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Russell's Teapot Comic
January 29, 2008 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Russell's Teapot Comic. (A little background on Bertrand Russell and his teapot.)

Described as "a humorous look at the absurdities in Christianity. A precocious young child asks the questions that point out these absurdities... May not be suitable for religious people without humour, or open-minded enough to engage it, or some other children." And Muslims, beware - you're going to have a problem with at least one comic. (Oh, and it looks like it hasn't been updated since November 2007.)
posted by ObscureReferenceMan (71 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
The top of the main link also gives background on the teapot. Too bad about the stopped updateage as these are pretty funny.
posted by DU at 10:25 AM on January 29, 2008


1=2

Guess who I am.
posted by Mikey-San at 10:28 AM on January 29, 2008


And by "these" I mean "the last few". The first few are right on the money content-wise, but way too ham-handed to be funny. I guess he learned his craft and then abandoned it?
posted by DU at 10:29 AM on January 29, 2008


Russell's teapot always struck me as a prime example of begging the question. Isn't it attempting to prove that believing in God is ridiculous by assuming that belief in God is ridiculous?
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 10:40 AM on January 29, 2008


No, it is attempting to prove that believing in God is ridiculous by using a non-God example so that the reality-distorting faith circuit some people have is bypassed.
posted by DU at 10:43 AM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, it uses a patently ridiculous example. If we replaced teapot with, say "miniature asteroid that kind of looks like Richard Nixon from a certain angle if you squint real hart," then it would be making the same point -- you shouldn't assume that there's a Nixon-shaped asteroid unless there's some evidence that there's a Nixon-shaped asteroid -- but it wouldn't have that "Ha ha you believe in space teacups" angle to it.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 10:51 AM on January 29, 2008


Teapots. Space teapots.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 10:51 AM on January 29, 2008


I'd say the ridiculousness just aids the clarity to the underlying argument structure, not to mention protects against future confusion if such an asteroid really did appear.

I'm really enjoying these comics, thanks for the link.
posted by DU at 10:59 AM on January 29, 2008


My problem with Russell's teapot, as well as all the other argument from ignorance stuff (FSM, IPU, etc.) is that they take a far too materialistic approach to faith in general. Interestingly, this is the precise problem I have with fundamentalists. Personally, I think it's quite a bit simpler than that.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:59 AM on January 29, 2008


So, because you find the place that you are adapted to live in aesthetically pleasing, there must therefore be an invisible sky man. Wow.

As for the comics, I'm a Dawkins fan and I find them to be crude and heavy-handed, reciting the obvious on top of some stick figures.
posted by darksasami at 11:14 AM on January 29, 2008


It's too bad that the teapot example completely misses the point that we do have evidence for the existence of God.
posted by oddman at 11:14 AM on January 29, 2008


Oddman, what?
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:17 AM on January 29, 2008


Ten bucks he says the bible is evidence. Takers?
posted by notmydesk at 11:23 AM on January 29, 2008


I think that the point of the teapot analogy isn't to say "oh haha! believing in god is like believing in a tiny space teapot!" It's more to say "see, *not* believing in god is like *not* believing in a tiny space teapot." There's a big difference. It's more of a retort to statements like, "well people who don't believe in god believe that there *isn't* a god so they are believers, too." It's about the difference between faith, and *absence* of faith.
posted by moxiedoll at 11:25 AM on January 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


Bertrand Russell is one of my intellectual heroes; his essay "In Praise Of Idleness is a personal manifesto. Thanks for the post!
posted by The Card Cheat at 11:25 AM on January 29, 2008


I'm in for that $10. My money is on "the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I perform the rituals I was brainwashed into as a child".
posted by DU at 11:27 AM on January 29, 2008


darksasami,

I expect that its not the aesthetics that are the reason for faith, but more the very fact that 'something' exists. I honestly do not find the seeming complexity, beauty, or symmetry found in the natural world a more compelling argument for 'god's' existence than the simple fact that something exists. What would the universe be like if nothing existed?

The chance that the world's known religious faiths have anything to do with with the true 'god' is approximately zero.
posted by sfts2 at 11:28 AM on January 29, 2008


But what about The New Adventures of Jesus?
One of my favorite underground comics from back in the day...

"What a friend we have in Jesus!"
"My boy's popular wherever he goes."
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 11:31 AM on January 29, 2008


notmydesk Either that or he's going to go for "the universe exists, God created it, therefore God exists" approach.

As for Russell's Teapot, as fun as it is, I ultimately don't like it because the teapot is potentially falsifiable. It'd take a lot of effort, but we could, eventually, prove that there isn't a teapot between the Earth and Mars. Which is why I like the FSM or the IPU, or my own invisible voyeuristic bunnies, better. Those *can't* be disproven no matter how hard you try.
posted by sotonohito at 11:32 AM on January 29, 2008


Russell's Teapot is indeed circular. Any argument about the existence of God is inherently circular, give that the assumed God is actually a supreme being as opposed to an alien with an antfarm.

The existence of God can't either be proven or disproven simply for the fact that said existence is not testable.

in other words, scientific reasoning relies on testability. come up with a theory, set up a controlled experiment, and observe the results. the problem with any experiment for God's existence is rooted in the inability to set up a controlled experiment.

if God is truly a supreme being, then s/he is everywhere. if God does not exist, then s/he is nowhere. scientifically, you could not set up an experiment with a jar of "God" and a jar of "No God" and test them, experimental group versus control group. If God exists, you can't have a jar of "No God," and the reverse is also true.

Therefore, any argument for or against the existence of God is based solely on faith. the religious assume the existence of God until proven otherwise (which can't be done), and the atheists assume the non-existence of God until proven otherwise (which, also, can't be done).

And that's why i support agnosticism as the state religion, forced to be taught in schools.
posted by mr_book at 11:48 AM on January 29, 2008 [3 favorites]


Your entire argument is ridiculous in it's convenience, but this part is especially so:

if God is truly a supreme being, then s/he is everywhere. if God does not exist, then s/he is nowhere. scientifically, you could not set up an experiment with a jar of "God" and a jar of "No God" and test them, experimental group versus control group. If God exists, you can't have a jar of "No God," and the reverse is also true.

Spacetime is also everywhere and yet Einstein didn't seem to have a problem providing testable claims.
posted by DU at 11:52 AM on January 29, 2008


The comic leans too much on stereotypes, which just causes knee-jerk nuh-uhs from those it would potentially hope to engage.

And why does there have to be *A* "God" just because we (sometimes) feel our world is beautiful and/or stunningly complex?

Too simplistic and too complicated at the same time. Why muck it up with insisting on a singularity behind it all who demands worship and/or regard?
posted by batmonkey at 12:05 PM on January 29, 2008


Your entire argument is ridiculous in it's convenience, but this part is especially so:

convenience /= fallacious.

Spacetime is also everywhere and yet Einstein didn't seem to have a problem providing testable claims.


again with the circular. einstein theorized that spacetime is everywhere, he didn't prove it. you can't just say "spacetime is everywhere;" it's just as unverifiable as saying "God exists." and his theory has met a lot of flak from the quantum guys. the argument still stands - spacetime, God, the teapot, unverifiable and thus unprovable.
posted by mr_book at 12:12 PM on January 29, 2008


mr_book The problem with your position is that it applies equally well (in theory) to other non-provables. Such as the invisible pink unicorn, or my own invisible voyeuristic bunnies.

Do you accord both of those ideas *EXACTLY* the same credence you accord the idea of God? If not, you're intellectually dishonest.

Also, atheism is not a position of faith in the non-existence of god, its just strong agnosticism [1]. I can't say with absolute certainty that there is no god, but I can't say with absolute certainty that there isn't an invisible pink unicorn either. I work on the assumption that all non-falsifiables are not true unless evidence exists to prove them.

I'll end with the "we're all atheists, I just go one god further" line. I'll bet you don't think Thor, the Norse god of thunder, is real. That makes you an a-thorist. I'm an a-thorist too! Now, I doubt you have an active disbelief in Thor, you just don't think about him unless he happens to come up in conversation, and when that happens you think "interesting fictional character". That's how I think of all gods, spirits, ghosts, demons, and any other non-physical claptrap.

[1] Or, at least it usually isn't an active belief in a non-existence. There may be some atheists who do act that way, but they're an extreme minority.
posted by sotonohito at 12:34 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


It'd take a lot of effort, but we could, eventually, prove that there isn't a teapot between the Earth and Mars.

I don't agree. You can't prove a negative existential, at least not on that scale. In order to prove that there is no teapot between the Earth and Mars, you'd have to scan the entirety of space between Earth and Mars, with a 100% accurate instrument, all in the same instant (because hey, the teapot could be moving, so even if it isn't where we're looking at the moment, that doesn't mean it can't be in that sector we searched two minutes ago!) Unfortunately for us, the nature of time makes it impossible to completely eliminate all the margins of error in which such a teapot might be hiding. Even a 99.99999% accurate instrument that operates in 0.000001 seconds is still not enough.

That said, it's very possible to state, with a high degree of certainty, that there is no teapot between Earth and Mars. Even though it can't be conclusively disproved, that doesn't mean we ought to assume that it's true in the absence of evidence. As moxiedoll pointed out, Russell's Teapot is about not believing. Along the same lines, Richard Dawkins gave one of my favorite atheist quotes: "[...]modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the Golden Calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further."

mr_book: DU said nothing about proof, only about testable claims. This is one difference between real-life atheists and the straw-man you seem to have built up: atheists do not "assume the non-existence of God until proven otherwise (which, also, can't be done)", they assume the non-existence of God in the absence of any objective evidence for it. Were such evidence to appear, I would certainly have to examine my own atheism, but until then, I can quite happily disbelieve without any recourse to "faith", or "proof", or to any similarly iron-clad statements. To state that I can't disbelieve in gods without disproving them is to state that I can't disbelieve in leprechauns without disproving them. To both I say: yes, I can, and I will, unless and until one or the other comes after me lucky charms!

on preview: jinx!
posted by vorfeed at 12:37 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


The comic makes some good (though obvious) points and it's occasionally funny, but I can't escape the feeling that it's basically like Chick tracts for atheism. I feel it shares a certain smug superiority with the Christian anti-atheism evident in Jack Chick and others, even though it's nowhere near as anti-intellectual.

Am I off base here? I basically share the comic's viewpoint on religion but I don't see how this approach is in any way useful.
posted by aldurtregi at 1:12 PM on January 29, 2008


Also, atheism is not a position of faith in the non-existence of god, its just strong agnosticism [1]. I can't say with absolute certainty that there is no god, but I can't say with absolute certainty that there isn't an invisible pink unicorn either. I work on the assumption that all non-falsifiables are not true unless evidence exists to prove them.

In fact, atheism IS a position of faith in the non-existence of God. That's exactly what it is.

Changing the wording so that we're arguing about a spaghetti monster or a pink unicorn changes nothing. you're still talking about a existence that cannot be tested as proven or disproven.

You work on the assumption that all non-falsifiables are not true unless evidence exists to prove them. exactly my point.

atheists do not "assume the non-existence of God until proven otherwise (which, also, can't be done)", they assume the non-existence of God in the absence of any objective evidence for it.

leaving behind that you've said the same thing twice and are arguing over semantics now, in both cases you're assuming the non-existence of God. again, exactly my point. there cannot and will not ever be objective evidence for the existence of God because such evidence cannot be collected and tested, and so any "evidence" you present is inherently subjective. you've chosen to assume the non-existence of God just as religious folk choose to assume the existence of God.
posted by mr_book at 1:13 PM on January 29, 2008


Well, Mr. Book, I guess the analogies aren't helpful to you... but can't you see a very real practical difference between believing that something IS (which is an active conception of something as being true) and NOT believing that something is (which is a passive, not necessarily thought about at all, lack of belief)? Or are those two states equivalent to you?
posted by moxiedoll at 1:22 PM on January 29, 2008


My God, it's full of stars tea.
posted by Rangeboy at 1:25 PM on January 29, 2008


mr_book But, on what basis to you *not* accord the invisible pink unicorn the *exact* same status that you accord the god hypothesis? Yes, the unicorn is silly, but that's the point.

The god hypothesis isn't the only non-falsifiable idea out there. It isn't special. To be an intellectually honest agnostic one must give every single non-falsifiable, including the silly ones, the obscene ones and the truly vile ones [1], exactly the same status they give the god idea.

It takes no more faith on my part to not believe in God than it does for me to not believe in the invisible pink unicorn. In both cases I have a big "meh" when they're brought up, and unless someone else brings them up I don't think about them at all. My life is not filled with an active disbelief in God that matches the active belief in God that (presumbly) a Catholic monk has, and I highly resent your implication that it is.

[1] Want examples? I can come up with some really nasty non-falsifiables if you insist.
posted by sotonohito at 1:29 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


To follow on with what mr_book is saying, if you accept that part of God's essence is to be supernatural (whether or not you actually believe in God), then God is by definition unprovable, because he could influence any possible experiments with, ah, his Noodly Appendage. He could make the teapot suddenly invisible right when the vast telescopic arrays are scanning its sector, for instance.

As for the comic, I find that its axe-grindiness often overwhelms its funniness, but it's not too bad. I actually thought the Demotivator-style Bible quotes were funnier and more effective as anti-Christian screeds (note: some are NSFW).
posted by whir at 1:29 PM on January 29, 2008


on what basis to you *not* accord the invisible pink unicorn the *exact* same status that you accord the god hypothesis

I'll go out on a limb here and say that they have the same status, inasmuch as provability is concerned. I'm not really sure what the point of using the unicorn instead of of the bearded dude (or Earth mother or whatever) is, though, can you elaborate on the purpose of this exercise?
posted by whir at 1:35 PM on January 29, 2008


"Do you accord both of those ideas *EXACTLY* the same credence you accord the idea of God? If not, you're intellectually dishonest."

Wrong for two reasons—I have yet to meet someone with deeply held and sincere belief of invisible unicorns, and I have little reason to accord credence to something the speaker uses purely as rhetoric. The second reason is the indefinite character of God claims—claims of intercessionary Gods or "miracles" should have a physical and testable effect, but claims of deism or essentially enveloping theism are impossible to prove or disprove in the same way that determinism and free will or love are impossible to prove or disprove. I doubt you treat those questions the same way as the material existence of unicorns.

Fundamentally, God then becomes a question of abstraction, as testable material claims are few and far between.
posted by klangklangston at 1:44 PM on January 29, 2008


whir Pink unicorns don't have the centuries of religious practice legitimizing and de-sillyizing them. I think people, especially agnostics, give the god hypothesis respect they wouldn't give other non-falsifiables due entirely to the long history of that very silly idea. The purpose of the absurd examples is to shake that out, to demand that they either take the (silly) position of saying "yup, I think invisible pink unicorns, flying spagetti monsters, and invisible voyeuristic rabbits are every bit as worthy of respect and consideration as God", or to force them to say "you're right, I've been granting God undeserved consideration".

Non-falsifiables are just silly wordgames, they have nothing to do with the real world. I don't care if the subject of the word game is a long respected and well established deity, or not.

Functionally, agnostics are identical to atheists. Neither believes in gods. The difference is the agnostic wants to try to cloak themselves and avoid the venom of the religious. I see agnosticism as nothing more or less than atheism afraid to leave the closet.
posted by sotonohito at 1:46 PM on January 29, 2008


mr_book But, on what basis to you *not* accord the invisible pink unicorn the *exact* same status that you accord the god hypothesis? Yes, the unicorn is silly, but that's the point.

you might want to reread my posts.

Functionally, agnostics are identical to atheists. Neither believes in gods. The difference is the agnostic wants to try to cloak themselves and avoid the venom of the religious. I see agnosticism as nothing more or less than atheism afraid to leave the closet.

wow, dude. wow.
posted by mr_book at 1:55 PM on January 29, 2008


Aldurtregi, I more or less agree. Russel's Teapot is poorly drawn, hamfisted and smug. Basically all the cardinal sins of webcomics exhibited with pride.

You work on the assumption that all non-falsifiables are not true unless evidence exists to prove them. exactly my point.

How does it require faith to disbelieve a legion of mutually incompatible claims for which there is no evidence? We don't need to sit on the fence, we can just say, "I don't believe your positive claims because you provide no compelling support for them." All theists can say this about all sorts of unsupportable beliefs, but don't hold their own creed to this standard. That is what faith is. Just as I don't believe in a celestial teapot, or the flying spaghetti monster, or Zeus, or Thor, or the Abrahamic God, I also don't believe in a Prime Mover or any other abstract conception of a sentient creator or divine intelligence guiding the universe. I don't believe in such an entity because it is a specific positive claim unsupported by evidence. There isn't some clean dichotomy between believing in "God" (what an ethnocentric way to think about atheism), but rather atheists simply don't believe in any of the legion of mutually incompatible conceptions of the divine. What requires faith is holding one belief or set of beliefs above an evidentiary standard that one applies to all other beliefs.
posted by [expletive deleted] at 2:01 PM on January 29, 2008


leaving behind that you've said the same thing twice and are arguing over semantics now

No, I am not saying the same thing twice, because there is a difference between proof and objective evidence. For instance, I can have plenty of objective evidence that there are such things as black sheep, but this does not prove that "sheep are black" (there might be some that aren't, even if every sheep I've ever seen is black). In the case of a world in which every observed sheep has been black, this overwhelming amount of objective evidence does not prove that sheep are black, but it does justify a belief that sheep are black, until and unless some objective evidence of non-black sheep appears. The inverse also holds true -- disbelief in the existence of black sheep is perfectly reasonable if you live in a world in which no objective evidence of one has ever been brought forth, even though the non-existence of black sheep can't be proven.

Likewise, we humans do not believe that elephants can fly, nor that the sun will rise in the west tomorrow, nor that lunch will spontaneously begin to levitate. All of these things might happen, in that we can't prove that they won't, but in the absence of any evidence, we do not assume that they will. Oddly enough, I hear your "you're acting on faith, too!" argument all the time, but I am almost never accused of committing the willful act of choosing to assume the non-levitation of lunch...

In short, you have the act of negation confused, here. An atheist is not "assuming the non-existence of God", he or she is "non-assuming the existence of God".

there cannot and will not ever be objective evidence for the existence of God because such evidence cannot be collected and tested

Exactly. Thus, one is entirely within one's rights to disbelieve the God claim, just as one would naturally tend to disbelieve any other untested claim.
posted by vorfeed at 2:06 PM on January 29, 2008


The purpose of the absurd examples is to shake that out

Fair enough, but isn't couching your argument in terms of a somewhat infantilizing image just as much of an appeal to emotion as granting undeserved consideration to God (which I recognize does sometimes occur from the theist side of these arguments)? I mean, your arguments should be persuasive apart from either one of those two extremes, right?

agnostics are identical to atheists

For many agnostics I know, the distinction they draw is that they don't feel it's possible to know whether God exists or not, which is distinct from positively affirming that God does not exist.
posted by whir at 2:08 PM on January 29, 2008


See, this kind of statement:

In fact, atheism IS a position of faith in the non-existence of God. That's exactly what it is.

Is exactly what the pink unicorns and teapots are for. They're to help people see the difference. It's like - say your mom tells you to get a job at the widget factory, marry susie, have three kids, and watch "gray's anatomy" every week. And your dad says, hey, do what makes you happy. Now it would be technically and factually correct for me to state that your mom and dad are both telling you what to do, but is it actually true? Is it meaningfully true or is it obfuscatory? I think it's the latter. That's the point of pointing to a unicorn who NEITHER of us think is there - to show the difference between believing in something, and not believing in it, and how little energy the latter takes, and how we all do it all the time about an infinite number of things - athiests just do it about one more thing.
posted by moxiedoll at 2:12 PM on January 29, 2008


"agnostics are identical to atheists"

No, they aren't.

The definitions are different for a reason: these are different belief states.

Agnostics are questioning - they see the potential that one group may have the answer, but acknowledge that this group may have interpreted things incorrectly or may be acting on bad information, so they are leaving the question open while searching for an answer.

Atheists directly deny any existence of a supreme being. They are the opposite of theists, you see, who promote the existence of a supreme being.
posted by batmonkey at 2:17 PM on January 29, 2008


one is entirely within one's rights to disbelieve the God claim, just as one would naturally tend to disbelieve any other untested claim

I'm 100% in agreement with this; what I like about it is that it also leaves room for people to believe in God and not be seen as recidivist Luddites, since it doesn't claim to disprove God, either. (As I see it, not trying to speak for vorfeed.)
posted by whir at 2:21 PM on January 29, 2008


Sorry people. I left out one rather critical word from my statement. I thought I typed:

"Agnostics are functionally identical to atheists". Instead I left out one word due to brainfart. By "functionally identical" I mean they behave, act, and in all other ways function the same. Neither goes to church, neither follows religious law, worries about "sin", etc.

whir I don't claim to disprove god. I simply claim that the god claim is unjustified and non-falsifiable. If it weren't for its long history no one would take it seriously.

batmonkey I don't claim to "have the answer" I claim that the question is null. Saying "is there a god" is like saying "what does blue smell like" or "how high is up". It is a properly formed English question, but ultimately it doesn't actually mean anything.

You wrote: "but acknowledge that this group may have interpreted things incorrectly or may be acting on bad information, so they are leaving the question open while searching for an answer."

What information? There isn't any information supporting the god hypothesis, and that's the point of my "the question is wrong" statement. The god hypothesis exists because some people, absent any and all evidence, make positive claims about the universe. They cleverly phrase these claims in such a manner that it is, literally, impossible to prove that the claims are false. But there's nothing to support the claims, the people are just making this stuff up, same as the invisible pink unicorn is made up. Now, the atheist says "you don't have any evidence to support your position, and your position is so logically messed up that it doesn't even make sense, bugger off and stop annoying me unless you've got something real to talk about".

The agnostic, OTOH, says "I shall believe it is possible that these people, who have just made up nonsense, are right and feel smug because I'm taking a more nuanced position than those nasty atheists who are believers exactly like the theists".

And I say bull paddies.
posted by sotonohito at 2:37 PM on January 29, 2008


I see agnosticism as nothing more or less than atheism afraid to leave the closet.

I'm not allowed to be undecided? Fuck you. I've only been on this planet 35 years, and I'm supposed to have all the answers? I should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there either totally is a god, or there definitely isn't? No middle ground?

I really envy anyone who's been around such a short time in the cosmic scheme of things but is somehow completely up-to-speed on this enormous complicated mysterious baffling endless universe. I envy you, on both sides, the people who are completely sure there's a god, and the people are completely sure there isn't. I don't know how you can be so fucking sure, I really don't, but I envy you.

Frankly, the older I get and the more I learn, the less sure I am about anything. Life is complicated and confusing and contradictory. I don't even know who I'm going to vote for or what I want for dinner, let alone have the answers to the universe. So cram it! And I'm not even sure who I'm directing that at!
posted by notmydesk at 2:46 PM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


o/~ Yes, Teapot Loves meeee.... o/~
o/~ Yes, Teapot Loves me.o/~
o/~ Yes, Teapot Loves meeee.... o/~
o/~ For Russell told me so... o/~
posted by chimaera at 2:48 PM on January 29, 2008


For many agnostics I know, the distinction they draw is that they don't feel it's possible to know whether God exists or not, which is distinct from positively affirming that God does not exist.

The problem with this is that it's equally impossible to know whether or not anything exists outside the self, yet 99.9% of people are quite happy with positively affirming so. The same with the unicorn, and the teapot, and the levitating lunch. Most agnostics seem to give one particular unprovable statement a much wider allowance than they do all of the others.

The vast difference in number between agnostics and solipsists suggests to me that there's more going on here than simple "unknowableness".

I'm 100% in agreement with this; what I like about it is that it also leaves room for people to believe in God and not be seen as recidivist Luddites, since it doesn't claim to disprove God, either. (As I see it, not trying to speak for vorfeed.)

No, it doesn't claim to disprove God. However, I'd say that it does place belief in God on roughly the same level as belief in unicorns, or in dragons, or in the Weekly World News alien that likes to shake hands with presidents. Clearly, there's no intrinsic harm in believing any of this -- I love fanciful stories as much as the next person, and there are certainly stories that are as "real" to me as the Bible is to the average Christian -- but when people start to claim that, no, you don't understand, there really is a dragon, and it listens to me and even talks to me in real life, and it wants me to send in my money... well, we just don't treat people like that with the same kid gloves we treat the religious with. At best, we consider such people to be "wasting their time", and at worst...

At any rate, my feelings on this are complicated, mostly because I'm an atheist (in the manner I described earlier) and also strongly against Christianity, the latter for reasons largely unrelated to the question of the existence or non-existence of God. If there were objective evidence for the existence of the Christian God, I would certainly have to reconsider my atheism, but not necessarily my hatred... likewise, I find it tough to champion the intrinsic harmlessness of non-falsifiable religious beliefs in the face of their real-world context and effects, which I believe to be harmful. Are religious people "recidivist Luddites"? Maybe, and maybe not, but the more useful question involves the effect of their "Luddite recidivism" on society and humanity.
posted by vorfeed at 2:51 PM on January 29, 2008


"Most agnostics seem to give one particular unprovable statement a much wider allowance than they do all of the others."

And atheists give it a much narrower allowance. Why'zat, y'think?
posted by klangklangston at 3:04 PM on January 29, 2008


When it comes to spirituality, I often feel like someone living in the 19th century who's just had Newtonian Physics and Classical Electrodynamics explained to him, and who says "That's it? The entire universe works sort of like a big clock, all the parts making the other parts move, no randomness, no freedom, no mysteries?"

"Exactly," says my teacher. "There are a couple things we haven't figured out yet, but we'll get them in line in no time. We'll have nice equations for them and you'll see that everything in the universe is observable, quantifiable, and predictable."

"I dunno," I say. "That just doesn't feel right. The universe feels weirder than that."

"That's because you're an idiot," says the teacher. "You're an idiot, or you're insane, or you're caught up in religious claptrap."

And the teacher would be right, as far as that goes. There'd be no reason for someone who wasn't completely immersed in the details of physics to even suspect there was more to it. The proof was right there. I'd be going on my gut feeling, and there's no reason to suspect that my gut feeling is any more accurate than someone whose gut feeling is "God wants us to stop touching ourselves."

But, in retrospect, the person who was right ends up being wrong, and the person who was wrong ends up being right.

The only sane, reasonable thing to do would be to listen, learn what you can, not make big noisy assertions about stuff you suspect but can't prove, hope that some day you'll feel intellectually contented before you die but accept that you probably won't, and try to be nice to people.

So I'm going to go back to doing that.
posted by L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg at 3:16 PM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


Most agnostics seem to give one particular unprovable statement a much wider allowance than they do all of the others.

Well, nobody is seriously asking them about the teapot or the unicorn, because nobody actually believes in either one. But lots of people do genuinely believe in God, rightly or wrongly, so I think it's natural that those calls for belief would get more consideration.

The real-world implications of Christianity are pretty complicated. I'm certainly no apologist for the Spanish Inquisition, but then again I see a lot of moral and ethical value in the Sermon on the Mount, completely separately from any considerations of Jesus's divinity, the actions of the church, and so on. And historical figures who I see as truly heroic (Martin Luther King Jr, particularly) were deeply informed by Christian thought, and indeed formal religious training. So I think it's tough to generalize. But those questions seem to me to be kind of irrelevant to the question of whether God exists or not (because the church and the religion are there in either case).
posted by whir at 3:20 PM on January 29, 2008


Speaking of which, Sjoberg, when are you gonna get back on TF2 so I can be nice to you?
posted by notmydesk at 3:41 PM on January 29, 2008


notmydesk Do you pray? Do you go to church? If the answers to those questions are "no", then as far as acting on the existence of God, you're an atheist. Likewise, if the answers are "yes" than as far as your actions are concerned, you're a theist. You can say you're undecided all you want, but your actions show decision one way or another.

klangklangston wrote "And atheists give it a much narrower allowance. Why'zat, y'think?

What you have just written is not true. I give the god idea exactly as much allowance as I give the invisible pink unicorn: none at all. I don't believe in anything, not in the religious sense. I don't need to believe in, for example, gravity. Gravity works, whether you believe in it or not. All things that require belief, I ignore unless the believers yammer at me. When they can show actual physical evidence for their gods, then I'll accept the existence of their gods. Same goes for unicorns. I work on the assumption that assertions about the universe that have no evidence are not true, for the simple reason that people can make up stories about *anything*.

L. Fitzgerald Sjoberg wrote: "But, in retrospect, the person who was right ends up being wrong, and the person who was wrong ends up being right."

Cute, but incorrect. That's a bit like the story that the Cori tribe in Australia "knew" there were nine planets before evidence for nine planets existed. Even if it is true that the myths of the Cori speak of nine planets, that isn't knowlege, its myth. It doesn't do anything, and is, in fact utterly useless. You can't build on it.

Similarly, the gut feeling that the Newtonian clockwork universe was wrong is, in retrospect, true in that if you do mental contortions you can pretend the gut feeling is in line with modern understanding of quantum physics.

But so what? That gut feeling didn't build quantum physics, and most who had the gut feeling were not only ignorant of physics, but often actively opposed to investigations into physics. You can't build on gut feelings, they don't contribute to our practical, useful, and necessary understanding of the universe.

Newtonian style mechanism fell, not due to vague gut feelings by those who didn't understand it, but by the steady advance of science by those who did understand it, and realized it wasn't an accurate model.

Finally, there are very few atheists who definately say "there is no god". Most of us simply say "I don't *believe* in god". The difference is critical. One is a definate statement about the nature of the universe, the other is a statement of an absense of belief. There might be a god, I doubt it quite strongly, but it is a very faint possibility. However, there's absolutely no evidence to indicate that the theistic position is correct. So, in the absence of evidence I shall behave as if the position were incorrect. The real question is, why do anything else?

We don't, for example, see Thor agnostics. They're perfectly willing to take the atheist position on Thor. Its only when widely respected religious positions come up that agnostics appear. I've already given my explanation for that phenominon....
posted by sotonohito at 3:41 PM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


notmydesk Do you pray? Do you go to church?

I have prayed, and I have been to church. I currently don't pray and don't go to church. Sometimes I've prayed hoping it would help but not knowing if it would help. So the answers are "sort of" to both, or, if you prefer, yes and no.

You can say you're undecided all you want, but your actions show decision one way or another.

Wow, so there's no room for indecision in your model. None! I don't think I've made my mind up but you know I have! Well, thank you, I guess. You've not only got all your answers but mine too. Fill me in on what I believe, please, because I'm really confused.
posted by notmydesk at 4:04 PM on January 29, 2008


We don't, for example, see Thor agnostics. They're perfectly willing to take the atheist position on Thor. Its only when widely respected religious positions come up that agnostics appear. I've already given my explanation for that phenominon...

Calling your bluff. I will put myself up as a Thor-agnostic.
posted by mr_book at 4:23 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, nobody is seriously asking them about the teapot or the unicorn, because nobody actually believes in either one. But lots of people do genuinely believe in God, rightly or wrongly, so I think it's natural that those calls for belief would get more consideration.

In my opinion, more consideration is fine, but a totally different answer is not. Many agnostics have a completely different answer for questions like "do you think that other people exist" or "do you think there's a mind/body dichotomy" than they do for "do you think there is a God", even though these questions are all quite imperative, and all quite unprovable. The God question is by no means the only important unprovable problem, yet we give people a pass on it that we don't tend to give for the others. Again, if the correct answer to an unprovable question were always "I can't know one way or the other", you'd think that a lot more agnostics would be solipsists.

I'm certainly no apologist for the Spanish Inquisition, but then again I see a lot of moral and ethical value in the Sermon on the Mount, completely separately from any considerations of Jesus's divinity, the actions of the church, and so on.

Most of the Sermon on the Mount disgusts the hell out of me, pun fully intended. As always, how one determines "harmful" depends entirely on one's own definition of "harm". At any rate, this is a derail; I only meant to say that it's hard to for me to entirely separate religion, as an abstract idea, from religion as it is practiced in human society. I expect it's the same for most people.
posted by vorfeed at 4:38 PM on January 29, 2008


"What you have just written is not true. I give the god idea exactly as much allowance as I give the invisible pink unicorn: none at all. I don't believe in anything, not in the religious sense."

Bullshit reframing, and intellectually dishonest. Everything outside of hard solipsism is fundamentally unprovable, and deals only with questions of likelyhood and probability. Like I mentioned upthread, and you ignored, questions of free will versus determinism or whether love exists or qualia or any number of other questions are given reasonable accord by both theists and atheists.
posted by klangklangston at 4:58 PM on January 29, 2008


"Calling your bluff. I will put myself up as a Thor-agnostic."

There was a guy at my college named Thor, who I believe existed (so much as I can believe anything).
posted by klangklangston at 5:00 PM on January 29, 2008


more consideration is fine, but a totally different answer is not

I'm not sure what you mean by this. I guess I don't see how the three questions are related in a way that would make somebody's opinion on one of them directly relevant two the other two. I mean, someone could think God existed, that other people existed, and that there was no mind/body duality, right?

There's plenty of stuff I don't agree with in the Sermon on the Mount too; what I do like is the fairly predictable stuff such as do unto others, turn the other cheek, and so on.

I am an agnostic towards Beta Ray Bill. Did this character really ever exist outside of Wikipedia? If so, how come I never once saw him during my misspent, Marvel-comics reading youth? It is a mystery.
posted by whir at 5:08 PM on January 29, 2008


"to the other two" - blasted language
posted by whir at 5:09 PM on January 29, 2008


There isn't any information supporting the god hypothesis, and that's the point of my "the question is wrong" statement.

There's no information supporting the induction hypothesis for the laws of physics, either. You might claim that the laws have held in the past, and thus should hold tomorrow, but that's begging the question. It presumes the induction hypothesis to work.
posted by kid ichorous at 5:12 PM on January 29, 2008


I've just skimmed the posts here, so maybe somebody else mentioned it, but does this picture strike anybody else as odd? It seems quite pro-Christianity - "God once confused the tongues of man, and look, he's doing it again!"
posted by ymgve at 5:24 PM on January 29, 2008


When I was in highschool my Dad, a lifelong educator, bought into William James’ pragmatic arguments for God and, before I could snort, he was teaching Sunday school at our local Presbyterian church. So I had to put on a suit and go to Sunday school. My only choice then was to get heavily into Bertrand Russell... so I did... and, between the two of us, we had the best Sunday school ever.

Now I know we were both wrong

“Philosophy is a walk on a slippery slope. Religion is a smile on a dog.”

Bertrand Russell isn’t worth a fart as a philosopher next to Edmund Husserl.
posted by Huplescat at 5:36 PM on January 29, 2008


This comic puts the fun in atheist fundamenatlism. lol amitrite?

My take on atheism has always been that the Greek "a" means without or apart from + "theos" god/gods. It is simply an existence without god(s). Which is why I've been sanitizing my vocabulary to excise all references to religion.
posted by Eideteker at 5:55 PM on January 29, 2008


You can't build on gut feelings, they don't contribute to our practical, useful, and necessary understanding of the universe.

Gut feeling, aka intuition, does contribute to our practical knowledge of the universe. I'm guessing most who don't store a Bentham calculator in their back pocket have their views of right and wrong based at least on gut feelings. Similarly, I'm guessing that political affiliation is at least based partly on gut feelings favoring value x over value y. The way I decide who I should marry, what house I should buy, or what job I should take are all going to involve consulting my gut feelings as well as reason.

So admittedly none of those are scientific, but I would argue that all of them are examples of people understanding the universe. I'd agree that in its ideal form science doesn't allow gut feelings as evidence of truth, but that doesn't mean they can't guide research avenues. A gut feeling that makes one suspect a view is too simplistic or inelegant can provide the necessary motivation to research it deeply and discover its flaws.
posted by nangua at 6:01 PM on January 29, 2008


I mean, someone could think God existed, that other people existed, and that there was no mind/body duality, right?

Yes, of course. I suppose I should have said, "a totally different answer on the basis that one of the questions is unprovable is not OK". It makes no sense to me to say something like "I believe that other people exist, and that there is (or is not) a mind/body duality, but God? Wait a minute, I can never know one way or the other!" If being unprovable implies that there's "no answer" to one of these problems, it seems that this would also follow for other unprovable problems. Yet very few agnostics behave as if they're agnostic toward the reality of the world around them, or about the existence of their own consciousness. It's usually just God, and that seems fishy to me.

It's not the assertion that "we can't know for sure" that bothers me -- this is entirely true, and certainly worth keeping in mind. It's the corollary, "we can't know for sure, and so in this one case, unlike many of the other cases in which I cheerfully believe or disbelieve in similarly unprovable assertions, I'm just not going to decide".

There's plenty of stuff I don't agree with in the Sermon on the Mount too; what I do like is the fairly predictable stuff such as do unto others, turn the other cheek, and so on.

"Do unto others" and "turn the other cheek" are some of the things about the sermon that disgust me the most, actually. These strategies are far too vulnerable to exploitation, to the point where they have the potential to make the practitioner into a perpetual victim. Judging from the rest of the contents of the sermon, that's probably no accident.

I prefer reciprocal altruism, a.k.a. tit for tat.
posted by vorfeed at 6:04 PM on January 29, 2008 [1 favorite]


"Yet very few agnostics behave as if they're agnostic toward the reality of the world around them, or about the existence of their own consciousness. It's usually just God, and that seems fishy to me."

Well, let me explain my beliefs first and my position second. I am an agnostic who believes (has faith) in God, though an admittedly wishy-washy deist God. But I'm pretty hard on my agnosticism—my belief is that most things can't be proven, but that I can either live my life as a solipsist or as someone who can interact reasonably with the world. There are certain assumptions, like mutual existence, that are required to interact with other people, and those are pretty hard-wired. But I feel like there's a pretty reasonable corpus of repeated sensation in whatever passes for my memory to support those assumptions.

If there's a God, and I don't believe it can be proven one way or another despite my core subjective experiences that ground my belief, that God does not seem to be a necessary assumption for life, or for a good life. I am evangelically secular regarding government and society—I believe God to be a contested belief and one that is fundamentally unable to be settled by humans (just as the question of an afterlife, etc.) and I feel that my personal beliefs on God have absolutely no predictive ability when it comes to other people's health and welfare, or the policy decisions that should be made. God should not be the basis of any decision that affects those who don't believe. Atheists should be perfectly free to not believe and not take any shit over it, as faith should not be a public attribute.

But, frankly, there's a tremendous amount of disrespect that comes from a minority of loud atheists, speaking upon something they can't prove and regarding my personal and subjective experiences. No atheist will ever convince me that my experiences didn't happen, or that my faith is bullshit, and yet so many atheists presume to lecture as if they've discovered this great truth.

Yes, I understand that there are religious folks who would also tubthump, and inarguably more of them than atheists pissy and reasonable together. But their wrongness, their bullshit, does not justify the bullshit from atheists—that's a tu quoque fallacy.

I will never presume to tell an atheist that there is a God (this is a substantively different statement than that I believe in God), or that they are wrong, or that the government should act as if there was a God. And I will oppose any who seek to foist their faith off on the public. But to the condescending assholes who happen to be atheists and who would lecture me on faith? Fuck you.
posted by klangklangston at 6:22 PM on January 29, 2008 [2 favorites]


God should not be the basis of any decision that affects those who don't believe. or, to expand, the basis for any material decision, really.
posted by klangklangston at 6:24 PM on January 29, 2008


klang, I can agree with most of what you've said, there. I'm not trying to lecture you on faith -- at least you admit that you have taken one side or another in this argument, whether it's provable or not, and that pretty clearly means that you're not the kind of agnostic I've been talking about. That said...

God should not be the basis of any decision that affects those who don't believe. or, to expand, the basis for any material decision, really.

To be perfectly honest, I don't see any difference between no belief, and a belief that does not form the basis for any material decision. You're telling me that your belief in God does not inform one single action on your part, yet you still believe? Why? Even the most insignificant of my own beliefs informs my actions, much less the big important ones, so I don't understand what you mean by this.

I just don't get it, but then, I'm probably not likely to.
posted by vorfeed at 6:52 PM on January 29, 2008


Does the god you believe in care what you eat or who you marry? Does it change into various animal forms to seduce women? Does it give its aid to armies? Does it get angry when mortals best it in wrestling or weaving? Does it talk to people through burning bushes, harden hearts and cause plagues? Did it create man in its own image thousands of years ago, rather than millions, and falsify evidence to suggest the latter? Does it condemn people to an eternity of torture for being insufficiently awed by its power?

If not, you are not the target of the ire of atheists.

If the gods people believed in were philosophical prime movers and unspecified omnipotences, no one would care whether you believed in god anymore than they care now whether you think the universe is discrete or continuous. And just like the discrete/continuous debate, people could have arguments about god without attacking each other.

[discrete-agnostic]
posted by Pyry at 7:00 PM on January 29, 2008


Do you pray? Do you go to church? If the answers to those questions are "no", then as far as acting on the existence of God, you're an atheist.

I believe in God, but I don't necessarily act on those beliefs (I'd define myself as Universist except that no one else does). I know a hell of a lot of people who identify themselves as Muslim/Christian/etc who don't actually perform the tenets of the religion.

Belief in something, and acting on that belief, are two different things.
posted by divabat at 9:26 PM on January 29, 2008


"You're telling me that your belief in God does not inform one single action on your part, yet you still believe? Why? Even the most insignificant of my own beliefs informs my actions, much less the big important ones, so I don't understand what you mean by this.

I just don't get it, but then, I'm probably not likely to."

Well, in thinking about it on the way home, I'd say two things—first off, I tend to judge people on their actions, not their beliefs, so while I try to not let my belief in God influence my day-to-day, I don't really begrudge those who do good works in the name of their God, and why I try to confine my disputation of faith-based politics to the political realm—I'm fine with people having the right to believe that Mithra should be taught in schools, but I think they're wrong and I will oppose them mandating such a belief.

Second, aside from obviously influencing things like this discussion, I really don't think that my faith has much bearing on my In-der-Welt-sein. You ask why I believe in God even if my faith doesn't really inform my actions, which is a little backwards to me. I believe in God because of some deep subjective experiences that correspond with a feeling of faith, but I think that faith is pretty fundamentally unjustifiable, in that you've either felt it or you haven't. But because I don't believe that the "will of God" can be known per se, and I haven't noticed a significant difference in the physical world between those who believe in God and those who don't (both are equally rewarded or punished by factors much more significant than faith, etc.), I don't see much of a choice in letting my faith determine my actions, especially when that faith is based on a transcendental subjectivity.
posted by klangklangston at 10:00 AM on January 30, 2008


Having wasted hundreds of hours of my life engaged in the same arguments found in this thread, I've come to the following comfortable resolution:

People who believe in the existence of a God are just stupid in one more way than I am.
posted by BoatMeme at 10:09 AM on January 30, 2008


…and fuck you too.
posted by klangklangston at 11:02 AM on January 30, 2008


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