis and the bad done by Torquemada are both endorsed by their religion--and Torquemada did far far more harm and damage than St. Francis ever did good. That's built-in too, in some faiths.

I'm not an atheist and i see this clearly. Most people who aren't fundamentalists do, when they look at their own religion and others. The author of this piece is a member of a religion invented so a king could divorce, for God's sake. Henry constructed the Anglican faith as a direct reaction to the strictures and power the Catholic faith imposed.
posted by amberglow at 9:17 AM on September 3, 2007


creasy boy The Bible, the OT anyway, commands people to kill people all the time. Read through Leviticus. Specifically, try: Lev 24:10-16, in which we are commanded to kill, by stoning, anyone who blasphimes.

Lev 20:13 commands us to kill male homosexuals, though it doesn't specify how.

Lev 20:14 says that if a man has sex with a woman and her mother that all three should be burned alive.

Lev 20:15 says that if a man has sex with an animal both are to be killed, again it doesn't specify how.

Leviticus is, to a large extent, a list of commands to kill people. Sometimes for fucking wrong, sometimes for eating the wrong thing, wearing the wrong clothes, etc.

I will point out, however, that apparently the mysogny of the ancient Jews was sufficient that they didn't even consider lesbianism as a possibility, all of the anti-homosexual commandments I can find are about men.

Women, however, are forbidden from having sex with animals, and again we are commanded to kill them if they do. Lev 20:16.

The OT god does a lot of his own smiting, but also commands a lot of smiting. Try Psalm 137, in which those who "dash [Babylon's] little ones on the rocks" are blessed.
posted by sotonohito at 9:30 AM on September 3, 2007


Yeah that's the kind of list I was looking for, thanks. Interesting that they saw fit to take such a strong position on fucking animals...was this a significant problem back then?
posted by creasy boy at 9:33 AM on September 3, 2007


then Paul, who had to actually help govern the communities that were emerging, said that maybe people should worry about what others are doing

I suggest you read up on Saul/Paul. He did not "have to" actually help govern. Indeed, there was a considerable contingent of peple who had actually hung out with Christ who strongly did not want him taking an active role in determining the new community's direction.

In the end, it seems Paul was more a pirate than a priest.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:46 AM on September 3, 2007


I didn't mean "had to" in any strong sense, I just meant that's what he was doing...but what do you mean "pirate"? Now I'm curious.
posted by creasy boy at 10:02 AM on September 3, 2007


creasy boy I dunno what fff is going to say, but he might be refering to the fact that Paul essentially hijacked Christianity, though in so doing he might very well have been personally responsible for its enormous success. Read the Gospels, then read what Paul wrote, they're two rather remarkably different messages.

Like Jesus himself, the apostles other than Paul have rather dubious historic evidence for their existence at best. Paul, OTOH, is mentioned in enough disparate documents that its pretty certain that he was an actual physical person. He also lived quite a bit after Jesus and his original apostles theoretically did, and never claimed to have met any of them in person. [1] He did, however, produce much of what we consider to be modern Christianity. If we consider Luke to have been a real person then Paul is number two in terms of word count for the New Testement. His work accounts for a majority of the Biblical citations of many theologians.

I honestly think that "Paulism" might be a better term for what modern Christianity is.

[1] It isn't my area of speciality, but I think that the historic school which holds that there was not actually a Jesus of Nazarath, but that rather the person described in the Bible is an amalgam of several radical rabbis is correct.
posted by sotonohito at 10:33 AM on September 3, 2007


Like Jesus himself, the apostles other than Paul have rather dubious historic evidence for their existence at best.

2,000 years from now, what kind of historic evidence are we going to have that YOU existed?
posted by pyramid termite at 1:41 PM on September 3, 2007


Paulism is exactly what modern Christianity is.

The man wrested control of the church from those who had first-hand knowledge of the life and times of Jesus. He did not come from a Jewish heritage and had no legitimate claim to the foundling religion. Much of what he wrote lay the foundation of current "Christian" doctrine, though much of it is contrary to OT and NT teachings.

Christianity would be a much better religion, IMO, if it focused more on the red letters, and less on what that douchebag Paul wrote.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:03 PM on September 3, 2007 [2 favorites]


Fundamentally, this entire thread is about how atheists are yucky because of the stereotype that they profess absolute certainty about the universe.

I don't think that's what the thread is about at all. I think it's about how some atheists are yucky because they tend to express their scepticism in a way that's akin to the worst fundamentalist Christians. In a way that is disrespectful of other people's views and beliefs. I certainly recognize that tendency among atheists. In fact, I was that obnoxious atheist myself for the longest of times -- which may well be why I cringe when I see it in others. And there's rather a lot of it in this thread, primarily from those of us on the atheist side.

But perhaps it's a little bit like faith in a supreme being. Perhaps you have to experience it to actually believe in it, and when you're so tied up in the need to make the point that you want to make, rather than really listening to what somebody else is trying to say, I'm guessing that it's an easy thing to overlook.

I don't buy the argument that it was "a bit of shorthand" because it would have been easy, perhaps easier to write, "I've not found any of the atheisms I've encountered to be compelling."


When I'm having a discussion in real life, I tend to proceed on the basis of 'assume good faith'. So when they say something that could be read as a slight, until I see a pattern of slights from that particular individual, I tend to ignore them. I try to avoid generalizing, ie, assuming that, because certain people who hold belief set A have slighted me in such and such a manner previously, I prefer to avoid assuming that all people who hold that belief set will act in the same way -- generally because I've found that it isn't actually true.

And when somebody is trying to explain how they feel about something within a paradigm that they are heavily committed to, and they happen to say something that appears gauche from my own perspective, I tend to assume that that isn't because they're trying to slight me somehow. Rather, I find that it's because most of their intellectual effort is going into explaining the thing that's really important to them, and so they do tend to gloss over, or not put as much effort into the things that they see as peripheral to their concerns.

Of course, face to face is much easier, because whenever people do tread into difficult waters, they can read people's expressions and expand or modify their accounts accordingly. But online, assuming good faith in the absence of clear, strong evidence to the contrary, is the only way that I find I can avoid those conversations where both sides talk past each other, and miss the real point that the other is trying to make.

It's that Kantian principle -- the Categorical Imperative at work. Because I know that I do this myself when I'm talking about something that's important to me in relation to somebody else's beliefs, and I would like for people to not automatically assume that I'm attempting to slight them but are just more focused on the part of their argument that they feel warrants more mental energy, so I feel obliged to extend them the generosity of interpretation that I'd wish for myself. How did Kant put it?

"Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law."

I just can't find any argument with that.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:14 PM on September 3, 2007


pyramid termite Depends on a number of circumstances, I'd argue that the odds are actually fairly good that evidence of my existence, and yours for that matter, will exist in 2000 years. We keep a lot of records these days, and on some pretty durable media.

But comparing me to Jesus [1] is a mistake. I'm just some schlub, he (if we accept him as a real person) started a major world religion, pissed off both of the major powers in his area, etc.

We have evidence that Paul existed, and he's been dead for around 2000 years now.

We have evidence that Ramses II existed, and he's been dead for a bit under 3300 years.

Heck, we even have evidence that Pontius Pilate existed, and some of his court records. That last is significant in that none of his surviving court records mention a case similar to the one described in the Bible.

There's non-Buddhist records of Siddhartha, and non-Muslim records of Muhammad. But there are no non-Biblical records of Jesus or most of the Apostles. A figure that disruptive, that amazing, should have left more evidence; unless, of course, there wasn't actually a physical Jesus.

There are valid historographic arguments for the existence of a real Jesus. I think, in this case, the arguments are wrong, but they can be made for legitimate historic reasons. I won't state with absolute certenty that he didn't exist, I say only that I think the historians who think he didn't are probably right.

More to the point, I don't think the existence of a historical Jesus much matters except academically. The teachings, the philosophy, etc are equally valid if they came from one person, or an amalgam of several people. Of course, I'm seeing this from a non-Christian POV, I'd imagine that the salvation aspect makes the existence of a physical Jesus important to many Christians.

Questions of the physical existence of religious figures are always touchy. Its fairly certain, for example, that St. Patrick was purely mythic, I've read that the Vatican considered decannonizing him on the basis that he wasn't real, but gave it up after considering the outrage it would generate among the Irish if they did.

I'm *not* trying to claim that the lack of historic evidence for Jesus invalidates Christianity, I'm just mentioning it because I'm a stickler for things like that and it seemed relevant when I first brought it up.

[1] For the purposes of historical records I mean, its probably a mistake in other ways too...
posted by sotonohito at 4:32 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


But there are no non-Biblical records of Jesus or most of the Apostles.

did you count gnostic writings?

why shouldn't the biblical records count as historical documents? - if they have mistakes, so do many other documents of that time - if they pass over many details, so do many other documents

There are valid historographic arguments for the existence of a real Jesus

not the least of which is that if you hold that the biblical accounts of a historical jesus aren't good enough evidence, you're also going to have to throw out a lot of other stuff with equal lack of independent evidence

the whole problem with this argument is that it demands stricter evidence for the historical jesus than is demanded for the historical sappho, say

More to the point, I don't think the existence of a historical Jesus much matters except academically.

if you're going to change standards of evidence to say that the evidence for his historical existence isn't good enough, you're going to have to apply those standards everywhere - and that's going to change quite a lot
posted by pyramid termite at 4:59 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Biblical records are fine, but they're a single source with an agenda. There's Shinto religious writings that say Jimu [1] existed, but since there isn't any other evidence its pretty much universally accepted (even by the Japanese) that he didn't really exist. Multiple sources are always better than single sources, especially when the single source is highly biased.

"you're going to have to apply those standards everywhere - and that's going to change quite a lot"

Historians do apply those same standards everywhere, and it hasn't changed diddily.

[1] The mythic First Emperor of Japan.
posted by sotonohito at 5:11 PM on September 3, 2007


Hit post instead of preview, sorry. Meant to add.

The reason for doubting the historic existence of Jesus is that given his impact, and assuming that the stories written about him in the Bible are true, its highly unlikely that there wouldn't be mentions of him in other records. Take, for example, the famous ride into Jerusalem, it would have disrupted trade, made a fuss, etc. That sort of thing gets recorded, we do have records of other processions, etc.

We also know, for a fact, that at least part of the birth story is simply false. Rome never conducted a census in the manner described in the Bible. Stuff like that leads some, including me, to doubt the historic validity of the rest of the stories.

Coupled with the fact that the only record is a single, religiously biased, source, it doesn't seem at all unreasonable to doubt his physical existence.
posted by sotonohito at 5:19 PM on September 3, 2007


also, the Romans kept records of every single thing, and provincial governors and leaders and generals, etc, had to send reports back to Rome frequently---especially if money was involved.
posted by amberglow at 5:37 PM on September 3, 2007


The reason for doubting the historic existence of Jesus is that given his impact, and assuming that the stories written about him in the Bible are true, its highly unlikely that there wouldn't be mentions of him in other records.

you act as though it was common for somewhat well known people to have records in those times - it wasn't

the problem i have with this is paul, for example, whose historical existence you're sure of, would have run across people who actually were able to meet the historical jesus and say something about him - which, by the way, is something that's also described in acts - the existence of people who had met the historical jesus and had met paul - and instead of a glossy, well-worked out myth, we get a story about the tensions between different interpretations of early christianity

that certainly seems to have some historical veracity

if there was no historical jesus, why would people go to such lengths to argue about his legacy so soon? - why would paul take his existence as a granted thing? - why would anyone of that time? - and wouldn't have the roman pagans of the next couple of centuries been quick to pounce on any evidence that there was no such person as jesus and the events in the gospels never happened?

Take, for example, the famous ride into Jerusalem, it would have disrupted trade, made a fuss, etc. That sort of thing gets recorded, we do have records of other processions, etc.

we don't have complete records - or even half-complete ones

We also know, for a fact, that at least part of the birth story is simply false.

we know that people were never hermaphroditic creatures with four arms and legs and we can't find any historical evidence of atlantis

does that mean socrates didn't exist?

did caligula really name his horse as consul? ... did nero really fiddle while rome burned?

does that mean they didn't exist?

we know that many documents of that time have mixed truth and falsehood in them

Coupled with the fact that the only record is a single, religiously biased, source

four different gospels, the acts, and the letters of paul are not a single source - and then i think we can add the gospel of thomas to that - that's 7 sources
posted by pyramid termite at 5:44 PM on September 3, 2007


Anyway, regarding the double nefariousness of both smoke and mirrors, and just for the sake of argument: we can imagine someone asking where all of this -- and here the person makes a sweeping gesture -- comes from; "this" implying all of our experience, including possible & future experience.

That's a fair question, and an interesting question in its own right, but it's not the Big Question.

Conceptually this leaves room for something else as long as it is outside of experience; for example, the condition of all our experience. So now there's nothing inherently nonsensical about asking: "what is the sufficient reason behind all of this" and answering: "it must be a supreme intelligence" or "it must be x" as long as x isn't something like "that mailbox" or "your mother", as long as this x is defined as being outside of what's included in "this".

As soon as you put limits on what's included in "this", the question of where it all came from shrinks to quite manageable proportions; the general answer is "something else". It's only when you rule out all the various kinds of "else" - which people regularly do, on assorted handwaving grounds - that the question becomes Big again.

So I think that takes care of the smoke.

I think that is the smoke.

As for the mirror, the pushing back of the problem: I would argue that if here has to be an end to explanation, we're more prepared to see it end in intention than in cause.

I think that's because none of us really has the ability to discern the efficient causes of our own intention, which leaves us feeling as if intention is its own special class of uncaused cause, when in fact all it is is mysterious.

There is a general tendency to equate mysterious things with each other (even respectable rationalists like Roger Penrose do it) but it strikes me personally as sloppy thinking.

Consciousness is an observable feature of our ordinary experience. So are coin flips and sundry other unpredictable physical processes. If we're going to model That Which Is Outside Experience on features of That Which Is Inside Experience, which is a dodgy sort of enterprise at the best of times, why is a consciousness-like model any less ridiculous than a coin-flip-like model?

In any case, I object to using Just So stories to put an end to explanation. I see no reason why there should ever be an end to explanation.

the current theory of "universe" is all that can be conceivably observed using the laws of physics that are currently in force.

That's always struck me as a circular and somewhat self-defeating definition; what room does it leave for phenomena that demand revisions to the laws of physics? Before Planck formulated the first quantum theory, was the fact that hot bodies didn't radiate an infinite amount of energy somehow extra-universal?

And if the definition gets "in principle" wedged in it somewhere, what happens when the available principles change?

It seems to me that we need a good, robust, well-accepted word that means "all that is, was and will be, without exception". It annoys me to be forced to use the rather woo-woo-sounding capitalized "All" instead of a nice dignified word like "universe" :-)

It seems to me that defining "universe" such that the Unknown Unknowns are not included, thereby making the referent of "universe" depend on what we know, really muddies the distinction between the map and the territory - and that keeping this distinction firmly in mind is an absolute pre-requisite for clear thinking.

Okay, enough of the fapping, let's get on with the smiting.
posted by flabdablet at 6:17 PM on September 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


that's 7 sources

Amongst our sources are such diverse elements as...
posted by flabdablet at 6:21 PM on September 3, 2007


Uh... sotonohito and amberglow - you guys are unabashedly making stuff up - there are plenty of Roman records describing Rabbi Jesus - Tacitus describes him in his "Annals":

"To dispel the rumour, Nero substituted as culprits, and treated with the most extreme punishments, some people, popularly known as Christians, whose disgraceful activities were notorious. The originator of that name, Christus, had been executed when Tiberius was Emperor, by order of the procurator Pontius Pilatus. But the deadly cult, though checked for a time, was now breaking out again not only in Judea, the birthplace of this evil, but even throughout Rome, where all the nasty and disgusting ideas from all over the world pour in and find a ready following." (Annals 15 : 44)

He was writing toward the end of the first century.

Flavius Josephus also writes about Jesus in his book "Antiquities of the Jews."

Lucian, who was Greek, wrote about Christians and Jesus:

"The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day — the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account… You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws."

You should read E.P. Sander's book - "The Historical Figure of Jesus" - he explains why Jesus most likely existed (even if he didn't do "miracles" but was simply another millennialist sage wandering through Judea).
I also find it a little trite that you're couching your propaganda in pseudo-intellectual terms ... "Coupled with the fact that the only record is a single, religiously biased, source, it doesn't seem at all unreasonable to doubt his physical existence."
Please - this isn't at all accurate. It's more reasonable to doubt the existence of Alexander the Great than it is to doubt the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. (This is explained in Sander's work).
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:32 PM on September 3, 2007


flabdablet: That's always struck me as a circular and somewhat self-defeating definition; what room does it leave for phenomena that demand revisions to the laws of physics? Before Planck formulated the first quantum theory, was the fact that hot bodies didn't radiate an infinite amount of energy somehow extra-universal?

The current model holds that the laws of physics as we know them were pretty much set within the first few seconds of the history of the universe. Fundamental particles engaged in "quantum" relationships in the deep past before Planck was born, and will continue long after the last sentient creature dies in the heat-death twilight of the deep future. Massive bodies will shape spacetime regardless of whether there is a human being to make predictive theories of their motion. We don't revise the laws of physics, and that is a good thing. We revise theories that predict the outcome of those laws.

Or in other words, the map is not the territory.

But our maps are very good, they are so good that by understanding the present, we can see deep into the future of our universe, and deep into the past of our universe.

So when we look into the deep present, we find something quite shocking. The same maps that allow us to built fiber-optic and satilite networks also say that redshift is proportional to the speed of an object away from us. Applying this map to the population of thousands of galaxies that have been identified forces us to conclude that most of them are moving away from each other at high speed. This is a conclusion that in terms of science, is almost as certain as you can get.

When we use the map of general relativity, if the universe is flying apart at high speed, then looking into the deep past, at one point the universe must have been a singularity, a point of infinite mass-energy density. This was a conclusion so shocking that Einstein fought against it for a few years. But again, our maps say, "if the universe was a singularity, here are the footprints it should leave behind." And lo and behold, those footprints have been found, checked, rechecked and triple-checked. (If you need a primer on why the big bang is the ruling theory of cosmology, read Simon Singh's excellent work on the history of that theory.)

But, the basic nature of a singularity means that our maps of the universe fail. General and Special Relativity can't say anything other than that the universe at one point had infinite density, and that space-time no longer applies. We can't say that something existed "before" that singularity, because "before" and "after" as we understand them don't apply. Quantum Physics can't cope with singularities either. It all becomes a mushy soup.

Without space-time, and without mass-energy in some familiar form, does it make any sense to talk about the "universe?" But it certainly looks as if space-time and mass-energy did not exist before a certain point in history.

When cosmologists talk about "the universe" they are talking about space-time and mass-energy, and its finite deep history, and probably infinite deep future. This definition makes sense, because modern cosmology simply does not have the tools to explore beyond space-time and mass-energy.

So a big question is "why a big bang?" It is hard to develop theories about how space-time and mass-energy ultimately came to exist without invoking something that is alien or foreign in terms of space-time and mass-energy. What is that something? Perhaps multiple universes? Perhaps there is a higher-order structure? Perhaps god? All of these theories propose, that, just maybe, whatever is responsible for the big bang left some hidden fingerprint. Or not.

And if the definition gets "in principle" wedged in it somewhere, what happens when the available principles change?

Well, we have good reason to believe that those principles have not changed. If those principles had a habit of changing at arbitrary points in time, the universe would be a much stranger place.

It seems to me that we need a good, robust, well-accepted word that means "all that is, was and will be, without exception". It annoys me to be forced to use the rather woo-woo-sounding capitalized "All" instead of a nice dignified word like "universe" :-)

I think at this point, you are sacrificing clarity of thought for semantic egotism. This is exactly what I was complaining about in regards to mystery earlier. The big bang is perhaps the most powerful and compelling mystery of the universe. It is a hard and beautiful frontier that can't be waved away with semantic bullshit just because are aesthetically uncomfortable with it. It confronts us with the realization that the space-time and mass-energy we live in now, didn't exist at some point in the past.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:45 PM on September 3, 2007


Or to be pedantic, Occam's Razor says that we should not unnecessarily multiply entities. Necessity is a key qualifier. When existing entities are not sufficient, additional ones become necessary. When we hit the singularity of the big bang, mass-energy and space-time are no longer sufficient to explain why it happened. Therefore, some additional entity is probably necessary. That entity is a mystery.

Perhaps if we discover that entity, we find yet another mystery. And another mystery behind that. The possibility that each new mystery coughs up another mystery, the "smoke and mirrors all the way down" principle, strikes me as a very cool and awesome idea.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:57 PM on September 3, 2007


Yay, KJS, injecting sanity into the scene!
posted by five fresh fish at 9:18 PM on September 3, 2007


We don't revise the laws of physics, and that is a good thing. We revise theories that predict the outcome of those laws.

Begging your pardon, but we do revise the laws of physics, along with other physical law, from time to time. We made those laws up. Physical laws summarize observations. We revise them any time they don't fit with what's carefully observed. The laws of physics are part of our map, and only incidentally parts of the territory.

The lilies of the field will continue not to toil nor spin, regardless of whether or not we are around to summarize their behaviour in physical laws. This seems so self-evident to me that I'm always surprised to hear intelligent folks wondering about "what breathes fire into the equations". The fire came first; the equations are derived.

The big bang is perhaps the most powerful and compelling mystery of the universe.

I'll grant you that the big bang is perhaps the most powerful and compelling mystery to you in our current best theoretical understanding of the All. To me, the most powerful and compelling mystery of all is the nature of our personal experience of time, and how that relates to the GR model of spacetime. I have never seen anybody give a coherent, non-question-begging account of this issue. I have a strong suspicion that understanding it better would shed light on all kinds of wonderful stuff, Big Bang included.

I'm generally opposed to waving issues away with semantic bullshit. I think it's vital to recognize when our own semantics are generating internal bullshit. it's very easy for views of how things really are to be distorted and/or made unnecessarily mysterious by unexamined semantic assumptions.

For example: black holes. As far as we know, once a certain density is achieved, gravitation dominates all other forces and a sufficiently dense mass will surround itself with an event horizon. Local spacetime becomes distorted to to the extent that the region inside the event horizon becomes causally disconnected from the region outside; the only thing that matters about what goes on inside the event horizon is the total amount of mass and angular momentum involved.

But note that although it's spacetime that's distorted, not space, we pretty consistently hear talk about the "inside" and "outside" of the event horizon. This seems to me to be a fertile breeding ground for misunderstandings and misleading intuition.

In particular, the region inside an event horizon is conventionally held to contain a singularity, and this singularity is held to be some kind of Ultimately Bizarre Object with all kinds of contradictory properties. But in fact, singularities are features of our map, not features of the territory. They are features of the map that say explicitly: "this map is inadequate here. If you want to know more about what's here, you will need to find a way to observe it. We don't think this can be done, so good luck with that".

Our map is actually extremely good, as you point out, so it's rather discomfiting to find it failing. But what if it's not failing? What if we have simply made some invalid assumptions about the right way to use it?

What if all our talk of what is inside an event horizon is an artefact of our intuitive refusal to take our own map seriously? Perhaps the only meaningful statements that can be made about the "insides" of event horizons concern what will be found where they used to be.

What if, instead of visualizing the mass that creates the event horizon as having collapsed to an infinitely dense point that exists right now, we think of it as having fast-tracked itself into the future, burning out and leaving a trail of Hawking radiation along the way?

Perhaps, by taking the singularities in our models as literal predictions about what we'll find in reality, we're making the same kind of error as somebody who looks at grid reference S past the edge of his street directory and expects to find a curly little laneway on the ground.

To me, a singularity in a mathematical model says: you may not put those parameters into this model if you expect a meaningful result. If you think you need to put those parameters into this model, you need either a different model or a better understanding of where you're getting your parameters from.

By getting into the habit of questioning our own semantic assumptions, could we perhaps bring on the same kind of simplifying perspective shift that resulted in heliocentrism displacing geocentrism? And might not such a perspective shift result in a better understanding of that other singularity on our map, the Big Bang?

The fact that the Big Bang model has a singularity at t=0 says quite clearly to me that if this model is a good model, then t=0 is a meaningless idea. I can see no in-principle objection to simply avoiding using it, and confining my imaginings instead to t=10-n where n is allowed to grow arbitrarily large. It's my own personal synthesis of the Big Bang and Steady State views :-)

The possibility that each new mystery coughs up another mystery, the "smoke and mirrors all the way down" principle, strikes me as a very cool and awesome idea.

Me too. And it seems to me that the best way to find these new mysteries is to blow away any smoke and break any mirrors that currently obscure the old ones. Every discovery in natural sciences has raised more questions than it answered, simply by giving people more places to look for understanding. There is always more to discover, and the joy of that is what makes having an inquiring mind worthwhile.
posted by flabdablet at 10:55 PM on September 3, 2007


flabdablet: I'm generally opposed to waving issues away with semantic bullshit.

This would be more convincing if you were not spending so much time trying to do it.

The fact that the Big Bang model has a singularity at t=0 says quite clearly to me that if this model is a good model, then t=0 is a meaningless idea. I can see no in-principle objection to simply avoiding using it, and confining my imaginings instead to t=10-n where n is allowed to grow arbitrarily large. It's my own personal synthesis of the Big Bang and Steady State views :-)

Well, that is where we fundamentally disagree. I see a big whooping problem with arbitrary value setting to avoid admitting that there is a mystery. And there is a huge territory between your arbitrary finite n, and the infinite n of t=0.

Your attempts to duck the question by reframing it is pure semantic bullshit driven by aesthetics. Which brings us to:

By getting into the habit of questioning our own semantic assumptions, could we perhaps bring on the same kind of simplifying perspective shift that resulted in heliocentrism displacing geocentrism?

It's important to remember that both Copernicus and Kepler initially proposed models of the solar system that were wrong, entirely for aesthetic reasons. For Copernicus, his big problem was arbitrarily forcing orbits into a circle, for Kepler, it was ideal solids. Arbitrarily avoiding singularities because you find them aesthetically displeasing strikes me as being the same kind of mistake as Kepler's reluctance think beyond the circle even when confronted with evidence.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 4:43 AM on September 4, 2007


baby_balrog As I said earlier, this isn't my area of specialty, and I consider the matter to be academic at best. I do, however, take exemption to the trite and outright false statement that there's more evidence for Jesus than there is for Alexander the Great. Again, it isn't my area of specialty, but there are dozens, if not hundreds, of surviving, contemporary, records of Alexander. Orders for stone for the construction of Alexandria, military reports (lots of those), merchant's records of sales to him, etc, etc, etc. Not to mention all the coins he minted with his own face printed on 'em, statues, and whatnot.

I could very well be wrong about Jesus, and as I said, I don't think it matters in the slightest, other than as a purely academic question, whether he existed or not. The historians who doubt his existence are in the minority, but I think their reason, that someone so important would have left more of a historic mark, is valid.

The various sources you cite were written by people who didn't claim to have known him, and were all written decades after his death. There should be contemporary records, even after all these centuries. There *ARE* primary source records for other important figures of that time, including Paul.

It isn't my area of specialty, so I'm not educated enough to really argue the matter with you, I'm just trying to explain why I buy the arguments of those who doubt his existence. But it isn't my area, I admit fully the possibility that I could be wrong, and I really don't think it makes much difference either way. If I'd realized that one offhand footnote would have caused this much of a derail I wouldn't have included it, and now that I know better I won't include such mentions in future posts. From my POV, the entire question is completely meaningless in terms of our larger discussion.
posted by sotonohito at 4:55 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


The big question with Jesus is not whether he existed, but whether he was who Christians claim he was. On this point, I find the Judaic argument that the Christian Jesus is a bad answer to the wrong question to be compelling.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:37 AM on September 4, 2007


I can see how, if one is a believer in such things as souls and whatnot, how questions about the nature of Jesus could be compelling. However, I figure the important part was the teachings, not the person, and the teachings exist regardless of whether the person did or did not exist, or was or was not what he was claimed to be.
posted by sotonohito at 6:09 AM on September 4, 2007


Something like Lao Tzu, even many Taoist historians concede that Lao Tzu was, in all likelihood, not a real person, but the teachings of Taoism are important to them regardless of their origin.
posted by sotonohito at 6:12 AM on September 4, 2007


I think the nature of Jesus is actually critically important when you start looking at the teachings of Christianity, specifically the whole dogma of salvation by faith.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:29 AM on September 4, 2007


The historians who doubt his existence are in the minority, but I think their reason, that someone so important would have left more of a historic mark, is valid.

this is the flaw in your logic - he is important now but he wasn't that important back then - to the romans he was another dime a dozen prophet in an unruly land that was full of them and in decades would see a major catastrophic insurrection that destroyed many of the records

you seem to believe that antiquity should have a record of everything - actually, very little has survived from that time compared to what could have survived

there are A.D. era roman emperors we know little about - a lot less than we know about jesus, and fewer sources - and often those aren't contemporary, either

but no one suggests they didn't exist - because their existence doesn't upset anyone's worldview

truth is, for a mere peasant in a distant part of the empire, the surviving records of jesus are pretty generous
posted by pyramid termite at 6:45 AM on September 4, 2007


I don't think I'm avoiding singularities; even if I were, it would not be because they're aesthetically displeasing. I think I'm trying to understand as clearly as possible what a singularity means. It seems reasonable to me to remain skeptical about adopting a belief that where there's a singularity on the map, there must be a corresponding feature of the territory which is in principle unknowable.

The simple fact is that nothing resembling a singularity has ever been observed in the wild; all we see are the event horizons that "clothe" them. Such singularities as we model are features of our models, which we get by extrapolating from genuine observations - that is, applying our models to certain parts of reality that remain inaccessible to observation.

I acknowledge an underlying assumption that the idea of territory itself breaking down is incoherent, and perhaps that is an aesthetic position; I'd have to think that through further. On the face of it, though, I have no idea what it would mean for reality to be "broken". Reality is what it is; seems to me that all "broken" could possibly mean, when applied to part of reality, is that it doesn't match any model, and behaves in ways we find bizarre and unpredictable.

Models, on the other hand, can break down, and do break down at singularities. A singularity does not tell us anything about reality - it's telling us that our model can't describe those parts of reality that correspond to the singularities in the model.

Which gives us two basic options, as far as I can tell, if we want to improve our model's predictive power: we need to develop a better model, one that doesn't have a singularity at the spot we're interested in mapping (as Planck did when he produced a model that correctly predicted the spectrum of black-body radiation); or, we need to take a closer look at reality to find out whether there is, in fact, a correspondence between the singularity-spot in the model and any part of reality.

As you've noted, the Big Bang is an excellent model, and ties most of cosmology together very well (despite certain unresolved issues). So it seems to me that it's worth exploring the idea that it's not fundamentally broken at t=0. I don't think it's ducking any kind of question to explore the idea that perhaps t=0 does not produce sensible results in the Big Bang model because it does not correspond to any part of reality.

You say that there is a huge territory between my arbitrary finite n, and the infinite n of t=0, as if that were a bad thing. I think it's a good thing. At the very least, it's a thing whose consequences can be teased out and tested, as you yourself noted when you talked about the footprints left behind by the Big Bang.

I also think your apparent assumption that n can be made arbitrarily large is worth testing. Once we get become able to make testable models at t=10-n where n is big enough to take t below the Planck scale, we may well find that making n bigger simply doesn't change anything. There may in fact be no way to distinguish between t=t1 and t=t2 for any t1 and t2 that are both about that small. We just don't know yet.

Another way to say this is that GR may well start to make predictions that diverge noticeably from reality at fairly modest values of n; in which case, the singularity at t=0 would become completely moot.

It seems to me that insisting that the singularities arising from the present GR model must correspond to real features of the Universe is much, much closer to Copernicus's insistence on circular orbits than anything I've been doing; if either of us is driven by aesthetics, I suspect it's actually you.

Meanwhile, back on the rails: here's John Shelby Spong talking to Rachael Kohn. It's quite refreshing hearing a bishop reconciling his own atheism and his own Christianity (his segment starts about 25 minutes in, and he's talking about the end of theism by roughly 39:30).
posted by flabdablet at 7:05 AM on September 4, 2007


truth is, for a mere peasant in a distant part of the empire, the surviving records of jesus are pretty generous
Mentions of him in Roman histories written later kinda prove the point is that he wasn't "a mere peasant in a distant part of empire" if he existed at all, and/or was or was not a composite figure cobbled together afterwards by people spreading the new religion (Israel was never distant from Rome anyway, btw--it's on the Mediterranean--think England if you want distant). Even those who admit his existence in reality yet don't believe he was a Messiah call him a "Radical Rabbi" or "Prophet" or something else --always something out of the ordinary. There were plenty of troublemakers like that back then, and there were more "gospels" than just the ones put into the Bible.
posted by amberglow at 8:21 AM on September 4, 2007


The interesting thing is that Nero picked Christians as scapegoats for his fire, i think. Why them and not any of the other sects or cults or religions in Rome? (there were tons and tons)
posted by amberglow at 8:29 AM on September 4, 2007


Mentions of him in Roman histories written later kinda prove the point is that he wasn't "a mere peasant in a distant part of empire"

later being the operative word here

you can't have it both ways - you're arguing the lack of contemporary records proves he didn't exist, but it doesn't disprove he was important - and the existence of records made later proves he was important but doesn't prove he exists

Israel was never distant from Rome anyway, btw--it's on the Mediterranean--think England if you want distant

wow, i never knew that

as the crow flies, rome is 1428 miles from jerusalem
london is 897 miles from rome

hth
posted by pyramid termite at 8:38 AM on September 4, 2007


London is an arduous land and sea trip from Rome and was not on any of their regular trade routes--Israel is just one sea trip on long-established and well-trodden trade routes, and was already known long before the Roman Empire existed. It's not about miles so much as ease.
posted by amberglow at 8:44 AM on September 4, 2007


pyramid termite As a Japanese historian, I'm quite well aware of problems with records, believe me.

In any event, as I've said several times, I'm open to the possibility that I'm wrong, and it isn't my area of specialty so I don't think I'm at all in a position to argue the case.

Despite the mountains of evidence for a physical Mohommad I am not a Muslim. The existence of Jesus won't affect my worldview one way or the other. I fall into the "amalgam Jesus" camp strictly because I think the experts there have a good case.

But, as I've said before, I don't think its really worth arguing about. If there was a physical Jesus my arguments on the main topics here would be identical, and I simply don't consider the physical existence of Jesus to be important enough to even try to convince you that I'm right. It just doesn't matter that much to me.

If it makes you feel better, pretend that you've convinced me and let's discuss more interesting things. I've learned what should have been obvious in the first place. I'm not going to bring the issue up again because although I consider it to be trivial obviously many people think its big enough that it completely derails an otherwise interesting discussion.

amberglow Mainly because they were different in a way that challenged his authority. The other religions either made the symbolic sacrifice to the Roman gods that he demanded, or (like the Jews) had a long enough history of not doing so that it wasn't a threat. Moreover, Judiasm has never been a very evangelistic religion so there wasn't any real threat of many Romans becoming Jews and thus risking political upheaval. Christianity was evangelistic, and its spread did eventually alter Rome's political landscape in radical ways.

Also, I'd argue that the behavior of Christians when they were persecuted made the Emperors feel even more threatened. Any force that can compell a person to almost gleefully throw themselves to the lions is a potential threat to someone who remains in power largely because he can have people thrown to the lions. Insert any of the other gruesome ways that Christians were killed for "thrown to the lions".
posted by sotonohito at 8:45 AM on September 4, 2007 [2 favorites]


flabdabblit: You've been spending so much time spinning semantic bullshit in one direction, and then going in the exact opposite direction, that I suspect you are shadow-boxing with your own incoherent and weak position. You certainly have utterly failed to address anything I've actually said.

Let me lay it out to you in simple words that you might certainly try to bullshit around, but might clarify things a bit.
1: Singularities as far as our current theories of mass-energy and space-time are concerned, are terra incognito

2: There are multiple theories that wrestle with singularities. These theories include your reframing, higher-order structures beyond the universe we inhabit, God does it, and probably multiple others.

3: I consider it to be hubris at this time to take any one class of theory and privilege it over other theories.

4: A central problem in this discussion is that you have expressed preferences for theory on aesthetic grounds, while denying you are doing it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:57 AM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


London is an arduous land and sea trip from Rome and was not on any of their regular trade routes--Israel is just one sea trip on long-established and well-trodden trade routes, and was already known long before the Roman Empire existed.

england was known thousands of years before there was a roman empire as a source for tin and copper (cornwell and devon), and a regular trade route had existed

ANY land or sea trip in those days was arduous and dangerous ... many areas of the mountians, especially in the balkans were lawless and the sea claimed many ships - the mediterranian is notorious for sudden storms, especially at certain times of years

anyway, i think i've made a good enough case ...
posted by pyramid termite at 9:00 AM on September 4, 2007


there are A.D. era roman emperors we know little about - a lot less than we know about jesus, and fewer sources - and often those aren't contemporary, either

This statement is often claimed. Kindly name one.
posted by Sparx at 9:27 AM on September 4, 2007


how about gordian i

we don't know where he was born and aren't sure who his family really was - or who his wife was

one of the major sources was not contemporary, nor is it considered reliable, nor is it known who really wrote it

quintillus is reported to have died 4 or 5 different ways, by different hands, and it's not known how long he reigned

when one starts examining the historical record, it's pretty clear that it's patchy and unreliable in spots
posted by pyramid termite at 9:50 AM on September 4, 2007


i think that map kinda proves my point--England was a distant outpost and Israel wasn't. There are surviving greek/roman jewish marriage and divorce papyrii (and mixed marriages?)--it was really never a distant outpost of anything (all the various occupiers and foreign invasions and stuff should have shown that to be evident anyway).
posted by amberglow at 10:28 AM on September 4, 2007


"f i am, then you should be able to provide me with the section of the DSM-IV that describes religious belief as a mental deficiency"

"i can find professional criteria for near-sightedness and many other conditions... where's your professional criteria? ... the american psychiatric association does have some for "religious mental deficiency", right? ... right?"


For someone who often (and often correctly) points out many posters's logical fallacies, your Appeals To Authority are quite amusing. :)
posted by zoogleplex at 11:30 AM on September 4, 2007


"Begging your pardon, but we do revise the laws of physics, along with other physical law, from time to time. We made those laws up. Physical laws summarize observations. We revise them any time they don't fit with what's carefully observed."

Perhaps it's more accurate to say that what we call the "Laws of Physics" refers to our current translated understanding of the inherent physical properties of the universe. We revise the translation as we continue to refine our understanding of these physical properties.

We do *not* in any way revise the actual inherent physical qualities of the universe, nor did we make them up.
posted by zoogleplex at 12:03 PM on September 4, 2007


The big question with Jesus is not whether he existed, but whether he was who Christians claim he was He claimed to be.
posted by quonsar at 12:40 PM on September 4, 2007


quonsar Well, from my POV that question is quite easy to answer: no.

Obviously others have other answers.

From my POV, discussing whether or not Jesus was the Son of God is a bit like discussing phlogiston physics. It can be mildly diverting as a mental exercise, but its hardly important or related to any of the real questions of the universe.

Now, the philosophy he laid out is interesting, both in and of itself, and in how its pretty much impossible for many people to follow (ie: the ban on divorce, the pacifism to the point of abandoning self defense, etc). Like most ideals, its all but unattainable for most folks, which isn't a problem in my opinion, but does merit discussion.
posted by sotonohito at 1:42 PM on September 4, 2007 [1 favorite]


Isn't the search for historical evidence of Jesus a telling indication of how things have changed, tho? Even the religious want more proof, i think, nowadays--faith and belief isn't enough (because of science?)
posted by amberglow at 1:55 PM on September 4, 2007


how about gordian

quintullus

Um - we have the guys' pictures on contemporaneous coins in both those links - unless theres some reason to suspect that emperors were in the habit of putting someone else's heads on their coins. Sure - details of their lives may be slim and arguable, but that's a lot more evidence for timely existence than JC managed to rustle up.
posted by Sparx at 1:57 PM on September 4, 2007


amberglow Perhaps. Actually, I tend to think that the spread of monotheistic religions like modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam, helped science along quite a bit. By pushing all of the mysticism off to one corner, and arguing for a single set of rules that applies universally kinda paved the way for science.

But, yeah, its also true that people today are much less in the habit of looking for supernatural answers than they were even 100 years ago. Everyone wants proof, or at least something they can call proof.
posted by sotonohito at 3:24 PM on September 4, 2007


Islam was wonderful for science--the others not so much (although i'll speak up for my tribe social-science-wise, in terms of law, hygiene, discourse, debate, argument, amending texts thru addition, and creating a portable, responsive religion not based on land or temple or physical things, etc)
posted by amberglow at 4:56 PM on September 4, 2007


(altho, of course, the greeks did most of that too anyway--except the god/religion part) : >
posted by amberglow at 5:00 PM on September 4, 2007


4: A central problem in this discussion is that you have expressed preferences for theory on aesthetic grounds, while denying you are doing it.

If you can point out where I have expressed a preference for theory on aesthetic grounds, and identify that theory, and point me toward further reading on it, I'd be obliged to you.
posted by flabdablet at 8:08 PM on September 4, 2007


For someone who often (and often correctly) points out many posters's logical fallacies, your Appeals To Authority are quite amusing. :)

except that an appeal to authority is not necessarily a logical fallacy - only if i claim that authority is infallible, or claim that one reputable authority is right to the exclusion to all others, is it questionable

all i was claiming with my statement was that the dsm-iv and/or the american psychiatric association would be a better judge of these matters than some random gadfly on the internet

Um - we have the guys' pictures on contemporaneous coins in both those links

so? the real point here is that the source material is sketchy and thin - and i'm pretty sure that by word count, the four gospels, acts, the gospel of thomas and paul's letters are a lot longer than anything the romans wrote about those two obscurities

and yes, those ARE historical documents and no, you don't get to summarily dismiss them as fictional - you have to study, analyze and put them into context carefully - and most historians who have, have concluded that whatever other claims are made, jesus was a historical person


The big question with Jesus is not whether he existed, but whether he was who He claimed to be.


well, if he didn't exist, he couldn't have claimed to be anything, right?

as far as the question of whether he was who he claimed to be, i believe he was, but that's not an argument i'm going to put forth here, as it's a matter of belief and i can't prove it

but it's time to drop all this
posted by pyramid termite at 8:50 PM on September 4, 2007


so? the real point here is that the source material is sketchy and thin - and i'm pretty sure that by word count, the four gospels, acts, the gospel of thomas and paul's letters are a lot longer than anything the romans wrote about those two obscurities

Length is irrelevent. All you have is some very post-humous, often contradictory, agenda driven and, in the case of josephus, widely believed to have been interpolated by christians after the fact, documents about a particular point in some guys life.

With those emperors, we have the historical equivalent of a photo, plus their appearance in records of the time during their reign that you would expect a big deal like an emperor would appear in, so their existance is beyond question. Yes, many historians would say there was a historical jesus - but it's not beyond question.

Some evidence is just better. Neener neener.
posted by Sparx at 11:02 PM on September 4, 2007


<though, to be fair - you're right that there is quantatively more evidence for jesus - but by that standard, there's even more evidence for Mighty Mouse).
posted by Sparx at 11:03 PM on September 4, 2007


Time to drop all this? There's a perfectly civil conversation going on. Why would it be dropped?
posted by five fresh fish at 11:04 PM on September 4, 2007


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